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Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel (15 November 1891 – 14 October 1944), popularly known as the Desert Fox , was a German Field Marshal of World War II. He won the respect of both his own troops and the enemies he fought.
Rommel was a highly decorated officer in World War I and was awarded the Pour le Mérite for his exploits on the Italian front. In World War II, he further distinguished himself as the commander of the 7th Panzer Division during the 1940 invasion of France.
However, it was his leadership of German and Italian forces in the North African campaign that established the legend of the Desert Fox. He is considered to have been one of the most skilled commanders of desert warfare in the conflict. He later commanded the German forces opposing the Allied cross-channel invasion in Normandy.
As one of the few generals who consistently fought the Western Allies (he was never assigned to the Eastern Front), Rommel is regarded as having been a humane and professional officer. His Afrikakorps was never accused of war crimes. Soldiers captured during his Africa campaign were reported to have been treated humanely. Furthermore, he ignored orders to kill captured commandos, Jewish soldiers and civilians in all theaters of his command.
Late in the war, Rommel was linked to the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler. Due to the fact that Rommel was widely renowned, Hitler chose to eliminate him quietly. Rommel agreed to commit suicide by taking a cyanide pill, in return for assurances his family would be spared.
Early life and career
Rommel was born on 15 November 1891 in Heidenheim, 45 kilometres (28 mi) from Ulm, in the Kingdom of Württemberg (then part of the German Empire). He was baptised on 17 November 1891. He was the second child of the Protestant headmaster of the secondary school at Aalen, Professor Erwin Rommel Senior (1860–1913), and Helene von Luz, who had two other sons and a daughter. Rommel wrote that "my early years passed quite happily."
At the age of 14, Rommel and a friend built a full-scale glider that was able to fly short distances, and he continued to display extraordinary technical aptitude throughout his life. Although Rommel considered becoming an engineer, at age 18 he acceded to his father's wishes and joined the local 124th Württemberg Infantry Regiment as a fähnrich (English: ensign), in 1910, studying at the Officer Cadet School in Danzig. He graduated on 15 November 1911 and was commissioned as a leutnant in January 1912.
While at Cadet School, Rommel met his future wife, 17-year-old Lucia Maria Mollin (commonly called Lucie). They married on 27 November 1916 in Danzig and on 24 December 1928 had a son, Manfred Rommel, who later became the Mayor of Stuttgart. Rommel had a relationship with Walburga Stemmer in 1913, which allegedly produced a daughter, Gertrud.
World War I
During World War I, Rommel fought in France as well as in Romania (see: Romanian Campaign) and Italy (see: Italian Campaign), first in the 6th Württemberg Infantry Regiment, but through most of the war in the Württemberg Mountain Battalion of the elite Alpenkorps. He gained a reputation for great courage, making quick tactical decisions and taking advantage of enemy confusion. He was wounded three times and awarded the Iron Cross, First and Second Class. Rommel also received Prussia's highest award, the order of Pour le Mérite, after fighting in the Battles of the Isonzo in the north-eastern Alps on the Isonzo river front. The award was for the Battle of Longarone and the capture of Mount Matajur and its Italian defenders, which totalled 150 officers, 9,000 men, and 81 artillery pieces. In contrast, Rommel's detachment suffered only six dead and 30 wounded during the two engagements, a remarkable achievement.
For a time, Rommel served in the same infantry regiment as Friedrich Paulus, who, like Rommel, rose to the rank of Field Marshal during World War II. While fighting at Isonzo, Rommel was caught behind Italian lines, but managed to escape capture, though almost all of his staff were taken prisoner. In the Second World War, when the Germans and Italians were allies, Rommel tempered his initial disdain of Italian soldiers, when he realized their lack of success was principally due to poor leadership and equipment. When these difficulties were overcome, they were equal to German forces. Erwin Rommel wrote a book, Infanterie Greift An (Infantry Attacks), in which he examined and analyzed the many battles he fought in during World War I. It was published in 1937 and became essential reading for both German and Allied commanders during World War II. He taught his men to dig in whenever they paused for any length of time. This paid off many times when French artillery fired upon his position, only to be shrugged off by the entrenchments built by Rommel's men.
Career between the world wars
Rommel turned down a post in the Truppenamt (the camouflaged General Staff), whose existence was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles—the normal path for advancing to high rank in the German army. Instead, he preferred to remain a frontline officer.
Rommel held battalion commands and was an instructor at the Dresden Infantry School from 1929 to 1933. In 1934, his book for infantry training, “Gefechts-Aufgaben für Zug und Kompanie : Ein Handbuch für den Offizierunterricht“ (Combat tasks for platoon and company: A manual for the officer instruction), appeared. This book was printed until 1945 in five editions, with revisions and changes of title. From 1935 to 1938, Rommel held commands at the Potsdam War Academy. Rommel's war diaries, Infanterie greift an (Infantry Attacks), published in 1937, became a highly regarded military textbook and attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler, who placed Rommel in charge of the War Ministry liaison with the Hitler Youth (Hitler Jugend), Headquarters of Military Sports, the branch involved with paramilitary activities, primarily terrain exercises and marksmanship. Rommel applied himself energetically to the task. The army provided instructors to the Hitler Youth Rifle School in Thuringia, which in turn supplied qualified instructors to the HJ's regional branches.
In 1937, Rommel conducted a tour of Hitler Youth meetings and encampments and delivered lectures on German soldiering while inspecting facilities and exercises. Simultaneously, he was pressuring Baldur von Schirach, the Hitler Youth leader, to accept an agreement expanding the army's involvement in Hitler Youth training. Schirach interpreted this as a bid to turn the Hitler Youth into an army auxiliary, a "junior army" in his words. He refused and denied Rommel (whom he had come to dislike personally, apparently out of envy for his "real soldier's" appeal) access to the Hitler Youth. An agreement was concluded, but on a far more limited scope than Rommel sought; cooperation was restricted to the army's providing personnel to the rifle school. By 1939 the Hitler Youth had 20,000 rifle instructors. Simultaneously, Rommel retained his place at Potsdam.
In 1938 Rommel, now a colonel, was appointed Kommandant of the War Academy at Wiener Neustadt (Theresian Military Academy). Rommel was removed after a short time, however, to take command of Adolf Hitler's personal protection battalion (FührerBegleitbataillon), assigned to protect him in the special railway train (Führersonderzug) used during his visits to occupied Czechoslovakia and Memel. It was during this period that he met and befriended Joseph Goebbels, the Reich's Minister of Propaganda. Goebbels became a fervent admirer of Rommel and later ensured that Rommel's exploits were celebrated in the media.
