The square jaw and steely gaze are deceptive. In reality, next to a prima donna on the slide, no one is more vain and temperamental than a general on the climb. So much at least is clear from Peter Caddick-Adams’s intriguing study of generals Bernard Montgomery and Erwin Rommel. Each was assiduous in the celebrity skills of image-making and audience massage, and none more adept at stabbing rivals in the ribs and ascribing good luck to talent. Yet for all the froth, both succeeded in a trade whose yardstick of success, crushing an opponent to death or submission, cannot be faked.
In popular terms, it is the great confrontation in the North African desert that most obviously links Rommel and Monty, but Caddick-Adams teases out other similarities to justify examining the two lives in tandem. Psychologically both needed to over-achieve; Rommel to compensate for his height of five feet six inches and his unsoldierly Swabian background in a world of Prussian-dominated militarism, and Montgomery for a loveless upbringing and chronic penury among well-heeled fellow-officers. And obviously, they were both products of what might be called the Long War from 1914 to 1945, being blooded in the meatgrinding warfare on the Western Front, testing fresh ideas about training and combat during the peace, and displaying their full military genius in the desert and Normandy campaigns.
The differences are more revealing, however. As a battle-commander, Rommel was matchless in flair, flexibility and aggression. All three qualities were demonstrated in 1917 when, while still a lieutenant, he broke through the Italian frontline in the Austrian alps and in a daring operation that involved the ascent and descent of four mountains up to 4,500 feet high, he captured 81 guns and 9,000 men with a force of less than a tenth of that number. He devised plans that included bluff and frontal assault, assessed risks, and launched attacks at a speed that overwhelmed the enemy. ‘A good plan executed violently now,’ General George Patton once said, ‘is better than a perfect plan executed next week.’ In that campaign and in the desert, Rommel delivered violence so immediately he must have been able to visualise the bloody development of an unfought battle as clearly as Mozart heard the sound of uncomposed music in his head.
The dramatic results make it easy to appreciate such generalship, and Montgomery suffers by comparison. Promoted to be a staff officer in the first world war after a severe wound, his letters are drab — ‘Things are going very well here … I like my new job very much. I am lucky to get it’ — while Rommel wrote self-gloriously of leading his men on into withering fire, ambushing his foes and ‘Soon we had more than 100 prisoners and 50 vehicles. Business was booming!’ But the less glamorous generalship of training, preparation and logistics requires its own genius, primarily that of taking infinite pains, and Monty possessed it in abundance. And so long as a greater concentration of force can be delivered in Clausewitzian style to the enemy’s point of vulnerability, it will eventually overwhelm a battleground Mozart. The proof came at El Alamein.
Caddick-Adams’s discursive, occasionally wonkish, but ultimately highly rewarding book makes plain how much Rommel owed to the superiority of German training and self-belief. From lance-corporal upwards, they were taught to cope with the chaos of warfare, and to use their initiative to a degree expected of no one below the rank of lieutenant in the British army. ‘The Germans were much better soldiers than we were,’ bluntly admitted one Desert Rat quoted in Forgotten Voices: Desert Victory. ‘They were much more determined. They were the first eleven. We were the second eleven.’
Given that handicap, Monty’s victory in North Africa shows him to have been much the better general. Paradoxically, he managed to mar his own reputation by pretending that, like Rommel, he instinctively understood how a battle would unfold, a vanity that contributed to the setbacks in Normandy, most notably the failure to take Caen soon after D-Day as he had predicted.
Finally, there is this to put in the balance. The higher a general rises, the more political he must become. To Churchill and his advisors, Monty poured out a torrent of vicious and self-preening denigration of Eisenhower and other fellow commanders, prompting one observer to describe him as ‘an unspeakable cad’. But that is more forgivable than the intimacy that Rommel deliberately cultivated with Hitler, leading Goebbels to put at the head of the general’s virtues, ‘First, he is a National Socialist.’