Born November 15, 1891
Died October 14, 1944
near Herrlingen, Germany
German field marshal known as the "Desert Fox"
Erwin Rommel is known for leading Germany's Afrika Korps to victory in the deserts of North Africa. His ability to keep the enemy off balance, using surprise attacks and quick movements, earned him the nickname "Desert Fox." He was admired by friends and enemies alike; for example, British prime minister Winston Churchill told the House of Commons (England's legislative body) that Rommel was "a very daring and skillful opponent and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general." By the end of World War II, Rommel had fallen out of favor with Germany's leader, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945; see entry), when he told him that Germany could not defeat the Allies (Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the other countries fighting against Germany, Italy, and Japan.)
An impressive young soldier
Rommel was the second of four children born to middle-class parents, Erwin (a schoolteacher) and Helene Rommel, in Heidenheim in southern Germany. As a boy he was small and well behaved, with fair hair, blue eyes, and a quiet, dreamy manner. As a teenager he became more active and practical, spending much of his time on his bicycle or skis and studying his favorite subject, mathematics.
The young Rommel was interested in airplanes and gliders; in fact, he would have liked to study engineering and learn how to build them, but his father wanted him to enter the military. In July 1910, he entered the 124th Wurtemberg Infantry Regiment as a cadet, and two years later he was commissioned as a lieutenant. In 1914, he married Lucie Mollin, whom he had met several years earlier.
As a soldier in World War I (in which Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire fought against Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, Belgium, Serbia, and many other countries from 1914 to 1918), Rommel impressed his superior officers through his boldness, courage, and determination as well as his ability to act quickly and decisively. He served in Romania, France, and Italy and in 1917 led the capture of Monte Matajur, near the Italian city of Caporetto. For his bravery the 27-year-old Rommel received the Pour le Merite or Iron Cross, the highest award in the German military, usually given only to much older and more experienced officers.
Germany's defeat in World War I plunged the country into a period of economic hardship. Rommel decided to stay in the army, even though the Versailles Treaty—the agreement which forced Germany to take various steps to make up for starting the war—had greatly reduced its role in Germany society. By 1921 he was serving as a company commander with a regiment based near Stuttgart, and his son Manfred had been born.
Attracts Hitler's attention
Next Rommel became an instructor at the Infantry School in Dresden. The lectures he gave during his four years there were collected and published as a book, Infantry Attacks. The lectures featured vivid descriptions based on Rommel's own war experiences. The Swiss army used the book to train its troops, and it was also read and admired by Adolf Hitler, who was then rising through the ranks of German politics as leader of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, known as the Nazi Party.
In 1933, Hitler took complete control of the German government. He outlawed all other political parties and became dictator of Germany, and soon began his program of strict control over all citizens and even harsher treatment of Jews and other people the Nazis considered their enemies. Hitler's plans included invading the countries around Germany.
Rommel was a lieutenant colonel in 1935 when he became an instructor at the Potsdam War Academy, where for a short period he helped to train the young boys of the Hitler Youth clubs. This assignment ended, however, when Rommel had a disagreement with the very strict Nazi officer in charge of the program.
Leading the German Army into France
In 1938, Germany conquered Czechoslovakia, using a very successful form of warfare called the blitzkrieg : troops in vehicles (usually tanks) would make quick, surprise attacks while planes dropped bombs on the enemy. Hitler wanted to show the Czechs what a strong leader he was, so he made plans to personally visit the capital city, Prague, in October. Rommel was chosen to command the group providing security for Hitler during his trip to Czechoslovakia, and he again impressed "der Führer" (Hitler's title, which means "the leader"). Germany had also recently taken over Austria, and in November Rommel became commandant of the Austrian war academy in Wiener Neustadt.
Less than a year later, German troops pushed across the Polish border, and with this invasion—which caused Great Britain and France to declare war against Germany—World War II began. Rommel was promoted to major general and given the command of Hitler's field headquarters in Poland.
During this period, Rommel greatly admired Hitler. He thought Hitler was an idealistic, devoted patriot who only wanted to make Germany stronger. Rommel did not realize until later how much Hitler hated Jews and how far he would go to destroy them.
As Germany prepared to attack France, Rommel was given command of the 7th Panzer (Tank) Division, which he led into France from Belgium. Rommel's troops were known as the "Ghost" or "Phantom" division because they moved at such terrific speed that they always seemed to appear out of nowhere. Rommel devised many bold, clever moves and played an important role in the successful takeover of France, for which he was awarded the Knight's Cross medal.
