ROMMEL expected a short war, and expected to spend it somewhere in the rear echelons. Instead, on August 22, he was summoned to Berlin and informed that he was to command Hitler’s field headquarters in Poland. Never unconcerned with career advancement, Rommel had already become far more of a “player” than he might have thought possible in 1930. Now he was serving a personalized regime under the very eyes of the Presence. All he needed to do was avoid stumbling. And Erwin Rommel would prove true to the sure-footed heritage of a mountain soldier.
A head of state with Hitlers’s aspirations to become “The Greatest Warlord of All Time” could scarcely have his security overseen by a mere field-grade officer. Rommel was promoted to brigadier-general, with date of rank from June 1, 1939. His new command was, however, a throwback to his lieutenant’s days. Eventually the Fuehrer’s escort would become an entire division. In 1939, it amounted to a rifle company and another company on motorcycles, plus a few light antitank and anti-aircraft guns. Its job was to secure Hitler and his entourage from small-scale air attacks, snipers, stragglers, and partisans. Headquarters was a train: a dozen coaches fitted as sleeping, living, and conference rooms. Quarters were close, and Rommel was frequently in Hitler’s company, including meals—the latter a traditional courtesy extended to the captains of households since medieval times, but no less gratifying to Rommel for that.
Rommel’s respect for Hitler grew as he saw the Fuehrer’s willingness to go forward into newly conquered territory, flying over broken ground, driving through sniper country, visiting headquarters and formations exposed to Polish artillery fire. Hitler, in turn, reverted to his Great War days as a rifleman and runner, reminiscing and swapping stories with an officer he felt understood from his own experience what it was like “out there.” He began inviting Rommel to staff meetings, soliciting his opinion on operational decisions.
This chance to look over the supreme commander’s shoulder was as eye-opening to Rommel as a formal General Staff short course might have been. The technological and doctrinal backwardness of the Polish army has been grossly exaggerated. Polish cavalry never charged German tanks with lances. They did surprise several small motorized columns and achieved some local defensive successes against the Panzer divisions—which were duly noted by the Chief of Cavalry’s office in Washington. The Polish government, however, had been constrained by a mixture of political and strategic considerations to deploy the bulk of its forces in a cordon along its lengthy frontier with the Third Reich. After the Germans broke through the initial positions, little stood in their way except an air force rapidly reduced to ineffectiveness by a numerically and materially superior Luftwaffe. German tactics, training, and technology decided the campaign’s outcome well before the Soviet Union sent its armies across Poland’s eastern frontier on September 17.
From Rommel’s perspective, the Polish operation illustrated the continuing validity of his belief in shock, speed, and surprise. For twenty years he had been telling cadets, junior officers, and any superiors willing to listen that boldness, readiness to risk, brought gains out of all proportion to the original investment of forces. Rommel was an infantryman, but the principles he derived from his infantry experience were not restricted to men moving on their feet through broken country. Geographically, the plains and marshes of Poland could not be farther apart from the high mountains and narrow valleys of Northern Italy. The tactical and operational imperative was nevertheless the same: get inside the enemy’s loop of initiative, and unravel his forces from the center outward. As he grew more confident in their personal association, Rommel lost no opportunity to make those points to Hitler, who, in turn, responded positively to an officer he seems increasingly to have regarded even at this early stage as a model for the fusion of Germany’s old and new orders. Rommel excitedly informed his wife that he did not expect to return to Wiener Neustadt as a schoolmaster in uniform after the campaign was over.
Beginning with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, the German army had developed a doctrine of controlling occupied territory by immediate harsh repression of all forms of resistance. In 1914, this policy had generated widespread atrocities against civilians in France and Belgium. The resulting damage done to the German image, especially among neutrals like the United States, would lead to a commitment on the part of both the armed forces and the political leadership to avoid a repetition in 1940.
Poland was another matter. Well before the outbreak of hostilities, generalized concepts of the “east” as an object of German manifest destiny, long present in the nation’s culture, were integrated with National Socialist conceptions of the east as “living space.” Soldiers were informed that they were the vanguard of Germany’s destiny, with the missions of conquering the new territory, settling it as “soldier-farmers” (Wehrbauern) and ruling over the primitives who inhabited it.
To an average draftee, the first task might seem dangerous and the second far-fetched. The third proved congenial from the early days of September 1939. Negative, derogatory attitudes toward Polish and Jewish cultures informed the army’s official reports, its private correspondence, and its public behavior. Troops used Nazi jargon to describe the people: “subhuman” or “inhuman.” From the war’s first days, the army showed consistent willingness to initiate reprisals; to implement terror; to translate vague authorizations into fists, boots, and firing squads. It stood beside the SS rather than apart from it as an instrument of repression.
Rommel did not go out of his way to encourage harsh occupation policies. That those policies would be harsh he considered a matter of course, noting during the campaign, for example, that all able-bodied Polish men were being rounded up for forced labor. Rommel was kind to his family, a genial social companion, and not inclined to indiscriminate rank-pulling and decoration-flashing. None of those characteristics made him any less a hard man, who had matured in circumstances and institutions that were anything but nurseries for finer feelings and nuanced moral speculation.
Rommel’s attitude may have been influenced by his absence from the combat zone. By the end of the campaign, he was consistently in Hitler’s company, not only eating lunch and dinner with him, but frequently seated next to him. Given the importance of mealtimes in Hitler’s Byzantine court protocols, a newcomer could scarcely enjoy greater favor. Envy mounted among more permanent members of the entourage. But Rommel had not gone to war to be a headquarters paladin or a carpet-knight. When the headquarters went into suspended animation after the final victory parade in Warsaw, he knew what he wanted: a division command.
Rommel was one step short of the usual rank for the job: major general. His peacetime record and his wartime connections suggested, however, that was a shortcoming to be soon remedied. The High Command agreed, and the personnel office knew just the thing. The army had three specialized mountain divisions, one Bavarian and two based on units from the old Austrian army. Given Rommel’s experience, one of them seemed a perfect fit.
Rommel balked politely. He wanted a Panzer division. The personnel office in effect responded, “So does everyone else.” Rommel was an infantry officer—more than that, he was widely considered the model of a modern infantry general. He had never served with tanks, or with any other mobile branch barring a few weeks with the artillery in 1914. Rommel, in contrast, saw himself embodying a long-standing Prussian/German tradition in his firm belief that understanding principles was preferable to understandingparticulars. His experience suggested specific expertise could be developed more or less at need, the way he had studied logarithms. The time Rommel spent in Hitler’s headquarters seems to have played a significant role in moving his perspective from the tactical/ operational level of his Great War and Reichswehr service to the operational /strategic plane. The maps on Hitler’s table were of a different scale than those to which Rommel was accustomed—a larger scale, one that encompassed not sectors of a front, not even theaters of war, but entire countries.
A Panzer command, moreover, offered the best opportunity to implement the synergy between technology and vitalism Rommel’s experience with the WGB had convinced him was the key to waging modern war at any level. Weapons by themselves were cold iron. Courage by itself was wasted sacrifice. The challenge lay in bringing the two together: recognizing and creating situations where warrior qualities were multiplied by speed and firepower to produce irresistible shock.
Did Rommel ask Hitler for the plum command he wanted? Did Hitler intervene directly, whether to oblige a favorite, because he recognized Rommel’s potential, or simply to spite the army’s establishment? Things seldom are that obvious in such matters, particularly in the Third Reich at that stage of its history. Rommel had no interest in being stereotyped as the Fuehrer’s Protektionskind, his protégé. A senior general such as Walther von Reichenau could embrace Nazi principles and manifest Nazi sympathies and be understood as acting from conviction. A mere brigadier was likely to be stamped an opportunist, with all the professional drawbacks that implied. Hitler, for his part, still sought to win over or co-opt the officer corps so far as either might be possible, Rommel was potentially a means to that end, and too valuable a tool to risk breaking by such clumsiness as overt interference in mid-level command appointments.
The most promising explanation involves a delicate web of hints dropped and responses comprehended, leading to the personnel office deciding that Erwin Rommel was after all the man to take over a Panzer division—especially the one they had in mind. On February 15, 1940, Rommel received command of the 7th Panzer Division. It had started life as one of four light divisions based on converted cavalry units. Renumbered and converted in October 1939, it still possessed a strong cavalry ethos. Its officers and senior NCOs had not taken all too kindly to their new mechanized role. Rommel had a reputation as a man who could galvanize subordinates. The assignment thus saved face at higher levels and put Rommel squarely on the spot and in the spotlight—which was where he wished to be in the first place.
The division included a tank regiment of three battalions, two two-battalion motorized regiments, a motorcycle battalion, and a reconnaissance battalion of motorcycles and armored cars. This structure eventually became the standard for the army’s Panzer divisions until nearly the end of the war and shaped the armored divisions of other armies as well. As yet no armored personnel carriers were available. The tank regiment, however, was in the process of replacing its Mark I’s. The Mark II was another stopgap design pending the production of heavier models. At ten tons, with a single turret-mounted twenty-millimeter cannon, it relied on speed and endurance. More useful was the Panzer 38(t). This was a Czech model taken over by the Wehrmacht after the occupation in 1939 and kept in production. Also weighing in at about ten tons, it was as reliable and robust as its German stablemate and carried a more powerful 37-millimeter gun in its turret, giving it a significant antitank capacity. By May 10, 1940, the 7th Panzer Division had 68 Mark II’s and 91 38(t)s in its inventory. Only 34 Mark I’s remained, most of them as command vehicles. The division also had two dozen Mark IV close-support tanks, whose short-barreled 75-millimeter cannon were primarily intended to provide high-explosive supporting fire to the lighter vehicles.
The 7th’s new commander retained his emphasis on physical fitness as a prerequisite for modern mobile warfare, and set an example with early morning runs—never a staple of the cavalry, which like its counterparts in all armies, rather prided itself on an insouciant approach to sweat. He spent his days absorbing details. A dismissal or two for effect nailed down the point that he would not tolerate inefficiency or excuses, and Rommel had lost nothing of his ability to galvanize through personal contact. Within a few weeks, he was taking his division on cross-country exercises in the teeth of a hard winter, relocating from the comfortable resort environment of Bad Kissingen, the 7th’s official headquarters, to the Rhoen Mountains.
To a degree unusual, arguably unprecedented, in a victorious force, the German army in the aftermath of the Polish campaign undertook a major reassessment of its practices, judging even the spectacular results gained to be insufficient and inadequate. Above all, the “lessons learned” disseminated to all formations insisted on an aggressive spirit. Caution and circumspection were discounted as leading to the overlooking of opportunities while giving the enemy time to recognize and frustrate German intentions. Commanders of mobile troops in particular were exhorted to lead from the front. Orders and practice emphasized combined-arms cooperation in an all-arms battle coordinated by radio communication at all levels.
Throughout World War I, the officer in the front ranks had no way of keeping in touch with anyone outside reach of his voice and line of sight. In the 1930s, what seemed a magic-bullet solution to the problem emerged: the radio revolution. The bulky, fragile radio sets of World War I were being replaced by smaller, more reliable versions, crystal-tuned and operating in the high-frequency range. Instead of requiring Morse code, the new designs enabled direct voice communication, facilitating the transmission of real-time information and concise orders. Beginning with the production versions of the Mark I, every German tank carried its own radio.
Events in Poland demonstrated the practical limits of radio communication under operational conditions and highlighted another problem. “Leading from the front” invited the dispersion of effort as commanders seeking to exploit presumed opportunities wound up directing isolated actions that eventually devolved to skirmishes with limited tactical results. How could the commander of a mobile formation built around the internal-combustion engine be at the critical point of a battle while at the same time continuing to command his whole force effectively?
That challenge led to Heinz Guderian’s familiar phrase klotzen, nicht kleckern (“slug, don’t fumble”): keep focused on an objective. Rommel addressed it on three levels. One was technological. It involved developing a mobile headquarters whose core was an electronic command system mounted in a cross-country vehicle: a network of radios allowing him to contact both subordinate formations and his own main headquarters, operated and maintained by selected signal officers and NCOs. A second was professional. Rommel made clear to his senior staff officers that he depended essentially on them to process and evaluate information that arrived at headquarters in his absence, and to act on it should that seem necessary. By later American standards, Wehrmacht divisions had small headquarters whose officers were relatively low ranking. The Versailles Treaty had been successful in limiting the number of General Staff officers and restricting the scope of their training; the Wehrmacht after 1933 was never able to keep pace with its own expanding need for troop staff officers. The Operations Officer of the 7th Panzer, Major Otto Heidekaemper, performed most of a chief of staff’s duties. On paper, the rough counterpart of a U.S. G-3, Heidekaempfer was responsible for far more: coordinating the division’s external relations, maintaining its internal balance, and acting as principal adviser on combat operations. His chief assistants were the intelligence officer and the quartermaster, a major and a captain respectively.
The “lean and mean” German structure meant everyone worked constantly. Vital information could be overlooked by busy men. Fatigue and stress led to errors of judgment and to problems of communication, as tired men snapped at each other. Especially in a mobile division, success depended heavily on a commanding general willing to support the decisions of even junior staff officers in whose ability, toughness, and loyalty he had confidence.
Success depended as well on a system that functioned as close to automatically as possible. The third leg of Rommel’s command triangle was training. Rommel shared Helmuth von Moltke the Elder’s conviction that no plan survived first contact with an enemy. It was correspondingly necessary for commanders at all levels to exercise independent judgment. Independent did not mean random. Rommel proposed to act as a kind of deus ex machina using his sense of the battle and the information provided by his headquarters to select points of intervention, ideally to refine and complete the efforts of the men on the spot. He bent every effort to develop a common way of doing things in the 7th Panzer—not as a straitjacket, but rather a framework for structuring the behavior of subordinates in the constant emergency that was the modern mobile battlefield.
