COMMANDERS: FM Erwin Rommel

Although Rommel was considered a legend by his enemies, his own people do not regard him so highly.

Rommel, Field Marshal Erwin (1891-1944). Born in Heidenheim from a middle-class family with no recent military history nor connections. Enlisted in the Army in 1910. At the outbreak of WWI, his boldness and independence of thought and action saw to his promotions. He not only ended the war as a Captain, but with the 'Pour le Merite', Prussia's highest military decoration.

Between the wars, Rommel wrote a mostly unnoticed book titled 'Infantry Greift An' or 'Infantry Attacks' in 1937. This was noticed by Adolf Hitler however. Despite his dislike of Prussian culture, Hitler apparently took a personal liking to Rommel as well. He was not only bold and independent-minded(as Hitler thought of himself) but he was also charismatic. Despite Rommel's apparent indifference to the Nazi Agenda, Hitler upset many of his Nazi colleagues by making Rommel brigadier in charge of Hitler's own security unit.

Always a proponent of mobile warfare(as were so many officers, especially in germany who had seen the differences between the entrenched Western Front massacres and open Eastern Front in the Great War), Rommel was forever speaking, often to walls it seemed, about the value of surprise, mobility and exploitation. While his military colleagues disdained one of their own being so close to Hitler, Rommel did use it to further his career and theories. Missing out on Poland, he requested that Hitler allow him command of a panzer division for the French Campaign.

Here he found the solution to the Maginot Line and static fronts. While superiors like Guderian were given most of the credit, it was commanders like Rommel who honestly believed in this plan of the 'lower ranks' to out-flank and blitz where unexpected in a new fashion. In 2 months he made his mark. From May through June his division not only found and opened weak areas of the Allied Front, but overwhelmed superior French tank brigades by sheer numbers, surprise, speed and outflanking. He didn't stop there, he continued to charge westwards, not towards Paris where all the highways were blocked with fleeing refugees and frustrated Allied reinforcements, but along the coast-line instead.

With each port he took after Dunkirk was pocketed, he cut Allied supply and communication junctions. There is even a peculiar story of him, having run out of petrol and unwilling to await further orders, ridiculously had his paymaster and even troops(including himself) pay French businesses for petrol like a normal customer pulling up in a car or tractor. His brazen actions went a long way to convincing the ignorant French High Command that their cause was lost. Rommel himself wrote that had they known how starved of petrol and supplies he was his entire division could be 'guests of a French POW camp within a fortnight'.

Still, few took notice of Rommel yet, save for Hitler and that of course was enough. He was promoted to maj-general in January 1941 and appointed to command the seed of the Afrika Korps deigned for the Western Desert. He arrived at the head of his convoys on February 12th 1941 and immediately caused a stir. At this time he was still under German Army High Command(OKH) and yet he didn't hesitate in dis-obeying his orders to prepare and support the Italian defenses in Libya. Instead, even before the rest of his equipment, men and supplies were landed, he sallied forth in force to launch a series of “shouldn't have happened” counter-offensives that almost threw the advancing British right back out of Cyrenaica.

Hitler and the OKH didn't see North Africa as anything but token support for the Italians and diversion of the British from relanding in Norway or France, but Rommel was intent on changing their minds. Rommel was a strategic and tactical genius, no doubt. Unlike Hitler(who disdained considering naval matters at all) nor the Army-dominated German military, Rommel saw the sea as Britain's greatest strength. If he could conquer the Suez, his panzers will have done the work of hundreds of uboats and thousands of bombers. The Allies would be forced to travel triple the distance between Britain and the Far East, not only trebling the time of reinforcing back and forth, but trebling the cost as well. Conversely, Rommel's own supply problems would be solved. The Italian Fleet would gain courage of course, and Rommel's would then play 'Lawrence of Arabia' in reverse with his mobile divisions. He saw himself not on parade in Egypt, but instead racing to occupy middle-east oil fields.

This would solve Germany's fuel problem. He'd be a true hero then and most assuredly Hitler would reinforce him then with enough to strike up into the Soviet Caucasus and their own oil-fields from the south.

Rommel's success did earn him more interest and priority from Hitler. German High Command was now actually considering changing their minds and making this a true campaign, especially after the loss of the Battle of Britain who refused to negotiate and the failures on the Russian front too boot. His command was enlarged to become Panzer Group Afrika and he was promoted to lt-general. What, at first, was feared to be a disaster, his being placed under Italian theatre command, turned out to be a blessing instead. Rommel now had prestige, even more with the Italians than with the Germans. His arguably weak-backed Italian superiors were more willing to let Rommel take the reins than his German superiors probably would've permitted.

He scored amazing victories in his see-saw battle with the British, however he couldn't take Tobruk. Tobruk was the key, whoever could have their navy land reinforcements and supplies there, had the advantage on the front between Alexandria and Tripoli. He fended off two British offensives, Brevity and Battleaxe during May and June 41, but a third in November called Crusader sent him reeling back. But Rommel had changed minds back in Europe. He was receiving German and Italian reinforcements and greater priority now(albeit still less than he wanted).

