ROMMEL, ERWIN (1891–1944)

Wartime photo Erwin Rommel, 1891–1944
Rommel was a highly decorated officer in World War I, dis­tin­guished for his exploits on the Italian front. Between the two world wars he held bat­tal­ion com­mands, served as an instruc­tor at a war college, and authored several mili­tary text­books, catching the eye of Hitler, who asked him to conduct a tour of Hitler Youth meetings and encamp­ments and deliver lectures on German soldiering. Rommel became a regular mem­ber of Hitler’s entou­rage and was greatly admired by Joseph Goebbels, the Reich’s minis­ter of propa­ganda, who celebrated Rommel’s exploits in the Nazi media.

Rommel, now a colonel, further distinguished himself during the 1940 invasion of Belgium and France (Fall Gelb, “Case Yellow”) as the fear­less and confi­dent com­mander of the 7th Panzer Division, the so-called “Ghost Division” because of its rapid advances and inde­pend­ence, even from the German High Com­mand. How­ever, it was his leader­ship of German and Italian armored forces in the North African campaign that established his legendary status as the “Desert Fox.”

On February 6, 1941, Rommel was ordered to lead the German Afrika Korps (com­prising the 15th Panzer Division and the 5th Light Division) sent to Italian Libya to shore up Benito Mus­so­lini’s demoralized forces, whose numbers had been reduced to 7,000 after 130,000 Italians had been taken prisoner by British Common­wealth forces during the previous three months. For­tu­nately for Rommel, the British in North Africa were suddenly weakened by the with­drawal of troops to fight the German inva­sion and con­quest of Greece in April 1941. Following the British with­drawal, the German-Italian force pushed into Cyre­naica (Eastern Libya), where Lt. Gen. Rommel sensed the possi­bility of destroying the Allied presence in North Africa and capturing Egypt. Rommel laid a siege to the mostly British- and Common­wealth-held port town of Tobruk (240 days) until the ini­ti­ative changed in favor of the British Eighth Army, which forced Rommel back to his starting position.

In 1942 Rommel’s newly renamed Panzer Army Africa (the force would undergo several name changes during the Western Desert Cam­paign) forced the British back again and captured Tobruk with its 33,000 defenders. Now a Field Marshal, Rommel exploited the weak­ness of British for­ma­tions with a thrust into Egypt, a thrust that had the support of Hitler, not­with­standing a signif­i­cant lengthening of Axis supply lines across North­east Africa. After the stale­mate at El Alamein (First Battle of El Alamein), 66 miles west of Alex­andria, Egypt, the British Eighth Army got a new com­mander, Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Mont­gomery, who pursued the Germans back to El Alamein for a second battle (Octo­ber 23–Novem­ber 4, 1942). (Starting in late Septem­ber Rommel was on sick leave in Italy and Germany.) Mont­gomery was able to capture most of the Panzer Army Africa, pressing the rem­nants all the way to Tunisia. Rommel still was able to inflict a sharp defeat on Amer­i­can forces at the Kas­serine Pass in February 1943, several months after large-scale Allied landings in North Africa (Oper­a­tion Torch). On March 9 he handed over com­mand of Army Group Africa to luck­less Gen. Hans Juergen von Arnim and left Africa, never to return. (Von Arnim surren­dered his forces to the Allies in May 1943.)

Rommel served briefly in Greece and Northern Italy before being posted to France with respon­si­bility for defending the French coast against the long-antic­i­pated Allied inva­sion of Festung Europa. Despite rein­vig­or­ated forti­fi­ca­tions along the Atlantic coast, the Allies mounted a successful invasion on June 6, 1944 (Operation Overlord).

On July 17, 1944, Rommel was being driven along a French road near the front when his staff car was strafed. Hos­pi­talized in Germany with major head injuries, Rommel had already made up his mind to join the mili­tary con­spiracy against Hitler. After the failed bomb attack of July 20, 1944, many con­spir­a­tors were arrested and the drag­net expanded to include Rommel. Instead of dismissing Rommel from the Army in dis­grace, Hitler offered the field marshal the choice of com­mitting sui­cide or facing Roland Freisler’s kan­garoo court. Rommel, assured by Hitler that his family would receive a state pension and himself a funeral with full mili­tary honors, ingested a capsule of cya­nide on Octo­ber 14, 1944. The truth behind Rommel’s death did not come out until the postwar Nuremberg Trials.

Rommel vs. Montgomery and the Second Battle of El Alamein, 1942