Canadian Spitfire ace given credit for shooting Rommel
Date: Tuesday, April 27 2004
Topic: Military, Security, and Defence
60 YEARS LATER, LONDON, ONT., MAN CREDITED WITH ROMMEL HIT: On July 17, 1944, in the north of France, Allied pilots shot the car carrying German military mastermind Erwin Rommel off the road, putting him out of commission. Over the years credit for the action has been variously assigned to American, South African and Canadian pilots. Now archival research strongly suggests the Canadian, Charley Fox of London, Ont., was in fact the shooter. Fox suspected this was the case but never made a big deal of it. The above painting recreates the attack.
A Canadian pilot long recognized for his Second World War heroics -- including three sorties on D-Day alone -- is now being credited with knocking legendary German field marshal Erwin Rommel out of action in the crucial weeks following the invasion of Normandy.
The story of how Spitfire ace Charley Fox strafed Rommel's staff car as it sped through the French countryside on July 17, 1944, is finally becoming clear after almost 60 years of uncertainty over who wounded the man known as "the Desert Fox," the Nazis' greatest field commander.
A U.S. air crew initially claimed to have fired on Rommel's car. Many historical accounts say South African pilot J.J. Le Roux carried out the strike.
But a Quebec historian researching the controversy at the Library and Archives of Canada says the official operational record book of Mr. Fox's unit, 412 Squadron, puts the Ontario-born pilot in the air at the right time and place to have taken out Rommel.
"Charley Fox is probably the guy that fired at Rommel's car," concludes Michel Lavigne, author of several books about the Second World War. "This is the official account from the time, usually filled out by a clerk with the squadron, recording when planes took off and came back. It's very precise, very exact."
Mr. Lavigne's findings confirm Mr. Fox's own log entry from that day and his recollections of swooping down on a German staff car and watching the bullet-riddled vehicle veer off the road.
"We took off late in the afternoon," recalls Mr. Fox, 84, who lives in London, Ont., and is to be installed as honorary colonel of his old war-time unit, 412 Squadron, at a ceremony this week in Ottawa.
"As soon as we got airborne at Bernieres-sur-mer, we started heading towards Caen and we split up into three sections of four, and we were to look for 'targets of opportunity' -- anything that was moving. It was the other side of Caen, and I saw this staff car coming along between a line of trees on a main road," says Mr. Fox. "I made no motion until it was just about 9 o'clock, and I did a diving, curving attack down and I probably started firing at about 300 yards. I saw hits on it and I saw it start to curve and go off the road -- and by then I'm on my way."
Mr. Fox says the incident remains "very clear in my mind." And the July 17 entry in his own wartime log book records "1 staff car damaged" along with the destruction of a transport vehicle. At the end of the entry, Mr. Fox had written: "? Rommel -- Yes."
The attack ended Rommel's brilliant career. While still recovering from severe head injuries suffered in the car crash, he was implicated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and forced to swallow poison pills in October, 1944.
Mr. Fox ended the war with credit for nine enemy aircraft and 153 vehicles and locomotives destroyed or damaged. He was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and bar -- equivalent to a second DFC -- for "exceptional courage and skill."
Mr. Fox says initially he wasn't interested in pushing a claim for the attack on Rommel. "The day that this happened, July 17, that evening the Americans claimed that they got him with a P-47," he recalls. "As far as I was concerned, end of story."
Recently, though, Mr. Fox was approached by artist and Spitfire enthusiast Lance Russwurm about helping him depict the attack on Rommel in a painting. Around the same time, Mr. Lavigne told Mr. Fox about his archival findings.
Mr. Fox compared notes with the historian and agreed to offer his input on the artwork. At his investiture on Friday as honorary colonel, Mr. Russwurm's painting of Rommel Under Attack will be presented to 412 Squadron.
© National Post 2004
Randy Boswell || CanWest News Service