In August, Rommel was appointed commander of the newly created Panzer Group Africa. His previous command, the Afrika Korps, comprising the 15th Panzer Division and the 5th Light Division, which by then had been redesignated 21st Panzer Division, was put under command of Generalleutnant Ludwig Crüwell, with Fritz Bayerlein as chief of staff. In addition to the Afrika Korps, Rommel’s Panzer Group had the 90th Light Division and six Italian divisions, the Ariete and Trieste Divisions forming the Italian XX Motorized Corps, three infantry divisions investing Tobruk, and one holding Bardia.
Allied counter offensive
Rommel conversing with his staff near El Agheila, January 12, 1942.
Following the costly failure of Battleaxe, Wavell was replaced by the Commander-in-Chief of India,General Claude Auchinleck. Allied forces were reorganised and strengthened to two corps, XXXand XIII, and became the British Eighth Army under the command of Alan Cunningham. Auchinleck, having 770 tanks and 1,000 aircraft to support him, launched a major offensive to relieve Tobruk (Operation Crusader) on 18 November 1941. Rommel had two armoured divisions, the 15th and 21st with a total of 260 tanks, the 90th Light Infantry division, and three Italian corps, five infantry and one armoured division with 154 tanks, with which to oppose him.
The Eighth Army deeply outflanked the German defences along the Egyptian frontier with a left hook through the desert, and reached a position from which they could strike at both Tobruk and the coastal road, the “Via Balbia”. Auchinleck planned to engage the Afrika Korps with his armoured division, while XXX Corps assaulted the Italian positions at Bardia, encircling the troops there. But the British operational plan had one major flaw. When XXX corps reached the area of Qabr Salih, it was assumed that the Afrika Korps would attack eastward, allowing the British to surround them with a southerly armour thrust. Rommel, however, did not find it necessary to do as the British planned, and instead attacked the southernly armoured thrust at Sidi Rezegh.
Rommel was now faced with the decision of whether to continue the planned attack on Tobruk in late May, trusting his screening forces to hold off the advancing British, or to reorient his forces to hit the approaching British columns. He decided the risks were too great and called off the attack on Tobruk.
The British armoured thrusts were largely defeated by fierce resistance from antitank positions and tanks. The Italian Ariete Armoured Division was forced to give ground while inflicting heavy losses on the advancing British at Bir el Gobi, whereas the 21st Panzer Division checked the attack launched against them and counterattacked on Gabr Saleh. Over the next two days the British continued pressing their attack, sending their armoured brigades into battle in a piecemeal fashion, while Rommel, aware of his numerical inferiority, launched a concentrated attack on 23 November with all his armour. The 21st Panzer Division held their defensive positions at Sidi Rezegh, while 15th Panzer Division and the Italian Ariete Division attacked the flanks and enveloped the British armour. During this battle, among the biggest armoured battles of the North African campaign, the British tanks were surrounded, with about two-thirds destroyed and the survivors having to fight themselves out of the trap and head south to Gabr Saleh.
On 24 November Rommel, wanting to exploit the halt of the British offensive, counterattacked into the British rear areas in Egypt with the intention of exploiting the disorganisation and confusion in the enemy’s bases and cutting their supply lines. Rommel considered the other, more conservative, course of action of destroying the British forces halted before Tobruk and Bardia too time consuming. Rommel knew his forces were incapable of driving such an effort home, but believed that the British, traumatised by their recent debacle, would abandon their defences along the border at the appearance of a German threat to their rear.
Kradschutzen Battalion #2 on parade in Coburg 1937.
General Cunningham did, as Rommel had hoped, decide to withdraw the Eighth Army to Egypt, but Auchinleck arrived from Cairo just in time to cancel the withdrawal orders. The German attack, which began with only 100 operational tanks remaining, stalled as it outran its supplies and met stiffening resistance. The counterattack was criticised by the German High Command and some of his staff officers as too dangerous with Commonwealth forces still operating along the coast east of Tobruk, and a wasteful attack as it bled his forces, in particular his remaining tank force. Among the Staff officers who were critical was Friedrich von Mellenthin, who said that “Unfortunately, Rommel overestimated his success and believed the moment had come to launch a general pursuit. In Rommel’s favour, the attack very nearly succeeded: Cunningham ordered a withdrawal, and only Auchinleck’s timely intervention prevented this.
March column during field training prior to move to Bad Kissingen. Stefanowiczhttp://www.eaglehorse.org/3_home_station/history_daley_barracks/history_part_1/daley_barracks_history_1.htm
Tobruk relieved, Axis retirement to El Agheila
While Rommel drove into Egypt, the remaining Commonwealth forces east of Tobruk threatened the weak Axis lines there. Unable to reach Rommel for several days, Rommel’s Chief of Staff, Oberstleutnant Westphal, ordered the 21st Panzer Division withdrawn to support the siege of Tobruk. On 27 November the British attack on Tobruk linked up with the defenders, and Rommel, having suffered losses that could not easily be replaced, had to concentrate on retrieving and regrouping the divisions that had attacked into Egypt. By 6 December the Afrika Korps had averted the danger, and on 7 December Rommel fell back to a defensive line at Gazala, just west of Tobruk, all the while under heavy attacks from the RAF. The Italian forces at Bardia and on the Egyptian border were now cut off from the retreating Axis. The Allies, briefly held up at Gazala, kept up the pressure to some degree, although they were almost as exhausted and disorganised as Rommel’s force, and Rommel was forced to retreat all the way back to the starting positions he had held in March, reaching El Agheila on 30 December. His main concern during his withdrawal was being flanked to the south, so the Afrika Korps held the south flank during the retreat. The Allies followed, but never attempted a southern flanking move to cut off the retreating troops as they had done in 1940. The German-Italian garrison at Bardia surrendered on 2 January 1942.
