He outwitted, bluffed, deceived, cheated the enemy. It was said that his greatest pleasure was to trick his opponents into premature and often quite needless surrender.
- David Irving in his book Rommel: The Trial of The Fox
These words express the very essence of the reason why Field Marshal General Erwin Rommel has gone down in the annals of history as the legendary Desert Fox, lionised as a cult figure by his countrymen and feared, yet highly respected, by his opponents in the battle for the control of the endless sands of the Northern Sahara.
Born in Heidenheim an der Brentz, north east of Ulm, Württemberg, on 15 November, 1891, the Fox was educated at Tübingen and joined the army in 1910 as an officer cadet of the 124th (6th Württemberg) Infantry Regiment.
His rise in his profession, allegedly chosen for him by his father, was nothing short of meteoric. In just three months, he made Gefreiter ('Corporal') and in six was an Unteroffizier ('Sergeant'). In 1912, he was commissioned at the War Academy, Danzig as a Leutnant ('Second Lieutenant') and rejoined his regiment at Weingarten in which he served as the regimental officer in charge of recruitment. An evident man of action who believed in leading his men from the front, he chose to remain as a front line officer rather than take on a career in the General Staff of the Prussian-German Army and remained so in the Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic and in Hitler's Wehrmacht (Germany's armed forces).
In 1914, Rommel's regiment went to fight for the Kaiser in the Great War. He was quite given to attacking the enemy at all odds and the new Oberleutnant ('Lieutenant') once charged three French soldiers alone with his bayonet after he ran out of ammunition for his rifle and ended up being shot in the leg. This singular act of bravery won for him the Iron Cross Second Class.
He returned to the battlefield in 1915 and managed to get an Iron Cross First Class by crawling through barbed wire, capturing four French bunkers and holding them against counter-attack. About this time he, prophetically, acquired a fox cub as a pet. He was wounded again later in the proceedings and was sent home to convalesce.
He returned later in the year to lead the new Württemberg Mountain Battalion as the company commander in the Carpathian Front to fight against the Romanians. Transferred to the north Italian front, he took a leading part in the ferocious battles among the towering mountains, raging torrents, driving rain and razor-sharp rock splinters, the high point of which was the successful attack on the Monte Mataiur peak that won him the much coveted Pour Le Mérite1. He went on to lead his Swabians (people from Swabia, Germany) to high glory in the storming of Longarone, the lynch pin of the Italian defence, with negligible losses to his own soldiers.
At the end of the war, he returned to his old regiment at Weingarten.
Between 1919 and 1933, he spent his time as commander of a internal security company in Friedrichshaften, as commander of an infantry regiment in Stuttgart and ended up in Dresden as an instructor where he was instrumental in creating a first-rate infantry that operated under one of his favourite maxims 'Shed sweat - not blood'. It was there that he wrote his seminal book on infantry tactics, Infanterie Greift An, which was rewritten by him and published in 1937.
In 1934, he was promoted to Oberstleutnant ('Lieutenant-Colonel') and made an instructor at the Potsdam Academy. In 1937, he made Oberst ('Major') and about this time came to the attention of Hitler when he competently executed his assignment of commanding Hitler's personal security forces at the Nuremberg rally. Later, he was also assigned the command of Hitler's mobile headquarters and bodyguard battalion during the Austrian, Sudetenland and Czech occupations. He was also assigned the Polish campaign and along the line became a Generalmajor ('Major General') but in all probability, this did not prove to be very satisfying for the enthusiastic man of action that was Rommel.
Rommel was promoted to Generalleutnant ('Lieutenant General')and given command of the 7th Panzer division for what Churchill called 'The Battle of France'. He rode at the very tip of his Panzer Division, ignoring what he considered minor risks, employing radical new tactics he developed for Panzers and concentrating on confusing and demoralising the enemy into panicky flight with minimum loss of life to both his and his enemies' men. His Panzers advanced so fast and in so much secrecy that no one, including the German High Command, knew exactly where they were at any given point of time - earning for them the title of the 'Spook Division' from friend and foe alike. It was in this battle that he discovered the efficacy of the mighty FleigerAbwehrKanone 88, or Flak 88, against modern main battle tank armour. By June 1940, the tracks of his PanzerKampfWagon IV were resting in the sand with the shallow waters of the English Channel lapping against the battle grey bulkheads on a beach near Dieppe. He ended his Blitzkrieg at Cherbourg a little later.
