Field Marshal Erwin Rommel shortly after arriving in North Africa-Unknown date, 1941
Rommel was able to get a combat command due to his relationship with Hitler. Rommel had known Hitler for years and had asked Hitler for a combat command. In France his division became known as the Ghost Division. That’s generally seen as praise. However, it was called that because no one in his own chain of command ever knew where it was because Rommel kept out running his own lines of communication and command. If his French opponents had been more on the ball they could have cut him off in a Kessel (surrounded) and destroyed him.
German military officers were trained to think for themselves. Today this is known as Mission Type Tactics. The commander was supposed to give an order which stated the resources available to be used (troops, tanks, etc) and the objective. It was up to the lower ranked officers to use their own initiative in how to obtain the objective.
Rommel however was quite an interfering General. He gave orders with specific instructions and expected them to be followed to the letter. He would also drive around the front and give orders to soldiers thus cutting their actual officers off (there’s accounts of him issuing individual targets to anti tank guns rather than let their own officers decide and almost being killed by the return fire. In fact, Rommel lost quite a few aids while “touring” the front in this manner). This could lead to confusion and also resentment. Rommel was loved by the enlisted men under his command and quite detested by his officers as they considered him interfering and that he didn’t trust them to do their actual jobs.
By going around the front Rommel also quite often cut himself off from everyone. No one knew where he was and it could be quite difficult to get in communication with him.
People also seem to cherry pick things Rommel did or said to prove he was great. They will point out that Rommel believed the Allies would invade Normandy but then leave out that he thought said invasion would be a feint which made him like every other German officer.
I also think that Rommel looked good in North Africa due to the Allies helping him with that image. Churchill “stole” quite a lot of troops from Wavell for the impossible task of defending Greece. Wavell was so worried about his job that he didn’t say anything and thus made it easier for Rommel to attack him, which Rommel did against orders. Wavell also isn’t considered one of Britain’s finest. It is easier to look great if your opponent isn’t.
A lot of people try to make North Africa look like this huge battle for the control of the Suez Canal, to block access to oil fields in the Middle East, etc and thus state that Rommel was sent there as he was the best of the best. In reality the years of war in North Africa were pretty much because Rommel disobeyed orders to not attack.
Which leads me to my next point that if Rommel was so great why wasn’t he on the Eastern Front? Why was he never given that “prestigious and highly important command?” In the West we like to “pretend” that North Africa and Western Europe were every bit as important as the Russian Front, but to the Germans the Russian Front was it. That’s where they sent over 2/3 of their military and suffered 80% of their casualties. Rommel wasn’t even privy to knowing that the invasion of the Soviet Union would be happening which is why he thought when he launched his attack across North Africa that he would quickly be given all the men and supplies he would need. Sadly for him this wouldn’t be the case.
Rommel though was a gallant enemy. He didn’t order his men to execute troops. He didn’t set out to oppress Jewish populations. If he could have avoided this on the Eastern Front we’ll never know, but we can credit him for it where he did fight. In fact, he is said to have ripped up an order from Hitler that ordered him to execute prisoners and then announced that the order wasn’t clear to those around him.
The Australian General Morshead considered Rommel to be highly predictable in how he would initially attack. This is one of the reasons why he failed to take Tobruk from the mostly Australian garrison. Morshead was able to time and time again work out where Rommel would attack and would have the needed defences there to resist. Morshead said that if Rommel had shown a bit more unpredictability the “Fortress” would have fallen as the defenders did not have enough antitank guns, etc to defend everywhere.
I feel that a lot of people talk Rommel up because he’s well known and he’s the “Nazi” you can openly talk about respecting without people looking at you funny. However, I would say he was a mediocre general who was promoted above his means due to his relationship with Hitler. He was a captain trapped in the body of a General/Field Marshal. As a captain things he did wouldn’t have been a problem, in fact they would have worked well. As a general though he acted as a captain. Rommel is quite often praised for his tactical abilities. Tactics though (the small scale stuff, what soldiers do in battle) wasn’t supposed to be what a general worried about.