Johannes Erwin Eugen Rommel, popularly nicknamed 'The Desert Fox', was a Württembergian German Generalfeldmarschall (English: General field marshal) who was born on 15 November 1891 in Heidenheim, Germany. He is best known as a veteran of both World Wars, as well as the Commander of the 7th Panzer Division, the Afrika Korps, and the Defences of Normandy. Rommel, one of if not the most famous German officer of World War II, is generally remembered as an apolitical military genius and victim of Nazism.
Erwin Rommel was born on 18 November 1891 in Heidenheim, in the Kingdom of Württemberg, one of four kingdoms constituting the German Empire. Rommel was the third of five children to Erwin Rommel, Sr. and Helene von Lutz, preceded by Manfred Rommel (died in infancy) and Helena Rommel and followed by Paul and Gerhard Rommel. His maternal grandfather, Karl von Luz, was a politician and member of nobility who served as a Member of the Chamber of Deputies from 1880 until his death on 6 November 1899 and the President of the Württemberg Parliament, as well as a recipient of the Order of the Württemberg Crown. His father was a mathematic teacher and former artillery lieutenant.
World War I
Rommel signed up for the German Army in July 1910 at the age of 18 as a Fähnrich (Ensign) of the Württemberg Infanterieregiment Nr. 124 (Infantry Regiment No. 124). After completing cadet training, in March 1911, Rommel was sent to the Officer's Military School in Danzig. While at Danzig, Rommel would meet and fall in love with Lucie Maria Mollin (Later Lucie Maria Rommel), whom he would marry in 1916. This wouldn't stop Rommel from having an affair, however, as he met a certain Walburga Stemmer, who would give birth to Rommel's daughter, Gertrud Rommel (later Gertrud Pan). Rommel would graduate on 15 November 1911, on his twentieth birthday. When World War I broke out, Rommel was sent Ardennes Forest. His division would be acting as the pivot point for the ground-wheeling maneuver through Belgium, as dictated by the Schlieffen Plan. His first action would be on 22 August 1914, when he led his platoon, pushing back French Forces into Verdun; sustaining heavy casualties. The next month, on the 24th of September, Rommel would be wounded in the leg, earning him the Iron Cross, Second Class. Shortly after recovering, in January 1915, during another assault on a French position, Rommel would win the Iron Cross once again, this time First Class. In October, Rommel would be transferred to one of the newly-created mountain units and sent to Romania, but it wasn't until October of the following year that Rommel would see action once more, this time against the Romanian Army. Rommel was selected to lead an assault on the fortress of Mount Cosna, a Romanian-held position. His attack was successful, with Rommel's mountain battalion capturing and holding the position. The height of Rommel's glory came during the Battle of Caporetto in 1917, in the Kingdom of Italy (present-day Slovenia) as an Oberleutnant, Rommel took advantage of the rough terrain against the Italian forces. He would lead his men 18 miles, capturing four summit positions and over 9,000 prisoners; at the cost of only 36 men. For his service during this battle, he would be awarded the Military class of the Pour le Mérite by Kaiser Wilhelm II himself. Rommel would additionally be promoted to the rank of Hauptmann (Captain) and became a staff officer in Germany until the signing of an armistice and the Great War's close in 1918.
Interwar Years (Weimar Republic)
As a result of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to limit its Army to 100,000 men. Despite this, Rommel was one of the lucky few who were given the opportunity to continue serving in the Armed Forces, which he did, as an army instructor (to put this into perspective, only 4,000 officers were permitted to serve in the German Armed Forces, so he, out of ~67 million other people, was selected). Due to Germany being in political and economic turmoil, there were occasionally street fights, riots, injuries, and sometimes even deaths. Rommel would have to put down some of these with military force to ensure public safety. On 24December 1928, Lucia Rommel would give birth to the Rommels' first and only son, Manfred Rommel. In 1937, Rommel wrote and published a military textbook known as 'Infanterie greift an', or Infantry Tactics. By 1938, Rommel was assigned to a war academy situated in Wiener Neustadt, Austria. These circumstances earned Rommel a great amount of respect from another World War I veteran, namely Hitler. Rommel was also in charge of the security detachments during the annexation of the Sudetenland, the drive into Prague, the annexation of Danzig, and the campaign into Poland, respectively. Rommel additionally chose to strictly follow orders, and, by doing so, he impressed the Führer.
