He was a brilliant front-line commander and a tactical genius whose “intuitive sense of the battlefield made him one of the greatest generals in history.” During the First World War, he pioneered the rapid advances and flanking maneuvers that would become his trademark decades later. In August 1914, as a platoon commander, he captured a French garrison with the aid of just three men. He was awarded the Iron Cross for valor and promoted to Oberleutnant. Three years later, in August 1917, Captain Erwin Rommel led “three rifle companies and a machine gun unit” in an offensive on a fortified mountain position during the Caporetto Campaign. With just 150 men, Rommel captured 9,000 Italian troops including 150 officers. Rommel’s daring assault earned him the prestigious Pour le Merite, or Blue Max, which was awarded as “a recognition of extraordinary personal achievement.” By the end of the war, Rommel had distinguished himself as a fearless combatant, a skillful tactician and an able commander. He was already well on his way to becoming one of the most revered military leaders in Germany.
Rommel was a throwback to an earlier era, a stalwart trooper who placed honor and duty above all else. As Jurgen von Arnium says in his article on Rommel:
“His sense of valor and chivalry were the stuff of King Arthur’s knights, but it was his “boldness, use of surprise, readiness to accept risks” and above all his “intuitive sense of the battlefield” that made Rommel one of the greatest generals in military history.”….
“His devotion to the profession of arms was in the best tradition of the gentleman. In a total war fought savagely and brutally, he inspired admiration for his treatment of prisoners. He was not tainted by Nazism….With his troops he enjoyed a deep rapport. He cared for them, and although he demanded their best and more, he never squandered them. Without pretension, modest, he tackled all his tasks with clarity, energy, and common sense.” (Blumenson, 315, “Erwin Rommel”, Jewish Virtual Library)
Rommel’s performance during the Second World War nothing short of breathtaking. On May 9, 1940, he led the famed Seventh Panzer Division (the Ghost Division) across the German border into Belgium, over the Meuse and passed Dinant, slashing through French lines and onto Cambrais, Arras and beyond. He faced resistance at the Somme River but quickly outflanked his opponents and turned the battle into a rout. The Rommel juggernaut could be stopped. By the time the fighting had ended, Rommel’s division had “captured 97,648 prisoners, 277 field guns, 64 antitank guns, 458 tanks and armored cars, and more than 4,000 trucks.” Historians began to refer to Plan Gelb as as “the greatest battle of annihilation of all time.” Naturally, Rommel’s reputation soared and he became the darling of domestic propaganda films. On returning to Germany, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and sent to Libya where he assumed command of the Afrika Korps. Here’s an excerpt from the magazine, Warfare History Network:
“In North Africa Rommel proved to be a superb tactician, repeatedly outflanking his British and Commonwealth opponents and pushing them across hundreds of miles of desert to the Egyptian frontier. Rommel seemed to anticipate his enemy’s actions, and his reputation soared to near-mythical status. In the process, Rommel earned the nickname of the Desert Fox.” (“Field Marshal Erwin Rommel: The “Desert Fox”, WW2 History Magazine)
As Commander of the Afrika Korps, Rommel delivered a lethal blow to the British 8th Army at Tobruk in 1942 forcing the surrender of 34,000 men. Rommel’s battlefield successes in Libya won him international fame as well as the admiration of his peers. By late 1942, however, Rommel’s forces were overstretched and outnumbered. He was attacked relentlessly by land and by air. At the Battle of El Alamein, his battered forces faced a stunning defeat which led to a long fighting retreat that ended in surrender in Tunisia in May 1943. Rommel was flown back to Europe where he was assigned the task of strengthening Germany’s defenses along France’s Channel coast (The Atlantic Wall) in order to fend off the expected Allied invasion.
Rommel’s preferred strategy was to fight the enemy on the beaches and prevent them from getting established, but that plan was rejected in favor of a more conventional strategy that placed reserves further from the front lines. This plan proved to be disastrous when the Normandy landing finally took place and the Germans found they had insufficient armored units to repel the invasion. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Allied forces launched “the largest seaborne invasion in history” which began the liberation of German-occupied France and, ultimately, the defeat of Nazi Germany on the Western Front. Fortress Europe had been breached and the end was now in sight.
Shortly after D-Day, Rommel was implicated in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. On learning of Rommel’s involvement, Hitler ordered his favorite General to either commit suicide and be buried with honors, or stand trial for high treason and be hanged. Rommel chose to kill himself. On October 14, 1944, he was escorted to the back of a black sedan where he swallowed a cyanide capsule and died minutes later.
According to The International Churchill Society:
“A thoroughly decent man, Rommel had no use for the Schutz Staffel (SS), and no Waffen SS units served under him in North Africa. Hitler ordered that if any Germans serving in the French Foreign Legion were captured, they were to be shot as traitors. Rommel ignored the order. When the British SAS appeared in North Africa, Hitler issued his notorious Kommandobefehl to the effect that they were to be shot if captured. Rommel ignored this, too.” (“Erwin Rommel: May I say across the havoc of war, a great general”. – The International Churchill Society”)
Rommel’s favorite song was “The Tank Song” or Panzerlied. (although I have been unable to find biographical confirmation of this claim.) The song does not promote Nazi ideals or racial violence in any way. Even so, the song was banned in the Bundeswehr by Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen in 2017 “as part of new efforts at denazification.”
Here is a traditional rendering of the piece although similar versions have been removed from the Internet “for violating You Tube’s policy on hate speech.” I leave readers to make that judgement for themselves.
Whether it storms or snows,
Whether the sun smiles upon us,
The day’s scorching heat,
Or the ice-cold of the night,
Dusty are our faces,
But joyous is our mind,
Yes, our mind.
Our tanks roar forward
Into the storm’s wind