Killing Rommel: A Novel

By Steven Pressfield. 320 pp. Doubleday, 2008. $24.95.

The author of the best- selling Gates of Fire shifts fictional venues from the ancient world to the modern and scores a winner. Combining the meticulous research and flair for drama and dialogue that mark his best work, Pressfield plucks one of World War II’s most charismatic characters and outfits him with a fast-paced, adventure-riddled doozy. The plot: Rommel has smashed the Eighth Army and seems sure to roll over Egypt and the precious Suez Canal—and possibly the oil-rich Middle East and Caucasus from there. Desperate, the British hatch an assassination scheme, outfitting a small, highly mobile, self-sustaining force and turning it loose behind the Panzer lines to eliminate the Allies’ chief North African nemesis by any means necessary. That, they hope, will make the decapitated Afrika Korps easier to handle. Basing his mostly offstage central figure on Desmond Young’s dashingly heroic Desert Fox, Pressfield conjures North Africa’s relentless extremes of heat and cold, and its massive, by turns forbidding and entrancing but always hard-to-read desert expanses that can suddenly close into dead ends. Here too are the Allies’ miserable maps, constant breakdowns, supply shortages, and outclassed materiel; and the giddy, manic-depressive ride through daily survival amidst the endless jury-rigging of threadbare, overworked equipment and men who mostly refuse to break. Pressfield’s heroes are a rough-and-ready, all-too-human team of British commandos from the Long Range Desert Group, ultimately led by a green young lieutenant who ripens rapidly under constant strain. By the time of his death a half-century later, R. Lawrence Chapman—that young lieutenant—has become a well-known publisher, and his manuscript detailing the “inside” story is found. A simple yet effective narrative setup, it unfolds into what the Brits would call a rattling good read.

 

Originally published in the July 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.