Seven Milestones throughout the Life of  Erwin Rommel – The Desert Fox

Seven Milestones throughout the Life of Erwin Rommel – The Desert Fox

Michelle Powell-Smith - January 9, 2017

Erwin Rommel, called the Desert Fox, was a successful German World War II general. While Rommel was a keen military strategist and skilled commander, he is most often remembered for his role in the 1944 July plot to overthrow and assassinate Adolph Hitler. When the plot was discovered, Rommel was offered the choice to stand trial for treason or to commit suicide; he opted to commit suicide to protect his family.

Rommel’s Early Years

Erwin Rommel was born on November 15, 1891 in Heidenheim, Germany. His father was a teacher and headmaster of a school and his family was middle class. As a boy, Rommel was described as a quiet child, with an interest in engineering and mathematics. He disassembled a motorcycle and built his own glider while still a young teen, and wanted to work in an airship factory, the Zeppelin factory. His grades as a young boy were not high enough to allow for university.

Seven Milestones throughout the Life of  Erwin Rommel – The Desert Fox

His father discouraged him going to work in the airship factory, and encouraged a military career instead. As a teen, Rommel became progressively more stubborn and determined—these were traits essential to his future role. While other male relatives had completed military service, none had made it a career. While it may not have seemed a likely choice for the mechanically-inclined young man as a boy, he showed himself to be a skilled soldier, leader and tactician during the volatile first half of the 20th century.

Rommel attempted to join both the artillery and engineers, but was rejected. He finally entered the infantry as an officer candidate in 1910, as part of the 6th Wuerttemberg. The infantry was the least prestigious and desirable military option available. He would remain in the military for the rest of his life.

Within just a few months, Rommel distinguished himself in the army; his entrance into the German army predated World War I, so this was peacetime. Three months after he entered the infantry, he was promoted to corporal. By early 1911, he was promoted again to sergeant. That spring, he entered the War Academy for officer’s training and received his commission as an officer in early 1912. He was in the 19th Field Artillery Regiment when World War I began.

Rommel’s Military Service in World War I

Seven Milestones throughout the Life of  Erwin Rommel – The Desert Fox

During World War I, Rommel was a part of campaigns in France, Italy and Romania. Rommel’s first combat experience took place in France, near Verdun, beginning on August 22, 1914. In this initial skirmish, Rommel and three of his men opened fire on a French garrison. Open combat continued throughout September. Rommel received the Iron Cross for his service in France that September.

He was promoted to first lieutenant and was made a company commander of the Royal Wurttemberg Mountain Battalion of the Alpenkorps in September 1915. In August 1917, the Mountain Battalion was involved in the fighting for Mount Cosna, on the border of Hungary and Romania.

After a victory at Mount Cosna, the Mountain Battalion was assigned to a mountainous region of Italy. Rommel commanded men in the Battle of Caporetto. In October 1917, Rommel, with his company of 150 men, took 81 guns and 9,000 men prisoner. He lost only six men, with another 30 wounded. Rommel used the terrain to his advantage in the Battle of Caporetto, attacking unexpectedly. His attack strategy kept his enemy off-guard and created the illusion of a much larger attacking force, merely waiting in the wings.

On November 9, 1917, the entire 1st Italian Infantry Division surrendered to Rommel. The 10,000 men believed that they were surrounded by an entire German division, rather than the small force Rommel actually commanded. He was honored for his service in Italy. This was another example of Rommel’s willingness to act with a small number of men against a much larger force.

After the surrender in November 1917, Rommel was promoted again, this time to Hauptmann (Captain). He was assigned to a staff position in the German army and served in that position for the remainder of World War I. He remained in a position of command throughout the interwar years, typically acting with care and moderation. He consistently avoided using force against protesters in Germany during these years. He taught for several years at a military academy, before an October 1933 promotion to Obersleutnant or lieutenant colonel. As lieutenant colonel, he was given a command position, and later assigned to the War Academy. He first met Adolf Hitler in 1934, during an inspection of his troops.

