ERWIN Rommel’s war had come to an end six months earlier. He was in the hospital when the final and most nearly successful assassination attempt against Hitler took place on July 20, 1944. But the conspiracy had two loci. One was in Berlin, where Claus von Stauffenberg and his immediate followers sought to seize control of the centers of power in the aftermath of the bomb explosion. The other was in Paris, where another more group of officers centered on the Military Command of France, but with links to High Command West as well.
The German army historically prided itself on identification with the state but detachment from the government. In a modern state, however, the conscience of the armed forces is a public matter in the public keeping. Public dissent from public policy by serving soldiers is seldom tolerated even—or especially—in democracies. Even when military doubters began comparing moral notes, they did not easily find common ground. Merely agreeing that the Hitler regime’s crimes were sufficient to merit its overthrow absorbed a disproportionate amount of energy. The Western conspirators, while more loosely connected to each other than were their counterparts in Berlin, nevertheless understood that any successful putsch undertaken in wartime depended on transferring the loyalty of the armed forces. More specifically, Germany’s future was likely to depend on what happened in the West. Continuing the war with Russia was for these men a military and political given. The Western theater offered possibilities, however limited, for negotation. If some kind of surrender proved the only option, in the last analysis it would be surrender to civilized peoples. But for even these shabby alternatives to be meaningful, the troops must be willing to accept the new order. In practice, that meant following their generals—or at least obeying orders in the first crucial days and hours of the putsch.
The problem was complicated by the large number of SS and Gestapo men present in France because of the occupation, and even more by the central role of the Waffen SS in High Command West’s order of battle. It was possible to arrest the former, but a half-dozen elite mechanized divisions could not be disarmed against their will by the stroke of a pen. That was where the field marshals came in. Rundstedt had served Kaiser, Republic, and Reich with detached loyalty; his age alone suggested that he would serve a fourth government for the brief time needed. His relief by Kluge was an unexpected bonus. During his tenure in Russia, Kluge had been sufficiently committed to Hitler’s removal that he allowed the junior officers of his headquarters at Army Group Center not merely to discuss but to plan Hitler’s assassination during a projected visit to the front. That project had come to nothing, but Kluge now agreed to cooperate once Hitler was dead.
Keitel and Rundstedt were sidebars. It was Rommel whose reputation and presence made him the most likely—arguably the only—senior army officer able to override SS field commanders’ residual loyalty to a dead Fuehrer. It was Rommel whose public persona still shone brightly enough to give a new government the public legitimacy it needed. It was Rommel whose prospects were the best of any German officer’s when it came to negotiating with the Western Allies. And it was Rommel who, to the end, kept his own counsel.
Rommel’s involvement with the events of July 20 is in the final analysis best understood as a structure of inferences informed by wishful thinking. Although many key records are missing, it is clear that as the day for the assassination approached and the military situation worsened, the conspirators in France spoke more openly with Rommel. His responses, including facial expressions and body language, allowed his interlocutors to believe the field marshal had been won over, at least to the degree that he would support a new government after Hitler was deposed or killed. That information was, in turn, passed on to like-minded colleagues in France and communicated to Stauffenberg’s group in Berlin—almost certainly in an embellished form
It has been suggested that colleagues more comfortable than Rommel with the art of intrigue sought to “set up” the field marshal, enveloping him in a web of innuendo that gave him no choice but to support the anti-Hitler conspiracy. It seems more reasonable to take into account the high levels of unaccustomed stress under which the men of July 20 were working. Aesopian language, allusions, and pregnant pauses were de rigeur in any case. Rommel’s support was considered so vital that it was scarcely remarkable that men whose own lives and honor were committed saw in him what they needed to see, and sought to use their belief as leverage on less-committed associates—who, in turn, understood as a given what at best had been a wink and a nudge.
The same pattern holds for the investigations that succeeded the assassination’s failure. Apart from the effects of “rigorous interrogation” at the hands of the Gestapo, the temptation for accused majors and colonels to suggest or assert that ultimate responsibility rested with higher ranks was strong. Command responsibility in armed forces everywhere is usually understood as including taking care of one’s own when “the system” seeks scapegoats. Devolving responsibility upward in the hope of involving such high levels that the investigation will be abandoned is a feature of all bureaucracies. The Reich’s post-July 20 practice of Sippenhaft, punishing families for the behavior of one member, created serious and legitimate questions of where one’s ultimate loyalty belonged. In the weeks after July 20, Erwin Rommel’s name appeared in an increasing number of dossiers and reports.
