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Erwin Rommel

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Erwin Rommel

rtance of seizing Tobruk, Paulus authorised another attack on the fortress. When this attack failed to penetrate the perimeter defences Paulus ordered it halted. In addition, he ordered no further attacks were to commence until regrouping and reinforcement was completed. In addition, no new assault was to take place without OKH's specific prior approval.

Rommel 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 and siege warfare could be conducted.[55][56] Johannes Streich, divisional commander of the 5th Light Division, was removed from command.

Arrival of Polish forces in Alexandria to relieve the Australians in Tobruk, August 1941

Though harassed by both air and sea attack, the British were able to maintain the defenders of Tobruk, running in supplies from Alexandria under the cover of night. Entrenched in defensive positions, the Australian 9th Division under the command of General Morshead proved to be very difficult to dislodge. After the initial assaults failed and the decision made to hold off further attacks, Rommel set about creating defensive positions around the garrison. Italian infantry forces were used to hold the Sollum–Sidi Omar line surrounding Tobruk, and the sea coast town of Bardia. Meanwhile, the mobile armoured units were left to the east and south to respond to further offensive actions by the Western Desert Force.

Pressured from Churchill to seize the initiative, General Wavell launched a limited offensive on 15 May 1941 and code named Brevity, the British briefly seized the important Halfaya Pass. The action was called off after a day. Then on 15 June 1941 Wavell launched a major offensive to destroy the Axis forces and relieve Tobruk. Code named Battleaxe, the attack was defeated in a four-day battle raging on the flanks of the Sollum and Halfaya Passes, resulting in the loss of 87 British tanks, while the Germans suffered the loss of 25 tanks of their own.[57] The defeat resulted in Churchill replacing Wavell as theatre commander.[58][N 2]

In August contention over the control of the Axis forces in Africa resulted in Rommel being appointed commander of the newly created Panzer Group Africa, with Fritz Bayerlein as his chief of staff.[60] The Afrika Korps, comprising the 15th Panzer Division and the 5th Light Division, now reinforced and redesignated 21st Panzer Division, was put under command of Generalleutnant Ludwig Crüwell. In addition to the Afrika Korps, Rommel's Panzer Group had the 90th Light Division and four Italian divisions, three infantry divisions investing Tobruk, and one holding Bardia. The two Italian armoured divisions, Ariete and Trieste were still under Italian control. They formed the Italian XX Motorized Corps under the command of General Gastone Gambara.[61] Two months later Hitler decided he must have German officers in better control of the Mediterranean theatre, and insisted on the appointment of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring as Commander in Chief, South. Kesselring was ordered to get control of the air and sea between Africa and Italy.[61]

Allied offensive

Operation Crusader
FlaK 8,8 cm guns fire upon British armour.

Following his success in Battleaxe, Rommel focused his attentions on the capture of Tobruk. He made preparations for a new offensive, to be launched between 15 and 20 November.[62] Meanwhile the British new theatre commander, XXX and XIII, which formed the British Eighth Army. The Eighth Army was placed 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 opposed him with 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.

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 do what the British anticipated, and instead attacked the southernly armoured thrust at Sidi Rezegh.[63]

Rommel conversing with his staff near El Agheila, 12 January 1942.

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.[64] 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. Over the next two days the British continued pressing their attack, sending their armoured brigades into battle in a piecemeal fashion.[65] Rommel waited, and launched a concentrated counter-attack on 23 November. 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. Though surrounded, the British were still able to fight themselves out of the trap. They headed south to Gabr Saleh, but lost about two-thirds of their armour in the effort.[66]

Rommel counterattacks
Panzer Mk IIIs on the move in the desert.

Wanting to exploit the halt of the British offensive, on 24 November Rommel 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.[67] 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.[68]

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.[69] The German attack, which began with only 100 operational tanks remaining,[70] 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."[70] To Rommel's credit, the attack very nearly succeeded: only Auchinleck's timely intervention prevented Cunningham from withdrawing.[71]

Axis retirement to El Agheila, relief of Tobruk
88 mm flak, El Alamein

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[N 3] Rommel's Chief of Staff,

  • The Forced Suicide of Field Marshal Rommel, 1944
  • Erwin Rommel—The Idol – German documentary
  • Who Was Erwin Rommel? – Post detailing Rommel's life
  • The Real Rommel—Channel 4's Portrait
  • Erwin Rommel – Jewish Virtual Library
  • Rommel in Libya
  • Rommel's battlefields in Libya today
  • Erwin Rommel in the French castle in la Roche Guyon, some pictures and video
  • Works by or about Erwin Rommel in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • Erwin Rommel Desert War.net
  • Daily Mail article from December 2012 re a letter dictated by Manfred Rommel about the circumstances of his father's death
  • Erwin Rommel Memorial – Find A Grave