Recapture of Gazala
On 5 January 1942 the Afrika Korps received 55 tanks and new supplies and Rommel started planning a counterattack. On 21 January the attack was launched, which mauled the Allied forces, costing them some 110 tanks and other heavy equipment. The Axis forces retookBenghazi on 29 January, Timimi on 3 February, and the Allies pulled back to the Tobruk area and commenced building defensive positions at Gazala.
During the confusion caused by the Crusader operation, Rommel and his staff found themselves behind Allied lines several times. On one occasion, he visited a New Zealand Army field hospital that was still under Allied control. “[Rommel] inquired if anything was needed, promised the British [sic] medical supplies and drove off unhindered. Eventually, Rommel did supply the medical unit with some medical equipment.
Motorcycle troops arrive at rail yard
during one of the frequent pre war moves to new barracks.
Second German offensive: Battle of Gazala
Following General Kesselring‘s successes in creating local air superiority and suppressing the Malta defenders in April 1942, an increased flow of vital supplies reached the Panzer Armee Afrika. Previously it had been receiving about a third of its needed supplies for several months. With his forces thus strengthened, Rommel began planning a major push for the summer. He felt the very strong British positions around Gazala could be outflanked, and he could then drive up behind them and destroy them. The British were planning a summer offensive of their own and their dispositions were more suited for an attack rather than a defence.
Rommel in North Africa (June 1942)
The British had 900 tanks in the area, 200 of which were new Grant tanks, whereas Rommel’sPanzer Army Africa commanded a mere 320 German, 50 of which were the obsolete Panzer IImodel, and 240 Italian tanks, which were no better than the Panzer IIs. Therefore Rommel had to rely predominantly on 88 mm guns to destroy the British heavy tanks, but even these were in short supply. In infantry and artillery Rommel found himself vastly outnumbered also, with many of his units under-strength following the campaigns of 1941. In contrast to the previous year, the Axis had more-or-less air parity.
On 26 May 1942 Rommel’s army attacked in a classic outflanking Blitzkrieg operation in theBattle of Gazala. His Italian infantry assaulted the Gazala fortifications head on, with some armour attached to give the impressions that this was the main assault, while all his motorized and armoured forces outflanked the positions to the south. On the following morning Rommel cut through the flank and attacked north, but throughout the day a running armour battle occurred, where both sides took heavy losses. The attempted encirclement of the Gazala position failed and the Germans lost a third of their heavy tanks. Renewing the attack on the morning of 28 May, Rommel concentrated on encircling and destroying separate units of the British armour. Heavy British counterattacks forced Rommel to assume a defensive posture and not pursue his original plan of a dash north for the coast. On 30 May he attacked eastwards to link with elements of Italian X Corps which had cleared a path through the Allied minefields to establish a line of supply. On 2 June 90th Light Division and the Trieste Division surrounded and reduced the Allied strongpoint at Bir Hakeim, capturing it on 11 June. With his communications and the southern strongpoint of the British line thus secured, Rommel attacked north again, forcing the British back, relying on the minefields of the Gazala lines to protect his left flank. On 14 June the British began a headlong retreat eastwards, the so-called “Gazala Gallop”, to avoid being completely cut off.
ommercial post card showing machine gunner in position.
On 15 June Axis forces reached the coast eliminating any escape for the Commonwealth forces still occupying the Gazala positions. With this task completed, Rommel set off in pursuit of the retreating Allied formations, aiming to capture Tobruk while the enemy was confused and disorganised. Tobruk, isolated and alone, was now all that stood between the Axis and Egypt. The defenders were the 2nd South African Infantry Division and some disorganised units recovering from the Gazala battle. On 21 June, after a swift, coordinated and fiercecombined arms assault, the city surrendered along with its 33,000 defenders, including most of the South African 2nd Division. Only at thefall of Singapore, earlier that year, had more British Commonwealth troops been captured. Hitler made Rommel a Field Marshal for this victory.
By this time, Rommel’s gains caused considerable alarm in the Allied camp. He appeared to be poised to deliver a crippling blow to the British by conquering Egypt. The Allies feared Rommel would then turn northeastward to conquer the valuable oil fields of the Middle East and then link up with the German forces besieging the equally valuable Caucasian oil fields. However, these required substantial reinforcements that Hitler refused to allocate. Ironically, Hitler had been sceptical about sending Rommel to Africa in the first place. He’d only done so after constant begging by naval commander Erich Raeder, and even then only to relieve the Italians. Hitler never understood global warfare, despite Raeder and Rommel’s attempts to get him to see the strategic value of Egypt.
The classic trio, driver, rifleman and gunner on a 740 cc BMW with sidecar set.. The motorcycle offered speed
and mobility on the battlefield but most often, the troops were committed as dismounted infantry.
