I’ve read your book

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Most people know Rommel as the Desert Fox, the German field marshal who boldly and brilliantly led his Afrika Korps against the British in World War II.

Without knowing much more than that, you could guess that he was a successful World War I officer, too — but that would be an underestimate. He earned the Iron Cross 1st Class and then the Iron Cross 2nd Class before earning the highest order of merit, the oddly named Pour le Mérite — which was no longer awarded after the end of the Prussian monarchy at the end of the war.

He did this as an infantry officer. Between the wars he wrote Infanterie Greift An (Infantry Attacks), which explains how to use speed and deception to overwhelm and surprise the enemy.

He never finished his next book Panzer Greift An (Tank Attacks) — even if that’s what’s on Patton’s bed stand in the movie, when he yells, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”

Anyway, I had been led to believe — by a rather dry book on stormtroop tactics — that such infiltration tactics had been slowly discovered by the end of World War I, after being championed by General Oskar von Hutier, and that Rommel had used them to great effect against the Italians just before the armistice was signed. From reading Rommel’s book though, it’s obvious he was using such tactics from Day One, first in France, then against the Romanians, and then later against the Italians.

Here are some of his observations from his first small battle in a French village in 1914:

Fights in inhabited places often take place at extremely short ranges (a few yards). Hand grenades and machine pistols [submachine guns] are essential. Provide fire protection before attacking by means of machine guns, mortars, and assault guns. An attack in a village is usually accompanied by heavy casualties and should be avoided whenever possible. Pin the enemy down to the village by means of fire, or blind him with smoke and hit him outside the village or town.

He earned his first Iron Cross fighting in the woods in France:

A hundred yards from the jump-off we were forced to the ground by heavy enemy fire. We could hardly see more than twenty-five yards through the thick undergrowth and could see nothing of the enemy. Our companies opened fire and worked toward the invisible enemy by means of short rushes. Because of the deafening sound of the rifles, it was impossible to approximate the distance to the enemy. His fire increased in intensity. Our attack was halted.

In order to get the 7th Company moving forward again, Major Salzmann and I got into the front line. I took a rifle and ammunition from a wounded man and took command of a couple of squads. It was impossible to handle a larger unit in those woods. Several times we rushed through the bushes toward the enemy whom we supposed to be very close. We never succeeded in getting to him, but time and again his rapid fire forced us to the ground. The calls for aid men told us that our casualties were increasing.

Pressed flat on the ground, or behind thick oak trees, we let the enemy fire go by and then at the first let-up attempted to gain more ground in his direction. It was becoming harder to get the men to move forward; consequently we gained ground slowly. Judging from the sound of the fighting, our neighbors were about abreast of us.

Once again we rushed the enemy in the bushes ahead of us. A little group of my former recruits came with me through the underbrush. Again the enemy fired madly. Finally, scarcely twenty paces ahead I saw five Frenchmen firing from the standing position. Instantly my gun was at my shoulder. Two Frenchmen, standing one behind the other, dropped to the ground as my rifle cracked. I still was faced by three of them. Apparently my men sought shelter behind me and couldn’t help me. I fired again. The rifle missed fire. I quickly opened the magazine and found it empty.

The nearness of the enemy left no time for reloading, nor was any shelter close at hand. There was no use thinking of escape. The bayonet was my only hope. I had been an enthusiastic bayonet fighter in time of peace and had acquired considerable proficiency. Even with odds of three to one against me, I had complete confidence in the weapon and in my ability. As I rushed forward, the enemy fired. Struck, I went head over heels and wound up a few paces in front of the enemy. A bullet, entering sideways, had shattered my upper left leg, and blood spurted from a wound as large as my fist. At any moment I expected a bullet or bayonet thrust. I tried to close the wound with my right hand and, at the same time, to roll behind an oak. For many minutes I lay there between the two fronts. Finally my men broke through the bushes and the enemy retreated.



  1. It’s a fantastic book. For a somewhat similar narrative of an American commander in WWII try Combat Soldier by James C. Fry. Not quite as heavy on the tactics and from a somewhat higher (company to regimental command) perspective.

    It’s important to recognize that the principles that embodied storm-tactics were not some new concept but were the application of the traditional German approach to military affairs to the lowest tactical subunits of the army.

    I strongly suggest Robert M. Citino’s The German Way of War for an excellent overview of how this military culture originated and developed over time. Also Citino’s Death of the Wehrmacht as an application of that perspective to its ultimate failure.

  2. Isegoria says:

    Naturally, Combat Soldier is out of print. (It’s not unavailable though, so I may have to add it to The List.)

  3. I almost certainly never would have found it on my own; my family only had a copy because Fry was the C.O. of one of the regiments in my grandfather’s division: the 88th Blue Devils. Incidentally it was the first division composed from scratch entirely of draftees, an experience instrumental to the later expansion of the US Army.

  4. Gwern says:

    Apparently my men sought shelter behind me and couldn’t help me. I fired again. The rifle missed fire. I quickly opened the magazine and found it empty.

    Wow. Puts quite a spin on when he says “In a man to man fight, the winner is he who has one more round in his magazine.”

  5. Isegoria says:

    That line struck me as almost British in its deadpan understatement: “Apparently my men sought shelter behind me and couldn’t help me.” Quite so!

  6. It only becomes more surreal as he describes the actions in Romania, possibly the high-point of the book. You find yourself taking a step back from the narrative and thinking “They did what?!

    In general, though, that sort of dry, deadpan, matter-of-fact style of description was the encouraged style for field-grade officers’ writing in the German army of the time. Remember that he wrote Infantry Attacks as part manual in addition to part memoir.

  7. Dan Kurt says:

    If you want a first hand account of how the WWI storm troopers fought, read the book Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger (1895–1998), tr. Michael Hofmann, ISBN-10: 0142437905. The last third of the book covers how storm troopers fought, as he was one of those trained in the then-new tactics. Hell of a book in all respects and only about war from start to finish. I enjoyed this book much more than the Rommel book, perhaps because of the translation. This is something I have noted in reading some of Solzhenitsyn’s books.

  8. Isegoria says:

    I’ve been meaning to read Jünger for some time now.

  9. Isegoria says:

    It looks like Ernst Jünger’s war diaries, the unadorned original notes that became Storm of Steel, are getting published.

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