External links

  • Almásy, László (2001). With Rommel's Army in Libya. Bloomington, Ind.: 1st Books Libr.  
  • Berger, Florian (2000). Mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern. Die höchstdekorierten Soldaten des Zweiten Weltkrieges (in German). Selbstverlag Florian Berger. p. 415.  
  • Bierman, John; Smith, Colin (2002). The Battle of Alamein: Turning Point, World War II.  
  • Biggs, Barton (2008). Wealth, War and Wisdom (illustrated ed.). John Wiley and Sons.  
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  • Carver, Michael (1962). El Alamein. Wordsworth Editions.  
  • Churchill, Winston (1949). Second World War. Volume 3: The Grand Alliance (first ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 
  • Clostermann, Pierre (2005) [1st published 1948 in French]. The Big Show: The Greatest Pilot's Story of World War II. London: Cassell.  
  • Coggins, Jack The Campaign for North Africa. New York, Doubleday & Company (1980) ISBN 0-385-04351-1.
  • De Lannoy, Francois (2002). Afrikakorps, 1941–1943: The Libya Egypt Campaign. Bayeux: Heimdal.  
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  • Forty, George (1998). The Armies of Rommel. London: Arms and Armour Press.  
  • Fraser, David (1994). Knight's Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. New York, NY: HarperCollins.  
  • Green, Leslie C. (1993). The contemporary law of armed conflict. Manchester University Press.  
  • Greene, Jack; Massignani, Alessandro (1994). Rommel's North Africa Campaign: September 1940 – November 1942. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books.  
  • Hakim, Joy (1995). War, peace, and all that jazz. New York: Oxford University Press.  
  • Hoffman, Karl Erwin Rommel London, Brassey's (2004) ISBN 1-85753-374-7
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  • Jacobson, Hans Adolf Entscheidungsschlachten des Zweiten Weltkrieges (English: Decisive Battles of World War II). Frankfurt, Wehrwesen, Bernard & Graefe (1960)
  • Jentz, Thomas L. (1998). Tank Combat in North Africa: The Opening Rounds: Operations Sonnenblume, Brevity, Skorpion and Battleaxe February 1941 – June 1941. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History.  
  • Kelly, Orr (2002). Meeting the Fox: The Allied Invasion of Africa, from Operation Torch to Kasserine Pass to Victory in Tunisia. New York: J. Wiley.  
  • Knopp, Guido (2000). Hitlers Krieger. Goldmann Verlag.  
  • Kriebel, Rainer; Gudmundsson, Bruce I (1999). Inside the Afrika Korps: The Crusader Battles, 1941–1942. London: Greenhill Books.  
  • Latimer, Jon (2002). Alamein. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.  
  • Latimer, Jon (2001). Tobruk 1941: Rommel's Opening Move. Oxford: Osprey Military.  
  • Lewin, Ronald (1998) [1968]. Rommel As Military Commander. New York: B&N Books.  
  • Liddell Hart, B.H., The German Generals Talk. New York, NY: Morrow, 1948.
  • von Luck, Hans Panzer Commander: The Memoirs of Colonel Hans von Luck. New York, Dell Publishing of Random House (1989) ISBN 0-440-20802-5
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  • Mitcham, Samuel W. (2001) [1998]. Rommel's Greatest Victory. Novato, Calif.: Presidio.  
  • Moorhouse, Roger (2007). Killing Hitler: The Third Reich and the Plots Against the Führer. London: Random House.  
  • Ralf, Georg Reuth Erwin Rommel: Des Führers General. Munich, Piper (1987) ISBN 3-492-15222-8
  • Reuth, Ralf Georg (2006). Rommel: The End of a Legend. London: Haus Books.  
  • Rigg, Bryan Mark (2002). Hitler's Jewish Soldiers. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.  
  • Rommel, Erwin (1934). Gefechts-Aufgaben für Zug und Kompanie : Ein Handb. f. d. Offizierunterricht (in German). Mittler & Sohn. 
  • Rommel, Erwin; Kidde, G. E. (2006) [1937]. Infantry Attacks.  
  • Rommel, Erwin (1982) [1953].  
  • Rommel, Erwin; Pimlott, John (2006) [2003]. Rommel and his Art of War. London: Greenhill Books.  
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  • Sakkers, Hans (1993). Generalfeldmarschall Rommel: opperbevelhebber van Heeresgruppe B bij de voorbereiding van de verdediging van West-Europa, 5 November 1943 tot 6 Juni 1944 (in Dutch).  
  • Schaulen, Fritjof (2005). Eichenlaubträger 1940 – 1945 Zeitgeschichte in Farbe III Radusch – Zwernemann (in German). Germany: Selent, Pour le Mérite.  
  • Scherzer, Veit (2007). Die Ritterkreuzträger 1939–1945 Die Inhaber des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939 von Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm sowie mit Deutschland verbündeter Streitkräfte nach den Unterlagen des Bundesarchives (in German). Jena, Germany: Scherzers Miltaer-Verlag.  
  • Shirer, William L. (1960). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon and Schuster.  
  • Showalter, Dennis (2005). Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century.  
  • Schraepler, Hans-Joachim; Schraepler, Hans-Albrecht (September 2009). At Rommel's Side: The Lost Letters of Hans-Joachim Schraepler. London: Frontline Books.  
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  • Stegemann, Bernard (1995). Germany and the Second World War—Volume III—Part IV and V. Oxford: Clarendon Press.  
  • Thomas, Franz (1998). Die Eichenlaubträger 1939–1945 Band 2: L–Z [The Oak Leaves Bearers 1939–1945 Volume 2: L–Z] (in German). Osnabrück, Germany: Biblio-Verlag.  
  • Van Creveld, Martin (1977). Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  
  • Whitlock, Flint. The Fighting First: the untold story of the Big Red One on D-Day. Westview Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8133-4218-X
  • Williamson, Gordon (2006). Knight's Cross with Diamonds Recipients 1941–45.  
  • Willmott, H.P. (1984) "June, 1944" Blandford Press ISBN 0-7137-1446-8
  • Willmott, Ned; Pimlott, John; Fowler, Will (1979). Strategy and Tactics of War. London; New York: Marshall Cavendish.  
  • Windrow, Martin (1976). Rommel's Desert Army. Osprey Publishing.  
  • Young, Desmond (1950). Rommel The Desert Fox. New York: Harper & Row.  
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  2. ^ Rommel 1953, p. xv, Quote from Liddell Hart in his intro: Awe for his dynamic generalship developed into an almost affectionate admiration for him as a man.
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  156. ^ "Deutches Afrikakorps". 
  157. ^ Hoffman p. 25
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  182. ^ Montanari, "Le operazioni in Africa Settentrionale", vol. 1 to 4, Italian Army General Staff Historical Office
  183. ^ Kesselring, The Memoirs of Field Marshal Kesselring, pp. 124–125
  184. ^ M.Montanari, Le Operazioni in Africa Settentrionale, Vol.IV, chapter III, pp. 119–197
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  187. ^ Young 1950, p. 85.
  188. ^ Lewin 1968, p. 225.
  189. ^ Rigg pp. 40, 103, 131–132, 314
  190. ^ Terry Brighton. Patton, Montgomery, Rommel: Masters of War. New York: Crown, 2008. p. xvii
  191. ^ Moorhouse 2007, pp. 157–158.
  192. ^ Green 1993, p. 137.
  193. ^ Churchill v3 p. 200
  194. ^ a b c d e Thomas 1998, p. 226.
  195. ^ Fellgiebel 2000, p. 363.
  196. ^ Fellgiebel 2000, p. 54.
  197. ^ Fellgiebel 2000, p. 39.
  198. ^ Fellgiebel 2000, p. 36.
Citations
  1. ^ Note the Panzer 38(t)s in the background. These tanks were Czech built, and were absorbed into the service after the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Though a light tank, they were effective in 1940 and were used to fill out the new panzer regiments. 7th Panzer, being a new formation, used these as a main battle tank, supplemented by Pz Mk Is and IIs, and a handful of Pz Mk IVs.[35]
  2. ^ Rommel had been a great admirer of Wavell, and kept a translated copy of Wavell's Lees-Knowles lectures on Generals and Generalship with him throughout the desert campaign. Many years later Frau Rommel presented the annotated and weathered little volume to Lady Wavell.[59]
  3. ^ 23 to 28 November according to von Mellenthin.[72]
  4. ^ As recounted by Von Luck in his memoirs, Rommel commented to his wife that he wished Hitler had given him another division instead.[82]
  5. ^ "I finally decided to fly once again to the Fuhrer's H.Q. I felt it my duty to do all in my power to rouse a true understanding of the practical operational problems of Tunisia".[116]
  6. ^ von Runstedt had confided to Rommel that it was for propaganda purposes only.[124]
  7. ^ Rommel's chief of staff, Hans Speidel commented "The organization and chain of command of the major commands in the West was somewhere between confusion and chaos."[132]
  8. ^ His diary for June 3 reads: 'The most urgent need was to speak to the Führer personally, convey to him the extent of the manpower and material inferiority we would suffer in the event of a landing, and request the dispatch of two further Panzer divisions, an A.A. Corps, and a Nebelwerfer brigade to Normandy...' But he was recalled by the news of the invasion, and did not see Hitler, so the 12 SS was not moved: a mischance which must have saved many American lives.[134]
  9. ^ Commenting on 5th Light Division's inability to succeed in its early attempts upon Tobruk, Rommel wrote: "The division's command had not mastered the art of concentrating its strength at one point, forcing a breakthrough, rolling up and securing the flanks on either side, and then penetrating like lighting, before the enemy has time to react, deep into his rear." Said B. H. Liddell Hart, the Blitzkrieg method could not be better epitomised in a single sentence.[155]
  10. ^ As a typical example, in the final assault on the 150th Brigade in "the Cauldron", Rommel went in with the foremost platoon.[159]
  11. ^ Rommel survived the protest. Hitler told him it was none of his business, and took no further action against him[188]
  12. ^ Details several specific instances of Rommel's disinclination to go along with the Nazi antisemitic policy and consequent orders.[189]
Notes

