The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel

The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel

Mike Wood - October 19, 2017

Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, is one of the most celebrated and respected generals of the Second World War and indeed, one of the greatest generals of all time. His prowess on the battlefield earned him more than a battlefield earned him the admiration of both his men and his enemies alike, with adversaries lining up to pay tribute to their greatest foe in the field.

“We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general,” said no less than Winston Churchill himself of Rommel, just after the war ended in his book on the conflict, The Second World War. When Churchill came under fire in the press for praising a man seen as a Nazi, he doubled down, commenting “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, chivalry finds no place… Still, I do not regret or retract the tribute I paid to Rommel, unfashionable though it was judged.”

Indeed, the extent to which Rommel was a Nazi is one of the great questions that has been asked since the war and one that is debated to this day. Rommel, while respected by those who fought him from afar as generals and indeed, thought of a genius to many of those who fought beneath him in the Wehrmacht, has often faced criticism of his tactics and his decision making, with some post-war writers holding him up as a man prone to erratic behavior on the battlefield and a great sufferer from the stresses of the job.

“Rommel was jumpy, wanted to do everything at once, then lost interest. Rommel was my superior in command in Normandy. I cannot say Rommel wasn’t a good general. When successful, he was good; during reverses, he became depressed,” said Sepp Dietrich, who fought under Rommel in France and ended the war as the most senior figure in the Waffen-SS.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Luftwaffe field marshal Albert Kesselring, a contemporary of Rommel’s and an officer of similar rank, who later wrote: “He was the best leader of fast-moving troops but only up to army level. Above that level it was too much for him. Rommel was given too much responsibility. He was a good commander for a corps of army but he was too moody, too changeable. One moment he would be enthusiastic, next moment depressed.”

Who was this great man then? We know him today as a great tactician, a charismatic leader, a respected general and the last German participant in the so-called “clean war”. But how true are those assessments? Was the Desert Fox as chivalrous as his enemies thought him to be? Let us delve into the life and lesser-known facts of Erwin Rommel.

The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel
The young Rommel, as a cadet in 1910. New World Encyclopedia.

1 – Rommel wasn’t from a military family, or even a particularly rich one

Most important figures in the hierarchy of the German Army – or any major army of the time – came from a background that was steeped in military men. There was no preparation for a career in the German Army like having been born to someone who was already in the German Army, and though the young Erwin’s father had been a Lieutenant in the Reichsarmee, he was nothing special at all really.

All German men were required to serve national service in the military and Erwin Rommel Senior had been no different: he had done his bit like everyone else but then left to become a school administrator in the southern German town of Heidenheim, where Erwin Junior was born.

Erwin Senior was a headteacher and his wife, Helene, was the daughter of the head of the town council, so the family was far from poor, but they were also a long way from the aristocrats and gentry that dominated the army of the Kaiser. Moreover, they were from Baden-Württemburg, which set them apart from the Prussian origins and northern German domination of the higher ranks of the military.

The young Erwin was, even as a child, clearly highly organized and possessed a talent for engineering. He reportedly constructed a fully functioning, full-size glider at the age of just 14 and could assemble and disassemble a motorcycle by his mid-teens. With poor grades at school, he was thought to be considering putting his talents with his hands to good work in a local factory that produced airships and other aeronautic equipment, but his father pushed him towards a career in the army, from which he never looked back.

The future Field Marshal, however, would do his chances a further setback by fathering a child out of wedlock in 1912. Already disadvantaged by being born in the wrong place, to the wrong family, to a father who did the wrong job, Rommel – who was engaged to Lucia, the woman he would later marry – could not wed the mother of the child, Walburga Stemmer, as she was from a working-class background. To do so would have completely ruined his military career. Nevertheless, he agreed with Lucia to financially care for the child, who grew up with her grandmother.

