|Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox.|
Perhaps the most famous General of World War II was Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel. Fighting for the losing side, he had an advantage in that respect, because the top figures for the vanquished often becomes the one history looks upon most kindly, or at least whose names resonate through time: Hannibal, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, the "Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen. Rommel fits in perfectly with that lineup, and he faced the usual difficulties of a losing General, such as inadequate resources and strategic impossibilities.
Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel (15 November 1891 – 14 October 1944) was born in Heidenheim in southern Germany. He grew up with a pronounced southern accent that differentiated him from the Prussian aristocracy of the time. His father had served briefly in the military, then become a schoolteacher. He was forward-thinking, building a flyable glider and buying a motorcycle at a young age. He matriculated at the Officer Cadet School in Danzig in 1910 and was commissioned a lieutenant in the local 124th Württemberg Infantry Regiment 1912.
|Rommel as a young cadet.|
Rommel was not a choir boy, but he also was responsible. He had an affair with local girl Walburga Stemmer which produced a daughter, Gertrud, but he moved on and married Lucia Maria Mollin on 27 November 1916. They had son Manfred on 24 December 1928. Rommel's daughter was raised by her grandmother after Stemmer passed away and Rommel supported her, with everyone referring to her as his niece.
War broke out, and Rommel quickly distinguished himself, winning the Iron Cross, Second Class in 1914 and the Iron Cross, First Class the following year. He specialized in small-scale infiltration tactics, scoring the coveted Pour le Mérite in 1918 for such an action. In 1917, he led a small force of poorly fed men through the mountains and bluffed a large Italian force into surrendering at Caporetto. Rommel captured 1,500 men and 43 officers with just 3 riflemen and 2 officers to help, an astonishing feat. This began the legend of Rommel, one that he burnished by writing about it later.
|In 1915, after recovering from his first wound, Rommel returned to the trenches in France's Argonne forest. During the war he won Germany' highest decoration by capturing a mountain and thousands of Italians stationed there.|
Rommel obviously was a highly prized officer and was retained in the 100,000-man army after the war. He turned down a posting on the Truppenamt, or clandestine General Staff, preferring to develop his skills in the line. He commanded an infantry battalion, then became an instructor at the Dresden Infantry School from 1929 to 1933.
|Hauptmann (Captain) Erwin Rommel’s military (Reichswehr) driving license, 1930.|
It was a dull time for the military, and Rommel occupied his free time with writing an infantry manual and "Infantry Attacks," still a highly readable account of his war experiences. He received his next command, of a Jäger Goslar alpenkorps battalion, in 1933.
|Hitler Youth 1933.|
1933, of course, was significant for Germany in general because Adolf Hitler became Chancellor at the end of January. It was inevitable that Hitler would eventually meet this promising officer, and that happened in September 1934. In typical Rommel fashion, he objected to the SS under Himmler forming a protective line in front of his troops as an honor guard for Hitler, refusing to order his battalion to appear at all if that took place.
|Erwin Rommel with son Manfred during on holiday, apparently in the mid-1930s.|
It was another victory for Rommel: the SS troops were placed elsewhere. This was the sort of ballsy move that Hitler liked, and Hitler read and enjoyed "Infantry Attacks." He assigned Rommel to the the Headquarters of Military Sports in liaison with the Hitler Youth, a significant posting with the 1936 Olympics looming.
|Rommel during the 1930s.|
Rommel's strong personality quickly asserted itself, and he objected to how Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach was running things. Some of Rommel's ideas (such as army rifle training of the Hitler Youth) ultimately were adopted, but the organization was primarily political and thus Rommel's proposals for its closer integration with the Army were rejected. It was an early indication that Hitler considered political decisions outside the purview of Wehrmacht officers, though he was perfectly happy to listen to their ideas on purely military matters.
Rommel received promotion to Colonel on October 1, 1937, and in 1938 was appointed Kommandant of the War Academy at Wiener Neustadt (Theresian Military Academy). Things were starting to heat up as Hitler began gobbling up countries, and Hitler made Rommel commander of his personal honor guard, the Führerbegleitbataillon. This involved travelling with the Fuhrer on his train, and it gave Rommel a chance to meet the people in Hitler's inner circle such as Josef Goebbels and Hermann Goering.
