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Leadership Lessons from the Desert Fox
By Charles Messenger
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2009 Charles Messenger
All rights reserved.
The Formative Years
The man who would become Germany's most respected general, at least in the eyes of the Western Allies, was born on November 12, 1891, in Heidenheim, near Ulm, in the state of Württemberg in southern Germany. Erwin Rommel's father was a schoolteacher, and the family was of modest means. Germany in the late nineteenth century had been united as one country under the king of Prussia for twenty years, although its states continued to enjoy varying degrees of autonomy. On the international scene, Germany was a major power, especially after it defeated France in 1870 and allied itself with the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Erwin Rommel was an unremarkable boy and was not considered academic, although he did in his teens develop a deep interest in mathematics, a subject in which both his father and grandfather were able. He also became keen on outdoor pursuits, especially bicycling and skiing. Like many others of his generation he was enthusiastic about the idea of flight and seriously considered applying for a job at Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin's airship works at Friedrichshafen, on Lake Constance, within the Württemberg kingdom. His father, however, had other plans for him. Rommel Senior had been an artillery officer and urged his son to become a professional soldier.
By the time Rommel was seventeen and of military age, the generally accepted way of gaining a commission in the German army was to enlist as an officer candidate. He would then serve in the ranks and, if recommended by his officers, would attend an officer training school. Rommel wanted to follow his father and become an artilleryman, but this arm of the service was second only to the cavalry in terms of social prestige and the Rommel family lacked the connections necessary for entry. Erwin then tried the engineers, again without success, and so applied to the infantry. He was accepted by a local regiment, the 124th Infantry (6th Württemberg), and joined it in July 1910. Rommel soon impressed his superiors, and before the year was out, he had been promoted to sergeant. Furnished with the necessary recommendations, he entered the Royal War School at Danzig (today Gdansk in Poland) the following March. The course there lasted for eight months, and in January 1912 Lieutenant Erwin Rommel rejoined the 124th Infantry.
As war clouds gathered over Europe, Rommel worked hard to become a competent junior officer. His service included an attachment to the artillery in order to broaden his military education. He was still on detachment when war erupted in August 1914 but was posted back to his regiment, which was mobilized as an element of the German Fifth Army, one of seven earmarked for the invasion of France and Belgium. The plan was for the northern armies to advance through Belgium and Luxembourg. The right wing was then supposed to swing west of Paris so as to envelop it, outflanking the Allied armies.
The Fifth Army and its southern neighbor, the Sixth, were intended to remain on the defensive and be prepared to receive an expected French counterattack to regain Alsace and Lorraine, territories that had been lost to the Germans in 1870. The French duly attacked and were bloodily repulsed in what became known as the Battle of the Frontiers. Helmuth von Moltke, in overall command in the West, was persuaded to allow the Fifth and Sixth Armies to follow up this victory and take to the offensive. It meant, however, that he would now be unable to reinforce his right wing, which had the decisive role of enveloping Paris.
Rommel's regiment had spent the intervening time training near the border, during which he suffered an upset stomach. He blamed the greasy food and freshly baked bread that they had been eating, but it was to plague him on and off for the next few weeks. He would not allow his gastric discomfort to interfere with his duties, however. On August 18 the armies began their advance, crossing the border into Luxembourg. The next day Rommel heard guns fired in anger for the first time as his regiment passed close to the French fortress of Longwy. He then found himself largely involved in carrying out reconnaissances and as a bearer of messages, which left him very short of sleep. Finally, on August 22, Rommel saw his first combat when he led his platoon in an attack against the village of Bleid in the extreme southeastern corner of Belgium. It took place in fog, and his platoon was soon separated from the rest of the battalion. Undeterred, Rommel pressed on and captured the village. His personal courage and eagerness to seize the initiative were amply demonstrated. He knew what his mission was and had not allowed himself to be diverted from it even when he found himself on his own.
The 27th Division, of which Rommel's regiment formed a part, now crossed the River Meuse and began to press the French back westward. In further clashes Rommel gained a respect for the French artillery, especially the 75mm field gun with its very rapid rate of fire, and quickly recognized the importance of digging in every time his men came to a halt in close proximity to the enemy. In early September he was appointed battalion adjutant, making him his commanding officer's right-hand man. This post gave Rommel more scope to use his initiative. When not carrying out reconnaissances or acting as a liaison officer, he was usually to be found with the forward companies. Much of the fighting during the next few weeks was in the woods, and Rommel quickly learned how difficult command and control were in that environment. Indeed, it was during one of these fights, near Varennes, some fifteen miles northwest of Verdun, on September 24 that Rommel's luck finally ran out. He had taken command of two squads totaling some twenty men—the largest unit which he believed could be controlled in this type of fighting—and was attempting to press forward under heavy French fire. At one stage he found himself on his own with five Frenchmen facing him some twenty yards away. He fired his rifle and downed two of them, but then discovered that his magazine was empty. With no time to reload he charged the remainder, only to be struck by a bullet in the upper leg. He managed to roll behind an oak tree and, after a short time, his men succeeded in rescuing him.
