No other German General came close to preoccupying the military leaders of Great Britain and the United States in World War II as did Erwin Rommel. To this very day his exploits in the North African deserts attract and fascinate many who study or read military history. From February of 1941 until March of 1943, German General and later Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, dominated the wartime strategy of Great Britain and the United States in the European theater of operations. Making what was initially regarded as an Italian sideshow into perhaps the most fascinating armored warfare campaign in history. He has become mythic and military legend to some, while to others he is remembered as a scoundrel, a professional soldier fighting for the notorious Nazi Government of Adolph Hitler. I am seventy years behind Rommel as I chase his legend across Normandy in France, site of arguably the Second World War’s most important Allied victory and most devastating German defeat. In this installment of Chasing Rommel, we are looking at Erwin Rommel and how he became one of Winston Churchill’s D-Day Ghosts.
In January of 1942, the weather in London had been cold with rain and snow. One account called the weather dull. And on 27 January, 1942 Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived at the House of Commons to deliver the latest news of the war. Like London’s dull, gloomy, and cold weather the war news was not pleasing. Churchill was no stranger to delivering bad news, which in the war’s early years was a regular event for him. But he more than most, was aware of the power of his presence, and most keenly aware of the importance of his intoxicating words.
Famous for his wartime oratories, Churchill spoke like a schoolmaster to his spellbound students. His dramatic words would deflect danger and fill the world with inspiration and hope. Churchill spoke of British defiance, carefully choosing simple but powerful phrases that still resonate today. He declared, “We shall not flag or fail…we shall never surrender.” Lifting the hearts of a world darkened by war he reminded us, “This was their finest hour.” and “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
And so he spoke again to the leaders and citizens of Great Britain, this time concerning the events in the deserts of North Africa. Churchill was there to address the failures of the British Army to stop German General Erwin Rommel, the famed Desert Fox. Churchill spoke before the House of Commons declaring, “We have a very daring and skillful opponent, and may I say across the havoc of war, a great general”.4 A man known for his words had chosen to call his enemy a great general. Perhaps he had chosen to blame fate more than the failures of his generals to stop Rommel. Ultimately Churchill’s forces would defeat Rommel in North Africa, but that would not be the end of Rommel’s battles with the British and Winston Churchill. Less than a year later fate intervened again, when in January of 1944, Adolph Hitler personally appointed now Field Marshal Rommel, to defend his empire’s weakest point from the expected Allied Invasion. As D-Day approached Churchill’s Great General was back to haunt him, becoming one of his D-Day Ghosts.
Privately Churchill was quite a different man. He was enraged by the events in North Africa, and demanded things change. With the microphones and cameras no longer present he loosened an inflammatory outburst, signaling how deep his fury was for his generals. The country’s wartime leader was appalled as he grumbled, “…he has 400,000 men. If he loses [that country] blood will flow”.1 He continued now his anger unabated, “I will have firing parties shoot the generals…”2 Next, the seething leader turned his bitter disappointment to the messenger, a British general standing before him. The General’s bearing was traditionally British, immaculate in his pressed and decorated uniform. An accomplished soldier, the messenger had served his country with distinction in World War I, and now with the world at war again, he is a Major General and Britain’s Director of Military Operations. The old soldier braced for the next outburst. The politician admonished him, “War is a contest of wills…It is pure defeatism to speak as you have done…” 3 One could easily believe these to be the words of Adolf Hitler, but they are not. These are the words of an exasperated Winston Churchill, speaking to General John Kennedy after being informed of another failure by the British Army to Stop German General Erwin Rommel in North Africa.
Three years later it is 1944 and the Allies are planning to invade Europe. Now Field Marshal Rommel was back to haunt Churchill and the Allies as they prepared for the invasion of Normandy, the largest and most complicated amphibious assault in history. But our story begins on another beach, when the Germans trapped the British at Dunkirk in June, 1940. There, over 330,000 British and French soldiers were evacuated from the shores of France, saved from death or capture by what is remembered as the Miracle of Dunkirk. They had been pushed there by the lighting fast war of movement the Germans called, Blitzkrieg. Part of those fast moving troops were led by then little known German General Erwin Rommel.
