The Writing Was on the Wall for Rommel

The first step had been compelled by Hitler’s breach of faith with his soldiers manifested in the “Victory or death” order; it had progressed during one of the succession of conferences held in Rome with Mussolini and Cavallero—having a chance to spend a couple of days with Lucie during one such, Rommel had confided in her that he had lost his belief in Germany’s ability to win the war through military victory. His journey was accelerated during the withdrawal to Tunisa, when he was encouraged, exhorted, and commanded to hold one indefensible position after another, always for no sound military reason but because of the increasingly delusional state of the man in Berchtesgaden. Precisely where was Rommel’s point of no return is impossible to say: it may have come as early as the moment in December 1942 when Hitler refused to countenance a methodical withdrawal of Rommel’s veteran German and Italian troops—a priceless military asset—from Tunisia. It may not have come until March 1943, when Hitler proposed the patently absurd idea of German operations on Africa’s Atlantic coast. It may well not have come until as late as June 7, 1944, when there was no doubting that the Allies were successfully ashore in France and the Germans’ best opportunity to throwing them back into the sea had been irretrievably lost.

But whenever that point occurred, what was undeniable was that by mid-June, barely more than a week after the Americans and British came ashore at Normandy, Rommel was convinced that continuing the war could only end in disaster for Germany, and that he had finally lost any remnant of faith in Adolf Hitler as Germany’s leader. In May 1943 the Führer, during a rare moment of candor and self-honesty, had confided to Rommel: “I know it is necessary to make peace with one side or the other, but no one will make peace with me.” Yet Hitler did not—could not—articulate the inevitable conclusion to which his confession led: if peace was necessary, and he was the obstacle to peace, then he must step down or step aside as Germany’s head of state. But if the Allies had been intractable then, now, more than a year later they were implacable. Writing “Whether the gravity of the situation is realized up above, and the proper conclusions drawn, seems to me doubtful” was Rommel’s admission of his own realization that Hitler no longer even recognized the need to make peace, let alone a willingness to bring it about no matter how painful the personal price. The final step on Rommel’s journey of conscience would be the decision that peace was too important to be left up to someone like Adolf Hitler.

The “miracle” for which Rommel was so desperately buying time came in the form of the vergeltungswaffen—vengeance weapons—the V-1, V-2, and V-3. The V-1 was a pulsejet-powered flying bomb that carried a ton of explosives, the V-2 a liquid-fueled ballistic missile, and the V-3 an extraordinarily long-range cannon. All three V-weapons were designed and deployed to be used against Britain, although only the V-1 was operational when Rommel was fighting the battle of Normandy. Launch sites were built in the Pas de Calais region beginning in October 1943, and on June 13, 1944, the first V-1 was fired at London. Nearly 10,000 of these flying bombs—“buzz bombs,” Londoners would come to call them, after the distinctive sound made by their motors—would be sent hurtling toward the British capital, killing or wounding almost 23,000 civilians and military personnel while causing almost as much property damage as the “Blitz” of 1940–41, before the last launching site was overrun by the Allies in October 1944. Yet again, though, the V-1 program was one more case of “too little, too late” for Germany: had the flying bomb offensive been unleashed a year earlier—which could have happened had its development not been needlessly delayed—and directed at Britain’s Channel ports where the invasion fleets were assembling, the whole Overlord plan would have been disrupted and delayed, possibly to such a degree that there might have been no cross-Channel invasion in 1944 at all.

As it was, the V-1 launch sites hamstrung Rommel’s effort to contain the Allied bridgehead. He was able to use two divisions of the Fifteenth Army to bolster the extreme right flank around Caen, but could not bring its full weight to bear in Normandy: thanks to Operation Fortitude, German intelligence services still regarded a second invasion, this one in the Pas de Calais, where most of the V-1 sites were located, as a viable threat. Fifteenth Army was thus compelled to remain in place at the moment when its strength was needed most in Normandy. Fortitude’s fictions would soon become sufficiently threadbare to be seen for what they were, but for five critical weeks they kept an entire German army frozen in place.

