Seventy years ago today German Chancellor Adolph Hitler survived an attempt to kill him. Seventy years ago last month the Allies initiated their invasion of Western Europe with landings on the Normandy coast. I am commemorating this and other notable World War Two events as the 70th anniversary comes around. Previous posts have noted books and films about the D-Day landings and the actions of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
In charge of German defenses in Normandy was noted Wehrmact Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. His abilities were early recognized in the invasion of France in 1940, and he became world famous in command of German forces in North Africa, where he was given the title Desert Fox. In the end, superior Allied military strength in North Africa along with inadequate support from his home country forced the withdrawal of Axis forces from Africa, leaving over 275,000 prisoners in Allied hands.
Rommel was not present for this debacle. He had been returned to Germany due to illness, but he was eventually sent to Normandy to prepare for a presumed Allied invasion. It was to be Rommel’s last battle.
Desmond Young is the person to tell Rommel’s story.
At this moment a Volkswagen drove up. Out of it jumped a short , stocky but wiry figure, correctly dressed, unlike the rest of us , in jacket and breeches. I noticed that he had a bright blue eye , a firm jaw and an air of command. One did not need to understand German to realise that he was asking “What goes on here?” They talked together for a few seconds. Then the officer who spoke English turned to me. “The General rules,” he said sourly, “that if you do not choose to obey the order I have just given you, you cannot be compelled to do so.” I looked at the general and saw, as I thought, the ghost of a smile. At any rate his intervention seemed to be worth a salute. I cut him one before I stepped back into the ranks to be driven off into captivity.
I could hardly have failed to recognise Rommel. But I could hardly have supposed that, only a few years later, his widow would be showing me his death-mask and telling me the story of his murder.
Young, Desmond (2013-04-16). Rommel (Kindle Locations 154-161). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
British Brigadier Desmond Young had the unfortunate experience of being captured by Rommel’s forces in North Africa and also had the fortunate experience of escaping. His book Rommel is available in Kindle from Amazon. I purchased a copy, and this post is based largely on the book.
Summary: Erwin Rommel does not appear to have been one of those typical Nazi military opportunists. His father and grandfather were mathematicians, and he was a slow starter. Rather pale and slight, in his teens he began to remake himself physically and was drawn to the military:
On July 19th, 1910 , he joined the 124th Infantry Regiment (Konig Wilhelm I, 6th Württemberg), at Weingarten as an “aspirant” or, approximately, officer cadet, which meant that he had first to serve in the ranks before going to a Kriegsschule or War Academy. He was promoted corporal in October and sergeant at the end of December. In March, 1911, he was posted to the Kriegsschule at Dantzig.
Young, Desmond (2013-04-16). Rommel (Kindle Locations 377-380). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
Contrast Rommel with Joachim Peiper, whose troops massacred Belgian civilians and American prisoners. Rommel seems to have caught the concept of honor from the German military tradition and carried it into his conduct in battle. Unlike other Wehrmact commanders, he recognized the civil aspect of war. This from the time of the desert war:
Major Archer-Shee, an officer of imposing presence, demanded to see Rommel and, to his surprise, was taken to him. He spoke enough German to make his protest. If the prisoners could not be given food and water, then the Germans had no right to keep them and should send them back to the British lines. Rommel was reasonable and even sympathetic . “You are getting exactly the same ration of water as the Afrika Korps and myself,” he said: “half a cup. But I quite agree that we cannot go on like this. If we don’t get a convoy through to-night I shall have to ask General Ritchie for terms. You can take a letter to him for me. . . .”
