Lessons from July 1942 Learning Every Day
General Erwin Rommel of Germany was one of the greatest military commanders in all of World War II.
He had the designation of Field Marshall (Feldmarschall in German) and for his conquests in North Africa he became known as the Desert Fox. He was widely known in Germany and was highly respected by his opponents.
In July 1942, Rommel and the German and Italian armies he led in North Africa had reached the apex of their success and found their military efforts to be much more difficult from that point onward.
In July of that year, 75 years ago, Axis forces under Rommel had forced their way eastward into the British-controlled country of Egypt.
It was there, at a town called El Alamein (pronounced El Al-a-mane), that Britain had to draw a line in the Middle Eastern sand and take a strong stand.
And it was there that history, as so often is the case, began to provide lessons for us that remain relevant to this day.
The first lesson is that events that happen far away and seem inconsequential are often crucial to what takes place the world over.
At this time 75 years ago, if the Axis forces broke through at El Alamein, they would have the opportunity to move onward to Alexandria, Cairo and eventually the Suez Canal. If those were to fall, Britain would no longer have control of the shipping traffic on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.
That would have had a great impact on how World War II unfolded and
possibly how the world was shaped afterwards.
In other words, Egypt was of vital military significance.
But as it turned out, Britain and her colonies held off the invading forces, and soon the tide of the war in North Africa began to change.
There was a second battle at El Alamein in the fall of that year, and after that Rommel and his forces had to withdraw.
As this took place on the eastern end of North Africa, General Dwight D. Eisenhower and American armies under his direction were landing at the western side of the continent.
Soon Rommel’s military forces (known as the Africa Korps) would be fighting the British on the east and
the Americans on the west.
Rommel’s armies fought on, and fought gallantly in many instances, but it was only a matter of time until the Axis forces would lose Africa to Britain and the United States.
The reasons that Rommel lost were many, but one of those was that he could not get the supplies, weapons, and reinforcements from Italy and Germany that he needed. That is another one of history’s great lessons.
If an army is sent to fight, there must be a commitment to support it.
In 1942, Adolf Hitler was more interested in what German armies were doing against the Russians than what they were doing in Africa. As a result, Rommel’s repeated requests for more men and material were often ignored.
As Rommel’s armies began to feel the crush of Allied forces on all sides, he sought Hitler’s permission
to organize a withdrawal from Africa so that his officers and armies could fight another day from the mainland of Europe.
Hitler refused on at least two different occasions. At one point Hitler said Rommel’s troops must face either victory or death. At a later time Hitler again denied Rommel’s request, telling him that Africa was to be defended and not evacuated, and he added, “That is an order, Herr Feldmarschall!”
At that time, history tells us, Rommel no longer had faith in Hitler’s leadership.
Lesson three for the day is that those in charge should listen to the expertise of subordinates. Hitler failed to do so, even when Rommel clearly articulated his case.
Lesson four is that a leader cannot be unrealistically demanding, as Hitler was on many, many occasions.
Lesson five for us today is that there is nothing quite so demoralizing as when one loses confidence in a leader. And Rommel had reached that point.
I know that Rommel was the enemy and that Germany at the time represented all that America stood against. In spite of that, it is a great tribute to Rommel’s fortitude that he soldiered onward. His sense of duty and loyalty enabled him to continue the fight, even though he had lost faith in those above him.
There is much that can be contemplated about his circumstances, and there is always much to learn from the lessons of history, even those from 75 years ago.
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