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Almost everyone with the slightest interest in WW2 is likely to know Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his famous nickname “The Desert Fox” or “Wüstenfuchs”.
Erwin Rommel was one of the most popular German Generals during WW2 and widely respected by both friend and foe, even long after the war. The stories of the battles in North-Africa, where the Allies and Germans played tricks on one another to outsmart and outmaneuver each other in the desert, are widely known and romanticized.
Rommel was born in Heidenheim, Germany on 15 November 1891. His father was a secondary school teacher and gave Rommel the choice to either follow his trade or join the military, even though Rommel himself wanted to be an airplane engineer. Obviously Rommel chose for a military career and joining WWI as a young Lieutenant he already proved his strategic talent and leadership during battle, earning him multiple decorations like the Iron Cross and the Pour le Mérite and eventually got promoted to Hauptmann in October near the end of WWI.
After the War, Rommel was allowed to stay in the army. He served in various positions, gradually building his military career. When Hitler came to power a new dawn came for the German Army. Hitler wanted to build up and modernize the Wehrmacht. Rommel was thrilled about this development.
Rommel met Hitler in 1934 during an inspection of his troops. Two years later Rommel would be in command of the “Führerbegleitbrigade” (Eng: Führer Escort Brigade), accompanying Hitler when he travelled abroad. Watching over Hitler’s shoulder, Rommel witnessed first hand all new developments like tank warfare and motorized infantry units. He was also present at the “Anschluss” of Austria, the march into Sudetenland and the Poland Campaign.
Invasion of Belgium and France (Fall Gelb & Fall Rot)
Impressed by what he saw and eager to join the action, Rommel lobbied for the command of a Panzer Unit (Eng: Tank Unit), which was eventually granted to him with the help of Hitler together with an highly unusual promotion to Generalmajor, skipping a rank. Rommel assumed command of the 7th Panzer Division in February 1940 and quickly started getting it ready for the upcoming campaigns in the West. Although inexperienced with armored warfare, Rommel quickly developed his tactics, which was a combination of rapid advance with commanding his unit from the frontline, a style that would be typical for his leadership. Rommel’s Division moved so fast during the invasion of France that it’s location was sometimes unknown by both the enemy and the German High Command (OKH), so that it was nicknamed the “Gespensterdivision” (Eng: Ghost Division).
Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK)
In the wake of the German successes in Poland and Western Europe, it’s ally Italy under the rule of Dictator Benito Mussolini, wanted to play a part too and had started the Western Desert Campaign by invading the Kingdom of Egypt (“Operazione E”) from it’s colony in Libya in September 1940, in an attempt to conquer the Suez Canal and deny the British a direct route to their Far Eastern and Indian territories. But when the British started their counter offensive “Operation Compass” in December of that year, the Italians were swiftly pushed back in retreat and even on the edge of defeat in January 1941.
Mussolini asked Hitler for support from the German Army. The Deutsches Africa Korps (DAK) was formed and Rommel appointed as Commander to aid the Italian forces in North Africa. Rommel took his army directly into the offensive against the British, pushing them far back in a series of victories and earning him the nickname the “Desert Fox”. But Rommel had growing problems maintaining his supply line and getting much needed replacements of tanks and equipment to bring his Panzer Army back to strength. After almost a year of fighting the situation took a turn for the worse at El Alamein and from August 1941, Rommel’s Panzers were forced into continuous retreat, until his Army finally surrendered to the Allies in May 1943.
Erwin Rommel wasn’t amongst them though. He was ordered back to Germany earlier in March of that year.
When Mussolini was overthrown in July 1943, Rommel was called in to restore order and resume command of Army Group B in Italy. When Italy called for an armistice with the Allies, he initiated “Operation Achse” to disarm the Italian Forces and send them to forced labour camps.
The Atlantic Wall
In November of the same year Rommel and Army Group B were transferred to France, where he was assigned to inspect and reinforce the “Atlantic Wall“. Rommel was dissatisfied by what he encountered and ordered the construction of massive improvements to the coastal defenses and fortifications, of which many by his own design. Rommel promised Hitler that the work would be ready on the 1st of May 1944, but this promise was not met. When the Allies landed on the Normandy Beaches on D-day, construction was still going on.
During the Normandy invasion on July 17th, Rommel’s car was strafed by a Spitfire, wounding his driver. The car crashed into the trees, throwing Rommel from the back seat out of the car. He was hospitalized with fatal head injuries.
The 20 July Plot
Three days later on 20 July 1944, a bomb exploded from a briefcase inside the field headquarters of the “Wolfsschanze” (Eng: Wolf’s Liar), Hitler’s Führer headquarters in the East. At the time of the detonation, Hitler and several high ranking officers, together with their attache’s were having a military conference there. The blast injured 20 people of whom 3 eventually died. Hitler survived miraculously. The briefcase had been positioned against the solid leg of the massive conference table, shielding him from the direct blast. The briefcase belonged to Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, whom had just left the conference room to answer an incoming phone call.
A hunt for the conspirators began. More than 7000 people were arrested and interrogated. 5000 people were executed or died during interrogation. Rommel’s name also came up, and more than once. He had supposedly known about the plot and might even have cooperated. In late September, with the hunt in full blaze, Hitler received a memo from Martin Bormann, summing up all the sources that had pointed in Rommel’s direction as a co-conspirator. Hitler didn’t take any risk and wanted a clean house. Rommel was placed under arrest while recovering from his injuries at home.
On 14 October 1944, two Generals came to pick up Rommel at his home. As a small gesture from Hitler, he was given the opportunity to take his own life, instead of facing a public trail and save his family from a certain fate. Rommel put on his Africa Korps jacket, said farewell to his wife and son, got into the car with the men and drove off. The car stopped along a quiet country road called Wippinger Steige (now called: Erwin Rommel Steige) a few kilometers from his home in Herrlingen. He took a cyanide pill and died sitting in the car. Today the place is marked by a memorial.
The official public report stated that Rommel had died as a result of complications from his injuries. He received a full state funeral which was held in Ulm. Rommel is buried on the cemetery in Herrlingen, Blaustein.
Visit Herrlingen Cemetery, Blaustein in Germany
You can find Erwin Rommel’s grave at the Cemetery of Herrlingen: Kaplaneiweg 4, 89134 Blaustein, Germany