On October 14, 1944, two Nazi emissaries showed up at the home of high-ranking military commander Erwin Rommel, who had risen to prominence earlier in World War II fighting the Allies in France and North Africa. Accusing him of participating in a failed plot to kill Adolf Hitler, the emissaries offered him a choice: face trial for treason or commit suicide. Aware that death awaited him either way, Rommel popped a cyanide capsule into his mouth in exchange for immunity for his family. Seventy years later, explore some illuminating facts about the “Desert Fox,” so nicknamed by both his friends and enemies.
Rommel’s family lacked much of a military tradition.
Although Rommel would later become known for his bold battlefield tactics, his sister described him as a gentle and docile child. Developing an interest in mathematics and engineering, he co-built a full-size glider at age 14 and later disassembled and reassembled a motorcycle. Without good enough grades to attend university, he purportedly considered working at an airship factory near his hometown in southern Germany. But his father, the headmaster of a school, urged him to consider the military instead. After being rejected by the artillery and engineers, 18-year-old Rommel received acceptance to the infantry in 1910 as an officer cadet. He would remain in the military for the rest of his life—a far cry from his father and other male relatives, who left upon completing their mandatory service.
Rommel was injured multiple times in both world wars.
Taking part in dangerous raids and reconnaissance missions throughout World War I, his men supposedly joked, “Where Rommel is, there is the front.” But all of this fighting, including one 52-hour period in which his unit captured some 9,000 Italian prisoners, came with a price. In September 1914, for example, Rommel charged three French soldiers with a bayonet after running out of ammunition, only to be shot in the thigh so badly that a hole opened up as big as his fist. Three years later in Romania, he lost quite a bit of blood from a bullet to the arm, and he also continuously suffered from stomach ailments, fevers and exhaustion. More physical hardships came during World War II, from appendicitis to a face wound caused by a shell splinter. Then, in the wake of the D-Day invasion, Allied aircraft strafed his open-topped car as it rode through Normandy, France, causing it to somersault off the road. When the dust cleared, Rommel was unconscious, with multiple skull fractures and glass fragments in his face. In order to cover up the subsequent forced suicide of the popular general, Nazi officials told the public he had died as a result of those injuries. The truth didn’t come out until the conclusion of the conflict.
He was an early admirer of Hitler.
Following World War II, the Western Allies, now locked in an ideological struggle with the Soviet Union, made efforts to resuscitate Germany’s reputation. In so doing, they portrayed Rommel as a chivalrous combatant, pointing out, among other things, that he apparently never joined the Nazi Party. Yet his devotion to Hitler was incontrovertible. When Hitler took power, Rommel approved of his remilitarization plans, calling him the “unifier of the nation.” Later on, as the two men became better acquainted in the lead-up to the invasion of Poland, Rommel wrote to his wife that “the führer knows what is right for us.” He also attended Nazi indoctrination courses and signed his letters “Heil Hitler!” Hitler even gave him an autographed copy of “Mein Kampf.” Only later did Rommel grow disillusioned, believing that Germany must negotiate with the Allies rather than fight to the bitter end.
Rommel disobeyed some of Hitler’s direct orders.
After leading a tank division in the 1940 blitzkrieg of France, Rommel was transferred to North Africa in order to help the struggling Italians fight the British. Almost immediately he reversed the tide, pushing the British back hundreds of miles in a series of audacious assaults, for which he received his “Desert Fox” nickname, along with a promotion to field marshal. Finally, in October 1942, the numerically superior British halted his advance near El Alamein, Egypt. Running low on tanks, ammunition and fuel, Rommel prepared to retreat. But Hitler sent a letter telling him not to yield “even a yard of ground.” “As to your troops,” the führer added, “you can show them no other road than that to victory or death.” Despite his reverence for Hitler, Rommel disobeyed for fear his force would be completely annihilated. He also disregarded an order directing German generals to execute Allied commandos caught behind enemy lines. In the end, Rommel fled all the way to Tunisia, winning a tank battle there against the Americans—and losing one against the British—before returning to Europe in March 1943. Two months later, the Allies kicked the Germans out of North Africa altogether, setting the stage for their invasion of Italy.
Rommel ramped up coastal defenses prior to D-Day.
With an Allied invasion of Western Europe imminent, Rommel was assigned in late 1943 to inspect Germany’s defenses along some 1,600 miles of Atlantic coastline. Despite Nazi propaganda to the contrary, he found the area highly vulnerable. Under his supervision, the Nazis built fortifications, flooded coastal lowlands to make them impassable and placed massive amounts of barbed wire, mines and steel girders on beaches and offshore waters. Rommel also wanted tanks at the ready to prevent the Allies from establishing a bridgehead, but his superiors overruled him, preferring to keep most of them inland.
He probably never knew of the plot to kill Hitler.
As Germany’s military situation deteriorated, a group of senior officials attempted to assassinate Hitler with a briefcase bomb, only to be thwarted at the last moment. Rommel was friends with some of the conspirators and certainly conversed with them about a post-Hitler future. Nonetheless, the full extent of his involvement in the plot remains unknown. (According to his widow, he opposed assassination but wanted Hitler to be arrested and brought to trial.) Whether innocent or not, his name came up during the subsequent Nazi dragnet, prompting Hitler to arrange for his death.
Rommel and Allied leaders didn’t hesitate to compliment each other.
During the height of Rommel’s success in North Africa, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sang his praises before the House of Commons. “We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us,” Churchill declared, “and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.” George Patton, Bernard Montgomery and other top Allied generals likewise expressed their respect for him, and Rommel responded in kind, saying of Patton that “we saw the most astonishing achievement in mobile warfare,” and that “Montgomery never made a serious strategic mistake.”
Rommel is still celebrated in Germany.
Unlike other prominent World War II-era Germans, Rommel has escaped mass vilification. In fact, his name still graces two military bases and several streets in Germany, and a monument in his hometown praises him as “chivalrous,” “brave” and a “victim of tyranny.” Yet detractors remain, including a German historian who recently called him a “deeply convinced Nazi” and “an anti-Semite” who used North African Jews as slave laborers. At the very least, most historians agree, Rommel likely cared more for his career than he did about Nazi atrocities.