Normandy, July 17, 1944. It is just over a month since the allies landed on D-Day. Field Marshal Rommel is in charge of the German defenses. He has been travelling hundreds of kilometers a day, meeting with his battle commanders, doing what he can, for a war that he knows is lost.
Late in the day, he is returning to his headquarters at La Chateau Roche-Guyon. Travel is risky, the Allies have total air superiority.
On this beautiful clear afternoon in the French countryside, the Desert Fox's luck is about to run out. Two Canadian Spitfires from 412 Squadron have spotted the staff car and are curving in to the attack.....
The Full Story
Normandy, July 17, 1944.
Late in the day, slightly more than a month after the Allied landings on D-Day, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was returning to his Headquarters at La Roche-Guyon. His abilities as a brilliant tactician in North Africa and France, his loyal service in two wars had made him an idol to the German people. Respected by both sides as the "Desert Fox, the general had been in charge of the defenses at Normandy since January. He had known then that an Allied attack was imminent and, that the invasion had to be stopped at the beach or the war would be lost for Germany. His calls for strong reserve forces to be sent to the area had fallen on deaf ears. Hitler didn't want his Panzers tied down. It was possible that the landings would occur elsewhere.
Rommel, of course, had been proven correct. In spite of the best efforts of the forces under him, the Allies were breaking out everywhere. They enjoyed total air superiority and their ground attack aircraft were roaming at will over the countryside, shooting up anything that moved. The ditches were filled with the smoking hulks of destroyed vehicles.
The Field Marshal was travelling hundreds of kilometers each day meeting with his battle commanders, doing what he could, in a war that he knew was lost. On this day, he had just left the Command Post of the 1st SS Panzer Corps led by Sepp Dietrich.
An interesting conversation had been overheard by Captain Helmuth Lang, who was accompanying Rommel that day. Dietrich was asked if he would follow Rommel's orders....even if they disagreed with directives given by the Fuhrer. Surprisingly, because he had long held a reputation as a loyal Nazi, Sepp's answer was that he would obey Rommel...in whatever he was planning.
What was Rommel planning for the future? ...a future in which he knew that German defeat was inevitable? Was he involved in the bomb plot against Hitler? Did he intend to secretly enter into peace negotiations with the Allies?
The Sepp Dietrich conversation was merely the last of many. He had been feeling out the generals under him for clues as to their ultimate loyalty.
So few snatches of conversation are on record... and most of those who were privy to them are no longer with us. Today, it is doubtful if we will ever know what really was on his mind. He was against murder for political ends, and, after all, he owed so much to the Fuhrer for so many of his early career advancements. Although he must have known about the various plots being hatched, it is extremely unlikely that he would have been a knowing participant in any scheme to assassinate Hitler.
He had been heard to say that his participation in a negotiated peace with the Allies was a possibility, but only on condition that they join Germany in fighting Russia. This action would almost certainly plunge the Fatherland into a civil war. In any event, the Allies weren't interested in anything but unconditional surrender...or, so they said.
It was all to become irrelevant anyway....
When Rommel's party was leaving, Sepp Dietrich suggested that they not take the main road. Also, they should ride in a Kübelwagon (Germany's answer to the Jeep) in order to be less conspicuous. The Field Marshal imperiously waved off such a suggestion. They departed, as usual, in his personal car, a large open Horch.
Rommel sat in the front, as was his habit. He liked to keep a map on his knee, so he could do the navigating. At the wheel was his regular driver, Daniel. In the back were staff members Captain Lang, Major Neuhaus and Feldwebel Hoike (who was there specifically as an aircraft lookout).
On N179, just out of Livarot, fate finally caught up with the Desert Fox.....
As the lookout shouted an alarm, two Canadian Spitfires from 412 Squadron came diving down in a curving attack from behind and to the left. At about 300 yards, Charley Fox, in the lead aircraft, squeezed off a brief burst from his 20 mm cannon. That was enough.
Daniel, seriously wounded, lost control of the speeding car. It hurtled on for several hundred yards before finally crashing into the ditch. Captain Lang escaped unhurt, Neuhaus with minor injuries. Daniel was to die shortly afterwards.
