At the height of the campaigns in the deserts of Africa during the Second World War, Gen. Sir Claude Auchinleck, the British army Commander-in-Chief, issued a secret memorandum to all commanders and chiefs of staff, which stated: “There exists a real danger that our friend Rommel is becoming kind of a magician or bogey man to our troops. They are talking far too much about him; he is by no means a super man. Even if he were a super man it would still be highly undesirable for our man to credit him with super natural powers.”
Who was this bogeyman? The Desert Fox who struck such terror in the hearts of his enemies and yet remained a perfect gentleman? Who was a soldier’s soldier and was paid glowing tributes by his most ardent enemy Winston Churchill?
Erwin Rommel was born on 15 November 1891 at Heidenheim, a small town near Ulm in Germany. His father and grand father had both been schoolmasters and his mother was the daughter of a government official. Rommel joined the Wurttemberg infantry regiment as an officer cadet in 1910 and was assigned to the officers’ training school at Danzig. He graduated with flying colours in January 1912 and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the German army. His days at the training school were memorable for him. It was here that he met the attractive young Lucie Molin, whom he married in 1916. They remained husband and wife till death finally parted them in 1944.
War clouds darkened the horizon of Europe in 1914. Young Rommel was attached to the 49th field artillery regiment in Ulm on 01 March 1914. He was commanding this regiment when his beloved fatherland was engulfed by the flames of war. Rommel departed for the Western Front. In September, he was wounded when he confronted three French soldiers with an empty rifle. For this action he was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class. After returning to the front, he was again decorated with the Iron Cross First Class, when he captured four French bunkers and repulsed an attack by a crack French battalion. During the war he saw action in France, Italy and Romania. His extraordinary courage, close affinity with his soldiers and conspicuous qualities of command and leadership made him a highly popular officer among all ranks.
Rommel always tried to avoid headquarters and staff appointments, preferring the rough and tough life of a field command. His rich and varied experience as a frontline fighter compelled him to write a book on infantry tactics called Infanterie Greift An (Infantry Attacks). This book subsequently became the standard textbook in many military academies. Like all great soldiers, Rommel too had a passion for teaching and served as instructor in various military institutions. When the First World War ended in defeat for Germany, Rommel was an army captain and 27 years of age. The 1920s were uneventful years, except for the birth of his first child in December 1922, a boy named Manfred. In October 1933 Rommel was given command of the 3rd battalion of the 17th infantry regiment based in Goslar. It was here in Goslar in 1934 that Rommel had his first chance encounter with Adolf Hitler—his future destiny and the man who would arrange his death.
In 1938, after the German adventure in Austria he was given a new job. He was posted as the commandant of the officer’s cadets school at Wiesner-Neustadt near Vienna, with the new rank of colonel on 10 November 1938. He remained at this post till August 1939 when he was summoned to Berlin and entrusted with the task of commanding the Security Forces attached with the headquarters of Adolf Hitler during the blitzkrieg on Poland. Rommel took up this assignment on 25 August 1939. The attack on Poland was the start of the Second World War. Erwin Rommel wrote to his beloved wife Lucia “I left the Chancellery as a brand new General in a new uniform!” He was now a Major General at the relatively young age of 48. Rommel hated to be doing nothing but glorified guard duty as commander of the troops guarding Hitler’s war headquarters. He begged and pleaded for a combat role, some where in the thick of battle. Finally his prayers were answered when on 6 February 1940 he received orders to proceed to Badgodesberg on the Rhine and take command of the 7th Panzer Division. This appointment was arranged personally by Adolf Hitler, who overruled the army chief’s objections that Rommel was basically an infantry officer with no experience of commanding an armoured unit.
Rommel reported to Hitler on 17 February 1940 to say ‘good bye’ and Hitler handed him a farewell gift: a copy of his Mein Kampf inscribed in Hitler’s own hand “To General Rommel with pleasant memories.” Such was Rommel’s esteem and respect in the eyes of Hitler, but all this was to change completely and dramatically in the next four years.