Rommel was fortunate that Goebbels liked him, because as propaganda chief, the little club-footed man was in position to make Rommel a propaganda hero. During World War II, the celebrities in the Reich weren't necessarily movie stars and athletes, they were more likely to be Field Marshals and Luftwaffe aces.
Articles soon began appearing in the state media which included inaccurate facts (that he came from a poor background, that he was a member of the Party when he wasn't, and so forth), forming the basis for later use of Rommel as a symbol of Wehrmacht abilities.
|Rommel remained in charge of Hitler's Honor Guard during the Polish campaign.|
Hitler duly invaded Poland, officially beginning the great conflict. Rommel remained in charge of Hitler's honor guard throughout the Polish campaign. By now, though, Rommel was chafing at this ceremonial posting and asked Hitler for (and was granted) command of a panzer division, the 7th. Taking command on February 7, 1940, Rommel quickly whipped the new division (which had been converted from a "light" division) into shape. While he had no experience with tanks, Rommel was the world's expert on infiltration and surprise attacks, tactics which turned out to be perfectly suited to the early Blitzkrieg. He had to overcome resistance from his men about his suitability for command, and just such an opportunity was rapidly approaching.
|One of Erwin Rommel's photographs taken in North Africa.|
While France and Great Britain had declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939 over the German invasion of Poland, they had not attempted any major offensive operations. The situation had turned into the "Sitzkrieg," or phoney war. While there were major actions on the periphery, such as the naval action resulting in the sinking of the pocket battleship Graf Spee in the River Platte, both sides had simply dug trenches and waited out the winter. The Sitzkrieg, though, ended abruptly on May 10, 1939 when Hitler launched Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), a major offensive through Belgium with a subsidiary right hook through The Netherlands to encircle the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The 7th Panzer Division was attached to General Hermann Hoth's XV Army Corps under General Gerd von Rundstedt's Army Group A.
The capabilities of the new Panzer Divisions was unknown - they were a new innovation, the idea of tank expert Heinz Guderian. Large formations centered around armoured forces never had been used except in the remote Battle of Khalkhin Gol in May 1939, and the top Generals (and Hitler) viewed them as being more vulnerable than they turned out to be. Hoth's tanks thus were assigned to flank protection, but Rommel wasn't interested in that. Utilizing his expertise in surprise attacks and infiltration, he drove the 7th Panzer straight forward, leaving the flanks for follow-up infantry, reaching the vital River Meuse crossings ahead of everyone else. The French, of course, had blown the bridges, but Rommel, leading from the front, forced a crossing. Directing his forces like an orchestra conductor, he suppressed French counter-fire from the opposite bank, appropriated bridging equipment from the 5th Panzer Division, and was in one of the first boats across to secure a bridgehead. He then returned to the far bank and was in the second tank across the newly built pontoon bridge.
The French now were in complete disarray. Rommel knew from experience that now was the time to exploit the advantage of surprise and maneuver, so he set his division in motion straight ahead. The French defenders also were unaware of the capabilities of modern armoured formations and could not form an effective defense, falling into the "tank panic" of World War I and becoming demoralized. Rommel took to calling in the Luftwaffe in a quasi-artillery role for his rapidly moving tanks, thus inventing/expanding the fabled Blitzkrieg formula.
The prize was Arras, the port which effectively would cut off the BEF from the French forces to the south, and Rommel reached it on May 20. After that, the priority became holding that position and beating off counterattacks (the Battle of Arras) until the infantry could catch up, which Rommel did with some difficulty after Charles de Gaulle and the British attempted to cut him off. Rommel was the first officer to use the 88 mm anti-aircraft gun in an antitank role in this battle, a practice subsequently adopted by the entire Wehrmacht.
