Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fox at the Front

The second alternate history novel I wrote with Doug Niles was a sequel to Fox on the Rhine, featured last week. Fox at the Front continues the story of an alternate history in which the bomb plot of 1944 succeeded in killing Adolf Hitler.

Critical response to this book was quite favorable. Publishers Weekly wrote, “The authors' attention to military detail and maneuvers would satisfy any drill instructor, and they imbue even minor historical characters with authenticity and personality, demonstrating how an individual's actions and reactions shape history. This is a thoroughly plausible what-if scenario, and as such will please and titillate alternate history fans, WWII buffs, war gamers and others.”

Roland Green in Booklist wrote, “The outstanding sequel to Fox on the Rhine (2000) continues Niles and Dobson's alternate World War II to its bloody conclusion. [...] Character-centered alternate history is not that common, and this is an eminently successful example of it, thanks to Niles and Dobson's work on real and fictional characterizations alike and their choice of Rommel as principal protagonist. Standing head and shoulders above its predecessor, this is must reading for imaginative WWII buffs.”

There's also a Wikipedia page for the book.

This scene from the book's beginning chronicles Rommel's surrender to the Allies.

27 December 1944

Armeegruppe B Headquarters, Dinant, Belgium, 0529 hours GMT

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had never thought that surrendering would prove to be so complicated.  He had personally forced the capitulation of thousands of enemy soldiers in two wars and numerous campaigns, and it had always seemed like a straightforward procedure.  He would call upon them to lay down their arms, they would do so, and he would detail sufficient guards to escort them to the nearest POW holding facility.  Very quickly they would become the responsibility of some rear echelon formation, and he would maintain his focus on the continuing battle.

But now there was no continuing battle, neither for him nor for his great army group. His head ached and his eye, the one that had been wounded by an Allied bomb the previous summer, watered constantly.  This was annoying, but not unprecedented.  Sometimes he thought he’d fought more of his battles sick than well.  Of course, there was not only the pain and stress of this surrender, but the price for several sleepless nights finally catching up with him.

He took a sip of cold and somewhat stale coffee, and glanced out the window for a moment.  It was still dark, new clouds coming in, harbinger of yet more dreary December weather in Belgium.  The dark was penetrated by the headlamps of motor vehicles and guardpost lights, a monocolored illumination that gave everything it touched an eerie, unearthly look, as if he was looking at the surface of the moon.  With all the fighting this poor city had taken, the resemblance to the lunar surface was even greater.  Heaps of rubble were strewn everywhere.  At the very limit of his vision, a single tree stood bare and unadorned, facing the elements.

Rommel turned back to the details of the order of battle.  Armeegruppe B, consisting of the vast majority of German forces in the West, included three complete armies:  the 5th Panzer Army, under von Manteuffel, the 6th Panzer Army, under Guderian, and the 7th Army under Brandenberger.  Two more panzer armies had been relocated from the Eastern Front after the Soviet treaty had been signed; they were in reserve behind the Westwall and the Rhine River.  While the 6th Panzer Army was stopped at the Meuse, elements of the 5th Panzer Army had already crossed the river at Dinant before the remaining bridges had been destroyed, and were trapped without hope of resupply or relief deep behind enemy lines.

His job was to arrange the surrender of all those forces, and looking at some of the individual divisions and their commanders, he knew that not all of them would surrender.  What would happen then, he did not know.

He had another concern, for his wife Lucie and son Manfred.  As soon as he realized that surrender was a necessity, he had telephoned Lucie at their home in Herrlingen.  Quickly, using agreed-upon code words, he’d told her to grab Manfred and leave.  There were people in Bitburg he trusted, and he had arranged a rendezvous there.  He worried, but there was nothing more he could do.