On June 17, 1944, near Soissons, Rommel and von Rundstedt met with Hitler, personally briefing the Führer on the situation in Normandy. Rommel gave a vivid, but accurate, description of the conditions under which the German soldiers were fighting—outnumbered, outgunned, with dwindling supplies of ammunition, limited artillery and armored support and no air cover, yet their morale remained high as they were still holding the Allies in check, though for how much longer neither he nor von Runstedt were prepared to guess. Rommel urged Hitler to visit the front to witness first-hand the accuracy of this report, then outlined his plan for more attacks on the Normandy bridgehead: a carefully staged tactical withdrawal from the hedgerow country, far enough to lure the enemy armor into a major attack to break out of the Normandy perimeter. At that point, out of range of the deadly naval guns, a counterattack by a carefully hoarded and assembled panzer corps would strike at the flank of the Allied attack, cutting off the armored spearheads and pushing the supporting infantry back onto the beaches. It could not drive the Allies out of France, but it could deprive them of the units with which they were expecting to overrun France. Later Rommel would confess to Lucie and Manfred that he had never believed the plan had more than a one-in-four chance of success, but it was the best he could have done with what he had; events would intervene, however, which would deny Rommel that one last chance at victory. Hitler meanwhile withheld a final decision on the attack, refusing to contemplate any withdrawal, even to gain tactical or operational advantages, insisting for now that defensive operations continue. Victory, he insisted, would be achieved by “holding fast tenaciously to every square yard of soil.”

Meanwhile the British attempted to force a breakout near Caen, at the village of Villers Bocage, on June 12. It was a costly failure, but it kept the bulk of the German armor engaged around Caen, allowing the Americans to strike westward out of the Normandy perimeter and take the Cotentin peninsula, with its vital port of Cherbourg, although a thorough demolition of the port facilities during a surprisingly determined defense led by Generalleutnant Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben prevented the Allies from utilizing Cherbourg before the end of August. More critically for Rommel, the American advance into the Cotentin further broadened the front his already overstretched forces had to cover, compelling him to thin his lines dangerously, with no armored reserve yet assembled to counter against any fresh Allied thrusts out of the Normandy bridgehead. Worse, the divisions holding that frontage were being bled white: replacements, of both men and equipment, were less than a tenth of losses, while supplies of ammunition were, for whatever reasons, not reaching the troops at what the British sardonically called “the pointy end of the stick.” In short, Rommel was being asked to defend more and more with less and less.

It was with this bitter reality in mind that, on June 29, the same day that Cherbourg fell, Rommel, along with von Rundstedt again met with Hitler, this time at Berchtesgaden. On the way to the Führer’s mountain eyrie, the two field marshals agreed that the time had come to bluntly tell Hitler that there was no hope of saving the military situation in the West: Germany’s only hope was a political solution. Rommel was especially firm in this, declaring that “The war must be ended and I shall tell the Führer so, clearly and unequivocally.” They presented concise but detailed reports about the looming debacle in France, insisting that the army be permitted to withdraw behind the Seine, where it was hoped a new defensive line could be established. Hitler, of course, would have none of it, insisting that “fanatical defense” would save the day. Rommel tried to direct the Führer’s attention to broader strategic questions, suggesting that the time had come for a political solution to bring the war to an end. Hitler would not hear of it: instead he subjected Rommel and von Rundstedt to one of his interminable military monologues, this one outlining how he intended to turn around the situation in the West.

First, he insisted, the current Allied attacks would be stopped, though how this was to be accomplished he could not say, especially as the two field marshals had just informed him that the means for doing so no longer existed. Next, the Luftwaffe’s new wonder weapons, jet fighters and rocket-propelled bombers, would create chaos over the Allied beachhead—again a statement that bore little to no relationship to reality, as very few of the jet fighters and none of the rocket bombers yet existed at this point. Unconcerned with such details, he then declared that 1,000 new conventional fighters would begin operations in the West, temporarily restoring air superiority for the Luftwaffe and reducing or outright eliminating the threat of the Allied fighter-bombers. Again minor details—where would Germany acquire the pilots to fly these new aircraft and the aviation gasoline to fuel them?—were brushed aside: if Hitler desired something to be so, then in his increasingly fractured reality it simply became so. Aiding in the effort to suppress Allied air power, antiaircraft defenses along the roads between Paris and the front would be greatly strengthened; the guns and guncrews needed to make this happen simply did not exist, of course. Efforts at mining the waters off the Allied invasion beaches were to be stepped up, while a dozen schnelle Boote (the Allies knew them as “E-boats”) and eight submarines would wreak havoc on the support fleet off the Normandy coast—the same fleet protected by nearly 100 Allied destroyers and cruisers.

