Erwin Rommel

Erwin Rommel

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German World War II Field Marshal. Sent with a small German force to help the Axis against the British after the Italians had suffered severe defeat, Rommel–reaching Tripoli in February 1941–was soon master of Cyrenaica and imposing his will on the enemy. For two years the opposing forces alternately advanced or withdrew over the desert, and Rommel’s name became legendary–a master of mobile operations who was rapid, courageous, and audacious.

Rommel’s supreme achievement was his defeat of the British at Gazala in May 1942, followed by the taking of Tobruk and a field marshal’s baton. Nemesis came five months later at El Alamein, when the British imperial army under Bernard Montgomery won a convincing victory. Rommel withdrew the survivors of his Panzerarmee to Tunisia. By then the British and Americans had landed in North Africa, the British Eighth Army had reconquered Tripolitania and was on the Tunisian border, and the Germans were hemmed in, isolated and facing overwhelming odds. Rommel left for Europe in March 1943. The African adventure was over.

Rommel has been criticized for lacking strategic sense, for excessive absorption in the tactical battle, for neglect of logistics, for periodic imprudence. These criticisms are shallow. Rommel’s especial flair was undoubtedly for the battle itself, for the cut and thrust of maneuver, for personal leadership at the point of decision, above all for the speed and energy with which he decided and acted; but in his extensive writings and recorded conversations he showed a military perceptiveness and strategic insight that would have probably enabled him to shine with the brilliance of Erich von Manstein had he held high command on the larger scale of the Eastern Front. As to logistics, Rommel was acutely aware of them at all times–they dominated the African theater where all commodities had to be imported and transported over huge distances. He refused, however, to make excessively pessimistic assumptions or to overensure–or, as he put it, to allow the scope and pace of battle to be dictated by quartermasters. A more cautious approach would have often denied him victory. And although Rommel sometimes underestimated the timing and difficulties of an operation, he was one who believed war seldom forgives hesitation or delay. From his earliest days as a brilliant young leader in World War I, or as a panzer divisional commander crossing the Meuse against fierce opposition and racing across France in 1940, he had proved to himself the virtues of initiative and boldness. On the whole his decisions were justified by victory: and in Africa victory often against odds.

Rommel’s last military appointment was in command of Army Group B, responsible in 1944 for much of northwest Europe. His energetic preparations reflected his conviction that the expected invasion had to be defeated near the coast, because Allied air power would nullify large-scale armored counteroperations after the landing. He believed, too, that the coming campaign should aim to defeat the invasion for one purpose: so that in the aftermath, peace might be negotiated in the west and a stalemate achieved in the east. Politically this was fantasy and militarily it failed; but for Rommel it was the only rational hope.

By then Rommel had lost all faith in Adolf Hitler. Hitler had showed him favor, and Rommel was long grateful for what he saw as Hitler’s restoration of German self-respect in the 1930s, but by 1944 he was disenchanted by Hitler’s refusal to face strategic facts. After the Allied invasion had succeeded in establishing a front (see D-Day), Rommel–who believed that Germany must now inevitably lose a war on two fronts–tried again personally to confront Hitler with reality. He failed.

Rommel, therefore, was now determined to surrender the German forces in the west unilaterally. Before that could happen he was wounded in an air attack on July 17. At home on sick leave, he was visited by emissaries of Hitler on October 14 and offered the choice of trial for high treason or suicide–to be publicized as a heart attack–with guarantees for his family’s immunity. He had never participated in the plot to assassinate Hitler, but his “defeatism” was known and his involvement presumed. He chose suicide and was given a state funeral.

Rommel has been variously described as a Nazi (because of long personal devotion to Hitler) or as a martyr of the German Resistance (because of the manner of his death). He was neither. He was a straightforward, gifted, patriotic German officer, a charismatic commander and master of maneuver, caught up in the disaster of the Third Reich.


The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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The German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel achieved a rare feat for any military commander - he became a legend in his own lifetime - and he remains the best known German general of World War Two in the English speaking world.

In fact, Rommel was acutely aware of the power of propaganda in developing his career and reputation. He assiduously courted the German government's media machine, the Ministry of Information and Propaganda run by Joseph Goebbels. Rommel's interest arose from the fact that his position in the German army was entirely dependent on Hitler's patronage. Since he had never been staff trained, the normal professional route to high command was not open to him.

. Rommel was acutely aware of the power of propaganda .

His book Infantry Attacks, however, which detailed his extraordinary feats of bravery in World War One, caught Hitler's attention, and the Führer gave him the command of his bodyguard battalion during the Polish campaign of 1939.

Rommel was then given command of the new 7th Panzer Division for the invasion of France in 1940. The rapidity of this promotion was extraordinary, but so was the young commander's performance in the new, rapid form of warfare known as blitzkrieg.

He seemed an obvious choice, then, to command the small 'blocking force' sent by Hitler to Libya in February 1941 to shore up Germany's failing Italian ally, Benito Mussolini. And it was here, in North Africa, that his true talents as a bold and daring commander of fast-moving armoured formations were properly revealed.

An impressive young soldier

Rommel was the second of four children born to middle-class parents, Erwin (a schoolteacher) and Helene Rommel, in Heidenheim in southern Germany. As a boy he was small and well behaved, with fair hair, blue eyes, and a quiet, dreamy manner. As a teenager he became more active and practical, spending much of his time on his bicycle or skis and studying his favorite subject, mathematics.