Drive for Egypt
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, with his aides during the desert campaign. 1942
Rommel determined to press the attack on Mersa Matruh despite the heavy losses he had suffered at Gazala and Tobruk. He also wanted to prevent the British from establishing a new frontline, and felt the weakness of the British formations had to be exploited by a thrust into Egypt. This decision met with some criticism, as an advance into Egypt meant a significant lengthening of the supply lines. It also meant that a proposed attack on Malta would have to wait, as the Luftwaffe would be required to support Rommel’s drive eastwards. Kesselring strongly disagreed with Rommel’s decision, and went as far as threatening to withdraw his aircraft to Sicily. Hitler agreed to Rommel’s plan, despite protest from Italian HQ and some of his staff officers, seeing the potential for a complete victory in Africa. Rommel, apparently aware of his growing reputation as a gambler, defended his decision by claiming that merely to hold the lines at Sollum would confer upon the British a distinct advantage, in that they could more easily outflank the positions at Sollum and the overseas supply lines would still have to be routed via Tripoliunless he secured a front further east.
Courtesy of Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Germany)
On 22 June Rommel continued his offensive eastwards and initially little resistance was encountered. Apart from fuel shortages, the advance continued until Mersa Matruh was encircled on 26 June, surrounding four infantry divisions. One of the divisions managed to break out during the night, and over the next two days some elements of the remaining three divisions also slipped away. The fortress fell on 29 June, yielding enormous amounts of supplies and equipment, in addition to 6,000 POWs.
On 25 June Auchinleck had assumed direct command of Eighth Army and decided to form his main defensive line at El Alamein, where the proximity to the south of the Qattara Depression created a relatively short line to defend which could not be outflanked to the south because of the impossibility of moving armour into and through the depression. Rommel continued his march eastwards, but with the supply situation steadily worsening and his men exhausted after five weeks of constant warfare, the offensive on El Alamein seemed in doubt. On 1 July theFirst Battle of El Alamein started, but after almost a month of inconclusive fighting both sides, completely exhausted, dug in, halting Rommel’s drive eastwards. This was a serious blow to Rommel who had hoped to drive his advance into the open desert beyond El Alamein where he could conduct a mobile defence. The Eighth Army suffered higher casualties in the fighting around El Alamein, some 13,000, compared with Axis losses of 7,000 men, 1,000 of which were Germans, but Rommel could afford the losses to a much lesser degree.
More significantly, Rommel only had 13 operational tanks by the time he reached El Alamein. Although he was only a few hundred miles fromthe Pyramids, he knew he didn’t have the resources to push forward. On 3 July, he wrote in his diary that his momentum had “faded away.
Allied attack: Second Battle of El Alamein
After the stalemate at El Alamein, Rommel hoped to go on the offensive again before massive amounts of men and material could reach the British Eighth Army. Allied forces from Malta were, however, intercepting his supplies at sea and the Desert Air Force kept up a relentless campaign against Axis supply vessels in Tobruk, Bardia and Mersa Matruh. Most of the supplies reaching the Axis troops still had to be landed at Benghazi and Tripoli, and the enormous distances supplies had to travel to reach the forward troops meant that a rapid resupply and reorganisation of the Axis army could not be done. Further hampering Rommel’s plans was the fact that the Italian divisions received priority on supplies, with the Italian authorities shipping material for the Italian formations at a much higher rate than for German formations. It seems the Italian HQ was uneasy with Rommel’s ambitions and wanted their own forces, whom they at least had some control over, resupplied first.
An Italian soldier surrenders to a British Indian Army soldier during the initial successful phase of allied operations.
The British, themselves preparing for a renewed drive, replaced C-in-C Auchinleck with General Harold Alexander. The Eighth Army also got a new commander, Bernard Montgomery. They received a steady stream of supplies and were able to reorganise their forces. In late August they received a large convoy carrying over 100,000 tons of supplies, and Rommel, learning of this, felt that time was running out. Rommel decided to launch an attack with the 15th and 21st Panzer Division, 90th Light Division, and the Italian XX Motorized Corps in a drive through the southern flank of the El Alamein lines. The terrain here was without any easily defensible features and so open to attack. Montgomery and Auchinleck before him had realised this threat, and the main defences for this sector had been set up behind the El Alamein line along the Alam El Halfa Ridge, where any outflanking thrust could be more easily met from overlooking defensive positions.
A group of Sikh soldiers from the British Indian Army during the operation.
Battle of Alam El Halfa
The Battle of Alam el Halfa was launched on 30 August, with Rommel’s forces driving through the south flank. After passing the El Alamein line to the south, Rommel drove north at the Alam el Halfa Ridge, just as Montgomery had anticipated. Under heavy fire from British artillery and aircraft, and in the face of well prepared positions that Rommel could not hope to outflank due to lack of fuel, the attack stalled. By 2 September, Rommel realized the battle was unwinnable, and decided to withdraw.
Damaged Panzer IIIs at Belhamed, 16 December 1941.
Montgomery had prepared to pursue the Germans but in the afternoon of 2 September, he gave Corps commander Brian Horrocks clear orders to allow the enemy to retire. This was for two reasons: to preserve his own strength and to allow the enemy to observe, and be misled by, the dummy preparations for an attack in the area.Nevertheless, Montgomery was keen to inflict casualties on the enemy and orders were given for the as yet inexperienced 2nd New Zealand Division, positioned to the north of the retreating Axis forces, and 7th Armoured Division to attack on 3 September. The attack was repelled, however, by a fierce rearguard action by the 90th Light Division and Montgomery called off further action to preserve his strength. On 5 September Rommel was back where he had started, with only heavy losses to show for it. Rommel had suffered 2,940 casualties, lost 50 tanks, a similar number of guns and, perhaps worst of all, 400 trucks, vital for supplies and movement. The British losses, except tank losses of 68, were much less, further adding to the numerical inferiority of Panzer Army Afrika. The Desert Air Force inflicted the highest proportions of damage to Rommel’s forces. He now realized the war in Africa was unwinnable without more air support which was impossible since the Luftwaffe was already stretched to breaking point on other fronts.