Now a full general, Rommel, nominally under Italian command, went back at it in January 1942. We now know some things, thanks to the released documents under various stupid 'secrecy acts', some of how Rommel was so successful. The British had Ultra, the code-breaking establishment that was reading more and more German codes as time went on, yet Rommel was still surprising them. Part of it was that, being under Italian command, he was using Italian codes which didn't use the same advanced cypher system, and part of it was Rommel's use of hand-to-hand couriers instead of radio or often even cable communications. This meant that the Allies, who were increasingly getting lazy and used to British intelligence warning them what the German was going to do, found themselves in somewhat of a fog against Rommel.

What made things worse were the Americans who were liaisoning with the British to enter the European war, helped Rommel immensely. Thanks to some who could be bought and some who were just negligent in communicating back to American leadership, the Italian cyphers with Rommel's own supporting, were able to compare the American and British codes accelerating the damage done by the aforementioned American liaisons. Here, it was Rommel who was reading the enemy's mail rather than the other way around. We now know that Rommel knew details down to the the geographic deployment of even hidden fuel depots and minefields. It was a huge advantage that made the Allies who fought him, believe he was even more of a mind-reading tactical genius than he actually was.

He was becoming a legend. He kept a tight rein on German Nazi's and SS units and had a reputation of being an 'officer and a gentleman' who treated POWs extremely well. He would sit down and play cards with captured enemy officers and take time to invite them to dinners. He shared his own medical supplies, even when sparse, with the POWs and treated the native populations with unexpected respect and caution. The list goes on. It was the Allies, not the Germans or Italians, who made him into a legendary hero. This was very bad for the Allies. It lowered morale and made the thought of surrendering less disagreeable.

So, reinforced and resupplied he again went back on the offensive in January 1942. This time he paused long enough to capture Tobruk and was promoted Germany's youngest Field Marshal which he is quoted as saying he'd trade the promotion in in a heart-beat for just one more full division of even infantry. He pushed the British back into Egypt but due to the timidity of the Italian Fleet and the British holding Malta, he again ran out of supplies despite Tobruk. He was stalled in July at El Alamein while the British, riding more and more American tanks to make up their losses, kept growing in strength. His new rival, a little funny-looking man doing his best to dispel the myth of Rommel, was called Montgomery. Montgomery was a cautious man, and was particularily concious of casualties compared to many of the best-known commanders of any nation. This funny little man in the Australian hats, finally confounded Rommel like no-one else.

The British had made their stand between the Qatara Depression to the south(impassable by vehicles, especially tanks) and the Mediterranean coast to the north. Rommel was no longer able to outflank his opponent. He had to be careful near the coast as, unlike the Italian battleships, the British had no qualms about lending their gunfire into the coast. The RAF was also rapidly gaining complete air superiority. The battle raged on but in the end, an ill Rommel was routed again in September. However, despite incessant air raids and superior numbers of charging British armoured and motorized brigades, Rommel's armies were just as skillful in tactical and mobile retreats as they were on offensives. However, a sore point grew from the Italians. Rommel betrayed them and confiscated their vehicles to save more of his Germans while leaving the Italians under the bombardment to stall and surrender.

It was now Rommel who changed his mind. Monty had more priority and support from London for this campaign than Rommel did from Berlin. The French were switching sides 'again' and Americans were approaching from the west. The Allies had all but absolute air superiority within their ranges at the time. Rommel now advised Berlin to start the withdrawal and evacuation of hundreds of thousands of men and equipment back to Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and/or Europe. The battle was lost but the army still significant. However, Hitler always seemed to do the opposite of what his 'friend Rommel' advised, changing his mind either too late or at the wrong time. He was told to stay.

Here is where best intentions back-fired. While Germany had finally fully mobilised after the disaster at Stalingrad, Italy still hadn't(it wouldn't until it lost North Africa). Hitler criticised Mussolini not only for this, but that Rommel would've won if Mussolini's military wasn't so cowardly(especially the navy). To be fair to the Italians, when they did fight, especially considering inferior ground equipment, they were at least as good as the Russians. In the air their new fighters were in fact wreaking havoc against even our Spitfires and Mustangs. In the sea it was Mussolini himself, not his admirals, who kept the mighty surface fleet from doing its job. He saw a negotiated end to the war with Churchill and wanted to still be a major naval power post-war. This, in reality, cost them North Africa and eventually Italy.

So, Mussolini, finally realizing that Churchill, especially now bolstered by his American cousins, was not going to negotiate 'reasonably' for Italy's exit from the war; decided to start mobilizing and getting his staff serious about the war. He replaced and moved around commanders and re-defined commands. Rommel had lost alot of prestige with his Italian superiors by sacrificing the Italians at El Alamein as he did. Now what prestige and confidence he did have was quickly evaporating and supplies were withheld for the first time when he disobeyed orders.

