The German field marshal Erwin Rommel (1891-1944), known as the "Desert Fox," achieved fame as a brilliant desert-warfare tactician in World War II.
Erwin Rommel was born in Heidenheim near Ulm on Nov. 15, 1891, into an old Swabian middle-class family. After a traditional classical education, he joined the 124th Infantry Regiment as an officer cadet in 1910 and was commissioned as second lieutenant 2 years later. In World War I he served on the Western front in France and immediately distinguished himself as an outstanding soldier. In 1915 he was awarded the Iron Cross Class I. From autumn 1915 to 1918 he served in a mountain unit in Romania and on the Italian front, where, for unusual bravery in his capture of Monte Matajur, he was cited for the highest award offered in the German army, the Pour le Mérite, at the unprecedented age of 27.
After the war Rommel spent the 1920s as a captain with a regiment near Stuttgart. In the fall of 1929 he commenced his distinguished career as an infantry instructor at the infantry school in Dresden, where he stayed until 1933. After a two-year command of a mountain battalion, he continued his teaching career at the Potsdam War Academy in 1935 and finally—after the annexation of Austria in 1938—took over the command of the war academy in Wiener Neustadt as full colonel.
On the eve of the war Rommel was selected as commander of Hitler's bodyguard and served in that capacity in Hitler's first drives to the east into the Sudetenland, Prague, and finally Poland. His first field command in World War II was at the head of the 7th Tank Division, which swept toward the English Channel in May 1940.
Rommel's appointment in February 1941 as commander of the Afrikakorps with the rank of lieutenant general marked the beginning of his fame as a desert-war tactician. Initially he met with brilliant success. By June 1942 he had driven the British troops from his starting point in Libya all the way to El Alamein and was rewarded with a promotion to field marshal that same month—the youngest in the German armed forces. Because of lack of reinforcements he failed to take Alexandria and advance to the Suez Canal as hoped and was subsequently driven back by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's counterattack to Tunis, where he encountered fresh American troops under Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and lost the final, decisive battle at Médenine on March 5, 1943. Five days later he left for Germany on sick leave.
During the summer and fall of 1943 Rommel acted as a special adviser and troubleshooter for Hitler, a task which took him to Italy as commander of the newly formed Army Group B in a last effort to prop up the regime of Benito Mussolini. By December 1943 he was needed at the "Atlantic Wall," the coastal defenses along the coast from Norway to the Pyrenees, and in January 1944 he took over the command of all German armies from the Netherlands to the Loire River. He was unable to prevent the Allied landing in Normandy, however, and on July 17, 1944, was seriously wounded in an air raid, forcing him to return to his home in Herrlingen near Ulm.
Rommel had by this time become increasingly critical of Hitler and the Nazi party, of which he had never been a member. Although he disapproved of an assassination of Hitler, he maintained close contact with the officers who staged the unsuccessful coup of July 20, 1944, and he was to have succeeded Hitler as supreme commander in the event of success. Nazi investigators therefore sought him out at his home in Herrlingen on Oct. 14, 1944, and gave him the choice of taking poison or standing trial before the Nazi People's Court. Rommel chose the former. Hitler ordered national mourning and a state funeral with all honors.
Further Reading on Erwin Rommel
Rommel's own draft narrative of the African campaign was edited by Capt. B. H. Liddell Hart, together with pertinent letters and notes by Rommel, under the title The Rommel Papers (1953). The best-known biography of Rommel in English, and still the standard work, is Desmond Young, Rommel, the Desert Fox (1950), a compassionate yet carefully researched work of a British brigadier general with considerable experience in desert warfare. It has been supplemented and updated by Ronald Lewin's work, Rommel as Military Commander (1968), which concentrates almost entirely on Rommel's most active years in the field, from 1940 to 1944. Paul Carell's beautifully written, exciting, and meticulously researched account of the African campaign, The Foxes of the Desert (1960), was skillfully translated by Mervin Savill. See also Hans Speidel, Invasion of 1944: Rommel and the Normandy Campaign (1950), and Siegfried Westphal, The German Army in the West (1951).