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World War II: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel

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World War II: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel

General Erwin Rommel in North Africa, 1941

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Erwin Rommel - Early Life & Career:

Erwin Rommel was born at Heidenheim, Germany on November 15, 1891, to Professor Erwin Rommel and Helene von Luz. Educated locally, he displayed a high degree of technical aptitude at an early age. Though he considered becoming an engineer, Rommel was encouraged by his father to join 124th Württemberg Infantry Regiment as an officer cadet in 1910. Sent to Officer Cadet School in Danzig, he graduated the following year and was commissioned as a lieutenant on January 27, 1912. While at school, Rommel met his future wife, Lucia Mollin, who he married on November 27, 1916.

Erwin Rommel - World War I:

With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Rommel moved to the Western Front with the 6th Württemberg Infantry Regiment. Wounded that September, he was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class. Returning to action, he was transferred to the Württemberg Mountain Battalion of the elite Alpenkorps in the fall of 1915. With this unit, Rommel saw service on both fronts and won the Pour le Mérite for his actions during the Battle of Caporetto in 1917. Promoted to captain, he finished the war in a staff assignment. After the armistice, he returned to his regiment at Weingarten.

Erwin Rommel - The Interwar Years:

Though recognized as a gifted officer, Rommel elected to remain with the troops rather than serve in a staff position. Moving through various postings in the Reichswehr, Rommel became an instructor at the Dresden Infantry School in 1929. In this position he wrote several notable training manuals, including Infanterie greift an (Infantry Attack) in 1937. Catching the eye of Adolf Hitler, the work led the German leader to assign Rommel as a liaison between the War Ministry and the Hitler Youth. In this role he provided instructors to the Hitler Youth and launched a failed attempt to make it an army auxiliary.

Promoted to colonel in 1937, the following year he was made the commandant of the War Academy at Wiener Neustadt. This posting proved brief as he was soon appointed to lead Hitler's personal bodyguard (FührerBegleitbataillon). As the commander of this unit, Rommel gained frequent access to Hitler and soon became one of his favorite officers. The position also allowed him to befriend Joseph Goebbels, who became an admirer and later used his propaganda apparatus to chronicle Rommel's battlefield exploits. With the beginning of World War II, Rommel escorted Hitler at the Polish front.

Erwin Rommel - In France:

Eager for a combat command, Rommel asked Hitler for command of a panzer division despite the fact that the Chief of Army Personnel had rejected his earlier request as he lacked any armor experience. Granting Rommel's request, Hitler assigned him to lead the 7th Panzer Division with the rank of generalmajor. Quickly learning the art of armored, mobile warfare, he prepared for the invasion of the Low Countries and France. Part of General Hermann Hoth's XV Corps, the 7th Panzer Division advanced boldly on May 10, with Rommel ignoring risks to his flanks and relying on shock to carry the day.

So rapid were the division's movements that it earned the name the "Ghost Division" due to the surprise it frequently achieved. Though Rommel was achieving victory, issues arose as he preferred to command from the front leading to logistical and staff problems within his headquarters. Defeating a British counterattack at Arras on May 21, his men pushed on, reaching Lille six days later. Given the 5th Panzer Division for the assault on the town, Rommel learned that he had been awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross at Hitler's personal behest.

The award annoyed other German officers who resented Hitler's favoritism and Rommel's increasing habit of diverting resources to his division. Taking Lille, he famously reached the coast on June 10, before turning south. After the armistice, Hoth praised Rommel's achievements but expressed concern over his judgment and suitability for higher command. In reward for his performance in France, Rommel was given command of the newly formed Deutsches Afrikakorps which was departing for North Africa to prop up Italian forces in the wake of their defeat during Operation Compass.

Erwin Rommel - The Desert Fox:

Arriving in Libya in February 1941, Rommel was under orders to hold the line and at most conduct limited offensive operations. Technically under the command of the Italian Comando Supremo, Rommel quickly seized the initiative. Beginning a small attack on the British at El Agheila on March 24, he advanced with one German and two Italian divisions. Driving the British back, he continued the offensive and re-captured all of Cyrenaica, reaching Gazala on April 8. Pressing on, despite orders from Rome and Berlin ordering him to halt, Rommel laid siege to the port of Tobruk and drove the British back to Egypt (Map).

In Berlin, an irate German Chief of Staff General Franz Halder commented that Rommel had "gone stark mad" in North Africa. Attacks against Tobruk repeatedly failed and Rommel's men suffered from severe logistical issues due to their long supply lines. After defeating two British attempts to relieve Tobruk, Rommel was elevated to lead Panzer Group Africa which comprised the bulk of Axis forces in North Africa. In November 1941, Rommel was forced to retreat when the British launched Operation Crusader which relieved Tobruk and compelled him to fall all the way back to El Agheila.

Quickly re-forming and resupplying, Rommel counterattacked in January 1942, causing the British to prepare defenses at Gazala. Assaulting this position in classic blitzkrieg fashion on May 26, Rommel shattered the British positions and sent them in headlong retreat back to Egypt. For this he was promoted to field marshal. Pursuing, he captured Tobruk before being halted at the First Battle of El Alamein in July. With his supply lines dangerously long and desperate to take Egypt, he attempted an offensive at Alam Halfa in late August but was halted.

Forced on the defensive, Rommel's supply situation continued to deteriorate and his command was shattered during the Second Battle of El Alamein two months later. Retreating to Tunisia, Rommel was caught between the advancing British Eight Army and Anglo-American forces which had landed as part of Operation Torch. Though he bloodied the US II Corps at Kasserine Pass in February 1943, the situation continued to worsen and he finally turned over command and departed Africa for health reasons on March 9.

Erwin Rommel - Normandy

Returning to Germany, Rommel briefly moved through commands in Greece and Italy before being posted to lead Army Group B in France. Tasked with defending the beaches from the inevitable Allied landings, he worked diligently to improve the Atlantic Wall. Though initially believing that Normandy would be the target, he came to agree with most German leaders that the assault would be at Calais. Away on leave when the invasion began on June 6, 1944, he raced back to Normandy and coordinated German defensive efforts around Caen. Remaining in the area, he was badly wounded on July 17 when his staff car was strafed by Allied aircraft.

Erwin Rommel - The July 20 Plot

Early in 1944, several of Rommel's friends approached him regarding a plot to depose Hitler. Agreeing to aid them in February, he wished to see Hitler brought to trial rather than assassinated. In the wake of the failed attempt to kill Hitler on July 20, Rommel's name was betrayed to the Gestapo. Due to Rommel's popularity, Hitler wished to avoid the scandal of revealing his involvement. As a result, Rommel was given the option of committing suicide and his family receiving protection or going before the People's Court and his family persecuted. Electing for the former, he took a cyanide pill on October 14. Rommel's death was originally reported to the German people as a heart attack and he was given a full state funeral.

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