Erwin Rommel

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Erwin Rommel
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in 1942
Born
November 15, 1891
Heidenheim, Germany
Died
October 14, 1944
Herrlingen, Germany

Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel (Template:Audio) (November 15, 1891October 14, 1944) was one of the most distinguished German Field Marshals and commander of the Deutsches Afrika Korps in World War II. He is also known by his nickname The Desert Fox (Wüstenfuchs, Template:Audio), for the skillful military campaigns he waged on behalf of the German Army in North Africa. He is often remembered not only for his remarkable military prowess, but also for his chivalry towards his adversaries.

Early life and career

Rommel was born in Heidenheim, approximately 50 km from Ulm, in the state of Württemberg. The second son of a Protestant Headmaster of the secondary school at Aalen, Erwin Rommel the elder and Helene von Luz, a daughter of a prominent local dignitary. The couple also had three more children, two sons, Karl and Gerhard, and a daughter, Helene. Later recalling his childhood, Rommel wrote that "my early years passed very happily". At the age of 14, Rommel and a friend built a full-scale glider that was able to fly, although not very far. Young Erwin considered becoming an engineer; however, on his father's insistence, he joined the local 124th Württemberg Infantry Regiment as an officer cadet in 1910 and, shortly after, was sent to the Officer Cadet School in Danzig.

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A young Rommel as an officer cadet around 1910

While at Cadet School, early in 1911, Rommel met his future wife, Lucie Maria Mollin. Rommel and Lucie married in 1916. In 1928, they had a son, Manfred, who would later become the mayor of Stuttgart. Scholars Bierman and Smith argue, during this time, that Rommel also had an affair with Walburga Stemmer in 1912 and that relationship produced a daughter named Gertrud (1 p. 56). Rommel graduated from school in November 1911 and he was commissioned as a Lieutenant January 1912.

World War I

During World War I, Rommel served in France, as well as on the Romanian and Italian fronts, during which time he was wounded three times and awarded the Iron Cross - First and Second Class. Rommel became the youngest recipient of Prussia's highest medal, the Pour le Mérite, an honor traditionally reserved for generals only and which he received after fighting in the mountains of north-east Italy. The award came as a result specifically from the Battle of Longarone, and the capture of Mount Matajur and its defenders, numbering 150 Italian officers, 7000 men and 81 artillery guns. His batallion also played a key role in the decisive German victory over the Italian Army named the Battle of Caporetto.

Inter-War years

After the war Rommel held battalion commands, and was instructor at the Dresden Infantry School from 1929-1933 and the Potsdam War Academy from 1935-1938. Rommel's war diaries, Infanterie greift an (Infantry Attacks), published in 1937, became a highly regarded military textbook, and also attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler, who placed him in charge of the training of the Hitler Jugend that same year, all the while retaining his place at Potsdam. In 1938, Rommel, now a colonel, was appointed commandant of the War Academy at Wiener Neustadt. Here Rommel started his followup to Infantry Attacks, Panzer greift an (Tank Attacks sometimes translated as The Tank In Attack ). Rommel was removed after a short time; however, he was placed in command of Adolf Hitler's personal protection battalion (Führer-Begleitbattalion).

World War II

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Rommel during the French campaign of 1940

Poland 1939

In the autumn of 1938 Hitler selected Rommel to be in charge of the Wehrmacht unit assigned to protect him during his visits to occupied Czechoslovakia. Just prior to the invasion of Poland he was promoted to Major General and made commander of the Führer-Begleitbattalion, responsible for the safety of Adolf Hitler's mobile headquarters during the campaign.

