Excellent article [“Rethinking Rommel,” by David T. Zabecki, January]. I especially liked the review of other generals and learned something about Hermann Balck and Walther Model. I do, however, have a few observations.
‘Rommel could hardly be expected to live up to the myth created about him’
Had the Germans committed a fraction of the resources spent on Operation Barbarossa to Operation Felix and North Africa, they could have blocked the Allies’ access to the Mediterranean, taken the Middle East and ultimately had all the oil they wanted. Thus Erwin Rommel’s bid for Egypt was a rectification of the initial strategic mistake. Things as they were, though, while the German high command said it didn’t have the resources to support both an attack on Egypt and Malta, it subsequently did find the resources to put another army into Tunisia. If it could do that, what might have happened had it committed those resources earlier? The Germans probably still would have lost in the end, but they might have given a better account of themselves in Egypt.
In Europe, Rommel realized that if the Allies got ashore, Germany would lose the war in short order. While a more flexible defense would seem to have been the better strategy against Allied airpower, the only strategy with a hope for success was to repel the Allied invasion. Had the panzer divisions been closer to the coast, where Rommel wanted them, they might (though probably not) have been available to throw the Allies back into the sea instead of having to run a gantlet of Allied fighter-bombers only to arrive late.
In either case Rommel probably would have lost no matter what he did. The Allies were simply too strong. What he did do was gamble in a hopeless cause. It was a case of gamble and probably lose or don’t gamble and certainly lose.
Rommel could hardly be expected to live up to the myth created about him. Who could? Whatever self-promotion he may have engaged in, the myth was largely the product of the Western media and the generals he fought, such as Montgomery and Patton (no strangers to self-promotion themselves). Exaggerating Rommel’s skills rendered their defeats more understandable and their victories more triumphant. That, and the fact Rommel ultimately lost his life for his part in resisting Hitler, made him a German we in the West could admire.
Was Rommel the best general the Germans had? Probably not, any more than Patton, Montgomery or MacArthur were the best the Allies had. Others were very good generals but never had movies made about them.
San Diego, Calif.
David Zabecki responds: Questioning the reputation of an icon is always a risky business. The article itself answers the cover lines, WAS ROMMEL A FRAUD? in the negative but at the same time examines Rommel’s flaws above the tactical level—flaws obscured by the legend.
Could Rommel have succeeded in Normandy had he defended rigidly at the shoreline? I don’t believe so, and neither did most German generals in 1944. Had they massed near the shore, Rommel’s armored forces would have been more vulnerable to Allied airpower and the awesome power of Allied naval gunfire.
Rommel’s argument for his scheme of defense was based on the fact he was one of the few German generals who had direct experience fighting the Western Allies. But for almost all of June 6, 1944, he was not in Normandy or even in France. Assuming bad weather meant no landings for the moment, he left his headquarters at La Roche-Guyon for Stuttgart on June 5. His wife, Lucie, was turning 50 the next day, and he wanted to surprise her with a pair of shoes. As a pretext for his jaunt home, he said he would meet with Hitler at Berchtesgaden on June 7. Departing from a theater of operations in the face of an imminent invasion was an incredible lapse of command responsibility, one for which a lower-level Wehrmacht commander would have been shot. Rommel also committed the cardinal sin of warfare by underestimating his enemy. By the time he made it back to Normandy, the Allies were ashore, and “The Longest Day” was almost over.
The final element of the Rommel legend was that he was forced to commit suicide for his complicity in the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler. Although Hitler might have believed that, the irony is to this day there is no evidence to suggest Rommel was ever part of the Wehrmacht’s opposition to Hitler. Rommel’s chief of staff, Hans Speidel, who was part of the plot, made it very clear Rommel was not. Rommel was steadfastly loyal to the Führer to the end.
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