Operation Hawk (Unternehmen "Habicht"), the German counter-attack to re-occupy the last Vosges mountain positions in front of the Plain which was ordered mainly on initiative by Himmler. This was meant to be a diversion in the Upper Alsace, a few days prior to the last German main strike, the Battle of the Bulge. Operation "Habicht" did bring a series of the most violent and desperate fighting’s in autumn/winter 1944 at this theatre of war.
After the 36th Infantry Division had broken through the St. Marie Pass and out into the Alsace Plain, Divisional operations called for a buildup of strength to be poured through the opening that had been forged.
Regarding to André Hugel (still alive and living in Riquewihr), who was 15 years old in December 1944, the first Americans arrived in Riquewihr on December 5, 1944 around 7.40 a.m. The men were soon followed by tanks and jeeps and belonged to the 36th Infantry “Texas” Division. His father took some photos of the “Liberation”. The tanks secure the two town entrances – one near the church and the other one at Place Charpentiers. In the afternoon of December 6, Riquewihr saw heavy traffic in direction Kientzheim. Rumor has it that Waffen-SS troops arrived in Bennwihr.
It was not before December 7, when the first German grenades hit Riquewihr. All the Riquewihr residents born in 1929 were very happy to be liberated by the Americans as they would have been forced to be the replacements for the German Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS in January 1945!
Just before dark on the 7th of December men of the 2nd Battalion 141st Infantry marched south out of Hunawihr to the little town of Riquewihr, heading to relieve elements of the 143rd Infantry on the high ground ahead. The Americans had little idea of the bitter fighting that was in store for everyone in the outfit. Actually the men were being rushed forward to assist in holding two dominating terrain features — finger-like projections of the Vosges Mountains that covered the entrance to the St. Marie Pass and dominated the northern approaches to Colmar. The importance of this ground and other adjacent high ridges to the Germans was soon seen by the two weeks of savage battle that followed.
Throughout December 10 and December 11, heavy artillery and mortar fire covered the area of the 141st Infantry as the Germans showed themselves determined to seize these vitally important hills – called Hohe Schwaertz (hills 621, 666 and 672). Shells crashed down on the house tops in Riquewihr (many civilian casualties, one civilian killed), along the communication lines to the rifle companies up front and shook the high ridges that the Americans were trying to defend. Each artillery concentration was followed up by an immediate infantry attack, but each enemy assault was hurled back as the US soldiers stubbornly held their ground. In the night of the 11th of December the 3rd Battalion relieved the 1st Battalion, which in addition to having lost a company had suffered heavy casualties. Upon the completion of this relief the 1st Battalion moved back to Riquewihr.
Throughout the 11th of December reports were received of increased vehicular activity in far off Colmar. After dark that night and throughout the early morning hours of the December 12th, men on the forward hills could hear increased vehicular activity — tanks grinding along the roads and the clogging of horses' hoofs in Kientzheim, Ammerschwihr and Kaysersberg.
The Germans prepare to attack
In the meantime, the Germans were about to launch a counter attack, known as “Operation Habicht” (Operation Hawk). The division attacking order of the 189th Infantry Division was issued on December 11th around 6.30p.m. The order was to launch an assault on December 12, 1944 from two sides to annihilate the enemy from Schlettstadt and south of Ribeauville. With a successful assault, the SS-Begleit-Battalion was able to bypass east of Mittelwihr and Beblenheim and push north. The 189th Infantry Division was ordered to attack from the south with the following assault troops:
Group East (Roewer): Regiment Braun (contained 200 Hitleryouth and 500 enlisted of the Luftwaffe all poorly trained and no combat experience at all) and Grenadier Regiment 326.
Group Middle (Hollermeier): Regiment Ayrer and
Grenadier Regiment 1213.
Group West (Reimer): Regiment Reimer, 1. Comp./Geb. Jg. Btl. 201 and 1. Comp./Pi. Btl. 1089.
