General Erwin Rommel, The Desert Fox, Field Marshall, Hero, Traitor, Enemy, Father, Husband, Instructor. Though he held many titles in his life and was thought of in many different lights, he was and shall be remembered as, a true soldier, a man who men followed fearlessly and enemies dreaded facing. A soldier who remembered and adhered to the chivalrous side of war. A man who was committed to Germany and her people to the end. During peacetime or war, he was always a soldier, the type who had a single-track mind.
His death may have been one of the greatest tragedies of the final months of Hitler’s desperate attempt to remain in control. The rise of Rommel to a Field-Marshall from a family of schoolmasters was an uncommon occurrence in a country where the military had a strong history of tradition and the Prussian Officer Class. He began his education in a somewhat slow fashion, uninterested in schoolwork and not exhibiting the intellectual talent of his father and grandfather, both of whom excelled in mathematics and were highly regarded in German society.
It was not until his teens did he seem to “wake up” and begin showing some of the intelligence in his family background. He intended to become an engineer and work at the Zeppelin works with his good friend, Keitel(no relation to the Field-Marshall that would become one of his most bitter enemies). His father refused permission and at this time he decided to join the army. On July 19, 1910, Erwin Rommel joined the 124th Infantry Regiment as an officer cadet, was a sergeant by the end of December, and was posted to the Kriegsschule or War Academy by March of 1911.
It was here that he met Lucie Maria Mollin, the woman who would eventually become his wife. Rommel spent the next three years moving through the ranks, finishing the Kriegsschule, spending time with a Field Artillery regiment in Ulm, and ultimately returning to his unit in March 1914 at which time they were sent to fight in WWI. It was here that Rommel first showed his ability to move boldly and take the element of surprise and exploit it to its highest. He also showed his unwillingness to succumb to fatigue, illness, or injury.
It was because of these factors that he was rewarded with the Iron Cross, Class I and was posted as Oberleutnant ( 1st Lieutenant) and then to the Wurttembergische Gebirgsbataillion. During leave on November 27, 1915, Rommel slipped off to Danzig and married Lucie Maria Mollin. It was in this first war that Rommel’s Fingerspitzengefuhl, a sort of sixth sense, first appeared. It was reported later many times and by almost all who served with him. He seemed to have an uncanny sense of approaching danger and an ability to extricate himself and his soldiers from it before it befell them.
Here he also showed his ability with his men that allowed them to trust him so completely and follow him wherever he asked them to go. It was stated many times by many people that he was a soldiers general, a man who knew how to talk to and deal with his troops. He was always fair with them and never asked them to do more than he would do. It came as a great shock to Rommel as well as almost all other German officers when the war was abruptly halted and the Germans surrendered. Between the two wars Rommel went back to a basically normal middle class life.
He first took a position training unruly and defiant “red ” naval ratings into soldiers, which he did in such a speedy and complete fashion that some were drafted into the police force and the rest chose to stay with Rommel. He then returned to his old 124th, now 13th Infantry Regiment due to reduction and stayed with them for the next nine years. His only son, Manfred, was born on Christmas Eve in 1928, and he was posted as an instructor to the Infantry School at Dresden on October 1st, 1929, and remained there for exactly four years.
It was here that he wrote Infanterie Greift An (Infantry Attacks), a book of excellent military infantry tactics that caught the eye of Hitler himself. Now a major, he was given command of the 3rd Battalion of Infantry Regiment 17 following his position at Dresden. As Hitler was coming to power, Rommel was introduced sporadically to members of Hitler’s staff as well as Hitler himself. His first impression of Himmler was of dis-like, but he at first trusted and liked both Dr. Goebbels and Hitler.
He was often used as one of Hitler’s guards during the beginning stages of the war but was not privy to Hitler’s tantrums and tirades so he held on to his first impression of Hitler for quite some time. But Rommel longed for a fighting command and was eventually close enough to Hitler to request one. Hitler accepted it and Rommel was sent to France. The events of the 7th Panzer Division, the “Ghost Division”, were recorded in exact detail by Captain Aldinger, Rommel’s Ordonnanzoffizier. Here Rommel again showed his ability to take an initial success and squeeze out of it all that he could.
His “Ghost Division” fought there way through France with a speed and ability that amazed all. During this time, Rommel often went out to look at things for himself and in so doing nearly got himself killed on many occasions. By early June they had reached the coast of France and by June 19th French naval and military officers had surrendered.
In their march through France, Rommel’s men had captured; The Admiral of the French Navy (North) and 4 other admirals, 1st Corps Commander, 4 Divisional Commanders with their staffs, 277 guns and 64 A. T. guns, 458 tanks and armoured cars, 4-5,000 trucks, 1,500-2,000 cars, 1,500-2,000 horse and mule wagons, 300-400 buses, 300-400 motor-cycles, and the major part of the 97,468 prisoners credited to the Group to which it belonged, It had also brought down 52 aircraft, captured 15 more on the ground, and destroyed 12 more. Following the defeat of Graziani’s army in North Africa, Hitler too late realized that Italy must not lose control of North Africa. He then suggested to Mussolini that Italian troops be put under German command.
