April 17, 2012, 1:01pm / 21
The sobriquet ‘Desert Fox’ which Field Marshal Erwin Rommel won among his adversaries was not disparaging, but a tribute to his cunning, speed and power of improvisation. The reports of Rommel’s dramatic boldness captured the imagination of a world at war, and of the armies who fought against him. Winston Churchill described him as a great general whose “ardor and daring inflicted grievous disasters upon us.” The fact that in the end he paid with his life for turning against Adolf Hitler added another whole dimension to his romantic legend.
Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel was born 15 November 1891, as the son of a schoolmaster. He enlisted into the military in 1910 and during the Great War, won the Iron Cross. Between the wars he held various regimental commands and taught in elite military schools. Unlike most of his statues, Rommel had little interest in political movements or matters, and although he admired the Führer until the final years of the war—and his life—he never joined the NSDAP.
As it were, it was a book he had written on infantry tactics that first brought Rommel to the attention of Hitler, and it didn’t take long before he was widely regarded as the Führer’s favorite military man. In 1938 Rommel, then only a Colonel, was placed in command of a bodyguard battalion responsible for Hitler’s personal safety. Because of this, he accompanied Hitler on the Nazi march into the Sudentenland, into Prague, and then into Nazi occupied Poland in 1939.
Raised to Major General just before the war, Rommel was given command of a key Panzer division in February 1940. He had no experience or training in armored warfare, yet three months later the brilliant performance of his “iron cavalry” in the sweep across France lifted him to fame almost at once. Soon, to help with Moussolini’s bumbling forces in North Africa, Rommel and his Afrika Korps were sent to recapture Cyrenacia. Instead, without warning or permission from his Führer, he attacked the British at El Agheila. The fourteen months of savage fighting that followed gained him the accolade of Desert Fox and despite the occasional reverses, he drove the Eighth Army steadily eastward. However, despite this great advance Rommel and his Afrika Korps were stopped only sixty miles away from Alexandria. That was the end to his magnificent advance.
In November, after devastating losses against the Brit’s General Montgomery, Rommel and his forces fell back 700 miles in only fifteen days. By that time, Allied forces under Eisenhower had invaded French North Africa and effectively trapped Rommel in the longest pincers in history, from the Nile Valley to the Atlantic. In March, 1943 after facing Eisenhower’s fresh troops in Tunisia, a seriously ill Rommel returned to Germany. After his recovery, he became Commander in Chief of the German armies from the Netherlands to the Loire in January 1944.
From the posthumous Rommel Papers, published in English in 1953, it is evident that the general was increasingly disillusioned with Hitler’s leadership as early as his days in Africa with the Korps. As the Allied armies cut deeper into the European continent, he began to recognize that the war was lost, and made no secret of his conclusion, and on more than one occasion urged the Führer in vain to seek negotiations before it was too late.
While Rommel did not join the ‘General’s Plot’—or what most have come to know as Operation Valkyrie or the July 20th Plot—against Hitler, he knew of it and did not discourage it. It’s accepted that he favored the Führer’s arrest and trial rather than assassination. In steps with his disillusionment of the war on 15 July 1944 Rommel wrote Hitler, demanding that Germany seek an immediate armistice. Two days later, while motoring near Livarot, France Rommel was strafed by low-flying planes and seriously injured, effectively ending his role in the war.
Had the July 20th assassination attempt against Hitler succeeded, Rommel might well have become interim chief of state. But it failed. On 14 October, two Nazi Generals arrived at Rommel’s home in Herrlingen, near Ulm. They gave him a simple choice: Commit suicide, sparing his family and staff or face arrest, a trial and the probable destruction of his entire family and staff.
He swallowed poison without any hesitance and was made into a Reich hero.
February 01, 2012, 3:00pm / 73