Krieg ohne Hass note
"We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general."
The original Magnificent Bastard
Erwin Rommel, nicknamed "The Desert Fox
'' by the British, was the commander of German forces in North Africa during World War II
and held some of the most famous commands, including the 7th Panzer Division and the Afrika Korps.
Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel was born on the 15th of November 1891 in Heidenheim, Badem-Wuerttemburg, then part of the German Empire.
His father, Erin Rommel Sr, had been an artillery lieutenant and was by this point the headmaster of the local school. His mother, Helene, was an aristocrat, though from the minor von Luz family. Rommel, with characteristic terseness, said his childhood was "quite happy". As a young man, he displayed astounding technical aptitude, building a working full-scale glider with a friend at the age of 14, and later buying a motorbike to tinker with in his bedroom. He also developed an illicit relationship with a local fruitseller, Walburga Stemmer, who bore his child. He later broke off the relationship, though he continued to support and remained very close to his "niece", Getrud. Despite an ambition to become an engineer, his father insisted that he gain some military experience first, so the 19 year old Rommel took a Fähnrich
's commission in the 124th Württemberg Infantry Regiment. During his time at the Officer Cadet School in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), he met Lucia Mollin, commonly called Lucie, who would become his wife. He graduated from the Danzing Officer Cadet School on his 20th birthday, in 1911, becoming a Leutnant
in the 6th Württemburg the following year.
When World War One
broke out in 1914, Rommel served in France with the 6th, however, seeking action, he transferred to the elite German Alpenkorps
. He quickly began to display some of the same skills and flaws that would both make his legend and help his downfall. After quickly acquiring a track record as a brave, resourceful officer who had excellent tactical judgement and a cool head under pressure, he won a 2nd class Iron Cross in 1914 and a 1st class one in 1915. For his service in Italy at the Battle of the Isonzo in 1917, in which he captured an Italian fortification of 7000 men with a force of only 100, he was awarded the Pour le Merite
, Imperial Germany
's highest military honour. His account of that battle and his service in France and Romania was published as Infanterie Greift an
, or Infantry Attacksnote
in 1937. It is still considered a valuable primer in infantry tactics, but it included some of his flaws, including his escape from an Italian attack that all but destroyed his command staff. He managed to make his way back to imperial lines on his own
, still convinced that the Italian military was sub-par
'and' without considering he might need to adapt his strategy.
When WWI ended, Rommel remained in the newly formed Reichswehr
. His Swabian heritage and accent initially caused him career problems in a service dominated by Prussian aristocrats, leading Rommel to refuse promotion to the "Troops Office" - the completely-harmless-and-totally-non-threatening-human-resources-office-that-definitely-isn't-the-General-Staff-Germany-wasn't-allowed-under-the-Versailles-Treaty.
Instead, he became Colonel of an Alpenkorps
Battalion, and later held several teaching posts in the German Army. During one occasion, he refused to allow SS units to parade before his battalion in front of Hitler and Goebbels. They backed down. Later, Hitler appointed him Colonel of the Führerbegleitbataillon
, his personal protection brigade. During this time, Rommel had a spat with a Nazi newspaper, Das Reich
, which had written a fictitious biography of him as an ardent Nazi and early Party supporter. He had a son, Manfred, born in 1928
By 1940, Rommel had been promoted to Major-General and placed in command of the 7th Panzer Division. Under his terrifyingly effective command in the Battle of France, 7th Panzer became known as the "Ghost Division" by the German High Command, because it struck so rapidly and penetrated so deeply that its true position was often not known. 7th Panzer was the first German unit to reach the channel, reported to High Command (during one of Rommel's typical surprise communiques) with the three word signal: "Am at coast." He was then placed in command of the Deutsche Afrika Korps
, the Heer
's expeditionary force in Africa. Initially under the command of the Italians, Rommel swiftly ignored them for being useless
, and began a lightning campaign across North Africa that quickly turned the entire temp of the campaign on its' head. His first campaign was a relative anti-climax, and it still thoroughly wrongfooted the Western Allies and drove to the gates of Tobruk before eventually being driven back. But the second one was where he made his legend, swiftly taking Gazala (for which he was made Field Marshal) and Tobruk, and preparing to push into the British-held Middle East, aiming to cut the Suez Canal, split The British Empire
in two, and eventually push up through the Caucasus into the Soviet Union, quite possibly sealing Russia's fate. It was not to be, however. The British sent Bernard Law Montgomery
to take command of their armies in Egypt, as well as harrying German resupplies with their naval forces in the Mediterranean and aircraft from Gibraltar and Malta. British intelligence had also cracked the German codes, and were reading his orders; Rommel guessed the Western Allies had obtained an intelligence breakthrough but- like virtually all German commanders- believed the Enigma machine was impenetrable, meaning he assumed it was a result of Italian incompetence one of the rare times it wasn't.
All of these crucial problems coupled with his trademark aggressiveness began to turn against him. His critical supply situation began to wear him down. At the Second Battle of El Alamein, Montgomery inflicted a crushing defeat, reducing his effective armored strength to just 35 tanks and boatloads of poorly-supported infantry who were often run down in the rout. Rommel requested permission to retreat and re-supply. Back came the order from Hitler: "victory or death". Rather than allow himself to be surrounded, he retreated anyway, heading back to Tunisia disgusted with Hitler's lack of concern for his exhausted troops, the lack of support he had received, and with his faith in his Führer
broken. His growing disillusionment with Hitler's callousness, cruelty, and incompetence lead to him lending his support, in February 1944, to the plot against Hitler.