Second Battle of El Alamein
El Alamein 1942: Destroyed Panzer IIIs near Tel el Eisa
In September British raiding parties attacked important harbours and supply points. The flow of supplies successfully ferried across the Mediterranean had fallen to a dismal level. Some two-thirds of the supplies embarked for Africa were destroyed at sea. In addition, Rommel’s health was failing and he took sick leave in Italy and Germany from late September. Thus he was not present when the Second Battle of El Alamein began on 23 October 1942. Although he returned immediately, it took him two vital days to reach his HQ in Africa. The defensive plan at El Alamein was more static in nature than Rommel preferred, but with shortages of motorized units and fuel, he had felt it was the only possible plan. The defensive line had strong fortifications and was protected with a large minefield which in turn was covered with machine guns and artillery. This, Rommel hoped, would allow his infantry to hold the line at any point until motorized and armoured units in reserve could move up and counterattack any Allied breaches.
General Georg Stumme was in command in Rommel’s absence but during the initial fighting he died of a heart attack. This paralyzed the German HQ until General Ritter von Thoma took command. After returning, Rommel learned that the fuel supply situation, critical when he left in September, was now disastrous. Counterattacks by the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions on 24 October and 25 October had incurred heavy tank losses due to the intensity of the British artillery and air attack. Rommel’s main concern was to counterattack in full force and throw the British out of the defensive lines, which was in his view the only chance the Axis had of avoiding defeat. The counterattack was launched early on 26 October but the British units that had penetrated the defensive line inflicted heavy losses on Rommel’s armour at the position code-named Snipe (often mis-named Kidney Ridge due to faulty interpretation of the ring contour – it was actually a depression). The Allies continued pushing hard with armoured units to force the breakthrough, but the defenders’ fire destroyed many tanks, leading to doubts among the officers in the British armoured brigades about the chances of clearing a breach.
Montgomery, seeing his armoured brigades losing tanks at an alarming rate, stopped major attacks until 2 November when he launchedOperation Supercharge and achieved a 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) penetration of the line. Rommel immediately counterattacked with what tanks he had available in an attempt to encircle the pocket during 2 November, but the heavy Allied fire stopped the attempt. By this time Panzer Army Africa had only one-third of its initial strength remaining, with only 35 tanks left operational, virtually no fuel or ammunition and with the British in complete command of the air, yet the British armour had been fought to a standstill, having taken murderous losses with some armoured brigades reporting losses of 75%.
On 3 November Montgomery found it impossible to renew his attack, and he had to wait for more reinforcements to be brought up. This lull was what Rommel needed for his withdrawal, which had been planned since 29 October, when he had determined the situation hopeless.At midday, however, Rommel received the infamous “victory or death” stand-fast order from Hitler. Although this order demanded the impossible and virtually ensured the destruction of Panzer Army Africa, Rommel could not bring himself to disobey a direct order from hisFührer. The Axis forces held on desperately.
On 4 November Montgomery renewed the attack with fresh forces, and with almost 500 tanks against the 20 or so remaining to Rommel. By midday the Italian XX Motorized Corps was surrounded, and several hours later was completely destroyed. This left a 20 km gap in Rommel’s line, with British armoured and motorized units pouring through, threatening the entire Panzer Army Africa with encirclement. At this point Rommel could no longer uphold the no-retreat order and ordered a general retreat. Early on 5 November he received authorization by Hitler to withdraw, 12 hours after his decision to do so—but it was far too late, with only remnants of his army streaming westward. Most of his unmotorized forces (the bulk of the army) were caught.
Part of the Panzer Army Africa escaped from El Alamein, but this remnant took heavy losses from constant air attacks. Despite urgings from Hitler and Mussolini, the Panzer Army did not turn to fight, except for brief holding actions, but withdrew under Allied pressure all the way toTunisia. However, the retreat was conducted most skilfully, employing scorched earth tactics and leaving behind booby traps, making the task of the pursuers very difficult. The Allied forces had great numerical superiority and air supremacy, while most of Rommel’s remaining divisions were reduced to combat groups.
End of Africa campaigns
Having reached Tunisia, Rommel launched an attack against the U.S. II Corps
which was threatening to cut his lines of supply north to Tunis. Rommel inflicted a sharp defeat on the American forces at the Kasserine Pass
Tunisia—Rommel talks with German troops who are using a captured American half-track
Rommel immediately turned back against the British forces, occupying the Mareth Line (old French defences on the Libyan border). But Rommel could only delay the inevitable. At the end of January 1943, the Italian General Giovanni Messe had been appointed the new commander of Rommel’s Panzer Army Africa while Rommel had been at Kasserine, which was renamed the Italo-German Panzer Army (in recognition of the fact that it consisted of one German and three Italian corps). Though Messe replaced Rommel, he diplomatically deferred to him, and the two coexisted in what was theoretically the same command. On 23 February Armeegruppe Afrika was created with Rommel in command. It included the Italo-German Panzer Army under Messe (renamed 1st Italian Army) and the German 5th Panzer Army in the north of Tunisia under General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim.
The last Rommel offensive in North Africa was on 6 March 1943, when he attacked Eighth Army at the Battle of Medenine. The attack was made with 10th, 15th, and 21st Panzer Divisions. Warned by Ultra intercepts, Montgomery deployed large numbers of anti-tank guns in the path of the offensive. After losing 52 tanks, Rommel called off the assault. On 9 March he handed over command of Armeegruppe Afrika toGeneral Hans-Jürgen von Arnim and left Africa, because of health reasons, never to return. On 13 May 1943, General Messe surrendered the remnants of Armeegruppe Afrika to the Allies.
