1. A CHANGE IN EVENTS
“The future battle on the ground will be preceded by battle in the air. This will determine which of the contestants has to suffer operational and tactical disadvantages and be forced throughout the battle into adoption compromise solution.”
— Erwin Rommel
Somewhere in occupied France, 17 July 1944
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B, walked under the trees with Obergruppenführer Stepp Diet- rich, commanding officer of the 1st SS Panzer Corps. Dietrich glanced around, making sure they couldn’t be overheard. “Is Hitler still not allowing troop movements without his approval?”
Rommel nodded and frowned, as he hated being reminded of that absurd order that had persisted since the Allied invasion of Normandy. Rommel, with his voice just below a whisper, said in a conspiratorial tone, “What if I were to tell you I am consider- ing an unauthorized counteroffensive that will be launched within a few days?”
Sporting a grin of satisfaction, Dietrich replied, “Jawohl.” Rommel smiled inwardly, pleased with his Corps commander’s response.
“Herr Field Marshal,” said Dietrich, “many enemy aircraft have been seen in the last few hours; I suggest that you avoid the main road.”
“It’s near dusk—the darkness will hide us from allied planes.” Rommel looked upward as he spoke.
“Then I would suggest you ride in a Kübelwagen1 to be less conspicuous.”
“Dietrich, you worry too much. I will be fine.” “I’m also worried about Thursday.”
Rommel turned to face his Corps commander. “I believe Stauffenberg’s plan will succeed; then negotiations with the Americans can proceed.”
“But what if it doesn’t work?”
“Failure is not an option. It has to work.” Rommel referred to a plan that had been plotted by a select few members of the German General Staff. If it succeeded, they planned to negotiate a separate peace treaty with the United States. They would never get that chance with the Russians because of the atrocities commit- ted by Hitler’s SS.
Rommel and Stepp Dietrich exchanged salutes, shook hands, and went their separate ways. Rommel marched straight to his personal car, a large, black, open Horch, a popular, high-performance luxury motor car of German manufacture. He took his usual seat and placed the map on his knee, contemplating the news that the allies had broken through still another part of the ever-fragmenting western front, this time in Coutances, France.
Corporal Daniel, Rommel’s driver since Africa, Captain Lang and Major Neuhaus, members of Rommel’s staff, and Sergeant Hoike, whose job it was to spot enemy planes, sat quietly in the Horch, but they stared at Rommel, waiting for news of Dietrich’s stance.
“I have won Dietrich over; he is with me on the counteroffensive.” Rommel finally announced, grinning with delight. “It’s not been a foregone conclusion.” Then he ordered his driver to head back to headquarters.
They drove along the main road near Livarot, an ill-advised route littered with burned-out personnel carriers destroyed by Allied dive-bombers.
Roughly two and a half miles from Vimoutiers, Rommel tapped Daniel on the shoulder and pointed toward a sheltered road. Then he turned to Lang and Neuhaus. “The battle on the ground will be preceded by battle in the air. This will determine which of the contestants has to suffer operational and tactical disadvantages and be forced throughout the battle into adoption compromise solution.” (Great Aviation Quotes. www.skygod.com, n.d. 1996-2011)
“Do you think there’s a possibility that we can bring a halt to the Allied advance?” Lang asked while Rommel studied the map. He stared into the distance and then replied, “Only if we’d acted sooner …much sooner. Now we must try to hold our ground against overwhelming odds.”
A short while later, at 4:16 p.m., they arrived back on the main road, Route de Ste-Foy-de-Montgomery. Hoike looked up. Eight aircraft flew above in loose formation. Presuming that the enemy had not observed them, he suggested that they continue on the main road. But without warning, two Spitfires descended in attack formation. Their engines whined.
“Aircraft!” Hoike screamed, pointing skyward.
The Spitfires gained ground. Daniel slammed his foot on the accelerator. Rommel pointed to a side road, three hundred yards away, where they might be sheltered from the approaching Spitfires. But it was too late. The lead Spitfire, now only a few feet above the road and within five hundred yards of them, opened fire with a twenty-millimeter cannon; its bullets penetrated the road as they made an impact. Daniel maneuvered the car, try- ing to avoid being hit. Bullets made dust clouds as they whizzed by the car. A couple of them hit the car, including Daniel, as he bounced it sideways. The impact shattered Daniel’s left shoulder, and splatters of blood filled the air. Though he fought to hold on, Daniel lost control of the car. It barreled down the road and jolted its passengers. Rommel’s head smashed against the dashboard, and he lost consciousness. The car veered to the left and hit a tree stump. The shuddered impact threw Rommel out of the car, which continued without its most important passenger, then skidded into a ditch and stopped. Daniel and Neuhaus, unable to move, moaned in pain. Lang and Hoike, as yet uninjured, leaped from the car and raced to Rommel, dodging the twenty-millimeter rounds that danced around them. They reached Rommel unscathed, picked their commander up by the arms, and dragged him to safety.
“Is he alive?” Hoike asked. “He looks bad.”
“His breathing’s shallow,” Lang replied. “He’ll die if we don’t get to a hospital soon.”
“How are Daniel and Neuhaus?
“Not good. Daniel’s losing blood, and Neuhaus can barely move.”
Hoike leaped to his feet. “I’ll find a vehicle.” He ran off.
Lang lifted Rommel’s injured head. Streams of blood ran down his hands and arms, as Lang uttered to himself. “Now if Stauffenberg doesn’t succeed, we’ll have no chance to make a separate peace treaty with the Americans.”