Rommel’s Desert War: Waging World War II in North Africa, 1941–1943
By Martin Kitchen. 616 pp. Cambridge University Press, 2009. $38.
Arguably the most provocative reassessment of this theater in many a year, this challenging, rich, well-argued tome forces careful revisits to dearly held truths about strategy, operations, tactics, and personalities. Start with the headliner: In Martin Kitchen’s analytical hands, Gen. Erwin Rommel is an overambitious alpha male abetted by luck, dithering opposition, tactical superiority and improvisational skills, military intelligence, and much more. Ironically he comes fully into his strengths only after he’s been beaten at El Alamein and is hobbled by lack of supplies, a baroque command structure, and Hitler’s growing disappointment.
Kitchen convincingly ties North Africa to the rest of the war, providing real-time context typically erased in the usual tale of Brits versus Germans in the isolated sandpile with cowardly Italians on the side. He titles his final chapter “Tunisgrad” to underline how the one-two punch of Stalingrad and North Africa in fact pivoted the war. For Hitler, North Africa started as a rescue of Il Duce’s neocolonial adventures, but unfolded into a small, eerily parallel version of his Soviet front that became increasingly grand and sweeping (he savored the notion of catching Iraq between Caucasus and desert pincers). When that soured, he kept squandering lives and treasure in piecemeal efforts to shore up logistical and operational fantasies. Take Malta, where his dawdling about invading narrowed the operational and strategic options. As millions of tons of Italian shipping sank, Panzer Army Africa’s already weak support reached the breaking point. Hitler’s response: iron wills would smash the Allies’ overpowering materiel advantages.
Drawing on Italian sources others have minimized or overlooked, and many others, Kitchen makes clear the extent to which the Axis partnership was crippled by its serpentine command, dictators’ whims and demands, multifaceted infighting, and conflicting strategic goals (the Italians wanted prosperous colonies, the Germans wanted their usual plunder and dead Jews). The Italian soldiers— underequipped, undertrained, and badly led—at times fought brilliantly, at others surrendered in exhausted, demoralized droves, their erratic behavior matched by the Desert Fox’s varying accounts of them. Not that the Allies come off that well. Unusually, British commanders Archibald Wavell and Claude Auchinleck get good grades here, for their strategic thinking and for rebuilding Eighth Army despite being elbowed to death by misguided, cocksure Churchill and replaced by overcautious Bernard Montgomery.
From delicious minutiae (Anwar el Sadat’s pro-Nazi prison time; the cynical, unsuccessful Nazi plays for mass Arab support) to panoramic sweep, Rommel’s Desert War throws unflinching light on this legendary campaign. Now let the arguments—for there is much here to debate, which is as it should be—begin.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.