Some historians contrast Rommel’s withdrawal to Tunisia against Hitler’s wishes with Friedrich Paulus‘s obedience of orders to have theGerman Sixth Army stand its ground at the Battle of Stalingrad which resulted in its annihilation. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, appointed overall Axis commander in North Africa, saw things differently. He believed the withdrawals, some of which were carried out against his orders, unnecessary and ruinous since they brought forward British airfields ever closer to the port of Tunis. As far as he was concerned, Rommel was an insubordinate defeatist and string-puller. The increasingly acrimonious relations between the two did nothing to enhance performance.
Role of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) in North Africa
The Axis had some major SIGINT successes in North Africa. They intercepted the reports of the U.S. military attaché in Egypt, who was briefed by the British on their forces and plans.Some authorities believe this information explains much of Rommel’s success.
In addition, the Afrika Korps had a Radio Intercept Section (RIS) attached to its HQ. The RIS monitored radio communications among British units. The British were very “gabby” and most of this chatter was in clear, that is, uncoded, allowing the Germans to more easily identify British units and deployments. During the first Battle of El Alamein, a British counter-attack reached the German HQ. The RIS was wiped out in the fighting and many of their files captured. This alerted the British to the problem, and they tightened up on radio chatter. The loss of this resource is considered an important factor in Rommel’s later lack of success.
Allied codebreakers read much enciphered German message traffic, especially that encrypted with the Enigma machine. This Ultraintelligence included daily reports from Africa on the numbers and condition of Axis forces. It also included information about Axis supply shipments across the Mediterranean. This information enabled the weak Allied air and naval forces there to intercept and destroy much of these shipments. To protect the source of the intelligence (ULTRA), Allied air and naval forces were forbidden to destroy the convoys carrying war supplies to North Africa until a flyover to “discover” the convoy was arranged and completed.
Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel in December 1943.
The inglorious end of the North African campaign meshed poorly with the Nazi propaganda machine’s relentless portrayal of Rommel as an unbeatable military genius. This opened in Berlin the awkward question of precisely what use now to make of the erstwhile Desert Fox. Back in Germany he was for some time virtually “unemployed”. On 23 July 1943 he moved to Greece as commander of Army Group Eto defend the Greek coast against a possible Allied landing that never happened, and which the Germans were led to expect due to the elaborate British deception plan known as “Operation Mincemeat“—only to return to Germany two days later upon the overthrow of Mussolini. On 17 August 1943 Rommel moved his headquarters from Munich to Lake Garda as commander of a new Army Group B created to defendnorthern Italy.
After Hitler gave Kesselring sole Italian command, on 21 November, Rommel moved Army Group B to Normandy in France with responsibility for defending the French coast against the long anticipated Allied invasion. He was dismayed by the lack of completed works and the slow building pace and feared he had just months before an invasion. Rommel reinvigorated the fortification effort along the Atlantic coast. The Commander-in-Chief West, Gerd von Rundstedt, expected the Allies to invade in the Pas-de-Calais because it was the shortest crossing point from Britain, its port facilities were essential to supplying a large invasion force, and the distance from Calais to Germany was relatively short. Hitler’s HQ, although agreeing with this assessment, also considered a landing at Normandy as a possibility. Rommel, believing that Normandy was indeed a likely landing ground, argued that it did not matter to the Allies where they landed, just that the landing was successful.He therefore toured the Normandy defenses extensively in January and February 1944. He ordered millions of mines laid and thousands of tank traps and obstacles set up on beaches and throughout the countryside, including in fields suitable for glider aircraft landings, the so-called Rommelspargel (“Rommel’s asparagus”).
After his experience with Allied air superiority at the end of the North Africa campaign, Rommel concluded that future Allied offensives would also enjoy overwhelming Allied air superiority, exposing any German armoured counter movements to severe punishment from above. He argued that the tank forces should be dispersed in small units and kept in heavily fortified positions as close to the front as possible. In doing so they would not have to move far and en masse when the invasion started. He felt their best chance was to confront the invading force immediately and drive it into the sea. However, von Rundstedt felt that there was no way to stop the invasion near the beaches due to the equally overwhelming firepower of the Allied navies. He felt the German armour should be held in reserve well inland near Paris where they could be used to counter attack in force in a more traditional military doctrine. The allies could even be allowed to extend themselves deep into France, exposing their flanks for a pincer movement to cut off the supplies and retreat of the Allied troops. This notion of defending France was supported by other officers, most notably Heinz Guderian and Panzer Group West commander Geyr von Schweppenburg, who strongly disagreed with Rommel and wanted the armour placed far inland.
When asked to pick a plan, Hitler vacillated. In late April, he ordered them placed in the middle, far enough inland to be useless to Rommel but not far enough for von Rundstedt. Rommel did move some of the armoured formations under his command as far forward as possible, ordering General Erich Marcks, commanding the 84th Corps defending the Normandy section, to move his reserves into the frontline.
The Allies staged elaborate deceptions for D-Day (see Operation Fortitude), giving the impression that the landings would be at Calais. Although Hitler himself expected a Normandy invasion for a while, Rommel and most Wehrmacht commanders in France also started believing in a Pas-de-Calais landing. Rommel concentrated fortification building in the River Somme estuary and let the work in Normandy lag. By D-Day on 6 June 1944 virtually all German officers, including Hitler’s staff, firmly believed that Pas-de-Calais was going to be the invasion site.