|Rommel and Hitler (Federal archive) .|
The brilliant advance to Arras had set up the vital culmination of Fall Gelb, but the real prize still had to be secured: the destruction and capture of the BEF to the north. Lord Gort, commander of the BEF, quickly realized the danger and wisely began pulling his forces back, the best decision possible but one that tarnished his reputation and subsequently relegated him to secondary commands. Hitler, against opposition from his Generals such as Guderian, then halted the tanks for a few days to give the infantry a chance to catch up. It was a questionable decision that gave Gort just enough time to build a strong perimeter around the port of Dunkirk. As British transports headed there, 7th Panzer cooled its heels until May 26, when it resumed the advance. Hoth, realizing that Rommel had a better view of the battlefield than he did, put 5th Panzer under Rommel's command as well. Rommel reached Lille the next day and also received the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. Rommel's capture of Lille on May 28 trapped large French forces, but the British got away through Dunkirk due to Hitler's decisions and the Luftwaffe's failure to stop them.
|Rommel's handcrafted field marshal's baton.|
Fall Gelb was now complete, and the next and final step in the war against France was Fall Rot (Case Red). The Germans stood north of the River Somme, with the French dug in to the south behind the Weygand Line named after French General Maxime Weygand. With the British gone, the Germans quickly pivoted south and launched their assault on June 5th. Rommel's 7th Panzer led the charge, brushing aside stiffened French resistance and heading straight for Rouen to secure bridges across the Seine. It reached that major objective, 100 km away, in only two days, and, finding the bridges destroyed, 7th Panzer headed to the coast and took Dieppe to prevent any more sea escapes. Rommel's division was the first division to reach the coast, where he linked up with Guderian. Rommel then pivoted south and headed for Cherbourg in Normandy, another major target. He took that, accepting the surrender of 30,000 soldiers (even the Germans in 1944 held out longer in the vital port), but the French defense was collapsing everywhere - they were unable to cope with the 7th Panzer's advance, and the division now became known in the German press as the "Ghost" division due its rapid advances while out of communication with other German forces. Rommel then headed south to the Spanish border and occupied the coastal region, winding up in Bordeaux. Rommel was the biggest hero of the campaign.
|German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel carrying his Leica camera. This photo was taken during the campaign in France in the summer of 1940 when Rommel was still a general.|
One might expect that the Germans now would quickly reward Rommel for his "dash to the coast," but that did not happen. He was more a propaganda hero than actually respected in the military. Hoth, also a top panzer expert, reported confidentially that Rommel took too many chances and thus needed more experience - which, loosely translated, means that Rommel was too independent and was taking too much credit for himself. These criticisms showed that Hitler's stop order before Dunkirk reflected widespread concern within the army about tank raids that were unsupported by infantry. That later events proved Rommel right does not erase the fact that Rommel did take extreme chances in exchange for potentially extreme rewards. That he was successful in France obscures this fact, and if overall German power hadn't been so overwhelming, he could have been killed or captured. In one of those ironies of war, Rommel later would become cautious himself when everyone else was taking desperate gambles, but when he did, it would be for very good reason.
|General Erwin Rommel's Campaign in North Africa, 1941. Photo likely taken by Rommel himself, who was a photography buff. Those appear to be artillery officers newly arrived from Europe.|
Hitler staged a mass promotion in July 1940, elevating more Generals to Field Marshal than at any time before or since, but Rommel was not promoted. He had to wait until January 1942, when he became a Lieutenant General. The ready answer for the delay and relatively minor promotion was that Rommel was still younger than the other other top Generals and had to wait his turn, but in truth he annoyed many of them due to his propaganda celebrity and friendship with Hitler. Many no doubt wanted him to just go away, and a good opportunity suddenly appeared: the Italians running into serious trouble in North Africa. Someone had to go down there and clean up the mess in what was considered a sideshow, and the independent Rommel was Hitler's choice. He arrived on February 12, 1941 with the British on the doorstep of the main Axis base in Tunisia and what was left of the Italian army reeling. Events now transpired that made Rommel an even bigger propaganda hero.