References

Dates of ranks

Erwin Rommel statue at Al Alamein war museum in Egypt

Medals and decorations

His ardour, and daring, inflicted grievous disasters upon us. But he deserves the salute which I made him, in the House of Commons, in January 1942. He also deserves our respect, because although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, there is little place for chivalry.[193]

In the course of the war, during parliamentary debate following the fall of Tobruk, Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke of Rommel as a "daring and skillful opponent... a great General", comments for which the British Parliament considered a censure vote against Churchill. Writing about him years later, Churchill offered the following:

When Rommel's involvement in the plot to kill Hitler became known after the war, his stature was enhanced in the eyes of his former adversaries. Rommel was often cited in Western sources as a loyal German willing to stand up to Hitler. The release of the film The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951) increased his fame and furthered his standing as the most widely known and well-regarded leader in the German Army. In 1970 a Lütjens-class destroyer was named the Rommel in his honour.

Rommel was among the few Axis commanders (the others being Isoroku Yamamoto and Reinhard Heydrich) who were directly targeted for assassination by Allied planners. At least two attempts were made against Rommel's life, the first being Operation Flipper which attempted to kill Rommel in North Africa on the eve of Operation Crusader in 1941, and the second being Operation Gaff undertaken shortly after the invasion of Normandy in 1944.[191] Both missions failed because Rommel was not where the planners had supposed him to be.[192]

Rommel was extraordinarily well known in his lifetime, not only by the German people, but also by his adversaries. His tactical prowess and consistent decency in the treatment of allied prisoners earned him the respect of many opponents, including world wars."[190]

Rommel's desert uniform and death mask (right) displayed at the German Tank Museum in Munster.

Popular perception

During Rommel's time in France, Hitler ordered him to deport the country's Jewish population; Rommel disobeyed. Several times he wrote letters protesting against the treatment of the Jews. He also refused to comply with Hitler's order to execute Jewish POWs. At his 17 June 1944 meeting with Hitler at Margival, he protested against the atrocity committed by the 2nd SS Panzer division Das Reich, which in retribution had massacred the citizens of the French town of Oradour-sur-Glane. Rommel asked to be allowed to punish the division.[N 11] While he implemented the construction of the many obstacles to strengthen the Atlantic Wall, Rommel directed that French workers were to be paid for their labour, and were not to be used as slave labourers.[N 12]

Rommel understood and accepted that with war would come casualties, but he was not one to accept the unnecessary loss of life. "Germany will need men after the war as well" was a comment he frequently made.[6] His view went beyond Germans to include the captured soldiers of his adversaries. Numerous examples exist of Rommel's chivalry towards Allied Operation Fortitude, he placed them in a POW camp. When British Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Keyes was killed during a failed commando raid to kill or capture Rommel behind German lines, Rommel ordered him buried with full military honours.[187]

Rommel walks past Allied prisoners taken at Tobruk in 1942.

Humanitarianism

Very different, however, was the perception of Rommel by Italian common soldiers and NCOs, who, like the German field troops, had the deepest trust and respect for him.[184]

While certainly much less proficient than Rommel in their leadership, aggressiveness, tactical outlook and mobile warfare skills, Italian commanders were competent in logistics, strategy and artillery doctrine, while their troops were ill-equipped but well-trained. As such, the Italian commanders were repeatedly at odds with Rommel over concerns with issues of supply.[182] Field Marshal Kesselring was assigned Supreme Commander Mediterranean, at least in part to alleviate command problems between Rommel and the Italians. This effort does not seem to have succeeded, Kesselring claiming Rommel ignored him as easily as he ignored the Italians.[183]

Rommel's contemptuous opinion of the Italian military stemmed initially from his experiences fighting against them in the mountains of Northern Italy in the First World War.[177] His initial disdain was tempered when he came to realise their lack of success was principally due to poor leadership and equipment, remarking succinctly in his typical fashion: "Good soldiers, bad officers."[178] When these difficulties were overcome, he found them equal to German soldiers.[179] Rommel's relationship with the Italian High Command in North Africa was generally poor. Rommel was sent to Africa to shore up a crumbling situation created under the direction of the Italian command, and though he was nominally subordinate to the Italians for much of the campaign, he was under no illusions as to why he was there. Further, he enjoyed direct access with the highest German political authority, which allowed him a certain degree of autonomy from his Italian counterparts; since he was directing their troops in battle as well as his own, this was bound to cause hostility among Italian commanders. Conversely, as the Italian command had control over the supplies of the forces in Africa, they resupplied Italian units preferentially, which was a source of resentment for Rommel and his staff. Rommel's direct and abrasive manner did nothing to smooth these issues.[180][181]

Rommel with German and Italian officers, 1942

Relations with the Italians

Aggressive subordinate commanders, such as Hans von Luck, praised his leadership from the front.[32] Though Mellenthin was in agreement on forward command of armoured units, a broadly held principle of the Panzerwaffe, he believed that losing contact with headquarters led to disinvolvement of his staff officers and created difficulty in maintaining an overview of the tactical situation.[175] Long absences from contact with headquarters meant that at times subordinate commanders had to make decisions without first consulting Rommel. Even when Rommel was present at headquarters, his impatient personality made it difficult for his subordinates—and sometimes his superiors—to work with him.[176]

