Operation NORDWIND proved only the first in a series of German attacks against the 6th Army Group, which American soldiers dubbed collectively the New Year's Eve offensive. Altogether, between 5 and 25 January, the German Army undertook four additional multidivision offensives against the U.S. Seventh Army and another against the First French Army just above the Colmar Pocket. Although most of these attacks were hastily planned and executed with little finesse, some caught the Americans by surprise, and together they threatened to overwhelm the tired units of the Seventh Army. Having already been greatly weakened by the massive diversion of military supplies and replacements to the Ardennes, Patch's forces somehow had to find the means from their own strength and resources to turn back the multiple German threats.
On 5 January, as Patch began deploying the 103d Division east of the Vosges, Himmler's Army Group Oberrhein began its NORDWIND "supporting" attack.1 Under the direction of General Otto von dem Bach's XIV SS Corps, the 553d Volksgrenadier Division, reinforced with armor and commando units, spearheaded the main effort, which fell on the right, or eastern, flank of Brooks' VI Corps across the west bank of the Rhine at Gambsheim, just ten miles north of Strasbourg. Two days later, on 7 January, Rasp's Nineteenth Army initiated another attack south of the city near Rhinau, on the northern edge of the Colmar Pocket. Code-named Operation SONNENWENDE ("Winter Solstice"), the southern offensive included attacks by Thumm's LXIV Corps, with the 198th Volksgrenadier Division, the 106th Panzer Brigade, and other armored elements (with forty to fifty heavy tanks and assault guns). The new series of attacks at Rhinau and Gambsheim not only threatened the southern flank and rear of the VI Corps, but also the city of Strasbourg. If Hitler could not take Antwerp in the north, then Himmler was determined to present him with Strasbourg in the south. The two attacks quickly
GAMBSHEIM-RHINE RIVER AREA
forced Patch to shelve any plans for an offensive by the 103d Division in the Vosges or any expectations of immediate relief from the French in the south.
The VI Corps
North of Strasbourg, the departure of first Task Force Harris and then Task Force Herren had stretched the three inexperienced regiments of Task Force Linden (42d Division) thin over a broad, marshy 42-mile Rhine front. To ease matters, Devers had finally approved an immediate VI Corps withdrawal south from the Lauter River to the Maginot Line by 2 January and the transfer of responsibility for the defense of the Strasbourg area to the French II Corps by the 6th. However, before these arrangements could be completed, Himmler's forces had attacked at Gambsheim and Rhinau, preventing de Lattre from moving any strength up to the Strasbourg area to provide immediate relief.2 Thus, almost single-handedly, with its units scattered along the Rhine front, Task Force Linden tried to counter the
penetration. But with no organic signal, artillery, or transportation units of its own and with only a few platoons of 79th Division armor in direct support, the scattered rifle battalions of the task force were overmatched. Ferrying troops and armored vehicles across the Rhine as quickly as possible, the initial assault force was able to brush aside the weak American counterattacks and rapidly expand the width of the bridgehead to about ten miles. Meanwhile in the west, fresh units of the 6th Mountain SS Division bulled through the 45th Division's patchwork defensive line in the Vosges and captured the town of Wingen, which represented the southernmost penetration of the initial NORDWIND offensive. The VI Corps was now heavily engaged on both its flanks, and Brooks was just about out of reserves.
Devers and Patch reacted quickly. On 6 January, with the uncommitted 36th and 103d Infantry Divisions headed for the Vosges front, they transferred the rest of the 14th Armored Division to Brooks, urged de Lattre to push additional forces up to the Strasbourg area as quickly as possible, and began deploying the army group's final reserve, the inexperienced 12th Armored Division, to the VI Corps area as well. The busy VI Corps commander tried to counter the Gambsheim threat, first, by reinforcing the area with a few more infantry battalions from the 79th Division's now greatly weakened northern front, and second, on 8 January, by committing a recently arrived combat command of the 12th Armored Division against the bridgehead.
In the Vosges, Brooks' forces continued to hold the mountain exits, and the 276th Infantry (TF Herren), led by a battalion of the recently committed 274th, even managed to clear Wingen of SS troops by the afternoon of the 7th after several days of bitter fighting.3 On VI Corps' eastern flank, however, the canals, streams, and destroyed bridges made it difficult for either side to advance; Brooks' counterattacks were no more successful than the German efforts to expand their foothold across the Rhine, which now centered around the towns of Gambsheim, Herrlisheim, and Offendorf.
On 8 January, Combat Command B (CCB) of the 12th Armored Division, consisting mainly of the 56th Armored Infantry Battalion and the 714th Tank Battalion, attempted to seize Herrlisheim at the center of the German bridgehead by a direct attack. The ensuing action typified the experiences and frustrations of armored units fighting in built-up areas. Unable to put its vehicles across a series of waterways just west of the town, the unit ultimately had to assault the northern outskirts of Herrlisheim with its dismounted infantry. The lone battalion remained overnight, locked in combat with tank-supported German grenadiers, and could make no further progress. On the 9th, when the American medium tanks attempted to move up to the edge of a nearby canal in support, they were picked off one by one, "like ducks in a shooting gallery," by high-velocity
714TH TANK BATTALION, 12TH ARMORED DIVISION, NEAR BISCHWILLER, FRANCE. Guns point to Drusenheim, January 1945.
German antitank cannons; the remaining armored vehicles quickly withdrew.