The attacking orders for the individual assault troops were:
Regiment Braun 1st Comp. has immediately to redeploy to Bennwihr. This town is to defend at all cost. The main part of Regiment Braun comes from the east over Rosenkranz. Until 7 a.m. the regiment has to be in place and ready which one Battalion each in the vineyards east of Beblenheim and Mittelwihr to attack those towns. To support this attack, an armored battlegroup of Brigade Feldherrenhalle will be attached to Regiment Braun.
Grenadier Regiment 326 holding the actual position and attacks together with Regiment Braun Mittelwihr and Ferme Boux from the south as well as securing its left flank against hill 393.
Grenadier Regiment 1213 attacks together with Regiment Ayrer, assaulting from northwest, the enemy on Mont de Sigolsheim (Hill 351) and annihilating it. In support of this assault, parts of I./748 (Mueller) and II./760 (Sturm) remain attached.
Regiment Ayrer coming from Kaysersberg through the forest and goes into position in the woods northeast of Mont de Sigolsheim. Attacking Mont de Sigolsheim at 7 a.m together with Gren. Rgt. 1213 and taking it.
Regiment Reimer has to take position in the woods northwest of Riquewihr together with the attached 1st Comp./Geb. Jg. Batl. 201 and has to attack Riquewihr together with Group East. After Riquewihr is in German hands, the attack should be continued and Zellenberg has to be taken.
1./Geb. Jg. Batl. 201 as soon as Regiment Reimer is in position the unit, supported by 1./Pi. Btl. 1089, has to take the road going west of Ribeauville. The road has to be closed at La Pepintere using mines and infantry against east and West.
Artillery support was under the command of Artillery Regiment 1316 and contained Art. Group Schulz, Art. Group Krug, Art. Group Franke, Art. Group Reitz and Artillery Regiment 658 as Artillery flank group. German artillery had the order to shell Mont de Sigolsheim (Hill 351 and 393) as well as Riquewihr, Beblenheim, Zellenberg, Mittelwihr and Ferme Boux during the night to December 12, 1944. At 7 a.m. the SS-Begleit-Battalion must be ready in Colmar to be thrown into battle when needed and to attack Bergheim or Schelttstadt.
December 12, 1944 - The Attack begins
Getting to the assigned positions to launch the attack in the night to December 12 was not easy.
Regiment Braun arrived on time, but was detected by the Americans because US flares emblazed the whole battlefield. Immediately the regiment came under heavy US fire. The result was, that Regiment Braun had the first casualties before the battle started.
Regiment Reimer, which had civilian scouts, started early to get into position to attack. However, due to the difficult mountain terrain, it was late and arrived only at 7.40 a.m. at the assigned point, northwest of Riquewihr. By a swift attack on the way to the attack starting position, one Battalion attacked Hill 672 and sized it.
Regiment Ayrer’s 1st Battalion arrived not before 6.00 a.m. in Kaysersberg because the route was under constant US fire. Civilian scouts waited for the men to bring them swift and safe to the assigned assault position, but the mountain terrain as well as the heavy enemy fire from hill 666 caused a big delay. So, the assault position was only arrived at 08.30 a.m. Furthermore, the position was not correct but was more south. Because of this movement into the correct position, enemy fire from hill 666 caused severe casualties among the Germans. The only way into the assigned, correct position was a narrow road which was under constant heavy and deadly enemy fire. Snipers and machine guns sprayed the narrow road and brought death and destruction. Among the casualties was the Battalion commander who was wounded while Kampfgruppe commander Oberst Ayrer fell. The remnants of the 1st Battalion dug foxholes around 600 meters south-southeast of hill 666 and went into defense position. 2nd Battalion which took the same road around 12.45 p.m. was also hit with heavy fire from hill 666, and the 2nd Battalion CEO decided to take hill 666 and set up defense position.
The Assault on Riquewihr
Regiment Reimer launched the assault on Riquewihr at 08.45 a.m. and was able to get into the first houses. However, an US counterattack, with a battalion size force, supported by 13 tanks repulsed the German onslaught and the Germans were thrown out of Riquewihr. Two of the US tanks were destroyed and Reimer’s Regiment went into defense position, defending in direction Kleinthal and Riquewihr. The Americans attacked this position several times during the day and Regiment Reimer got many casualties due to heavy US mortar fire. Regiment Reimer’s action for December 12, 1944 was over and casualty rate was very high.
