German field marshal Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” earned his fame for brilliant tactics and his ability to anticipate his opponents. In an army and a Reich known for brutality and inhumanities. Rommel maintained professionalism. Even Winston Churchill declared that his enemy was a “skillful opponent” and “a great general.”
Rommel was born in Heidenheim, near Ulm, Germany, on November 15, 1891, his father was a schoolteacher; his mother, the daughter of the president of the Wurttemburg ducky. He enlisted in the 124th Infantry Regiment as an officer cadet in 1910 and, after attending the Danzig Infantry School, was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1912. During World War I, Rommel saw action as junior officer in France, Romania, and Italy and earned the Iron Cross, First Class. On October 26, 1917, Rommel led a bayonet assault of two hundred Germans against an Italian mountain stronghold. With few losses of his own, he captured nine thousand enemy soldiers and more than eight heavy guns. For this amazing accomplishment, Rommel was promoted to captain and decorated with Germany’s highest combat medal.
Rommel remained in the postwar army and advanced steadily through the ranks as he alternated infantry command positions and instructor assignments. In 1937 he published his lectures on tactics in a book entitled Infantry Attacks. That same year, Rommel became the commander of the person-bodyguard detachment of Adolf Hitler.
After a brief tour as the commandant of War Academy, Rommel returned to command Hitler’s bodyguards, with the rank of brigadier general. While a member of Hitler’s staff, Rommel closely studied and admired the emerging blitzkrieg tactics of the German army. After the fall of Poland, Rommel requested that Hitler grant him command of a division in the upcoming invasion of France. On February 15, 1940, Rommel assumed the leadership of the Seventh Panzer Division.
In the May-June offensive against France, the German general perfected tactics that he would use for the rest of his life. Rommel advanced with lightning speed, balancing risk against surprise and firepower. He concentrated his tanks to break through enemy lines rather than become engaged on a broad from and the exploited his advantage in the enemy’s relatively unprotected rear areas.
More importantly, Rommel, dressed the part in his medal-draped uniform, with tanker goggles perched on his forehead, led from the front. Advancing with the lead armored forces, Rommel ignored personal risks to gain firsthand knowledge on which to base instant decision. Soldiers, not accustomed to seeing generals on the front lines, fought valiantly and tenaciously because of their devotion to, and affection for, their leader.
By the end of the French campaign, Rommel’s rapid movement and surprise attacks had gained the Seventh Panzers the nickname “ghost division” because the enemy never knew where he would appear next. At the cost of only twenty-five hundred men and forty-two panzers, Rommel captured nearly one hundred thousand prisoners and destroyed more than 450 enemy tanks as well as thousands of support vehicles and artillery pieces.
Germany awarded Rommel the Knight’s Cross, promotion to major general, and command of the Afrika Korps, destined for North Africa to support the Italians against the Allies. In North Africa, Rommel adapted the panzer tactics that had been so successful on the plains of Europe to the vast desert wastelands. Within a month of his February 1941 arrival, Rommel, with his well-trained army, had his first victory against the British and two of their senior generals as prisoners. Within a year, the Desert Fox, now a full general, was one of the most famous officers of the war.
In June 1941, Rommel conducted an offensive against a larger, better-equipped British army, but because of superior maneuver and aggressiveness, he captured the key port of Tobruk on June 21. A day later, Rommel was promoted to field marshal.
Tobruk, however, was to be Rommel’s high point. With the major portion of the German military committed to the Russian offensive, North Africa remained a secondary battlefield, and Rommel suffered from a lack of supplies. Allied naval superiority also complicated his logistic problems and limited his resupply by sea. While German strength was dwindling, Allied advantages were mounting. The British also had found a commander in Bernard Law Montgomery capable of fighting back, and in November 1942, Rommel’s problems increased when the Americans landed to his west and opened a second front.
Rommel’s panzer forces continued to fight well despite a growing enemy and a weakening Italian ally. Hitler, either unwilling or unable to reinforce the Afrika Korps, nevertheless ordered them to stand and fight to the last man. Rommel refused to squander the lives of his men in pointless battle and they surrendered on March 6.
While angered with the failure of Rommel’s army to follow his orders, Hitler recognized that he needed the field marshal’s talents and ordered Rommel’s evacuation to Germany prior to the surrender. After briefly advising Hitler on the defense of Italy, Rommel went to France on July 15, 1943, and assumed responsibility for strengthening defenses against the anticipated Allied invasion. Rommel argued that they should commit the panzer reserves directly to destroy the Allied invaders as they landed, but his concerns went unheeded. All he could do was strengthen morale through his personal leadership and oversee the placement of 5 million mines and a half-million landing obstacles.
Rommel was in Germany on leave when the Allies landed, and he immediately rushed to take charge of the beach defenses. Still hampered by Hitler’s continued refusal to commit the reserve Panzer Divisions, Rommel stalled the British on the beachhead by establishing a series of defensive belts along their anticipated route. He outmaneuvered the superior Allied airpower by moving his men to the rear during bombardments and returning them to the bombed defensive positions prior to ground attack.
In the midst of the battle, on July 17, 1944, a British fighter plane strafed Rommel’s staff car, inflicting a serious head wound on the field marshal. Rommel went back to Germany to recover, but events precluded his ever returning to command. On July 20, German officers planted a bomb in an effort to kill Hitler. Although he did not actually participate in the assassination attempt, Rommel was privy to the plan because the plotters had approached him months earlier. In the purge that followed, Rommel was listed as a conspirator when Hitler learned that the plan called for Rommel, one of the few German leaders respected by the Allies, to become head of state and negotiate a peace to save Germany from total destruction.
On October 14, Hitler sent two generals to Rommel’s home to offer him the choice of suicide and the safety of his family or public trial, with execution, humiliation, and punishment of his family and staff. Rommel, fifty-two, accompanied the generals on an automobile ride and took the poison they provided. After an announcement that he had died from complications from his wounds, he was buried with full military honors.