Monty and Rommel: Parallel Lives

Robert Lyman applauds a masterful joint biography of two of the Second World War’s most celebrated generals

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Reviewed by: Robert Lyman
Author: Peter Caddick-Adams
Publisher: Preface
Price (RRP): £20

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This bringing together of two biographies in a single comparative format is the literary equivalent of a supermarket multi-buy deal, the ‘buy one get one free’. Unlike many of its retail equivalents, however, this book is exceptionally good value, not least in the extraordinary depth of detail, context and analysis applied by the author to his two subjects. 

Caddick-Adams combines two of the generals most well known to front-line British soldiers fighting in Europe and the Mediterranean in the Second World War.

Erwin Rommel was more famous than any of his British counterparts, to the fighting troops
at least, until the arrival of Monty in command of the Eighth Army in Egypt in August 1942. One soldier I have interviewed about the desert war, Private Alex Franks, remarked unashamedly that he would have preferred to have been commanded by Rommel than any of the British generals under which he had the misfortune to be led in 1940 and 1941.

The rampant mythologising of the Desert Fox among British troops was a real concern to the British authorities in north Africa in 1941 and 1942. This was demonstrated in part by the famous memorandum by Claude Auchinleck (British commander-in-chief in the Middle East) in 1942 which ended with the remark: “I am not afraid of Rommel”.

Deeply amused, Rommel kept a translated copy of the order in his papers. It was no secret that many British soldiers were like Alex Franks because, until November 1942 at least, Rommel had won most of his battles while most of their own leaders had demonstrated no great success at all. 

In bringing these two men together Caddick-Adams employs no clunky, contrived artifice: the parallels between the two men, in terms of their characters and histories, are extraordinary, and enable him to produce a quite brilliant piece of writing. Here in a single volume we have a first-rate exposé of two of the war’s best known commanders, to
a British audience at least.

In late 1942 into early 1943, and then again in Normandy in 1944, the two men can be seen perhaps as duellists, but the uncanny links in their lives began as early as the First World War. Then in 1940, unknown to each other, they commanded divisions (Monty the 3rd Infantry Division of the BEF and Rommel the famous 7th Panzer Division) on opposite sides during the German invasion of France in 1940. 

The danger in a book of this nature would be to produce separate commentaries on the two subjects, held together by the thin thread of a common chronology. Caddick-Adams succeeds in avoiding this pitfall, building a beautifully proportioned picture of two great men in which their lives and histories, both professional and personal, are carefully and closely interwoven, not chapter-by-chapter, but within each chapter, the rich context of their lives intricately painted carefully on a vast and detailed canvas.

Indeed the book bursts at the seams: if Caddick-Adams were a landscape painter his book would be the equivalent of Monet, full of rich and intriguing colours and patterns. The resultant effect is spectacular, and Caddick-Adams is to be congratulated on his achievement. 

It is as though this is Caddick-Adams’s first and last book: he has attempted to pack in everything he knows (and as a lecturer and professional military historian, this is vast) but the sheer volume of material, comment and analysis is in no way overpowering. His close links with modern military doctrine are clearly observable to those in the know, but this knowledge is not intrusive, being illuminatory rather than a peacock’s display of the author’s knowledge.

I feel I have learned more from this book than from a plethora of others on similar subjects. 

The book is not immune from the minor errors that bedevil every author, no matter how diligent they be (eg Montgomery’s mother was 16 when married on page six but only 14 on page eight). But this is nit-picking, for this is a quite brilliant book, written with passion and verve.

Caddick-Adams allows his writing to be suffused with quite evident and attractive enthusiasm for his subjects (and deep knowledge) combined with the urge found only in the best writers to convey the excitement of his discoveries to the widest possible audience. Bravo! 

Robert Lyman is the author of The Longest Siege: Tobruk – The Battle That Saved North Africa (Macmillan, 2009)

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