“Rommel’s aggressiveness on the battlefield obscured a deep sense of human decency, one that was ultimately at odds the murderous regime for which he fought.”
VINCENT VAN GOGH WORKED IN LIGHT AND COLOUR. Frank Lloyd Wright favoured concrete and glass. Mark Twain dealt in satire. And while few would consider him an artist per se, Germany’s Erwin Rommel was indeed a creative genius too — his medium was the tank, his canvas the sprawling sands of North Africa.
Revered by his men, feared and respected by his enemies, the so-called “Desert Fox” was perhaps one of the most innovative and resourceful military commanders of the Second World War, if not the 20th Century. Volumes have been written about his daring Blitzkrieg across France in 1940 and his many triumphs at the head of the Afrika Korps. Yet his aggressiveness on the battlefield obscured a deep sense of human decency, one that was ultimately at odds the murderous regime for which he fought. It’s these contradictions, along with his sheer genius as a military commander, that fascinate and confound historians. Here are some facts about the Desert Fox you may not have known.
1. A Reluctant Warrior – Although a natural as a soldier, a career in the military wasn’t actually Rommel’s first choice. Born in Nov. 15, 1891 in Heidenheim, Germany, the future field marshal originally wanted to be an engineer. Fascinated by machinery, as a youth he once bought a motorcycle just so he could take it apart and reassemble it piece-by-piece. During his adolescent years, he designed and constructed a working glider. Despite his aptitude with machinery, his father, a retired military officer turned school headmaster, insisted young Erwin join the army. Obeying his dad’s wishes, Rommel volunteered for officer training in 1910. He graduated as a lieutenant two years later.
2. The Young Hero — Rommel experienced the horrors of war for the first time in 1914. An officer in the Kaiser’s elite 15,000-man Alpenkorps mountain division, he quickly distinguished himself as a daring and courageous young officer. He won both the Iron Cross first and second class in the first two years of the war. While fighting in the Alps in 1917, his company of 100 men netted a staggering 7,000 prisoners — 1,500 of which were bagged by Rommel and just five other soldiers. That astounding feat earned him Germany’s highest military commendation: the Pour Le Mérite.
3. Between the Wars — While Rommel’s battlefield prowess attracted the attention of the post-war general staff, he refused appointments to work closely with the top brass, opting instead to serve as an infantry commander in the greatly reduced army of Weimar Germany.
4. Rommel the Author – The up-and-coming commander was just as handy with a pen as with a sword. While an instructor at the Dresden Infantry School, he penned a tactics manual for young officers as well as his seminal work, Infanterie Greift An or “Infantry Attacks”. He was working on a third book about armoured combat when Germany invaded Poland. He’d never get the chance to finish it.
5. Loving Father — Rommel had two children from different relationships. A brief fling in 1913 led to the birth of his daughter Gertrud Stremmer. Although in polite society, Erwin often referred to his first child as his niece, privately he was a doting father, as evidenced in a cache of 150 letters he wrote her over the years.  In fact, the plaid scarf Rommel famously wore during his African campaign was knitted especially for him by Gertrud. His 1917 marriage to Lucia Mollin produced a son, Manfred, in 1928.
6. Putting the Lighting in Blitzkrieg — Despite his background as a leader of mountain troops, Rommel was placed at the head of the 7th Panzer Division in early 1940. His expertise in light infantry tactics heavily influenced his ideas about tank warfare. These would soon be put to the test in the invasion of France. During the campaign, his armoured units moved so quickly and attacked with such surprise, his army soon became known as the “Ghost Division”. And it wasn’t just the British and French that found it impossible to keep up with Rommel; even the Axis high command was often unsure of his exact whereabouts during the invasion. And when Germany’s Italian allies became bogged down in North Africa in early 1941, Berlin dispatched Rommel with an elite Panzer force to help save the day. Now a lieutenant general, he quickly went on the offensive. The British press famously dubbed him the Desert Fox for his mastery of warfare in open expanses of Libya and Egypt. Following the inevitable Axis withdrawl from North Africa, Rommel was placed in charge of the defenses of the Atlantic Wall in the run up to the Allied D-Day invasion.
