The Trail of the Desert Fox: Rommel Revised
(Paper presented to the
Tenth International Revisionist Conference.)
Finding out what was the truth about Rommel means finding out what was going on in his brain. And to do that, you're not going to get much wiser if you look at the movies with James Mason and the books written by the British and American historians and biographers after the war. Because, what have they had to go on? During my research in the archives, particularly on the Adolf Hitler biography, on which I worked for thirty years, I found that Rommel had written a large number of letters to his wife, Lucie.
What sort of career did Rommel have in the German Army? During World War I, he was a lieutenant in the German infantry, fighting the Italians in the Alps around Venezia Giulia. He fought very well, but much to his outrage, he found that he wasn't decorated with Germany's highest World War I decoration, the famous Blue Max, the Pour le Merité, the blue enamel cross worn on a ribbon around the neck. Lieutenant Schörner, later Field Marshal Schörner, won the medal, and Rommel thought that he should have got it. Then Rommel did the unthinkable: he appealed. He wrote letters to every successive higher command and headquarters demanding an identical medal for himself. Eventually he got the Pour le Merité in this rather unorthodox way, and he was very proud thereby to join the ranks of legendary heroes of World War I like Ernst Udet, Manfred von Richthofen, and Hermann Göring.
Rommel's acquisition of the Blue Max put him a cut above most of his fellow officers in the interwar years, particularly since Rommel, unlike a lot of his contemporaries, had never gone through the German General Staff It is very important to know this, because it has a bearing on his last days. Rommel was not a general staff officer, although he rose to the highest rank in Germany short of Reichsmarschall: Field Marshal. He had little book learning, he had none of the knowledge of logistics, the build-up, the sense of time and space that a general staff officer acquires when he learns how to conduct successful battles. Rommel won his battles by other means, he did the unexpected. But this earned for him a lot of envy and a lot of distaste among the officer corps. Its rather like those who have been to West Point and those who haven't in this country. The word rivalry isn't strong enough. There's an element of mutual distrust between the insiders and the outsiders.
Rommel was to remain all his life, until the bitter end, an outsider. The more successful he was in World War I, the more successful he was between the wars (he was one of the exalted few who stayed in the German professional army war to war), the more military triumphs he won in World War II, the more he was envied and resented by the generals and officers who had served on the German General Staff.
He had paid no attention to politics during the interwar years. He was part of the 100,000-man German Army allowed by the Treaty of Versailles. In the aftermath of the Nazis' seizure of power in 1933, he remained in the army, continuing to hold a comparatively low rank. In 1934 he was still a major, commanding a Jägerbataillon, a kind of light infantry battalion, in Goslar when Adolf Hitler paid his first visit there, in connection with the annual harvest festival. A surviving photograph shows Major Rommel escorting his Führer with drawn sword, wearing a massive coal scuttle helmet, in the grounds of the Goslar castle.
Something about Rommel must have attracted Hitler's attention, because in 1936 Hitler put him in charge of security arrangements at the Nuremberg party rally, which Rommel did very well. When the usual gaggle of Gauleiters tried to follow Hitler in their motorcars when he drove off, Hitler told Rommel to make sure that no more than six cars followed him. Rommel obtained privacy for his Führer by planting two tanks across the road until the Führer had driven out of sight.
Two years later, when Hitler marched into the Sudeten territories, and in 1939 when Hitler entered Prague, Rommel was right at his side: Hitler had appointed him commandant of the military escort which traveled with the Führer's Headquarters. Because he was the officer in charge of Hitler's railway train he obtained a proximity to Hitler which most general staff officers didn't. Hitler, the Austrian, and Rommel the Swabian, somehow got on well with one another, and they talked a great deal. Rommel was able to write letters back to Lucie saying, "Today I had lunch with the Führer again and I had some very interesting discussions with him about tactics."
Erwin Rommel used the influence he won through these close contacts with Hitler very cleverly. After the invasion of Poland, during which he accompanied Hitler to Warsaw, Rommel saw that commanding the Führer's headquarters wasn't going to win him any medals. Career army officer that he was, Rommel needed medals: his colleagues from the infantry college and the training academies were coming back from the Polish front with new decorations, and he wanted his own. Rommel asked Hitler for command of a division.When the Führer asked him what kind, Rommel told him: a panzer division, the créme de la créme. So great was mutual respect and admiration between the two that Hitler readily agreed.
Hitler was right! Because Hitler had somehow identified in Rommel a typical, thrusting armored commander who would succeed where the slow, hesitant, prevaricating general staff officers would hesitate, and fumble, and fail. So Rommel got the Seventh Armored Division, and he spent the next few months training it for the campaign against France. He developed new tactics, he devised new methods of using armor en masse. Rommel read everything there was to read about armored warfare tactics: the works of men like Liddell Hart and General J. F. C. Fuller and of course General Charles De Gaulle. Although he'd never been in a tank in his life before, he climbed into one and was delighted by its power and mobility. He felt invulnerable.
