Rommel’s father and grandfather were teachers, but he chose a military career for himself, enlisting in the German army as an officer cadet in 1910. He served in World War I as a lieutenant and was decorated for bravery and recognized for his leadership abilities. While other promising officers in his situation sought a wartime place on the general staff, Rommel remained in the infantry as a front-line officer. Between the wars, he taught at various military academies and wrote an important textbook on infantry strategy.
After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Rommel was appointed to command the Seventh Panzer Division in the invasion of France. Though he had little experience with armored warfare, he immediately grasped its potential and played a leading role in Germany’s triumphant drive across France in May and June 1940.
In February 1941, German leader Adolf Hitler appointed Rommel to lead the German divisions dispatched to Libya to stiffen the all-but-defeated Italian forces there. The British commanders in North Africa were no match for Rommel, and by May he had won back nearly all the territory lost by the Italians during the Allies’ winter drive. To the Allies and Axis alike, Rommel became known as the Desert Fox for his elegant deceptions and audacious surprise attacks. Hitler promoted him to field marshal.
In 1942, Rommel pressed almost to Alexandria with his Afrika Corps, but he was halted by the British at El Alamein. In October 1942, British General Bernard Montgomery launched a major offensive against Rommel at the Second Battle of El-Alamein, overwhelming Rommel’s outnumbered forces. Disobeying an order from Hitler, Rommel ordered a retreat and his Afrika Corps fled to Tunis.
Before the final surrender of Axis forces in North Africa, Rommel was called back to Europe in March 1943 and entrusted with defending northern France from Allied invasion. He erected a sophisticated system of coastal defense works but was denied his request for large numbers of troops to defend against the expected attack. On June 6, 1944, the Allies successfully landed at Normandy.
Meanwhile, a conspiracy against Hitler had been brewing among German army commanders who felt that the Fehrer was leading Germany to certain ruin. The plotters approached Rommel; he was sympathetic but took no direct role in the planning of Hitler’s assassination. There was talk that Rommel, a popular figure known as the “people’s marshal,” would serve as German head of state after Hitler’s death.
Three days before the attempted coup took place, Rommel suffered serious head injuries after a British aircraft attacked his car. He was thus in the hospital on July 20 when Hitler narrowly escaped being killed by a bomb in Berlin. However, the conspirators, arrested and tortured for information, revealed Rommel’s involvement. Hitler sent two generals to Rommel, who was just recovering from his injuries, to offer him the choice of suicide or trial. Rommel chose the former and on October 14 took a lethal dose of poison. He was later buried with full military honors.