France 1940

In 1940, only three months before the invasion, Rommel was given command of the 7th Panzer Division, later nicknamed Gespenster-Division (the "Ghost Division", due to the speed and surprise it was consistently able to achieve, to the point that even the German High Command lost track of where it was), for Fall Gelb ("Case Yellow"), the invasion of France and the Low Countries. Remarkably, this was Rommel's first command of a Panzer unit. He showed considerable skill in this operation, repulsing a counter-attack by the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) at Arras. 7th Panzer was one of the first German units to reach the English Channel (on 10 June) and would capture the vital port of Cherbourg (19 June). As a reward Rommel was promoted and appointed commander of the 5th Light Division (later reorganized and redesignated as the 21st Panzer) and of the 15th Panzer Division, which were sent to Libya in early 1941 to aid the defeated and demoralized Italian troops, forming the Deutsches Afrika Korps (Template:Audio). It was in Africa where Rommel achieved his greatest fame as a commander.

Africa 1941-43

Rommel spent most of 1941 building his organization and re-forming the shattered Italian units, who had suffered a string of defeats at the hands of British Commonwealth forces under Major General Richard O'Connor. An offensive pushed the Allied forces back out of Libya, but it stalled a relatively short way into Egypt, and the important port of Tobruk, although surrounded, was still held by Allied forces under an Australian General, Leslie Morshead. The Allied Commander-in-Chief, General Archibald Wavell made two unsuccessful attempts to relieve the seige ( Operation Brevity and Operation Battleaxe ).

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Rommel in Africa - Summer 1941

Following the costly failure of Battleaxe, Wavell swapped commands with the British Commander-in-Chief India, General Claude Auchinleck. Auchinleck launched a major offensive to relieve Tobruk ( Operation Crusader ) which eventually succeeded. However, when this offensive ran out of steam, Rommel struck.

In a classic blitzkrieg, Rommel outflanked the British at Gazala, surrounded and reduced the strongpoint at Bir Hakeim and forced the British to quickly retreat, in the so-called "Gazala Gallop", to avoid being completely cut off. Tobruk, isolated and alone, was now all that stood between the Afrika Korps and Egypt. On 21 June 1942, after a swift, coordinated and fierce combined arms assault, the city surrendered along with its 33,000 defenders. Only at the fall of Singapore, earlier that year, had more British and Commonwealth troops been captured. Allied forces were comprehensively beaten. Within weeks they had been pushed back far into Egypt.

Rommel's offensive was eventually stopped at the small railway town of El Alamein, just 60 miles from Cairo. The First Battle of El Alamein was lost by Rommel due to a combination of supply problems and improved Allied tactics. The Allies, with their backs against the wall, were very close to their supplies and had fresh troops on hand to reinforce their positions. Auchinleck's tactics of continually attacking the weaker Italian forces during the battle forced Rommel to use the Deutsches Afrika Korps in a "Fire Brigade" role and placed the initiative in Allied hands. Rommel tried again to break through the Allied lines during the Battle of Alam Halfa. He was decisively stopped by the newly arrived Allied commander, Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery; mainly due to the fact that the allies had devised a machine capable of deciphering German communications, thus alerting them to Rommel's battle plan prior to the battle. This was known as the "Ultra".

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A tired Rommel with General Alfred Gause during the Tunisian campaign in 1943

With Allied forces from Malta interdicting his supplies at sea, and the massive distances they had to cover in the desert, Rommel could not hold the El Alamein position forever. Still, it took a large set piece battle, the Second Battle of El Alamein, to force his troops back. After the defeat at El Alamein, despite urgings from Hitler and Mussolini, Rommel's forces did not again stand and fight until they had entered Tunisia. Even then, their first battle was not against the British Eighth Army, but against the U.S. II Corps. Rommel inflicted a sharp reversal on the American forces at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass.

Turning once again to face the British Commonwealth forces in the old French border defences of the Mareth Line, Rommel could only delay the inevitable. Ultra was a major factor that led to the defeat of his forces. He left Africa after falling sick, and the men of his former command eventually became prisoners of war.

Some historians contrast Rommel's withdrawal of his army back to Tunisia against Hitler's dreams of much greater success than even his capture of Tobruk (in sharp contrast to the fate suffered by the German 6th Army at the Battle of Stalingrad under the command of Friedrich Paulus which stood its ground and was annihilated).

France 1943-1944

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Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (center) discusses the upcoming Allied invasion of France with Colonel General Johannes Blaskowitz and Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt.

