Most people know Rommel as the Desert Fox, the German field marshal who boldly and brilliantly led his Afrika Korps against the British in World War II.
Without knowing much more than that, you could guess that he was a successful World War I officer, too — but that would be an underestimate. He earned the Iron Cross 1st Class and then the Iron Cross 2nd Class before earning the highest order of merit, the oddly named Pour le Mérite — which was no longer awarded after the end of the Prussian monarchy at the end of the war.
He did this as an infantry officer. Between the wars he wrote Infanterie Greift An (Infantry Attacks), which explains how to use speed and deception to overwhelm and surpise the enemy.
He never finished his next book Panzer Greift An (Tank Attacks) — even if that’s what’s on Patton’s bed stand in the movie, when he yells, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”
Anyway, I had been led to believe — by a rather dry book on stormtroop tactics — that such infiltration tactics had been slowly discovered by the end of World War I, after being championed by General Oskar von Hutier, and that Rommel had used them to great effect against the Italians just before the armistice was signed. From reading Rommel’s book though, it’s obvious he was using such tactics from Day One, first in France, then against the Romanians, and then later against the Italians.
Here are some of his observations from his first small battle in a French village in 1914:
Fights in inhabited places often take place at extremely short ranges (a few yards). Hand grenades and machine pistols [submachine guns] are essential. Provide fire protection before attacking by means of machine guns, mortars, and assault guns. An attack in a village is usually accompanied by heavy casualties and should be avoided whenever possible. Pin the enemy down to the village by means of fire, or blind him with smoke and hit him outside the village or town.
He earned his first Iron Cross fighting in the woods in France:
A hundred yards from the jump-off we were forced to the ground by heavy enemy fire. We could hardly see more than twenty-five yards through the thick undergrowth and could see nothing of the enemy. Our companies opened fire and worked toward the invisible enemy by means of short rushes. Because of the deafening sound of the rifles, it was impossible to approximate the distance to the enemy. His fire increased in intensity. Our attack was halted.
In order to get the 7th Company moving forward again, Major Salzmann and I got into the front line. I took a rifle and ammunition from a wounded man and took command of a couple of squads. It was impossible to handle a larger unit in those woods. Several times we rushed through the bushes toward the enemy whom we supposed to be very close. We never succeeded in getting to him, but time and again his rapid fire forced us to the ground. The calls for aid men told us that our casualties were increasing.
Pressed flat on the ground, or behind thick oak trees, we let the enemy fire go by and then at the first let-up attempted to gain more ground in his direction. It was becoming harder to get the men to move forward; consequently we gained ground slowly. Judging from the sound of the fighting, our neighbors were about abreast of us.
Once again we rushed the enemy in the bushes ahead of us. A little group of my former recruits came with me through the underbrush. Again the enemy fired madly. Finally, scarcely twenty paces ahead I saw five Frenchmen firing from the standing position. Instantly my gun was at my shoulder. Two Frenchmen, standing one behind the other, dropped to the ground as my rifle cracked. I still was faced by three of them. Apparently my men sought shelter behind me and couldn’t help me. I fired again. The rifle missed fire. I quickly opened the magazine and found it empty.
The nearness of the enemy left no time for reloading, nor was any shelter close at hand. There was no use thinking of escape. The bayonet was my only hope. I had been an enthusiastic bayonet fighter in time of peace and had acquired considerable proficiency. Even with odds of three to one against me, I had complete confidence in the weapon and in my ability. As I rushed forward, the enemy fired. Struck, I went head over heels and wound up a few paces in front of the enemy. A bullet, entering sideways, had shattered my upper left leg, and blood spurted from a wound as large as my fist. At any moment I expected a bullet or bayonet thrust. I tried to close the wound with my right hand and, at the same time, to roll behind an oak. For many minutes I lay there between the two fronts. Finally my men broke through the bushes and the enemy retreated.