World War II
Rommel with Hitler, von Reichenau and Bormann in Poland (September 1939)
Rommel acted as commander of the Führerbegleithauptquartier (Führer escort headquarters) during the Poland campaign, often moving up close to the front in the Führersonderzug and seeing much of Hitler. After the Polish were defeated, Rommel returned to Berlin to organize the Führer's victory parade, taking part himself as a member of Hitler's entourage. During the Polish campaign, Rommel was asked to intervene on behalf of one of his wife's relatives, a Polish priest who had been arrested. When Rommel applied to the Gestapo for information, the Gestapo found no information about the man's existence.
Rommel asked Hitler for command of a panzer division. On 6 February 1940, three months before the invasion of France, Rommel was given command of the 7th Panzer Division, for Fall Gelb ("Case Yellow"), the invasion of France and the Low Countries. This promotion provoked resentment among some of his fellow officers. Rommel's initial request for command had been rejected by the Chief of Army Personnel, who cited his lack of previous experience with armoured units and his extensive prior experience in an Alpine unit made him a more suitable candidate to assume command of a mountain division that had recent need to fill its commanding officer post. Rommel had, however, emphasized the use of mobile infantry and recognized the great usefulness of armoured forces in the Poland campaign. He set about learning and developing the techniques of armoured warfare with great enthusiasm. The decision to place him in command of an armoured division was borne out to be an excellent one. In May 1940 his 7th Panzer Division became known as the "Ghost Division" because its rapid advances and fast paced attacks often placed them so far forward that they were frequently out of communication with the rest of the German army.
Invasion of France and Belgium
On 10 May 1940 a part of XV Corps under General Hoth advanced into Belgium to proceed to the Meuse river near the Walloon municipality of Dinant. At the Meuse, 7th Panzer was held up by destroyed bridges and determined sniper and artillery fire from the Belgian defenders. Rommel, having assumed personal command of the crossing, overcame the German lack of smoke grenades by ordering a few nearby houses to be set on fire to conceal the attack. The German Panzergrenadiers crossed the river in rubber boats, with Rommel leading the second wave. The Division dashed further inland, always spurred on by Rommel, and far in front of any friendly forces.
Rommel's technique of pushing forward boldly, ignoring risks to his flanks and rear and relying on the shock to enemy morale to hinder attacks on his vulnerable flanks, paid large dividends during his rapid march across France. When encountering resistance, Rommel would simply order his tanks forward, all guns blazing, relying on the shock of the sudden assault to force the enemy to surrender. This method offset the disadvantage the German tanks had in terms of armour and low-calibre guns, often causing large formations of enemy heavy tanks to simply give up a fight they would otherwise have had a good chance of winning. This approach, although it saved lives on both sides by avoiding prolonged engagements, did cause mishaps. On one occasion his tanks, following this tactic, closed with a convoy of French trucks and fired into them before realizing that they were acting as ambulances, ferrying wounded from the front.
Battle of Arras
By 18 May the Division had captured Cambrai, but here Rommel's advance was checked briefly. His chief of staff, still with the unmotorized part of the Division in Belgium and not having received radio reports from Rommel, had written off Rommel and his combat group as lost and so had not arranged for fuel to be sent up. There was a degree of controversy over this issue, with Rommel furious at what he perceived as a negligent attitude on the part of his supply officers, whereas his chief of staff was critical of Rommel's failure to keep his staff officers informed of his actions.
On 20 May Rommel's tanks reached Arras. Here he wanted to cut off the British Expeditionary Force from the coast and Hans von Luck, commanding the reconnaissance battalion of the Division, was tasked with forcing a crossing over the La Bassée canals near the city. Supported by Stuka dive bombers, the unit managed to cross whereupon the British launched a counterattack (the Battle of Arras) on 21 May. Facing the British Matilda tanks, the Germans found their 37 mm guns useless against the heavy armour and a battery of 88 mm guns had to be brought up to deal with the threat, with Rommel personally directing the fire.
After Arras, Hitler ordered his tanks to hold their positions, while the British, in Operation Dynamo, evacuated their troops at Dunkirk, and the 7th Panzer Division was given a few days of much-needed rest. On 26 May, 7th Panzer continued its advance, reaching Lille on 27 May. For the assault on the town, General Hoth placed his other tank division, 5th Panzer Division, under Rommel's command, to the chagrin of its commander, General Max von Hartlieb-Walsporn. The same day, Rommel received news that he had been awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross; the first divisional commander to be so honoured during the campaign. This award, which had been secured for Rommel at Hitler's behest, caused more animosity among fellow officers, who were critical of Rommel's close relationship with Hitler. They believed that this was further evidence that Hitler seemed to give Rommel preferential treatment.
On 28 May, while making the final push into Lille and far in front of friendly forces, 7th Panzer came under heavy fire from French artillery. Rommel drove his forces on, capturing Lille, trapping half of the French First Army, and preventing their retreat to Dunkirk. After this coup, Rommel's forces were again given time to rest.
Drive for the English Channel
Rommel, resuming his advance on 5 June, drove for the River Seine to secure the bridges near Rouen. Advancing 100 kilometres (62 mi) in two days, the division reached Rouen only to find the bridges destroyed. On 10 June, Rommel reached the coast near Dieppe, sending his "Am at coast" signal to the German HQ.
On 15 June, 7th Panzer started advancing on Cherbourg. On 17 June, the Division advanced 35 kilometres (22 mi), capturing the town on the following day. The Division then proceeded towards Bordeaux but stopped when the armistice was signed on 21 June. In July, the Division was sent to the Paris area to start preparations for Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion), the planned invasion of Britain. The preparations were half-hearted, however, as it soon became clear that the Luftwaffe would not be able to secure air superiority over the Royal Air Force.
The 7. Panzer-Division was later nicknamed Gespenster-Division (the "Ghost Division"), because of the speed and surprise it was consistently able to achieve, to the point that even the German High Command at times lost track of its whereabouts. It also set the record for the longest thrust in one day by tanks up to that point, covering nearly 320 kilometres (200 mi).
Rommel received both praise and criticism for his tactics during the French campaign. Many, such as General Georg Stumme, who had previously commanded 7th Panzer Division, were impressed with the speed and success of Rommel's drive; however, others were more reserved, some out of envy, others because they felt Rommel took unnecessary risks. Hermann Hoth publicly expressed praise for Rommel's achievements, but had private reservations, saying in a confidential report that Rommel should not be given command over a corps unless he gained "greater experience and a better sense of judgment." Hoth also accused Rommel of an unwillingness to acknowledge the contributions of others to his victories.