The genesis of the German strategic plan against the Western allies is familiar. The High Command was reluctant to mount a western offensive under any circumstances. Its foot-dragging produced an initial concept for “Case Yellow” that involved sending seventy-five divisions, including most of the army’s mobile formations, into the low countries to engage the main Anglo-French strength in what was expected to be an encounter battle in central Belgium. Even before Hitler became directly involved in the planning process, this unpromisingly conventional proposal was generating increasing criticism as owing more to Ludendorff’s abortive 1918 offensive than the Schlieffen Plan to which it has often been compared. The High Command’s thinking seemed to go no further than punching a hole and seeing what developed. It anticipated the kind of hard fighting that made decisions dependent on contingencies. And it incorporated no proposals for destroying enemy armed forces.
The alternative proposal put forward by Erich von Manstein, then chief of staff to Army Group A, was intended as much to provide a central role for his commanding general Gerd von Rundstedt as to furnish a program for victory. His projected thrust through the Ardennes would transform Rundstedt’s army group from a secondary mission to the campaign’s focal point. Broken terrain made the option a risk—but a calculated risk, taking maximum advantage of the force multipliers of the Reichswehr become Wehrmacht: leadership and technology. Hitler, disgruntled by his generals’ conventionality and angered by a security breach that put copies of the original plan in Allied hands, took advantage of Manstein’s temporary presence in Berlin to discuss his ideas. A few days later, he issued a new operational plan, putting seven of Germany’s ten Panzer divisions under Army Group A for a “scythe cut” (Sichelschnitt) through northern France.
Rommel’s 7th Panzer was teamed with the 5th in the XV Panzer Corps. Commanded by Lieutenant General Hermann Hoth, it was on the right flank of Rundstedt’s main attack, with the mission of crossing the Meuse River at Dinant and pushing forward into the Ardennes. The Belgian Ardennes was a nightmare of hills and valleys, unimproved regional roads, and local tracks leading nowhere in particular. The Belgians, however, chose to defend only a few of their obstacles, making the advance that began on May 10 more of an engineering and traffic control problem than a tactical one. The French and British air forces, unexpectedly slow to react to the German onslaught, devoted most of their efforts to the central Belgian plain and the German bridgeheads over the Meuse around Sedan. Rommel’s division was left undisturbed from the air as it rolled forward against uncoordinated, though occasionally fierce, opposition.
Rommel spent most of his time with his advance guard. Occasionally, he took advantage of the division’s aviation element: light Fieseler Storch aircraft, counterparts of the American Piper Cub and capable of landing and taking off from even rougher terrain. The still-unfamiliar spectacle of a plane landing in a combat zone and the “old man” climbing out was a predictable morale-booster, and the stories of Rommel’s omnipresence lost nothing in the telling.
Beginning on May 11, the 7th Panzer encountered the French: elements of the 1st and 4th Cavalry Divisions, which combined mounted and motorized units plus a few tanks. They were tailored for screening missions against mobile forces. Rommel responded along lines tested in Italy. He sent his reconnaissance and motorcycle battalions forward in small elements and multiple directions to discover and report enemy presence. He deluged the 7th Panzer’s routes of advance with fire from every weapon from howitzers to machine guns as soon as a shot was heard or a movement observed. Saturation was more important than accuracy, he insisted. Even against dug-in antitank guns, armored formations that opened fire immediately were likely to have the advantage.
Make them keep their heads down; go through them and past them; mop up what remains: this was blitzkrieg pur. In three days, Rommel advanced almost sixty miles. Hoth, following the German pattern of reinforcing success, temporarily put the 5th’s advance units under Rommel’s command and told him to get across the Meuse and keep going. The bridges at Houx and Dinant went up almost in the face of 7th Panzer’s leading elements. But motorcyclists, from the 5th Panzer Division’s advance guard and not, as usually stated, Rommel’s 7th Motorcycle Battalion, crossed an abandoned weir to an island in the middle of the river, and from there a lock gate to the west bank. They took some fire, but the main French positions were on high ground away from the river. The Germans had a foothold, and the commanders of the 7th Panzer’s rifle brigade and its pioneer battalion were no less quick off the mark. Rubber boats rowed by the pioneers began moving infantry across the Meuse—about a company’s worth by the time the defenders came fully alert a little before daybreak.
In a short time, French machine-gun fire cut off the possibility of either evacuating or reinforcing the men on the far bank. French artillery began disrupting movement on the German side of the river. As casualties mounted and morale declined, Rommel arrived on the scene sometime after 4 A.M. and took little time deciding it made no sense to continue dribbling his forces into battle. He returned briefly to division headquarters, where he met and reassured Hoth and Hoth’s superior, 4th Army commander Gunther von Kluge, then drove back to the river. Ordering the available tanks and artillery pieces to shell the French side as long as their ammunition lasted, he started a fresh wave of reinforcements across the Meuse—and took a place in one of the leading rubber boats.
For the next couple hours, the verifiable record reads like something from a comic book. Rommel almost immediately found himself caught up in a French tank attack. The men on the far bank had no antitank weapons. Rommel ordered them to open up on the tanks with rifles and machine guns. Bullets glancing off their armor, sparks and fragments ricocheting through firing ports, the tanks, unsupported by infantry, fell back. Rommel returned across the river and drove to a new crossing site established by the division’s 6th Rifle Regiment. There infantry and antitank guns were being boated across without direct opposition. The pioneers were working on a pontoon bridge. Rommel ordered a heavier one, able to bear the weight of tanks. Then he got into the waist-deep water and lent a hand, heaving timbers under fire and taking his command vehicle across to the west bank only “as soon as the first pontoon was ready.”
By that time, French counterattacks were coming in greater force; French artillery was finding the range on all the crossing points. German casualties were mounting. Ammunition in the forward positions was running low. Rommel had spent the whole day under fire. He seemed to have been at every vital spot exactly when he was needed; and to the officers and men of the 7th Panzer, who had seen just enough combat in Poland to be impressed, he seemed as well to be bulletproof. Now he took charge of ferrying tanks across the Meuse to the original bridgehead—a slow and frustrating process. At daybreak, he received word that elements of the 7th Rifle Regiment had infiltrated French positions, reached the village of Onhaye, and were now surrounded by a French counterattack.
Rommel promptly mounted a rescue mission, built around the thirty tanks that by then had crossed the Meuse. On his way, he discovered that the 7th was not surrounded in Onhaye, but had arrived there—Rommel’s radio operator had mistranscribed the message: eingeschlossen foreingetroffen. Well enough: instead of rescuing the infantry, the tanks would use them as a base for further operations. Just outside Onhaye, the Germans came under artillery and antitank fire. The tank Rommel had commandeered took two hits and skidded down a hill. Rommel, bleeding from a splinter in the cheek, bailed out, sought his command vehicle, and found it immobilized from a hit in the engine. He later noted his belief that if the German tanks had been more willing to fire on the move, the French gunners would probably have decamped altogether. In fact, the French continued to mount counterattacks against Onhaye as 7th Panzer developed its bridgehead. By evening, however, the 25th Panzer Regiment and the riflemen had secured the crossing and Rommel issued orders for the next day: keep moving and shoot up anything in the way.
At this stage of the war, the Panzer division’s tanks and infantry did not practice the near-symbiotic close association that later characterized their tactics. The 25th led out, followed by the infantry and supported by the division’s artillery and any dive-bombers Rommel might be able to scare up over the radio. That last was not automatic. The Luftwaffe, contrary to many accounts, was not organized and configured for ground support. Its primary missions were air superiority and interdiction, or battlefield isolation. Its main elements were heavily engaged to the south, in the Sedan sector, where the Panzers were converting another river crossing to a breakout on an even larger scale. Rommel considered himself correspondingly fortunate when a Luftwaffe major informed him that yes, he could count on Stukas being available at intervals.
Once again Rommel rode with the leading elements—a tribute to his excellent working relationship with the Panzer regiment’s commander. Colonel Karl von Rothenburg, like Rommel, held a Blue Max from the Great War, had seen enough combat to be perfectly willing to share its risks, and believed four eyes were better than two on a fast-moving battlefield. Rommel’s tactical innovation for the day was a “thrust line” established on the division’s maps and divided into sectors. To call in air support or artillery fire, all Rommel needed to do was refer to one of the sectors. The recipient’s job was to note the target area, bring it in, and keep it coming. By the elaborate standards of the Great War, the system was crude: a back-of-the envelope improvisation. The division’s artillery commander was nevertheless “delighted” to be able to provide the kind of instant support artillery had been able to deliver in its salad days a hundred years earlier, when guns galloped into battle behind six-horse teams.
The French front-line forces, from the 9th Army of General André Corap, were in the process of falling back for reorganization. The French high command had, however, ordered a counterattack toward Dinant by two of its best divisions, the 1st Armored and the 4th North African. The armored division included two battalions of B-1s, each mounting two guns heavier than any in Rommel’s vehicles: a 47-millimeter antitank gun in the turret and a 75-millimeter cannon in the hull. The North Africans included a large number of long-service professional soldiers, some of the best fighting men in France.
The situation offered corresponding possibilities for the 7th Panzer to become enmeshed in 9th Army’s stop line and then face a stand-up fight against heavier metal and superior numbers. Instead, Rommel bounced the designated French position before it was occupied, the tanks taking every possible target under fire on the move; the artillery firing in support along Rommel’s thrust line; and headquarters kept in the picture by radio messages sent in German but composed in a stark, almost cryptic “battle language,” meaningless even if it should be intercepted. With his Panzers on their initial objective, Rommel drove back to bring up the infantry, which in its unarmored, wheeled trucks, had lagged behind. He found dozens, then hundreds of French soldiers streaming out of the woods on either side of the main road, surrendering even to the crews of broken-down tanks. As he had done in Italy, Rommel sought out the senior officers, promising them quick delivery of their baggage and any other small perquisite that might encourage further surrenders.
The still-advancing 25th Panzer Regiment had in the meantime encountered the leading elements of the 1st Armored Division. The French had had a long, hard day on the 14th. Advancing through swarms of their own people, constrained to move at slow speeds and in low gear, their fuel tanks were nearly empty and their crews tired. For convenience, their commanders bivouacked in the open to await the gasoline trucks. No one bothered to dispatch even a few motorcyclists to screen the roads to the east. The French were displayed on a serving dish for the 66th Panzer Battalion, an original element of the 2nd Light Division, now assigned to the 25th Panzer as its third battalion and bringing up the regiment’s rear. Its commander deployed in what Rommel called a “sea battle formation,” two companies charging forward and firing “broadsides” into the French while the third covered the battalion’s flanks.
The 66th had about two dozen Mark II’s and the same number of 38(t)s. Even at ranges of two hundred yards and less, their light shells ricocheted off the French armor. But the gunners shifted their fire to the thinner sides of the French tanks, to ventilators, tracks, and suspension systems. The Mark IV’s of the 3rd Company used their high-explosive shells on crews caught in the open and against the fuel trucks that began arriving just as the German attack started. Coordinated resistance foundered as French tank commanders found their radio batteries had been run flat. Crew after crew ceased fire, waving rags and handkerchiefs from their turrets to indicate surrender. Thirty-five tanks, including nineteen heavy Char B’s, went under in a matter of minutes.
Rommel left the rest of the 1st Armored to the 5th Panzer Division’s just-arriving 31st Regiment, and led his own 25th barreling westward at forty kilometers an hour. Surprised French motorcyclists going in the opposite direction drove off the road into the ditches. By the end of the day, the 25th’s tanks were at Cerfontaine, on the edge of the northern extension of the Maginot line that had been constructed in the late 1930s. Tank officers were taking masses of prisoners at pistol point: officers and men of rear-echelon units without a clue responding to any orders they received, even if the language was German and the content was “Drop your weapons! Hands up!”
As the long lines of trucks and halftracks carrying riflemen and towing guns came up to flesh out the position, Rommel was ready to repeat his performance beginning the next morning. He had no intention of treating the vaunted Maginot Line like a set of improvised field defenses. He took enough preparation time that Kluge paid him an unscheduled visit around 9:30 A.M. to express his surprise at the delay. Rommel explained the 25th Panzer Regiment was to advance on the main French position in extended order, supported by every gun in the division. The rifle brigade would pass through and crack open the defenses under covering fire from the tanks. Then the 25th would resume the lead, and the division would go forward.
It was a plan showing Rommel as more than a head-down tactical opportunist. As the tanks moved into the fortified zone, they once again took under fire everything that seemed a likely target as pioneers attacked bunkers with flamethrowers and grenades and infantrymen took out machine-gun nests and antitank positions. Here was no slashing blitz, but a steady grind forward against stubborn resistance that seemed to intensify as the day waned. The moon was up, the long European twilight had set in by the time the last roadblocks were cleared, and Rommel saw his chance. There was still enough light for the Panzers to drive forward and break out. A risk, yes—but preferable to a night’s delay and an enemy further reinforced. “Turn your people loose,” he ordered Rothenburg. “Blast anything resembling a French position—and don’t spare the tracer.” That last was another case of making lemons from lemonade. The 20-millimeter cannon of the Mark II was not much in a stand-up fight with heavier French tanks, but its tracer rounds could be terrifying to inexperienced men.
The tanks rolled forward in a long column, impelled by the hammering of their own guns, picking up speed as the confidence of the lead drivers increased. French soldiers and refugees abandoned the road for its ditches. No time for prisoners—just fire a few bursts as warning and deterrent. An occasional brief position report to his increasingly confused, increasingly anxious division headquarters was Rommel’s only contact with the rear. Still no resistance—and then it was clear that 25th Panzer was through the Maginot Line. “It was not just a beautiful dream,” Rommel later recorded. “It was reality.”