While in hospital, Rommel continued to tell his uniformed visitors openly that the war was lost. By the time he returned home in early August, he was more guarded. Kluge was dead, a suicide. Hans Speidel, Army Group B’s chief of staff, had been dismissed and would be arrested in September. Rommel still had numerous contacts and well-wishers in the army and the regime at large. He was sufficiently concerned at the prospect of assassination that he carried a pistol on his daily walks. He did not as yet seem to consider himself a subject of “legitimate” suspicion. His long conversations with his son, however, suggest an alternate possibility. In them, Rommel made no secret either of his belief that the war was lost, or of his criticism of the attempt on Hitler’s life. Manfred Rommel took both seriously. At sixteen, he was of an age when a father’s first adult confidences are especially important. It was impossible for Rommel to deny his “defeatism”—itself by now a capital offense. But might he have been playing one last hand close to the chest, hoping that if he should be arrested, his family might escape the worst consequences by swearing, legitimately, that to the end Rommel had denounced the Fuehrer’s would-be assassins?
On October 7, Rommel was summoned to Berlin—a special train would be sent, Keitel assured him. Rommel pleaded ill health, telling trusted friends he believed he would never get there alive. A week later, two generals called on him. Hitler, the field marshal was informed, had judged him guilty of involvement in the conspiracy against him. Despite his deep sense of betrayal, the Fuehrer offered a choice: public trial for high treason or “the officer’s way”: suicide and a state funeral, with no harm to his family. For the last time, Rommel made his decision in seconds.
George Patton’s dying took a bit longer. He realized that his hopes for a Pacific assignment were futile. Marshall would never send him to serve under MacArthur; MacArthur would never ask for him. When a headquarters was designated for assignment to the Pacific, it was the pedestrian 1st Army and its pedestrian commander Courtney Hodges. A man of war, Patton saw his reason for existing vanish like smoke. The call was for demobilization, and Patton’s age meant he would be among the first on the retirement list. Even as the guns fell silent, he perceived himself as a back number.
Designated as Military Governor of Bavaria, Patton spent a month in the States before assuming his new duties. It was a time of triumph, despite Bea’s suspicion that her husband had resumed his brief affair with Jean Gordon. Jean had arrived in Europe in the summer of 1944 as a Red Cross volunteer and worked an assignment to the 3rd Army. Bea’s concern and Patton’s pooh-poohing are matters of record. So are the diary comments of Colonel Everett Hughes, a close friend of Patton’s at SHAEF, indicating that the two enjoyed a relationship something more than platonic.
Here at least Patton had something in common with Eisenhower, who seems to have spent almost as much time assuring his wife of the innocence of his relationship with his driver Kay Summersby as he did dealing with the German army. In each case, the most reasonable verdict must be “not proven.” Patton’s history of demonstrable infidelity resembles his record of physically abusing enlisted men: both are limited. He frequently equated prowess in the bedroom with performance on the battlefield. But while he welcomed Jean’s peripheral presence, Patton was rising sixty when she reappeared in his life. Although he was hardly a burned-out wreck, those who knew him often commented that the war had aged him significantly. He was under constant, intense stress—seldom an aphrodisiac for anyone past his twenties. Patton would have been neither the first nor the last aging rooster to encourage among his male associates the notion that he could still crow at will. There are worse follies.
Patton’s month at home, for the first time since 1942, was on the surface a triumph on a Roman scale. From downtown Boston to the Los Angeles Coliseum, he was greeted by cheers, broke into tears, and made generally appropriate speeches. The public relations personnel assigned as his bear-leaders usually had cutoff switches on the microphones. They were not needed. Patton was a public hero, second only to Eisenhower, far overshadowing the other senior generals of the ETO. In private, however, Patton frequently referred to his luck having run out, saying, “It was too damned bad I wasn’t killed before the fighting stopped.”
Such sentiments were far more common among returning GIs of all ranks and grades than would, or indeed could, be acknowledged until far later in the century. They nevertheless indicated a growing darkness of spirit that boded ill for Patton’s return to Europe. His superiors, specifically Marshall and Eisenhower, considered his usefulness at an end with the end of large-scale mobile warfare. Eisenhower openly questioned his mental balance. Yet nothing was done to clear a senior vacancy in the United States as a preliminary to his retirement with the honor his service merited. Perhaps Eisenhower believed Patton was best kept under his direct authority until something better could be arranged. In the event, Patton’s assignment as Military Governor of Bavaria ranks among the most ill-considered senior appointments since Emperor Caligula made his horse a consul of Rome.
