Erwin Rommel personified chivalry and courage in an age of warfare that was general¬ ly characterized by brutality. He was born in Heidenheim, Wurttemberg, and joined the German infantry as an officer cadet in 1910. Commissioned a second lieutenant in 1912, he served in France, Romania and Italy dur¬ ing World War I.
Rommel was a military instructor at the Dresden Infantry School (1929-1933) and Potsdam War Academy (1933-1938). Still a junior officer, he first came to prominence when he was given responsibility for Adolf Hitler’s safety during Hitler’s triumphal ride through Prague in 1938. Rommel held this duty again during the German invasion of Poland in 1939.
Promoted to major general on the eve of World War II, Rommel commanded the 7th Panzer Division in the invasion of France in 1940. His brilliance as a battlefield leader was recognized by Hitler, and in 1941, Rommel was sent to Libya to command the German- Italian forces there.
During two years in North Africa (1941-1943), Rommel fought against numer¬ ically superior forces, dealt with his inade¬ quate supply lines (especially after the British used Malta as an air base), and received con¬ flicting orders from Berlin.
Using his personal magnetism to infuse his troops with hope and drive, he outmaneuvered and defeated the British several times, finally capturing Tobruk in 1942. His string of successes came to an end at El Alamein, where he was defeated by General Bernard Montgomery (see no. 86) of England.
Recalled to Germany in 1943, Rommel was given command of all German forces from the Netherlands to the Loire River. He worked ceaselessly to fortify the French coast against an Allied invasion but knew the tremendous odds against him. When the Allied D-Day invasion came in Normandy on June 6, 1944, Rommel had two armored units close at hand. However, he was unable to use them until four o’clock in the after¬ noon, when they were given permission by Hitler’s phone call. By then it was too late; the Allies had come ashore to stay.
Hoping against hope, Rommel fought on for a month before he was wounded by Allied aircraft fire while in his automobile. Taken to Berlin, he was implicated in the effort to remove Hitler from power. On October 14, 1944, he was visited at his home by two gen¬ erals who offered him a choice: he could either take poison and remain a great hero, or he could take his chance with a “People’s Trial.” Rommel made his choice, took poison, and died to protect his family. The Nazi gov¬ ernment pretended he had died from his wounds, and Hitler announced a day of national mourning for the fallen hero.