recalls something of the history of this
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
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
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
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
Jäckel had no excuse. The records were
in the archives in super-abundance, but the
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sections of the original and unpublished Rommel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
After transcribing the hundreds of pages of
these unknown diaries, I placed them all on
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
V Jones reminisces on how David Irving once
missed a scoop