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Operation Nordwind 

The average GI in combat knows very little of the "big picture" and of the strategy of his unit and that of the enemy units that he is opposing.

Little did we know that when we captured Bining and Rohrbach in early December 1944, Hitler and his generals would be planning a major offensive through that area.

The Ardennes Offensive—or the Battle of the Bulge—began on December 16, 1944. My records show that we (A Co., 17th AIB) were leaving Hoeling for Eywiller about that time. We knew little of the German offensive other than we were warned of the possibility of Germans in American uniforms and German paratroopers behind the lines, which caused us to be more vigilant and nervous during the night.

The Germans had quietly amassed twenty or more divisions near the front lines in the First Army sector, and, without any fanfare or pre-attack artillery barrage, launched a counteroffensive on a broad front in Luxemburg and Belgium. You all know most of that story. The event got loads of publicity, as much or more than D-Day.

Hitler's original objective was to recapture Antwerp, the primary port for incoming Allied supplies. But more importantly, he wanted to destroy the First Army and cause discord in the Allied Command. By December 26, the German High Command had already decided that their great offensive, "Watch on the Rhine," was beginning to stall and that they would not reach Antwerp anytime soon. Hitler then decided to launch "Operation Nordwind," a second offensive, called by some historians the "Second Battle of the Bulge." It was to start on the first day of the New Year.

Due to the intensive action in the Ardennes, the Seventh Army front was thinly held. The 120-mile front was held by eight divisions, including reserves, and was an ideal target for the German Wehrmacht. The front line density of the Seventh Army was 15.1 miles per division, while that of the Third Army was 12.4 miles per division and the First Army had a density of 5.2 miles per division. To compound the problem, the Seventh Army was short about 9,000 infantry replacements. Hitler was depending on this weakness in the Seventh Army sector.

In a planning meeting at the Alderhorst, the "Eagle's Nest" retreat, he conferred with Generals von Rundstedt, Blaskovitz and Heinrick Himmler. The latter had been given the command of the Army Group Upper Rhine. Hitler outlined his battle plan. The primary objective of Operation Nordwind was to destroy the Seventh Army and break up the unity of the Allied Command and the shaky French Provisional government under Charles deGaulle. The military objective was to open a path across a broad front to the Saverne, which would allow the German Nineteenth Army in Colmar to break out and aid in the offensive.

Unlike the Ardennes Offensive, which was a complete surprise to SHAEF Headquarters, the information of the mobilization of the German plan was picked up by Ultra on or before December 26, 1944. Gen. Eisenhower was told the offensive, Operation Nordwind, was planned for midnight December 31.

General Jacob Devers, Sixth Army Group Commander (American Seventh Army and French First Army), was instructed to be prepared to move back toward the High Vosges in the event of a German offensive. He was to maintain a line along the front to prevent against any flank penetration. Gen. Eisenhower had prescribed a three-stage pullback, if necessary, to give up land area rather than risk another breakthrough or loss of manpower.

The initial frontal attack by the Germans in Operation Nordwind was a two- or three-prong incursion on an eighty-mile front from a point east of Sarreguemines to the shoulder of the line east of Wissembourg. The other serious incursion was along a forty-mile front following the Rhine River with the main crossing at Gambsheim. Major battles were initially fought at Rohrbach-Bitche, Reipertsville-Wingen and Hatten, with minor firefights all along the front.

The 12th Armored Division was assigned the task of keeping the Germans from Offendorf and Herrlisheim and eliminating the bridgehead at Gambsheim.

The German force opposing the 12th Armored Division was the 553rd Volksgrenadier Division aided by smaller auxiliary units (AT and AA units). Division intelligence indicated an enemy force of 600 to 800 men along with a couple of armored vehicles. The number was probably correct during the first week in January 1945, but the number grew daily including the bulk of the 10th Panzer Division.

On January 2, 1945, Gen. Devers relayed Gen. Eisenhower's pullback orders to Gen. Juin, the French Chief of Staff, who quickly met with Gen. deGaulle to discuss the ramifications of the proposed strategy.

The French leader was furious for not being a part of the decision-making process. His hold on the helm of France was tenuous at best, due to the lack of support of the military by the French population and the strength of the competition, the French Communists. He vowed to defend Alsace with or without the help of the Allies. He then sent his own orders to Gen. deLattre of the French First Army and told Gen. duVigier, the newly appointed Military Governor of Strasbourg, to prepare for the defense of the city.