Friedrich von Mellenthin, who was a key aide on Rommel's staff during the Africa campaign, wrote that Rommel was willing to take chances, sometimes gambling an entire battle on a decision made at the point of contact. Rommel first displayed this type of initiative during the First World War as a junior officer in Belgium and later in the mountains of northern Italy. There he found a sudden, bold, decisive move could reap large dividends. This was reinforced by Rommel's experiences at the head of the 7th Panzer Division during the invasion of France in 1940, where it was clear that his presence at the forefront of the battle was instrumental in creating successful outcomes. But at times in North Africa his absence from a position of communication made command of the battles of the Afrika Korps very difficult. Rommel's counterattack during Operation Crusader is one such instance.[70] It should be noted though, that throughout the desert war Rommel was acting from a position of relative weakness. To succeed he had to accept risks that commanders like Montgomery were never forced to take.[174] General Fritz Bayerlein, Rommel's chief of staff through much of the campaign, noted that risks taken were made only after carefully weighing the potential dangers and rewards.[67]

In battle, Rommel was often directing fire or leading an assault in the hottest point of decision.[168][N 10] Wounded multiple times in both world wars, his notoriety was partly the result of his having the luck to survive long enough to become prominent.[169] In addition, Rommel was also the possessor of a great deal of moral courage.[170] German historian Hans-Adolf Jacobson commented: "Rommel was one of the few generals who had the strength to refuse to carry out one of Hitler's orders."[171] He could be difficult on his subordinate commanders and superiors. He expected a great deal of himself and much the same for them. He had little patience for junior officers who did not do their jobs properly.[172] He was not open to objections to his plans, and he did not tolerate incompetence.[50] In one instance in February 1940 only three weeks after assuming command of the 7th Panzer Division, Rommel determined one of his battalion commanders was performing below par and had the man relieved of command and sent on his way in 90 minutes.[173]

Inspecting the Free India Legion, France, 1944

Personality

His successes did cause a certain amount of resentment among headquarters staff officers, who might criticize him for failing to keep them in contact and properly informed of his intentions. For Rommel this was not always an oversight, but was sometimes preferred.

The respect afforded Rommel by his soldiers was the result of their observation of him.[4] Said staff officer Friedrich von Mellenthin: "The Afrika Korps followed Rommel wherever he led, however hard he drove them... the men knew that Rommel was the last man to spare Rommel."[4] Hard on his officers, he demanded they take proper care of their men and materiel. Once he saw things were properly attended to he could be easy and comfortable, but if unhappy with the way an officer was applying himself he could be very severe, being quick to fire officers who did not maintain standards or dithered over his commands. Said von Mellenthin: "While very popular with young soldiers and N.C.O.s, with whom he cracked many a joke, he could be most outspoken and offensive to commanders of troops if he did not approve of their measures."[166] When asked what he thought of James Mason's portrayal in the film "The Desert Fox", von Mellenthin smiled before replying "Altogether too polite".[167]

Rommel led by example. In 1933 when he became commander of a Hanoverian Jaeger battalion expert in the ski, its officers gave him the mandatory test on the snow slopes. No lift was present, and the men had to climb to ski down the hillside. They trudged to the top and descended, and honour was satisfied, but the 41 year old commander led his officers up and down the slope twice more before he let them fall out. He felt a commander should be physically more robust than the troops he led, and should always show them an example.[165] He expected his subordinate commanders to do the same. They had to live hard. He felt it the obligation of a commander to be willing to suffer whatever hardships the soldier in the line was facing, and he understood the effect of this on the morale of his men.

Rommel helping to free up his staff car, Škoda Superb Kfz 21[164]

The 7th Panzer's drive through the Belgian, French and British lines in 1940 succeeded to a remarkable degree from Rommel's driving presence with his forces.[157] The boldness of his attacks often led larger enemy formations to surrender, as they were overwhelmed by the pace of the action and became unsure of themselves.[158] This was even more evident in North Africa. A central aspect of his thinking on command was the high value he placed on a commander being physically present at the point of contact.[159] When the British mounted a commando raid deep behind German lines in an effort to kill Rommel and his staff on the eve of their Crusader offensive, Rommel was indignant, not that the British had singled him out to be killed, but that the British could believe his headquarters would be found 250 miles behind his front.[160] In terms of making tactical decisions quickly he believed the commander needed to be at the crucial place at the crucial time.[76][161] If Rommel did find it necessary to keep his headquarters well behind the lines, he would often personally pilot a reconnaissance aircraft over the battle lines to get a view of the situation. Although Rommel did not have a pilot's license, he was a competent pilot, and none of the Luftwaffe officers had the nerve to stop him.[162][163]

Rommel speaking with his men.

Leadership

Taking his opponent by surprise and creating uncertainty in the mind of the adversarial commander were key elements in Rommel's thinking on offensive warfare. Rommel understood the impact of striking quickly, and his offensive campaigns are noted for his ability to arrive in force where his opponents did not expect him. Rommel would take advantage of sand storms and the dark of night to conceal the movement of his forces.[154] In France and later in Africa Rommel made use of the Luftwaffe as a forward, mobile artillery to support the advance and help overcome difficult obstacles. He viewed the essential aspect of successful use of armour was the ability to concentrate all available strength at one point and then hit that point with everything at hand to force a breakthrough.[155] [N 9] Maintaining momentum was critical. He was willing to trade the tenuous logistical support of such moves for the advantage in creating havoc and confusion in the enemy. A former Afrika Korps soldier recalled: "When the kampfgruppe leader would say 'Jawohl Herr Feldmarschall. According to my estimates the proposed drive behind the lines to encircle the enemy would require a drive of 150 km. Our fuel supply is barely enough for 50 km.' Rommel would reply in his Schwaebisch dialect, 'Fahren Sie, fahren Sie, dann brauchen Sie keinen Treibstoff' (Drive, drive, then you do not need fuel), which was understood to mean 'Get there quickly, take the enemy by surprise, then use the fuel available from the enemy's supply.'"[156]

Manoeuvre warfare

Rommel's style as military commander

In 2013, it was revealed that Dr Friedrich Breiderhoff wrote a report for Cologne police on 22 July 1960, describing the circumstances which forced him to falsify Rommel's death certificate in 1944.[153]

Following the war, Rommel's diary and letters were edited by military historian B.H. Liddell Hart and published as The Rommel Papers. His grave can be found in Herrlingen, a short distance west of Ulm. For decades after the war on the anniversary of his death, veterans of the Africa campaign, including former opponents, would gather at Rommel's tomb in Herrlingen.[151] He is the only member of the Third Reich establishment to have a museum dedicated to him.[152]

The official story of Rommel's death, as initially reported to the general public, stated that Rommel had succumbed to his injuries from the earlier strafing of his staff car.[147] To further strengthen the story, Hitler ordered an official day of mourning in commemoration and Rommel was buried with full military honours. The fact that his state funeral was held in Ulm instead of Berlin had, according to his son, been stipulated by Rommel.[148] Hitler sent Field Marshal von Rundstedt, who was unaware that Rommel had died as a result of Hitler's orders, as his representative at Rommel's funeral.[149] Rommel had specified that no political paraphernalia be displayed on his corpse, but the Nazis made sure his coffin was festooned with swastikas. The truth behind Rommel's death became known to the Allies when intelligence officer Charles Marshall interviewed Rommel's widow, Lucia Rommel, in April 1945.[150]

Rommel's grave
Memorial at the site where Rommel was forced to take his own life, near Herrlingen, Baden-Württemberg.

