Erwin Rommel was born in Heidenheim an der Brenz, Germany, on 15th November, 1891. According to Mark M. Boatner III: "His stoutly middle-class family had the admirable qualities of their native Swabia. Young Rommel was small for his age, quiet, docile, and at first a poor student. But he underwent a transformation in his teens." Another biographer, Samuel W. Mitcham, claims that "as a child he was tough, serious, innovative, daring and self-reliant, almost to the point of pigheadedness."
Desmond Young, the author of Rommel: The Desert Fox (1950) has argued: "Mentally, he began to give evidence of having inherited the mathematical talent of his father and grandfather (both school teachers)... He passed his examinations with credit." Rommel wanted to study engineering and find a career with the Zepplin Company at Friederichshaven. However, his father disapproved so in the summer of 1910 he became an officer candidate in the 6th Wuerttemberg.
Rommel was promoted to corporal three months later, and was a sergeant by early the following year. In March 1911 he was admitted to the War Academy at Danzig and received his commission as second lieutenant in the German Army in January 1912. Rommel was serving in the 19th Field Artillery Regiment when the First World War began. Rommel fought on the Western Front and in January 1915 won the Iron Cross. He was wounded in this action and on leaving hospital he joined a new Wuerttemberg mountain battalion that was a specialized machine gun platoons. During this period he was described "the perfect fighting animal, cold, cunning, ruthless, untiring, quick of decision, incredibly brave." A fellow officer described him as "the body and soul of war".
On leave in 1916 Rommel married Lucie Maria Mollin, a language student he had met in Danzig. In May 1917 he was back in France. After three months he was sent to the Italian Front. After leading a successful attack on Monte Matajur, where he captured 9,000 Italians, he was promoted to captain. Soon afterwards Rommel and six men, roped together, swam the icy Piave River in order to capture the Italian garrison at Lognaroni. Much to his disgust, Rommel was now made a staff officer.
After the war Rommel remained in the German Army as an infantry regimental officer and as an instructor at the Infantry School in Dresden. He also became military adviser to the Hitler Youth. In this post he clashed with its leader, Baldur von Schirach, over his attempts to militarize Germany's young people. Rommel told Schirach that if he were determined to train soldiers, he should first learn to be a soldier himself. After this arguement Rommel lost his post as the organization's military adviser.
In October 1935 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and began teaching at the Potsdam War Academy. An excellent teacher, Rommel's lectures were published as a book entitled, Infantry in the Attack in 1935. To his surprise, it was a bestseller in Nazi Germany and the Swiss Army adopted it as a training manual. The book was read by Adolf Hitler. Greatly impressed by Rommel's ideas Hitler invited him to be commander of his personal bodyguard at the 1936 Nuremberg Party Rally.
General Major Rommel was given command of the 7th Panzer Division that invaded France in May, 1940. Rommel's troops moved faster and farther than any other army in military history. Mark M. Boatner III has argued: "His first dramatic triumph was on the Meuse just north of Dinant, where he defied conventional military wisdom and made the assault crossing without waiting for large infantry formations to catch up. Rommel's troops became known as the Ghost or Phantom division, moving faster and farther than any other in modern military history, appearing out of nowhere, spreading confusion and the consequent terror. After racing across Flanders to the Channel, Rommel turned south and received the surrender of Cherbourg on 19 June 1940."
Rommel later recalled how his troops broke through the Maginot Line: "The way to the west was now open. The moon was up and for the time being we could expect no real darkness. I had already given orders, in the plan for the breakthrough, for the leading tanks to scatter the road and verges with machine and anti-tank gunfire at intervals during the drive to Avesnes, which I hoped would prevent the enemy from laying mines. The tanks now rolled in a long column through the line of fortifications and on towards the first houses, which had been set alight by our fire. Occasionally an enemy machine-gun or antitank gun fired, but none of their shots came anywhere near us... On we went, at a steady speed, toward our objective. Every so often a quick glance at the map by a shaded light and a short wireless message to Divisional HQ to report the position and thus the success of 25th Panzer Regiment. Every so often a look out of the hatch to assure myself that there was still no resistance and the contact was being maintained to the rear. The flat countryside lay spread out around us under the cold light of the moon. We were through the Maginot Line! It was hardly conceivable. Twenty-two years before we had stood for four and a half years before this selfsame enemy and had won victory after victory and yet finally lost the war. And now we had broken through the renowned Maginot Line and were driving deep into enemy territory."
Rommel was treated by Adolf Hitler with a great deal of respect. Hitler's valet, Heinz Linge, explained in With Hitler to the End (1980): "Hitler allowed Rommel to attend situation conferences, invited him to dine and gave him information, all of which made him appear especially privileged. He explained to Rommel the theory of cooperation between panzers, assault troops and Stuka dive-bombers and showed him how quick victories would prevent the enemy from seizing the tactical and strategic initiative. I had the impression that Rommel soaked up avidly every word the Führer uttered."