The young Rommel was interested in airplanes and gliders in fact, he would have liked to study engineering and learn how to build them, but his father wanted him to enter the military. In July 1910, he entered the 124th Wurtemberg Infantry Regiment as a cadet, and two years later he was commissioned as a lieutenant. In 1914, he married Lucie Mollin, whom he had met several years earlier.

As a soldier in World War I (in which Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire fought against Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, Belgium, Serbia, and many other countries from 1914 to 1918), Rommel impressed his superior officers through his boldness, courage, and determination as well as his ability to act quickly and decisively. He served in Romania, France, and Italy and in 1917 led the capture of Monte Matajur, near the Italian city of Caporetto. For his bravery the 27-year-old Rommel received the Pour le Merite or Iron Cross, the highest award in the German military, usually given only to much older and more experienced officers.

Germany's defeat in World War I plunged the country into a period of economic hardship. Rommel decided to stay in the army, even though the Versailles Treaty—the agreement which forced Germany to take various steps to make up for starting the war—had greatly reduced its role in Germany society. By 1921 he was serving as a company commander with a regiment based near Stuttgart, and his son Manfred had been born.

Rommel’s Last Day

Today, 76 years ago, one of Germany’s most famous military commanders met an inescapable death sentence—not by the hands of the enemy, but by the leaders of his own country. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, 52, was forced to commit suicide near the scenic village of Herrlingen on Oct. 14, 1944.

“To die at the hands of one’s own people is hard,” Rommel told his 15-year-old son Manfred minutes before he left their house for the last time. “But the house is surrounded and Hitler is charging me with high treason.”

Rommel and his family. They hoped to avoid Allied bombing in Herrlingen

The peaceful town, Herrlingen, located in a rugged and hilly region known as the Swabian Alps, was a place Rommel had been familiar with since boyhood. In the hopes of keeping his family safe from Allied bombing, Rommel chose this out-of-the-way spot as a refuge for his wife and son.

Herrlingen became Rommel’s “home base” during the last year of his life. Sensing an imminent threat from Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, yet wishing to avoid capture by the Allies, Rommel holed up in Herrlingen and refused to leave the area.

The location of Rommel’s house along a public village road and the presence of nosy locals kept Nazi police at bay—but only for a short time. Throughout summer and early fall of 1944, Gestapo agents and SS plainclothes officers infiltrated Herrlingen. The remote town became a death trap.

The Nazis wanted to get rid of Rommel because of his opposition to Hitler—and his concrete plan to overthrow their reign. According to Lieut.-Gen. Fritz Bayerlein, Rommel and his chief of staff, Hans Speidel, had developed a plan to allow the Allies unopposed access to certain key regions of Germany and to contact Allied leaders for a separate peace. Before this plan had a chance to develop further, an unknown German betrayed Rommel to the Nazis. This informant remains unidentified. Possibilities have given rise to much speculation. Most historians agree that Rommel’s name “came up” during the reign of terror and interrogations following the failed July 20 assassination plot against Hitler in 1944.

However, the exact details of the accusations against Rommel—and who betrayed him—remain shrouded in mystery.

Despite these ambiguities, it was already well-known among Rommel’s inner circle by 1944 that he was bitterly disillusioned with Hitler. Rommel allegedly remarked to family and friends after the July 20 plot that: “Stauffenberg had bungled it, and a frontline soldier would have finished Hitler off.”

Rommel’s writings from as early as 1942 demonstrate increasing antagonism towards Hitler and the Nazi government. Forced to rely on the Führer’s leadership from the battlefield, Rommel found Hitler more than lacking as a leader, and was jarred by the fact that Hitler did not seem to care about the fate of the troops or German civilians. Rommel began socializing with anti-Nazi dissidents in 1943.

“I began to realize that Adolf Hitler simply did not want to see the situation as it was, and he reacted emotionally against what his intelligence must have told him was right,” Rommel wrote in his memoirs about interactions with Hitler in 1942.

By Rommel’s own admission, the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy pushed him to his limits. “My nerves are pretty good, but sometimes I was near collapse. It was casualty reports, casualty reports, casualty reports, wherever you went. I have never fought with such losses,” Rommel told his son in mid-August 1944 at their home in Herrlingen. “And the worst of it is that it was all without sense or purpose…The sooner it finishes the better for all of us.”

On the last day of his life, Rommel and his son had breakfast shortly after 7 a.m. and took a walk in their garden. Rommel announced that two generals from Berlin were arriving to meet him at noon. By that time, many of Rommel’s associates had been executed or arrested. Rommel expressed a lingering hope of being sent to the Eastern Front. Before meeting with the Nazi emissaries, Rommel changed into his Afrika Korps tunic.

Hitler’s henchmen, Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel, arrived at noon and politely asked to speak with Rommel alone. After isolating Rommel, they presented him with a final sadistic choice: commit suicide by cyanide, or face trial in a so-called People’s Court (Volksgericht). If Rommel refused to end his own life, they warned, his family also would be imprisoned and face the People’s Court. These show trials usually ended in grim deaths.

For example, dissidents Hans and Sophie Scholl were guillotined after facing a People’s Court in 1943. Officers implicated in the July 20 plot against Hitler had been hung on meat hooks and strangled with piano wire their trials and executions were widely publicized to terrorize potential dissidents.

