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Hellcats and the Colmar Pocket

The city of Colmar in the Alsace region of southern France was a thriving settlement several hundred years before Columbus sailed for the Americas. In the twelfth century it was a fortified market town and in 1226 it was granted an imperial charter by Frederic II. In 1354, Colmar was the head of a ten-city alliance called Decapole, and in 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia yielded the province of Alsace to France. But in 1870, Alsace was again annexed by Germany. In 1918 after World War I, Alsace was returned to France and then lost again in 1940.

In January of 1945, most of Alsace was in Allied control except for the Colmar Pocket, a semicircular area west of the Rhine River from Rhinau in the north to Kembs on the south. It was forty-seven miles long and thirty miles deep.

The Germans had ample time and means to evacuate the "Pocket," but remained in place to satisfy Hitler's "no retreat" policy and to tie down as much of the Seventh Army as possible. Neither reason was worth the loss of the German Nineteenth Army.

The Seventh Army had a very successful campaign, staging a picture perfect amphibious landing in the Marseille area, capturing the southern French ports in good operating condition, and outsmarting the German Army at every turn.

General Patch and General Devers pushed the Seventh Army up through southern France and then swung to the east lining up with the Third Army. They got little publicity from the press and scant credit from SHAEF.

By late November 1944, the Seventh Army pushed the Germans to the east side of the Rhine, liberating Strasbourg and Hagenau and making plans to cross the river.

The Engineers were bringing landing boats up to the front. General Patch wanted to maintain the momentum and pace of the Seventh Army. A meeting with General Eisenhower and General Bradley canceled the entire idea of crossing the Rhine River. Instead, General Eisenhower told Devers and Patch to turn the Seventh Army to the north to take some of the heat off of Patton's right flank.

The Colmar pocket had been a concern for Eisenhower although Patch and Devers were not too worried about their ability to hold the Germans in the pocket. General Eisenhower blamed General Devers for not pushing the French Army to obtain better results. The French First and Second Armies contained the German Nineteenth Army in the Colmar Pocket, but were unable to push the 22,500 Germans to the east side of the Rhine.

The French Army was not as well organized as they should have been. There was animosity among the top brass based on their wartime political backgrounds—pro-Vichy, anti-Vichy, pro-de Gaulle, anti-de Gaulle and the Communists that were always agitating for the control of France. The Communists were some of the better underground fighters and wanted to get a firm position in the new French government. General de Gaulle tried to keep a firm hand on a very fluid situation.

By mid-January the Sixth Army Group instructed the First French Army to launch, without delay and with surprise, a powerful operation aimed at the complete elimination of the Colmar Pocket. The French were to attack from the north and from the south while the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division aided by the 1st Moroccan Infantry and the French 5th Armored Division, would attack from the northwest. The initial advances were met with stiff opposition and fierce counterattacks, but the experienced 3rd Infantry made slow, steady headway.

Several times the attacking forces were required to pull back and regroup and then attack again. It was said that a small town of Sigolsheim changed hands seventeen times. This was also the time when the famous 2nd Lt. Audie Murphy, Company Commander of Co. B, 15th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, was caught up in a battle near the Riedwihr woods. He held off a German counterattack using a .50 caliber machine gun on an abandoned and disabled Sherman tank, killing enough Germans to break up their attack and allowing his unit to pull back. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for this episode.

For the next week the German defenders were attacked from several directions and their cohesive defense began to break up. The U.S. 28th Infantry Division was sent in to replace the attacking 3rd Infantry. Troop losses were beginning to be significant in the French forces and the French Commander requested more help from General Devers and SHAEF. The 75th Infantry Division and the 12th Armored Division as part of the XXI Corps were sent to take a portion of the 1st French Army sector.

On the first and second of February, the 3rd Infantry fought their way to the gates of Colmar when they stopped to allow the French 5th Armored Division to be the first to enter the city. The 3rd Infantry continued toward the Rhine River and then turned south toward Neuf-Brisach. The 28th Infantry went into Colmar and the 75th Infantry Division headed east from Colmar toward the Rhine.

On February 3, the 12th Armored Division assembled at the north end of the pocket near the town of Selestat and then headed south toward Colmar, passing through the 28th Infantry Division. While the major thrust was just west of Colmar , Combat Command B (714th Tank and 56th Armored Infantry) veered into Colmar and received the cheers, the smiles, and the wine from the happy citizens of the city.

On the next day units of the 12th Armored Division attacked the town of Herrlisheim-pres-Colmar. Although the name of the town sent shivers down the backs of some of the Hellcats, they proceeded to clear out the town from several directions. The Germans put up some short-lived resistance, knocking out several tanks and causing a number of casualties.

The next morning the German resistance ceased and CCA and CCB pushed on south toward Rouffach. On reaching the city, the 12th Armored was met by the French 2nd Moroccan Infantry coming up from the south thereby cutting off the escape of enemy units west of the north-south axis. The city of Rouffach was not defended by the Germans and only light resistance by small units faced the Hellcats.

On February 6, the 12th Armored Division prepared to exploit to the east after the Division's Engineers constructed a bridge across the Ill River for the crossing of the 28th Infantry. The resistance was so light that their mission was changed to blocking the Vosges west of Colmar to prevent the escaping Germans from reaching the Rhine River. The Infantry Divisions, the 3rd, the 28th and the 75th, mopped up the major units of the German Nineteenth Army leaving the French to clean up the scattered German soldiers.

On February 8, the 12th Armored Division received orders to relocate north to the St. Avold area for rest and rebuilding of the Division. The next day the Colmar Pocket was completely in Allied hands.

At the beginning of the operation to eliminate the Colmar Pocket, the German Nineteenth Army was commanded by Lt. Gen. Siegfried Rasp, who replaced Gen. Friedrich Wiese on December 15, 1944.

The German Nineteenth Army was made up of eight infantry divisions and one armored brigade. The German 2nd Mountain Division was on the way to the Pocket.

The total number of combat troops in the area was 22,500 (Allied Intelligence estimated the number at 15,000 to 17,000). The Germans felt secure with two bridges, numerous ferry sites and a fuel pipeline across the Rhine River.

By February 10, 1945, the Nineteenth Army was charged with 22,000 permanent casualties (KIA and POW) as well as fifty-five armored vehicles and sixty-six artillery pieces. It was estimated that no more than 3,000–4,000 German combat soldiers were able to escape to the east side of the Rhine River, while 16,000–17,000 prisoners were taken by the Sixth Army Group.

The Sixth Army Group estimated the American casualties at around 8,000 with only about 500 killed in action. The French losses were about double that of the Americans'.

The last ditch defense of the Colmar area did very little for the German Army. The loss of manpower and equipment could not be replaced and could have been more useful in the defense of the homeland.

Edward F. Waszak

 

Sources:

The Seventh United States Army Report of Operations 1944–1945, Vol II
Riviera to the Rhine by Jeffrey Clarke and Robert Ross Smith
A History of the 23rd Tank Battalion by Jim Francis

 

 

 

        

   

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