Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel

By David Tong


I remember reading books about WWII and its military leaders in my early teens and one name among the German Generals stood out, that of Erwin Rommel. He was a successful leader and an early supporter of the Hitler regime who later ran afoul of it at the price of his life, but so were a number of other German generals. What was so noteworthy about the man himself?

Rommel was born in Ulm, Swabia in southern Germany (Bavaria) on 15 November 1891. His father was a schoolteacher and his mother was the daughter of the former President of the state (Wurttemberg), where Ulm is located. While he had planned to become a civil engineer, instead Rommel joined the army in 1910, enlisting in his state’s infantry regiment. After only three months he was promoted to Corporal and after six to Sergeant.

During the years of military buildup leading to WWI, Rommel quickly rose up the ranks. He was sent to Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) for the Officer’s School in March 1911. He returned to his unit a commissioned officer in January 1912. He met his future wife Lucie while in Danzig and the couple was married in 1916. Their only child, Manfred, was born in 1929. Long after WWII, in the 1980's, Manfred became the Mayor of Stuttgart.

Erwin Rommel served as regimental recruiting officer until the outbreak of war. In September 1914, he was wounded in the leg while leading a charge against a French position. He had run out of ammunition and his only weapon was his rifle-mounted bayonet! Thus, early on, he demonstrated personal bravery and leadership from the front, two aspects of his personality and tactical acumen that later served him well.

In January 1915, Rommel was awarded the Iron Cross First Class for bravery in the Argonne Forest in France. In September of that year, he was transferred to a mountain division, later posted near Rumania to fight the Italians. He took part in two major actions in August 1916, at Caporetto and at Mount Cosna. He was awarded Germany’s highest decoration for bravery under fire, “Pour Le Merite,” better known today as “The Blue Max,” because of the movie of the same name. This was unusual for a mere Hauptmann (Captain), as usually this honor was reserved for general staff officers.

He spent the last year of the war behind the front, rejoining his old regiment in December 1918. By the summer of 1919, Rommel commanded an internal security company and by January 1921 he was sent to Stuttgart to command an infantry regiment. He retained this position until 1929. By now Oberst (Colonel), Rommel had written his memoir of WWI, Infanterie Greift An (Infantry Attacks), which caught the attention of a politician named Adolf Hitler.

Like many professional soldiers, Rommel saw an opportunity in the growing National Socialist movement to expand the capabilities and size of the army beyond the retributive terms of the Versailles Treaty. At this time of his life he was politically non-committal, willing to support any party capable of restoring Germany to its former status as a major power. There is a certain naiveté about this position, to be sure. Such blind faith was what Hitler sought from the whole nation and he used it to lead Germany to its doom.

October 1935 found Rommel teaching at the War Academy in Potsdam and by November 1939 he commanded the War Academy. Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and shortly after Rommel was promoted to Major General and given command of Hitler’s Begleit Brigade, or personal army bodyguard.

Witnessing that armored movement warfare was the wave of the future, Hitler gave Rommel command of 7th Panzer Division in February 1940. This division was one of the spearheads that led to the six-week capitulation of France in May of that year. One of the important lessons he learned in that campaign was the improvised use of the famous 88mm, high velocity anti-aircraft gun on British armored units. This had never been tried before and it worked very successfully from defensive positions.

This was just one instance in which Rommel's unconventional mind made use of terrain and the equipment at hand. His notion that leading from the front was advantageous for tactical assessment, deployment and unit morale was highly unusual for a general staff officer. By January 1941, he was recalled to Berlin, where Hitler promoted him to Lt. General and gave him command of the Afrika Korps. His mission was to put pressure on the British Eighth Army and tie up their troops.

The Afrika Korps fought at full strength only at the time of their initial landing on the North African coast, in early 1941. Subsequently, Allied air power and British naval power interdicted much of the reinforcements and materiel Hitler sent to further the conflict. Rommel fought tenacious battles with the British at Tobruk (twice) and El Alamein. Churchill sacked three theater commanders before hiring Bernard Law Montgomery to finish off the Afrika Korps.

By August 1941, Rommel, now commanding Panzergruppe Afrika, was in charge of all German, Italian and Vichy French forces on the continent. The Reich was unable to reinforce his detachment, due to the stunning losses of troops and materiel in the Soviet campaign. Rommel would employ subterfuge, such as wooden dummy tanks, or dragging bundles of wood behind trucks to raise huge clouds of dust, to deceive the Allies into believing that a feint constituted a main line of attack. He continued to use the 88mm AAA cannon as an effective weapon against the lightly armored Allied tanks. His use of his Panzers in great flanking maneuvers, placing impassable terrain between his move and the enemy force to preclude their flanking him, is still taught in military academies worldwide.