Rommel agreed to commit suicide, but insisted on being able to tell his family what was happening. The Nazis agreed—on the condition of the secret being kept in absolute silence.

Rommel in Africa. On the last day of his life, he met Nazi officials wearing his Afrika Korps tunic.

Rommel realized the Nazis wished to execute him quietly to save their propaganda image of him. Therefore he expected them to keep their sinister bargain about not persecuting his family due to the regime’s interests. He explained this to Manfred after announcing in a tense voice: “In a quarter of an hour, I’ll be dead.”

The teenager, shocked and desperate, was ready to fight. “Can’t we defend ourselves?”

“There’s no point,” Rommel cut him off. “It’s better for one to die than for all of us to be killed in a shooting affray.”

Also present in the house was Capt. Hermann Aldinger, an old friend of Rommel’s from World War I. The pair, both from Württemberg, had been best friends for years since fighting alongside each other as infantrymen. Over the years, Rommel kept Aldinger on his staff.

The Nazis had tried to keep Aldinger away from Rommel by distracting him with a conversation in the hallway. Eventually Rommel summoned Aldinger and told him what would happen. Aldinger reacted with outrage and desperation. He was ready to go down in a hail of bullets rather than simply surrender his friend to die alone. However, Rommel refused.

“I must go,” Rommel insisted. “They’ve only given me 10 minutes.”

Rommel put on his overcoat and made his way out of the house accompanied by Manfred and Aldinger, pausing once to stop his pet dachshund from trying to follow him. An SS driver waited in a car outside. The two generals offered hypocritical salutes. As villagers watched, the last gestures of goodbye Rommel could give his son and his old war buddy were quick handshakes. Then Rommel was driven out of town, with Burgdorf and Maisel sitting on either side of him in the back seat to prevent him from escaping.

Rommel met his death in an isolated wooded area which is much farther from the town of Herrlingen than one might imagine. The road leaves the village, passing up a steep hill and through a dense forest. Eventually the forest diminishes into open fields, which in 1944 were hemmed with more trees. It is a quiet and lonely spot—far removed from civilization and potential witnesses. The woods were infested with Nazi gunmen.

The site of Rommel's death in 1944.

“Gestapo men, who had appeared in force from Berlin that morning, were watching the area with instructions to shoot my father down and storm the house if he offered resistance,” Manfred later wrote.

What happened after that point remains open to question since the surviving witnesses are less than credible. Those present who later offered their version of events had all been directly involved in causing Rommel’s death.

Their testimony gives rise to doubts. For example, the SS driver claimed he stepped away from the car for 10 minutes and returned afterwards to find Rommel “sobbing” in death throes however, this seems untrue since the type of cyanide capsule presented to Rommel is usually lethal in about three minutes. Maisel, who survived the war, claimed he was not present in the car when Rommel died, but stated Burgdorf was there instead—at the time of this allegation, Burgdorf was conveniently dead, having committed suicide in Berlin in May 1945.

Rommel's last residence (right) has not changed much since his funeral in 1944 (left)

Furthermore, the SS driver claimed Rommel’s service cap and Field Marshal’s baton had “fallen” from him in the car. However, postwar interviews collected by U.S. Army intelligence officer Charles Marshall and British historian Desmond Young revealed that the Nazis took these two items as trophies and later kept them on a desk at Hitler’s headquarters. Burgdorf allegedly boasted about them and showed them to visitors. Learning of this, Aldinger became determined to reclaim these belongings and managed to return them to Rommel’s family in November 1944. It is possible that, instead of merely picking up belongings that “fell” in the car, Hitler’s henchmen had pried the hat and baton from Rommel’s body.

A statement given by Dr. Friedrich Breiderhoff to the Cologne police department in 1960 described how the Nazis forced him to “examine” Rommel after death and attempt “resuscitation” for show—even threatening the reluctant doctor with a gun. Although Breiderhoff found the empty cyanide capsule Rommel had taken, he was forced to write the death off as a “heart attack.”

Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (left) delivers a promotional speech for Hitler as Rommel's eulogy at his funeral in 1944. Photo courtesy of Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg

The Nazis used Rommel’s funeral as a propaganda spectacle. They claimed Rommel’s death was induced by war wounds and staged a speech promoting Hitler as the eulogy. They attempted to use Rommel in death to perform a task he was was unwilling to do in life—to motivate Germans to continue fighting.

Some people today wonder what might have happened if Rommel had chosen to fight back or face a People’s Court instead of accept such an end. Some have argued he might have inspired Germans to resist by causing a shootout at his home, or by accepting a show trial, however unlikely it was for Nazis to let the truth be known. But it seems clear that the Nazis had deliberately made the decision difficult for Rommel. They chose to confront him at home and threaten his family and friends. Rommel’s last words to his son and former war comrade indicate that the safety of people he loved was the most important thing on his mind when he decided to accept Hitler’s “offer.”

Veterans from former Allied countries have left tributes to Rommel at this stone memorial marking the site of his death.

