I have always thought well of Field Marshal Rommel, even though he was a German commander. Part of the reason is that I have always heard he was a man of integrity and he was thought to have been a part of the attempt to assassinate Hitler.
After reading the article in Warfare History Network, I was again interested in Field Marshal Rommel and decided to find a biography about him. I started searching online and found, much to my delight, a book that chronicles his life in his own words, The Rommel Papers.
I have now read the Introduction, The Story of the Rommel Papers, the Editorial Note and the Acknowledgements. Long ago I developed the habit of reading everything written before the actual book, including prologues and acknowledgements. These give incredible insights into the author's reasoning for writing the book, and they help me understand things I might not understand if I just read the book.
As I have found in other books, so I found in this particular book. There were things I understood that I might have missed had I not read them.
Before I started reading the book, I asked the Lord if I was reading it because He put a desire in me to read it and learn something, or if it was my own curiosity and love of history that caused me to read it. I have discovered, now that I have finished part one that I have much to learn from Field Marshal Rommel's words to his wife.
In order for me to process what I have read, I plan to write a blog about what I am learning and what I can take away from the reading of these papers by Rommel.
I find the text surprisingly easy to follow (I am not a tactician) and am experiencing the same strange phenomenon that I found with the Warfare History Network article. I feel like I am there. I can hear the whistling and exploding shells as Rommel describes to his wife the conditions of war. In my mind I am seeing the general confusion of the British accidentally running into the German vanguard and being captured.
Apparently Rommel was going to write a book about his experiences in the war after all was fought as he did during his World War One experiences.
The first part of The Rommel Papers are letters from him to his wife about the war in France. In these letters, I am beginning to see why he was such an amazing leader.
The thing that struck me first is the loving way in which he addresses his wife, "Dearest Lu …" He wrote to her often. He was also very careful how he described his situations to her, using words like "unpleasant", "unhealthy" and "not a comfortable situation."
On page 7 of my copy, I come across some wisdom from this man to his wife, "The man who lies low and awaits developments usually comes off second best." In other words, if a commander waits for reinforcements instead of firing in the general area where the enemy is thought to be, that commander usually loses the battle. His wisdom in this is proven on several occasions in what he tells his wife. One such occasion on page 38, he says,
"I could not agree to General Harde's proposal that in these circumstances the attack should be postponed, and gave the orders for the brigade to move off punctually at 18.00 hours with such of its tanks as had then arrived on the northern bank."
"My troops had unfortunately again made the bad mistake of diving straight for cover instead of immediately replying to the enemy fire with their machine-guns."
As before, Rommel shows several times where his observations about military tactics prove true. Rommel chose to go cross country which paid off for him. In his letters he writes,
"At point 184 I had another brief discussion with Rothenburg and stressed the main points to be observed during the day's advance; avoidance of villages – most of which were barricaded – and all major roads; movement straight across country, thereby ensuring a surprise appearance in the flank and rear of the enemy."
"Such a general cross-country advance was rarely attempted by the Allied armored forces in 1944-45. Many of the delays they suffered might have been avoided by fuller use of this method of movement."
"…This move led to a number of clashes with the enemy and we were more than once forced to change our plans."; "…I could no longer enter a slow probe forward, but was compelled to demand that the tanks plunge forward at their top speed to St. Leonard either on the road or alongside it."
Peppered throughout these letters, I got a sense of the decency in which he treated his prisoners and the civilian population. He was very concerned with preserving the dignity of those he captured and those who were caught up in the conflict. He often used the phrase, "I ordered," when talking of those soldiers who were his subordinates. When he spoke of his prisoners, especially those Generals who were captured he said, "I then requested the General (French) to present himself with his staff in the market square of St. Valery and agreed to his request that he should be allowed his own vehicle and kit…"
Not understanding military history or tactics, there are things that confuse me. One of which was that the Field Marshal sent prisoners to convey a surrender message to their fellow soldiers. Why did he do that? Did it occur to him that his prisoners might join their compatriots? Was he taking a risk? They did not turn and fight, so apparently he did not take as much a risk as it looks to me he made.
Finally I see that Rommel was a tough commander. He said things like, "I told him what I thought of him,"; "a few straight words,"; "put the boy (Major Heidkaemper) in his place," and "necessary to assert my authority." Because he was willing to do what he asked his men to do, Field Marshal Rommel was a man who was respected by his troops.
There may be people who wonder what I could possibly learn from this glimpse into the mind of a famous man who lived and died long before I was born. One thing I am seeing so far is that flexibility is very important when involved in a big project like the project I am involved in with making Shots in the Dark.
This weekend we shot one of the scenes in the movie. The day before we were to shoot, I got an email from one of the actors saying he couldn't make it. I almost canceled, but instead of cancelling, I reevaluated the situation and decided we could go ahead with the shoot and reschedule this particular actor's parts another time. It wasn't going to affect us that much to do it in two parts. On the morning of the shoot I got another email telling me someone else wasn't going to make it either. We went ahead with the shoot and it turned out to be the best shoot thus far (as concerning organization).
Would I have cancelled the shoot if I'd not been reading about Rommel's flexibility? I don't know, but certainly I thought about him as I considered what I should do. I'm glad we went ahead.
I have always felt the people involved in the project are much more important than the project itself. Seeing how Rommel treated his troops and his prisoners reinforces to me that this is the way to work. To preserve others' dignity is an essential part of any leadership role, whether in the military theater, in the business world, making a hobby movie, or in any other leadership role. People respond best and are more willing to help when they are treated with respect and dignity. Perhaps that's the most important thing I've taken away from the first part of this book.
I highly recommend reading The Rommel Papers. I hope the fact that this is a book written from the papers of a military man about a war that was waged close to 75 years ago would not keep anyone from reading this book. Not only does it give a glimpse into the mind of an intelligent man, but it also gives practical help in being a leader.