Throughout the summer of 1939, tensions between Berlin and Warsaw were methodically ratcheted higher, as Hitler pushed events closer to the tipping point and the Polish government maintained a belligerence which in light of the state of Poland’s army and her strategic situation was utterly unrealistic—encouraged, tragically as it turned out, by assurances from Paris and London that if Germany invaded Poland, it would also mean war with France and Britain. When on August 22 Rommel was summoned to Berlin for a special briefing, he was convinced that its purpose was to assign to him some special mission in a war he expected to begin any day. He was quite right on both counts. On August 23 the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was signed, a mutual non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia which contained secret clauses that provided for the partition of a conquered Poland; on August 25, Rommel was promoted to generalmajor (“I left the Reichs Chancellery a brand-new general wearing a brand-new general’s uniform,” he wrote ecstatically to Lucie that night), and given a new, totally unexpected posting: when the war with Poland began, Rommel would command the Führerbeglietbataillon, responsible for the protection of the Führer’s headquarters and Hitler himself.
The German attack on Poland began in the pre-dawn hours of September 1, 1939. Germany’s Anschluss with Austria, the annexation of the Sudetenland, and the occupation of the rump of Czechoslovakia, while carried out bloodlessly, had been tantamount to dress rehearsals for the mechanized warfare which the Wehrmacht was about to unleash against Poland. The operations in Austria, the Sudetenland, and Czechoslovakia had served as a “proof of concept” for its organization, machines, equipment, and doctrines. The German Army was developing a new form of warfare, and there were still plenty of kinks to work out, bugs to eradicate, as the mobility of mechanized forces, the reach of air power, and the flexibility of infiltration tactics were brought together in a form of warfare that the West would come to call “Blitzkrieg.”
The Poles’ situation was essentially hopeless: surrounded on three sides by German territory, their only chance at stemming the German advance was to abandon the western third of Poland, withdraw into the center of the country and make a stand along the Vistula River and before Warsaw, hoping that the French and British would intervene in the west and draw off enough of the German Army’s strength to allow the Poles to keep fighting. This strategy was soon in tatters as the speed with which the German spearheads advanced gave the Poles no time in which to organize defensive lines. The problem was not the shopworn cliché of cavalry charging columns of armor—a scenario that actually occurred but once—rather it was the Poles’ lack of comparable mobility: the Germans were simply moving faster than the Poles were able to respond. Even had they been able to stand on the Vistula and at the gates of Warsaw, the Poles were doomed, as they were stabbed in the back by the Soviets, who invaded from the east on September 17. The German and Soviet armies met at Brest-Litovsk on September 22, and though isolated fighting continued until October 6, the Polish campaign was essentially over. It was a staggering, lopsided victory for the Wehrmacht, whose losses in killed, wounded, and missing totaled just under 50,000, while the number of Polish dead and wounded alone was four times that number. In a speech given in Danzig a month after the campaign began, Hitler assured the world that “Poland never will rise again in the form of the Versailles treaty. That is guaranteed. . . .”
Hitler had made only a slight miscalculation in his assessment of the Allies: Britain and France had indeed honored their pledges to Poland and declared war on Germany, but then immediately thereafter the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, began to dither and blither, constantly finding new excuses for not striking at Germany across her western border, which during that sad September was held by a mere six divisions. Daladier of France followed Chamberlain’s lead, and the western front, such as it was and what there was of it, was a scene of masterful inactivity, a situation the French press soon dubbed “le Drôle de Guerre”—the Funny War—while their British counterparts called it the “Phoney War.”