Nevertheless, he was permitted to counter-attack the much larger American army invading Tunisia from Algeria in the west. Although, now closer to Italy, the Allies no longer had uncontested air superiority, the terrain wasn't open desert and was more defensible. Yet the outnumbered Rommel gave the Americans their worst nightmare. In their first major land engagement against the Germans and Italians, the Americans were massacred and humiliated at Kasserine Pass where Rommel should've repelled harshly just like at El Alamein. Rommel, now commanding what Mussolini called the German-Italian Panzerarmee, wanted to exploit the victory into more open Algerian landscape and keep routing the Americans and keep the momentum and advantage as long as possible. For the first time since El Alamein, Rommel was positive again. However, the new bureaucracy took too long to support him and by that time the idea was overruled. Rommel was ordered down to the Mareth Line, an old line of French fortifications to guard against Italian attack from Libya.

However, thanks to his renewed vulnerability to Ultra, he was soundly defeated by the British at the Battle of Medenine and it was finally all over. There was still time to pull a reverse 'Dunkirk' and at least save hundreds of thousands of men at least, even if not their equipment. However, if El Alamein lost Rommel the respect of his Italians, Tunisia would lose him the respect of his own Germans. Rommel was recalled to Germany on extended sick-leave on March 9th. Rommel was now like the American General MacArthur (dug-out Doug) who was seen by many of his own as a coward who left his own troops behind. It was felt that Rommel should have done more, especially considering his 'friendship' with the Fuhrer. Many of his own staff felt that he should have threatened to resign if Hitler didn't accede to have the defeated army withdrawn where it could've been of significant use in Europe. Often the only way to get Hitler to reverse some huge strategic error was for the senior staff to resign over the issue. Rommel, more than Runstedt, Guderian or others was supposedly more highly thought of by Hitler.

For whatever reason, Rommel retired a 'hero' to Germany. Although at the very start, when the British counter-attacked before the Germans came to help, the Italians lost over 100,000 troops, after that, the Allies continued to suffer more casualties in troops and equipment after Rommel arrived. However, in the end, the Allies took nearly 240,000 prisoners of war literally given to them by Hitler. By the end they just gave up without a fight. One senior German officer bitterly commented to the British that if Hitler thought they should stand-and-die in a lost cause over sand rather than sailing back to Italy or even be sent to bolster the Russian front, then he was a traitor to Germany. Only one of Rommel's senior staff did not similarily criticise the Field Marshal for doing more to save Italian and especially German troops from being abandoned.

In May 1943, Rommel was recalled to occupy and secure northern Italy which he did with his usual efficiency by August. Again, while Hitler was impressed by Rommel's ability to do this without sparking any incidents with the Italians whose gov't had switched sides, this was short-lived. Rommel, strategically correct as usual, argued that the Allies wouldn't be able to invade northern Europe until the following year so he wanted to use the reserves in France to counter-attack with all priority in Italy and push the Allies back into the sea. He wanted to fortify the ports which probably would've defeated our victories like Anzio. He argued that air superiority was the key, that the Allies couldn't be permitted to have airbases in Italy as well. Kesselring supported Hitler's claim that tactical air superiority, as shown in the Allies' difficulties in Italy, weren't as critical as Rommel's experience in Africa. Rommel was re-assigned to Army Group B headquarters under returned Von Rundstedt to prepare his coastal defenses of the Atlantic Wall if he wanted. Despite his fame with the British and vengeance-seeking tirades of US general Patton, to the Germans and especially Italians, Rommel wasn't a hero anymore. Italy wasn't the place for him of all German commanders.

Yet even in comfortable France, Rommel was controversial. He still held to the idea that air superiority, even in Western Europe, would be a deciding factor in land battles. His philosophy to defend Western Europe was the 'Atlantic Wall'. A series of heavy coastal fortifications from Denmark to Spain, ideally. However, Rundstedt and others, held a different philosophy. They felt that it was more 'economical' to withhold German divisions in central France, let the Allies land, then converge on the confirmed landing area. Hitler, who was positive that the Allies would land near Calais despite even Rundstedt's advisors ironically agreeing it would occur in Normandy(weird huh), and refused to make a choice on these philosophies.

Both were given support, yet neither enough to be effective. 'One or the other probably would've been better than both yet neither.' In the end, the Allies succeeded with their D-Day Normandy landings. Rommel himself was eventually wounded when a British fighter strafed his staff-car. Between the successful beachhead and Hitler's obstinancy, Rommel felt the war was lost. Again, while a strategic military genius, he was lacking in other aspects of reality. His 'friendship' with Hitler and access made him a prime target for the overtures of the German military still trying to assassinate Hitler. He refused their overtures, the bomb plot failed, and yet he was still implicated and when given the choice between being tried for high treason(Rommel always said politics didn't interest him, he was first and last a patriot) or suicide, he chose suicide. Hitler had him buried as a hero. The Nazi's didn't like him because he didn't agree with their philosophy and seemed to simply use Hitler for his own career advancement. The Army didn't like him because he was too friendly with Hitler and a renegade officer who seemed more concern with his own career rather than the best interests of his troops, Italian or German.

Yet to the Allies, he was the 'Desert Fox'. One of the most feared and respected enemy commanders who, to his enemies, became a legend. You decide.


Date added: Sat Sep 27 09:18:16 UTC 2003