The inglorious end of the North African campaign meshed poorly with the Nazi propaganda machine’s relentless portrayal of Rommel as an unbeatable military genius. This opened in Berlin the awkward question of precisely what use now to make of the erstwhile Desert Fox. Back in Germany, he was for some time virtually “unemployed”. On 23 July 1943 he moved to Greece as commander of Army Group E to defend the Greek coast against a possible Allied landing that never happened, and which the Germans were led to expect due to the elaborate British deception plan known as “Operation Mincemeat”—only to return to Germany two days later upon the overthrow of Mussolini. On 17 August 1943 Rommel moved his headquarters from Munich to Lake Garda as commander of a new Army Group B created to defend northern Italy.
By May, Hitler had earmarked Rommel for another high post, this time in Italy, namely to take overall command whenever it might prove necessary, should the Italians decide to opt for surrender. Rommel first found out that he was being considered for something new from his old SS aide, Alfred Ingemar Berndt, who was now back working in Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry. Berndt was somewhat hazy about the post, implying that Rommel’s future sphere of influence would cover thousands of kilometres of European coastline – which is exactly what it eventually turned out to be, although first the Führer had more immediate needs for his abilities. Having heard from Berndt during the first week of May, on the 8th Rommel was ordered to report to Hitler in Berlin next day. ‘I should have listened to you before,’ Hitler told him, ‘but I suppose it’s too late now, it will soon be all over in Tunisia.’ It would appear that Hitler was determined to win back the adulation and support of his favourite Field Marshal and to some extent he succeeded, Rommel being in his company almost constantly for the next two months – ‘under the sunray lamp’ is how he succinctly put it, and clearly Hitler’s magnetic personality did have this effect upon him.
Rommel’s new appointment was to be kept secret from everyone -even from Kesselring, who, as C-in-C Southern Italy (OB Süd) was certainly going to be affected by the new HQ. So for May, June and most of July, Rommel did little overtly, spending his time recovering his health and forming an undercover headquarters, which received operational status in July, but whose true activities were still concealed. This HQ was first given the cover name of Arbeitsstab Rommel (Rommel’s Planning Staff), then later called OKW Auffrisschungsstab München (OKW Refitting HQ Munich). He was also concerned in Operation ‘Alarich’, which was a plan to infiltrate large numbers of German troops into northern Italy, ready to defend against an Allied invasion, and a second plan, Operation ‘Achse’, which envisaged the need to disarm the Italian forces and, if necessary, to capture or destroy them. Rommel’s staff was very small and came mainly from his ‘Afrikaners’, men such as Major-General Alfred Gause and Colonel von Bonin, both from the Panzerarmee, Captain Hermann Aldinger, his old adjutant, and the faithful Corporal Alfred Böttcher was still with him as private secretary. At the last minute, however, Hitler changed his mind and decided that Rommel would be C-in-C designate of the German forces in Greece, Crete and the Aegean Islands, able to ‘… jump over into Italy later on’. His HQ would be known as Army Group B, while Army Group E, (commanded by Colonel General Löhr) which was currently the highest German HQ in the Balkans, would merely control Serbia and Croatia instead of being OB Südost. No firm date was given for this change, but Rommel arrived in Greece on 23 July under orders from Hitler to survey the situation and report. Two days later he was told by the OKW that Mussolini had been overthrown and that he was to return immediately to see Hitler again.
On his return he was advised that his Italian assignment was now on once more and that his undercover HQ would ’emerge’ in Munich as Army Group B. He was to be responsible for all German troops in northern Italy and also for Operation ‘Alarich’, the security of the necessary lines of communication being of vital concern once the troops had been infiltrated into northern Italy. Thus Rommel’s army group was to be heavily involved in the protection of such vital areas as the Alpine passes, as well as with the actual details of the troop movements, which began on 30 July. The Italians did not like the movement of German troops into Italy and the Comando Supremo disputed every move, although it could do little to pre-vent the German build-up. Meanwhile, of course, there were still large numbers of German troops fighting in Sicily, most of whom would be successfully withdrawn to the mainland in mid-August, and the Allied invasion of Italy was still some weeks off. Field Marshal Kesselring, C-in-C South, also still had major forces with which to oppose the Allies and keep the Italians under control, so there was little the Italians could do. But, as Rommel noted in his diary, ‘… although they will obviously betray us, it’s not politically possible to march in’.
