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Obituary: Erwin Rommel, 1891-1977


By Chris Oakley

based on the series "Sic Semper Tyrannis Germaniae" by the same author


From the December 8th, 1977 broadcast of BBC's 9 O'Clock News:

Erwin Rommel, the former Wehrmacht field marshal who defected to the Allies following the assassination of Adolf Hitler and later served as defence minister for the government of West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, is dead tonight at the age of eighty-six. Rommel, a veteran of the First World War, led a successful armoured campaign during the German conquest of France in 1940 and gained lasting international fame as leader of the legendary Afrika Korps in the deserts of Libya and Egypt between 1941 and 1943, but gradually became disillusioned with the Hitler regime as the tide of the war turned against the Third Reich and ultimately chose to flee to the safety of the West after being warned that the Gestapo would try to force him to commit suicide for his alleged connection to the plan to kill Hitler despite the fact that there was no hard evidence Field Marshal Rommel had even a tenuous link to the men who brought about the Fuhrer's demise.

In a televised statement from Bonn, current West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt called the ex-field marshal "an honourable man once forced to serve a dishonourable tyranny"; Rommel, who died this afternoon of heart failure in a Munich hospital, will lie in state at West German defence ministry headquarters before being laid to rest in his former hometown of Herrlingen on December 12th. Many of Rommel's surviving former combat adversaries offered similar tributes, and some are  expected to attend his funeral along with thousands of ex-Afrika Korps soldiers who served under his command during the war.

Born in 1891, Rommel joined an Imperial German Army infantry regiment in 1910 as an officer cadet and was commissioned a full lieutenant in 1912 following his graduation from the Officer Cadet School in Danzig. During the First World War Rommel saw action in France, Romania, and Italy; in the course of his service on the Italian front, he was captured at the battle of Isonzo only to escape captivity and return to the German lines scarcely two weeks later. After the war ended, he served as a battalion commander before taking up an instructor's post at the Dresden Infantry School in 1929. From there, he moved on to the Potsdam War Academy in 1935 and published his military diaries two years later.

But it would be during the Wehrmacht's 1940 campaign in France, Belgium, and Holland when Rommel, by that time commanding general of the 7th Panzer Division, would truly begin to leave his mark on military history. Using shock tactics to throw the Allied armies into confusion, he led the 7th on a rapid advance over the Meuse River and had captured three major French cities by the time his forces reached France's English Channel coast in early June of 1940. Adolf Hitler, greatly impressed with Rommel's daring during the German offensive in the West, gave him a promotion to lieutenant general shortly after the final French surrender.

In Feburary of 1941 Hitler appointed Rommel as commander-in-chief of the Afrika Korps, a force which had originally been organised as a stopgap measure to bail out Hitler's Italian Fascist allies in North Africa but quickly gained a reputation as one of the most formidable land warfare units ever to step foot on a battlefield. Rommel's innovative battle tactics and expert application of psychological warfare had a great deal to do with the building of this reputation. Rommel was so successful in the early part of his North African campaign that his admirers dubbed him "the Desert Fox", and at the height of his glory it seemed the Afrika Korps might advance all the way to Cairo and expel the British from the Middle East. But after the German defeat at El Alamein in late 1942 Rommel's fortunes in North Africa abruptly turned sour; that loss to the British 8th Army dealt a grave blow to Germany's ambitions in the Mediterranean and the Axis cause as a whole, and by 1943 the remnants of the Afrika Korps had been withdrawn back to Germany.

Following the end of the German campaign in North Africa Field Marshal Rommel was sent to Nazi-occupied northern France to take charge of the German defences along France's Channel  coast. His assignment was to turn back the Allied invasion of continental Europe that was due to happen in the spring of 1944, yet in spite of his best efforts to plug the gaps in the Wehrmacht's coastal fortifications the Germans were unable to prevent the Allied from establishing a foothold on French soil when the invasion finally came. In one of the great ironies of history Rommel was home on leave when the Allies landed in France; he would later recall that when he was informed of the landings he said, "How stupid of me!", a reference to his miscalculation that the weather at the time of the D-Day offensive would be too adverse for any serious attempt at an amphibious assault.

Rommel's once-bright star was seriously dimmed by the success of the Allied landings on the Normandy beaches; Hitler blamed Rommel for the Wehrmacht's failure to prevent those landings even though it had been Hitler's refusal to release operational control over the panzer divisions in the vicinity of the invasion area that had crippled the efforts of German field commanders to turn the invasion back. Had Hitler survived the Rastenburg bombing, many believe he would have had Rommel sacked eventually, or possibly even executed.