During the confusing opening hours of D-Day, the German command structure in France was in disarray. Rommel, and several other important officers were on leave. Several tank units, notably the 12th SS Panzer Division and Panzer-Lehr-Division, were close enough to the beaches to create serious havoc. The absence of Rommel and continued confusion in the army and theater HQs led to hesitation in releasing the armoured reserves to Normandy when they might be needed to meet a second invasion further north. Facing only small-scale German attacks, the Allies quickly secured a beachhead. According to the official history of the SAS, a British sniper could have killed Rommel, but was ordered not to, because by that time the allies understood the German’s mind and felt they could anticipate his strategies but not that of his unknown successor. Rommel personally oversaw the bitter fighting around Caen where only the determined defence of Kampfgruppe von Luck prevented a British breakout on the first day. Here, again, the on-site commanders were denied freedom of action and the Germans did not launch a concentrated counterattack until mid-day on 6 June.
Members of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division in the village of St. Marcouf somewhere
behind Utah Beach, June 8, 1944. Note the men’s distinctive “Screaming Eagle”
division patch on their shoulders. (Courtesy of National Archives)http://www.temple.edu/history/urwin/Hist2812Syb-2008.htm
The Allies pushed ashore and expanded their beachhead despite the best efforts of Rommel’s troops. By mid-July the German position was crumbling. On 17 July 1944, Rommel was being driven along a French road near the front in his staff car. According to a widely accepted version of events, an RCAF Spitfire of 412 Squadron piloted by Charley Fox strafed the car near Sainte-Foy-de-Montgommery and Rommel was injured. He was hospitalised with major head injuries. In a different version, a patrol of 602 Squadron led by Chris Le Roux carried out the attack. Australian Fred Cowlph, of squadron 453, also claims he shot up the Horch carrying Rommel, . He claims his camera that activated automatically on firing his cannons verified this. He recorded this action in his aircraft log book.
Plot against Hitler
There had always been opposition to Hitler in conservative circles and in the Army, the Schwarze Kapelle (Black Orchestra), but Hitler’s dazzling successes in 1938–1941 had stifled it. However, after the Russian campaign failed, and the Axis suffered more defeats, this opposition underwent a revival.
Early in 1944, three of Rommel’s closest friends—, the Oberbürgermeister of Stuttgart, SA Brigadeführer Karl Strölin (who had served with Rommel in the First World War), Alexander von Falkenhausen and Carl Heinrich von Stülpnagel—began efforts to bring Rommel into the conspiracy. They felt that as by far the most popular officer in Germany, he would lend their cause badly needed credibility with the populace. Additionally, the conspirators felt they needed the support of a field marshal on active duty. Erwin von Witzleben, who would have become commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht if Hitler had been overthrown, was a field marshal, but had not been on active duty since 1942. Sometime in February, Rommel agreed to lend his support to the conspiracy in order to, as he put it, “come to the rescue of Germany.
Rommel, however, opposed assassinating Hitler. After the war, his widow—among others—maintained that Rommel believed an assassination attempt would spark civil war in Germany and Austria and Hitler would have become a martyr for a lasting cause. Instead, Rommel insisted that Hitler be arrested and brought to trial for his crimes. By the time of his head injuries, Rommel had made up his mind to do his part to get rid of Hitler.
After the failed bomb attack of 20 July, many conspirators were arrested and the dragnet expanded to anyone even suspected of participating. Rommel was fairly perturbed at this development, telling Hans Speidel that Hitler’s behavior after the attack proved that the dictator had “gone completely mad.” It did not take long, however, for Rommel’s involvement to come to light. His name was first mentioned when Stülpnagel blurted it out after a botched suicide attempt. Later, another conspirator, Caesar von Hofacker, admitted under particularly severe Gestapo torture that Rommel was actively involved.
Additionally, Carl Goerdeler, the main civilian leader of the Resistance, wrote on several letters and other documents that Rommel was a potential supporter and an acceptable military leader to be placed in a position of responsibility should their coup succeed. Nazi party officials in France reported that Rommel extensively and scornfully criticised Nazi incompetence and crimes.
The “Court of Military Honour”—a drumhead court-martial convened to decide the fate of officers involved in the conspiracy—included two men with whom Rommel had crossed swords before: Heinz Guderian and Gerd von Rundstedt. The Court decided that Rommel should be expelled from the Army in disgrace and brought before Roland Freisler‘s People’s Court, a kangaroo court that always decided in favour of the prosecution. However, Hitler knew that having Rommel branded as a traitor would severely damage morale on the home front. He and Keitel thus decided to offer Rommel a chance to commit suicide.
Rommel was approached at his home by Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel, two generals from Hitler’s headquarters, on 14 October 1944. Burgdorf informed him of the charges and offered him a choice: he could face the People’s Court or choose to commit suicide quietly. In the former case, his staff would have been arrested and his family would suffer even before the all-but-certain conviction and execution. In the latter case, the government would assure his family full pension payments and a state funeral claiming he had died a hero. Burgdorf had brought a capsule of cyanide for the occasion. After a few minutes alone, Rommel announced that he chose to end his own life and explained his decision to his wife and son. Carrying his field marshal’s baton, Rommel went to Burgdorf’s Opel, driven by SS Master Sergeant Heinrich Doose, and was driven out of the village. Doose walked away from the car leaving Rommel with Maisel. Five minutes later Burgdorf gestured to the two men to return to the car, and Doose noticed that Rommel was slumped over, after taking the cyanide pill. Doose, while sobbing, replaced Rommel’s fallen cap on his head. Ten minutes later the group phoned Rommel’s wife to inform her that Rommel was dead.