Rommel was by then a Generalleutnant and being appointed to the command of the “German troops in Libya” and spent much of his time in Africa at odds with Halder, Keitel, and Jodl, all of whom were jealous of his popularity with Hitler and the German public. He was eventually made Field-Marshall and his time in the desert is full of ups and downs, of victories and defeats, but these defeats did not come from his own lack of skill but the inability of the German High Command to realize the seriousness of the situation in Africa.
Had Rommel been given the supplies, petrol, and troops that he needed, he would have taken Alexandria, the Suez Canal, and effectively shut England out of the Mediterranean. But Rommel was not taken seriously and neither was the African theatre of the war until it was too late. Though seriously handicapped, Rommel nearly achieved his goal of taking Alexandria in a series of victories and retreats that was to last two years. He began with a victory in April, 1941, followed by the failure to capture Tobruk on May 1st but then defeated General Wavell’s minor offensives through May and June.
Following these victories were a series of ups and downs followed by his defeat by Generals Auchinleck and Ritchie in which he was driven back to the borders of Cyrenaica. He then counter-attacked and drove the British back to Gazala, but faltered and could have plunged into disaster but managed to turn the tide and begin his most spectacular rise of all. This offensive would take him over and past Tobruk, past the Egyptian frontier, past Mersa Matruh, Bagush and El Daba, to Alamein and the very gates of Alexandria.
There he was held by General Auchinleck and was slowly pushed back across Africa to Tunisia. It was at this point when it was too late, Hitler realized the importance of Rommel’s position and sent him the supplies that, had he had six months earlier, he could have taken Alexandria and avoided defeat at El Alamein. Rommel was not at Tunisia when his men laid down their arms for he had flown to Germany to beg Hitler to sacrifice equipment to save the soldiers. But Hitler had refused his request and refused to allow him to return to his troops.
He was then sent to France were he began making preparations to avoid the invasion by sea. He knew that the only way to stop the invasion was to stop the Allies before they got on land and had established any type of hold. Again he was not taken seriously and not given the supplies he needed. He prepared the beaches as best he could and tried to convince Hitler of the seriousness of the situation. Upon a visit to Hitler he discovered that Hitler knew that total victory would not happen but that Hitler would never accept defeat until Germany was completely destroyed.
As the Allies pushed through France and defeated Rommel’s forces time and again, he tried desperately to make Hitler see that they must move back and shorten the defenses. Hitler refused his requests once again. By this time, Rommel had no disillusions of Hitler and what he would do. Rommel became involved in the plot to remove Hitler but did not know of the intent to kill Hitler and place Rommel as President of the Reich. Rommel remained on the front fighting with his men until he was seriously wounded and forced to recover in a hospital and then at home.
During this time, the attempt was made on Hitler’s life and failed. Unfortunately for Rommel, General Heinrich von Stulpnagel had ordered the arrest of Gestapo and the S. D. The commander of the S. S. was prepared to try to hush things up but von Stulpnagel was called to Berlin and on his way made the decision to take his own life. His attempt failed and he succeeded only in shooting out his eye, and while recovering consciousness repeatedly called out Rommel’s name.
General von Stulpnagel was then taken to Berlin, tortured and killed. His fellow conspirators Field-Marshal von Kluge, Generals Beck, and others had all committed suicide and Hitler had taken General Spiedel prisoner. Shortly after this Generals Burgdorf and Maisel arrived at Rommel’s home. They informed him he had been implicated in the attempt on Hitler’s life and was on a list belonging to Goerdeler to become the President of the Reich following Hitler’s assassination.
He was given the option of taking his own life via a cyanide capsule in which case it would be reported he had died in battle and his wife and child would be taken care of or he could go before the people’s court in Germany. Rommel knew he would never make it to Berlin to stand before the court and so chose the option of taking the cyanide capsule. He left with Burgdorf and Maisel and twenty-five minutes later Major Ehrenberger called and informed General Aldinger that Rommel had died from a hemorrhage. He was given a military funeral and his wife and child were never bothered by the Hitler’s men again.
So ended the life and career of one of the greatest military minds of all times. A man whom, had he been given the chance would have soundly defeated the Allies in North Africa, probably taken much of East Africa, and would have made the Allied invasion at Normandy much more costly if not impossible. The author of this book was an Englishman who had fought for the Allies against Rommel and had met him once while a prisoner. He had a very high respect for Rommel, his abilities, and his adherence to the chivalrous side of war.
He researched Rommel thoroughly and gained his information from a variety of sources who all had some type of close association with Rommel. He combined the opinions of those fighting with Rommel as well as against, showing that the opinions of Rommel, his ability, and his personality were not one-sided. Despite the authors thorough research of the book, I found it very hard to read. First, he did not write in the introduction his association with Rommel or what side of the war he fought on. It took me quite a while to understand who he was talking about when he kept referring to the English as us.
He also would introduce Generals and Commanders without specifying which side they fought for. He wrote the book without thinking of his future audiences. He expected that everyone would know who Keitel, Auchinleck, Jodl, and all the other generals mentioned in the book were. Though the author made it quite a chore to get through the Generals, Field-Marshals, Divisions, and leaders, the story behind it is an excellent man. I enjoyed reading the story of Rommel’s exploits and courage, even if I didn’t like the story-teller.