In command of the Afrika Korps
After the victory in France, Rommel was appointed to lead the Afrika Korps, the German force that would fight the British army in North Africa, where troops from Italy (Germany's ally in World War II) were struggling to hold their own. Beginning in 1941, Rommel commanded the Afrika Korps in a series of battles against the British 8th Army, and again the blitzkrieg proved an effective form of warfare. The Germans were able to push the British from Libya all the way to the Egyptian border—a distance of about 1,500 miles—bringing them close to the Suez Canal, an important strategic goal because it would allow them to more easily bring in supplies to the area.
It was the element of surprise he so often used and his clever maneuvers that earned Rommel the nickname "Desert Fox" as well as the admiration of both friends and enemies. In fact, one British general who admitted that Rommel was a "master of innovation" had to warn his own officers about admiring the German general too much—he was the enemy after all. Rommel's good reputation with Allied troops also had something to do with the fact that prisoners of the Afrika Korps were treated well, unlike those in other parts of the world. His own soldiers appreciated his habit of commanding battles from the middle of the action, rather than from a safe, distant spot, even though it meant that he was sometimes away from headquarters when important decisions had to be made.
The youngest field marshal
As news of Afrika Korps victories reached Germany, Rommel became a great hero in his own country. Hitler publicized Rommel's accomplishments because he realized how valuable such a popular figure could be in promoting the war effort. And Rommel was a good choice for a war hero because he had no political ambitions of his own and would never challenge Hitler's power. In June 1942, Rommel was made a field marshal, the highest rank in the Germany army, becoming the youngest officer ever to achieve it; he commented, however, that he would have preferred instead to be sent another division of troops to help him fight the British.
As 1942 progressed, the British began to improve their position and performance in North Africa, partly due to the dynamic leadership of General Bernard Montgomery (1887-1976; see entry). Rommel was unable to get the supplies, equipment, and troops he needed to take the Suez Canal, and Afrika Korps started losing its battles against the British 8th Army. One of the biggest defeats occurred at El Alamein, located a few hundred miles west of Cairo, Egypt; as a result of the battle, Rommel's troops were driven back 2,000 miles across the desert to Tunisia. With the March 1943 loss at Medenine against American troops led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969; see entry), the Germans had to accept defeat in North Africa. Meanwhile, Rommel had developed stomach and other health problems and had already left to seek medical treatment in Germany.
Preparing for the Allied invasion
After recovering from an illness, Rommel was sent to northern Italy to help Germany's ally Benito Mussolini (1883-1945; see entry), Italy's dictator. The Allies had invaded Sicily (a large island off the coast of Italy) and then the Italian mainland. As they pushed their way north, Italian partisans (forces fighting against the Axis from within Italy) overthrew Mussolini and arrested him. The Germans saved him from the partisans and set him up as leader of Northern Italy, which was still controlled by the Axis.
By the end of 1943 it was thought that the Allies would soon launch an invasion of Europe. In response to this Rommel, who had been put in command of all German troops from the Netherlands to the Loire River in northern France, went to France in 1944 to prepare for the possible invasion.
Rommel believed that the best strategy was to fight and beat the Allies as soon as they landed, while others thought that more troops should be placed inland to catch the Allied forces as they moved into the French countryside. In the end neither strategy was really chosen: Hitler insisted on a kind of compromise, which did not prove very effective. Rommel was able to set up a few defenses on and around the beaches where they thought the Allies might try to invade. Rommel used defenses such as underwater explosive devices and "Rommel's asparagus"—stakes driven in the ground and draped with barbed wire and mines to prevent Allied boats and airplanes from landing safely.
Hitler refuses to accept defeat
On June 6, 1944, the massive Allied invasion known as D-Day occurred when about 150,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy in northern France. After the successful landing, Rommel realized that Germany could not win the war. It was around this time that he also learned of the concentration camps, the prisons where millions of Jews were being confined and murdered. Rommel met with Hitler and urged him to close the camps and take other measures to improve Germany's chances, but Hitler refused to listen. Rommel felt disillusioned and bitter. On July 15 he sent Hitler a message stating that this "unequal struggle is at an end," but he received no reply.
On July 17, Rommel was traveling along a French road when his car was machine-gunned by a British warplane. The driver was killed and Rommel received a skull fracture. He was unconscious for a week and was flown home to Germany to recover.
Meanwhile, a group of German officers who were unhappy with Hitler's leadership had made a plan to assassinate him. While Hitler was meeting with other leaders, one of the plotters left a bomb close to him and then left the room. The bomb was pushed to a different part of the room, so that when it exploded it killed some other men present but not Hitler. Some of those who had planned the attack were quickly found and executed, while investigators kept looking for others.
