How a 26-year-old lieutenant, fighting at Caporetto in the Italian Alps in 1917, became the legendary Rommel.
Just after midnight on Oct. 24, 1917, it began to rain in Italy’s Isonzo River valley. Conditions were wet, dark and overcast— “attack weather” to the 15 German and Austro-Hungarian divisions moving into final position. They were massing for an intended decisive counterattack against an Italian army that in the previous two years had worn the Habsburg army and German Empire to the limits of their endurance.
The assault was an all-or-nothing gamble, and Germany had committed some of its best units to the mission. Serving in one of them was 1st Lieutenant Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel. Rommel would eventually master maneuver warfare, reach the rank of field marshal and become one of the most feared of World War II battlefield commanders. He would also become a symbol of soldiers’ honor misused and perverted by the Third Reich. But in 1917 he was an obscure junior officer, one of thousands in a war where a subaltern’s average lifespan was measured in weeks.
Obscure though young Rommel might have been, he was hardly anonymous. He had won the Iron Cross in France in 1914, and in Romania he had bolstered his reputation for fearlessness by leading from the front and for a tactical sense that seemed to intuit an enemy’s moves. Men saw, and men spoke: “Everybody was inspired by his initiative, his courage, his dazzling acts of gallantry,” noted one of Rommel’s platoon leaders. As yet his reputation did not extend much beyond his immediate milieu. But over the following weeks in northern Italy, Rommel would begin making a name for himself in the German army as an expert in a new approach to war, an approach transcending the trench warfare that had stifled momentum and multiplied casualty lists since the war’s early weeks.
Rommel’s extraordinary tactical prowess did not develop in a vacuum. He served most of his war with arguably the best unit in one of history’s finest fighting armies. The Württemberg Mountain Battalion (Württembergische Gebirgs-Bataillon), formed in 1915, was in fact an infantry unit with supplementary training in rock climbing and not a true “alpine” unit like those in the French and Italian armies. The WGB’s original volunteers included everyone from winter sports enthusiasts to bored cavalrymen. One hundred fifty of them had already earned bravery awards. Rommel, who had won both classes of the Iron Cross on the Western front, fitted in admirably.
The WGB’s structure was optimized for flexibility. Its developed order of battle was six rifle companies and six machine-gun companies, plus mortar and signal units. The companies in turn were grouped into two or three detachments (Abteilungen) whose composition changed with the requirements of a particular action. When properly employed by the WGB’s officers, this adaptability enabled the unit to meet the war’s two greatest tactical challenges: reinforcing advances and exploiting battlefield opportunities.
Major Theodor Sprösser commanded the battalion throughout Rommel’s service with it. Sprösser rejected the orthodoxies of trench warfare and recognized Rommel’s talent and potential. An ideal mentor, Sprösser allowed Rommel to extend himself without overextending the battalion, restrained the young officer when necessary and never let him forget who was the WGB’s commander. And at 5 a.m. on October 25 Rommel needed his help.
The day before, Rommel had led three companies across broken ground in front of Hill 1114, a heavily fortified Italian strongpoint. A frontal attack promised only high casualties. Then Rommel spotted a supply trail leading into the Italian defenses. Reinforced by three additional companies, he followed it. The rewards of his boldness included the capture of an artillery battery—without firing a shot—a thoroughly welcome hot lunch and a favorable jump-off point for the next day’s attack.
The Italian main line of defense lay along the Kolovrat ridge and even steeper Mount Matajur. A major with the elite Royal Bavarian Guard Regiment (Königlich Bayerisches Leib-Regiment) announced that his unit would lead the attack on the high ground; the Württembergers could mop up what they left. But when Sprösser arrived, Rommel outlined an alternate plan: to swing west, outside the Leib-Regiment’s sector, bypass Hill 1114 and go straight for Mount Kuk, the sector’s first key terrain feature. Sprösser gave his lieutenant three companies and his blessing, then informed the Bavarian major he could observe the WGB’s progress through his field glasses.
One reason Rommel often achieved surprise in his attacks involved the difficulty of sounding an alarm through a slit throat, as his patrols ruthlessly dispatched enemy lookouts and skirmishers. When one such patrol reported part of the ridgeline unoccupied, Rommel ordered a charge that caught most of the ostensible defenders in their bunkers. Shouts of “Raus! Hände hoch!” (“Come out! Hands high!”) brought the Italians to the surface. But that victory left the Germans isolated, facing trench systems too strong to clear and a developing counterattack too powerful to resist head-on. Rommel’s response was to press forward, ignoring odds of 2-to-1 or better.
A British officer once remarked of a similar combat encounter that “blood was flying about like spray from a hairwash bottle.” Rommel spoke more soberly of his Württembergers’ “savage resolution.” Most of an enemy battalion, 500 men, decided within minutes their war was over. That made Rommel responsible for more than 1,500 prisoners—three times his own remaining strength. The Germans were by now taking machine-gun fire from three sides, and Italian reserves were moving up in truckloads for a new attack.
