I have to apologize for the delay in this post but I ran into an embarrassing problem in preparing for it. I had forgotten that “The Desert Fox” is not really a biopic like “Patton” is. It is basically focused on Rommel’s role in the assassination attempt on Hitler. There is very little in the movie that deals with Rommel’s leadership style. Luckily, I encountered a book entitled Patton and Rommel by Dennis Showalter. I decided to read the book before doing this post so some of the Patton analysis comes from the book and most of the Rommel analysis.
1. Compare the leadership styles
It would be hard to find two WWII generals who were more similar than Patton and Rommel. Both men believed in leading from the front and often put themselves in harm’s way. In the case of Rommel, he was almost killed in a strafing incident and Patton looked upon being shot at as a proof of manhood. They believed in seeing things for themselves, although Rommel spent more time sharing the hardships of his men. Both were flexible in their tactics and could adjust to changing situations although both could be a bit stubborn when committed to an objective. Both combined surprise, shock, and mobility. Both were risk takers who lived by Napoleon’s maxim “toujours l’audace”. Most importantly, both believed that speed and shock would save lives in the long run over cautious preparation and mass (embodied by Montgomery).
Two interesting areas to compare them in are logistics and dealing with superiors. Rommel has been faulted for his lack of interest in logistics. He liked to complain about his terrible logistical situation in North Africa, but he did little personally to adjust to the reality of it. Part of this problem was due to the German army’s lack of emphasis on this art. Patton’s logistical problem was different. In France, Patton’s Third Army was affected by difficulties in getting supplies to the front line units. He complained just as much as Rommel and was less understanding, but he did a good job of adjusting to diminished fuel. As far as superiors, Rommel had to deal with an increasingly delusional Hitler, but was a favorite of the Fuhrer’s until the end. In “The Desert Fox”, he gets a “hold at all costs” order from Hitler that would have meant the destruction of the Afrika Korps. At first, he plans to loyally obey it, but soon realizes he must countermand the order. Patton had trouble with Eisenhower and Bradley mainly because of stumbles by Patton. He brought his dysfunctional relations with his superiors upon himself. However, it is amazing to contemplate how similar the Rommel/Hitler and the Patton/Eisenhower dynamic was. Also, the Rommel/Rundstadt and Patton/Bradley for that matter.
Each had weaknesses that keep them from being ranked among the Great Captains. Rommel, besides his logistics myopia, relied too much on spontaneity and luck. Although commendably brave, he continued to appear at the tip of the spear even when he was no longer commanding on a divisional level. When you are indispensable, this type of “lead by example” is foolish. Patton’s greatest weakness was obviously his inability to control his emotions. The slapping incidents accurately portrayed in the movie are evidence of this. He sometimes pushed his “shock solves all problems” philosophy beyond the limits of his soldiers.
As far as leadership, both were charismatic and inspirational. They also both were strict disciplinarians. Everyone knows this about Patton from the movie, but although the movies do not depict this side of Rommel’s leadership, it certainly was there. “Old Blood and Guts” relied on respect from his men whereas it was more love for “The Desert Fox”.
2. Who was the better leader?
Here is an interesting fact about the reputations of both men. Both were admired more by their foes than their comrades. Rommel was resented by other German generals for being sort of a “teacher’s pet”. Patton was disliked mainly because of his personality. Bradley was offended by his language, among other things. Both men were considered to be glory hounds by their comrades.
Choosing between the two is difficult. It comes down to this. I feel that if you switched their situations, Rommel would have been more successful than Patton. He could only dream of the logistical problems Patton faced. Just as Patton could only have dreamed of the Wehrmacht’s leniency on generals’ abuse of soldiers. Patton could certainly have duplicated Rommel’s successes in France (1940) and North Africa (1941-42), but once the tide turned one can only imagine the frustration that would have pounded his unstable personality.
What say you?
JULY WATCHALONG: Pork Chop Hill vs. Zulu
1. Compare the leadership of Lt. Clemons to Lt. Chard
2. Compare the tactics used in the two battles