Saturday, August 22, 2009

The original combat commander

Regular readers might remember that the book Infantry Attacks, by the legendary Erwin Rommel, was part of my booty from UK Expo'09. I've finally got round to reading it, finishing it during my journey home from London.

Infantry Attacks (Infanterie greift an) was first published in 1937. It was this book which first brought Rommel to the attention of Adolf Hitler, a fateful moment which was ultimately to prove fatal to Rommel. It was translated into English in 1944 for the US army, one result of which was Patton's memorable remark:
"Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!"
Between the covers
The book details the actions Rommel participated in during WW1. He fought as a junior field officer on many fronts:
  • Belgium and N. France, 1914: 6th Württemberg Infantry Regiment- the unit in which Rommel was a platoon commander, was part of the German 5th Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany; 5th Army was part of the Schlieffen plan's 'hinge'; these operations included a crossing of the Meuse river which Rommel famously crossed again with his 7th Panzer Division in 1940, at Dinant some 100km north of his 1914 field of operations. (BTW: I know I misspelt 'Schlieffen' on the map's labels!)
  • The Argonne, 1915: a forested region just east of Verdun (you can see its location on the small map- above), the Argonne was where Rommel got his main taste of the trench warfare that was infamously to dominate the Western Front for the next 4 years; the picture- above left, is from the aftermath of the heavy fighting in the Argonne, and shows what has since become an archetypal image of the unprecedented destruction wrought by the massed artillery bombardments of WW1.
  • The High Vosges, 1916: in October 1915 Rommel was posted to the Württemberg Mountain Battalion with which he served for the rest of the war; after long training the battalion went into the line in the Higher Vosges- a range of mountains in France close to the Franco-German border.
  • Rumania, 1916: Rumania entered the war on the Allied side on August 27th 1916; as a result Rommel's Württemberg Mountain Battalion was transferred to Transylvania (in German: Siebenbürgen); there the battalion took part in several successful mountain attacks.
  • Carpathians, 1917: the Württemberg Mountain Battalion was again transferred, to be part of a summer offensive to close down the Russian front after the revolution of February 1917; although still a junior officer, Rommel played a significant role in two weeks' heavy fighting to take and hold Mount Cosna.
  • Carinthia, 1917: Rommel's last operation as a field commander in WW1 was the 12th Battle of Isonzo- better known as the Battle of Caporetto, and referred to by Rommel as the Tolmein offensive, for the town near the Württemberg Mountain Battalion's assembly area (this can be seen as 'Tolmino' on the map- above right); the offensive was a huge success for the Central Powers, and a complete vindication of the new stormtrooper and infiltration tactics which Germany had developed.
In each chapter Rommel details his orders; describes the dispositions of his forces and the terrain across which they would be fighting; details and explains the resulting plans; and gives an account of how the action developed and how he responded to events. These technical details are filled out with some anecdotes from the fighting and from frontline life. Most chapters conclude with "Observations", in which Rommel draws conclusions about what happened and why.

There are illustrations in addition to the text. These are not the photographs so familiar from many campaign histories. They are are sketches and maps of the battlefield, of a style which makes them look like they were drawn by Rommel himself. This impression is strengthened by the fact that many of the illustrations aren't maps; rather they are views of the battlefield from vantage points I can only assume Rommel actually occupied at the time.

I must confess that I was a little disappointed with this book at first. It is extremely dry, written in a very curt style which provides little more than the barest account of the matters Rommel covers. This wasn't helped for me by the nationalistic tone of the book: to read Rommel in Nazi Germany singing the praises of German soldiery in what I knew was going to be an account of his role in the slaughter of WW1; a book written as a careerist manoeuvre as he sought advancement for the sake of playing a bigger part in the war he must already've seen on the horizon; well, let me just say that didn't capture my enthusiasm.

