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Shalom, Erwin Rommel, the Great Desert Fox
Near San Moley, Normandy, France, May 1944
The air next to the sea always has the same smell. The air tastes of salt, mixed with the humid smell of coming rain. This was the smell of the Coastal Road, near the Libyan sea. It is the smell of Tobruk and Bizerte a well as the smell of the Norman coast.
The air is colder here. Storms form regularly in the Channel, blasting England and France alike with icy wind and cold rain. I noted with displeasure that the sky now exhibited the signs of yet another spell of icy misery as I stepped out of my staff car..
The captain straightened his uniform as I approached, obviously not expecting the presence of a Field Marshall. My unscheduled visits, as annoying as certain officers find them, keeps my men sharp and lets them know that the man on top knows what he's doing.
"Hail Hitler, GeneralFeldsMarschall Rommel." The captain made the obligatory salute.
I returned his salute in silence, a pained look on my face. Anger would again glint in my eyes if I spoke that b******'s name. Hitler, and the old man Rudstet too, positioned tanks, my tanks, where they would be useless, and gave me no supplies, and with nothing but my own enthusiasm and patriotic shouting expect me to repel the Allies when they come.
I said, "Walk with me, Hauptman." for that captain looked familiar to me. "Your were in Africa?"
The captain smiled. "15th Panzer.”
“Did I ever meet you there?”
His face flooded with mirth and embarrassment.
“I complained to you my tanks were running out of fuel. You said to take it from the British."
I chuckled as I did remember that day on the second sweep across the African desert. "Take it from the British. Those were better days, when we took from them. Captain, if they ever come here, they can only take from us. Don't let them come. Do you understand?"
We stopped next to the captain's makeshift command bunker. He looked out across the sea, mind far away. "Feldsmarschall? You said those were better days? There have not been better days since Alemein. British shell ripped through my tank, took part of my leg. Tank went up in flames. Lost my entire crew," the captain turned and looked at me, "But if there is any hope for us to have better days again, it lies with you. I'm glad you're in command, sir."
The words drove straight to my heart, precluded any bitter retort. I gained the confidence of these men. Perhaps we can win this battle.
We stepped into the bunker. The walls looked woefully thin. I felt a twinge of annoyance, especially from a veteran of Africa.
"Hauptman, why are your bunkers so thin? This won't withstand shelling from a destroyer, much less a British battle-fleet!" Several subordinates turned, startled once by my slightly raised voice, startled again at the sight of the Desert Fox.
The captain stood his ground. Good man.
"Sir, we were not provided with nearly enough concrete to fortify my position, nor the money to pay for French labor. Your directive to pay French workmen has been strictly obeyed. I filed several complaints and supply requests, and yet nothing has come through."
The captain's staff returned to their duties.
I turned to Speidel, just now stepping through the door. "Make sure that Hauptman..." I turned to the captain.
"Luck. Johannes Luck."
"...Luck gets the necessary supplies."
Speidel quickly passed the word to someone in the gaggle of officers that comprised my staff. I didn't feel sorry for the upbraiding he'd get later.
The captain had turned to listen to a subordinate. Upon receiving his answer, the Leutnant went back to his plotting chart. I walked up behind him and observed the young lieutenant's work. Every bunker in this stretch of beach was plotted on the map. I saw that he was using various tools to plot the fields of machine-gun fire from each emplacement, checking for gaps.
"The effective range of the MG 42 is twenty-seven meters longer than what you have plotted."
The lieutenant jumped. "Sir, my manual says—"
I grimaced. "Forget the manual. I know its range from what its operators have told me. Next time, go ask one of the corporals who use that machine-gun."
"Yes, sir." Visibly shaken, the lieutenant returned to his work.
I walked to the door. Speidel followed.
"Speidel, why don't you and the staff make sure the captain's needs are taken care of. Make sure he has enough rations, enough ammunition, enough machine-guns. I'm continuing the inspection. Alone."
"Yes, sir." Speidel walked back inside.
I walked towards the nearest bunker. Its walls were also very thin. Right inside the opening sat two soldiers, talking. They saw me and scrambled to stand at attention. I motioned for them to continue their conversation. I went on. A soldier stood on a ledge between the bunker wall and the small cliff overlooking the beach, smoking a cigarette, looking out to sea. I pulled a pack of cigarettes from my pocket and tossed them to him. A look of sheer shock spread across his face as I walked by towards the opening to his bunker.
"As you were, Grenadier."
The man returned to his meditation.
The low drone of aircraft engines rumbled from the sea. Instantly, a flight of Allied fighter-bombers swept overhead. Bombs ripped into the ground all along the beach. The bunker seemed to take a direct hit. A shock wave threw me to the ground.
Pain from the fall and old injuries rushed through my body, but no wounds or broken bones. I slowly pulled myself up.
Another Grenadier pulled me into the bunker opening. Bullets thudded into the ground where I had stood moments before.
I looked at my savior. Brown stubble on his chin, slightly large nose. I looked into his eyes, saw the spirit of a fighting man.
He nodded. A Star of David necklace slipped out from the front of his uniform. I suppressed my shock. I thanked God I hadn't let the SS purge my troops of “racial undesirables”. Now a Jew saved my life, and this young soldier was as good a fighting man as any of Hitler's SS thugs.
"Keep that hidden."
He fumbled with it, hid it back next to its hiding place next to his heart.
"Thank you, sir. For what you do to help us."
I smiled slightly. Hitler's anger...it was worth this young man's gratitude.
"I've heard stories, sir. When they deport us, they take us to Poland, they put us in camps...Death camps." The young man shivered.
Truth be told, I'd heard similar rumors...rumors that might be true. Rumors of ovens, slave labor, and gas. But once-brilliant Hitler, even that madman Himmler wouldn't go that far.
"I've heard rumors, but I pray that they are only rumors."
The corporal shuddered.
"What is your name corporal? How old are you?"
The corporal looked at me, returned my gaze, eyes full of strength. "David Gockel, sir. I'm 18."
“Well, Grenadier Gockel, I give you my highest thanks. You will fight well, when you are called to.”
The young man couldn't help breaking a smile.
“Thank you, GeneralFeldsMarschall Rommel. I will do my best to serve you, my country, and God, for are we not all soldiers, and Germans, and God's creatures?”
I would have picked a unit of men like him over the best of Himmlers' b****-born thugs any day.
“God bless you, Grenadier. As you were.”
As I walked away, I heard him say back, “May He bless you as well, sir.”
And then I heart him whisper, “Shalom, Erwin Rommel, the great Desert Fox.”