Arguably one of the three World War II generals most popular among historians and serious students interested in Axis commanders and leaders of D-Day, Erwin Rommel has become linked in the public mind with Britain’s Bernard Montgomery and America’s George Patton. However, none of Rommel’s contemporaries enjoyed from enemy troops the ungrudging respect and admiration that Rommel earned. In the Western Desert during 1941, British Tommies tended to call anything done well ‘‘a Rommel.’’
Rommel may have been the youngest infantry officer awarded the Pour le Mérite in World War I, receiving the honor in December 1917 following the Caporetto offensive. He was twenty-six, already an accomplished company commander who demonstrated consistent ability in open Field Marshal Erwin Rommel: Wikipedia. country and mountainous terrain.
Rommel’s leadership style was always forward and aggressive. As a company commander in World War I he frequently engaged enemy troops personally, with his rifle. Similarly, during Seventh Panzer’s dash through northern France in 1940, he was seen not only in the lead Mark IV tank but in the lead scout car manning the machine gun. He believed that a commander should place himself at the expected contact point, the better to judge any opportunities the enemy presented. Throughout his career, Rommel demonstrated an uncanny ability to do just that.
Despite his demonstrated success in the Great War, Rommel was not regarded as General Staff material. However, like his French counterpart Charles de Gaulle, he devoted considerable time and effort to exploring military theory, publishing his beliefs in such books as Infantry Attacks. He believed strongly in the offensive, advocating minimal use of force as a base of fire while employing maximum assets for maneuver. The philosophy applied equally to infantry and armor.
Rommel became a military topics instructor for the Nazi Party’s SA (Brownshirt) organization in 1933 and subsequently taught tactics in army academies. Though apolitical in the Prussian tradition, Rommel’s talent was recognized by Adolf Hitler, who selected him as commander of his headquarters. Tolerating staff duty only as long as he thought prudent, Rommel waited until after the 1939 Polish campaign to request a field assignment. He was rewarded with command of the Seventh Panzer Division, which he led with exceptional success in the ‘‘dash to the Channel’’ in May and June 1940.
Success fed success, and in 1941 Rommel was appointed commander of the Afrika Korps, with the mission of bolstering Italian forces in Libya. His orders from Hitler were to stabilize the situation against the British, mainly by defensive means, but Rommel was confident enough in himself to ignore the directive. Eager to test his long-held theories without undue command influence, he seized the opportunity. His nascent corps was still understrength, but he reckoned that the British were understrength as well, and therefore he took the initiative. At the end of March 1941 he launched an offensive that pushed the British out of Cyrenaica and eastward into Egypt. For the next eighteen months he was the dominant factor in North Africa, limited mainly by his theater’s secondary priority for men, equipment, and supplies.
In August 1941 Rommel assumed command of all German forces in North Africa, though technically he was subordinate to the Italian Commando Supremo. The Afrika Korps was then led by Ludwig Cruewell and a succession of other generals, but all German units in the northern desert were generically considered the ‘‘Africa Corps.’’ The British Eighth Army repulsed Rommel’s offensive late that year, but he slammed back in January 1942, retaking western Cyrenaica.
Rommel’s greatest triumph came in June 1942, when his forces seized the British strongpoint at Tobruk. Hitler rewarded his favorite general by promoting him to field marshal, though Rommel characteristically commented that he would have preferred another division instead.
From late 1942, Axis fortunes in Africa entered a steady decline as Allied numerical and materiel superiority become overwhelming. Rommel was on sick leave when the British attacked El Alamein in October, and by the time he arrived the German situation was untenable, leading to a withdrawal into Tunisia. Allied naval and air superiority deprived Rommel of the supplies he needed, and Hitler’s stand-fast orders led to unnecessary losses. Still not well, Rommel was recalled to Germany in early 1943; the Afrika Korps surrendered in May. Evidence indicates that by year’s end he had become disillusioned with Hitler’s leadership, and gradually the Führer’s favorite soldier had turned against him, though not against the nation.
In January 1944 Rommel, fully rested, assumed command of Army Group B, responsible for repelling the expected Anglo-American invasion of northern France. He was subordinate to Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, supreme commander in the West, and though they respected one another, they had conflicting opinions. Von Rundstedt advocated a defense in depth, hoping to wear down the Allies on successive defensive lines. Rommel favored committing most of the German forces to the beach areas, knowing that once inland the Allied armies would benefit tremendously from air supremacy. He was also aware that no Anglo-American amphibious operation had been defeated once a beachhead was secured.
On 6 June Rommel was celebrating his wife’s birthday, but he immediately returned to France. Hitler’s refusal to release the panzers caused immediate problems for the defenders, and the situation deteriorated when the Führer refused Rommel and von Rundstedt’s request to withdraw to more defensible lines. It was vintage Hitler—the same philosophy that had led to disaster at Stalingrad and in North Africa.
Rommel’s concern about Allied air superiority was proven on 17 July, when his staff car was strafed by Allied fighters (probably RAF Spitfires of 602 Squadron) near Saint Foy de Mongomerie. The car overturned, and Rommel sustained a fractured skull. Three days later came the failed bomb attempt on Hitler’s life, and though Rommel was hospitalized at the time, he was suspected of complicity. In fact, he had been approached by other plotters asking him to assume command of the armed forces following Hitler’s arrest. His involvement became known, and Hitler ordered the field marshal’s death. Out of concern for his family, on 14 October Rommel committed suicide by poison offered by two army generals. He was given a state funeral, and the statement was given out that he had died of wounds sustained in combat.
