Berlin, Germany February 6, 1941

During the German invasion of France in 1940, an am­bi­tious general named Erwin Rommel distin­guished him­self as the “lead from the front” com­mander of the 7th Pan­zer Divi­sion. Disre­garding the per­form­ance-enhancing effects of his con­sump­tion of Army-issued Pervitin, a meth­am­phet­a­mine soldiers dubbed “Panzer Schoko­lade,” Rommel was a dare­devil by instinct. It was typical of him to man the lead Mark IV tank or the lead scout car behind a machine gun. His armored for­ma­tion, equally hopped-up, acquired the nick­name Le Divi­sion Fan­tôme (the “Ghost Divi­sion”), soon adopted by the Germans (Gespenster­division), owing to its unparal­leled rapid day and night thrusts across Northern France. As much as pos­sible he and his panzers avoided roads and barreled cross-country through mea­dows, corn­fields, and plowed land, there­by avoiding French defense posi­tions. All of this put him off the maps and out of radio con­tact with his supe­riors far to the rear, including those in Berlin, leaving him unan­swer­able to them for his head­strong inde­pen­dence. (Adolf Hitler chided Rommel for costing him a “sleep­less night” owing to the Fuehrer worrying over Rommel’s “safety.”) Indeed, Hitler had more than a nodding acquain­tance with the 50‑year-old tank com­man­der. Rom­mel had served on Hitler’s staff during the 1939 Poland cam­paign and had organized the Fuehrer’s victory parade back in the Reich capital.

On this date, February 6, 1941, Hitler picked Rom­mel to head two Ger­man Pan­zer divi­sions that would help reverse British Com­mon­wealth advances into Italy’s North Afri­can colony of Libya, where in the pre­vious three months Benito Mus­so­lini’s army had lost 130,000 men as pri­soners and almost 400 tanks. On Febru­ary 12 the Ger­man Luft­waffe, in its first action in Africa, attacked British-occupied Ben­ghazi in Cyre­naica, the east­ern coastal region of Libya. At the same time Ger­man troops, em­barking at Naples, Italy, began landing in Tri­poli, Libya’s capi­tal in the west­ern half of the colony, while Rom­mel arrived in Tripoli by plane to take com­mand of an elite force soon to become the legen­dary Afrika Korps. (German assets in Africa evolved under a number of names, but the Afrika Korps remained at the center.)

Theoretically subordinate to the Italian Commando Supremo (high com­mand), and defi­nitely sub­ordi­nate to his Ger­man com­manders, Rom­mel ignored their wishes that his com­bined Ger­man-Ital­ian army main­tain a chiefly defen­sive pos­ture in Libya. Within a month his forces had pushed the Brit­ish, with the excep­tion of 25,000 besieged in the port town of Tobruk, out of Cyre­nai­ca all the way back into Egypt (see map). British Com­mon­wealth forces re­grouped in the form of the British Eighth Army under the inspired leader­ship of newly appointed Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Mont­gomery, who bested the sea­soned Rom­mel (now a field marshal) in the decisive Second Battle of El Alamein (October 23 to November 4, 1942).

Opera­tion Torch, which landed Allied troops in Morocco and Algeria also in Novem­ber, ended Axis for­tunes in North Africa in May 1943 with the capture of 250,000 Ger­man and Italian soldiers, two and a half times more than had sur­rendered to the Red Army at Stalin­grad the previous Febru­ary. It was a major victory and a crucial stepping­stone to the future invasion of Italy and France.

Erwin Rommel in Poland, France, and North Africa, 1939–1943

Map of Western Desert, showing Erwin Rommel’s offensive, March 24 to June 15, 1941

Above: The Western Desert area, showing Erwin Rommel’s first offensive, March 24 to June 15, 1941 (between arrows at bottom of map, admittedly difficult to see). Rommel caused havoc to British army for­tunes in North­east Africa, stopped only after Lt. Gen. Bernard Mont­gomery had assumed com­mand of the British Eighth Army in August 1942. El Alamein, the site of a small rail­way station where Mont­gomery threw Rommel’s army into reverse in late October–early November 1942, appears at the right edge of this map.

Erwin Rommel (center) on Hitler’s left in Poland, September 1939Erwin Rommel(center) and staff during the French campaign, June 1940

Left: Serving as com­man­der of the Fuehrer­begleit­brigade bat­tal­ion, which was tasked with guarding Adolf Hitler and his field head­quarters, Erwin Rommel (1891–1944) appears to Hitler’s left during the German “blitz­krieg” cam­paign in Poland, Septem­ber 1939. (The term “blitz­krieg” was coined by Western news reporters to describe the speed and destruc­tive­ness of the German attack on Poland; Germans did not use the term.) Less than a year later Rommel employed the same “blitz­krieg” tech­niques to great effect during the German rush through France in May and June 1940.

Right: Rommel with 7th Panzer Division staff in France, June 1940. Rommel’s Panzer division was the first German unit to reach the English Channel in the Wehrmacht’s drive to the French coast. The 7th Panzer captured Cherbourg on June 18 and was approaching Bor­deaux when the French and the Ger­mans signed an armistice on June 22, 1940. Almost a month earlier Rommel was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, the first divisional commander to be so honored during the West European campaign.

Erwin Rommel, North Africa, June 1942Bernard Montgomery, North Africa, November 1942

Left: The “Desert Fox” with his aides in North Africa, June 1942, on the eve of the First Battle of El Alamein (July 1–27, 1942). Although a stale­mate, the battle halted a second advance by Rom­mel’s forces into Egypt. However, the German-Italian pre­sence near El Alamein, only 66 miles from the major British port of Alexandria, Egypt, was dangerously close to major population centers and the Suez Canal for the Allied forces to allow the status quo to remain. A Second Battle of El Alamein under newly appointed Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery ended the Axis threat to Egypt, the Suez Canal, and any poten­tial that the Germans might gain access to the Middle Eastern and Persian oil fields.

Right: Montgomery directing operations in North Africa, November 1942. Rommel exerted an almost hypnotic influence not only over his own troops on account of his tactical brilliance, bravery, and decency in his treatment of Allied prisoners (he was praised by no less a figure than Winston Chur­chill in January 1942) but also over the soldiers of the British Eighth Army in World War II. Montgomery kept a photograph of Rommel on the wall of his command trailer.

German Color Footage: Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps, 1941–1942 (Music only)