In the years of the Cold War, a myth a rose that Patton had advocated continued national mobilization and a hard line, to the point of using force, against the Soviet Union. Reality was a good deal more pedestrian. As early as V-E day, Patton declared the impossibility of doing business with the Russians and argued for keeping America’s armies intact to counter what he considered an inevitable Soviet challenge. Like many of his counterparts, he supported some form of compulsory, universal peacetime service but believed Russia’s intentions were best tested and Russia’s ambitions best deterred while the United States still had large, experienced military forces in hand on the spot—and before he retired, just in case it came to shooting!
The creation of NATO in the 1950s and its endurance into the twenty-first century suggests that Patton’s concept of keeping the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans at least under control was not entirely the product of a belligerent imagination. But even by the time he returned to Bavaria, it was apparent that demobilization was the order of the day, with veteran divisions shrinking to cadres as their experienced men departed for home. As for denazification, Patton regarded it as a shibboleth, unrealizable in the context of simultaneous policies of restoring German self-sufficiency and bringing American boys home. The antifraternization aspects of occupation seemed to him even more ridiculous, as long as the occupation forces’ supplies of penicillin held out.
Again, in the long term, Patton was scarcely isolated in his approach. The American occupation was arguably a “retreat to victory,” most successful in changing German hearts and minds when it was at its most pragmatic. Patton’s observation that it was no more possible for a civil servant in Germany to have avoided paying lip service to the Nazis than it was for an American postmaster to avoid cooperating with the Democrats or Republicans acquired fresh force when the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact demonstrated anew the problems of reweaving history. Individuals may achieve catharsis; cultures never do. But in the waning months of 1945, retribution was still the officially reigning paradigm, with Eisenhower warning that “Nazis should not be allowed to retain wealth, power, or influence” and reminding Patton in particular that the “obliteration” of Nazism was a major U.S. war aim.
The endgame began at a press conference on September 22. Asked why Nazis were still occupying governmental positions in Bavaria, Patton began by asserting his loathing of Hitlerism, but reminded his questioner that “more than half” of the German people had been Nazis, and to get anything done it was necessary to “compromise with the devil a little.” When he called “this Nazi question . . . very much like a Democratic and Republican election fight,” he was referring to the necessity for post-election cooperation no matter who won. Three days later, he made the same point, referring to a relative who had kept his postmastership by “judicious flip-flops” between the parties. But a four-star general of the U.S. Army who said that “Nazism might well be compared to any of the parties at home, Republican or Democrat,” was throwing a bucket of manure into the proverbial fan.
Patton supporters then and afterward depict a journalistic conspiracy to discredit Patton for his anti-Soviet views and his undisguised loathing of the Eastern European displaced persons, particularly the Jews, whom he considered responsible for most of the still-prevalent disorder in Bavaria. A simpler explanation involves a journalistic version of post-traumatic stress disorder. Reporters and editors, accustomed to the unceasing drama of war, were finding it difficult to accept the more nuanced events of peace. Here was a ready-made red-meat story virtually demanding feature status.
Eisenhower had met with Patton only a few days earlier and discussed the possibilities of a stateside appointment. Patton suggested President of the Army War College and commander of the Army Ground Forces. When Eisenhower temporized on both, Patton said the only thing left was retirement. Eisenhower asked him to stay another three months. Patton, ever the team player, agreed. The problem of his disposal seemed settled. Now Georgie appeared to have done it again.
Eisenhower exploded, then tried to give Patton the opportunity to say he had been misquoted. When Eisenhower summoned him by telegram to discuss the issue, Patton noted that this was not the first time he had been in trouble and had it turn to his advantage. Yet in a wider context, it hardly seemed to matter. Patton’s wars were over. Eisenhower’s foot was on the threshold to a wider stage. Eisenhower gave him a choice: immediate resignation, or command of the 15th Army, a headquarters whose primary responsibility was preparing a history of the ETO.
