Bernard Montgomery was one of the British top Generals during WWII — commander of the Eight Army known as the Desert Rats. Erwin Rommel was a German Field Marshal during that same era. Seen as one of the most able commanders of the enemy forces during WWII, he was greatly known as the Desert Fox.
Montgomery and Rommel were great adversaries in the WWII front lines; their sons, on the other hand, David Bernard Montgomery and Manfred Rommel had developed a strong bond — a friendship that transcended even one of the world’s biggest wars.
“One of my father’s sadnesses was that he never met Rommel. Rommel was not a Nazi. He was a professional soldier. And he had much more in common with my father than the Nazi leadership,” ” stated the 2nd Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, recalling the past on the evening of this year’s Remembrance Day event.
The two WWII prominent warriors’ lives took on different turns — Montgomery’s acts during the war were very much celebrated and led him to become the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Meanwhile, Rommel was severely wounded while marshaling Normandy’s defense against the attacks brought upon by D-Day. However, instead of receiving a hero’s welcome from his comrades, he was accused of treachery.
October 14, 1944 – While recovering from his wounds at his home in Herrlingten, southern Germany, two generals from Hitler’s headquarters came along with a bunch of soldiers which surrounded his home. Both the German warrior and his 15-year-old son who just came from a walk that day knew then and there that something was not right. But Rommel talked with the two Nazi officers alone and 45 minutes later, his father came to him and said goodbye. Manfred watched his father walking away from him.
Under suspicions of planning to assassinate Hitler, the German dictator wanted Rommel dead. But because the latter was a national hero, he had to kill him quietly – forcing him to commit suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill and in return, the soldier’s family would be left unharmed. After his death, Rommel was given a state funeral and his death was blamed on heart attack after a car crash.
Manfred knew the real reason for his father’s death. But it was only after more than 35 years that he was able to confide his story to a trusted friend – this friend was David Bernard Montgomery.
Montgomery and Rommel, WWII adversaries, may not have met face-to-face but their sons did. And more than that, the two became fast friends.
The Start of the Friendship
“We first met in 1979 when he came on an official visit to Britain. We were the same age, to within three months. We were the only sons of famous, opposing generals. We had a great deal in common,” Montgomery, 85, recalled. Manfred was mayor of Stuttgart at that time.
That first meeting was the start of over 30 years of friendship.
They often dropped on each other and maintained a constant correspondence which, Montgomery laughingly said, had to be in English since German wasn’t his “strongest suit”. When Montgomery had a chance to visit Rommel in his beautiful hillside home just outside of Stuttgart where the latter developed his liking for poetry and painting, he saw no obvious monument for the Generalfeldmarschall.
However, their military heritage held a significant positions in both men’s lives.
“Our fathers are ever present in our lives. Manfred was very thoughtful. He’d written a book about his father,” Montgomery stated.
Montogomery had, too — the book was entitled Monty, the Lonely Leader, adding:
“It is very lonely at the top. It’s like Truman said: ‘The buck stops here.’”
As their friendship developed, Rommel began to confide to lord Montgomery the account of what happened to his father October of 1944 – how his father was forced to chose suicide after a show trial.
“After Rommel was wounded in 1944, Manfred saw a lot of him. They had long conversations which Manfred told me about. Manfred must have known what was going to happen. A horrible experience,” Montgomery said.
Friendship that Transcended Beyond the Borders of War
Both Rommel and Montgomery turned towards building harmony and remembrance after the war. They attended Eight Army Association reunions held in Blackpool together. Any hints that that the son of the Desert Fox’s son would not be received in these gatherings were immediately dismissed.
As what Lord Montgomery put it:
“You see the desert war was quite different from other battles. It was conducted in a different way to other fronts. The reunion was a very popular event and well attended. Manfred greatly enjoyed it.”
The warmth which their friendship exuded started major observances for El Alamein. In 2002, both of them stood side by side in Westminster Abbey to commemorate the said event 60 years after the 12-day battle that spawned the desert war.
Lord Montgomery read from Isaiah 35:
“The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose…”
Rommel’s read passage was from Romans 12:
“Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love…”
Sadly, Rommel was not be able to attend this year’s Remembrance Day this year and will not be able to in the years ahead.
For many years, Rommel suffered from Parkinson’s disease and a few days ago had succumbed to it – he passed away last November 7.
Now, he, too will be among those who will be remembered fondly. After all, he did serve during WWII – at age 14, he was pressed into manning an AA battery for the German Luftwaffe.
Most of all, he was a friend. That is how Lord Montgomery will always remember him — as his dear friend; not a soldier and not even the son of his father’s wartime enemy in the battlefield.
“I’m so very sad he’s gone. He was a great friend. And a great man,” he states.