Episode 62 – Erwin Rommel versus Dmitri Donskoi

From the Military bracket, we start with one of the Nazi’s greatest and most feared generals, the Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel. His worthy opponent, is one of the most admired men in Russian history according to a recent poll, the man who led his troops to defeat the mighty Mongols at the Battle of Kulokova, Dmitri Donskoi.

My main resources for Rommel are, Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century by Dennis Showalter, Patton, Montgomery, Rommel: Masters of War – A Story of the Three Greatest Generals of the Greatest War by Terry Brighton and Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel by David Fraser. For Dmitri Donskoi, I have at my disposal a large library of Russian history books with the main one I always go to, A History of Russia by Nicholas Riasanovsky and Mark Steinberg.

Erwin Rommel
Lieutenant Rommel – 1917

Johannes Erwin Eugen Rommel was born on November 15, 1891, in Southern Germany in the town of Heidenheim which is about 50 miles away from Stuttgart. His parents were Erwin Rommel Senior and Helene von Luz.  Here is how David Fraser writes about the young Rommel in his book, Knight’s Cross, “Erwin was a small, pale-faced, fair-haired, and blue-eyed, sometimes dreamy but always even-tempered, an ‘easy’ child. Academically as well as athletically he was, when your, unremarkable, although during his adolescence he discovered a taste for mathematics which remained with him until his death. The remarkable physical toughness and energy which characterized Rommel the soldier, in every rank, were not in evidence in the early days.”

Before we get into Rommel and his military career, it is important to understand a little bit about Germany itself. After the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, in which the Prussians were victorious, what would become Germany was a lineup of numerous provinces loosely connected. Rommel’s family resided in a region known as the Dutchy of Swabia and inside the Kingdom of Wurttemberg. Post-war, the many provinces as Fraser puts it, “The independent sovereigns, the Kings, the Grand Dukes, Dukes, Princes, of the various states of Germany combined in allegiance to the King of Prussia as German Emperor. “

No longer were you a Bavarian or Wuttemberger along, you were that and German, economically, politically and most importantly to this story, militarily. The military was the direction young Rommel was focused on, but his initial applications to both the artillery and engineering were rebuffed. Erwin was encouraged to enlist in the 124th Wurttemberg Infantry Regiment within the 26th Infantry Division, which he did after a brief hold up due to a hernia, on July 1910. 

For the next nine months, Rommel served as a cadet, then appointed to become a corporal and by the end of 1911, sergeant. He spent eight months studying at the Konigliche Kreigsschule in Danzig. When Erwin graduated in January of 1912, he was a lieutenant.

There were deep tensions surrounding Europe at the time, something we learned about in episode five. Germany believed, as did Rommel, that it was the pre-eminent military might in the world and rightly so. The Franco-Prussian war, won so easily by Germany gave them and many of their officers a certain swagger, Erwin being one of them, but in a subtle, studious way.

During his time in Danzig, Rommel would meet his future wife, Lucia Mollin, or Lu as she would be known by friends. She was 17 at the time and was the daughter of a school master. Her father died before Erwin began courting her. Lu’s mother was not too keen on the dashing man, but Lu was enamored of the officer. They were to marry in 1916 during the fighting in World War I.

The supposed war to end all wars was to be a proving ground for Rommel. He was involved in three major campaigns, one in France, one in Romania, and the other in Italy. Rommel’s action in Italy is what set him apart from the rest. In one action, the Battle of Caporetto, 150 of his men captured 81 guns and 9,000 men) only suffering the loss of six dead and 30 wounded. Erwin Rommel was promoted to the rank of Captain and awarded numerous medals of honor and bravery.

Battle of Caporetto
Battle of Caporetto

With the loss of World War I and the humiliating burden set upon Germany with the Treaty of Versailles, there was a great deal of unrest in the country. Rommel was assigned to the 124th Regiment to quell any civil unrest in various regions of Germany. Instead of being heavy handed, using his military might, Erwin negotiated with communists and others who were unhappy with the situation in a battered and economically depressed Germany.

In October of 1920, Rommel was appointed to the 13th Infantry Regiment in Stuttgart until 1929 when he moved on to the Dresden Infantry School as an instructor. It was here that Erwin met Adolf Hitler. The was impressed with the now Lieutenant Colonel in part, due to his book, Infantry Attacks. Hitler so liked Rommel that he made him as the War Ministry liaison officer to the Hitler Youth in charge of military training. Baldur von Schirach, who was the head of the Hitler Youth, constantly clashed with Rommel over the training methods he used. Because of their differing views, Erwin was removed from this job. Instead, in August of 1938, Rommel was assigned to lead the Führerbegleitbatallion, Hitler’s escort battalion. The men would follow the Fuhrer everywhere he went outside of Germany.

