Erwin Rommel (1891-1944) was a German army officer who rose to the rank of field marshal and earned fame at home and abroad for his leadership of Germany’s Afrika Korps in North Africa during World War II. Nicknamed “the Desert Fox,” Rommel also commanded German defenses against the Allied invasion of northern France. After being implicated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, he died by suicide in October 1944.
Early Life and Service in World War I
Rommel was born on November 15, 1891, in Heidenheim, in the kingdom of Württemberg, Germany. While his father was a school teacher and headmaster, young Rommel displayed little interest in academics, and his family urged him to pursue a career as an army officer. As the more prestigious cavalry and guard regiments were limited to those with noble or military backgrounds, the 18-year-old Rommel joined the 124th Württemberg Infantry Regiment in 1910.
During World War I, Rommel served with distinction in Romania, France and Italy, earning a reputation for bravery and aggressive fighting tactics. After notable successes on the Italian front, in the Battle of Caporetto and the subsequent capture of the town of Longarone, he was promoted to the rank of captain in October 1918, shortly before the armistice. He married Lucia Maria Mollin while on leave from the army in 1916; their son, Manfred, was born in December 1928.
Relationship with Adolf Hitler
Between the wars, Rommel served in the limited army of the Weimar Republic as a popular instructor at the Dresden Infantry School and the German War Academy at Potsdam. In 1934, he met Hitler, who had recently consolidated power in Germany as führer, chancellor, and commander in chief of the army. The following year, Hitler reintroduced conscription, a policy that began the rebuilding of the German armed forces.
In 1937, Rommel’s reputation as a superior military instructor led Hitler to appoint him as the German War Ministry’s liaison officer to the Hitler Youth organization. Though Rommel was soon removed from the post due to his difficult relationship with Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach, Hitler personally requested that Rommel command his personal escort battalion, which accompanied the führer whenever he left Germany. Rommel served in this post through the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, during which he was promoted to the rank of major general.
From Blitzkrieg to the Afrika Korps
Hitler gave Rommel command of the 7th Panzer Division, one of 10 tank divisions that took part in the blitzkrieg invasion of Belgium and France that began on May 10, 1940. As his division drove forward with impressive speed, Rommel insisted on leading his men from the front lines, as opposed to commanding from the rear. Less than a year later, this bold and dynamic style earned him an appointment as commander of the Afrika Korps, the German troops sent to aid struggling Italian forces against the Allies in North Africa.
Arriving in Africa in February 1941, Rommel quickly took charge of the faltering Axis campaign, scoring several quick victories against British defenses around Cyrenaica and surrounding the coastal fortress of Tobruk by mid-April. In early 1942, he launched another offensive, culminating in the defeat of the British in the Battle of Gazala in June and the capture of Tobruk. Rommel’s speedy surprise attacks drew awe and praise even from his enemies, and his nickname, “Desert Fox,” became widely used among British soldiers as well as German ones.
The tide of war soon turned against the Axis in North Africa, with Allied forces recapturing Tobruk in the Second Battle of Alamein in October 1942, defeating Rommel’s exhausted and inadequately supplied troops. In March 1943, Hitler ordered Rommel—by now a field marshal—back to Europe.
Role in Normandy and the Plot to Kill Hitler
After briefly commanding forces in Italy, Rommel headed to northern France, where he was tasked with fortifying German defenses along the Channel coast ahead of a predicted Allied invasion. In contrast with other German generals, he favored a bold counterattack strategy after the Allied landings, a disagreement that would ultimately weaken the German response when the invasion began on D-Day (June 6, 1944).
By the spring of 1944, Rommel had become disillusioned and doubtful of Germany’s chances of winning the war and critical of Hitler’s leadership. At some point, he is believed to have talked with friends who were involved in secret opposition to Hitler, but most historians suggest he was likely not actually involved in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944.
During the invasion battle in Normandy, Rommel was seriously injured in an air attack on his car by British fighter-bombers on July 17. In August, he returned to Germany to complete his recovery. Having learned of Rommel’s contact with the July conspirators, Hitler didn’t want to create the spectacle of a popular general put on trial (and executed) for opposing him. Instead, he sent two generals to Rommel’s home to offer him the choice to commit suicide rather than face a public trial (and possible repercussions to his family). Rommel chose to take that option and used cyanide pills to kill himself on October 14, 1944. He was given a state funeral and buried with full military honors.
Pier Paolo Battistelli. Erwin Rommel. (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012)
Robert Citino. “Drive to Nowhere: The Myth of the Afrika Korps, 1941-43.” National World War II Museum, June 14, 2018.
Erwin Rommel - Holocaust Encyclopedia. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.