The Foxes of the Desert
© 1960 Paul Carell
When Erwin Rommel was dispatched to Africa to rescue his nation’s ailing ally against the small-but-feisty English Eighth Army, he earned the lasting respect and dread of those commanders tasked with defeating him. The Desert Foxes delivers the story of the Second World War in Africa from the German perspective, with Rommel’s Africa Korps as its stars. Like the English who humbled an Italian army tasked with rebuilding the Roman empire, Rommel would box out of his weight for two years until he was finally cornered in Tunisia, but the months between victory and defeat created for ‘the Fox’ a lasting reputation; he is admired even today, hailed for his chivalry and fighting spirit.
Although the tanks of the Afrika Korps take center stage, Carell enjoys sharing the wartime version of human interest stories, and occasionally pauses from his storytelling — which indeed it is, being no less fact-laden for its dramatization — to deliver accounts of commandos or extraordinary aviation heroics.The action here is frantic, pitting hundreds of tanks against one another in single battles. Momentum shifts from side to side, and several times both forces hang on the verge of utter defeat, both experiencing victory and desperation in their turn. Time is ultimately against Rommel, as British forces in the air choke him off from what few supplies drift his way, but sheer audacity takes him all the way to Egypt where at last he breaks on the battle-worn English defense. The arrival of green American troops fresh off the boat allows for a few more brazen victories, but ultimately the two allied armies corner the Africa Korps in Tunisia, where — denied the possibility of retreat by Hitler’s declaration that they fight to the last bullet — the remnant surrenders. The fast pace and fascinating little stories (like that of a general, separated from his legs by an explosion, using his last moments of life to pen a page-and-a-half letter to his wife) make for engaging history, and Carell’s German perspective adds additional interest. His book is not simply about the Germans; here, they are the protagonists, fighting the good fight against the ‘Tommies’. While upholding the Afrika Korps as admirable soldiers and men, Carells’ opinion about Germany’s political leadership is far less friendly. (The word used for Hitler is “maniac”.) How genuine that contempt is I am not sure, but the book stays well away from Europe and allows the reader to enjoy the narrative of strategy and combat removed from the horror of Nazi-controlled Europe.