Soldier, Field Marshal, possible failed assassin of Adolf Hitlerby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Loyal soldier for Germany in World War I, field marshal of the Third Reich in World War II, Defender of the Normandy coast on D-Day… and yet, after all his work for Germany, Erwin Rommel was forced to commit suicide after a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Erwin Rommel was born on November 15 in Heidenheim, Germany. His father was a protestant teacher at a secondary school in Heidenheim, and his mother was the daughter of an important local official. The second of four children, Rommel and his siblings received a good upbringing, with strict discipline enforced by their father. Rommel did not excel academically, although in his later years in school he came to enjoy mathematics. Rommel was always considered a practical young man, but one thing that engaged his imagination was the invention of the airplane and possibilities surrounding flight. Before he left school, Rommel built a glider with the help of his friend that actually flew, and even considered working at the Zeppelin works at Friederichshafen. His father, however, advised him to enter the Army, and in 1910, Rommel was accepted into the 124th Württemberg Infantry Regiment.
Rommel served as a cadet until 1911, when he entered Officer Cadet School in Danzig in March. By January of 1912, Cadet Rommel had been commissioned as Lieutenant Rommel, and during his time in Danzig he met his future wife, Lucie Mollin, who he would marry in 1916. Rommel’s final school assessment was brief and stated that he had showed competence in all subjects. About two years after Rommel’s commission as Lieutenant, Germany entered World War I by declaring war on Russia, and, eventually, France and Britain. Rommel’s first action was at Longwy in Eastern France. Rommel insisted that in order to properly command his troops, he had to be on the front lines, to see how properly to disperse and order his men. This initiative proved his courage to his commanding officers, and after he successfully held his position and repulsed several French attacks, he proved his command competence. This recognition earned him an appointment to Battalion Adjutant. Rommel’s military career continued brilliantly, and by the end of the war, he had been awarded the Iron Cross - First and Second Class, and he was the youngest recipient of the Pour le Mérite, the highest medal awarded by Prussia.
In post-war Germany, the army was not to be over 100,000 men, and the new commander, Hans von Seeckt, wanted only the best men possible in his army. In 1924, Rommel, showing his talent during the recent war, found himself an almost certainty for the new army, and was accepted at his new rank of captain. In 1929, Rommel was sent to Dresden to teach in a military training school until 1933, and from 1935 to 1938 he taught at the Potsdam War Academy. During his time as a teacher, Rommel published his war diaries as “Infantry Attacks,” which became a major textbook in Germany military schools. However, one of the biggest changes in Rommel’s life was when he met Adolph Hitler. Caught up in the same nationalist fervor as the rest of Germany, Rommel was impressed, and Hitler was impressed by Rommel’s war record and military brilliance; this was the reason behind Rommel’s promotion to Major-General and being appointed the commander of Hitler’s bodyguard division.
With the start of World War II, Rommel was responsible for the safety of Hitler during the invasion of Poland, which fell in just over three weeks due to Germany’s astounding use of the “Lightning War” (Blitzkrieg) strategy. With Poland conquered, Rommel asked to be assigned to one of the new panzer (tank) divisions that had become part of the German Army. In 1940 he was granted command of the 7th Panzer division, which was to take part in Fall Gelb, the beginning of Germany’s invasion of the west. The 7th Panzer consisted of “a Panzer regiment (25th regiment) of three tank battalions—a total of 218 tanks—and an armored reconnaissance battalion (refers to a band of armored cars): two rifle regiments, each of three battalions; a motorcycle battalion and an engineer battalion; and a divisional artillery with one field regiment (nine batteries, 36 guns) and an anti-tank battalion of seventy-five anti-tank guns.”1 With this force under his command, Rommel and the rest of the German Army again began a blitzkrieg, this time against the Low Countries, meaning the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. The reason for attacking here instead of moving directly into France was the Maginot Line, a huge wall of defensive bunkers and artillery stretched across the most likely German invasion path: the border between Germany and France. However, by blitzing through the low lands, Germany troops (including Rommel) were able to go around the Maginot line without having to go against the defensive structures at all. This type of strategic thinking and incredibly fast battle plan led the German army all the way to the French coast. In 1941, Rommel was sent to Africa to lead the Deutsches Afrika Corp.
