BOOK REVIEW: 'THE TRAIL OF THE FOX'

Rommel: The Trail of the Fox: The Search for the True Field Marshal Rommel;
by David Irving; Wordsworth Military Library; Limited edition (June 1999); ISBN-13: 978-1840222050

I bought my own copy of "The Trail of the Fox", by British writer and historian David Irving, back in 1977. The hardbound first edition had just been published by Thomas Congdon Books, and I was eager to read a critical but balanced biography on Rommel. I hoped that Irving's book would be an effective counter to the many quasi-hagiographies that seemed to dominate the biographical field when it came to the subject of everybody's favorite German general, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. I was not disappointed. Not only is Irving's book scrupulously balanced in its treatment of Rommel, but it is rigorous in its scholarship, well-researched, and heavily reliant on primary rather than secondary sources. Moreover, it is also well-written, amply illustrated with photographs and maps, and accessible both to those interested in military history and to those casual readers who just enjoy reading about a fascinating subject.


"The Trail of the Fox" draws extensively both on personal interviews with Rommel's family, professional peers and subordinates, and intimate friends. In addition, it also makes use of an impressive collection of hitherto embargoed private papers, journals and diaries to paint a uniquely balanced and fascinating portrait of the general that, because of his exploits in the North African Desert, came to be known by friend and foe alike as the Desert Fox. Relying almost totally on primary sources, David Irving delves deep into Rommel's early background. There he uncovers a frail young cadet who affects a monocle to get attention from his classmates. He also finds a young man of great intelligence and daunting physical courage. Rommel, Irving tells us, is a born commander and a gifted officer. The author also discovers, however, that the young Rommel, while fighting in the Tyrol during World War I, is an almost pathologically ambitious young infantry officer. His obsession with medals, with public attention, and with official approval, Irving argues, tinges Rommel's entire professional life with a persistent undercurrent of rivalry, selfishness, envy, and resentment. Moreover, this deep-seated vainglory is the origin, suggests the author, of Rommel's support for, and loyalty to Adolph Hitler. But besides tainting his own character; his personal ambition and selfishness also, the record seems to show, poisoned his relationships with many of his fellow officers. The commander of the Fifth Panzer Army in North Africa, General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, for example, quickly developed a loathing for the legendary commander of the Deutsches Afrika Korps; nor was he alone among his professional peers in his feelings of disdain and mistrust for Rommel. Even Field Marshal Kesselring, who had tirelessly supported him in his dealings with the Italian High Command (the Comando Supremo) during much of his time in North Africa, ultimately grew exasperated with Rommel's constant excuses and fault finding.

"The Trail of the Fox," however, is not just a portrait of an ambitious, deeply-flawed careerist. We also meet Rommel the husband and the disappointed father: a man whose son demonstrated neither the father's aptitude nor taste for military life. It also describes the Desert Fox at his best, leading from the front, and oblivious to personal risk. This is the "other, popular" Rommel: the one that so enthralled the British public and that even impressed Churchill during the war.

Interestingly, Rommel the general and attention-seeker had already become modestly famous in Germany, before North Africa, because of the exploits of his 7th Panzer Division, nicknamed by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, the "Spook" Division, during the lightning conquest of France in 1940. Rommel's formative experiences as the battlefield commander of the 7th Panzer Division are briefly, but carefully explored. It is his time in North Africa, however, that completely dominates the narrative arc of Irving's book. And it recounts the genius of Rommel, as well; the general shows through clearly: brilliant, audacious, and always prepared to take big gambles for big returns. Almost half of the text in "The Trail of the Fox" is devoted to Rommel's clashes with a long succession of British generals, as the struggle for North Africa ebbed and flowed across the desert wastelands from Tripoli to El Alamein, and then back to Tunisia and the Mareth Line. The Axis campaign for North Africa created both Rommel's mystique and his career; when one went into decline, the other inevitably followed.

Irving's book chronicles how the increasingly illness-prone Rommel fell from Hitler's favor after the defeat of Axis forces in Tunisia. "The Trail of the Fox" discusses Rommel's almost symbolic appointment to command the German forces in northern Italy: an army of occupation in everything but name. And it also covers the bickering between Rommel and Field Marshal Kesselring, commander of the German forces in southern Italy, over the appropriate strategy for the defense of the Italian mainland after the fall of Sicily. Italy, however, turned out to be Kesselring's war; Rommel played almost no role in the Italian campaign; so he had to seek elsewhere for one last opportunity to win further military glory.

Irving suggests that Rommel's final chance for a professional resurrection, of sorts, came with his appointment to command Army Group B in France. His area of responsibility included the Normandy peninsula, and upon his arrival, Rommel energetically threw himself into the task of strengthening the German Atlantic Wall along this vulnerable stretch of coastline. A staunch proponent of mobile warfare, Rommel none the less realized that, given the disparity in resources between the Allies and the German forces in the West, the forthcoming Allied landings would have to be defeated on the beaches, if the Germans were to have any chance at all of victory. In a supremely ironic twist, the Allied landings came while Rommel was in Germany visiting his family, and he was soon wounded by an Allied air attack upon his return to France. The rest, as they say, is history.

David Irving attempts to find the truth about Rommel's part in the plot against Hitler, but it is not an easy task. And Rommel's suicide on Hitler's order has tended to further cloud the issue. Was Rommel an active conspirator against the Führer? He probably was not. Was he aware of the plot against Hitler and the Nazi regime? Almost certainly he was. Unfortunately, there is no possible interpretation of Rommel's actions that can, in the light of his long career as a German officer, really salvage his professional and moral reputation. Regrettably, Irving shows that Rommel, like many of his fellow officers, failed to speak out or even criticize the Nazi regime and its murderous crimes when Hitler's Germany was everywhere triumphant. For those who still want to find excuses for the former commander of the Afrika Korps, it might be useful to point out that Rommel, earlier in his career, had been the commander of Hitler's personal bodyguard. Tragically for Germany and for the world, most of the Germans who had resisted Hitler and who had been disgusted by Nazi excesses had already been purged from German society and from the German Army's ranks long before the July 20th 44 plot (Operation Valkyrie) took shape. Ironically, it was not the obvious and grotesque criminality of the Nazi regime that finally moved these desperate plotters to action; instead, it was the unendurable prospect of Germany's defeat and its utter ruin at the hands of a vengeful Russia. It was this prospect of Russian revenge, and this prospect alone, that spurred these long-silent officers and civilians into finally acting to kill Hitler and to overthrow his regime. Unfortunately, their actions, even had they succeeded, came years too late.

"The Trail of the Fox," is a truly excellent biography. However, for the reader who formed his life-long impression of Erwin Rommel from watching James Mason's sympathetic portrayal of the legendary general in the old fifties movie, "The Desert Fox," this book is probably not for you. Rommel was many things, but he was not a Hollywood stereotype. Irving reveals much that is truly impressive and even admirable, and also some things that are truly cringe-worthy, about Erwin Rommel. Be that as it may; if an excellent unvarnished account of Rommel's life is what you are looking for, this is it. For that reason, I cannot help but strongly recommend "The Trail of the Fox" for anyone with even a passing interest in the Deutsches Afrika Korps, and its famous commander.
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