Field Marshal Rommel was thrown against the windshield post, sustaining serious head injuries. His career was over.
At first, his survival was in doubt but prompt first aid and a strong constitution prevailed. He slowly began to recover.
Unfortunately, on July 20, the bomb plot against Hitler failed. In the ensuing head-rolling horror unleashed by the Gestapo, some of the conspirators began to sing like proverbial canaries…and Rommel's name kept coming up. Slowly convalescing, the general was in no position to defend himself. He was probably unaware of the gravity of the situation.
Hitler, now paranoid and convinced of the treachery of everyone around him, gave the final orders.
On October 14, 1944, at his home, Rommel received two visitors from Berlin. They took him aside and informed him that he had been accused of complicity in the bomb plot. He was told that dragging down their hero at this time would devastate the German people, so he was given a grim choice....face trial and public disgrace for himself and his family…or…do the "honourable" thing and die at his own hand. In the second case, his death would be listed as having occurred from "natural causes", he would be given a state funeral and his family would be provided for.
A gentleman to the end, Rommel naturally chose the latter. The party kept its word on this one. The state funeral was duly held and it was announced that the General had died from the injuries sustained in the car crash. The true facts didn't come out until much later.
A couple of the "canaries" went on to illustrious post-war careers. In spite of the fact that there was no real evidence, they steadfastly maintained that Rommel had been involved in the bomb plot. It certainly didn't hurt their positions (postwar, at least!) to have been connected with it. And, somehow, certain key files that could have shed some light seem to have mysteriously disappeared after the war.
Lance Russwurm, © 2003
Rommel Under Attack - Charley's story
There have been others who claimed to have made the fateful attack on General Rommel on July 17, 1944. Their claims, for one reason or another, haven’t held up through the years. That leaves Charley Fox , D.F.C and Bar, of 412 (Canadian) squadron.
Charley was in exactly the right place at the right time. His logbook entry for the day says he was flying his usual aircraft (VZ-F) on armed recce duty. Time in the air was 1:15. Under the “results and remarks” column is the seemingly routine entry “1 staff car destroyed”. A question mark, added later, precedes the word “Rommel”, and then….the word “Yes”.
Charley’s telling of the story contradicts many of the published versions, in some of the details. Many of these seem to be re-writes of the same account.
Why did Charley not come forward before? Following, in his own words, are his thoughts on the matter…..
“Field Marshal Rommel was respected by both sides as “The Desert Fox”. According to some researchers, he had the promise of 11 of the 12 Generals under him, that, if it came to a choice, they would follow his orders, rather than Hitler's directives. He was convinced that if he did as Hitler wanted, many of his men would be killed, and his army wiped out. The Falaise Gap slaughter in August of that year proved him to be right. There were rumours that he was prepared to meet General Montgomery secretly, in person, to arrange for an "Honourable Cease Fire" to end the war.
Many veterans in the three services, including myself, had feelings of guilt, and did not like to talk about their war experiences because of the big question: "Why not me?"
"Why did my friends, my buddies in various services...why did my squadron or my wing members die? ...and not me?”
In recent years, doing colour commentaries at air shows, I have come to the conclusion that my mission is to make sure that all the stories I know get told... that the record gets set straight for posterity. To this end, I am currently working on a book: “Untold Stories – Unsung Heroes”.
"Here are my recollections of the events of July 17, 1944….
In the late afternoon, 412 (Canadian) Spitfire Squadron took off on an armed "recce". We were part of 126 Wing, 2nd Tactical Air Force, based at Beny-Sur-Mur, just inland from Juno beach in Normandy.
Three sections of four aircraft, led by our C/0, S/L leader Jack Shepherd, got airborne and then broke up into three separate flights. These were led by the C/0, F/L Rob Smith D.F.C. and myself.
I spotted a large black car travelling at high speed along a road with trees on either side. It was coming towards us, on my left, at about 11 o'clock. I maintained steady, level flight until the vehicle passed us at 9 o'clock. I then began a curving, diving attack to my left, with my number two following to watch my tail. The other two aircraft maintained their height, keeping an eye out for enemy activity. I started firing at approximately 300 yards, and hit the staff car, causing it to crash. At the time, I had no idea who it was...just a large black open car...gleaming in the sun without any camouflage, which was unusual.