|Italian cargo ships unloading in Tripoli in 1941. Photo quite possibly taken by Erwin Rommel himself, it matches his camera style.|
Mussolini unwisely had invaded Greece the previous October, and his inept forces had run into trouble there as well. The British intervened, taking a corps from their forces in North Africa and sending it to Greece. Meanwhile, the Germans were flooding troops and equipment into Tunisia. The tables turned, and Rommel, after unloading his tanks under spotlights, stabilized the situation. He saw Hitler on March 19th (receiving the Oakleaves to the Knight's Cross), and must have talked over the situation with the Fuhrer, because two days later he received orders to prepare a counteroffensive. This he launched on 31 March, and the Germans quickly sent the British in retreat. In the desert, with no rivers and few mountains, it was all about supplies, and because of the distracting action in Greece the Italian cargo ships were getting through to Bizerte. He made it to the Egyptian border by the end of April, but Tobruk stubbornly held out.
|Friedrich Paulus, here shown arriving in Russia in January 1942 to take command of 6th Army, spent two weeks with Rommel in North Africa evaluating his command style.|
It was then that a curious and little-known incident took place. Friedrich Paulus (not "von Paulus" and he always is mistakenly called) of later Stalingrad fame, who at the time was serving on the General Staff, was sent down to review Rommel's tactics. After two weeks, he concluded that Rommel was "headstrong" and was taking huge gambles that jeopardized the small German force in North Africa and might require even larger forces to bail him out. The British under General Sir Archibald Wavell, considered one of the most capable British Generals of the war, counterattacked in June, but Rommel beat them off. For the time being, North Africa was a stalemate, which was fine with the German high command because they didn't want any problems there while they launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.
|Rommel with his Afrika Korps men in North Africa, 1942. This picture was taken by Hitler's personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann.|
Rommel's forces had been up to the point where he now commanded the grandly titled Pangergruppe Afrika. Truth be told, though, it was a small formation composed largely of weak Italian forces that had nothing in common with the Panzergruppes striking deep into Russia. The frustrated British now changed commanders in North Africa, and incoming General Claude Auchinleck quickly advised his forces that "We speak too much of our friend Rommel." He steadily built up the British forces Germans were preoccupied in the USSR, and the improved Royal Air Force (RAF) began interdicting more Italian supply ships to Rommel's forces. Auchinleck struck on November 18, 1941, in the the "Crusader" offensive. Rommel was forced into retreat, finally finding refuge at Mersa el Braga on the doorstep to Tunisia by January 12, 1942. While the offensive had cost him 340 tanks and 16,000 men, the basic Axis position in North Africa remained intact, though the overall strategic situation was subtly deteriorating due to the Russians' valiant defense of Moscow and the entry of the United States into the war.
|Rommel and Kesselring.|
Hitler, perhaps with Paulus' report in mind, now sent General Albert Kesselring to North Africa. It was a fascinating choice, even a brilliant one, that may have been Hitler's best of the entire war. Kesselring was a top Luftwaffe General who had strategic training from the Truppenamt that Rommel himself had turned down back in the '30s. Rommel retained his own command, while Kesselring became Commander in Chief, South.
Kesselring was bright, and as an airpower specialist, which was exactly what counted in the desert, he represented a complementary strategic vision. With a strengthened Luftwaffe, the Italian cargo ships began getting through again, and Rommel's thoughts turned to breaking the desert stalmate. He was helped by the British defeats in the Far East at the hands of the Japanese, which sucked up Empire forces that might have gone to North Africa instead. Rommel attacked on January 21, the date he was promoted to Field Marshal, and the changed balance of forces quickly told: the German offensive was an immediate success.
|Field Marshal Erwin Rommel with the 15th Panzer Div. in Libya, 24/11/41, probably with Rommel's own camera.|
Rommel took Benghazi within a week, and by the end of the month the British were digging at the Gazala Line just west of Tobruk. A springtime pause ensued, then Rommel struck again on May 26, 1942 in Operation Venezia. The Germans were engaged in a vicious battle near Kharkov and didn't need any North Africa distractions, so Hitler's attention was diverted and all he wanted was an advance to the Egyptian border. Then, Kesselring's Luftwaffe would be shifted to take Malta, which was the thorn in Panerarmee Afrika's side due to the RAF's sinking of almost half of the Italian supply ships. Rommel, however, exhibiting that aggressiveness that Paulus had noted as being "headstrong," rapidly adapted his attack to take advantage of fleeting opportunities and not only broke the Gazala Line, but took the heretofore impregnable Tobruk to boot. All of his objectives were now achieved, and Rommel stood right where the General Staff wanted him to stay put, on the Egyptian frontier. He kept going, finally being stopped by improved British forces at the nondescript Egyptian town of El Alamein.
