When the Germans began their Ardennes offensive on 16 December 1944, the 6th Army Group was preparing for a new thrust into German territory and making another try at the Colmar Pocket. At first Devers had hoped that the German focus in the north would facilitate his own offensives. But this expectation was quickly dispelled by Eisenhower's decision on the 19th to have the 6th Group halt all offensive operations and assume a significant portion of the Third Army's area of responsibility. The subsequent realignment placed Devers' forces in an awkward position, For the moment the front of the 6th Army Group remained stable, but resembled a reverse letter S with its double bulge--a northern one between Saarbrucken and Strasbourg, with the Haguenau forest and the town of Lauterbourg at its apex, and a southern one north of Mulhouse around the city of Colmar. Eisenhower's order froze Patch's Seventh Army in the upper portion of the reverse S and de Lattre's First French Army in the lower half. In the north, the U.S. XV Corps held a narrow alley across the Sarre River valley between Saarbrucken and Bitche, and the U.S. VI Corps occupied the Lauterbourg bulge, or salient--a large, rolling plain bounded by the Franco-German border, with the small Lauter River on the north and the larger Rhine River on the east. South of Strasbourg, the Colmar Pocket bowed the front of the First French Army inward, forcing it to disperse its units in a semicircle around the German-held salient. The French II Corps occupied the northern perimeter of the pocket from the Rhine to the High Vosges, and the French I Corps held the southern sector above the Belfort Gap. As the army group slowly made the transition from offensive to defensive operations, its commanders recognized that their long curving front lines were particularly unsuited for the new mission.
In mid-December the 6th Army Group could muster roughly eighteen divisions: two armored and six infantry in the U.S. Seventh Army and three armored and seven infantry in the French First.1 Although all were
combat effective, many had been worn thin by the heavy winter campaigning, and others were still relatively new and untested. Only two of the armored divisions, the French 1st and 2d, could be considered experienced, and the U.S. 12th had just recently arrived. In addition, all were suffering severe shortages in supplies, equipment, and manpower because of the increased demands of the northern armies and the still limited logistical support available to the Allied ground combat forces throughout the theater. A new corps headquarters, the U.S. XXI, had also recently arrived in the 6th Army Group's area, but was likewise inexperienced with few supporting forces.
Initially the opposing German forces were in worse condition. Most of the German Army's better-equipped and better-manned units were in Field Marshal Walter Model's Army Group B, which was fighting in the Ardennes; the offensive there had diverted German supplies, equipment, and manpower away from the Vosges-Alsace sector. The creation of Army Group Oberrhein on 10 December had further encumbered German operations in the south.2 The new headquarters was completely independent of von Rundstedt's OB West, and its creation had divided command and control of the German forces that were opposite the 6th Army Group between von Obstfelder's First Army, under Army Group G and OB West, which was above the Lauterbourg salient, and Rasp's Nineteenth Army, under Army Group Oberrhein, which was below it. Altogether these forces amounted to about twenty divisions, but many were at half strength and some could field only a few thousand combat troops. Although Himmler's political influence gradually increased the manpower, supplies, and matériel available to the upper Rhine front, the Ardennes battlefield continued to receive the largest share of German military resources for the moment. Once the main German offensive began to bog down, however, the eyes of Hitler and OKW turned south.
Planning Operation NORTHWIND
(21-27 December 1944)
By 21 December the German high command had begun to examine its operational alternatives on the battlefield. The momentum of Army Group B's attack in the Ardennes had begun to dissipate, the important road junction at Bastogne was still in American hands, and pressure on the southern flank of the German advance was steadily mounting as Patton wheeled his Third Army north.3 However, both Hitler and von Rundstedt realized that the Allies had greatly weakened their southern army group to meet the Ardennes thrust and believed that a fresh German offensive in the south could exploit this weakness. At the very least it would bring some relief to Model's hard-pressed
forces in the Ardennes.
Von Rundstedt's staff at OB West initially proposed an attack north of Saarbrucken by Army Group G toward Metz, threatening to envelop either Patton's Third Army to the north or Patch's Seventh in the south. But Hitler and von Rundstedt quickly concluded that they lacked the resources for such an ambitious undertaking. Instead Hitler, who had moved his headquarters from Berlin to Command Post Adlerhorst near Bad Nauheim in early December in order to keep a close watch over the entire campaign, approved an attack south of the Saarbrucken area toward the Saverne Gap, with the goal of splitting the U.S. Seventh Army and clearing northern Alsace. If successful, the German high command intended to launch a second series of attacks from the Sarre valley-Saverne area toward Luneville, Metz, and the rear of Patton's Third Army, tentatively code-named Operation ZAHNARZT ("Dentist").4 Von Rundstedt ordered General Blaskowitz, who had returned to replace Balck as the Army Group G commander on 22 December, to begin planning immediately and authorized the rehabilitation of two mobile divisions (panzer or panzer grenadier) to form the core of the attacking force.
In the days that followed, the German military leaders debated several operational plans. Hitler favored a main effort southeast of Saarbrucken along the Sarre River valley to Phalsbourg and the Saverne Gap. The attacking forces could be concentrated fairly easily using the road and rail net around Saarbrucken, and the axis of advance was relatively flat with enough roads to support a rapid armored thrust. But von Rundstedt and Blaskowitz were uneasy over their shortage of armor and lack of air support, and argued that the open nature of the Sarre River valley made it too dangerous for a successful offensive. Instead, they favored a main effort farther east, from the Bitche sector in the Vosges, judging that the heavily forested hills and mountains would offer the attackers cover from Allied air observation and interdiction during the critical first phase of the attack. In addition, about half of the large Maginot Line fortresses around Bitche were still in German hands, providing cover and concealment for the assembly areas. Although road communications into the Bitche area and along the projected Vosges line of advance were more limited, the two generals believed that swiftly moving infantry could exploit what they suspected was a weakly defended gap in the American lines between the Seventh Army's two corps; with their infantry units gradually pushing south to the Saverne Gap, they could send their mobile panzer reserves into either the Sarre River valley on the west or the Alsatian plains on the east.
