Added May 31 2004. Last updated 8 October 2006.

A legend and a myth

Erwin Rommel

in history and literature

Brief Biography - Rommel's own writings - Historical Studies - Alternative History - Biography


In the massive panaroma of global history that was World War Two, some figures appear more prominently than others. Of the Allies, Churchill seems to have made more of a major impact on the general psyche than Roosevelt, although the latter contributed at least as much to the eventually Allied victory and arguably was a more successful domestic politician than Churchill, who lost the General Election in 1945 and whose postwar domestic career might be described as patchy. Stalin, of course, was hailed as a hero for most of the war but thereafter was quickly reduced to a villain, not without cause as subsequent postwar revelations of his own terrible crimes were to show.

Of the Axis, Hitler remains in the mind of most of mankind as perhaps the most evil man ever to have lived, whereas Hirohito was quickly taken on board and forgiven and Mussolini's own fascist career was somewhat mitigated by Italy's unfortunate showing in the war and his brutal death at the hands of his own people. However, there is also ambiguity about the military commanders on both sides, in terms of both their military record and their humanity. Zhukov was a highly able commander but brutal and callous in his handling of his own troops, whereas Patton, despite his somewhat double-edged moniker of "Old Blood 'n' Guts", is still largely considered a hero. Montgomery may have not been a genius in the mould of Napoleon, Caesar or Hannibal, or indeed some of the panzer generals, but he exuded confidence, never lost a major battle and perhaps more importantly restored the confidence of the British public in their leaders. Erich von Manstein, an operational genius of the Eastern Front, managed to escape the opprobrium of many German actions associated with this theatre. But one man above all seems to have generated a legend in his own lifetime and after his untimely death: the German field marshal Erwin Rommel.

Brief Biography

Rommel was born in Swabia in 1891. Unlike many of German's military leaders he was not of the Prussian military caste, being the son of a teacher. He was a junior officer when WWI broke out and had a distinguished war, fighting firstly vs France and then taking part in operations against Romania and Italy in 1917-18. Although the "war to end all wars" has become associated popularly with unthinking tactics of "over the top", brute force and inhumane casualty lists, Rommel was one of those who pioneered more fluid tactics, a sort of "infantry Blitzkrieg" which he was to describe in his postwar book Infanterie greift an (Infantry attacks). After the war he became a peacetime officer in the restricted army of Weimar, where he reached the rank of colonel. In the thirties he became acquainted with Hitler after the latter's seizure of power and was appointed general of the dictator's personal bodyguard for the Polish campaign. He then requested, and was given, command of a panzer division, the 7th. During the subsequent French campaign of 1940 this unit became known as the "Ghost Division" because of its rapid appearance at different places.

It was in North Africa that his reputation abroad really began. Mussolini's entry into the war and push against the British in Egypt had ended in disaster for the Italians following a successful armoured riposte by the British, and Hitler was anxious to shore up his ally, although with a minimum of commitment. Rommel, who had impressed Hitler with his achievements in France, was sent to North Africa with a handful of units that was given the covering name of the Afrika Korps. Part of the German commander's fame arises from the fact that under his command were just a handful of units: 15th and 21st Panzer Division, 90th Light Division and a smattering of smaller supporting components. The Germans were indeed far outnumbered by their Italian allies, although the quality of the latter's equipment was not equal to either their friends' or foes', and for much of the North African conflict the Axis forces were inferior in either quality or quantity, or both, to their Allied opponents. Despite this numerical and qualitative inferiority Rommel managed to contain and then threaten the British and Commonwealth armies in the theatre, winning a number of battles until in July 1942 he was poised to enter Egypt itself with its prize of the Suez Canal. Ironically, at this point the inherent weaknesses of the Axis campaign in North Africa - poor supply, inattention to the role of Malta and inadequate allocation of resources - proved to be the Achilles heel of the Italo-German forces, which were checked by General Claude Auchinleck at El Alamein. His successor General Bernard Montgomery was able to play for time until the Commonwealth forces had built up a large quantitative superiority in men and materiel and then to strike all along the line at El Alamein, his position helped by Rommel's crippling shortage of fuel. Despite Hitler's order to stand fast and show his troops "death or glory", Rommel was forced into a long retreat to Tunisia, where another Anglo-American force was already landing. Despite reinforcements poured in by Hitler and Mussolini (far too late, in the event) and success against the fresh US forces at Kasserine pass, Rommel could not reverse the hopeless strategic position and was summoned back from North Africa in March. The vast bulk of the Axis troops, cut off and without supply, surrendered in May.