As commander of his Panzer division, Rommel now plunged himself in the hard task of learning everything about the art of tank warfare. He was a very hard taskmaster and spared no one. He drilled and exercised his troops to the very limits of their endurance, always setting a personal example by riding at the head of the column in freezing weather and in the roughest of terrain. In the evenings he personally briefed all the unit commanders down to the platoon level. He worked in his office till midnight and was up at the crack of dawn, jogging on the banks of the Rhine. His stamina and physical fitness was exemplary and phenomenal for a man of his age.
On 9 May 1940, the secret code word ‘DORTMUND’ was flashed to Gen. Rommel. This was the signal for the start of the German attack on the Western Front. The gigantic offensive was launched on 10 May 1940 at 5:30 in the morning. Rommel’s crack 7th Panzer Division won laurels and victories, first in Belgium and then in France, with Rommel always in the front of his division in his command vehicle, a specially adapted Panzer 111 tank. He would be shouting orders, controlling the battle, keeping his eyes on the smallest detail, while at the same time acting as a morale booster and a pillar of strength for all ranks under his command. Victory after victory greeted him: Lacateau, Arras, Amiens, Rouen, Le Havre, with the commanding General shouting orders at the top of his voice, “Fuel Up! Advance! No rest!” He once told his adjutant, “In this war the commander’s place is here! Right in front! I don’t believe in armchair strategies. Let’s leave that to the gentlemen of the General Staff.”
After the fierce battle at Arras, Rommel’s Panzers rested briefly for repairs, rest and evacuation of the wounded. By now Hitler had personally ordered Rommel to halt at the canal line. This order of the Fuhrer was lifted on the 26th, and the 7th Panzer division was once again on the move after throwing a bridgehead across the canal. Lille was one of France’s big industrial cities. Moving at lightning speed, Rommel added another feather to his cap by reaching his objective much ahead of schedule, thus blocking the route of escape for the British troops to Dunkirk, where the Allies had already started the evacuation of their defeated forces across the Channel to England. His achievements were admired and appreciated by Hitler, who bestowed upon him the award of the Knight’s Cross, thus making him the first divisional commander to be so honoured in France. On 10 May, Rommel reached the sea near Dieppe and on 18 June he won another glittering prize with the capture of Cherbourg, the most important French deep-sea port.
The speed of his movements dazzled friends and foes. On 16 June his tanks covered a distance of 100 miles and on the 17th they covered a distance of 200 miles. He took Cherbourg in spite of the fact that his division was outnumbered by about twenty times. The French Atlantic coastline was thus occupied by the Germans right down to the Spanish border and the beaten and demoralised French army was virtually begging for an armistice. This brought to an end Rommel’s rapid advance or Blitzkrieg across France, in which he lost only 42 tanks and took 97,000 enemy prisoners of war – making him a big hero in Germany.
The war in France now over, Rommel exercised his Panzers with a fanatical zeal for the anticipated invasion of England. The invasion never happened.
Meanwhile, the forces of the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in North Africa were taking a severe beating at the hands of the British Army. The fall of Tobruk on 22 January was viewed by Hitler as a real calamity. So, he decided to do something about it. Rommel was now recalled to Berlin and ordered to take command of the Africa Korps in February 1941. Rommel arrived in the continent of Africa as a Field Marshal. The deserts of Africa were the scenes of his most famous victories, earning him the name of the “Desert Fox” along with fame and admiration all over the world. Auchinleck called him “A gentleman and a worthy foe.” Churchill paid tribute to him in the House of Commons. Field Marshal Montgomery had a framed photograph of him in his command vehicle.
The first major offensive by the British 8th Army under the command of General Sir Allan Cunningham was launched on 18 November 1941. Just when the British thought that they had finished him, Rommel launched a brilliant counter-offensive on 21 January and drove the British back, west of Tobruk. On 11 June, Rommel struck again in the east, and trapped the British forces in the converging deadly cross fire of two Panzer divisions. On 14 June, the British started their retreat towards Egypt. Tobruk was captured on 21 June 1942, along with 33,000 men and an immense store of military hardware. The fall of Tobruk was viewed as a major national disaster in Britain and major changes were made in the command structure of the British army in Africa. Anxious to avenge the defeat at Tobruk, Churchill now ordered a new and bigger offensive.