Both plans had serious disadvantages. A Sarre River offensive would have to pass through the American-occupied portion of the Maginot Line and would be open to Allied air attacks during daylight hours. A drive from Bitche through the Vosges Mountains, on the other hand, would
leave the XV Corps and the bulk of the American armored forces free to counterattack the western flank of the advance. In addition, both plans assumed supporting attacks by Army Group Oberrhein to keep the U.S. VI Corps occupied, actions over which OB West had no control or authority.
On 27 December Hitler, von Rundstedt, and Blaskowitz approved a rough compromise. Under the operational control of the First Army, one panzer grenadier and one infantry division would punch a hole in the American Sarre River valley defenses, while four refitted infantry divisions would push off from the Bitche area along a southwest axis of advance through the Vosges. Blaskowitz would keep his strongest units, the equivalent of two panzer divisions, in reserve to exploit any breakthrough. However, on Hitler's instructions, the reserve units were to remain in the Saarbrucken area in the expectation that the main effort would develop along the Sarre River valley. In addition, Blaskowitz's request that units of Army Group Oberrhein launching supporting attacks be placed under Army Group G's jurisdiction was disapproved, as was his proposal to delay the start of the offensive until more troops and matériel could be assembled. Hitler informed Blaskowitz that Army Group Oberrhein would launch supporting attacks north and south of Strasbourg, but only after the main effort down the Sarre River valley corridor had been successful. He also felt that speed was essential, and he scheduled the beginning of the First Army's two northern attacks--one down the Sarre valley and the other through the Low Vosges--for New Year's Eve 1944. Code-named NORDWIND ("NORTHWIND"), these attacks would begin the last major German offensive of the European war.
The Defense of Strasbourg
(26 December 1944-1 January 1945)
In the Allied camp the rapid shift from offensive to defensive operations had created both military and political problems for the 6th Army Group.5 Initially Eisenhower had directed Devers to cease all offensive operations while the Ardennes battle remained unresolved and to shorten his own defensive lines in order to make more forces available for the struggle in the north. Elaborating on these guidelines on 26 December, he ordered the 6th Army Group to pull its "main line of defense" back to the Vosges Mountains, compressing its elongated front and making one corps headquarters, with one armored and one infantry division, immediately available for theater reserve. Despite Allied successes in the Ardennes, Eisenhower judged the final outcome still in doubt; he had also become alarmed at new intelligence reports pointing to another German military buildup opposite the Seventh Army. As a result, he wanted Devers to pull the VI Corps completely out of the Lauterbourg salient as soon as possible. A meeting between Eisenhower and Devers the following day in Paris confirmed the directive and the new Allied intelligence. Devers, however,
was convinced that this second German offensive would most likely come down the Sarre River valley, well north of the exposed salient, and did not attach any urgency to the projected withdrawal. In fact, the 6th Army Group commander came away from the conference impressed with the need to hold Strasbourg as well as other significant urban centers in northern Alsace.6
On returning to his headquarters on 28 December, General Devers instructed Patch to have the VI Corps prepare three intermediate withdrawal positions to be occupied only "in the face of heavy attack," as well as a final defensive line on the eastern slopes of the Vosges. The first intermediate position was to follow the trace of the American-held portions of the Maginot Line just inside the Franco-German border; the second was to lie between Bitche, Niederbronn, and Bischwiller (on the Falkenstein, Zintsel, and Moder rivers); and the third would be between Bitche, Ingwiller, and Strasbourg. A final defensive position would pull the VI Corps all the way back to the Vosges. But Devers saw no need to carry out any of these withdrawals until a more specific threat presented itself and therefore indicated no execution dates for them. Instead he transferred Leclerc's 2d Armored Division from the First French Army to the American Seventh to further beef up Patch's command and make up for the projected loss of an American armored division to the SHAEF reserve.7
General Eisenhower's concern over the ability of Brooks' VI Corps to hold the exposed Lauterbourg salient against a determined German attack was understandable. The terrain occupied by the Seventh Army was difficult to defend. The lower Vosges mountain range bisected its front, greatly limiting lateral movement between the XV and VI Corps to several easily interdicted mountain roads. A German drive southwest, either through the Low Vosges or along its eastern or western slopes, would threaten the flanks of both American corps; and if the Saverne Gap area, just twenty miles inside the American lines, fell, the entire VI Corps within the Lauterbourg salient would be trapped. The threat of a complementary German attack from the south by forces from the Colmar Pocket only made SHAEF more nervous, as did the Allied failure to predict the Ardennes offensive. Perhaps the Allied high command had been relying too heavily on ULTRA and other sophisticated intelligence sources and had now simply given up attempting to second-guess German intentions. Whatever the case, Eisenhower continued to insist that Devers withdraw his forces from the salient as quickly as possible and pull his defensive lines all the way back to the eastern slopes of the Vosges Mountains. The shift would greatly reduce the defensive responsibilities of the Seventh Army, making it easier to concentrate forces in the Sarre River valley or, if necessary, dispatch more reinforcements to the Ardennes.