With the drums of war beating, Erwin Rommel was promoted to Generalmajor on August 23, 1939, this time protecting Hitler during the invasion of Poland on September 1st. He attended the daily war briefing with the Fuhrer and the other generals. Being close to Hitler helped Rommel become a full general, ahead of many more senior military men. Erwin asked for and received a change in scenery to become a Panzer tank division commander. His actions and tactics employed in World War I fit armored tactics to a tee. Rommel was now in his true element of war. 

Next up was the invasion of France coinciding with the invasions of the Netherlands and Belgium starting on May 10, 1940. Rommel was brilliant in how he was able to get his tanks over the River Meuse even thought the French had destroyed the bridges. Erwin got himself dirty and wet, urging his men forward despite enemy gunfire. His men went further into the heartland of France than any of the others had imagined. Rommel went so far inland that they originally thought they lost him. 

In the ensuing march towards the Atlantic, hoping to smash the British and French armies, Rommel’s tank division, the 7th, was strangely ordered to halt on May 24th. Obstensively, it was because the line of supplies was terribly thin due to the ease with which the German army was defeating their opponents. This led to the miracle that was Dunkirk where over 350,000 men were able to be evacuated before the Germans could get to them.  During the campaign, Rommel would show up with his tanks out of nowhere, earning his men the moniker, the Ghost Division.

Due to his brilliance in the French campaign, Rommel was given command of a new army, the Deutsches Afrika Korps. It is here that Erwin would gain his nickname, the Desert Fox. When he was first sent there, it was assumed that the war was coming to an end soon and that a negotiated peace would be achieved. Rommel did not know that Hitler had planned on invading the Soviet Union and he needed his underbelly secured against the British. Also, it was becoming apparent that the Nazi’s ally, the Italians, were a mediocre fighting force at best, unable to hold on to Africa. The British were making mincemeat out of them. Rommel was assigned to save the Italians and crush the British.

It has been said, that had Hitler not invaded the Soviet Union when he did, and had sent Rommel all of the supplies that he needed to properly defend the Nazi territories in Africa, the war may have turned out differently. What we do know is that Rommel did a stellar job in Africa, winning a number of battles, but he simply did not have enough manpower and material supplies to outlast the British, and newly entering the war, the Americans. The supplies were all focused on Operation Barbarossa, which began on June 22, 1941. 

One of the battles, or should I say siege’s that desperately needed added supplies and men was at Tobruk, the important port city that had been held by the Italians for 30-years, but was now under control of the Australians and British. Rommel wanted to attack the city directly, but was ordered not to by General Fredrich Paulus. Erwin could do nothing to countermand him. When the British launched Operation Battleaxe, Rommel pummeled the tank division sent by his adversary, Archibald Wavell. The British lost 98 tanks to the Germans 12.

General Claude Auchinleck
General Claude Auchinleck

During Operation Crusader, a plan that the new British general in charge, General Claude Auchinleck had come up with, Rommel had another major victory, although it began to thin out the number of tanks at his disposal. Armed with only 260 tanks in the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions to his opposition having 770, the Germans destroyed 530 of the British mechanized vehicles, losing only 100 of his own.

General Bernard Montgomery
General Bernard Montgomery

In June of 1942, with added tanks sent by the Nazi High Command, Rommel attacked Tobruk, this time successfully. Next up was the famous Battle of El Alamein. General Harold Alexander on August 8th took control of the tanks of the British from Auchinleck along with General Bernard Montgomery becoming the new commander of Eighth Army that same day.

Little did Rommel know that the British had cracked the Nazi Enigma codes and knew what the Germans were going to do, sometimes before the men in the field did. Along with the lack of steady supplies coming in due to the Nazi’s being bogged down in Russia, Rommel knew his time in Africa was coming to an end. By March 1943, it was time to leave. Erwin Rommel was to never return to Africa.

With Africa lost, despite the heroism of his men and military genius of Rommel, Erwin was now given the job of creating a defensive shield in the West. Hitler could not afford a second front as it would divert needed men and supplies away from the Soviets. Hitler was convinced, in part due to the deception campaign, that the Allies would invade France through the Pas de Calais. Rommel wasn’t so sure, but he had to go along with his superior. Rommel fortified the coast, not just at Calais, but at places like Normandy, where the real invasion was going to take place. 

