|Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel in December 1943. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel (15 November 1891 – 14 October 1944), popularly known as The Desert Fox (Wüstenfuchs, listen (help·info)), was a German Field Marshal of World War II. He earned the respect of both his own troops and the enemies he fought.
Rommel 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. His leadership of German and Italian forces in the North African campaign established him as one of the most able commanders of the war, and earned him the appellation of the Desert Fox. He is regarded as one of the most skilled commanders of desert warfare in the conflict. He later commanded the German forces opposing the Allied cross-channel invasion in Normandy. His assignments never took him to the Eastern Front.
Rommel is regarded as having been a humane and professional officer. His Afrika Korps was never accused of war crimes, and soldiers captured during his Africa campaign were reported to have been treated humanely. Orders to kill Jewish soldiers, civilians and captured commandos were ignored. Late in the war, Rommel was linked to the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Since Rommel was a national hero, Hitler desired to eliminate him quietly. He forced Rommel to commit suicide with a cyanide pill, in return for assurances that Rommel’s family would not be persecuted following his death.
Early life and career
Rommel was born on 15 November 1891 in southern Germany at Heidenheim, 45 kilometres (28 mi) from Ulm, in the Kingdom of Württemberg, then part of the German Empire. He was baptised on 17 November 1891. He was the second of four children of Professor Erwin Rommel Senior (1860–1913) and his wife and Helene von Luz. As a young man Rommel’s father had been a lieutenant in the artillery. He later served as the headmaster and rector of the secondary school at Aalen. Rommel had both older and younger brothers, and a younger sister. He wrote “my early years passed quite happily.”
At the age of 14, Rommel and a friend built a full-scale glider and were able to fly it short distances. He later purchased a motorcycle, and upon getting home immediately set about taking it apart and putting it back together. He displayed remarkable technical aptitude throughout his life. Rommel considered becoming an engineer, but at age 18 he acceded to his father’s wishes and joined the local 124th Württemberg Infantry Regiment as a fähnrich (English: ensign), in 1910, studying at the Officer Cadet School in Danzig. He graduated on 15 November 1911 and was commissioned as a lieutenant in January 1912. At this time Rommel developed a relationship with Walburga Stemmer in 1913, which produced a daughter, Gertrud. Rommel ultimately broke off his relationship with Walburga. While at Cadet School, Rommel met his future wife, 17-year-old Lucia Maria Mollin (commonly called Lucie). They married on 27 November 1916 in Danzig. Twelve years later they had a son, Manfred Rommel, born on 24 December 1928. Walburga passed away around the time of the birth of Manfred. Rommel supported his daughter, who was raised by her grandmother and was referred to as Rommel’s niece. He maintained a close relationship with her throughout his life. The plaid scarf he wore that can be seen in many photos from the desert was made by his daughter, Gertrude. Rommel’s son, Manfred, would later become Mayor of Stuttgart.
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. Rommel was awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class in 1914, and the Iron Cross, First Class in 1915. Rommel gained success leading small groups of men, infiltrating through the enemy line under cover of darkness, moving forward rapidly to a flanking position to arrive at their rear areas, attacking and shocking the defenders with the element of surprise. In 1918 he received the order of Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest award equivalent to the Victoria Cross or the Medal of Honor. He received this medal for his leadership in the fighting at 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 six 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. Rommel was wounded three times in the Great War.
Career between the world wars
Rommel spoke German with a pronounced southern German or Swabian accent. He was not a part of the Prussian aristocracy which dominated the German high command, and as such he was looked upon somewhat suspiciously by the Wehrmacht’s traditional power structure. Rommel turned down a post in the Truppenamt or General Staff, the normal path for advancing to high rank in the German army, preferring instead to remain a frontline officer.
Rommel held battalion commands and was an instructor at the Dresden Infantry School from 1929 to 1933. Here he wrote “Gefechts-Aufgaben für Zug und Kompanie : Ein Handbuch für den Offizierunterricht” (Combat tasks for platoon and company: A manual for the officer instruction in infantry training), and in his personal time he wrote his book “Infanterie greift an” (Infantry Attacks), a description of the various actions he was involved with in the Great War, along with his observations. His war diaries became a highly regarded military textbook. The work was read with great interest and approval by Adolf Hitler, who placed Rommel in charge of the War Ministry liaison with the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth). He was assigned to the Headquarters of Military Sports, the branch involved with paramilitary activities, primarily terrain exercises and marksmanship.
The Hitler Youth was a political organization run by party loyalists whose primary interest was in providing Hitler with a future base of support. Hitler rightly eyed the Wehrmacht as the only entity powerful enough to challenge his control over Germany. Rommel conducted a tour of Hitler Youth meetings and encampments, delivering lectures on soldiering while inspecting facilities and exercises, but he soon clashed with Baldur von Schirach, the Hitler Youth leader, over a number of issues, including his desire for an expansion in the army’s involvement in Hitler Youth training. Rommel was reassigned to military duty. Ultimately the Hitler Youth reached an agreement with the army, but on a far more limited scope than Rommel had hoped for. The army provided instructors to the Hitler Youth Rifle School in Thuringia, which in turn supplied qualified instructors to the Hitler Youth’s regional branches. By 1939 the Hitler Youth had 20,000 rifle instructors.
In 1938 Rommel, now a colonel, was appointed Kommandant of the War Academy at Wiener Neustadt (Theresian Military Academy). A short time later with the entering of the Sudetenland Hitler requested Rommel be transferred to take command of Hitler’s personal protection battalion, the FührerBegleitbataillon. This unit accompanied him whenever he traveled outside of Germany. They traveled with Hitler on the Führersonderzug, a special railway train. It was during this period that Rommel met and befriended Joseph Goebbels, the Reich’s Minister of Propaganda. Goebbels became an admirer of Rommel and made use of his exploits in Africa. The Propaganda Department of the NSDAP re-wrote Rommel’s life story, and in a 1941 article appearing in the Nazi newspaper “Das Reich” they presented him to the German people as a master mason’s son who was an early member of the Nazi Party. Their intent was to make Rommel a “showcase member” of the NSDAP. Rommel was incensed over this false narrative, and complained to “Das Reich”. In response he was told: “Wenn es auch nicht stimme, wäre es doch gut, wenn es stimmen würde” which can be translated to: “Even if it is not true, it would be good if it were.” Rommel was not mollified, and insisted on a correction. “Das Reich” ended up printing a retraction, placing it in a remote location