During the 10th, several supporting M8 self-propelled guns also tried to move up closer to the town using different approaches, but they ended up crashing through the thick ice covering the local canals and could not be extracted until nightfall. Just about the only American armor able to reach Herrlisheim, the 714th's light tanks, proved useless in combat, but they were able to bring up supplies and evacuate the wounded--one tank serving only to cast a beam on the operating table of a nearby first-aid station. Although reinforced during the day by a company of engineers used as infantry fillers, the battalion finally had to withdraw on the night of 10-11 January, feeling fortunate that it had not been cut off and completely destroyed. Herrlisheim was not a good place for a new armored division.4
The French II Corps
Fortunately for Brooks, the German attack south of Strasbourg never became a serious threat. Well before
RIFLEMAN OF 70TH DIVISION searching for snipers, Wingen, January 1945.
the offensive, de Lattre had replaced Leclerc's departing armor with units of the French 5th Armored Division and the French 1st Infantry Division, as the latter deployed back from its abortive mission on the Atlantic coast. With these units in place, de Monsabert was in the process of pulling the 3d Algerian Division out of the Vosges and moving it up to Strasbourg when the German Colmar-based attacks began at Rhinau.5
The initial objectives of SONNENWENDE were limited and consisted of a triangular zone between the Ill and Rhine rivers fom Selestat to Erstein, representing about a fourth of the territory that the 2d Armored Division had secured back in December. The extension of German control north to Erstein, which would include a small logistical bridgehead at Rhinau, was then to serve as a springboard for an advance to Molsheim, another ten miles northward, until eventually Strasbourg was invested. Both Rasp and the LXIV Corps commander, General Thumm, had misgivings about the operation from the beginning, recognizing that ultimate success would depend on the Nineteenth Army receiving reinforcements and on the main attacking forces north of Strasbourg doing most of the work. Nevertheless, spurred by Himmler, the two generals did what they could.
Charged with the initial assault, Thumm concentrated his attacking forces on the west side of the Rhone-Rhine Canal, believing that the French forces between the canal and the Rhine would simply fall back if Erstein could be taken quickly enough. This proved the case when, on 7 January, the bulk of the German armor and one regiment of the 198th Volksgrenadier Division drove north, reached Erstein during the first day of the attack, and then swung back to the southwest along the Ill River to trap French units engaging the rest of the 198th's forces. Although most of the surrounded French troops managed to escape across the Ill that night, Thumm's forces, reinforced by one regiment of the 269th Volksgrenadier Division, currently in reserve on the east side of the Rhine, cleared the entire west side of the Ill River by the 11th and secured the west bank of the Rhine as far as Erstein. There, on 13
January, Operation SONNENWENDE formally ended. Although Hitler had previously directed Himmler to continue his attack northward with the entire 269th Division, he later canceled the order, and a renewal of the offensive from Colmar never occurred. By 18 January the 269th Volksgrenadier Division was on its way to the eastern front, but its scheduled replacement, the 2d Mountain Division, had yet to arrive. Thumm was thus left with an even larger perimeter to defend with fewer units, supplies, and equipment than he had had at the beginning.
The XXXIX Panzer Corps Attacks
The fourth German assault against the Seventh Army began in earnest on 7 January along the vulnerable northern portion of the Lauterbourg salient. On the previous day Blaskowitz had finally obtained permission from Hitler to commit the panzer reserve units in this area, and Decker's XXXIX Panzer Corps arrived to control the operation, with both armored divisions and the 245th Volksgrenadier Division in support. Carefully monitoring the progress of the offensive, the Army Group G commander was convinced that American redeployments from the Lauter River area had greatly reduced American defenses in the zone and that a quick strike all the way to Saverne was possible. By that time Brooks had withdrawn his defending forces five to ten miles back to the American-held portions of the Maginot Line--the first of his planned three-phase withdrawals--and the VI Corps defenses that remained were indeed extremely weak, consisting of a few infantry battalions and support troops of the 45th and 79th Divisions and some elements of Task Force Linden (242d regiment). As a result Brooks' right wing and right flank were as jumbled as his left, with Wyche's 79th Division trying to control the following forces: from east to west, elements of the 222d (TF Linden), 315th, 313th, and 232d (TF Linden) Infantry occupying mainly Maginot Line positions; and, from north to south along the Rhine and around the Gambsheim bridgehead, elements of the 314th Infantry, CCB of the 14th Armored Division, the 232d Infantry, and finally elements of the 3d Algerian Division, which had begun to trickle in from the Vosges--all with a variety of tank, tank destroyer, engineer, and cavalry units mixed in.
Suddenly, with the commitment of the 21st Panzer and 25th Panzer Grenadier Divisions in the north, the entire American defensive effort appeared to be in grave danger. Nevertheless, for a time the Americans were able to hang on. In the center of the Lauterbourg salient, the heterogeneous collection of American units occupying old Maginot Line fortifications put up an energetic defense against somewhat listless German armor. Lack of proper reconnaissance as well as 79th Division minefields and artillery stalled the German tanks as did the weather, icy terrain, and the unexpected presence of Task Force Linden (42d Division) units. Meanwhile the remainder of Brooks' corps tried to hold the flanks at Gambsheim and in the Vosges, keeping the salient from caving in. Disturbed by the lack of progress on the 7th, Blaskowitz personally visited the Lauterbourg
48TH TANK BATTALION, 14TH ARMORED DIVISION, OUTSIDE OF RITTERSHOFFEN, January 1945.
front to find out what was holding up his panzer units, threatening to court-martial all of the principal armor commanders for their lack of aggressiveness. Finally, on 9 January, Decker's armor pierced the VI Corps center, driving it back to the Haguenau forest and forcing Brooks to commit his final reserve, the 14th Armored Division, near the towns of Hatten and Rittershoffen. Here American tanks met German armor in towns, fields, and roads, and the bitter fighting continued. The VI Corps was battling for its life on three sides.
