German World War II Field Marshal. Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel gained immortality in the North African campaign of 1941-1943. Sent with a small German force to help the Axis against the British after the Italians had suffered severe defeat, Rommel–reaching Tripoli in February 1941–was soon master of Cyrenaica and imposing his will on the enemy. For two years the opposing forces alternately advanced or withdrew over the desert, and Rommel’s name became legendary–a master of mobile operations who was rapid, courageous, and audacious.
Rommel’s supreme achievement was his defeat of the British at Gazala in May 1942, followed by the taking of Tobruk and a field marshal’s baton. Nemesis came five months later at El Alamein, when the British imperial army under Bernard Montgomery won a convincing victory. Rommel withdrew the survivors of his Panzerarmee to Tunisia. By then the British and Americans had landed in North Africa, the British Eighth Army had reconquered Tripolitania and was on the Tunisian border, and the Germans were hemmed in, isolated and facing overwhelming odds. Rommel left for Europe in March 1943. The African adventure was over.
Rommel has been criticized for lacking strategic sense, for excessive absorption in the tactical battle, for neglect of logistics, for periodic imprudence. These criticisms are shallow. Rommel’s especial flair was undoubtedly for the battle itself, for the cut and thrust of maneuver, for personal leadership at the point of decision, above all for the speed and energy with which he decided and acted; but in his extensive writings and recorded conversations he showed a military perceptiveness and strategic insight that would have probably enabled him to shine with the brilliance of Erich von Manstein had he held high command on the larger scale of the Eastern Front. As to logistics, Rommel was acutely aware of them at all times–they dominated the African theater where all commodities had to be imported and transported over huge distances. He refused, however, to make excessively pessimistic assumptions or to overensure–or, as he put it, to allow the scope and pace of battle to be dictated by quartermasters. A more cautious approach would have often denied him victory. And although Rommel sometimes underestimated the timing and difficulties of an operation, he was one who believed war seldom forgives hesitation or delay. From his earliest days as a brilliant young leader in World War I, or as a panzer divisional commander crossing the Meuse against fierce opposition and racing across France in 1940, he had proved to himself the virtues of initiative and boldness. On the whole his decisions were justified by victory: and in Africa victory often against odds.
Rommel’s last military appointment was in command of Army Group B, responsible in 1944 for much of northwest Europe. His energetic preparations reflected his conviction that the expected invasion had to be defeated near the coast, because Allied air power would nullify large-scale armored counteroperations after the landing. He believed, too, that the coming campaign should aim to defeat the invasion for one purpose: so that in the aftermath, peace might be negotiated in the west and a stalemate achieved in the east. Politically this was fantasy and militarily it failed; but for Rommel it was the only rational hope.
By then Rommel had lost all faith in Adolf Hitler. Hitler had showed him favor, and Rommel was long grateful for what he saw as Hitler’s restoration of German self-respect in the 1930s, but by 1944 he was disenchanted by Hitler’s refusal to face strategic facts. After the Allied invasion had succeeded in establishing a front (see D-Day), Rommel–who believed that Germany must now inevitably lose a war on two fronts–tried again personally to confront Hitler with reality. He failed.
Rommel, therefore, was now determined to surrender the German forces in the west unilaterally. Before that could happen he was wounded in an air attack on July 17. At home on sick leave, he was visited by emissaries of Hitler on October 14 and offered the choice of trial for high treason or suicide–to be publicized as a heart attack–with guarantees for his family’s immunity. He had never participated in the plot to assassinate Hitler, but his “defeatism” was known and his involvement presumed. He chose suicide and was given a state funeral.
Rommel has been variously described as a Nazi (because of long personal devotion to Hitler) or as a martyr of the German Resistance (because of the manner of his death). He was neither. He was a straightforward, gifted, patriotic German officer, a charismatic commander and master of maneuver, caught up in the disaster of the Third Reich.
GENERAL SIR DAVID FRASER
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.