In fact, Rommel was the ideal commander, because in a way he was invulnerable. He had that rare, almost magical spirit. He could stand on top of a railway embankment in full view of the enemy artillery, in full view of the enemy infantry, with machine gun fire thudding into the embankment all around him, or with shells crashing down one or two yards away, killing his adjutant, in the French campaign, and remain untouched. Rommel, like Hitler himself, had a kind of magical quality that protected him in some way from harm, from the enemy, that in turn engendered an enormous loyalty among their followers: the men who served under Rommel swore by him.
In the French campaign, Rommel led his division at breakneck speed right through to the Channel coast, then down to Cherbourg. During the summer that followed, the German Army put him in charge of producing a propaganda film called Victory in the West, in which his troops re-staged their campaign against France: he was able to persuade Moroccan French troops to die gallantly for the cameras.
When the choice came, in the winter of 1940-1941, to send a commander to North Africa to help bail Mussolini out of his predicament there, Hitler, as he later said, found himself confronted with two or three names: Manstein, who had greatly impressed him in the French campaign; or Eduard Dietl, who had impressed him in the Narvik campaign in Norway; or Rommel. Hitler saw Manstein as a general staff officer lacking in the inspirational force of either Rommel or Dietl. Hitler said, "I picked Rommel because he knows how to inspire his troops, just like Dietl up in Narvik. This is absolutely essential for the commander of a force that has to fight under particularly arduous climatic conditions as in North Africa or the Arctic."
Rommel was ordered to bring a light infantry division (the 5th) down to North Africa in February-March 1941. Rommel's troops sneaked into North Africa behind the Italian position in Tripoli just as the British advance right across the North African Mediterranean coastline was entering Tripoli. If the British forces had entered Tripoli and thrown the Italians out of their Libyan colony at that point, it would have produced very severe repercussions for Germany's ally.
At this fateful moment, however, Winston Churchill, who still had no idea that Rommel had gone down to North Africa with his forces, wavered: he ordered vital components of the British forces in North Africa off to a hopeless campaign in Greece instead. Thus the British offensive faltered just before Tripoli, giving Rommel time to get established. Now, Rommel's instructions from the Italian High Command and from Berlin were that he should not in any circumstances launch an offensive against the British; he was to build up a purely defensive line at such and such a point and to proceed no further to the east.
About that time we British began reading that particular code and realized to our horror that not only were the Germans there but that General Rommel was in command - we had already come up against him at Dunkirk. So Rommel already meant something to us at that time. But we knew that Rommel was under orders on no account to launch an offensive, and we believed that a German general would obey orders. So we were quite happily sitting back with our arms folded when he attacked, totally disobeying orders. Rommel cut right across Cyrenaica, cut off thirty or forty thousand British troops, capturing three British generals in a week's time, one of his most glorious and gallant exploits. Within a few weeks he had come almost as far the Egyptian frontier.
Rommel had restored the Italians' pride, and he had made it plain to Adolf Hitler that with a little more effort the Axis could in fact capture the whole of Egypt, advance across the Suez Canal, come up through the Middle East and join hands with the offensive which he was at that time planning against Russia. Rommel might join forces somewhere in the Middle East with forces coming down through the Caucasus: for Hitler Rommel had opened up new vistas, and became the Führer's favorite general.
From mid-1941 on, Rommel's face was on the front cover of every German illustrated magazine and on the front cover of quite a few Allied newspapers and magazines as well. There's a reason for this: to explain our setbacks, our failures and our reverses in North Africa we British had to represent that we were against a superhuman force who couldn't be stopped, namely General Rommel. Later on, of course, when the tables were turned at El Alamein, we wanted to build up our enemy again to make out that we hadn't defeated just anybody, we had defeated the unstoppable General Rommel. Our own propaganda built him up to an unstoppable, brilliant, tactically sound German general, more than a match for any American, more than a match for any British general - but we would defeat him somehow. Such was the tone of the stories that filled the British newspapers from 1941 through to 1943.
November 1942 saw the first crisis of confidence between Rommel and Hitler. At that time, after the British offensive at El Alamein, Rommel experienced something of a nervous breakdown. He couldn't understand why he wasn't getting the oil and the supplies and the ammunition he needed to defeat Montgomery. He didn't realize that he was his own undoing, because he was constantly radioing back to Berlin asking when he was going to get more oil and ammunition and supplies, and telling the High Command that the morale of his troops was at the breaking point. Berlin would radio back saying inquiries had been made of the Italian authorities and the supertanker Proserpina, for example, was leaving Naples harbor and would arrive at Tobruk three days later.
But of course we were reading the messages, we British were reading all these code signals! So we'd have submarines waiting outside the harbors and every single ship that was sent out to Rommel with oil or with ammunition was being sunk, and he grew more and more desperate. And we know that in the battle of El Alamein, which began on October 23, 1942, Rommel was in such a desperate position that he said he couldn't hold out for more than a few days.
But Montgomery was in an even more desperate condition. The British commander, Field Marshall Montgomery, sent a telegram to Winston Churchill on October 25 saying, "I think we're going to have to pull back. My offensive has failed." And at that moment he was told by the British code-breakers on a secure line, "Hold on, because we know from Rommel that he can only hold out for two days himself. He's collapsing under your weight."