After the war, an edited version of his diary was published as The Rommel Papers. He is the only member of the Third Reich establishment to have a museum dedicated to him. His grave can be found in Herrlingen, a short distance west of Ulm.
The official story of Rommel’s death, as initially reported to the general public, stated that Rommel had either suffered a heart attack or succumbed to his injuries from the earlier strafing of his staff car. To further strengthen the story, Hitler ordered an official day of mourning in commemoration and Rommel was buried with full military honours. Hitler sent Field Marshal von Rundstedt as his representative at Rommel’s funeral. Rommel had specified that no political paraphernalia were to be displayed on his corpse, but the Nazis made sure he was fully festooned with swastikas. The truth behind Rommel’s death did not come out until Field Marshal Keitel testified about it during the Nuremberg Trials.
Rommel’s style as military commander
Logistics and strategy
Rommel was a skilled tactician, but some allege that he had little sense of logistics or military strategy. They consider as an example of this his proposal to postpone Operation Herkules, the invasion of Malta in favour of the immediate advance to the Suez Canal, which would cut the island off from the western Mediterranean. In the event, the operation did not take place, and he ran out of supplies in Egypt, principally because Malta-based forces were sinking Axis supply ships. Those that allege that Rommel had little sense of logistics think that his eagerness to drive for Egypt, when the necessary logistical support was lacking, meant that these drives ultimately failed with great losses.
In his analysis of the logistical aspects of the North African Campaign, military historian Martin van Creveld wrote:
Given that the Wehrmacht was only partly motorized and unsupported by a really strong motor industry; that the political situation necessitated the carrying of much useless Italian ballast; that the capacity of the Libyan ports was so small, the distances to be mastered so vast; it seems clear that, for all of Rommel’s tactical brilliance, the problem of supplying an Axis force for an advance into the Middle East was insoluble. … Rommel’s repeated defiance of his orders and attempts to advance beyond a reasonable distance from his bases, however, was mistaken and should never have been tolerated.
Contemporaries who had to work with him under adversity often had very few kind words to say about him and his abilities. Following Paulus’ return from his inspection of Rommel’s doings in North Africa and also considering the reports submitted by Alfred Gause, Halder concluded: “Rommel’s character defects make him very hard to get along with but no one cares to come out in open opposition because of his brutality and the backing he has at top level.” Others mentioned his leadership style, which expected much of his commanders, while not being open to criticism or objections. He had little patience for sub-commanders who did not do their jobs properly. Only three weeks after assuming command of the 7th Panzer Division in February 1940, Rommel found a battalion commander performing below par and had the man relieved of command and sent on his way in 90 minutes. This management style would certainly send a signal that he demanded the utmost of his men, but it was bound to create a feeling of resentment among some of his officers.
F. W. von Mellenthin, who served on Rommel’s staff during the Africa campaign, wrote that Rommel took great chances on several occasions, gambling entire battles on decisions made almost on the spur of the moment and with incomplete information. He cited Rommel’s counterattack during Operation Crusader as just one such instance. Others who served under him in Africa, most notably General Fritz Bayerlein, said he took risks but only after carefully weighing the potential dangers and rewards. Rommel himself was aware of his growing reputation as a gambler and added careful notes in his papers explaining and defending his actions, especially concerning his decision to drive into Egypt during the 1942 Summer Offensive.
While some aggressive subordinates, like Hans von Luck, praised his leadership from the front, Mellenthin questioned this leadership style as it often led to disinvolvement of his staff officers in the fight instead of their maintaining an overview of the situation. His consequential long absences from HQ also meant that subordinates had to make decisions without consulting Rommel, leading to confusion.
Rommel was a teetotaler and a non-smoker.
Relations with the Italians
Rommel’s relations with the Italian High Command in North Africa were in the worst possible terms. That is hardly surprising, as Rommel was nominally subordinate to the Italians for much of the campaign but was also direct commander of the DAK, by far the strongest component of the Axis forces, and enjoyed direct access and the strongest relationships with the highest German political authority. This allowed him to ignore blatantly any sort of order or even simple advice coming from his Italian counterparts, and Rommel’s abrasive and often impolite manners did nothing to smoothe the resentment that this perceived insubordination and lack of respect generated in his Italian allies.
The belated expedient to nominate Field Marshall Kesselring as Supreme Commander Mediterranean, to act as a buffer between Rommel and the Italians, failed miserably, as Rommel quite simply ignored Kesselring exactly as he ignored the Italians.
Besides Rommel’s impolite manners and insubordination, there were also strong professional points of disagreements, mostly related to the handling of the logistical part of the campaign. While certainly much less proficient than Rommel in their tactical outlook and mobile warfare skills, the Italian commanders were competent “old school” professionals, with full staff training and a sound grasp of logistics and artillery doctrine, that is the true weak points of Rommel professional preparation. As such the Italian commanders were repeatedly at odds with Rommel, particularly when their conservative logistical calculations – regularly ignored by Rommel – were actually confirmed as accurate, leaving the Axis forces stranded in exposed position from where the Italians – with their puny motorized resources – were much less able than the Germans to extricate themselves
This generated a widespread lack of respect among the Italian commanders for Rommel’s professional skills in anything but tactical situation, that further ruined any possibility of implementing good working relations. This lack of trust reached its acme during the retreat up to Tunisia after the El Alamein battle, when an utterly spent and dispirited Rommel eluded all requests by the Italians to stand up and attempt to fight in defence of Libya on the favourable traditional back-up line at the el Agheila bottleneck or even before the main logistical base of Tripoli, a fact that the Italian commanders did consider just short of outright cowardice and treason.