The Americans claimed that one of their P-47s had shot up Rommel.
OK... end of story, as far as I was concerned.
However... .A day or so later, in reporting the attack on Rommel, the Germans specifically said, "No! It was a Spitfire that had done it!"
Meanwhile, things were happening rapidly on the war front. Our wing and others were flying constantly, two and three trips a day. As we were based close to the front lines with the Navy in the Channel, every night was filled with constant bombardment. We only dozed, and got very little real sleep. At the time, the question of "Who got Rommel?" was not a priority.
As the war of liberation progressed, and with the sequence of events that followed Rommel's recovery, it became even less important.
Later, word got out about General Rommel being implicated in the assassination attempt on Hitler. He was given the choice to commit suicide or be executed. I never felt comfortable about the attack... because of the man, the soldier that Rommel was. And, because of the events of that day, there will always be the big question…
What if I hadn't made a successful attack? What if he hadn't been hurt? What if the Field Marshal had talked to Monty? What if?... ..What if?...... What if?
Charley Fox, with Lance Russwurm © 2002
a short Biography
Charles W. Fox, D.F.C. & Bar
1920 - 2008
Charley Fox was born February 1920, in Guelph, Ontario. He signed up with the R.C.A.F. in the spring of 1940. He was an instructor at Dunnville, Ontario from October 1941 to May 1943 when he went to an Operational Training Unit at Bagotville, Quebec. While there, on June 1st, he had a narrow escape when a Hurricane collided in mid-air with the Harvard he was flying. Although injured, he was able to bail out safely.
In August 1943, he went overseas and checked out on Spitfires. In January, 1944, he began his tour with 412 Squadron. Charley served continuously on ops until January 1945. His duties included escort, armed recce and dive bombing. On D-Day, he flew three times.
On June 18, 1944, the squadron moved to B4 airstrip in Normandy at Beny-Sur-Mer.
He specialized in ground attack and prided himself on accurate marksmanship. His success at this is neatly summed up in the official commendation for a bar to his DFC: “This officer has led his section against a variety of targets, often in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire. He has personally destroyed or damaged twenty-two locomotives and thirty-four enemy vehicles, bringing his total to 153 vehicles destroyed or damaged. In addition, he has destroyed at least a further three enemy aircraft and damaged two others. In December 1944, Flight Lieutenant Fox led his squadron on an attack against enemy airfields in the Munster area and personally destroyed another enemy aircraft, bringing his total to 4. Through his quick and accurate reporting, a further 4 enemy aircraft were destroyed. Since the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross, this officer has continued to display outstanding skill, coolness and determination.”
He ended his tour in January, 1945 at Heesch in Holland, after which he did a six week stint as a test pilot for # 410 Repair & Salvage Unit. Then he became Operations Officer in the Intelligence Section of 126 Wing. He was a member of the flight of four who flew the last operational sortie of the war for 126 Wing. (Landing at eight a.m. on May 5, 1945)
In the peacetime R.C.A.F. he served with 420 Reserve Squadron, flying Harvards, P-51 Mustangs and T-33 jets. He was instrumental in helping the squadron win the McBrine Marksmen Trophy for air to air and air to ground firing.
In September 1956, he began a career with a large shoe& slipper manufacturing firm. He retired in 1998.
His love of flying was pursued for many years as a member and past president of the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association.
In recent years, Charley acted as ground control for Harvard Formation Flypasts on special occasions for them. He also did colour commentaries at airshows throughout the United States. and Canada.
- Lance Russwurm
Charley Fox & Lance Russwurm sign limited edition prints of Lance's painting, "Rommel Under Attack"
I have been an artist/illustrator working out of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario for many years. I tend to specialize in historical and mechanical subject matter, but I also enjoy doing portraits, murals, airbrush jobs or anything else that comes up. I work mostly in acrylics, oils, watercolours, graphite and ink. I can take a photo if I have to, and can also do a bit of photo-retouching...but, mostly, I do things the traditional way.
All work shown is copyright © 2012 by Lance Russwurm