Erwin Rommel

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Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel (15 November 1891 – 14 October 1944) (also known as the "Desert Fox"), was a German Field Marshal during World War II although his military career dated back to World War I. He died when Hitler forced his suicide over involvement in the German Resistance.

World War I

In WWI, as a junior officer, he received the Pour le Merite, Germany's highest decoration for valor in combat. [1] He was recognized for leading a small unit, in the Italian campaign at Caporetto, which captured 150 Italian officers, 9,000 soldiers, and 81 guns.

While George Patton never actually fought directly against a healthy Rommel, the movie Patton plays homage to Infantry in the Attack. George C. Scott, playing Patton, directs new American tactics that defeats a German armored formation in North Africa, and shouts "I read your book! I read your book!"

Interwar

He was assigned, in 1929, as an instructor at the Infantry School, a prestigious command comparable to a General Staff appointment: "the Reichswehr considered every officer a rifleman as the U.S. Marines consider every Marine a rifleman." In 1932, he was promoted to major and given command of a battalion. disliked desk work, so it was useful when a new policy on unit command was issue, emphasizing the value of leadership.

Promotion to lieutenant colonel came in 1935, and he found himself on a career track that, in a peacetime army, would probably lead to division command. Higher command would be unlikely due to lack of staff experience. [2]

Between the wars, he wrote the tactical text, Infantry in the Attack (Infanterie im Angriff), based on his WWI diaries. [3] He became most known, however, for leading armored forces, often from the front.

Hitler did read the book, and asked to have Rommel temporarily assigned to his security force during the Nuremberg Party Rally, so they could meet. In 1938, he was promoted to colonel and given command of the War School. He might have retired from that assignment, but instead was given command of Hitler's personal guard battalion. At that point, Hitler was at the peak of his abilities, and Rommel liked him personally but never joined the Nazi Party. Rommel, however, grew to distrust Hitler's entourage. [4]

Battle of France

He commanded the 7th Panzer Division in the Battle of France. During that campaign and later in his career, he refused to cooperate with the Schutzstaffel (SS) in arresting Jews, incurring the enmity of Heinrich Himmler.

North Africa

We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general. Winston Churchill in the House of Commons, 1942

To reinforce Italian forces in North Africa, he was sent there commanding the Africa Corps, but his role increased until he was the Axis theater commander, with Panzerarmee Afrika reporting to him as well as having operational control of Italian forces. On 21 June 1942, he captured the major British base at Tobruk. Shirer, observing that Hitler never understood global warfare, did not realize that by reinforcing Rommel, the forces there could move through Egypt, capture the oil fields of the Middle East, and eventually link up with German armies in the Caucasus. Instead of giving him reinforcements, he promoted him to field marshal.

As exhaustion and disease affected him, he was sent back to Germany for recuperation. While he was out of the theater, the Allied Operation Torch invasion struck. The Allies constantly attacked his supplies coming across the Mediterranean, in part due to their increasingly effective use of communications intelligence on the Enigma machine. Their operational security always held, so when fighters intercepted transport aircraft or submarines torpedoed oil tankers, there was always a plausible cover story of such things as a sighting by a reconnaissance aircraft. In some cases, the reconnaissance aircraft was simply told to fly to a certain location, be sure it was seen, and fly away.

Many of the attacks on the sea line of communication came from Malta. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder initially convinced Hitler to support Rommel's western push, as well as a paratroop attack on Malta, Operation Hercules. General Kurt Student, commanding the German airborne forces, told Hitler he could take Malta, but not hold it. [5] Hitler changed his mind, saying nothing could be spared from the Russian Front. [6]

Fighting in the North African desert had gone back and forth, with Rommel unable to overcome the defenses at El Alamein in August 1942. The British had received two new commanders, Bernard Montgomery for the operational Eighth Army and Harold Alexander commanding the theater.

