Erwin Rommel was born in Heidenheim, Germany, the son of a headmaster. As a youth he showed a great deal of technical aptitude and had even considered becoming an engineer before enlisting in the army as an officer cadet at his father's behest in 1910. In late 1911 he graduated from officer cadet training and was commissioned as a lieutenant in early 1912. During World War I he served in France, Romania and Italy, mainly as a member of the Wurttemburg Mountain Battalion of the Alpenkorps. He was noted as a brave soldier and a quick-witted tactician. He was wounded in action three times and received the Iron Cross, both First and Second Class as well as the Pour la Merite. He wrote a book, Infantry Attacks, which was published in 1937 and became extremely popular among Axis and Allied military leaders.
He married his wife, Lucia Maria Mollin in November of 1916, and together they had one son, Manfred Rommel, in 1928. Between the wars he was offered a position in the Truppernamt, an illegal paramilitary organization, but declined it, instead teaching at the Dresden Infantry School between 1927 and 1933. His book attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler, who placed Rommel in charge of the War Ministry liason with the Hitler Youth. In 1937 he gave lectures about German soldiering to Hitler Youth meetings. He attempted to expand the army's influence in the Hitler Youth, but was turned down by Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach, who disliked Rommel personally. By 1938 Rommel was a colonel, and was appointed commander of the War Academy at Wiener Neustadt, but was soon removed from this position and placed in command of Hitler's personal battalion. During this time he met and became friends with Joseph Goebbels, who would remain an admirer of Rommel for the rest of his life.
During the Polish invasion in 1939 Rommel commanded Hitler's escort headquarters, and organized the victory parade after the success of the Polish campaign. In 1940, he asked for and received the command of a panzer division, despite having no experience. In February of 1940 he commanded the 7th Panzer Division involved in the invasion of France. His division was nicknamed the "Ghost Division" because they so outpaced the other divisions as to lose contact with them, leaving their location a mystery to their allies.
In 1941 he was rewarded with a promotion, and he was given command of the 15th and 21st Panzer divisions, which became the Deutsches Afrikakorps and was sent to Libya to aid Italian allies there. It was in these campaigns where Rommel saw his greatest successes, and also where he earned his nickname, the Desert Fox. His first campaign, launched in March of 1941, saw the withdrawal of the British troops that had earlier taken the Italian territories there. As the British hesitated to attack, Rommel began an offensive campaign that was protested by his Italian allies, as well as going against the orders being sent to him by the German High Command. Nonetheless, by early April he had taken a number of cities as well as capturing the Military Governor of Cyrenaica and his advisor, Major-General Richard O'Connor. He attempted to outflank his enemies but failed due to logistical issues, and this led directly to the siege of Tobruk.
The siege lasted 240 days, during which he launched many small attacks against the force, all of which were defeated by the defenders. He blamed the Italians for not giving him the plans for the fort in time, but in truth Rommel was moving too quickly for the plans to be sent to him in time. At this point Rommel's relationship with the other commanders was at its lowest. While he remained optimistic about the possibility of success in the siege, the reality was that it was going quite badly. He arranged a number of court-martial proceedings to deal with subordinates who opposed him, though they rarely led to any disciplinary action. He requested additional troops to help with the siege but was turned down, and instead Friedrich Paulus was sent to curtail some of the losses that Rommel's campaign was incurring. Rommel again attempted an assault on Tobruk, but when it appeared to be a failure Paulus called it off and forbade Rommel from attempting another attack. Rommel was angered by this decision, but obeyed the commands. In August of 1941 he was given command of the newly created Panzer Group Africa.
The English began to encircle the German and Italian forces that besieged Tobruk, and Rommel had to turn his forces to counter the incoming offensive. He managed to surround the British tanks, destroying around two-thirds of the tanks. Rommel pressed his advantage and attacked from the rear, attempting to sever enemy supply lines. Though the attack failed, he was fairly close to succeeding until his supply lines broke off and Allied resistance grew too strong for his numerically inferior force to counter. Rommel was forced to retreat from Tobruk and reassemble his forces. In 1942 he launched a counterattack that retook Benghazi and Timimi. In April 1942 his Panzer divisions were supplied with some necessary supplies, and he began an offensive, the Battle of Gazala. In early June his army captured the British stronghold at El Hakeim, and continued to push north, with the goal of capturing Tobruk. He succeeded in late June, taking over 33,000 defenders. For his victory he was made a Field Marshal.
After his victory, Rommel hoped to continue to press into Egypt. Though many of his contemporaries disagreed with his plan as it would halt a planned invasion of Malta, Hitler agreed with Rommel. In late June Rommel captured an important garrison, although during the attack a whole division managed to slip through his encirclement, as did several other parts of the remaining three divisions. He was halted in El Alamein, however, and was unable to proceed due to his lack of resources. He launched the Battle of Alam El Halfa in late August, but by early September it was clear to him that he would be unable to defeat the British positions and he retreated. The battle succeeded in nothing other than inflicting more casualties on an already weak Panzer Group Afrika.
Rommel became ill in late September, and so was not present in Africa when the Second Battle of Al Alamein was started by a British attack. He returned to his African headquarters to direct the defense effort, and knew that it was hopeless, as his divisions had almost no fuel. He began planning a retreat in late October, and managed to implement it on November 3rd when the British forces paused in their attack to await reinforcements. Before he could do much, however, he received an order from Hitler: "victory or death". Unable to disobey, Rommel's Axis forces clung desperately to their positions. By the fourth, however, Rommel's army had received such heavy losses and was so desperately outmanned that he ordered a general retreat. On the 5th he received orders from Hitler allowing the retreat, but by this time it was too late, and much of the Panzer corps had been destroyed. Rommel's forces withdrew to Tunisia, pursuing a scorched earth policy and leaving behind numerous booby traps to prevent pursuit from following too quickly.
While in Tunisia he countered the US II Corps, which was attempting to cut his supply lines. In early 1943 a new, Italian commander was put in control of Rommel's Panzer Army Africa while Rommel was engaged with the US II Corps. He launched his last North Africa offensive on March 6th 1943 against the British 8th Army at the Battle of Medenine. He called off the attack shortly afterwards, having lost 52 tanks, and on March 9th he handed over command of the Armeegrupp Afrika to another general and left Africa, never to return. His health continued to deteriorate.
In July of 1943 he was sent to Greece to defend the coast against an invasion that never came. He was then assigned to France, and he was stationed there during D-Day, though he was on leave at the time of the invasion. He was personally present at the fighting in Caen. Much of his advice regarding the positioning of tanks had been ignored, and so he was barely able to mount the significant counterattack needed to turn back the Allied landings. On July 17th, 1944 his car was strafed by RAF bombers and he received serious head injuries that required hospitalization. In February of that year he had finally agreed to join several of his close friends in overthrowing Hitler, and around the time of his injury, he became fully committed to these efforts, though he felt that an assassination would spark a civil war. When the 20 July plot headed by Claus von Stauffenberg failed, Rommel's involvement in the resistance quickly came to light. A court-martial was convened, and decided that he should be expelled from the army in disgrace and brought before a court which would probably sentence him to death.
In October of 1944 two generals approached him with a deal. Either he could allow all of his staff and family members to be detained by the Gestapo while he himself underwent lengthy and doubtlessly fatal trial proceedings, or he could commit suicide, thus allowing his family access to his pension, as well as a hero's burial for himself. Rommel explained his decision to his family, then was driven out of the village. He committed suicide by ingesting potassium cyanide on October 14th, 1944.