World War II
At the beginning of the Second World War, Rommel was given the rank of Generalmajor (Major General) and appointed Chief of Hitler's Personal Bodyguard by the Führer himself. On 5 February 1940, Rommel would assume the rank of commander of the 7th Panzer Division. During the Battle of France, the division earned the nickname of 'The Ghost Division' as it could penetrate the Allied Defences with such speed and precision that it was difficult for even the German High Command to track. In February of the following year, Rommel would also be promoted to Generalleutnant, sent to Libya to support the weakened Italian troops, and be given command of the Afrika Korps. Additionally, Rommel was established as a hero figure to the German public by the Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, Josef Goebbels.
Due to the long distance between Nazi-Occupied Europe and Africa, as well as the fact that the British held the territories of Malta, Cyprus, and Gibraltar (which meant that the British had established naval superiority over the Mediterranean), and the United Kingdom at the time had arguably the best navy in the world, there were numerous issues with supply strains and logistics. Despite this, Rommel pushed the British and French out of Cyrenaica and into Egypt. Due to the fact that he was beating the Allies time and time again with minimal resources across the vast desert, Rommel earned the nickname of 'The Desert Fox.' Rommel would later advance into Western Egypt in April 1941, surrounding the port city of Tobruk, but failed to capture it. Shortly after, Rommel was pushed back, but he once again surrounded Tobruk in June during Operation Battleaxe, this time capturing the city. For his efforts, he was once again promoted, this time to Generalfeldmarschall. Initially, British Lieutenant General William "Strafer" Gott was given the position of Commander of the 8th Army by Winston Churchill and sent to North Africa to pursue Rommel in 1942. Gott's plane, however, was shot down by the Germans and Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery took command instead. Montgomery would become Rommel's main adversary during the Second World War. In November of the same year, Rommel and the Afrika Korps were defeated by Montgomery during the Second Battle of El-Alamein, likely due to being outnumbered and overwhelmed by the British forces.
Rommel would earn respect from his enemies due to his overall conduct and good treatment of Allied Prisoners of War.
In March 1943, Rommel was recalled to Europe when the Italians were squeezed out of North Africa by the Allies. He would then in 1944 be assigned to Armeegruppe B (Army Group B) and sent by Hitler to reinforce the Atlantikwall--the English Channel coast defences--against an anticipated Allied invasion from Normandy. Upon viewing Normandy, particularly Juno and Omaha, he was struck with Deja vu. It reminded him of another beach, Salerno, as, just like Salerno, it had the same, gradual curve to the shoreline, and a shallow gradient. Knowing that Salerno was the beach that the Allies used to land in Southern Italy earlier that year, he predicted that if the Allies invaded Normandy, they would likely land at Normandy as it had the same conditions as Salerno; conditions that the Allies would find ideal for another amphibious invasion. As a result of this similarity, Rommel chose to heavily reinforce the beach, upgrading the bunkers to fortifications. He then increased the number of defencive obstacles on the beach to 3,700, or one obstacle for every two yards. These obstacles included stakes, landmines, hemmbalken ('obstruction beams', a 4-5 metre log that was even nicknamed 'Rommel's Asparagus'), Czech hedgehogs, cointet-eliments, barbed wire, pillboxes, and more. After that, Rommel doubled the number of troops stationed at Omaha, increasing the number to 1,200, many of whom were experienced and had seen action before. Rommel finally intended to move his tanks closer to the beach defences, but Hitler denied the request, ordering him to station his armour 9 kilometres away as part of a counterattack. During Operation Overlord, on 6 June 1944, Rommel's predictions were correct. The Allies did, indeed, plan to land on Normandy. Rommel, however, could not command his troops during battle as he was busy celebrating his wife's birthday.