Once again Devers questioned the wisdom of Eisenhower's operational guidance. Despite the Supreme Commander's clear-cut instructions on the
matter, the 6th Army Group chief remained reluctant to make such a major withdrawal without cause. Patch supported him, regarding it as "a terrifically difficult proposition to give up a strong defensive position when you feel confident that you can hold it," and both dragged their feet in executing the order.8 The delay finally led to an angry call by Eisenhower's chief of staff, General Bedell Smith, on New Year's Day, relaying the Supreme Commander's displeasure over the Seventh Army's failure to carry out the withdrawal and ordering Devers to issue the necessary instructions at once.9 But Devers had more than one reason to put off the matter. As Patch had pointed out to him earlier, Eisenhower's more extensive withdrawal concept would uncover the entire northern Alsatian plains, including the city of Strasbourg, and would have great political ramifications for the Allied alliance.
Violent French objections to any hint of abandoning Strasbourg or northern Alsace without a fight were predictable. De Gaulle had learned of the withdrawal planning almost immediately on 28 December; two days later he had General Alphonse Juin, his chief of staff in the Ministry of National Defense, send a strong protest to SHAEF, accompanied by an offer of three newly formed FFI divisions to help defend Strasbourg city if necessary. De Gaulle personally restated the French position on 1 January 1945, conceding that it might be necessary to abandon the salient but demanding that Strasbourg be defended at all costs. Believing Allied forces could use the city to anchor a defensible east-west line along the Rhine-Marne Canal, he warned that French forces would defend Strasbourg "no matter what comes." On the same day he also sent a direct communication to de Lattre, outlining his stand and ordering the First French Army commander, "in the eventuality that the Allied Forces retire from their present positions to the north . . . to take in hand and assure the defense of Strasbourg." The Free French leader was prepared to challenge the Allied high command in order to spare the city an almost certainly vengeful German reoccupation. Finally, on the night of 2-3 January, Juin had a long conference with Eisenhower's chief of staff over the matter and relayed de Gaulle's threat to withdraw the First French Army from SHAEF control if Strasbourg was abandoned.10 Simultaneously de Lattre began making unilateral plans to pull the 3d Algerian Division out of the High Vosges to defend the city.11 The controversy thus threatened to disrupt the entire Allied chain of command and greatly complicate the Allied response to a fresh German offensive in Alsace.
Preparations for the Attack
(27-31 December 1944)
As the Allied leaders debated the
fate of Strasbourg, the two contenders prepared for a final struggle in northern Alsace. Between 27 and 30 December the First Army withdrew the designated assault divisions from their defensive sectors, which stretched the fronts of the remaining divisions thin, and attempted to cover the many gaps with fortress units and a miscellany of odd formations, especially recently formed Volkssturm militia. While the signal elements of the departing units remained temporarily in place to give the impression of normalcy, the German staffs shunted scarce supplies, equipment, and replacements into anemic units and moved artillery into supporting positions. Opposite the U.S. XV Corps, which was defending the Sarre River valley area, General Max Simon's XIII SS Corps readied NORDWIND's primary assault force, consisting of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier ("Gotz von Berlichingen") and the 36th Volksgrenadier Divisions, the 404th and 410th Volks Artillery Corps, the 20th Volks Werfer (rocket-launcher) Brigade, two armored flame-thrower companies, two army artillery battalions, and one observation battalion. In the Bitche area the second attacking force consisted of General Petersen's XC Corps on the right, or western, wing, controlling the strengthened 559th and 257th Volksgrenadier Divisions, and General Hoehne's LXXXIX Corps on the left, or eastern, wing, with the refitted 361st and 256th Volksgrenadier Divisions. The Vosges forces were also beefed up by additional self-propelled and assault guns, supported by two army artillery battalions and an army engineer battalion, and later reinforced by the experienced 6th SS Mountain Division as it arrived from the defunct Finnish front. In reserve, temporarily under the direct control of Army Group G, lay the XXXIX Panzer Corps, under Lt. Gen. Karl Decker, with the requipped 21st Panzer and 25th Panzer Grenadier Divisions--the former with 18 medium (Mark IV) and 31 heavy (Mark V) Panther tanks, and the latter with 9 medium and 20 heavies, with about 20 additional Panthers and more assault and self-propelled guns en route, which had been temporarily delayed by Allied air attacks on the German transportation network. To further strengthen the reserve forces and serve as a basis for Operation ZAHNARZT, OB West began preparations for assembling the 10th SS Panzer Division, the 7th Parachute Division, and other units behind the lines of the First Army.12
Blaskowitz obviously would have preferred assembling all of these units first and giving the initial assault forces more time to train replacements and break in new equipment. But further delays threatened to end what was clearly a fleeting tactical opportunity to penetrate the weakened Seventh Army lines. Not even his "Arrow Flash" convoys--the equivalent of the American "Red Ball Express"--were able to negotiate the maze of tangled lines and broken bridges behind the front lines with any speed. Just prior to the offensive, Blaskowitz thus agreed to strengthen the attacking 17th SS Panzer Grenadiers
with a company of Panthers (ten heavy tanks) from the 21st Panzers to ensure the success of the initial assault. By that time he had also received one company of the 653d Superheavy Antitank Battalion with a few monstrous seventy-ton, 128-mm.-gunned Jagdtigers (turretless assault guns based on the Mark VI "Royal Tiger" chassis). This gave him about eighty tanks, mostly heavies, in reserve to exploit any breakthrough at the beginning of the operation, with more armor on the way.13