The battleground now began to resemble a general melee. Between 10 and 20 January General Smith's 14th Armored Division, which assumed operational control of assorted infantry units of the 242d and 315th Infantry above the Haguenau forest and was supported by most of its own artillery plus that of the 79th Division, fought a sustained action with Decker's panzers. The German commanders, in turn, reinforced the attacking troops on the night of 13-14 January with the 20th Parachute Regiment (7th Parachute Division), and on the 16th with the 104th Infantry Regiment (47th Volksgrenadier Division), thereby steadily raising the stakes of the contest. But along the entire front of the VI Corps, division and regimental commanders gradually lost control over the battle, and the struggle devolved
into a fierce tactical conflict between opposing battalions, companies, platoons, and smaller combat units.
The heaviest fighting was concentrated in the two small Alsatian towns of Rittershoffen and Hatten, both just north of the Haguenau forest and a mile or so apart.6 Chance and circumstance had led the Germans to seize the eastern sections of both towns and the Americans to occupy the western parts, making the fields and roads in between a no-man's land of artillery, antitank, and small-arms fire. Efforts by each party to cut the resupply routes of the other by armored sweeps continually failed in the face of strong tank, antitank, and artillery fire from both sides. The battle thus boiled down to a desperate infantry fight within the towns, with dismounted panzer grenadiers and armored infantrymen fighting side by side with the more lowly foot infantry.7 Almost every structure was hotly contested, and at the end of every day each side totaled up the number of houses and buildings it controlled in an attempt to measure the progress of the battle. Often in the smoke, haze, and darkness, friendly troops found themselves firing at one another, and few ventured into the narrow but open streets, preferring to advance or withdraw through the blown-out interior walls of the gutted homes and businesses. Both sides employed armor inside the town, but the half-blind tank crews had to be protected by a moving perimeter of infantrymen and could only play a limited supporting role. In Hatten, even with strong infantry and artillery support, no German or American tanker dared push his vehicle around "the bend"--a slight turn in the town's marginally wider main street that was covered by several antitank weapons from both sides.
By 15 January, as the German commitment of infantry in the two towns escalated, the Americans found themselves increasingly on the defensive; resupply and the evacuation of casualties became major operations, as did the continual reorganization of their shrinking perimeters to consolidate the territory they were able to hold. As elsewhere the cold weather kept bodies from deteriorating, and the troops reached a consensus among themselves that no one would be evacuated for shock, since everyone who was left fell into that dubious category. Nevertheless, the American armored division and the attached infantry managed to hang on, completely stalling the Germans' main effort, but in the process they lost perhaps one-third of their combat strength in men and equipment.
An equally desperate fight took place in the Vosges between Mouterhouse and Baerenthal involving the 45th Division's 157th regiment and additional units of the 6th SS Mountain Division. Although the struggle lasted seven days, from 14 to 21 January, it began in earnest on the 15th when one of the 157th Infantry's battalions managed to penetrate the German
defensive positions and the other battalions were unable to follow. During the next two days the German defenders, after unsuccessfully trying to push the battalion back, managed to surround it and cut it off from its sister units. This isolated force, made up of five companies (L, I, C, K, and G), hung on for three days while various elements of the 45th and 103d Divisions and the 36th Engineers tried unsuccessfully to break through the German blockade, continually hampered by sleet and blinding snowstorms as well as by severe shortages of artillery ammunition and other supplies. With food running low and their own small-arms and mortar ammunition growing short, the remaining soldiers of the 157th's trapped force formed a small defensive perimeter, placing the wounded in foxholes so that they could be cared for by those who were still fighting. On the 20th, the end was near. With only about 125 able-bodied soldiers left, the trapped infantrymen tried to infiltrate out. News of the Malmedy Massacre in the Ardennes had spread throughout the Seventh Army, and few wished to surrender to the SS troops. But in the end only two enlisted men reached Allied lines. Shortly thereafter the remainder of the regiment was withdrawn from the front for rest and refitting; the SS mountain unit was equally battered, however, and had to be taken out of the line several days later.8
The Panzer Assault
Since the beginning of the XXXIX Panzer Corps' offensive in the north on 7 January, the German high command had debated incessantly over the role of the final German reserves, including the 10th SS and 11th Panzer Divisions and the 7th Parachute, 47th Volksgrenadier, and 2d Mountain Divisions, many of which were beginning to arrive at the front in strength. On the evening of the 8th, Blaskowitz proposed using the parachute, volksgrenadier, and mountain units now assembling in the First Army area to assist the infantry units in capturing the eastern exits to the Vosges and from there striking west with the two additional panzer divisions toward Haguenau and Gambsheim, while Decker's forces kept the Americans busy in the north. With the exception of the 11th Panzer Division, Hitler agreed to commit all of the ZAHNARZT forces to Alsace, but insisted that the 10th SS Panzer Division be employed east of the Haguenau forest, along the Rhine, to link up with Army Group Oberrhein's forces in the Gambsheim bridgehead; the remainder of the reserves could be used in whatever way the field commanders thought best. However, by the time these decisions had been made and communicated to the front, Decker's breakthrough to Hatten and Rittershoffen, about noon on the 9th, together with the failure of both Hoehne in the Vosges and von dem Bach at Gambsheim to move out of their respective enclaves, appeared to support the immediate
commitment of the reserves in the center, behind the XXXIX Panzer Corps.