The Desert Fox turned back from the window.  He was not alone.  Sitting at the conference table was his opposite number, General George S. Patton, who had driven in a jeep with a small escort to accept his surrender.  Rommel had studied Patton for years, had been aware of Patton even before the war started, but of course they had never met.  And while he would no doubt have appreciated a meeting with Patton after the war was over, two victorious generals comparing observations, this was not the meeting he had in mind.   Rommel was determined to be gracious, but it was hard not to feel some bitterness as well.  Patton and the Americans had such a materiel advantage that the campaign had been lopsided from the start.

Patton, though by all accounts a rather brusque and insensitive man, was obviously aware of the essential awkwardness of the situation.  His first words to him had been, “I thought Infanterie Greift An was a masterpiece.  I’ve read it fourteen times.”

Infanterie Greift An was Rommel’s first book, a study of infantry tactical operations based on analysis of Rommel’s own World War I campaigns.  The book had first catapulted him to public recognition, and had set the stage for much of his later advancement.  “Thank you,” he had replied.  In an effort to return the compliment, he added, “I thought your advance to the Westwall was rather a masterpiece as well.”

Patton had laughed as soon as the remark was translated.  His laugh was irresistible and hearty, much like the man himself.   Rommel felt himself almost unwillingly put at ease, to like the American general, even under the difficult and painful circumstances.

While the official surrender had first taken place at the more-or-less neutral setting of the Church of Notre Dame in the lower city of Dinant, the business end of the process had quickly led to the parties relocating to Armeegruppe B headquarters just outside the city.  Accompanying Patton was General Henry Wakefield of the US 19th Armored Division, which had successfully attacked Rommel’s flank and blown the final bridge at Dinant, and Lieutenant Colonel Reid Sanger, the 19th Armored’s intelligence officer, who was acting as Patton’s translator.  Initially, Rommel had used the translation services of Chuck Porter, a captured Associated Press reporter, but Porter’s German was not up to the challenge of complex technical negotiations, so Sanger was shouldering the load for both sides.

“I believe the biggest immediate challenge is to arrange the surrender of 6th Panzer Army.  Their headquarters is here—” Rommel pointed to the map. “—near Namur.  I have sent a radio message to Generaloberst Guderian.  He sees the rationale in the same way I do, and has agreed.”

“Good,” said Patton, his incongruously high voice standing in contrast to his imposing physical demeanor.  “I read his book, too.  Our military people did translations of both his and yours.  Brilliant.  Used it a lot.”

Guderian’s Achtung Panzer was one of the seminal works on the use of armor.  “I wonder if this means Guderian and I are both guilty as authors of the crime of giving aid and comfort to the enemy,” Rommel mused, only partly in jest.  What he or Guderian could have accomplished, if only he had the resources of the Americans!

Sanger, the translator, laughed before he repeated the sentence in English.  Patton grinned when he heard the statement.  “Hell, Field Marshal, amateurs borrow, but professionals steal.  I thought you knew that.  I stole from the best.  Haven’t you gotten an idea or two from our side?”

“A few,” Rommel admitted.

“So, we’re even.  Right?”

Rommel smiled in agreement.  Patton was rather like a tank himself, barreling through obstacles as if they were not there.  He was what Rommel thought of as typically American, so cheerfully ignorant of the manners of the European gentry that it was almost charming—almost.   “I shall take that under advisement.”

Patton was already onto the next item.  His finger was pointing to the large operational map.  “So, 6th Panzer Army HQ is here.  That’s good.  I can ask Hodges to send the 99th Infantry Division from First Army down to meet them.  How about the two panzer divisions across the Meuse?”

“Now that they’re cut off from resupply, I don’t think there will be any problems.  I note that you have the British XXX Corps near Waterloo that can make contact with those units.” Rommel placed his finger on the map.  “I’ve radioed the necessary orders from this end.”  He smiled internally.  His intelligence about the Allied order of battle and location was good, and he hoped Patton would notice.

Patton did, and immediately riposted with evidence of his own intelligence.  “Now, about half of Panzer Lehr managed to cross, and its leading elements are here.”  He pointed to another spot on the map, grinning broadly.  Patton’s boyish pleasure made it difficult for Rommel to resent the bragging.