After a brief role in Northern Italy overseeing the uneasy relationships between Germans and Italians, Rommel was sent to be army commander in Normandy at the end of 1943. Convinced that the invasion would fall in his area, the Field Marshal poured considerable energy into static defences, realising (unlike some of his contemporaries) that the overwhelming Allied air superiority in the air would make movement of armoured reserves costly if not impossible. He wished to keep the panzers close to the beaches in order to be able to attack any landings quickly, but in this he was opposed by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, who thought in terms of a classical reserve. Hitler was indecisive but in the event tied Rommel's hands, so that when the Allied troops did land in June 1944 the critical panzers were not available in time. In the subsequent struggle for Normandy Rommel became convinced that the campaign was unwinnable due to Allied strategic reserves and airpower, and both he and Rundstedt prevailed upon Hitler to end the war - a move that was to result in their dismissal. On July 17th Rommel was critically injured by an air attack on his car. While he was in hospital, Colonel von Stauffenberg struck at Hitler on July 20th but failed to kill the dictator, whose subsequent revenge was to be terrible. Rommel's name was uttered by some of the conspirators, and he was considered by the Gestapo to have been part of the plot. In October 1944 Generals Maisel and Burgdorf visited the Rommel family home where Rommel was convalescing and offered him an ultimatum: suicide and an honourable state funeral with decent treatment of his family, or a state trial, death and possibly unpleasant consequences for his wife and son. Rommel chose the former option and took a swift-acting poison. Ironically his Führer and ultimately assassin was to choose a similar path a few months later.

Rommel's Own Writings

As Rommel was not a particularly literary man and did not have the time or opportunity to write his memoirs, we are left with few primary sources to discern his inmost thoughts. In the 1930s he wrote Infanterie greift an [Infantry Attacks], his account of his career in World War One. The book is notable not so much for Rommel's personal history as for his description of the tactical solutions he applied when fighting the French, Romanians and Italians. It is written in a fairly readable manner and does not seem vainglorious to this reviewer. The book was to come to the attention of Adolf Hitler, who of course had also taken part (at a less senior level) in that conflict.

Rommel left a number of documents and papers after his death containing his thoughts on the conduct of the war and the North African campaign in particular. These were to form the bulk of The Rommel Papers (see below).

Historical Studies

One of the first books on Rommel, after the Second World War, was Desmond Clark's Rommel. This also formed the basis of the valedictory Hollywood film in which James Mason played the part of the Field Marshal. Although not showing Rommel's victories over the British in 1941-42, the film did portray him as a decent, family-loving man, and suggested that he at least knew of the conspiracy to remove Hitler if not actually being part of it. Hitler, of course, was portrayed as a half-mad dictator, although this was probably not unfair. The book also goes some way to being fair about the Italian record, noting that despite their reputation some did fight quite well.

Around about the same time was The Rommel Papers, a collection of documents put together and edited by the British military thinker and historian Basil Liddell Hart. These are undoubtedly of interest as most of the papers are purportedly by Rommel himself and cover much of the North African campaign and also his thoughts on how to combat the late war threats to Germany.

Knight's Cross: Rommel - David Fraser, is a scholarly but readable book written by an officer who himself participated in the Second World War. Fraser had already written a good history of the British Army in that conflict, And We Shall Shock Them. In Knight's Cross, he gently but firmly puts the revisionists and belittlers of Rommel's achievements in their place while being frank that Rommel had no more than a tenuous link to the plotters of 20 July. He also acknowledges the Desert Fox's moments impulsiveness or recklessness, such as at Tobruk and then Crusader.

Rommel: On The Trail of the Desert Fox, by David Irving, was one of those books which addressed the question of Rommel's legend, and argued that it had been carefully built up by men such as Hans Speidel to give the postwar Germans a hero they could be proud of. Irving puts forward a case that should be considered carefully, although this is complicated by the author's known political leanings and reputation for revisionism. The Rommel portrayed in Irving's book is far from the superman sometimes imagined, being jealous of rivals, publicity-hungry, self-pitying and exhausted after Alamein, and completely bewildered and led astray both by his devious intelligence staff (portrayed as lazy, self-serving liars) and the British deception operation. This book was written in 1977, before Irving had completely moved over to what now appears to be his basic stance of Holocaust-denier and anti-Semite: thus, he speaks of Hitler's "criminality", but at the same time seems to go out of his way to blacken the German resistance, or at least those who were part of the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944. This book and its author now appear frequently on Internet websites devoted to politics of a far-Right or racial nature, so read it for a different perspective but bear in mind that there is quite possibly a hidden agenda at work.