On the morning of 28 December Blaskowitz brought his attacking corps and division commanders to OB West headquarters at Ziegenberg and then, after a twenty-minute bus ride, to Hitler's Adlerhorst for a personal pep talk by the Fuhrer. For most of the participants, it was the first time that they had ever seen their supreme commander in person. Although physically in poor condition, Hitler led off with a fifty-minute speech that showed he had lost none of his personal magnetism. Despite tremendous sacrifices, he conceded, the Ardennes offensive had failed. Perhaps no one was to blame. With the Russians threatening in the east, however, he impressed on them that defeat in the forthcoming offensive was unthinkable. The Western Allies had to be stopped and their offensive capabilities so badly damaged that most of Germany's military strength could be devoted to the eastern front in the months ahead. To accomplish this the German Army had to keep the initiative, attacking the Allied forces wherever they were weak and using speed to avoid being crushed by Allied matériel superiority. Hitler discussed the details of the forthcoming operation individually with each commander, continually emphasizing both its necessity and its possibility for success. To all he stressed that the objective of NORDWIND was neither terrain nor prestige, but "manpower . . . the destruction of enemy forces."14
Preparations for the Defense
(19-31 December 1944)
For the American soldiers in the Seventh Army, the last two weeks of December were also busy as commanders reoriented their units from offensive to defensive postures.15 Between 19 and 26 December, Patch's forces took over large portions of the Third Army's front, thus allowing Patton to shift more forces into the Ardennes sector. As a result, the Seventh Army found itself holding a front of about 126 miles--84 miles from the Saarbrucken area east to Lauterbourg, and another 42 miles south along the Rhine--with only six infantry divisions. This worked out to about twenty miles of front per division, six miles per regiment, or two per battalion--with the two armored
divisions in reserve. Patch believed he had no choice but to use the Low Vosges as a dividing line between his two corps and placed his own headquarters at Saverne, directly behind the middle of his defenses. Expecting the main German attack down the Sarre River corridor, he concentrated the bulk of his strength in General Haislip's XV Corps, west of the Vosges, with three infantry divisions--the 103d, 44th, and 100th--on line covering about thirty-five miles of total frontage, backed by the new 12th Armored Division. East of the Vosges, General Brooks' VI Corps held the upper, open portion of the salient, from Bitche to Lauterbourg, with the 45th and 79th Divisions, while using the 36th Division to cover its Rhine River front from Lauterbourg south to Strasbourg; the 14th Armored Division was his reserve. Although not enthusiastic about abandoning the Lauterbourg salient, both Devers and Patch agreed that Brooks should start pulling his forces back at the first sign of a major German attack.
Even before these dispositions could be finalized, Devers passed SHAEF's requirements for two divisions down to the Seventh Army. Although he could ill afford to spare them, Patch promptly nominated the 36th Infantry and 12th Armored Divisions for the SHAEF reserve. Their departures left his defensive lines paper thin. As a partial remedy, Devers brought Leclerc's 2d Armored Division back and began rushing elements of three new infantry divisions--the 42d, 63d, and 70th--into the battle area. All three were untested units that had recently disembarked
BRIG. GEN. HENRY H. LINDEN
at Marseille and arrived at the front with little besides their infantry regiments. Without waiting for their attached artillery, armor, and other supporting elements, Patch organized them into task forces, each consisting of the three infantry regiments and a small command group led by the designated assistant division commander. Task Force Linden controlled the 42d Division's regiments, Task Force Harris those of the 63d, and Task Force Herren those of the 70th.16
BRIG. GEN. FREDERICK M. HARRIS
These three formations together with Leclerc's armor would have to fill in the many gaps in the Seventh Army's lines.
With these additions and losses, Patch reorganized his defenses, initially placing the inexperienced infantrymen of Task Forces Linden, Harris, and Herren along the Rhine River front under the VI Corps. He later transferred two of Task Force Harris' regiments as well as the entire French 2d Armored Division north to the Sarre River valley area to bolster Haislip's XV Corps. In his center, southeast of Bitche, Patch inserted a small mechanized screening force to cover the Vosges area between Haislip's 100th Infantry Division in the north and Brooks' 45th Division in the south. This element, Task Force Hudelson, consisted of two cavalry squadrons, a detached armored infantry battalion, and a few supporting detachments. A similar screening force held the extreme left, or northeastern, flank of the Seventh Army, in the crease separating the XV Corps from the Third Army's XII Corps. In reserve was the bulk of the 14th Armored Division in the VI Corps zone, while the French 2d Armored Division performed the same function for the XV Corps. The withdrawn 12th Armored and 36th Infantry Divisions remained uncommitted, but were also in the Seventh Army's rear area around Sarrebourg and available in an emergency. Still expecting a major German thrust down the Sarre River valley but unsure of the location and magnitude of secondary offensives, Devers moved his own advance headquarters from Phalsbourg in the Saverne Gap area to Luneville, forty miles to the rear. Nevertheless, he allowed de Lattre to retain control of the U.S. 3d Infantry Division in the Colmar Pocket region and even reinforced it with a regiment from Task Force Harris. The 6th Army Group commander remained optimistic and still saw no need for a precipitous withdrawal from the Lauterbourg salient or from anywhere else. After steadily pushing enemy forces back for the past five months, Devers and his fellow generals were confident that the Seventh Army could stop any German attack, and they had no intention
BRIG. GEN. THOMAS W. HERREN
of voluntarily surrendering the ground their troops had painfully taken during the past several months.
Aware of the impending German offensive, American infantrymen on line prepared as best they could. Foxholes and trenches had to be excavated in the frozen earth, fields of fire planned and cleared, minefields and other obstacles constructed, prearranged artillery and mortar barrages plotted, and telephone lines laid to replace the less-reliable radio communications system used in the offense. Slightly to the rear, staffs and supporting units brought up and stocked supplies--ammunition, fuel, and food--worked replacements into understrength units, and prepared contingency plans for all possible aspects of the coming battle. SHAEF levies on the newly arrived regiments further exacerbated the shortage of infantry, forcing Patch to begin converting some of his Army service personnel into foot soldiers and engineer units into rifle battalions, even before the expected offensive began.17 Regardless, the line units continued to mask their weaknesses by aggressive patrolling against the German lines, at times conducting raids across the Rhine, gathering information on enemy preparations, and giving some combat experience to the new infantry units in the process.
