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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Desert Fox Origins- Erwin Rommel

 Since this week marks the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, I thought I would maybe look at a few commanders that were part of that momentous battle. Of course this year also marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War as well, and as you know I am on a WW1 kick so I thought I would talk about the origins of the great commanders of WW2 by looking at their service in the First World War. Looking at the German side one and only one name comes to mind...other than Hitler...and that is Erwin Rommel. The feared "Desert Fox", Rommel was often able to overcome huge disadvantages in men and material to defeat British forces time and time again in the Second World War. He was the one German General that famed U.S. commander George Patton respected and feared on the battlefield, and just like Patton,  Rommel cut his teeth in the meat grinder that was trench warfare in the previous global conflict. And like Patton, he was already a well respected and honored soldier at the close of the First World War.

Rommel's origins were different than most German commanders. From the inception of the German Empire in 1871 the officer corps were stacked with the Prussian aristocracy. Rommel was not Prussian but Swabian, hailing from the southwestern part of Germany and spoke with a heavy southern German accent in contrast to his mostly Prussian peers. However when the war broke out he quickly proved his mettle on the Western Front. In the first months of the war in 1914 he found himself facing three French soldiers and out of ammunition. He charged and attacked them anyways, being rewarded with a wound to his leg and an Iron Cross First Class for bravery. This however did not keep the young lieutenant out of action. Rommel was back at the front and in January 1915 he was put in charge of an offensive against French artillery placements(known as block houses) in the Argonne region of front. Rommel went ahead of his men, finding a way through the French barbed wire and signaling his men to advance...none did out of fear. Rommel crept back and then threatened to shoot start shooting his men if they did not follow him. Again Rommel was at the front of the advance and violence. His unit captured the French positions, and held out against a counteroffensive for some time before being forced to retreat lest they be surrounded. For this Rommel was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class, the first of his regiment to gain such a high award. For his tendency to be at the very front of the action(a habit he kept in WW2) his men had a saying "Where Rommel is, there is the front".

By 1917 the Germans realized that the cost of the war in men and materials were no longer sustainable and a German victory was needed sooner rather than later. Food and supply shortages at home as well as at the front were beginning to show up as the British blockade following the Battle of Jutland was beginning to strangle the German Empire by blocking needed imports. Rommel was shifted from the French front to the southern front. The German plan was to knock the Russians and Italians out of the war, releasing men and material to be shifted against the Allies in France and Belgium for the final push as well as propping up their  ailing Austro Hungarian allies. Rommel was transferred into the Alpen Korps(Alpine Corps) as part of the Wurrtemberg Mountain Batallion. Earlier in 1916 on the Eastern Front, the Germans had discovered new tactics to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Known as "Hutier Tactics" after German General Oskar von Hutier, the idea was to use a fierce and short artillery bombardment of gas and artillery and the use of fast moving shock troops/storm troopers to quickly advance behind the rolling barrage of poison and/or shell and quickly penetrate into enemy territory causing havoc. They would bypass strong points that would be attacked by the slower and more heavily armed regular troops following. The idea had routed the Russians in several battles and caused chaos and confusion for the Russian enemy.

Along the Isonzo river, the Austrians and Italians were in a deadlock. The area had been a hotbed of battles since the 1915 as each side attempted to break each-other and advance through the few passes between the two countries. German units began arriving in force to aid the Austro Hungarians in 1917 and over a three week period the 12th Battle of the Isonzo(you know there is a stalemate when one area has 12 battles in 2 years) took place. The new Hutier tactics were a resounding success and the Italian defenses utterly collapsed in the face of the German advance. Rommel, now a captain in the Wurrtemberg Mountain Battalion became a household name in Germany for his leadership in the battle. His unit(numbering between 800 and 1000 men), using the new tactics and new lighter and more easily carried machine guns(half the weight as the guns used in 1914) captured 9,000 Italian soldiers, 150 Italian officers, and 81 field guns with a loss of only 6 German lives and 30 Germans wounded in the course of two days action. Within a month the Italians found themselves virtually knocked out of the war, having lost a majority of their manpower killed, captured, or wounded. His battalion alone captured and secured the goal of the entire Corps. Rommel, still a junior officer was awarded Germany's highest award, the Pour le Mérite (AKA The Blue Max) for his role. This was rather rare for a non Prussian and junior officer to recieve and was the equivalent of the U.S. Medal of Honor or the U.K. Victoria Cross, however it was much more conservatively awarded by Germany.

German Flamethrower(new weapon in WW1) unit at The Battle of Caporetto/12th Battle of Isonzo)

German Stormtroopers in action at the battle


Rommel near the end of WW1. Notice the amount of medals.

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