Erwin Rommel was one of the greatest generals of World War II. His use of strategy, logistics, and natural instincts separated from other generals. He could move his troops and tanks faster and more efficiently than any other Nazi general and he used this skill to make quick and powerful strikes where his enemy would least expect it. This special ability gained him and his divisions nicknames like “Desert Fox” and the “Ghost Division”. Erwin Rommel was born on November 15, 1891 in Heidenheim, Wurttemberg.
His father was the Headmaster of a secondary school and very strict but fair. Rommel described his childhood in his memoir as passing quite happily. Rommel didn’t have an extensive military background as a child; rather he was a skilled engineer. He liked to build small contraptions and inventions. When he was fourteen he completed a full sized glider, which he could make fly short distances. Rommel wished to go to school and become an engineer, but his father had other ideas.
As World War I loomed, his father decided Rommel would be best as a soldier and sent him to the army. He was put into the124th Wurttemberg Infantry Regiment as an officer cadet in 1910. He was then sent to Officer Cadet School in Danzig where he graduated on November 15th, 1911 and was commissioned as a lieutenant. In 1914 he participated in the campaigns in France and Romania first as a part of the 6th Wurttemberg Infantry Regiment and later as a part of the Alpenkorps, a mountain division of the German army. During the First World War he fought on the front lines many times.
After being wounded for the first time he had the choice to be sent home and he denied it, wishing to stay and fight. He was wounded twice more during the course of the war and never left. During the war he was also awarded the Iron Cross, first and second-class. His officers throughout the war noticed his bravery and leadership on the battlefield and this gained him a reputation. They also noticed that he knew how to make decisions in a moments notice, where other soldiers would freeze at the opportunity, he would make the most of any tactical advantage.
Towards the end of the war Rommel was awarded the Pour le Merite, the highest award the Prussian Empire awarded, for fighting in the Battles of the Isonzo. He earned it for his participation in the Battle of Longarone where the Mountain Matajur was captured along with its defenders. This included about 160 Italian officers, 9,500 men, and 83 artillery pieces. During the war he spent a few months evading capture behind Italian lines where most of his friends were killed or taken captive. This lead to his contempt of Italian forces which he would have to overcome during the Second World War when they were allied.
When the war ended and the Treaty of Versailles put military limitations on Germany, having a General Staff was banned for Germany. However, the German officers disregarded this and started an underground Officer’s Troop called Truppenamt. He was offered a high position in the group and he turned it down on the grounds that it was illegal and he believed that the group wasn’t necessary in the first place. Instead he took the time in between the two wars writing books based on his experience in the First World War.
Two strategy based training books he wrote were called “Combat Tasks for Platoon and Company” and his more famous “Infantry Attacks”. In “Infantry Attacks” he explains a strategy in which whenever you stop you should build foxholes and trenches. This saved many German men from French artillery during the Second World War; the shrapnel from French shells would fly harmlessly over their heads and limit the number of casualties severely. These military textbooks gained the attention of Adolf Hitler who met with Rommel and placed him in charge of the War Ministry contact for the Hitler Youth.
He did work to increase the army’s involvement in the Hitler Youth which would mean better training, and for his work there, in 1938 he was Kommandant of the War Academy at Wiener Neustadt for a short period of time until Hitler requested that he be put in charge of his personal guard for when he made political visits to unstable countries. This gained him personal favor with Adolf Hitler and would later get him positions in the army during WWII normally not appointed to someone with his experience. At the start of World War II Rommel was put in charge of an armored ivision for the Blitzkrieg invasion of France. He had gotten this position out of request; it would not normally have been assigned to someone like him because he had no real experience commanding armour. His fellow officers believed he was getting special treatment and many resented him for it. However, in the weeks preceding the invasion he studied textbooks on armour and went to experienced tank battalion officers to learn as much as he could. He modified and customized the strategies and tactics that he learned to what he believed would work better.
When the invasion of France started it was soon discovered that the division he was commanding was taking the most ground and because of his skill with logistics he could move his tanks faster then anyone previously. At times Rommel would get so caught up in the action and heat of the battle that he would forget to let the German HQ know where he was going. So at times neither the French nor the Germans would know where he was. It is still unsure today how much ground he covered during that time.
