Erwin Rommel was born on 15 November 1891 as Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel in Heidenheim, Württemburg, present-day Germany. As a child he was seen constructing small gliders with a childhood friend of his. Later in life he joined the 6th Württemburg Infantry Division and fought numerous battles in World War I. During his time in combat he received the Pour le Mérite, the highest military award of the Kingdom of Prussia. He continued serving in the Reichswehr (German army during the interwar years of 1919-1935), as soldiers like him were hard to come by.
In the dawn of World War II, Rommel was assigned commander of the Führerbegleithauptquartier, or the Führer Escort Headquarters. He traveled with Hitler throughout Poland and oversaw military affairs. Following the victory of Poland he returned to Berlin and organized the Führer's victory parade.
After witnessing how successful armored units could be on the battlefield in WWI and during the Polish Campaign, Rommel requested Hitler to appoint him in command of a Panzer-Division. He was satisfied when he was given command of the 7. Panzer-Division in February of 1940. In the following May, under the XV Corps commanded by a General Hoth, Rommel led his Panzer-Division into France. It was in France that the 7. Panzer earned the nickname of Gespensterdivision, or Ghost Division, because of its frequent nature of being so far into French territory that there was no contact with the bulk of the German Armed Forces. Also, rather than issuing orders from his Headquarters, Rommel was more prone to be at the front lines and issuing orders from the turret of a tank. This had nearly cost Rommel his life on several occasions, but nothing seemed to faze him. Rommel later described his fast conquest of France in letters to his wife as a "lighting Tour de France."
After being so successful in France and gaining the respect of fellow soldiers and enemies alike, Rommel seemed to have proved to be worthy of a higher command. He was appointed commander of the 5. Light Afrika Division (later changed to the 21. Panzer-Division) and the 15. Panzer Division, both under the force known as the Deutsches Afrikakorps. His mission was to aid the demoralized Italian forces already in Northern Africa, as the Italians had sustained a major defeat from British Commonwealth troops during Operation Compass. During his campaign in Africa, Rommel achieved numerous victories (and a few losses) against Briti
sh, South African, Indian, and American forces. The Afrika Korps were nearly always understrength, either from a lack of supplies, manpower, serviceable vehicles, or all three. Rommel's forces battled across the desert in numerous offensives, from Tobruk to El Alamein. Interestingly enough, as the war progressed Rommel relied partly on foreign volunteers to compensate for the lack of German soldiers, in example the Indian Legion (right). Rommel easily had Indian men join the Legion because of a previously-established dislike of the British by the Indians. This blatantly contradicts the Nazi doctrine of racial superiority, although desperate times must call for desperate measures. The Afrika Korps were forced to retreat from Tunisia and into Italy later into 1943; unfortunately many rear-guard troops were captured, including many Italians.
Rommel continued to be in command of Axis forces even after the close of the Afrika Korps. He was placed in charge of German troops guarding the western European coast against invasion, from the Netherlands to Spain. Rommel had the idea, if there ever was an invasion of Europe, that ending the Allied assault at the beaches would be the best way to go about it. One of his superiors, Field Marshal von Rundstedt, disagreed. Rundstedt thought if the Allies were allowed some land to advance into, followed by a heavy German counter-attack, the result would be better. Hitler grew sick of this bickering and formed a compromise - there were units within France and on the beaches. During the Normandy landings of D-Day, many of Rundstedt's units advanced toward the beaches in hopes of attack. A few infantry units made contact, although only one Panzer-Division engaged the Allies - Rommel's trusted 21. Panzer-Division. German units were largely disorganized throughout the French countryside and could not take on the brute force the Allies had among them. During a countryside drive in his staff car, Rommel was strafed by a Spitfire of the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was hospitalized with minor head injuries.
In the later years of Rommel's life, three of his closest friends - Karl Strölin, Alexander von Falkenhausen, and Heinrich von Stülpnagel - tried to pressure him into joining the attempt to assassinate Hitler. They had thought that if they gained the approval of the most popular officer in Germany (after Rommel's series of victories, he became almost a household name), then the populace would follow suit. Rommel denied in joining the attempt to assassinate Hitler. He believed that if Hitler was assassinated, he would just serve as a martyr to other Nazis and their cause. Instead, Rommel believe Hitler should be arrested and brought to trial. When the attempt to assassinate Hitler had failed, the SS began rounding up any official that was even connected in any way to a person involved in the conspiracy. Unfortunately, Rommel was also brought forth. Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel, two generals serving Hitler, approached Rommel in his home on 14 October 1944. They told him of the offense he was being charged with (one most likely being conspiring against the Führer) and offered him a choice. Rommel could either face a People's Court or commit suicide quietly. If he chose the People's Court, his reputation would be soiled, his family disgraced, and he would most definitely be sentenced to death (the People's Court always ruled in favor of the prosecution). Rommel chose to commit suicide. He informed his wife and son of the charges he was facing and the choice he had made, then departed with the two generals. After a brief car ride - only about fifteen minutes - Rommel's wife received a telephone call saying that her husband had suffered from a heart attack. Rommel died on 14 October, 1944, in Herrlingen, Nazi Germany.
Erwin Rommel, also known as the Desert Fox (der Wüstenfuchs), is one of the most famed military commanders of all time. From his small-scale victories in World War I to his many victories in North Africa, he remains a legend. A pity it is that usually the most honorable and valiant people die the most tragic deaths.