Patton not only accepted reassignment, he galvanized his new subordinates into doing some serious work and himself composed another of his Notes on Combat, stressing the difference between infantry and armored divisions and the generals best suited to command each type. But like an old gunfighter in a Sam Peckinpah film, Patton was playing out his string. He talked not of merely retiring, but resigning at the turn of the year, then “doing all the talking I feel like.” What he might have said remains a subject of speculation. On December 9, he was seriously injured in a traffic accident. He died on December 21, and Bea had him buried in the American military cemetery at Luxembourg, among so many of the men he led.
Neither Rommmel nor Patton seemed a promising candidate for legendary status in the late 1940s. Patton had always been, to put it gently, a man of strong opinions about his fellow men. They shock current sensibilities by embracing so many categories that have become sacrosanct: blacks, Jews, organized labor, to name a few—even Arabs. Patton’s political, social, and ethnic antagonisms were, however, unusual neither for his milieu nor his self-definition as a warrior aristocrat. Nor, in those contexts, were they unusually consequent. Nothing in Patton’s record indicates that he regularly or occasionally did a deliberate bad turn to a subject of his prejudice. His frequently graphic language was largely confined to outlets understood at the time as private: his diary and his personal correspondence. Even there his tone as a rule invites comparison to expressions of opinion common among other kinds of elites at the turn of the twentieth century on Kenneth Starr, George W. Bush, Texans, neoconservatives, and similar upstarts who do not accept their places. The underlying motivation in each case is the same: a comprehensive, unreflective, uncritical sense of superiority.
In the final months of Patton’s career, however, he began steeping himself in radical anti-Soviet literature. His reaction to the controversy over his treatment of displaced persons expanded into a vitriolic anti-Semitism that went beyond the more generalized prejudices against Jews common in the contemporary officer corps even after World War II. Had Patton resigned and spoken out, as he talked of doing, his probable themes bade fair to carry him deep into the fever swamps of postwar American politics, to a place beyond McCarthyism. Patton’s death in a traffic accident, mundane though it was, may have been Bellona’s final gift to one of her last and most fervent devotees. The Goddess of War can be an ironist.
As for Rommel, he was another dead general in a Germany whose emerging definition of “Zero Hour” (Stunde Null) involved for millions of Germans a rejection of war and the men who made it. There were no heroes’ receptions for the men of a defeated Wehrmacht, no GI Bills, no veterans’ preference, for a while not even pensions. Nor was the talk of Rommel’s involvement in the Resistance necessarily to the advantage of his memory—except in Allied circles, where wartime mythologies of the chivalrous foe who waged a clean war readily segued into the notion of Rommel as a principled foe of Hitler.
A major contribution to the process was the biography Rommel, the Desert Fox, published in 1950 by Desmond Young, a British officer captured by Rommel in the desert, and in 1951 made into a movie, “The Desert Fox,” with James Mason in the title role. The film focuses on Rommel’s growing disillusion with Hitler, and Mason reinforces the trope by playing Rommel as a proper English gentleman, fundamentally out of place among the thugs and poseurs of the Third Reich.
The Rommel legend was fostered as well by his former comrades. Rommel was a major figure in B. H. Liddell Hart’s The Other Side of the Hill, also first published in 1950. The German generals interviewed by Liddell-Hart were disproportionately old Africa hands, who not only stressed Rommel’s opposition to Hitler, but unsubtly described him as a disciple of Liddell-Hart’s concepts of armored war. The next steps in the process were taken as the new Federal Republic considered rearmament. Men who had served with Rommel in Normandy, particularly Hans Speidel and Friedrich Ruge, saw the value of constructing an image of the field marshal as simultaneously a heroic leader of Germany’s armies and a principled conspirator against Hitler’s Reich. West Germany needed, if not exactly heroes, then military exemplars whose shields were as clean as possible. The best place to seek them was among those who had fought and fallen against the Americans and British. West Germany’s developing armed forces also needed senior officers and sought them among those who learned the lessons of the Reich. With their links to Rommel as a springboard, Ruge and Speidel would rise to the tops of their respective services and make honorable names for themselves in NATO. The first large ships of the West German navy not safely named after cities were the Luetgens, the Moelders, and the Rommel. Perhaps it was all just as well. A living Rommel, with his limited tolerance for fustian and hypocrisy, might have challenged the cardboard characterizations built around his name in an emerging new Germany.
Patton, by contrast, tended in the years after 1945 to be relegated to the supporting cast of America’s World War II heroes as a character actor—sometimes almost as comedy relief. His single-minded devotion to war seemed a dangerous anomaly in a thermonuclear age. His conscious flamboyance appeared unseemly posturing in an era of gray flannel suits and anonymous generals. His achievements as a commander diminished to parochial in the best-selling memoirs of Bradley and Eisenhower.