Rommel was evacuated back to Germany and was informed that he had been awarded the Iron Cross Second Class. He was discharged from the hospital, just before Christmas 1914, with his wound still not healed. He should have been posted to a replacement battalion, which was responsible for training recruits and looking after soldiers convalescing from wounds and sickness prior to being sent back to the front. This prospect did not appeal to Rommel, the man of action, and so January 1915 found him back with his regiment, now in the hilly and wooded Argonne region of France.
The conditions there were very different from the open warfare that Rommel had previously experienced. Both sides were now dug in, and the war had become static. Rommel was given command of a company in his old battalion, which delighted him. He later observed: "For a twenty-three-year-old officer there is no finer job than that of a company commander. Winning the men's confidence requires much of a commander. He must exercise care and caution, look after his men, live under the same hardships, and—above all—apply self-discipline. But once he has their confidence, his men will follow him through hell and high water."
His first task was to improve the trenches, some of which were waterlogged, and to make the dugouts more secure against artillery fire, which was frequent. The impact of the French guns was even more significant since the German supporting artillery was suffering an ammunition shortage at the time. The opportunity for offensive action came on January 29, when the 27th Division was ordered to carry out a major raid on the French lines. Rommel led his company with great verve, but it got ahead of the other companies and found itself in danger of being cut off. It had to fight partway back, but the ground that had been captured did yield some benefit. The trenches that Rommel now occupied were higher than the original German front line and so were less waterlogged. For his conduct during this attack he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class.
The next three months saw Rommel's regiment inch its way closer to the French lines. There was a steady trickle of casualties, especially from French mortar fire. Rommel felt the loss of men under his command, especially those who had been badly wounded. In May 1915 a more senior lieutenant, who had no command experience, took over his company. The battalion commander wanted to post Rommel to another company, but he insisted on remaining with the men to whom he had grown so close. It must, however, have been difficult for the new company commander to have had such a highly decorated and combat-experienced officer under him, but Rommel gives no indication of any friction between them. Indeed, on June 30 the company was involved in an assault on the French sector that Rommel had attacked and then pulled back from in January. Rommel's platoon was the company reserve, but seeing that the assault platoons were faltering, he took charge and the attack was successful. Mindful that he had very nearly been cut off during the January attack, he resisted the temptation to press on too far and concentrated on consolidating with the units on his flanks so as to be able to successfully resist any French counter-attacks.
Rommel then found himself serving as deputy for other company commanders, who were absent because they were ill or on leave, and as such took part in another successful attack in early September. Rommel's company mounted an attack on an objective some two hundred yards inside the French lines. He attributed its success to careful preparation, including several rehearsals to ensure that his men were entirely clear about what was required of them.
His circumstances now changed dramatically. Later that month he was promoted to first lieutenant and posted away from the 124th Regiment. His new assignment was as a company commander in the Württemberg Mountain Battalion, which was being formed in Münsingen, a small town some thirty miles southeast of Stuttgart, to fight in the Vosges Mountains. His new commanding officer was, in Rommel's words, "a martinet." Even so, although the men came from several different units, it was a happy battalion from the outset. The training was rigorous, but Rommel thrived on it. Even better, the battalion moved to Austria in early December 1915 for ski training. Arduous skiing all day was followed by sing-alongs in the evening, which helped to further bind the unit. The men were fed Austrian rations, which included wine and cigarettes and were clearly better than the German ration.
Everyone in the battalion expected that it would be sent to the Italian Front once it had completed its training. Italy had entered the war in May 1915 and was now fighting the Austrians in the mountainous Tirol, through which ran their mutual border. It seemed logical that this is where the Württembergers would be employed. But four days after Christmas the battalion found itself on a train headed for the Western Front. Its destination was the Vosges Mountains at the southeast end of the front, which had seen little fighting since the outbreak of war, thanks to the nature of the terrain, which strongly favored defense. The battalion occupied a 10,000-yard-long sector, and because it did not have the men to form a continuous defense, it relied on a series of strongpoints. The French front line was not close, and the sector remained quiet, which was in contrast to what Rommel had experienced in the Argonne. He did, however, conduct one successful raid at the beginning of October. The object was to capture prisoners so as to gain intelligence on the French opposite the Württembergers. Rommel made a very careful reconnaissance before drawing up his plan, then decided to make his point of attack midway between two French strongpoints. The assault group would enter the French trench and split, with half going left and the remainder right. Two other teams would cut the wire opposite each strongpoint to enable the assault group to get back to its own lines. Rommel, as usual, was with the assault group. The raid was brilliantly successful, catching the French by surprise and yielding eleven prisoners. There would be little time to celebrate, though, since the battalion was ordered elsewhere, to a new theater of war.
