496 pages, E. P. Dutton, ISBN-13: 978-0525222002
The Trail of the Fox: The Search for the True Field Marshal Rommel by David Irving is not your typical biography as it is a fast-paced, almost novelistic read that moves swiftly through the career of this legendary soldier, trying to give the reader a taste of the man rather than an exhaustive list of his doings and accomplishments. Using his close relationships with ex-Afrika Korps officers as well as Manfred and Luci Rommel and their papers and photographs, Irving achieved what he sets out to do in this (admittedly) terse read. The image we get of Rommel as a youth is a blurry watercolor sketch that periodically comes into sharp focus: a puny and somewhat sickly lad from an uninspired civil-service family who literally willed himself into an excellent officer cadet and later, during World War I, into a superb tactician. He showed his form early as a young lieutenant of mountain troops, driving his men forward without regard for fear or fatigue, but always with concern for their well-being and always from the front. His accomplishments – Iron Crosses first and second class, wound badges and the famous Pour le Mérite (“The Blue Max”) – were matched only by his ambition. In the quest for Prussia’s highest award for valor Rommel showed a frightening self-obsession that he was often to show as an older man: a hunger for award, praise, and recognition. He also showed his capacity to alienate other officers, a habit he kept up his entire career and which may have cost him his life.
The interwar years saw Rommel serve as an instructor at a military school and pen Infantry Attacks, a best-selling and seminal book on small-unit tactics that not only brought him to the attention of Adolf Hitler, but remains in the library at West Point to this day. As commander of Hitler’s Poland HQ, Rommel again captured the Der Führer’s attention with his fearless treatment of Nazi bigwigs and landed command of the 7th Panzer-Division for the attack on France. It was here that the Rommel legend was born again, as the Gespensterdivision, or “Ghost Division”, blazed a reckless path across to the English Channel. Rommel’s conduct here typified his adult personality: he was utterly fearless, physically inexhaustible, indifferent to logistical problems, and unwilling to subordinate himself to higher authority or to recognize that he was part of a greater strategic situation. He was also keenly aware of propaganda, and reveled in theatrics – two traits which cemented his later fame. An avowed Hitler-worshipper, he was Hitler’s first choice to command the small German expeditionary force to Africa.
It is this part of Irving’s book which brings Rommel into the sharpest clarity, for it was in Africa that the “Desert Fox” legend was born. Rallying demoralized Italian troops and throwing his meager German forces around as if they were much larger, Rommel quickly issued a series of humiliating beatings on the hitherto triumphant British and begun the two years of see-saw, give-and-take warfare that marked the North African campaign. Rommel’s strengths – courage, charisma, the ability to inspire others and a matchless tactical genius – were tested by his weaknesses – willful blindness to inconvenient facts, lack of strategic vision, inability to politick, and a tendency to run out into battle and saddle his staff with the important decisions. Ironically, the more successes he had, the more troops he commanded, and while Rommel was arguably the best tactician of the war he was probably not suited to bigger command than a single corps. Still, had he anything like the equipment, manpower, and fuel of his British opponents he would have won the desert war easily. At Second El Alamein, the battle which made Montgomery famous, the British outnumbered him 3-1 in men and 5-1 in tanks (which certainly puts the “greatness” of this Allied victory into perspective). Rommel after Africa Irving shows as a burned-out, disillusioned, somewhat defeatist but still ambitious man, on the outs with Hitler and the Nazis but bound by his loyalty oath from taking an active role in the anti-Nazi movement. Considered a dangerous man because of his popularity, he was a natural target for the inquisition that followed July 20, 1944, and in the book’s most tragic chapter coolly accepts Hitler’s choice of suicide or disgrace by asking his executioners for poison.
Irving wrote a wonderful, easy to read masterpiece with in-depth research that not only describes Rommel as a general but as a person, as well. This book should be recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about the Desert Fox and is, furthermore, an example of what a great historian David Irving might have been if he didn’t get so twisted and anti-Semitic about the Jews and the Holocaust.