Among the higher German brass in the field commands, it was assumed that the senior marshal’s successor as theater commander would be the proven and widely admired Rommel. Instead, Rundstedt’s replacement was Field Marshal Guenther von Kluge, a Prussian, who had only recently recovered from an automobile accident on the eastern front. Kluge had proved his mettle as a top-level commander in the 1940 French campaign. (It was as a subordinate of Kluge in 1940 that Rommel had led his ”Ghost” Division in its epic thrust to the English Channel.) Later he had been supreme commander of the Central Army Group in Russia.
Kluge was a serious, cold-eyed, energetic man who was quick to grasp a situation, courageous, unsparing of himself, remorseless in extracting the last ounce of effort from his underlings, but, in all, a bit of a peacock. While not enamored of Hitler, he felt indebted to him, perhaps swayed by a sense of being obligated for the special honors and JPGts he had accepted from him.
The overlord dared not supplant the popular Desert Fox. This would have been too much of a jolt for the German citizenry, whose confidence in Hitler’s military acumen was waning rapidly despite Goebbel’s constant assurances of the Führer’s omniscience. Rommel’s removal would have been interpreted as an admission of military bankruptcy and the cult of the Führer as “the greatest general of all times” (which had come into being after the successful campaigns in Poland, Norway, France, and the Balkans) would have been diminished.
Rommel had viewed Rundstedt as an officer with many capabilities but now so old (he was approaching seventy) he had one foot in the grave. He had felt hindered by him, and when he was replaced Rommel had mixed feeling. The two had been in agreement on the political situation and on the overall conduct of the war. What Rommel saw in the old man was an eminent strategist, an expert in using the tools of war, but at the same time a man whose creative drive had been replaced by a sarcastic indifference, who was too tired for modern-day battle and so rarely left his command post.
In taking leave of his staff, the embittered old warrior swore never to accept another command. Yet, only weeks later, after the failure of the July 20 attempt on Hitler’s life, he, along with Keitel, accepted membership on the “Court of Honor,” which cashiered 1,200 officers, including 250 of the General Staff Corps and many of his fellow generals, for suspected complicity in the conspiracy. These degraded officers were then passed on to the “People’s Court.” Here they were usually sentenced to hanging, and their families, after first paying the cost of the execution, were sent to concentration camps.
This part of Rundstedt’s career has been charitably described by one of his associates as “the result of the physical and spiritual deterioration of an old man after five years of hard war and bitter experiences.”
Over dinner one evening with Speidel and his wife, Ruth, we discussed at considerable length Rundstedt’s membership on the Court of Honor. Mrs. Speidel had a similar forgiving view of Rundstedt, whereas her husband’s was harsher and less absolving.
Fresh from the Führer’s headquarters at Berchtesgaden, where Hitler had told him, “Rundstedt and Rommel are just dawdling along,” and had blamed the disaster in the West on the omissions and commissions of the pair, a cocky Kluge visited Rommel at La Roche Guyon on the afternoon of July 5 for orientation. A robust, aggressive individual, confident that Rommel’s pessimism was unwarranted and that he could turn the situation around, Kluge began sharply with, “Rommel, it is time you learned to listen!”
“You are talking to a field marshal!” shouted Rommel, enraged, jumping to his feet. “I demand an explanation of that remark! I have equal rank with you and I am responsible to the Führer for my decisions!”
The conversation took on such a tempestuous character that General Speidel and the other officers present were ordered to leave the room. It lasted an hour, with Rommel interrupting Kluge’s diatribe with suggestions that he withhold judgment until he had seen for himself the situation and the needed countermeasures.
In fairness to the new theater commander, it must be understood that Rommel’s realistic assessment of the war situation and his messages prodding the Führer to face the consequences of defeat on the battlefield had not endeared him to Hitler and his sycophants, who viewed the Swabian as too popular, too independent, ofttimes disobedient, and now defeatist. This characterization they had conveyed to Kluge. Later in the day, still under the influence of the Führer’s aerie talk, Kluge expressed incredulity as Rommel portrayed German impotence in the face of Allied power. “I think you view the situation too pessimistically,” he said. “I shall visit the front myself tomorrow.”
“Do so,” said Rommel, “but be careful. Enemy planes patrol the roads continuously.”
“Oh, they won’t bother me,” said Kluge deprecatingly. “I won’t even get out of the car.”
“I warn you,” repeated Rommel, “be careful. Whenever I go up forward I keep my hand on the door release, ready to jump out. I have to dive into a ditch ten or fifteen times, and I don’t permit the presence of my driver or the accompanying officers to embarrass me.”