"I have come to say goodbye"
Because Rommel had openly stated his poor opinion of Hitler (claiming, for instance, that Hitler was insane, and that Germany should surrender to the Allies), he was suspected of being involved in the bomb plot, even though he was lying unconscious in a hospital bed at the time. Indeed, Rommel may have known about the plot but he was probably not actively involved in it; he had said that he thought Hitler should be arrested and brought to trial, not assassinated.
In any case, Rommel was summoned to Nazi headquarters in Berlin on October 7, 1944. Convinced that his life was in danger, Rommel stayed home. But on October 14, two generals arrived at his house and asked to speak to him privately. Afterward, Rommel went into the room where his wife and son were waiting and told them, "I have come to say goodbye. In a quarter of an hour I will be dead." The generals had delivered a message from Hitler that Rommel was to make a choice: he could commit suicide, or come before the Nazi "people's court" to face charges of being involved in the assassination plot. If he chose suicide, Rommel's family would not be harmed, but this would not be the case if he decided to go to trial.
The generals had brought with them a vial of poison that they claimed would kill him within seconds. Rommel drove off in their car with them. Fifteen minutes later, his wife Lucie received a phone call telling her that her husband had died of a heart attack. In fact, of course, he had taken the poison and died.
Hitler was worried about how the public would react to the real facts of Rommel's death, so it was announced that he had died of his war wounds. Rommel was given a grand state funeral, with fine speeches and stirring music—an event that his wife found almost unbearable. In fact, she refused Hitler's offer to set up a memorial to her husband, knowing that this would be a false tribute from the man who had ordered Rommel's death.
Where to Learn More
Blanco, Richard L. Rommel, the Desert Warrior: The Afrika Korps in World War II. New York: J. Messner, 1982.
Douglas-Home, Charles. Rommel. New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson,1974.
Fraser, David. Knight's Cross. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Irving, David. The Trail of the Fox: A Search for the True Field Marshal Rommel. New York: Macmillan, 1977.
Mitcham, Samuel W., Jr. Triumphant Fox: Erwin Rommel and the Rise of the Afrika Korps. New York: Stein and Day, 1984.
Pimlott, John, ed. Rommel: In His Own Words. London: Greenhill Books,1994.
Young, Desmond. Rommel. London: Collins, 1950.
The Plot to Kill Hitler
As the war went on and it appeared that Nazi Germany could not beat the Allies, many of Adolf Hitler's former supporters began to think the country would be better off without him. One of these was Nicholas von Stauffenberg, who had served as a staff officer in the German invasions of Poland, the Netherlands, and France. Born into a wealthy family, Stauffenberg was a devout Catholic, and he was horrified by the Nazi brutalities he witnessed. He joined two other officers who were plotting to assassinate (kill) Hitler.
In April 1943, Stauffenberg was serving with a tank division in North Africa when the car in which he was traveling came under fire. He was seriously wounded, losing his left eye, his right hand, and two fingers on his left hand. While recovering in a German hospital, he decided that Hitler must be killed soon. He told his wife, "I feel I must do something now to save Germany. We General Staff officers must all accept our share of the responsibility."
Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators planned the assassination for July 20, 1944. Hitler was having a military conference at one of his headquarters, called Wolf's Lair, and Stauffenberg had been asked to attend. When Stauffenberg arrived, he was carrying a bomb in his briefcase. A captured British time bomb, it was fitted with a device that would produce an explosion a certain period of time after it was triggered.
Stauffenberg armed the bomb just before entering the conference room. He asked to be seated close to Hitler, which did not seem unusual since he had poor hearing. He put down his briefcase about six feet from Hitler, then said he had to make a phone call and left the room. He was in his car, headed for the airport, when he heard the bomb explode.
Stauffenberg did not know that just after he had left, someone had moved his briefcase away from Hitler. The explosion killed four men but only slightly injured Hitler. After he reached his Berlin headquarters, Stauffenberg learned that Hitler was not dead. He tried to convince other army officers to join the plot anyway and overthrow Hitler, but they refused.
Stauffenberg and several others were soon arrested and taken to Hitler's military headquarters. In a courtyard lit only by a truck's headlights, they were killed by firing squad. Before the shots were fired, Stauffenberg reportedly shouted, "Long live our sacred Germany!"
The German field marshal Erwin Rommel (1891-1944), known as the "Desert Fox," achieved fame as a brilliant desert-warfare tactician in World War II.
Erwin Rommel was born in Heidenheim near Ulm on Nov. 15, 1891, into an old Swabian middle-class family. After a traditional classical education, he joined the 124th Infantry Regiment as an officer cadet in 1910 and was commissioned as second lieutenant 2 years later. In World War I he served on the Western front in France and immediately distinguished himself as an outstanding soldier. In 1915 he was awarded the Iron Cross Class I. From autumn 1915 to 1918 he served in a mountain unit in Romania and on the Italian front, where, for unusual bravery in his capture of Monte Matajur, he was cited for the highest award offered in the German army, the Pour le Mérite, at the unprecedented age of 27.
