Book Review: Infantry Attacks!
by Erwin Rommel
Published in German in 1937.
English translation as "Attacks!": Athena Press, 1979.
Later editions are retitled "Infantry Attacks!"
"Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!"
-- George S. Patton (in the movie)
Well, not quite. The movie shows General Patton reading Field Marshal Rommel's book on tank warfare, which he never got a chance to complete. But it's possible that Patton had read this earlier work on infantry tactics, which the US Army rediscovered and had translated into English in 1943.
Infantry Attacks! describes the engagements that Rommel participated in during World War I, as a young lieutenant in the Imperial German Army. The book is structured as a set of tactical problems, giving the disposition of friendly and enemy troops and setting out the objective. Rommel then describes the solution that he decided on, followed by the actual results, along with an assessment of the lessons he learned and suggestions for improvement.
Rommel seems to have spent much of the war fighting against Romanian and Italian troops. This is not uncommon for German infantry of World War I, which was periodically rotated out of the Western Front for morale purposes. On the other fronts, battles could actually be won -- and usually by the Germans. But even in the trenches of the Western Front, Rommel finds himself managing successful attacks for limited gains. In fact, it's not until two- thirds of the way through the book that he describes planning an attack that fails.
Is this selective recounting, or did he really win (almost) every engagement he fought? Perhaps some of both. As a junior officer leading a company, in battles involving a million troops, Rommel does not get to see the larger picture. Even if Rommel was successful, the battle may still have been lost. What is clear from the limited engagements that he describes is that Rommel has an impeccable eye for terrain, for maneuvering forces, and for using firepower -- the very essence of an infantry officer's craft. He moves forward aggressively with whatever resources are at his disposal, realizing that perfection is rarely attainable and that speed is itself an advantage. Often he has no artillery support, so he makes it a favored tactic to use machine guns as fire support.
In most of his attacks, he is outnumbered. At the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo (Caporetto), Rommel's mountain troops are often operating deep behind enemy lines, and he writes of being low on food and other supplies. And yet, whenever he sees an opportunity, he goes on the offensive. Whenever the enemy retreats, he pursues, even if he can do so only with leading elements that are well ahead of the rest of his forces. In several cases, he uses the element of surprise to bluff the enemy into surrendering to far inferior forces. At one point, Rommel writes of Italian officers crying in shame after discovering that they had surrendered their regiment to a mere company.
This aggressive spirit eventually gets him into trouble. You can only bluff the enemy a few times before one of those regiments decides to actually stay and fight. Rommel's leading units are forced to surrender after moving too far ahead, and Rommel barely escapes captivity himself. Fortunately for him, this happened at the Battle of Caporetto, a great victory for the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. He does not remain in Italian hands for long before he switches places with his captors.
To some extent, of course, Rommel is lucky to be fighting an enemy that is outmatched in tactical skill. Many of his enemies occupy poor positions, or fail to adequately secure their position, giving Rommel the opportunity to surprise them at a weak point. He also finds the Italian troops to be quite disenchanted with the war. At the same time, his success owes a great deal to his ability to handle his troops like chess pieces. He realizes that the best way to win a battle is not to inflict casualties on the enemy through attrition and sheer materiel advantage, especially for forces that were as outnumbered as Germany's were. Instead, he much prefers to catch the enemy off-guard -- even better, to get them to surrender instead of fighting it out.