Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel (15 November 1891 – 14 October 1944) (also known as the "Desert Fox", Wüstenfuchs, ), was perhaps the most famous German Field Marshal of World War II. He was the commander of the Deutsches Afrikakorps and became known for the skillful military campaigns he waged on behalf of the German Army in North Africa. He was later in command of the German forces opposing the Allied cross-channel invasion at Normandy. He is thought by many to have been the most skilled commander of desert warfare in World War II.
Rommel's military successes earned the respect not only of his troops and Adolf Hitler, but also that of his enemy Commonwealth troops in the North African Campaign. An enduring legacy of Rommel's character is that he is also considered to be a chivalrous and humane military officer in contrast with many other figures of Nazi Germany. His famous Afrika Korps was not accused of any war crimes, captured Commonwealth soldiers during his Africa campaign report to have been largely treated humanely, and orders to kill captured Jewish soldiers and civilians in all theatres of his command were defiantly ignored. Following the defeat of Axis forces in North Africa, and while commanding the defence of Occupied France, his fortunes changed when he was suspected of involvement in the failed July 20 Plot of 1944 to kill Hitler and was forced to commit suicide.
At the age of fourteen, Rommel and a friend built a full-scale glider that was able to fly short distances. Young Erwin considered becoming an engineer and would throughout his life display extraordinary technical aptitude; however, much to his family's dismay young Rommel joined the local 124th Württemberg Infantry Regiment as an officer cadet in 1910 and, shortly after, was sent to the Officer Cadet School in Danzig. He graduated on November 15, 1911 and was commissioned as a lieutenant in January 1912.
While at Cadet School, early in 1911, Erwin Rommel met his future wife, 17-year-old Lucia Maria Mollin (commonly called Lucie). They married in 1916, and in 1928 had a son, Manfred, who would later become the mayor of Stuttgart. Scholars argue that during this time, Rommel also had an affair with Walburga Stemmer in 1913 and that relationship produced a daughter named Gertrud.
While fighting at Isonzo, Rommel was taken prisoner by the Italians. He escaped his captors, and, with a fluency in the Italian language and other skills, he was back to the German lines within two weeks. Later, when the German and Italian armies were allied during the Second World War, Rommel tempered his initial disdain of Italian soldiers when he realised that their lack of success in battle was principally due to poor leadership and equipment, which when overcome, easily made them equal to German forces.
In 1937, Rommel conducted a tour of HJ meetings and encampments, delivered lectures on German soldiering while inspecting facilities and exercises. Simultaneously he was pressuring Baldur von Schirach, the Hitler Jugend leader, to accept an agreement expanding the army's involvement in Hitler Jugend training. Schirach interpreted this as a bid to turn the Hitler Jugend into an army auxiliary, a "junior army" in his words. He refused and Rommel, whom he had come to dislike personally and apparently envy for his "real soldier"'s appeal to the youngsters, was denied access to the Hitler Jugend. An army-Hitler Jugend agreement was concluded, but on a far more limited scope than Rommel had sought; cooperation was restricted to the army providing personnel to the Rifle School, much to the army's chagrin. By 1939, the Hitler Jugend had 20,000 rifle instructors. Simultaneously, Rommel retained his place at Potsdam. In his class, Rommel was awarded the highest war ribbons for excellent performance.
In 1938, Rommel, now a colonel, was appointed kommandant (commander) of the War Academy at Wiener Neustadt (Theresian Military Academy). Here he started his follow-up to Infantry Attacks, Panzer greift an (Tank Attacks, sometimes translated as The Tank In Attack). Rommel was removed after a short time however, to take command of Adolf Hitler's personal protection battalion (FührerBegleitbataillon), assigned to protect him in the special railway train (Führersonderzug) used during his visits to occupied Czechoslovakia and Memel. It was at this period that he met and befriended Joseph Goebbels, the Reich's minister of propaganda. Goebbels became a fervent admirer of Rommel and later ensured that Rommel's exploits were celebrated in the media.
Rommel's technique of pushing forward boldly, ignoring risks to his flanks and rear and relying on the shock to enemy morale to hinder attacks on his vulnerable flanks, paid large dividends during his rapid march across France. When encountering resistance, Rommel would simply order his tanks forward, all guns blazing, relying on the shock of the sudden assault to force the enemy to surrender. This method offset the disadvantage the German panzers had in terms of armour and low calibre guns, often causing large formations of enemy heavy tanks to simply give up a fight they would otherwise have had a good chance of winning. This approach, although it saved lives on both sides by avoiding prolonged engagements, did cause mishaps. On one occasion his tanks, following this tactic, closed with a convoy of French trucks and fired into them, only to realise that the trucks acted as ambulances ferrying wounded from the front.
On 20 May Rommel's panzers reached Arras. Here he wanted to cut off the British Expeditionary Force's path to the coast, and Hans von Luck, commanding the reconnaissance battalion of the Division, was tasked with forcing a crossing over the La Bassée canals near the city. Supported by Stuka dive bombers the unit managed to force a crossing. The British launched a counterattack (the Battle of Arras) on 21 May with Matilda tanks, and the Germans found their 3.7 cm antitank and tank guns useless against its heavy armour. A battery of 88 mm guns had to be brought up to deal with the threat, with Rommel personally directing the fire.
After Arras, Hitler ordered his Panzers to hold their positions, while the British evacuated their troops at Dunkirk and the 7th Panzer Division was given a few days of much needed rest. On 26 May 7th Panzer continued its advance and it reached Lille on 27 May. For the assault on the town, General Hoth placed his other tank division, 5th Panzer Division under Rommel's command, to the chagrin of its commander, General Max von Hartlieb. The same day Rommel received news that he had been awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, as the first Divisional Commander during the campaign. This award, which had been secured for Rommel at Hitler's behest, caused some animosity among fellow officers, who were critical of Rommel's close relationship with Hitler as it seemed to give him preferential treatment.