Erwin, Lucia, Walburga and the child all lived together at one point in Stuttgart and the daughter was introduced as Rommel’s niece. Walburga died in 1928 in mysterious circumstances: her death was attributed to pneumonia, though many think that she may have killed herself.

The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel
Rommel during the First World War. Pinterest

2 – Rommel was far from just a Second World War hero – he distinguished himself in World War One too.

Rommel graduated from the military academy in Gdansk – then known as Danzig and an integral part of Germany – in 1912 and was immediately posted back to his home region of Baden-Württemberg.

When war broke out in 1914, Rommel was ready to face his first major conflict posting. As a battery commander within the 124th division of the German army, he would distinguish himself and gain his first recognition from the higher-ups.

Erwin saw his first action at the age of 23 on August 22, 1914, near the French town of Verdun. Rommel led his platoon into a French garrison, catching them by surprise and personally leading the charge ahead of the rest of his men, earning credits for bravery and ingenuity. He would be awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class, for his actions, a promotion to First Lieutenant and a transfer into the Royal Württemberg Mounted Battalion as a company – rather than platoon – commander.

Rommel would go on to fight in the German campaigns in Italy and Romania, with particular note being taken by the German Army hierarchy of his conduct in the Italian campaign. The Royal Württemberg Mounted Battalion fought at the Battle of Caporetto, the twelfth battle to be fought along the Isonzo River in modern-day Slovenia, and one that would go down as probably the largest military defeat in the history of Italy.

Rommel would play a central role, leading the Royal Württemberg, with just 150 men, to capture an estimated 9,000 Italians, complete with all their guns, for a cost of just 6 of his own men.

The young Rommel used the challenging, mountainous terrain of Caporetto – now known as Kobarid – to outflank the Italians and convince them that they were totally encircled by Germans, when in fact there was just one battalion. Fearing that they were surrounded, the Italians surrendered en masse and were surprised to find that so few men were able to capture them.

The efforts of the German Army to break into the Italian Front through the Slovenian Alps – at the time, part of Italy – were vital in furthering an advance towards Venice, though the Germans were eventually stopped and turned back.

Rommel was awarded the Pour Le Merite award by the Kaiser for his leadership at Caporetto, but also gained the respect and loyalty of his men, who were not only impressed by the way in which his tactics had won the battle, but also by the way that he had stood up to the German Army high command and argued for more and better food for his men. The legend of Rommel was growing apace.

The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel
Rommel and Hitler. The Independent

3 – Rommel was an effective teacher as well as a military leader

It shouldn’t be too surprising that Rommel was a capable teacher: his father had been a headmaster, while the ability to communicate his ideas effectively in the field would lead to some of his most enduring military victories. There was no point coming up with a revolutionary tactic to win a battle if you couldn’t then inform and inspire your men well enough for them to then go and carry it out.

At the end of the First World War, Rommel was entering his late 20s and had already been widely feted for his military prowess. While it might have seemed a little dull compared to the derring-do on the Isonzo, the role of the Royal Württenberg Mountain Battalion lay much closer to home, with German society slowly disintegrating into civil wars between, on the left, socialists who wanted Germany to undergo a revolution similar to that which had recently occurred in Russia, and on the right, groups such as the Freikorps, disgruntled ex-soldiers and nationalist, anti-communist paramilitaries that would go on to form the kernel of the Nazi Party.

Rommel, recently promoted again to the rank of Captain, was ordered to use his soldiers in a policing capacity, putting down insurrections all over southern Germany. It was during this period that he showed some of the sense of restraint that would distinguish his conduct in North Africa during World War Two, trying to avoid the use of force against crowds of civilians where possible.

After the Weimar Republic took hold, however, the country somewhat stabilized and Rommel found himself in Dresden, teaching new recruits. He had been promoted in turn to Major, then Lieutenant Colonel, placing him in the very highest echelons of the Treaty of Versailles-reduced German Army.