So Rommel, in a sense, was his own undoing. Because of his garrulousness on what he thought were secure coded transmissions, he was his own undoing. His oil ships were sunk, and he ended up being hounded across North Africa. Rommel's retreat was an amazing military feat, it is true: he had Montgomery's entire Eighth Army after him, and yet he managed to rescue two or three hundred thousand German and Italian troops and bring them all the way across the North African coastline to Tunisia, where he formed a new bridgehead after the loss of very few men and hardly any of his equipment, an incredible feat of generalship. It illustrates what a poor general Montgomery actually was. He repeatedly tried to outflank Rommel and take him from behind, arriving again and again only to find that the bird had already flown. Like Churchill, Adolf Hitler realized that the name Rommel was worth a lot. When Rommel fell ill after arriving in Tunisia, when it was quite plain that the German forces were going to be defeated, Hitler arranged for Rommel to be evacuated back to the continental mainland, but nobody was told. The public was left in the belief that Rommel was still there in the pocket, fighting on. His name fought on, even though the general himself had been evacuated to safety.
On his return to Germany Rommel regarded himself, as we know from his diaries and his letters, a failure. For six months he slouched around Berlin in plain clothes, wearing a trilby hat, unrecognized by the Berlin population out of his famous uniform. He hankered after a new job.
In October 1943 the Field Marshal von Rundstedt, the German Commander-in-Chief West, sent a report to Adolf Hitler on the weakness of the defenses against an Allied landing in France, causing Adolf Hitler to take serious note of the problem for the first time. He realized that something had to be done quickly, because the failure to secure a rapid victory over Russia meant that the Germans had to count on meeting the full weight of the British and the American troops in the West. A landing was going to come somewhere, and Hitler was convinced it would be in France. It was time to put a tough tactical commander in charge of strengthening the Atlantic Wall. On November 5, 1943, Hitler sent for Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
Hitler let Rommel know that although he would be under Field Marshal Rundstedt, the commander-in-chief, the moment the British and Americans set foot on the coast of France Rommel would be in tactical command of the Battle of France. Thus he told Rommel in effect, "I'm giving you a last chance of glory. You've lost Libya, you've lost North Africa for the Italians, and now we've got the worst possible problems in Italy: the Italians have defected, they've come out on the Allied side against us. And effectively we have you to thank for that, Field Marshall Rommel. If we were still fighting in North Africa, the Italians wouldn't have defected. However, I am such a friend of yours that I am going to give you this one last chance of glory."
From November 1943 on, we see in Rommel's private letters his conviction that he is going to pull it off, that he is going to defeat the Allied invasion and win victory for Hitler in France. He writes to Lucie: "I am convinced of victory. Every morning I get up and I look in the mirror and I think to myself, There's no way we can fail.' Every week that passes we strengthen our invasion defenses."
Rommel ordered gigantic pointed stakes driven into the beaches all along the French coast. The stakes themselves were spiked with mines. Immense minefields, containing millions of mines, were sown in a broad belt along the French coastline. The whole of a coastal belt was evacuated of people, towns were leveled to the ground to provide a field of fire for the guns, new guns were emplaced, huge areas were prepared for flooding the moment the Allies set foot on the French coastline: Rommel did in fact what the German General Staff should have been doing for three years, but hadn't. For three years they'd been in France, and for three years they had done virtually nothing.
Rommel put a new spirit into the defenders there. He made it plain that they not only could, but would, defend France and prevent the Anglo-Americans from landing. And Hitler said to him: "You can be sure of one thing, Field Marshall. If we throw the British and the Americans off the beaches, then within two or three weeks I will have pulled out a half dozen or a dozen German Panzer divisions from the battlefield area, and sent them straight back by train to the Eastern Front. We will mop up the Russians, and then the war will be over. So Germany’s final victory relies on you, Field Marshal Rommel."
Now, put yourself in Rommel's shoes. You've lost the battle for North Africa - you've lost an entire continent. The Italian allies point the finger at you, Field Marshal Rommel, as responsible for this defeat. You are not going to go down in the history books as Germany’s greatest strategic commander unless you can pull a victory out of the hat. And your beloved Führer has given you a chance: the forthcoming battle of France. You are not, under these circumstances, going to make common cause with the traitors who are plotting against Adolf Hitler at this time, because if you do, you will not restore your reputation as a great military commander. This is one reason why all indications are that Rommel was not a traitor. During the spring and summer of 1944, he was doing everything he could to prepare his forces in France for a victorious battle when the invasion came.
Then something happened in April 1944 which was to change Rommel's life, and in fact hurry on his death. His wife Lucie was by this time a bit of a virago. In the early years she was a lovely thing to look at, by the photographs, but by 1944 she had him under her thumb. Unfortunately, she had picked a fight with the wife of her husband's chief of staff, General Alfred Gause, so Gause had to go. Thus at the beginning of April, 1944 Rommel replaced Alfred Gause, who'd been his chief of staff throughout the entire North African campaign, with an educated, piano-playing, general staff officer by the name of General Hans Speidel.
All my books, ladies and gentlemen, have a villain, and the villain of the Rommel piece is Hans Speidel, who later rose to become supreme commander of NATO land forces in Europe. So with a certain relish I reveal in The Trail of the Fox what I found out about him and about his role in Rommel's death. Speidel arrived to take command of Rommel's staff on April 1, 1944. He came directly from Hitler's headquarters, where Hitler had given him the Ritterkreuz - the Knight's Cross - for his work as the chief of staff of the Eighth Army on the Eastern Front.