The Americans defend Riquewihr
At around nine o'clock on the morning of December 12th, the German force of Regiment Reimer (between 500 to 700 officer candidates) infiltrated through a draw west of the Bois De Kientzheim and approached the town of Riquewihr, two kilometers to the rear where the Regimental CP was located. The attackers came up to the very outskirts of the town before they were discovered. Fighting from windows, doorways, towers and roof tops, even cooks, drivers and clerks picked up carbines and rifles and fired into the advancing forces. The remnants of the 1st Battalion were rushed to the threatened section of the town. Replacements received their first baptism of fire in carrying ammunition up forward to the hard pressed riflemen and machine gunners. By eleven o'clock the situation in Riquewihr had cleared up and countless enemy dead and wounded littered the streets. Riquewihr remained in Allied hands!
The Situation at Mont de Sigolsheim (Hill 351 and 393) and Hill 621 on Hohe Schwaertz
Simultaneous with the attack on Riquewihr another attack was launched against the rifle companies on Mont de Sigolsheim (Hill 351 and 393) and hill 621, striking with the greatest fury at Company F, 141st Infantry, 36th Infantry Division.
Because Regiment Ayrer failed to get into the assigned assault position (1st Battalion arrived not before 08.30 a.m.), Mont de Sigolsheim was attacked by Grenadier Regiment 326 as well as 2nd Battalion/Grenadier Regiment 1213 only from the south side at around 7 a.m.
Grimly the American soldiers used bayonets and hand grenades to kill Germans at the edge of their foxholes and fought off the German onslaught, knowing that a battle was also raging in the rear and finally forced the attackers back. The German assault was repulsed by the Americans as it was in the previous attempts to take that hill. For this sterling defense and the action that followed it the 2nd Battalion, 141st Infantry received the Presidential Unit Citation. Another attack planned to take Mont de Sigolsheim for 03.00 p.m. with the support of Regiment Ayrer which has arrived, was not launched. However, enemy pressure continued throughout the remainder of the 12th December.
Regiment Braun which was to take Mittelwihr was not successful due to heavy enemy resistance. The 2nd Battalion Regiment Braun whose task was to take Blebenheim, managed to enter the town but was cut off by enemy tanks. Another company attacked from northeast and got into heavy fire and was completely annihilated. The 3rd company who was to secure and attack Ostheim, accomplished its mission. However, the 2nd Battalion was not able to carry out further attacks on that day and had to regroup during the night to December 13, 1944.
Casualties on that first assault day for group west and group middle was 527 men!
After Action Report of Lt. d. R. Walther Polenz of 1st Platoon, 5th Company, II./13/IX (Regiment Reimer) on the attack on Riquewhir, December 12, 1944
In the evening of December 11, 1944, the II./13/IX got the attack order for December 12, 1944, to get into assigned positions in the woods west of Riquewhir. This in preparation for a following assault on Riquewihr on the same day. After taking Riquewhir, II. Battalion together with I. Battalion had to continue the assault and attack Zellenberg and Ribeauvillé. The begin of the assault was set for 07.00 a.m. on December 12, 1944.
After a very hard and painful night march through rough, impassable mountain terrain,
through enemy lines, I. and II. Battalion arrived late on Hill 672 (on Hohe Schwärtz) after one Battalion attacked and sized it at 07.15 a.m. At 08.15 a.m., order were given to the Companies to
get into the assigned attacking positions, which have not been reconnoiter before but only assigned on map study. Start of the attack was set for 08.45 a.m. Order of Battle was as follows:
Front line troops: 4th Company left side , 5th Company right side of the Kleintal Valley. Behind the 4th Company was the 7th Company and behind the 5th Company was the 6th Company as Battalion reserve.