Much different was the perception of Rommel among the Italian common soldiers and lower officers, that reserved for him the highest sort of admiration and respect.
Aggression and tactical capability
In France, Rommel’s aggressive drive through the French and British lines, disregarding the safety of his flanks and rear, succeeded to a remarkable degree. His bold attacks often caused larger enemy formations to surrender but his aggressiveness did cause resentment among fellow officers, however, who felt he at times acted too recklessly and failed to keep his sub-commanders and colleague commanders properly informed of his intentions. He was also criticized for claiming too much of the glory himself, neglecting support from other elements of the Wehrmacht and downplaying other units’ achievements.
British General Harold Alexander commanded Allied forces in the Middle East facing Rommel in Egypt (from August 1942) and later commanded 18th Army Group in Tunisia. In his official despatch on the campaign in Africa, he wrote of Rommel :
He was a tactician of the greatest ability, with a firm grasp of every detail of the employment of armour in action, and very quick to seize the fleeting opportunity and the critical turning point of a mobile battle. I felt certain doubts, however, about his strategic ability, in particular as to whether he fully understood the importance of a sound administrative plan. Happiest while controlling a mobile force directly under his own eyes he was liable to overexploit immediate success without sufficient thought for the future.
Sir David Hunt, one of Alexander’s intelligence officers, expressed the view in his own book that:
…his real gift was for commanding an armoured regiment, perhaps a division, and that his absolute ceiling was an armoured corps.
During the siege of Tobruk, Rommel launched frequent costly attacks during the first month of the siege. The level of losses incurred caused Rommel to have several arguments with his unit commanders, and also with the German High Command. Indeed, some sources indicate that Chief of Staff Halder had to send Friedrich Paulus to Africa to rein Rommel in, although Rommel himself maintained he had realized the futility of further attacks on the fortress on his own accord.
Rommel was extraordinarily well known in his lifetime, not only by the German people, but also by his adversaries. Popular stories of his chivalry and tactical prowess earned him the respect of many opponents, including Claude Auchinleck, Winston Churchill, George S. Patton, and Bernard Montgomery. Rommel reciprocated their respect; for instance, he said Montgomery “never made a serious strategic mistake” and credited Patton with “the most astounding achievement in mobile warfare. Hitler counted Rommel among his favorite generals. Rommel was among the few Axis commanders (others being Isoroku Yamamoto and Reinhard Heydrich) directly targeted for assassination by Allied planners. However, unlike the other two, the attempt on Rommel’s life was a failure.
The Afrika Korps were never accused of any war crimes, and Rommel himself referred to the fighting in North Africa as Krieg ohne Hass—war without hate. Numerous examples exist of Rommel’s chivalry towards Allied POWs, such as his defiance of Hitler’s infamous Commando Order following the capture of Lt. Roy Woodridge and Lt. George Lane as part of Operation Fortitude. He also refused to comply with Hitler’s order to execute Jewish POWs.
During Rommel’s time in France, Hitler ordered him to deport the country’s Jewish population; Rommel disobeyed. Several times he wrote letters protesting against the treatment of the Jews. When British Major Geoffrey Keyes was killed during a failed commando raid to kill or capture Rommel behind German lines, Rommel ordered him buried with full military honours. Also, during the construction of the Atlantic Wall, Rommel directed that French workers were not to be used as slaves, but were to be paid for their labour.
His military colleagues also played their part in perpetuating his legend. His former subordinate Kircheim, though privately critical of Rommel’s performance, nonetheless explained: “thanks to propaganda, first by Goebbels, then by Montgomery, and finally, after he was poisoned (sic), by all former enemy powers, he has become a symbol of the best military traditions. …Any public criticism of this legendary personality would damage the esteem in which the German soldier is held.”
After the war, when Rommel’s alleged involvement in the plot to kill Hitler became known, his stature was enhanced greatly among the former Allied nations. Rommel was often cited in Western sources as a general who, though a loyal German, was willing to stand up to Hitler. The release of the film The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951) helped to further enhance his reputation as one of the most widely known and well-regarded leaders in the German Army. In 1970 a Lütjens-class destroyer was named the Rommel in his honour.
Quotations about Rommel
The British Parliament considered a censure vote against Winston Churchill following the surrender at Tobruk. The vote failed, but in the course of the debate, Churchill stated:
We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.
He also deserves our respect, because, although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this, he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, there is little place for chivalry.
Theodor Werner was an officer who, during World War I, served under Rommel:
Anybody who came under the spell of his personality turned into a real soldier. However tough the strain he seemed inexhaustible. He seemed to know what the enemy were like and how they would react.
British General Claude Auchinleck, one of Rommel’s opponents in Africa, in a letter to his field commanders:
There exists a real danger that our friend Rommel is becoming a kind of magical or bogey-man to our troops, who are talking far too much about him. He is by no means a superman, although he is undoubtedly very energetic and able. Even if he were a superman, it would still be highly undesirable that our men should credit him with supernatural powers… [ending the memo with] I am not jealous of Rommel.
Medals and decorations
Rommel, with his various decorations including the Iron Cross
Dates of ranks