Back in Germany, Rommel was for some time virtually "unemployed". However, when the tide of war shifted against Germany, Hitler made Rommel the commander of Army Group B, responsible for defending the French coast against a possible Allied invasion. Dismayed with the situation he found, the slow building pace and realizing he had just months before an invasion, Rommel invigorated the whole fortification effort along the Atlantic coast, under his direction work was significantly speeded up, millions of mines laid, and thousands of tank traps and obstacles were set up on beaches and throughout the countryside.

After his battles in Africa, Rommel concluded that any offensive movements would be impossible due to the overwhelming Allied air superiority. He argued that the tank forces should be dispersed in small units and kept in heavily fortified positions located as close to the front as possible, so they wouldn't have to move far and en masse when the invasion started. He wanted the invasion stopped right on the beaches. However his commander, Gerd von Rundstedt, felt that there was no way to stop the invasion near the beaches due to the equally overwhelming firepower of the Royal Navy. He felt the tanks should be formed into large units well inland near Paris, where they could allow the Allies to extend into France and then be cut off. When asked to pick a plan, Hitler then vacillated and placed them in the middle, far enough to be useless to Rommel, not far enough to watch the fight for von Rundstedt. Rommel's plan nearly came to fruition anyway.

During D-Day several tank units, notably the 12th SS Panzer Division, were near enough to the beaches and created serious havoc. The overwhelming Allied numbers and Hitler's refusal to release the Panzer reserves in time made any success unlikely, however, and soon the beachhead was secure.

The plot against Hitler

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May 1944, Rommel with his closest staff members, his chief of staff General Hans Speidel, chief naval aide Admiral Friedrich Ruge and his personal aide Captain Hellmuth Lang, all of whom were heavily involved in the anti-Nazi conspiracy within the Wehrmacht.

On July 17, 1944 Rommel's staff car was strafed by an RCAF Spitfire, and he was hospitalized with major head injuries. In the meantime, after the failed July 20 Plot against Adolf Hitler a major crackdown was conducted throughout the Wehrmacht. As the investigation proceeded, numerous connections started appearing that tied Rommel with the conspiracy, in which many of his closest aides were deeply involved. At the same time, local Nazi party officials reported on Rommel's extensive and scornful criticism of Nazi leadership during the time he was hospitalized. Bormann was certain of Rommel's involvement, Goebbels was not.

The true extent of Rommel's knowledge of, or involvement with, the plot is still unclear. After the war, however, his wife maintained that Rommel had been against the plot as it was carried out. It has been stated that Rommel wanted to avoid giving future generations of Germans the perception that the war was lost because of a backstab, the infamous Dolchstoßlegende, as it was commonly believed by some Germans following WWI. Instead, he favored a coup where Hitler would be taken alive and made to stand trial before the public.

Due to Rommel's popularity with the German people, Hitler gave him an option to commit suicide with cyanide or face a humiliating sham trial before Roland Freisler's "People's Court" and retaliation against his family and staff. Rommel ended his own life on October 14, 1944, and was buried with full military honours. After the war his diary was published as The Rommel Papers. He is the only member of the Third Reich establishment to have a museum dedicated to his person and his career.

Battles of Erwin Rommel

In fiction

In Douglas Niles's and Michael Dobson's alternate history novel Fox on the Rhine, Hitler was killed by the bomb plot of July 20th, 1944. This led to Rommel's survival, and a different quick offensive strike. This was repelled and the book ended with his surrender to the Americans and British, believing that the Germans would be better off with the western powers than with the Soviets. Fox on the Rhine was followed by a sequel book Fox on the Front.

He was portrayed by James Mason in the 1951 movie The Desert Fox, and also by Karl Michael Vogler in the 1970 biographical film Patton, starring George C. Scott, and by Hardy Kruger in the 1988 television miniseries War and Remembrance.