By now the operational situation had dissolved into chaos. Rommel’s lead elements were through the town of Avesnes, but the balance of his division was strung out behind him, its men and vehicles intermingled with refugees and soldiers, some anxious to surrender and others looking for a chance to fight. Sixteen tanks, the remnants of 1st Armored Division, stumbled into Avesnes, blocked the main road, and held out most of the night, the three survivors withdrawing around 4 A.M. Tank after German tank exhausted its ammunition, turning to its hull-mounted machine gun instead. Radio communication was at best episodic—partly, it seems, by Rommel’s design. Certainly, the corps order authorizing an advance on Avesnes only for the next morning did not reach him until long after it had become irrelevant.
Rommel drove forward in the style he developed with the WGB. He had most of a Panzer battalion and part of the Motorcycle Battalion in hand. He was confident his division would clear the way and follow him to Landrieces, where a bridge over the Sambre River pointed the way deep into the rear of the Allied forces in Belgium. At 4 A.M., the Germans moved out. Rommel broadcast a simple order over every frequency his radios could cover: get to Landriecies as fast as possible, any way possible. With ammunition dangerously low, the advance now depended on speed rather than shock. Again the Germans bypassed long columns of refugees and retreating soldiers. In contrast to the previous day, however, the French simply dropped their rifles and about-faced, marching east into captivity. One lieutenant colonel seemed too hostile to leave behind. When ordered to get into a tank, he refused three times. Rommel ordered him shot.
The sun was well up as the lead tanks rolled into Landrieces and across a bridge still intact. The town was full of trucks and wagons, animals from horses to house pets, terrified civilians, confused soldiers, and officers so demoralized that some of them obeyed German orders to fall in with their men and march them east. Rommel kept the advance going. It was a quarter past six when he finally halted—by coincidence in the village of Le Cateau, site of a memorable rear-guard fight by the British Expeditionary Force in 1914. Leaving Rothenberg to set up a perimeter defense with his tankers and a few motorcyclists, Rommel drove back through Landreices toward Avesnes in his command vehicle, accompanied by a single tank, which soon broke down. He raced past hundreds of French troops who seemed deliberately to ignore him, eventually taking charge of a stray column of trucks, some full of troops and others mounting machine guns, and leading them into Avesnes to support the Germans still fighting in the town. It was the stuff of melodrama—but substantiated at every turn by eyewitnesses.
By around 4 P.M., Rommel’s headquarters and the rest of the division began arriving. One of the artillery battalions captured in the process most of a French tank battalion, an indication of how rapidly and completely French morale and command had eroded. Rommel pushed his combat elements across the Sambre toward Le Cateau, then took an hour and a half rest. His division had advanced more than fifty miles, made a night march unprecedented in the history of armor, captured ten thousand prisoners and a hundred tanks—and recorded losses of thirty-five dead and fifty-nine wounded.
By the standards of the campaigns of Frederick the Great, the Wars of German Unification, and the trenches of 1914-1918, the achievement was almost beyond comprehension—but not beyond exploitation. At midnight, orders came through from Hoth: continue the attack, direction Cambrai. One observer credits Rommel with assembling his senior officers and informing them the division’s axis of advance was “Le Cateau-Arras-Amiens-Rouen-Le Havre.” If the story sounds a little pat, it is true enough as metaphor. On May 18, the 25th Panzer Regiment, fuel and ammunition replenished and most breakdowns repaired, shot its way into Cambrai across country where during the Great War advances had been calculated in hundreds of yards and casualties counted in tens of thousands.
By that time, even Rommel saw the need to pause for reorganization. His division was deep in hostile country, strung out along a hundred miles of a road network crowded with refugees, stragglers, and organized bodies of French soldiers. To seek phone contact with friendly forces was to risk hearing “Bonjour monsieur” at the other end of the line. Rommel nevertheless planned to resume his advance late the next day. When the corps commander paid him a visit and ordered a second day’s rest, Rommel replied that his division would have been twenty hours in the same place—time enough for the Allies to draw a bead on it. By this time, the 7th Panzer was attracting war correspondents, and Rommel was the best kind of copy. This, he declared, was war as Frederick the Great’s cavalry generals had waged it. Seydlitz and Ziethen had led from the front and exploited fleeting opportunities to win tactical victories. Modern generals must do the same thing at the operational level, with tanks replacing horses. A night advance, he argued to Hoth, only appeared risky. It would cost less and gain more than conventional daylight operations.
Hoth’s caution was more than conditioned reflex. Rommel’s was not the only Panzer division running miles ahead of the rest of the army. The three divisions of Guderian’s corps, breaking out of the Sedan bridgehead to the south, were even deeper into France than was the 7th, though their advance in miles had not been as far. Seen on a map, the Panzer spearheads looked like fingers thrust out from a hand—and correspondingly vulnerable to being seized and broken one by one. Rundstedt as early as the 15th considered halting the motorized forces rather than risk even a local defeat that might throw the German advance off-balance. He had his staff prepare a stop order just in case. Then the army group commander received a call from the Wehrmacht High Command, Hitler’s mouthpiece: shut down the Panzers.
Hitler may not have given that order personally, but during a visit to Rundstedt’s headquarters on May 17, he emphatically supported it. A successful counterattack, he declared, might encourage both the Allied generals and their politicians. Not a helter-skelter push to the English Channel, but a solid defensive shoulder in the south should be the next step.
The Fuehrer, for the first time since assuming power, encountered overt, coherent, and cohesive resistance among the soldiers. Early on May 17, General Ewald von Kleist, Guderian’s immediate superior, delivered the halt order in person. Guderian’s reply, more expressive than polite, concluded with a request to be relieved. Kleist wisely left before someone said something that could not be overlooked. The halt order stood—until Chief of Staff Franz Halder executed a neat political flanking maneuver, first convincing the army’s Commander in Chief Walther von Brauchitsch to order the offensive renewed, then confronting Hitler to insist the Panzers’ southern flank was not a problem. Hitler, according to Halder’s diary, raged and screamed in one of the virtuoso emotional performances that had earned him the nickname of “carpet-biter.” In the end, however, he, too, acquiesced.
Hermann Hoth was no gambler, but he recognized hot dice when he saw them. At 1:40 A.M. on May 20, the 7th Panzer’s lead elements broke out of Cambrai heading north to Arras—the next bead on Rommel’s projected string. His primary opposition was the French 1st Army, hammered hard in Belgium, now withdrawn to face a greater threat. But Arras was also the original headquarters and a major administrative area of the British Expeditionary Force. The region was saturated with detachments theoretically completing their infantry training while they worked on constructing defenses. Green troops with few heavy weapons, they were led by Great War veterans who frequently had fought on the same ground and did not propose to yield it tamely now. North of the city were also two good divisions, the BEF’s reserve, as yet uncommitted.
Hoth’s orders to his division commanders were to avoid direct engagement, instead swing around Arras and move toward Bethune, threatening the French and British where they had proved most vulnerable: on their flanks. Seventh Panzer on the corps left spearheaded the advance; Rommel rode as usual with the leading company of the 25th Panzer Regiment. At 3 A.M., the armored spearhead reached the Canal du Nord, only to have the bridge blown up almost under its treads. Two hours later, the tanks found and seized another bridge a few kilometers south. Driving across the canal, they advanced almost twenty miles in less than two hours. But less than two miles from Arras, Rommel ordered a halt. The infantry had failed to follow. With daylight upon them, the tanks would have no chance penetrating Arras by themselves.
Rommel, leaving Rothenberg to set up a perimeter defense, set out in search of his errant riflemen accompanied by a tank and an armored car. He promptly encountered French tanks, which knocked out both of the German vehicles. Rommel and the rest of his escort took cover as French troops moved randomly in their neighborhood. Only later in the morning did elements of the 7th Panzer’s infantry arrive to give a lift to their embarrassed commander, who remained on the defensive in the context of reports that several Allied divisions were massing around Arras for a counterattack.
Nothing of any size materialized, and on the morning of the 21st, 7th Panzer rolled forward again. This time, in tribute to the previous day’s close call, Rommel inserted his reconnaissance battalion between the tank regiment and the rifle brigade to maintain communications and rear security. His orders were again simple: bypass Arras to the west and head for the English Channel. Again the 25th Panzer Regiment got off to a fast start against scattered resistance. Again the infantry fell behind. Around 3 P.M. Rommel decided it was safe to drive back and put the fear of their commander into the slower-moving rifle regiments. By the time he returned at the head of the trucks, the 25th’s rear echelons were under artillery fire, and one of his own howitzer batteries was engaging tanks advancing south from Arras.
French commander in chief General Maurice Gamelin had been pressing since the beginning of the German attack for a counteroffensive against the armored columns. BEF commanding general Viscount Edward Gort was under similar pressure from his government, now headed by the aggressive Winston Churchill. Hoth’s corps offered a target of opportunity. The end result was the concentration of two British tank battalions, a couple infantry battalions, and some field and antitank guns on the old World War I battlefield of Vimy Ridge, with promises of French support and orders to strike the Germans when they came within range.
Planning was random; air support nonexistent. Maps, radios, and the other less-obvious trappings of twentieth-century war had long since been lost or broken. The infantry reached their staging areas at the last minute, exhausted after an all-night march. The British, however, had a trump card: British tank design between the wars had followed two paths. One concentrated on developing light, fast-moving vehicles for independent armored formations. The other focused on designing tanks for the direct support of infantry, and the two tank battalions that were the core of the counterattack had around seventy-five Infantry Tanks Mark I and II between them.
They were not exactly awe-inspiring. Their cross-country progress was so simultaneously stately and ungainly that their crews called them “Matildas”—after Matilda the Duck, a well known comic-strip character. The Mark I’s best speed was eight miles an hour. It was armed with nothing more formidable than rifle-caliber machine guns. The Mark II was a bit faster, and its high-velocity two-pound turret gun was effective against all models of German tanks from any angle. More importantly, the Matildas carried up to three inches and more of armor, most of it frontal.
As they came down the roads from Arras, the Germans they first encountered were not Rothenberg’s Panzers, able to seek positions for flank shots, but elements of the reconnaissance battalion and the rifle brigade, supported by 37-millimeter antitank guns. The 37 was a good weapon, mobile, fast-firing, and accurate. A Rheinmetall design widely licensed and copied in Europe and the world, it had been in Wehrmacht service since 1936. Its crews knew the gun; the infantry they supported were correspondingly confident they could see off this attack as they had so many others in the past week.
What they experienced instead was a fireworks display as the small armor-piercing rounds skidded off the Matildas’ armor. Because the well-trained Germans held their fire until the range closed, the Matildas were able to use their machine guns with devastating effect, first on the antitank crews, then on the unarmored vehicles crowding the German rear area. Fear was not a French monopoly in May 1940. As the Matildas crawled on, infantrymen discovered urgent personal business out of the line of fire; truck drivers sought to get out of range; and the German position seemed on the verge of unraveling. A simple radio message reached division headquarters: “Strong enemy tank attack from direction Arras. Help. Help.”
Better coordination and control, a little more artillery support, a few hundred fresh infantrymen, and 7th Panzer might have been in deeper trouble than its commander could match. But none of those things were forthcoming. The advancing British tanks increasingly lost touch first with their infantry, then with each other. Rommel reached the scene in his command car and ordered his remaining antitank guns and the howitzers of the division artillery to take the tanks under fire, overriding the gunners’ protests that that the ranges were still too long. The howitzers’ thirty-pound high-explosive shells did damage to treads and suspensions, but the Matildas were designed to withstand heavier metal than the 7th Panzer could provide. Rommel turned to the Wehrmacht’s junior service, the Luftwaffe.
In contrast to British and U.S. practice, antiaircraft defense was primarily an air force responsibility in the Third Reich. With Allied strategic air activity virtually nonexistent, Goering and his generals had provided a large number of guns to cover the ground offensive, and the young captains commanding the batteries and battalions kept pace with the mobile divisions whether or not they had any flying targets. Twenty-millimeter cannon hammered the Matildas with tracer rounds. Then the heavies joined in. The 88-millimeter gun had first seen action in the Spanish Civil War, where its high velocity and pinpoint accuracy made it a valuable ground-support weapon. An 88 round could crack open even a Matilda II like a hard-boiled egg. The attack slowed, then stopped, then fell back.
Seventh Panzer benefited as well from the fierce fight made on its flank by elements of the Waffen SS. The Schutzstaffel, Heinrich Himmler’s private army had been given the cutting nickname “asphalt soldiers,” good only for parades, by a Wehrmacht jealous and protective of its self-proclaimed role as the Reich’s sole bearer of arms. Himmler nevertheless found men and equipment to organize three SS motorized divisions for the campaign of 1940. The 3rd, the Totenkopf, was originally formed primarily from concentration camp personnel and bore the death’s head of the camp guards as its designation. Poor company for honorable men—but the SS troopers recovered from their initial attack of “tank fear” to tackle the Matildas with grenades at close range and artillery over open sights until a Stuka strike forced the survivors back toward their start lines.
Rommel had been in the front lines throughout the long late afternoon, directing fire and encouraging men in a style not seen on German battlefields since the Wars of Unification. His cold-blooded courage might well have averted a disaster. In the process, Rommel temporarily forgot about his Panzer regiment. The 25th had long since reached its assigned objectives, but even the intrepid Rothenberg was reluctant to go forward into the blue without some infantry for support and a few armored cars for reconnaissance. Instead, around 7 P.M., he received Rommel’s orders to turn around and take the Allied armored attackers in flank and rear.