On 28 May, while making the final push into Lille and far in front of friendly forces, 7th Panzer came under heavy fire from French artillery due to the rapidity of the advance. Eagerly Rommel drove his forces on, capturing Lille and trapping half of the French First Army, preventing them from retreating to Dunkirk. After this coup, Rommel's forces were again given time to rest.
On 15 June 7th Panzer started advancing on Cherbourg. On 17 June the Division advanced 35 km, and on 18 June the town was captured. The Division then proceeded towards Bordeaux, but stopped when the armistice was signed on 21 June. In July the Division was sent to the Paris area to start preparations for Operation Seelöwe. The preparations were half-hearted however, as it became clearer and clearer that the Luftwaffe would not be able to secure air superiority over the British coast.
Rommel received both applause and criticism for his tactics during the French campaign. Many, like General Georg Stumme, who had previously commanded 7th Panzer Division, were impressed with the speed and success of Rommel's drive, others were more reserved, some out of envy, others because they felt Rommel took needless risks. Hermann Hoth publicly expressed praise for Rommel's achievements, but he did have private reservations saying, in a confidential report, that Rommel should not be given command over a corps unless he gained "greater experience and a better sense of judgment. Hoth also accused Rommel of an unwillingness to acknowledge the contributions of others to his victories.
The Fourth Army's commander, General Günther von Kluge, also criticised Rommel for falsely claiming all the glory for his achievements. Rommel did not, Kluge felt, acknowledge the contribution of the Luftwaffe, and Rommel's manuscript describing his campaign in France misrepresented the advances of neighbouring units to elevate the achievements of his own dazzling advances. Kluge also cited the complaint by General Hartlieb that Rommel had misappropriated the 5th Panzer's bridging tackle on 14 May after his own supplies had run out in order to cross the Meuse, delaying 5th Panzer Division for several hours. Rommel had repeated this procedure on 27 May at the River Scarpe crossing.
His campaign in North Africa earned Rommel the nickname "The Desert Fox." On 6 February 1941 Rommel was ordered to lead the Afrika Korps, sent to Libya to help shore up the Italian forces who had been driven back during Operation Compass launched by British Commonwealth forces under Major-General Richard O'Connor during December 1940. Initially ordered to assume a defensive posture and hold the frontline, the German High Command had slated a limited offensive towards Agedabia and Benghazi in May, and hold the line between those cities. Rommel argued that such a limited offensive would be ineffective, as the whole of Cyrenaica would have to be captured if the frontlines were to be held. The task of even holding the remaining Italian possessions seemed daunting, as the Italians had only 7,000 troops remaining in the area, after O'Connor's successful capture of 130,000 prisoners and almost 400 tanks during the previous three months of advance.
On 24 March 1941 Rommel launched a limited offensive with only the 5th Light Division supported by two Italian divisions. This thrust was to be minor, in anticipation of Rommel receiving the 15th Panzer Division in May. The British, who had been weakened by troops being withdrawn to fight in the Greece operation, fell back to Mersa el Brega and started constructing defensive works. Rommel decided to continue the attack against these positions, to prevent the British from building up the fortifications. After a day of fierce fighting, the Germans prevailed, and the advance continued, as Rommel disregarded holding off the attack on Agedabia until May. The British Commander-in-Chief, General Archibald Wavell, overestimating the strength of the Axis forces and, already apprehensive about the extent of his advances during the previous winter, ordered a withdrawal from Benghazi in early April to avoid being cut off by Rommel's thrust.
Rommel, seeing the British reluctance to fight a decisive action, decided on a bold move, the seizure of the whole of Cyrenaica, despite having only light forces. He ordered the Italian Ariete armored division to pursue the retreating British, while the 5th Light Division was to move on Benghazi. Generalmajor Johannes Streich, the 5th Light Division's commander, protested this order on the grounds of the state of his vehicles, but Rommel brushed the objections aside because, in his words, "One cannot permit unique opportunities to slip by for the sake of trifles. The Italian Commander-in-Chief, General Italo Gariboldi, tried repeatedly to halt Rommel's advance, but was unable to contact him.
After Benghazi had been secured following the British withdrawal, Cyrenaica as far as Gazala was captured by 8 April, despite fervent protests from Italian HQ, which felt Rommel was going beyond his orders, especially since he was nominally under Italian command. Rommel had received orders from the German High Command that he was not to advance past Maradah, but he turned a blind eye to this as well as protests from some of his staff and divisional commanders, grasping what he perceived to be a great possibility of largely destroying the Allied presence in North Africa and capturing Egypt. Rommel decided to keep up the pressure on the retreating British, and launched an outflanking offensive on the important port of Tobruk, during which he managed to capture the Western Desert Force commander O'Connor as well as the commander of the troops in Egypt, General Philip Neame, on 9 April. With Italian forces attacking along the coast, Rommel decided to sweep around to the south and attack the harbour from the south-east with the 5th Light Division, hoping to trap the bulk of the enemy force there. This outflanking could not be carried out as rapidly as was necessary due to logistical problems from lengthening supply lines and spoiling flank attacks from Tobruk, so Rommel's plan failed. By 11 April, the envelopment of Tobruk was complete, and the first attack was launched. Other forces continued pushing east, reaching Bardia and securing the whole of Libya by 15 April.
