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.”