Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Desert Fox

Say "Rommel" and people know immediately who you mean - the charismatic tank commander, the genius general, the "good Nazi."  Since the war there has been a tendency to idealize Erwin Rommel. James Mason played him in a Hollywood movie, and there are stories of U.S. tanks going into battle with a picture of the man taped up inside their turrets. But some of us have been guilty of slack thinking when it comes to appraising the Desert Fox.

To be sure, Rommel was charismatic. He had what modern TV executives call "a high likeability rating." This helps, as that other famously "good Nazi" the extraordinarily avuncular Albert Speer knew, when getting people to do things - usually for no pay. It also helps when historians later try to create a picture of a notable individual. The trouble is, being a general has only one judging standard: winning battles.

Rommel fought against those doughty soldiers, the Italians, during the First World War. There, amid Alpine snows, he won for himself a Blue Max, which was pretty medal reserved for soldiers with a nice smile. When his first attempt at war ended in utter defeat at the hands of real soldiers, Rommel slunk off to pen a military best-seller about how to use infantry against Italians, which put his name about somewhat.

Next, he popped up in 1939, victoriously commanding his panzers against the very best tanks that Poland had to offer - horses. In 1940, he swept through Belgium and France in a brief fight that saw the collapse of (ahem) valiant French forces, who had been trained to Olympic levels in sprinting and rifle throwing. It may not have been Rommel's fault that the British managed to evacuate almost all their troops (and quite a few French) from Dunkirk, but at least he wasn't saddled with any blame by his Nazi pals.

Rommel was not himself quite a Nazi, although he did fight for them without qualm, wore the swastika on his uniform and was best pals with a certain Dr Goebbels, German propaganda minister (a man who could make a military legend out of an old boot, and frequently did.) Oh, yes, and Oberst Rommel commanded part of Hilter's personal protection unit, the so-called Führerbegleitbataillon. So, not quite a Nazi, but not exactly a conscientious objector either.

The very next year we find a freshly-promoted Generalleutnant Rommel out panzering in North Africa. (Hitler had sent him there to sort out the mess left by those doughty fighters, the Italians - remember them?  They who had been busy in Libya surrendering to the British in vast numbers. Perhaps Mussolini's staff might have been encouraged to read Rommel's best-seller before they set off.) There followed some masterful to-ing and fro-ing along the Libyan coast, ending in utter defeat at the hands of Bernard Montgomery and five hundred borrowed American tanks. Rommel had by now developed a cold-sore on his lip and went back to Greater Germany to recuperate while his men, abandoned
in the desert and with no particular place to go, threw in the towel on his behalf.

It was all starting to go horribly pear-shaped for the Germans and the writing was appearing on the bunker wall. Next, Rommel was put in charge of "Fortress Europe," where he spent 4% of German GDP in having slave laborers pour millions of tons of concrete into places that were never going to be attacked. The wily
American and British Empire forces (let's not forget the Canadians!) waited for Rommel, the master tactician, to get another cold-sore, and as soon as he departed they landed successfully all over the French coast and began smashing the best the Wehrmacht had to offer in double-quick time. Winning, it seemed, was not turning out to be a noticeable German trait - at least when their much-trumpeted army were up against a proper ballsy outfit and not some pack of backward surrender monkeys.

At this point, Hitler, who had recently had his trousers shredded by a sadly underpowered bomb placed under him by another of this trusted officers, promptly pinned the blame for the Normandy debacle on our heroic tank commander. The deal was this: be a good chap and poison yourself for me and you'll get to have a state funeral with a swastika draped over your coffin and as many bunches of flowers as you want - or - fail to do so and we'll kill you and all your family in one of our luxury concentration camps. Nice guys, those Nazis.  Of course, Rommel knew his duty, and duly obliged his Fuhrer. He died with his boots on, and his men loved him.

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