Rommel remained wishfully positive that success was imminent. In his memoirs he would claim that he immediately realised that the enemy was determined to cling to Tobruk, however this seems to be in doubt. In a letter to his wife dated 16 April, he wrote that the enemy was already abandoning the town by sea, and he remained confident that the enemy were not going to defend the town until well into April. In reality the ships arriving at the port were not evacuating the defenders but unloading supplies and even some reinforcements. A letter of his, written on 21 April, suggests that he was beginning to realise this, while the arrival of the Italian blueprints of fortifications provided further grounds for discouragement. Nonetheless Rommel continued to insist that success was imminent. His relations with his subordinate commanders were at their nadir at this point, especially with Streich who was openly critical of Rommel's decisions and refused to assume any responsibility for the attacks, and Rommel began holding a series of courts-martial, though ultimately he signed almost none of the verdicts. This state of affairs led Army Chief Walther von Brauchitsch to write to him that instead of making threats and requesting the replacement of officers who "hitherto had excelled in battle... a calm and constructive debate might bring better results". Rommel remained unmoved.
At this point Rommel requested reinforcements for a renewed attack but the High Command, then completing preparations for Operation Barbarossa, could not spare any. Chief of Staff General Franz Halder had also told Rommel, before the latter left for Africa, that a larger force could not be logistically sustained, only to be told "that's your pigeon". Now Halder sarcastically commented: "now at last he is constrained to state that his forces are not sufficiently strong to allow him to take full advantage of the 'unique opportunities' offered by the overall situation. That is the impression we have had for quite some time over here. Angry that his order not to advance beyond Maradah had been disobeyed, and alarmed at mounting losses, Halder, never an admirer of Rommel, dispatched Friedrich Paulus to "head off this soldier gone stark mad" in Halder's words.
Upon arrival, Paulus on 27 April was initially convinced to authorise yet another attack on Tobruk. Back in Berlin, Halder wrote "in my view it is a mistake", but deferred to Paulus. When the attack, launched on 4 May, seemed to turn into a disaster Paulus intervened and ordered it halted. In addition he now forbade Rommel from committing the forces into any new attack on Tobruk, and further ordered that the attacks were to halt until the regrouping was completed and even then no new assault was to take place without OKH's specific approval.
Furious with what he perceived as the lack of fighting spirit in his commanders and Italian allies, Rommel, on the insistence of Paulus and Halder, held off further attacks until the detailed plans of the Tobruk defences could be obtained, the 15th Panzer Division could be brought up to support the attack, and more training of his troops in positional warfare could be conducted, after the last attack launched on 4 May. For Streich however it was too late. He was transferred from command of 15th Panzer Division. When he met Rommel for the last time as he was taking his leave, Rommel told him that he had been "too concerned for the well-being of your troops"; Streich shot back: "I can recognise no greater words of praise", and a new quarrel ensued. After the decision was made to hold off attacks on Tobruk for an indefinite period, Rommel set about creating defensive positions, with Italian infantry forces holding Bardia, the Sollum-Sidi Omar line and investing Tobruk, and mobile German and Italian forces held in reserve to fight any British attacks from Egypt. To this end, Halfaya Pass was secured, the high water mark of Rommel's offensive. An elaborately prepared great assault was scheduled for 21 November 1941, but this attack never took place.
Whereas the defenders could be supplied by sea, the logistical problems of the Afrika Korps greatly hampered its operations, and a concentrated counter-attack by the besieged Allies might have succeeded in reaching El Adam and severing the Axis forces' communications. General Morshead, however, was misled by intelligence overestimates of the German forces investing Tobruk, thus no major action was attempted.
General Wavell made two unsuccessful attempts to relieve Tobruk (Operation Brevity (launched on 15 May) and Operation Battleaxe) (launched on 15 June). Both operations were easily defeated as they were hastily prepared, partly due to Churchill's impatience for speedy action. During Brevity the important Halfaya Pass was briefly recaptured by the British, but lost again on 27 May. Battleaxe resulted in the loss of 87 British for 25 German tanks, in a four day battle raging on the flanks of the Sollum and Halfaya Passes, with the British being unable to take these, by now, well fortified positions.
In August, Rommel was appointed commander of the newly created Panzer Group Africa. His previous command, the Afrika Korps comprising the 15th Panzer Division and the 5th Light Division, which by then had been redesignated 21st Panzer Division, was put under command of Generalleutnant Ludwig Crüwell, with Fritz Bayerlein as chief of staff. In addition to the Afrika Korps, Rommel's Panzer Group had the 90th Light Division and six Italian divisions, the Ariete and Trieste Divisions forming the XX Motorized Corps, three infantry divisions investing Tobruk, and one holding Bardia.
The Eighth Army deeply outflanked the German defences along the Egyptian frontier with a left hook through the desert, and reached a position from which they could strike at both Tobruk and the coastal road, the "Via Balbia". Auchinleck planned to engage the Afrika Korps with his armored division, while XXX Corps assaulted the Italian positions at Bardia, encircling the troops there. The British operational plan had one major flaw. When XXX corps reached the area of Qabr Salih, it was assumed that the Afrika Korps would move eastward and accept battle, allowing the British to surround them with the southerly armour thrust. Rommel, however, did not find it necessary to do as the British planned, instead attacking the southern armored thrust at Sidi Rezegh.
Rommel was faced with the decision of whether to go through with the attack on Tobruk, trusting his screening forces to hold off the advancing British, or to reorient his forces to hit the British columns approaching. He considered the risks too great if he chose to attack Tobruk, and so called off this attack.
The British armored thrusts were largely defeated by fierce resistance from antitank positions and German and Italian tanks. The Italian Ariete Armoured Division was forced to give ground while inflicting losses on the advancing British at Bir el Gobi, whereas the 21st Panzer Division checked the attack launched against them and counterattacked on Gabr Saleh. Over the next two days the British continued pressing the attack, sending their armored brigades into the battle in a piecemeal fashion, while Rommel, aware of his numerical inferiority, launched a concentrated attack on 23 November with all his armour. 21st Panzer Division held defensively at Sidi Rezegh, while 15th Panzer Division and the Italian Ariete Division attacked the flanks and enveloped the British armour. During this battle, among the biggest armored battles of the North African campaign, the British tanks were surrounded, with about two-thirds destroyed and the survivors having to fight themselves out of the trap and head south to Gabr Saleh.