When Benito Mussolini asked for help in North Africa, Adolf Hitler sent Rommel to command the new Deutsches Afrika Korps. He began his command on 6th February 1941 and six days later reached Tripoli. Rommel was concerned by what he found: "I had already decided that in view of the tenseness of the situation and the sluggishness of the Italian command, to depart from my instructions... and to take the command at the front into my hands as soon as possible, at the latest after the arrival of the first German troops. General von Rintelen, to whom I had given a hint of my intention in Rome, had advised me against it, for, as he put it, that was the way to lose both honour and reputation."
Rommel's first offensive (24th May - 30th May) has been described as a "masterpiece of desert warfare by a general with no experience in this field". The man who became known as the "Desert Fox" pushed 1,500 miles to the Egyptian border. General Archibald Wavell attempted a counter-attack on 17th June, 1941, but his troops were halted at Halfaya Pass. Although Wavell held in high esteem by General Alan Brooke, the Chief of General Staff, Winston Churchill had lost confidence in him and replaced him by General Claude Auchinleck.
Basil Liddell Hart, the author of The Other Side of the Hill (1951) has argued: "From 1941 onwards the names of all other German generals came to be overshadowed by that of Erwin Rommel. He had the most startling rise of any-from colonel to field-marshal. He was an outsider, in a double sense - as he had not qualified for high position in the hierarchy of the General Staff, while he long performed in a theatre outside Europe.... While Rommel owed much to Hitler's favour, it was testimony to his own dynamic personality that he first impressed himself on Hitler's mind, and then impressed his British opponents so deeply as to magnify his fame beyond Hitler's calculation."
Brian Horrocks who fought in the British Army during the Desert War later claimed: "Rommel was probably the best armoured corps commander produced by either side. Utterly fearless, full of drive and initiative, he was always up in front where the battle was fiercest. If his opponent made a mistake, Rommel was on to it like a flash, and he never hesitated to take personal command of a regiment or battalion if he thought fit. On one occasion he was found lifting mines with his own hands. His popularity with the soldiers was immense, but a great many officers resented his interference with their commands."
Winston Churchill demanded that Auchinleck should immediate organize an offensive against General Rommel and the Deutsches Afrika Korps. Auchinleck insisted on having time to prepare and he did not launch Operation Crusader until 18th November, 1941. Initially this was very successful and Rommel was forced to abandon his siege of Tobruk on 4th December, and the following month had moved as far west as General Wavell had achieved a year previously. Aware that Wavell's supply lines were now overextended, and after Rommel gained obtained reinforcements from Tripoli he launched a counterattack. It was now the turn of the British Army to retreat.
After losing Benghazi on 29th January, Auchinleck ordered his troops to retreat to Gazala. Over the next few months the Eighth Army, under Lieutenant General Neil Richie, established a line of fortifications and minefields. General Erwin Rommel launched his offensive on 26th May. The Italian infantry attacked at the front while Rommel led his panzers round the edge of the fortifications to cut off the supply routes.
Ritchie outnumbered Rommel by two to one but he wasted his advantage by not using his tanks together. After defeating a series of small counter-attacks Rommel was able to capture Sidi Muftah. On 12th June, two of the three British armoured brigades were caught in a pincer movement and were badly defeated. Two days later Neil Richie, with only 100 tanks left, abandoned Gazala.
Rommel returned to Tobruk and took the port on 21st June, 1942. This included the capture of over 35,000 British troops. When Adolf Hitler heard the news he promoted him to the rank of Field Marshal. Rommel now only had 57 tanks left and was forced to wait for new supplies to arrive before heading into Egypt. While he was waiting for this to happen he visited Hitler in Berlin.
Albert Speer, the author of Inside the Third Reich (1970) later recalled that Hitler constantly tried to influence Rommel's decision making: "Hitler tended to intervene in every detail. He was bitterly annoyed with Rommel, who would often give extremely unclear bulletins on the day's movements. In other words, he veiled them from headquarters, sometimes for days, only to report an entirely changed situation. Hitler liked Rommel personally but could ill brook this sort of conduct."
Rommel's next offensive took him to 113km (70 miles) from Alexandria. The situation was so serious that Winston Churchill made the long journey to Egypt to discover for himself what needed to be done. Churchill decided to make changes to the command structure. On 8th August, 1942, Auchinleck was replaced by General Harold Alexander and General Bernard Montgomery became commander of the Eighth Army.
On 30th August, 1942, Rommel attacked at Alam el Halfa but was repulsed by the British. Montgomery responded to this attack by ordering his troops to reinforce the defensive line from the coast to the impassable Qattara Depression. Montgomery was now able to make sure that Rommel and the German Army was unable to make any further advances into Egypt. Rommel reported that he was ill and he was evacuated. Doctors reported that he was "suffering from chronic stomach and intestinal catarrh, nasal diphtheria and considerable circulation trouble."
