It took me a couple of days to finalize this review, during which I debated how many stars I should give the book. Considering the actual readability, excitement, and enjoyability factor, four stars seemed about right. On the other hand, the veracity of many elements that make this book exciting, readable, or even historically accurate is questionable, making two stars more appropriate. In the end, I compromised and gave it three. Why is that?
On the surface, this is a really good book. It moves along quite nicely, with plenty of action on nearly every page (once it gets going). It concerns the exploits of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), a highly specialized, elite group of mainly British soldiers who operated in Africa behind German lines. Their mission was to harass the enemy, blow up things, and generally give Rommel’s army a hard time while the Allies gathered the forces necessary to push him out of Africa. The men who comprised the LRDG were brave, motivated, and relentless, and seemed to thrive on hardship.
The story is told from the perspective of a young army officer, a guy named Chapman. According to the author, Chapman (or “Chap”) kept a journal of his exploits during the war. This journal, which Chapman crafted into a book but never published, was mailed to him in the form of a manuscript after Chapman’s death.
At the beginning of WWII, Chap volunteered for army service fresh out of college. He first served in an armored company where he commanded a detachment of tanks. He saw harrowing action, lost men and tanks constantly, and often escaped only by the skin of his teeth. Eventually he was attached to the LRDG.
LRDG members were divided into various groups, or patrols, and proceeded to operate throughout the desert with the ultimate goal of finding and killing General Rommel. They endured tremendous hardship as they fought against insufferable heat, impassable desert terrain, impossible odds, and a well prepared enemy commanded by one of the greatest, most inspiring generals in history. Their vehicles broke down, the men got sick or killed, and they found themselves in one inescapable situation after another.
But here’s the rub. The action seems a little too much, the escapes a little too close. You start to wonder how much of this is true and whether some of it is embellishment or outright fantasy. Then you remember that little paragraph at the beginning of the book:
“…All military units are real, with the exception of T3 Patrol and…22nd Armoured Brigade, which are fictional. Everything about Rommel’s history and death is true. All incidents concerning the reconnaissance and outflanking of the Mareth Line…excepting those involving T3 Patrol, actually happened.”
And you realize that T3 Patrol is the unit to which Chap is attached, and it is the unit that seems to experience the majority of those close calls, including a highly improbable event involving Chap, T3, and a guy named Irwin. And suddenly, your belief in the whole book is in question. What happened and what didn’t?
There is no doubt that much of the book is based on fact, that the research was meticulous, that the LRDG did some unbelievably brave and daring things, and events unfolded as described, at least the major ones. But the minute by minute action revolves around Chap and his “T3 Patrol”, so you can’t help but think this work of historical fiction is more fiction and less history. This thought is reinforced by a quote from the author at the end of the book:
“Chap venerated the novel. To him fiction was not merely a medium of amusement or diversion…but a field upon which the experience of a single individual could be made accessible to others with a power and immediacy that no other medium could reproduce.”
So… What is this book? It is most certainly a novel. It contains many references to fact, and on a large scale it follows history closely. The majority of the story, however, seems to be just that: a story. I am a big fan of Steven Pressfield, and his book “Gates of Fire” ranks among my top ten of all time. However, I can’t help but feel that the book about the Spartans contains at least as much truth as this one.
Finally, the title is rather misleading. “Killing Rommel”? He appears in the book only once, and nobody actually killed him, at least no one who wanted to.
This is a good book as long as you don’t read too closely between the lines; otherwise you will be tempted to place it closer to the bottom of your list of favorite Steven Pressfield books.