Young, Desmond (2013-04-16). Rommel (Kindle Locations 1811-1816). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
Rommel saw combat first during the Great War, where he demonstrated himself as a relentless combatant and an able leader and commander:
Of this small company of exceptional young men was Rommel, on the wrong side. From the moment that he first came under fire he stood out as the perfect fighting animal, cold, cunning, ruthless, untiring, quick of decision, incredibly brave. At 5 a.m. on the morning of August 22nd, 1914, he went into action against the French in the village of Bleid, near Longwy . He had been patrolling for twenty-four hours, was suffering from food poisoning and was so tired that he could hardly sit in the saddle when he was sent forward to reconnoitre, in thick fog. Having located the village he brought up his platoon. When they were fired upon, he halted them and went on with an N.C.O. and two men. Out of the fog loomed up a high hedge, surrounding a farmhouse. A footpath led past it to another farm. Rommel followed it. As he came round the corner, he saw fifteen or twenty of the enemy standing about in the road. Should he go back and bring up the platoon? That first decision in war is not an easy one to make. Much of a man’s future conduct hangs on it. Rommel did what he was to do again and again. Counting on the value of surprise, he collected his three men and attacked, firing from the standing position. The enemy broke and the survivors took cover and opened fire. Rommel found his platoon moving up. Half he armed with bundles of straw, the other half he posted to give covering fire. Then he advanced again. Doors were beaten in and lighted bundles of straw thrown into the houses arid barns. House by house the village was cleared. It was a minor action and of no importance except that it was his first and a pattern of the boldness and independence which he showed throughout his service.
Young, Desmond (2013-04-16). Rommel (Kindle Locations 415-426). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
When World War Two came around Rommel was a major-general in charge of the safety of German Chancellor Adolph Hitler. Had he stayed at that assignment it is possible the later course of the ware would have been much altered. As it was, he pressed for a combat command and commanded the 7th Panzer Division in the invasion of France. The hero of the tank forces in that battle was Heinz Guderian, the acknowledged star of the Wehmact’s armored forces at the time. But Rommel began to make a name for himself:
Rommel, present with the forward units, took direct command of the forces at the river, bringing up tanks and flak units to provide suppressive counter-fire. With no smoke units available, Rommel improvised by having nearby houses set on fire to conceal his forces with their smoke. He sent infantry across in rubber boats, appropriated the bridging tackle of 5th Panzer Division, and went into the water himself, encouraging the sappers and helping lash together the pontoons of their light bridge. Once the bridge was functional, he was in the second tank across. With the Meuse crossed the division moved out of the Ardennes and into France, with Rommel moving back and forth among his forces, directing and pressing forward their advance.
His abilities and his leadership qualities were quickly recognized, and when German forces in North Africa began to experience difficulties Rommel was sent save the situation. The results were apparent and positive. In the Battle of Gazala in May and June of 1942 British General Sir Claude Auchinleck initially had the upper hand and appeared to be on the verge of winning. Rommel’s decisive action turned the situation into a stunning victory for the Afrika Korps. He captured the British fortified port of Tobruk and pushed the British back into Egypt. Winston Churchill was visiting American President Franklin Roosevelt in Washington at the time, and he recounts the shock of this reversal:
This was one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war. Not only were its military effects grievous, but it had affected the reputation of the British armies. At Singapore eighty-five thousand men had surrendered to inferior numbers of Japanese. Now in Tobruk a garrison of twenty-five thousand (actually thirty-three thousand) seasoned soldiers had laid down their arms to perhaps one-half of their number. If this was typical of the morale of the Desert Army, no measure could be put upon the disasters which impended in North-East Africa. I did not attempt to hide from the President the shock I had received. It was a bitter moment. Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another. Nothing could exceed the sympathy and chivalry of my two friends. There were no reproaches; not an unkind word was spoken. “What can we do to help?” said Roosevelt. I replied at once, “Give us as many Sherman tanks as you can spare, and ship them to the Middle East as quickly as possible.” The President sent for General Marshall, who arrived in a few minutes, and told him of my request. Marshall replied, “Mr. President, the Shermans are only just coming into production. The first few hundred have been issued to our own armoured divisions, who have hitherto had to be content with obsolete equipment. It is a terrible thing to take the weapons out of a soldier’s hands. Nevertheless, if the British need is so great they must have them; and we could let them have a hundred 105-mm. self-propelled guns in addition.”
Churchill, Winston (2010-07-01). The Hinge of Fate (Winston Churchill World War II Collection) (Kindle Locations 6286-6296). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
As Sir Winston tells the story, The tanks were initially shipped without their engines. Then the transport carrying the engines was sunk by a U-boot off Bermuda, and the Americans followed up with another (successful) shipment of 300 engines.