The Fourth Army commander, General Günther von Kluge, also criticised Rommel for falsely claiming all the glory for his achievements. Rommel did not, Kluge felt, acknowledge the contribution of the Luftwaffe, and Rommel's manuscript describing his campaign in France misrepresented the advances of neighbouring units to elevate the achievements of his own dazzling advances. Kluge also cited the complaint by General Hartlieb that Rommel had misappropriated 5th Panzer's bridging tackle on 14 May after his own supplies had run out in order to cross the Meuse, delaying 5th Panzer for several hours. Rommel had repeated this procedure on 27 May at the River Scarpe crossing.
North Africa 1941–1943
Rommel's reward for his success was to be promoted to Generalleutnant and appointed commander of the 5th Light Division (later reorganised and redesignated 21.Panzer-Division) and of the 15.Panzer-Division which, as the Deutsches Afrikakorps,( listen (help·info)) were sent to Libya in early 1941 in Operation Sonnenblume to aid the demoralised Italian troops which had suffered a heavy defeat from British Commonwealth forces in Operation Compass. It was in Africa where Rommel achieved his greatest fame as a commander.
First Axis offensive
His campaign in North Africa earned Rommel the nickname "The Desert Fox." On 6 February 1941 Rommel was ordered to lead the Afrika Korps, sent to Italian Libya to help shore up the Italian forces which had been driven back during Operation Compass, launched by British Commonwealth forces under Major-General Richard O'Connor during December 1940. Initially ordered to assume a defensive posture and hold the front line, the Axis High Command had slated a limited offensive towards Agedabia and Benghazi for May, planning then to hold the line between those cities. Rommel argued that such a limited offensive would be ineffective, as the whole of Cyrenaica would have to be captured if the front lines were to be held. The task of even holding the remaining Italian possessions seemed daunting, as the Italians had only 7,000 soldiers remaining in the area after O'Connor's successful capture of 130,000 prisoners and almost 400 tanks during the previous three months of advance.
On 24 March 1941 Rommel launched a limited offensive with only the 5th Light Division supported by two Italian divisions. This thrust was to be minor, in anticipation of Rommel receiving the 15th Panzer Division in May. The British, who had been weakened by troops being withdrawn to fight in the Battle of Greece, fell back to Mersa el Brega and started constructing defensive works. Rommel decided to continue the attack against these positions in order to prevent the British from building up the fortifications. After a day of fierce fighting, the Germans prevailed and the advance continued as Rommel disregarded holding off the attack on Agedabia until May. The British Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command, General Archibald Wavell, overestimating the strength of the Axis forces and already apprehensive about the extent of his advances during the previous winter, ordered a withdrawal from Benghazi in early April to avoid being cut off by Rommel's thrust.
Rommel, seeing the British reluctance to fight a decisive action, decided on a bold move: the seizure of the whole of Cyrenaica despite having only light forces. He ordered the Italian Ariete armoured division to pursue the retreating British while the 5th Light Division was to move on Benghazi. Generalmajor Johannes Streich, the 5th Light Division's commander, protested this order on the grounds of the state of his vehicles, but Rommel brushed the objections aside because, in his words, "One cannot permit unique opportunities to slip by for the sake of trifles." The Italian Commander-in-Chief, General Italo Gariboldi, tried repeatedly to halt Rommel's advance but was unable to contact him.
After Benghazi had been secured following the British withdrawal, Cyrenaica as far as Gazala was captured by 8 April. This was despite fervent protests from Italian GHQ, which felt Rommel was going beyond his orders, especially since he was supposedly under Italian command. Rommel had received orders from the German High Command that he was not to advance past Maradah, but he turned a blind eye to this as well as to protests from some of his staff and divisional commanders. He believed he was grasping a great possibility to largely destroy the Allied presence in North Africa and capture Egypt. Rommel decided to keep up the pressure on the retreating British and launched an outflanking offensive on the important port of Tobruk during which he managed to capture on 9 April the Military Governor of Cyrenaica, Lieutenant-General Philip Neame as well as O'Connor, who at this time was his advisor. With Italian forces attacking along the coast, Rommel decided to sweep around to the south and attack the harbour from the southeast with the 5th Light Division, hoping to trap the bulk of the enemy force there. This outflanking could not be carried out as rapidly as was necessary owing to logistical problems from lengthening supply lines and spoiling flank attacks from Tobruk, so Rommel's plan failed. By 11 April the envelopment of Tobruk was complete and the first attack was launched. Other forces continued pushing east, reaching Bardia and securing the whole of Libya by 15 April.
Siege of Tobruk
The following siege of Tobruk lasted 240 days, with the garrison consisting of the Australian 9th Division under Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead and reinforced by all the British troops who had withdrawn to the port city, bringing the defenders to a total of 25,000. Impatient to secure success, Rommel launched repeated small-scale attacks. These were easily defeated by the defenders. Rommel later criticised the Italian High Command for failing to provide him with the blueprints of the port's fortifications (which the Italians had built before the war), but this was due to his surprising advance so far beyond the agreed point, hardly allowing them time to produce the plans. Reflecting on this period, General Heinrich Kirchheim, then commander of the 5th Light Division, said: "I do not like to be reminded of that time because so much blood was needlessly shed." Kirchheim had been reluctant to launch further attacks on Tobruk, as the costs of earlier assaults had been very high.
Rommel remained optimistic that success was imminent. In his memoirs, he claimed that he immediately realised that the enemy was determined to cling to Tobruk; however, this seems to be in doubt. In a letter to his wife dated 16 April, he wrote that the enemy was already abandoning the town by sea, and he remained confident that the enemy were not going to defend the town until well into April. In reality, the ships arriving at the port were not evacuating the defenders but unloading supplies and even some reinforcements. A letter of his written on 21 April, suggests that he was beginning to realise this while the arrival of the Italian blueprints of fortifications provided further grounds for discouragement. Nonetheless, Rommel continued to insist that success was imminent. His relations with his subordinate commanders were at their nadir at this point, especially with Streich, who was openly critical of Rommel's decisions and refused to assume any responsibility for the attacks. Rommel began holding a series of courts-martial, though ultimately he signed almost none of the verdicts. This state of affairs led Army Chief Walther von Brauchitsch to write to him that instead of making threats and requesting the replacement of officers who "hitherto had excelled in battle", rather "... a calm and constructive debate might bring better results." Rommel remained unmoved.
