Erwin Rommel

Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel[1] (15 November 1891 – 14 October 1944), popularly known as the Desert Fox (Wüstenfuchs, About this sound listen (help·info)), was a German Field Marshal of World War II. He won the respect of both his own troops, and the enemies he fought.

He was a highly decorated officer in World War I, and was awarded the Pour le Mérite for his exploits on the Italian front. In World War II, he further distinguished himself as the commander of the 7th Panzer Division during the 1940 invasion of France. However, it was his leadership of German and Italian forces in the North African campaign that established the legend of the Desert Fox. He is considered to have been one of the most skilled commanders of desert warfare in the conflict.[2][page needed] He later commanded the German forces opposing the Allied cross-channel invasion in Normandy.

As one of the few generals who consistently fought the Western Allies (he was never assigned to the Eastern Front), Rommel is regarded as having been a humane and professional officer. His Afrikakorps was never accused of war crimes. Soldiers captured during his Africa campaign were reported to have been treated humanely. Furthermore, he ignored orders to kill captured commandos, Jewish soldiers and civilians in all theaters of his command.[3]

Late in the war, Rommel was linked to the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler. Because Rommel was widely renowned, Hitler chose to eliminate him quietly. Rommel agreed to commit suicide by taking a cyanide pill, in return for assurances his family would be spared.

World War I

During World War I, Rommel fought in France as well as in Romania (see: Romanian Campaign) and Italy (see: Italian Campaign), first in the 6th Württemberg Infantry Regiment, but through most of the war in the Württemberg Mountain Battalion of the elite Alpenkorps. He gained a reputation for great courage, making quick tactical decisions and taking advantage of enemy confusion. He was wounded three times and awarded the Iron Cross, First and Second Class. Rommel also received Prussia‘s highest award, the order of Pour le Mérite, after fighting in the Battles of the Isonzo in the north-eastern Alps on the Isonzo river front. The award was for the Battle of Longarone and the capture of Mount Matajur and its Italian defenders, which totalled 150 officers, 9,000 men, and 81 artillery pieces. In contrast, Rommel’s detachment suffered only 6 dead and 30 wounded during the two engagements, a remarkable achievement.

For a time, Rommel served in the same infantry regiment as Friedrich Paulus, who like Rommel rose to the rank of Field Marshal during World War II. While fighting at Isonzo, Rommel was caught behind Italian lines but managed to escape capture, though almost all of his staff were taken prisoner. In the Second World War, when the Germans and Italians were allies, Rommel tempered his initial disdain of Italian soldiers, when he realized that their lack of success was principally due to poor leadership and equipment. When these difficulties were overcome they were equal to German forces.[5] Erwin Rommel wrote a book, Infanterie Greift An (Infantry Attacks), in which he examined and analyzed the many battles he fought in during World War I. It was published in 1937 and became essential reading for both German and allied commanders during World War II. He taught his men to dig in whenever they paused for any length of time. This paid off many times when French artillery fired upon his position, only to be shrugged off by the entrenchments built by Rommel’s men.

Rommel turned down a post in the Truppenamt (the camouflaged General Staff), whose existence was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles—the normal path for advancing to high rank in the German army. Instead, he preferred to remain a frontline officer.

Rommel held battalion commands and was an instructor at the Dresden Infantry School from 1929 to 1933. In 1934, his book for infantry training, “Gefechts-Aufgaben für Zug und Kompanie : Ein Handbuch für den Offizierunterricht“ (Combat tasks for platoon and company: A manual for the officer instruction), appeared. This book was printed until 1945 in five editions, with revisions and changes of title. From 1935 to 1938, Rommel held commands at the Potsdam War Academy. Rommel’s war diaries, Infanterie greift an (Infantry Attacks), published in 1937, became a highly regarded military textbook and attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler, who placed Rommel in charge of the War Ministry liaison with the Hitler Youth (Hitler Jugend), Headquarters of Military Sports, the branch involved with paramilitary activities, primarily terrain exercises and marksmanship. Rommel applied himself energetically to the task. The army provided instructors to the Hitler Youth Rifle School in Thuringia, which in turn supplied qualified instructors to the HJ’s regional branches.

In 1937, Rommel conducted a tour of Hitler Youth meetings and encampments and delivered lectures on German soldiering while inspecting facilities and exercises. Simultaneously, he was pressuring Baldur von Schirach, the Hitler Youth leader, to accept an agreement expanding the army’s involvement in Hitler Youth training. Schirach interpreted this as a bid to turn the Hitler Youth into an army auxiliary, a “junior army” in his words. He refused and denied Rommel (whom he had come to dislike personally, apparently out of envy for his “real soldier’s” appeal) access to the Hitler Youth. An agreement was concluded, but on a far more limited scope than Rommel sought; cooperation was restricted to the army’s providing personnel to the rifle school. By 1939 the Hitler Youth had 20,000 rifle instructors. Simultaneously, Rommel retained his place at Potsdam.

