Who Shot Rommel?
A New Look at the Evidence by Reginald Byron, Archivist.
At the time of Operation Overlord, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel was commander of the German forces in Normandy. The strafing of his staff car on 17 July 1944 is one of the most legendary incidents of the Second World War, not only because it removed one of Germany’s most capable senior commanders from the field at a critical moment which may well have helped the Allies break through the Axis defences, but also because, ever since, there has been uncertainty, controversy, and claim-and-counterclaim about who is to be credited with it.
The bare facts of the case, insofar as I have been able to establish some consensus about them from the sources I have seen, are that Rommel’s car was attacked south of Livarot on the N179 in the direction of Vimoutiers near the village of Ste Foy de Montgommery sometime between 5.00 and 7.30 pm. The aircraft appear to have been Spitfires. The car was forced off the road and Rommel was thrown out of it, suffering serious head injuries. He survived, only to die by his own hand three months later. Hitler had come to suspect Rommel of having been complicit in the von Stauffenberg Bomb Plot of 20 July, and in October gave him an ultimatum: the choice of a hero’s state funeral or being hanged as a conspirator.
In the seven decades since the event, at least eight claims have been made about the identity of the pilot who strafed Rommel’s car. Within hours of the news report that Rommel’s car had been hit, the Americans claimed that one of their P-47 pilots was responsible. Capt. Ralph C. Jenkins of the 510th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, Ninth Air Force, reported shooting up a German staff car in the St Lô area and on a second pass is said to have seen bodies strewn in the road.
The Jenkins claim has since been re-told many times and has become something of a legend. The problem is that St Lô is 30 miles to the west of Ste Foy de Montgommery, which on the best evidence available today is the place where the incident happened. Jenkins may well have shot up a staff car, but it was in the wrong place for it to have been Rommel’s. And it is nowadays thought by most of those who have looked into matter that the attacking aircraft were Spitfires, whose size, shape, and sound are not easily confused with Thunderbolts. Two Spitfire squadrons are known to have flown armed reconnaissance sorties that afternoon in the neighbourhood in question, looking for enemy aircraft and other targets of opportunity behind enemy lines. Pilots of both No. 412 (RCAF) Squadron and No. 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron are said to have attacked staff cars on sweeps about two hours apart. The earlier sweep was by 602 Squadron, the later one by 412 Squadron. Both seem to have been in the right place, and involved the right kind of aircraft. Claims that the staff cars they hit were Rommel’s have been made in respect of both squadrons. More than 70 years after the event, can we disentangle what has been said about these claims, narrow down the possibilities still further, and say anything new? Let us see.
First, let us look at the 602 Squadron claim. The page for 17 July 1944 in the 602 Squadron Operations Record Book, Form 540, summarising the events of the day, mentions three staff cars. Squadron Leader J. J. le Roux “destroyed a staff car and a motor cyclist”, and Flying Officer Bruce Oliver is credited with bombing one staff car and strafing a second one. As to the location of the staff car that le Roux attacked, nothing is said in the ORB. Oliver’s two staff cars were noted as having been hit “near Falaise” but it is unclear from the wording in the ORB whether this location refers to both staff cars, or only to the one that was strafed.
The Form 540 does not say when these staff cars were hit, or during which of the four sorties the squadron put up that day. Form 541 (Detail of Work Carried Out) lists the pilots for each sortie and the take-off and landing times, but says nothing at all about staff cars or other vehicles, mentioning only the enemy aircraft destroyed, damaged, or probable. However, we can draw some useful information from Form 541. It shows that Chris le Roux flew two sorties: the first was from 15.40 to 16.50 and the second (which was the fourth and last sortie put up by the squadron that day) from 22.10 to 22.40. The staff car credited to him could have been hit on either of these sorties; there is no way of knowing which it was from the information given. Bruce Oliver flew only one sortie that day, a front line patrol, which took off at 19.30 and landed at 20.30, so both staff cars credited to him must have been hit during this one-hour window. Can the pilots’ flying log books shed more light? Chris le Roux was killed later in 1944, and the whereabouts of his log book, if it still exists, are unknown. Bruce Oliver died in a flying accident in 1958. The No. 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron Museum Association has a copy of the relevant page of Oliver’s flying log book and kindly supplied us with a copy of it. It records his participation in the front line patrol that evening and the shooting-down of an Fw190, but nothing is noted about vehicles on the ground. Oliver’s Combat Report, lodged with Air Intelligence following that sortie, claims the Fw190 shot down but again makes no mention of staff cars or other vehicles.