War Approaches

Seven Milestones throughout the Life of  Erwin Rommel – The Desert Fox

As noted, Rommel first met Hitler in 1934. By 1937, Hitler had promoted Rommel. He was made the War Ministry Liason officer for Hitler Youth. This led to conflict; Rommel wanted the Hitler Youth removed entirely from the control of the Nazi party and treated as a military entity. In August 1937, he was promoted to Oberst or colonel. He was removed from his role with the Hitler Youth due to this conflict; however, it did not impede the progress of his career.

After another War Academy appointment, Hitler appointed Rommel second-in-command of his escort battalion. This guard accompanied Hitler anytime he left Germany.

When World War II began in August 1939, Rommel was placed in command of Hitler’s escort battalion at the field headquarters. From the 23rd of August to the 26th of September, Rommel was with Hitler continuously. In September, Rommel returned to Germany on assignment to set up a new headquarters.

In early 1940, Rommel was promoted to General by Hitler, skipping ranks. Rommel wanted, and was granted, command of one of Germany’s new Panzer divisions. These were armored tank divisions, and, as there were only 10, a prestigious appointment. Rommel took command of the 7th Panzer Division in February 1940.

Rommel led the 7th Panzer division into France on May 10, 1940. His division, along with others, made quick progress into France. As he had in World War I, Rommel displayed a willingness to make quick decisions, and engage in smart strategy. He was admired as a commander, and consistently willing to work alongside his men. Rommel continued to push across France, aiming for the coastline.

Rommel and his men largely obeyed the conventions of war, with little tolerance for cruel or inappropriate behavior. There are some accusations of executions of prisoners of war, but many of those are somewhat debatable.

Rommel’s Success in North Africa

Seven Milestones throughout the Life of  Erwin Rommel – The Desert Fox

On February 6, 1941, Rommel was appointed to head the Deutsches Afrika Korps or DAK. Troops, including the 15th Panzer division and the 5th Light division were being sent to North Africa to aid struggling Italian troops. This mission provided the nickname that remains in use for Rommel, “the desert fox”.

In late March, Rommel, in direct violation of his orders, went on the offensive. He had been ordered to stall and maintain a defensive position until the 15th Panzer division arrived. At this time, only the 5th Light division was present in North Africa.

The attack was effective, as it was entirely unexpected. He pushed forward, even as he received orders from the Germans and Italians to stop. Rommel moved on in an attempt to take control of the port city of Tobruk; however, this was ineffective. He requested reinforcements, but German officials refused. The British were briefly able to advance offensively, in Operation Battleaxe, before Rommel defeated British forces and retook lost land in Africa. In August 1941, Rommel was appointed commander of Panzer Group Africa. He held control over a larger number of troops in this role.

Over the coming months, the British made daring and successful advances against Rommel’s troops, forcing them to withdraw significantly. While withdrawal meant the loss of land, it also provided shorter and more efficient supply lines for Rommel’s troops. On January 5, 1942, Rommel, with new reinforcements, moved to offensive tactics against the British. By June 1942, Rommel had gained control of the port of Tabruk.

Axis successes were relatively short-lived, and by that October and November, the British had clear intelligence on German and Italian movements, and were successfully blocking the majority of supplies. British assaults were increasingly successful, and by the fall, Rommel attempted to retreat with his troops.

Rommel continued to retreat into Tunisia. His last battlefield success came in February 1943, against American forces at Kasserine Pass. Rommel returned to Germany in March 1943, and was later sent to Italy. The following year, Rommel managed preparations in Northern France for the coming invasion by the Allies. On July 17, 1944, Rommel was injured in an automobile accident; he suffered significant head injuries.

The Plot to Overthrow Hitler

Seven Milestones throughout the Life of  Erwin Rommel – The Desert Fox

On July 20, 1944, a number of military officials were involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and high-ranking members of the Nazi Party. Throughout Hitler’s dominance of the German government, there had been ongoing rebellion in the military. This was a final, desperate move in the hopes of protecting Germany from the continued consequences of an Allied assault. Today, the 20 July plot is commonly called Operation Valkyrie; however, Operation Valkryie originally referred to only a small portion of the operation.

