The Colmar Pocket – “The Forgotten Campaign”
"The Battle of the Bulge" is known by many as this was a famous battle with huge losses on both sides. However, only a few people know of the "The Colmar Pocket" during the Allied Alsace Campaign to free this part of France from the Nazis. Both were very related in the German's scheme.
The "Battle of the Bulge" was an operation, when the Germans tried in a last attempt to broke through the Allied lines and gained a very dangerous amount of territory.
The Colmar Pocket, however was the result of the French 1st Army's incapability to push the Germans back across the Rhine River. The US 7th Army was on the left flank of the French. The French, with their zone of operation went up to the Swiss border, were also the most southerly located Force.
Part of the Seventh Army's was Patton's 3rd Army. By the end of November 1944, the 7th and the 3rd US Army pushed the Germans back across the Rhine and behind its own borders. The only remaining German units west of the Rhine in the southern region were around the Alsace city of Colmar, in the French sector. This so called “Pocket” were 35 to 40 miles west of the Rhine. This German position were a serious threat to the rear of the Allies to the north and had to be destroyed.
Several outfits from the 7th US Army were sent to join and help the French 1st Army. The 3rd US Infantry Division called “The Rock of the Marne”, was one of those units to be attached under French command. The US divisions were the ones to spearhead the assault to clear the Colmar Pocket, while the 3rd was in the lead in clearing this dangerous thread to the Armies to the north.
The Battle of the Colmar Pocket began December 15, 1944, and by February 19, 1945, all German units have been pushed to the west of the Rhine in the southern region. The Germans bitterly defended the areas of Alsace and Lorraine. After the Alsace campaign, the Americans had around 29.000 casualties, among them 7.000 K.I.A's. On the German side were roughly 23.000 casualties, among them up to 3.450 dead as well as 6.800 M.I.A's.
Because of the this severe and ruthless fighting, most of the mentioned towns in this tour report have been completely wiped out during the battle. So it was not always easy to take the 'then and now' comparison photographs and finding the exact spot as some of the towns had to be re-built.
Early in the afternoon of the 17th of December, F and G Companies of the 141st Infantry, 36th
Infantry Division, supported by a company of hard-hitting, French manned Sherman tanks from the 5th French Armored Division, attacked the fortress town of Kientzheim from the valley between Schlossberg and Furstentum.
Moving down the forward slope of the saddle between Hills 393 and 621 across open vineyards, the tanks and infantry advanced under heavy artillery, self-propelled and anti-tank fire. The tanks sped to the only entrances to the town — one on the east side and, one on the west side — and entered the town as the men from F and G Companies, unable to move with the speed of the tanks, advanced over the exposed terrain and crossed a moat protecting the northern approaches to the Thirteenth Century citadel. In less than an hour organized resistance ceased with more than 100 prisoners captured, including a miscellaneous collection of loaded supply wagons and staff cars. Mopping up of isolated resistance continued until the early morning hours as the spasmodic crackle of small arms echoed through the walled Alsatian village. Late at night enemy tanks just outside the town continued to send shell after shell crashing into the settlement. Early the next morning more than 600 rounds an hour of mixed artillery poured in, but no counterattack developed.
Kientzheim remained in Allied hands. Luckily for all Kientzheim residents, the battle lasted only around 60 minutes and the town was not badly damaged, although 600 rounds was fired in the night that followed. It is also to mention that the commanding officer of Kaysersberg, Major Herbrechtsmeier, became a POW in Kientzheim on December 17, 1944.
Les Waller made a short Video when he visted the tank: https://youtu.be/2-ybC_ABrEk,
On December 15, 1944 the day before the start of the German's surprise offensive in Belgium, Task Force McGarr commenced separate assaults towards Kayserberg and Sigolsheim. At eight o'clock on the 18th of December, G Company, 141st Infantry, 36th Infantry Division supported by French tanks of the 5th French Armored Division, advanced on Kaysersberg across a one kilometer wide, vine covered flat patch of ground. As the troops left the west gate of Kientzheim three enemy tanks opened fire between them and their objective. For 20 minutes a tank battle raged; all three German tanks were knocked out by the French tanks, and the outskirts of Kaysersberg were reached by eleven o'clock. Inside the town the tempo of battle was reduced to a systematic house to house fight with the American infantry and French tanks overcoming resistance in almost every house in the face of heavy bazooka and machine gun fire.
Late in the afternoon the heaviest opposition was encountered in a fortified strongpoint in the heart of the city. Finally, after holding out for two hours, the enemy garrison surrendered, yielding one German Colonel complete with his staff and approximately 60 SS and Gestapo troops. Kayserberg, at the center of the German line in the area, fell after a fierce contest although the German Army remained entrenched outside the city. Near Kaysersberg, Second Battalion CO Lt. Col. Frederick R Armstrong was killed by artillery while supervising forward positions. He was replaced by Maj. James L. Osgard.