The turning point in Patton’s status was, appropriately, provided by Hollywood. Studios had long been interested in the Patton story but were deterred by family opposition and Department of Defense reluctance. A difficult subordinate who had assaulted enlisted men, made anti-Semitic remarks in public, wanted to fight the Soviet Union, and dragged his heels on denazification hardly seemed a poster boy for the armed forces. Not until 1965 did 20th Century Fox finally embark on the project; not until 1970 did the film finally appear. The nuanced script, the direction and production, earned an award as Best Picture while appealing to Americans from then-President Richard Nixon down to the ticket-buyers who made it the most profitable military film ever. But it was George C. Scott’s sophisticated performance in the title role, which won him an Academy Award he refused to accept, that continues to define the movie.
Scott brilliantly illuminated the conflicting aspects of a complex personality in the complex contexts created by war. The slapping scene, for example, presents simultaneously an insensitive and unsympathetic man and a man with a strong sense of morality, purpose, and conviction. Patton the general emerges as a necessary evil who America was lucky to have in an emergency and a living indictment of war’s specious promises of glory and its very real indifference to human life. If a Patton is needed to win wars, can victory have any moral meaning?
The Patton brought to the screen by George C. Scott emerged in fully developed form from Martin Blumenson’s two-volume edition of The Patton Papers. Published in 1972, the culmination of more than a decade of scholarship, this ranks among the best works of its kind: a model of selection and presentation that admirably fulfills Blumenson’s intention of presenting a synergy of Patton’s personal and professional development. Turning the pages is nevertheless like turning the tube of a kaleidoscope. Pieces seen in clear relationships suddenly reform into something entirely, perhaps even essentially, different. Arguably, it is these interactions that make Patton World War II’s postmodern hero: his unresolved contradictions, in turn, create unresolved issues in place of those that seemed so simple in 1945.
Perhaps paradoxically, the development of Patton and Rommel as mythic figures inspired a still-cresting wave of critical analyses of their respective military performances. They have surprisingly common features. Each general is more admired by the descendants of his erstwhile adversaries. Rommel is an iconic figure at West Point, where cadets are more likely to do term papers and research projects on him than on anyone except Robert E. Lee. The most favorable analyses of Rommel as a commander have been done by American and British soldiers and scholars, who have praised his grasp of the initiative, his mastery of improvisation, and his ability to maximize the effect of inferior numbers and limited resources.
German interpretations tend, in contrast, to emphasize Rommel’s focus on tactics at the expense of logistics, strategy, and ultimately policy. He is criticized for getting too easily discouraged and for blaming his allies and his superiors for defeats better put to his own account. His resistance connections are dismissed as tenuous at best, and more probably muthic. He gets high marks for quick reactions and for leadership, but the usual evaluation describes him as a superb division commander, adequate or a little better at corps level, and miscast in higher roles.
Patton similarly gets his best press among Germans, who during the war and afterward have consistently described him as the closest thing to a Panzer general the Western Allies produced, unique among British and Americans in his mastery of mobile warfare at the operational level. “Patton is your best,” Rundstedt informed his postwar questioners. Fritz Bayerlein compared Patton to Heinz Guderian and commented on the aftermath of El Alamein, “I do not think he would have let us escape so easily.” In the United States, civilian historians tend to be similarly generous. Aficionados and popular writers in particular credit Patton as the only U.S. senior officer who understood and practiced the concept of mobile warfare based on shock and finesse, as opposed to attrition based on mass. They tend as well to see in Patton an appealing combination of military intellectual and rebellious outsider, a model of professionalized effectiveness as opposed to the GI-general, everyman-at-war images projected by such earlier icons as Eisenhower and Bradley. In an age when leaders’ feet of clay are regularly sought out and exposed, Patton’s various indiscretions appear less unusual than they did in 1943. And Patton at least was no hypocrite. His behavior reflected his beliefs, a welcome congruence in an increasing age of spin.