By that time, the 25th was becoming accustomed to moving in twilight. Its leading elements nevertheless took heavy losses breaking through a screen of British antitank guns supported by French SOMUAS and light tanks The final bill was twenty tanks—almost 10 percent of the 25th’s original strength. When company feldwebels finished calling the rolls, the 7th Panzer’s personnel casualties amounted to 89 dead, 110 wounded, and 173 “missing.” Most of those would later rejoin, but the figure was no less an indication of the force and impact of the Allied attack on May 21.
Rommel recovered his equilibrium almost immediately—at least on the surface. He was complacent when the 7th Panzer was stood down for a couple days to sort itself out. “The war will be won in a fortnight,” he wrote to Lu. “There’s little prospect of any more hard fighting.” The division’s movements around Arras on the 23rd and 24th were nevertheless almost cautious. Nor did Rommel complain when, on May 24, Rundstedt ordered the Panzers to halt once more, this time giving the Allies three invaluable days to prepare for the evacuation of Dunkirk. Ironically, Rommel may have contributed to the anxiety that infected the High Command. He believed he had taken on five full-strength divisions on the 24th instead of elements from three, and made great play in his reports with the “hundreds of tanks” his division had confronted. He wrote Lu that the 7th Panzer had suffered around 1,600 casualties since the start of the campaign: more than twice as many as in reality. Rommel was pushing fifty—a fit, hard fifty to be sure—but for two weeks he had put himself under a captain’s level of physical stress and sleep deprivation. One of his aides had been wounded and another killed, both literally at his side. Not for more than twenty years had Rommel literally smelled blood and felt the bitter, coppery bite deep in his throat. The familiar metaphor of courage as a bank account invites consideration. Rommel might not have drained his, but he had written some substantial checks and might well have needed some time to rebalance his books.
Certainly he showed no signs of low balance when the 7th Panzer was sent on the move once more. Elements of its rifle brigade crossed the La Bassee Canal on the evening of the 26th (Rundstedt’s orders said nothing about infantry!), and Rommel was at the main crossing point early on the 27th, supervising the construction of a heavy bridge under British sniper fire, directing 20-millimeter and tank fire against the snipers, finally moving armor and guns across the bridge in force. Hoping for a Rommel-type breakout, Hoth put the 5th Division’s Panzer brigade under Rommel’s command. Instead, he succeeded in inhibiting his subordinate, who found controlling seven tank battalions from the front line a different matter from handling three—especially in the broken, built-up country outside of Lille.
Rommel’s opponents, moreover, were not those to which he had become accustomed. The French, elements of the 1st Army, survivors of defeat and retreat in Belgium, had shed their summer soldiers. They were learning that tanks were vulnerable. The 75-millimeter guns that remained the backbone of the field artillery may have been obsolescent as artillery pieces, but their high velocity and flat trajectory put them in the same category as the German 88 when it came to knocking out tanks. Rommel contented himself with establishing defensive positions south and west of Lille during the night of the 27th, then spending the next day thwarting French efforts to break through them while the British elements of the garrison withdrew toward what was becoming the Dunkirk perimeter.
Relieved on the line by infantry who took the garrison’s surrender on June 1, 7th Panzer stood down for a much needed six-day rest. It had a nickname now: the Gespenster-Division, the Ghost Division, bestowed for its elusive unpredictability by the correspondents made welcome at its headquarters. From his first days with 7th Panzer Division, Rommel had been criticized as a publicity seeker. He carried a personal camera, a gift from Josef Goebbels himself, and enjoyed taking candid shots—frequently asking someone else to take a snapshot that showed Rommel as part of the action.
This involved more than vanity. Rommel’s style of command depended on the control exercised by a general who appeared from nowhere and took charge of critical situations. With the WGB, and as a small-unit commander in a long-service professional army, Rommel could put his personal stamp on his officers and men by direct contact. At division level, the thing could not be done entirely in the same way. It required an image. To present that image involved working with the Ministry of Propaganda and its head, Josef Goebbels, who assigned the journalists and the photographers and passed their work for publication and broadcasting.
Earlier in May, Goebbels had attached one of his officials, Karl-August Hanke, to Rommel’s headquarters with a lieutenant’s rank. An outspoken Nazi and an abrasive personality even by Third Reich standards, Hanke was unpopular from the beginning, regarded as a party plant and a potential informer. Ironically, Goebbels had sent him to the field in part to be rid of him. Hanke was, however, too useful as a conduit and a contact to be wasted. Nor did it hurt that he had a full measure of “the right stuff,” knocking out a pillbox during the division’s crossing of the Meuse, then single-handedly disarming a group of Frenchmen in Rommel’s presence. When Hitler approved the High Command’s recommendation and awarded Rommel the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, the opportunity to demonstrate the symbiosis between party and army was too good to miss. He designated Hanke to make the presentation, and Hanke played it to the hilt, conferring the award almost on the front line on August 27.
Rommel was the first division commander to receive the decoration. And lest there be any doubt of his place in the Reich’s order of merit, Hitler himself paid a visit to 7th Panzer’s headquarters on June 3 during a flying tour of the front and requested Rommel’s company for the balance of the afternoon. “The Fuehrer’s visit was wonderful,” Rommel informed his wife. “He greeted me with the words ‘Rommel, we were very worried about you during the attack.’” Since the days of Frederick the Great, the Prussian/German general officer corps had never been exactly a band of brothers. A more apt comparison might be with a group of streetwalkers competing for the most profitable corner. Rommel’s success was likely to make him enemies no matter how he played it. At this stage, he saw no reason not to take pleasure in what he considered the well-earned favor of his commander in chief and the plaudits of a grateful nation. “Would you cut out all the newspaper articles about me, please?” Rommel requested to Lu. “. . . it will be fun to look at them later.”
Since 1933, German public culture had been saturated with an ethnically based blend of pride, hope, and fear, whose primary emphasis was an appeal to the collective virtue and moral righteousness of the German folk community. For more than a century, the army had considered itself the primary embodiment of that virtue and righteouness. Now the soldiers were winning the kind of victory that even the great Frederick could do no more than imagine. Places that symbolized a generation’s sacrifice a quarter-century earlier—Ypres, Amiens, Arras—had fallen into German hands so easily that they scarcely rated a line in the daily communiqués. The British were fleeing across the channel with no more than the uniforms on their backs and the rifles in their hands. The French were falling back into their own country, awaiting an end game whose outcome could hardly be doubted.
Rommel understood the “two pillars theory” popular in military circles at least as well as most of his contemporaries. He understood as well that a true sharing of power in the Reich was highly unlikely. A barely concealed subtext of senior-officer discourse in the 1930s had been that the Wehrmacht would win Germany’s wars and then teach the “Bohemian corporal” some badly needed manners. Rommel did not consider himself one of the army’s insiders, either the “Potsdam set” drawn from the traditional aristocracy or the “learned gentlemen,” the general staff and its wannabes. But he believed he was establishing a new paradigm of military leadership, one embodying the national warrior spirit evoked by National Socialism and institutionalized in the army. And he had spent enough time at the center of Reich politics to understand the value of public relations in contexts wider than those a division.
At the end of the campaign, Rommel would make his own statement on that point by getting rid of Hanke after a messy incident when (probably more or less drunk), he allegedly declared his party rank was higher than Rommel’s military rank and then withdrew his recommendation for a Knight’s Cross Hanke had well earned. Not every Nazi official at that stage of the war was a hack primarily interested in preserving his own skin. The question was who would be was using whom in the long run.
Those events lay in the future as the 7th Panzer Division turned south to close accounts with France. It was still part of Hoth’s corps, and that formation had been transferred to Army Group B, deployed along the Somme River and north to the Channel. At 4:30 A.M. on June 5, the 6th Rifle Regiment captured a road/railroad bridge that the French had failed to demolish. Rommel walked across under fire, followed by his command vehicle. He spent most of the morning under machine-gun fire as his forward units struggled with French defenses that reflected earlier lessons learned against the Panzers. Instead of manning continuous lines, the forward units were deployed in strong points based on villages and small woods, organized for all-round defense, with orders to hold until relieved. French artillery had recovered much of its equilibrium, keeping roads and trails under harassing fire and zeroing in promptly to support threatened “hedgehogs” to its front. Not until mid-afternoon did Rommel feel comfortable ordering Rothenberg to flank the principal strong point at Le Quesnoy and drive forward while the riflemen cleared the village and followed the Panzers into France.
He later described the maneuver as going as smoothly as a peacetime exercise. In fact, the garrison of Le Quesnoy, most of them Senegalese, took heavy toll of the German infantry in house-to-house fighting. Unlike other occasions in 1940, when Germans and Africans met, there was no deliberate massacre of survivors. Nevertheless, the riflemen took few prisoners, and the delay imposed by the tirailleurs forced the Panzers to advance unsupported until Rommel was ordered to halt for fear of coming under attack by Stukas, whose target-acquisition skills were still developing.
The rest of the day and night 7th Panzer had all it could handle against French artillery and tank-led counterattacks, whose repulses owed an increasing amount to Luftwaffe-manned 88s pushed almost into the forward positions. Rommel shared the near-universal German army prejudice against using Africans against “Europeans” and was at pains to mention that a large number of the “colored” prisoners taken by his division were drunk. But he was soldier enough to credit the Senegalese with taking their share of the night fighting that belied his report of “All quiet forward. Enemy in shreds.”
The next day Rommel pulled another experimental formation from the list the division had practiced before the campaign. The Flachenmarsch, or area march, was designed to cope with the loss of contact between tanks and supporting arms that had been plaguing the 7th Panzer since first encountering the more determined Allied defenses around Arras. It involved deploying the entire division on a two-thousand-yard front with a twelve-mile depth, then advancing cross-country. There were usually tanks to the front and on the immediate flanks: an armored sheathing that could be supported by infantry, pioneers, artillery, or antitank guns as needed, depending on the opposition. The tanks still shot up any potential strongpoint, but in contrast to Rommel’s previous handling of his Panzers, this massive formation moved more deliberately—partly so the infantry could keep pace, partly to spare the suspensions of the vast majority of the division’s vehicles that was not designed for cross-country work.
On June 6 and 7, the division nevertheless made around thirty miles, straight across to the open country of Picardy: over grain fields, through hedges and fences, bypassing villages that might be fortified, avoiding major roads blocked with refugees and French rear-echelon elements—and cutting the French 10th Army in half before its command quite understood what had happened. In the absence of air reconnaissance, and with communications disrupted, it was surprisingly easy for even a large force, moving in a single, mass formation, virtually to disappear.
By late afternoon on the 7th, Rommel’s armored spearheads were outrunning the refugees, occupying farms as their inhabitants were packing to leave. His armored cars and motorcycles had cut the Paris-Dieppe Road, and Hoth, still riding his subordinate’s dice, was talking about getting as far as Rouen. That proved overoptimistic, but Rommel had high hopes for adding Rouen to his bag on the 8th, swinging southwest to seize the bridges over the Seine, and take the city from the flank and rear. Instead, his lead elements were slowed by masses of refugees and checked by elements of the British 1st Armored Division, deployed to Brittany as a goodwill gesture by the new British prime minister, Winston Churchill. The close, hilly terrain disrupted the radio contact on which Rommel so depended. By nightfall, the 7th Panzer was still on the wrong side of the Seine, and Rommel pushed forward to rectify the situation. The closest usable bridges were in Elbeuf. By the time Rommel reached the town and began pushing his vanguards toward the river, French engineers set off the prepared demolition charges.
Rommel was not pleased with the commander of his motorcycle battalion, who had failed to push through the refugees and bounce the bridges in the confusion. Nor did he exactly rejoice when Rouen fell to the 5th Panzer Division, which had been Rommel’s attendant lord since the beginning of the campaign. But, as he wrote to Lu, more than forty miles gained in a day was no bagatelle. The French and British, whose improvised “Second BEF” also included the 51st Highland Division and the 1st Canadian Division, were falling back on the fortress harbor of Le Havre, but it was a fair question whether they could run faster than the 7th Panzer could chase them.
Rommel spent June 9 pulling together his still-scattered division and cleaning up the area it had overrun—that latter amounting to disarming French POWs and moving refugees into holding areas. “It looks to me inevitable,” he wrote Lu, “that the other side will soon collapse . . . We never imagined war in the west would be like this.” On June 11, he was ordered to finish the job by capturing Le Havre. The division’s tanks and armored cars went all out against collapsing resistance, reaching an average speed as high as forty miles an hour by the time the lead elements reached the sea and cut off the Allies’ last line of retreat.
Rothenberg drove his command tank through the beach wall and down to the edge of the English Channel as Rommel and some of his staff waded in to their boot tops like schoolboys on an excursion. The mood of exuberant relaxation lasted until Rommel remounted his command vehicle and led his division along the coast to St. Valery en Caux, a projected evacuation port crowded with French and British troops, both organized units and stragglers. As Rothenberg’s tanks shot up the harbor, Rommel sent a white flag into the city and summoned the garrison’s surrender. Met with a refusal, he responded by taking St. Valery under fire during the night with every weapon in the 7th Panzer’s inventory. The next morning, tanks and riflemen pushed into the town against scattered resistance. The senior French officer agreed to surrender while insisting that his decision was motivated solely by lack of ammunition. The Highlanders went into the bag alongside the French, albeit far less willingly. A corps commander, four division commanders, and their staffs, a dozen generals altogether, presented themselves before Rommel in the marketplace as correspondents and photographers recorded the scene from every angle. “The Ghost Division again!” one French staff officer marveled when told whom he had been facing.
That evening, the 7th Panzer’s band gave a concert on the promenade in the nearby seaside town of Fecamp. Le Havre fell without serious fighting. Civilians relieved the shooting had stopped, and even more relieved at the good discipline and relative goodwill shown by their new conquerors, responded with flowers in a few instances.
