Erwin Rommel Part II: The Poison Chalice

Field-Marshal Rommel’s reputation for daring was undeniable but his ability as a Commander had been brought into question more than once. He had after all, never commanded large formations and had not served on the cauldron of the Eastern Front. He had also in the end failed to deliver victory in North Africa. Some suggested he’d had it easy and had been promoted beyond his capability. Yet he was to most Germans the ‘Desert Fox’ and their greatest living General and he returned to the country a national hero.

The fluid nature of the Desert War had provided opportunities for glory absent on other fronts and his exploits, a welcome distraction from the grim reality of the prolonged struggle to come, were propaganda gold. As also was his oft-repeated maxim ‘war without hate’ and the apparent humanity with which he waged it. It had made him the ‘acceptable face of the Third Reich’ something that Joseph Goebbels and his Propaganda Ministry sought to exploit to the maximum.

As such the need to protect his reputation was paramount, so much so that when with defeat looming he flew to Hitler’s Headquarters at the Wolf’s Lair to plead with him to withdraw the Afrika Korps to mainland Italy before it was too late, it was decided to withdraw him instead.

The Desert Fox he might be but he still wasn’t entirely trusted by the German High Command many of whom thought him rash, unpredictable and promoted ahead of those better qualified. He was also thought unsound by some within the Nazi hierarchy who aware that he had never been a member of the party also resented his personal relationship with the Fuhrer.

Upon his return he was briefly considered for the role of Commander-in-Chief of the Army but this was dismissed on the grounds he was a maverick and he was soon to find himself spending more time with his family than he might have expected.

He was then a hero without a role and there appeared little urgency on the part of his superiors to find him one.

Even so, the newsreels were rarely absent - the Desert Fox at home, the Desert Fox with the Fuhrer, the Desert Fox as Uncle Rommel with Magda Goebbels and her adorable children.

On 23 July 1943, he was appointed to command the army in Greece but was replaced just two days later, and in August was appointed Commander-in Chief in Italy but Hitler not liking his proposals for its defence soon replaced him with the Luftwaffe General Albert Kesselring, a long term critic of Rommel’s who also had the Fuhrer’s ear.

It was a deeply frustrating time and he complained bitterly to friends that he was being sidelined, that he was not being kept abreast of the military situation, and only learned of events from the newspapers.

In October 1943, he was visited at his home in Herlingen by his old friend Karl Strolin, the Mayor of Stuttgart, who informed him of the conditions in the Concentration Camps and the mass-killing of Jews.

Like many others Rommel refused to believe that such rumours could be true but with time on his hands it left him with much to ponder – were such unspeakable atrocities truly being committed in the name of the German Army? Could the Fuhrer possibly be aware of such things, perhaps even condone them?

With the war turning against Germany in the East and Allied intervention in the West imminent Rommel’s absence from command was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. This changed early in 1944, when he was given responsibility for overseeing the coastal fortifications of Western France, the place where any Allied Invasion Armada would be expected to land. Portrayed as the first line of defence of the Third Reich and known as the Atlantic Wall, he soon discoverer it was no such thing.

Shocked by the neglect he found he threw himself into his new role with all the vigour and enthusiasm to be expected of Germany’s greatest General, though it was remarked by those who knew him well that he was a changed man. Not that the public would have guessed from the newsreels that relayed his frequent tours of inspection as the Desert Fox brimming with confidence and carrying his trademark Field Marshals baton became a familiar sight on German cinema screens.

Propaganda aside there was in truth much work to be done as he mined the beaches, ordered the construction of artillery emplacements, anti-tank traps, hundreds of concrete pill-boxes, and built concealed underwater obstacles.

But the Allies had gone to great lengths to mislead the German High Command into the location of the planned invasion convincing them that it would be the Pas-de-Calais, the shortest route across the Channel from England which was where much of the reconstruction work was concentrated – they would in fact come ashore further south, at Normandy.

Rommel was also at loggerheads with his immediate superior Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt over how best any defence should be conducted. He believed that any invasion must be resisted at the point of contact on the beaches before the Allies could gain a foothold, and that the Panzer Divisions should be brought forward and prepared for an immediate counter-attack. Von Rundstedt disagreed ordering the German Armour held in reserve for a defence in-depth.

At the same time as Rommel contemplated how best to resist the expected invasion when it came others were already seeking to end the war with the Western Powers by other means.