Rommel saw no actual combat while commanding the Führer’s bodyguard in Poland, although on more than one occasion Hitler seemed determined to get as close to the fighting as he could, roaming as he did across Poland behind the advancing Wehrmacht, sometimes aboard the Führersonderzug, the “Führer’s Special,” incongruously named “Amerika,” or in a small armored column. When the 2nd Panzer Division forced a crossing of the San River under heavy fire from the Polish defenders, they were also under the watchful eye of Adolf Hitler, who wanted to personally see his tanks in action. (Hitler had played a decisive role in the creation of the first panzer divisions.) At the Baltic port of Gydnia, which the Poles had defended ferociously, Hitler decided to personally inspect the ruins of the last Polish bunker, which sat almost literally at the water’s edge at the bottom of a steep incline. Rommel, charged with traffic control, announced that only the Führer’s car and one other vehicle would be allowed down that grade—everyone else would have to remain behind. When Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary and personal gatekeeper, attempted to follow in a third car, Rommel stepped into the street and blocked the way, responding to Bormann’s obscenity-laced demand to be allowed to pass by bellowing back at him, “I am the headquarters commandant and this is not a kindergarten outing! You will do as I say!” Humiliated, Bormann silently vowed retribution, though it would be years in coming.
The wreckage of Polish tanks and artillery, along with crashed Polish aircraft, were of special interest to Hitler, who had a lifelong fascination with machinery. Less attention was paid to the long columns of Polish prisoners of war, or, for that matter, the casualties suffered by the German Army. One disturbing incident took place in East Prussia, when a train filled with wounded German soldiers was eased onto a railway siding next to Hitler’s Amerika. The bloody and maimed young men were clearly visible to those aboard—Hitler ordered the shades on the windows lowered to block them from view. Rommel was present for this display of Hitler’s indifference to the plight of the soldiers who fought and bled for him, an incident which only much later would begin to signify.
What Rommel immediately gained from his presence at the Führer’s headquarters was an eagle’s eye view of how the campaign was being fought; it was highly educational. This was his first experience of seeing war from a higher command perspective, and he took away a keen understanding of how mechanized and motorized units utilized speed and surprise to create a “force multiplier”—producing favorable results from their maneuvers and attacks that were disproportionate to the numbers of men and machines involved. The applicability of his own command style and combat experiences in the Great War, especially those in Romania and Italy, quickly became obvious to him, and he began to wonder how he might gain command of one of the coveted panzer divisions. He was uniquely positioned for such a possibility: in one letter to Lucie, he wrote, “I was able to talk with [Hitler] about two hours yesterday evening, on military problems. He’s extraordinarily friendly toward me. . . . I very much doubt that I will be at the Kriegsschule much longer, when the war is over.”
Rommel was wrong on both counts: he would remain the titular commandant of the Theresian Academy for another six months, albeit temporarily posted to Berlin should it be necessary to reactivate the Führer’s escort battalion; and the war was far from over. With military operations in Poland complete, he was able to secure a few days’ leave to spend with Lucie, but returned to Hitler’s headquarters on October 2 in order to prepare for the German Army’s victory parade through Warsaw on October 5. The city was a smoldering, reeking ruin, much of it reduced to rubble by Luftwaffe bombs and Wehrmacht artillery shells; Hitler stood for two hours on a specially constructed temporary reviewing stand while units of the army and air force marched past, Rommel standing behind him and to his right throughout. Hitler and company returned to Berlin that night, and on October 6 Hitler delivered a speech to the Reichstag in which he offered to make peace with Britain and France. Poland no longer existed, he argued; the entire reason the French and British had gone to war had evaporated. In a private conference with his senior officers the following day, Hitler let it be known that if his peace overtures were rebuffed, he was determined to invade the west at the earliest possible opportunity.
Rommel would never return to Poland, and he departed the country just as the SS Einsatzgruppen, the special purpose commands, were moving in, so he remained unaware of what happened in Poland in the wake of the Wehrmacht’s triumph. The systematic, methodical extermination of Poland’s aristocratic and intellectual elite, along with her Jews, as well as anyone else the Nazis deemed unfit to live, along with the simultaneous deportation of all able-bodied men to factories in the Reich where they would become slave labor, began almost as soon as the last panzer came to a halt. It was the leading edge of a stormfront of death and despair that would sweep across Central and Eastern Europe in the wake of the Wehrmacht for the next six years. Protected by a conspiracy of silence that all but assured disappearance and death for anyone who was too assiduous in their effort to pierce it, the Nazis’ liquidation of their various “problems”—the Jewish problem, the Gypsy problem, the Slav problem, the homosexual problem, the aged or infirm or mentally ill problem—in the east would rot the morals and poison the honor of an entire generation of German officers, as well as far too many of Germany’s soldiers, who served there. Prepared, willing, to look the other way, to invoke the principle, so popular with the Germans throughout their history, of “Not kennt kein Gebot!”—“Necessity knows no law!”—millions of ordinary, decent Volk became, in the words of Daniel Goldhagen, “Hitler’s willing executioners.”