Quotations

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  • The British Parliament considered a censure vote against Winston Churchill following the surrender of Tobruk. The vote failed, but in the course of the debate, Churchill would say:
    • "We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great General."
  • Theodor Werner was an officer who, during World War I, served under Rommel.
    • "Anybody who came under the spell of his personality turned into a real soldier. He seemed to know what the enemy were like and how they would react."
  • Attributed to General George S. Patton in North Africa (referring to "The Tank In Attack")
    • "Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!"

Quotations of Erwin Rommel

  • "Sweat saves blood, blood saves lives, and brains saves both."
  • "Mortal danger is an effective antidote for fixed ideas."
  • "The best form of welfare for the troops is first-rate training."
  • "Don't fight a battle if you don't gain anything by winning."
  • "In a man-to-man fight, the winner is he who has one more round in his magazine."
  • "Courage which goes against military expediency is stupidity, or, if it is insisted upon by a commander, irresponsibility."
  • "So long as one isn't carrying ones head under one's arm, things aren't too bad."
  • "A risk is a chance you take; if it fails you can recover. A gamble is a chance taken; if it fails, recovery is impossible."
  • "There is one unalterable difference between a soldier and a civilian: the civilian never does more than he is paid to do."
  • "What difference does it make if you have two tanks to my one, when you spread them out and let me smash them in detail?"
  • "The best plan is the one made when the battle is over."
  • "In the absence of orders, go find something and kill it."
  • "The officers of a panzer division must learn to think and act independently within the framework of the general plan and not wait until they receive orders."
  • "Men are basically smart or dumb and lazy or ambitious. The dumb and ambitious ones are dangerous and I get rid of them. The dumb and lazy ones I give mundane duties. The smart ambitious ones I put on my staff. The smart and lazy ones I make my commanders."
  • "Be an example to your men, in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don't in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered and teach your subordinates to do the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide."
  • "The future battle on the ground will be preceded by battle in the air. This will determine which of the contestants has to suffer operational and tactical disadvantages and be forced throughout the battle into adoption compromise solutions."
  • "Anyone who has to fight, even with the most modern weapons, against an enemy in complete command of the air, fights like a savage against modern European troops, under the same handicaps and with the same chances of success."
  • "The art of concentrating strength at one point, forcing a breakthrough, rolling up and securing the flanks on either side, and then penetrating like lightning deep into his rear, before the enemy has time to react-is Blitzkrieg."

External links

References

  • The Battle of Alamein: Turning Point, World War II, by Bierman and Smith (2002). ISBN 0670030406
  • Rommel's Greatest Victory, by Samuel W. Mitcham, Samuel Mitcham. ISBN 0891417303
  • Meeting the Fox: The Allied Invasion of Africa, from Operation Torch to Kasserine Pass to Victory in Tunisia, by Orr Kelly. ISBN 0471414298
  • INSIDE THE AFRIKA KORPS: The Crusader Battles, 1941-1942. ISBN 1853673226
  • Alamein, by Jon Latimer. ISBN 0674010167
  • Tank Combat in North Africa: The Opening Rounds : Operations Sonnenblume, Brevity, Skorpion and Battleaxe February 1941-June 1941 (Schiffer Military History), by Thomas L. Jentz. ISBN 0764302264
  • Rommel's North Africa Campaign: September 1940 - November 1942, by Jack Greene. ISBN 1580970184
  • Tobruk 1941: Rommel's Opening Move (Campaign, 80) by Jon Latimer. ISBN 1841760927
  • 21st Panzer Division: Rommel's Africa Korps Spearhead (Spearhead Series), by Chris Ellis. ISBN 0711028532
  • Afrikakorps, 1941-1943: The Libya Egypt Campaign, by Francois De Lannoy. ISBN 2840481529
  • With Rommel's Army in Libya by Almasy, Gabriel Francis Horchler, Janos Kubassek. ISBN 0759616086
  • Generalfeldmarschall Rommel : opperbevelhebber van Heeresgruppe B bij de voorbereiding van de verdediging van West-Europa, 5 november 1943 tot 6 juni 1944 by Hans Sakkers (1993). ISBN 90-800900-2-6 [text/photobook in Dutch about Rommel at the Atlantic Wall 1943/44]

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