After the landing of American forces under General George Patton in western North Africa (operation Torch) in November 1942 and the loss of Panzergruppe Afrika in May 1943, Rommel was a very sick man. He had earned the respect of his adversaries, who nicknamed him “The Desert Fox,” for his cunning and boldness. The British recognized that he did not mistreat prisoners nor persecute Jews in his area of operations. In addition, the Arabs looked upon the Germans as liberators, sick of British rule under the Balfour Mandate of 1917.

Weary and ill, the now Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (the youngest Field Marshal in German history) returned to Germany disillusioned. Although he had been awarded Germany's highest WWII decoration, the "Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds" by Hitler personally, he believed that the war was lost.

After a long leave to convalesce, Rommel held a number of commends. These included commands in Greece and Italy. His last major job was the reinforcement of the Norman coast of France, in anticipation of the Anglo-American invasion. While Hitler had long boasted that Festung Europa (Fortress Europe) could never be breached, Rommel recognized that only halting steps had been taken to harden the target. He threw himself and his remaining energies and enthusiasm into the project. He hoped to stop the invasion on the beach, forestalling major ground gains after the landings to prevent the Allies gaining a foothold on the continent.

To that end, he quadrupled the number of steel anti-tank obstacles on the beaches. He instituted a massive fortification plan, building poured concrete revetments housing heavy cannon and machine gun emplacements, with lighter mobile artillery behind. Farther back, Panzer units were held as a mobile reserve. The latter were under the command of Field Marshal von Rundstedt, an old time Prussian Junker officer. Rommel believed that von Rundstedt, while good intentioned, would slow the pace of battle and be unable to respond in a timely manner. He unsuccessfully petitioned Hitler to allow him direct control of these reserve Panzer units.

Rommel flooded farm fields and placed anti-glider obstructions in them to preclude glider-borne troops from landing behind the coast. He greatly increased the number of sea mines placed offshore to protect the coast. He hoped that the Luftwaffe would be able to provide air cover for the movement of tanks and troops once the battle began, but the aggressive Allied air offensive during the first half of 1944 effectively decimated the Luftwaffe, leaving it unable to influence events on the ground.

As we know, while costly for the Allies, the Normandy landings were successful and Rommel understood that the war was truly lost. His name was so well known to the German public that conspirators seeking to assassinate Hitler and end the war sought him out. While Rommel agreed to the removal of Hitler, he did not participate in the plot. He was wounded by a British fighter that strafed his staff car only three days before the bomb went off at the Wolfshanze (Wolf’s Lair) on July 20, 1944.

Unfortunately, Hitler survived the bomb blast and several of the conspirators mentioned Rommel’s name under torture. His fate was sealed. Due to his fame and popularity, Rommel was given the option of taking cyanide. He was promised that his family would not be harmed and he would be given a state funeral with full honors. The alternative was to be dragged before Justice Roland Freisler’s “People’s Court” on the way to the gallows. He chose the former.

Rommel was one of the few Wehrmacht commanders that actively opposed any Jewish persecution in the area under his command. He was never accused of any war crimes. In North Africa, it is said that not only did he eat the same rations as his troops, but that he cut his own troops’ water ration so that the POWs he had captured could survive.

Viewing him from a personal perspective, perhaps he was not as strategically aware as he was tactically astute. This might be, at least partly, because his lead from the front style did not lend itself to much reflection. Others might opine, with some veracity, that he routinely overran his logistics and supply. Actually, by the time an overall area of command was given to him, with Panzer Armee Afrika in early 1943, it was more title than substance.

Several weeks ago, I watched a video of the interior of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Iraq. A captured Iraqi asked why Erwin Rommel's photo was on one of the bulkheads. The young American soldier replied, “If you had read any of his books, you might not be sitting here as my prisoner!”

Such is the reverence we have for the memory of an honorable professional soldier. He dared to question a megalomaniac dictator and the morality of a conflict he saw as strategically hopeless. When to stop the killing is an eternal question that has been on the minds of astute commanders from time immemorial.

Many good books have been written about Erwin Rommel. The one that I remember best was the first American edition of his Rommel Papers. This interspersed tactical developments on the battlefield, the growing doubts he had about the defeats being suffered by his troops and touching letters to his wife. The latter nearly always began with “My Dearest Lu.” I highly recommend it if you can find a copy.




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