Had he been paying closer attention, Rommel would have had an inkling that something seriously amiss was happening in Poland. Not long after the invasion began, Lucie contacted Rommel, asking him to make inquiries as to the fate of her uncle, a Catholic priest named Edmund Roszczynialski. Initially Rommel was fobbed off with bureaucratic excuses; more than a year would pass before he would have to inform her that there were no records of any kind regarding Father Edmund. Nor was there likely ever to be—he had simply vanished, almost certainly just one more anonymous victim of the SS execution detachments.
But by then, so much had happened to Rommel in particular and the world as a whole that the fate of a single Catholic priest became all but insignificant. In the months of October and November 1939 a titanic battle of wills was being fought between Hitler, who wanted to invade France and the Low Countries immediately if not sooner, and the Army High Command and General Staff, who, for a variety of reasons, some sound, others born of a hesitance that bordered on cowardice, sought to postpone any new offensives for as long as possible, preferably forever. The Polish Army, no matter how hard or how bravely it fought, had been not only outnumbered but also outclassed in its confrontation with the Wehrmacht. In 1939 the French Army, despite its current lethargic posture on the Western Front, was widely regarded as one of the finest, if not the finest, armies in the world. And however much the French may have lost their fondness for offensive action, no German officer who fought against them in the Great War could forget their tenacity on defense, especially at Verdun, where, undeniably, a rational army would have run away. The French Army would, of necessity, bear the brunt of any German attack in the west, and the German generals feared another prolonged, indecisive bloodbath of the sort they had fought from 1914 to 1918.
The truth is, if the German Army had attacked in the west in the late autumn of 1939, that sort of stalemate almost certainly would have been the result. Showing a singular lack of imagination, the O.K.W. (Oberkommando des Wehrmacht—the Armed Forces High Command) had developed a plan for attacking the western Allies that was little more than an elaborate rehashing of the Schlieffen Plan of 1914—precisely what the French and British army commands were planning to defend against. The plan called for the German Army to anchor its left flank on the Ardennes Forest, and advance in a gigantic wheeling maneuver across Holland and Belgium with the objective of outflanking the French and British forces arrayed against it. (The two significant departures from the Schlieffen Plan was that first, there would be no battle of the frontier this time round—the Maginot Line defenses were too formidable to make any such action feasible—and second, Holland would be invaded along with Belgium; leaving Holland neutral in 1914 ultimately came to be regarded as a poor strategic decision.) The Anglo-French defensive plan, known as the “Dyle Plan,” called for the French Army and a British expeditionary force to advance into Belgium and take up a defensive position along the Dyle River, denying the Germans any opportunity to outflank them.
Weather and logistics ultimately combined to make any offensive operations in late 1939 impossible, and during the winter of 1939–40, Generalleutnant Erich von Manstein, the Chief of Staff of Army Group A, one of three such commands assigned to the attack on the west, began to rethink the O.K.W. plan. Turning the basic concept of the plan on its ear, he proposed that rather than simply marking time in the Ardennes, the German Army deploy its panzer divisions there, giving them the mission of breaking through the French defenses and then using their speed and mobility to move behind and cut off the Allied forces that had advanced into Belgium, drawn there by a large-scale feint by the right wing of the German Army.
