On November 15, 1891, Johannes Erwin Eugen Rommel was born in Heidenheim, Germany. He was the third of the five Rommel children. His family did not have a history of military tradition. His father had served as an artillery officer, though. Young Rommel chose to follow a military career joining the Army at 18. He received his commission as a Lieutenant in January of 1912. He served Germany in both the First and Second World Wars. He served with distinction in both wars. He received wounds in both conflicts.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was one of Germany’s most popular generals during World War II. He was often referred to as “the People’s Marshal” by his fellow Germans. He became one of Germany’s most successful and popular generals. He is most well known for his command of the Afrika Corps that fought the Allies in North Africa.
The propaganda efforts of both the Allies and Germans made Rommel into an icon. He has been the subject of many works of fiction and non-fiction since the war. He is still celebrated in Germany. The Field Marshal Rommel Barracks in Augustdorf is named in his honor. It is today’s largest Army base in Germany.
Rommel in WWI
In World War I, Rommel fought in France, Romania, and Italy. He displayed outstanding leadership and ingenuity. He earned the Iron Cross, Second Class for service in France. Later in Rumania, his actions resulted in the Pour le Mérite for his actions on the Italian Front. By the time WWI had ended, he had reached the rank of Hauptmann (Captain).
The Interwar Years
There were riots and civil disturbances in Germany between the wars. Rommel was active with the Army in response to these disturbances. Generally, he succeeded without the use of violence.
These experiences strengthen his belief in the need for a strong, unified Germany. He later became an instructor at the Dresden Infantry School. In 1934 while at Dresden, he wrote a manual on infantry training. In 1935 Rommel joined the faculty at the War Academy at Potsdam. In 1937 he published the book “Infanterie greift an” (Infantry Attacks). The book described his wartime experiences and included his insightful analysis.
Among the many who read the book was Adolf Hitler. Rommel continued to advance in the ranks. By 1938 he had reached the rank of full Colonel. He became commandant of the Theresian Military Academy shortly afterward. He was seconded to command the Führerbegleibatallion at the request of Hitler in late 1938. This was a special battalion that traveled with Hitler. It provided security whenever he traveled outside of Germany. In August of 1939, Rommel was promoted again to Generalmajor.
Rommel in WWII
On September 1, 1939, Rommel and the Führerbegleibatallion were guarding Hitler. They were with the Führer’s field headquarters during the invasion of Poland. Rommel became commander of the 7th Panzer Division in February 1940. This gave him an opportunity to show his combat leadership skills.
On May 10, 1940, the Phoney War ended. The German Army began its invasion of the rest of Western Europe. Rommel’s 7th Panzers along with elements of the 5th Panzer reached the River Muse in only three days. Soon much of Europe was under German control.
By February 1941 Rommel had moved to North Africa and took command of the Axis troops there. The Italian Army was struggling in Libya. Rommel’s force arrived to strengthen the North African front.
He was very successful at first against the British forces. He earned the nickname of “Desert Fox” for his achievements. His success came to an end in October of 1942. That was when the Africa Corps was decisively defeated in the second battle of El-Alamein. The Germans fell back to Tunis. Orders arrived in March of 1943 for Rommel to return home. The efforts Rommel had against the British made him viewed as a liberator by much of the Arab world.
Hitler named Rommel General Inspector of the Western Defenses in November 1943. This put him in command of both the 7th and 15th armies. His area of responsibility stretched over a 20-kilometer strip of coast. He directed the installation of countless mines and tank traps along the beach. He issued similar orders for defensive measures behind the coast. These were to discourage and disrupt Allied landing attempts. Fortunately, these defensive measures were far from finished on D-Day.
On July 20, 1944, Hitler was the target of a nearly successful assassination attempt. Several high ranking German officers had planned the assassination. They believed that the elimination of Hitler was the only way to save Germany. It is unclear from the evidence if Rommel played a role in the plot. There is clear evidence that he had written to Hitler on July 15. The letter pleads with Hitler to end hostilities with the Allies.
Rommel was returning from a visit to the headquarters of the I SS Panzer Corps two days later. RAF fighters attacked his staff car leaving him hospitalized. He had severe head injuries which some thought would prove to be fatal.
Hitler went on a mad pursuit of those involved in the assassination attempt. A German Court of Military Honour found Rommel guilty of conspiracy. Officers visited him at his home on October 14. Three choices were presented to him. He could go to Berlin and defend himself to Hitler. He could do nothing which would mean his admission of guilt. He could choose suicide. Any choice but suicide would have meant punishment for his staff and family. If he chose suicide he would be treated as a hero of Germany and his family would receive a pension.
Whether or not he was guilty, Rommel made the honorable choice to take the offered cyanide capsule. This saved his family and staff. Germany mourned his passing with a state funeral. Rommel’s tomb can be visited in Herrlingen, Germany.
Herrlingen is a small village outside of Blaustein, which is a suburb to the west of Ulm. Herrlingen is about 55 miles (90 km) is East Southeast of Stuttgart.
The Connection to the 36th Infantry Division and the Texas Military Forces Museum
On August 15, 1944, the 6th US Army Group made an amphibious landing in southern France. The 36th Infantry Division was part of the 6th at that time. They encountered far less resistance than the Normandy landing had. The 36th took part in substantial combat as they moved north through France.
By May 8, 1945, VE Day, the 36th was based in Kitzbühel, Austria. The 141st Infantry Battalion was part of the 36th Division. From June 14 until July 9 it was stationed 156 mi (252km) northwest in Herrlingen, Germany. While there they came upon a remarkable find. This placard explains it best:
German Officer’s Peaked Cap (Schirmmutze) belonging to General Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Rommel was promoted to Field Marshal in June 1942 after his Afrika Corps captured the British fortress of Tobruk, Libya. This cap is a mix of Field Marshal and General Officer insignia, pieced together by Rommel’s staff because an actual Field Marshal’s cap was not immediately available in the North African desert.
The Headquarters Company if the 141st Infantry [Regiment] made its command post at Rommel’s house in Herrlingen, Germany, from June 14 to July 9, 1945. Private First Class George Atkins found the hat in the service quarters of Rommel’s house and took it as a war souvenir. On the inside of the hat in a plastic holder is a typed card with the words “Generalfeldmarschall Rommel – 39496”. This number was the Field Post address assigned to Rommel’s headquarters in North Africa. The Field Marshal’s son, Manfred Rommel, verified that this cap did indeed belong to his father.
This cap can be found on display in the 36th Division in WWI & II gallery of the Texas Military forces Museum in Austin, TX.
From the sands of North Africa to southern Germany comes a relic from WWII. A part of the legend of Germany’s Desert Fox can be found in Central Texas.
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If you are interested in the WWII era of history, you may find these three pages of interest.
- The “World War II Sources” page is a constantly growing collection of more than 360 links to museums, memorials, websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and other sources with information on the World War II-era in history.
- The “World War II Timeline” page expands almost daily and shows events leading up to WWII, as well as during the war. Events are broken down into the Pacific and European Theaters by date.
- The About WWII page is a collection of links to posts that I have made over the years that are relevant to WWII.