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Rommel's reputation - deserved or political ploy?


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#1 brkeseel

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Posted 28 July 2014 - 02:29 AM

I've come across the suggestion that the reputation afforded Rommel by the British - as some sort of super-human figure - was an artificial construct, a political ploy. Basically an attempt to draw criticism away from the Eighth Army's rather bad performance in North Africa by emphasising Rommel's brilliance as a military commander, while simultaneously setting the stage for the media field-day that was Monty's victory at El Alamein - all the greater because it was Rommel he beat.

 

My own tentative conclusion is that Rommel was an effective military commander - his reputation wasn't completely undeserved. But it certainly seems as though there was something else at play - there were other competent and charasmatic German military commanders scattered about; why latch onto Rommel with such fervour? Surely it wasn't simply that Churchill was being 'sporting'.

 

It seems that Rommel was poster boy for both sides - not only for his own government's propoganda machine (drawing the German public's attention away from a Russian campaign that wasn't the cake-walk expected), but for his enemies as well. Where the British were concerned, it seems to have had a distinctly political lean to it.

 

Does anybody know of any extensive scholarship to do with this debate? Like I said, I've found it mentioned in numerous places, but nothing of much substance. If you know of any books/articles (preferably peer-reviewed, scholarly sources), I would really like to know. In fact, anything written about the military/political dichotomy in the context of the British in North Africa during WW2 would be fantastic!

 

Thanks.



#2 TiredOldSoldier

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Posted 28 July 2014 - 04:39 AM

I don't know any book or university work that looks into this, there are are thousands of pages on Rommel, and of course a couple of books by the man himself, I think you need to "read between he lines" about how Rommel's reputation came about but it looks like you already did that.

 

Personally I would discredit the theory as I've come across a few recorded instances where British propaganda authorities insisted on avoiding journalists referring to "Rommel" rather than "German forces" to counter the mythical status achieved by Rommel so my impression is the reputation, at least on the allied side,  came from the troops themselves, not the propaganda machine.

 

If you are digging in that direction (propaganda related to the NA campaign) I would be very interested in finding evidence of a British policy for attributing Italian successes to German forces, I found some pointers but nothing clear cut besides the obvious fact that usually "second level" reports (as opposed to actual  combat unit reports like ship logs that needed to be accurate for intelligence purposes) go to extraordinary lengths to remove any reference to Italian forces when the Commonwealth forces came up second best in a fight.


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#3 Martin Bull

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Posted 28 July 2014 - 06:51 AM

A good book on this subject is 'Rommel - The End Of A Legend' by Ralf Georg Reuth (2005). It weighs the various elements mentioned above and arrives at what I thought is a reasonably well-balanced conclusion. It isn't a work of total denigration or revisionism ; Rommel wasn't a military superman. He was politically naive ( not altogether unusual among professional soldiers ) and his 'myth' was used by politicians during and after the war.


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#4 brkeseel

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Posted 28 July 2014 - 07:09 AM

Thanks! I have looked briefly at this book but not in any detail. I will now!



#5 Skipper

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Posted 28 July 2014 - 07:10 AM

I recommend reading about his actions in 1940. It will give you an entirely different point of view and challenge the myth. 


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#6 Carronade

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Posted 28 July 2014 - 02:17 PM

Part of it was Churchill personally calling Rommel "....a great general", I think in a speech to Parliament.  As brekseel mentioned, he was trying to explain the defeat at Gazala and the loss of Tobruk.  Gazala IMO was one of the most mismanaged battles of history, one which the British were well capable of winning had they handled their own forces effectively.  Tobruk was a greater disaster than it needed to be due to Churchill personally insisting that it be garrisoned and held when the army was in full retreat from the Gazala line.



#7 TiredOldSoldier

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Posted 28 July 2014 - 05:37 PM

I recommend reading about his actions in 1940. It will give you an entirely different point of view and challenge the myth. 

Can you clarify ?  in 1940 he led a reinforced Panzer division (besides his 7th he controlled one of 5th panzers's tank regiments for a lot of the inital campaign) admirably, AFAIK the success of his division owes a lot to his leadership.

While his role at Arras may be overstated it's quite true that his troops recovered a lot better from "tank fright" than most other contemporary forces did. I believe he was a great leader and a very good tactician. He probably lacked strategic vision but that was true of 99% of WW2 commanders.