Over the next six weeks Montgomery began to stockpile vast quantities of weapons and ammunition to make sure that by the time he attacked he possessed overwhelming firepower. By the middle of October the Eighth Army totalled 195,000 men, 1,351 tanks and 1,900 pieces of artillery. This included large numbers of recently delivered Sherman M4 and Grant M3 tanks.
On 23rd October, 1942, Montgomery launched Operation Lightfoot with the largest artillery bombardment since the First World War. The attack came at the worst time for the Deutsches Afrika Korps as Erwin Rommel was on sick leave in Austria. His replacement, General George Stumme, died of a heart-attack the day after the 900 gun bombardment of the German lines. Stumme was replaced by General Ritter von Thoma and Adolf Hitler phoned Rommel on 24th October: "Rommel, there is bad news from Africa. The situation looks very black. No one seems to know what has happened to Stumme. Do you feel well enough to go back and would you be willing to go?"
When General Erwin Rommel returned he launched a counterattack at Kidney Depression (27th October). Montgomery now returned to the offensive and the 9th Australian Division created a salient in the enemy positions. Winston Churchill was disappointed by the Eighth Army's lack of success and accused Montgomery of fighting a "half-hearted" battle. Montgomery ignored these criticisms and instead made plans for a new offensive, Operation Supercharge.
On 1st November 1942, Montgomery launched an attack on the Deutsches Afrika Korps at Kidney Ridge. After initially resisting the attack, Rommel decided he no longer had the resources to hold his line and on the 3rd November he ordered his troops to withdraw. However, Adolf Hitler overruled his commander and the Germans were told to stand and fight.
The next day Montgomery ordered his men forward. The Eighth Army broke through the German lines and Erwin Rommel, in danger of being surrounded, was forced to retreat. Those soldiers on foot, including large numbers of Italian soldiers, were unable to move fast enough and were taken prisoner. For a while it looked like the the British would cut off Rommel's army but a sudden rain storm on 6th November turned the desert into a quagmire and the chasing army was slowed down. Rommel, now with only twenty tanks left, managed to get to Sollum on the Egypt-Libya border. On 8th November Rommel learned of the Allied invasion of Morocco and Algeria that was under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. His depleted army now faced a war on two front.
The British Army recaptured Tobruk on 12th November, 1942. During the El Alamein campaign half of Rommel's 100,000 man army was killed, wounded or taken prisoner. He also lost over 450 tanks and 1,000 guns. The British and Commonwealth forces suffered 13,500 casualties and 500 of their tanks were damaged. However, of these, 350 were repaired and were able to take part in future battles. Winston Churchill was convinced that the battle of El Alamein marked the turning point in the war and ordered the ringing of church bells all over Britain. As he said later: "Before Alamein we never had a victory, after Alamein we never had a defeat."
Montgomery and the Eighth Army continued to move forward and captured Tripoli on 23rd January, 1943. Rommel was unable to mount a successful counterattack and on 9th March he was replaced by Jurgen von Arnium as commander in chief of Axis forces in Africa. Mark M. Boatner III has argued: "For all Rommel's brilliance in the desert campaign he had justified the fears of superiors that he was not suited for command above the divisional level."
On 21st November 1943 Rommel was sent to France and placed in charge of coastal defences. He had the responsibility of examining all possible invasion areas from Denmark to the Alps. General Hans Speidel, Rommels's Chief of Staff, has argued that at the time, the Normandy coast "was practically unfortified when Marshal Rommel took over command." Rommel ordered four belts of "foreshore obstacles" that would be "effective at all tide conditions" to be installed. Records show that by 20th May 1944 more than 4,000,000 land mines were laid on the coast.
When the landings came unexpectedly on 6th June 1944 Rommel was in Nazi Germany trying to get two more panzer divisions and additional artillery. Rommel returned to Normandy but was unable to stop the Allied advance into France. Rommel and General Gerd von Rundstedt met with Hitler on 17th June. Rommel criticised Hitler for ignoring recommendations of subordinates without having adequate knowledge of realities.
On 29th June Rommel had another meeting with Hitler at Berchtesgarden. General Hans Speidel has argued in his book, Invasion 1944 (1949) has pointed out that Rommel upset Hitler when he pointed out that the Allies had a vast material advantage and advising him that he should consider the "political consequences" of the "imminent collapse of the western front". Rommel warned Hitler that Germany was on the verge of defeat and encouraged him to bring the war to an end.
A group of conspirators that included Friedrich Olbricht, Henning von Tresckow, Friedrich Olbricht, Werner von Haeften, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Claus von Stauffenberg, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Oster, Peter von Wartenburg, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Ludwig Beck and Erwin von Witzleben, developed a scheme to overthrow the Nazi government. After the assassination of Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler it was planned for troops in Berlin to seize key government buildings, telephone and signal centres and radio stations.