Unknown to most of the world in 1940, Then Major General Rommel was well known to the French and British Armies he had helped to surround at Dunkirk. Rommel was then a divisional commander in the German Army. He was the commander of the 7th Panzer Division, which became the famed, Ghost Division. A name earned by Rommel for his ability to move quickly and arrive where he was unexpected. From May 10, 1940 until June 17, 1940, Rommel’s Ghost Division accomplished some remarkable feats. Under Rommel’s command the German 7th Panzer Division captured the following in only 6 weeks of fighting in France:
“The Admiral of the French North Fleet and 4 other French Admirals.
Many French Generals including: One Army Corp Commander,
four Divisional commanders, including their entire staffs.
80 Airplanes, 341 Artillery pieces, 458 Tanks and armored vehicles,
1500-2000 automobiles, and 4000-5000 Transport Trucks” 4
And most remarkably Rommel and his Ghost Division also managed to capture an astounding amount of prisoners. In six weeks they captured, “97,468 French and British soldiers”.4
Flush with success, Hitler ordered his now famous Panzer General, to help Germany’s ally Italy fight Britain in North Africa. Rommel arrived in North Africa on, February 12, 1941. He had been given command of the newly created German Afrika Korps, or in German, Deutsches Afrikakorps. It was not much of a force consisting of basically two divisions, the 5th Light, and 15th Panzer. Rommel’s German troops were subordinated to Italian command, and it was the Italian military command’s responsibility to keep Rommel and his Afrika Korps supplied. All of his men, equipment, and supplies came from the Italian mainland, aboa rd Italian Naval vessels.
The German General Staff believed that helping the Italians in North Africa was a side show for their war in Europe. By the end June of 1941, just four months after they sent Rommel to North Africa, the Germans sent 150 plus divisions to invade the Soviet Union. Comparatively, Hitler’s Generals had only dedicated a meager 2 divisions and a young, dynamic general to manage the Italian side show in Africa.
Rommel’s orders were to aid his Italian allies, maintaining a defensive posture to defend Mussolini’s dream of Italian conquest in Africa. Rommel wasted no time finding the British Army, his idea of defense was a powerful and unexpected attack.
From the start Rommel found success in his desert war against the British. This began a pattern of Churchill firing a number of his general fighting in North Africa in 1941-1942. First, Winston Churchill fired General Wavell for failing to stop Rommel in 1941. In April of 1941 Rommel’s advancing forces captured British Generals O’Connor and Neame. Amazingly, in 1942 Rommel made the cover of Time, one of America’s bestselling news magazines. Rommel’s success in North Africa was becoming the stuff of military legend.
Before Rommel arrived the British had overwhelmed the hapless Italians in North Africa. With their own small force the British accomplished much against the poorly led Italians as described here by author David T. Zabecki,
“In two months, a British force of about two divisions, had advanced 50 miles, destroyed 10 Italian divisions, captured 130,000 prisoners, 380 tanks and 845 guns. In the process, the British had suffered 555 dead and 1,400 wounded.”5
But all that changed with the arrival of Rommel and the Afrika Korps. Creating a war of movement and maneuver, mixing his armored vehicles, anti-tank guns, artillery, and infantry formations, Rommel drove the British from Libya and their supply port at Benghazi. By the end of March 1941 the British were in retreat. The British still didn’t understand Rommel’s application of a war of movement. When Rommel’s advancing forces captured British Generals O’Connor and Neame they were sitting in a car. It was a humiliating and defeat.
By the middle April, Rommel had surrounded and besieged the British Garrison, and deep water port of Tobruk. By month’s end the Afrika Korps was at the Egyptian Border. The British were overwhelmed by Rommel’s unprecedented speed and cunning. No one was more surprised and disappointed then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He would have to rethink his prosecution of the war, and help develop the strategies, tactics, and operations to somehow stop Rommel. For Churchill it was the low point of the war.
Near the end of 1941 Rommel had outrun his dangerously long supply lines. The existence of his army so far ahead of supply bases was untenable. And at the same time, the British were resupplied and began to push Rommel’s Afrika Korps almost back to where he started - El Agheila, Libya. Fearing that ultimately Rommel would counterattack, Winston Churchill ordered a team of British Commandos to assassinate General Rommel at his believed desert headquarters.
Rommel was the only German that Churchill ordered his commandos to assassinate. He did not order the murder of Hitler, Himmler, Goring, or any other Nazi, Churchill wanted Rommel dead, by any means possible.
