JPRI Critique Vol. 23 No. 1 (May 2017)
On the Beach: Rommel’s Rum
Patrick Lloyd Hatcher
JPRI editors: As another anniversary of the D-Day Normandy Landings approaches, we are pleased to bring back this popular essay by JPRI senior distinguished fellow Dr. Patrick Lloyd Hatcher, which was originally published in California Monthly in September 1994.
Most military historians collect war souvenirs—medals, shoulder patches, autographs, the relics of combat. I don’t. The most I have is a piece of the Berlin Wall that I chipped myself and a bottle of rum that was once under the command of three of the most illustrious generals of World War II—Montgomery, Rommel, and Eisenhower.
When I was asked to be the enrichment lecturer for the Cal Alumni Association’s Bear Trek to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D-Day back in 1994, I tried to think of something that would hold the attention of the beaches-bound alumni. I decided on the rum, for its history in many ways mirrors the crazy, tumbled mosaic of war itself.
Here’s the story: In 1942, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” and his Afrika Korps captured a spirits cellar in the deserts of North Africa that was part of the military stores of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and the British Eight Army. The treasure was vast—a million and a half liters of top quality Scotch whiskey, Jamaican rum, and London gin, all in oaken casks. The Korps troopers drank what they wanted; some time later, when Rommel’s staff retreated out of Egypt, they sent the booty to Italy. The hooch crossed the Mediterranean in the empty holds of Axis supply ships and came to rest in warehouses in the Italian seaside village of Nettuno.
The next chapter unfolds with General Dwight D. Eisenhower, victorious in Africa and Sicily, setting up his headquarters outside of Naples. From there Eisenhower planned the assault on the beaches of Anzio, just a few miles from Nettuno. The master plan called for Allied forces to break out from the Anzio beachhead and race to Rome, securing Nettuno on the way through. Unfortunately for Ike, President Roosevelt recalled him to Washington after the start of the Italian campaign to give him command of the cross-Channel invasion. But his battle-toughened tankers and riflemen, who took Nettuno, were delighted with their unexpected war trophy, and quickly set out to deplete the remaining stocks.
There was a war on, however, and the liquid flowed with the battles: up the Italian boot, across the Alps, and into wine caves in occupied Austria. By then the booze in the casks had been bottled by Italian merchants working on commission for the Allied forces. Due to shortages, no two bottles looked alike, but the contents remained more than fit for human consumption. World War II ended, the Cold War began, and the bottles slept in Austria.
Chapter three brings the story to the present. In 1976, U.S. Army officials in West Germany heard about the unusual sleeping beauties in the Austrian town of Linz. They struck a deal for part of the horded and it again came into American hands, this time to be sold in military stores in Europe. Of these many bottles, the author brought back one to California, where it graced many parties—to be admired, not drunk.
For a long while I debated bringing this 50-year-old war orphan to Omaha Beach for my group to sip on the shore. It is, of course, the place where Eisenhower’s forces defeated Rommel’s—and we would have the rum to prove it. But the thought of explaining the story to British and French customs, the possibility of breakage, and my own secret desire not to lose my bottled amber gold led me to postpone the agony. I told the Bear Trekkers that I would think about opening the rum at our reunion party back in Berkeley. In the meantime, the story of the rum’s journey served to illustrate my lectures on the North African and European campaigns, and I directed the travelers to local shops to buy souvenir bottles of Bordeaux wines bottled for the 50th anniversary of the landings. Kept for half a century, they, too, will make a good story someday.
The Bears invaded Normandy in two waves, one in early May and one in early June. The May group started near Paris and went west to the Norman beaches; the June group started in London and journeyed east. The first contingent stopped at Rommel’s former headquarters, La Roche Guyon. Unfortunately, I could not locate the present owners of the chateau to determine if the field marshal had left them any rum, scotch, or gin to while away the decades in the cellar.
I escorted both alumni groups to the engineering marvel of the invasion, the remains of the artificial Mulberry port at the coastal village of Arromanches. The huge parts were built secretly in British shipyards and towed across the Channel to provide a deep-water anchorage for the invasion forces. For the first weeks of the war, this port, now commemorated by an excellent beachside museum, was the only way to get bullets, beans, and beverages to the Allied armies ashore. How thankful those fighters would have been if Ike could somehow have delivered Rommel’s spirit trove to the thirsty among the Norman hedgerows. For many it would have been their last drink. Among those who died in the European and Pacific wars were a number of Cal graduates. In the Alumni House’s Toll Room, a plaque of war dead lists 81 names. To honor them, the Alumni Association asked one of the Bear Trekkers, Harlan Heydon (himself a veteran of the Normandy campaign), to place a blue-and-gold flower arrangement near the 22-foot bronze statue Spirit of American Youth. The status dominates the American military cemetery near Colleville-sur-Mer, on the bluff overlooking Omaha beach and the wide stretch of the English Channel beyond.
Duty done in Normandy, we returned home. A few weeks later, fellow Trekker Beth Crocker O’Neill ’74 called to tell me that she had found a photo of her father, a Normandy veteran, with a bottle of rum remarkably like my own. In the 1945 photo, Ruel Crocker Jr. looks quite cheery, and the bottle is partly empty. With the war at its close, Crocker celebrated victory with a drink from the bottle of the vanquished.
Mulling this over at home, I weighed the bottle in my hands. Rum that had belonged to titans of war and weary GIs, rum that had followed tanks and guns and footsore soldiers through enemy lines and back, had come to rest on my shelf. Would I open it? Perhaps. Or would it be better to wait for another anniversary? Perhaps.
Patrick Lloyd Hatcher , a member of the JPRI advisory board, has achieved distinction in many fields—most notably, military, academe, and cultural affairs. Following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, he served in the U.S. Army for twenty years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. For his second act, he received a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Berkeley, then taught there in the Military Science, History, and Political Science Departments, rising to Vice Chair of Politics. For the past two decades he has also been a commentator on international affairs for television and radio as well as a popular emcee and interviewer for cultural events throughout the Bay Area. He is the author of The Suicide of an Elite: American Internationalists in Vietnam (Stanford University Press, 1990), Economic Earthquakes: Converting Defense Cuts to Economic Opportunities (Institute of Governmental Studies Press, Berkeley, 1994), and North American Civilization at War (M.E. Sharpe, 1998), along with numerous essays and reviews.