Rommel’s Maxims Revisited

by CWO-2 B.N. Lavender

Rommel‘s early experiences in the infantry during World War I had a great impact on him. The tactical maxims outlined in Infantry Attacks are the “tricks of the trade” he employed with great success as an infantry small-unit leader. During World War II he continued to evolve as a tactician, building on his earlier experiences and adapting his thought to reflect the possibilities offered by motorization. In the North African campaign, he exploited these possibilities to their fullest and in so doing, secured his place in history. Fortunately, he continued to be a prolific writer and after the war B.H. Liddell Hart published Rommel‘s wartime writings as, The Rommel Papers. In this collection we find the maturation of Rommel‘s early thoughts into a comprehensive philosophy for the conduct of warfare.

The principles given below quite naturally do not deal with the “nuts and bolts” of small-unit tactics. When Rommel formulated them he was, after all, an army commander and not a company commander. Along with the change in point of view, it is also interesting to note the similarities between Rommel‘s work and that of Col John Boyd, originator of the “Boyd Theory” of conflict. In an age when Marines could well find themselves fighting under circumstances similar to those faced by Rommel, these principles take on a new significance. For military professionals desiring to grasp the concepts of maneuver warfare, Rommel provides an excellent point of departure. In 1942, reflecting on the nature of modern warfare in the desert, he wrote:

Of all theatres of operations, it was in North Africa that the war took on its most advanced form. The protagonists on both sides were fully motorised formations, for whose employment the flat and obstruction-free desert offered hitherto undreamed-of possibilities. It was the only theatre where the principles of motorised and tank warfare, as they had been taught theoretically before the war, could be applied to the full-and further developed. It was the only theatre where the pure tank battle between major formations was fought. Even though the struggle may have occasionally hardened into static warfare it remained-at any rate, in its most important stages-based on the principle of complete mobility.

Rommel then went on to present the following principles for the employment of fully motorized forces:

* In motorized/mechanized warfare, the primary objective of all planning is the material attrition and destruction of the organic cohesion of the opposing force.

* Concentrate your own forces in time and space to split the enemy forces and destroy them piecemeal.

* Supply lines are especially sensitive since fuel and ammunition required to fight the battle must pass along them. Do everything you can to protect your own lines and cut the enemy’s lines whenever possible. Operations in the enemy’s logistic area will result in his breaking off the battle elsewhere.

* The armor is the core of the mechanized army, and all other units are auxiliary. The war of attrition against the enemy armor must be waged as far as possible with antitank units; your own armor should be used only to deal the final blow.

* Reconnaissance reports must reach the commander in the shortest possible time. He must make his decisions and act on them as fast as he can. Speed of reaction decides the battle, so commanders must operate well forward and have the best possible communications capability.

* Speed of movement and organizational cohesion are decisive. Any breakdown in this cohesion must be rectified immediately by reorganization.

* Concealment of intentions is of the utmost importance in order to provide surprise and exploit the time taken by the enemy command to react. Deception measures of all kinds should be encouraged, if only to make the enemy commander hesitate and hold back.

* Once the enemy has been thoroughly beaten up, success can be exploited by attempting to overrun and destroy major parts of his disorganized forces. Speed is everything. Do not allow the enemy time to reorganize. Rapidly regroup for the pursuit and ensure supplies are available for this pursuit.

* Artillery must possess great range, mobility, and the capability to carry large quantities of ammunition.

* Infantry is best employed to occupy and hold positions that prevent the enemy from carrying out his plans or force him into other ones. Infantry must be fully mobile so that when this is accomplished, they can be rapidly shifted for employment elsewhere,

* Bold decisions give the best chance of success.

* There is no ideal solution to military problems; every course has its advantages and disadvantages. One must select that which seems best . . . and then pursue it resolutely and accept the consequences. Any compromise is bad.

As the commander of a sealifted expeditionary force operating under terrible logistic difficulties, Rommel applied these principles with great success. The Panzerarmee Afrika consistently fought outnumbered and won, often in the face of enemy air superiority. For Marines contemplating operations in the Persian Gulf region where conditions may be similar, these principles may well provide the basis for success. We cannot afford to neglect them.

The maxims present in this article were extracted primarily from The Rommel Papers, pp. 197-201 (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1953). In fairness to Rommel, it should be noted also that the development of his ideas did not stop in North Africa. For example, in 1944 while preparing to defend against the Allied invasion of Europe, he wrote (see same source p.468):

It’s obvious that if the enemy once gets his foot in, he’ll put every antitank gun and tank he can into the bridgehead and let us beat our heads against it . . . To break through such a front, you have to attack slowly and methodically, under cover of massed artillery, but we, of course, thanks to the Allied air forces, will have nothing there on time. The day of the dashing cut-and-thrust attack of the early war years is past and gone-and that goes for the East too, a fact, which may, perhaps, by this time, have gradually sunk in.