On 14th October 1944 Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox”, was forced to commit suicide, having fallen foul of Adolf Hitler.
Erwin Rommel had a distinguished record as an infantry soldier and officer during World War I, winning two Iron Crosses and the “Pour le Merite” medal, which was the highest gallantry award offered by the German Imperial Army.
In 1937 he published a military textbook which brought him to the attention of Adolf Hitler, who put him in charge of the Führer’s bodyguard, with the rank of major general.
Rommel was active in the invasion of Poland in 1939 and became impressed by the effect that tanks could have in waging war. With Hitler’s support he was able to take charge of the 7th Panzer Division for the invasion of the Low Countries and France.
However, it was the North Africa campaign for which Erwin Rommel is best known. He proved to be a master tactician in desert warfare, but was eventually defeated in October 1942 by the British under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery at El Alamein.
That defeat began the downward slide for Erwin Rommel. Apart from being defeated for the first time, he disobeyed a direct command from Hitler to fight to the last man. However, this did not prevent him from being regarded as a national hero when he returned to Germany.
When the Allied invasion of France was imminent in 1944 Rommel was entrusted with the defence of Normandy. His advice was to send a force of 1500 tanks to defend the beaches but he was overruled, with the result that the D-Day invasion succeeded in its aim. Rommel himself was injured when his staff car was strafed by the RAF, thus taking him away from having direct command over unfolding events.
In July 1944 an internal plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, by placing a bomb in his headquarters, was mounted but failed. Hitler responded by demanding the deaths of anyone who was even remotely connected with the plot. Unfortunately for Erwin Rommel, his name was on the list.
It is almost certain that Rommel was entirely innocent of being a member of the plot. The closest he got to it was being approached by the plotters but refusing to participate. However, the question then arises of whether Rommel should have done more to prevent the plot from going ahead, seeing that he then knew that something of this nature was on the cards.
It would have been bad politics for Hitler to have had one of his best field marshals executed by firing squad, so the old “loaded pistol” tactic was employed – the condemned man would be left alone in a room with a loaded pistol and be expected to use it on himself. However, when the execution squad of generals arrived at his house, Rommel’s family was also there, so, to spare them the trauma, he left with the generals and took poison in the staff car.
Rommel was given a full state funeral, with the public being told that he had died of war wounds. Hitler refused to attend and top Nazis, including Goering and Goebbels, sent messages of condolence full of weasel words, knowing as they did that Rommel had been executed.
It was a sad end for someone who made the mistake of being defeated, and of serving a man who could not tolerate failure.
© John Welford