Erwin Rommel: from Matajur to El Alamein

Heidenheim an der Brenz 1891 - Herrlingen 1944

Erwin Rommel was born in 1891 in the town of Heidenheim an der Brenz (Baden-Württemberg) to the secondary school teacher and later headmaster Erwin Rommel Sr. and Helene Lutz. His family was typical of the educated middle class. National Socialist propaganda created a very different family history, depicting him as coming from a working-class background and thus as a  model of the ability of children from the lower classes to rise to the highest career levels in Hitler's Third Reich.

He embarked on a military career from an early age under pressure from his father. His real passion, however, was to become an aeronautical engineer. In 1910, he joined the 6th Württemberg Infantry Regiment as a cadet. It should be remembered that the Wilhelmine Empire continued to be a federal state and that the individual states each had their own army.

At the outbreak of the First World War, he held the rank of lieutenant and fought bravely with his infantry regiment on the Western Front, being decorated with two Iron Crosses: a first and second class. He went on to command a company in the Württemberg Mountain Battalion, and took part first in the campaign in the Vosges and then in Romania. On the eve of the battle of Caporetto, Rommel's battalion was incorporated into the Austro-German XIV Army Corps, which had been formed specifically for the offensive and was commanded by German General Otto von Below. Thus he took part in the offensive in a delicate position. With the company under his command he advanced deep into the Italian lines, taking Mount Matajur and pushing on to capture Longarone. The offensive action, later recounted by Rommel in his memoir Infantrie greift an (1937, published in Italian under the title: Fanteria d'attacco, Gorizia, 2004), earned him the highest military honour: the Pour le Mérite and a promotion to captain. He finished out the war in a comfortable rear-command position.

During his deep infiltration behind the Italian lines, Rommel and his 150 Württemberg mountain troops took nearly 9,000 prisoners and bountiful spoils of war. In the years that followed, aided by the great public success of his book, the deep penetration tactics he described in a lively style, and taught at the School of Infantry of Dresden, earned him a reputation as an innovative and bold tactician (the book was studied at military academies all over the world), who was willing to personally assume the responsibilities of command and to leave room for taking the initiative to subordinates and to the troops. At the same time, Rommel's narrative reflects humane empathy for the Italian troops, left as they were without orders and poorly organized by their commanders, yet still brave and loyal.

After the war, like many other officers, Rommel suffered the shock of defeat and the drastic reduction of the role of the armed forces in Germany. But he continued his military career, serving the republic loyally. Rommel welcomed the coming to power of National Socialism.  He came into contact with Hitler, who fascinated him. His wartime heroism, dynamic spirit, intolerance of rules, and his unconventional tactics, focused on vehicle-transported units moving in conjunction with tanks, made him a favourite of Hitler and propaganda. Like the Führer, he, too, held a barely concealed contempt for the Prussian officer class, comprised mainly of the nobility. In the late 1930s, he was given command of the escort battalion that protected Hitler. Having in the meantime been promoted to major general, Rommel asked to receive command of a Panzer division. His request was granted. During the French campaign, he was given command of the 7th Panzer Division, which he used in rapid and decisive actions on the northern front. Often ignoring his superiors' orders, Rommel earned his unit the nickname of the "Ghost Division". At the end of the campaign, he was awarded a prestigious medal: the Knight's Cross.

Hitler turned to his most popular general of the Wehrmacht in February 1941, when he decided to send a contingent equipped with modern vehicles to North Africa to help out the Italians, who had been forced into a deep retreat: the Afrika Korps. Consisting of two armoured divisions, the corps would be under Italian command. But, over the next two years, Rommel always acted on his own initiative, causing quite a few protests from the Italian command in Libya. Victory, however, was on his side: the re-conquest of Cyrenaica and Tobruk and the advance (July 1942) to El-Alamein, a town located just over 100 km away from the coveted Suez Canal, which was the strategic objective of the African campaign. Hitler awarded him the rank of Field Marshal, but did not send the troops and vehicles that Rommel strongly requested, to successfully finish the campaign.

He achieved a series of victories by means of deep bold penetrations with motorized and armoured columns that surprised the opposing defences. In the decisive second battle of El Alamein, fought from 23 October to 3 November, under pressure by General Montgomery's 8th Army, which had numerical superiority in terms of vehicles and enjoyed air supremacy, Rommel decided to retreat, which also meant the retreat of the Italian troops. Berlin had issued a peremptory order not to retreat, but Rommel disobeyed, aware that the situation was dire. In the meantime (8 November), British, American and Commonwealth troops had landed on the Algerian coast. An Allied victory was only a matter of time. To avoid Rommel's surrender on the battlefield, he was repatriated on 6 March by order of Hitler. The public, who held the brilliant general in reverence, only learned of his evacuation several months later, accompanied by the highest award ever given: Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds

A few months later he was given the role of commander of the German troops in Italy. In this capacity, he not only prepared for the occupation of Italy in view of the probable armistice, which was finally announced on 8 September, but he also coordinated the capture of what was left of the Italian armed forces and their deportation.

In November 1943, he was transferred to northern France to command Army Group B, north of the Loire. He was also entrusted with the supervision of the fortifications of the Atlantic Wall. The Allied landing in Normandy took place while he was on brief leave at home, recovering from an illness. On 17 July, his car was strafed by a British fighter. Rommel was slightly injured. On 20 July, there was an attempt to assassinate Hitler, accompanied by a failed coup attempt that was quashed in a few hours. The role of Rommel in the plot is unclear. He was for many years believed to be among the leaders of the plot, and it was argued that he would have played a major role in the post-Hitler government. More recently, however, the prevailing view has been that he was opposed to the coup or that he was not even aware of the desire to kill Hitler. Rommel's widow wrote that he had been a soldier to the end, one who obeyed orders and was not involved in politics. In any event, the Nazi leadership decided that Rommel had to be eliminated. He was offered the choice of committing suicide, that would then be explained as death by natural causes, to avoid compromising his wife and children. The alternative was a court martial for high treason. On 14 October 1944, Rommel committed suicide. The public was told that he had died of a brain haemorrhage. The funeral was held a few days later. His honour remained intact. In military history books Rommel is generally considered to be one of the most clever and able tacticians in the history of all warfare.