On 29 December, three days before Hitler had scheduled NORDWIND to begin, specific German intentions were still unclear to the American defenders. Allied analyses of enemy rail and road traffic, radio intercepts, prisoner-of-war reports, and air reconnaissance over the battlefield indicated major German troop buildups in the Saarbrucken area, beyond the Rhine, and in the Colmar Pocket. Intelligence at the 6th Army Group headquarters placed the 21st Panzer Division and the 17th SS and 25th Panzer Grenadier Divisions somewhere in the Zweibruecken area, about ten miles behind the Sarre River line; American patrols had identified elements of these units and nine German infantry divisions on their fronts. The Seventh Army G-2, Colonel Quinn, believed that the total strength of opposing German infantry was equal to about twenty-four or twenty-five American battalions, but
BUILDING DEFENSIVE WORKS IN THE SNOW. 111th Engineer Battalion, 36th Division, in Weibruch area.
the size of the armored forces was a question mark. He estimated that the enemy would either launch a major attack with three mobile divisions down the Sarre River valley or "with forces currently in contact and in immediate reserve . . . launch a series of limited objective attacks." The latter alternative, he believed, was the most likely.18 The Seventh Army ULTRA officer, Maj. Donald S. Bussey, disagreed, feeling that current information on the German order of battle and an analysis of Luftwaffe air reconnaissance orders pinpointed the Sarre River valley as the major area of attack. However, ULTRA remained mute on specific German intentions.19
Patch's evaluation of intelligence estimates was strongly influenced by the tactical situation. In his judgment, the Sarre River corridor approach still represented the gravest threat to the Seventh Army; a penetration there could split his forces and leave the VI
GENERALS DEVERS AND PATCH CONFER at Luneville.
Corps stranded on the Alsatian plains. In fact, the Germans had already signaled a preference for the region's offensive possibilities with the Panzer Lehr Division's counterattack back in November; obviously the same route promised the Germans their best chance of tactical success, especially since any offensive there could be easily supported from the Saarbrucken road nets. For these reasons Patch, with Devers' blessing, continued to build up his forces west of the Low Vosges and, despite continued SHAEF pressure for a complete VI Corps withdrawal to the Vosges, planned only a partial and gradual retirement from the Lauterbourg salient--one that would place the VI Corps' main line of resistance on an east-west, Bitche-Strasbourg line (as later suggested by de Gaulle) by 5 January.
As New Year's Day approached, Devers and Patch increasingly regarded the Sarre River valley as the principal danger point. On 30 December Devers even authorized Patch to use elements of the SHAEF-designated reserve units in his area, the 12th Armored and 36th Infantry Divisions, to establish a secondary line of defense behind the XV Corps. The following day Patch ordered the 14th Armored Division, the only reserve in the VI Corps area, north to Phalsbourg, where it could provide even more reinforcements for the XV Corps. Clearly the American commanders expected the main German effort would take place west of the Vosges and had prepared an appropriate reception.
On New Year's Eve, a Sunday evening, Patch met with both his corps commanders at Fenetrange, the XV Corps headquarters, and warned them to expect a major enemy attack during the early morning hours of New Year's Day. Late afternoon air reconnaissance had reported German troop movements all across the northern front.20 Local festivities for the holiday would have to be postponed. Haislip's forces, he predicted, would bear the brunt of the impending offensive, but Patch was confident that his units were up to the task. Still there was no definite knowledge of specific German intentions or the scope and size of the predicted attacks. Inclement weather had curtailed
further aerial reconnaissance, and signal intercepts had revealed little. Outside the American command post, a new snowfall covered the woods and forests of the Low Vosges Mountains east of Fenetrange with a deceptively innocent coating of white, giving little hint of the coming struggle.
The New Year's Eve Attacks
(31 December 1944-5 January 1945)
The German First Army launched its initial attacks on schedule a few hours before New Year's Day, with Simon's XIII SS Corps pushing south over the Sarre River valley and Petersen's XC and Hoehne's LXXXIX Corps heading in the same general direction through the woods of the Low Vosges (Map 34).21 In both cases the leading German echelons began to hit the main American lines about midnight. In the Sarre valley the assault force was met by determined resistance from the 44th and 100th Infantry Division troops, who were well dug in and deployed in depth. Expecting the major attack in this area, Patch and Haislip had jammed the XV Corps zone with three infantry divisions buttressed by the two regiments of Task Force Harris and--if the theater reserve units are counted--two armored and another infantry division in reserve, with a third armored division arriving. The German attack barely made a dent in the beefed-up Allied line. In some cases the SS troopers advanced in suicidal open waves, cursing and screaming at the American infantrymen who refused to be intimidated. The infantry of the 36th Volksgrenadier did little better. Although Simon's forces finally managed to poke a narrow hole, about two miles in depth, at Rimling on the right wing of the 44th Division, the 100th Infantry Division held firm. In the days that followed the Germans saw their small advances continuously eroded by repeated counterattacks from the 44th, 100th, and 63d (TF Harris) Division infantry supported by elements of the French 2d Armored Division.22 Allied artillery and, when the weather broke, Allied air attacks, together with the bitter cold, also sapped the strength of the attackers. On 4 January the German high command formally called off the effort. As General Simon, the attacking corps commander, caustically observed, the Sarre assault had shown only that the German soldier still knew how to fight and how to die, but little else. Blaskowitz, with Hitler and von Rundstedt's approval, obviously chose not to throw the German armored reserves into the battle there, as planned, and sought weaker links in the American lines.