Speidel was an intellectually gifted man, a very clever man, but he was also up to his neck in the anti-Hitler plot. He was plotting Hitler's overthrow - and Rommel didn't know it. In fact, if you look closely at the Army side of the anti-Hitler plot, you find how much it was very much a plot of chiefs of staff, people like Stauffenberg, who was the chief of staff of General Fromm, and so on. It was the chiefs of staff who were plotting, without their superiors really knowing what was going on, and it was the chiefs of staff who would later accuse their superiors of leading the plot. That's exactly what we'll find is going to happen with Field Marshal Rommel.
While Speidel and his associates were plotting, Field Marshal Rommel was immersed in preparing France for the coming Allied invasion. As we learn from his diaries, he drove to inspect the coastal defenses nearly every day.
But Rommel was in a dilemma as to where the invasion would strike. On the one hand there was Adolf Hitler, who on March 20, 1944, had told him and the other commanders from the West whom he had called to the Obersalzberg that the invasion was going to come in one of two places, either in Normandy or close by in Brittany. Hitler said he was almost certain the Allies were going to invade Normandy, and of course he was quite right Whereas the General Staff said, "My Führer, if s not going to come in Normandy at all, ins going to come at Pas de Calais. Thars the shortest route. Have a look at the map, my Führer. It’s only 20 miles."
In other words, the German general staff was telling him that the British and the Americans were going to come the shortest possible route, then head straight for the Ruhr. And Hitler was saying, "No, they won't do that, they'll take the indirect route. They'll seize Cherbourg first, they'll use the Cotentin Peninsula as a landing base."
So Rommel was torn between reinforcing the Seventh Army, as the Führer had ordered, and reinforcing the Fifteenth Army in the Pas de Calais, as the General Staff’s Speidel and the German High Command were instructing.
Around June 1944, the anti-Hitler plotters in Paris decided it was time to try and win over some big names for the putsch. They sent Lieutenant Colonel Cesar von Hofacker, adjutant to General Karl Heinrich von Stülpnagel, the military governor of France, to have a chat with Rommel on July 9, 1944. In fact, after Hofacker had gone back to Paris, Rommel turned to his staff and said, "Strange chap. What was he after? Couldn't make head or tail of him." That’s the way an English officer would say it, but thars exactly what Rommel said to his staff.
For Hofacker had been very worried. He was only a lieutenant-colonel in the German Air Force, yet there he was trying to win over Field Marshal Rommel, one of the top Nazis, one of Hitler's most important generals, for a plot against Hitler.
So in fact Hofacker didn't say anything explicit: he just talked in general terms. But human nature being what it is, when Hofacker went back to Paris, he said to Stülpnagel, the military governor, who was in the plot, "I've won him. Er ist Feuer und Flamme (He's fire and flame on our side). I've won Rommel right over. Couldn't hold him back." We know all this, because I know what Stülpnagel said later on.
But one can see how fate is beginning to wind up dark clouds over the future career of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel!
The Allied invasion began on June 6, 1944. I'm not going to go into detail here, ladies and gentlemen, as to how the intelligence on that was fumbled by the Germans. On June 1, 1944, the German intelligence service gave warning that the invasion would come within 24 hours of the BBC broadcasting a certain message, the second line of a poem from Paul Verlaine. Their intelligence proved to be entirely accurate.
On the night of June 5, 1944, at 9:15 p.m., the BBC was heard broadcasting precisely that line. After Fifteenth Army's intelligence officer learned this from his radio reconnaissance officers, he telephoned Seventh Army's intelligence officer. Seventh Army said, "We don't know what to do. We haven't been told by Rommel's staff at Army Group B." Fifteenth Army telephoned Army Group B. and spoke to Colonel Staubwasser, who was the G-2, or the intelligence officer, of Rommel's staff. Staubwasser took it to Speidel. "Herr General, we've been told that the BBC has broadcast a message which indicates that the invasion is going to start within 24 hours." Speidel said, "Oh, telephone Rundstedt in Paris and ask what he advises." Rundstedt’s headquarters in Paris said, "Do nothing." And nothing was done!
Fifteenth Army went onto maximum alert, because it was within its own province to do so. Seventh Army in Normandy remained off the alert. Speidel and his gang were having a little convivial party that evening with some of the anti-Hitler plotters, because the Old Man, Rommel, had gone back home to Germany a couple of days earlier on leave, assured by Berlin that the invasion wasn't imminent.
Rommel had gone back to Germany, Speidel was in charge, and he had invited all the plotters around for an evening's drinking. They had a lot of wine and a lot of cognac that evening. We know that, because I have the private diary of Admiral Ruge, who was the naval officer on Rommel's staff, and he describes in his short and secret diary how they all got drunk that evening at Speidel's headquarters, then went to bed at 1:00 a.m., although the first notices of massive parachute landings in Normandy had already arrived. Speidel said, "Unimportant," and they all went to bed.