In 1943, he flew back to Germany on his own initiative to try and convince Hitler of the situation in Africa. Hitler refused to listen, and soon after, a quarter of a million Axis troops surrendered in Tunisia, including Rommel's Afrika Korps. He was transferred to command of Army Group B in Greece, where an Allied invasion was expected thanks to a British deception operation. When it became that the Germans had been fooled (the British and Americans instead invaded Sicily), Rommel and Army Group B were transferred to France in expectation of D-Day. He oversaw a massive expansion of the Atlantic Wall, turning it from a token propaganda fortress to a major thorn in the side of Allied planners. Despite this, he was fooled with the rest of the German staff into believing that the Allied invasion would come through the Pas-de-Calais. Correctly, however, Rommel knew that wherever the invasion did come, it could only be resisted by hitting it immediately with overwhelming force and smothering it at birth. However, due to Germany's deteriorating supply situation, very little forces were available for this. Worse, Hitler had set up a Byzantine command, with Rommel and the Heer
commanding the bulk of the land forces, but with paratroops and flak troops under Luftwaffe
control. There was even a Kriegsmarine
battalion - and this is before the prime battle formations of the Waffen-SS
and the Panzer Lehr
under Hitler's direct command. Denied freedom of action or sufficient resources, Rommel did his best with what he could, stopping his old enemies, the British, from taking Caen on D-Day, using under-strength infantry and panzer forces. Meanwhile, the elite Panzer Lehr
and fanatical 12th SS Panzer Divison Hitlerjugend
were kept uselessly in place by Hitler, whilst the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich
was wasted fighting La Résistance
in the Corrèze and the 15th Panzer Division dawdled in Calais, waiting for the real
invasion, which would never come. On the 17th of July, returning from 1st SS headquarters, a Canadian Spitfire strafed his staff car, throwing him from the vehicle and putting him in hospital.
Rommel returned to his family home in Ulm at the end of his convalescence, expecting to be sent back into combat. However, it was not to be. On July 20th, the anti-Nazi officer Claus von Stauffenberg detonated a bomb in Hitler's headquarters in East Prussia. After the bomb failed to kill Hitler and the conspirators failed to take over the country, Gestapo revenge was swift. Rommel was implicated (while Rommel didn't necessarily assist the plotters, he certainly knew about the whole thing and didn't bother to tell anybody). Rather than allow a decorated hero to be dragged before the People's Court and wreck national morale, Hitler instead dispatched General Wilhelm Burgdorf with a vial of cyanide and the threat that, if Rommel did not commit suicide, his family would be punished. Rommel said goodbye to his wife and son. Manfred asked if the family should not stand and fight. Erwin replied that it was better for only him to die than for the whole family.
"Besides," he said, "we've no ammunition." A few minutes later, he bit on the vial, killing himself. He was 52 years old.
Today, Rommel is remembered as a chivalrous, capable armored officer. He is known for his resistance to Hitler, and his refusal to carry out the illegal Commando Order and Night and Fog Decrees, as well as paying the forced labourers who helped him build his Atlantic Wall. He was one of only two Axis soldiers deliberately targeted for assassination, so afraid were the Allies of him (the other was Isokoru Yamamoto). After his death, Churchill paid him fulsome tribute, and even more so when he discovered the truth of the July Plot. His writings on his experiences in World War II
were edited and published after the war as The Rommel Papers.
The title he had planned for them was Krieg ohne Hass
: "War without Hate
". In 1970, the German Bundeswehr
named a Lutjens
-class destroyer for him. He always wore a braided scarf knitted for him by Gertrud. Because of this, even he has sometimes been given a Historical Hero Upgrade
and Historical Badass Upgrade
beyond what the historical record supports, especially since he was one of the German commanders to most consistently fight the Western Allies and (supposedly) We All Live in America
or the rest of the West. Most portrayals correctly show he was no blood soaked ghoul, incompetent, or Nazi true believer; it is just that many also overlook how he supported two less than savory
governments and saw his own skill undermined by the Fatal Flaw
duo of arrogance and failure to play well with others, whether it was refusing Hitler's orders to execute Commandos and Jews
or ignoring, mistreating, insulting, and even abandoning his Italian allies in North Africa.note
Suffice it to say he was not perfect, but he was an archtypical Noble Demon
and Magnificent Bastard
who "fought for the wrong side" but did not sink down to its' level.
- He appeared as the villain in Billy Wilder's 1942 film Five Graves to Cairo, where he was played by Erich von Stroheim.
- The 1951 film The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel, starring James Mason in the title role portrayed him sympathetically.
- He was also portrayed by Werner Hinz in The Longest Day, with this famous speech:
The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive... The fate of Germany depends on the outcome... For the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the Longest Day. The Longest Day.
- Christopher Plummer played Rommel in The Night of the Generals (1966) and Karl Michael Vogler in Patton (1970).
- In The Desert Peach, he is the older brother to the fictional Camp Gay titular character, Colonel Pfirsich Rommel.
- He has a brief appearance in the French comedy film The Atlantic Wall where he's played by John Eppler. The second story arc of the movie revolves around a fictional plot of the British Allies to assassinate him on June 5th 1944, one day before the Normandy landings.
- He served as one of the historical inspirations for Grand Admiral Thrawn.