|Rommel, Libyan desert, spring 1942.|
Malta was now in dire straits, but Rommel himself had overstretched his forces and required full Luftwaffe support just to maintain his position. Auchinleck counterattacked in July, but failed, and was replaced by General Sir Bernard Montgomery. Rommel himself attacked in September, but the British had been busy building up their forces for their own attacks and brushed Rommel aside. After that failure, Rommel was replaced on September 22, 1942 and put on convalescent leave. It looked as though his career in North Africa was over.
However, Stalingrad began eating up German resources, and Malta remained in business. The British were building up their forces in Egypt, while the Italians were still losing half their cargo ships to air attack. The stage was set for the British to once again reverse matters in North Africa, and they duly attacked the Germans on October 24, 1942. Hitler personally called Rommel at his home in Germany and asked him to return to Panzerarmee Afrika because things looked terrible there. Rommel agreed and hopped on a plane, arriving on October 26 to find the front in ruins and his successor in command dead. He stitched together a defense, but the outcome was self-evident and he warned Mussolini and Hitler to expect another retreat. Hitler, however, had become inflexible and refused, so Rommel was forced to commit everything in an attempt to hold his crumbling line. The British breakthrough took another week, but on November 4 they drilled a hole through the German/Italian lines and threatened complete destruction of the entire Panzerarmee.
|Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Sir Bernard Montgomery play with Montgomery's dog (named Rommel) in Normandy at Montgomery's caravan at his headquarters at Chateau Creully, 7 August 1944. Morris (Sgt) © IWM.|
Rommel now stopped listening to Hitler and saved what he could of his army. He started everything back to the west, and Montgomery dallied and failed to catch him. Hitler repeatedly ordered "no retreat," and Rommel ignored him. In a brilliant retrograde movement, with short supplies and half his army killed or captured, Rommel made it back to his starting point of the previous January by late November, standing pat at Mersa el Braga. Meanwhile, the Allies had invaded North Africa to his rear in Operation Torch, so Hitler was flooding Tunisia with new troops, but Rommel was in danger of being surrounded. He continued back to Tunisia, and by late January 1943 he was behind the old Italian Mareth line on the Tunisian frontier.
|Colonel General Erwin Rommel and General Siegfried Westphal helping with pushing a stuck vehicle, North Africa, early 1941 (Voltingeler, Federal Archive).|
The Americans were advancing from the west, and they had to be blocked. Leaving defensive forces on the Mareth Line, Rommel turned west and attacked the Americans advancing over the mountains toward the Tunisian plain. Coordinating with Kesselring and the new German commander in the North of Tunisia, Colonel General Jurgen von Arnim, Rommel struck the Americans in the south while Arnim swept down from the north. Arnim struck first, on February 14, 1943, taking several towns, but he failed to press his attack to take the key town of Sbeitla. Arnim did not communicate with Rommel, who was caught flat-footed, and Rommel did not launch his own attack until February 17. While a major success, driving the Americans from the eastern mountain range (the "Eastern Dorsale," or mountain range) to the Western Dorsale, but at Kasserine Pass he ran into impenetrable resistance and, after inflicting heavy damage, had to withdraw. Kasserine Pass is widely considered an American defeat, but that is where the Allied stopped Rommel once and for all.
|The 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army marches through the Kasserine Pass and on to Kasserine and Farriana. Tunisia, 26 February, 1943.|
Hitler liked the Kasserine Pass outcome despite the obvious flaws in this 'victory' because the world press was characterizing it as an American defeat (a minor one, and one of their few of the entire conflict), so he quickly promoted Rommel to overall command of Army Group Afrika on February 25, 1943. However, it was a meaningless gesture, for the Torch forces were approaching in strength from the west and Montgomery was readying attacks on the Mareth Line in the east. In early March, Rommel flew to Hitler, who was astonished to see him away from his command without orders to visit, and decorated him with another award (Oakleaves with Swords and Diamonds) before sending Rommel on extended sick leave.