“Closer to three quarters of Panzer Lehr is actually across, but yes, the leading elements are here.  I’ve spoken with General Bayerlein, and they are withdrawing back in the direction of Dinant.”

“They’ll hit 19th Armored first, right, Henry?” asked Patton, turning to his subordinate general.

Henry Wakefield nodded.  “Combat Command B is in the upper city.  That’s Bob Jackson.  I’ll let him know to expect contact shortly.  By the way, General, I’d like to get my engineers up here.  We need a pontoon bridge across the Meuse pronto.  Plus, I’ve got some wounded I’d like to evac.”

“Good idea, Henry.  And see if you can get your kitchens to whip up a hot meal for the boys.”

After the exchange was translated, Rommel interjected.  “If my hospitals are more convenient, your wounded are more than welcome.  I would offer my own engineers in support of the bridging, but I am in the position of a surrendered foe, so cannot.  Officially, at least, we are still enemies.”

“I understand, and I appreciate the offer, Field Marshal.  I’ll check with Ballard in Combat Command A - they got the brunt of the fighting down in the lower city.”

“Combat Command A.  That was Colonel James Pulaski, correct?” Rommel asked.  He had stopped Pulaski once at the Somme, heard him accused of barbaric war crimes in the massacre of Metz, and now was in his current position because of the daring and aggressiveness of that same Pulaski.

“Yes it was.  He bought it in the attack.  Lieutenant Colonel Ballard ran the tank battalion; he’s acting CO right now.”

Rommel nodded gravely.  This was not an uncommon experience, hearing about brave men who were now dead.  “Please convey my personal respects to Lieutenant Colonel Ballard.  He and his men fought courageously and well.”

“I appreciate that as well, Field Marshal.  I’ll pass it along.  General Patton, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some work to do.”

“Go ahead, Henry.  Holler if you need me.”

“Yes, sir.”  Wakefield left the conference room, pulling out a stogie as he went.

The two old adversaries looked across the table at one another.  “General Patton, you understand my motives in this,” Rommel stated.  “In fact, you have expressed similar thoughts.

The American general grunted in response.  “The Soviet Union.  That’s right.  I guess I’m about the only one who wasn’t shocked down to his boots when the separate peace deal broke.  Those Red bastards won’t be satisfied with crushing Nazi Germany; they’ve got designs on all of Europe—hell, all the world!”

“I believe this to be true.  Our führer was always surprised that the West didn’t understand that our attack on the Soviet Union was of benefit to them as well as to us.”

“The choice we had was either Commies or Nazis.  And pardon me for saying so, but that wasn’t a hell of a choice.”

Rommel nodded.  “I understand.  But the Nazi threat is over.  Kaput.  So the choice is easier now, don’t you think?”

“And we pull your fat out of the fire at the same time?”

“We can help you.”

“You’ve surrendered.  That means you’re out of the game.”

“I understand.  But at least the way is clear for you.  This surrender not only eliminates much of the forces that would oppose your advance, but also can deliver a safe crossing of the Rhine far ahead of any schedule you could have set for yourself.”  Rommel sat back.  He needed to show Patton that surrendered or not, he still had cards to play.

As Patton chewed on the idea, Rommel reinforced.  “Armeegruppe B controls a significant section of the Westwall and numerous bridges across the Rhine.  I suggest that the Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht troops still under Berlin’s control will want to retake and reinforce the areas I have left unguarded, but it will take some time to do this.  General, I am not any longer a supporter of the Nazi government, but I am still a German.  Work with me, and I can deliver Germany safely into the hands of the West, and save us all from Soviet domination.”

“It sounds like a good idea,” Patton said slowly.  Rommel watched his body language, listened to the sound of his voice while the translator did his work.  He was swaying the American armor general, just as he planned, just as he must.

“There’s only one question,” added Patton.

“And what is that?” replied Rommel.

“Will all of your forces surrender?”

“I wish I could be sure.”

 (Copyright © 2003 by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson)

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