Round about 6 a.m., things were beginning to get tense, because they were getting more warnings of parachute landings over the whole of the Normandy area, dummy parachute landings elsewhere, and as the dawn is beginning to rise a huge invasion fleet could be seen on the horizon. Speidel remained unconcerned. Three decades later, I went to see Speidel, and I put all this to him. I said, "Herr Speidel, I've read the private papers of the commanding general of the Fifteenth Army, General von Salmuth - his widow gave me his diaries - and he describes how on the morning of the 6th of June, at 6:45, the chief of staff of the Fifteenth Army had a telephone conversation with the chief of staff of the Seventh Army down in Normandy, and he was told about the invasion fleet on the horizon. And the Fifteenth Army says to the Seventh Army, "Yes, but have any ships actually hit the beaches? Have any landing craft come?" Answer: "No, they’re just on the horizon and they're beginning to open fire on us." "Well, if there's no invasion started yet and there are no landing craft on the beaches this means the invasion has already failed," says the Fifteenth Army. And as General Salmuth writes in his diary, "I thereupon went back to bed."
I read this out to General Speidel at his home in Bonn and said, "Herr General, I assume that you too went back to bed when you got these reports." And he said, "Herr Irving, you may be right." Because in the war diary of Speidel's staff, for three and a half hours there are suddenly no entries at all. They've all gone to bed for three and a half hours between 6 a.m. and 9:15 a.m. that morning, as though nothing at all had happened.
What had happened? What had happened was that a hundred tanks had already landed by the time Speidel got up, a hundred thousand men had hit the beaches, and the Seventh Army was under a colossal onslaught from the initial waves of the Anglo-American invasion. By that time the invasion was virtually impossible to ward off.
Rommel got the news at 10 a.m. that morning at his home in Herrlingen, near Ulm. He had to drive 700 kilometers back to his headquarters. By the time he got there, at 10 o'clock that night, the battle was already lost. He could no longer win it, but he put up a colossal battle. Those who have followed the invasion fighting in Normandy will know the courage that was displayed on both sides. To try and make a breakthrough at Caen, where Montgomery had the job of advancing through the town and establishing a bridgehead beyond it, we sent over a force of 2,000 bombers to bomb a one-mile-square patch of the German front lines. Now, imagine you're a German infantryman, or an anti-aircraft gunner, with an 88-mm gun, manning an anti-tank line and 2,000 enemy bombers come over and attack a one-mile-square patch of your front line. And yet still the British couldn't get through.
That was Operation Goodwood, in the middle of July 1944. These were the troops that Rommel had trained and put in place. They suffered appalling casualties, but when the bombardment had died down, the surviving German soldiers, many of them young lads of 15, 16, and 17 years old, crawled out of the rubble, reerected the guns that had been tipped over in the blast, and had them firing before the first British tanks rolled forward. The British just couldn't break through the German lines.
The Americans tried to do the same thing in Operation Cobra at their end of the line, with massive bombardment by Flying Fortresses and Lancasters and Liberators, again, on tiny one-mile-square patches of the German front line - that was the only way they were finally able to break through at the end of July. But in the meantime the following had happened: on the l7th of July, 1944, Rommel was driving in his large, open Horch motorcar (rather like a grand-touring sports car) behind the front lines, when a British Spitfire came down out of the clouds and machine-gunned the road. His driver was killed, the car ran off the road into a ditch, and then crashed into a tree. Rommel was knocked unconscious, seriously injured.
When Rommel came to a day later, he was in a French hospital being looked after by a French medical team. They feared for his life: he had suffered a quadruple skull fracture. A couple of days later, Rommel was evacuated to a rear hospital.
On July 21, Rommel heard for the first time of the attempt on Hitler's life the day before. A German staff officer had left a bomb under Hitler's conference table in East Prussia, then promptly quit the room. Four of Hitler's staff had been killed outright in the blast. Hitler himself, by a miracle, emerged with a few splinters in his arm, a bit bruised and dented but otherwise unscathed. A witch hunt began to find out who had perpetrated this appalling attack.
Now we can say with great certainty that up to the moment of his injury Rommel's fanatical loyalty to Adolf Hitler was unchanged. In his private conversations, which Admiral Ruge wrote down in shorthand in his diary, which I had when I wrote my book Trail of the Fox, Rommel continued right up to the middle of July, even in his private circle of friends, to express the utmost fanatical loyalty to Adolf Hitler. When Admiral Ruge said to him on one occasion, "Wouldn't it be the right thing now to try and make some kind of deal with Montgomery before the big breakthrough comes, do a deal with Montgomery whereby we just open up the Western Front and then advance side by side, shoulder to shoulder with the British and the Americans on Berlin and throw the Russians back?" Rommel told him, "Well, I'm convinced this is going to be the ultimate solution, but I am also certain of one thing: the Führer is a genius and a man of sound political instincts, so he ought to be able to hit on the right decision himself."
Now a man who says that on July 14, 1944 is not a man who knows anything at all about a bomb being put under that genius's table just six days later. But you won't find these quotations in other people's biographies of Rommel, because they just haven't done the work. They haven't found these diaries.
When Rommel was told about the attempt on Hitler's life, suddenly the scales fell from his eyes. "The crazy lunatics! What on earth are they up to! Killing the Führer! They must have been out of their minds!" he cried.
