Erwin Rommel was born in November 1891 in Heidenheim, part of the German empire at that time. He is remembered best for his ingenuity, sense of honor, and his resourcefulness in battle. A fascinating man and war leader, he was well known and respected by allied troops for his humane treatment of war prisoners. His command in North Africa, the Afrikakorps, was never accused or charged with war crimes by international courts after the conclusion of WWII. He disregarded commands to kill captured soldiers, and refused to kill civilians or members of the Jewish faith without due cause. Truly one of the most interesting individuals involved in WWII, his military career is vast, his personal life is remarkable.
Rommel’s involvement with the German military began with his action in WWI, fighting in France, Romania, and Italy. He joined the 124th Württemberg Infantry Regiment as an officer cadet in 1910 and was sent to the Officer Cadet School in Danzig. He graduated on 15 November 1911 and was commissioned as a lieutenant in January 1912. He spent time with the 6th Württemberg Infantry Regiment. During his time with the elite Alpenkorps however, he was wounded 3 times and gained a reputation for great courage; he was awarded the Iron Cross first and second-class. His first strategic triumph was the monumental defeat he helped inflict on the Italian Army at Caporetto. He captured 150 Italian officers, 9,000 soldiers, and 81 guns; his men t suffered only 6 dead and 30 wounded during engagements.
The now Captain Rommel was awarded the decoration ‘pour le merite’ – a Prussian medal reserved usually only for senior generals. He was promoted to major in 1933 and later to Colonel in 1937. Rommel had a natural ability for teaching, and a book, Infanterie Greift An (Infantry Attacks), in which he examined and analyzed the many battles he fought in during WWI. Both axis and allies alike had access to this text and it gave an interesting insight to his battle tactics and preference for offensive strategy.
Erwin Rommel loved strategy; his favorite style was fast and coordinated, right at the front of the attack. During his time in the North Africa War Theater, he gained the nickname ‘The Desert Fox” and his Panzer (tank) divisions were nicknamed the Ghost Division, and the knight of the Apocalypse. His hard-hitting, spearhead style led to distain from allied troops, and contempt from German high command. Rommel would lead his companies in so fast and so far that often they were cut off from the bulk of the German offensive force. On several occasions his command was consider ‘Lost’ and presumed defeated, when in actuality he had simply pushed too far into Allied territory to be contacted. Rommel’s command once reportedly covered 150 miles in one day, setting a world record (to coordinate so many tanks over that much enemy territory is no small task).
During one six-week campaign, Rommel’s force alone captured nearly 100,000 French prisoners and 450 enemy tanks losing in the process less than 42 tanks. He returned to Germany acclaimed by Hitler and the population and promoted to lieutenant general. At the age of 49, Rommel attained the rank of field Marshall, and was so popular with German citizens he was referred to as “the peoples Marshall” (this later proved a delicate issue for Hitler).
In 1944, Rommel was sent, by command of Hitler, to the Normandy front to assess and strengthen the costal defenses from imminent allied attack (aka. D Day). His defenses proved effective at slowing, but not stopping the powerful invading forces however, and pleaded with Hitler to reduce and concentrate the size of the German defensive line, Hitler refused.
Letters from Rommel to his wife revealed he became increasingly skeptical to Hitler’s sanity, and had reserved thoughts for the future of the regime. Quoted below is an excerpt from an article written on his involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.
“Because virtually none of the military conspirators are in command of large armies, they desperately seek to win over a battlefront general who has an army at his disposal to lend the required pivotal support for the coup. But so far the top brass of the Wehrmacht — Brauchitsch, Halder, von Runstedt, Manstein, Guderian, Kluge — have either refused to lend their support or revealed a fence-sitting attitude. Rommel however has long harbored an increasingly rebellious attitude towards Hitler. If the most popular and admired battlefield commander of the war can be won over, the coup might definitely succeed. With this in mind, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (who has taken over from Colonel Henning von Tresckow as leader of the conspiracy in late 1943) gets General Karl-Heinrich von Stuelpnagel (the military governor for Paris and the leader of the conspirators based in France) to invite Rommel to Paris for secret talks aimed at recruiting the desert fox into the plot.
Rommel agrees with Stuelpnagel that Hitler has long since lost touch with reality and must be forced to concede or else be removed from power. But he declares himself morally opposed to assassination. He wants Hitler arrested and tried by a German court for his crimes. Rommel tells Stuelpnagel he will give Hitler one last chance by sending the fuehrer a “blitz” telegram outlining the war in the starkest possible terms and urging Hitler to take immediate action on the diplomatic front or cut Germany’s losses and authorize the Werhmacht to evacuate France and fall back to Germany’s borders. Rommel however is certain his warning will be ignored, in which case he declares himself prepared to support a coup. He also agrees that Guenther von Kluge may be more of a liability than an asset to the conspirators. He then gives Stuelpnagel his word of honor that even if Kluge refuses to stand up and be counted, he will act “openly and unconditionally” with the conspirators. (Lamb, 406).
On July 16, 1944, Rommel wrote his blitz message to Hitler and asked Kluge to have it delivered immediately. The next day RAF fighters strafed Rommel’s motorcade along a French country road, killing his driver. Rommel’s car spuns out of control and the field marshal was hurtled into a ditch with severe head injuries. Rommel can be of no help to the conspirators when Stauffenberg plants his bomb three days later at Hitler’s headquarters. Kluge meanwhile fails to immediately forward Rommel’s blitz telegram, sending it to Hitler two weeks later.
Owing to his close association with the Paris-conspirators, it is only a matter of time before Rommel is implicated. Two different stories describe how this happened. According to the first, Luftwaffe Colonel Caesar von Hofacker (Stauffenberg’s cousin) divulged Rommel’s name under torture. According to a second story, General von Stuelpnagel, who had tried to commit suicide and had been revived and brought to a German field hospital, was heard crying out Rommel’s name repeatedly in delirium.
On October 7, 1944, Rommel declines a summons from Hitler to come to Berlin. On October 14, two generals visit Rommel at his residence in Errlingen and hand him a cyanide capsule and a message from Hitler: commit suicide and be buried with honors, or stand trial for high treason and be hanged, which implied the loss of his family’s livelihood. Rommel bid farewell to his wife and son and was driven off in an army car after swallowing the capsule. According to Blumenson, “those who saw his body noted the look of contempt on his face.” (Blumenson, 314). Rommel was buried with full-military honors and given a hero’s farewell.”
Martin Blumenson, “Field Marshal Erwin Rommel,” In Hitler’s Generals. Edited by Corell Barnett. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, pp.293-316.