Plotting began well before the middle of 1944. As early as 1942, Colonel Henning von Tresckow and Brigadier-General Hans Oster began to work closely together as the rebellion became increasingly organized. Tresckow was a high-ranking army official in Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of the Soviet Union, while Oster was deputy head of military intelligence. Tresckow and Oster were the first to conceive of a plan for the assassination of Adolf Hitler.

It had become clear by the summer of 1943 that Germany was unlikely to win the war. The rebellious forces in the army came to a relatively simple conclusion; Hitler had to go in order to save Germany. Following the assassination, they planned to install a government acceptable to the Allies and negotiate peace with the Soviets. Lieutenant Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg joined, and later led the plot following Tresckow’s reassignment. Between 1943 and 1944, Stauffenberg and Tresckow attempted to organize multiple assassination attempts.

The Gestapo was aware of these plots, and rapidly moving closer to the conspirators. Action was necessary, as there was little time remaining. While evidence is sparse, Rommel was likely brought into the conspiracy in early 1944. While Rommel supported a coup, he did not believe that assassination was effective. He advocated for arrest and trial of Hitler, believing that execution could set off a civil war. He may have played a role in the attempted bombing on July 20 as part of the overall plot.

Rommel’s Suicide

Seven Milestones throughout the Life of  Erwin Rommel – The Desert Fox

While Rommel did not support the assassination of Hitler, he did agree with the ideas of the rebellion in the army. He had learned of the atrocities committed by Germany, and was horrified at the state of the German people after Allied bombing raids and increasing losses. The conspirators found a willing ally in Rommel.

When the 20 July plot was discovered, Rommel’s identity became clear and he was caught in the broad sweep of the military to catch and eliminate all conspirators. His name was brought up when the conspirators were interrogated; however, a trial of an official of Rommel’s rank would have been unacceptably public for the Nazi administration. It was to the benefit of the Nazi administration for Rommel to quietly disappear.

By October 14, 1944, Rommel knew he was under suspicion and investigation. His chief of staff and commanding officer had both been executed for their role in the conspiracy. He expected, on that day, to either be sent to trial at the People’s Court, or sent to a command on the Eastern Front. He told his son he would accept the command, believing that the Soviet Union was a grave threat.

Two generals came to Rommel’s home, asking politely to speak with him alone. He was offered a choice; he could stand trial for high treason, placing his family in grave danger, or he could commit suicide by cyanide pill. The house was surrounded by men, just out of sight, prepared to fire on his family if he refused. He was allowed a short time to say goodbye to his wife, and to his son.

Rommel was driven off by the two generals, a short way from the house. Surrounded by Gestapo, he took the cyanide pill. Shortly after, his death from a brain seizure was reported, and he was given a state funeral.

The Cover Story

Seven Milestones throughout the Life of  Erwin Rommel – The Desert Fox

Rommel’s vehicle was hit by British airstrikes on July 17, 1944, causing multiple injuries. These injuries were not fatal, and Rommel recovered in the following weeks. This accident provided the needed cover for Rommel’s forced suicide. Rommel was popular, both with the military and the public; his suicide had to be hidden, and could not be seen to be the result of treason.

Around 15 minutes after Rommel left his home, his assistant received a planned phone call. He was told that Field Marshall Rommel had died from a brain seizure, while on the way to Ulm for a conference. The brain seizure was attributed to Rommel’s injuries in the car accident caused by the British airstrike a few months earlier. This was the official story, and Rommel received a proper funeral with all due military honors.

His family was not penalized after his suicide. Rommel had been promised they would be left unharmed. While Rommel’s suicide, along with large numbers of executions, eliminated the conspirators, it did somewhat soften many people’s impression of the Desert Fox.

Rommel was a skilled military tactician and a fine leader; however, regardless of his actions in the final months of his life, he was a German commander during World War II. He had admired Hitler at one time, and opposed his assassination.