The second attack, launched from the Bitche area south through the Low Vosges, was more successful. Believing that the major German effort would be
The Last German Offensive
31 December 1944-25 January 1945
MEN OF THE 100TH DIVISION MAINTAIN HEAVY MACHINE-GUN POSITION, near Rimling, 1945.
west of the mountains--or more concerned with the thin VI Corps lines in the Lauterbourg salient to the east--the American generals had not expected an enemy drive through such rough terrain, where snowy, narrow roads bisected rather than paralleled the southward German axis of advance. The assembly areas of the attacking infantry on New Year's Eve had been hidden in the Maginot Line bunkers still in German hands; there had been no preattack artillery bombardment to warn the defenders; and the overcast sky and thick mountain forests had provided cover for the assault throughout the first day of the offensive.
On 31 December Task Force Hudelson held a roughly defined mountain front from the Bitche area on the west to the vicinity of Neunhoffen on the east. This ad hoc group, commanded by Col. D. H. Hudelson, consisted of the 94th and 117th Cavalry Squadrons, with mostly jeeps and light armored cars, and the half-tracks of the 62d Armored Infantry Battalion, reinforced only by a tank destroyer company.23 To screen the area Hudelson had established a series of strongpoints on the mountain roads
that entered his sector from the east and west, supplementing them with small patrols and checkpoints. Rather than stopping a determined attack, his job was to delay and channel it until reinforcements could arrive. But Hudelson's delaying power proved limited during the early hours of 1 January. Moving south through the dark forests, leading elements of the 559th, 257th, 361st, and 256th Volksgrenadier Divisions easily penetrated the positions of the small American mechanized force, bypassing strongpoints and scattering the roadbound armored units as they withdrew and tried to regroup.24 Hudelson's local counterattacks were hampered by the snow--both wheeled and tracked vehicles losing traction on the icy mountain roads--and were too minor to have any effect on the general progress of the German offensive. Quickly the various components of the light mechanized unit found themselves retreating to the east and west, abandoning many of their snowbound vehicles in the process.
During the next four days the attacking infantry divisions pushed south through the Vosges for about ten miles; but the real contest for control of the vital mountain exits began almost immediately, as reinforcing American units tried to keep the German volksgrenadiers bottled up in the Low Vosges forests. On the western edge of the advance, the U.S. 100th Infantry Division held firm, strengthening its right shoulder first with an additional regiment from Task Force Harris (63d Division) and then with the 36th Division's 141st regiment, which Patch released to Haislip late on 1 January. Together these units, with an assist from the 14th Armored Division, channeled the advancing German infantry away from the Sarre River valley to the south and east.
Across the Vosges, with fewer forces at his immediate disposal, Brooks was forced to make major changes in the dispositions of his corps. First he withdrew two inexperienced infantry regiments of Task Force Herren (70th Division) from the Rhine front and moved them across the interior of the VI Corps area to plug up the eastern exits to the Vosges, under the direction of Frederick's 45th Infantry Division. In the center, blocking the way to Phalsbourg and Saverne, Brooks and Frederick inserted two regiments of the 45th Division as well as another on loan from Wyche's 79th Division; they backfilled the 45th's northern front with a combat engineer regiment, the 36th C, temporarily converted to infantry, and backstopped all of these forces with parts of the 14th Armored Division still under VI Corps control. Such complex switching completely entangled the 45th, 79th, and 70th Division forces. By 4 January, for example, the 45th Division had crossed its extended front, from east to west, parts of the 179th and 180th Infantry (organic to the 45th) and elements of the 276th Infantry (Task Force Herren) in the Vosges; the 313th Infantry (reinforced with battalions of the 314th and 315th Infantry, all from the 79th Division), elements of the
274th and 275th Infantry (Task Force Herren), and the 157th Infantry (organic) along the eastern exits to the Vosges; and the 36th C Engineers together with leftovers from the 179th and 180th Infantry on its regular northern front. Very quickly Frederick found himself trying to control eight different regiments, half of which had commanders and staffs that had never been in combat before. Although these hasty measures contained the advance of the German infantry divisions at least temporarily, they left very few troops to defend the Lauterbourg salient farther east.
As American reinforcements met German attackers, the battle quickly turned into a bitter winter infantry fight focusing on the towns that lay along the snow-covered mountain roads. Here at Lemberg, Sarreinsberg, Wildenguth, Wingen, Wimmenau, Reipertswiller, Mouterhouse, Baerenthal, Philippsbourg, Dambach, and a host of other tiny Alsatian mountain villages and hamlets, the Americans finally began to hold their ground. Yet, even before the four attacking volksgrenadier divisions began to flag, Blaskowitz and von Obstfelder, the First Army commander, started feeding elements of the 6th SS Mountain Division ("Nord") into the battle. The SS division, an experienced unit trained and equipped for cold-weather warfare, fresh and at full strength, began to deploy on the battlefield sometime on 2 January and was soon spearheading a renewed drive south.25 Nevertheless, elements of the 45th and 79th Divisions, reinforced by more battalions from Task Force Herren as well as units of the 540th Engineers, which also served as infantry, continued to protect the vital Vosges exits, constantly counterattacking the now overextended German forces.