Rommel, the Nazis, and the Holocaust

One of the most widely debated questions about Erwin Rommel is the extent to which he supported Nazism, and by extension, the Holocaust. Some have argued he was deeply complicit. Others have suggested that, while he supported the Nazis, he did so grudgingly or out of political naiveté. Addressing this dilemma can be complex. One argument is that many generals may not have been convinced Nazis, but recognized common goals that they willingly supported. Rommel, too, fell into this category.

In Rommel's case, his relationship with the Nazi Party perhaps began in 1937 when he was appointed liaison officer to the Hitler Youth. Through this position he came into close contact with many important Nazis. Rommel caught the attention of Hitler, who did much to support Rommel’s career. Hitler’s choice of Rommel as commander of Hitler’s bodyguard in 1939 and quick rise in rank demonstrated Hitler’s confidence in him. Rommel too liked Hitler and appreciated the preferential treatment he (Rommel) received, noting that “[Hitler] is extraordinarily friendly to me.”

Yet the extent of Rommel’s antisemitism or racism is more difficult to discover. It appears most likely that he chose to overlook the more extreme elements of Nazi policy. It is true that he flatly refused to carry out several criminal orders issued by his superiors, such as the execution of Black soldiers and Free French fighters. This does not mean, however, that he was ignorant of anti-Jewish policy and the “Final Solution.” Through his access to high-ranking Nazi officials, he would have had access to inside information.

Even more problematic was his relationship to a proposed Einsatzgruppen Egypt. This unit was to be tasked with murdering the sizeable Jewish population of North Africa and the British mandate of Palestine and to be attached directly to Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Its commander, Walther Rauff, had helped design the gas van. Rauff met with Rommel’s staff in 1942 to prepare for the arrival of the units. No evidence exists to record Rommel’s position on the proposed measure, but he was certainly aware that planning was taking place. While the larger Einsatzgruppen were never deployed, smaller detachments did murder Jews in North Africa.

Erwin Rommel

Erwin Johannes Rommel was born in 1891 and he joined the German Army as a cadet in 1910.

During World War I he served as an infantry lieutenant with the German Army in Italy, Romania and France.

For his bravery in action during the Battle of Caporetto he was awarded the highest decoration bestowed by the forces of Imperial Germany, the ‘Order of the Pour le Merite’ — the Blue Max.

In the years between the world wars, Rommel served as instructor at the Infantry School at Dresden and later served as Commander of the German War Academy. It was during this period that he wrote "Infantry Attacks" ("Infanterie Greift an"). Though based on his personal experiences, the book became a seminal work and was incorporated into the training of military cadets and junior officers.

During the rise of the 3rd Reich, Rommel found himself singled out to command Hitler’s personal bodyguard. He commanded the 7th Panzer Division as the German blitzkrieg rolled over France and for his tactical prowess of massing forces of combined armor and infantry was sent to command the forces in the African theater. There he earned the nickname “the Desert Fox.” Rommel’s famous goggles, which he sported in all of his photographs, were actually the pair taken from British General Richard O’Connor when he was captured in April 1941, and not German Army issue. As commander of the Afrika Corps, his unorthodox tactics and his grasp of strategy sent the British army staggering and nearly drove the British out of Egypt and put the British empire's lifeline, the Suez Canal in the hands of the 3rd Reich.

Rommel’s luck ran out, however, as well as his supply lines on October 23, 1942 at the Battle of El Alamain. As Rommel struggled to regain his momentum, British forces under Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery slammed into the stalled Afrika Corps with massed ground attacks and constant harassment from the air. The Afrika Corps found itself trapped with its back to the sea. Rommel fought rearguard actions through Benghazi, Tripoli and finally to the Mareth Line in Southern Tunisia. Even his eleventh hour victory at the Kasserine Pass in February 1943 could not stem the Allied onslaught and Rommel was recalled from the African theater in March 1943 to Italy by Hitler. The Afrika Corps was abandoned in Tunisia and close to 275,000 Axis soldiers were forced to capitulate. This blow, following so closely on the heels of the German defeat at Stalingrad sowed the seed of discontent in Rommel with the German High Command (OKW) and Hitler’s handling of the war.

Following a brief posting to Italy, Rommel took command of the 7th German Army in Brittany and Normandy, and began an analysis and strengthening of the already formidable fortifications of the Atlantic Wall of Hitler’s Fortress Europe. With the inevitable Allied invasion of Western Europe looming, Rommel hoped to hold any invading force to the beach and use his armor and mechanized infantry as a mobile reserve to quickly stem any Allied push and prevent a breakthrough to the hedge country of France.

When the D-Day invasion began, Rommel was back in Germany on leave for his wife’s birthday. Unable to stem the invading tide and with the OKW reluctant to commit its infantry and panzer reserves to the Normandy invasion sites, the German Army lost valuable time as it tried to ascertain whether the landings at Normandy were the main Allied push or merely a feint. With news of the invasion, Rommel rushed back to the headquarters of Army Group B by late evening of June 6th and attempted to push the German counterattack.

Realizing the severity of the situation, Rommel went directly to Hitler in the hopes of convincing the Furher that the situation in Normandy was untenable and to have the German army pull back to defensive positions on the Seine. Hitler's outright rejection of any strategic retreat affected Rommel so greatly that he discussed with other high-ranking German officers the idea of opening secret talks with the Allies. They believed that by removing Hitler from power a negotiated truce might be possible. On July 16, 1944, these hopes were dashed when Rommel was severely wounded when his staff car was strafed by Allied aircraft. His injuries were severe enough to remove him from command of the forces in Normandy. On July 20, 1944, a bomb detonated during a conference between Hitler and his top advisors in his headquarters on the Eastern Prussia, the "Wolfschanze." Though the bomb failed to kill Hitler, Rommel, along with some of the highest officers in the German military, was implicated for his part in the assassination attempt. Facing a propaganda nightmare Hitler himself ordered Rommel to commit suicide.