That relative breathing spell lasted until June 17. The remnants of the Second BEF and a gaggle of second-line administrative troops were falling back into Brittany and the port of Cherbourg, where their government and High Command hoped to stage a mini-Dunkirk before the imminent French collapse carried them down in its wake. Rommel was ordered to take his division, plus an additional motorized brigade, and take Cherbourg. This time, the 7th Panzer covered a hundred fifty miles in twenty-four hours, two hundred more on the 18th. Word of an armistice had spread among the French troops in Rommel’s path, and he heard news of it himself over the radio. It was a perfect opportunity to turn the Panzers loose one last time, confident that the French troops strung out in the division’s rear would make no further trouble.
Cherbourg was a strong fortress, with a developed system of defenses against land attack. Rommel counted again on speed and shock. On the morning of June 19, he entered the city with the rifle brigade as the division’s artillery took the main forts and individual centers of resistance under fire. In by-now typical fashion, he spent time bringing a dilatory platoon commander into action, moving an antiaircraft battery off a road it was blocking, and acting as a forward observation officer against one of the forts. He disposed of an unmanned roadblock by having his communications truck push it out of the way.
Cherbourg was large enough to absorb Rommel’s few thousand infantrymen like a sponge despite his heroics, but in addition to shells the Germans had been throwing in canisters of surrender leaflets. Around noon, the Prefect of Police and a local member of the Chamber of Deputies offered to act as go-betweens. By 5 P.M., it was all over, and the Ghost Division’s troops began materializing in the streets of their latest conquest. The British had made good their escape, as at Dunkirk at the price of abandoning most equipment heavier than rifles. But the acres of burning vehicles, the miles of demoralized prisoners, and the swastika flags springing up like poppies made it seem no more than a matter of time before that little detail would be seen to by the Wehrmacht and its Fuehrer.
From Cherbourg, the 7th Panzer Division moved south toward the Spanish frontier at what seemed a stately pace while armistice negotiations proceeded. Rommel found time to inform his wife of a brief digestive problem and to complain of quarters he described as “middling.” He found time as well to consider statistics. In absolute terms, 7th Panzer’s losses had not been light during the campaign: approximately 700 killed, 1,650 wounded, and 300 missing out of an initial strength of 15,000. But in the Great War, divisions had regularly paid twice that price in a day or two for a few lines of trenches—or for nothing at all. Seventh Panzer’s bag included almost 100,000 prisoners, 450 tanks, more than 300 field and antitank guns, 4,000 trucks—and 1,500 horse-drawn vehicles, in case anyone needed concrete proof that a new day had dawned in warmaking.
Erwin Rommel and the 7th Panzer had done something more than win a series of tactical victories that remain unprecedented in terms of time, space, and numbers. They had established an archetype of blitzkrieg. Ever since May 1940, “lightning war” in military mythology is more than just quick, lethal, asceptic conflict; something other than the “shock and awe” of paralyzing aerial bombardment, or massive artillery barrages anonymously delivered, or even of hundreds of tanks rolling forward in an irresistible mass. What the 7th Panzer Division did was set a pace that transformed each enemy it faced into an obliging enemy, whose decisions and behaviors seemed to fit German requirements as closely as though Rommel himself had drawn up the plans and issued the orders. It was a virtuoso performance, after a half-century when war had become an endurance test.
Rommel was not an easy superior, and even while the division was winning its battles, slight rumblings of dissent were audible in the staff and at the regimental headquarters. Rommel’s senior staff officer, whose position combined roughly the functions of an American G-2 and G-3, went so far as to submit shortly after St. Valery a memorandum criticizing his chief’s methods. Rommel’s flair for publicity exacerbated the friction. He had the game, he had the name, and he enjoyed his developing mystique. What in a more restrained personality and a more conscious team player might have been processed as initiative and aggressiveness came was frequently described as showmanship. His connections with Hitler—which included being ordered to provide the Fuehrer a map of his division’s advance—acquired an aura of careerism.
Rommel responded to the downside of his growing reputation by reflecting that a longer time in command before the beginning of the campaign would have given his subordinates a better chance to internalize his methods. And if he had regularly shown his rough side in the field, he manifested unusual generosity afterward. Rothenberg, Colonel von Bismarck of the 7th Rifle Regiment, and several other field officers received the Knight’s Cross on Rommel’s recommendation. For the fighting on May 13 alone, sixteen junior officers and NCOs were awarded the Iron Cross, First Class, and the lists grew with each victory. Rommel might be ambitious, but he had long coattails.
Rommel’s front-line presence, moreover, manifested an unself-conscious intensity shone through whatever he did. From building a bridge to sighting a gun, from stopping a tank attack to getting an infantry platoon moving, Rommel was a soldier—the best soldier in the whole division. And the men who fought under him remembered. Long before “doing a Rommel” became a British phrase for a battlefield coup, “to Rommel” meant the same thing in the 7th Panzer despite Rommel’s half-irritated, half-gratified disclaimer.
On July 7, Hoth submitted his official report. General Rommel, Hoth declared, had “explored new paths in the command of Panzer divisions.” He especially praised Rommel’s drive to be at the front and his instinct for the decisive point of even a fast-paced battle. Blitzkrieg at seventh and last means convincing participants and observers—one’s own side and the home front included—that enemies face inevitable and humiliating defeat. In a technological age, that no longer meant man-to-man physical superiority, as in the Middle Ages, or even at times in the trenches of the Western Front. It spoke rather to the ability to use the means at one’s disposal so effectively that resistance seemed not merely futile but pathetic, without even the heroic element that traditionally informs last stands and forlorn hopes in Western military mythology.
Lightning war as practiced by the 7th Panzer Division meant Rommel could ride, essentially alone and defenseless, through thousands of trained, armed French soldiers. Not a shot was fired at him, even when his senior rank was obvious. Instead, French officers and men flocked around him as someone to show them what to do next. Prisoners usually look frightened and shabby compared to their captors—one reason why the current laws of war forbid showing their pictures. Prisoners of blitzkrieg appear shocked out of their higher cognitive abilities. Their conquerors seem from another dimension, unmarked physically and psychologically—“overmen” in the original sense of Friedrich Nietzsche.
The German generals in 1940 were as surprised as their enemies by the overwhelming nature of their combined physical and psychological triumph. The disaster that overtook the French army in May and June 1940 has been ascribed to the erosion of national will and morale during the interwar years. It has been presented as the fruit of strategic and tactical doctrines inadequate to meet the German challenge. It has been described as reflecting shortcomings of organization, training, and intelligence. In the same context, the German victory is presented as a faute de mieuximprovisation, a combination of unpredictable chance, Allied mistakes, and the behavior of a few hard-driving Panzer generals who presented their own High Command with a series of faits accomplis. Far from prefiguring a new way of war, the successes of 1940 led Germany down a dead-end road of “operative Hubris,” emphasizing combat at the expense of strategy. In an age of industrialized war, critics argue, the lightning victories Rommel embodied would prove a fatal anachronism.
Blitzkrieg’s real victor was National Socialism. Hitler, ever the opportunist, celebrated the successes of May and June 1940 in a National Socialist context: a triumph of will, infused with a consciousness of martial superiority that in turn depended on the racial superiority evoked and refined by the Third Reich. In that context, blitzkrieg in the months between the fall of France and the stagnation of Operation Barbarossa played a central, arguably an essential, role in the “exterminatory warfare” that was Nazi Germany’s true contribution to modern warmaking. That, however, was a story still to unfold.
Genius has been described as an ability to seize even unlikely opportunities. We left George Patton tall in the saddle at Fort Myer, orchestrating Army ceremonies with his expected flair, bending every effort to secure a field command, and periodically generating doubts regarding his stability if not his sanity. But Patton, like Hamlet, was mad only when the wind was in certain quarters. Otherwise, he knew a hawk from a handsaw. When, in July 1939, newly appointed Chief of Staff George C. Marshall found his quarters temporarily unready. Patton jumped in with an offer of hospitality and chortled in a letter to Bea that “once he got his ‘natural charm’ working, he would need no more recommendations from Pershing or anyone else.”
Although Bea’s reaction is unrecorded, it seems reasonable to speculate that it included a fervent prayer or two. Marshall took office with a policy of weeding out a senior officer corps that he regarded as too long in the tooth for the kind of war the Germans were pioneering on the plains of Poland. As a rule of thumb, no one over fifty would be seriously considered for high command in an army that by now everyone knew was in line to expand exponentially. Patton, at fifty-four, was exactly in the zone for blighted hopes, and he knew it. Morning after morning, when Marshall appeared at the Fort Myer stables for his daily ride, Patton was there first, saddled and eager to be invited along. Marshall enjoyed greeting his subordinate courteously and leaving him cold—partly from a reluctance to play Army politics during the one period of relaxation he allowed himself, but partly as well from a barbed sense of humor that took pleasure in Patton’s obvious frustration.
Patton had little cause to worry. Whether or not Marshall kept a literal black book in which he recorded the names of promising officers, for almost twenty years he had been keeping systematic track of the sheep and the goats among his contemporaries and his juniors. He had formed a good opinion of Patton in France and kept track of him afterward largely through his writings. And Patton, who in private vitriolically disparaged almost every officer he served with when the mood was on him, never recorded a single negative comment about Marshall.
Some insight into the relationship comes from Marshall’s family. After the death of his first wife in 1927, he had remarried in 1930. His step-daughter liked Patton and found him amusing, “like a little boy.” His wife was part of the audience for one of Patton’s patented off-color remarks at a Fort Myers party. According to Marshall, she responded with, “George, you mustn’t talk like that. You say these outrageous things and then you look at me to see if I’m gong to smile. Now you could do that as a captain or a major, but you aspire to be a general, and a general cannot talk in any such way.”
According to Marshall, Patton laughed off the incident, “but she hit the nail on the head.” At least she did so as far as Marshall was concerned, by articulating an acceptable reason for not reacting to Patton’s behavior. The new chief of staff was committed to seeking out unusual talent in an environment that fostered high averages. In a perceptive analysis of the general officers who served in the V Corps during the European campaign, Charles Kirkpatrick notes both a pattern of competence as opposed to excellence, and the difficulty of determining what factors nurtured that competence. No single factor or combination of factors seems decisive. Kilpatrick offers a baseball metaphor of an interwar environment encouraging average batters to develop their swings, and thereby producing lineups of reliable singles hitters. Marshall recognized better than most that Patton possessed many of a singles hitter’s attributes. For all his obvious ambition, Patton had time and again proven himself a team player, loyal to his branch and his superiors, willing to lay down intellectual bunts when called upon. At the same time, in his published writing and his advanced schooling, Patton had demonstrated that he could swing for the military fences. His flame and color and ardor had consistently translated into success as a commander. Marshall had to decide whether Patton was merely a 2 o’clock performer, good in the bat-ting practice of parades and maneuvers.
In the end, it came down to the slippery concept of character—and to an old Army officer corps that resembled sufficiently the extended family it prided itself on being to make room for a difficult uncle: the kind who is invited to holiday dinners with a prayer that this time he can be kept away from the Manischewitz at least until the meal is over. Total institutions and closed communities such as prisons, asylums, religious orders, academic faculties, and officer corps frequently contain a few licensed taboo-breakers. Sometimes cast as jesters and sometimes as lords of misrule, they perform the function of relieving collective stress, and occasionally as well of speaking truth to power. Had Patton been less obnoxious, less of a strain on his colleagues, he might have been defined as a boor, socially and professionally encysted, and retired a major. His behavior, however, was so often so far over the top that the only way to justify overlooking it was by a usually unspoken agreement that it was an unfortunate manifestation of a still-undisciplined talent that just might cross the line into a genius for war. In practice, it meant a rueful shrug, a shaken head, and a “that’s Georgie”—accompanied occasionally by a half-smothered grin.
Though Patton was the only officer the reserved, punctilious chief of staff regularly called by his first name, that was arguably less of a compliment than a half-conscious reflection of Marshall’s belief that Patton had never quite grown up. Marshall saw Patton as a difficult man, one needing “a tight rope round his neck,” but believed he knew how to handle him. What counted for the chief of staff was Patton’s consistently successful performance of his assigned duties and his conviction that “George will take a unit through hell and high water.” In 1936, Marshall used the same phrase when telling Patton that should he reach high command he wanted Patton’s services. Marshall interpreted what seemed Patton’s retrograde affirmations of horse cavalry as a defensible manifestation of branch loyalty in difficult times. He told one of his staff officers that Patton was the best tank man in the Army and proposed to give him command of a corps—an armored corps—when one became available. At a time when even its infantry divisions were paper formations, Marshall’s vision of the Army’s future is as striking as his affirmation of Patton’s ability.
Although its primary European connection remained with France, during the interwar years, the U.S. Army also maintained close and cordial contacts with the reorganized Reichswehr. The experiences of a small professional army had an everyday relevance not present in a French system of mass conscription for total war. U.S. officers studied at German academies and observed German maneuvers, acquiring in the process a comprehensive respect for the professional abilities of their German counterparts that would endure for most of the century.
The replacement of the Weimar Republic by Hitler’s Third Reich did not disturb the U.S. Army’s German connection. On one level, Germany’s rearmament offered a new set of comparisons and benchmarks for American officers expecting to have to do something similar in a national emergency. The new regime’s structural anti-Semitism was not particularly off-putting to an officer corps itself significantly influenced by anti-Jewish attitudes ranging from country-club prejudice to systematic, intellectually sophisticated racism. The Wehrmacht’s officer corps, moreover, tended to put its best foot forward in such matters, taking pains to present an urbane face to its transatlantic comrades in arms, dismissing the party’s Jewish policies as something for the gutter and not to be taken seriously.