British and U.S. military scholars tend to criticize their counterparts for overlooking the practical complexities of warmaking—paticularly against the Wehrmacht. They agree that Patton was a first-class battle captain, at the top of his form in exploiting victory. But when it came to the hard fighting necessary to set up the mobile operations, Patton is described as falling short—a quintessential cavalryman in an army whose heritage is dominated by the infantry and artillery and a corresponding commitment to a firepower/attrition model of warmaking. In that same context, although Patton may have been denied command above army level because of his personal behavior, a certain subtext lingers regarding his staying power in a higher post.
It is possible, in short, to muster arguments at all points of the spectrum for both officers. Fate denied soldiers and historians the guilty pleasure of a direct engagement between the two. Direct comparisons are rendered even more difficult by the lack of congruence in their professional backgrounds and their operational experience. Patton was a son of privilege, a cavalryman when that still met something, not merely a student and scholar of war but an insider on issues of doctrine and planning. Rommel was a muddy-boots infantryman who owed his place and position in the Reichswehr to his achievements as a field soldier. Patton had access to the resources of the world’s greatest military-industrial power. Rommel fought his war on a shoestring; even the 7th Panzer went to battle in looted tanks. Rommel excelled as a division and corps commander; Patton led an operational corps for slightly more than a month. Rommel finished in command of an army group; Patton never rose above army level. Rommel’s position as an army commander was in many ways nominal, an administrative extension of his position with the Afrika Korps. Patton molded the 3rd Army in his own likeness, into a fighting force Martin Blumenson legitimately compares with those of Hannibal, Cromwell, and Napoleon. The general and the command remain identified in the same way Robert E. Lee is synonymous with the Army of Northern Virginia.
When all those points are made, what remains to be said about George Patton and Erwin Rommel that has not been said and is worth saying? Patton was far more than the sum of his public achievements and public performances. He cultivated a complexity of character that defies explanation and developed a personality whose force was terrifying. Stronger than the individual or the collective personalities of his soldiers, it tapped into the spectrum of motivations for making war. It appealed to blood lust and vengeance as well as courage and comradeship. And it generated rapport with the citizen soldiers of a democracy—to a degree that still makes Patton’s critics uncomfortable.
Patton was a trainer. In the States, he first made his mark at senior levels by his successes in developing the Armored Force out of a collection of regiments and battalions. In North Africa, his primary achievement involved compelling the II Corps, from its staff and division commanders down, to begin taking the war seriously. In Europe, perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of the 3rd Army’s order of battle was the constant accretion of green divisions with everything to learn at all levels: even the cadres were raw, and few commanders had any combat experience in the current war. While all U.S. field armies had the same problem, the 3rd Army’s new formations seemed to adjust more quickly and suffer fewer casualties relative to their early missions. On another level, Patton’s racism did not deter him from being the first army commander to employ, and personally welcome, black tank battalions, or to integrate black volunteers into the 3rd Army’s replacement-starved rifle platoons during the Battle of the Bulge.
Patton was both an educated soldier and a military intellectual. A lifetime of reading and reflection focused on war developed a mental sophistication that enabled him to think ahead, anticipating moves and developing counters, forcing the pace of battle to points where neither his enemies, his superiors, nor his subordinates could readily keep pace. Patton’s concepts of war led him away from conventional approaches, toward a nonlinear paradigm whose pace and impact compelled the enemy to fight at a disadvantage, to surrender, or to flee. Often presented as designed to avoid enemy contact, Patton’s way of war accepted combat, but sought to make it brief and decisive: the final element in throwing the enemy fatally off-balance through sophisticated use of time, space, and mass.
Patton compensated for his personal and intellectual apartness by being professionally cooperative. A survey of his military career suggests strongly that the familiar image of Patton the outlaw, Patton the rebel, is significantly overdrawn. When the fustian is subtracted—and when the distinction is made between public behavior and private comments intended to discharge steam—Patton emerges as a team player whose superiors had in common a confidence that they could handle him. Even his feud with Montgomery has been exaggerated on both sides. The admittedly high degree of tensions at SHAEF during the D-day campaign owed much to wider political factors. The pressures caused by Roosevelt’s bid for a fourth term in the United States and the increasing fragility of Churchill’s wartime coalition in Britain generated corresponding pressure on the respective generals. It was Eisenhower, moreover, not Patton, who was Montgomery’s principal bete noire throughout the campaign. Monty, in fact, though well aware of Patton’s habit of insulting him in public, seemed to find the American mildly amusing much of the time—like a poorly housebroken dog whose messes others clean up.