The intention was that Army Group B would take command of all German formations in northern Italy, and that although Kesselring’s OB Süd would keep command of those German formations in southern Italy plus those which might return from Sicily, he would be required to con-form to any orders that Rommel might give him. Not unnaturally Kessel-ring objected to this arrangement, telling everyone that he could not serve under Rommel. Hitler vacillated until the middle of August, then decided on a compromise which left Italy divided by a line running through Pisa-Arezzo-Ancona. Rommel would command all troops north of this line (his western boundary was the Franco-Italian border, and eastern, the Italo-Croatian frontier). Three Corps HQ were earmarked for Army Group B, two of which were ‘up and running’ in Italy by mid-August: LXXXVII Corps from France and II SS Pz Corps from Russia. The third Headquarters, LI Mountain Corps, was still forming at Innsbruck. Eight German divisions had either crossed or were about to cross into Italy. Six of them were re-formed ‘ex-Stalingrad’ divisions from France and Denmark; one had been brought from Holland and the remaining one (SS Pz Div Adolf Hitler) had come from the Eastern Front.
On 17 August Rommel moved his HQ from Munich to Lake Garda, setting up with some difficulty as the Italians bitterly resented his presence in Italy and hindered his requests for permission to lay telephone lines back to Munich. It was also at this time that Rommel began to worry about his family and the ever-increasing danger they were in from Allied air raids, the Messerschmitt factories being close to Wiener Neustadt. This was alarmingly brought home to him by news that Gause had lost his house and all his possessions, although fortunately his family was not in residence at the time. It took Rommel some time to persuade Lucie to move, but eventually he manned it, although initially they had to occupy temporary accommodation until their new house at Herrlingen near Ulm in Swabia, could be got ready.
Lucie would generously offer the Gauses accommodation in the new house, but sadly this would lead to family arguments and eventually to Gause being replaced as Rommel’s Chief of Staff. By the end of August the situation had deteriorated to the point where the Axis had virtually ceased to exist. The Italians had moved troops to guard Rome against a German coup, also to protect Italian naval units at Spezia and towards the Brenner Pass, so that they were ready should the Germans try to take any ‘collective hostility’ against them. For their part, the Germans were ready to put Operation ‘Achse’ into action, ready to dis-arm all Italian troops except any who were prepared to go on fighting under German command. In the north, Army Group B was to increase the protection of the mountain passes and to occupy Genoa, Spezia, Livorno, Trieste, Fiume and Pola. The Order of Battle of Rommel’s army was now as follows:
HQ (at Canossa, SW of Reggio nell’Emilia)
LI Mountain Corps (Feurstein)
65th Inf Division
305th Inf Division
LXXXVII Corps (von Zangen)
76th Inf Division
94th Inf Division
II SS Pz Corps (Hausser)
24th Pz Division
1st SS Pz Adolf Hitler
44th Inf Division
71st Inf Division
Controlled by Fliegerkorps XI
3rd Pz Gren Division
2nd Para Division
LI Mountain Corps. General der Gebirgstruppen Valentin Feurstein. He was born in 1885 in Bregenz. He served in the Austrian Army, reaching the rank of Major-General in 1935, then transferred to the Reichsheer and commanded 2nd Mountain Division. After commanding LI Mountain Corps, he became Inspector-General of the Tyrol and commander of the Alpenfront in April 1945. He was the holder of the Knight’s Cross. Manfred Rommel describes him as being: ‘… a stocky, black-moustached man, regarded as a first-class mountain specialist’.
LXXXVII Corps. General der Infanterie Gustav-Adolf von Zangen. Born in Darmstadt in 1892, he served in the army throughout the Great War, then with the police before transferring back to the army in 1935. He was promoted to Major-General in 1942 while commanding 17th Infantry Division. He went on to command Fifteenth Army in France, Belgium and Holland and distinguished himself in organising the successful evacuation of most of it across the Scheldt. In August 1944 he was sent back to Italy to prepare the last line of defences from the approaches to the Alps to the Adriatic coast, with large numbers of the Todt Organisation labour force units to carry out the work. He was the holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves.