German officers continued to be valued speakers at Army schools, particularly for their ideas on mobility. U.S. attachés and observers in turn reported the fundamental changes taking place in the cavalry, the creation of the Panzer arm, and the development of a doctrine of maneuver war that combined traditional concepts with the innovations of mechanization. Those associating totalitarianism with obsessive secrecy will find few obvious examples in the Germany of the late 1930s. Instead, the Americans found open doors wherever they went—and wagging tongues as well, in a broad spectrum of informal situations involving military matters.
This openness was one manifestation of Hitler’s deliberate display of Germany’s reborn military might for purposes of deterrence and intimidation. It reflected as well the Germans’ professional pride in their achievements, combined with the belief that it was safe to boast to representatives of an army posing no threat. Americans were uniquely welcome in the field even during the Polish campaign, if for no other reason than they were about the only neutrals remaining.
Where armored warfare was concerned, U.S. officers were as a rule impressed. The Germans, reported their observers and interlocutors, emphasized simplicity, aggressiveness, common sense—the same virtues American soldiers enjoyed ascribing to themselves. They paid less attention to underlying values, whether professional ones like mission tactics or ideological ones such as the influence of National Socialism on military behaviors.
The comments of visiting German officers on the utility of having mechanization controlled by a single authority did not impress branch chiefs determined to maintain their autonomies and boundaries. Infantry branch Chief Major General George Lynch went on record as late as October 1939 that the infantry did not want any Panzer divisions. Under Lynch, the infantry concentrated instead on developing the light triangular division with which it would fight World War II. Like many other infantrymen, Lynch believed the use of tanks independently, or in large numbers, had been discredited during the Spanish Civil War, and in 1938, he ordered the Army’s tank manual rewritten accordingly, emphasizing antitank defense. The basic antimechanized weapon was a 37-millimeter gun, obsolescent when it was introduced in 1937 and unsupported by tactical or operational doctrines much more sophisticated than taking under fire any AFV that came into its sights.
Cavalry Chief Herr as late as 1938 insisted that mechanized cavalry had not yet reached the stage of development where it could be considered equal to horse cavalry, much less displace mounted formations. Herr’s mind changed a bit in the aftermath of the German invasion of Poland. On September 15, 1939, with the Panzers on the outskirts of Warsaw, Chaffee called for the immediate organization of a mechanized cavalry division and the authorization of men and equipment for the cadres of two more. Herr agreed in principle that the Knox Brigade be expanded to a full division—but insisted that the horse cavalry must be strengthened as well.
The question became moot when the “Limited National Emergency” declared by President Roosevelt on September 8, 1939, resulted in an Army increase of only 17,000 men. For the second year in a row, Patton was certified eligible for promotion to brigadier general, and for the second time, nothing happened. He presented a set of solid silver stars to Marshall on the latter’s promotion to full general. He did the same for old friend and patron Kenyon Joyce when the 1st Cavalry Division’s commander put on his second star. General Herr placed Patton first among twenty cavalry colonels and lieutenant colonels who merited promotion to brigadier. But Patton’s step to general’s rank proved more complicated than he hoped.
It began with the planning of the annual maneuvers for 1940. Their designated commanding general, Major General Stanley Embeck, had worked closely with Chaffee and was eager to test the prospects of mechanization. Under Marshall’s auspices, Embick and Chaffee organized a provisional mechanized division by attaching a regiment of infantry in trucks to the Knox Brigade. In January, the infantry had organized its own Provisional Tank Brigade by combining almost all the modern tanks in its inventory and assigning them to Fort Benning. To complete the picture, the 1st Cavalry Division was ordered to participate. Patton was so far out of the loop he saw no ethical problem in passing to Joyce some insider’s information on the 1st Cavalry Division’s mission, and some advice on how best to accomplish it. A month later, ironically, he received an assignment to the maneuvers himself, as an umpire.
Almost all the tanks involved in the 1940 maneuvers belonged to the same family of M-2 light tanks and M-1 combat cars. An improved version, with a 37-millimeter gun turret replacing machine guns as the main armament and enough additional armor to raise the weight to about 12 tons and cut the speed to 25 miles per hour, was ordered in 1939. By May 1940, a total of ten were in unit service, and they spent most of their early careers posing for photographs. The unimpressive inventory was sufficient to dominate the maneuvers held in April and May 1940. In the second stage, the cavalry and infantry tanks were combined in a provisional armored division that ran literal rings around the horse cavalry despite Patton’s earlier tips, and despite the terrain advantages offered the troopers by the roadless, broken country of western Louisiana.
As a counterpoint impossible to overlook, on May 10, the Wehrmacht launched its offensive in the West. The unexpectedly rapid German success and the unexpectedly smooth cooperation of the infantry tanks and the mechanized cavalry generated increasing discussion among maneuver participants of the advantages of forming a new force, separate from the existing branches and combining the combat and support elements needed to implement mechanized war. On May 25, the last day of the official maneuvers, a group of officers met in the basement of a Louisiana high school, concluded that the Army must proceed with mechanization under a unified command independent of both infantry and cavalry, and communicated their position to the chief of staff.
On June 10, Marshall called a second meeting including the branch chiefs, representatives of the General Staff, and senior officers of the mechanized units. Its purpose was to outline plans for a new, separate armored force. When Lynch and Herr objected, Marshall replied that his decision was already made, and it was final. The chief of staff’s recommendation rolled through the Army bureaucracy smoothly, its progress eased by headlines and broadcasts depicting a German victory unprecedented in speed, scope, and consequences. Against that backdrop, it was impossible to deny that the U.S. Army needed to expand both the strength of its mechanized forces and the scale of its thinking on mechanized warmaking.
An example lay to hand in the Army Air Corps. Originally no more than a branch like the rest, it had evolved during the 1930s into a semi-independent entity incorporating operational, administrative, and maintenance elements under a unified command. On July 10, 1940, the War Department created an Armored Force also comprehensively responsible for doctrine, training, command, and procurement for armored corps and divisions intended to act independently, and for independent tank battalions whose primary mission was seen as the direct support of infantry divisions. Its distinctive insignia, an equilateral triangle incorporating infantry blue, cavalry yellow, and artillery red, still endures. Its commander was Adna Chaffee.
The revolutionary implications of the new force should not be exaggerated. Neither the U.S. government nor the U.S. Army still had any reason to believe substantial American forces would be deployed overseas in a high-tech, high-risk environment. An administration seeking an unprecedented third term was unlikely to advocate creating a force specifically configured to fight Nazi Germany. President Roosevelt’s election campaign in 1940, and his own principles, were predicated on keeping America out of the war if at all possible, and in any case not committing large ground forces anywhere. In January 1941, Patton put the issue in a nutshell to a colleague in the War Plans Division: “If you are ever in a position to tell us who we may be expected to fight, I will appreciate it . . .”
The armored division that took shape in 1940 included a division headquarters, a brigade, and no fewer than five subordinate regiments. That was a large number of senior officers in an Army that still counted time in grade by decades. Marshall ordered Lynch and Chaffee to make experienced personnel available for reassignment. Chaffee had repeatedly requested Herr to take point on the issue, to convert horsed cavalry to create the first armored divisions, and been as repeatedly rebuffed. Now the cavalry chief denounced recreant conspirators who set up an independent arm so they could get promotion.
Colonel George Patton had long regarded mobility, maneuver, and firepower were the keys to victory. “Grab the enemy by the nose,” he stated in an article published in 1940, “and kick him in the pants.” In other words, find, fix, envelop, and destroy. The article was written for the benefit of horse cavalry. But Patton had been one of the officers who met in the by-now famous—or notorious—basement; one of the de facto supporters of the new Armored Force. On June 26, he wrote to Chaffee, congratulating him on his new appointment and inviting him to stay with the Pattons whenever he found himself in Washington. From Chaffee’s perspective, much was to be gained in terms of service politics by recognizing and affirming supporting the new orientation of one of the Army’s “horsiest” cavalrymen and better-known officers. Far more to the point, he had a job: command of the armored brigade of the 2nd Armored Division. Chaffee submitted Patton’s name to division commander Brigadier General C. L. Scott, an old cavalryman who immediately placed Patton at the head of the list of prospects. On July 26, Patton, still a colonel, received the appointment. He assumed command the next month.
The 2nd Armored Division, in the process of being organized at Fort Benning, was built around the infantry’s Provisional Tank Brigade. Chaffee assigned a number of former horse soldiers to its senior commands in an effort to break down previous branch loyalties. He did it as well to expand the horizons of a formation whose tanks had been rigidly restricted to the role of close support for infantry. Deviating from that line resulted in significant career penalties. Lieutenant Colonel Bradford Chynoweth, while commanding a tank battalion, stressed mobility to the point where he was transferred to an infantry regiment in the Philippines—and he was the branch chief’s brother-in-law!
Second Armored’s original strength had been slightly more than 2,000 out of a table of organization calling for almost 10,000. The division benefited from June 26, 1940, legislation expanding the Army from the token size of 227,000 to the still-token 375,000. All volunteers, most of the new recruits came from the South and gave the outfit a flavor it never quite lost, even after the introduction of the peacetime draft in September brought in men from all over the United States. Patton’s contemporary praise of Southern boys with “light hair and eyes—the old fighting breed—” as superior to “subway soldiers” from Pennsylvania and New York need not be taken too seriously as an example of his prejudices. Patton would have praised his division’s makeup had it been recruited from Eskimos. To balance the discussion, Major General John Wood, whose crack 4th Armored Division was originally chiefly recruited from Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, ascribed its effectiveness in good part to its personnel—especially the high percentage of Jews, whose drive and aggressiveness Wood said made them natural mechanized warriors.
Many of the new draftees were anything but eager soldiers. Expecting to be part of a cutting-edge, high-tech force, they found the few tanks in the 2nd Armored’s inventory to be a long step down from what they saw in the newsreels from Europe. Equipment of every kind was in short supply. Hastily constructed barracks leaked at every angle. Food tasted as if the cooks had taken special Army courses in how to ruin it. Tensions developed between privates from the East and Midwest and freshly promoted NCOs from the deep south. Too many officers were reservists, products of college ROTC programs and similar peacetime systems. Some had been little more than correspondence courses; few had been taken seriously by either supervisors or participants; none had paid any serious attention to armored warfare.
Patton floundered. He began by applying the methods that had worked in his previous commands from France to Texas. He worked to improve the military appearance of both officers and men, following his familiar axiom that men who looked like soldiers would act like soldiers. He sought to establish his personal presence, going so far as to use a siren-carrying tank to travel among his units. He added a light plane to his transport pool. He continued and expanded his reading on armored operations.
None of it quite worked. Neither Patton’s enthusiastic letters to Pershing, Herr, and other senior officers nor his formal promotion to brigadier general in October hid the fact that the 2nd Armored Brigade was not progressing as hoped, and its commander was not moving it along as expected. Questions began to circulate within and outside the Armored Force—only from the most professional of motives, of course. Was Patton past his best? Were the responsibilities of this new type of command too much for an old polo player who may have suffered one head injury too many?
Patton’s performance was not helped by the state of his marriage. Bea did not accompany him to Georgia, and Patton, alone in a way he had not been in years, seems to have had as much of an epiphany as he was capable of experiencing. His letters embodied not merely the apologetic tone of previous correspondence designed to get him off the hook, but a deeper recognition that the marriage was on the edge of collapse because of his long-term behavior and attitude. It is impossible to say with certainty that Bea left Georgie twisting in the wind during the summer of 1940, but he was on a visibly ragged personal edge.
The consequence of failure was—promotion. Chaffee had broken his health creating the Armored Force. He was suffering from cancer, and in September, Scott was transferred to Fort Knox and temporary command of the I Armored Corps. Patton took over as acting division commander; in December, the assignment became permanent. Despite the problems he was having, no one on the Armored Force’s immediate horizon seemed remotely likely to do any better. And in a classic example of challenge and response, Patton found his footing and hit his stride.
He benefited from Bea’s decision to relocate to Benning and resume both the marriage and the social round that helped define it. He profited as well from the discovery of the 2nd Armored Division by the country’s journalistic and political communities. Fort Benning was an obvious destination for opinion-makers seeking to observe the new Army in action, and Patton had lost none of his ability to put on a good show. His personal tank was ringed with red, white, and blue stripes—with a yellow one added for the cavalry and the Armored Force. He designed a special uniform for tankers—dark green with brass buttons, and a plastic, football-style helmet. Then he modeled it for photographers, his fiercely martial expression contrasting with a sartorial effect Carlo D’Este appropriately describes as a combination of football player and bellboy.
The costume promptly won its wearer nicknames like “Flash Gordon” and “Green Hornet” and was eventually relegated to the list of might-have-beens. But 2nd Armored Division was anything but a military circus. As the division’s internal economy improved, as tanks and vehicles arrived to fill out its orders of battle, Patton’s officers and men began realizing their new commander was more than the sum of his public relations. Thirty years of study and reflection translated on one level into a set of practical ideas for getting things done that no American formation had ever attempted, much less accomplished. Where a couple hundred men had conducted road marches under carefully regulated conditions, now two thousand routinely motored from here to there, practicing road discipline, learning how to refuel on the move, and studying camouflage techniques. Where a few improvised armored cars had tested methods of reconnaissance and communication, an entire battalion exercised techniques of acquiring and communicating information to main-force units themselves widely dispersed. New soldiers learned the difference between tinkering with a secondhand Ford and maintaining a light tank. They discovered the limits of their civilian drivers’ skills behind the wheels of a hot little utility car just coming into service that the armored force called a peep, but the rest of the Army dubbed “jeep.”