In 1941, Hitler decided to intervene in North Africa on behalf of the beleaguered Italians against the British 8th Army and sent in a small blocking force to the theatre, which was later reinforced by the 5th Leichte (Panzer) Division and the 90th Light Division under the command of General Erwin Rommel and named the Deutsches Afrika Korps.
Rommel took more to the British than he did to the Italians and he had a rather abrasive relationship with his allies, so much so that there were several requests and attempts from the Italian High Command to get him transferred away from Africa. All these requests came to naught as he achieved what he was sent to achieve in a spectacular fashion.
He employed against the British the blitzkrieg tactics he had perfected during his time with the Spook Division and found them as effective in the blazing sands of the Sahara as they had been in the Bocage and forests of northern France. In a series of battles at El Agheila, Mers Bregha, Tripolitania, Libya, Cyrenaica, Benghazi, Bardia and Salum, he smashed the British 8th Army to pieces and soon the deadly barrels of his PzKfW IiIs and PzKfW Ivs were eyeing the fencing of the western border of Egypt. His brilliant implementation of deceptive tactics against the enemy, which included dragging brushwood behind tanks and running aircraft engines mounted behind trucks while sending out small diversionary forces to confuse the enemy about the main invasion force, earned for him the title of the Desert Fox from his enemies and the equivalent Der Wüstenfuchs from his countrymen. He was also promoted to become the youngest GeneralFeldMarschall ('Field Marshal General') in the German Army.
Such was the terror wrought by his reputation among the personnel of the British 8th Army, they being the famed 'Desert Rats' and were certainly no cowards, that there was even an unsuccessful attempt by the British SAS to assassinate him.
The only bright spot for the British was that the Allied troops at the fortress of Tobruk withstood two major sieges by Rommel's all-conquering army and also inflicted terrible casualties on it. The Allies then strengthened and reorganised their armies, attacked and pushed the Afrika Korps back to El Agheila. Rommel counterattacked and chased the Desert Rats back to El Alamaein at which point he ran out of supplies and had to halt.
At this point, the British 8th Army came under the command of Field Marshall BL Montgomery, who turned the tide of the battle around by building up a tremendous superiority in men and material over the Afrika Korps and chasing the Fox back to Tripoli. Rommel pulled off a 700-mile retreat of an army through unforgiving terrain and in the face of terrible fighter-bomber attacks by the RAF with such a surprisingly minimal loss of men - even the Italians were highly impressed.
The situation became desperate for the Afrika Korps after American forces landed in north-west Africa. Rommel took over command of Army Group Africa and passed it on to General Von Arnim so he could fly back to Berlin to convince Hitler that the situation was hopeless. He was awarded the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves and Diamonds, but was also ordered to take sick leave and remain in Europe. The Afrika Korps surrendered to the allied armies soon after.
After a short stint as Commander-in-Chief of German forces in Greece awaiting an Allied invasion that never materialised, he spent an equally short stint in north Italy as Commander-in-Chief of German forces there.
In late 1943, he was transferred once again to France and put in command of Army Group B under Field Marshall Von Rundstedt where he was made the Inspector General responsible for the defence of the Atlantic Wall from Holland to Bordeaux of Festung Europa ('Fortress Europe'). With his trademark cunning, the Fox organised special barriers to prevent the use of landing craft on the beaches, the infiltration of paratroopers behind the primary defences and anti-aircraft and anti-glider impediments.
But on 6 June, 1944, when the Normandy invasion came, he was in Germany and so could not get back in time to influence the course of German defences against the Allied juggernaut that rolled over his defences and smashed into Europe. Though he rushed back to the front, he was seriously injured during a strafing attack by an RAF Spitfire flown by the South African ace Squadron Leader JJ LeRoux, while he was on an inspection tour in his car. This effectively ended his role as commander of the channel defences.
During his convalescence, his name got involved in the 'July 20 Plot' against Hitler's life though he had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Hitler decided that the Fox must die and gave him a choice of either taking poison or facing charges of high treason at the Volksgericht ('People's Court'). Rommel decided on the poison and took it on 18 October, 1944, at Herrlingen bei Ulm and was buried with full military honours.
Thus the dictator's paranoia ended the saga of the Fox and robbed him of one of his most respected and capable generals and one of the greatest knights of the 20th Century.
Bibliography - Books and Websites
- Encyclopaedia of the Third Reich, Louis L Snyder, Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1998.
- Rommel: The Trial of the Fox, David Irving, Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1999.
- Valour and Horror
- Encyclopaedia Britannica
- PigLet & Me
- Achtung Panzer