From Guemar, the attack into the Colmar Pocket began Jan. 22, 1945, the first-year anniversary of the Third Division landings at Anzio. As temperatures hovered near 14 degrees Fahrenheit for a daytime high — the coldest winter in 50 years — with two feet of snow on the ground, the 7th Regiment approached Ostheim crossing the Fecht River. The German troops defending the Colmar Pocket were under command of Heinrich Himmler.
In the night to January 23, 1945, the German defenders of the Ostheim sector are only 3 weak battalions of the 708th Volksgrenadierdivision which will face the attacking 3rd US Infantry Division. Those are the remaining parts of Grenadier Rgt. 728 on the left flank from the river Weiss to the road from Rosenkranz to Sigolsheim. Further the I./Grenadier Rgt. 760 with its headquarter in the Chateau Schoppenwihr and the II./Grenadier Rgt. 760 in Ostheim.
The II./Grenadier Rgt. 760 which was trapped in Ostheim made their last stand. The Grenadiers bravely attacked the Allied tanks which were already at the Ostheim church by 8 a.m. from houses and cellars with a handful of Panzerfausts. The German resistance in Ostheim continued all day long and was only broken in the evening after the Allied became more reinforcement.
Photos below left to right:
The church seen on the right of the combat photograph still stands in its devastated condition in Ostheim as a memorial to the liberation. Storks that previously roosted on the still-intact platform returned the next year to reclaim the perch. The plaque (inset) adorns the wall as a memorial to the Third Divisision.
In Ostheim on the night of Jan. 23, the 7th Regiment held against a counterattack from Houssen with artillery playing a role in keeping the determined Germans at bay. During the Colmar action the 63rd Division's 254th Regiment's units were distributed to various Third Division units.
Photo above: A tank destroyer of the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion with its 3-inch gun moves through Ostheim which was entered from the north at 0400 Jan. 23 by the 1st Battalion of the 7th Regiment commanded by Maj. Kenneth W. Wallace. The small-arms and machine-gun battle for Ostheim lasted five hours.
Photo above: PFC Steven R. Lakos (photo left) of the Third Division contemplates the enemy in death at Ostheim, France during action in the Colmar Pocket January 1945. So overshadowed by the news of the Battle of the Bulge, the equally-heroic Allied action around Colmar and Strasbourg became known as the "forgotten war."
In winter camouflage with the forerunner to semi-automatic weapons, a dead SS soldier lies in the streets of Ostheim. The SturmGewehr (assault rifle) '43 is an automatic rifle and only a third of the 525,000 produced made it to the front. German units operating around Colmar included elements of the 748th, 760th and 728th VG Regiment along with a newly-arrived Second Mountain Division.
Photo above: American armor from the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion moves through Ostheim after it was secured on January 23. A five-hour battle for the southern part of Ostheim was especially deadly with the activity of German snipers secured in the town's buildings.
The Attack and Liberation of Bergheim
On December 2, 1944, “E” Company , 142nd Infantry, 36th Division, was ordered to push on to Bergheim coming on the road from Thannenkirch where stiff resistance was encountered, southeast of Thannenkirch. German artillery, mortar and self-propelled fire, as well as 2 German Tanks blocked the advance of “E” Company. The advance toward Bergheim was halted for the day under strong German artillery fire.
On December 4, “F” Company had been brought up to help “E” Company in its attack on Bergheim. During late afternoon, the German defense on Hill 336 was reduced and nearly 100 prisoners were taken. Both companies then entered Bergheim at dusk and fought to control as much of the town as possible in the night. Contact was established with the 143rd Infantry, which came up from Ribeauville and at 09.00 a.m. on December 5, Bergheim was declared to be clear.
The German War Cemetery
Bergheim, is an old winemaker town with approx. 1‘800 residents. It’s about 20 km north of Colmar.
The cemetery contains the graves of 5’308 German soldiers, most of whom lost their lives in the battle of the Colmar pocket and during Operation “North Wind”. The bodies rest in 4 main graveyards. Originally, all those German soldiers have been buried in 225 different places within the Department Haut-Rhine before they found their final resting place here at the Bergheim cemetery. All graves are heading to Germany.
The battle of armor and infantry that was waged in and around the wooded areas in the vicinity of Houssen, Riedwihr, Holtzwihr, and Wickerschwihr will be remembered as one of the most bitterly fought engagements, and without doubt one of the most important, that the 3rd US Infantry Division ever encountered.