General Cunningham did, as Rommel had hoped, decide to withdraw the Eighth Army to Egypt, but Auchinleck arrived from Cairo just in time to cancel the withdrawal orders. The German attack, which began with only 100 operational tanks remaining, stalled as it outran its supplies and met stiffening resistance. The counterattack was criticised by the German High Command and some of his staff officers as too dangerous with Commonwealth forces still operating along the coast east of Tobruk, and a wasteful attack as it bled his forces, in particular his remaining tank force. Among the Staff officers who were critical was Friedrich von Mellenthin, who said that "Unfortunately, Rommel overestimated his success and believed the moment had come to launch a general pursuit.". In Rommel's favour, the attack very nearly succeeded, with the British Eighth Army commander ordering a withdrawal, and only Auchinleck's timely intervention prevented this.
While Rommel drove into Egypt, the remaining Commonwealth forces east of Tobruk threatened the weak Axis lines there. Unable to reach Rommel for several days, Rommel's Chief of Staff, Oberstleutnant Westphal, ordered the 21st Panzer Division withdrawn to support the siege of Tobruk. On 27 November the British attack on Tobruk linked up with the defenders, and Rommel, having suffered losses that could not easily be replaced, had to concentrate on relieving the 90th Light Divisions that had attacked into Egypt. By 6 December the Afrika Korps had averted the danger, and on 7 December Rommel fell back to a defensive line at Gazala, all the while under heavy attacks from the RAF. The Italian forces at Bardia were now cut off from the retreating Axis. The Allies, briefly held up at Gazala, kept up the pressure to some degree, although they were almost as exhausted and disorganised as Rommel's force, and Rommel was forced to retreat all the way back to the starting positions he had held in March, reaching El Agheila on 30 December. His main concern during his withdrawal was being flanked to the south, so the Afrika Korps held the south flank during the retreat. The Allies followed, but never attempted a southern flanking move to cut off the retreating troops as they had done in 1940. The German-Italian garrison at Bardia surrendered on 2 January 1942.
On 5 January 1942 the Afrika Korps received 55 tanks and new supplies, and Rommel started planning a counterattack. On 20 January the attack was launched, which mauled the Allied forces, costing them some 110 tanks and other heavy equipment. The Afrika Korps retook Benghazi on 29 January and the Allies pulled back to the Tobruk area and commenced building defensive positions at Gazala.
During the confusion caused by the Crusader operation, Rommel and his staff found themselves behind Allied lines several times. On one occasion, he visited a New Zealand Army field hospital that was still under Allied control. "[Rommel] inquired if anything was needed, promised the British [sic] medical supplies and drove off unhindered. Eventually, Rommel did supply the medical unit with some medical equipment.
Following General Kesselring's successes in creating local air superiority and suppressing the Malta defenders in April 1942, an increased flow of vital supplies reached the Afrika Korps, after it had been receiving about a third of its needed supplies for several months. With his forces thus strengthened, Rommel began planning a major push for the summer. Rommel felt the very strong British positions around Gazala could be outflanked, and he could then drive up behind them and destroy them. The British were planning a summer offensive on their own, and their dispositions were more suited for an attack rather than a defence.
The British had 900 tanks in the area, 200 of which were new Grant tanks, whereas Rommel's Panzer Army Africa commanded a mere 320 German, 50 of which were the obsolete Panzer II model, and 240 Italian tanks, which were no better than the Panzer IIs. Therefore Rommel had to rely predominantly on 88 mm guns to destroy the British heavy tanks, but even these were in short supply. In infantry and artillery Rommel found himself vastly outnumbered also, with many of his units under-strength following the campaigns of 1941. In contrast to the previous year, the Axis had more-or-less air parity.
On 26 May 1942 Rommel's army attacked in a classic outflanking Blitzkrieg operation in the Battle of Gazala. His Italian infantry assaulted the Gazala fortifications head on, with some armour attached to give the impressions that this was the main assault, while all his motorized and armored forces outflanked the positions to the south. On the following morning Rommel cut through the flank and attacked north, but throughout the day a running armour battle occurred, where both sides took heavy losses. The attempted encirclement of the Gazala position had failed, and the Germans had lost a third of their heavy tanks. Renewing the attack on the morning of 28 May, Rommel concentrated on encircling and destroying separate units of the British armour. Heavy British counterattacks forced Rommel to assume a defensive posture, and not pursue his original plan of a dash north for the coast. On 2 June 90th Light Division and the Trieste Division surrounded and reduced the strongpoint at Bir Hakeim, capturing it on 11 June. With the southern strongpoint of the British line thus secured, Rommel attacked north again, forcing the British back, relying on the minefields of the Gazala lines to protect his left flank. On 14 June the British began a headlong retreat eastwards, the so-called "Gazala Gallop", to avoid being completely cut off.
On 15 June Axis forces reached the coast, eliminating any escape for the Commonwealth forces still occupying the Gazala positions. With this task completed, Rommel set off in pursuit of the fleeing Allied formations, aiming to capture Tobruk while the enemy was confused and disorganised. Tobruk, isolated and alone, was now all that stood between the Afrika Korps and Egypt. The defenders were mostly disorganised units recovering from the Gazala battle. On 21 June, after a swift, coordinated and fierce combined arms assault, the city surrendered along with its 33,000 defenders, including most of the South African 2nd Division. Only at the fall of Singapore, earlier that year, had more British Commonwealth troops been captured. Hitler made Rommel a Field Marshal for this victory. (Rommel later told his confidante, Hans von Luck, that he would have preferred the Führer gave him another division.)