And when General Speidel comes to see him, stricken with a guilty conscience, of course, a couple of days later still, Rommel turns angrily to Speidel and says, "I now understand what that guy Hofacker was talking about! I now understand what he was getting at! They must have been out of their minds." "Well," he says, "I'm glad I had nothing at all to do with it. n
That, however, was not the perception in Hitler's headquarters, because Hofacker was arrested almost immediately after the bomb plot. Somebody talked. The only way the Luftwaffe lieutenant colonel saw to save his skin was to play Scheherezade. He began singing, he started telling tales on every name he can imagine. Every time they were just about to take him off and hang him, Hofacker would say, Wait, there's a few more people I can mention, if you'll give me a couple of more days."
So Hofacker was singing. And on August 1, 1944 Adolf Hitler sent for General JodL the chief of the German Armed Forces Operations Staff (I've got his diary):
5 p.m. The Führer has read out to me the report that Kältenbrunner now has about the testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Hofacker on his talks with K. and R. [K. = Field Marshal Gunther Hans von Kluge, the new Commander-in-Chief West who has replaced Rundstedt only a few weeks earlier; R. = Rommel.] The Führer says he's going to look for a new Commander-in-chief West. He's going to have R. questioned after his convalescence, and then he's going to retire him without any further fuss.
Interesting - the old friends, Rommel and Hitler. Hitler didn't want anything unpleasant to happen to RommeL He was going to question him about his involvement in the July 20 plot, and then retire him without any further fuss.
But things didn't go like that, because Hofacker continued to talk. In further testimony, Hofacker stated, "When I went to see Rommel, he couldn't be restrained. He said, "Tell your gentlemen in Berlin that when the time comes they can count on me.'" All of which was totally untrue.
General Stülpnagel, the military governor of France, reported precisely the same thing. Stülpnagel had been fetched by the Gestapo from Paris and called back to Germany for questioning. As he crossed the German frontier, he shot himself in the eye. But his attempt at suicide failed: he had merely blinded himself. With sufficient blood transfusions, he was brought back, a rather pathetic figure, to Germany. There he was subjected to Gestapo interrogation. Stülpnagel said he understood that Rommel was on their side, that Rommel was part of the plot.
You see, the tendency, ladies and gentlemen, is these people know that unless they play their cards very carefully, they're for the hangman, and the only way they can save themselves is to say, "Well, if they're going to hang me, there are one or two people who are going to hang too. How about Field Marshal Kluge? How about the big one, Field Marshal Rommel?" And this is an awkward one for the Germans, for Hitler, because he can't really hang Rommel. So he picks up everybody else: he picks up Kluge's chief of staff, Günther Blumentritt, who seems to have known of the plot - and then again he doesn't seem to have known of the plot.
Then, on September 4, 1944, he has our arch villain, Hans Speidel, picked up and arrested by the Gestapo for questioning. Speidel also sings like a canary. It's very interesting: if I go to the National Archives now, ladies and gentlemen, and say I want to see the Gestapo interrogations the famous Kältenbrunner reports, on the people of the twentieth of July, they'll give me a whole fistful of the reports of the interrogations of everybody who was unimportant, but the interrogations of Speidel and Heusinger and the German generals who became top NATO generals are not in the files anymore, they've vanished, you can't see them any more.
But I know what Speidel said, because one of the documents that General Heinrich Kirchheim's widow gave me was a report from General Kirchheim, who sat on the Court of Honor, which was held by the German Army to consider the case of Hans Speidel and the other alleged conspirators. You see, in trying to preserve its traditional privileges after the appalling catastrophe of the twentieth of July, which was a terrible blot on the name of the German Army, the German Army said, "Well, at least let us try our own criminals. Before these people are to be turned over to the People's Court to be tried and hanged, let the German Army try them first to decide whether they are worthy of being put on trial, to see whether there is a case to answer."
The Court of Honor, in the case of Hans Speidel, met on October 4, 1944. I know exactly what happened there because the one of the German generals who sat on the army's Court of Honor was General Heinrich Kirchheim (the others were General Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, the chief of the High Command, who presided; General Guderian, the famous Panzer commander; Field Marshal Rundstedt; and two others [Kriebel and Schroth]).
Kirchheim was a staff officer who had already rubbed Rommel the wrong way in the North Africa campaign of 1941. He didn't really like Rommel, but he wrote an account of the Court of Honor in his private papers. Kirchheim writes that the prosecution, which was directed by Ernst Kältenbrunner, the chief of the Gestapo, said that Speidel had admitted under testimony that he knew in advance of the plot on Hitler's life, but that Speidel also claimed that Hofacker, who had come and told him about the plot on Hitler's life, had informed him that he -Speidel - had done the proper thing by reporting it to his superior, Field Marshall Rommel. "At this," writes Kirchheim in his report, "an embarrassed silence fell on the Court (beklommenes Schweigen)."
An embarrassed silence because they realized that either they were going to have to exonerate Rommel or exonerate Speidel - one or the other. If Speidel was telling the truth, he had done his duty and reported it to Rommel. Rommel had told nobody. If Speidel was lying, then Rommel was in the clear. They decided that the correct thing to do was to ask for further inquiries to be made in the case of Speidel. And in that way they saved Speidel's life, effectively, because his case was then put on the back burner, but at that moment the problems for Rommel started.