7. In the Thick of the Fighting — Rommel was famous for leading from the front — a habit with earned him the undying respect and admiration of his men. During one particularly fierce engagement in 1940, the general took personal command of a detachment of artillery as they fought off an attack by British heavy tanks. With rounds bursting around him, Rommel darted from gun to gun, helping his men sight their targets, all while the enemy closed to within a few hundred meters of his position. Yet despite his easy rapport with the rank-and-file, the general could be hard on his officers, expecting them to expose themselves to the same hazards and privations as ordinary troops. He often sacked his junior commanders unceremoniously when they failed to meet his high expectations.
8. Altruism in Action — While a fiery adversary in battle, Rommel was never one to squander the lives of his soldiers carelessly. He often commented that the men he led would be just as valuable to Germany in peacetime as in war and was loathe to throw their lives away needlessly.  His sense of humanity extended to the enemy as well. Rommel made sure that POWs and wounded Allied troops received food, water and medical attention promptly and often buried his fallen foes with full military honours. What’s more, he openly defied calls from Hitler to execute captured commandos, even the ones that had been assigned to assassinate him in North Africa.
9. Flagrant Disloyalty — These were not the only orders from the Fuhrer that Rommel refused to obey. During his time in France, the general flatly ignored directives from Berlin to round up Jews for deportation. He also forbade his men to execute Jewish prisoners of war. As the fighting in Europe continued, Rommel wrote numerous letters to the Hitler protesting what he saw as the Third Reich’s abhorrent racial policies. He even confronted the Nazi dictator personally in 1944 over atrocities committed by the SS against civilians. 
10. Don’t Call Him a Nazi — Despite being described as “one of the few generals who had the strength to refuse to carry out Hitler’s orders” , the regime’s own propaganda machine repeatedly tried to paint Rommel as a die-hard National Socialist. The state’s official newspaper, Das Reich, once penned a glowing profile of the popular commander that characterized him as an ardent Nazi and one of the first to join the movement. Rommel, who was never actually a member of the party, was reportedly livid over the article and badgered the publishers to retract it.
11. The Death of the Desert Fox — Rommel’s mounting opposition to Nazism eventually attracted the attention of the Black Orchestra, a shadowy German society devoted to bringing down Hitler and ending the war. One conspirator and former comrade attempted to enlist Rommel’s help in the plot to kill the Fuhrer. Despite his opposition to the Third Reich, he was still against an assassination, fearing it might trigger a civil war. Following the bombing of Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters on July 20, 1944, Gestapo investigators unearthed the field marshal’s ties to the conspirators. Berlin suppressed the news, fearing that if details were made public would damage the regime’s credibility. Instead they offered Rommel a stark choice: face a humiliating public trial, during which time his entire staff and even his family would be implicated and likely face firing squads, or take cyanide. Rommel chose the later. On Oct. 14, while he was at home recovering from injuries following in an Allied air raid in Normandy, Nazi officials arrived and took Rommel under guard to a quiet spot near Herrlingen, Germany where he was given a black capsule to swallow. Moments later, he was dead. Despite his last wish to be buried without fanfare, Berlin cynically turned the funeral into a dazzling Nazi spectacle, claiming the field marshal had died from wounds sustained in combat.
12. Fondly Remembered — Rommel’s full role in the conspiracy wasn’t widely known until after the war. When details were finally revealed, the late field marshal won some unlikely praise. “His ardour, and daring, inflicted grievous disasters upon us,” Winston Churchill said of the deceased foe. “He also deserves our respect, because although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this he paid the forfeit of his life.”  Rommel’s notoriety in Germany only grew after the war. Celebrated as an anti-Nazi, he became one of the only Axis wartime commanders with a museum dedicated to him. For years, veterans gathered at his gravesite on the anniversary of his death to pay tribute to their former leader. Germany even named a guided missile destroyer after him, the D178 Rommel. It served from 1970 to 1998. Rommel’s own son Manfred, who served as an anti-aircraft gunner at the age of 14 and surrendered to the Allies in the final days of the war, disclosed a number of details surrounding his father’s connection to the anti-Nazi underground. Ironically, he was later befriended by the son of British field marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, one of his father’s old adversaries. Manfred went on to study law and entered politics, eventually serving as mayor of Stuttgart for 22 years. He later became an author, popular speaker, humourist and an advocate for those afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease (from which he also suffered). Manfred Rommel died last November at the age of 84.