Erwin Rommel was a German WWII general who is still studied in military schools and is considered one of the great strategists of battlefield tactics. In the North Africa theater, he marshalled the German and Italian soldiers who had been beaten back to Tunisia. In a series of lightening battles he beat back the allies all the way within miles of Cairo. Losing Egypt would have threatened the entire Allied supply and communication channel through to the colonies and could very well have turned the tide of the entire war. He was eventually overwhelmed by insurmountable odds, but even in full retreat, he managed to extract the bulk of his army without being captured by the Allies.
On a darker note, Rommel was a German general under who’s leadership some have argued that war crimes occurred. That said, he also opposed the Nazi party when he could and collaborated with the last plot to remove Hitler from power. We may never know the full extent of involvement in the crimes of the war, but we do know quite a bit about how he led on the battlefield, both from his own troops and from his prisoners, who by and large praised his leadership. One area that Rommel also excelled at was working with very limited and dwindling resources.
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Rommel was not the inventor of the famous Blitzkrieg (lightening) style of warfare that was so successful in the conquest of much of Europe, but as commanding officer of tank and infantry divisions in both the Polish and French campaigns, he was a quick study. A good general learns not just from the past, but also adapts what is learned to the present situation.
When he arrived in North Africa, the ample resources that made the European military engagements so successful were not there. Because the Royal Navy still dominated most of the Mediterranean, and especially the critical base of Malta between Italy and Lybia, nearly 60% of the armaments, supplies, food, fuel and personnel were captured or destroyed before they could reach the battlefront in North Africa.
Another problem with the geography was that much of the intelligence that he would need to rely on was compromised. Not only was crucial intelligence lost every time a crossing was captured or destroyed, but it was also clear that the allies had significant knowledge of German and Italian strategic communications, both from their active intelligence network on the ground but also because they were actively cracking top secret communications between North Africa and mainland Europe, including instructions directly from Berlin.
To address these issues, Rommel needed to change his tactics. Rather than sticking to strict procedures as was typical in the German military hierarchy, he implemented processes that were more fluid and adapted to the new conditions. He transformed the expedient Blitzkrieg model of rainy Europe to desert warfare. It turns out that the ability to transform an entire military campaign according to the ever changing conditions of the battlefield was something he was uniquely qualified for.
To address the depleted morale of the troops he put himself on the front lines, dug trenches with the men, ate their rations and most importantly, regularly spoke and interacted with them. Successful generals have done this throughout history, and it is possible that as a student of history he took their example, but while those generals eventually stopped doing this as they rose in rank, he did not. Rommel was always on the front, in almost every battle. When rations ran low and water was scarce, he made sure that he and the other officers received the same amount of water & food as the regular troops.
Another problem in the army was the discord between Italians and Germans, each considering the other inferior (a natural effect of Nazism). This caused obvious problems on the battlefield as different regiments and units would be assigned more dangerous missions. Rommel would have none of it. He treated both Italian soldiers and German soldiers the same without prejudice.
As a further example, he insisted that captured prisoners be treated with the same respect as his own soldiers would want to be treated when captured. They were treated humanely and were given the same rations of water and food as his own men. Against direct orders from Berlin, he also refused to execute soldiers of Jewish and African descent and he kept SS units further back from the front lines to limit their access to the prisoners. He was not just being compliant with established conventions on the treatment of POWs, but doing so served as a powerful example to his men, one that he needed to make to earn their respect.
Adapting the Blitzkrieg to the new environment, Rommel frequently used fewer tanks, men, fuel and supplies than what was traditionally expected. It confused both German/Italian superiors and, more importantly, the Allies. He eschewed reserves and moved quickly to take advantage of situations. This ensured lightning fast maneuvers, often catching allies by surprise and allowing his units to frequently win engagements with far fewer tanks and troops than his enemies. Instead of the long, slow lumbering logistical lines of the Allies, Rommel often ran circles around them, literally. Of course, Rommel often didn’t have the necessary armaments, supplies and reserves in the first place, so this was a convenient adaptation to the environment he was fighting in.
To address the problem of compromised intelligence, he kept Berlin, Rome and headquarters in Tunisia in the dark about his exact plans, sometimes even sending purposely vague or cryptic plans up the chain. As the need arose, he even changed strategies mid-battle. Since he could count on the utmost loyalty of his own officers and troops, they were more willing to make these last minute changes. This ensured that his orders were followed, but that they would not so easily be found out by enemy spies. Obviously this did create consternation from his superiors, but his successes on the battlefield overshadowed this.
Rommel exemplified the adaptable general on the battlefield. So what can we learn from this in our own projects and assignments today?
1. Demonstrate that you are willing to work alongside the team
A good leader works in the trenches with the team. When resources are limited, time is of the essence, or there are significant consequences to failure, that is when leaders need to be actively involved in every aspect of the project. The team members need to see that the leader is fully invested in the success (and prevention of failure) for the project. There certainly is a time to pull rank, but that is best used in moderation, or when criticism intrudes, often from outside of the team. Likewise, when resources are limited a good leader knows that her/his own privileges and rewards are inappropriate and eschews them or distributes them between the entire team.
2. Treat all team members with respect and dignity
Treating all members of the team as equals is unconditionally important. Yes, there are always going to be differences in skills, motivations, and experience, but each member of the team is there for a reason. A good leader works to bring out those attributes that contribute to achieving the stated objective. Most importantly, a leader should never participate in or condone the mistreatment of team members based on physical attributes, whether this is obvious such as gender/race, or whether it is subtler such as an autistic tendency. Everyone is there for a reason and should be rewarded for it. When resources and rewards are limited, this magnanimity goes a long way to bypass the worry over resources and to drive engagement in the team.
3. Use only the resources you need to meet your stated goals
Rommel proceeded with just the troops, tanks and supplies he needed to reach his objectives. Sometimes officers were surprised that Rommel had already left camp in the morning well ahead of them. A good team leader should know exactly how much is needed to complete a specific objective. The rest is often superfluous and negatively impacts progress. When you are dealing with limited resources, this is a convenient convergence of interests. A good leader uses scarcity to her/his advantage.
4. Inform superiors about the general progress, but not the details
As a process of expediency this can be effectively applied, but keeping information from superiors has risks. Rommel had a personal relationship with Hitler at the very top so he could depend on this connection to minimize the criticism from other superiors. Typically, if the goal is a short-term objective and the ramifications are bearable, then it can be justified. A good leader knows how to balance this. A good leader may even take chances if she/he knows that competitors are likely to steal from or compromise the project, but it is also a careful balancing act. Of course, communications, whether through meetings or online, do take time and could incur additional expenses, so it may be possible to justify keeping superiors partially in the dark on those grounds, but as mentioned, this is a difficult balancing act.
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It bears repeating that Rommel was eventually implicated by the SS in the plot to assassinate Hitler. They gave him the option of a public trial which could endanger his family, or to quietly commit suicide. He chose the latter. Had he survived the war, there probably would have been much more we could have learned from Erwin Rommel. While his military career will always be stained by his affiliation with some of the worst figures and events of WWII, we can still learn quite a bit from the successes and setbacks of this historic figure.
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