He was recognized as one of the prime instructors in that army and wrote a book, “Infantry Attacks“, that furthered his theories on warfare and explained his experiences in the Izonzo – it sold incredibly well and increased Rommel’s personal fame, as well as bringing him to the attention of Adolf Hitler, who was known to have read the book.

By the 1930s, of course, Hitler had come to power. The German Army, for whom Rommel worked, and the Nazi state were more and more inseparable, and it would be this coming together that prompted a major dilemma for the career soldiers such as Rommel: did the duty lie to their country, and whoever might be governing it, or to the party, that was coming to define what that country was about?

The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel
Rommel salutes Hitler. Pinterest

4 – Rommel was a committed Nazi and not the “decent face” of the German Army

Just how much of a Nazi Rommel was is one of the biggest questions that is debated about him to this day. It is largely due to the Rommel myth that was perpetuated by the likes of Winston Churchill after the war that Rommel was taken by the victorious Allies as “the good Nazi”, or the honest general who happened to be being ordered about by the Nazis, merely a career soldier who followed orders and stayed out of politics.

Let’s put that one to bed, here and now. Rommel was an early adopter of the Nazi Party and a committed believer in the ideals of National Socialism, while also being an officer who regularly disobeyed orders – making both commonly held assumptions wrong.

That said, he is one of the few figures of that period who is still revered in Germany, who still has streets named after him and memorials in his honor. It seems that the myth persists in his homeland too, despite countless books and articles to the contrary.

One such author attempting to shake this idea from the public consciousness is Wolfgang Proske, a historian and history professor from Rommel’s hometown on Heidenheim, who has written 16 books about his town’s most famous son. “Rommel was a deeply convinced Nazi and, contrary to popular opinion, he was also an anti-Semite.

It is not only the Germans who have fallen into the trap of believing that Rommel was chivalrous. The British have been convinced by these stories as well,” he told British newspaper The Independent in 2011 when a new memorial to the Field Marshal was unveiled.

“At the time when Rommel marched into Tripoli, more than a quarter of the city’s population were Jews,” Proske continued, “There is evidence which shows that Rommel forbade his troops to buy anything from Jewish traders. Later on, he used the Jews as slave laborers. Some of them were even used as so-called ‘mine dogs’ who were ordered to walk over minefields ahead of his advancing troops.”

While Rommel was never a member of the Nazi Party, it is widely known that Wehrmacht figures, particularly high-ranking ones such as Rommel, welcomed Hitler coming to power. Those, like Rommel, whose backgrounds had shut them off from the highest ranks of the Kaiser’s forces, saw the new government as one that would see them move to the top of the tree and as such were generally in favor of it.

Goebbels himself wrote in 1942, when Rommel was in the running for the role of Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht, that the Field Marshal was ” ideologically sound, is not just sympathetic to the National Socialists. He is a National Socialist; he is a troop leader with a gift for improvisation, personally courageous and extraordinarily inventive. These are the kinds of soldiers we need.”

The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel
Rommel in North Africa.

5 – Rommel owes a large part of his fame to the fact that he made fools of opposing generals

Rommel’s prowess as a general is unquestioned. On the back of his heroics as a low-level officer in World War One added to by his role teaching at the forefront of modern military tactics, he was perfectly positioned to lead the Nazi war machine into the second conflict.

When the war began, he was leading Hitler’s personal protection battalion – so much for a man who kept a distance from the center of Nazi power – and thus was privy to the highest levels of discussions regarding tactics, particularly the way in which to use mechanized infantry such as tanks. After the early successes in Poland, Rommel moved with the front to France and commanded Panzer units, before distinguishing himself against the British at Arras and leading the drive towards Dunkirk.

With the British regrouping on the other side of the Channel after a crushing defeat – which, lest we forget, Dunkirk was – the focus turned to North Africa, where Rommel would lead the newly-established Afrika Korps. He was the superstar of the German Army, a reputation largely built on his ability to vanquish the British, whom he would now face again in the desert. It was at this time that his nickname, The Desert Fox, was coined by the British press, who sought to create a figure against which the war could be fought.