His reputation was probably boosted a bit artificially by the British to justfy the lackluster initial performace of Commonwealth troops against the DAK, the British had to somehow justify why, despite having numerical superiority and a much better supply situation, they were often fought to a standstil or worse. But once the myth became a morale issue they tried to dispell it. Post war Rommel was used by NATO propaganda to reinforce the thesis of the "good german army"  when support to German rearmament was needed.


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#8 steverodgers801

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Posted 28 July 2014 - 05:55 PM

He was a very good tactical general and the British kept playing his game until Monty, but I think there are very good doubts about his abilities as far as strategy/ grand strategy.



#9 harolds

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Posted 29 July 2014 - 02:50 AM

First of all, Rommel was as much a product of propaganda as say, Patton or Montgomery were. I think he was somewhat better than either of them in the field. He did pretty well in all of his commands. Of course in his last command he had almost zero chances of winning and he knew it. However, I think he did as well or better in '44 than any other general would have done, given the restrictions on his freedom of action.

 

I keep reading that Rommel was no strategist but then I say we'll never know since he never rose to that level and even if he had, the only strategist that counted was grofaz. However, he saw long before almost all the other German generals that the war was lost. He also understood the impact Allied air power was going to have on operations far more than the toadies around Hitler. IMO, his ideas for the defense of Normandy were about as good anyone was going to get.

 

He was an early backer of Hitler but so were a lot of Germans. He based this support on Hitler's promise to give primacy to the Wehrmacht, especially the Heer. He also supported the Nazi's tear down of the strict class system in Germany that would have made impossible his rise to GFM. Later, after Hitler had abandoned the DAK to its fate, Hitler's inability to see reason, and his limited knowledge of the crimes in the East, he withdrew his allegiance. There is evidence that, just before he was wounded, he was actively contemplating opening up the Western Front so that the Allies would get to Germany before the Soviets.

 

Of course me made mistakes. He rose rapidly and had to learn his job largely by OJT. Given that, he didn't do bad at all. His two worst errors were his conduct of operations during the first Tobruk battle and his inability to really integrate his air assets (I'm talking of Africa here) into his battle plan.



#10 TiredOldSoldier

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Posted 29 July 2014 - 04:02 AM

Possibly his greatest error was gabling for an advance on Alexandria rather than waiting for C3/Herkules to remove Malta from his rear. Had he done so the NA campaign may have lasted a lot longer. If you go by the "what if instead of Rommel you had an average commander in place" criteria Caporetto, France 1940 and the NA campaign would probably have been a lot less successful for the Germans. The same cannot be said for Patton and Montgomery, all they had to do was not bungle too badly and wait for numbers to carry the day, Rommel was usually not in a position where he could afford to wage an attrition battle.


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#11 Kai-Petri

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Posted 29 July 2014 - 12:29 PM

Personally I feel there is both there. Was it Napoleon who asked about a General who was to be put in charge of troops in an important position " Is he also lucky?" not just good at his "work"...


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#12 LJAd

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Posted 29 July 2014 - 01:03 PM

Possibly his greatest error was gabling for an advance on Alexandria rather than waiting for C3/Herkules to remove Malta from his rear. Had he done so the NA campaign may have lasted a lot longer. If you go by the "what if instead of Rommel you had an average commander in place" criteria Caporetto, France 1940 and the NA campaign would probably have been a lot less successful for the Germans. The same cannot be said for Patton and Montgomery, all they had to do was not bungle too badly and wait for numbers to carry the day, Rommel was usually not in a position where he could afford to wage an attrition battle.

I am not convinced that going for Alexandria and not waiting for Hercules was a mistake,because 

 

a) waiting for Hercules would made an advance to Alexandria impossible : after Tobruk,there was a window of opportunity,but the window would be closed very soon .

 

B)                   from what we know, Hercules would not alleviate the logistic problems of the Axis("Malta" caused only some 5 % losses of the transports)..



#13 harolds

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Posted 29 July 2014 - 03:30 PM

"...-there were other competent and charismatic German military commanders scattered about; why latch onto Rommel with such fervor?"