Rommel had 300 men scattered across the high ground just short of Mount Kuk. And he had three options: withdraw, stand or attack. His decision was predictable. While he was arranging artillery support and planning lines of advance, Sprösser appeared at the head of two rifle companies and two machine-gun companies of the WGB and gave Rommel three of them. What for another officer might have been a mere force multiplier for Rommel multiplied maneuver opportunities—especially since WGB machinegun companies were able to function as assault units as well as fire support. And when one of his forward patrols encountered another force of Italians who surrendered after the Württembergers waved handkerchiefs at them, the way to Kuk’s summit seemed open. Then Rommel spotted another possibility—a camouflaged supply track that led down the southwest slope of Kuk to the Italian rear. Just after 10:30 a.m. he led two rifle and two machine-gun companies at a dead run downhill along a blind trail his patrols had no time to scout.
Rommel’s men had been marching, climbing and fighting for two days straight. His machine-gunners carried loads of up to 100 pounds on their backs: water jackets, mounts, ammunition boxes. Nevertheless, they literally overran Italian supply dumps, artillery batteries and command posts, scattering men and animals, the surprise so complete that even token resistance seldom developed.
By then Rommel had shifted his objective from the Italians’ immediate rear to the Luico-Savogna valley below. Block that, he reasoned, and he would trap the entire sector of Italians. The Württembergers stumbled downhill at the double, slaking their thirst with eggs and grapes snatched from the baskets of abandoned pack mules. At 12:30 the detachment’s leading elements—including Rommel and his staff officers—appeared like wraiths from the underbrush along the Luico-Savogna road. As surprised Italians scattered in all directions, Rommel’s troopers cut the Italian field telephone wires and began digging in.
Their progress had been remarkable, Rommel observed, and his soldiers’ morale remained high. Italian truck and wagon drivers unwittingly continued using the road, and the hungry Germans who stopped them enjoyed the chocolate, jam and white bread in their cargos—delicacies that had vanished from German rations long before. Still, only about 150 of Rommel’s men had as yet reached the valley, and a scout soon reported a long column of Italian infantry marching toward the roadblock. Rommel let the Italians advance into the killing zone of his machine guns, then sent an officer to demand their surrender. The Italians, part of the elite 20th Bersaglieri Regiment (20˚ Reggimento Bersaglieri), responded with a few random shots. Rommel blew his whistle, German machine guns swept the road, and a 10-minute firefight ensued. Then Italian resistance collapsed. Fifty officers and 2,000 men—most of whom never had a chance to get into the fight—surrendered to a German force fewer than one-tenth their number.
As his men were disarming this new bag of POWs, Rommel mounted a heavy machine gun on a captured automobile and drove into the village of Luico. There he found Sprösser, the rest of the WGB and the Bavarian battalion, which had taken Kuk and advanced on Luico from a different direction. Again Rommel urged action. His detachment, he argued, should move cross-country immediately to the next high ground, Hill 1096. That would put the Germans even deeper in the enemy rear, in a position to cut the main Italian supply routes.
Sprösser concurred and gave Rommel command of six companies, including all the WGB’s heavy machine guns. The advance rapidly turned into a demanding climb through gullies and thornbushes, with more and more men dropping out with twisted ankles and other minor injuries. When patrols reported strong Italian positions ahead, Rommel camped for the night while his scouts searched for an alternate route up to Hill 1096. And when the Germans moved out at 5:30 a.m., they found the defenders alert and ready to fight. Indeed, the Italians quickly and effectively pinned down the bulk of Rommel’s assault force. With most of his men shooting instead of moving, Rommel pulled three light machinegun squads out of the line and led them across dead ground to the enemy rear. A shout of, “Surrender!” prompted 1,600 surprised Bersaglieri in now-exposed positions to drop their rifles without the Germans firing a shot.
It had been a lightning attack, but the rest of the fight was not exactly a cakewalk. Hill 1096 was in German hands by 7:15 that morning, but the Italians fought it out, trench by trench and bunker by bunker. WGB casualties were heavy, Rommel’s flanks were wide open, and he had no idea where any other German troops were.
True to form, Rommel rejected the idea of waiting for reinforcements or allowing his exhausted troops to rest and reorganize. His next objective was Mrzli Peak— a mile away—the next and last high ground before Mount Matajur. By 10 a.m. Rommel had assembled the equivalent of three companies from the men who had followed him that morning. As this improvised and attenuated force climbed toward Mrzli, Rommel saw what appeared to be two or three battalions’ worth of Italians blocking the path. Fully armed, on high ground, they nevertheless watched the German advance without firing. Rommel risked walking forward, waving a handkerchief, calling for their surrender. Suddenly, hundreds of Italians started running toward him, throwing down their rifles and shouting, “Viva la Germania!” (“Long live Germany!”). The first men to reach Rommel hoisted him on their shoulders, while others shot one of their own officers who seemed reluctant to surrender.