At the end of this fantastical recital, Rommel simply stared Hitler out of countenance then abruptly asked the Führer if he truly believed Germany could still win the war. When Hitler did not reply, Rommel went on, saying that his own responsibility to the German people required that the dictator accept the truth about Germany’s strategic situation, military and political. In response Hitler slammed his fist on the conference table and furiously insisted that Rommel confine himself to purely military matters; Rommel countered by insisting that “History demands of me that I should deal first with our overall situation!” Warned again that he was to speak only about military subjects, Rommel tried once more, attempting to, as he put it, “speak for Germany.” At that both Rommel and von Rundstedt were dismissed from the Führer’s presence.

Both men left Berchtesgaden convinced that their military careers were over. This turned out to be true in von Rundstedt’s case, at least temporarily: the day after the meeting with Hitler, Geyr von Schweppenburg requested permission to withdraw his panzers out of range of Allied naval guns in order to organize a planned attack on Caen, permission von Rundstedt readily gave. Within 24 hours, Hitler had countermanded those instructions, and von Rundstedt telephoned the O.K.W., furiously demanding that his orders to Geyr be allowed to stand. Field Marshal Keitel refused to approach Hitler, fearing yet another of the Führer’s near-psychotic temper tantrums. Pleading helplessness, Keitel asked von Rundstedt “What shall we do?” Exasperated, von Rundstedt barked back “Make peace, you fools!” When word of this outburst reached Hitler the following day, von Rundstedt was dismissed from the command of OB West.

Surprisingly, Rommel retained his post, but it was becoming an increasingly bleak duty. On July 5, in a forest near St Pierre-sur-Dives, Rommel met Geyr von Schweppenburg, who was barely recovered from the wounds he had suffered a month earlier, to deliver official word of Geyr’s dismissal. “I’ve come to tell you that you have been relieved,” he told von Schweppenburg. “Rundstedt has been too; I’m the next on the list.” Hitler, whose military vocabulary by this time was essentially reduced to “No retreat!” and “Fight to the last round and the last man!” had taken von Schweppenburg’s request to conduct a tactical withdrawal as, all evidence to the contrary not withstanding, a sign of defeatism, and so Geyr had to go. His place was taken by SS Oberst-Gruppenführer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, a tough, experienced combat veteran, but who lacked Geyr’s operational skills. Dietrich would carry out von Schweppenburg’s planned attack: under near-constant bombardment while the panzers assembled, the attacking force was poorly organized and the attack badly coordinated, exactly as Geyr had feared; it achieved nothing but a lengthening of the German casualty lists. Rommel, meanwhile, found the task of informing Geyr of his relief an unpleasant one: he had come, in spite of himself, to respect the Prussian aristocrat, and found it increasingly infuriating that the fanatic in Berchtesgaden refused to allow good officers to simply do their jobs. The writing was on the wall for Rommel: Hitler was losing the war and destroying the German Army in the process; before he was finished, he would destroy Germany as well.

Events were now heading to an unforeseen climax for both Rommel and Hitler. Taking von Rundstedt’s place as OB West was Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, who had been commanding officer of the Fourth Army in France in 1940 (Rommel had been one of his divisional commanders), and who then led Army Group Center in Russia in 1942 and 1943. Seriously injured in October 1943 when his car overturned on an icy road near Smolensk, he was invalided back to Germany and not pronounced fit to return to duty until mid-July 1944. Even before reaching France, von Kluge had already developed a negative opinion of Rommel, having listened too closely to the gossip flying about the O.K.W. and the Führer’s headquarters: Hitler, Keitel, and Jodl had all characterized Rommel as stubborn, insubordinate, and defeatist. Von Kluge, then, arrived in Paris determined to bring the maverick field marshal to heel. It was not long before the gist of some intemperate remarks made by von Kluge reached Rommel, who, always sensitive to slights, real or perceived, demanded that von Kluge explain himself.

5 July 1944

To C.-IN-C. WEST.

HERR GENERALFELDMARSCHALL VON KLUGE.

I send you enclosed my comments on military events in Normandy to date. The rebuke which you levelled at me at the beginning of your visit, in the presence of my Chief of Staff and 1a, to the effect that I, too, “will now have to get accustomed to carrying out orders,” has deeply wounded me. I request you to notify me what grounds you have for making such an accusation.