Compared to Patton, Erwin Rommel spent his early days in World War II in what the Germans call a “made bed.” The German army had a doctrine for mobile war, an organization to implement it, and training methods that produced officers and men able to execute it. Rommel brought strict discipline, high standards, and incandescent energy to his command of the 7th Panzer. The result was the most spectacular record of the ten mobile divisions that essentially decided the campaign of 1940. Sent to North Africa, Rommel again enjoyed the advantages of commanding in the Afrika Korps, a force that knew what it was supposed to do and responded positively to its commander’s hard-driving style. Rommel offered few second chances to units or commanders—largely because the Afrika Korps and Panzer Army Africa had so little margin for error. His German formations might be defeated, but they seldom failed him. In time, the Italian mobile divisions as well adapted to Rommel’s methods as far as their deficiencies in equipment and command allowed.
Rommel brought to the desert a set of qualities well adapted to that theater’s balance of space, time, and mass. Ultimately, the Axis forces were not consistently outnumbered and outgunned because the British held Malta, or because the Italian navy was ineffective, or any other immediate reasons. North Africa was a tertiary theater for Hitler and a secondary theater for Mussolini, while it was the primary theater of engagement for Britain. Those respective priorities shaped the governments’ respective commitments and put Rommel in the position of a short-money player in a table-stakes poker game. His only hope of keeping the field against superior British force, and British generalship that was not always as inadequate as Rommel made it look, was to use his assets as though they were not wasting assets, needing to be husbanded like a miser’s coins.
Rommel’s boldness in maneuver, his feel for the pace of a battle, his personal intervention at crucial points, and above all his risk-taking were necessary force multipliers at the cutting edge. Because Rommel was constrained consistently to push the envelope, he made mistakes in conceptualization and execution. Yet in the contexts of policy and strategy, the ambition and the recklessness often attributed to Rommel by his critics acquire a different dimension. So does his approach to logistics, which was in no way as cavalier as it is frequently described. So does his relationship with his Italian allies and superiors—again, on the whole, more politic than admitted in most general accounts. If Rommel in North Africa was essentially a virtuoso corps commander of mobile forces, it was in good part because such a general was absolutely essential to sustaining the Axis position, no matter whether it was defined as a springboard or an outpost. Absent that virtuosity for any reason and the result, as indicated by the course of events from El Alamein to the surrender in Tunisia, was an endgame, likely to be completed sooner than later.
Rommel demonstrated a level of intellectual growth unusual for someone under the kinds of pressure he faced in the desert. He continued to emphasize tactics and operations because he believed, like the German officer corps as a whole, that wars are won by winning battles, and that strategic opportunity develops as a consequence of tactical and operational success. But even before leaving North Africa, Rommel grasped the consequences of a developing Allied air supremacy on future operations. He understood the potential of Allied amphibious operations long before he engaged any landings. In Italy and later in Northwest Europe, Rommel showed that his approach in North Africa had been a matter of tactics rather than principles, that maneuver war as he had practiced it was no longer feasible—at least on the German side of the line. He wrote down his ideas. He discussed them frequently. He became a mentor to the commanders and staff officers of High Command West: someone to turn to in the hope that somehow the worst might be averted, if not through combat, then by means initially barely thinkable: Hitler’s removal.
Patton defined and constructed himself as a hero. He spent his life preparing for the opportunity to fulfill his destiny on the battlefield, and when opportunity came, however late and truncated, he seized it with both hands. Rommel, while he sought and enjoyed the public acclaim that came to him as the Desert Fox and Hitler’s general, saw himself as essentially a warrior for the working day, making the best of tools that lay to hand and circumstances as they developed. And there, perhaps, lies a final paradox.
Heroes in the epic mold like their way of life and are deeply committed to it. They are ultimately limited not by external values or official codes, but by internal standards individually derived and personally held. In the modern world, the real world, with its complex institutional and social organizations, a hero’s virtues are correspondingly likely to seem ambiguous. He tends to assume the status of a clown or an outlaw. In the context of America’s World War II, George Patton was a hero out of his time. But in the context of Hitler’s Reich, what might someone with both heroic stature and heroic aspirations have achieved in the contexts of 1944? Correspondingly, where might Rommel’s commonsense approach and his skill at maneuver war have carried him on the other side of the line, as part of Eisenhower’s command team and with America’s military resources behind him? Erwin Rommel with an endless supply of tanks and all the fuel he needed! It’s worth discussing, over another drink down at Fiddler’s Green.