At this point Rommel requested reinforcements for a renewed attack, but the High Command, then completing preparations for Operation Barbarossa, could not spare any. When Chief of Staff General Franz Halder also told Rommel before the latter left for Africa that a larger force could not be logistically sustained, Rommel had responded "that's your pigeon." Now Halder sarcastically commented: "Now at last he is constrained to state that his forces are not sufficiently strong to allow him to take full advantage of the 'unique opportunities' offered by the overall situation. That is the impression we have had for quite some time over here." Angry that his order not to advance beyond Maradah had been disobeyed and alarmed at mounting losses, Halder, never an admirer of Rommel, dispatched Friedrich Paulus to (in Halder's words) "head off this soldier gone stark mad."
Upon arrival on 27 April, Paulus was initially persuaded to authorise yet another attack on Tobruk. Back in Berlin, Halder wrote: "In my view it is a mistake" but deferred to Paulus. When the attack, launched on 4 May, seemed to turn into a disaster, Paulus intervened and ordered it halted. In addition, he now forbade Rommel from committing forces in any new attack on Tobruk and further ordered that the attacks were to halt until regrouping was completed. No new assault was to take place without OKH's specific approval.
Rommel was furious with what he perceived as the lack of fighting spirit in his commanders and Italian allies. However, on the insistence of Paulus and Halder, he held off further attacks until the detailed plans of the Tobruk defences could be obtained, the 15th Panzer Division could be brought up to support the attack, and more training of his troops in positional warfare could be conducted, For Streich, however, it was too late. He was transferred from command of 5th Light Division. When he met Rommel for the last time as he was taking his leave, Rommel told him that he had been "too concerned for the well-being of your troops"; Streich shot back: "I can recognise no greater words of praise", and a new quarrel ensued. After the decision was made to hold off attacks on Tobruk for an indefinite period, Rommel set about creating defensive positions, with Italian infantry forces holding Bardia, the Sollum–Sidi Omar line and investing Tobruk. The mobile German and Italian formations were held in reserve to fight any British attacks from Egypt. To this end, Halfaya Pass was secured, the high water mark of Rommel's offensive. An elaborately prepared great assault was scheduled for 21 November 1941, but this attack never took place.
Whereas the defenders of Tobruk could be supplied by sea, the logistical problems of the Afrika Korps greatly hampered its operations, and a concentrated counterattack southwards by the besieged Allies might have succeeded in reaching El Adam and severing the lines of communication and supply of the Axis forces at Bardia, Sollum and Halfya covering the Egyptian border. General Morshead, however, was misled by intelligence overestimates of the German forces investing Tobruk, and so no major action was attempted.
General Wavell made two unsuccessful attempts to relieve Tobruk (Operation Brevity (launched on 15 May 1941) and Operation Battleaxe (launched on 15 June 1941). Both operations were easily defeated, as they were hastily prepared, partly owing to Churchill's impatience for speedy action. During Brevity the important Halfaya Pass was briefly recaptured by the British but was lost again on 27 May. Battleaxe resulted in the loss of 87 British for 25 German tanks in a four-day battle raging on the flanks of the Sollum and Halfaya Passes, with the British being unable to take these well-fortified positions.
In August, Rommel was appointed commander of the newly created Panzer Group Africa. His previous command, the Afrika Korps, comprising the 15th Panzer Division and the 5th Light Division, which by then had been redesignated 21st Panzer Division, was put under command of Generalleutnant Ludwig Crüwell, with Fritz Bayerlein as chief of staff. In addition to the Afrika Korps, Rommel's Panzer Group had the 90th Light Division and six Italian divisions, the Ariete and Trieste Divisions forming the Italian XX Motorized Corps, three infantry divisions investing Tobruk, and one holding Bardia.
Following the costly failure of Battleaxe, Wavell was replaced by the Commander-in-Chief of India, General Claude Auchinleck. Allied forces were reorganised and strengthened to two corps, XXX and XIII, and became the British Eighth Army under the command of Alan Cunningham. Auchinleck, having 770 tanks and 1,000 aircraft to support him, launched a major offensive to relieve Tobruk (Operation Crusader) on 18 November 1941. Rommel had two armoured divisions, the 15th and 21st with a total of 260 tanks, the 90th Light Infantry division, and three Italian corps, five infantry and one armoured division with 154 tanks, with which to oppose him.
The Eighth Army deeply outflanked the German defences along the Egyptian frontier with a left hook through the desert, and reached a position from which they could strike at both Tobruk and the coastal road, the "Via Balbia". Auchinleck planned to engage the Afrika Korps with his armoured division, while XXX Corps assaulted the Italian positions at Bardia, encircling the troops there. But the British operational plan had one major flaw. When XXX corps reached the area of Qabr Salih, it was assumed that the Afrika Korps would attack eastward, allowing the British to surround them with a southerly armour thrust. Rommel, however, did not find it necessary to do as the British planned, and instead attacked the southernly armoured thrust at Sidi Rezegh.
Rommel was now faced with the decision of whether to continue the planned attack on Tobruk in late May, trusting his screening forces to hold off the advancing British, or to reorient his forces to hit the approaching British columns. He decided the risks were too great and called off the attack on Tobruk.
The British armoured thrusts were largely defeated by fierce resistance from antitank positions and tanks. The Italian Ariete Armoured Division was forced to give ground while inflicting heavy losses on the advancing British at Bir el Gobi, whereas the 21st Panzer Division checked the attack launched against them and counterattacked on Gabr Saleh.[a] Over the next two days the British continued pressing their attack, sending their armoured brigades into battle in a piecemeal fashion, while Rommel, aware of his numerical inferiority, launched a concentrated attack on 23 November with all his armour. The 21st Panzer Division held their defensive positions at Sidi Rezegh, while 15th Panzer Division and the Italian Ariete Division attacked the flanks and enveloped the British armour. During this battle, among the biggest armoured battles of the North African campaign, the British tanks were surrounded, with about two-thirds destroyed and the survivors having to fight themselves out of the trap and head south to Gabr Saleh.
On 24 November Rommel, wanting to exploit the halt of the British offensive, counterattacked into the British rear areas in Egypt with the intention of exploiting the disorganisation and confusion in the enemy's bases and cutting their supply lines. Rommel considered the other, more conservative, course of action of destroying the British forces halted before Tobruk and Bardia too time consuming. Rommel knew his forces were incapable of driving such an effort home, but believed that the British, traumatised by their recent debacle, would abandon their defences along the border at the appearance of a German threat to their rear.