Rommel became increasingly disillusioned with Hitler. He would question his decisions, even directly. Rommel himself, knowing that the war was lost, was intent to make a peace negotiation with the Allies. Several conspirators suggested to Rommel that if Hitler was assassinated, he, Josef Goebbels, Hermann Göring, or Heinrich Himmler would likely take over. Unbeknownst to Rommel, however, these conspirators were planning to assassinate Hitler in what would be known as the 20 July Plot. Three days prior to the plot, on 17 July 1944, a British fighter jet ambushed his staff car and Rommel was sent to recover at the hospital. After the 20 July Plot failed and when the conspirators were tortured, Rommel's name was brought up numerous times. On 14 October 1944, the SS surrounded Rommel's home and two officers knocked on the door. Rommel answered the door, and upon explaining the situation to him, he was given the option to explain his involvement to Hitler, be sent to a military concentration camp, go on trial for high treason where he would be given a death sentence and his family would suffer retribution, or commit suicide. Rommel opted for suicide. The officers directed Rommel to a car, where he wrote a letter to his wife before promptly swallowing a cyanide capsule. Hitler, knowing that the real reason for Rommel's death likely wouldn't sit too well with the German public, gave him a full state funeral and stated that Rommel had died as a result of the attack on his staff car earlier. They would only find out the truth shortly after the war, when Rommel's son, Manfred Rommel announced publicly that his father was forced to commit suicide.
Today, it is currently unknown whether Rommel was involved in Operation Valkyrie to assassinate Hitler or not. He was vocally against killing Hitler, but it is said that he did support staging a coup. One former member of the plot, though, claimed that Rommel was, in fact, involved. One could attest that it is extremely likely that Rommel did have some knowledge of the event for two reasons, namely:
- Rommel was a popular general, and if he approved of the assassination attempt, it could convert many people to the conspirator's side.
- Their plan of a peace with the western Allies would likely have better chances with Rommel than anyone else.
- Treated Allied P.O.W.s well, giving them full military honours, which he need not do since the Free French forces were rebel forces and thus were considered "terrorists"
- Helped revolutionise warfare
- (Possibly) took part in the 20 July Plot in an attempt to kill Hitler
- Opposed the treatment of the French civilian population when a town was virtually wiped out shortly after D-Day by a marauding SS Division
- Was not a Nazi nor a member of the Nazi Party
- Was not bigoted against Jews or other ethnic groups
- When the Germans had captured a battalion of Jewish soldiers fighting for the British, Hitler sent a message stating that Rommel should immediately have them killed, but Rommel disobeyed orders, and replied by stating that all Jewish POWs were to be treated the same as other Allied POWs
- Didn't smoke
- Didn't drink
- Didn't do drugs (with the exception of one possible case in which an intoxicated Rommel ran over an entire column of French soldiers, which, the story makes sense when you consider in 1940, the military was issuing a type of methamphetamine known as 'Pervitin' to anyone who served in Panzer divisions and was fighting during the French Campaign)
- Committed suicide to ensure that his family lived
- Supported the Nazis' rearmament programmes
- Had the opportunity to kill Hitler earlier in 1939, as, once again, he was the Chief of Hitler's Personal Bodyguard. Had he done that, it is likely that the Holocaust and Second World War (at least as we know it today) wouldn't have happened
- Fought for the Nazis
- (Possibly) had knowledge of the
euthanasia industrialised murder programmes and (slave labour/worked to death) death camps.
- Fond of Hitler early on during the war
- Had an affair
- Tried to become a Panzer Commandant even though he was a mountain infantry commander from World War I
- Ordered his troops to pretend to surrender in order to ambush French and British troops
- Burned civilian homes in France
- Helped orchestrate a genocide in Libya and Tunisia
- Failed to ever capture the Suez Canal
- Failed to command his troops at Normandy
- Didn't really care for logistics and just threw his troops at the enemy at El Alamein
- Griffith, Alan.: Greatest Events of WWII in Colour. 2019. United Kingdom. S1 E6. D-Day.