With Hitler using the safety of Rommel’s family as leverage, Rommel poisoned himself on Oct. 14, 1944, while publicly he was said to have died in an automobile accident. Not able to afford to lose Rommel's prestige before the German people Hitler had Rommel buried with full military honors and Rommel's complicity in the ‘20th of July Plot’ was never made public.

The Death of a Fox: Erwin Rommel’s Story

World War 2 was a theater of great horror and terror, but it was also home to many a story of courage, strength, bravery and ingenuity. While we can easily look at who was in the right and who was in the wrong today, in the thick of the war, each side was convinced that they were in the right.

The Nazi’s and German soldiers fought for a cause they believed in, they fought for their country, for their family, even for their faith. When the terrible truth about the Holocaust emerged, and was thrown in front of those who had no idea of such things, they wept and trembled at what they had seen. German civilians, after the war, were forced to march through concentration camps and see what horrors had been committed by the government. A great many recoiled in terror.

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But just because a side might be morally wrong, it doesn’t mean that they are excluded from having heroes and brave men. Some might even be noble. Today we are going to look at the life of one of the most noble generals to ever serve the German Army during World War 2: Erwin Rommel.

Erwin Rommel was born in 1891 on November 5 th . His father was in the German artillery division and his mother was a schoolteacher. Erwin decided to follow after his father and attended a military school where he would graduate as a lieutenant at the age of 18. From that point on, his service in the military was marked by war, starting with the first world war.

Rommel was a sharp man and a strong leader. He didn’t particularly worry about following exact orders during the first war and because of it, his initiative would often lead him to pull off surprising victories and overtake his enemies using his quick wit and ability to determine the best course of action. He focused heavily on tactics in order to win a fight, using speed and surprise to his advantage each time. This made him somewhat different from many of the other military leaders at the time, who more or less tried to utilize brute force in order to win conflicts. Rommel rapidly moved up in ranks, going from a platoon leader to becoming a first lieutenant, later on becoming a captain.

Perhaps one of the most famous exploits during the first world war was when Rommel led his own mountain battalion to strike against the Italian forces who were positioned various mountain ranges. Rommel’s forces were about 150 men and with those forces, he was able to capture 9,000 enemy soldiers. Such a feat was incredible and came about when Rommel decided the best way to fight against the Italian infantry wasn’t a direct assault, but rather would be through moving in the woods to reach them. Rather than give into the urge to take shots whenever they could, Rommel ordered his men to hold fire and not give away their position as they moved indirectly toward the heavy concentration of Italian soldiers.

Each time, Rommel’s forces would arrive using the terrain to outflank the Italians, causing them to surrender without much of a fight. Rommel would repeat this tactic until eventually they had seized the necessary territory and had captured the entire enemy force in that area. He did this by using tactics instead of brute force. This would be a precursor to Rommel’s time in World War 2, as his ability to strategize and focus made him a brilliant opponent to deal with.

In the second World War, Rommel was a major general and led his men on the frontlines. Indeed, Rommel’s picture of being a good leader meant being as close to the action as possible and he was often directing battles on the frontlines, despite the obvious dangers that this would cause for him. He believed in discipline and strength, but more than anything, he believed that a commander must be an example in all things to his men and so he would push himself physically to have the strongest body and discipline necessary to inspire his people.

The majority of Rommel’s operations in World War 2 took place in Africa, where he fought alongside the Italians in the newly formed Afrika Korps. Fighting in the desert was a new experience for Rommel but he took to it rather quickly and built a doctrine of mobility that allowed for his forces to rapidly move against their enemy. Rommel’s offensives were relatively successful against the Allies due to his fast-moving plans and his intense drive.

The relationship between Rommel and High Command was troublesome for a wide variety of reasons. One such reason was that Rommel did not get along very well with his peers, instead focusing on merit as opposed to rank. He didn’t have professional consideration for them and while he rewarded his own men for their hard work and vouched for them on a promotional level, those from outside of his unit were more or less ignored. The fact was that the German Military itself was very much a special club for those who were in the higher echelons in command. They would often do favors for one another and there was a great deal of special treatment, but not with Rommel. He gave little consideration outside of merit and this would often put him at odds with those who wanted that special treatment.

Not only did Rommel have a complicated relationship with other commanders, he also had trouble following orders. His quick moving unit and desire for autonomy often led him to ignore orders from his superiors or even act in spite of them telling him to stop. Sometimes it would lead to success, other times it wouldn’t go as well. He resented being micromanaged and even in his dealings with Hitler, there was a great degree of back and forth between them.

Erwin’s role as a German general is a complicated one. On one half of the equation, he never had any kind of direct dealing with the Holocaust, he did not commit any acts of hate against the Jewish people nor did he follow orders for the Final Solution. One the other half, however, he was fighting for the German people which included the Nazi Party. Rommel wasn’t a member of the Nazi’s and he despised when propaganda tried to prop him up as a Nazi supporter or member of the party. He had a personal relationship with Hitler, but as the war continued, the tension between them grew as well.