Patton’s long-standing belief that citizen soldiers required fundamental enlightenment on the nature of war led him to make a practice of lecturing to his junior officers and enlisted men—a practice also reflecting his delight in having a mass captive audience. These speeches blended inspiration and professional insight. A warning to the division officer school that in combat they must expect to be “up to their necks in blood and guts” was the origin of a nickname Patton never liked and never shed. His description of the salute as a sign of mutual respect probably made few converts. On the other hand, his assertion that brave but undisciplined men had no chance against disciplined valor, and his insistence that maneuvers must be taken seriously, which meant no slacking and no umpire-baiting, were commonsense points whose Army-wide inculcation eventually saved thousands of American casualties.
Patton was consistently on the spot, personally addressing every problem from bogged-down tanks to traffic jams. Where in his early days on the job he fussed and fumed, now he solved problems, and solved them in ways leaving positive impressions. Because he did solve problems, the spectacular—often deliberately spectacular—explosions of efflorescent profanity that accompanied his interventions generated as much admiration as resentment.
Carlo d’ Este makes a good deal of Patton’s readiness to apologize for his impulsive outbursts, particularly when junior officers or enlisted men were the targets. In 1940, American males were not expected to show their softer sides in male communities. Employment structures were hierarchic. Most jobs, whether in factory or office, on farms or behind counters, involved taking the rough side of the bossman’s tongue as a matter of course. A fair number of the 2nd Armored’s junior officers and enlisted men had some experience of team sports at a time when coaching styles tended toward the abrasive.
That did not make Patton’s persona universally appealing. Some of his subordinates, both commissioned and enlisted, were not impressed by what they regarded as bogus posturing. Others found his vulgarity inappropriate or embarrassing. Yet the 2nd Armored was nevertheless rapidly becoming Patton’s division, taking collective pride in its personal appearance and unit drill, responding—albeit at times in spite of itself—to its commander’s insistence that well-led, courageous soldiers were the ultimate arbiters of war, and coming to believe Patton’s insistence that he would ask no man to undergo risks he was unwilling to face himself.
Nineteen forty-one was the year of maneuvers, the year when the draftee army, its new formations, and its rapidly promoted commanders grappled with each other in search of strengths and weak spots. The Armored Force’s initial manual, issued shortly after the Force’s organization, emphasized the objective of armored attack as the destruction of the enemy. In that, it reflected the tone of the Army’s provisional 1939 Field Service Regulations, which depicted the direct application of combat power along the lines of the French “managed battle.” Tanks were not primarily intended for independent action on the battlefield itself, or in pursuit and exploitation.
The updated version of FSR issued two years later took a significantly different tone. While still focusing on battle, its concept of the offensive implied greater flexibility, including operations against enemy rear echelons and lines of communication. Envelopment took its place alongside penetration as a tactical option. The Armored Force received a chapter of its own, and the armored division was given decisive missions against enemy rear areas. These attacks were described not in tactical, but operational terms, as directed against movement routes, reserves, and vital areas. The division was expected to operate independently for an extended period of time—another indication of a growing sense of war’s operational level.
In tactical situations, tanks were expected to seek an enemy’s flanks and rear, avoiding where possible direct engagement with other tank forces. This was not unusual. None of Europe’s armies intended to pit tanks against tanks as a matter of course. Such tactics made no more sense than a chess player seeking to exchange queens as an opening gambit. The doctrinally favored counter was the antitank gun. High-velocity weapons usually between 37 millimeters and 50 millimeters, with low silhouettes, shields for their crews, and motor traction, they were intended to move quickly to threatened points in company or battalion strength and knock out tanks as they came into range. Antitank guns were cost-effective compared to tanks: so easy to mass-produce and so simple to operate, they might well be considered expendable, and often were.
The U.S. Army was adding an entirely new version of the weapon to its order of battle. In 1940, the War Department accepted the argument of then Lieutenant Colonel A. D. Bruce that attacking tanks were best countered by not mere battalions, but entire groups and brigades of fast-moving, lightly armored vehicles relying on speed and gun power against better-armored adversaries. To emphasize their mission of “seek, strike, and destroy,” the new units were called tank destroyers. They received their own training center, and what amounted to status as a separate arm that at peak strength had more than a hundred battalions. When the M-10 Tank Destroyer based on a Sherman chassis appeared in 1942, its 3-inch gun was as good as any armor-piercing weapon on tracks, even the 76-millimeter gun of the Russian T-34, and was expected to be used against much smaller numbers of attacking German tanks.
The tank destroyer concept has been so often and so sharply criticized in tactical and operational contexts that its relationship to American industrial mobilization is correspondingly neglected. The tank destroyer in its developed form was unique to the United States. No other combatant could afford to distribute state-of-the-art tank chassis so casually. German self-propelled antitank guns were for most of the war improvisations. Britain depended for such vehicles on U.S. allocations.
The development of the tank destroyer also allowed the Armored Force to concentrate on developing its offensive capabilities. Its new field manual, developed during 1941 and published in March 1942, defined armor’s role as conducting highly mobile, primarily offensive warfare. The manual emphasized surprise, speed, shock, pursuit, and exploitation: independent action deep in the enemy rear, striking at logistics and communication centers, not stopping even for nightfall. The text favored terms like “demoralization,” as opposed to “destruction.” It stressed as well the decentralization of control to commanders who would be guided only by the general plans of higher headquarters: “mission tactics” with a vengeance, strongly reflecting American perceptions of German experience in 1940.
For Patton and the 2nd Armored, it began in June, with Army-level maneuvers in Tennessee. Patton addressed the entire division, emphasizing two maxims. The first was tactical. “Hold the enemy by the nose and kick him in the pants”: in orthodox soldierspeak, find out where the enemy is, fix him in position by fire, and go around him. The second mantra was moral. Remember, Patton insisted that “one of our greatest qualities is the ability to produce in our enemy the fear of the unknown . . . keep on, see what else you can do to raise the devil . . .”
For a first-time commander of an untried formation, the maneuvers were a remarkable successs. Patton’s aggressive leadership and the drive of his subordinates consistently made nonsense of timetables schedules set to the pace of infantry. Each phase of the exercise ended the same day the 2nd Armored entered the scene—as many as twenty-four hours ahead of schedule. On one occasion, elements of the 2nd Armored “captured” an enemy division commander and his whole headquarters; the men involved each receiving a $25 bounty from their jubilant division commander.
Some idea of Patton’s impact on the maneuvers can be gained from the official evaluations. The division was criticized for a high loss of tanks in one phase, for inadequate reconnaissance in another, for poor security and a disorganized river crossing at other times. Patton was faulted for spending too much time away from his headquarters. But the negatives were far outweighed by the umpires’ consistent praise for the 2nd Armored as an aggressive, exceptionally well-commanded division.
The Tennessee maneuvers were a warm-up. The real test of the developing U.S. Army would come in the autumn, when the 2nd and 3rd Armies, twenty-seven divisions, took the field against each other in a mock war of a scale seldom matched in history. Intended in good part as a test of the new armored force, the Louisiana maneuvers were held in some of the Southwest’s least promising tank country, a mix of swamps, rice fields, and second-growth pine forests. Second Armored was burned by well-sited antitank guns in a preliminary exercise. Patton set himself up for a fall in the second stage of the maneuver by overextending his division in an effort to gain the enemy rear. He was able to extract himself only by bending to the breaking point key rules involving the time needed to repair bridges and the lethality of antitank mine fields.
When the main maneuvers began on September 15, Patton, serving with the 2nd Army, suffered a third tactical blow when his division trains were overrun—by, let it be noted, the 1st Cavalry Division—and the 2nd Armored hopelessly pinned against the Red River. In 1940, Patton had offered his old friend Dwight Eisenhower a job as his chief of staff. Instead, Eisenhower received the same appointment with the 3rd Army, and his quick work contributed significantly to Patton’s discomfiture.
It was the Louisiana maneuvers’ final exercise, however, that carried forward the Patton legend. His division, now under the 3rd Army, executed a 400-mile flanking maneuver that brought him out on the 2nd Army’s rear. Sidestepping antitank screens, overcoming flooded terrain and the collapse (real, not simulated) of a key bridge, and buying gas from small-town filling stations, the 2nd Armored put the rest of the 3rd Army into a position to win a victory so decisive that Army Chief of Ground Forces Lesley McNair ended the exercise five days ahead of schedule.
McNair, a firm proponent of antitank weapons, denied that Patton’s performance had anything to do with his decision. Critics complained that Patton’s enveloping maneuver had taken him well out of the maneuver area. One umpire noted that Patton’s political connections made him impossible to handle. The War Department censured him for turning in dirty tanks when the maneuver ended. It added up to a laundry list of trivia.
Adhering to limits and scenarios was important; maneuvers were designed to test doctrine and equipment under controlled conditions, not provide opportunity for displays of personal virtu. Yet at seventh and last, Patton had underwritten his insouciant insistence that winning was all that mattered with a level of daring and initiative not seen in the U.S. Army since the Civil War. Patton had shown understanding of the operational and tactical importance of surprise. He had overcome unexpected challenges of weather and terrain. He had succeeded in intimidating his opponents to a degree not experienced since the days of Robert E. Lee; some said Patton’s name alone was worth a full division.
For Chief of Staff George Marshall, what stood out was Patton’s aggressiveness. Considered as an exercise in higher command, the Louisiana maneuvers had been a disappointment. Too many division and corps commanders, both regulars and National Guardsmen, lacked the physical vigor and the intellectual flexibility to keep pace with the kind of wide-open mobile operations in which Patton specialized. Three-fourths of the forty-two senior officers who went into Louisiana were relieved or transferred in the succeeding weeks. Patton and his division were also transferred—to the Carolinas, their third stage setting of the year.
The Carolina maneuvers held in mid-November pitted the 1st Army under Hugh Drum against a smaller force including both the Army’s armored divisions. These maneuvers had a more specific agenda than their predecessors. The supporters of antitank weapons and doctrine argued that tank killers properly employed could neutralize armor, if not drive it from the field altogether. Drum, frustrated at having been bested by Marshall in the contest for Chief of Staff, both handled his command competently and fudged the rules to a degree that impressed even Patton. Nevertheless, Patton’s divison showed to consistent advantage despite McNair-mandated instructions stacked artificially in favor of the antitank elements. Patton’s reconnaissance battalion even “captured” Drum himself, and McNair was constrained to order the seething general’s release so the exercise could continue.
More important than those kinds of bragging rights was the favorable impression Patton continued to make on the man who counted most: Marshall. A generation of young majors and colonels were beginning to emerge: Isaac White of the 2nd Armored’s reconnaissance battalion; Robert Grow, who would move from staff work to division command; John “P.” Wood, arguably the best of them all. But their places would be with the divisions now being activated. Patton, for the moment, stood alone among the senior officers not merely as a tactician but as a trainer and motivator of citizen soldiers. His 2nd Armored was obviously one of the best divisions in an Army still struggling for identity. When Patton thanked Marshall for his subsequent promotion to corps command, the Chief of Staff replied, “I had nothing to do with your selection; the 2nd Armored selected you.”
Wider factors were involved as well. The Army’s current planning for national mobilization projected an eventual force of around two hundred divisions. But even at this early stage, Marshall questioned whether America’s manpower resources could sustain anywhere near such a force in the context of the requirements of the Navy and the developing Army Air Force, plus the demands of an economy that would be responsible for sustaining not only the United States, but its major allies. In the end, Marshall would accept what became known as the “ninety-division gamble”: going to war with a bare minimum of ground combat forces, making up for mass with shock—the kind of shock George Patton seemed to be a developing master at delivering.
Patton’s growing reputation did not mean he had a free hand. General Chaffee’s death in August left command of the Armored Force vacant. Marshall replaced him with a West Point classmate of Patton’s: Jacob L. Devers. Devers, a Marshall protégé currently commanding an infantry division, was an artilleryman by branch, and something of an outside choice. His selection correspondingly affirmed the “joint” nature of the armored force, demonstrating its senior positions were not merely to be divided between former infantrymen and former troopers.
Devers’s appointment also marked a break with the force’s prewar roots. Scott and the 1st Armored Division’s John Magruder were soon retired. Of the seniors, only Patton remained, and in the summer of 1941, Devers paid him a visit. Years later, Devers described an after-dinner discussion on Armored Force policy that he initiated to make a point. When he asked, “Are you going to play ball or aren’t you?” Patton stood up, saluted, and said “Yes, boss.” “And that was the end of it,” reflected Devers. “He was a good soldier—always was.”
Patton was also not a loose cannon when it counted. In January 1942, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, he was assigned to command the I Armored Corps. Division command represents about the limit of most general officers’ personal and professional capacities: their ability to influence large bodies of men and command complex organizations. Corps command has been another situation altogether, especially in Western armies where the corps in both world wars was usually a tactical unit with divisions assigned as needed.
Changing composition and larger scale adversely affected two key elements of Patton’s effectiveness: his hands-on approach to problem-solving and his cultivated idiosyncratic style. The usual response involved rounding off, toning down, and playing it safe. The avoidance of risk-taking so frequently ascribed to U.S. senior officers was arguably less a question of limited capacities than of a command style designed to confuse or irritate subordinates as little as possible. For Patton, the challenge involved translating his approach to a higher level. He continued to read comprehensively, assimilating virtually everything available in English on the subject of mobile warfare, whether in books or newspapers. He also benefited from a decision to create a new training ground for the Armored Force. One of the obvious conclusions of the 1941 maneuvers was that even relatively unsettled areas east of the Mississippi could not be adapted for optimal training in the kinds of maneuver and exploitation operations expected of armored divisions. That left the West—specifically the Southwest, where the federal government controlled much of the land and the local population was more likely to welcome Army payrolls than denounce ecosystem damage. Ordered to evaluate possible training sites, Patton recommended a desolate section of southern California with nothing but open ground and far horizons. In March 1942, the first units of the I Armored Corps left for their new home.