In 1938 Rommel, now a colonel, was appointed Kommandant of the War Academy at Wiener Neustadt (Theresian Military Academy). Rommel was removed after a short time, however, to take command of Adolf Hitler‘s personal protection battalion (FührerBegleitbataillon), assigned to protect him in the special railway train (Führersonderzug) used during his visits to occupied Czechoslovakia and Memel. It was during this period that he met and befriended Joseph Goebbels, the Reich’s Minister of Propaganda. Goebbels became a fervent admirer of Rommel and later ensured that Rommel’s exploits were celebrated in the media.

World War II

Poland 1939

Rommel acted as commander of the Führerbegleithauptquartier (Führer escort headquarters) during the Poland campaign, often moving up close to the front in the Führersonderzug and seeing much of Hitler. After the Polish were defeated, Rommel returned to Berlin to organize the Führer’s victory parade, taking part himself as a member of Hitler’s entourage. During the Polish campaign, Rommel was asked to intervene on behalf of one of his wife’s relatives, a Polish priest who had been arrested. When Rommel applied to the Gestapo for information, the Gestapo found no information about the man’s existence.

France 1940

Panzer commander

Rommel asked Hitler for command of a panzer division. On 6 February 1940, three months before the invasion of France, Rommel was given command of the 7th Panzer Division, for Fall Gelb (“Case Yellow”), the invasion of France and the Low Countries. This promotion provoked resentment among some of his fellow officers. Rommel’s initial request for command had been rejected by the Chief of Army Personnel, who cited his lack of previous experience with armoured units and his extensive prior experience in an Alpine unit made him a more suitable candidate to assume command of a mountain division that had recent need to fill its commanding officer post.[6] Rommel had, however, emphasized the use of mobile infantry and recognized the great usefulness of armoured forces in the Poland campaign. He set about learning and developing the techniques of armoured warfare with great enthusiasm.[7] The decision to place him in command of an armoured division was borne out to be an excellent one. In May, 1940 his 7th Panzer Division became known as the “Ghost Division” because its rapid advances and fast paced attacks often placed them so far forward that they were frequently out of communication with the rest of the German army.

Rommel asked Hitler for command of a panzer division. On 6 February 1940, three months before the invasion of France, Rommel was given command of the 7th Panzer Division, for Fall Gelb (“Case Yellow”), the invasion of France and the Low Countries. This promotion provoked resentment among some of his fellow officers. Rommel’s initial request for command had been rejected by the Chief of Army Personnel, who cited his lack of previous experience with armoured units and his extensive prior experience in an Alpine unit made him a more suitable candidate to assume command of a mountain division that had recent need to fill its commanding officer post.[6] Rommel had, however, emphasized the use of mobile infantry and recognized the great usefulness of armoured forces in the Poland campaign. He set about learning and developing the techniques of armoured warfare with great enthusiasm.[7] The decision to place him in command of an armoured division was borne out to be an excellent one. In May, 1940 his 7th Panzer Division became known as the “Ghost Division” because its rapid advances and fast paced attacks often placed them so far forward that they were frequently out of communication with the rest of the German army.

Invasion of France and Belgium

On 10 May 1940 a part of XV Corps under General Hoth advanced into Belgium to proceed to the Meuse river near the Walloon municipality of Dinant. At the Meuse, 7th Panzer was held up by destroyed bridges and determined sniper and artillery fire from the Belgian defenders. Rommel, having assumed personal command of the crossing, overcame the German lack of smoke grenades by ordering a few nearby houses to be set on fire to conceal the attack. The German Panzergrenadiers crossed the river in rubber boats, with Rommel leading the second wave.[8] The Division dashed further inland, always spurred on by Rommel, and far in front of any friendly forces.

Rommel’s technique of pushing forward boldly, ignoring risks to his flanks and rear and relying on the shock to enemy morale to hinder attacks on his vulnerable flanks, paid large dividends during his rapid march across France.[9] When encountering resistance, Rommel would simply order his tanks forward, all guns blazing, relying on the shock of the sudden assault to force the enemy to surrender. This method offset the disadvantage the German tanks had in terms of armour and low-calibre guns, often causing large formations of enemy heavy tanks to simply give up a fight they would otherwise have had a good chance of winning.[10] This approach, although it saved lives on both sides by avoiding prolonged engagements, did cause mishaps. On one occasion his tanks, following this tactic, closed with a convoy of French trucks and fired into them before realizing that they were acting as ambulances, ferrying wounded from the front.[10]

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