The CP was set to be on the northern flank of the Kleintal Canyon. Front line of the
assigned assault position was the edge of the wood.
The 5th Company left Hill 672 at 08.20 a.m. to the assigned assault position (edge of the wood) and arrived there at 08.55 a.m. Both Platoon of 5th Company launched the attack at 09.15 a.m. and made good progress. Suddenly, Oblt. Hepp, Platoon Leader in 7th Company and Lt. Dörig, commander of the 4th Company passed an order from the CO of I. Battalion, Major Bormann, to launch the attack on Riquewihr only after an enemy artillery battery was destroyed by I. Battalion. This US artillery position was believed to be set up in a ground pit, about 1 Km north-west of Riquewihr. Major Bormann was worried that the guns was aiming at Riquewihr and were about to destroy the assault force. Due to this message the attack movement was delayed and a scaling of the assaulting Companies occurred. So the right Platoon of the 5th Company was the most in front as the message did not get through it, while the 4th Company was the one most behind. Lt. Polenz informed the Company Commander – Oblt. Engemarten – about the message by calling out. However, due to the fact that the assault troops were now in the open, a stopping of the attack at this time was not possible any more. So Oblt. Engelmarten ordered to continue with the onslaught. The stop took about 2 minutes for the 5th Company. In the course of the attack, 5th Company’s right Platoon reached the south-west border of the town, while the left Platoon was about 100 meters west of the town border. Only then, the assault troops got hit by enemy defense fire. First, only by small-arms fire, however it took not long when US machine gun fire set in as well. This was about at 10.00 a.m. when we could also observe, that a heavy group of the neighbor Company (most likely the Platoon of Uffz. Schlag of the 4th Company), was north of the small Hill 372 (500 meters west-northwest of the western border of Riquewihr) with elements of the 5th Company on the same level. On Hill 372 a own German MG42 position was set up. The rest of the 4th and 7th Company were about 300 meters behind. Now the enemy defense fire was supported by heavy mortars as well.
One Platoon of Ofw. Jako managed to destroy a US tank and a US halftrack and moved on at the south border of the town. While Platoon Polenz moved on at the western town border in a sunken road. Now, the surprised enemy were aware about the imminent danger coming from the west and south part of Riquewihr and ordered the whole defense action in this direction. Both Platoons got severely hit by enemy machine gun and sniper fire. Due to this heavy defense fire, the whole group of Uffz. Rick were wiped out by enemy sniper fire. Also the assault of the 5th Company came to a halt now.
After one hour, at about 11.30 a.m. Oblt. Engelmarten gave the order, that the Company has to fall back about 300 meters from the town border. Therefore artillery support was requested. While falling back through heavy enemy defense fire, the Company fell apart and had many casualties. Some parts of the two Platoons were not able to fight their way back from Riquewhir as the communication line between the Platoons had been destroyed. As a result, many soldiers, some heavily wounded, became P.O.W’s. They are listed as Missing in Action.
In the course of the afternoon, the remaining men of the 5th Company together with the 4th Company set up defense position at the edge of the wood, with front to Riquewihr. Some dispersed soldiers managed to get back to our lines, during the evening hours and through the night.
The 5th Company’s fighting strength for the assault on December 12, 1944 were:
2 Officer’s / 11 NCO’s and 87 enlisted men (3rd Platoon was the Regiment’s reserve). The casualty rate was very high: Wounded: 1 NCO’s and 19 enlisted / Missing: 8 NCO’s and 33 enlisted. So out of 100 men only 39 made it back. An attached after action report appendix mentioned a casualty figure for Regiment Reimer of 330 killed and wounded for December 12!
Personal account of Wolfgang Krebs former Grenadier in Regiment Reimer during the assault on Riquewhir (taken from the book "Wir waren Feinde")
In the early evening hours of December 12, 1944 our group of 5 soldiers got the order to go on a recon patrol, in order to check if any Americans were already on Hohe Schwaertz. We walked in line through the wood for about 15 minutes, my friend Harry was on my left side. Suddenly, in about 100 meters in front of us we saw some shadows. In a split second, the Americans opend fire, before even one of us could shout “take cover”.