Determined to ensure his supply lines, Rommel determined to press the attack on Mersa Matruh, despite the heavy losses he had suffered at Gazala and Tobruk. He also wanted to prevent the British from establishing a new frontline, and felt the weakness of the reeling British formations had to be exploited by a thrust into Egypt. This decision met with some criticism, as an advance into Egypt meant a significant lenghthening of the supply lines. It also meant that a proposed attack on Malta would have to wait, as the Luftwaffe would be required to support Rommel's drive eastwards. Kesselring strongly disagreed with Rommel's decision, and went as far as threatening to withdraw his aircraft to Sicily. Hitler agreed to Rommel's plan, despite protest from Italian HQ and some of his staff officers, seeing the potential for a complete victory in Africa. Rommel, apparently aware of his growing reputation as a gambler, defended his decision by claiming that to merely hold the lines at Sollum would confer upon the British a distinct advantage, in that they could more easily outflank the positions at Sollum, and the overseas supply lines would still have to be routed via Tripoli unless he secured a front further east.
On 22 June Rommel continued his offensive eastwards, and initially little resistance was encountered. Apart from fuel shortages, the advance continued, until Mersa Matruh was encircled on 26 june, surrounding four infantry divisions, the bulk of the Eighth Army. One of the divisions managed to break out during the night, and over the next two days some elements of the remaining three divisions also slipped away. The fortress fell on 29 June, yielding enormous amounts of supplies and equipment, in addition to 6,000 POWs.
Rommel continued his march eastwards, but with the supply situation steadily worsening and his men exhausted after five weeks of constant warfare, the offensive on El Alamein seemed in doubt. On 1 July the First Battle of El Alamein started, but after almost a month of inconclusive fighting both sides, completely exhausted, dug in, halting Rommel's drive eastwards. This was a serious blow to Rommel, who had hoped to drive his advance into the open desert beyond El Alamein where he could conduct a mobile defence. Although the Eighth Army suffered higher casualties in the fighting around El Alamein, some 13,000, Rommel lost 7,000 men, 1,000 of which were Germans, and he could afford the losses to a much lesser degree.
The British, preparing for a renewed drive, replaced C-in-C Auchinleck with General Harold Alexander. The Eighth Army also got a new commander, Bernard Montgomery. They received a steady stream of supplies, and were able to reorganise their forces. In late August they received a large convoy, carrying over 100,000 tons of supplies, and Rommel, learning of this, felt that time was running out. Rommel decided to launch an attack, with the 15th and 21st Panzer Division, 90th Light Division and the Italian XX Motorized Corps in a drive through the southern flank of the El Alamein lines. The terrain here was without any easily defensible features and so open to attack. Montgomery, having realised this threat, had set up his main defences behind the El Alamein line, along the Alam El Halfa Ridge, where he could meet any outflanking thrust.
Montgomery had prepared to pursue the Germans but in the afternoon of 2 September, he gave Horrocks clear orders to allow the enemy to retire. This was for two reasons: to preserve his own strength and to allow the enemy to observe, and be mislead by, the dummy preparations for an attack in the area. Despite this, and seeing that the enemy withdrew, the 2nd New Zealand Division and 7th Armoured Division attacked on 3 September, but the attack was stalled by a fierce rearguard action by the 90th Light Division and their own inexperience, and Montgomery called off further pursuits. On 5 September Rommel was back where he had started, with only heavy losses to show for it. Rommel had 2,940 casualties, lost 50 tanks, a similar number of guns and perhaps worst of all 400 trucks, vital for supplies and movement. The British losses, except tank losses of 68, were much less, further adding to the numerical inferiority of Panzer Army Afrika. The Desert Air Force inflicted the highest proportions of damage to Rommel's forces. He now realized the war in Africa was unwinnable without more air support, which was impossible with the Luftwaffe already stretched to breaking point on other fronts.
In September British raiding parties attacked important harbors and supply points. The flow of supplies successfully ferried across the Mediterranean had fallen to a dismal level. Some two-thirds of the supplies embarked for Africa were destroyed at sea. In addition, Rommel's health was failing. He took sick leave in Italy and Germany from late September. Thus he was not present when the Second Battle of El Alamein began on 23 October 1942. Although he returned immediately, it took him two vital days to reach his HQ in Africa. The defensive plan at El Alamein was more static in nature than Rommel preferred, but with shortages of motorized units and fuel, he had felt it was the only possible plan. The defensive line had strong fortifications and was protected with a large minefield, which in turn was covered with machine guns and artillery. This, Rommel hoped, would allow his infantry to hold the line at any point until motorized and armored units in reserve could move up and counterattack any British breaches.
General Georg Stumme was in command in Rommel's absence. During the initial fighting, he died of a heart attack. This paralyzed the German HQ until General Ritter von Thoma took command. After returning, Rommel learned that the fuel supply situation, critical when he left in September, was now disastrous. Counterattacks by the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions on 24 October and 25 October had caused heavy tank losses, due to the intensity of the British artillery and air attack. Rommel's main concern was to counterattack in full force and throw the British out of the defensive lines, in his view the only chance the Germans had of avoiding defeat. The counterattack was launched early on 26 October, but the British units that had penetrated the defensive line held fast on Kidney Ridge. The British continued pushing hard with armored units to force the breakthrough, but the defenders' fire destroyed many tanks, leading to doubts among the officers in the British armored brigades about the chances of clearing a breach.
Montgomery, seeing his armored brigades losing tanks at an alarming rate, stopped major attacks until 1 November, when he achieved a 4 km penetration of the line. Rommel immediately counterattacked with what tanks he had available in an attempt to encircle the pocket during 2 November, but the heavy British fire stopped the attempt. By this time Panzer Army Africa had only one-third of its initial strength remaining, with only 35 tanks left operational, virtually no fuel or ammunition and with the British in complete command of the air, yet the British had been fought to a standstill, having taken murderous losses with some armored brigades reporting losses of 75%.