Rommel describes his Stoßtruppen (shock troops) tactics, which used speed, deception, and deep penetration into enemy territory to surprise and overwhelm. Throughout the book, Rommel reports assigning small numbers of men to approach enemy lines from the direction in which attack was expected. The men would yell, throw hand grenades and otherwise simulate the anticipated attack from concealment, while attack squads and larger bodies of men sneaked to the flanks and rears of the defenders to take them by surprise. These tactics often intimidated enemies into surrendering, thus avoiding unnecessary exertion, expenditure of ammunition, and risk of injury.

Contents Edit

The text is divided into six chapters:

  • I. Movement War 1914 in Belgium and Northern France
  • II. Fights in the Argonne 1915
  • III. Position war in the High Vosges 1916, movement war in Romania 1916/1917
  • IV. Fights in the Southeastern Carpathians, August 1917
  • V. Attacking battle at Tolmein 1917
  • VI. Pursuit of Tagliamento and Piave

In 1943, an abridged version titled, more simply, Attacks! was released by the US military for officers' tactical study. [ citation needed ] The first full English translation was published in 1944 by The Infantry Journal in the United States. The translator was Lieutenant Colonel Gustave E. Kidde without permission from Rommel, according to the foreword to the 1995 edition published by Stackpole Books. [1]

Infanterie greift an was first published in 1937 and helped to persuade Adolf Hitler to give Rommel high command in World War II, although he was not from an old military family or the Prussian aristocracy, which had traditionally dominated the German officer corps. It was printed in Germany until 1945. By then, about 500,000 copies had been published. The book is still in print, and was most recently published in German in 2015.

The book was also used throughout the West as a resource for infantry tactical movements. General George S. Patton was among the many influential military leaders reported to have read Infantry Attacks. [2]

In the 1970 film Patton, when it is clear to Patton that he is defeating forces he believes are commanded by Rommel during a tank battle, Patton says to himself, "Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!" However, in a previous scene in the film, Patton is awoken by his aides with news that an intercepted German radio message reveals that Rommel will attack Patton near El Guettar, Tunisia. Before this, the camera focuses on a book on Patton's nightstand, The Tank in Attack (Panzer greift an), a book which Rommel had planned to write but never completed. It is clear that the unwritten book is what the film is referring to, and not Infanterie greift an. [ improper synthesis? ]


The politician scientist Ralph Rotte [de] calls for his replacement with Manfred von Richthofen. [3] Cornelia Hecht opines that whatever judgement history will pass on Rommel – who was the idol of World War II as well as the integration figure of the post-war Republic – it is now the time in which the Bundeswehr should rely on its own history and tradition, and not any Wehrmacht commander. [8] Jürgen Heiducoff [de] , a retired Bundeswehr officer, writes that the maintenance of the Rommel barracks' names and the definition of Rommel as a German resistance fighter are capitulation before neo-Nazi tendencies. Heiducoff agrees with Bundeswehr generals that Rommel was one of the greatest strategists and tacticians, both in theory and practice, and a victim of contemporary jealous colleagues, but argues that such a talent for aggressive, destructive warfare is not a suitable model for the Bundeswehr, a primarily defensive army. Heiducoff criticizes Bundeswehr generals for pressuring the Federal Ministry of Defence into making decisions in favour of the man who they openly admire. [5] The Green Party's position is that Rommel was not a war criminal but still had entanglements with war crimes, and that he cannot not be the Bundeswehr's role model. [9] [1] The political scientist and politician Alexander Neu criticises the Ministry's undeterred attitude to the fact Rommel was at least near-Nazi and did serve the unjust regime, and comments that the association of Rommel with the spirit of the Bundeswehr is not new, but they did not expect that the Federal Ministry of Defence, without providing at least a bibliography, would declare him a victim of the regime as well. [10]

Historian Michael Wolffsohn supports the Ministry of Defense's decision to continue recognition of Rommel, although he thinks the focus should be put on the later stage of Rommel's life, when he began thinking more seriously about war and politics, and broke with the regime. Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR) reports that, "Wolffsohn declares the Bundeswehr wants to have politically thoughtful, responsible officers from the beginning, thus a tradition of 'swashbuckler' and 'humane rogue' is not intended". [11] According to authors like Ulrich vom Hagen and Sandra Mass though, the Bundeswehr (as well as NATO) deliberately endorses the ideas of chivalrous warfare and apolitical soldiering associated with Rommel. [12] [13] [14] According to Cornelia Hecht, the Bundeswehr believes that "chivalry and fairness", which Rommel embodied more than any other Wehrmacht generals, are timeless military virtues. [8] [15] At a Ministry conference soliciting input on the matter, Dutch general Ton van Loon advised the Ministry that, although there can be historical abuses hidden under the guise of military tradition, tradition is still essential for the esprit de corps, and part of that tradition should be the leadership and achievements of Rommel. [16] Historian Christian Hartmann opines that not only Rommel's legacy is worthy of tradition but the Bundeswehr "urgently needs to become more Rommel". [17] The Field Marshal Rommel Barracks, Augustdorf stresses his leadership and performance as worthy of tradition and identity, establishing, among other things, Rommel having committed no proven war crime as a reason to keep the name. [1] The Sanitary Regiment 3, stationed at the Rommel Barracks in Dornstadt, also desires (almost unanimously, as revealed by an interdepartmental opinion poll) to keep the name. [18] There has also been discussion regarding the Hammelburg Garrison ("the heart of German infantry", according to von der Leyen), which considers Rommel as "name patron" and "identification figure" together with Adolf Heusinger (the main street on which the garrison is located is named after Rommel while one of the barracks is named after Heusinger). The city council has defended the street's name. [19] [20] [21]

