Very few enemy generals have captured the imagination of their foes. And of those, none seem to be as interesting as Nazi German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. He was Hitler’s favorite and Patton’s “Magnificent Bastard” at the same time. Perhaps it’s because he never joined the Nazi Party that history gives the bold commander a reprieve or maybe it’s because he was implicated in a late war plot to assassinate Hitler.
No matter what the basis our fascination for the man was, the fact remained that he was a German Field Marshall and the best hope for keeping the Allied invasion of Fortress Europe at bay. He had to go.
To this end, the British hatched Operation Gaff, the plot to kill or capture Rommel behind enemy lines while he was in occupied France. Rommel was posted in France following the Allied victory in North Africa. Though his vaunted Afrika Corps had to evacuate those battlefields, Rommel still returned to Germany with a hero’s welcome. He would soon be posted in France, where he seriously upgraded the coastal defenses that would give the Allies so much trouble on June 6, 1944.
British Intelligence learned that Rommel’s field headquarters was located in La Roche-Guyon, France, the Special Air Service launched its plan. Six commandos parachuted into Occupied France near Orleans on July 25, 1944. They were to track down Rommel at his headquarters building, which they learned was lightly defended. There was just one problem.
Rommel was gone.
The Field Marshall was severely wounded in a car accident just a few days before the launch of Gaff. His staff car was overturned during strafing runs from two British Typhoon fighter planes. Just like a similar plan to kill Rommel in North Africa in 1941, the plot was foiled because Rommel was not in his house as the plan called for. But unlike in the 1941 plan, the commandos sent to kill Rommel in 1944, the commandos of Gaff didn’t just end their mission, they began the long walk back to the Allied lines. Along the way, the wreaked total havoc.
Their first stop was a train station that was ferrying troops to fight the Americans in France. They demolished the tracks at the station with way more explosives than necessary. Once the sabotage was done and German troops were dealing with the aftermath, the commandos engaged the HQ building, clearing it of its 12 Nazi guards. They then moved on from that station, destroying tracks all along the way until they were able to link up with the American forces.
Rommel didn’t live long, however.
The German general, of course, would be implicated by friends in the Valkyrie plot to kill Hitler at a military briefing at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters five full days before the SAS commandos ever landed in Europe. The wildly popular Rommel couldn’t just be branded as a traitor, so Hitler gave him the choice to commit suicide or stand before the People’s Court. The Court would have dragged his family through the mud, and the outcome would be the same, so Rommel chose to take cyanide on Oct. 14, 1944.
If Rommel had stayed in France instead, he would likely have been captured by the Americans and survived the war.