The Armies of Rommel, by George Forty, is an account not only of Rommel's career but also his campaigns and particularly the men and weaponry he served with, from the opening rounds of the First World War to Normandy 1944. David Irving appears to have been generous with some photographs for the book, but there does not seem to be any political agenda underlying Forty's work other than simply history. In that sense this is a detailed and quite interesting work that throws light on Rommel's contemporaries, especially divisional commanders, many of whom were killed in North Africa. The section on North-West Europe is particularly fascinating as it shows the variable quality of the German defenders, from elite panzer divisions to infantry units made up of unhealthy or over-age men (some of whom nevertheless fought tenaciously). Forty does not try to go into the controversy over Rommel's involvement or otherwise in the plot against Hitler, but does cover his enforced suicide and burial. What struck me most about Forty's writing is his charitable nature towards all involved, with the possible exception of senior Nazis. If you like the minutae of history then you will probably enjoy this work. The writer has done a parallel one on George Patton.

From Triumph to Disaster is a short but interesting account by the former tank officer and military writer Kenneth Macksey of German military overreach between the nineteenth century and the end of the Second World War. Macksey's basic thesis is that the Germans, occupying a central but largely flat territory with few natural barriers other than the Alps in the south and a couple of major rivers, adopted an aggressive posture as a form of defence. However, under Kaiser Wilhelm and even more so under Adolf Hitler, this resulted in long-term failure, if not catastrophe. Macksey acknowledges Rommel as a tactical genius, but notes the belief that his reputation (built on his rapid successes in North Africa) hypnotised Hitler (an interesting reversal of the usual situation) and even appears to describe him as one of a "quartet of lackeys" (the others being men such as Keitel). The contrast is made with Albert Kesselring, whom Macksey praises highly in the book and to whom he also devoted another work, Kesselring: German Master Strategist of the Second World War. At the same time he also says that Rommel also fell in with the idea that the D-Day landings would fall in Normandy, a clear contradiction of Irving's portrayal of the Field Marshal's utter bafflement.

Hitler's German Enemies by Louis L Snyder dedicates a chapter to Erwin Rommel, but also notes that he was not among the active plotters of 1944. The short but readable Hitler's Traitors by Susan Ottaway only briefly mentions Rommel's possible association with the conspirators, placing him instead as a bit player and one whose motives were suspected by some of the other conspirators.

Alternative History

Alternative history has become something of a vogue in recent years, with both historical studies and novels dealing with the basic "what if?" scenarios. Given the charisma of Rommel, it was inevitable that sooner or later he would have been drawn into such writings.

Disaster at D-Day, by Peter Tsouras, was one of the first novels to harness the historical character of Rommel to a rewriting of history. In the book, Rommel is shown as a man in two minds about the rightness of his cause, prepared to defend German-occupied territory while having doubts about the sanity and morality of his leader. In the light of another "what if" essay that appeared in The Hitler Options, in which the Germans were able to destroy the Omaha beachhead with armour but nevertheless still lost Normandy, Tsouras' book may be considered over-optimistic about the Germans' chances of triumphing in the campaign: however, the book is more realistic in its appraisal of Rommel's apoliticism, as the fictional Rommel ultimately decides to have Hitler arrested and tried before a court, only to be thwarted by Speidel, who is more a political realist and who arranges for a planted bomb to cause the demise of the Führer and most of his senior subordinates. In a footnote Tsouras has Rommel becoming the first postwar Chancellor of Germany, an interesting possibility, although whether this is realistic is open to discussion.

Fox on the Rhine, by Michael Dobson and Douglas Niles, is written on similar lines. In this story the bomb plot against Hitler succeeds, but in the subsequent manouverings it is Himmler who succeeds to power. Rommel recovers from his wounds and, as Himmler is more amenable to the voice of reason (at least initially), is able to inflict heavy casualties on an advancing US armoured unit before retiring his forces behind the Westwall in preparation for a second Ardennes offensive. Himmler also makes an opportunistic peace with Stalin, allowing a rush of German units to the west. The offensive is far more successful than the real-life "Battle of the Bulge" was, but the US throws armoured units (including the fictional one mauled by Rommel earlier in the book) against the flank of Rommel's advance, cutting off the five panzer divisions which have crossed the Meuse. At this point the Field Marshal decides that the game is up and it is in Germany's best interests to surrender Army Group B to the Americans. The book (and its successor, Fox at the Front) has been criticised on the Internet for showing unusual military omissions on Rommel's part and for being a rather contrived plot to get a "dream team" of Patton and Rommel together to combat the Russians. In answer to the first criticism, it should be noted that at times (eg during Operation Crusader) the historical Rommel could be almost wilfully reckless. The second charge, that the book is a way of co-opting the "noble bad guy" onto the good side, is of course probably one of the reasons the book was written in the first place, but does raise the question of the Rommel myth/legend again. More substantially, one reviewer raised the question of what in real life would have happened to Manfred and Luise Rommel if their father and husband had effectively turned against the Reich in such a manner.