The problems inherent in the awkward command and control arrangements of the Germans again became apparent, making it difficult for them to implement any of the proposals rapidly or to take advantage of the tactical situation on the battlefield. Hitler issued his instructions regarding the reserve forces sometime on the 9th, but Blaskowitz did not receive them until about twenty-four hours later, probably about the same time that OKW was passing the news of Decker's breakthrough on to Hitler. Meanwhile, leading elements of the 14th Armored Division had arrived in the Hatten-Rittershoffen area on the 10th, temporarily blocking any further German drive south. Although Decker might have attempted to bypass the Haguenau forest on the east or west, he could not afford to have an entire enemy armored division on his lines of communication, at least not until additional reinforcements arrived to free his mobile units from the embattled area. However the ZAHNARZT reserves reached the front in bits and pieces, forcing Blaskowitz and von Obstfelder to feed them into the battle in small increments, as they had done with the 6th SS Mountain Division. Thus, on 10 and 11 January, units of the 7th Parachute entered the struggle at Hatten and Rittershoffen, but Blaskowitz, in accordance with Hitler's orders, began assembling the 10th SS Panzer Division northeast of what he considered the critical battle area for a drive along the water-soaked west bank of the Rhine. Later in the day Blaskowitz returned to his headquarters, apparently giving up the idea of a rapid breakthrough; about the same time Hitler, judging that the XXXIX Panzer Corps was again completely bogged down, decided to transfer responsibility for continuing the offensive east of the Vosges to Army Group Oberrhein. The decision became effective on 12 January, with the XXXIX Panzer Corps headquarters and the 10th SS Panzer and 7th Parachute Divisions going to Himmler; with the 21st Panzer, 25th Panzer Grenadier, and 47th Volksgrenadier Divisions (upon arriving) coming under Hoehne's LXXXIX Corps, moving out of the Vosges; and with almost all of the Vosges assault forces taken over by Petersen's XC Corps.9 While the Germans proceeded to shift their commands in order to comply with these changes, the 10th SS Panzer Division continued to assemble in the Lauterbourg area for the main drive south.
Patch and Brooks also used the next few days to reorganize their forces and strengthen their defenses. The end of the Nineteenth Army's offensive in the Rhinau-Erstein area on 13 January allowed de Lattre to accelerate the deployment of the 3d Algerian Division to Strasbourg, and the arrival of the U.S. 103d Infantry Division in the VI Corps zone had given Brooks an opportunity to begin pulling some the exhausted TF Herren regiments out of the line. Even
SHAEF had begun to pay some attention to the southern battlefield, informing Devers several days later that it would make the 101st Airborne Division and additional artillery available to the Seventh Army as soon as possible.10 Patch now transferred both the 36th Infantry Division and the rest of the 12th Armored Division to Brooks, who quickly directed them to begin closing the Gambsheim area in order to relieve units of the 79th Infantry Division and TF Linden, which were equally tired.11 Except in the Hatten-Rittershoffen area and in some sections of the eastern Vosges, the front appeared relatively quiet for a few days, with the notable exception of incessant strafing attacks by Luftwaffe aircraft, many of them reportedly jet fighters that were easier heard than seen. Both sides took the opportunity to rest and resupply their forces, contending with the freezing temperatures as best they could and preparing to renew the contest once again.
The Final Attack
On 16 January the XXXIX Panzer Corps, with the 10th SS Panzer Division, the 7th Parachute Division, the 384th and 667th Assault Gun Brigades, and even the Reichfuehrer's Escort Battalion, spearheaded a final German drive from Lauterbourg south down the west bank of the Rhine River, scattering the defenders from Task Force Linden and the 79th Division and linking the northern attacking forces with those in the Gambsheim bridgehead. Some 10th SS units had even been ferried directly into the bridgehead from the east bank of the Rhine. From there, the German commanders hoped to continue south and then drive west, behind the VI Corps' main line of resistance, striking for the Saverne Gap. Both Patch and Brooks had expected a resumption of the offensive, but the main axis of the German attack came as something of a surprise. The American unit that took the brunt of the attack was thus not Wyche's worn 79th Division or Smith's embattled 14th Armored, but Allen's new 12th Armored Division operating on the western flank of the Gambsheim bridgehead.
On 16 January the 12th Armored had begun another effort to seize Herrlisheim, the possession of which would have cut the principal German north-south communication line within the Gambsheim bridgehead. This time CCB was to renew its efforts north of Herrlisheim, again attacking east over the Zorn River; meanwhile CCA, with two armored infantry battalions and a reinforced tank battalion, made an administrative crossing of the Zorn south of the objective area at Weyersheim, still in American hands, and moved up on Herrlisheim from the opposite direction. General Allen hoped his two units could encircle and isolate the town, which current intelligence indicated was being held only by about
500 to 800 disorganized German infantrymen. Once Herrlisheim was surrounded and the Germans found themselves unable to reinforce the town, Allen felt that his three organic infantry battalions could clear the interior relatively easily. Obviously the mission was more suited to an infantry division, but until either the U.S. 36th or the French 3d Algerian moved up to the area in strength, Allen's unit was the only uncommitted force left to Brooks for the task.
The attack went badly from the start. CCB was again unable to span all the water crossings in the north, where German artillery interfered with bridging efforts; and a night attack by the 43d Tank and 66th Armored Infantry Battalions south of Herrlisheim met determined resistance. CCA quickly discovered that the Germans had positioned antitank and assault guns in the woods south of Herrlisheim as well as in another town, Offendorf, about a mile southeast of the command's objective. At daylight on the 17th, Allen ordered both of his combat commands to renew the attack, with CCA pushing two fresh companies of the 17th Armored Infantry Battalion, under Maj. James W. Logan, into the southern outskirts of Herrlisheim; while the 43d Tank Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Nicholas Novosel, skirted east
of the town; and the 66th Armored Infantry Battalion, reinforced by elements of the 23d Tank Battalion and more artillery, made another attempt at the woods to the south. Logan's force subsequently advanced on foot, reaching the southern edge of Herrlisheim without incident, while Novosel's force of twenty-eight white-washed Sherman tanks moved off to the east.