The conspirators approached Rommel and invited him to take part in the plot against Hitler and offered him the post of Chief of State. Joachim Fest, the author of Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) has argued that "Rommel was extremely popular with the general public, and though he was certainly not an enemy of the regime, the insurgents hoped that he might join them if the circumstances were right. Rommel's participation would have helped prevent the creation of another stab-in-the-back legend, a concern that had so preoccupied the conspirators." Rommel refused the offer as he opposed the projected assassination attempt on Hitler's life on the grounds that this action would only create a martyr. He suggested that it was better to place him on trial to reveal his crimes to the nation.
On 17th July, 1944, after the Allied invasion of Normandy, Rommel was critically wounded in the head by shells from an enemy fighter-bomber. His car capsized and he was thrown out, fracturing his skull. Rommel was not expected to live through the night, he nevertheless survived and eventually returned home to Herrlingen, a village in his native Swabia, near Ulm, where he had moved his family in late 1943. Meanwhile, the conspiracy to kill Hitler continued.
On 20th July, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg attended a conference attended by Hitler on 20th July, 1944. Alan Bullock, the author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) later explained: "He (Stauffenberg) brought his papers with him in a brief-case in which he had concealed the bomb fitted with a device for exploding it ten minutes after the mechanism had been started. The conference was already proceeding with a report on the East Front when Keitel took Stauffenberg in and presented him to Hitler. Twenty-four men were grouped round a large, heavy oak table on which were spread out a number of maps. Neither Himmler nor Goring was present. The Fuhrer himself was standing towards the middle of one of the long sides of the table, constantly leaning over the table to look at the maps, with Keitel and Jodl on his left. Stauffenberg took up a place near Hitler on his right, next to a Colonel Brandt. He placed his brief-case under the table, having started the fuse before he came in, and then left the room unobtrusively on the excuse of a telephone call to Berlin. He had been gone only a minute or two when, at 12.42 p.m., a loud explosion shattered the room, blowing out the walls and the roof, and setting fire to the debris which crashed down on those inside."
Joachim Fest later pointed out: "Suddenly, as witnesses later recounted, a deafening crack shattered the midday quiet, and a bluish-yellow flame rocketed skyward... A dark plume of smoke rose and hung in the air over the wreckage of the briefing barracks. Shards of glass, wood, and fiberboard swirled about, and scorched pieces of paper and insulation rained down... When the bomb exploded, twenty-four people were in the conference room. All were hurled to the ground, some with their hair in flames." The bomb killed four men in the hut: General Rudolf Schmundt, General Günther Korten, Colonel Heinz Brandt and stenographer Heinz Berger. Hitler's right arm was badly injured but he survived what became known as the July Plot.
The plan was for Ludwig Beck, Erwin von Witzleben and Erich Fromm to take control of the German Army. This idea was abandoned when it became known that Adolf Hitler had survived the assassination attempt. In an attempt to protect himself, Fromm organized the execution of Stauffenberg along with three other conspirators, Friedrich Olbricht and Werner von Haeften, in the courtyard of the War Ministry. It was later reported the Stauffenberg died shouting "Long live free Germany".
Over the next few months most of the group including Wilhelm Canaris, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Oster, Peter von Wartenburg, Henning von Tresckow, Ludwig Beck, Erwin von Witzleben and Erich Fromm were either executed or committed suicide. An eyewitness later reported: "Imagine a room with a low ceiling and whitewashed walls. Below the ceiling a rail was fixed. From it hung six big hooks, like those butchers use to hang their meat. In one corner stood a movie camera. Reflectors cast a dazzling, blinding light. At the wall there was a small table with a bottle of cognac and glasses for the witnesses of the execution. The hangman wore a permanent leer, and made jokes unceasingly. The camera worked uninterruptedly, for Hitler wanted to see and hear how his enemies died."
One of the conspirators, before he died in agony on a meat hook, blurted out the name of General Erwin Rommel to his tormentors. Rommel was so popular that Hitler was unwilling to have him executed for treason. Hitler sent two officers to Rommel's home at Herrlingen on 14th October, 1944. His son, Manfred Rommel later recalled that his father told him: "I have just had to tell your mother that I shall be dead in a quarter of an hour. Hitler is charging me with high treason. In view of my services in Africa I am to have the chance of dying by poison. The two generals have brought it with them. Its fatal in three seconds. If I accept, none of the usual steps will be taken against my family. I'd be given a state funeral. It's all been prepared to the last detail. In a quarter of an hour you will receive a call from the hospital in Ulm to say that I've had a brain seizure on the way to a conference." Rommel committed suicide and was buried with full military honours.