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces Hans-Peter Bartels (SPD) supports the keeping of the name and the tradition associated with Rommel, but notes that the reasons should not be his initial successes in the North African campaign (1940-1943), or that the former adversary armies have continued to worship him until this day. Bartels adds that Rommel, who probably supported the Resistance, is a borderline case, regarding which historians find it hard to ascertain, and German history is full of such ambiguities. [22] [23] In early 2017, the German Federal Ministry of Defence, in response to a petition championed by historian Wolfgang Proske and backed by politicians from the Left Party, defended the naming of barracks after Rommel, with the justification that the current state of research does not support their allegations. In 2019, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence explained that although there are controversies regarding Rommel's role in the resistance against National Socialism, Rommel did disregard criminal orders and reject the enemy image enforced by the regime. Additionally, the Bundeswehr also finds his courage in trying to end the war meaningful and worthy of tradition. [24] Sönke Neitzel supports the commemoration, although he notes that Rommel "rode the waves of the regime" and only mustered the courage to break with it at the last minute, but in a way unlike any other general. He also considers Rommel's other virtues and military capability to be important, since membership of the resistance does not help modern soldiers in Mali. Historian Hannes Heer argues that Rommel was not a resistance fighter, and that membership of the resistance, instead of secondary virtues and military capability, should be the only touchstone of commemoration. [25] [26]

Historian Johannes Hürter [de] opines that instead of being the symbol for an alternative Germany, Rommel should be the symbol for the willingness of the military elites to become instrumentalised by the Nazi authorities. As for whether he can be treated as a military role model, Hürter writes that each soldier can decide on that matter for themselves. [27] Historian Ernst Piper [de] argues that it is totally conceivable that the Resistance saw Rommel as someone with whom they could build a new Germany. According to Piper though, Rommel was a loyal national socialist without crime rather than a democrat, thus unsuitable to hold a central place among role models, although he can be integrated as a major military leader. [28] Wolfgang Benz also comments "His fate gives an idea of the possibilities the military resistance could have offered had such a charismatic leader of troops been at the helm." [29]

How Erwin Rommel Earned Germany’s Highest Honor, as a Mere Lieutenant

Erwin Rommel was undoubtedly one of the finest generals of the Second World War, his strategic mind and patient approach led his men to victory after victory early in the war. But, while his fame and glory came as a General and Field Marshal, it was as a Lieutenant in the First World War that he earned his greatest honor.

Erwin Rommel in 1917, proudly displaying his newly acquired Pour le Merite.

Rommel started out the war in command of a reserve artillery company but immediately transferred to the 124th Infantry regiment. By the middle of August 1914, he was in contact with the French, and showed his daring and genius in combat. The II Battalion, to which Rommel’s platoon was attached, halted at Bleid, a small French farming town. They sent out scouting parties, testing the various hedgerows and farms for French resistance.

Taking just three men from his platoon Rommel advanced to the edge of the town, where they found 15 French soldiers taking a nervous breakfast in the dense fog. Rather than retrieving his full platoon and assaulting, Rommel gave the order to open fire, and this four man party scattered the Fren ch troops, killing 5 of them. After receiving a stiff bout of rifle fire in response, he and his men returned to their platoon, then advanced with the rest of the battalion.

Leading from the front, Rommel took the first two houses in the town, preventing an immediate ambush as the battalion moved in. In about an hour the town was cleared. While Bleid was at best a sideshow compared to the main assaults happening up and down the French and German frontier, it showcased Rommel’s surprising skill in small infantry attacks. He led from the front, read any situation almost instantaneously, and made bold but effective decisions. These traits would serve him well throughout the war.

After charging single-handed against 3 French soldiers in September 1914, he was wounded in the leg and hospitalized for three months. For this action, he was awarded his first Iron Cross. When he finally returned, the war had drastically changed, gone were the days of free infantry advance, the trench was now the rule.

But this didn’t deter his daring or skill in combat. And in January 1915 he distinguished himself again. He and 50 men pushed through a section of the Argonne forest after charging through heavy French rifle fire. Coming out the other side they were at the base of a hill which overlooked the French lines to the south.

Winding their way through a break the barbed wire, they forced the enemy out of their position, but Rommel immediately realized a mistake. The position was open to attack from the rear, and the ground was too hard for his men to dig their own defensive line. They quickly moved to an abandoned French blockhouse to their north.

German troops advancing over a hill near the Argonne Forest in 1915. Photo Credit

Taking a more defensible position there, they held off French counter attacks. Keeping up a steady fire, they held the French back but quickly diminished their own ammunition. When they received word that no relief, or resupply, was coming, Rommel knew that they would have to leave this new position. He identified three options. Option 1: retreat the way they had come, pulling back through the wire under heavy French fire. This would lead to high casualties and no guarantee of success. Option 2: continue firing, until every magazine, pouch, and chamber was empty, then wave the white flag of surrender.

