• Rommel’s Third Nerve Palsy

    Written By: Alfredo A. Sadun, MD, PhD and Arthur Vallejo, MD

    In the waning days of World War II, Germany was collapsing, but Hitler was intransigent, and by some accounts, insane. He would not negotiate peace on either front. Many German leaders wanted a separate peace and hoped to stop the blood-letting in France. They knew that with the success of the Normandy invasion, now reinforced through several ports, defeat for the Third Reich was inevitable. It was up to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the best German general, or at least the most respected, to do one of three things. 

    Details of the first steps are controversial, but simply put, Rommel was probably part of the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler in a military coup. The second and third parts of Rommel’s plan were to make a separate peace with Eisenhower, and barring that, to simply pull his forces aside and then negotiate or surrender his army. Rommel wanted to bring the hostilities to a conclusion and prevent further needless causalities. He not only wanted to spare his troops, but preferred that the English-speaking Allies conquer Germany. He, like other German generals, thought the western Allies to be civilized, but they had a lot to fear from the Russians.

    But, as we shall see, Rommel was in no shape to pull off any of these three plans. What follows is the story of what kept him from a destiny that likely would have saved thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of German lives and averted the Soviet Union's post-war domination of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union.   

    Rommel began his career with a distinguished military performance in World War I, where he demonstrated courage, leadership and a genius for tactics. This genius was further evidenced in World War II, when Rommel led a Panzer division that captured many French towns and Allied soldiers. In 1941, Rommel assumed command of the Afrika Korps in North Africa. During his two-year tenure, he played havoc with the English and later the Americans in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria.

    Notwithstanding that he had fewer troops and poor supplies, he demonstrated his tactical genius, especially in regard to tank warfare in the desert. This lead to his designation as the “Desert Fox.” Ultimately, it was Hitler’s failure to provide promised reinforcements and the abysmal lack of air cover that betrayed him and his troops.

    In 1943, Rommel was put in charge of the defense of “Fortress Europe.” He energetically applied himself to the construction of the Atlantic Wall, with the intention to frustrate any attempt by Eisenhower and the Allies to invade mainland Europe. His military genius was matched by the great level of respect he enjoyed from his soldiers and other generals. Of equal importance, the western Allies respected Rommel, too, impressed by his humane treatment of prisoners and civilians. Rommel even directly defied Hitler when the latter initiated a new German policy that called for executing commandos and civilians on the spot. Hence, Rommel was ideally positioned to lead a military coup against Hitler, to negotiate with Eisenhower or, at the very least, to surrender his troops in the West.

    On June 6, 1944, the Allies' invasion of Normandy succeeded despite the Atlantic Wall. Two weeks later, Rommel and fellow Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt met with and told Hitler that they had lost Western Front was lost. In July, Rommel warned Hitler again. By now, Rommel had grown completely disillusioned with Hitler. He became aware of many war crimes ordered by Hitler, of the concentration camps and of Hitler’s refusal to allow German forces to surrender. So now Rommel specified to his son that his loyalty was to Germany and not to Hitler the man. The latter had now broken his trust with the German people by desiring national suicide, so it was time for Rommel to save Germany.

    It's likely that Rommel opposed assassinating Hitler and favored an arrest and trial. But on July 20, 1944, an attempt to assassinate Hitler failed. Ultimately, Hitler concluded that Rommel was a conspirator and allowed him to commit suicide while under arrest.  But three days before the assassination attempt, an incident happened that probably shaped the course of subsequent events.

    On July 17, 1944, Rommel was riding an open staff car on an inspection of the lines. He habitually rode up front by the driver, where he liked to give map directions. During the drive, either an English Spitfire or an American P-47 attacked the staff car. After a shot hit the driver, he lost control of the car, which swerved and crashed into a tree stump. This launched Rommel forward and into the right edge of the windshield. He struck the windshield frame with the left side of his head and was knocked unconscious. 

    After Rommel was rushed to a makeshift hospital, doctors concluded that he had fractured his temporal and petrous bones on the left side of the head and that the fracture extended to the left orbital wall. Deep in a deep coma and diagnosed with cerebrospinal fluid rhinorrhea, Rommel's doctors expected him to die.

    However, in the next few days he made some recovery. The CSF leak stopped and he regained consciousness. Indeed, a week later, though suffering from pain and a complete left third and sixth nerve palsies, Rommel tried to make a public appearance. However, he was not allowed to make any broadcasts. By now, he was implicated as a co-conspirator of Hitler’s assassination attempt and kept under house arrest.  He met with his son, who wrote down his words: “I still get headaches and my left eye is closed and won’t move. But it will all get better.”

    On Oct. 14, General Wilhelm Burgdorf visited Rommel at home and allowed him a moment to tell his wife: “I have come to say goodbye. In a quarter of an hour I shall be dead. The Führer has given me the choice of taking poison…” 

    Hitler later claimed that Rommel died from his head trauma. But his third nerve palsy wasn’t fatal.

    The real tragedy is that this head trauma and third nerve palsy put Rommel out of action at the very time that he could have led the German military toward an honorable surrender to Eisenhower and the Western Allies. It is interesting to speculate that, had Rommel evaded serious injury, he could have saved many lives and the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.