Rommel in Italy

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Rommel in Italy

Berichtdoor Tandorini » 24 apr 2011, 10:57

By May, Hitler had earmarked Rommel for another high post, this time in Italy, namely to take overall command whenever it might prove necessary, should the Italians decide to opt for surrender. Rommel first found out that he was being considered for something new from his old SS aide, Alfred Ingemar Berndt, who was now back working in Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry. Berndt was somewhat hazy about the post, implying that Rommel's future sphere of influence would cover thousands of kilometres of European coastline - which is exactly what it eventually turned out to be, although first the Führer had more immediate needs for his abilities. Having heard from Berndt during the first week of May, on the 8th Rommel was ordered to report to Hitler in Berlin next day. 'I should have listened to you before,' Hitler told him, 'but I suppose it's too late now, it will soon be all over in Tunisia.' It would appear that Hitler was determined to win back the adulation and support of his favourite Field Marshal and to some extent he succeeded, Rommel being in his company almost constantly for the next two months - 'under the sunray lamp' is how he succinctly put it, and clearly Hitler's magnetic personality did have this effect upon him.

Rommel's new appointment was to be kept secret from everyone -even from Kesselring, who, as C-in-C Southern Italy (OB Süd) was certainly going to be affected by the new HQ. So for May, June and most of July, Rommel did little overtly, spending his time recovering his health and forming an undercover headquarters, which received operational status in July, but whose true activities were still concealed. This HQ was first given the cover name of Arbeitsstab Rommel (Rommel's Planning Staff), then later called OKW Auffrisschungsstab München (OKW Refitting HQ Munich). He was also concerned in Operation 'Alarich', which was a plan to infiltrate large numbers of German troops into northern Italy, ready to defend against an Allied invasion, and a second plan, Operation 'Achse', which envisaged the need to disarm the Italian forces and, if necessary, to capture or destroy them.

Rommel's staff was very small and came mainly from his 'Afrikaners', men such as Major-General Alfred Gause and Colonel von Bonin, both from the Panzerarmee, Captain Hermann Aldinger, his old adjutant, and the faithful Corporal Alfred Böttcher was still with him as private secretary. At the last minute, however, Hitler changed his mind and decided that Rommel would be C-in-C designate of the German forces in Greece, Crete and the Aegean Islands, able to '... jump over into Italy later on'. His HQ would be known as Army Group B, while Army Group E, (commanded by Colonel General Löhr) which was currently the highest German HQ in the Balkans, would merely control Serbia and Croatia instead of being OB Südost. No firm date was given for this change, but Rommel arrived in Greece on 23 July under orders from Hitler to survey the situation and report. Two days later he was told by the OKW that Mussolini had been overthrown and that he was to return immediately to see Hitler again.

On his return he was advised that his Italian assignment was now on once more and that his undercover HQ would 'emerge' in Munich as Army Group B. He was to be responsible for all German troops in northern Italy and also for Operation 'Alarich', the security of the necessary lines of communication being of vital concern once the troops had been infiltrated into northern Italy. Thus Rommel's army group was to be heavily involved in the protection of such vital areas as the Alpine passes, as well as with the actual details of the troop movements, which began on 30 July. The Italians did not like the movement of German troops into Italy and the Comando Supremo disputed every move, although it could do little to pre-vent the German build-up. Meanwhile, of course, there were still large numbers of German troops fighting in Sicily, most of whom would be successfully withdrawn to the mainland in mid-August, and the Allied invasion of Italy was still some weeks off. Field Marshal Kesselring, C-in-C South, also still had major forces with which to oppose the Allies and keep the Italians under control, so there was little the Italians could do. But, as Rommel noted in his diary, '... although they will obviously betray us, it's not politically possible to march in'.

The intention was that Army Group B would take command of all German formations in northern Italy, and that although Kesselring's OB Süd would keep command of those German formations in southern Italy plus those which might return from Sicily, he would be required to conform to any orders that Rommel might give him. Not unnaturally Kesselring objected to this arrangement, telling everyone that he could not serve under Rommel. Hitler vacillated until the middle of August, then decided on a compromise which left Italy divided by a line running through Pisa -Arezzo-Ancona. Rommel would command all troops north of this line (his western boundary was the Franco-Italian border, and eastern, the Italo-Croatian frontier). Three Corps HQ were earmarked for Army Group B, two of which were 'up and running' in Italy by mid-August: LXXXVII Corps from France and II SS Pz Corps from Russia. The third Headquarters, LI Mountain Corps, was still forming at Innsbruck. Eight German divisions had either crossed or were about to cross into Italy. Six of them were re-formed 'ex-Stalingrad' divisions from France and Denmark; one had been brought from Holland and the remaining one (SS Pz Div Adolf Hitler) had come from the Eastern Front.

On 17 August Rommel moved his HQ from Munich to Lake Garda, setting up with some difficulty as the Italians bitterly resented his presence in Italy and hindered his requests for permission to lay telephone lines back to Munich. It was also at this time that Rommel began to worry about his family and the ever-increasing danger they were in from Allied air raids, the Messerschmitt factories being close to Wiener Neustadt. This was alarmingly brought home to him by news that Gause had lost his house and all his possessions, although fortunately his family was not in residence at the time. It took Rommel some time to persuade Lucie to move, but eventually he manned it, although initially they had to occupy temporary accommodation until their new house at Herrlingen near Ulm in Swabia, could be got ready. Lucie would generously offer the Gauses accommodation in the new house, but sadly this would lead to family arguments and eventually to Gause being replaced as Rommel's Chief of Staff.

By the end of August the situation had deteriorated to the point where the Axis had virtually ceased to exist. The Italians had moved troops to guard Rome against a German coup, also to protect Italian naval units at Spezia and towards the Brenner Pass, so that they were ready should the Germans try to take any 'collective hostility' against them. For their part, the Germans were ready to put Operation 'Achse' into action, ready to dis-arm all Italian troops except any who were prepared to go on fighting under German command. In the north, Army Group B was to increase the protection of the mountain passes and to occupy Genoa, Spezia, Livorno, Trieste, Fiume and Pola.

The Allied landings in Italy on 3 and 9 September 1943, together with the Italian surrender, naturally led to Operation 'Achse' being put into effect, with Rommel's troops rounding up and disarming Italian forces. Rommel wrote to Lucie:'... In the south, Italian troops are already fighting alongside the British against us. Up north, Italian troops are being disarmed for the present and sent as prisoners to Germany. What a shameful end for an army!' In addition to sending Italians to Germany, Allied POWs had to be removed from their camps and sent to Germany - one estimate reckoned that some 800,000 Italians had been disarmed and 268,000 packed off northwards as potential slave labour. In the midst of these machinations, Rommel was suddenly wracked with pain, rushed to hospital and operated °n for appendicitis. All went well and he was soon well enough to confer with Hitler and the OKW as to what should be done in Italy, and squabble with Kesselring over the nuts and bolts of how it should be achieved. Eventually, after much indecision, Hitler decided that Italy should be placed under one commander and as Kesselring was keen to start fighting the Allies as far south as possible, while Rommel wanted to give up most of the country and make a firm stand in the north, along the line of the Apennines, he opted finally for Kesselring. Rommel and his Army Group B HQ, would be moved to France for a fresh task, his eight divisions being switched under a new command known as Army Group C.

On 21 November 1943, Rommel took off from Villafranca airfield, leaving Italy for ever, and bound for the close bocage hills of Normandy, which as his son Manfred put it, was where his father's '... road to fame had passed in 1940 and which were to be the scene of his last military defeat'.

NEC JACTANTIA NEC METU ("zonder woorden, zonder vrees")

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