I have looked for an official German incident report which might give more precise details about the time of the attack, but without success. If such a report exists, for the moment it is not available to us and we shall have to make do with other evidence. According to the eyewitness testimony of Karl Hulke, who was interviewed in 2001 and was one of Rommel’s bodyguards travelling in the same car, the attack occurred “schon abend” or well after 17.00, the hour at which Germans customarily begin to use the greeting “Guten Abend” rather than “Guten Tag”.
We know that the car started its journey at St Pierre-sur-Dives, where Rommel had had a meeting with SS Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich, at around 16.00. According to Hauptmann Lang, another passenger in Rommel’s car, several detours were necessary that day and progress was slow; it took at least two hours to reach Ste Foy de Montgommery, the point at which the attack took place, making it by his estimation 18.00 or later. By that time, Chris le Roux’s afternoon sortie had been back on the ground for more than an hour, perhaps two hours.
Form 541 makes it plain that there were no Spitfires of 602 Squadron in the air between 16.50 when le Roux’s sweep landed and 19.30 when Bruce Oliver’s patrol took off. The 19.30 take-off would put the time of the Rommel incident later than is generally thought, but might just be possible. According to Form 540, Oliver attacked two staff cars on that early evening patrol. But there is no mention of staff cars in Form 541, or in his log book, or in the Combat Report that followed his debriefing interview by an Air Intelligence officer. These three other surviving pieces of official documentary evidence do not support what is said in Form 540. All we can conclude is that it is an open verdict on the 602 Squadron claim.
Let us, then, look at the 412 Squadron claim. In 2003, Lance Russwurm, the Canadian artist, put up a website showing his new painting of Rommel’s car under attack by two Spitfires of 412 (RCAF) Squadron. It depicted Charley Fox in the leading Spitfire, firing his guns at a large black convertible. That Charley Fox might have been the pilot who shot up Rommel’s car had been known locally for years. Russwurm says that everyone who knew Charley knew the story, but that Charley had never mentioned the incident publicly because he had very mixed feelings about it. Charley felt, among other things, that by injuring Rommel at that moment he had reduced the likelihood of an early surrender to the western Allies and may have prolonged the war by many months at the cost of countless lives. Lance Russworm had known Charley Fox, and his story, for ten years but only in 2002 did Charley agree, at last, to authorise Lance to do a painting of the incident and to tell his story to the world. Lance says,
“Charley laughed when I said the release of this story would make him a star — at least in military history circles. But I did keep insisting that we had better be very sure of our facts, and that the only one that had not been substantiated was the time-of-day business. Charley told me that he’d have to find out where the records were — he didn’t know at the time if they would be in Canada or England. At some later point, someone involved in our project (probably Charley) asked [Michel] Lavigne about this. Lavigne said that he was going [to Ottawa] to check the records on another matter and that he would find out for us.
“I remember Charley being elated when we got the results. The last obstacle had been removed. Charley had been at the right time and place. So, it was the imminent release of the print of the incident that led to us asking Mr Lavigne to check the facts.”
Lavigne had checked the page for 17 July 1944 in the Operations Record Book of No. 412 (RCAF) Squadron in the National Archives of Canada, which put a flight of a dozen Spitfires in the air at the right time and in the right place for the “staff car” mentioned in Fox’s flying log book to have been Rommel’s. The armed recce Fox had flown took off at 18.20 and returned at 19.35. The timings of this 412 Squadron sweep slot in between the 602 Squadron sorties, covering the later half of the gap from 16.50 to 19.30 and fit the general consensus on the time of the attack on Rommel’s car as being sometime between 17.00 and 19.30. The circumstantial evidence supporting the 412 Squadron claim is, then, much stronger than the 602 Squadron claim. In an interview with Lance Russwurm, Fox is quoted as saying:
“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 Bény-sur-Mer, just inland from Juno beach in Normandy.
“Three sections of four aircraft, led by our CO, Squadron Leader Jack Sheppard, got airborne and then broke up into three separate flights. These were led by the CO, Flight Lieutenant Rob Smith DFC, 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. [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. Okay, end of story, as far as I was concerned.”