During the afternoon of January 23rd , 30th Infantry forward elements reached the outskirts of Riedwihr and Holtzwihr and held the clump of woods known as Bois de Riedwihr. At around 17.20 on this January 23 , as the 1st Battalion of the 30th Infantry was about to reach Riedwihr, the blow fell on it as the enemy hit with all he had. Men sought in vain for cover. Bands of grazing machine-gun fire criss-crossed in vicious, cracking streams. The 1st Battalion had nowhere to go but to the rear-if possible-nothing with which to combat the thick-sided enemy tanks and the Jagdpanther tank destroyers with its deadly 88 mm gun, and above all no holes from which to fight.
During the withdrawals, handfuls of brave men in each company braved almost certain death or capture to stick it out on the hopeless positions. Despite open flanks on the right and left, small, bitter and last-ditch actions were fought by isolated groups. In the Orchbach stream bed, east of the Ill by several hundred yards, a group of 30th Infantry men was still in position the next day, January 24, when a counterattack was launched and the ground was regained!
However, only after additional 2 days of heavy combat and the very relentlessness of the Division attacks slowly wore the Germans down and the town of Riedwihr as well as Rosenkranz, and Houssen fell during the torrid fighting of January 25-26, 1945. Riedwihr served as the Third Division command post from Feb. 1 - 20, 1945.
(Original Riedwihr Text courtesy from http://ranger95.com)
Liberated by soldiers with Tank support of Combat Command 3 (CC 3) of the 1st French Armor Division with tanks of the 2nd Regiment des Chasseurs d’Afrique as well as one Infantry Battalion of 2nd Zouaves.
On 23 January, 1945, the 1st Free French Division commanded by General Pierre Garbay was on the left flank and to the north of the US 3rd Infantry Division, started the assault towards the east in order to get to the River Rhine.
The Germans had four Battalions of the 708. Volksgrenadier Division in this area and were supported by tank destroyers as well as heavy artillery. The deep defense lines created by the Germans also used the location of the small villages as well as the woods, in order to control the wide open spaces in front of them. Furthermore, to slow down any Allied advance, many deadly mine fields have been laid. During the late afternoon of January 23, two German battalions launched a counterattack at the French bridgeheads across the River Ill but with no success.
General Garbay ordered the 1st Brigade to concentrate on the road from Illhaeusern to Elsenheim. His plan was to advance along this road in order to bypass the woods around Elsenheim where the German Infantry had dug themselves in with the heavy artillery. On 26 and 27 January the 1st Brigade concentrated its actions to open up this route and went around the woods of Elsenheim (which were attacked on 27 January by the 3rd Battalion of the French Foreign Legion). During January 26, 1945, Kampfgruppe Blasius destroyed 5 enemy tanks late in the afternoon, 2.5 Km west of Elsenheim (Point 177).
On January 27, Kampfgruppe Blasius (with Regiment Langensee – Grenadier Regiment 748) was committed against the Allied attack from Illhäusern toward Elsenheim and Grussenheim. The assault began around 14.00. This German outfit had some Nashorn Panzerjäger (Tank destroyer) with its mighty and deadly 8.8 cm anti-tank gun. On 28 January Grussenheim was liberated with the support of the tanks of the 2nd French Armor Division and severe casualties.
Hauptmann Koob (left), commander of 1./schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 525, and his Platoon leader Oberleutnant Paffrath. Their Nashörner were attached to schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 654 and formed the 4th Company of the Abteilung, effective February 1945.
The M10 Wolverine Tank destroyer “Porc Epic”
The M10 Wolverine Tank destroyer named “Porc Epic” belonged to the 3rd Squadron of the French 8th Regiment of the “Chasseurs d’Afrique” which had been temporarily attached to the 1st Free French Division in order to clear and liberate the “Colmar Pocket”.
Three crew members (Rene Garnier, Rene Cardot and Claude Beaufils) have been killed for France as well as 121 soldiers in total during this bloody fight that raged here at the end of January 1945.
“Porc Epic” was knocked out on January 26th, 1945 on this exact spot during the battle with elements of Kampfgruppe Blasius, on the road from Illhaeusern to Elsenheim. Photo on the right shows a Nashorn of Kampfgruppe Blasius, schwere Panzerjäger Abt. 654, knocked out in Grussenheimer Ried after destryoing several Allied tanks.
The battle North East of Colmar, was part of the actions of the 1st French Army, commanded by General DeLattre, to avoid a German outbreak from the Colmar Pocket and to threaten the Allies advance into Germany. The German resistance to defend this area was very stiff in order to hold out at all cost. Grussenheim fell on January 28, 1945 after severe fighting and heavy casualties.