On August 27, 1916, Romania had entered the war on the Allied side. It had been encouraged by the German failure to capture Verdun and the Allied offensives then taking place on the Western, Eastern, and Italian Fronts, and hoped to be rewarded at war's end with territory in Austro-Hungarian Transylvania. It was a decision that Romania would quickly regret. It soon found itself under attack from German and Austrian troops in the west and Bulgarian forces in the south. Rommel's battalion was ordered to Romania in late October and placed under command of the Schmettow Cavalry Corps at the western end of the Transylvanian Alps, which guarded the northwestern approaches to Romania. He was to be faced with his toughest challenge yet.
The Württemberg Mountain Battalion was ordered to establish a position on a hill some 6,000 feet high. A Bavarian division had a few days earlier attempted to force its way through two key passes, Vulcan and Skurduk, but was beaten back. The battalion set off with each man carrying four days' rations and all his ammunition and equipment, but they lacked winter clothing. They encountered Bavarians who had become separated from their units and could tell them little of the situation. With nightfall came rain, but the Württembergers continued upward. Eventually, unable to go any farther on the steep and rocky ground, they halted. They tried to build a fire from wet pine branches, but it only gave off smoke and no heat. At daybreak they resumed the climb, crossing the snow line and eventually reaching the summit of Hill 1794, where there was little shelter. The captain in command recommended that they withdraw from the summit, and the battalion medical officer also warned that the conditions would quickly result in most men becoming incapacitated. The sector commander turned down the request, with the warning that any man who vacated the position would be liable to court-martial. They endured another twenty-four hours, by which time some 90 percent of the men were suffering from frostbite and other cold-related injuries. They were then relieved by troops who had the right equipment for coping with such a bleak situation. The Württembergers were now provided with the necessary equipment, including pack animals, and Rommel's company occupied another hill amid better weather. He had come through a bitter experience without faltering, demonstrating once again his physical and mental toughness.
Preparations were now well under way for a renewed offensive, and Rommel's battalion played its part in breaking through the Romanian defenses in the mountains. In one attack his company secured its objective, but no sooner had it done so than the Romanians counterattacked amid dense fog. One of his platoons, which had pressed too far forward, became isolated and had to fight its way back. Luckily, the sun then began to break through the fog, and Rommel was able to keep the Romanians at bay with rifle and machine-gun fire until the company was reinforced. Rommel's determination averted what might have been a disaster.
In late November 1916 Rommel returned to Germany on leave for a very special purpose. As a cadet at Danzig, Rommel had fallen in love with Lucie Mollin, the dark and beautiful daughter of a Prussian landowning family who was studying languages there. The attraction was mutual, and they were soon engaged, at least unofficially. As in many other armies of the day, the German army frowned on officers getting married too young. Rather, they were expected to concentrate on their profession. Now, with Rommel an experienced and proven combat officer, the marriage was finally able to take place. Lucie and he were to be the closest of companions for the remainder of Rommel's life. He drew great strength from her, and when they were apart he wrote to her frequently, often daily, sometimes voicing his innermost thoughts that he would not share with others.
Rommel's honeymoon was all too brief, and he was back in Romania by mid-December. Bucharest, the capital, had fallen. The Württemberg Mountain Battalion joined the Alpine Corps, which was tasked with clearing the mountains to the northeast of the city. Rommel, his company reinforced by a heavy-machine-gun platoon, was allowed plenty of freedom to use his own initiative. His emphasis on thorough reconnaissance paid dividends, enabling him to surprise groups of Romanians by attacking from an unexpected direction and to lay successful ambushes. He also employed bluff to persuade groups of Romanians to surrender. By the end of this phase of the campaign Rommel often commanded two companies, with supporting heavy weapons platoons. This concept of putting together ad hoc groups of infantry and machine guns to suit the requirements of a particular operation was now commonplace in the battalion. It was a forerunner of the Kampfgruppen (battle groups) that Rommel was to use so successfully in North Africa twenty-five years later.
Excerpted from Rommel by Charles Messenger. Copyright © 2009 Charles Messenger. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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