On 4 November Montgomery renewed the attack with fresh forces, and with almost 500 tanks against the 20 or so remaining to Rommel. By midday the Italian XX Motorized Corps was surrounded, and several hours later was completely destroyed. This left a 20 km gap in Rommel's line, with British armored and motorized units pouring through, threatening the entire Panzer Army Africa with encirclement. At this point Rommel could no longer uphold the no retreat order, and ordered a general retreat. Early on 5 November he received authorization by Hitler to withdraw, 12 hours after his decision to do so—but it was far too late, with only remnants of his army streaming westwards. Most of his unmotorized forces (the bulk of his army) were caught.
Part of the PAA escaped from El Alamein, but this remnant took heavy losses from constant air attacks. Despite urgings from Hitler and Mussolini, the PAA did not turn to fight, except for brief holding actions, but withdrew under British pressure all the way to Tunisia. The British forces had great numerical superiority and air supremacy, while most of Rommel's remaining divisions reduced to combat groups.
In Tunisia Rommel launched an offensive against the U.S. II Corps, rather than the British Eighth Army. This was in part due to his reluctance to try to hold the British east of Tunisia with his depleted forces, and because this was a way of redeploying some forces west. Rommel inflicted a sharp defeat on the American forces at the Kasserine Pass in February.
Rommel immediately turned back against the British forces, occupying the the Mareth Line (old French defences on the Libyan border). But Rommel could only delay the inevitable. At the end of January 1943, the Italian General Giovanni Messe was appointed the new commander of Rommel's Panzer Army Africa, which was now renamed the 1st Italo-German Panzer Army] (in recognition of the fact that it consisted of one German and three Italian corps). Though Messe replaced Rommel, he diplomatically deferred to him, and the two coexisted in what was theoretically the same command until 9 March, when Rommel finally departed Africa. Rommel's departure was kept secret on Hitler's explicit orders, so that the morale of the Axis troops could be maintained and respectful fear by their enemies retained.
The last Rommel offensive in North Africa was on 6 March 1943, when he attacked Eighth Army at the Battle of Medenine. The attack was made with 10th, 15th, and 21st Panzer Divisions. Warned by ULTRA intercepts, Montgomery deployed large numbers of anti-tank guns in the path of the offensive. After losing 52 tanks, Rommel called off the assault. On 9 March he handed over command of Armeegruppe Afrika to General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim and left Africa, because of health reasons, never to return. On 13 May 1943, General Messe surrendered the remnants of Armeegruppe Afrika to the Allies.
Some historians contrast Rommel's withdrawal to Tunisia against Hitler's wishes with Friedrich Paulus's obedience of orders to have the German Sixth Army stand its ground at the Battle of Stalingrad, which resulted in its annihilation. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, appointed overall Axis commander in North Africa, saw things differently. He believed the withdrawals, some of which were carried out against his orders, unnecessary and ruinous since they brought forward British airfields ever closer to the port of Tunis. As far as he was concerned, Rommel was an insubordinate defeatist and string-puller. The increasingly acrimonious relations between the two did nothing to enhance performance.
In addition, the Afrika Korps had a Radio Intercept Section (RIS) attached to its HQ. The RIS monitored radio communications among British units. The British were very "gabby", and most of this chatter was in clear, allowing the Germans to identify British units and deployments. During the first Battle of El Alamein, a British counter-attack reached the HQ. The RIS was wiped out in the fighting, with much of their files captured. This alerted the British to the problem, and they tightened up on radio chatter. The loss of this source is also considered an important factor in Rommel's later lack of success.
Allied codebreakers read much enciphered German message traffic, especially that encrypted with the Enigma machine. This ULTRA intelligence included daily reports from Africa on the numbers and condition of Axis forces. It also included information about Axis supply shipments across the Mediterranean. This information enabled the weak Allied air and naval forces there to intercept and destroy much of these shipments.
After Hitler gave General Albert Kesselring sole Italian command, on 21 November, Rommel moved Army Group B to Normandy, France, with responsibility for defending the French coast against the long anticipated Allied invasion. He was dismayed by the lack of completed works and the slow building pace, and feared he had just months before an invasion. Rommel reinvigorated the fortification effort along the Atlantic coast. The Commander-in-Chief West, Gerd von Rundstedt, expected the Allies to invade in the Pas-de-Calais, because it was the shortest crossing from Britain and the nearest point to Germany. Hitler's HQ, although agreeing with this assessment, also considered a landing at Normandy as a possibility. Rommel, believing that Normandy was indeed a likely landing ground, argued that it did not matter to the Allies where they landed, just that the landing was successful. He therefore toured the Normandy defenses extensively in January and February 1944. He ordered millions of mines laid, and thousands of tank traps and obstacles set up on beaches and throughout the countryside, including in fields suitable for glider aircraft landings, the so-called Rommelspargel ("Rommel's asparagus").
After his battles in North Africa, Rommel concluded that any offensive movement would be nearly impossible due to overwhelming Allied air superiority. He argued that the tank forces should be dispersed in small units and kept in heavily fortified positions as close to the front as possible, so they would not have to move far and en masse when the invasion started. He wanted the invasion stopped right on the beaches. However von Rundstedt felt that there was no way to stop the invasion near the beaches due to the equally overwhelming firepower of the Allied navies. He felt the tanks should be formed into large units well inland near Paris, where they could allow the allies to extend into France and then cut off the Allied troops. Other renowned Panzer commanders such as Heinz Guderian agreed with von Rundstedt. Panzer Group West commander Geyr von Schweppenburg strongly disagreed with Rommel, wanting the armor placed far inland. When asked to pick a plan, Hitler vacillated. In late April, he ordered them placed them in the middle, far enough inland to be useless to Rommel, not far enough for von Rundstedt. Rommel did move some of the armored formations under his command as far forward as possible, ordering General Erich Marcks, commanding the 84th Corps defending the Normandy section, to move his reserves into the frontline.