II SS Pz Corps. Colonel General Paul Hausser. He had commanded ‘Das Reich’ SS Infantry Division in Russia and went on to command II SS Pz Corps in NW Europe. An able commander, he had fallen slightly foul of Hitler by disobeying orders in Kharkov, but as the SS then did spectacularly well, he was forgiven. In early July 1944 he was appointed directly by Hitler to command Seventh Army – the first SS officer ever to command an army and to reach the rank of Colonel General. Despite his age – he was nearly 60 when war began – he had remarkable stamina and was very fit. Guderian called him ‘one of the most outstanding wartime commanders’, the Führer said that he ‘looked like a fox … with his crafty little eyes’, and Kesselring said that he was ‘… the most popular and ablest of the SS generals’.
44th Inf Div ‘Hoch Und Deutchsmeister’. General der Infanterie Dr Franz Beyer. He was a Lieutenant-General when he commanded the division (promoted Gen d. Inf. in 1944). Reformed in Austria in 1943 after virtually ceas-ing to exist at Stalingrad, his division was an excellent fighting unit and fought well in Italy. It was later posted to the Eastern Front.
65th Inf Div. Lieutenant-General Gustav Heistermann von Ziehlberg. A Knight’s Cross winner, who was born in Hohensalza in 1898, he was pro-moted to Major-General in August 1943. His division was severely mauled by the British on the River Sangro Line in October 1943. He was badly wounded the following month and Lt Gen Dr Georg Pfeiffer took command. The division later formed part of I Para Corps’ attack at Anzio, then was transferred to North Italy.
71st Inf Div. Lieutenant-General Wilhelm Raapke. Born in Marienwerder in 1896, he commanded the division from its formation in Denmark in April 1943, through Italy and then in Hungary and Austria. He was the holder of the German Cross in Gold.
76th Inf Div. General der Infanterie Erich Abraham. Born in Marienburg in 1895. He took over the division in April 1943 and went on to command LXIII Corps. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves and the German Cross in Gold. In the late autumn of 1943 his division was sent to the Eastern front.
94th inf Div. Lieutenant-General Bernhard Steinmetz. Born in Neuenkirchen in l896. He commanded the division for most of the Italian campaign. After Stalingrad the division had been reformed in France and sent to Italy where it fought in many of the major battles.
305th Inf Div. Lieutenant-General Friedrich-Wilhelm Bruno Hauck. He was born in Breslau in 1897. Winner of the Knight’s Cross and the German Cross in Silver, he had been promoted to Major-General in June 1943. His division also fought in southern Italy, suffering many casualties south of Rome.
3rd Pz Gren Div. Lieutenant-General (later Gen d. Pz. Tr.) Fritz-Hubert Gräser. He was born in Frankfurt in 1888. He was awarded the German Cross in Gold and the Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves. He went on to command XXIV Panzer Corps and then Fourth Panzer Army. His division (reformed in SW France in early 1943) fought in Italy, later in the Saar, Ardennes and Germany.
2nd Para Div. Major-General Hermann Bernard Ramcke. He had famously commanded Ramcke Para Brigade in North Africa. His senior Regimental Commander (Colonel Hans Kroh) took over in 1944 when he became commander of the fortress of Brest. Hitler ordered that the Diamonds to his Knight’s Cross be parachuted in (on 20 September 1944). Ramcke held on until the garrison ran out of supplies and was forced to sur-render.
24th Pz Div. Lieutenant-General Reichsfreiherr (Reichsbaron) Maximilian von Edelsheim. Born in Berlin in 1897. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves and Swords. Virtually wiped out at Stalingrad, the division was reformed in Normandy where von Edelsheim took command in March 1943. It was sent to Italy in August, and later sent back to the Russian Front.
1st SS Pz Div. Colonel General Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich. He had fought in the Great War as a sergeant tank commander/tank troop leader, being awarded the Iron Cross 2nd and 1st Class, together with Bavarian, Austrian and Silesian bravery awards. A rough diamond – he was one of the original Nazi storm troopers – he was at one time Hitler’s chauffeur and bodyguard. He rose very quickly through the ranks of the SS, commanding Leibstandarte (Life Guard) SS Adolf Hitler, which became 1st SS Pz Div and later I SS Pz Corps. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross, with Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds, becoming one of the 27 most highly decorated members of the German forces of the war. He eventually became disillusioned with his Führer, but this did not prevent his imprisonment at the end of the war. He was released in February 1958, and died in 1966, aged 74.