Victory and defeat were close companions in the ranks of Erwin Rommel's Afrikakorps. In June, 1942, Rommel finally captured the doughty port bastion of Tobruk and was pressing on to Egypt. By October's end, he was in full retreat, never again to hold the upper hand. What it was like to be a member of Rommel's legions is the subject of this 1951 memoir.
Heinz Werner Schmidt got to Africa early, even before Germany entered the conflict. In East Africa, where the Italians were holding on to Eritrea, he commanded a small detachment of German sailors who volunteered to fight. Then, in March, 1941, he was called up to Libya to help Rommel settle into his new command. Soon he was Rommel's aide-de-camp, riding alongside the Desert Fox as he berated subordinates and carefully inspected his defenses - from the enemy's own side.
Rommel's theory of desert warfare was comparable to naval combat. "Whoever has the weapons with the greatest range has the longest arm, exactly as at sea," Schmidt quotes Rommel saying at one meeting. "Whoever has the greater mobility, through efficient motorization and efficient lines of supply, can by swift action compel his opponent to act according to his wishes."
Schmidt's history is a worthy read, at times compelling for those with an interest in this part of World War II going in. But it's not the kind of book that grabs you with scintillating prose or probing insights. Schmidt writes in a stilted fashion, starting his story abruptly and leaving a few early tales half-told. When Rommel's waspish chief of staff countermands Rommel's own order to take the inland hub of Mechili, pressing on instead for Tobruk, Schmidt is assigned to pass the order on. But when Schmidt fails to do this, the implications of this (what did the chief of staff say to Schmidt after? What did Rommel say to his second-guessing chief of staff?) are left blank.
At another point, early on at the siege of Tobruk, Rommel sends a tank force to their doom while Schmidt watches helplessly, knowing it is all a mistake. Whatever Rommel thought after is left unrecorded.
Despite the title, there was not a lot of closeness between Schmidt and Rommel. About all we learn of Rommel's personality was that he was brave, short of temper when the situation called for it, and enjoyed jokes about Prussians (he was Swabian himself). When Schmidt requests a transfer to front-line service halfway through the book, Rommel becomes a distant background figure.
"Close to him, I found him much more unimaginative and stolid than the romanticized pictures that have been drawn of him by both friend and foe," Schmidt writes. I wish Schmidt provided more of an analysis than that, but it's a spotty book that way.
One consistent element in Schmidt's account is that of loss. People pop up all the time only to die or vanish a page or two later. "Death began to loom up as a brother, and it seemed absurd that one should fear him," Schmidt writes. "He would be kind..." Schmidt's own experience speaks to a more general sense of futility. He goes on leave after Rommel's capture of Tobruk and comes back just in time to cover the retreat from El Alamein, the beginning of the end.
Schmidt comes across as a good man, unimpressed with Nazism, generous with praise for his foes (South Africans, New Zealanders, and Australians especially), and courageous without calling much attention to it. At times one wishes he had more ego; more chest-puffing would have made a more gripping read. Instead "With Rommel" is a by-the-numbers account, told sincerely but not imaginatively.