Chivalry and honour are terms rarely associated with the Second World War. This was the time when industrial war had reached its zenith and military atrocities were commonplace. Gangs of murderers and paramilitaries stalked Asia and Europe and civilians had become the targets of state-sanctioned terror. Yet even amidst this brutal period of history there were men and women, from all nations, who were noted for their bravery and humanity.
Amongst the most celebrated of these figures is German field marshal Erwin Rommel. Regarded as one of the leading military minds of the Second World War he has come to be known as much for his humanity as his tactical acumen. In a time when brutality was the standard Rommel did his utmost to provide for his soldiers and prisoners, refusing any order to execute those in his care. By the time of his death he had earned the ire of Hitler, the praise of Winston Churchill, and secured his place in history.
Born in Württemberg in 1891 Rommel had an able mechanical mind from a young age; he had even managed to build a working glider with a friend by the age of fourteen. Despite this technical aptitude and fascination with the way things worked Rommel chose to join the Officer Cadet School over studying engineering. Though this decision was probably influenced more by his father’s wishes than his own it paved the way for the formation of Rommel’s legend.
When war broke out in 1914 Rommel was deployed to France with the regular infantry. His personal bravery and tactical acumen soon saw him moved to the elite Alpenkorps, however. Over the following years Rommel built a formidable reputation as a daring field commander as he led numerous raids and offensives behind enemy lines. He secured his status amongst the German military during the Battle of Caporetto when he captured a mountain strongpoint and its 7,000 defenders with 100 men.
For his actions at Caporetto Rommel was awarded Germany’s highest military award, the Blue Max. Despite his numerous successes and awards Rommel declined a position on the general staff after the war. Whether as a reaction to the elitism of high command or a desire to stay with his men Rommel’s decision to remain a frontline officer hampered his career prospects. He remained a captain for fourteen years after his promotion to that rank in 1918.
With Hitler’s rise to power, however, came favouritism and Rommel quickly rose through the ranks. This was largely as a result of Hitler’s admiration for his memoirs of the First World War, ‘Infantry Attacks’. Despite Nazi patronage, Rommel refused to become involved with the party throughout his life, even demanding that ‘Das Reich’ retract an article that claimed he was one of the party’s earliest members. In spite of his refusal to toe the party line Rommel’s star continued to rise. By the time Hitler marched into Poland in 1939 Rommel had been promoted to general and was head of the Führer escort headquarters.
With the invasion of France planned for the following year, however, Rommel asked to be transferred, believing his talents to be wasted in a guard post. Hitler granted his request and gave him charge of one of the new Panzer Divisions. Until now Rommel had been regarded as an infantryman and his appointment to a mechanized command was met with trepidation by many.
Any reservations were quickly dispelled as Rommel brought his tactical daring and flexibility to bear on the armoured war. Driving forward at a fast pace the 7th Panzer Division was able to keep constant pressure on their enemies, often outflanking them and doing untold damage to their morale. The focus on pace and manoeuvrability that had brought Rommel success in the Alpenkorps proved even more dangerous when applied to tanks.
By the time France fell this infantryman had become one of the leading practitioners of Blitzkrieg. His command had become known as the Ghost Division for its speed and surprise, as well as high command’s inability to keep track of it. With the continent conquered and Britain safe behind the Channel and the RAF, however, there was little need for such an aggressive tank commander in Europe.
In February 1941 Rommel was given charge of the newly formed Afrika Korps and sent to relieve the beleaguered Italian forces in Libya. As his nickname of the Desert Fox implies his time in North Africa is vital to Rommel’s lasting legend. Upon arrival, and against orders to hold back, Rommel pushed onto the offensive. His aggressive military style and daring attitude paid dividends again as his under-strength Afrika Korps caught the British unawares.
With the Italians still sore from their earlier losses and intercepted communiqués ordering Rommel not to attack till May, the British had fallen into a false sense of security. The resulting breakout pushed the British forces back into Egypt, though the Port of Tobruk held out as a thorn in Rommel’s side. The desert terrain proved the ideal platform for Rommel as his insistence on carrying the offensive and taking chances.
This fast pace of war came at a high cost, however, in both men and materiel and, though he was knocking on Egypt’s door and threatening the Suez Canal, Rommel was denied reinforcement. The focus in Germany was now on Operation Barbarossa and all resources were going to the invasion of Russia. The end result was a British counterattack that pushed the Afrika Korps back across Libya at the end of ’41.
1942 saw the fight for North Africa reinvigorated as Rommel was supplied with new tanks and fresh men and supplies. Catching the Allies by surprise once again he re-enacted his success of the previous year. On this occasion, however, Tobruk and the border were unable to stop his advance and Rommel pushed deep into Egypt. Only the hastily-erected defences at El Alamein were able to halt this fresh advance.
Victory at El Alamein gave the initiative to the Allies once again and Rommel found himself retreating, much as he had a year before. The arrival of the United States into the war spelled the end for the North Africa Campaign. Operation Torch had seen Morocco and Algeria reclaimed by the Free French and her allies who were now pressing on Libya and Tunisia from the west. In March 1943 Rommel returned to Europe.
Africa had been the proving ground for Rommel’s legend. His offensives had proved his tactical genius and mastery of tank warfare. In retreat and defeat he had proved himself the champion of the common soldier as he refused Hitler’s orders to stand and fight to the last man. Even his victories reinforced Rommel’s image as a humanitarian and honourable foe as he refused orders to execute captured commandos and ensured good care was provided for his prisoners.
Back in Europe Rommel was tasked with preparing for the eventual Allied invasion. By this stage he had been promoted to field marshal and was probably the most beloved military officer in Germany, certainly among the soldiers. He was also one of the few people who were willing, and able, to defy Hitler and Nazi high command. This defiance and his open rejection of the Nazi party saw Rommel come to the attention of those conspiring against Hitler.
It was believed that Rommel’s popularity would help secure the support of the military in the wake of any coup. After being approached by close friends Rommel agreed to lend his support to these conspiracies. Though he reportedly opposed any assassination attempts Rommel agreed that Hitler should be removed and peace signed, with the Western Allies at least. This proved to be Rommel’s undoing.
In the wake of the failed attempt on Hitler’s life a hunt began for any and all conspirators. Rommel’s name soon came up in Gestapo interrogation rooms. Though figures like Heinz Guderian and Gerd von Rundstedt wanted a public trial Hitler feared the impact such a revelation would have on army morale.
On October 14th 1944 two generals from Hitler’s headquarters came to Rommel’s house. He was offered a cyanide pill or a public trial which would extend to his staff and family. He bid farewell to his wife and son and left, all knowing that he would not return. He was given a full state funeral with an official day of mourning. Despite his opposition to Nazism and contradicting his direct instructions Rommel’s coffin was draped in a swastika.
A humble and honourable man Rommel had been one of the few Axis commanders to be directly targeted by Allied planners. He was almost certainly the only one to be praised in Parliament. Join Patrick this Sunday at 7pm as he talks with a panel of experts about the life and career of Erwin Rommel, the last knight of Germany. Was he really one of the greatest generals of the Second World War? Or has his memory been inflated by a cult of personality? Was he truly a great humanitarian? Or merely a small light in a sea of horror?
- Rommel in Northern France, 1944.
- Rommel with Hitler in Poland, 1939.
- Rommel with his command in France, 1940.
- Rommel talking with troops near Tobruk, June 1942.
- Rommel with Allied prisoners taken at Tobruk.
- Rommel's funeral procession.