The Ghosts Among Us
By Fred Mittag
“The Desert Fox”
At the beginning of WWII, Erwin Rommel was appointed commander of the troops guarding Hitler’s headquarters and he became personally known to Hitler. In 1940, he assumed command of the 7th Panzer Division. He quickly understood the tremendous possibilities of mechanized troops in an offensive role.
In 1941, Hitler appointed Rommel commander of the German troops to be sent to North Africa to help the Italians. He came to be called the “Desert Fox” by both friend and enemy, because of his audacious surprise attacks. His reputation soared and Hitler promoted him to field marshal.
In 1944, the German high command entrusted Rommel with the defense of France’s Normandy coast against a possible Allied invasion. He soon became doubtful that Germany could win the war and also doubted Hitler’s capacity to accept reality and make peace with the Allies.
Some of Rommel’s friends came to him and told him it would be his duty to take over as head of state in the event that Hitler should be overthrown. Rommel did not reject the suggestion, but on the other hand, these men never revealed to Rommel that they planned to assassinate Hitler.
The Allied invasion of Normandy began in June, 1944. Rommel tried on several occasions to point out to Hitler that the war was lost and that he should come to terms with the Allies.
In one letter, Rommel described to Hitler the overwhelming superiority of the enemy in artillery, tanks, and air power. But supplies for the German Army were arriving only sparsely. He said that the German troops were fighting with heroic courage, although the unequal battle negated their efforts. He concluded, “I must ask you to immediately remove us from the inevitable conclusions of this situation. As commander, I feel obliged to express this clearly.”
In July, at the height of the invasion battle, his car was attacked by British planes and Rommel was hospitalized with serious head injuries. By August, he had recovered sufficiently to return to his home to convalesce.
The attempt to assassinate Hitler was on July 20, 1944, but it failed, with terrible retribution among all the families of those involved. The visit of the conspirators with Rommel soon came to light.
Hitler did not want Germany’s most popular hero to be taken to court and then to the gallows. He sent two generals to Rommel with a cyanide pill, with the assurance that his name would remain unsullied if he avoided a trial – and that his family would remain safe. Rommel understood that his wife and son would be killed if he disobeyed. He told his wife what he must do, and then left with the men. They parked the car and he took the pill. Hitler declared a day of national mourning and he was buried as a national hero with full military honors. The official story was that he had died from his wounds in Normandy.
Historians regard Rommel as a humane and professional soldier. Rommel made sure captured soldiers had adequate rations. He once drove by a POW camp where a British soldier recognized that it was Rommel and saluted him. Rommel returned the salute. When he captured some British commandos, Hitler ordered them executed, but Rommel ignored the order and placed them in a POW camp and then had afternoon tea with them. In another case, a British commando was killed in a mission to assassinate Rommel, and Rommel ordered him buried with full military honors.
When Rommel was in France, Hitler ordered him to deport the country’s Jewish population and Rommel disobeyed. Instead, he wrote several letters to protest the treatment of the Jews. Such stories gained Rommel unusual respect from people such as Winston Churchill and U.S. General George S. Patton. When Rommel’s involvement in the plot to kill Hitler became known after the war, he rose in stature. The 1951 American film The Desert Fox made him even more famous.
During the war, Winston Churchill, in parliamentary debate, spoke of Rommel as a “daring and skillful opponent and a great general.” This caused the British Parliament to consider a censure vote against Churchill.
Writing about Rommel years later, Churchill said, “He deserves the salute which I made him in the House of Commons. He also deserves our respect, because although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this he paid the forfeiture of his life.”