Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Martin Kitchen's "Rommel's Desert War"

Martin Kitchen is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History, Simon Fraser University. His publications include The Third Reich: Charisma and Community (2007), A History of Modern Germany, 1800–2000 (2006) and Europe Between the Wars (second edition, 2006).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Rommel's Desert War: Waging World War II in North Africa, 1941-1943, and reported the following:
It was with some trepidation that I applied Ford Madox Ford’s test to my own book Rommel’s Desert War. Page 99 begins with a discussion of the operational plans for his first attempt to take Tobruk. Fine enough, but the book is much more than an operational history, which can at times be rather dull for all but the most committed war buff.

The next paragraph discusses the various objections raised to Rommel’s plans. The principal of which was that his forces were neither sufficiently strong, nor adequately supplied, for there to be any chance of taking the garrison. Rommel, in a typical fashion, overrode all such objections, arguing that speed and surprise would do the trick. His impetuosity was such that he refused to allow any reconnaissance; for fear that the element of surprise might be lost.

A divisional commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Count Schwerin, ignored this ridiculous order, thereby securing at least his men’s success. Schwerin had replaced Major General Johannes Streich, an exceptionally brave soldier whom Rommel had dismissed for ‘going too far with (his) concerns for (his) troops’, a complaint that the General regarded as high praise. The net result was that Rommel failed to take Tobruk in 1941 and was forced to retreat back to the starting line.

The page thus shows Rommel’s impulsiveness and derring-do, his high-handed attitude towards his subordinates and his disregard for logistical imperatives, but no one page can tell all. There is nothing here on the strategy and politics of the Axis powers, on the organisational complexities of a wartime alliance, on the contribution of the Italian armed forces, or the back and forth between the two armies in this brutal desert environment. It is precisely the detailed discussion of these multifaceted factors that make the book not only a major reassessment of Rommel, but also the first comprehensive account of the Desert War from the Axis side.
Read an excerpt from Rommel's Desert War, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue