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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Desert Fox

By Tom Morrow

During the 20th century, there were a number of renowned and highly-respected military leaders – Pershing, Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, MacArthur, Marshall, Yamamoto, Montgomery, but none had the unique admiration of both friend and foe as that of Germany’s Erwin Rommel.

Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel, popularly known as “The Desert Fox,” was a German field marshal during World War II. He was born on Nov. 15, 1891, in a part of the German Empire. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the German Army in January 1912.

Rommel met his wife, Lucie, and married on Nov. 27, 1916. Their only son, Manfred, would become Lord Mayor of Stuttgart from 1974 to 1996. He died on Nov. 7, 2013.

Rommel’s reward for his 1940 “Ghost Division” successes in France was promotion to the rank of lieutenant general. He had a reputation as an elite commander of motorized forces and was appointed to lead the newly-created Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK). He was sent to Libya to aid demoralized Italian troops. Because of his bold successes, British journalists dubbed him “The Desert Fox.”

Never a member of the Nazi Party, Rommel is regarded as having been a humane and professional officer. His Afrika Korps was never accused of war crimes, and soldiers captured during his Africa campaign were reported to have been treated with dignity. Hitler’s orders to kill Jewish soldiers, civilians and captured commandos were ignored.

Late in the war during Rommel’s last command of the Atlantic Wall prior to D-Day, Hitler ordered him to deport the area’s Jewish population — Rommel disobeyed. He refused Hitler’s order to execute Jewish POWs, and directed that French workers be paid for their labor, and not be used as slave laborers. An RCAF Spitfire strafed him while traveling in his staff convertible. Rommel was thrown from the car, suffering cuts to his face and three skull fractures.

Early in 1944, three of Rommel’s closest friends began efforts to bring Rommel into an anti-Hitler “Valkerie” conspiracy. They felt he would lend their cause credibility with the people Rommel agreed to the conspiracy in order to, as he put it, “… come to the rescue of Germany.”

After the failed July 20, 1944, bombing attempt, conspirators were arrested – including Rommel. On Oct. 14, 1944, the field marshal was visited by two generals from Hitler’s headquarters. He was informed of the charges and was offered a choice: face the People’s Court or quietly commit suicide. If suicide, he would be assured his family full pension and a state funeral claiming he had died a hero. Rommel took a cyanide capsule. The truth behind his death became known to the Allies when Rommel’s widow was interviewed in April 1945. The public did not know the details until the Nuremberg Trials.

When Rommel’s involvement in the attempt to kill the Nazi leader became known after the war, his stature was enhanced in the eyes of his former adversaries. Rommel became the most widely-known and well-regarded leader in the German Army. In 1970, a German Navy destroyer was named “The Rommel” in his honor. For decades after the war on the anniversary of his death, veterans of the Africa campaign, including former opponents, would gather at Rommel’s tomb in Herrlingen.

Writing about Rommel years after the war, Winston Churchill offered the following: “His ardour, and daring, inflicted grievous disasters upon us. … He also deserves our respect … (but) … in the wars of modern democracy, there is little place for chivalry.”


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