This, again, had no guarantee of success, the French might not respect the conventions of gentlemanly warfare, and no one wanted to spend years in a prisoner of war camp. He chose a third option: fix bayonets and charge! This could scatter the enemy, giving him just enough time to beat a hasty retreat. This worked, and his men safely returned to their lines. Rommel was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class and gained the respect and adoration of his men.

Field positions for the German Alpine Corps, to which the Wurtemburg Mountain Troops were attached.

As the war trudged on, the Italian front opened up, and Rommel was moved there with the Royal Wurttemberg Mountain Battalion. These were the elite of the German infantry, trained in small group tactics, and dedicated to the ideals of careful, thought out, and incredibly violent attacks. Rommel was with troops who fought and thought like him, and he would lead them to great success. Between the 24th and 27th October, 1917, now an Oberleutnant, Rommel led some of the most successful attacks of his entire life.

He was tasked with taking Italian positions high on Mt. Matajur. On the 25th his men moved out at first light, snaking their way up Kolovrat ridge, and found that the Italians were hunkered down in their trenches, ignoring a Bavarian company’s assault on neighboring positions. Rommel hid his men only 200 yards from the enemy, and sending out scouts found a pass behind their lines. His men followed him through, and they jumped into the Italian positions from the rear, taking hundreds of prisoners in a matter of minutes. But the Italians counter-attacked, and rifle fire rained down from positions above Kolovrat.

German troops assaulting Italian positions in the Italian front, 1917.

Rommel knew that defense was out of the question, and he would have to do what he did best: attack using terrain to his advantage. Leaving his 1st and 2nd companies, and his machine guns to provide suppressing fire, he moved his 3rd company into a hidden position near the enemy’s lines. The Italians assaulted the 2nd Company, but as they approached Rommel’s 3rd company jumped up and counter-attacked. Stunned, the Italians turned to face him, but at that moment the 2nd company charged their now exposed flank. The entire Italian force surrendered, totaling 12 officers and 500 men, their prisoner count was now around 1,500.

He then found the supply road down the back of the ridge, leading to a village full of Italian reserve troops, supply trucks, food, and officers. Rommel pushed down, with only 150 men, and scattered the defenders, taking even more prisoners. He was then attacked by an Italian light infantry column. After 10 minutes of stiff fighting, the Italians surrendered, likely assuming that their entire defensive line had collapsed. Rommel had just taken another 2,000 prisoners, bringing the count to 3,500 in a single day. But Rommel wasn’t done.

German assault troops rest during the fighting around Matajur in October, 1917. The fighting in the region was fast moving, and intense. Both sides had to use cover, terrain, and surprise if they wanted to make any advances.

Mt. Matajur remained his final goal, and he approached the night before, taking a small village, and 1,600 prisoners along the way. When they got up to the Matajur road, and within only a few kilometers of the peak, something amazing happened. 1,500 Italian troops surrendered at the mere sight of these German soldiers, with hardly a shot fired. But now he was ordered to return to refit. Knowing this was a mistake, he pressed for the final assault.

Mout Matajur today, Rommel’s men advanced up the series of peaks to the summit over 52 hours of climbing, crawling, fighting, and sprinting.

With Matajur only a few hundred meters away, his machine guns kept a suppressing fire on the peak, while Rommel led a handful of infantry crawling, climbing, and bounding up the side of the mountain. But when he arrived, he didn’t need to fire a shot. The Italian commander surrendered, having seen every single defensive line collapse before him he knew fighting was useless, the battle had been lost.

All told, Rommel’s men, over 52 hours of continuous combat had taken 18 miles of Italian territory, climbed 2 miles up mountains, captured a grand total of around 9,000 men, and had lost only six dead, and 30 wounded. Rommel received an honorable mention in dispatches that day, and was later awarded the Pour le Mérite, Imperial Germany’s highest military honor. It was almost unheard of for this to be awarded to a mere Lieutenant.

The Italian Prisoners of War after the Battle of Caporetto. 9,000 of these men were taken by Oberleutnant Rommel and his men. The Pour le Merite, Germany’s Highest Military Honor. It was an incredibly rare thing to see it awarded to anyone below a General. Being awarded to a lowly Lieutenant in the Field was outright amazing.

Rommel’s amazing battle skills were honed in the First World War, and one can see his genius approach to combat from the very beginning. He understood terrain, and used every nook and cranny to his advantage. As he would always say “shed sweat, not blood” he would often take the most difficult approach to an objective, if it meant that it might save his men from enemy fire. He demanded courage and dedication from his men, but always returned the favor.

Operation Valkyrie:

Rommel returned to Germany to recover. During this time, there was a plot hatched to assassinate Hitler.

The plan was called Operation Valkyrie, and several high ranking military officers participated in it. The operation failed as Hitler escaped the assassination attempt. The coup members were rounded up and interrogated, and someone spilled the name of Rommel.

No one was clear of Rommel’s participation in the plot. Still, a high ranking Nazi official always has an enemy in government. Rommel was not given a chance to speak on his side but drank poison in the dense black forest. Rommel got a state funeral. The official reason for the cause of his death was concussion due to the accident in Normandy.

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