This is quite plain. Rommel already had problems. With a quadruple skull fracture, he'd been evacuated back to a hospital in Germany, and he became gradually aware of the rumors and the whispers going around that he was supposed to have been involved in the twentieth of July. Gestapo cars were shadowing him.
When he went walking in the fields with his son Manfred, who is now the Lord Mayor of Stuttgart, he would take a loaded gun with him. He would also take along, in his inside breast pocket, a fistful of papers, copies of telegrams which he sent to the High Command during the battle of France, to show how he pleaded for reinforcements, and how he had pleaded for reinforcements even before the invasion of Normandy.
For Rommel thought that the problem building up around his name was not so much connected with the twentieth of July, because he knew he was in the clear - he had known nothing about it - but that he was going to be made the fallguy, the scapegoat for the collapse in France. Just in case he was arrested there, walking with his son in the fields, he wanted to have the papers in his pocket so that he could defend himself in the court martial when the time comes. The Normandy dossier: he carried it with him at all times, so he told Manfred.
On October 1, when Rommel found out that Speidel, not only his chief of staff, but a Swabian like himself and a close friend, had been arrested, he sat down and wrote a letter to his Führer, Adolf Hitler. I found this letter among the private papers of Helmut Lang, his Ordonnanz [personal aide], and I'll read out one or two paragraphs, because it shows again that Rommel was totally in the dark about the twentieth of July, and that he was an upright, decent man who, even at this moment, did what he could to protect Speidel, regardless of what was happening, regardless of what Speidel was saying about him, and regardless of what Speidel would eventually do to help kill him. "My Führer," wrote Rommel on the first of October, 1944:
Unfortunately my state of health is not as good as I would have wished: the quadruple skull fracture, the unfavorable turn of events in the West since my injury, and not least the dismissal and arrest of my own former chief of staff, Lt. General Speidel, of which I learned only by chance, have all placed an intolerable burden on my nerves. I just don't feel capable of putting up with any kind of fresh burden. General Speidel was attached to me in the middle of April 1944 as the successor to Lt. General Gause as my chief of staff. He was warmly recommended by Col. General Zeitzler and his previous army commander, Infantry General Wöhler. Shortly before he arrived at Army Group B, he received from you personally the Knight's Cross, and he was promoted to Lieutenant General. In the West, Speidel in the very first weeks showed himself to be a remarkably capable and energetic chief of general staff. He ran a tight ship, showed much understanding for the troops, and loyally helped me to get the Atlantic Wall ready for the invasion battle as rapidly as possible with the means available. When I drove to the front - which was almost every day - I could rely on Speidel to transmit my orders to the armies as arranged between us beforehand, and to deal with superior and equivalent echelons as I would have myself.
Then he goes on:
Unfortunately it proved impossible to fight the defense of Normandy [ because that's what he's worried about, the fact that he's going to be made the scapegoat-D.I. ] so that the enemy could be destroyed while still afloat or at the latest while setting foot on land. I set out the reasons for this in the attached letter of July 3. which General Schmundt no doubt showed you at the time.
In the final paragraph Rommel writes:
Up to the day of my injury, July 17, Speidel was always at my side, and Field Marshal Kluge, Commander-in-Chief West, also seems to have been very satisfied with him. I cannot imagine what can possibly have resulted in Lieutenant Speidel's dismissal and arrest.
His final words are:
You, my Führer, know how I have always done everything in my power and capabilities, whether in the Western campaign of 1940, or in Africa 1941/1943, or in Italy in 1943 or again in the West in 1944. I've had only one thought uppermost in my mind, always, to fight and win victories for your new Germany.
The last letter we have from Rommel to Hitler - I have quoted it in full in my book - is a very interesting letter.
A few days later Rommel was told that he's got to turn up in Berlin for questioning. He didn't understand what was going on. He was still seriously ill: he had been unable to sleep for months because of the skull fractures. He sent back a message to the Army Personnel Office saying, "I'm afraid I can't come. I've an appointment with my specialists on the tenth, and they say I mustn't make long journeys in my condition."
Finally, on October 12, Hitler sent for Field Marshal Keitel, the chief of the German High Command, and dictated for him a letter from Keitel to Rommel, which ran as follows:
Field Marshal Rommel, you will see from the enclosed testimonies of General Speidel, General Stülpnagel, and Lieutenant Colonel Hofacker that you have been incriminated in the attempt on the Führer's life. You alone can know whether this is genuine or not, whether there is any truth to these allegations or not. If you consider you are innocent, it is up to you to come to Berlin and answer eventually to the People’s Court. If you know that you cannot put up a defense, then you as a German officer know what is the best thing for you to do.
There's a very clear hint what he's got to do.
Keitel sent for two German Army personnel officers, General Burgdorf and General Maisel, the head of the Personnel Office and his deputy, and says: "Carry this letter down to Rommel and show it to him and tell him what he's got to do."
The two German officers arrived at lunchtime on October 14. Rommel knew the generals from the Personnel Office were coming, because they had telephoned on the day before. Optimistic, as he sometimes was, he thought they might be going to discuss with him a new army group command, perhaps, the Kurland or somewhere else on the Eastern Front But the pessimist in him said, "It might just be bad news. It might be that now they're going to call me in for questioning over the collapse in France."