That there were those within the Officer Corps unhappy with Hitler’s conduct of the war was no secret, that some were seeking to remove him from power certainly was; but who could be trusted and who could not was difficult and dangerous to ascertain, who might refuse to participate in the plot but also not betray them even more so.

Rommel’s personal relationship with Hitler made his support uncertain, but then he was also known to have had his differences with the Fuhrer. Slowly he would be drawn into the plot but would not countenance Hitler’ murder. He must be brought before a Court of Law and stand trial for his crimes just like any other man. It was a clear indication of his political naivety.

He was to be disavowed of any such notion when he was subjected to one of the Fuhrer’s increasingly familiar paranoid, table-thumping tirades that saw him physically removed from his presence. It wasn’t the first time that following a disagreement he had been ordered to leave but on previous occasions he had been invited back – not on this occasion.

Even now, Rommel was inclined to excuse the Fuhrer’s behaviour on the grounds that he was a man under great stress but in private with his confidence in Hitler already shaken by his sacrifice of the Afrika Korps and later the Sixth Army at Stalingrad he began to believe he was at the end of his tether, that he might even be losing his mind.

In private meetings he sounded out others regarding Hitler’s removal including Field-Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt who despite his personal disdain for the ‘Bohemian Corporal’ remained uncommitted and refused to hear the details of any plot.

But then all German Officers had sworn an oath under God to serve not the State or the Constitution but the person of Adolf Hitler. It was an oath not easily broken moreover it was a treasonable act to do so and punishable by death.

The ‘July Plotters’, particularly those of the Kreisau Circle were mostly serving Officers of the old Prussian Aristocracy and retired or sidelined Senior Officers of the Wehrmacht and as an outsider Rommel was not entirely trusted but he was the one man who all felt the people might willingly follow should Hitler be assassinated. Even so, any role for him in a post-Nazi regime remained vague.

In the meantime, he had a war to fight.

On 6 June 1944, the Allies came ashore at Normandy. In the days preceding the weather had been so inclement that the Germans had ruled out any immediate prospect of invasion and Rommel had returned home to be with his wife on her birthday. He returned at once only to find that the Atlantic Wall had proven unequal to the task and with the exception of hard fighting at Omaha Beach the Allies had met only token resistance and by nightfall with the beachheads secured 155,000 men with armoured support were already moving inland. They would be quickly reinforced.

Rommel again argued for the implementation of his plan to strike the Allies hard whilst they remained vulnerable and in a final heated exchange with Hitler at Margival in France on 17 June, the Fuhrer relented a little and released three Panzer Divisions to his command but without the total freedom to use them as he wished. It was in any case, too late.

The war in the West soon bogged down into a close-quarter infantry struggle that would not have been unfamiliar to veterans of the Great War just as Field Marshal von Rundstedt had predicted it would.

This was not the war of manoeuvre in which the Desert Fox excelled and denied the opportunity to use his Panzer’s as he wished due both to Allied air superiority and Hitler’s constant interference he became increasingly despondent. In such a struggle overwhelming Allied manpower and resources must inevitably prevail. He thought the war lost and more than once wrote to the Fuhrer declaring the army close to disintegration and pleading with him to bring the war in the West to an end - he received no reply.

On the evening of 17 July, not far from the ironically named town of St Foy de Montgomerie, Rommel’s staff car was strafed from the air by a marauding Spitfire and forced from the road; thrown from the car he sustained a fractured skull and shrapnel wounds to his body and face. In truth, he was lucky to be alive and after spending sometime in hospital he was sent home to recuperate.

Three days later on a visit to Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair Headquarters in East Prussia, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg placed his briefcase containing a bomb beneath the desk where Hitler was standing. In such a windowless and confined space the impact of the explosion should have been devastating and fatal, that it wasn’t sealed the conspirator’s fate.

Although some were killed and others badly injured by a quirk of fate Hitler emerged badly shaken, his clothes torn, but otherwise unscathed. Operation Valkyrie, the plot to assassinate the Fuhrer had failed and over the following days those responsible would be hunted arrested and killed.

Rommel was not at first suspected of being involved in the plot but would soon be implicated by others among them General Carl-Heinrich von Stulpnagel who in custody repeatedly mumbled his name whilst delirious following a failed suicide attempt and Carl Goerdeler, the man nominated to replace Hitler as Chancellor who had drawn up a list of possible President’s of the new regime one of whom was Erwin Rommel.

It was Martin Bormann, the so-called ‘Brown Eminence’ who as Hitler’s personal secretary jealously guarded access to the Fuhrer who first brought Rommel’s involvement to his attention.