General Cunningham did, as Rommel had hoped, decide to withdraw the Eighth Army to Egypt, but Auchinleck arrived from Cairo just in time to cancel the withdrawal orders. The German attack, which began with only 100 operational tanks remaining, stalled as it outran its supplies and met stiffening resistance. The counterattack was criticised by the German High Command and some of his staff officers as too dangerous with Commonwealth forces still operating along the coast east of Tobruk, and a wasteful attack as it bled his forces, in particular his remaining tank force. Among the Staff officers who were critical was Friedrich von Mellenthin, who said that "Unfortunately, Rommel overestimated his success and believed the moment had come to launch a general pursuit." To Rommel's credit, the attack very nearly succeeded: only Auchinleck's timely intervention prevented Cunningham from withdrawing.
Tobruk relieved, Axis retirement to El Agheila
While Rommel drove into Egypt, the remaining Commonwealth forces east of Tobruk threatened the weak Axis lines there. Unable to reach Rommel for several days,[b] Rommel's Chief of Staff, Oberstleutnant Westphal, ordered the 21st Panzer Division withdrawn to support the siege of Tobruk. On 27 November the British attack on Tobruk linked up with the defenders, and Rommel, having suffered losses that could not easily be replaced, had to concentrate on retrieving and regrouping the divisions that had attacked into Egypt. By 6 December the Afrika Korps had averted the danger, and on 7 December Rommel fell back to a defensive line at Gazala, just west of Tobruk, all the while under heavy attacks from the RAF. The Italian forces at Bardia and on the Egyptian border were now cut off from the retreating Axis. The Allies, briefly held up at Gazala, kept up the pressure to some degree, although they were almost as exhausted and disorganised as Rommel's force, and Rommel was forced to retreat all the way back to the starting positions he had held in March, reaching El Agheila on 30 December. His main concern during his withdrawal was being flanked to the south, so the Afrika Korps held the south flank during the retreat. The Allies followed, but never attempted a southern flanking move to cut off the retreating troops as they had done in 1940. The German-Italian garrison at Bardia surrendered on 2 January 1942.
Recapture of Gazala
On 5 January 1942 the Afrika Korps received 55 tanks and new supplies and Rommel started planning a counterattack. On 21 January the attack was launched, which mauled the Allied forces, costing them some 110 tanks and other heavy equipment. The Axis forces retook Benghazi on 29 January, Timimi on 3 February, and the Allies pulled back to the Tobruk area and commenced building defensive positions at Gazala.
During the confusion caused by the Crusader operation, Rommel and his staff found themselves behind Allied lines several times. On one occasion, he visited a New Zealand Army field hospital that was still under Allied control. "[Rommel] inquired if anything was needed, promised the British [sic] medical supplies and drove off unhindered." Eventually, Rommel did supply the medical unit with some medical equipment.
Second German offensive: Battle of Gazala
Following General Kesselring's successes in creating local air superiority and suppressing the Malta defenders in April 1942, an increased flow of vital supplies reached the Panzer Armee Afrika. Previously it had been receiving about a third of its needed supplies for several months. With his forces thus strengthened, Rommel began planning a major push for the summer. He felt the very strong British positions around Gazala could be outflanked, and he could then drive up behind them and destroy them. The British were planning a summer offensive of their own and their dispositions were more suited for an attack rather than a defence.
Rommel in North Africa (June 1942)
The British had 900 tanks in the area, 200 of which were new Grant tanks, whereas Rommel's Panzer Army Africa commanded a mere 320 German, 50 of which were the obsolete Panzer II model, and 240 Italian tanks, which were no better than the Panzer IIs. Therefore Rommel had to rely predominantly on 88 mm guns to destroy the British heavy tanks, but even these were in short supply. In infantry and artillery Rommel found himself vastly outnumbered also, with many of his units under-strength following the campaigns of 1941. In contrast to the previous year, the Axis had more-or-less air parity.
On 26 May 1942 Rommel's army attacked in a classic outflanking Blitzkrieg operation in the Battle of Gazala. His Italian infantry assaulted the Gazala fortifications head on, with some armour attached to give the impressions that this was the main assault, while all his motorized and armoured forces outflanked the positions to the south. On the following morning Rommel cut through the flank and attacked north, but throughout the day a running armour battle occurred, where both sides took heavy losses. The attempted encirclement of the Gazala position failed and the Germans lost a third of their heavy tanks. Renewing the attack on the morning of 28 May, Rommel concentrated on encircling and destroying separate units of the British armour. Heavy British counterattacks forced Rommel to assume a defensive posture and not pursue his original plan of a dash north for the coast. On 30 May he attacked eastwards to link with elements of Italian X Corps which had cleared a path through the Allied minefields to establish a line of supply. On 2 June 90th Light Division and the Trieste Division surrounded and reduced the Allied strongpoint at Bir Hakeim, capturing it on 11 June. With his communications and the southern strongpoint of the British line thus secured, Rommel attacked north again, forcing the British back, relying on the minefields of the Gazala lines to protect his left flank. On 14 June the British began a headlong retreat eastwards, the so-called "Gazala Gallop", to avoid being completely cut off.
On 15 June Axis forces reached the coast eliminating any escape for the Commonwealth forces still occupying the Gazala positions. With this task completed, Rommel set off in pursuit of the retreating Allied formations, aiming to capture Tobruk while the enemy was confused and disorganised. Tobruk, isolated and alone, was now all that stood between the Axis and Egypt. The defenders were the 2nd South African Infantry Division and some disorganised units recovering from the Gazala battle. On 21 June, after a swift, coordinated and fierce combined arms assault, the city surrendered along with its 33,000 defenders, including most of the South African 2nd Division. Only at the fall of Singapore, earlier that year, had more British Commonwealth troops been captured. Hitler made Rommel a Field Marshal for this victory.[c]
By this time, Rommel's gains caused considerable alarm in the Allied camp. He appeared to be poised to deliver a crippling blow to the British by conquering Egypt. The Allies feared Rommel would then turn northeastward to conquer the valuable oil fields of the Middle East and then link up with the German forces besieging the equally valuable Caucasian oil fields. However, these required substantial reinforcements that Hitler refused to allocate. Ironically, Hitler had been sceptical about sending Rommel to Africa in the first place. He'd only done so after constant begging by naval commander Erich Raeder, and even then only to relieve the Italians. Hitler never understood global warfare, despite Raeder and Rommel's attempts to get him to see the strategic value of Egypt.
Drive for Egypt
Rommel determined to press the attack on Mersa Matruh despite the heavy losses he had suffered at Gazala and Tobruk. He also wanted to prevent the British from establishing a new frontline, and felt the weakness of the British formations had to be exploited by a thrust into Egypt. This decision met with some criticism, as an advance into Egypt meant a significant lengthening of the supply lines. It also meant that a proposed attack on Malta would have to wait, as the Luftwaffe would be required to support Rommel's drive eastwards. Kesselring strongly disagreed with Rommel's decision, and went as far as threatening to withdraw his aircraft to Sicily. Hitler agreed to Rommel's plan, despite protest from Italian HQ and some of his staff officers, seeing the potential for a complete victory in Africa. Rommel, apparently aware of his growing reputation as a gambler, defended his decision by claiming that merely to hold the lines at Sollum would confer upon the British a distinct advantage, in that they could more easily outflank the positions at Sollum and the overseas supply lines would still have to be routed via Tripoli unless he secured a front further east.