Late on November 17, 1941, a young fearless British commando, led a team of highly trained soldiers to murder German General Erwin Rommel. Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes and his men fought their way into Rommel’s Afrika Korps headquarters. It was a fast and deadly fight and soon the British realized Rommel was not there. The raid was costly for the British Commandos who not only lost their leader, Lt. Colonel Keyes, but twenty eight of the thirty one sent to kill Rommel were either killed or captured.
Remarkably, when Rommel learned of the assassination attempt he ordered a full military funeral for the young commando. This chivalrous act by Rommel was in defiance to the German General Staff view of commandos as gangsters. In October of 1942, Hitler ordered all captured commandos be treated as spies, be they in uniform or not, and immediately executed. Rommel ignored the order in Africa and again in Normandy. Just as he ignored Hitler’s orders that all Jewish prisoners of war be summarily executed.
Rommel ordered his personal chaplain to lead the services. He provided a lock of Keyes’s hair, and photos of the service to Keyes’ father, British Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Roger Keyes. What should have been Rommel’s assassination became a moment of battlefield honor and elevated Rommel to a knightly status. Rommel lived and upstaged Churchill, a man who never attempted to kill Nazi leader Adolph Hitler, but tried to murder Rommel twice. The next time Churchill would try to assassinate Rommel was in Normandy, at his headquarters - La Roche-Guyon. Churchill discovered that Ghosts don’t die easily.
On January 21, 1942, Rommel launched his second offensive and did not stop until he drove the British back into Egypt again. By June 21, 1942 Rommel and his Afrika Korps had captured Tobruk. With the fall of Tobruk Rommel, and his Italian allies captured over 2 million gallons of petrol [gasoline] and hundreds of British and American vehicles [transport trucks]. And had a deep water supply port for the advance into Egypt and beyond. Although, the Italian Navy, who was tasked with suppling Rommel’s Army, never used Tobruk to supply the Afrika Korps. They considered it, unsafe.
The loss of Tobruk was a crisis for Churchill and the British military leadership. For Churchill it was one of his lowest moments in the war. Churchill asked for help and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt agreed. Suddenly, Rommel became the target of the first combined efforts on land by the US and British Armies, Navies and Air Forces. Now it would be with thousands of tons of American equipment and supplies, and thousands of American Soldiers fighting with their British Allies for the first time in the war that would ultimately stop Rommel.
But, before they could attack, Rommel made one more run for Egypt. But the British Army, a lack of supplies, and a narrow battlefield that limited his movements finally stopped Rommel at El Alamein. General Claude Auchinleck developed a plan that halted Rommel less than 100 miles from the Egyptian prize of Alexandria, and beyond to the vital Suez Canal, Cairo, and the rich oil fields of the Middle East.
By this time, Rommel was very sick, having been in the desert over a year and a half, he was ordered back to Germany. Churchill finally had a general that stopped Rommel and his Afrika Korps. General Auchinleck’s reward was to be fired by Britain's’ frustrated and desperate Prime Minister. Stopping Rommel and his Afrika Korps was not enough, he had to be beaten and removed from the shores of North Africa.
Churchill’s Armies needed massive amounts of American equipment and supplies to vanquish Rommel and his Afrika Korps. Defeating Rommel in Africa was to dominate in large part the strategic, operational and tactical planning of both Britain and the United States in 1942. Britain and United States would deploy assets on the ground, in the air and on the seas to defeat Rommel. An unprecedented effort to stop one German General who was quickly becoming a legend in his own lifetime.
By late 1942, the Allies had gathered enough supplies, and tens of thousands of troops to attack Rommel and defeat his Afrika Korps. Led by British General Montgomery, the British 8th Army chased Rommel all the way back to Tunisia, where the American’s were now waiting for him. Rommel halted his retreating army, at the fortified Mareth Line. It was then that he unexpectedly turned to the American forces and mauled them at the Kasserine Pass. Inflicting a costly and humiliating defeat on the American II Corps, and forcing the firing of its commander General Lloyd Fredendall. Fredendall was replaced by another man who would become a military legend, General George S. Patton Jr. This remarkable military maneuver by Rommel is still considered an extraordinary feat. And one of the great teachable moments for American military leaders, including the man in overall command, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Not long after his victory at Kasserine, Hitler ordered Rommel to leave Africa fearing his death or capture. The war in North Africa was lost as far as the German High Command believed and Hitler needed Rommel if he was going to win his war. Before long Rommel would appeared in France, as the Allies were planning and training for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Like a ghost, Churchill’s Great General was back again to haunt him in shadows and shores of Normandy.