Rommel was approached at his home by Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel, two generals from Hitler's headquarters, on 14 October 1944. Burgdorf informed him of the charges and offered him a choice: he could face the People's Court or choose to commit suicide quietly. In the former case, his staff would have been arrested and executed as well, and his family would suffer even before the all-but-certain conviction and execution. In the latter case, the government would assure his family full pension payments and a state funeral claiming he had died a hero. Burgdorf had brought a capsule of cyanide. After a few minutes alone, Rommel announced that he chose to end his own life and explained his decision to his wife and son.[142] Carrying his field marshal's baton, Rommel went to Burgdorf's Opel, driven by SS Master Sergeant Heinrich Doose, and was driven out of the village. Doose walked away from the car, leaving Rommel with Maisel. Five minutes later Burgdorf gestured to the two men to return to the car, and Doose noticed that Rommel was slumped over, having taken the cyanide pill. Ten minutes later the group phoned Rommel's wife to inform her of Rommel's death.[143][144][145][146]

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. Although being hauled before the People's Court was tantamount to a death sentence, 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.[141]

Rommel's funeral procession.

Death

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. Gestapo went to Rommel's house in Ulm and placed him under partial house arrest.

Rommel 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.[138] 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. Rommel's name was first mentioned when Stülpnagel blurted it out during an interrogation after he failed in an attempt at suicide.[139] Later, another conspirator, Caesar von Hofacker, admitted under particularly severe Gestapo interrogation that Rommel was actively involved.[140]

Early in 1944, three of Rommel's closest friends—the Oberbürgermeister of Stuttgart, Hans Speidel, who also played a role in the daring letter Rommel wrote against Hitler. 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."[137]

Bomb blast damage following attempt to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944.

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.

Plot against Hitler

The Allies pushed ashore and expanded their beachhead despite the best efforts of Rommel's troops. By mid-July the German position was crumbling. On 17 July 1944, Rommel was returning from visiting the headquarters of Sepp Dietrich, the commander of 1st SS Panzer Corps, being driven back to Army Group B headquarters 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.[135] The car sped up and attempted to get off the main roadway, but a 20 mm round shattered the driver's left arm, causing the vehicle to come off the road and crash into some trees. Rommel was thrown from the car, suffering glass shards to the left side of his face and three fractures to his skull.[135][136] He was hospitalised with major head injuries.

A part of the difficulty in the German response to the landings in Northern France was the split command structure that was created by Hitler. Anxious of the power of the regular army, a second service was created, the Waffen-SS, which was not under command of the regular army but under Hitler's direct command.[131] In addition, a great number of the land forces included units under the control of the Luftwaffe, including the paratrooper forces and various flak units, while others were under command of the Kriegsmarine. 14 of the 62 divisions in the west, and 7 of the 25 first grade formations were not part of the army.[128] This weakened the ability of the army to control and respond to the battle.[N 7] To make matters worse for the Germans, the June 5th storm in the channel seemed to make a landing very unlikely, and a number of the senior officers were away from their units for training exercises and various other efforts. All this made the German command structure in France in disarray during the opening hours of the D-Day invasion.[133] On June 4 the chief meteorologist of the 3 Air Fleet reported that weather in the channel was so poor there could be no landing attempted for two weeks. On June 5 Rommel set out to visit his family on June 6, planning to then go on to meet with Hitler at the Berchtesgaden to persuade him that the 12th SS Panzer Division should be moved forward to the St. Lo-Carantan area.[N 8].[134] Several units, notably the 12th SS Panzer Division and Panzer-Lehr-Division, were near enough that they could have caused serious havoc. However Hitler refused to release these units over his continued concern over a second landing at the Pas de Calais. Facing relatively small-scale German counterattacks, the Allies quickly secured all beachheads except Omaha. 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.

Generalfeldmarschalls Gerd von Rundstedt and Erwin Rommel meeting in Paris.

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 Army commanders in France believed there would be two invasions, with the main invasion coming at the Pas-de-Calais. Rommel drove defensive preparations all along the coast of Northern France, particularly concentrating fortification building in the River Somme estuary. By D-Day on 6 June 1944 nearly all the German staff officers, including Hitler's staff, believed that Pas-de-Calais was going to be the main invasion site, and continued to believe so even after the landings in Normandy had occurred.[130]

Hitler vacillated between the two strategies. In late April, he ordered the 1st SS Panzer Corps placed near Paris, far enough inland to be useless to Rommel, but not far enough for von Rundstedt. Rommel moved those 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. Rommel's strategy of an impregnable, armor-supported defense line was scoffed at by most of his fellow commanders including von Rundstedt, but his support from Hitler and Goebbels meant he could put all of it into effect except the Panzer divisions; however, these were, in his view, the most critical parts of the plan.

Inspecting 21st Panzer Division troops and a mule track carrier of the Nebelwerfer.

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.[128] Hitler and his various intelligence services largely agreed with this assessment. 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.[129]

Upon arriving in Northern France Rommel was dismayed by the lack of completed works and the slow building pace. He feared he had just a few months before an invasion. His presence greatly invigorated the fortification effort along the Atlantic Wall.[125] He had millions of mines laid and thousands of tank traps and obstacles set up on the beaches and throughout the countryside, including in fields suitable for glider aircraft landings, the so-called Rommelspargel ("Rommel's asparagus"). Rommel's arrival in Northern France instilled a great deal of purpose to the demoralized units that were simply waiting for the inevitable attack.[125] His efforts to buttress the Atlantic Wall went a long way in improving their effectiveness. If given more time, he may have succeeded.[126] U.S. Navy Commander Edward Ellsberg said of the various Atlantic Wall obstacles, "Rommel had thoroughly muddled our plans. Attacking at high tide as we had intended, we'd never get enough troops in over those obstacles..."[127] The obstructions compelled the Allies to land at low tide, which narrowed the time frames they could land and increased the length of the beach to be crossed, but uncovered and revealed the obstacles, reducing their effectiveness.

