Rommel, Erwin (1891-1944), German field marshal, renowned for his African
desert victories during World War II. Born in Heidenheim, he joined the German army
in 1910. After winning awards for bravery in World War I, he taught in military
academies. In the German push to the English Channel in 1940 Rommel headed the
victorious 7th Tank Division. He was made a lieutenant general the following year
and placed in command of the Afrika Korps in North Africa.
By 1944, Erwin Rommel had a lifetime of military experience behind him.
He was awarded the Pour le Mérite, Germany's highest decoration for bravery, for
capturing 9,000 enemy soldiers during World War I. During the invasion of France of
1940, Rommel commanded the notorious Ghost Division--the German 7th Panzer Division.
Pushing every man and machine to its limit, Rommel's forces advanced 350 miles in
six weeks (an unheard of distance for tanks during that time).
Rommel was a popular, although unconventional military leader. Rommel's
method of command was also unique. While other officers directed battles from a
strategy room located far from the field of battle, Rommel chose to lead from the front.
Rommel felt it was important for the commander to always be near his troops.
When the troops had to build a bridge or when a supply convoy was in trouble, Rommel was
known to lend a hand.
Rommel earned worldwide recognition for his leadership of the Afrika Corps
during the North African desert campaign. From 1942 to 1943, Rommel was at the top
of the Allies most wanted list. His ability to show up, when and where his opponents
least expected, earned Rommel the nickname "the Desert Fox." Initial
successes in the desert campaign, however, were followed by crushing defeats at the hands
of better equipped Allied forces. The Allies marched victoriously through North
Africa in May 1943. From there the Allies landed in Italy and by early 1944 were
marching steadfastly toward Rome.
In 1944, the western front was the only arena that had yet to receive a full
Allied frontal assault. Hitler charged Rommel with defense
of the western front. He began by touring the western coastal defenses from the
North to the Mediterranean Seas. He was discouraged by what he saw. The
defenses were widely scattered and none could withstand an Allied offensive attack.
The infantry defending the coasts were in worse condition. They included POWs and
German soldiers exhausted from fighting the Russians. They were poorly organized,
poorly trained, and lacked artillery; in some cases they even lacked the physical strength
to endure intense military action.
Although the situation was bleak, Rommel set to work to bring order to the
western front. The mere appearance of Germany's national hero had a positive effect
on troop morale. Rommel organized the troops and put them to work fortifying western
coastal defenses - the Atlantic Wall. He made daily inspections of the progress on
the Wall. Rommel functioned as an architect, personally designing many of the
obstacles for the Atlantic Wall. Minefields, concrete and steel obstructions, and
artillery posts sprung up at a startling rate.
While construction continued on the Atlantic Wall, the German leadership
debated strategy for the defense of the coast. Rommel, aware of the strength of the
Allied forces, contended the Allies must not be allowed to establish a beachhead on the
coast. They must be thrown back into the sea. Rommel proposed that all
available men and material be positioned as close to the coast as possible. Field
Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Rommel's immediate superior, argued that sufficient forces
must be kept on the coast, but a large contingent of forces should be kept in reserve,
away from the field of battle so that a piercing counterattack could be launched.
In the end a compromise was reached, giving Rommel command of the army, but
also placing a small reserve of troops far from the battlefield. Rommel, however,
did not have complete control over all of the German armed forces. Unlike the
Allies, who in Eisenhower had a commander with absolute control over the army, the navy,
and the air force, Rommel only controlled the army. The German navy and Luftwaffe
functioned under separate and autonomous command. Effective organization was further
hindered by Hitler's insistence that all orders be approved by him, thus making the
formation of a single-minded defense plan for the coast impossible.
On June 6th, 1944, the construction and planning of German defenses in France
came to an end as the Allies launched Operation Overlord. Due to the inclement
weather, Rommel thought that an attack would not be launched. He used the
opportunity to travel to Germany to celebrate his wife's birthday. Upon hearing of
the attack, Rommel rushed back to the Normandy coast, arriving at 10:00 p.m. The initial
Allied attack had been a bruising one. Although Rommel's Atlantic Wall inflicted
casualties on the Allied forces, the sheer number of men and material participating in the
invasion and the supremacy of the Allied air force far outweighed the effectiveness of the
coastal fortifications. On D-Day, the Allies were able to put over 8,000 planes in the
air, compared to Germany's three.
Rommel commanded the German forces tirelessly, traveling to the front, and
inspecting and encouraging the troops. But the Germans suffered from lack of supplies and
the continual onslaught of Allied air power. Without sufficient manpower, Rommel was
unable to launch an effective counterattack. By mid-July German losses topped
100,000, yet only 6,000 replacement troops had arrived.
Realizing the war was lost, Rommel went to Hitler to bring the severity of the
situation to his attention. Rommel proposed re-establishing a defensive line on the
Seine, to secure the German borders from Allied attack. Hitler rejected the
idea--France was to be defended to the last man. Shocked by the Führer's lack of
understanding of the situation, Rommel discussed with other German officials the
possibility of opening secret negotiations for peace with the Allied leaders. On
July 17th, 1944, the possibility of such negotiations taking place evaporated when Rommel
was seriously injured in an attack by an Allied plane. The injuries effectively ended his
involvement in the Normandy invasion.
There had been frequent rumblings of plots to remove Hitler from power.
In 1944, the conspirators made overtures to Rommel to gauge his interest in the
plot. Rommel and Hitler were once close friends, but since the defeat in North
Africa and Hitler's "victory or death" proclamation, Rommel viewed Hitler as a
madman who would destroy Germany. Although he would have no part in an assassination
attempt against Hitler, Rommel did say that he would consider being the leader of Germany
after Hitler's removal from power.
Rommel was recovering from his injuries when the assassination plot was
launched. Under torture, one of the conspirators mentioned Rommel's name,
implicating him in the plot. As friends and fellow officers were arrested as
conspirators, Rommel realized the end was near. On October 14th, 1944, two generals
came to Rommel's house and gave him an ultimatum. Either take his own life and be
buried with full honors or stand trial and put the future of his wife and son in jeopardy.
Rommel said good-bye to his family, went with the two men, and swallowed poison.
He was buried with full honors.
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