The Allies staged elaborate deceptions for D-Day (see Operation Fortitude), giving the impression that the landings would be at Calais. Although Hitler himself expected a Normandy invasion for a while, Rommel and most Wehrmacht commanders in France also started believing in a Pas-de-Calais landing. Rommel concentrated fortification building in the River Somme estuary, and let the work in Normandy lag. By D-Day on 6 June, 1944, virtually all German officers, including Hitler's staff, firmly believed that Pas-de-Calais was going to be the invasion site.
During the confusing opening hours of D-Day, the German command structure in France was in disarray. Rommel, along with several other important officers, was on leave. Several tank units, notably the 12th SS Panzer Division and Panzer Lehr, were close enough to the beaches to create serious havoc. The absence of Rommel, and continued confusion in the army and theater HQs, led to hesitation in releasing the panzer reserves to Normandy when they might be needed to meet a second invasion further north. Facing only small-scale German attacks, the Allies quickly secured a beachhead. Rommel personally oversaw the bitter fighting around Caen, where only the determined defence of Kampfgruppe von Luck prevented a British breakout on the first day. Here, again, the on-site commanders were denied freedom of action, and the Germans did not launch a concentrated counterattack until mid-day on 6 June.
The Allies pushed ashore and expanded their beachhead, despite the best efforts of Rommel's troops. By mid-July the German position was crumbling, On 17 July 1944, Rommel's staff car was strafed by a RCAF Spitfire piloted by Charley Fox; he was hospitalized with major head injuries.
There had always been opposition to Hitler in conservative circles and in the Army, the Schwarze Kappelle, but Hitler's dazzling successes in 1938-1941 stifled it. But after the Russian campaign failed, and the Axis suffered more and more defeats, it revived. Rommel was not part of this movement. He was never contacted by any of the ringleaders. He was known to have become very critical of the Nazi regime, and to be disillusioned with Hitler. At the same time his record in Africa made him very popular and respected with the German people. Dr. Carl Goerdeler, the civilian head of the Resistance, included Rommel on a list of figures to be brought into a post-Hitler government, as a possible future President of Germany.
After the failed bomb attack of July 20, many conspirators were arrested, and the dragnet expanded to anyone even suspected of participating. Rommel was identified, in Goerdeler's list and other documents as a potential supporter and an acceptable military leader to be placed in a position of responsibility should their coup succeed.
Still, no evidence directly linked Rommel to the plot. However, Nazi party officials in France reported while hospitalized, Rommel extensively and scornfully criticized Nazi incompetence and crimes. Bormann was certain of Rommel's involvement, Goebbels was not. Unfortunately for Rommel, the 'Court of Military Honour' that was to decide whether or not to hand him over to Roland Freisler's People's Court included two men with whom Rommel had crossed swords before, Guderian and von Rundstedt. The Court decided that Rommel should be handed over to the People's Court.
The true extent of Rommel's knowledge of or involvement with the plot is still unclear. After the war, however, his wife maintained that Rommel had been against the plot. It has been stated that Rommel wanted to avoid giving future generations of Germans the perception that the war was lost because of backstabbing, the infamous Dolchstoßlegende, as was commonly believed by some Germans of World War I. Not telling his superiors of the plot, however, would have amounted to complicity in the eyes of the Nazi hierarchy, which in turn would have been enough to bring about his execution.
Because of Rommel's popularity with the German people, and possibly because he had been one of Hitler's favourites and one of Germany's most successful battlefield commanders, he was approached at his home by Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel on October 14, 1944. Burgdorf offered him a choice from Fieldmarshall Keitel—he could face the People's Court and potential persecution of his family, and the arrest of his staff, or choose to commit suicide quietly, and in the latter case the government would assure his family pension payments and a state funeral claiming he had died a hero. Burgdorf had brought a vial of poison for the occasion. After a few minutes' thought alone, Rommel announced that he chose to end his own life and explained his decision to his wife and son. Returning to Burgdorf's Opel while carrying his field marshal's baton, driven by SS Master Sergeant Heinrich Doose, Rommel was driven out of the village. Doose walked away from the car, leaving Rommel with Maisel. Five minutes later, Burgdorf gestured to the two men to return to the car, and Doose noticed that Rommel was slumped over. Doose, while sobbing, replaced Rommel's fallen cap atop his head. Ten minutes later the group phoned Rommel's wife to inform her that General Rommel was dead.
However, there also exists an alternate theory about the German Commander's death: that Rommel was given a choice to face the People's Court or to be shot by the German police. Rommel chose the latter because, he explained to his wife and son, it would be better to die immediately with honour rather than die after facing national humiliation at the People's Court. He was then taken to a secret place in or around Berlin where he was shot by two Gestapo officials. He was then hailed as a national hero who died as a result of sustaining injuries.
After the war, an edited version of his diary was published as The Rommel Papers. He is the only member of the Third Reich establishment to have a museum dedicated to him. His grave can be found in Herrlingen, a short distance west of Ulm.
The official story of Rommel's death, as initially reported to the general public, stated that Rommel had either suffered a heart attack, or succumbed to his injuries from the earlier strafing of his staff car. To further strengthen the story, Hitler ordered an official day of mourning in commemoration, and Rommel was buried with full military honours. Hitler himself cynically took a leading role in the highly publicized funeral.
F. W. von Mellenthin, who served on Rommel's staff during the Africa campaign, wrote Rommel took great chances on several occasions, gambling entire battles on decisions made almost on the spur of the moment and with incomplete information. He cited Rommel's counterattack during Operation Crusader as just one such instance. Others who served under him in Africa, most notably General Fritz Bayerlein, said he took risks, but only after carefully weighing the potential dangers and rewards. Rommel himself was aware of his growing reputation as a gambler, and added careful notes in his papers explaining and defending his actions, especially concerning his decision to drive into Egypt during the 1942 Summer Offensive.
