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The Journal of Military History 68.3 (2004) 1058-1059

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Letters to the Editor

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To the Editor:

At long last an answer to a lingering mystery of military history. In 1941, the U.S. writer Major Paul W. Thompson, USA, published a sparkling volume on German combat in Poland, the West, and the Balkans entitled Modern Battle (New York: Norton). Thompson translated articles from numerous German periodicals and put them together as chapters in his insightful book. The chapter entitled "A Panzer Division Crosses the Meuse," contains two striking examples of German command style particularly as concerns the location of the leader in combat and his personal intervention in the battle.

The assault boats were stopped. . . .

At this critical moment, there appeared on the river bank none other than the commanding general of the division. He had come forward (says our chronicler) the hard and dangerous way, crawling and freezing and bounding and taking his chances just like any other soldier. The general saw that the crossing was to be no set-up, and what was needed was some supporting fire.

The general's reaction was to order some of the medium tanks to positions close to the river. [Division artillery had been unable to maintain the pace in the rush to the Meuse.] . . . The tanks came up . . . and opened up with machine guns and cannon . . . the crossing attempt was resumed, and this time was successful.

The second example:

The crossing operation was still in its early phase when a new menace developed. . . . Belgian tanks, reported to be sweeping down from the north obviously with a view to snuffing out the bridgehead before it could be consolidated. . . .

Here again the general had the answer—had it in the form of a strategem which would read more appropriately in Terry and the Pirates than in Militaerwissenschaftliche Rundschau . The general ordered the infantry to open fire—with flare pistols. The order was carried out. And so, as the tanks advanced through the mists, the crews saw themselves under fire of projectiles, which left firey trails over flat trajectories. According to our chronicler, the Belgian crews concluded (as the general said they would) that they were running into a mass of antitank guns, which at the moment were sighting in with a few tracer rounds. Thereupon, the tanks turned and left the field (as the general said they would).

Here one sees a division commander (Generalmajor or one-star) leading from the front at the decisive point in a mobile advance. Through his battle [End Page 1058] fighting command style, he effected immediate command reaction at the division level. It is difficult to imagine a U.S. division commander today in the midst of a vast command post surrounded by overly numerous staff assistants bound by procedure and formula reacting with such speed. The source articles because of wartime security measures did not identify either "the general" or the division. The answer can now be revealed: the division commander was Generalmajor Erwin Rommel, his formation, the 7th Panzer Division, the first to cross the Meuse in 1940.

Russell H. S. Stolfi
Emeritus, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School
Monterey, California

To the Editor:

In my review of Chester Hearn's Sorties into Hell: The Hidden War on Chichi Jima (JMH 68 [April 2004]: 641-42), I inadvertently misspelled Col. Preston Rixey's name (top of p. 642, twice). It is Rixey, NOT Rixley. Mea culpa.

Stanley L. Falk
Alexandria, Virginia



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pp. 1058-1059
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