By noon both units had reported meeting heavy opposition, as did other CCA elements still trying to clear the area south of Herrlisheim. What occurred thereafter remains somewhat hazy. By late afternoon the 17th Battalion's infantrymen appeared to have consolidated their positions in the southern section of the town, and Allen decided to leave them there for the night. No trace, however, could be found of the 43d Tank Battalion. The battalion S-3 had reported taking German antitank fire at 0849 that morning; Logan's 17th Armored Infantry had lost radio contact with the 43d about 1000, and shortly thereafter Novosel had given his unit's location as somewhere in the eastern section of Herrlisheim. Around 1330, a final radio message sent by someone in the 43d indicated only that the battalion commander's tank had been knocked out and that the unit was now east of the town.
That night the rest of CCA together with the supply trains of the 43d Tank Battalion searched in vain for some sign of the missing armored unit. Meanwhile, inside the town, Logan noted a steadily increasing number of enemy probes throughout his lines, and about midnight he reported large-scale infantry attacks supported by armor and artillery against all of his positions. The division immediately responded with concentrations of artillery fire to support the isolated infantrymen, but from his central command post Logan relayed that his units were constantly being forced to give ground. A final message--"I guess this is it"--about 0400 told Allen that the battalion had been overrun. Only a few of the surrounded infantrymen survived to escape in the darkness of the early morning hours. But of the tank battalion there was still no clue.
As later intelligence reports would show, CCA had unexpectedly run into the leading elements of the 10th SS Panzers, which had linked up with von dem Bach's hard-pressed Gambsheim forces and evidently continued their drive south. Regarding the fate of the 43d, an American artillery observer flying over Herrlisheim on the 18th ended some of the mystery. He reported several destroyed tanks in the eastern section of Herrlisheim and, flying east of the town, spotted 4 or 5 more and then 12 to 15 others, dug in and deployed in a circle for all-around defense, some painted white and others burned black. At once Allen began preparations for a rescue mission with his entire division; however, further air reconnaissance revealed German troops and vehicles around the motionless American tanks, and the effort was abandoned. That evening German radio broadcasts boasted that an American lieutenant colonel and 300 of his men had been taken prisoner at Herrlisheim and 50 American tanks captured or destroyed. The 12th Division officers could only speculate that the
43d had run into an extensive antitank ambush between Herrlisheim and Offendorf early on the 17th, had taken refuge in the eastern section of Herrlisheim, and had been forced out into the open by infantry attacks for a final stand. Like many of the other armored units, the 12th was paying a steep price for its introduction to sustained combat.12
Outflanked by this new attack on his right, and with both of his attached armored divisions exhausted, Brooks finally elected to withdraw. On the night of 20-21 January those units of the VI Corps north of the Haguenau forest pulled back, moving southwest toward the Moder River. The movement took the attacking Germans by surprise and prevented them from pursuing the retreating Americans, giving Brooks time to organize new positions along the Zorn, Moder, and Rothbach rivers with little interference.
The new VI Corps positions behind the Moder River greatly reduced the frontage Brooks' units would have to hold, but surrendered no great advantage to the advancing Germans. In fact, it took another four days for Hoehne, Decker, and von dem Bach to bring all the attacking German units with their supplies and equipment up to the new American positions. By that time, Brooks had the 45th, 103d, 79th, and 36th Infantry Divisions on line (west to east), and had moved the survivors of the 12th and 14th Armored Divisions and Task Force Linden back into reserve. In addition, stronger French forces were in place north of Strasbourg, and Maj. Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor's 101st Airborne Division was en route to the front. With these forces the VI Corps was able to contain a final series of German attacks, undertaken during the night of 24-25 January during a driving snowstorm. The attacking forces briefly managed to penetrate the new VI Corps lines in three places, but were promptly ejected by 14th Armored and 42d Infantry Division counterattacks. The following day Patch's forces began counterattacking across the German line, with the 100th and 45th Divisions on the west and the U.S. 36th and the French 3d Algerian on the east, forcing the Germans to protect their gains and putting them on the defensive again. Repulsed once more and with the Americans still game, the German high command had had enough and on 26 January, with their reserves exhausted, finally called a halt to what had clearly become a battle of attrition. As suddenly as it had begun, the German offensive was
over. By the end of the month Hitler had replaced Blaskowitz with Lt. Gen. Paul Hauser, an SS officer, and had sent most of the better German formations to the Eastern Front, leaving those forces opposite the 6th Army Group weaker than they had been at the beginning of the offensive.
In the end, the Germans expended much strength for little gain. Seventh Army casualties for the month of January numbered about 14,000, while the attacking German forces lost almost 23,000 officers and men.13 Moreover, the Allied losses could be replaced; the German casualties could not. From the beginning, the division of authority between OB West, Army Group G, and First Army in the north and Army Group Oberrhein and Nineteenth Army in the south greatly hindered German chances for success. Army Group G's initial NORDWIND attacks eased Army Group Oberrhein's assault across the Rhine at Gambsheim rather than the reverse. But by the time Hitler agreed to give one headquarters, in this case Army Group Oberrhein, operational control over the primary attacking forces on 13 January, surprise had been lost as well as much of the German offensive punch. Although badly battered by this date, the Seventh Army and its two corps were still intact and functioning well. Allied success in the Ardennes had allowed Devers to retain both the 12th Armored and 36th Infantry Divisions and throw them into the battle. Further assistance came as the rest of the 42d, 63d, and 70th Infantry Divisions and, from the SHAEF reserve, the 101st Airborne Division arrived, and as SHAEF increased the priority of supplies, equipment, and manpower allocated to the 6th Army Group. The timely arrival of the 103d Division allowed Patch to pull Task Force Herren into reserve, while the 36th Division performed the same service for Task Force Linden and the 12th Armored Division; the 101st Airborne Division, slated to replace the battered 79th Division, was never really needed. The withdrawal of the VI Corps out of the Lauterbourg salient and behind the Moder River greatly improved its defensive posture and tightened up the front of the Seventh Army in general, while the arrival of the 3d Algerian Division safeguarded Strasbourg city. In addition, the commanders, staffs, and combat troops of Patch's three new divisions were, by the end of NORDWIND, undoubtedly more experienced and more confident.