On scant evidence, Hitler was at first disinclined to believe him but with little support for Rommel from other quarters in particular Joseph Goebbels the man who had done more than any other to create the legend of the Desert Fox but had now abandoned him in fear of also becoming a victim of Bormann’s malicious intent, he was eventually persuaded.

Even so, he refused to believe that Rommel had been actively involved in the attempt to assassinate him but was willing to accept that he had been aware of the plot and had nothing to prevent it, and as such he was as guilty as those who had carried it out.

Recuperating at home with his family Rommel was unaware that he was already being tried in absentia by the Court of Military Honour (upon which sat both Gerd von Rundstedt and Erich von Manstein) established to determine the guilt of serving Officers in the plot and whether or not they should face justice in the Peoples Court.

The prospect of the legendary Desert Fox being brought before the Peoples Court and its vituperative Chief Justice Roland Freisler was not only unpalatable to the Regime and the German High Command but the damage it might do to public morale was difficult to gauge. It needed to be avoided if at all possible.

On 14 October, as his house in Herlingen was being surrounded by a unit of SS a car drew up occupied by General Wilhelm Burgdorf and General Ernst Maisel along with a wreath a message of condolence attached signed, Adolf Hitler.

Burgdorf and Meisel, both of whom had been harsh critics of Rommel in the past, curtly but respectfully informed him that his complicity in the July Plot had already been proved and that he would face trial in the Peoples Court.

The Fuhrer however, cognisant of his devoted service to the Third Reich was willing to allow the Field Marshal the option available to an Officer and a gentleman, that is, to take his own life.

Rommel’s first instinct, as one might expect from a man whose career had been made from taking the fight to the enemy was to defend himself against his accusers. But it wasn’t that simple, were he to be convicted, as was certain, then his family would be deemed complicit and be punished accordingly their property confiscated and likely sent to a Concentration Camp.

Also, his staff guilty by association would be executed alongside him.

If he were to commit suicide and preempt the need for a trial then he would be accorded a State Funeral with full military honours. His rank, status, reputation, and pension would be assured, the safety of his family guaranteed on the word of the Fuhrer.

Regardless of the desire to clear his name the choice were obvious.

His son Manfred, then serving in an anti-aircraft battery (his father had earlier refused his request to enrol in the Waffen SS) described events:

At about twelve o'clock a dark-green car with a Berlin number plate stopped in front of our garden gate.

The only men in the house apart from my father, were his aide Captain Aldinger , a badly wounded war veteran, and myself.

Two generals, Burgdorf, a powerful florid man, and Maisel, small and slender, alighted from the car and entered the house. They were respectful and courteous and asked my father's permission to speak to him alone. Aldinger and I left the room.

"So they are not going to arrest him," I thought with relief, as I went upstairs to find myself a book.

A few minutes later I heard my father come upstairs and go into my mother's room. Anxious to know what was afoot, I got up and followed him. He was standing in the middle of the room, his face pale. "Come outside with me," he said in a tight voice. We went into my room.

"I have just had to tell your mother that I shall be dead in a quarter of an hour. To die by the hand of one's own people is hard but the house is surrounded and Hitler is charging me with high treason.

In view of my services in Africa I am to have the chance of dying by poison. The two generals have brought it with them. It's fatal in three seconds. If I accept, none of the usual steps will be taken against my family. They will also leave my staff alone.”

"Do you believe it?" I interrupted. "Yes," he replied. "I believe it. It is very much in their interest to see that the affair does not come out into the open. By the way, I have been charged to put you under a promise of the strictest silence. If a single word of this comes out, they will no longer feel themselves bound by the agreement."
I tried again.

"Can't we defend ourselves? He cut me off short.

"There's no point," he said.

"It's better for one to die than for all of us to be killed in a shooting affray. Anyway, we've practically no ammunition."

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, official statements declared, had died from complications resulting from injuries sustained whilst on active service.

His State Funeral which followed soon after, the centrepiece of which was a wreath sent by the Fuhrer, was filmed for propaganda purposes.

It was to be his final contribution to the regime he had served so loyally but latterly come to despair of and even hate.

Winston Churchill, the man who had so often been at the sharp end of the Desert Fox’s cunning was to pay his own and sincerely held tribute:

A splendid military gambler 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, when I said of him we have a very daring and skillful opponent against us , and may I say across the havoc of war, a great General.

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.

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