NEWSLETTER NO. 337
"Custer's Last Stand" has become the stuff of legend. In the D.D.H. lecture, Lt.Col. Ray Lotter unravelled this legend of Custer's involvement in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The battle took place against the background of the clash between American Indian and Western cultures. The Great Plains migratory tribes in the north-west with their dependence on the buffalo for food and clothing stood in the way of the European advance along the Bozeman Trail to the goldfields of Montana. Gen. W.T. Sherman proposed the alternatives for the Indians of living in reservations or being exterminated. The mobility of the cavalry was to be used to pursue the fleeing Indians, while the infantry manned the forts set up along the route.
The Sioux and Cheyenne, armed with their traditional weapons as well as European weapons, and mounted on swift ponies, moved westwards across Montana towards the Little Bighorn river where they congregated in great numbers. It was against these Sioux and Cheyenne that General P.H. Sheridan organised a campaign.
Lt. Col. G.A. Custer had risen quickly in the Civil War, becoming a Maj. Gen. at 25, under Sheridan. A brave man and an excellent horseman, he was, however, undisciplined, impulsive, opinionated and brutal. President Andrew Jackson posted him to Fort Riley with the 7th Cavalry from which he ordered the shooting of deserters and refused to go to the aid of the hard-pressed Major Joel Elliott. He was court-martialled, but given a lenient sentence. Custer also attacked Black Kettle's Cheyenne settlement, killing men, women and children. When Sheridan recalled Custer to take part in his anti-Indian campaign, the latter decided to retrieve his reputation.
Gen. A.H. Terry was to carry out Sheridan's operation against the Sioux and Cheyenne congregated up on a wide flood plain on the western side of the Little Bighorn River. Custer was to join the men under Col. J. Gibbon on Rosebud Creek. Gen. G. Crook was to come up from Fort Fetterman in the south. A skirmish took place between the Indians and Crook's men, but Crook beat off the Indians and withdrew.
At this point, a fatal mistake was made. Custer was allowed to continue on his own. Leaving his artillery and Gatling guns behind, he divided the 7th Cavalry into three battalions, leading 150 men under Major M.A. Reno. and 125 men under Capt F.W. Benteen. Benteen was sent to reconnoitre the flood plain and Reno to attack the Indian camp from the south. Custer was to give support, but instead he went on west of the Little Bighorn River.
Reno started the attack, formed a skirmish line and then ordered his men to mount to a new position. The Indians regrouped; whereat Reno crossed the river in panic, pursued by the enemy.
Custer to the north of him, perhaps trying to cross the ford towards the Indian encampment, reached a high point to the north-east. There the Indians overran the cavalry, and the battle ended in the valley. During the battle, Custer and all his men were killed. He had made two serious mistakes: splitting his forces and being over-confident without reason. These mistakes were consistent with his brave but reckless and foolhardy character.
Charles Whiteing gave the Main talk of the evening: The Death of the Desert Fox.
This rounded off two earlier talks concerning the actions in North Africa in which Rommel and the Afrika Korps played a major part.
On 17 July 1944, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, in command of the seventh Panzer Division in France, was severely wounded during an air attack, the aircraft flown by a South African pilot, Squadron Leader Chris le Roux of 602 Squadron.
By this time Rommel was convinced, that for Germany, the war in the West was lost and that Germany should make peace with the Western Allies, and concentrate on operations in the east. A secret anti-Hitler resistance movement comprising high-ranking officers and civilians was conspiring to kill Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime by force. These men attempted to enlist Rommel's aid as he was well respected by the Allies, and could therefore take part in peace negotiations with the West after the proposed coup d'etat. Rommel was opposed to any violent coup although he deplored the brutal actions of the SS and the Gestapo in Poland and Russia. He also opposed the involvement of the youth of the country in the Hitler Youth Movement.
On two occasions, the conspirators approached Rommel directly. Dr Karl Strolin, the Lord Mayor of Stuttgart harangued Rommel, his wife and son for five hours in their home. Rommel's Chief-of Staff in France, General Hans Speidel, approached Rommel through von Hofacker, Col. Von Stulpnagel's adjutant.
Von Hofacker mistakenly gained the impression that Rommel was willing to support the conspirators. He flew to Berlin on 11 July to brief Col. Von Stauffenberg and Dr Carl Goerderler, ex Mayor of Leipzig and the civilian head of the plot. Rommel however, favoured a political solution the end the war. Nevertheless on the 20 July 1944, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg made an unsuccessful attempt on Hitler's life at his "Wolf s Lair" headquarters near Rastenberg. Rommel was disgusted and shocked.
In August Rommel was discharged from hospital and was taken to his home in Germany where two brain specialists treated him. He was briefed daily on Army Group B's operations. None of the top Nazi leaders visited him. He recovered sufficiently to walk in his garden with his wife Lucie and his son Manfred who had been given leave from his Flak unit.
Late in August, the People's Court in Berlin condemned von Stulpnagel, von Hofacker and the other Paris conspirators to death, for their part in the plot to kill Hitler. Rommel's house was subjected to furtive surveillance by the Gestapo.
On 3 September Rommel was formally retired from the army, and Gen. Speidel informed him of his dismissal as Chief of Staff of Army Group B. Speidel was arrested for his involvement in the murder plot against Hitler, which Rommel found hard to believe.
The Nazis were closing in on Rommel. When he was summoned to Berlin on 10 October, he realised he would be in mortal danger, and at his request his doctors declared him unfit to travel. On 13 October he received a message from Field Marshal Keitel that Gen. Burgdorf would arrive the next day to discuss Rommel's future employment.
On Burgdorf's arrival he told Rommel that he had been accused of complicity in the plot on the Fuhrer's life, based on the testimonies of von Hofacker, Speidel, and von Stulpnagel. Burgdorf then conveyed Hitler's promise that if Rommel would commit suicide, his supposed treason would not be made public, and a monument would be erected in his memory. His wife and son Manfred would be unharmed, and Lucie Rommel would be entitled to a full Field Marshal's widow's pension. Burgdorf had brought poison capsules for the suicide.
Rommel was then given the opportunity to bid farewell to his wife and son. Lucie begged him to take the other option offered to him and be tried by a People's Court, but he said it was unlikely that he would reach Berlin alive. Escape was impossible as the Gestapo and the SS had surrounded the house and blocked the roads.
Rommel was taken by car in the direction of Wippengen, and where the road leaves the woods, the car stopped. Burgdorf sent his companions away so that he and Rommel were alone. He gave the poison to Rommel and he died. Rommel's body was delivered to the Reserve-Lanzeret in Ulm where his death was certified as heart failure. There was to be no post mortem and the body was to be cremated. Lucie Rommel was informed that her husband had died of a brain haemorrhage.
On 18 October, Rommel was given a state funeral in Ulm, and Hitler declared it a day of national mourning. As he lay in state in his open coffin, his Marshall's baton, helmet and decorations were displayed. His ashes were interred in the Herrlingen village churchyard, marked with the Knights Cross, which he had been awarded for bravery in France. After the war, the Wippengen municipality erected a monument to Rommel near the site of his death. The text, inscribed on a Panzer hatch reads: "During a ride up Wippengen hill, he was forced to commit suicide. He took poison to protect his family against the terror of an inhuman system. With his decision of conscience, he defeated this inhumanity."
Professor Philip Everitt thanked the speakers for their well-researched and informative talks.
This will be our Annual Base Visit scheduled for 1930 to the Durban Light Infantry Headquarters, at 6, DLI Avenue, Greyville.
Date:16/17 August 2003 covering:
THE BATTLE of THE THUKELA HEIGHTS and THE RELIEF of LADYSMITH.
The details of the Battlefield Tour were covered in last month's newsletter. To confirm, the meeting place will be at 0930 on Saturday 16 August, on the N3 at the Shell Ultra City Escourt.
Any member who still wants to go on the tour, please contact Ken Gillings on 083-654-5880.
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley, 101 Manning Road, Glenwood, Durban, 4001