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Rommel and Generalship

Ronald Lewin offers his study of the German Commander as one of the ‘Great Captains’ of war.

In the first volume of his biography of Wavell, John Connell records that throughout the African campaign Rommel carried with him and carefully annotated the German translation of Wavell’s Lees-Knowles Lectures on the theme of Generals and Generalship which he delivered at Cambridge in 1939.

‘Many years later,’ Connell says, ‘Frau Rommel presented the battered and historic little volume to Lady Wavell.’

At Cambridge Wavell had an audience of between twenty and thirty undergraduates. But subsequently The Times published his lectures first as turn-over articles and then as a pamphlet; Penguin Books re-issued them; and they have been translated into a number of languages.

They were, in fact, an extraordinarily prescient analysis of the qualities a military leader would require in the war that Wavell predicted: they forecast Rommel.

‘The commander with the imagination—the genius, in fact—to use the new forces may have his name written among the “great captains”. But he will not win that title lightly or easily; consider for a moment the qualifications he will require.

On the ground he will have to handle forces moving at a speed and ranging at a distance far exceeding that of the most mobile cavalry of the past; a study of naval strategy and tactics as well as those of cavalry will be essential to him.’

Rommel himself thought of his armoured operations in the desert in terms of an action at sea. This correlation of armoured operations and naval engagements was a dramatic way of presenting the desert conflict during the war.

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