At this point Patch decided to move the entire 103d Infantry Division, now unengaged, from the far northwestern wing of the XV Corps over to the eastern shoulder of the German Vosges advance, thus relieving Task Force Herren elements that had begun to wear thin and beginning his own counteroffensive against the flanks of the German penetration.26 On the other side, the German commanders, to guard against such a threat, had begun to deploy the 36th Volksgrenadier Division from Simon's XIII SS Corps in the Sarre area to Hoehne's LXXXIX Corps in the Vosges in order to strengthen the base of the salient. Hemmed in on three sides, however, the German offensive through the Low Vosges seemed to be coming to a complete standstill by the 5th. Brooks had been able to move his forces over to the Vosges faster than any of the German commanders had thought possible, and the green troops of Task Force Herren along with the converted engineers had fought with an enthusiasm that belied their inexperience. Without possession of the exits to the Vosges, Hitler refused to commit the mobile reserves, and as long as the
Americans controlled the Saverne Gap and the road networks on either side of the Vosges, they could bring reinforcements into the area faster than the attackers. With nowhere to go, NORDWIND was essentially a failure. Blaskowitz and von Obstfelder, however, still had their uncommitted armor reserves--but so did Patch and Devers. The struggle was far from over.
Command and Control
Both German and American post-battle autopsies of the NORDWIND offensive severely criticized the planning and conduct of the Sarre River valley attack. The XIII SS Corps had put the assault together hastily, and even the American commanders were surprised by its poor execution. The division-level leadership and staff work of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division in particular proved marginal. The unit was unable even to bring its armor up to the battle area until the third day because of icy road conditions and limited engineer support; the German demolition effort had been too thorough when they had vacated the area in early December. Artillery support had also been badly coordinated, as had just about everything else. In fact, during the battles for northern Alsace the SS division went through about five division commanders, mostly SS colonels with comparatively little military experience.27 Given the means at Blaskowitz's disposal and the strength of the Allied forces west of the Low Vosges, however, perhaps the failure of what Hitler hoped would be the main German effort was inevitable.
The inability of the successful Vosges attacking forces to break out of the mountain exits was another matter entirely. Here the divided German command structure on the Alsatian front clearly contributed heavily to the ultimate lack of success. Had Army Group Oberrhein launched supporting attacks across the Rhine at the start of the offensive, Brooks might not have been able to transfer the three regiments of Task Force Herren from the Rhine to the Vosges so readily, and at least some of the eastern mountain exits might have fallen to the advancing volksgrenadiers. Although Blaskowitz might still have elected not to employ his panzer reserves through the Vosges, the results would have greatly increased his options. But as future events would show, Himmler had his own objectives in mind, and the lack of coordination between Army Group G and Army Group Oberrhein during NORDWIND and in the ensuing campaign was remarkable.
The Allied commanders had their own serious command and control problems. For example, General Leclerc's extreme reluctance to place his 2d Armored Division under de Lattre's control was well known. Although publicly emphasizing the better logistical support available from American corps and army commands, he privately harbored strong feelings against many senior officers of the First French Army, whose loyalty to the Allied cause and the Free French in particular had come relatively
late in the war. The ghost of Marshal Petain's Vichy regime had already begun to cast its long shadow over France. However, both the Ardennes and NORDWIND attacks temporarily made the matter academic, as Leclerc's armor was needed more in the north and, for the moment, was better employed supporting Patch's thinly spread forces.
The defense of Strasbourg was another matter and demanded immediate resolution. Devers himself was still reluctant to pull his entire line back to the Vosges, preferring to reinforce Brooks with the three proto-infantry divisions, and was probably content to let de Lattre buck the decision on Strasbourg up to their political and military superiors. The entire concept of abandoning all of northern Alsace was fraught with danger. Such a major withdrawal would have surrendered much of the easily defensible Rhine front, exposed the northern flank of the French II Corps above the Colmar Pocket, and placed the entire Saverne Gap under German artillery fire, while making it highly unlikely that the Allies could regain the territory in the near future. After being surprised in the Ardennes, Eisenhower may have simply become too cautious, overreacting to the smaller threat posed by the initial NORDWIND assault forces and then unwilling to reverse the order when the offensive came well to the west of the Lauterbourg salient.
Eisenhower's decision to press on with the withdrawal continued to place Devers in a dilemma. On 1 January, as NORDWIND began, he informed General Touzet du Vigier, an emissary of Juin, that SHAEF had required the 6th Army Group to fall back to the Vosges, thus temporarily relinquishing Strasbourg to German control. Yet, on the same day, he also requested that SHAEF "clarify" its instructions on the matter. At the time, the VI Corps had just begun planning for the first phase of the withdrawal, pulling back from the Bitche-Lauterbourg trace to the Maginot Line, but had made no concrete preparations for anything further. The following day, 2 January, de Gaulle reviewed Juin's report, sent orders confirming de Lattre's responsibility for the defense of the city, and dispatched Juin to SHAEF headquarters to argue the matter with Eisenhower's chief of staff. Juin's meeting with General Smith, related earlier, fully alerted Eisenhower to the weight that the French political leader gave to the safety of the French city. Massive reprisals against Strasbourg's citizens by vengeful German military, paramilitary, or police units were likely, and a belated defense of the city by French forces bereft of American support might have severe implications regarding future Franco-American relations. On the other hand, a decision to surrender Strasbourg to the Germans out of hand might well have adverse repercussions on de Gaulle's own political plans, strengthening the Communist leadership centered in the resistance movement. For these reasons, de Gaulle asked Churchill and Roosevelt to intervene in the dispute. Churchill quickly concurred, and at a SHAEF staff conference held the following day, 3 January, and attended by Churchill, de Gaulle, Eisenhower, Smith, Juin, and their assistants, the Allied commander in chief agreed to
suspend the withdrawal. Actually, Eisenhower appears to have reversed the order just prior to the conference and passed down the change to Brooks. With the situation in the Ardennes stable and the initial German NORDWIND attacks confined to the areas above the Lauterbourg salient, a complete withdrawal was less pressing. Allied unity was thus preserved, and cooperation between American and French soldiers in the field remained undisturbed. But events that followed soon proved that Eisenhower's concern over Brooks' position was not completely unwarranted.