What to take away from this is the support the Brits were getting from the United States. At the same time Rommel was not receiving commensurate support from the German military and from German industry. The truth is that by this time Germany was on the ropes in the European war. The drive toward Moscow had failed the previous year, and the Soviets were chewing up German troops and material. Additionally the German High Command did not give due concern to the situation in North Africa.
This was to have a decisive effect on the future progress of the war. Resupplied, British troops under Field Marshal Montgomery decisively defeated the Afrika Korps at the Second Battle of El Alamein and pushed them back to Tunisia. In the mean time American and British forces landed on the northwest coast of Africa and pushed toward the east. From this point on it was the end of Rommel’s forces in Africa, and it was also the end of Germany’s chances in the war. The northern coast of Africa gave the Allies a strategically critical base for launching attacks on Germany’s ally, Italy, and eventually the remainder of the southern European coast.
As Allied forces pushed northward through Italy during late 1943 and early 1944 it became apparent that the western European coast was becoming ripe for an Allied invasion. Rommel inspected the defenses already in place along the Normandy coast and found them completely lacking. He set about to complete what had been left unfinished, and he planned for his military response:
[Rommel] was positive that there was only one way to smash the attack: meet it head on. There would be no time to bring up reinforcements from the rear; he was certain that they would be destroyed by incessant air attacks or the massive weight of naval or artillery bombardment. Everything, in his view, from troops to panzer divisions, had to be held ready at the coast or just behind it. His aide well remembered a day when Rommel had summed up his strategy. They had stood on a deserted beach, and Rommel, a short, stocky figure in a heavy greatcoat with an old muffler around his throat, had stalked up and down waving his “informal” marshal’s baton, a two-foot-long silver-topped black suck with a red, black and white tassel. He had pointed to the sands with his baton and said, “The war will be won or lost on the beaches. We’ll have only one chance to stop the enemy and that’s while he’s in the water … struggling to get ashore. Reserves will never get up to the point of attack and it’s foolish even to consider them. The Hauptkampflinie [main line of resistance] will be here … everything we have must be on the coast. Believe me, Lang, the first twenty-four hours of the invasion will be decisive … for the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.”
Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day (pp. 27-28). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
In the end, what Rommel could do was not enough. High Command, including Adolph Hitler were slow to acknowledge the Normandy invasion was not a diversion (a diversion that incorporated more than 6000 assault ships?), and reinforcements were slow to be released. Rommel’s days as a soldier were near an end.
On July 17th, the Allied Air Force at last overtook Rommel. There was nothing unusual in what happened to him. His staff-car was only one of thousands of German vehicles shot up on the roads of Normandy in July, 1944. Captain Helmuth Lang, who was in the car with him, gives the facts. From his statement it is clear that they were unlucky in picking a road along which our aircraft were operating. *
Young, Desmond (2013-04-16). Rommel (Kindle Locations 3127-3130). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
Just three days later dissident German civilian and military elements nearly succeeded in killing Hitler with a bomb planted in a meeting room. Reprisals were quick and severe. Hundreds were arrested, and “interrogations” were productive. Among those implicated was Rommel. He was not an active participant in the plot, but it is sure he had guilty knowledge. Besides, there were those in the military who resented his independent ways and his less than ardent Nazi state of mind. The end came at his home.
On October 13th, came a telephone call from headquarters of War District 5 at Stuttgart. Rommel and Aldinger were out and a soldier servant took the call. He was told to inform the Field-Marshal that General Burgdorf would arrive at Herrlingen next day at noon. He would be accompanied by General Maisel. General Maisel also belonged to the Personnel branch. Since July 20th he had been engaged in investigating the cases of officers suspected of complicity in the plot against Hitler. When Rommel received the message he said very little. To Aldinger he remarked that the two generals were doubtless coming to talk to him about the invasion or about a new job. For the rest of the day he was unusually silent.
Young, Desmond (2013-04-16). Rommel (Kindle Locations 3505-3510). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
But Rommel knew why they were coming. The generals took him a short distance from his home in a car and gave him a poison capsule to take. Rommel was promised his wife and son would not be harmed. For once the Nazis kept their promise.