The plan was imaginative, bold, daring, and risky, and for all of those reasons the most senior officers of the Wehrmacht vehemently opposed its implementation. But it appealed to Hitler, who recognized that, by its inherent risk, von Manstein’s plan, which he likened to the cut of a sickle, hence the unofficial name it bore, “Sichelschnitt,” offered a victory the size and scope of which had never before been seen in any European war. He ordered further elaboration and development of the plan, much to the chagrin of Generaloberst Franz Halder, the O.K.W. Chief of Staff, who had been largely responsible for the O.K.W.’s original plan.
In its final form, Sichelschnitt, now known as “Fall Gleb”—Case Yellow—called for two Army Groups, A and B, to carry out the offensive in the west. Army Group B on the German right, would move first, its 19 infantry divisions and three panzer divisions moving across Holland and Belgium, to serve as the bait for the trap to be sprung by Army Group A. Comprised of 37 infantry and seven panzer divisions, Army Group A would rush into and through the Ardennes Forest, which the French Army regarded as too dense to allow the passage of armored units, and force a crossing of the Meuse River, after which the panzer divisions would drive hard and fast for the English Channel, bypassing tough opposition and fixed fortifications, leaving them to be reduced by the infantry divisions which followed. The infantry units would also shore up the flanks of the corridor created by the panzers on their way to the Channel. The bulk of the French Army, along with whatever forces the British sent to France, would be trapped in Belgium cut off from their supply lines, with nowhere to retreat.
No doubt all of this would have been of great professional interest to Erwin Rommel under any circumstances, but it became of far more personal interest in February 1940, when he was given command of the 7th Panzer Division, one of the units to be assigned to Army Group A for the dash to the English Channel. He had spent the winter still in command of the Führerbeglietbataillon, and was present at the Reich Chancellery on November 23 when Hitler gave a violent dressing-down to his senior generals, damning their foot-dragging and obstructionism, questioning their fighting spirit and stopping just short of open accusations of cowardice. Rommel hung on every word, as he agreed with almost everything Hitler said: he enjoyed seeing these generals, many of them titled aristocrats who had spent most of their active careers in comfortable staff postings, taken down a peg. They had grown a bit too fond, in Rommel’s eyes, of the ease and routine of a peacetime army; now the Führer was putting them on notice that he expected them to be fighting soldiers rather than simply strutting martinets in high-collared uniforms.
None of the disdain, even contempt, which Hitler displayed to his other generals ever found its way into his relationship with Rommel. (It would be a stretch to call it a friendship—it’s improbable that Adolf Hitler ever formed a true friendship as an adult.) One of the reasons for Rommel’s extended tenure as commander of the Führerbeglietbataillon—a post more suited to a lieutenant colonel or colonel rather than a brigadier general—was undoubtedly Rommel’s reputation as a frontline soldier. None of Hitler’s cronies could claim the sort of shared experiences which linked Hitler and Rommel. None of them had fought in the trenches on the Western Front—Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, had been a fighter pilot during the war, Bormann, Hitler’s secretary, and Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer-SS and chief of the Gestapo, had been too young to serve in the army during the war. Almost alone on Hitler’s staff Rommel knew what it was like to go through combat multiple times and survive—he and Hitler could claim equally with Winston Churchill that there was something exhilarating in being shot at by an enemy who missed.
The strange camaraderie shared by Hitler and Rommel did not go unremarked upon by the rest of Hitler’s coterie, notably by Colonel Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler’s chief Wehrmacht adjutant, who developed a strong dislike for Rommel and thought he had altogether too much ready access to der Führer. Ironically, Schmundt would come to appreciate what an outstanding soldier Rommel truly was and the two men would become good friends, with Schmundt often providing a back-channel to Hitler when Rommel’s need to speak with the Führer was particularly pressing. At the moment, however, “. . . relations with Schmundt are strained,” he wrote in a letter to Lucie. “Don’t know why: apparently my position with Hitler is getting too strong. Not impossible that a change will be insisted on from that quarter. . . .” Regardless of whatever might be the attitude of Hitler’s staff, Rommel had already made it known that he was chafing in the relative confinement of being the Führerbeglietbataillon commander, and was angling for a divisional command—and not just any division: he was openly lobbying for command of a panzer division.