Given the actual conditions under which most of the Armored Force engaged in Northwest Europe, the War Department might have been better advised to keep its training areas in more built-up areas. Patton’s selection of a training site reflected his emphasis on toughening troops physically and mentally. To his officers he said, “If you can work successfully here . . . it will be no difficulty at all to kill the assorted sons of bitches you meet in any other country.” He continued to maintain high visibility, living in the base camp alongside his men, participating in every exercise, and using every kind of vehicle in the corps’ inventory to maintain contact with units in the field. He rode all ranks hard and put them away wet. Junior officers in particular felt his lash, usually for a lack of the initiative Patton more and more regarded as the key to successful armored operations.
Patton in the desert regularly wore what he called his “war face,” a near-perpetual scowl, to make the point that war was not a subject for laughter. His language grew more sulfurous—a teaching device, he explained. Swearing “helped to get the point across” in preparing American young men to be killers, and wars were only won by killing the enemy. A more developed justification might have discussed the value of taboo-breaking: men raised in closed, respectable societies frequently found the language of war, its profanity and obscenity, a threshold whose crossing brings them into an entirely different world—one where the killer, in another of Patton’s phrases, can be “the noblest work of God,” and where the Scriptural injunction “thou shalt not kill” was dismissed with a reference to David slaying Goliath.
American soldiers during World War II responded to battle in a broad spectrum of ways, but few—very few—developed into heroic warriors on the Patton model. Those who did were frequently regarded by their fellows in the same way feral dogs shrink from the half-wolf that joins their pack. Never in history has so relatively and absolutely large an armed force, citizen or professional, fought so far from its own borders, in a war that was not obviously its fight. Whatever its desires, Japan could not seriously threaten, much less invade, the U.S. mainland. The danger incorporated in Nazi Germany’s “Z Plan” for a huge ocean-going navy could only be manifested in a later conflict. The U-boat campaign in U.S. waters during the “Happy Time” of 1942 did not arouse enough public concern to secure a comprehensive blackout of the coastline cities.
The war waged by the United States was also characterized by its absence of ideology. Nazi Germany had race and the Soviet Union, class. Great Britain, the weary titan, had fear; and Japan had nationalism. America had—the Four Freedoms? Few knew what they were. The Holocaust? A story on the back pages of a New York Times even fewer read. Americans’ collective indifference to high causes was the bane of the Office of War Information and the burden of German POW interrogators. To the extent that Americans in uniform had a “world-view” of the war, it was as a job to be done, as quickly and completely as possible.
From the beginning of the great Allied counterattacks of 1942, U.S. battle casualties overall may have been risibly low by German or Soviet standards. But American rifle companies in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) consistently took casualties of 200, 300 percent, and kept coming. The Army Air Forces never aborted a bombardment mission because of risk or loss. Marines climbed the cliffs of Pelelieu when it was clear that the operation’s purpose had evaporated. The records show desertion, straggling, hanging back—but no refusals of duty. Even the much-abused 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), better known as Merrill’s Marauders, as jerked around and as far from home a formation as any the United States fielded, staggered forward as long as its survivors could stand up.
As many as fifty thousand Germans were executed for “military” offenses by the Wehrmacht during World War II. The Red Army shot ten thousand of its soldiers at Stalingrad alone. Throughout the war, one—one—U.S. serviceman was executed for desertion—not because desertion did not exist, and certainly not because of the armed forces’ principled hostility to capital punishment, but because the ultimate deterrent was considered unneeded. The typical American serviceman quit only when he broke and wound up in a hospital or a psychiatric ward.
The U.S. Army’s steepest learning curves nevertheless involved hardening. Arguably the hardest lesson American soldiers had to learn was that they were in the war for the duration, and the only way home was through the enemy. To most Americans, even those in uniform, the Germans remained throughout the war an abstract adversary. After Pearl Harbor and Bataan, American hatred was focused eastward, against Japan. Germans fighting Americans, moreover, as a rule did not behave like Nazis were supposed to. They followed most of the conventional rules on such crucial issues as respecting the Red Cross and treatment of POWs enough of the time to enable the processing of violations as part of the “filth of war.”
Considered in these wider contexts, Patton’s copybook maxims were useful rules of thumb for developing the toughness essential for coping with battle. Do not fear being killed, Patton urged. Your chances are worse driving a car. Make the mind dominate a body that always demands submission to its weaknesses. Never give up; never defend; never worry about defeat. Attack always; keep moving and never let the enemy rest. Words, yes—but not empty words for a green Army that would, in a matter of months, face action against an enemy far more unforgiving of mistakes than was General George Patton.
In the summer of 1940, the Third Reich’s public relations apparatus embraced Erwin Rommel with an enthusiasm hitherto denied any senior Army officer. Rommel’s tanks “carve long bloodstained trails across the map of Europe like the scalpel of a surgeon,” wrote one commentator—exactly the metaphor sought in a Third Reich at the zenith of its power and prestige. Rommel and the 7th Panzer were summoned to re-create their crossing of the Somme for the major propaganda film Victory in the West, with French Senegalese POWs temporarily released to act as extras. Rommel enjoyed playing the role of director and discussing his plans to write a tanker’s counterpart to Infantry Attacks. He basked in the admiration of junior officers who took advantage of temporary peace to make a pilgrimage to the 7th Panzer’s headquarters. Invited to report personally to Hitler, he hoped in vain for a higher grade of the Knight’s Cross and settled for a briefing on the success of the air campaign against Britain.
The Ghost Division was scheduled to play a major role in Operation Sea Lion, the projected cross-channel invasion. Rommel spent an increasing amount of time training his men in embarkation and debarkation techniques and was correspondingly frustrated when the operation was cancelled and the 7th Panzer sent south to Bordeaux. He was overlooked in the spate of promotions made in that summer of victory; not until January 1941 did he become a major general. His public response was to complain of the continuing influence of a General Staff clique that understood better how to further its own interests than to wage modern war. He also prepared an elaborate illustrated version of the 7th Panzer’s war diary and sent it to Hitler directly. “You can be proud of your achievements,” the Fuehrer responded.
Although unlikely to be influenced at any time during his career by souvenir photo albums, Hitler nevertheless was developing plans for his ambitious outsider. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had remained neutral in the war’s early stages, entering the conflict only in June 1940. An Italian army spectacularly ill prepared for modern warfare suffered a humiliating defeat against France’s Alpine defenses. The Italian air contingent dispatched to the Battle of Britain performed so poorly it had to be withdrawn. Mussolini, however, was primarily concerned with establishing an independent imperium in the Mediterranean. Refusing Hitler’s offers of assistance, he embarked on a disastrous campaign against Greece, an air offensive against the island of Malta that the Royal Air Force managed to stand off with a few obsolescent fighters, and an invasion of British-ruled Egypt that stuck fast only a few miles from the border.
Churchill responded by committing an increasing amount of the scarce resources Britain possessed after Dunkirk to the Mediterranean. He was desperate for a victory, both for the sake of domestic morale and to improve America’s confidence in British capacity to endure and prevail. Churchill’s initial refusal to consider negotiations with Hitler had in good part reflected his belief in the prospect of rapid, large-scale U.S. help for his beleaguered island. That illusion died hard, and Churchill eagerly seized upon the Mediterranean as a theater where Britain might confront its enemies at relatively favorable odds. In December 1940, a carefully prepared attack commanded by Major General Richard O’Connor overran and destroyed the Italian forward positions, captured the port city of Tobruk, and sent what remained of Italy’s North African forces flying in rout westward along the coast, toward Tripoli.
In the autumn of 1940, Admiral Erich Raeder had urged breaking Britain’s power in the Mediterranean immediately, before initiating war with Russia. Hitler initially was attracted by the prospects of beginning his conquest of world empire cheaply, with a detour through the Middle Sea. Now the disproportionate successes the British gained on their military shoestring encouraged his thinking first, that Britain was Germany’s real and most dangerous enemy; and second, that the best way of convincing Britain to conclude peace was through a strategy of the indirect approach: striking Britain’s “continental sword” from her hand by overrunning the Soviet Union.
Attacking Russia played to German strengths. Waging mobile war against a continental enemy was something the army and the Luftwaffe knew how to do. The insouciance with which Germany’s armed forces approached the Russian campaign has frequently been exaggerated. The generals were well aware of the size of Russian armies, the abundance of her natural resources, and the vastness of her spaces. They were also confident that they had developed a way of war that would neutralize these advantages, forcing the Red Army and the Soviet state into a paradigm they could not match.
The metaphor of bringing a gun to a knife fight was dominant in German planning for Barbarossa. The Mediterranean, on the other hand, was unfamiliar and uncongenial ground, especially to the soldiers. Whatever their limits as strategists, German generals understood that Mediterranean operations must be joint operations, with air and sea elements playing cooperative rather than subordinate roles. Warmaking there would require thinking out of the box to a far greater degree than had the 1940 campaign. When the two theaters were compared, Russia seemed the better bet because it was emotionally and intellectually familiar—the challenge involved scale, not concepts.
Hitler reacted to the Italian debacle with a degree of that malice the Germans call Schadenfreude. His immediate diplomatic interests in the region involved encouraging support for Germany’s Atlantic ambitions on the part of Vichy France and Falangist Spain and attracting Balkan support for the developing attack on the Soviet Union that was the core of his strategic planning. Neither end was best served by Italian-initiated upheavals that challenged the status quo by open-ended claims to enlarged spheres of influence.
They were served even worse by open-ended military catastrophes. The Italian defeat in Greece created opportunities for Britain to negotiate a Balkan front and support it with a minimum investment of stationing planes on Greek bases. The oil fields of Rumania were only the most obvious potential target. If the Italians were driven from North Africa, the stresses on British shipping would be reduced by the resulting opening of the Mediterranean. The French North African colonies might reconsider their allegiance to Vichy. Italy would be subject to air and naval strikes of the kind that had recently crippled its battle fleet in Taranto, and face the consequences of a loss of prestige that could potentially lead to the collapse of the Fascist system itself. German diplomats and generals already had no illusions and little optimism where their ally was concerned; they saw few prospects for an unaided recovery. Hitler, who never forgot that Italy’s adherence to the Axis depended on Mussolini’s continuation in power, grew correspondingly determined to take action.
As early as July 1940, the High Command had suggested assigning a Panzer division to North Africa and sent a top armored expert, Major General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, to evaluate the situation. Thoma, who had worked extensively with the Italians in Spain, reported that any serious mobile operations in North Africa were best carried out by Germans alone and would require at least four Panzer divisions. Even though the German armored force was in the process of being increased from ten divisions to twenty by converting infantry divisions and reducing the number of tanks in each formation, such a proposal had no chance even had the Italians supported it enthusiastically.
Germany’s initial Mediterranean commitment instead involved a minimum ante: transferring the antishipping specialists of the X Air Corps from Norway to the Mediterranean. As the Italian situation continued to deteriorate, the commitment of ground forces seemed necessary. The Wehrmacht High Command projected the main relief effort for the Balkans: a large-scale mechanized offensive to be mounted in the spring of 1941. The buildup would take time, but the operation offered three advantages: taking Greece out of the war once for all, intimidating the other Balkan states into supporting Germany, and keeping the forces involved close enough to the Soviet Union to be available for the projected invasion later in the year.
German intervention in North Africa was originally intended as no more than a minimum-scale holding operation. On January 11, 1941, Hitler ordered the organizing under the code name Operation Sunflower (Sonnenblume) of a Sperrveband, a blocking force, for dispatch to Tripoli with the mission of containing the British while the Balkan offensive took shape. This was a far cry from even the single Panzer division suggested earlier. Its title, the 5th Light Division, was more hope than reality; the formation resembled nothing so much as a scratch brigade. The continuing, rapid deterioration of Italy’s position in the theater indicated to both Hitler and his generals that something more was needed. Sunflower’s order of battle was increased by a full Panzer division, the 15th, still in the process of organization, and the African Special Service Division (Division z. b. V. Afrika). The latter formation was later retitled the 90th Light Division; for convenience and clarity, it will be referred to by that designation.
The “Blocking Force” also rejoiced in a new title: the Deutsches Afrika Korps (German Africa Corps). And a corps needed a corps commander. Major General Hans von Funck, sent to Libya in January 1941 to reassess the situation, was the initial choice, but his reports were too pessimistic for that kind of mission. The Panzer arm’s tested senior division and corps commanders were penciled in for assignments in the forthcoming invasion of Russia. Hitler briefly considered Erich von Manstein for the African adventure, but rejected him in favor of another general, junior to most of his contemporaries but with a proven ability to inspire his men—an ability Hitler considered essential in demanding climatic conditions. On February 12, 1941, Erwin Rommel was summoned to Berlin. He left with an appointment as commander in chief of German troops in Libya.
Seen from the perspective of the Axis alliance, it seemed a bad joke. Rommel had made most of his initial reputation not merely defeating but humiliating Italians. His ego and his tactlessness were remarkable even by German army standards. Yet on other grounds, Rommel and North Africa were an ideal match. Rommel had proven himself an outsider even in the young and flexible community of the armored forces. His ability and his potential were alike subjects of debate. No one suggested his services might eventually be more valuable against the Soviet Union; no one put in a particular bid for him as a subordinate. If he proved a flash in the pan, the Italians could pay any military bills he might run up. Hitler himself seems initially to have made his choice as much on grounds of Rommel’s availability as from any intuitive sense that he was giving a wider stage to an unacknowledged genius. He would proclaim Rommel as the Third Reich’s “hero in the sun” only in the aftermath of one of history’s most spectacular runs of battlefield victories.