At this point, with the invasion of the European continent by the Allied forces imminent, Rommel knew that it would bring an end to the war for Germany. As David Fraser writes in his book Knight’s Cross at the end of 1943, “Rommel was entirely convinced – had been convinced for over a year – that the war could in no conceivable sense be won by Germany, as victory had been imagined hitherto.” He further goes on to write, “The greatest danger to Germany, almost unthinkable in its horror, lay in successful invasion by the Red Army from the east.

It is at this point that Rommel’s tactics would be to achieve a stalemate in the west, somehow holding off the coming invasion long enough to sue for peace. At the same time, there was a growing sense of despair by a number of high-ranking officers in the German Army that Hitler and his hare-brained decisions was the real cause of the war turning sour. Hitler had to go. 

On July 20, 1944, the plot to kill Adolf Hitler went into action. A bomb was placed under a table near the Fuhrer. It detonated killing four and injuring thirteen, but Hitler escaped with minor injuries. The question is, did Erwin Rommel know about the conspiracy and did he have anything to do with it? The answer to the first question is that he very likely did know as testimony and writings from some of the few men who made it out alive claim that he was aware and was willing to participate in the aftermath of a successful assassination. As for the second question, the answer is no, he really had nothing to do with the attempt.

The aftermath of the failed plot was the arrest of over 7,000 people, with 4,980 executed. Many were people on the periphery of the plot, many were members of the families of the men accused of participating. This is where Rommel comes into play. The Gestapo gave the general a choice, either commit suicide, which would be covered up as a war casualty, or be executed and his entire family sent to a concentration camp. Erwin Rommel chose the former. 

On October 14, 1944, Rommel committed suicide using a cyanide pill. As he was considered a war hero, he was given a state funeral in his honor. His son Manfred, who was captured after the war by the Allies, told the truth about his father’s death. Manfred would later become friends with the sons of Allied Generals, George Patton and Bernard Montgomery as well as serving as the very popular mayor of Stuttgart from 1974 to 1996. 

Now we shift gears and begin our discussion of the next contestant.

Dmitri Donskoi - Millennium Monument in Novgorod
Dmitri Donskoi – Millennium Monument in Novgorod

Dmitri Ivanovich Donskoi is a legendary fixture in Russian history. As Grand Prince of Moscow, he was the first military leader to defeat a Mongol army in 1380.  Born on October 12, 1350 to Grand Prince Ivan II and his second wife, Alexandra Vassilievna Velyaminova, Dmitri became Grand Prince himself when he was a mere nine-years-old with the death of his father. 

It was a time when the Golden Horde, a part of the Mongol Invaders that controlled who served under them. Grand Prince of Vladimir, Dmitry Konstantinovich of Nizhniy Novgorod was given the title of Grand Prince over young Dmitri by the khan. After being deposed due to his constant squabbling with those who helped Donskoi, he would pledge his army to his soon to be son-in-law. 

It was during this time that the famous Moscow Kremlin began construction. Finished in 1367, the word Kremlin basically means, fortification. It would help prevent a Lithuanian invasion from taking the city. Over time, Dmitri would lead armies to victories over rival princes which would gain him the overall allegiance of many of them. He would begin the expansion of the territories controlled by Moscow.

The Mongols had originally invaded Kievan Rus in 1223, but suddenly, as quickly as they arrived, retreated. Thinking that they had intimidated the Mongol army, despite getting whipped by them at the Battle of the Kalka River, they continued their mutual distrust and jealousy of each other. Little did they know, the Mongol army was to return in 1237 and over the next five years, lay waste to any town that refused to surrender immediately. The inner turmoil of the Princes of Rus, stopped any attempt at defending their lands. The Mongol Yoke fell hard on the people of what was to become Russia.

Slowly but surely, Dmitri won over the numerous other principalities, through bribery and battle. His skill in the field was unparalleled among the other princes. With no one to stand up to him among his people, he began to gather the forces needed to throw off the Mongol Yoke.

Ivan Kalita aka Ivan I
Ivan Kalita aka Ivan I

The Grand Prince was the person the Mongols named to be their chief tax or tribute collector. Some like Donskoi’s grandfather Ivan Kalita, also known as Ivan Moneybag’s, were very good at paying off their overlords. Still, despite having a sort of hands-off way of ruling over the Russians, the burden of payment and the threat of another invasion, loomed over the heads of everyone. The Horde also would raid the lands to take slaves to sell at the bazaars in the south. 