The Americans had good reasons
for their confidence. For many Seventh Army soldiers, this had been their first real engagement with attacking German forces whose strength was equal or superior to their own. In the contest, their leaders--Devers, Patch, and the corps, division, and regimental commanders--had done well, proving more than adept at switching large American units back and forth to meet the wide variety of German threats, and had little difficulty keeping pace with the German-orchestrated tempo of operations. Devers' decision to rush the nine brand-new infantry regiments into the line before the attacks had even begun was perhaps his most important contribution, while Patch's plan to reinforce the Sarre valley area and to rely elsewhere on defense in depth proved sound. The Seventh Army could not be strong everywhere, and the Germans probably could have penetrated Brooks' lines almost anywhere on the long VI Corps front without, however, achieving decisive results. Good use of interior lines of communications, especially the lateral road networks through the Vosges, more than made up for the VI Corps' thin lines and its exposed position in the Lauterbourg salient. But Devers was probably accurate when he stated that "Ted Brooks . . . fought one of the great defensive battles of all times with very little."14
In the field, American officers and men at the tactical level performed well, especially considering the general confusion that resulted from the rapid movement of units back and forth across the battlefield. Often with little support and even less direction from higher headquarters, regiments, battalions, and companies stubbornly clung to key towns, waterways, and road junctions, while corps and divisional artillery and service units desperately tried to see that each unit was given at least enough support to enable it to survive. Officers stayed awake by loading themselves with Benzadrine, while NCOs tried to stave off the effects of bitter cold on their men with fires and hot coffee.15 For all of them, it was their first experience at conducting a sustained defensive effort.
Neither Devers nor Patch relied excessively on their exceptional intelligence capabilities, which may have told the Allied leaders that the German high command had the ability to attack in their sector, but not where and when the major assaults would actually occur. In fact, both commanders were still concerned over the possibility of a new German offensive slightly west of the Sarre River valley area, where the withdrawal of the 103d Division had temporarily weakened the boundary zone between the Seventh and Third Armies.16 For this reason Patch continued to retain Leclerc's 2d Armored Division--arguably the 6th Army Group's best armored force--in reserve west of the Vosges behind Haislip's XV Corps.
In the air, poor flying conditions prevented the defenders from making full use of their tactical air superiority.
During January alone, Allied aircraft were grounded nearly half the month. But the German Air Force high command failed to take full advantage of the weather. Although the start of Operation NORDWIND had been accompanied by a massive Luftwaffe attack of about 700 aircraft against Allied air bases, which destroyed over 150 planes and damaged many more, the strikes had been directed almost totally against airfields in Belgium and the Netherlands and had no impact on the campaign in Alsace. Moreover, German losses during the strike were also high, and the Luftwaffe was unable to sustain such efforts, normally flying no more than 125 to 150 sorties per day across the entire Western Front. Although briefly sending 150-175 sorties into the Alsace area to support the final attacks in the Lauterbourg salient, the effort had a negligible effect on the battlefield.17 American commanders reported numerous strafing attacks by German aircraft during the period, but no sustained effort to disrupt their lines of communication.
For the 6th Army Group, the supporting 1st Tactical Air Command concentrated its air strikes north and east of the Saar, Lauter, and Rhine rivers in the German communications zone behind the battlefield, especially in the railway marshaling areas, thus making it difficult for the German ground forces to move supplies and reinforcements up to the front lines or to move troop units laterally behind the battlefield. Poor visibility limited the command's effect on the battlefield, but the threat of Allied air attacks greatly influenced German deployments. Equally important, air reconnaissance had tracked the general German buildup opposite the XV Corps, when ULTRA intercepts gave no warning of a German attack.
ULTRA itself was of marginal use during the battle, and the information it supplied was often many days out of date. For example, on 31 December ULTRA intelligence officers believed that the 6th Mountain SS Division had started to leave Norway in early December, but had no information regarding its destination. A decrypt of 4 January reported that the last elements of the division had departed Norway a week earlier; a decrypt available on 6 January of a 28 December message referred to large movements by rail to Army Group G; a decrypt on the following day, 7 January, disclosed that the mountain SS division was in the Kaiserslautern area on the 5th; and a decrypt of 10 January finally placed it on the battlefield under Hoehne's LXXXIX Corps.18 Actually the unit had entered the battle on 2 January, eight days earlier, where it had been promptly identified by opposing Seventh Army units.
