General Field Marshal Erwin Rommel came to symbolize in the eyes of many the amazing German war effort in North Africa. A brilliant tactician, Rommel received his nickname, the “Desert Fox,” by guiding his elite Afrika Korps to several decisive victories against British forces before finally being pushed back by a cooperative Allied offensive. Rommel was later involved in planning the German defense of northern France.
Figure 8 - German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in Libya, November 1941.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (242-EAPC-6-M7133A)
Rommel was born in Heidenheim, Germany, on November 15, 1891. A sickly child, he was first schooled at home but later attended the military academy in Danzig and became an officer cadet in 1910. During World War I, Rommel saw combat in France, Romania, and Italy and was wounded twice. He received numerous decorations for bravery and decided to make the military his career.
When World War II started in Europe, Rommel was commandant of Hitler's field headquarters in Poland. Later promoted to brigadier general, he was given command of the Seventh Panzer Division and fought in France and the Low Countries in May and June of 1940. Rommel's tanks led the German push near the Meuse, and he was almost captured when the British counterattacked on May 21. However, Rommel quickly took the offensive and nearly succeeded in overwhelming the British army — including Bernard Montgomery's Third Division. Rommel and Montgomery would meet again in Africa.
Rommel's reputation as a crafty desert fighter was made when he arrived with German divisions to support Italian forces in North Africa in February 1941. The Italian forces had been routed by the British, and it was Rommel's job to recapture the lost territory, then press on into Egypt. His efforts succeeded mightily, and Rommel was rewarded by Hitler with a promotion to field marshal. However, the weapons, supplies, and reinforcements he so desperately needed to continue his offensive never arrived as promised, and after a lot of give-and-take skirmishes between the British and Rommel's Afrika Korps, he was finally forced to retreat when pressed by the better-prepared Allied forces at the Mareth line.
Rommel was evacuated from Africa in March 1943 and sent to command German forces in northern Italy. He recommended that all German forces withdraw to a line north of Rome when Allied forces landed at Salerno in September 1943. A forward defense, suggested by General Field Marshal Albrecht Kesselring, slowed the Allies somewhat, but the Germans were ultimately unable to hold Italy.
Rommel Sees the End
Always a pragmatist, Rommel had started to believe that, despite Hitler's rhetoric, Germany would not be able to survive the coming Allied onslaught, and his once-strong support for the Führer started to wane. Meanwhile, his next appointment was to upgrade the defenses along the Atlantic coast of France in preparation for an anticipated Allied invasion. Rommel firmly believed that victory could be had only if German forces met the invaders on the beaches during the first confusing hours of the invasion, and he asked for mobile reserves at the suspected invasion points and the authority to use them at his discretion. Hitler refused, preferring to make such strategic decisions himself. This decision by Hitler severely hobbled Rommel's defensive plan and, as history later showed, ultimately enabled Allied forces to break the German defensive line.
On July 20, 1944, an assassination attempt was made on Hitler. Rommel had known of the plot and had argued against assassination in favor of having Hitler arrested by the army and tried in a civilian court. On October 14, SS troops surrounded Rommel's house, and a general gave him two options: face trial for treason or take his own life by poison. Rommel chose the latter, having been told that if he opted for a public trial, the Nazis would go after his family following his certain execution. The government publicly attributed Rommel's death to wounds received in an air attack on July 17, and he was given a hero's funeral.