Over the coming hundred years, internal strife and civil war hit the Mongols until they were broken up into numerous khanates. The Golden Horde was now in control over the lives of their subjects in Russia. Weakened by constant fighting with the other khanates, Dmitri and his fellow princes thought now was the time to push the Mongols out of their country. The year is 1380 and the place is the battlefield of Kulikovo.

Prior to Kulikovo, Mamai, the Khan of the Golden Horde, sent an army to teach the growing restless Russians, who was boss. Dmitri Ivanovich, not yet named Donskoi, and his army defeated the Mongols at the Battle of the Vozha River in August 1378. What was surprising was that Dmitri’s army was smaller than their rivals, which added to the impact of the win. Khan Mamai could not let this go unpunished. He would invade the land of the Rus in 1380, in an area that was bisected by the Don River.

Mamai had a real problem as there were two other threats to his leadership. One was the feared Tamerlane, also known as Timur, someone we’ll meet in episode 68. The other, more immediate threat, was Tokhtamysh who broke away from Timur. First, Mamai had to deal with those pesky Russians. He knew that this was going to be a tough fight so he made diplomatic forays with Jogalia of Lithuania and the Prince of Riazin along with Venetian merchants promising them trade routes into the land of the Rus.

Seeing the gathering Russian forces, the Prince of Riazin decided at the last moment to stay on the sidelines. The Lithuanians also decided to take their time linking up with the Mongols. On September 8, 1380, Dmitri and his army crossed the Don River and faced off against the Mongols. The brilliance of the choice to cross the river cannot be understated. It meant that both flanks were protected from Mamai’s coming onslaught. 

St. Sergius of Radonezh
St. Sergius of Radonezh

To steel the nerves of his troops as well as himself, Sergius of Radonezh, a future Russian Orthodox saint, proclaimed that God had seen to it that the men of Rus would win the day. The battle was ferocious and went back and forth. At the end of the day, Dmitri Donskoi, otherwise known as Dmitri of the Don, and his men, won the day. It was not a decisive victory; it was more of a moral one. They defeated the Mongols for a second time, shattering the almost mythical invincibility of the Mongols. 

The yoke over the people of Russia was to return two years later when Tokhtamysh defeated Mamai and turned his eyes towards Mocow which he sacked in 1382. Dmitri Donskoi negotiated a truce with the new Mongol leader, knowing when to fight and when not to, is the sign of a great military leader. It would be another one hundred years before the Mongols would be thrown out of the Land of the Rus completely, but it was the leadership of Dmitri Donskoi that showed that it could be done. 

Battered and worn out from his many years in the field of battle, Dmitri Donskoi would die on May 19, 1389, at the young age of 38. As a last sign of defiance, he would be the first Grand Prince to designate a successor, his son Vasilli I, without getting permission from the khan.

Now to head on over to the scorer’s table.

First off, we have the fifteen points for the length of time in service to country. With Erwin Rommel, we have a long time, starting in 1911, when he graduated from Cadet School in Danzig and ended in 1944 when he was forced to commit suicide, for a total of 33 years. Dmitri Donskoi on the other hand, realistically only began his true service when he was fifteen in 1365, ending with his early passing in 1389 for a total of 24 years. Rommel receives fifteen points, with Donskoi getting ten.

Next up is how they affected the rest of the world in their time for twenty points. This one is pretty much a rout for the German general as he was fighting in a world war while Donskoi fought his battles within the confines of the land of the Rus. Twenty points for Rommel, 5 for Donskoi.

The lasting effect on world history will give the victor twenty-five points. This is a turnaround for Donskoi as his victories over the Mongols had a long-lasting effect on the history of Russia while Rommel was on the losing side of World War II. For these reasons, the Russian gets twenty-five points with Rommel receiving 10. 

The last payoff and the biggest one for forty points is how they affected their country for the better. Rommel try as he might, could not carry the German war effort on his back to victory. Hitler and his crazy ideas made it impossible to achieve their goals. While Donskoi was unable to completely overthrow the Mongols, he did make it possible for future generations to do so with his wins. Russia finally believed in itself as an independent nation. Donskoi gets forty points, Rommel gets twenty.

The final point total is 75 for Donskoi, and 65 for Erwin Rommel. The Russian military leader moves on to the second round where he will face off against the Roman general, Julius Caesar.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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