Rommel observes the fall of shot at Riva-Bella, just north of Caen in the area that would become Sword Beach in Normandy.

There was broad disagreement in the German High Command as to how best to meet the expected allied invasion of Northern France. The Commander-in-Chief West, Gerd von Rundstedt, believed there was no way to stop the invasion near the beaches due to the firepower possessed by the Allied navies, as had been experienced at Salerno.[123] He argued that 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 be allowed to extend themselves deep into France where a battle for control would be fought, allowing the Germans to envelop the allied forces in a pincer movement, cutting off their avenue of retreat. These ideas were supported by other officers, most notably Heinz Guderian and Panzer Group West commander Leo Geyr. They feared the piecemeal commitment of their armoured forces would cause them to become caught in a battle of attrition which they could not hope to win.[123] The notion of holding the armour inland to use as a mobile reserve force from which they could mount a powerful counterattack applied the classic use of armoured formations as seen in France 1940. These tactics were still effective on the Eastern Front, where control of the air was important but did not dominate the action. Rommel's own experiences at the end of the North African campaign revealed to him that the Germans would not be allowed to preserve their armour from air attack for this type of massed assault.[123] Rommel believed their only opportunity would be to oppose the landings directly at the beaches, and to counterattack there before the invaders could become well established. Though there had been some defensive positions established and gun emplacements made, the Atlantic Wall was a token defensive line.[N 6] Rommel believed if the Wehrmacht would have any chance, beach defenses would have to be created and the forces available brought close enough to the allied invaders as to make airstrikes against them difficult.

Rommel and local officers inspect defensive preparations on the beaches of Northern France.

Defending the Atlantic Wall 1944

On 21 November Hitler gave Kesselring overall command of the Italian theater, moving Rommel and Army Group B to Normandy in France with responsibility for defending the French coast against the long anticipated Allied invasion.[122]

On 23 July 1943 Rommel was moved to Greece as commander of Army Group E to counter a possible British invasion of the Greek coast. This was an idea highly thought of by Churchill but which ultimately never occurred. British intelligence, however, used the idea as part of their ongoing efforts to mislead and extend the German army, this aspect being known as "Operation Mincemeat". Rommel returned to Germany upon the overthrow of Mussolini, and on 17 August 1943 was sent to Northern Italy to prepare a northern line of defense. Rommel was headquartered in Lake Garda as commander of the newly formed Army Group B.

Italy 1943

Allied codebreakers read much enciphered German message traffic, especially that encrypted with the Enigma machine. In terms of anticipating the next move the Germans would make, reliance on Ultra would sometimes backfire, as Rommel might not confine his operations to what OKW or the Italian High Command thought was the best plan of action. Ultra intercepts provided the British with such information as the name of the new German commander, his time of arrival, and the numbers and condition of the Axis forces, but they might not correctly reveal Rommel's intentions. More helpful to the Allies were Ultra intercepts providing information about the times and routes of Axis supply shipments across the Mediterranean. This was critical in providing the British with the opportunity to intercept and destroy them. During the time when Malta was under heavy air attack the ability to act on this information was limited, but as Allied air strength improved the information became critical to Allied success. To conceal the fact that German coded messages were being read, a fact critical to the overall Allied war effort, British command required a flyover mission be flown before a convoy could be attacked to give the appearance that a reconnaissance flight had discovered the target.

Colossus Mark II computer at Bletchley Park.
Allies

In addition, the Afrika Korps had the intelligence services of the 621st Signals Battalion commanded by Hauptmann Alfred Seeböhm. The 621st Signals Battalion was a mobile monitoring intelligence unit which arrived in North Africa in late April 1941.[120] It monitored radio communications among British units.[118] Unfortunately for the Allies, the British not only failed to change their codes with any frequency, they were also prone to poor radio discipline in combat. Their officers made frequent open, uncoded transmissions of encouragement to their commands as they went into battle, allowing the Germans to more easily identify British units and deployments.[118] With these Seeböhm had painstakingly compiled code-books and enemy orders of battle. The situation changed after a raid in force by the Australian 2/24th Infantry Battalion resulted in the 621st Signals Battalion being overrun and destroyed, and a significant number of their documents captured, alerting British intelligence to the extent of the problem.[121] The British responded by instituting an improved call signal procedure, introducing radiotelephonic codes, imposing rigid wireless silence on reserve formations, padding out real messages with dummy traffic, tightening up on their radio discipline in combat and creating an entire fake signals network in the southern sector.[121]

The Italians shared parts of their intercepts with their German allies. The "Chiffrierabteilung" (German military cipher branch) were soon able to break the code themselves. Fellers' reports were excessively detailed and played a significant role in informing the Germans of allied strength and intentions. [119] Fellers talked with British military and civilian headquarters personnel, read documents and visited the battlefront. Known to the Germans as "die gute Quelle" (translated as "the good source") or with a joking play on his name as "der kleine Kerl" ("the little fellow"), he transmitted his reports back to Washington using the "Black Code" of the U.S. State Department. In September 1941 Italian agents had stolen a code book from the US embassy in Rome, photographed and returned it without being detected.[118] The Axis had considerable success in intelligence gathering through radio communication intercepts and monitoring unit radio traffic. The most important success came through Colonel

Signals reception unit in the desert.
Axis

Role of Intelligence Intercepts in North Africa

The last Rommel offensive in North Africa was on 6 March 1943, when he attacked Eighth Army at the Battle of Medenine.[114] 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.[115] On 9 March he returned to Germany in an effort to get Hitler to comprehend the reality of the changing situation.[116][N 5] In this he was unsuccessful. Command was handed over to General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim. Rommel never returned to Africa.[117] The fighting there continued on for another two months, until 13 May 1943, when General Messe surrendered the exhausted remnants of Armeegruppe Afrika to the Allies.

Panzer Mk IIIs in Tunisia move onto a roadway.

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. While Rommel was at Kasserine at the end of January 1943, the Italian General Giovanni Messe was appointed commander of Panzer Army Africa, 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.