(Signed) ROMMEL

Generalfeldmarschall

Knowing full well where von Kluge’s prejudice had likely originated, Rommel had included with his personal letter to the new OB West a copy of the report he had submitted to Hitler on June 17, which detailed the strategic, operational, and tactical details of the situation in France, along with his observations, criticisms and suggestions for properly fighting the battle. It did not take long for von Kluge to discover who was telling the truth and who was spouting fantasy. When it became obvious to him that Hitler and the O.K.W. had knowingly lied about the situation in Normandy—that it was not simply severe, it was an out-and-out crisis—he did a complete about-face and agreed wholeheartedly with Rommel: the battle was lost, which meant that the war itself was lost. The best that they could hope to accomplish was to buy time—but to what end?

Rommel in particular had lost faith in the “wonder weapons.” Initially he had been intrigued by the V-1s, their sheer novelty appealing to the engineer in him. But while the “buzz bombs” might influence Allied strategy in France, they had no effect on the Allies’ ability to wage war there. As for the V-2s, the jet fighters, the rocket bombers, all of them were, in Rommel’s opinion, merely more manifestations of Hitler’s wolkenkuckkucksheim. Manfred once remarked to his father that perhaps the new weapons would turn the tide in Germany’s favor, Rommel replied, “Rubbish! Nobody has any such weapons. The only purpose of these rumors is to make the ordinary soldier hang on a bit longer. We’re finished, and most of the gentlemen above know it perfectly well, even if they won’t admit it. . . .” Von Kluge and Rommel agreed that simply prolonging the war for its own sake accomplished nothing, save for getting more Germans killed and bringing more destruction down on Germany—and, ominously, allowing the Russians closer to the Reich every day. Götterdämmerung was looming, and if “the gentlemen above” refused to acknowledge this to be so and act to ward if off, then other men would have to act as they saw fit to prevent it.

Rommel put forward one last effort to make the Führer and the O.K.W. see reason, drawing up a report—which von Kluge firmly endorsed—in which he hoped the facts would speak for themselves. It is a remarkable document in its stark, straightforward nature—reflecting its author’s character—stating not only the situation that exists, but also in accurately predicting what is to come.

C.-IN-C. ARMY GROUP B H.Q. 15 July 1943

The situation on the Normandy front is growing worse every day and is now approaching a grave crisis

Due to the severity of the fighting, the enemy’s enormous use of materiel above all, artillery and tanks and the effect of his unrestricted command of the air over the battle area, our casualties are so high that the fighting power of our divisions is rapidly diminishing. Replacements from home are few in number and, with the difficult transport situation, take weeks to get to the front. As against 97,000 casualties (including 2,360 officers), i.e. an average of 2,500 to 3,000 a day, replacements to date number 10,000, of whom about 6,000 have actually arrived at the front.

Material losses are also huge and have so far been replaced on a very small scale; in tanks, for example, only 17 replacements have arrived to date as compared with 225 losses.

The newly arrived infantry divisions are raw and, with their small establishment of artillery, antitank guns and close-combat antitank weapons, are in no state to make a lengthy stand against major enemy attacks coming after hours of drum-fire and heavy bombing. The fighting has shown that with this use of materiel by the enemy, even the bravest army will be smashed piece by piece, losing men, arms and territory in the process.

Due to the destruction of the railway system and the threat of the enemy air force to roads and tracks up to 90 miles behind the front, supply conditions are so bad that only the barest essentials can be brought to the front. It is consequently now necessary to exercise the greatest economy in all fields, and especially in artillery and mortar ammunition. These conditions are unlikely to improve, as enemy action is steadily reducing the transport capacity available. Moreover, this activity in the air is likely to become even more effective as the numerous air-strips in the bridgehead are taken into use.

No new forces of any consequence can be brought up to the Normandy front except by weakening Fifteenth Army’s front on the Channel, or the Mediterranean front in southern France. Yet Seventh Army’s front, taken overall, urgently requires two fresh divisions, as the troops in Normandy are exhausted.

On the enemy’s side, fresh forces and great quantities of war materiel are flowing into his front every day. His supplies are undisturbed by our air force. Enemy pressure is growing steadily stronger.

In these circumstances we must expect that in the foreseeable future the enemy will succeed in breaking through our thin front, above all, Seventh Army’s, and thrusting deep into France. Apart from the Panzer Group’s sector reserves, which are at present tied down by the fighting on their own front and due to the enemy’s command of the air can only move by night, we dispose of no mobile reserve for defense against such a breakthrough. Action by our air force will, as in the past, have little effect.