After the war Rommel spent the 1920s as a captain with a regiment near Stuttgart. In the fall of 1929 he commenced his distinguished career as an infantry instructor at the infantry school in Dresden, where he stayed until 1933. After a two-year command of a mountain battalion, he continued his teaching career at the Potsdam War Academy in 1935 and finally—after the annexation of Austria in 1938—took over the command of the war academy in Wiener Neustadt as full colonel.
On the eve of the war Rommel was selected as commander of Hitler's bodyguard and served in that capacity in Hitler's first drives to the east into the Sudetenland, Prague, and finally Poland. His first field command in World War II was at the head of the 7th Tank Division, which swept toward the English Channel in May 1940.
Rommel's appointment in February 1941 as commander of the Afrikakorps with the rank of lieutenant general marked the beginning of his fame as a desert-war tactician. Initially he met with brilliant success. By June 1942 he had driven the British troops from his starting point in Libya all the way to El Alamein and was rewarded with a promotion to field marshal that same month—the youngest in the German armed forces. Because of lack of reinforcements he failed to take Alexandria and advance to the Suez Canal as hoped and was subsequently driven back by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's counterattack to Tunis, where he encountered fresh American troops under Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and lost the final, decisive battle at Médenine on March 5, 1943. Five days later he left for Germany on sick leave.
During the summer and fall of 1943 Rommel acted as a special adviser and troubleshooter for Hitler, a task which took him to Italy as commander of the newly formed Army Group B in a last effort to prop up the regime of Benito Mussolini. By December 1943 he was needed at the "Atlantic Wall," the coastal defenses along the coast from Norway to the Pyrenees, and in January 1944 he took over the command of all German armies from the Netherlands to the Loire River. He was unable to prevent the Allied landing in Normandy, however, and on July 17, 1944, was seriously wounded in an air raid, forcing him to return to his home in Herrlingen near Ulm.
Rommel had by this time become increasingly critical of Hitler and the Nazi party, of which he had never been a member. Although he disapproved of an assassination of Hitler, he maintained close contact with the officers who staged the unsuccessful coup of July 20, 1944, and he was to have succeeded Hitler as supreme commander in the event of success. Nazi investigators therefore sought him out at his home in Herrlingen on Oct. 14, 1944, and gave him the choice of taking poison or standing trial before the Nazi People's Court. Rommel chose the former. Hitler ordered national mourning and a state funeral with all honors.
Rommel's own draft narrative of the African campaign was edited by Capt. B. H. Liddell Hart, together with pertinent letters and notes by Rommel, under the title The Rommel Papers (1953). The best-known biography of Rommel in English, and still the standard work, is Desmond Young, Rommel, the Desert Fox (1950), a compassionate yet carefully researched work of a British brigadier general with considerable experience in desert warfare. It has been supplemented and updated by Ronald Lewin's work, Rommel as Military Commander (1968), which concentrates almost entirely on Rommel's most active years in the field, from 1940 to 1944. Paul Carell's beautifully written, exciting, and meticulously researched account of the African campaign, The Foxes of the Desert (1960), was skillfully translated by Mervin Savill. See also Hans Speidel, Invasion of 1944: Rommel and the Normandy Campaign (1950), and Siegfried Westphal, The German Army in the West (1951). □
Like many of his generation, Erwin Rommel was a gifted, ambitious, patriotic, and politically naive officer. As long as Hitler seemed to offer him personal glory and to lead Germany toward national greatness, Rommel followed him enthusiastically. Belatedly recognizing the looming catastrophe, Rommel halfheartedly communicated with the conspirators. Made into an immensely popular figure of German soldiering by Nazi propaganda, Rommel was preserved from the humiliating fate of the more decisive plotters. For several decades after World War II, Rommel's reputation as a brilliant tactician, the “Desert Fox,” and a staunch anti‐Nazi made him into something of a cult figure among military historians in Britain and the United States. More recent studies have shown him to have been much more typical of the majority of the Wehr macht's generals who knowingly employed their professional skills in the service of an odious regime. He remains a partly tragic, partly pathetic figure who played a major role in Hitler's savage war on civilization. Rommel lacked the strength and courage to act decisively against the regime even when it had clearly become both militarily and morally bankrupt.
[See also Germany, Battle for; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]
Desmond Young , Rommel, 1965.
David Irving , The Trail of the Fox: The Life of Field‐Marshal Erwin Rommel, 1978.