Here is the newest book review for Sunday, June 7th.

By: Steven Pressfield
Doubleday, N.Y. 2008

Steven Pressfield’s newest novel, Killing Rommel, is one of the finer World War II novels I have read. It is a simple story of both war and coming-of-age for an entire generation, yet the simplicity of style undergirds a book with great depth and insight into the generation of young men from the British nations who formed the mighty war machine which, along with the other Allied nations, defeated Germany’s finest military minds with their innovative and determined waging of the greatest international war in history.

The time is autumn of 1942. Hitler’s armies occupy Europe. France has fallen. England is isolated and under siege. In North Africa, the prospects are terribly grim. Germany’s greatest general, Erwin Rommel, heads the Afrika Korps of the German Army, and his audacious leadership, coupled with the professionalism of the Germany Army, has secured much of North Africa; while imminently threatening Egypt, Suez, and the oilfields of the Middle East. Should Rommel capture Suez and the Middle East oilfields, the supremacy of Germany would be almost assured. Without passage through Suez and the oil of the Middle East, the Allied forces will be practically defeated through denial of the petroleum on which modern armies run.

The story of the campaign which eventually defeated the Afrika Korps is narrated through the memoirs of R. Lawrence Chapman, an English publisher who, as a young lieutenant, found himself attached to the British Long Range Desert Group: a secret group of soldiers whose mission was to penetrate the German lines in the Sahara and perform intelligence-gathering, espionage, and bold attacks on specific targets to weaken the Afrika Korps’ ability to achieve their objectives. The frontpiece inscription of the book is taken from the initial British Army Circular in 1940 which called for volunteers. It reads: Only men who do not mind a hard life, with scanty food, little water and lots of discomfort, men who possess stamina and initiative, need apply.

Chapman finds himself attached to the Long Range Desert Group from his normal tank unit. He is attached only for a short time to gain certain information necessary for armored unit movement across certain areas of the Sahara. His attachement, however, stretches out as he becomes more-and-more valuable to the Long Range Group. He finally ends up as a patrol leader in the campaign led by General Montgomery which finally defeated the Afrika Korps. In the midst of all this, he participates in one particularly interesting mission: a super-secret mission to kill Erwin Rommel.

Through the eyes of Lt. Chapman we find ourselves accompanying the Long Range Desert Group on several missions, and then we enter the action surrounding the single patrol to kill Rommel. Following the unsuccessful attempt, the Group then guides Montgomery’s army to accessible routes against the Afrika Korps in the final drives of that campaign.

Pressfield’s Lt. Chapman is completely believable, especially in the way in which Pressfield has captured the psychology of the generation as well as the language, complete with slang and the various dialects of the soldiers comprising the LRDG’s makeup from the far corners of The British Empire. The action and the hardships of the group have a phenomenal touch of the real stories from that conflict, and the reader is readily transported into the world and action of the Africa Campaign of World War II.

Rommel is portrayed as the almost-mystical character he became to both the troops of the Allied armies as well as the men of the Axis powers. His lead-from-the-front style and his adherence to the chivalry of a time-long-past make him into the sort of figure whose very presence can change the direction of a major battle in a split-second. His gallantry in the single experience Chapman has with the general is a beautiful portrayal of the power such a man has to change the pages of history.

The book is presented as being published after Lt. Chapman’s death. His godson, a New York publisher publishes Chapman’s memoir following his death. In the postscript, the godson describes Chapman’s funeral. After the funeral he talks with a New Zealander who has made the flight to be present at the funeral: he is Chapman’s sergeant; Sgt. Collier. He stays only long enough to attend the funeral and to make a visit to the gravesite. The godson finds that Sgt. Collier has left something on the gravestone. I let the novel’s final words speak for themselves.

On the shelf supporting the headstone sat a tiny toy truck painted in desert camouflage-a ’42 Chevrolet 30-hundredweight. I picked it up and held it for a moment in the winter light. I could see the minature sun compass and radiator condenser, the Browning and the twin Vickers Ks. Three soldiers in desert garb manned the vehicle: a driver, a gunner, and-standing, with his binoculars pressed to his eyes-a patrol commander.

This book is not only good, but it has something of a mystical touch with the men and the time in which it takes place. I found myself mesmerized as I read. Seldom do we find such good historical fiction. You will not be disappointed in reading the fine work.

Good Reading,
Curtis Rivers


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