Because of his quick and stealthy movement his division was given the nickname “Ghost Division”. Because of his great success in France, in 1941 Rommel was rewarded with control over the Afrika Korps. Rommel had been sent to Africa to help the retreating and demoralized Italians who had been pushed back severely during Operation Compass, during which the British Commonwealth accompanied by Australian and Indian forces launched a massive offensive and pushed the Italian forces back, capturing 115,000 infantrymen and over 1,100 aircraft.
With the weakened forces at his disposal Rommel was ordered to hold his position against oncoming British. The British forces however, were no real threat due to the fact that most of the best troops had been transferred to fight in the Battle of Greece after Operation Compass. Due to the successfulness of Operation Compass the British commander believed that these new German forces and remaining Italians would not attack before late April or even May.
Rommel wished to take the initiative and suggested an offensive against the weakened British at Agedabia and Benghazi, but his conservative officers would only allow a limited attack, He said that this would prove ineffective and a larger offensive was needed or the British might take back the ground they had gained. When they made the offensive on March 24, 1941 his superior officers told him to simply hold the ground they had planned to take. Rommel knew that he could take Agedabia now instead of waiting till May. He succeeded and captured all of Benghazi.
Rommel went even a step further and decided he would continue the offensive to Cyrenaica. He saw that the British were exhausted and had no intention of continuing the fight so he pushed on despite continued commands from the Italians and his own German commanders not to. By April 8th he had taken Cyrenaica and was determined to keep up the pressure. Determined to keep up the assault, Rommel launched another attack, this time on the port of Tobruk on April 9th. Continuing assault after assault, Rommel again organized his division and tried to sweep south and cut off the remaining British forces.
However, his plan finally failed because the supply lines were getting too long and there was still a fight going on at Tobruk. Rommel went back to Tobruk to complete the envelopment of Tobruk so an attack could be launched. The siege of Tobruk lasted 240 days and consisted of small repeated attacks by the Germans on a garrison of 25,000 allied troops. Because of the layout of the city these smalls-scale attacks were easily defended. Although the Germans never captured Tobruk, the fact that Rommel was able to move his forces to the city so smoothly and with such speed was impressive. He never captured it, but he did overtake it.
He moved on and on June 30th Rommel reached El Alamein. At the battle of El Alamein Rommel was halted and his forces were caught in a stalemate. He launched a second attack and this time he was put on the defensive. This battle marked the turning point in North Africa, for Rommel and his forces would not go on the offensive again for the rest of the war. Even though he lost in North Africa his skill with logistics and his readiness to take swift action Rommel was nicknamed “the Desert Fox” by the opposing British forces. Towards the end of the war Rommel went to Hitler and told him that it was perhaps time to create a treaty and end the war.
He knew that Germany would not last much longer, but Hitler would not listen to common sense, even when it came from his greatest general. Rommel was approached by three of his close friends Alexander von Falkenhausen, Karl Strolin, and Carl Heinrich von Stuelpnagel who asked him to be part of the conspiracy against Hitler. Rommel did not believe in assassination, he thought that if Hitler were to be killed then it could start a civil war in Germany. His aim was to “save Germany”, he believed that by capturing Hitler and putting him on trial then he could turn Germany against him and end the war.
After the attempted assassination and coup on July 20th, it was found that Rommel was involved in the conspiracy. Hitler told him that he could either go to trial and his fate be decided by the “People’s Court” or he could commit suicide and be buried with full military honors. The trial would have meant his execution and that his family could not be protected. On October 14, 1944 he committed suicide using a cyanide pill and was buried in Herrlingen. Although taking part in the coup against Hitler made Rommel unpopular among the General Staff of Germany, he found respect for his actions outside his own ranks.
Many of the Allied generals during the war had a deep respect for his military brilliance and bravery in standing against Hitler. Risking his life and fighting the reign of Hitler gained him the respect of very important individuals on the allied side such as the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and the famous American general George Patton. Upon hearing of Rommel’s death Churchill said, “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.
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