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Erwin Rommel. The gentleman general of the Third Reich. An ace soldier of the Wehrmacht but not a Nazi. That ultimately led to his death.

On July 17, 1944, British aircraft strafed Rommel's staff car, severely wounding the Field Marshall. He was taken to a hospital and then to his home in Germany to convalesce. Three days later, an assassin's bomb nearly killed Hitler during a strategy meeting at his headquarters in East Prussia. In the gory reprisals that followed, some suspects implicated Rommel in the plot. Although he may not have been aware of the attempt on Hitler's life, his "defeatist" attitude was enough to warrant Hitler's wrath. The problem for Hitler was how to eliminate Germany's most popular general without revealing to the German people that he had ordered his death. The solution was to force Rommel to commit suicide and announce that his death was due to his wounds.

 Rommel with his son Manfred and wife Lucie

Rommel's son, Manfred, was 15 years old and served as part of an antiaircraft crew near his home. On October 14th, 1944 Manfred was given leave to return to his home where his father continued to convalesce. The family was aware that Rommel was under suspicion and that his chief of staff and his commanding officer had both been executed. Manfred's account begins as he enters his home and finds his father at breakfast:

"...I arrived at Herrlingen at 7:00 a.m. My father was at breakfast. A cup was quickly brought for me and we breakfasted together, afterwards taking a stroll in the garden.

'At twelve o'clock to-day two Generals are coming to discuss my future employment,' my father started the conversation. 'So today will decide what is planned for me; whether a People's Court or a new command in the East.'

'Would you accept such a command,' I asked.
He took me by the arm, and replied: 'My dear boy, our enemy in the East is so terrible that every other consideration has to give way before it. If he succeeds in overrunning Europe, even only temporarily, it will be the end of everything which has made life appear worth living. Of course I would go.'

Shortly before twelve o'clock, my father went to his room on the first floor and changed from the brown civilian jacket which he usually wore over riding-breeches, to his Africa tunic, which was his favorite uniform on account of its open collar.

At about twelve o'clock a dark-green car with a Berlin number stopped in front of our garden gate. The only men in the house apart from my father, were Captain Aldinger [ Rommel's aide] , a badly wounded war-veteran corporal and myself. Two generals - Burgdorf, a powerful florid man, and Maisel, small and slender - alighted from the car and entered the house. They were respectful and courteous and asked my father's permission to speak to him alone. Aldinger and I left the room. 'So they are not going to arrest him,' I thought with relief, as I went upstairs to find myself a book.

A few minutes later I heard my father come upstairs and go into my mother's room. Anxious to know what was afoot, I got up and followed him. He was standing in the middle of the room, his face pale. 'Come outside with me,' he said in a tight voice. We went into my room. 'I have just had to tell your mother,' he began slowly, 'that I shall be dead in a quarter of an hour.' He was calm as he continued: 'To die by the hand of one's own people is hard. But the house is surrounded and Hitler is charging me with high treason. ' "In view of my services in Africa," ' he quoted sarcastically, 'I am to have the chance of dying by poison. The two generals have brought it with them. It's fatal in three seconds. If I accept, none of the usual steps will be taken against my family, that is against you. They will also leave my staff alone.'
'Do you believe it?' I interrupted. 'Yes,' he replied. 'I believe it. It is very much in their interest to see that the affair does not come out into the open. By the way, I have been charged to put you under a promise of the strictest silence. If a single word of this comes out, they will no longer feel themselves bound by the agreement.'

I tried again. 'Can't we defend ourselves…' He cut me off short. 'There's no point,' he said. 'It's better for one to die than for all of us to be killed in a shooting affray. Anyway, we've practically no ammunition.' We briefly took leave of each other. 'Call Aldinger, please,' he said.

Aldinger had meanwhile been engaged in conversation by the General's escort to keep him away from my father. At my call, he came running upstairs. He, too, was struck cold when he heard what was happening. My father now spoke more quickly. He again said how useless it was to attempt to defend ourselves. 'It's all been prepared to the last detail. I'm to be given a state funeral. I have asked that it should take place in Ulm. [a town near Rommel's home] In a quarter of an hour, you, Aldinger, will receive a telephone call from the Wagnerschule reserve hospital in Ulm to say that I've had a brain seizure on the way to a conference.' He looked at his watch. 'I must go, they've only given me ten minutes.' He quickly took leave of us again. Then we went downstairs together.

We helped my father into his leather coat. Suddenly he pulled out his wallet. 'There's still 150 marks in there,' he said. 'Shall I take the money with me?'

'That doesn't matter now, Herr Field Marshal,' said Aldinger.
 Looking after the Atlantic Wall defences on the French coast

My father put his wallet carefully back in his pocket. As he went into the hall, his little dachshund which he had been given as a puppy a few months before in France, jumped up at him with a whine of joy. 'Shut the dog in the study, Manfred,' he said, and waited in the hall with Aldinger while I removed the excited dog and pushed it through the study door. Then we walked out of the house together. The two generals were standing at the garden gate. We walked slowly down the path, the crunch of the gravel sounding unusually loud.

