Rommel studying maps during the battle at El Alamein
Erwin Rommel was one of Germany’s most respected military leaders in World War Two. Rommel played a part in two very significant battles during the war – at El Alamein in North Africa and at D-Day. Rommel’s nickname was the ‘Desert Fox’ – a title given to him by the British.
Rommel was born in 1891 in Heidenheim. During World War One, he distinguished himself in the German Third Army and he was decorated for his bravery and leadership. After the war, Rommel remained as an infantry officer and instructor. His chance for real military power came when Hitler, appointed chancellor in 1933, recognised his ability. By 1938, Rommel was a senior military figure in the Wehrmacht. His success in the campaigns of 1939 and especially the successful attack on Western Europe in 1940, lead to Hitler appointing him commander of the Afrika Corps in 1941. It was in the deserts of North Africa that Rommel found real success.
The nickname ‘Desert Fox’ was well deserved. Rommel was highly respected even by the British. Auchinleck, Rommel’s opposite until his sacking by Churchill, sent a memo to his senior commanders in North Africa, to state that it was their responsibility to ensure that their men thought less of Rommel as a ‘super military leader’ and more of him as a normal German commander.
"…(you must) dispel by all possible means the idea that Rommel represents anything other than the ordinary German general……….PS, I’m not jealous of Rommel."
Rommel’s fame in the desert rests on his success as a leader and also his uncompromising belief that all prisoners of war should be well looked after and not abused. One story told at the time was that Italian troops took from British POWs’ their watches and other valuables. When Rommel found out, he ordered that they be returned to their owners immediately. To many British ‘Desert Rats’, Rommel epitomised a gentleman’s approach to a deadly issue – war.
Rommel knew that his options at the vital battles at El Alamein were limited. Montgomery, who succeeded the dismissed Auchinleck, had the advantage of Bletchley Park feeding him the battle plan Rommel was going to use. Rommel was also seriously starved of the fuel he needed for his attack on Montgomery’s ‘Desert Rats’. The second battle at El Alamein was a very fluid battle but the sheer weight of supplies that Montgomery had access to (amongst other equipment were 300 new Sherman tanks) meant defeat for Rommel. The defeat of the Afrika Corps was the first major setback for Hitler and the Wehrmacht. Hitler ordered Rommel to fight to the last man and the last bullet. Rommel had far too much respect for his men to obey this command and retreated. The Germans left North Africa in May 1943. Despite this refusal to obey Hitler’s command, Rommel did not lose favour with Hitler.
In February 1944, Rommel was appointed by Hitler to be commander of the defences of the Atlantic Wall. Rommel’s brief was to ensure that Western Europe was impregnable.
He took full responsibility for the Northern French coastline. The beaches at Normandy were littered with his anti-tank traps which were invisible at full-tide. As it was, the planning at D-Day meant that Rommel’s defences were of little problem to the vast Allied attack. At the time of D-Day, Rommel commanded the important Army Group B.
On July 17th 1944, Rommel was wounded in an attack on his car by Allied fighter planes. The attack took place near St. Lo.
Rommel was implicated in the July 1944 Bomb Plot against Hitler and the Gestapo was keen to interview this famous military commander. Hitler was keen to avoid the public show trial of his most famous general and it seems that a 'deal’ was done. Rommel died ‘of his wounds’ on October 14th 1944. He was given a state funeral. But it seems that he committed suicide to a) save himself from a humiliating show trial and b) it seems that Hitler promised that his family would not be punished for Rommel’s indiscretions if he died ‘of his wounds’.
What impact Rommel would have had on the Allies drive to Germany after D-Day is difficult to speculate. However, the sheer odds against the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe post-June 1944 were such that this famous commander would have been unable to hinder the Allies progress.
"He was a daring and much-admired general, his personality and his fate creating an enduring legend denied to many orthodox, and ultimately more successful, commanders."