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1. These included the U.S. 12th and 14th Armored Divisions and the 36th, 44th, 45th, 79th, 100th, and 103d Infantry Divisions in the Seventh Army, and the French 1st, 2d (Leclerc), and 5th Armored Divisions, the 1st and 16th (a new unit) Infantry, 3d Algerian, 2d Moroccan, 4th Moroccan Mountain, and 9th Colonial Divisions, and the U.S. 3d Infantry Division in the First French Army.
2. Army Group Oberrhein ("Upper Rhine") controlled the Nineteenth Army in the Colmar Pocket as well as the XIV SS Corps and a variety of military and paramilitary units east of the Rhine.
3. German planning information is based on von Luttichau, "German Operations," ch. 27; "Operation NORTHWIND" file, Box 1, William W. Quinn Papers, MHI; and Paul Rigoulot, "Operation Nordwind: 1-26 janvier 1945" (unpublished MS, ca. 1988), pp. 1-70 (copy CMH).
4. For a discussion of ZAHNARZT alternatives, see von Luttichau, "German Operations," ch. 28, pp. 21-24.
5. Material relating to the defense of Strasbourg is based primarily on John W. Price, "The Strasbourg Incident" (1967), CMH MS; and de Lattre, History, pp. 301-13.
6. Devers Diary, 27 Dec 44.
7. 6th Army Gp LOI 7, 28 Dec 44.
8. Devers Diary, 29 Dec 44.
9. Devers Diary, 1 Jan 45.
10. For an account of the conference, see Ltr, David G. Barr to Devers, 5 Sep 67 (copy CMH). Barr, who was Devers' chief of staff at the time, was present at the meeting and related that de Gaulle's threat was communicated by a French draft memo that was somehow passed on to the American generals toward the end of the session.
11. Vigneras Intervs, pp. 35-36.
12. Von Rundstedt had also considered the 11th Panzer Division for ZAHNARZT, but later committed it on 18 January in a minor attack north of the main Alsatian battlefield. See CMH MS R-91, Magna E. Bauer, "Army Group G, January 1945" (December 1956).
13. Army Group G's constantly changing order of battle and its equipment situation during this period make it difficult to ascertain the exact number and type of tanks and assault guns committed. In fact, many units and machines entered the battle as they arrived on the front. Neither the 6th Mountain SS Division nor the XXXIX Panzer Corps headquarters, for example, was available at the start of NORDWIND, both arriving a day or two later. See Rigoulot, "Operation Nordwind," pp. 51-53.
14. Quoted in von Luttichau, "German Operations," ch. 27.
15. For general information on American actions before and during NORDWIND, see Hist, 6th Army Gp, pp. 106-58; Seventh Army Rpt, II, chs. 22-23.
16. The task forces were commanded by Brig. Gens. Henry H. Linden, Frederick M. Harris, and Thomas W. Herren. For a detailed account of the operations of Task Force Herren's 275th Infantry regiment during NORDWIND, see Donald C. Pence and Eugene J. Petersen, Ordeal in the Vosges (Sanford, N.C.: Transition Press, 1981); for the 274th regiment, see Wallace R. Cheves, ed., Snow Ridges and Pillboxes (privately published, n.d.) (copy MHI); and for all three, the 70th Infantry Division official records for December 1944-January 1945 at the WNRC.
17. The conversion program is discussed in Seventh Army Diary, pp. 460-61, 465-66.
18. "G-2 History: Seventh Army Operations in Europe," V (1-31 December 44), Box 2, William W. Quinn Papers, MHI.
19. Bussey Interv, 19 Aug 87; Bussey, ULTRA Report; Hinsley et al., British Intelligence in the Second World War, III, 2, p. 664.
20. Cited in Bussey Interv, 19 Aug 87.
21. This section is based on official U.S. Army records; von Luttichau, "German Operations," ch. 28; and Rigoulot, "Operation Nordwind," pp. 71- 128.
22. For heroic action in defense of his unit's perimeter on 1 January 1945, Sgt. Charles A. Gillivary, Company I, 71st Infantry, 44th Infantry Division, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, as was Tech. Sgt. Charles F. Carey, Jr., 379th Infantry, 100th Infantry Division (posthumously), several days later for action on the night of 8-9 January 1945, in which he commanded an antitank platoon near Rimling.
23. The task force was built around CCR of the 14th Armored Division, with the divisional and corps cavalry squadrons substituting for the combat command's organic tank battalion. Also attached were Company B, 645th Tank Destroyer Battalion; Company B, 83d Mortar Battalion; Company A, 125th Armored Engineer Battalion; and 1st Battalion, 540th Engineers.
24. No records from Task Force Hudelson survived, and the above information is based on a Seventh Army Historical Officer interview report, "Task Force Hudelson, 14th Armored Division, 21 December 1944-1 January 1945" (ca. 1945), MHI.
25. The SS division had been fighting on the Finnish front until the autumn of 1944, when it retreated into northern Norway and returned to Germany via Oslo and Denmark in November and December.
26. Its place was taken first by a regiment of the 36th Division and then by the new XXI Corps, which supervised a miscellaneous collection of units.
27. Rigoulot, "Operation Nordwind," p. 53. On American evaluations of its performance, see "G-2 History: Seventh Army Operations in Europe (1-31 Dec 44)," V, William W. Quinn Papers, MHI.