On 22 June Rommel continued his offensive eastwards and initially little resistance was encountered. Apart from fuel shortages, the advance continued until Mersa Matruh was encircled on 26 June, surrounding four infantry divisions. One of the divisions managed to break out during the night, and over the next two days some elements of the remaining three divisions also slipped away. The fortress fell on 29 June, yielding enormous amounts of supplies and equipment, in addition to 6,000 POWs.
On 25 June Auchinleck had assumed direct command of Eighth Army and decided to form his main defensive line at El Alamein, where the proximity to the south of the Qattara Depression created a relatively short line to defend which could not be outflanked to the south because of the impossibility of moving armour into and through the depression. Rommel continued his march eastwards, but with the supply situation steadily worsening and his men exhausted after five weeks of constant warfare, the offensive on El Alamein seemed in doubt. On 1 July the First Battle of El Alamein started, but after almost a month of inconclusive fighting both sides, completely exhausted, dug in, halting Rommel's drive eastwards. This was a serious blow to Rommel who had hoped to drive his advance into the open desert beyond El Alamein where he could conduct a mobile defence.
More significantly, Rommel only had 13 operational tanks by the time he reached El Alamein. Although he was only a few hundred miles from the Pyramids, he knew he didn't have the resources to push forward. On 3 July, he wrote in his diary that his momentum had "faded away."
Allied attack: Second Battle of El Alamein
Rommel at a staff conference in the Western Desert in 1942
After the stalemate at El Alamein, Rommel hoped to go on the offensive again before massive amounts of men and material could reach the British Eighth Army. Allied forces from Malta were, however, intercepting his supplies at sea and the Desert Air Force kept up a relentless campaign against Axis supply vessels in Tobruk, Bardia and Mersa Matruh. Most of the supplies reaching the Axis troops still had to be landed at Benghazi and Tripoli, and the enormous distances supplies had to travel to reach the forward troops meant that a rapid resupply and reorganisation of the Axis army could not be done. Further hampering Rommel's plans was the fact that the Italian divisions received priority on supplies, with the Italian authorities shipping material for the Italian formations at a much higher rate than for German formations. It seems the Italian HQ was uneasy with Rommel's ambitions and wanted their own forces, whom they at least had some control over, resupplied first.
The British, themselves preparing for a renewed drive, replaced C-in-C Auchinleck with General Harold Alexander. The Eighth Army also got a new commander, Bernard Montgomery. They received a steady stream of supplies and were able to reorganise their forces. In late August they received a large convoy carrying over 100,000 tons of supplies, and Rommel, learning of this, felt that time was running out. Rommel decided to launch an attack with the 15th and 21st Panzer Division, 90th Light Division, and the Italian XX Motorized Corps in a drive through the southern flank of the El Alamein lines. The terrain here was without any easily defensible features and so open to attack. Montgomery and Auchinleck before him had realised this threat, and the main defences for this sector had been set up behind the El Alamein line along the Alam El Halfa Ridge, where any outflanking thrust could be more easily met from overlooking defensive positions.
Battle of Alam El Halfa
The Battle of Alam el Halfa was launched on 30 August, with Rommel's forces driving through the south flank. After passing the El Alamein line to the south, Rommel drove north at the Alam el Halfa Ridge, just as Montgomery had anticipated. Under heavy fire from British artillery and aircraft, and in the face of well prepared positions that Rommel could not hope to outflank due to lack of fuel, the attack stalled. By 2 September, Rommel realized the battle was unwinnable, and decided to withdraw.
Montgomery had prepared to pursue the Germans but in the afternoon of 2 September, he gave Corps commander Brian Horrocks clear orders to allow the enemy to retire. This was for two reasons: to preserve his own strength and to allow the enemy to observe, and be misled by, the dummy preparations for an attack in the area. Nevertheless, Montgomery was keen to inflict casualties on the enemy and orders were given for the as yet inexperienced 2nd New Zealand Division, positioned to the north of the retreating Axis forces, and 7th Armoured Division to attack on 3 September. The attack was repelled, however, by a fierce rearguard action by the 90th Light Division and Montgomery called off further action to preserve his strength. On 5 September Rommel was back where he had started, with only heavy losses to show for it. Rommel had suffered 2,940 casualties, lost 50 tanks, a similar number of guns and, perhaps worst of all, 400 trucks, vital for supplies and movement. The British losses, except tank losses of 68, were much less, further adding to the numerical inferiority of Panzer Army Afrika. The Desert Air Force inflicted the highest proportions of damage to Rommel's forces. He now realized the war in Africa was unwinnable without more air support which was impossible since the Luftwaffe was already stretched to breaking point on other fronts.
Second Battle of El Alamein
In September British raiding parties attacked important harbours and supply points. The flow of supplies successfully ferried across the Mediterranean had fallen to a dismal level. Some two-thirds of the supplies embarked for Africa were destroyed at sea. In addition, Rommel's health was failing and he took sick leave in Italy and Germany from late September. Thus he was not present when the Second Battle of El Alamein began on 23 October 1942. Although he returned immediately, it took him two vital days to reach his HQ in Africa. The defensive plan at El Alamein was more static in nature than Rommel preferred, but with shortages of motorized units and fuel, he had felt it was the only possible plan. The defensive line had strong fortifications and was protected with a large minefield which in turn was covered with machine guns and artillery. This, Rommel hoped, would allow his infantry to hold the line at any point until motorized and armoured units in reserve could move up and counterattack any Allied breaches.
General Georg Stumme was in command in Rommel's absence but during the initial fighting he died of a heart attack. This paralyzed the German HQ until General Ritter von Thoma took command. After returning, Rommel learned that the fuel supply situation, critical when he left in September, was now disastrous. Counterattacks by the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions on 24 and 25 October had incurred heavy tank losses due to the intensity of the British artillery and air attack. Rommel's main concern was to counterattack in full force and throw the British out of the defensive lines, which was in his view the only chance the Axis had of avoiding defeat. The counterattack was launched early on 26 October but the British units that had penetrated the defensive line inflicted heavy losses on Rommel's armour at the position code-named Snipe (often mis-named Kidney Ridge due to faulty interpretation of the ring contour – it was actually a depression). The Allies continued pushing hard with armoured units to force the breakthrough, but the defenders' fire destroyed many tanks, leading to doubts among the officers in the British armoured brigades about the chances of clearing a breach.
