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The Full Story
Normandy, July 17, 1944.
Late in the day, slightly more than a month after the Allied landings on D-Day, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was returning to his Headquarters at La Roche-Guyon. His abilities as a brilliant tactician in North Africa and France, his loyal service in two wars had made him an idol to the German people. Respected by both sides as the "Desert Fox, the general had been in charge of the defenses at Normandy since January. He had known then that an Allied attack was imminent and, that the invasion had to be stopped at the beach or the war would be lost for Germany. His calls for strong reserve forces to be sent to the area had fallen on deaf ears. Hitler didn't want his Panzers tied down. It was possible that the landings would occur elsewhere.
Rommel, of course, had been proven correct. In spite of the best efforts of the forces under him, the Allies were breaking out everywhere. They enjoyed total air superiority and their ground attack aircraft were roaming at will over the countryside, shooting up anything that moved. The ditches were filled with the smoking hulks of destroyed vehicles.
The Field Marshal was travelling hundreds of kilometers each day meeting with his battle commanders, doing what he could, in a war that he knew was lost. On this day, he had just left the Command Post of the 1st SS Panzer Corps led by Sepp Dietrich.
An interesting conversation had been overheard by Captain Helmuth Lang, who was accompanying Rommel that day. Dietrich was asked if he would follow Rommel's orders....even if they disagreed with directives given by the Fuhrer. Surprisingly, because he had long held a reputation as a loyal Nazi, Sepp's answer was that he would obey Rommel...in whatever he was planning.
What was Rommel planning for the future? ...a future in which he knew that German defeat was inevitable? Was he involved in the bomb plot against Hitler? Did he intend to secretly enter into peace negotiations with the Allies?
The Sepp Dietrich conversation was merely the last of many. He had been feeling out the generals under him for clues as to their ultimate loyalty.
So few snatches of conversation are on record... and most of those who were privy to them are no longer with us. Today, it is doubtful if we will ever know what really was on his mind. He was against murder for political ends, and, after all, he owed so much to the Fuhrer for so many of his early career advancements. Although he must have known about the various plots being hatched, it is extremely unlikely that he would have been a knowing participant in any scheme to assassinate Hitler.
He had been heard to say that his participation in a negotiated peace with the Allies was a possibility, but only on condition that they join Germany in fighting Russia. This action would almost certainly plunge the Fatherland into a civil war. In any event, the Allies weren't interested in anything but unconditional surrender...or, so they said.
It was all to become irrelevant anyway....
When Rommel's party was leaving, Sepp Dietrich suggested that they not take the main road. Also, they should ride in a Kübelwagon (Germany's answer to the Jeep) in order to be less conspicuous. The Field Marshal imperiously waved off such a suggestion. They departed, as usual, in his personal car, a large open Horch.
Rommel sat in the front, as was his habit. He liked to keep a map on his knee, so he could do the navigating. At the wheel was his regular driver, Daniel. In the back were staff members Captain Lang, Major Neuhaus and Feldwebel Hoike (who was there specifically as an aircraft lookout).
On N179, just out of Livarot, fate finally caught up with the Desert Fox.....
As the lookout shouted an alarm, two Canadian Spitfires from 412 Squadron came diving down in a curving attack from behind and to the left. At about 300 yards, Charley Fox, in the lead aircraft, squeezed off a brief burst from his 20 mm cannon. That was enough.
Daniel, seriously wounded, lost control of the speeding car. It hurtled on for several hundred yards before finally crashing into the ditch. Captain Lang escaped unhurt, Neuhaus with minor injuries. Daniel was to die shortly afterwards.
Field Marshal Rommel was thrown against the windshield post, sustaining serious head injuries. His career was over.
At first, his survival was in doubt but prompt first aid and a strong constitution prevailed. He slowly began to recover.
Unfortunately, on July 20, the bomb plot against Hitler failed. In the ensuing head-rolling horror unleashed by the Gestapo, some of the conspirators began to sing like proverbial canaries…and Rommel's name kept coming up. Slowly convalescing, the general was in no position to defend himself. He was probably unaware of the gravity of the situation.
Hitler, now paranoid and convinced of the treachery of everyone around him, gave the final orders.
On October 14, 1944, at his home, Rommel received two visitors from Berlin. They took him aside and informed him that he had been accused of complicity in the bomb plot. He was told that dragging down their hero at this time would devastate the German people, so he was given a grim choice....face trial and public disgrace for himself and his family…or…do the "honourable" thing and die at his own hand. In the second case, his death would be listed as having occurred from "natural causes", he would be given a state funeral and his family would be provided for.
A gentleman to the end, Rommel naturally chose the latter. The party kept its word on this one. The state funeral was duly held and it was announced that the General had died from the injuries sustained in the car crash. The true facts didn't come out until much later.
A couple of the "canaries" went on to illustrious post-war careers. In spite of the fact that there was no real evidence, they steadfastly maintained that Rommel had been involved in the bomb plot. It certainly didn't hurt their positions (postwar, at least!) to have been connected with it. And, somehow, certain key files that could have shed some light seem to have mysteriously disappeared after the war.
.Lance Russwurm, © 2003
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