In November of 1943 Hitler ordered Rommel to inspect the German defenses along the coastal areas from Norway to the Spanish - French border. Hitler’s famed, Atlantic Wall was as long as the east coast of the United States. Incredibly, Hitler believed his wall impregnable and the perfect weapon to stop the coming Allied invasion. After traveling the length of the wall Rommel pronounced Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, “…a figment of Hitler’s Wolkenkuckucksheim [cloud-cuckoo-land] imagination …an enormous bluff …more for the German people than for the enemy …”6
By the end of December 1943 Rommel’s inspection was complete. Shortly thereafter Hitler ordered Rommel to defend the wall, to defend the, “enormous bluff”. The appointment was not lost on Allied leader Winston Churchill who was very weary of the famed Desert Fox, now Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. And Churchill had other ghosts that followed him as the Allies prepared the amphibious invasion of France in 1944.
Churchill with good reason feared amphibious landings. He was after all, First Lord of The Admiralty and one of the British military commanders who planned the disastrous amphibious landings at the Straits of Dardanelles during the First World War. Churchill’s reputation and career were nearly ruined, when thousands of British and Commonwealth Nation troops were killed on the deadly shores Gallipoli, Anzac Cove, and Suvla Bay.
Located on the western coast of the Dardanelles in Turkey, the straits were at the center of Churchill’s vision for a bold naval attack. On March 18, 1915, a massive fleet of 85 Royal Navy and French warships attempted to sail through the Dardanelles Straits. At first the fleet battered the old Turkish fortifications. But the Ottoman Turks recovered and fired vengefully on the fleet. Some of the Warships hit underwater mines, and others were hit by coastal artillery. In the deadly exchange of powerful shells, three warships were sunk, many others were badly damaged and the naval action was called off. An ominous beginning to one of the biggest strategic naval efforts of the Great War.
Undeterred, the plan called for the British to invade Turkey, or Europe’s soft underbelly as he called it, in both World Wars. The British Army landed by sea on April 25, 1915, and the soldiers of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire were waiting for them. The British landing forces contained many soldiers from Australia and New Zealand, they were the ANZACS. (Australian New Zealand Army Corps)
The fighting continued into the summer of 1915, creating a stalemate and locking the British forces on the beaches and slightly inland. It was a place where violence and disease took the lives of thousands of soldiers. Places like: Gallipoli, Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay were burnt into military history, blackening forever Winston Churchill’s legacy. Finally in January of 1916, after just over 10 months of terrible violence and widespread disease the British forces successfully withdrew from Europe’s soft underbelly.
Nothing had been gained and so much had been lost. Blame for the amphibious and naval failures at Gallipoli cost Churchill his position as First Lord of the Admiralty. But the price in British blood was nearly incredible to fathom. According to one report at the height of the fighting, “… the waters around the peninsula were stained red with blood at one point 50 metres out [to sea]”.7 According to the official Australian Government, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Churchill's dreams of a stunning British victory led by the amphibious landings at Gallipoli exacted a tremendous cost in human suffering: “Commonwealth Forces suffered 141,029 Killed, wounded or missing… New Zealand forces suffered 7,473 Killed, wounded or missing [87% casualties] Australian Forces suffered 28,150 killed, wounded or missing [50% casualties]”8
Such was the immense suffering and carnage from the invasion of Gallipoli that one hundred years later it is still a national holiday in Australia and New Zealand; April 25th - ANZAC Day is a National Day of Remembrance.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the 141,029 casualties from the failed amphibious landings at Gallipoli were Churchill’s ghosts as he contemplates, and helps plan, Operation Overlord, the D-Day invasion of France in 1944.
Always a reluctant participant in the amphibious invasion of France, Churchill wanted to continue the fight in Italy, or join the Russians and attack from the vast spaces on the Eastern Front. In his book, Roosevelt’s Centurions, Author Joseph Persico captures Churchill fears as D-Day grew ever closer. In the weeks leading up to D-day Churchill lamented,
“… the ghosts of men who perished in the slaughter house of [World War I] …casting his eye over the chamber, [House of Commons] he spoke of the faces that are not here…When I think of the beaches of Normandy choked with the flower of American and British youth, and when in my mind’s eye I see the tides running red with their blood, I have my doubts…” 9
War and battle were no stranger to Winston Churchill. He was graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. He was a cavalry officer and participated in a cavalry charge while fighting in the Sudan in Africa. He was a prisoner of war, captured in Africa, and he managed a daring and successful escape. He served in the infamous trenches of Western Front, in World War I. He was a war correspondent, and eventually a Noble prize winning author. He was a politician, beginning as a liberal social reformer, and ending as a leading conservative crusader. His oratory was legendary and during the Second World War, on June 4, 1940 he famously declared, “…We shall defend our Island… whatever the cost may be… we will never surrender.”