|With Italian supply ships unable to supply Afrika Corps, the Luftwaffe sent dozens of ME-323 Gigant powered gliders, but almost all were shot down in the Palm Sunday Massacre.|
This time, Rommel was done with North Africa for good, as was the Axis. The Allies quickly crushed the incompetent von Arnim in a vise, and the Italian supply ships dwindled to a trickle. Tunis fell in mid-May, and Hitler sent for Rommel again. This time, though, Hitler just keep him around for some future unknown project. This was a typical tactic of Hitler, to use certain Generals as his "firemen" to take care of special projects wherever they might arise. In this case, after a couple of months, Hitler needed someone to coordinate the occupation of northern Italy after Mussolini's downfall on July 25, 1943. Rommel was the choice, and by various demands and bluffs the Germans transferred enough forces across the border for Rommel to secure northern Italy by August 15 1943. Hitler talked vaguely of Rommel ultimately taking over the Commander in Chief, Southwest command held by Kesselring at some point, but that never happened.
|Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Lieutenant General Fritz Bayerlein, and Field Marshal Albert Kesselring in North Africa, Jan-Feb 1943 (Federal Archive).|
Rommel was relegated to securing Kesselring's rear, a clear come-down in his prestige. Hitler agreed with the consensus that North Africa had destroyed Rommel's nerves and was fit only for non-active commands. Rommel began complaining that Kesselring was taking dangerous risks by fighting in the south for every inch of Italy and should immediately retreat north to hand over command to Rommel as Hitler had promised. Kesselring, though, argued for holding in the south, which dovetailed nicely with Hitler's own fanaticism about never giving up ground voluntarily.
|Erwin Rommel in Raversijde, Belgium. December 1943, shortly after taking over command of the Atlantic Wall. His baton is firmly clenched.|
All this probably further reinforced the growing doubts about Rommel's judgment, so finally Hitler sent Rommel away to another quiet front, this time the Channel Coast in France, where Rommel was to prepare the beach defenses for invasion.
|France - Just before the invasion, General Field Marshal Erwin Rommel with Field Marshal's baton during an inspection of the coastal fortifications of the Atlantic Wall, KBZ OB West. Spring 1944 (Jesse, Federal Archive).|
While many view this assignment as another sign of Hitler's confidence in Rommel, in fact it was a further step downward. In France, Rommel was subordinate to von Rundstedt, and he had only a small staff and responsibility only for planting mines and emplacing beach obstacles. It was a good administrative positiong for someone who needed a good, long rest, and for six months it worked out that way. Rommel planted millions of mines, and he had workers build up the fixed beach defenses. However, on the big question that mattered, placement of tank forces ready for immediate riposte against an invasion, Hitler basically ignored Rommel's plea for advanced tank forces and kept them dispersed. The thinking was that there should be a mobile reserve, a strategy which Rommel knew was doomed to failure because of Allied air superiority.
|German soldiers manning a searchlight on the Atlantic coast.|
The Allies struck at Normandy on June 6, 1944, during a period of sketchy weather on the coast. Rommel was home in Herrlingen, Germany for his wife's birthday, but returned to Normandy at once. He stitched together a defensive cordon, but once the Allies were ashore there was no possibility of dislodging them: not only did the Allies completely control the air, but their naval guns controlled the shoreline in Normandy just as they had in Sicily. Rommel knew from experience that it was different against the Western Allies, who relied more upon air power and naval power, than against the Russians, who might be more susceptible to a strategy of allowing them to advance and then cutting them off and destroying them in a set-piece battle. Once they were ashore, he figured, it was only a matter of time before they built up overwhelming force under the protective naval and air force guns, and he was absolutely correct.
|A German 16 inch (40.6 cm) coastal gun on the Atlantic Wall. These actually were in place before Rommel took command there, Rommel focused more on beach defenses.|
The main German forces were to the north, around the Pas de Calais, and they came down to oppose the British at Caen but could not swing around in force to stymie the Americans further west. Everything proceeded as Rommel figured it would, and Normandy degenerated into a waiting game as more and more Allied troops came ashore. Rommel warned Hitler in Hitler in early July that the German defenses would crack within a few weeks, and that is what happened, but Hitler would not listen. By then, in any event, Rommel was out of action, wounded by the Allied airplanes that he had known all along would be decisive on the Western Front.