The troops are everywhere fighting heroically, but the unequal struggle is approaching its end. It is urgently necessary for the proper conclusion to be drawn from this situation. As C.-in-C. of the Army Group I feel myself in duty bound to speak plainly on this point.

(Signed) ROMMEL

On July 16, reading the maps as Corporal Daniel drove the big open Horsch sedan, Rommel motored up to the outskirts of Le Havre, where the Luftwaffe’s 17th Field Division was holding part of the front against the British armor concentrated around Caen. There he met with the divisional staff, including the operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel Elmar Warning, who had for a time served on Rommel’s staff in North Africa and who still proudly wore his Afrika Korps cuffband. Confident that he was in the presence of a trusted friend, Rommel was blunt when Warning privately asked him for the truth about the overall situation in Normandy, because, as Warning put it, “we can count the days off on our tunic buttons before the breakthrough comes.”

“I’ll tell you this much,” Rommel said. “Field Marshal von Kluge and I have sent the Führer an ultimatum, telling him the war can’t be won militarily and asking him to draw the consequences.”

“What if the Führer refuses?” Warning wondered. Rommel’s response came with no hesitation.

“Then I’m going to open up the western front, because there’s only one thing that matters now: the British and Americans must get to Berlin before the Russians do!”

The following morning, July 17, Rommel, who was clocking as much as 250 miles a day driving between his headquarters at La Roche Guyon and the units fighting at the front, set out for a meeting with Sepp Dietrich, commander of the 1st SS Panzer Corps. While not particularly admirable, Dietrich was an intriguing individual: like Hitler, he was awarded the Iron Cross, 1st and 2nd Class, as an enlisted man in the First World War; he joined the Nazi Party in 1928 and became one of the first commanding officers of the Schutzstaffel, the SS, when it was still only Hitler’s bodyguard, later serving as Hitler’s personal chauffeur. Given his history, then, his loyalty to the Führer and the Party should have been total and absolute; yet according to Helmuth Lang, after the purely military aspects of the conference with Dietrich were completed, Rommel had the most amazing conversation with the SS general. Well within earshot of Lang, Rommel bluntly asked Dietrich, “Would you always execute my orders, even if they contradicted the Führer’s orders?”

“You are my superior officer, Herr Feldmarschall,” Dietrich replied, offering Rommel his hand, “and therefore I will obey all your orders, whatever it is you’re planning.”

With that, Rommel’s business at Dietrich’s headquarters was complete, and within minutes he was on his way back to La Roche Guyon. Dietrich suggested that, given their proximity to the front, Rommel and his men take an ordinary kübelwagen rather than the big, conspicuous Horsch, but Rommel waved off the idea—kübels were cramped, uncomfortable, and slow. He did accept the SS man’s recommendation to stay on side roads rather than the main highways, the better to avoid roving Allied fighter-bombers. Just past 4:00 P.M., Corporal Daniel roared away from St Pierre sur Dives; Rommel sat in front as usual, Captain Lang, Major Neuhaus, and Feld-webel Hoike (who had been brought along specifically as an aircraft spotter) taking their places in the back. As they traveled south, they never went more than a mile—often no more than a few hundred yards— without passing the strafed, often burned-out wrecks of Wehrmacht and SS trucks, tanks, and armored cars that had been destroyed by British or American aircraft. Near Sainte-Foy-de-Montgommery, Hoike spotted a formation of Allied fighters that appeared to be lining up for a strafing run on the road ahead. Rommel ordered Corporal Daniel to take a side road that ran through the village of Sainte-Germaine-de-Montgommery, and it was there that a pair of Royal Air Force Spitfires suddenly appeared. Daniel zigzagged desperately to throw off the British pilots’ aim, but a burst of 20mm cannon fire walked across the road and into the car, seriously wounding Daniel, who lost control of the big Horsch. The car skidded for 100 yards before it nosed into the ditch alongside the road, struck a tree and rebounded into the roadway again; everyone in the car was thrown clear by the initial impact. Lang was all but unhurt, Neuhaus and Hoike suffered minor injuries; but Daniel’s wounds were fatal—he would lapse into a coma and die a few hours later. Rommel, who had turned to his right to watch the approach of the enemy fighters, was thrown violently against the windscreen pillar, fracturing his skull in three places and suffering massive injuries to the left side of his face before being tossed onto the roadway. Unconscious and bleeding heavily, Erwin Rommel had come to the end of his war.