And it was Churchill, more than any other man, who stopped Adolph Hitler and his barbarous, genocidal Nazis. And for all of his accomplishments, and bravery it was D-Day that shook him to his very soul. Amongst all his worries about D-Day, perhaps Churchill’s fear of Rommel was maintained by one of the men who he fired leading the fight against Rommel during the North African War. General Claude Auchinleck had sent a memo that was to be read to all British and Commonwealth Troops fighting in North Africa. As recalled on page 23 of his book Rommel, British Army General Desmond Young, recalled what Auchinleck wrote in 1942,
“There exists a real danger that our friend Rommel is becoming a kind
of magician or bogey-man… our troops are talking far too much
about him… [It is] highly undesirable that our men should credit
him with supernatural powers…I wish for you to dispel by all means the idea
that Rommel represents something more than an ordinary German General…
from a psychological point of view, it is a matter of the highest importance.”
It seems Churchill’s head was full of the ghosts from the disastrous amphibious landings at Gallipoli, and the years spent chasing a “superman”, General Erwin Rommel in the desert. Churchill’s demons followed him all the way to the D-Day beaches. They were the ghosts and nightmares the old warrior could not escape.
On June 5, 1944, the night before D-Day as he went to bed, a very unsettled Winston Churchill spoke to his wife. Churchill quietly and desperately said, “Do you realize that by the time you wake up in the morning 20,000 men may have been killed.” 10
Good night Ghosts.
Reid Walter. Churchill 1940-1945: Under Friendly Fire.
Australian Government Department of Veterans Affairs, https://web.archive.org/ web/20130313050857/http://www.dva.gov.au/news_archive/Documents/The %20Gallipoli%20Campaign.pdf. n.a., n.d. Retrieved January 3, 2016
4. Warner Phillip. Auchinleck: The Lonely Soldier. P-37
5. Zabecki, David T. World War II: North Africa Campaign, 6/12/2006
Retrieved December 30, 2015
6. Meissner, Daniel J. "Fortress Europa": The Atlantic Wall on D-Day
Retrieved December 27, 2015.
7. Duell, Mark, The Ghosts of Gallipoli, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2314289/Allied-forces-disastrous-1915-Gallipoli-mission-Australia-marks-Anzac-Day.html 24 April 2013, Retrieved December 31, 2016
8. Australian Government Department of Veterans Affairs, https://web.archive.org/ web/20130313050857/http://www.dva.gov.au/news_archive/Documents/The %20Gallipoli%20Campaign.pdf. Retrieved January 3, 2016
9. Persico, Joseph E. Roosevelt's Centurions: FDR and the Commanders He Led to Victory in World War II. Random House: New York. 2013. Print. P-353
10. Nalty, Bernard C. D-Day: The Strategy, The Men, The Equipment. Salamander: London. 1993. Print. Page 8.
Churchill, Winston. The Grand Alliance. The Second World War, Vol. III. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1950. Print.
Delahaye, Thierry & Quenneville, Alain. Rommel A La Roche-Guyon. Acheve d’imprimer par Corlet. Conde-sur-Noireau, France. 1995. Print.
Manchester, William, and Paul Reid. The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983. Print.
Reid Walter. Churchill 1940-1945: Under Friendly Fire. London: Birlinn Ltd., 2009. Print
Stackelberg, Roderick & Winkle, Sally A. The Nazi German Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts. Routledge: New York, 2002. Print.
Warner, Phillip. Auchinleck, The Lonely Soldier. London: Buchan & Enright, 1981. Print
Young, Desmond. Rommel. London: Collins, 1950. Print.
Meissner, Daniel J. ”Fortress Europa": The Atlantic Wall on D-Day
retrieved December 27, 2015.
Duell, Mark. The Ghosts of Gallipoli, Daily Mail, 24 April 2013,
Retrieved January 2, 2016
Zabecki, David T. World War II: North Africa Campaign, 6/12/2006 • DWIGHT EISENHOWER, FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT, WORLD WAR II,
Retrieved December 30, 2016