Three days before the bombing Field Marshal Rommel was seriously wounded in an RAF strafing attack on his car, and he would be convalescing in a Wehrmacht field hospital behind the German lines when the news came that Hitler had been assassinated. While Rommel had never been an active participant in the assassination plot, he was sympathetic with the conspirators' objectives; he had himself been growing steadily more disenchanted with the Nazi regime as the tide of the war turned against Germany. Shortly after Hitler's death, Rommel learned that the Gestapo intended to force him to either commit suicide or face court-martial on treason charges. Fearing not only for his own safety but that of his family, Rommel clandestinely made contact with American intelligence agents to arrange his defection to the Allies and his family's covert evacuation to Switzerland.

Once Rommel and his family were reunited, they rode out the final months of the Second World War at an OSS safe house in Geneva; after the war ended the Rommels relocated to Britain, where Field Marshal Rommel formed an unlikely friendship with his former adversary from the North Africa campaign, Bernard Law Montgomery. It was a measure of the strength of the bond between the two ex-field marshals that when Rommel's autobiography The Longest Day was translated into English in 1957, Rommel chose Montgomery to write the preface to the English-language edition. When Montgomery died last year Rommel and his son Manfred, a former mayor of Stuttgart and the current West German ambassador to the United States, were among the foreign dignitaries who came to London for the funeral.

Rommel and his family finally returned to Germany in the summer of 1948, just after the Berlin Crisis ended. He had planned to devote his postwar life to his new job as a historian at Heidelberg University, but fate intervened in 1954 in the person of West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who at that time was forming a new West German army and sought to tap Rommel's extensive military experience by entrusting him with the job of defence minister. Rommel, who'd long been concerned about the expansionist mindset of the postwar Soviet government and the hostility of East German chancellor Walter Ulbricht's regime towards its western neighbours, quickly accepted the defence minister's post.

In his tenure as defence minister, Rommel spent considerable time adapting the armoured warfare tactics he'd learned in his French and North African campaigns to the realities of modern combat. His 1961 book Armoured Combat Doctrine For The Atomic Age is widely credited with having had a major influence on Israeli ground strategy in the Five-Day War and is on the required reading list at most major military colleges, including the United States Military Academy at West Point and at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst here in Britain. Rommel was a frequent guest lecturer at these institutions and many other military academies around the world; he also co-wrote a popular series of books for young people on the history of the German army.

When Ludwig Erhard succeeded Konrad Adenauer as West German chancellor in 1963, he retained Rommel as defence minister only to see Rommel resign in protest eighteen months later after Erhard rejected Rommel's proposal to create a special anti-terrorist commando unit that  would operate under the joint auspices of the army and the West German border police. Rommel had for years warned that Soviet-trained terror groups could pose a major threat to West Germany's national security both at home and abroad; his closest friends say he took Erhard's decision as an intolerable personal insult. It would ultimately be during the administration of Willi Brandt that the concept of a dedicated anti-terrorist branch of the Bundeswehr finally became a reality when Brandt ordered the formation of the commando group GSG 9 in 1970.

Rommel acted as a consultant to American movie producer Darryl Zanuck when Zanuck adapted The Longest Day for the cinema in 1962 and collaborated with BBC-TV producer Jeremy Isaacs on several episodes of the acclaimed 1974 documentary series The World At War. He was a highly popular interview subject in the post-World War II era both in his own country and abroad; just ten days before his death, he met with a correspondent from the American television news programme 60 Minutes for what would prove to be his final recorded interview.

In his final trip abroad, Rommel went to West Berlin in August of 1976 to pay tribute to East German citizens killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall; his visit concluded with an impassioned plea to the regime of current East German chancellor Erich Honecker to "tear down this wall!". Rommel spent much of the last months of his life confined to a Munich hospital as doctors waged a fierce and ultimately losing battle to relieve him of chronic heart problems which had been afflicting him since the mid-1960s. Manfred Rommel was at his father's side along with the field marshal's wife Lucie when Erwin Rommel passed away.

Rommel is survived by his wife and son and two grandchildren. Prior to his burial at Herrlingen, there will be a public memorial service in Bonn; retired general Sir Claude Auchinleck and current UK Foreign Secretary Anthony Crosland will represent Great Britain among the foreign dignitaries who will be attending Rommel's funeral.


The End

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