FINEST HOUR 128, AUTUMN 2005
Erwin Rommel was born in 1891 into a middle class family (his father, and grandfather were school teachers), near Ulm in the state of Wurttemberg. In 1910 he became an officer-cadet in the Sixth Wurttemberg Regiment. In World War I he won Germany’s highest award, the Pour Le Merite,* against the Italians at the Battle of Caporetto in 1917. As a soldier he kept clear of party or political involvement.
A good regimental officer, Rommel came to Hitler’s attention when the Fuehrer read Rommel’s Infantehe GreiftAn, a manual of infantry attack. Rommel became commander of Hitler’s personal bodyguard during the Polish campaign. In the 1940 invasion of France, his Seventh Panzer Division was nicknamed the “Ghost Division” because it moved so fast that sometimes even the Germans did not know where every unit was. It captured General Victor Fortune and the 51st Highland Division at St. Valery.
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.
There is a story that Rommel, in his captured British Command vehicle in the desert, came across a large tented British Field Hospital. He told his driver to let him out, entered the tent, talked to the British doctors, walked through the tent, and then at the other end reentered his vehicle and drove off.
He always “led from the front” and sometimes found that he had laagered overnight behind British lines. On one occasion he found himself driving parallel to a British column, a few hundred yards away. Since he was in a captured British command vehicle, the British did not realize what an opportunity they had missed.
After the Battle of Alam Haifa, his “last throw,” Rommel began to be pessimistic about the outcome of the war, and of Germany’s future under Hitler. His health was so bad that he was in Germany at the start of the Battle of Alamein on 23 October 1942.
Hitler later appointed Rommel Inspector-General of Festung Europa (Fortess Europe). He wanted to be able to attack the allied landings aggressively on the beaches, but his superior, von Runstedt, kept the panzers farther back as a mobile reserve. The weather was bad at the time of D-Day, and Rommel made a disastrous mistake, going home for his wife’s birthday. He was in Germany when the Allies landed.
He knew about Schwarze Kapelle (“Black Orchestra”), the July 1944 conspiracy against Hitler. He was not part of it and did not report it, but the conspirators had ambitious plans for him if it succeeded.
Though not in favour of assassinating Hitler, Rommel did hope for the overthrow of the Nazi regime. It is not clear how one could have happened without the other. When the plot failed, General Burgdorf and another general arrived at Rommel’s home from Berlin and gave him two options: a public trial, with no assurance of safety for his wife and son; or leave with them, take poison, and receive a state funeral, with the safety of his family guaranteed. He chose the latter.
It was a wise decision. The 1944 conspirators, including Field-Marshal Von Witzleben, were hung on meat hooks in Plotzenzee prison with piano wire around their necks. Hitler had their death agonies filmed for his subsequent satisfaction.
“Germany’s highest WW1 military medal, also known as the “Blue Max,” had a French name because French was the language of the German courts that created it. In 1667, when Frederick William I of Brandenburg created the Ordre de la Generosite; in 1740, Frederick the Great changed its name to Pour le Merite, and first awarded it to subjects displaying particular merit in the conflict with Silesia.