As we approached the generals they raised their right hands in salute. 'Herr Field Marshal,' Burgdorf said shortly and stood aside for my father to pass through the gate. A knot of villagers stood outside the drive…
The car stood ready. The S.S. driver swung the door open and stood to attention. My father pushed his Marshal's baton under his left arm, and with his face calm, gave Aldinger and me his hand once more before getting in the car.

The two generals climbed quickly into their seats and the doors were slammed. My father did not turn again as the car drove quickly off up the hill and disappeared round a bend in the road. When it had gone Aldinger and I turned and walked silently back into the house…

Twenty minutes later the telephone rang. Aldinger lifted the receiver and my father's death was duly reported.

It was not then entirely clear, what had happened to him after he left us. Later we learned that the car had halted a few hundred yards up the hill from our house in an open space at the edge of the wood. Gestapo men, who had appeared in force from Berlin that morning, were watching the area with instructions to shoot my father down and storm the house if he offered resistance. Maisel and the driver got out of the car, leaving my father and Burgdorf inside. When the driver was permitted to return ten minutes or so later, he saw my father sunk forward with his cap off and the marshal's baton fallen from his hand."

"The Forced Suicide of Field Marshall Rommel, 1944," EyeWitness to History, (2002).

Born in 1891 in Heidenheim, the son of a schoolmaster, Rommel was a thrifty, loyal and punctual man, with some similarities to Guderian; impatient with authority and capable of driving his men beyond their normal limits. In the First World War he led his man into ferocious fighting at Caporetto in the Italian mountains, and was recommended for the highest Imperial decoration for bravery, pour le Mérite. In the postwar army he became an instructor of tactics, using his experiences and sucesses from the war, and published his lectures as a book: Infanteri Greift An. This bestseller brougth him fame and fortune and the attention of Hitler.

Though never tested against the Russians, or at the highest level of command, the evidence suggests that Rommel was one of Germany's greatest soldiers. Even the Allies felt a rueful admiration for the "Desert Fox", although a great deal of his success stemmed from a highly developed sense of opportunism.

 Rommel with British prisoners in Cherbourg in 1940. He was a gentleman. Allied POW say he ordered that they be fed well and given enough rations as a German soldier would get.


Sent to North Africa in January 1941 to the assistance of the stricken Italians, Rommel proceeded to win a reputation as a strategist and theater commander. The "Afrika Korps" consisted of two divisions, the 5th Light Division which arrived at Tripoli on 14 February 1941 and followed in April by the 15th Panzer Division. Acting independently of his superior, Marshal Gariboldi, the Italian Commander-in-Chief, and forbidden by Berlin to take offensive action before the end of May, Rommel directed every unit of the 5th Light eastwards as soon as it landed. On 24 March he had its first combat engagement with the British blocking El Agheila, who abandoned the position. Rommel immediately used the mobility of his division in the best tradition of Blitzkrieg, spliting his forces into three battlegroups to drive along the coast and inland. Flying overhead in his Fieseler Storch, he was able to land frequently beside the heads of the columns to push his officers further.

It was the Panzerwaffe's sword-and-shield combination of tanks, anti-tank guns (especially the 88mm) and tank-destroyers that won many battles, often resulting in the Germans retaining the battlefield and therefor be able to recover damaged vehicles. Meanwhile the Royal Navy and the RAF wreaked such havoc in the sea lanes that the supplies reaching North Africa were insufficient. Through occasionally overbold, Rommel retained the initiative in the fight with the British until the summer of 1942, when the balance of force shifted decisively in the British favor, and even then he made Montgomery pay a high price for his victory at El Alamein. On 8 November 1942, when the British and Americans landed in Algeria and Morocco, the Afrika Korps had about twenty tanks left, and Rommel was forced to retreat through Libya to Tunisia, a distance of 2400 km, fighting only rearguard actions when absolutely necessary.

The Desert Fox in action in Africa


Next sent to France as commander of Army Group B under von Rundstedt in the invasion sector, he worked vigorously to improve the defences of the Channel coast. He and Rundstedt disagreed over the location of the armor for the defensive battle; Rommel, chastened by his defeat in Africa and his experience with Allied airpower, was in favour of defeating the invaders before they could establish themselves ashore. Rundstedt and Guderian expressed the opposite view, that adequate reserves of panzers were to be stationed far enough inland from the Atlantic Wall, so that they could be switched easily to the main invasion front once it had been recognised. After the invasion in Normandy, Hitler continued to believe that the Normandy landings were a feint and that sooner or later the Allies would make their main invasion effort near Calais.

Despite losing the argument, Rommel contained the Allied landings and blunted their early attempts at break-out. On July 17th, however, he was strafed in his staff car by a British fighter and severely wounded. Before he had fully recovered, he fell under suspicion of complicity in the Bomb Plot and was offered by Hitler the choice of disgrace or suicide. He chose the latter, was declared to have died of his wounds and buried with state pomp.



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