The conference ended in a satisfactory working arrangement, their responsibilities defined, although the Swabian resented Kluge’s refusal to discuss the all-important question of how to save Germany from destruction. He knew through confidential sources that Kluge had been in touch for years with forces opposing Hitler. The two parted with chilly formality.
In Kluge, known to the troops as “der kluge Hans” (cunning Hans), Rommel recognized the schooled and polished General Staff officer, a type for which he had an aversion. Kluge, for his part, saw in Rommel an unsophisticated officer who did not come up to the General Staff standards of a field marshal.
Beginning the next day, following an itinerary prepared by Rommel’s staff, Kluge went on a two-day tour of inspections and talked with the troops and field commanders. A convert returned.
“How many times did you get out of the car?” asked Rommel.
“Twenty!” exclaimed the chastened Kluge. “And I find your description of the situation much nearer the truth than the Führer’s!” He apologized to Rommel for his original remarks, excusing his behavior on the grounds that Hitler and Keitel had misled him. This they had done in Russia, too, he said.
Kluge’s opinion of Rommel steadily heightened in the next weeks and the two men, different as they were in background and method, approached a unanimity in outlook.
The substitution of Kluge for Rundstedt did little to curtail the success of the Western Powers, who during the next ten days rapidly pushed deeper into France and seized more bases for their planes. They bombarded the railroads funneling into the combat area so heavily and repeatedly that a one-day trip now took a week. To reinforce the first half million men he had landed, Eisenhower shuttled over another half million. Supplies he had safely ferried over the Channel by now totalled a million tons. To move them to the troops and to keep the troops moving, he had landed 30,000 vehicles. With every passing day the efficiency and scope of the liquidation of the Teutonic legions increased.
While the German Seventh Army was bleeding to death in Normandy, the Fifteenth Army sat stoically guarding the coast of the Pas de Calais. The High Command dared not send it to the rescue. German Intelligence was imbued with the idée fixe that the Normandy invasion was only a diversionary effort, that the main assault was yet to come, and that when it did, it would be directed against the Pas de Calais. An invasion here offered the Allies a minimum of water travel, a maximum of air coverage and, once established, the most direct route to the heart of Germany.
This illusion was carefully nurtured by the Allies with dummy ships in the Thames and on the Dover coast, plus dummy camps in East Anglia and more than usual bombing of the Fifteenth Army preserve. Luftwaffe scouting did little to correct the catastrophic Nazi analysis of Eisenhower’s intentions. “Already by May 15,” said Speidel, “Allied air supremacy was so absolute that not once after that date could one of our reconnaissance planes penetrate the island defenses to get a suitable strip of photographs of the English harbors.”
Rommel’s letters are evidence that he, too, misinterpreted the Allied intentions. Four days after the initial landings he wrote: “It will probably soon start at another point.” A week later he still thought so: “We expect the next assault, perhaps on an even greater scale, at another point within the next few days.” And several weeks later, as he lay wounded in the hospital, he still thought there was a likelihood of such an attack. Intelligence available to him placed thirty to thirty-five divisions still in England. He guessed the site for the second assault as the eastern edge of Calais.
On July 8 Montgomery assaulted Caen, a key city in the German plan of defense, after first striking the enemy with an air attack by 500 heavy bombers. The next day troops of the British Second Army occupied all of the town north and west of the Orne River. On the 10th Maltot fell, promising to snare the Nazis between Orne and Odon. Seeing nothing but a long series of disasters ahead, Rommel discussed the situation with Kluge. “We have lost the war in the West,” he said. “It must be brought to an end.”
At this time the Military Governor of France, General Stuelpnagel, who wanted the marshal to take independent action to end the war, sent a staff officer, Dr. Caesar von Hofacker, to see Rommel for a definitive analysis of the conditions on the front. So that plans could be synchronized, this was to be reported to Colonel General Ludwig Beck, the Army faction’s conspiracy leader in Berlin, and to Colonel Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, the man who was eventually to place the bomb beneath Hitler’s map table.
On July 12 Kluge came to La Roche Guyon for another discussion of the military situation. Kluge asked Rommel how long the front could be held, with the fighting units being whittled down and no reserves in support. The Fox suggested that the corps and division commanders be asked their opinions and those opinions be forwarded to Hitler with an ultimatum. Kluge agreed with the suggestion and said he would take these reports into account in making his final decision.