 

1. He made such good copy. Up until 1943 he was almost the perfect "nationalist socialist" general; the opposite of the old-style WW1 general. He led from the front. He was extremely popular with his troops (most of them, anyway). He won flamboyantly, AND,- this is a big one- he was a supporter of "the New Idea"-at least at first.

 

2. He didn't mind being used as a propaganda tool. In the old Prussian/German tradition publicity was frowned upon. A proper general didn't give a rat's patootie about what the public thought. He only cared about what his peers thought of him. Guderian cautioned his wife NOT to make any statements to the press because he didn't want to be turned into a celebrity, "a la Rommel".



#14 TiredOldSoldier

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Posted 29 July 2014 - 06:03 PM

Shipping losses were mostly from subs, and without Malta the small British boats would have a lot of problems operating along the axis convoy routes, also the need to stay outside Malta air based range in daylight made the convoy routes considerably longer. The British U class had a range of 4500 miles, Alexandria to Malta is close to 1000 miles which would drastically cut on patrol times and noticeably increase wear and tear on the boats.

 

The point is if there was a window of opportunity to get to Alexandria  or not, IMO there probably never was in 1942, what Rommel tried was a shoestring operation against an enemy that still had considerable reserves, that sort of thing can succeed if you manage to keep your enemy off balance by manouver but the El Alamein bottleneck made an attrition battle the Axis could not win almost a certainty. On the other hand a well supplied Panzer Armee Afrika anchored on Bardia or Tobruk would be very hard to dislodge by the 8th Army.


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#15 merdiolu

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Posted 05 August 2014 - 05:55 AM

Rommel was a very good tactician and division commander as his performance at the head of 7th Panzer Division showed BUT at North Africa he went way beyond his strategic instructions , fame and propaganda got over his head and he began to fix on unachiaveble goals beyond his resources instead of keeping his army intact. That's why I call him a great tactician (greatly helped by German Army mission oriented doctrine and at the other hand doctrine problems of British Commonwealth armies he faced) , a bad strategist and terrible logistician.



#16 steverodgers801

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Posted 05 August 2014 - 08:38 AM

Once Monty figured out the British error of separating tanks from infantry then the British were going to win the attrition war. Even if Rommel had gotten past Alexandria and the canal he didn't have the troops to go south and east as Hitler would have insisted.



#17 LJAd

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Posted 05 August 2014 - 10:35 AM

Rommel was a very good tactician and division commander as his performance at the head of 7th Panzer Division showed BUT at North Africa he went way beyond his strategic instructions , fame and propaganda got over his head and he began to fix on unachiaveble goals beyond his resources instead of keeping his army intact. That's why I call him a great tactician (greatly helped by German Army mission oriented doctrine and at the other hand doctrine problems of British Commonwealth armies he faced) , a bad strategist and terrible logistician.

 

I disagree :

 

1) Logistics were not the business of Rommel (as they were not the business of Leeb,Bock,Rundstedt in the SU) but ,they were the business of OKW/Commando Supremo.

 

2) Axis logistics were not bad :"bad" implies that they could be better .

 

3) OKW/Commando Supremo were sending supplies,etc to Naples.Comando Suprema sent them to NA(some 90 % arrived).The problem was to send the supplies from the harbours to the front ,and this problem was insoluble .

 

4) The logistic problems of the Axis were caused by nature .

 

5)It is very unlikely that with more supplies,Rommel would have done better ,because :there was an opponent on the other side : the British .



#18 TiredOldSoldier

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Posted 05 August 2014 - 04:57 PM

How to get the supplies to NA, and move them forward once they had gotten there, was mot Rommel's responsibility but an army commander should be aware of what he will probably get and plan accordingly, Rommel repeatedly chose to attack with minimal supplies with the hope of grabbing them from the Commonwealth dumps, that often worked but didn't at El Alamein as there was simply no manoeuvre room to get behind the allied lines- The Allies had a railroad to Alex and Rommel hundreds of miles of a bad road to his nearest port (thousands to his only good port), given his shortage of transport assets the results were a foregone conclusion..

 

A bit more could have been done to improve his supply situation, but not much, by 1942 the axis simply didn't have the spare engineering capacity to setup a major supply line, for example they tried to use the Tobruk - Alex  railroad but while they did bring some railroad engines across and captured some rolling stock it never was capable of moving the tonnage PAA needed.

