Here Is How Rommel Became One of Nazi Germany's Greatest Generals
The appointment of Erwin Rommel as commander of the 7th Panzer Division in February 1940 seems, in the light of his many triumphs in France and North Africa, an unremarkable and perfectly natural choice. At the time, however, nothing could have been further from the truth. For the invasion of France, code-named Fall Gelb (Plan Yellow), Germany had assembled roughly 135 divisions, but only 10 of these were panzer divisions.
Rommel had no prior experience commanding a division. Neither did he have any direct experience with the new blitzkrieg operations that had made their debut during the conquest of Poland in September and October 1939. He had not even commanded a combat unit during the invasion. The chief of Army personnel had recommended that Rommel be given command of a mountain division, based on his experience in the Alpine Corps during World War I. So why, in the early hours of the morning on May 10, 1940, was he leading a panzer division into the forests of the Belgian Ardennes?
A Swift Rise Through the Ranks
What Rommel did have was regular, personal access to Adolf Hitler. Rommel and Hitler first met briefly in Goslar at a Reichsbaurentag, a traditional fair for farmers and landowners that the Nazis had elevated to a political event. It was at this meeting in Goslar that Rommel also met the Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels. He made a favorable impression and would henceforth enjoy his patronage.
Rommel was given a three-year appointment as instructor at the War Academy in Potsdam in October 1935, his teaching duties interrupted to perform security arrangements, such as at the summer 1936 Nuremburg rally, and acting as the War Ministry’s liaison officer to the Hitler Youth beginning in February 1937. He was picked to command Hitler’s escort battalion, the Führerbegleitbataillon (FBB), during the occupation of the Sudetenland in October 1938, and he repeated the task again twice in March 1939 during the occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia and the Baltic port of Memel. In August he was the obvious choice to perform the same duties during the invasion of Poland. He was promoted to major general on August 22 (backdated to June 1). As headquarters commandant during the Polish campaign, he traveled on Hitler’s special train, named Amerika, and often shared the same car or light plane.
By 1940 the two had developed a liking for each other, sharing both humble origins and a deep dislike for the snobbery and elitism of the old German aristocracy. Rommel was neither a member of the Junker class of Prussian aristocrats nor a product of the General Staff (who denied him entry), both of which were essential prerequisites for military advancement prior to the rise of Hitler. Rommel desired command of a panzer division, and he received it, the objections of the Army personnel branch being overruled quite possibly by Hitler himself.
The appointment capped a truly rapid ascent through the ranks. Rommel had begun the month of November 1938 as a major who occasionally commanded an escort battalion. By February 1940 he was a major general in command of one of the 10 panzer divisions that would spearhead the campaign in the West. Hitler’s decision apparently raised more than a few eyebrows in the senior military hierarchy because, in a letter to his wife Lucie dated February 17, Rommel wrote, “Jodl [chief of the Operation Staff of the Armed Forces High Command, the OKW] was flabbergasted at my new posting.”
A Propaganda Division
From the start it was clear the 7th Panzer Division would be receiving high-level political attention and preference. Goebbels gave Rommel, an avid amateur photographer, a Leica camera to chronicle the campaign. Rommel intended to use the photos in the book he planned to write to follow up his popular Infantry Attacks. Manfred Rommel, his son, wrote, “… he planned to write on the Second World War … [my father] took literally thousands [of photos] … including a large number in color.”
Rommel himself mentioned, “I’ve taken a lot of photographs” in a letter to his wife written on May 27. A few of these photos that Rommel took during the campaign in France (or that were taken with the same camera while Rommel posed) are reproduced in The Rommel Papers. Most, unfortunately, were evidently lost in the in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in 1945.
Attached to Rommel’s division as a second aide-de-camp was Lieutenant Karl August Hanke, a favorite of Goebbels who may have provided a special link to Berlin. The division’s officers included other Nazis such as Karl Holz, who had been editor-in-chief of the anti-Semitic weekly tabloid Der Stürmer [The Stormer or, more accurately, The Attacker]. In addition, one of Rommel’s former students at Wiener Neustadt, a Lieutenant Hausberg, was tasked with the duty of flying from the division to Hitler’s headquarters every evening to present a map showing Rommel’s progress that day.
The 7th Panzer Division was then, in a sense, no ordinary division but a showpiece of the Nazi government. While Rommel himself was not a member of the Nazi Party, he was no stranger to ambition and possessed a thirst for glory that, especially in the heat of a campaign, bordered on the unquenchable. At this early stage of the war he was not above exploiting the political connections he had built to advance his military career to the utmost.
Army Groups A, B, and C