Rommel dispatched Speidel to see Stuelpnagel in Paris, advise him of the talks with Kluge, and promise him that he would take action no matter what Kluge’s decision was. During the next three days Rommel visited the front and held frank discussions with the commanders, returning with assurances that the troops and officers of all ranks trusted his leadership and would follow him.
In discussions Rommel and Speidel had had before the invasion had begun, they were in accord that it might be possible to save Germany by ending the war in the West through an armistice, contacting Eisenhower directly or through Sir Samuel Hoare, the British ambassador in Madrid, or through Vatican or Swiss emissaries. “We envisioned withdrawing the German forces behind the West Wall and holding the German front in the East,” Speidel told me. “Rommel and Kluge were also in accord on this on July 12.”
Returning from the front on July 15, the marshal discussed his findings with Speidel. He directed him to draft a special report for Hitler. This report, in effect an ultimatum, was sent as a radio message. It said that the situation on the invasion front had so developed, as Rommel had repeatedly warned orally and in writing, that the front could be held fourteen days or at most three weeks. Then it was to be expected that the enemy would break through south of the Seine with the primary aim of winning the Paris area and cutting off Brittany. There were no more reserves of any of the three arms available, it continued, and the bloody losses now amounted to 28 generals, 354 fieldgrade officers and 250,000 men, who could be replaced only by 30,000 convalescents. It could be determined with almost mathematical exactness where and when the front would fall apart. The result of the enemy’s steadily increasing potential and the simultaneous decrease in the German potential had to be given the weightiest consideration.
“After reading the draft,” said Speidel, “Rommel scribbled the concluding sentence himself. ‘I must inform you, my Führer,’ he wrote, ‘that you must immediately accept the political consequences. Rommel, Field Marshal.’ But before we sent it off, we thought it best to delete the word ‘political.’ This would have been a red flag to Hitler and we would have been showered with a flurry of ridiculous orders. We decided ‘consequences’ could be read to include both military and political matters.
“At this point Rommel said to me, ‘I am giving Hitler this last chance before we negotiate ourselves.’”
The message was transmitted to Hitler via Kluge. Before sending it on Kluge added a sentence: “I agree with all Rommel’s conclusions.”
To my observation that the original message would be an interesting historical document, Speidel replied, “Yes. Unfortunately my wife had to burn it when I was arrested.”
That evening, after the dispatch of the message, Rommel discussed with his naval aide, Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge, and Speidel his expectations of the conditions of peace. They would be tough, he was sure, and he expected little sympathy from the Allies, but he hoped for understanding. In preparation for discussions he had selected a commission to be made up of Speidel, Ruge, Stuelpnagel, Hofacker, and Generals Geyr von Schweppenburg and Gerd von Schwerin.
There was no answer to this message the next day and at dawn on the following, July 17, Rommel left his headquarters in his Horch to once more discuss the alarming developments with his corps and division commanders. During the night and the prior two days, the Allies had staged a big attack that had been halted only by throwing in the last reserves. Now the Germans were trying desperately to hold the line from the mouth of the Orne River to Colombes, then to the southeast edge of Caen, then to Caumont and Saint Lo-Lessay.
By 4:00 P.M. the marshal had concluded his last conference and departed from the headquarters of General Sepp Dietrich’s 1st Panzer Corps, heading for his own command post. Speidel had telephoned that the situation at Caen looked threatening, and since noon Allied air activity had greatly increased. The roads were full of burning vehicles. Fighter-bombers patrolled the main highways, forcing traffic to take secondary dirt roads. On dirt roads the dust a car raised soon betrayed its presence.
Around 6:00 Rommel’s car reached the vicinity of Livarot, where more freshly burning vehicles were piled up. For four hours British and American flyers had been strafing all traffic leading into the city. Just outside Livarot the car branched off onto a side road in order to skirt the city and connect with the main road again two miles before Vimoutiers. Suddenly the air observer shouted the alarm. Banking toward the car were three planes that Rommel later told his son and Speidel were American but which the British have always maintained were RAF aircraft.
The driver was ordered to head full speed for a tree-bordered road 300 yards away and to seek concealment there. Before the sanctuary could be reached, bursts from the lead plane riddled the Horch. One shot shattered the driver’s left shoulder and arm and punctured his lung. He lost control of the vehicle. It hit a tree stump on the right side of the road, ricocheted off the tree, careened into a ditch on the other side of the road, and flipped over.
Rommel, thrown out of the car at the first impact, suffered a crushing blow to the left temple and cheekbone that caused a quadruple fracture of the skull and immediate unconsciousness. Twenty yards down the road from where he lay was the entrance to an estate named, ironically, like his old opponent, “Montgomery.”