Gen. deGaulle told Gen. Juin to set up a visit to Gen. Eisenhower at SHAEF Headquarters in Versailles for the next day. He then sent telegrams to Gen. Eisenhower, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill explaining his displeasure with Eisenhower's plan. President Roosevelt sent back an immediate reply stating that this was a military decision and he left it up to Eisenhower.

The next afternoon when deGaulle and his staff arrived in Versailles, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was already there on an unofficial surprise visit. Gen. Eisenhower cordially opened the meeting with a review of the situation in the Ardennes and then went on to explain his plan for the new German offensive in the Seventh Army sector.

He explained that the lack of strength along the 120-mile front required some caution until the situation in the Ardennes was more positive. Giving up some land area was preferable to having another major breakthrough and losing a significant number of men and materiel.

The French countered that Eisenhower was treating the situation as just another military exercise and that the Alsace-Lorraine region was very important to the French people. To withdraw without a fight could cause the loss of the support of the French nation and could even lead to the overthrow of the French Provisional government.

Gen. Eisenhower told deGaulle that he was being too emotional concerning the situation and said that his orders would stand.

Gen. deGaulle responded that this decision would lead to the breakup of the Allied Command since he would withdraw the French Forces from SHAEF Command and defend Strasbourg to the end.

When deGaulle's statements were completely translated, Gen. Eisenhower's temper hit the ceiling. This was insubordination at the highest level. Gen. Eisenhower warned the French that if they pulled out of SHAEF, they would lose all logistic support including gasoline, ammunition, etc. DeGaulle's retort was that if France were denied war supplies, the French would deny the Allies the use of railroad and communication facilities. In addition, he said he would order a French Division to barricade itself inside Strasbourg and the American Army would be obliged to go in and rescue it.

Gen. Eisenhower knew he could not allow the Allied Command to be torn apart so he resumed the discussion in calmer tones. After a more reasonable dialogue, an agreement was reached to call Gen. Devers to rescind the withdrawal order and readjust the boundary of the U.S. Seventh Army and the French First Army. With this change, the French zone was expanded to include the defense of Strasbourg.

All parties to the meeting seemed to leave with their positions justified. After the French left, Churchill told Eisenhower, "I believe youíve done the wise and proper thing." I donít think Ike was sure he did.

And so the 12th Armored Division, which was designated to be in SHAEF Reserve along with the 36th Infantry Division, was thrown into the breach of the Gambsheim-Herrlisheim incursion. The German Offensive lasted about four or five weeks and Alsace was declared liberated on February 11, 1945. The last remnants of the German Army were back across the Rhine by early March.

The Germans did not destroy the Seventh Army, they did not recapture Strasbourg or Hagenau, they did not reach Saverne and the German forces did not break out of the Colmar Pocket. Perhaps they did delay the end of the war for a couple of weeks, but they did it at a sacrifice of equipment and manpower. Numbers vary according to the source, but consensus has it that the German casualties were over 23,000 (KIA, WIA, POW). Allied casualties were about 14,000. The numbers from VI Corps for January 1945 were 773 KIA, 4,838 WIA, 3,657 MIA, and 5,448 non-battle casualties.

The major opponents along the "Operation Nordwind" front were as follows:

 

German Forces Allied Forces
6th SS Mountaineer Div. 
16th Volksgrenadier
19th Volksgrenadier 
256th Volksgrenadier
257th Volksgrenadier
553rd Volksgrenadier
559th Volksgrenadier  
10th SS Panzer Div.
17th SS Panzer-Grenadier Div.  
25th SS Panzer-Grenadier Div.
36th Infantry Div.
44th Infantry Div.
45th Infantry Div.
79th Infantry Div.
100th Infantry Div.
103rd Infantry Div.
French 2nd Armored Div.
12th Armored Div.
14th Armored Div.
21st Armored Div.

                    

The German units in place at Offendorf and Herrlisheim were the 553rd Volksgrenadier Division and the 10th SS Panzer Division plus element of attached units such as antitank, anti-aircraft and engineers.

Edward F. Waszak  

Sources:

Winter Storm by Lise Pommois
The Final Crisis by Richard Engler
When the Odds Were Even by Keith Bonn
Seven Days in January by Wolf Zoepf

 

 

        

   
   

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