Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Military Mascots: Auchinleck, Rommel, and Monty in the Western Desert

Jonathan Fennell’s Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign (2010), traces the complex web of factors which influence military morale. One kernel in this cornucopia is the cult of personality surrounding the high commander. In the case of British and commonwealth troops in the Western Desert, it seems that a certain notorious German commander stole a march on the British.
General Erwin Rommel's charisma still effects the observers of military history, especially due to the popularization of his opposition to George Patton, as portrayed in the 1970 film Patton.  Problems arose in 1942, when British troops recognized the charismatic German general over their own commanders.  General Claude Auchinleck was an unknown entity to troops under his Middle East Command as long as a year after he took control.

Generalfeldmarshschall Erwin Rommel (1892 - 1944):
 Rommel at a staff conference in the Western Desert.
© IWM (B 6541)
Fennell records that Rommel approached “folk hero” status, among troops. One officer wrote during a slow period in the desert that, “there is no news of interest here at the moment except that I have often heard fellows say ‘I wish we had Rommel on our side.’” (Fennell, p. 212) Attempts to confront the Rommel legend by Middle East Command came from the “MEF Weekly Military Newsletter no. 74”. “Axis propaganda had gone to considerable pains to build up the legend of Rommel, one of the aims being to give us a feeling of inferiority in the face of this photogenic General who is supposed to be master of the Libyan desert”.

The Auk.Creator Eves, Reginald Grenville (RA)
© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 729)
Auchinleck’s personal reaction betrays his own concerns about the power of his opposition's celebrity. Auchinleck wrote,

 “I wish to dispel by all possible means [the idea] that Rommel represents something more than an ordinary German general…The important thing now is that we do not always talk of Rommel when we mean the enemy in Libya. We must refer to “the Germans”, or the “Axis powers”, or “the enemy” and not always keep harping on Rommel…PS. I am not jealous of Rommel.”(Fennell, p. 214, cited from Nigel Hamilton, The Full Monty, p. 544)

It seems that Auchinleck’s best efforts at becoming a military idol were in vain. The situation was reversed with the coming of the flamboyant and press-savvy Montgomery, who “actively pursued publicity and the press limelight and purposely took on the Rommel legend.” (Fennell, p. 214)

As Montgomery wrote after the war:
The Eighth Army consisted in the main of civilians in uniform, not of professional soldiers. And they were, of course, to a man, civilians who read newspapers. It seemed to me that to command such men demanded not only a guiding mind but also a point of focus: or to put it another way, not only a master but a mascot. And I deliberately set about fulfilling this second requirement. It helped, I felt sure, for them to recognize as a person – as an individual – the man who was putting them into battle. To obey an impersonal figure was not enough. They must know who I was. (Fennell, p. 214)
Monty with "Hitler" (l) and "Rommel" (r) © IWM (B 6541)
That Montgomery bought in to the cult of Rommel can be gleaned by the questionable honour of naming his dog after the general.  The distinction is only heightened by noting the moniker of his other canine comrade: "Hitler".  Monty, as against Auchinleck's policies would long personalize the German forces he opposed as "Rommel", and emphasized that he knew the "Desert Fox" better than anyone else.  

Fennell does acknowledge  Montgomery's success in becoming part mascot, claiming that he was the first British celebrity general, with the possible exception of Kitchener. (Fennel, p.5) It appears at least one prominent military historian disagrees with awarding full celebrity status to any British general.  Writing in the 1970s in his pivotal work Face of Battle, John Keegan suggests that Robert E. Lee was "the only cult general in the English-speaking world". (Keegan, 1976, p. 54)  So much for Kitchener of Khartoum and Montgomery of Alamein!  It seems that at least honorable mention is due to the Duke of Wellington, or even Sir Garnet Wolseley, whose name was incorporated in the British soldiers' pantheon of slang as synonymous with doing all right.  In overcoming the cult of Rommel, however, it appears that things were not "all Sir Garnet" for the desert generals!

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