As Rommel’s detachment began to disarm what turned out to more than 1,500 men of the Salerno Brigade, he received an order from Sprösser to withdraw. The major had arrived at Hill 1096 and, on seeing the mass of prisoners, had assumed the fighting was over and Matajur too was in German hands. In a neat piece of superior-finessing, Rommel sent back most of his detachment as instructed but kept 100 riflemen and six heavy machine gun crews with him—and started up the road to Matajur. He was confident the small force could infiltrate Italian defenses and break them open from the inside. Even before he could test his hypothesis, the firing died down. Rounding a bend in the road, the Germans encountered 1,200 more Italians, surrendering their arms as their colonel wept.
Rommel sent his prisoners downhill under a token guard and continued toward Matajur’s summit with the few men he had left. Again he took advantage of broken ground to force the pace while keeping out of sight of defending Italians above. Along the way the Germans passed scores of Italians, some armed and some not, making their way downhill. One Italian company engaged with Germans attacking from another direction surrendered when Rommel’s men appeared behind them. The WGB detachment brought up its machine guns, and Rommel was making final preparations to storm Matajur’s summit when what remained of the garrison there raised a white flag. At 11:40 the Germans sent up flares—three white, one green—announcing Matajur’s capture. Rommel gave his men a well-deserved hour’s rest, spent a few minutes admiring the spectacular views and settled in to write his report. Then, relieved by other German troops, the Rommel detachment moved slowly back down the Kolovrat ridge.
In a war in which gains were measured in hundreds of yards and losses in tens of thousands, the saga of the WGB reads like military melodrama. In the first 52 hours of the offensive Rommel and his men had traversed some 12 miles of Italian defenses, ascending 8,000 feet and descending 3,000. The Rommel detachment, never much more than 500 men at the contact point, had destroyed five Italian regiments, in the process capturing some 9,000 men and 81 guns. Total German casualties, once all stragglers reported, were six dead and 30 wounded.
Sprösser basked in an order of the day praising the WGB’s “resolute leader” and his “courageous officers” for playing the principal role in the collapse of Italian defenses across the sector. The collapse itself remains a point of controversy. Popular histories regularly ascribe it to low morale in the Italian units following the spread of defeatism among the soldiers, though that is an egregious oversimplification. Italy’s war to date, characterized by headdown frontal attacks and draconian punishments for failure, did little to prepare its officers for the situations they faced in October 1917. For example, the Italian high command had rushed the garrison of Matajur into the line with no time to reconnoiter the position or evaluate its defenses. Anxiety and uncertainty are war’s most contagious diseases. Small wonder that substantial numbers of Italians, losing confidence in the army’s culture of competence, straggled to the rear from exhaustion and confusion.
The WGB pressed forward. On November 9–10 Rommel replicated at the town of Longarone his downhill dash of October, this time taking 10,000 prisoners and 200 machine guns. But the Central Powers’ offensive was running out of steam, as had each previous one. Their supply lines were overextended. Winter was coming. More important, the Italians were finding their feet. They were no longer the obliging enemy who left gaps for Rommel’s patrols to discover and who surrendered to a waving handkerchief. Sprösser, moreover, had reached a point where he took as given “the tested and brilliant Rommel would find a way to break through” no matter the circumstances. A bloody nose at Monte Salarol on November 25 was a signal it was time to rest.
By then Rommel, Sprösser and the WGB had achieved folkloric renown along the battle line. On December 13 Sprösser announced to the WGB that he and Rommel had each been awarded the German Pour le Mérite (aka “Blue Max”). Originally reserved for senior officers in recognition of major victories, the Blue Max was being increasingly awarded to deserving junior officers at all levels. It recognized performance, not heroism, and two recipients in a single battalion was an unheard-of honor. When on December 18 the WGB’s mail caught up, it included two small packages, each containing one of the coveted medals—not exactly a formal award ceremony. But though the record is silent on the subject, it seems a reasonable assumption that the WGB’s Christmas celebration was correspondingly enhanced.
The WGB was transferred to the Western Front, where it fought until the 1918 Armistice. Rommel eventually earned promotion to captain and was assigned to the staff of a rear-echelon corps headquarters. It would seem appropriate had the duty been a recognition of his special talent, a talent worth placing in a safe job and cultivating. In fact, the promotion and transfer were routine. Rommel spent the war’s final weeks as just another junior officer, moving file folders instead of combat teams. He did lecture on his Italian experiences, though no one seemed particularly interested. But unlike many of his counterparts, Rommel survived the carnage of World War I to dwell on and draw lessons from his front-line years.
His conclusions were basic but significant: Emphasize surprise, speed and initiative; paralyze and demoralize the enemy; win the tactical battle as a necessary condition for operational and strategic success. Years later these principles—applied in the context of internal-combustion engines, tracked vehicles and field radios—would place Rommel among history’s most feared and respected tank commanders. But the man who ultimately became the “Desert Fox” learned his craft on foot in the rugged mountains of northern Italy, one bloody fight at a time.
For further reading Dennis Showalter recommends his own Hitler’s Panzers: The Lightning Attacks that Revolutionized Warfare, as well as Infantry Attacks, by Erwin Rommel; Rommel and Caporetto, by John Wilks and Eileen Wilks; and Futility Ending in Disaster, by Gaetano V. Cavallaro.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.