 

BTW if the axis get to the canal the allies are in a nearly impossible situation,  retaking the canal from bases with the Axis able to land supplies nearly undisturbed in Alexandria (there is no usable naval base East of Alex in the Med)  would require a major logistic effort that was unlikely to be committed to such a bad proposition, committing available forces to a reinforced Torch was more likely. So Rommel may probably be able to reach the Turkish border by moving along the coast, where the Italian navy can supply him,  but cannot go East or South as there are no communication lines to support an advance. But to do that he has to get to Alex and his chances of doing that are very slim.


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#19 LJAd

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Posted 06 August 2014 - 09:39 AM

"BTW if the axis get to the canal the allies are in a nearly impossible situation,  retaking the canal from bases with the Axis able to land supplies nearly undisturbed in Alexandria (there is no usable naval base East of Alex in the Med)  would require a major logistic effort that was unlikely to be committed to such a bad proposition, committing available forces to a reinforced Torch was more likely. So Rommel may probably be able to reach the Turkish border by moving along the coast, where the Italian navy can supply him,  but cannot go East or South as there are no communication lines to support an advance. But to do that he has to get to Alex and his chances of doing that are very slim."

 

 

 

 

 

This is questionable : if Rommel was at the canal,the result would be a temporapily pat : Rommel never could cross the canal and it would be difficult for Britain to expel him from Egypt . But,OTOH, Torch would be looming .



#20 Bundesluftwaffe

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Posted 06 August 2014 - 03:06 PM

Rommel, good tactician and division commander, but maybe not as leader of whole army. Cause he had to much weakness in the logistics field of operations..... also I read he was sometimes TOO fast in his actions. Like first assault on Tobruk which brought high losses for the Axis.....

Also he was normally a popular guy viewed by his men, cause he lead forwward and shared their dangers and diet etc. But I also read that not all liked him: Some soldiers viewed him as a "too hot dog" meaning he would always attack and send also tired troops to the fray. However he was fair vs. allied POWs.

And yes, the 3rd Reich proganda used this popular figure and his success (which mostly were phyric victories however because offensive could not be supplied). I heard he liked the fact he was popular and photographers came to africa etc. But if he himself created this propaganda I don´t believe, it was more created by the Nazi machine. 



#21 steverodgers801

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Posted 06 August 2014 - 05:03 PM

Guderian was similar in his neglect of logistics, he loved to brag about how he could advanced so much farther, yet he never explains how his logistic tail was to keep up, since so much of it was horse drawn and the more forces left behind the more dangerous it was for the support troops.



#22 Bundesluftwaffe

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Posted 06 August 2014 - 05:57 PM

Whole German army neglected logistics (as well intelligence btw.) it seems.



#23 Kai-Petri

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Posted 07 August 2014 - 11:40 AM

Well, the propaganda worked pretty well, must say...

 

Auchinleck, Rommel’s opposite until his sacking by Churchill, sent a memo to his senior commanders in North Africa, to state that it was their responsibility to ensure that their men thought less of Rommel as a ‘super military leader’ and more of him as a normal German commander.

 

 

"…(you must) dispel by all possible means the idea that Rommel represents anything other than the ordinary German general……….PS, I’m not jealous of Rommel." 

Auchinleck


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#24 brkeseel

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Posted 07 August 2014 - 11:52 AM

I've come across two versions of this memo - one containing the postscript and the other without it. The more reputable sources tend to leave it out. Thoughts on this? Did Auchinleck in fact sign this memo off with 'P.S. I'm not jealous of Rommel'? Seems nonsensical to me.



#25 Kai-Petri

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Posted 07 August 2014 - 12:28 PM

The last pasrt could well be added by someone else. Perhaps somebody has a photo copy of the original memo?

 

Also:

 

Opponents' view

Ironically, one of the reasons for his towering reputation was due to his opponents. While most enemy generals had only ever received short shrift from British leaders, the British built up a myth around this man as a 'genius'. Churchill even went so far as to name him in the House of Commons.

At one point, Auchinleck became so frustrated by what he considered the Rommel 'bogeyman' that he forbade his troops to mention the German commander. Not surprisingly, such an order simply increased Rommel's status in the eyes of British soldiers.

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk...desert_01.shtml


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