Soon enough though the book began to grow on me. The first thing that came to my attention were hints of the character of the man well-known from his exploits in the Western Desert in WW2; namely his penchant for getting into the thick of the action and so losing sight of the overall picture. Something for which he has sometimes been criticised, this was no doubt more forgivable in a junior field officer in any case.

My interest was further piqued by the commonplace references to 'squads'. I've long believed that platoons were the basic low-level tactical units on the WW1 battlefield, and that squads didn't come to fill that role until 1918. Rommel contradicts this with references to squads being given mission objectives essentially from the very start. Wikipedia's coverage of the development of infantry tactics in WW1 breaks the subject down into:
  • Stormtroopers: a formation first devised by the Germans in 1915 and first used on a large scale by the Russians (this surprised me: the Russians in WW1 are generally known for their infantry tactics the same way that the British were known for tank design in WW2; ie. not at all!) in 1916.
  • Infiltration tactics (or Hutier tactics, for Oskar von Hutier, the German general who devised them).
It is worth noting that neither of these have anything to say about the move to squad-based tactics as such, although a key feature distinguishing infiltration tactics from what had gone before was the use of smaller units.

In any event, once this issue had got me to consider the book more favourably, I soon realised that I had been labouring under the impact of false expectations. I'd unwittingly been expecting a frontline commander's version of a campaign history of the sort I've read so often. Infantry Actions is a very different book. Instead of the campaign overview with telling details and vivid anecdotes to fill out an account of all levels of the action, it is a field commander's account of how he went about the business of commanding his forces in battle.

What Rommel typically gives us therefore is something like this:
  • We marched all day, bivouaced late and ate little.
  • Orders came through in the dead of night and we set off.
  • Reaching our objective we (I) conducted reconnaisance to determine:
  1. A breakthrough point for the assault units.
  2. Positions for the fire support units.
  3. Avenues of approach.
  • A plan was formulated, eg.:
  1. 1st platoon would be the assault force.
  2. A company on the left, and B company with 3rd and 4th HMG platoons on the right would provide fire support.
  3. D company plus 5th HMG platoon would be in reserve.
  • Orders were given, my units moved into position, and the action began.
  • As the action developed:
  1. The fire support plan pinned the enemy as expected, the assault forces broke into the enemy position, and I ordered a platoon from D company forward to exploit the breakthrough.
  2. A company was pinned down by heavy fire and strong enemy forces appeared, threatening to turn our left flank, so I ordered another platoon from D company plus the 5th HMG platoon up to hold the line.
  3. The initial breakthrough secured, I ordered 2 platoons of B company plus 3rd HMG platoon to consolidate on the assault platoon to prepare for further exploitation.
  • And so on and so on until the action was concluded.
This isn't an actual example. It's just to give a flavour of Rommel's treatment of his subject matter; namely a technical account of his role in his units' exploits. The book is chock full of this sort of stuff, all written in the professional soldier's clipped jargon to boot. When Rommel does break out of this vein to bring in anecdotes, they are often about the fate of crucial or particularly popular NCO's and officers, or about the situations in which he found himself as he made his way about the battlefield.

Sometimes Rommel is in the thick of the action; other times he is talking about the sound of gunfire and the conduct of squads, platoons or companies from the perspective of a company or a battalion commander who often can't see these units. In all cases he is talking about the tactical situation; the demands it placed on himself and his men; how he organised, commanded and led his men to meet those demands; and whether or not it looked as if those demands could be met in pursuit of the objectives which had to be gained in fulfilment of his orders.

In other words: precisely because it is dry compared to the more familiar campaign histories, Rommel succeeds admirably in putting the reader neatly inside the head of a field officer in command of his units during intense action. Therefore this is a very good book indeed for anyone who has any interest at all in that subject matter. The breakdown of its parts also makes it ideal for dipping into, to read about this or that action. So it's no surprise that Infantry Attacks was recommended reading in the US military for several decades. I expect I'll read it again myself. ;)

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