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—what proved to be his last battlefield victory of the war, as well as his first battle against the United States Army.[113]

Rommel speaks with troops who are using a captured American M3 half-track, Tunisia.
Tunisia

As Rommel attempted to withdraw his forces before the British could cut off his retreat, he was forced to fight a series of delaying actions. A large portion of his Italian infantry divisions were not motorised, nor were Ramcke's parachutists, and they had to march. With severe shortages of water, these units were all lost, though Ramcke and 600 of his men provided their own way out when they surprised a British supply column in the night and captured the transports and fuel. Heavy rains slowed movements and grounded the Desert Air Force, which aided the withdrawal. Those parts of Panzerarmee Africa that were motorized slipped away from El Alamein, but were under pressure from the pursuing Eighth Army. A series of short delaying actions were fought over the coastal highway, but no line could be held for any length of time, as Rommel lacked the armour and fuel to defend his open southern flank.[109] Despite orders from Hitler and Mussolini to stand and fight to the bitter end, Rommel continued to do the only thing sensible, and moved his army west, abandoning Halfaya Pass, Sollum, Mersa Brega and El Agheila. Tripolitania, with its many steep scarps cut in places by dried-up watercourses, made for useful defensive terrain,[110] but the line Rommel was aiming for was 'Gabes gap' in Tunisia.[111] Luftwaffe Field Marshal Kesselring strongly criticized Rommel's decision to retreat all the way to Tunisia, as each airfield the Germans abandoned extended the range of the Allied bombers and fighters. Rommel defended his decision, pointing out that if he tried to assume a defensive position the Allies would destroy his forces and take the airfields anyway; the retreat saved the lives of his remaining men and shortened his supply lines. By now, Rommel's remaining forces fought in reduced strength combat groups, whereas the Allied forces had great numerical superiority and control of the air. Upon his arrival in Tunisia, Rommel noted with some bitterness the reinforcements, including the 10th Panzer Division, arriving in Tunisia following the Allied invasion of Morocco. He felt these could have made all the difference at El Alamein. Their arrival in Tunisia was to a position which he knew Germany ultimately could not hold.[112]

Retreat across Africa

End of Africa campaigns

On 4 November Montgomery renewed the attack with fresh forces, placing his 500 tanks against the 20 or so remaining to Rommel. By midday the Italian XX Motorised 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. On 4 November he could wait no more, and began withdrawing, but he was unable at this point to extract the unmotorised forces on the right or southern aspect of his line.[108] 12 hours later early on 5 November he received authorization by Hitler to withdraw. Hitler's indifference to the survival of Rommel's men was what began to shake Rommel's faith in the Fuhrer—by the time Rommel was recalled from Africa for good in 1943, his attitude towards the dictator was bitter, though he continued to rely on him for political support.

On 3 November Montgomery chose 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 was hopeless.[105] 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. The Axis forces held on desperately.[106] This decision to comply with Hitler's order was rescinded by Rommel a day later as his position further crumbled, but the delay was costly in terms of his ability to get his forces out of Egypt. He later said it was the decision he most regretted from his time in Africa.[107]

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.[105]

The counterattack was launched early on 26 October but those British units that had penetrated the defensive line inflicted heavy losses on Rommel's armour at the position code-named Snipe (often misnamed 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.[104]

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 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.[102] 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.[103]

El Alamein 1942: Destroyed Panzer IIIs near Tel el Eisa
Second Battle of El Alamein

Montgomery had made preparations to cut the Germans off in their retreat, but in the afternoon of 2 September he visited Corps commander Brian Horrocks and gave orders to allow the Germans to retire. This was to preserve his own strength intact for the main battle which was to come.[97] On the night of 3 September the 2nd New Zealand Division and 7th Armoured Division positioned to the north engaged in an assault, but they were repelled in a fierce rearguard action by the 90th Light Division. Montgomery called off further action to preserve his strength and allow for further desert training for his forces.[98] In the attack Rommel had suffered 2,940 casualties and 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 could not be won. Another blow to Rommel occurred on September 1 when the Luftwaffe's Hans-Joachim Marseille, one of the greatest fighter aces of the entire war, was killed attempting to bailout of his burning fighter following an engine failure.[99]

The Battle of Alam el Halfa was launched on 30 August, with Rommel's forces driving through the south flank. Perhaps not realising that the British defensive line was not continuous, or else simply so desperate for supplies that he took the first opportunity to outflank regardless of risk, Rommel ran straight into Montgomery's trap. After passing the El Alamein line to the south, Rommel drove north at the Alam el Halfa Ridge, just as Montgomery had anticipated—into a mine-strewn area with patches of quicksand. 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.[96]

North Africa, Rommel in Sd.Kfz. 250/3
Battle of Alam El Halfa

The British, themselves preparing for a renewed drive, replaced C-in-C Auchinleck with General Harold Alexander. The Eighth Army was assigned to General William "Strafer" Gott, but his aircraft was intercepted and shot down, killing the general. Subsequently Bernard Montgomery was made the new commander of Eighth Army. 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.

Rommel at a staff conference in the Western Desert in 1942

[95] The Italian HQ desired their own forces be resupplied first.[94] 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. As the central and eastern

Summer standoff

Rommel continued his pursuit of the Eighth Army, which had fallen back to prepared defensive positions at El Alamein. This region was a natural choke point, where the Qattara Depression created a relatively short line to defend that could not be outflanked to the south because of the impossibility of moving armour into and through the depression. On 1 July the First Battle of El Alamein began. By the time the Afrika Korps reached El Alamein Rommel had only 13 operational tanks left due to mechanical problems and fuel shortages. Although he was only a few hundred miles from the Pyramids, he knew he did not have the resources. On 3 July, he wrote in his diary that his strength had "faded away".[90] After almost a month of fighting, both sides were exhausted and dug in. Rommel had hoped to drive his advance into the open desert beyond El Alamein where he could resume the more fluid mobile operations. Though Rommel had managed to inflict higher casualties on the Allies than he himself had suffered, the British could afford these losses much more than he could.[91] The key point was that his drive was stopped and he had lost the initiative to an enemy that was daily growing stronger.[92] Another unintended result of the battle was that a change of command was made on the Allied side. Auchinleck had taken personal command of the 8th Army after he relieved Ritchie. Despite having successfully halted Rommel, Churchill decided a new commander was needed to lead the 8th Army. He relieved Auchinleck and placed General Harold Alexander in command of Egypt, with the 8th Army going to General William Gott.[93]

Rommel and Bayerlein survey the field at an 88mm gun emplacement.
First Battle of El Alamein

El Alamein

On 22 June Rommel continued his offensive eastwards. Meanwhile, General Auchinleck (who assumed personal command of the 8th Army after sacking General Ritchie) had already decided to withdraw from the western frontier of Egypt and fall back to defensive positions at El Alamein, but he left two corps to fight a delaying action at Mersa Matruh. Confusion on the part of the command resulted in the X Corps being caught in an encirclement on 26 June, trapping its four infantry divisions. One of the divisions managed to break out during the night. Over the next two days parts of the other three divisions also managed to escape. The fortress fell on 29 June, yielding enormous amounts of supplies and equipment, in addition to 6,000 prisoners.[89]

