Rommel and staff during the Battle for France, June 1940.
Major General Erwin Rommel, then commander of the 7th Panzer Division, with captured. British officers in Cherbourg, France, June 1940.
Rommel met the British in war for the first time on May 21, three miles southwest of Arras, when the 1st Army Tank Brigade staged a counterattack. Ironically, he was without his own armor, having sent Rothenburg’s panzers ahead while he remained with the rest of the division. German anti-tank shells failed to stop the Matilda IIs. They broke through his gun line and were halted only by heavy artillery fire and Stuka dive-bombers, although in his report to Berlin Rommel emphasized his own part in personally giving each of his guns its target. Thirty-six British tanks—one-quarter of the total Allied force—were destroyed, but it was the nearest Rommel had come to defeat, the enemy having penetrated to within a hundred yards of his position.
It was a mark of the man that he immediately organized a counterattack. He ordered the 25th Panzer Regiment to turn back and attack the British tanks in the rear. He claimed that this was the only occasion during the campaign that he ordered his armor to move against the direction of the advance, and that was in order to attack. In this, Rommel’s first tank battle with the British, he lost six Panzer IIIs, three Panzer IVs and a number of Czech-built tanks, but he knocked out a further seven Matildas and the British fell back.
He played up his victory in the traditional manner of army commanders, by overstating the strength of the enemy: “Between 1530 and 1900 hours heavy fighting took place against hundreds [italics added] of enemy tanks. Our anti-tank gun is not effective against the heavy British tanks even at close range.” While Hitler had expected the blitzkrieg to succeed, even he had been surprised by how quickly and how far Rommel’s division had advanced, and this news of a near-defeat by “hundreds” of enemy tanks convinced him that the panzers had gone too far too soon. He halted the advance temporarily, unwittingly giving the Allies more time to fall back on Dunkirk.
For his part in the action Rommel was decorated with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. He told Lucie: “Lieutenant Hanke, acting on behalf of the Führer, decorated me with the Knight’s Cross and gave me the Führer’s regards.” After a two-day halt Hitler allowed his panzers to take up the advance and the 7th Panzer Division moved toward Lille.
As the British fell back on Dunkirk, Rommel’s division took Lille and he accepted the surrender of a large part of the French First Army. A triumphant Hitler came forward to Charleville, and Rommel attended a conference of senior officers there. “The Führer’s visit was wonderful,” he told Lucie. “His whole face was radiant and I had to accompany him afterward. I was the only divisional commander who did.”
It was feared that the remaining British troops in France would escape Dunkirk-style from other ports and Rommel now raced ahead of his division with the 25th Panzer Regiment, reaching the coast south of Dieppe on June 10. The next day he took St-Valéry and walked into the town with his tanks to take the surrender of French and British troops. He continued his advance and on June 17 reached Cherbourg just as the last ship left with British troops, abandoning their vehicles on the docks.
On June 21 Hitler met with a French delegation in the Compiègne woods near Paris. A German officer had broken into a local museum and taken the railway carriage in which Germany had capitulated in 1918. Now Hitler beamed as he received the French surrender in that same carriage.
The invasion plans had allotted Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division the role of flank guard to Army Group B as it advanced through Belgium and France. But by his forceful command and ability to apply the concept of “lightning war” to real soldiering, Rommel had made his division the spearhead of the blitzkrieg. He defined his principles of operation as:
Maneuver to avoid the enemy rather than halt the advance to engage him.
Move quickly while firing on both flanks, particularly when ahead of neighboring divisions—blanket fire into any area where enemy forces might be before they show themselves usually forces them to retire.
Rommel’s image was created for him by Joseph Goebbels (although Rommel himself lent a willing hand to it). War correspondents, such as the portrait painter Wolfgang Willrich, traveled with the invasion force as part of a propaganda company. Rommel often briefed them personally and took a hand in shaping what they wrote about him. One described the 7th Panzer Division as the “Gespensterdivision” (Ghost Division) because it was both elusive and unpredictable, and the term was soon current throughout Germany. (There is some evidence that it was first used by the French—“la division fantôme”—and was picked up from them by a German reporter.) Goebbels’s own newspaper, Das Reich, promoted Rommel with unreserved rhetoric: “His tanks carve long, bloodstained trails across the map of Europe like the scalpel of a surgeon.”
A new word was coined: Rommeln (to Rommel) meant “to make an audacious advance deep into enemy-held territory.” German troops even had a poem about him, “Auf der Rommelbahn nachts um halb drei”:
On the Rommelbahn at half three in the night
Mighty ghosts rush by in the moonlight;
Rommel himself is leading the race
Everyone else is just keeping pace
On the Rommelbahn at half three in the night.
Goebbels had given Rommel a Leica camera to take with him, and although he took many general photos he often asked an ADC to take a shot that included himself. He understood what Goebbels wanted: images of victory had to be “personalized” and he enthusiastically played the part. He wrote home to ask Lucie, “Please could you cut out all the newspaper articles about me?”
Only weeks after victory in France the Propaganda Ministry began filming a feature-length reenactment of the campaign, to be titled Victory in the West and shot at the original locations of the main actions. Goebbels persuaded Rommel to act his part again for the cameras. The men and tanks of his division were ordered to take part and French prisoners were made to play the enemy. The Ghost Division crossed the Somme once more, its tanks firing live ammunition as fearful Frenchmen walked toward the cameras with their hands held high.
Victory in the West premiered at the Ufa-Palast in Berlin in February 1941. The cinema was draped with swastika banners and senior members of the Wehrmacht and the Nazi Party attended. When the film went on general release, queues formed nightly at cinemas in Berlin and throughout the country. The Rommel caught on canvas by Willrich was now on the big screen and all Germany applauded its latest star. They did not know it yet, but his next role would thrill them all the more.