"Have that Normandy dossier ready, Aldinger," he told his adjutant. "I may need it." And he awaited the arrival of the two generals at lunchtime.
They arrive in a very small, modest car. Rommel doesn't know it, but his funeral wreath has already arrived, that morning at the local railroad station. He doesn't know it, but for twenty miles around every Autobahn has been sealed off to prevent his escape. The two German generals come in. Rommel invites them for lunch, but they tell him, "No, we can't stay for lunch. This is business."
Rommel, rather shocked, invites them into the smoking room and says, "How can I help the gentlemen?" By way of answer General Burgdorf hands to him the letter which tells him that he has been accused of complicity in the plot on the Führer's life in the testimony of Speidel, Hofacker, and Stülpnagel. Rommel learns the two courses open to him: to face the People's Court if he is innocent, or to carry out his duty as an officer if he cannot answer the charges.
What can Rommel do at this time? What are the thoughts that go through his sleep-wracked, fractured skull, his tortured, painful brain? He could only have thought to himself, "This is the end. I can't really go to Berlin and say I knew nothing about the Führer plot, nothing about the attempt on his life, I knew nothing about this treachery - all I was planning to do in discussions with my colleagues and my staff was possibly to open up the Western Front and make common cause with Montgomery and Eisenhower and march against the Russians. I can't do that! If I do that, I'm a dead man anyway. My life is over! If I admit that I knew about the plot, then I can save General Speidel's life - my good friend Speidel."
It's ironic, isn't it?
So in that moment Rommel makes a quite admirable decision, the most upright and honest decision that any German general has taken, certainly, in World War II. He turns to General Burgdorf and he says, "Jawohl, ich habe mich vergessen (Yes, I must have forgotten myself.). It's all true."
Burgdorf then says, "If you now do as an officer would have to do under the circumstances, the Führer makes the following guarantee to you: A state funeral as a great hero. The German public and the world will be told that you have died from your injuries received in the strafing attack in July. Even your wife will not be told the truth. Nobody will ever find out - you have the Führer's word for that."
And in fact Hitler kept his word, as has been subsequently found out.
Rommel says, "But I can't shoot myself."
Burgdorf says, "Oh, no, no! You mustn't shoot yourself - we can have no damage to your skull, nothing that will show. We've brought a substance with us that works in twenty seconds."
Rommel says, "Can I take leave of my wife and son?" And they grant him that request, and he goes upstairs to see his wife Lucie, who's lying in bed, and he says to Lucie - we know this because Lucie wrote a graphic account of it, in an affidavit subsequently, when she was trying to establish what had actually happened:
It's extraordinary. Speidel, Stülpnagel, and Hofacker have said that I was involved in the plot of the twentieth of July. They said that if it hadn't been for my head injury, I would have been put in command. I have no possible salvation. So in twenty minutes I will be dead.
Manfred, his son, at that time fifteen years old, comes into the room, bustling in and rather puzzled by the extraordinary atmosphere he finds between mother and father. And the father says the same to Manfred. Manfred and Rommel, the field marshal, leave the bedroom together and go downstairs and Rommel puts on his great leather topcoat and walks out into the garden followed by General Burgdorf and General Maisel. Manfred still can't understand what is happening. Rommel, putting on his coat, finds he's got the housekeys and his wallet in his pockets. He takes the wallet out and gives it to his son and takes the housekeys out and gives these to his son as well and says, "I don't need these any more."
Rommel climbs into the back seat of the little car and the two other generals pile in beside him. They shut the doors. Manfred stays outside. Rommel, the field marshal, sitting inside, winds down the window, and says to Manfred, "Manfred, look after Frau Speidel. I don't think I've managed to save her husband."
The car drives off down the lane. It drives off down the lane a couple of hundred yards - we know this because I've got the eyewitness account written immediately afterwards by the SS corporal who was driving the car - a corporal from the Führer's motor pool in Berlin, named Heinrich Doose - Heinrich Doose said, "We drove down the road a couple of hundred yards and then Burgdorf tapped me on the shoulder and told me to stop the car and get out. Then he told me to go for a walk for five minutes. When I came back," writes Doose, "I found Field Marshal Rommel slumped on the back seat of the car. He wasn't groaning - he was sobbing (schluchzend). I sat him upright, but his hat had fallen off, so I put his hat back on again."
And thus died Field Marshal Rommel. He died a hero, really, to the last moment of his life. He had fought his battles cleanly. He had always preferred to fight with tactics that saved lives on both sides. He didn't like to see soldiers being killed. He told his own troops to dig in. He tried to outwit and trick the enemy into surrender.
And he died in a way that saved the life of his close friend General Speidel, although by that time he knew that he had precisely that man to thank for the fact that he had been handed the Socratic dish of poison. I must say that the Rommel biography was one of the most rewarding books that I have ever written, not financially, but it was a rewarding book because it's always nice to write a book about a hero. And he was a hero. As Winston Churchill himself said in 1942, at a time when things stood very darkly for us - we had lost Singapore, we were losing the whole of our empire in the East - Churchill stood up in the House of Commons and said, "We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general."
Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 417-438.
Published with permission of and courtesy to the Institute for Historical Review (IHR).
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