Killing Rommel: A Novel
War and honour in the desert
By Steven Martinovich
Steven Pressfield has justly developed a loyal following for his series of historical novels set in ancient times, efforts which include Gates of Fire and The Virtues of War. It will come as a surprise to many perhaps that his latest effort also takes place in the past, but within living memory for many. Chariots and swords have been replaced by tanks and rifles but warrior remains the same.
Killing Rommel: A Novel is presented as the memoir of Second World War British officer Lawrence "Chap" Chapman, who relates the story of his early pre-war student years and an incredible mission – and based on an actual British plan – to assassinate Erwin Rommel. As is typical of Pressman, Killing Rommel is a masterful balance of attention to historical detail and compelling story, all told from the perspective of a man on the ground.
Chap's story begins as a youth at a typical British private school, torture chambers in peace but veritable factories for strong officers during wartime, where he meets the bohemian Zachary Stein. The two form a friendship which sees Stein serve as the younger man's mentor, a relationship that takes them through Oxford. Following in the footsteps of his friend, Chap joins the British army at the outset of World War II. He soon finds himself part of a tank platoon in the Middle East but far from the action. Eventually he's able to temporarily transfer to the Long Range Desert Group, a group of elite soldiers who travel across North Africa fighting a guerilla war against the German and Italian armies.
He arrives in time for a momentous mission: The LRDG has been tasked to cross hundreds of miles of desert under threat of constant attack from the air and ground, outflank the German army, penetrate into the rearguard and kill General Erwin Rommel, an officer simultaneously respected and feared by the Allies. The group chosen for what is likely a one-way mission will receive minimal support from the British army while dealing with constant enemy patrols and attacks.
As difficult as the mission is on paper, reality proves even more problematic. The North African desert is adept that chewing up men and vehicles – both of which need extensive repairs and maintenance to keep going – and the fog of war even sees the LRDG blunder right into a German column. Chap, who notes that he's not the same type of soldier as the hardened and very capable killers of the LRDG, is agonized by a murderous encounter he has with some Italian troops. The mission eventually becomes a test of endurance that stretches the men and their machines to their very limits – all in pursuit of a single man.
Although it's doubtless that some pedants will find minor errors in Killing Rommel, the novel does an admirable job in detailing the LRDG, its weapons and tactics and how a mission to kill Rommel might have unfolded. Several of the characters are actual historical characters who participated in LRDG raids during the Second World War. The story itself clips along at a good pace even though a majority of the action takes place in the last third of the novel – and concludes with an encounter which in lesser hands might have been gimmicky. In Pressfield's hands the incident rings as completely plausible.
As with his previous efforts, Killing Rommel illustrates Pressfield's ability to get inside the head of a soldier and tell the story as they would. Although the novel is ostensibly about a mission to kill the head of the Afrikakorps, it is really the story of men coming together under adverse circumstances in the brotherhood that Shakespeare's Henry V spoke of in his St. Crispin's Day speech. Pressfield may have chosen a different era to set his latest story but he remains as compelling as ever.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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