His leadership style was also admired and criticised. Aggressive subordinates, like Hans von Luck, praised his leadership from the front. Others, like Mellenthin, questioned this leadership style, as it often led to his staff officers becoming involved in the fighting, instead of maintaining an overview of the situation. His sometimes long absences from HQ also meant that subordinates had to make decisions without consulting Rommel, leading to confusion.
In France, Rommel's aggressive drive through the French and British lines, disregarding the safety of his flanks and rear, succeeded to a remarkable degree. His aggressive attacks often caused larger enemy formations to surrender. His aggressiveness did cause resentment among fellow officers, however, who felt he at times acted too recklessly and failed to keep his sub-commanders and colleague commanders properly informed of his intentions. He was also criticized for claiming too much of the glory himself, neglecting support from other elements of the Wehrmacht, and downplaying other units' achievements.
Rommel won many battles in Africa in 1941 and 1942, against British forces that always outnumbered him and had better supply lines, through aggressive attacks. On several occasions he violated direct orders not to attack. But his eagerness to drive for Egypt, when the necessary logistical support was lacking, meant that these drives failed with great losses. Rommel perceived "unique opportunities" in capturing Egypt and perhaps the Middle East. This a result would definitely have had a huge impact on the course of the war. But his grand vision was never supported by Hitler nor the General Staff in Berlin to the extent that Rommel desired. Nevertheless, he received all the troops that the African theater could support, despite the pressing need for them on the Eastern Front. His forces also got more support and equipment than other formations of similar size and importance, such as an unusually large number of motor vehicles.
Rommel himself only belatedly acknowledged that his continual supply problems were not the result of intransigence or slacking by the Italians, who handled the transshipment of his supplies, but were a result of his aggressive actions in overextending his lines of communication. In his analysis of the logistical aspects of the North African Campaign, military historian Martin van Creveld wrote:
Given that the Wehrmacht was only partly motorized and unsupported by a really strong motor industry; that the political situation necessitated the carrying of much useless Italian ballast; that the capacity of the Libyan ports was so small, the distances to be mastered so vast; it seems clear that, for all of Rommel's tactical brilliance, the problem of supplying an Axis force for an advance into the Middle East was insoluble. ... Rommel's repeated defiance of his orders and attempts to advance beyond a reasonable distance from his bases, however, was mistaken and should never have been tolerated.
British General Harold Alexander commanded Allied forces in the Middle East and facing Rommel in Egypt (from August 1942), and and later commanded 18th Army Group in Tunisia. In his official dispatch on the campaign in Africa, he wrote of Rommel :
Sir David Hunt, one of Alexander's intelligence officers, expressed the view in his own book that:
During the siege of Tobruk, Rommel launched frequent attacks during the first month of the siege, and these were costly. The level of losses incurred caused Rommel to have several arguments with his unit commanders, and also with the German High Command. Indeed some sources indicate that Chief of Staff Halder had to send Friedrich Paulus to Africa to rein Rommel in, although Rommel himself maintained he had realized the futility of further attacks on the fortress on his own accord.
The Afrika Korps was never accused of any war crimes, and Rommel himself referred to the fighting in North Africa as Krieg ohne Hass—war without hate. Numerous examples exist of Rommel's chivalry towards Allied POWs, such as his defiance of Hitler's infamous Commando Order following the capture of Lt. Roy Woodridge and Lt. George Lane as part of Operation Fortitude, as well as his refusal to comply with an order from Hitler to execute Jewish POWs. Fritz Bayerlein, Rommel's friend and chief of staff in North Africa, was part-Jewish. During Rommel's time in France, Hitler ordered him to deport the Jews in France; Rommel disobeyed the order. Several times, he wrote letters protesting the treatment of the Jews. When British Major Geoffrey Keyes was killed during a failed Commando raid to kill or capture Rommel behind German lines, Rommel ordered him buried with full military honours. Also, during the construction of the Atlantic Wall, Rommel directed that French workers were not to be used as slaves, but were to be paid for their labor.
His military colleagues also played their part in perpetuating his legend. His former subordinate Kircheim, though privately critical of Rommel's performance, nonetheless explained: "thanks to propaganda, first by Goebbels, then by Montgomery, and finally, after he was poisoned (sic), by all former enemy powers, he has become a symbol of the best military traditions. ...Any public criticism of this legendary personality would damage the esteem in which the German soldier is held" (in a letter to Johannes Streich, who also served under Rommel as the commander of the 5th Light Division in North Africa, and came to loathe Rommel).
After the war, when Rommel's alleged involvement in the plot to kill Hitler became known, his stature was enhanced greatly among the former Allied nations. Rommel was often cited in Western sources as a general who, though a loyal German, was willing to stand up to the evil that was Hitler. The release of the film The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951) helped enhance his reputation as one of the most widely known and well-regarded leaders in the German Army. In 1970 a Lütjens-class destroyer was named the FGS Rommel in his honour.
In Douglas Niles's and Michael Dobson's alternative history novel Fox on the Rhine (ISBN 0-8125-7466-4), Hitler is killed by the bomb plot of 20 July 1944. This leads to Rommel's survival, and a different quick offensive strike. This is repelled and the book ends with his surrender to the Americans and British, in the belief that the Germans would be better off with the Western powers than with the Soviets. Fox on the Rhine was followed by a sequel, Fox at the Front (ISBN 0-641-67696-4).
In Donna Barr's novel Bread and Swans, the historical Rommel shares his concerns and career with a fictitious younger brother, Pfirsich, also known as The Desert Peach. Both Rommels also appear as focal characters of Barr's long-running comic strip series about "The Peach".
Churchill again, on hearing of Rommel's death:
Theodor Werner was an officer who, during World War I, served under Rommel:
British General Claude Auchinleck, one of Rommel's opponents in Africa, in a letter to his field commanders: