In the summer of 1941, two groups of German and British soldiers met deep in the Libyan desert. Instead of shooting at each other, the enemies chatted and exchanged cigarettes before going their separate ways. What made the encounter all the more remarkable was that Erwin Rommel, the German commander in North Africa, was among them.
The story of a brief detente in the brutal desert war emerged yesterday after a similarly extraordinary meeting some 68 years later between a group of British veterans and Rudolf Schneider, a former Afrika Korps soldier who remembers the short-lived ceasefire because he was working that day as Field Marshal Rommel's personal driver. Touring the sands between Libya and Egypt in a captured British scout car, Mr Schneider spent two years as part of Rommel's elite protection force, driving up to 500 miles into the desert with the famous tactician beside him.
Speaking in the fluent English he learned as a sub-tropical agriculture student, Mr Schneider told The Independent that the chance rendezvous between Rommel, aka Desert Fox, and a British reconnaissance unit was one of two incidents that summed up both the humanity and the ruthlessness of the battle for North Africa. Mr Schneider, now 86, said: "The common soldiers did not act out of hate. When we met the English soldiers in the desert that time, we were far, far from anywhere. There was no reason to shoot. We swapped cigarettes and I talked with the English officers. But there were also times when we were shocked by the enemy.
"Rommel enjoyed touring the front lines. We would go deep into the desert to explore. One time we came across 14 German soldiers who seemed asleep. When we got closer we saw each had his throat cut. Nearby we found a kukri – the knife of the British Gurkha soldiers. I still have that knife."
The extent to which the ferocity of a war fought by young men has been replaced by comradeship among former enemies was underlined this weekend when Mr Schneider met five former Desert Rats, including an ambulance driver who accidentally drove into a German tank position while it was being inspected by Rommel and was promptly sent back to his lines by the field marshal with Mr Schneider at his side. "We are now friends, very good friends," he said. "I was once a German soldier and they were English soldiers but now we find it difficult to understand why we had to fight against each other. Rommel was always first a soldier. We did not forget that we were fighting fellow human beings."
The German veteran, from Stauchitz, near Dresden, had joined the Wehrmacht as an 18-year-old in 1941 and was rapidly drafted into Hitler's North African forces after serving in Iraq, where his knowledge of Allied weaponry and English was spotted by his commanders. On arrival in Libya, Mr Schneider was drafted into the Kampf Staffel Khiel – a 386-strong personal protection and reconnaissance force for Rommel. Over the next 18 months, Rommel brought the Allied forces to the brink of a catastrophic defeat. The German commander became renowned for his bold thrusting attacks deep into British-held territory, often to the annoyance of his fellow senior officers.
Mr Schneider said: "I was one of Rommel's drivers. I was chosen because I knew English and could operate their equipment. I also had a good memory for landscapes, which was important in the desert. We would drive long distances and all you would see was stones and sands, stones and sand. Rommel was a very correct German soldier. He would eat with us and he wanted to be close to the front lines.I was only a young soldier and I only said 'yes sir' and did what he ordered. But I witnessed many things. I once saw him in a dispute with the Italian commander because he was anxious to attack quickly, to push his advantage. That was very like Rommel."
Despite his close relationship with the Nazi high command and Hitler's personal admiration, Rommel escaped the label of a doctrinaire fascist. Mr Schneider said: "When the propaganda photographs were taken of our unit, they would drape Swastika flags over the vehicles. When the cameramen went away, Rommel would order the Swastikas to be taken away. He didn't like Nazi insignia and took it off. He said, 'I am a German soldier'."
Like the man it was set up to protect, the Kampf Staffel Khiel became renowned for its daring thrusts into enemy territory. Mr Schneider was awarded the Iron Cross for his part in a mission which involved capturing a train and driving it through the night 50 miles behind British lines to blow up a large ammunition dump.
Robert Lyman, a British soldier turned historian who found Mr Schneider while researching a book, The Longest Siege, published this month about one of the key battles of the campaign, the Siege of Tobruk, said the battle for North Africa was a crucial turning point. He said: "If Rommel had succeeded in capturing Egypt, the British Empire would have been cut in half. Vital supplies through the Suez Canal would have been disrupted and Hitler would have had unlimited access to oil."
Numerical superiority and the tactics adopted by Field Marshal Montgomery at El Alamein eventually allowed the Allies to thwart Rommel's ambitions, leading to the capture of large numbers of German prisoners in 1943, including Mr Schneider. He spent the next six years in POW camps before returning home to what became East Germany in 1949. His fiancée, Alfreda, was still waiting for him. The couple settled down and Mr Schneider became an agriculture researcher. He said: "I have been a very lucky man. Alfreda and I married and we had three children. But I have never forgotten the war and the opponents who are now my friends."
Erwin Rommel: Downfall of a master tactician
At the height of the battle for North Africa, one British general confessed that his troops regarded Field Marshal Erwin Rommel as "a kind of magical bogeyman... a superman". Considered a master tactician and daring proponent of "Blitzkrieg", Rommel led his Panzer tank columns deep into enemy territory, cutting off Allied forces during the 1940 invasion of France and again in Africa, defying orders of his own high command and forcing British and Allied forces into retreat.
But success came at the price of leaving his Afrika Korps with overstretched supply lines, leading to heavy defeats. Rommel was implicated in the July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler. On 14 October 1944, Rommel was visited by generals with an ultimatum: suicide with a state funeral, or trial for high treason. Rommel took poison and it was officially stated he had died of a brain seizure.