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David Irving 
"Rommel: The Trail of the Fox"

Rommel in Africa

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David Irving recalls something of the history of this book:


RommelIT IS over twenty-five years since I wrote The Trail of the Fox, my famous Rommel biography. Like several other books, I wrote it for Tom Congdon's then publishing house William Morrow Inc. In London it was greedily snapped up and published by George Weidenfeld.

Congdon had previously edited the book "Jaws" for a writer called Peter Benchley who had never written a book in his life; after this Tom edited my book The War Between the Generals and then Göring after that. He became a good friend -- his wife Connie was MUCH more difficult, a real southern belle, and very full of her ancestry -- but he has now long retired to Nantucket and I have lost sight of him, at least he does not respond to letters or e-mails.

In writing The Trail of the Fox I used some experimental literary devices: one was the use of the present tense (and italic type) to describe the hunt for the Rommel story, and the past tense to tell the story itself. The devices seem to have worked.

The book was really a spin-off from the Hitler biography, in the sense that Frazier spun-off from Cheers, though rather less lucratively.

There was a lot of hard research into the subject, but it was rewarding. I was always bemused, for instance, that German history doyen Professor Eberhard Jäckel, writing his much praised work Hitler und Frankreich, did not ever bother to read the original files of Army Group B (Rommel) or C-in-C West (Rundstedt, Kluge), but relied just on the published, and highly dubious, memoirs of generals like Hans Speidel.

Jäckel had no excuse. The records were in the archives in super-abundance, but the scholars have always preferred sitting in their book-lined caves to going out into the field where Real History is to be mined.

Lucie Rommel gave me permission to use her husband's 2,000 odd letters to her -- far more valuable than diaries, I have always felt, as letters once posted can't be retrieved and altered. But I did also find found several sections of the original and unpublished Rommel diary, scattered between The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, and Germany.

In the National Archives, in Washington DC, I found several hundred pages of shorthand, which I (rightly) guessed were his North Africa diaries; for six months I struggled to find somebody who could read that shorthand -- it was Deutsche Einheitskurzschrift -- and then my own secretary, Jutta Padel, picked up a page on my desk and found she could read it straight off. Therefore luck played an equally large part.

After transcribing the hundreds of pages of these unknown diaries, I placed them all on microfilm, and donated the originals to the German government's miitary archives. Since July 1993 I have been banned from those archives.

Reliance on these original Rommel letters and diaries (and those of Vice-Admiral Gerd Rüge, who turned out to have sanitised his own secret shorthand diaries in transcribing them himself) provided the clue to the book's main arguments: that Rommel was innocent of plotting against Hitler, and that a conspiratorial web was woven around him by his chief of staff Hans Speidel, who later successfully alleged to the Gestapo that Rommel was "one of them" (the traitors) in order to save his own skin.

Speidel, by then top NATO commander in Europe, threatened to sue; the German newspapers were full of his laments, but then he withdrew his writ, for evident reasons.

The family of the traitor Alexander von Roenne (he had been hanged in 1944) were equally displeased with the book, and pressed the German publisher to make modifications, more as a matter of good taste than for any other reason. I greatly admired the way that Roenne's sons had stuck up for their traitorous father in approaching me, which was the real reason why I allowed the minor changes.


NONE of my books made as much money as did my Rommel biography, nor earn such unstinted praise, but this was in a sense inadvertent.

It was promoted by a very fine German publishing house, Hoffmann & Campe (HoCa), and serialized in Der Spiegel for several weeks as Rommel: The End of a Legend.

Rommel in SpiegelAlready then the German news magazine felt obliged to apologise to readers in an editorial for serializing a book by me, and it was indeed the last of the five that they did serialize. HoCa never published another book by me, as their leftwing authors (primarily Günter Grass) threatened to withdraw their own works and go to other publishers.

The pressures of the traditional enemy were already building, as Hitler's War was published at the same time, and I recall that when HoCa sent me on a lecture tour of Germany to promote the book, I experienced the first ugly demonstrations outside a little bookstore in Nuremberg where I had autographed books for the audience.

Funded sometimes by the East German government, and sometimes by the West German trades unions, those demonstrations afterwards turned into full scale riots, with sometimes 500 or 1,000 riot police called out to protect the hall I spoke in. One of the latter riots was in Stuttgart, where Erwin's son Manfred was by then Lord Mayor. He ruefully rebuked me for the cost in police time of my visits to his city.

And then the police turned round, and it was no longer meine Wenigkeit, my humble literary person, that was being protected, but the angry mob. That is another story.

There were however well-earned blessings too. Before my second book, The Mare's Nest, appeared in 1967 I had voluntarily bowed to an edict of the Cabinet Office that I delete the chapter revealing The Ultra Secret. (It is restored in the recent online edition).

Ten years later, in the mid 1970s I received a call from the Cabinet Office to come round to their building, as they had something for me. Sitting at the same polished mahogany table at which the fierce committee of a dozen nameless civil servants had dictated the prohibition to me, I was now given a brown, ancient folder, an inch thick, stuffed with papers, and left alone with it.

It was Rommel's original personnel file, his 201 file, snatched from beneath American military noses by British officers in southern Germany and brought back to London for safe keeping. The file began with a letter written by Rommel's father to the Württemberg artillery regiment, asking if it would have a vacancy for his young son Erwin to enlist as a cadet; and it ended with Rommel's final letter to the Führer, as he prepared to commit suicide.

Years later, walking home through Mayfair, I bumped into Professor R V Jones, wartime scientific Intelligence chief at the Air Ministry. He had become a good friend over the years, and he revealed that Her Majesty's government regarded the gift of the Rommel file as a proper quid pro quo, a mark of gratitude for having kept that secret. "There was panic, you know," he said. "You had never signed the Official Secrets Act, and they could not have touched you."

ONCE again my thanks are due to Linda Nelson of Chicago for her fine work in preparing the biography for the Internet. Readers, pray give a nod in the direction of Chicago as you open and enjoy these pages.

First posted: Saturday, November 9, 2002

CongdonThomas Congdon (left, in 1979) and Connie left New York City in 1994 to live in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Recently (2000) he wrote two or three chatty human interest pieces for Forbes magazine. In one, of Nov. 2000, he describes seeing several Christmas pantomimes in England. He has also written several "vignettes" for a small Nantucket website.




R V Jones reminisces on how David Irving once missed a scoop



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