Rommel's War in Africa

This book has been expertly translated from the third corrected German edition, published in 1976. For the English edition, General Sir John Hackett, the author of The Third World War (1982), has contributed an appreciative and thoughtful Foreword. Heckmann, a sixteen-year-old Wehrmacht veteran at war’s end, is a journalist whose twenty-six-year career included chief editorial posts in Munich and Hamburg. Since 1972 he has been a free-lance writer.

In his Preface to this edition, Heckmann notes two themes of the book: the first “was the fact that the war in Africa was a decisive dress rehearsal for the Allies which influenced the future of the fighting in Europe to an extent it is hardly possible to estimate”; and second, “Erwin Rommel became possibly the most overrated commander of an army in world history.” In the first instance, he shows convincingly that the British had bungled badly in devising armored tactics and in designing and deploying tanks and antitank weapons. The British repeatedly misused their tanks by launching frontal attacks by scattered formations which, moreover, were composed of thin-skinned machines with armament far inferior to that of the Germans. Heckmann repeatedly compares desert tank warfare to naval battles on the high seas, where he says that concentration, movement, and armament are everything. It was not until the decisive Battle of El Alamein that the British Eighth Army had tanks (American-made Grants and Shermans) that could stand up to the German Mark III’s and IV’s and a general (Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery) who knew how to use them. Heckmann is especially enlightening on the detailed characteristics of the weapons available to both sides. Not surprisingly, he gives superior German arms, in particular the adaptable eighty-eight, much of the credit for General Rommel’s spectacular victories of 1941 and the first half of 1942, but Rommel was mightily assisted, he points out, by British blunders, including the unreasonable demands of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Heckmann is not unappreciative of Rommel’s great abilities; he only seeks to deflate the Rommel legend and reduce the general to true, human dimensions. After all, he notes, the leaders of the chorus of praise for Rommel were Churchill and Montgomery, his eventual desert nemesis, whose own accomplishments thus were magnified. In addition, officers who served under Rommel had an interest in perpetuating the legend of the immaculate warrior, particularly because his pressured suicide over his marginal implication in the Hitler assassination plot had made him something of a martyr and a “good German” to the Allies. Coincidentally, the memoir Rommel wrote of his African campaigns, Krieg ohne Ha (1950, “War Without Hate”; translated into English as The Rommel Papers, 1953), did not detract from the legend.

As Heckmann reminds his readers, Rommel was Hitler’s favorite general—he even had private access to the Führer, much to the annoyance of the professionals of the High Command of the Wehrmacht—and he resembled Hitler in his thirst for glory and in his addiction to illusions. Rommel is quoted more than once predicting his conquest of Suez, with its great British military base, and then the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. On one occasion, he would imagine leading his Panzerarmee into India to link up with Germany’s Japanese ally; on another, his troops would storm over the Caucasus to administer the coup de grace to the “subhuman” Russian enemy. Almost recklessly indifferent to danger, Rommel exuded self-confidence, and because of those qualities, and his record of success, his men idolized him. Rommel met his match in Montgomery, however, who...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Booklist. LXXVII, April 15, 1981, p. 1136.

Choice. XVIII, May, 1981, p. 1320.

Guardian Weekly. CXXIV, June 28, 1981, p. 22.

Human Events. XXXIX, December 29, 1979, p. 17.

Library Journal. CV, December 15, 1980, p. 2568.

The New Yorker. LVII, March 9, 1981, p. 134.

Observer. August 9, 1981, p. 23.