The legacy of Rommel as the acceptable Nazi could be seen to stem from this point when the media in Britain saw fit to create a worthy adversary for their troops to combat. Rommel was thought to be an old-style soldier rather than an out-and-out Nazi: though we have seen that he was a Nazi, and he had arguably committed war crimes by summarily executing prisoners in France just weeks before.

Come the victory of the British at Tobruk and El Alamein, the British propaganda machine had even more than a noble adversary. They had a noble adversary against whom they had lost in Europe and then subsequently defeated: when the characters of the British side, Auchinleck and Montgomery, were spoken of, they needed someone of equal weight to make their victories seem even more heroic, a role that fit Rommel perfectly.

With morale at home low after the Dunkirk evacuation, the victories in North Africa were vital to keeping spirits up, and a glorious victory against an equally glorious enemy sounded even better. Churchill himself called Rommel an “extraordinary bold and clever opponent” and a “great field commander” in the House of Commons in 1942 – after he had just been defeated.

The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel
Rommel and a member of the Afrika Korps. IBTimes

6 – Rommel’s reputation for chivalry in North Africa might not just be down to his own intentions

Of course, some aspects the Allied propaganda about Rommel – that he was a fair fighter, that he respected the ideals of chivalry when other Germans didn’t – were generally true.

It is undoubted that, by and large, Rommel adhered to the rules of war when plenty of Nazi generals didn’t, but it bears mentioning that the reason that so many German generals were so callous is that they were ordered to be like that. Orders within the Nazi war machine came down from high and were often brutal in their nature: summary execution of prisoners, rounding up of Jews and other minorities, scorched earth policies. That was just the orders aimed at enemies: often generals would be ordered to stand their ground to the death when all military logic told them to make a tactical retreat.

Rommel’s dedication to upholding the “war without hate” as he called the more traditional methods of war is up for debate, but certainly, he did take measures to negate the harsher aspects. That said, there are other factors that question whether his commitment to the “war without hate” was intentional, circumstantial or ideologically-driven.

When most German generals were likely to commit acts of ethnic cleansing, Rommel was not generally faced with the question. North Africa, where this reputation was developed, had hardly any Jews, for example, and other potential targets for Nazi aggression were protected by being citizens of Italy and Rommel was wary of standing on the toes of their allies. That said, many within the North African Jewish community are reported as having felt that they were spared from the horrors suffered by Jews in Europe by the actions of the Afrika Korps, led by Rommel.

It is also widely accepted that he refused to execute captured Jewish prisoners and hated the use of slave labor. As far as his own troops were concerned, Rommel repeatedly refused orders directly from Hitler. When, at the end of the Second Battle of El Alamein, Hitler commanded him directly not to retreat and to show his soldiers “no other road than that to victory or death.”

Knowing that it was impossible for him to defeat the advancing British, who massively outnumbered his forces, Rommel chose to ignore the letter from the Fuhrer and fled all the way across North Africa to Tunisia rather than face death in the sand. While he was way too politically powerful to be censured by Hitler, actions such as this were contributory to a wider feeling among the Nazi hierarchy that Rommel was not one of them.

The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel
Rommel in a German newspaper. Alamy

7 – He was a PR superstar in Germany, but perhaps was not respected by the Nazi leadership

Rommel’s reputation within Germany might well have made him untouchable for the Nazi hierarchy, even when he did things that were in direct contradiction of the ideological and military strategy of the regime. They had invested so much time and so much weight in making him the poster boy of their propaganda regime that, when Rommel turned out to be less than what they had hoped for, they could not easily dispose of him.

On paper, he was the perfect fit for their media machine: he was an early adopter of Nazism, already a hero from the First World War and an excellent general, with victories aplenty. Moreover, they could cite the Allies reverence for him in their favor, and Rommel himself was comfortable in the spotlight and relished the attention.