The Afrika Corp consisted of the fifth light division and the fifteenth Panzer division. When the Corp arrived in Africa, Rommel set about retraining Italian units and organizing his forces. On his first offensive he pushed allied forces out of Libya, but stalled in Egypt, when he paused to take the port of Tobruke. His troops were driven back from Tobruke by allied reinforcements, but Rommel attacked again immediately, taking Tobruke. From here, he pushed through Egypt, but his luck changed. The offensive once again stalled, this time 60 miles from Cairo. From here on, the allies pushed Rommel back, all the way to Tunisia, before he left Africa because of illness. One of the main reasons for Rommel’s defeat was that his supply lines stretched across the desert, while the allies, driven back so far, had their supplies right with them. The situation continued to deteriorate after Rommel left; assuring that soon the Afrika Corp would be destroyed.
Rommel returned to Germany and spent several weeks waiting for his health to improve. Afterwards, Rommel was without an assignment, and was stigmatized because of the failure of the Afrika Corp. However, with the war turning against Germany, Hitler called on one of his favorite commanders, and ordered Rommel to oversee the costal defenses against an anticipated allied amphibious assault. Rommel oversaw the construction of bunkers along most of the European coast facing Britain, along with the placement of obstacles meant to confound tanks and landing craft. Rommel also wanted the tank battalions to be placed close to the beaches, were they could counterattack immediately and drive the Allied invasion back into the sea. Rommel knew that allied air superiority would make it extremely difficult to move tank columns from far inland. His commanding officer, Gerd von Rundstedt, feared the allied navy more than the air force, and insisted the tanks be kept out of naval bombardment range. Hitler, insinuating himself into military planning, decided to place the Tanks in the middle, too far from the beaches for Rommel, yet still too close for Rundstedt’s liking. Despite German efforts, one of the largest military operations to date, D-Day, succeeded, granting the allies a firm entry point into Europe on June 6th 1942. Of note is the fact that several German tank divisions were closer to the beaches than they should have been, and wreaked complete havoc on the invading troops. Had Rommel’s plan been followed completely, the initial allied landings may have been denied early progress, perhaps allowing German units to drive them back.
After Normandy, with Germany falling back in the face of the allied advance, Rommel was seriously wounded and hospitalized when his staff car was strafed by an allied plane on July 17th in 1944. While Rommel was in the hospital, on July 20th, an attempt to assassinate Hitler with a bomb failed. A briefcase packed with explosives was placed by him during a planning meeting. However, the table was very large, and the bomb was placed beside one of the legs, which absorbed most of the blast. Even though it was soon revealed that Hitler was still alive, the conspirators continued their plan to seize power. However, with the aid of the SS (the Nazi’s secret police) Hitler was back in power within two days, and ordered the SS to investigate absolutely anyone who might have been involved. Through their “methods” the SS connected Rommel, along with several others (including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most important Christian theologians of the 20th century) to the attempt on Hitler’s life. In the months before this, Rommel had become concerned, along with others in the government, about where Hitler would lead Germany next. Even to this day, his stance on and involvement in the assassination attempt remain in doubt; although his wife stated after the war that he had favored a coup, removing Hitler from power alive, so he could be publicly tried, and not become a martyr for the Nazi party and Germany.
Rommel was given a choice by Hitler: commit suicide with poison, or live with dishonor and retaliation against his family. Knowing his family would be safe, Rommel took cyanide poison. It was later announced at a hospital on October 14th, 1944 that Field Marshal Rommel had died of a heart attack. Hitler had him buried with full military honors, remembered as an excellent soldier, and a brilliant strategist and commander.
1. Biography of Erwin Rommel Jr.
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