In The Moscow Option, David Downing follows history closely inasmuch as Rommel takes charge of the overall fighting in North Africa and later in the Middle East, being able to field two corps instead of one thanks to the Axis seizure of Malta. The Field Marshal manages to bounce the British out of Egypt and into Palestine but is stalled just short of Jerusalem, thanks partly to the replacement of one of his panzer divisions by the willing but underequipped Italian armoured division Ariete and partly to the timely arrival of a US armoured division. The real interest lays towards the end of the book, when Adolf Eichmann is assassinated in Palestine by a Jewish sniper. Bayerlein tersely informs Rommel that the SS have run amok and slaughtered a large number of Arabs by way of reprisal, unable to distinguish anti-German Semites from pro-German. Rommel's answer is to arrest all the SS involved and recommend their leader for court-martial and the rest for disciplinary action. This however displeases Hitler, and by way of rebuke his formerly favourite field marshal is sent to the Eastern Front to command a panzer corps there instead. While lacking the grandiloquence of the stories where Rommel overtly defies Hitler, this vignette does seem true to Rommel's own record and feelings on the subject of reprisals, as evinced by a diary entry in The Rommel Papers concerning some incidents between Italians and Arabs.

Harry Turtledove is one of the prime fiction writers of alternative history, and for that reason I considered it somewhat surprising that he did not co-opt Rommel into his intriguing blend of science fiction and alternative history, the Worldwar series. However, the character of the US officer Irving Morrell in his other opus, based on an alternative history where the South wins the US Civil War of the 1860s, is by the author's own admission based on Erwin Rommel, and Morrell follows a similar military path (infantry blitzkrieg tactics followed by close espousal of the use of armour).

All these speculations are of course interesting and when written as fiction are often entertaining. However they do sometimes seem to have a note of wishful thinking. It is one thing to sympathise with the fate of the ordinary German, caught up in a desperate and losing struggle and threatened not only by external enemies but also by the Gestapo. If there is a "myth" of Rommel that portrays him as an active enemy of Hitler as well as a genius on the battlefield, then it runs the risk of romanticising or glossing over certain aspects of the Second World War and leaving its architects open to the accusation of wearing rose-coloured spectacles or worse. Sometimes there seems to be an unconscious assumption among certain aficionados of the conflict that the Soviet Union was just as evil as Nazi Germany, and in Dobson and Niles' novel the Russians are portrayed in a less than favourable light. While nobody can doubt the evils of Stalin and his henchmen, nor the brutalities commited by some Red Army troops during the war, it should be remembered that it was Nazi Germany that attacked the Soviet Union, not vice-versa, and that furthermore the campaign was conducted in the spirit of an ideological crusade - the seizure of vital resources, the enslavement of the Slavs and the extermination of Jews and other "undesirables" - rather than simply as a military affair. While I am sure that writers such as Niles and Dobson would not willingly place their feet in the revisionist camp, one has to be very careful not to give the latter any sustenance. Two rights do not make a wrong, of course, which is why atrocities committed by any nation or army during the conflict should be exposed. To say that Rommel was initially pro-Hitler and spoke favourably of him until near the end of his life is not to disparage the field marshal, nor to denigrate his achievements. It is simply to recognise that every man has his weaknesses and his blind side.


Rommel: The Desert Fox, Desmond Young.

Rommel: Trail of the Desert Fox, David Irving.

Knight's Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, David Fraser.

The Armies of Rommel, George Forty.

From Triumph to Disaster: The Fatal Flaws of German Generalship from Moltke to Guderian, Kenneth Macksey.

Infantry Attacks, Erwin Rommel.

Generals: The Best and Worst Military Commanders, Gerald Suster

Hitler's German Enemies, Louis Snyder

Hitler's Traitors, Susan Ottaway

Also available, but not read by this reviewer:

Rommel as Military Commander, Ronald Lewin.

Rommel and Caporetto, Wilkes and Wilkes (to be added to this page shortly).

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