Hitler was always wary of building up any one single figure too far – lest he be challenged himself – but Goebbels, the chief propagandist, knew an opportunity when he saw it and Rommel could not be passed up. As Rommel’s media image grew and grew, he became the darling of the public back home, but in the corridors of power in Berlin, there were plenty of higher-ups who were less convinced of his powers.

Even from the early days of the war in 1941, when Rommel was in France, some of those who fought alongside him were doubting just how effective he actually was a general. By the time that the war in North Africa had turned against him in 1943, the German furthest expansions were contracting: the Battle of Stalingrad had been lost in February and Rommel departed Tunisia in May.

It might have made sense if the Nazis had thought Rommel their best general, to send him to the Eastern Front where the war was being lost. Perhaps, too, the brutal nature of the war on the Ostfront was seen as beyond Rommel’s nature: this was not the time or place for “war without hate”, in the eyes of the Nazi leadership.

Instead, he was dispatched to Italy. As Italy fell, Rommel was demoted from the head of the campaign to second in command to Albert Kesselring, alongside whom he had served throughout the North Africa campaigns. Later in France, Rommel was the man in charge of building the Atlantic Wall that would protect Nazi-occupied France from Allied invasion: though he had warned heavily that his experiences in North Africa had taught him that land and sea defenses would be nothing if air supremacy allowed the Allies to destroy the Nazi army from above, Rommel was ignored.

After the defeat in Africa, the retreat through Greece and Italy and the failure to stop the D-Day invasions, his reputation as a superstar general back home was in tatters.

The Desert Fox: 8 Things You Never Knew About Erwin Rommel
The Desert Fox, 1951. Move Poster Shop

8 – Rommel’s reputation got a huge boost because of a 1951 film

If Rommel’s reputation as a great leader was undermined by the catastrophic defeats on the African, Italian and Western Fronts in the last two years of the war, why was it that the so-called “Rommel Myth” was so pervasive after the war? The theories are numerous, but one major contributing factor must be the success of the 1951 film, The Desert Fox.

Rommel was a well-known figure in Allied countries and in 1950, the first biography of the “good German” was released in the UK. Written by Desmond Young, a British brigadier who had himself been captured by Rommel during the war, “Rommel: The Desert Fox” was incredibly popular in Britain and cemented the position of the vanquished general as the acceptable enemy.

His later involvement in the 1944 plot against Hitler did a lot to wash Rommel of the stain of Nazism – conveniently forgetting the decade or so that he had spent close to the top of the regime – and his position as the general who was beaten “fair and square” endeared him to a British audience. After all, it’s much easier to build heroes of your own generals when they have beaten a general that you also respect.

The 1951 film The Desert Fox further spread the myth and was widely popular in the UK. The narrative of Rommel, the good German, being defeated by the heroic British in the clean war in North Africa was a far more palatable one in the burgeoning Cold War than one that emphasized the horrible destruction that had come through the Soviet victory in the East.

There could be little appetite for a war with Russia when people were constantly being reminded of the horrific images that had emerged from the Eastern Front. Thus, the clean general of the fair fight in North Africa was an enticing idea.

The Germans, too, were all too pleased to go along with Rommel as their figurehead. Their army had been severely curtailed after their defeat, but there was a clamor to de-Nazify the Wehrmacht and remove the stigma from the German armed forces. The Bundeswehr, the new German army, was more palatable to a post-war world when it could be seen as the legacy of good soldiers lead by bad politicians rather than an integral and vital part of the Nazi war machine.

Thus, the idea of The Desert Fox was created and, to a large extent, still persists. He remains the only Nazi to be lionized within Germany: public squares and streets bear his name, as does the largest barracks of the Bundeswehr. Whether such a status is deserved, however, is still a question about which historians continue to argue.

You may also interested: How Did Erwin Rommel aka “The Desert Fox” Die?

At a Glance: The Desert Fox “Erwin Rommel” Life!