Rommel, who had been on sick leave, returned to disaster at El Alamein. Hitler, however, refused, on 2 November, to let him make a tactical retreat.
I and the German people are watching the heroic defensive battle waged in Egypt with faithful trust in your powers of leadership and in the bravery of the German-Italian troops under your command. In the situation in which you now find yourself, there can be no other consideration save that of holding fast, of not retreating one step, of throwing every gun and every man into the battle...You can show your troops no other way than that which leads to victory or death.[7]

Hitler finally authorized Rommel to retreat on 5 November, which he was already doing. Germany had received warning of large British naval movement, but, on 7 November, twelve hours before U.S. and British troops were to land in Operation Torch, he asked the Luftwaffe to reinforce, and told they could not. He then gave von Rundstedt the code word to occupy Vichy France.

Rommel's conduct there earned him the respect of all sides, except perhaps Hitler. [8] On receiving Hitler's Commando Order, he tore it up. When a British special operations team attempted to assassinate him in his headquarters, he had the survivors as his dinner guests before they went to prison camp.

Italy

After the defeat of Axis forces in North Africa, the next logical target was Italy. After Mussolini was removed from office on 25 July, Hitler ordered the passes between Italy and Germany, and Italy and France, secured, while starting to plan a rescue of Mussolini. The eight-division border force was established as a new army group under Rommel.[9] He later transferred to the Atlantic Coast.

Atlantic coast

He commanded Army Group B under CinC-West Gerd von Rundstedt, responsible for the direct defense of the Atlantic coast against the expected Allied cross-channel invasion. Once in command, he brought great energy to preparing and motivating the defense. His eye for terrain, for example, forced the Allies to change their intended locations for dropping paratroops, as he ordered low-lying areas flooded, and other likely landing grounds filled with sharpened poles called "Rommel's Asparagus".

One of his frustrations, after the start of the Battle of Normandy, was that Hitler had kept personal control of the release of the armored counterattack force, which he believed could have had a significant effect either if it had stayed under his control, or been released to him immediately when the first troops landed.

While in his command car, he was severely injured by an attack by an Allied fighter-bomber on 17 July 1944. He was succeeded by Walter Model.

German Resistance and forced suicide

Rommel was aware of the 20th of July Plot to kill Hitler in 1944, and that he was the conspirators' choice to become head of state. He was not, however, involved in planning the coup.

On 14 October 1944, Hitler's adjutants, Generals Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel, came to Rommel's home where he was recovering from his wounds. They told him that he had been implicated in the plot, but Hitler offered him a special dispensation. He could commit suicide immediately, using a cyanide capsule they brought with them, no retaliation would be taken against his family and staff, and he would be given a state funeral. If he refused, he would be brought before the Peoples' Court, with an inevitable death sentence and persecution of those close to him. He was given a few minutes to tell his wife, son, and closest aides, and then went with Burgdorf and Maisel. His body was brought to a military hospital shortly afterwards, which was told no autopsy was needed because he had died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Witnesses said he had an expression of intense contempt on his face.

He also deserves our respect, because, although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this, he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, there is little place for chivalry. — Winston Churchill

References

  1. I diari di Rommel e gli italiani in Nord Africa
  2. Dennis E. Showalter (2006), Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century, Penguin
  3. Erwin Rommel, with Manfred Rommel in current version (1937), Infantry in the Attack (Infanterie im Angriff) (Zenith Press reprint & update, 2009 ed.), Zenith Press, ISBN 978-0760337158
  4. Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr. (2007), Rommel's Desert War: The Life and Death of the Afrika Korps, Stackpole Books, pp. 9-10
  5. Stephen L.W. Kavanaugh (2010), Hitler's Malta Option: A Comparison of the Invasion of Crete (Operation Merkur) and the Proposed Invasion of Malta (Operation Hercules), Nimble Books, pp. 98-99
  6. William Shirer (1960), The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Simon & Schuster, pp. 912-913
  7. Shirer, p. 920
  8. Erwin Rommel, Jewish Virtual Library
  9. Shirer, pp. 994-999