Rommel spent weeks in hospital, then went home to Herrlingen. The war was over for him, though he recovered from his injuries fairly well. While he had been laid up, some German staff officers had tried to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944 becasuse they wanted a regime more amenable to ending the war. Rommel was implicated by others - General der Infanterie Carl Heinrich von Stülpnagel, Military Governor of France mentioned him while being "interrogated" - and other evidence also surfaced. The exact extent of Rommel's involvement is unclear, but his family and others maintained afterwards that he wanted Hitler arrested and brought to trial. In any event, the secret was out, and the Gestapo placed Rommel under a form of house arrest while a "Court of Military Honor" pondered the charges. It was hardly a fair trial, and the verdict was that Rommel should be expelled from the Wehrmacht and brought before Roland Freisler's People's Court, where defendants were verbally abused and conviction was certain.
With Rommel's fate now certain, Hitler pondered how best to dispose of him without causing upset with the public, who had been conditioned by years of propaganda to thinking of Rommel as the Reich's ultimate war hero. He decided to coerce Rommel into suicide. He sent a couple of staff Generals, Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel to make Rommel an offer he couldn't refuse: take poison and assure his family's safety, or go before the People's Court and have his staff executed and family terrorized. Rommel chose the former course, went with the two Generals for a ride, took cyanide that Burgdorf had brought, and was dead within minutes. The Germans announced to the public that Rommel had died from the injuries incurred when the Allied fighter strafed his staff car in Normandy. They held a state funeral.
|"One must not judge everyone in the world by his qualities as a soldier: otherwise we should have no civilization." German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.|
Weeks before the collapse of the Reich, the German government informed his widow that it intended to erect a statue to the deceased Field Marshal. However, Hitler himself was dead and the government had surrendered before that could happen. After the war, his legacy was examined and his reputation increased when it became known that he had protested against persecution of the Jews in France, especially the massacre by 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich at Oradour-sur-Glane. He also paid French laborers for their work on the Atlantic Wall at a time when slave labor was the norm. While other heroic German Generals were besmirched by their involvement in atrocities and anti-Semitic acts, Rommel had a clean record.
|Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in a typical Prussian pose no doubt suggested by the photographer.|
Erwin Rommel deserves his superb reputation as a military commander and an officer who respected the laws of war and humanity. He was the best strategist of his time, ahead of all the other tank experts in his understanding of the capability of that weapon, and correctly predicted with great accuracy how many unwise military decisions would turn out. While he may be faulted for being a bit headstrong at times, and he certainly fought for an evil regime, his style worked, and he only asked his men to take risks that he judged worthy of taking himself. He performed his assignments after North Africa capably, but they were infected by an extreme pessimism about Axis chances of success that sometimes overshot the mark, as in Italy. Among all World War II Generals, Rommel was worthy of his reputation and there is no shame in honoring the man today.
|Rommel's simple grave in Herrlingen, Blaustein, Baden Württemberg, Germany.|
In this short video, apparently taken from a wartime German documentary, Rommel talks about the 1941 campaign. He describes how the Afrika Korps drove from Tunisia to the Egyptian border, besieged Tobruk unsuccessfully, and then was forced back across the length of Libya. He filmed this in October 1942, after he had left Africa and turned over command to another General. Shortly after this, when the British attacked at El Alamein and his successor in Africa died from a heart attack, Rommel was sent back to command the Afrika Korps and skillfully managed another retreat extremely similar to the one he describes here. It was rare for a German General to appear in the media like this, but Rommel was friends with Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels and had become perhaps the top German propaganda hero of the entire war.