ULTRA, nevertheless, performed a valuable function, enabling its users to verify the welter of often conflicting information that poured in during the battle from POW reports and other conventional sources. In these matters, experience and common
sense were more valuable to intelligence officers than exotic sources of information. For example, no one at SHAEF headquarters or anywhere else was taken in by information apparently planted on 26 January indicating that the entire II SS Panzer Corps, with its divisions, had been transferred from the Ardennes to Army Group G for commitment to the Alsatian campaign.19
On the German side, order-of-battle information concerning Seventh Army's dispositions was often hazy, especially in regard to the location of Patch's armored divisions behind the battlefield. OB West and the First Army, for example, expected to find the 36th Division in the Vosges instead of Task Force Hudelson, and the shallowness of the American defenses there may have been a welcome surprise. Less pleasing, however, was the appearance of Leclerc's 2d Armored Division instead of the inexperienced 12th in the Sarre River valley, as was the discovery that the Seventh Army had not deployed more formations north to the Ardennes. The stiff resistance from some of the green American units must also have been unexpected.
On the ground most American soldiers, from new privates to seasoned veterans, had little idea of the scope or magnitude of the successive offensives. According to many participants, the average infantryman had only two concerns, "not letting his buddies down and surviving." Often it was the weather, in one of the coldest winters of the decade, rather than the Germans that gave American foot soldiers the most problems. In general they may have performed better than their German opponents, many of whom, according to a wide variety of American reports, appeared intoxicated during the initial phase of the attacks, shouting a variety of slogans and epithets at the defenders and advancing in successive waves over open terrain. The average American GIs, always somewhat cynical, were notably unimpressed by the German performance and, in effect, by the whole Nazi military mystic.
Shortages of personnel and equipment could not completely explain the marginal German showing. Given the scarcity of ammunition, transportation, and radio communications, German artillery support was understandably poor at times, but was not critical to German success. Their best efforts were consistently the result of surprise attacks without artillery preparation and quick infantry penetrations through gaps in the American lines. In contrast, German armor, the exploiting component, was technically impressive but tactically disappointing. American officers reported that the heavier German armored vehicles slipped on the icy roads, were continually hampered by mines and destroyed bridges, and were too easily separated from their supporting infantry. The attackers' well-armored but turretless assault guns were better suited to the defense, and the large Panther and Tiger tanks did not do much better. Perhaps they never had much of a chance. Finally, the super-heavy German tanks like the Royal Tigers and Jagdtigers were extremely powerful machines, but their weight and high fuel consumption made
their positioning on the battefield difficult, and they may have only wasted the limited supplies and trained manpower available to the attackers.
American combat support was superior, and the prompt availability of adequate artillery, engineer, signal, and logistical support may have been decisive in many tactical engagements. Combat engineers often found themselves in the forefront of the battle, building or destroying bridges, constructing obstacles and minefields, or serving as infantry alongside of artillery forward observers, medical personnel, radio operators, truck drivers, and other rear-echelon soldiers. Others, whose tasks kept them farther in the rear, worked around the clock at supply depots, repair facilities, and artillery sites, and many crowded the daily religious services to pray for those on the front lines.
Some matériel and logistical failings were difficult to overcome. Artillery munitions still had to be carefully rationed, and even the newer tanks and tank destroyers, equipped with higher-velocity guns, were inferior in many ways to their German counterparts. All had greater speed, mobility, and range than their opponents, but they were still outclassed in armored protection and firepower. Devers himself judged the American tank equal to the average German machine, but even before the battle he had been concerned over the readiness of his two American armored divisions.20 Like the German panzer divisions, they were organized and equipped primarily for mobile warfare and had no business throwing themselves into built-up areas like Hatten, Rittershoffen, and Herrlisheim. But Brooks, a former armored division commander himself, had no choice in this matter, and both the 12th and 14th Armored were at least able to enter the battle arena rapidly, reinforcing critical areas and blunting the final German drives south. Yet, like Blaskowitz, Devers would have liked his armored units to have had more training and experience.
Not surprisingly, armor losses on both sides were high, because the critical fighting was centered around key crossroads and river crossings in built-up areas where armored vehicles became easy prey for mines and infantry antitank weapons. Here both sides were relatively strong: the standard American 57-mm. antitank cannons were buttressed by 75-mm. and 76-mm. pieces, and the Germans fielded similar high-velocity artillery; the American bazooka rocket-launchers were matched by the German panzerfaust. On the defense, the German antitank gunners had a distinct advantage over the American crews because of the comparatively light frontal armor of the Allied tanks. Nevertheless, good cooperation between U.S. tank-infantry teams and supporting artillery usually compensated for such technical disadvantages within the more experienced American divisions. Experience, not armor plating, was the key; accordingly, Smith's 14th Armored Division, having received its initiation in street fighting the previous November in southern Alsace, did much better at Hatten and Rittershoffen than Allen's inexperienced 12th did at Herrlisheim.
As in other campaigns, the entire battle underlined the continued importance of well-trained infantry and experienced tactical commanders and staffs as well as the need for a command system that delegated the proper amount of authority to the implementing echelons. In the case of the controversial withdrawal from the Lauterbourg salient, it was Eisenhower, Devers, and the Allied political leaders who discussed the overall implications of the proposal; Patch, the army commander, who brought the VI Corps back to the Maginot Line; and Brooks, the corps commander, who ordered the final tactical withdrawal to the Moder. But in the field where the battles were fought, neither the vast Allied fleets of flying machines nor the heavily armored German land battleships had much of an effect. Success in battle thus came down to the ability of infantry forces on both sides to attack and defend and the ability of their corps, division, regiment, and battalion commanders to position them effectively on the battlefield and make the best use of supporting manpower and machinery. In the end it was the capability of the machine to serve the foot soldier in the field, rather than the reverse, that proved decisive.
Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (27) * Next Chapter (29)
1. Information in this chapter is from von Luttichau, "Southern France," ch. 29; Rigoulot, "Operation Nordwind," pp. 128-225; and U.S. Army unit records. Army Group Oberrhein had four corps headquarters in its zone: the LXIV and LXIII under the Nineteenth Army in the Colmar Pocket, with about four divisions each, and the XIV SS and XVIII SS as well as Wehrkreis V, all with various forces on the east side of the Rhine.
2. At the time Brooks was also in the process of extending the boundary of the 79th Division westward to relieve the 45th Division of its northern responsibilities, but the Gambsheim attack on his eastern flank caused him to rescind the change.
3. For action in the Wingen area, 5-7 January 1945, the 2d Battalion, 274th Infantry, 70th Infantry Division, received the Presidential Unit Citation. For treatment of the action, see Cheves, Snow Ridges and Pill Boxes, pp. 47-86.
4. Account based on 12th Arm Div AAR, Jan 45; and Seventh Army Historical Office, Interv Rpt, "Initial Assault on Herrlisheim by the 56th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 12th Armored Division during the Period 8-11 January 1945" (ca. 1945), MHI.
5. See de Lattre, History, pp. 313-23.
6. Following account based on the 14th Arm Div AAR, Jan 45; and Seventh Army Historical Office, Interv Rpt, "Hatten, 14th Armored Division, 10-20 Jan 45," MHI. For a German view, see Hans von Luck, Panzer Commander (New York: Praeger, 1989), pp. 181-92.
7. For combat leadership and heroic action inside Hatten on 9-10 January, the Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded to M. Sgt. Vito R. Bertoldo, Company A, 242d Infantry, 42d Infantry Division.
8. 157th Rgt AAR, Jan 45. The survivors were PFC Benjamin Melton and Private Walter Bruce; regimental casualties for the month included 32 killed, 244 wounded, 472 missing, and 70 known prisoners of war. For a popular account, see Leo V. Bishop et al., eds., The Fighting Forty-Fifth: The Combat Report of an Infantry Division (Nashville, Tenn.: The Battery Press, 1978), pp. 142-46.
9. The LXXXIX and XC Corps remained under the First Army, with the XC Corps now controlling the 6th Mountain SS Division and the 36th, 256th, 257th, and 361st Volksgrenadier Divisions, and the 559th Volksgrenadier Division going to Simon's XIII SS Corps (which still controlled the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier and 19th Volksgrenadier Divisions).
10. Devers Diary, 18 Jan 45.
11. From its reserve location at Sarrebourg, the 36th Division had first sent its 141st regiment to aid the 100th Division on 1 January and began following with the rest of the division on the 3d; the 142d regiment had been temporarily diverted west to cover the gap left by the departing 103d Division. The 36th Division thus initially arrived at the Gambsheim area with only one regiment, the 143d, but the 142d soon followed, allowing the division to assume responsibility for the area on 19 January.
12. The 12th Armored Division Graves Registration Report of 23 February indicated that the tanks inside the town had been destroyed by panzerfausts--infantry antitank rockets--and the tanks to the east by high-velocity cannons, a conclusion that was buttressed by the many antitank positions later found in the area littered with 75-mm. and 88-mm. shell casings. Some twenty-eight destroyed tanks of the 43d Tank Battalion were later recovered, as were the bodies of the battalion commander and many of his men; furthermore, tank tracks through the snow indicated that the Germans had evacuated four American tanks across the Rhine when they withdrew from the area. The account of the action is based on the following sources: Seventh Army Historical Office, Interv Rpts, "12th Armored Division at Herrlisheim" (interviews with members of the 17th AIB and the 43d Tank Bn, 12th AD); ibid., "Weyersheim-Herrlisheim Area: CCA, 12th Armored Division, 16-21 Jan 45" (both ca. 1945); and Ltr, HQ 12th Armored Division, 1 Feb 45, sub: Investigation of Circumstances in the Action of the 17th Armored Infantry Battalion and the 436 Tank Battalion, both of the 12th Armored Division, 17-18 January 1945," all at MHI.
13. As elsewhere, casualty figures are only rough estimates, and the figures presented are based on the postwar "Seventh Army Operational Report, Alsace Campaign and Battle Participation, 1 June 1945" (copy CMH), which notes 11,609 Seventh Army battle casualties for the period, plus 2,836 cases of trench foot and 380 cases of frostbite, and estimates about 17,000 Germans killed or wounded with 5,985 processed prisoners of war. But the VI Corps AAR for January 1945 puts its total losses at 14,716 (773 killed, 4,838 wounded, 3,657 missing, and 5,448 nonbattle casualties); and Albert E. Cowdrey and Graham A. Cosmas, "The Medical Department: The War Against Germany," draft CMH MS (1988), pp. 54-55, a forthcoming volume in the United States Army in World War II series, reports Seventh Army hospitals processing about 9,000 wounded and 17,000 "sick and injured" during the period. Many of these, however, may have been returned to their units, and others may have come from American units operating in the Colmar area but still supported by Seventh Army medical services. Von Luttichau's "German Operations," ch. 29, pp. 39-40, puts German losses at 22,932.
14. Devers Diary, 17 Jan 45.
15. Interv, Clarke with Theodore C. Mataxis (former commander, 2d Battalion, 274th Infantry, Task Force Herren), 3 Aug 88.
16. Devers Diary, 8-9 Jan 45.
17. According to Bussey's ULTRA Report, ULTRA intercepts had warned the Allies of the main air attack, and ULTRA Msg BT 2834 200541 Jan 45 alludes to the final air support activities against the VI Corps.
18. ULTRA information provided by Hinsley et al., British Intelligence in the Second World War, III, 2, pp. 665-66.
19. Hinsley, p. 668.
20. See Devers Diary, 9 and 16 Jan 45.