M4A2 Sherman tank "Chemin des Dames"
This Sherman M4A2 tank named "Chemin des
Dames" belonged 3rd Combat Company, 501st Tank Regiment, 2nd Armor Division / Division “Leclerc”.
It was knocked out on January 26, 1945 in the immediate vicinity of a crossroads
near the entrance to the village of Grussenheim.
The Sherman tank was in a fight with a heavy Panzerjaeger “Nashorn”, a self propelled gun issued with the dreaded 8.8 cm anti tank gun. The Nashorn belonged to 1./schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 654. The allied commander, 2nd Lieutenant Pierre De La Fouchardiere, was able to destroy one German Panzerjaeger, however a second one showed up and became the lethal and fatal foe. The French M4 loader, Armand Mager, was K.I.A during the fight.
In preparation of an assault, the 198th German Infantry Division ordered their Grenadier-Regiments 305, 308 and 326 in the night to November 22, 1944 through the “Oberwald” over the hostile route Courtelevant – Seppois into the wood south of this street until close to the Swiss border.
The 654. Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung got the order to secure the left, east flank as well as to assault and take the alsatian village of Friesen. To support the assault, the Jagdpanthers got a Battalion of the Grenadier-Regiment 326 attached as close combat security.
In the meantime, 9 additional Jagdpanthers arrived and were combined into Kampfgruppe Schnepf. This Kampfgruppe was also ordered to attack Friesen, however the regrouping in the night to November 22 was detected by the enemy and took Lepuix-Delle.
Friesen Then and Now
Because of this dangerous situation, the attack to take Friesen was cancelled and the Kampfgruppen were placed west of the Oberwald. After an Allied attack to capture Suarce was stopped, Kampfgruppe Schnepf was again ordered to take Friesen. The Jagdpanthers and the attached russian SS-Battalion managed to get up to the middle of Friesen. The heavy resistance in the town center was so severe, that all German units had to retreat to the outskirts of the town. However, Friesen was taken by the Allies in the afternoon of November 22, 1944.
During the battle, Jagdpanther “323”, commanded by Feldwebel Gerdes was burned out after an allied tank killer team knocked it out in close combat.
Jagdpanther "323" today
This specific Jagdpanther, with no. 300100, stands today in the Tank Museum of the Swiss Army in Thun.
The unit responsible for the liberation of Ammerschwihr was CC4 from the 5th French Armored. The civilians who held out in the basements remember it was December 18, 1944 when the liberation came. The night of December 18, Captain de Saint Germain, commanding the French forces, requested infantry support for the night. However, he only got it in the morning when the 64 survivors of F Company, 141st Infantry, 36th Division finally arrived, shattered and exhausted after the bloody hard fighting on the Mont de Sigolsheim and the night spent on the road.
The 30th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Division, in the guise of Task Force McGarr, was fighting to take Kaysersberg, the high ground to the northeast of Kaysersberg, and the high ground to the southeast of Kaysersberg (which dominates Ammerschwihr).
1st Battalion, 30th Infantry forces and supporting elements fired on German positions in and around Ammerschwihr and thereby fixed those German forces facing them and keeping them from concentrating forces against the French push from Kientzheim.
As such, the 3rd Division played a greater role in the liberation of Ammerschwihr than most people think who read only the French accounts or those of the 36th Infantry Division. Although the 3rd Infantry Division was still in the progress of relieving the 36th Infantry Division. The relief took place on December 21 but the French commandant remained in charge until December 24 1944, when the French left the sector and the 3rd Division took over.
(informaiton kindly provided by Tim Stoy, 15th Infantry Assoc.)
I would like to thank the following persons and friends for helping in my research:
Fred Clinton, veteran of the 254th US Inf Rgt and Webmaster of www.63rdinfdiv.com
Mr J.J. Sturm from Ostheim
Denis W. Toomey of www.dogfacesoldier.org
Michael Higgins, son of Lt. Martin J. Higgins
Karl-Heinz Münch, author of "the combat history of 654. Schwere Panzerjäger Abteilung 654"
Source of the Photos of 1944/1945:
Some of the 1944 images used for the “Then and Now” comparison photos on this site are part of a collection archived by William J. Toomey of Everett, Massachusetts while serving with the Third Signal Company of the U.S. Third Division during WWII. Bill was a member of a five-man crew of photographers along with William Heller, John Cole, Robert Seesock and Howard Nickelson. The photographs from this unit form a major part of the visual history of the Third Division in WWII.
Other photos of 1944/1945 taken from www.ecpad.fr the French Department of Defense.
Some text taken from:
www.63rdinfdiv.com / www.texasmilitaryforcesmuseum.org / Wikipedia / www.dogfacesoldier.org