Fox is also quoted by David McKittrick, in The Independent’s obituary of him in November 2008, as saying:
“I timed the shots so that I was able to fire and get him as the car came through a small opening in the trees. I got him on that pass. We were moving pretty fast, but I knew I got him. I saw hits on the car and I saw it start to curve and go off the road.”
There is more to the story. In May 1997, a former Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, Edward L. Prizer, and his wife Artice, visited the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum on a holiday trip to England from their home in Florida. Mr Prizer later wrote to the Museum, enclosing a four-page typescript recounting his experiences while stationed at Tangmere with 412 Squadron during the build-up to Operation Overlord in May and June 1944. This letter and typescript lay in one of the Museum’s storerooms until January 2011 when it was gathered up, along with hundreds of other loose documents that had accumulated here and there round the Museum, to be catalogued and filed in our document archive. As the Museum’s archivist, I read the letter and typescript when they came my way, and guessed that they had been written by a practised and possibly professional writer; a journalist, perhaps. I decided to see if I could find out a little more about Mr Prizer’s wartime career, and began to do some research on the Internet. I discovered that both Mr Prizer and his wife died a few years ago, and that he had indeed been a journalist — first with the Associated Press in New York during the postwar years, and later as the proprietor and editor of the city magazine in Orlando, Florida.
And, completely unexpectedly, his name came up on a Czech website concerned with the strafing of General Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s staff car on 17 July 1944. The website showed a scan of the page of the 412 Squadron ORB — the same page that had been referred to by Lance Russwurm and Michel Lavigne in connection with Charley Fox. On it was Prizer’s name, next to Fox’s, showing that the two of them took off and landed at exactly the same times on that sortie.
Could Ed Prizer have been Charley Fox’s wingman when Rommel’s car was shot up? Or at least an eyewitness to the incident? The address given on Mr Prizer’s letter was, by now, fourteen years old and I knew that both Mr and Mrs Prizer had died in the meantime and had had no children. But a little more research on the Internet revealed other Prizers living in the same town in Florida and also revealed, through a genealogical website, that Ed Prizer had been born in North Carolina and had at least one sibling, a brother named John M. Prizer. Among the Prizers living in the same town in Florida where Ed and his wife had lived was John M. Prizer, Jr. I wondered if this might be a nephew of Ed’s, so I wrote a letter to him.
It was indeed Ed’s nephew, who replied immediately, surprised and delighted to learn that there was a possibility his uncle might have been Charley Fox’s wingman on that sortie. Ed himself had never mentioned it, so far as the family knew, but fortunately Ed’s wartime diary, flying log book and some photographs of him in his RCAF days were located, still in the family, having been saved by Ed’s sister’s daughter Page Worthen. A flurry of e-mails, scans and photocopies then followed, including this scan of his flying log book covering the day in question: At the same time, I contacted Lance Russwurm. I asked Lance if he knew who Charley’s wingman was on that sortie. Charley had said, initially, that it would have been his usual wingman, Steve Randall, but when he was shown the page from the ORB he realised that he had misremembered. Steve Randall, the ORB showed, hadn’t flown on that sortie. In April 2003 Charley wrote in his album, “According to the records an American — Ed Priser [sic] — serving in the RCAF was my number two, putting us in the air at the right time and place agreeing with the German records.”
There is no doubt that Charley Fox fired at the car, apparently with his 20 mm guns only. But did Ed also shoot at it? Ed used the words “attacked . . . with Fox” in his log book, words which, while slightly ambiguous, would be understood by most people as meaning both fired at the target, not just one of them. It is too late now to ask him, of course. But Ed Prizer did write in his diary on 31 July 1944:
“Days have been passing by, with our armies rolling along, sometimes by yards and recently by miles. News comes in of rebellions in Germany [the Bomb Plot of 20 July] and Rommel wounded by strafing. Perhaps the old boy was in a car our squadron attacked, perhaps one of mine. Probably never know.”
Indeed we may not. What we do know for certain is that Fox and Prizer attacked a staff car in the right place and at the right time for it to have been Rommel’s, but at that moment neither pilot could have known, and did not claim to know, that it was Rommel’s. Although we can never be absolutely certain, the circumstances fit together nicely, strongly suggesting that either Fox, or Fox and Prizer together, hit Rommel’s car.