Montgomery, seeing his armoured brigades losing tanks at an alarming rate, stopped major attacks until 2 November when he launched Operation Supercharge and achieved a 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) penetration of the line. Rommel immediately counterattacked with what tanks he had available in an attempt to encircle the pocket during 2 November, but the heavy Allied fire stopped the attempt. By this time Panzer Army Africa had only one-third of its initial strength remaining, with only 35 tanks left operational, virtually no fuel or ammunition and with the British in complete command of the air.
On 3 November Montgomery found it impossible to renew his attack, and he had to wait for more reinforcements to be brought up. This lull was what Rommel needed for his withdrawal, which had been planned since 29 October, when he had determined the situation hopeless. At midday, however, Rommel received the infamous "victory or death" stand-fast order from Hitler. Although this order demanded the impossible and virtually ensured the destruction of Panzer Army Africa, Rommel could not bring himself to disobey a direct order from his Führer. The Axis forces held on desperately.
On 4 November Montgomery renewed the attack with fresh forces, and with almost 500 tanks against the 20 or so remaining to Rommel. By midday the Italian XX Motorized Corps was surrounded, and several hours later was completely destroyed. This left a 20 km gap in Rommel's line, with British armoured and motorized units pouring through, threatening the entire Panzer Army Africa with encirclement. At this point Rommel could no longer uphold the no-retreat order and ordered a general retreat. Early on 5 November he received authorization by Hitler to withdraw, 12 hours after his decision to do so—but it was far too late, with only remnants of his army streaming westward. Most of his unmotorized forces (the bulk of the army) were caught.
Part of the Panzer Army Africa escaped from El Alamein, but this remnant took heavy losses from constant air attacks. Despite urgings from Hitler and Mussolini, the Panzer Army did not turn to fight, except for brief holding actions, but withdrew under Allied pressure all the way to Tunisia. However, the retreat was conducted most skillfully, employing scorched earth tactics and leaving behind booby traps, making the task of the pursuers very difficult. The Allied forces had great numerical superiority and air supremacy, while most of Rommel's remaining divisions were reduced to combat groups.
End of Africa campaigns
Tunisia—Rommel talks with German troops who are using a captured American half-track
Having reached Tunisia, Rommel launched an attack against the U.S. II Corps which was threatening to cut his lines of supply north to Tunis. Rommel inflicted a sharp defeat on the American forces at the Kasserine Pass in February.
Rommel immediately turned back against the British forces, occupying the Mareth Line (old French defences on the Libyan border). But Rommel could only delay the inevitable. At the end of January 1943, the Italian General Giovanni Messe had been appointed the new commander of Rommel's Panzer Army Africa while Rommel had been at Kasserine, which was renamed the Italo-German Panzer Army (in recognition of the fact that it consisted of one German and three Italian corps). Though Messe replaced Rommel, he diplomatically deferred to him, and the two coexisted in what was theoretically the same command. On 23 February Armeegruppe Afrika was created with Rommel in command. It included the Italo-German Panzer Army under Messe (renamed 1st Italian Army) and the German 5th Panzer Army in the north of Tunisia under General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim.
The last Rommel offensive in North Africa was on 6 March 1943, when he attacked Eighth Army at the Battle of Medenine. The attack was made with 10th, 15th, and 21st Panzer Divisions. Warned by Ultra intercepts, Montgomery deployed large numbers of anti-tank guns in the path of the offensive. After losing 52 tanks, Rommel called off the assault. On 9 March he handed over command of Armeegruppe Afrika to General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim and left Africa, because of health reasons, never to return. On 13 May 1943, General Messe surrendered the remnants of Armeegruppe Afrika to the Allies.
Some historians contrast Rommel's withdrawal to Tunisia against Hitler's wishes with Friedrich Paulus's obedience of orders to have the German Sixth Army stand its ground at the Battle of Stalingrad which resulted in its annihilation. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, appointed overall Axis commander in North Africa, saw things differently. He believed the withdrawals, some of which were carried out against his orders, unnecessary and ruinous since they brought forward British airfields ever closer to the port of Tunis. As far as he was concerned, Rommel was an insubordinate defeatist and string-puller. The increasingly acrimonious relations between the two did nothing to enhance performance.
Role of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) in North Africa
The Axis had some major SIGINT successes in North Africa. They intercepted the reports of the U.S. Colonel Bonner Fellers (military attaché in Egypt) who was briefed by the British on their forces and plans. Some authors believe this information explains much of Rommel's success.
In addition, the Afrika Korps relied on the 621st Radio Intercept Company " attached to its HQ. The 621st Signals Battallion monitored radio communications among British units. The British were very "gabby" and most of this chatter was in clear, that is, uncoded, allowing the Germans to more easily identify British units and deployments. During the first Battle of El Alamein, a British counter-attack reached the German HQ. The RIS was wiped out in the fighting and many of their files captured. This alerted the British to the problem, and they tightened up on radio chatter. The loss of this resource is considered an important factor in Rommel's later lack of success.
Allied codebreakers read much enciphered German message traffic, especially that encrypted with the Enigma machine. This Ultra intelligence included daily reports from Africa on the numbers and condition of Axis forces. It also included information about Axis supply shipments across the Mediterranean. This information enabled the weak Allied air and naval forces there to intercept and destroy much of these shipments. To protect the source of the intelligence (ULTRA), Allied air and naval forces were forbidden to destroy the convoys carrying war supplies to North Africa until a flyover to "discover" the convoy was arranged and completed.
The inglorious end of the North African campaign meshed poorly with the Nazi propaganda machine's relentless portrayal of Rommel as an unbeatable military genius. This opened in Berlin the awkward question of precisely what use now to make of the erstwhile Desert Fox. Back in Germany, he was for some time virtually "unemployed". On 23 July 1943 he moved to Greece as commander of Army Group E to defend the Greek coast against a possible Allied landing that never happened, and which the Germans were led to expect due to the elaborate British deception plan known as "Operation Mincemeat"—only to return to Germany two days later upon the overthrow of Mussolini. On 17 August 1943 Rommel moved his headquarters from Munich to Lake Garda as commander of a new Army Group B created to defend northern Italy.
