Rommel, Field Marshal Erwin, 1891-1944

Rommel excelled at every level of command he held, from platoon to army group commander. As a lieutenant in World War I, he led his platoon with great dash in the Battle of the Frontiers. As a company commander he won the Pour le merite, Germany’s highest decoration for bravery, in the Battle of Caporetto. Between the wars Rommel wrote an important textbook on infantry tactics, in which the theory or doctrine of ‘forward control’ was first developed, and at the outbreak of war he was given command of a Panzer Division, the 7th, which he commanded in the Battle of France. He perhaps owed his command to a lucky acquaintanceship with HITLER, but he justified his appointment by the brilliance with which he handled the division in the field (slightly marred by his unsure reaction to the British counterattack at Arras on 21 May 1940). In February 1941, when the rest of the German Army was preparing for the invasion of Russia, he was chosen to lead the Afrika Korps which Hitler had decided to send to the rescue of Mussolini’s Army in Libya, and his handling of it in the next eighteen months laid the foundation of a military legend. On his arrival he immediately halted and then turned back WAVELL’s advance into Cyrenaica and, until Alamein, retained the initiative throughout the almost continuous fighting of the next year. He was halted by AUCHINLECK in July 1942 but found the strength to renew his attack towards Cairo in August. It was only because he had exhausted his supplies and reinforcements and overextended his lines of communication that he was so soundly beaten at El Alamein in October and he then made MONTGOMERY pay a high price for his victory. His retreat to Tunisia was a well-conducted delaying action and his defense of the territory when he arrived far stronger than the Allies had expected. He was ordered home by Hitler before the final collapse and then sent to prepare France against the threat of Allied Invasion. His strengthening of the coastal defenses made the landings, when they came, costlier than they would have been, and he conducted a tenacious defense of the German lines around the lodgment area, even though he had not been allowed by RUNDSTEDT to deploy his troops as he wished. On 17 July however, he was wounded by a British fighter’s attack on his car and evacuated. He then came under suspicion of implication in the Bomb Plot and was offered by Hitler the choice of standing trial, with the inevitable danger that threatened his family, or of committing suicide. He took the proffered poison and was given a state funeral, having, it was announced, died of his wounds.

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