Rommel’s son Manfred became a postwar mayor of Stuttgart.
Erwin Rommel was a career soldier completely dedicated to his profession, but he was more complex than is readily apparent. A devoted family man, he wrote his wife almost daily throughout the war. He struggled unsuccessfully with the growing conflict between his duty to his country and his oath to his head of state. He was hard on himself and his staff, often displaying arrogance and impatience, and he was frequently absent from headquarters. Generally he preferred the perspective of the front lines, and because his troops saw much of him, their esteem for him soared. African stories of Rommel climbing onto an 88 mm antitank gun to show ‘‘how it was done’’ may be apocryphal but demonstrate his leadership style. Junior officers especially admired the field marshal, as he seldom failed to provide them opportunities to demonstrate their own ability and initiative.
Werner Hinz appeared as Rommel in The Longest Day but was not well cast. British actor James Mason was much more credible in The Desert Fox.
VON RUNDSTEDT, GERD (1875–1953)
Commander of all German army forces in Western Europe at the time of the Normandy landings. Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt was born in Aschersleben, Prussia, only four years after Otto Bismarck unified Germany.
The son of a general, von Rundstedt was expected to pursue an army career and dutifully entered the military academy. Subsequently he was selected for General Staff college, the first step to high command.
By 1914 von Rundstedt commanded an infantry regiment and gained acclaim for his early World War I service in Alsace. Advancing quickly, he became a corps chief of staff on both the western and eastern fronts as well as an advisor to the Turkish army.
A lieutenant colonel at the armistice, von Rundstedt was retained on active duty in the small postwar army, where his influence expanded. Over the next decade he was instrumental in revising the organization of German infantry formations based on the principle of self-sufficient units able to function independent of the next higher echelon.
Von Rundstedt commanded the First Army Group from 1933 to 1938, when he retired at age sixty-two. However, with onset of the Second World War, he was judged too valuable to remain idle and almost immediately took command of the army group that drove across southern Poland—an operation he was credited with conceiving and planning. The next year he led Army Group A through the Ardennes, outflanking France’s Maginot Line and driving to the coast. For his unexcelled success he was declared a field marshal in July 1940.
The following summer von Rundstedt’s triumphs continued during Germany’s invasion of Russia beginning in June 1941. His Army Group South destroyed a Soviet army group while conquering most of the northern Ukraine and seizing Kiev. However, his forces were stopped at Rostov in November, the field marshal’s first defeat in more than two years of war.
A year later Hitler appointed von Rundstedt military ruler of France, and subsequently he became supreme commander of the army in Western Europe, with forces stretching as far as Norway. He cordially differed with his immediate subordinate, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, on how to resist the Allied invasion. After D-Day, realizing that the invasion meant inevitable defeat, he declared that Germany should sue for peace to the AngloAmericans. By then he was already disenchanted with Hitler, who consistently ignored professional advice. Von Rundstedt is said to have declared, ‘‘You know how stern corporals can be.’’
Removed from his command one month after D-Day, von Rundstedt was replaced by Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, who could do no more than his predecessor to contain the Allied breakout from Normandy. Von Rundstedt was returned to his post in September, as it was apparent that his talents were needed more than ever. Three months later he held titular command of Hitler’s surprise offensive in the Ardennes, taking the AngloAmericans completely by surprise. Though well planned and executed, the attack faltered for lack of ample supplies and reserves—for which reason von Rundstedt had opposed the concept. He was relieved by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring in March 1945 and retired again from active duty, awaiting the end of the Third Reich.
On 1 May von Rundstedt was captured near Munich by the U.S. Army’s Thirty-sixth Infantry Division and was imprisoned under British control. Though charged by the Nuremberg prosecutors for waging aggressive war, he was never tried, partly owing to poor health, and partly because of Generaloberst Alfred Jodl’s testimony that von Rundstedt had urged Hitler to sue for peace in July 1944. After four years of captivity von Rundstedt was released from a military hospital in Hamburg and to return to private life in May 1949. He died in Hanover in February 1953, aged seventy-seven.
Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s naval counterpart at the time of D-Day. As commander of Kriegsmarine forces in the West, Ruge oversaw German efforts to thwart Operation Neptune with U-boats, surface combatants, and mines.
Born in Leipzig on Christmas Eve 1894, Ruge received a commission in the kaiser’s navy and served in torpedo boats through most of the Great War. He was interned at Scapa Flow; upon release in 1920 he was retained by Germany’s tiny navy. He served in staff and command posts for the next nineteen years, first visiting the United States in 1928.
During the 1930s Ruge became an acknowledged authority on mine warfare and rose to command all Kriegsmarine mine forces. Promoted to Konteradmiral (rear admiral) in 1941, he was Germany’s senior naval officer in Italy and was promoted to vice admiral in 1943.
After the war Ruge wrote extensively on naval and military matters, including World War II topics. He established close ties with American personnel in West Germany, and from 1949 to 1952 he worked with the Naval History Team.
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