The British 8th Army, now commanded by Bernard Montgomery, launched an attack on the night of 23-24th October 1942. The 8th Army had 230,000 men and 1,230 tanks against the German force of 80,000 soldiers and only 210 tanks. Rommel was seriously sick and under treatment in Austria. He reached the scene of battle on 25 October, straight from his hospital bed. By this time, half of the defensive armour had been destroyed. There was a severe and crippling shortage of everything, especially fuel for the Panzers, because of the savage attacks on German supply lines in and across the Mediterranean. As a result of the brilliant tactics employed by Rommel after the first week of the offensive, the British had lost four times as many takes as the Germans. But they still fielded 800 tanks against only 90 German tanks.
Heavily outnumbered, outgunned and in desperate need of essential supplies, Rommel ordered a retreat to Fukah for making a final stand. Hitler ordered him to stand and fight to the last bullet on 3 November 1942. By now, Hitler had lost all interest in Africa because of his severe problems on the Eastern Front.
Rommel, however, started a systematic planned retreat, which, too, is a classic in the annals of military history. He covered 200 miles in the first three weeks, and after another two weeks managed to reach the German beachhead in Tunisia in mid-January 1943, covering a distance of 350 miles. By this time, the Axes forces were under attack by much superior forces unleashed as a result of Operation Torch. The Africa Korps now ceased to exist as a fighting force. Rommel was recalled to Berlin and given a staff appointment in March 1943.
In early 1944, he was given command of the French channel ports to prepare for the expected invasion of Europe by the Allied forces. Rommel disagreed with the entire concept of coastal defense and urged stronger forces behind the fortifications for counter attacks. Hitler overruled him. His prediction that unless the enemy was driven back on the first day, Germany would lose, finally came true.
The Allies launched their historic invasion on 6 June 1944, codenamed Operation Overlord. This was the greatest offensive force ever assembled consisting of 1,200 warships, 10,000 aircraft, 4,126 landing craft, 804 transport ships, thousands of amphibious tanks, and 1,560,000 troops including American, British and Canadian forces. Ground forces were commanded by General Sir Bernard Montgomery. The US First Army, and 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were under the command of Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley. Unfortunately for Germany, all of Rommel’s predictions now came true on the beaches of Normandy. At the height of the invasion on 17 July 1944, Rommel’s car was attacked by British fighter planes. The car overturned and Rommel received serious injuries. By the end of August, he had recovered sufficiently to join his family for much-needed rest.
As early as 1943, Rommel was convinced that Hitler and his gang were leading Germany to the greatest disaster of their history and that defeat was inevitable. In mid-1944, Rommel had a meeting with an old and dear friend, who was a member of a clandestine group. This group was planning the overthrow of Hitler. The messenger of this group was Dr. Karl Strolin, the mayor of Stuttgart, and a close and intimate friend of Rommel. This group wanted Rommel to take over after Hitler had been removed. The idea was not rejected by Rommel, but he refused to take any part in the planned conspiracy against Hitler.
On 20 July, an attempt was made on the life of Adolf Hitler, who miraculously escaped a bomb explosion. Now a massive witch-hunt was launched by the Gestapo and the SS to track down the conspirators. More than 5,000 people lost their lives to atone for the attempt on the life of Hitler. During this mass orgy of retribution, some link was established between Rommel and the leaders of the failed coup attempt. Rommel was still recovering from his injuries at his family home when on 13 October 1944, he received a phone-call from the HQ of War District 5 Stuttgart, informing him that Gen. Burgdorf and Gen. Maisel would call on him the following day.
The two angels of death arrived in the afternoon of 14 October.
Rommel was offered the choice of taking his own life by poison, or to face trial for high treason. For the sake of his family’s future and honour, Rommel accepted Hitler’s offer and swallowed the poison drug sent from Berlin. On 15 October, he was buried with full military honours befitting a German Field Marshal.
Thus, one of the greatest generals of all times passed away into history but as they say, old soldiers never truly die – they merely fade away.