When I first started reading about WW II outside of history syllabus, the first hero who emerged was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Later, Commando comics introduced me to the other side: The legendary Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). “Killing Rommel” by Steven Pressfield is the story of the wars between these two groups.
Lt. R. Lawrence “Chap” Chapman is serving as an officer in Royal Armour Regiment, while Rommel and his Afrika Korps have almost pushed Allied forces to the edges of Egypt. An impatient man, his wish is finally fulfilled when he is assigned to LRDG (Well, he will take even a temporary attachment in a technical capacity as a ticket out).
Once at LRDG headquarters, he meets his childhood hero and now SAS Major, Paddy Mayne. After a quick training, three patrols are given their assignment: locate and kill Rommel. And while (being a temporary assignment) Chap is just a passenger, he will have to be ready to step in as a leader when need arises, on the welcome
but and suicidal mission.
Lt. Chapman is a citizen soldier who doesn’t really fit in as a tank officer. Moving to LRDG, he tries his best to fit in, yet constantly considers himself as an outsider. The story is as much of his exploits in LRDG’s role, till the famous flanking of Mereth Line, as his growth as a man and as a leader of men, respected by his command.
Field Marshal Rommel was a legend even when he was alive. Nicknamed “Desert Fox” by the British press, the
courageous daring strategist led from the front (and sometimes beyond that), often seen roaming the front lines in his open staff car and biplane. He escaped death quite a few times due to this (once when his plane landed on allied airstrip, once when he drove into a British camp by mistake).
Apart from these exploits, it was his old world honour code (e.g. humane treatment of POWs, and repeated refusals to obey the command from Berlin to kill all Jew POWs) which made him “hard to hate”. That is what makes this “mission” all the more plausible: given the status of Rommel in eyes of soldiers from both sides, his death would have been a complete disaster for German armies while a huge moral boost for allied forces, completely disproportional to what death of just one man could cause.
On the other side, Rommel admitted that LRDG was the biggest thorn in his side. One of the first specialised forces in modern warfare, LRDG (initially called Long Range Patrol: LRP), often worked behind enemy lines. Along with missions like reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, they also sabotaged Axis airfields and maintenance facilities, and conveyed SAS operatives on similar missions.
And these two enemies are fighting in the most difficult theatre of the war. The biggest desert in the world is their most dangerous enemy: the place where a simple thing as running out of fuel or diverging a mile or two from your intended bearing (as close as you can get it) can prove fatal.
Perhaps that understanding made the African war different from all other theatres in WW II. The medics from both sides would often work side by side (and sometimes together) unmolested. A British machine-gunner firing on friendly tankers getting out of their disabled tank catches hell for firing on any troops in that condition.
Told as a manuscript by Chapman (who becomes an editor later in life), the book brings forth the camaraderie and competition between the LRDG members, while invoking legends like Major Easonsmith of LRDG, Major paddy Mayne of SAS and others. It also captures the savage decisions necessary in war and its effects on the leaders and men.
But essentially, it captures the essence of the desert war, with its dangers, mutual respect and chivalry shown by both sides, kindness to enemy which may even result in death or capture.
Quote of The Day:
We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.
– Sir Winston Churchill (talking about Rommel after Tobruk)