After Hitler gave Kesselring sole Italian command, on 21 November, Rommel moved Army Group B to Normandy in France with responsibility for defending the French coast against the long anticipated Allied invasion. He was dismayed by the lack of completed works and the slow building pace and feared he had just months before an invasion. Rommel reinvigorated the fortification effort along the Atlantic coast. The Commander-in-Chief West, Gerd von Rundstedt, expected the Allies to invade in the Pas-de-Calais because it was the shortest crossing point from Britain, its port facilities were essential to supplying a large invasion force, and the distance from Calais to Germany was relatively short. Hitler's HQ, although agreeing with this assessment, also considered a landing at Normandy as a possibility. Rommel, believing that Normandy was indeed a likely landing ground, argued that it did not matter to the Allies where they landed, just that the landing was successful. He therefore toured the Normandy defenses extensively in January and February 1944. He ordered millions of mines laid and thousands of tank traps and obstacles set up on beaches and throughout the countryside, including in fields suitable for glider aircraft landings, the so-called Rommelspargel ("Rommel's asparagus").
After his experience with Allied air superiority at the end of the North Africa campaign, Rommel concluded that future Allied offensives would also enjoy overwhelming Allied air superiority, exposing any German armoured counter movements to severe punishment from above. He argued that the tank forces should be dispersed in small units and kept in heavily fortified positions as close to the front as possible. In doing so they would not have to move far and en masse when the invasion started. He felt their best chance was to confront the invading force immediately and drive it into the sea. However, von Rundstedt felt that there was no way to stop the invasion near the beaches due to the equally overwhelming firepower of the Allied navies. He felt the German armour should be held in reserve well inland near Paris where they could be used to counter attack in force in a more traditional military doctrine. The allies could even be allowed to extend themselves deep into France, exposing their flanks for a pincer movement to cut off the supplies and retreat of the Allied troops. This notion of defending France was supported by other officers, most notably Heinz Guderian and Panzer Group West commander Geyr von Schweppenburg, who strongly disagreed with Rommel and wanted the armour placed far inland.
When asked to pick a plan, Hitler vacillated. In late April, he ordered them placed in the middle, far enough inland to be useless to Rommel but not far enough for von Rundstedt. Rommel did move some of the armoured formations under his command as far forward as possible, ordering General Erich Marcks, commanding the 84th Corps defending the Normandy section, to move his reserves into the frontline.
The Allies staged elaborate deceptions for D-Day (see Operation Fortitude), giving the impression that the landings would be at Calais. Although Hitler himself expected a Normandy invasion for a while, Rommel and most Wehrmacht commanders in France also started believing in a Pas-de-Calais landing. Rommel concentrated fortification building in the River Somme estuary and let the work in Normandy lag. By D-Day on 6 June 1944 virtually all German officers, including Hitler's staff, firmly believed that Pas-de-Calais was going to be the invasion site.
During the confusing opening hours of D-Day, the German command structure in France was in disarray. Rommel, and several other important officers were on leave. Several tank units, notably the 12th SS Panzer Division and Panzer-Lehr-Division, were close enough to the beaches to create serious havoc. The absence of Rommel and continued confusion in the army and theater HQs led to hesitation in releasing the armoured reserves to Normandy when they might be needed to meet a second invasion further north. Facing only small-scale German attacks, the Allies quickly secured a beachhead. Rommel personally oversaw the bitter fighting around Caen where only the determined defence of Kampfgruppe von Luck prevented a British breakout on the first day. Here, again, the on-site commanders were denied freedom of action and the Germans did not launch a concentrated counterattack until mid-day on 6 June.
The Allies pushed ashore and expanded their beachhead despite the best efforts of Rommel's troops. By mid-July the German position was crumbling. Rommel may have attempted to secretly negotiate a truce on the western front, in which German forces would retreat to the Siegfried Line and the Allies would cease their strategic bombing campaign. On 17 July 1944, he was being driven along a French road near the front in his staff car. According to a widely accepted version of events, an RCAF Spitfire of 412 Squadron piloted by Charley Fox strafed the car near Sainte-Foy-de-Montgommery and Rommel was injured. He was hospitalised with major head injuries. In a different version, a patrol of 602 Squadron led by Chris Le Roux carried out the attack. A third version by Australian Fred Cowlph of 453 Squadron claimed the strafing attack, asserting that his guns camera verified this. He recorded this action in his aircraft log book.
Plot against Hitler
There had always been opposition to Hitler in conservative circles and in the Army, the Schwarze Kapelle (Black Orchestra), but Hitler's dazzling successes in 1938–1941 had stifled it. However, after the Soviet campaign failed, and the Axis suffered more defeats, this opposition underwent a revival.
Early in 1944, three of Rommel's closest friends—the Oberbürgermeister of Stuttgart, Karl Strölin (who had served with Rommel in the First World War), Alexander von Falkenhausen, and Carl Heinrich von Stülpnagel—began efforts to bring Rommel into the conspiracy. They felt that as by far the most popular officer in Germany, he would lend their cause badly needed credibility with the populace. Additionally, the conspirators felt they needed the support of a field marshal on active duty. Erwin von Witzleben, who would have become commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht if Hitler had been overthrown, was a field marshal, but had not been on active duty since 1942. Sometime in February, Rommel agreed to lend his support to the conspiracy in order to, as he put it, "come to the rescue of Germany."
Rommel, however, opposed assassinating Hitler. After the war, his widow—among others—maintained that Rommel believed an assassination attempt would spark civil war in Germany and Austria and Hitler would have become a martyr for a lasting cause. Instead, Rommel insisted that Hitler be arrested and brought to trial for his crimes. After the failed bomb attack of 20 July, many conspirators were arrested and the dragnet expanded to anyone even suspected of participating. It did not take long for Rommel's involvement to come to light. His name was first mentioned when Stülpnagel blurted it out after a botched suicide attempt. Later, another conspirator, Caesar von Hofacker, admitted under particularly severe Gestapo torture that Rommel was actively involved.
Additionally, Carl Goerdeler, the main civilian leader of the Resistance, wrote on several letters and other documents that Rommel was a potential supporter and an acceptable military leader to be placed in a position of responsibility should their coup succeed. Nazi party officials in France reported that Rommel extensively and scornfully criticised Nazi incompetence and crimes.
The "Court of Military Honour"—a drumhead court-martial convened to decide the fate of officers involved in the conspiracy—included two men with whom Rommel had crossed swords before: Heinz Guderian and Gerd von Rundstedt. The Court decided that Rommel should be expelled from the Army in disgrace and brought before Roland Freisler's People's Court, a kangaroo court that always decided in favour of the prosecution. However, Hitler knew that having Rommel branded as a traitor would severely damage morale on the home front. He and Wilhelm Keitel thus decided to offer Rommel a chance to commit suicide.
Rommel was approached at his home by Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel, two generals fro