Rommel determined to press the attack on Mersa Matruh, despite the heavy losses suffered in the battle at Gazala. He wanted to prevent the British from establishing a new defensive line, and felt the weakness of the British formations could be exploited by a thrust into Egypt.[84] The advance into Egypt meant a significant lengthening of the supply lines.[85] Nevertheless, if Rommel could push past the Eighth Army and take Alexandria, his issues with supplies would be largely resolved and the potential existed to push the British out of their possessions in the Middle East entirely. Advancing on Egypt meant that a difficult proposed attack on Malta would have to wait. Kesselring strongly disagreed with Rommel's plans, and went as far as threatening to withdraw his aircraft support to Sicily.[86] Hitler agreed that if Rommel could win in Egypt, Malta would be of no matter, and the costly effort to take it would not be necessary. The decision was opposed by the Italian HQ.[87] In his notes, made with the thought of writing a second book after the war, Rommel defended his decision, stating that merely holding a defensive line at Sollum would pass the initiative to the British, while the Afrika Korps would be holding a position subject to being outflanked to the south. As to supply problems, the supply lines would still be lengthy unless he secured a large port further east, such as Alexandria.[88]

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, with his aides during the desert campaign. 1942
Drive for Egypt

Rommel's gains caused considerable alarm in the Allied camp. He was poised to deliver a crippling blow to the British by taking Alexandria, gaining control of the Suez Canal, and pushing the British out of Egypt. The Allies feared Rommel would then turn north-eastward 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, such moves required substantial reinforcements that Hitler was unwilling to allocate. Ironically, Hitler had been skeptical about sending Rommel to Africa in the first place. He had only done so after constant begging by naval commander Erich Raeder, and even then only to relieve the Italians. Hitler's interest was focused upon the east. He never understood global warfare, despite Raeder and Rommel's attempts to get him to see the strategic value of Egypt.[83]

On 15 June Axis forces reached the coast, cutting off the escape for the Commonwealth forces still occupying the Gazala positions. With this task completed, Rommel struck for Tobruk while the enemy was still confused and disorganised.[81] Tobruk's defenders were the 2nd South African Infantry Division, buttressed by a number of remnants of units recovering from the Gazala battle. This time striking swiftly and in strength, with a coordinated combined arms assault, the city fell in a single day. With Tobruk Rommel achieved the capture of the 33,000 defenders, along with gaining the use of the small port due south of Crete and a great deal of British supplies thrown into the bargain. Only at the fall of Singapore, earlier that year, had more British Commonwealth troops been captured at one time. Hitler promoted Rommel to Field Marshal for this victory.[N 4]

The Afrika Korps enters Tobruk.

Early in the afternoon of 26 May 1942, Rommel attacked first and the Battle of Gazala commenced. Italian infantry supplemented with small numbers of armoured forces assaulted the Gazala fortifications from the west. The intention was to give the impression that this was the main assault. Under the cover of darkness that night the bulk of his motorized and armoured forces drove south to skirt the left flank of the British, coming up and attacking to the north the following morning. 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 medium tanks. Renewing the attack on the morning of 28 May, Rommel concentrated on encircling and destroying separate units of the British armour. Repeated British counterattacks threatened to cut off and destroy the Afrika Korps. Running low on fuel, Rommel assumed a defensive posture, forming "the Cauldron". He made use of the extensive British minefields to shield his western flank. Meanwhile, Italian infantry cleared a path through the mines to provide supplies. On 30 May Rommel resumed the offensive, attacking westwards to link with elements of Italian X Corps, which had cleared a path through the Allied minefields to establish a supply line. On 2 June 90th Light Division and the Trieste Division again assaulted the Free French strongpoint at Bir Hakeim, but the defenders continued to thwart the attack until finally breaking on 11 June. With his communications and the southern strongpoint of the British line thus secured, Rommel shifted his attack north again, relying on the British minefields of the Gazala lines to protect his left flank.[80] Threatened with being completely cut off, the British began a retreat eastward toward Egypt on June 14, the so-called "Gazala Gallop."

The British were planning a summer offensive of their own, and were stockpiling supplies and reserves of equipment. The British fully equipped their units, plus had reserves of armour to replace losses once combat began. They had 900 tanks in the area, 200 of which were new Grant tanks. Unlike the British, the Axis forces had no armoured reserve. All operable equipment was put into immediate service. Rommel's Panzer Army Africa had a force of 320 German tanks; 50 of these were the light Panzer II model. In addition, 240 Italian tanks were in service, but these were also under-gunned and poorly armoured.[79] In addition to the armoured units, Rommel was badly outnumbered in infantry and artillery as well, with many of his units still awaiting reinforcement following the campaigns of 1941. This was of less concern to Rommel, who was by now accustomed to fighting from a numerically smaller position. The Axis had, however, temporarily established more-or-less air parity with the Western Desert Air Force.

Rommel in North Africa (June 1942)

Following General Kesselring's successes in creating local air superiority and suppressing the Malta defenders in April 1942, an increased flow of supplies reached the Axis forces in Africa, including fuel, ammunition and replacement tanks.[77] With his forces strengthened, Rommel contemplated a major offensive operation for the summer. He knew the British were planning offensive operations as well, and he hoped to pre-empt them. Despite the distance, he believed the strong British positions stretching south from Gazala could be skirted, coming up behind them and attacking from the east.[78]

Afrika Korps soldiers approach a "No Entry" sign, while a cloud of smoke rises from allied shipping sunk in the harbor.
Battle of Gazala

On 5 January 1942 the Afrika Korps received 55 tanks and new supplies and Rommel started planning a counterattack. On 21 January, Rommel launched the attack, which again caught the allies by surprise.[75] Mauled by the Afrika Korps, the Allies lost over 110 tanks and other heavy equipment. The Axis forces retook Benghazi on 29 January, Timimi on 3 February, with the Allies pulling back to a defensive line just before the Tobruk area south of the coastal town of Gazala. Rommel placed a thin screen of mobile forces before them, and held the main force of the Panzerarmee well back near Antela and Mersa Brega.[76] This concluded the winter fighting. Both sides then settled down to prepare for an offensive in summer.

North Africa, Rommel in Sd.Kfz. 250/3
Winter offensive

Second Axis offensive

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 New Zealanders medical supplies and drove off unhindered."[74] Rommel later did provide the unit with the promised medical supplies. At one point, Rommel and his driver spent almost two hours driving openly among large numbers of British troop transports and armored cars; he went unnoticed because his staff vehicle was a captured British car, and its German markings were concealed by the night.

, the British had suffered much higher casualties than they expected, and thus they did not pursue their initiative after Rommel returned to Agedabya; this was a major tactical error, since Rommel's retreat dramatically shortened his supply lines while greatly lengthening those of Auchinleck and General Ritchie (Auchinleck's replacement for Cunningham). Crusader 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. Although Rommel had suffered serious reversals by the end of Afrika Korps on 30 December. His main concern during his withdrawal was being flanked to the south, so the El Agheila and Rommel was forced to retreat all the way back to the starting positions he had held in March, reaching [73]

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