Shortly before, I saw some steps as well as a wall which belonged to an old WW1 bunker. I jumped in and carefully put my head over the wall, but the enemy patrol has vanished! We also triggered some shots after them, followed by silence. After that our squad leader gave the order to go back. We all get up but Harry. I can see his face and the bullet hole just under his helmet, blood comes out. We tried to carry him all together, but his dead body is so heavy. We struggled through the dark and were afraid that the Americans were still around. After all, we had to leave Harry behind, took his personal belongings and his dog tag and headed for our lines.
December 13, 1944
All assaults carried out by the German outfits in the Mittelwihr-Beblenheim sector where not successful and the enemy repulsed all German attacks to take Mittelwihr and Beblenheim.
Gerald S. Gordon, Company L, 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Gerald S. Gordon (16146591), Private First Class, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as a Medical Aidman with Company L, 143d Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division, in action against enemy forces on 13 and 14 December 1944 in the vicinity of Mittelwihr, France. When his company command post was attacked, Private First Class Gordon saw his comrades were dangerously outnumbered. Removing the protective insignia of an aid man from his uniform, he joined the fight as a combatant and took up a position at the telephone to coordinate artillery fire with the rifle fire of infantrymen in the building. As the enemy closed in, he personally directed mortar fire upon self-propelled guns, machine-gun positions, and hostile infantrymen. Seven times he emerged from the command post to treat the wounded and remove them to safety, on one occasion successfully bringing a comrade back under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire from a position only 25 yards from the enemy. After reconnoitering a route of withdrawal across an adjacent field under enemy mortar and machine-gun fire, Private First Class Gordon returned and helped repulse an assault by killing an enemy bazooka man and two Germans who were about to set up a machine gun. In an effort to reestablish communications, he volunteered to carry a telephone line across a field swept by enemy fire. He was reported missing in action from this mission. The heroic conduct of Private Gordon inspired the defenders of an important position at a critical time, inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy, and permitted the safe withdrawal of eight of his comrades.
His intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 36th Infantry Division, and the United States Army.
War Department, General Orders No. 43 (May 30, 1945)
Gordon was captured shortly thereafter and spent the rest of the war in Stalag 7a, Moosburg.
Mont de Sigolsheim (Hill 351 and 393)
After heavy artillery fire from the south, the Germans ordered another assault at 7.00 a.m. to take Mont de Sigolsheim. II./Grenadier Regiment 1213 together with Regiment Ayrer were ordered to attack from northwest. 2nd Battalion, Regiment Ayrer, which was still well equipped, got the order to go into attacking position and attack at 07.00 a.m. going East and assault Mont de Sigolsheim.
However, the transmission of the assault order was delayed due to the darkness and difficult mountain terrain. Besides Regiment Ayrer had no training to fight in formation not even on group level. Regrouping into correct formation was again delayed and so the Regiment only arrived at 6.30 a.m. in launching area. Because of the delay, the attacking force was too late to get cover from the artillery barrage. The Battalion’s 5th and 6th company, going east, gets up to the edge of the wood but received heavy fire from enemy positions east, north and south. The Germans assume US tanks as well on the road Riquewihr – Kientzheim to back the American defense line. German casualties rate were high and so the Battalion retreated and fell back to the starting point.
Because the north part of hill 666 was still in American hands, it was not possible to make contact with Regiment Ayrer’s left neighbor – Kampfgruppe Reimer. So the Battalion commander decides to eliminate the enemy on hill 666 for good.
Because all attempts to take Mont de Sigolsheim by daylight failed, the Division ordered another attack from three sides during the night of December 13th to December 14. Division commander Generalmajor Eduard Zorn issued the order to attack at 6 o’clock in the evening during a short meeting as well as the field of fire for the artillery.
First, Raider groups should attack first and break the line of resistance, followed by all companies to continue the attack. Regiment Ayrer was to attack from the west.
Because the preparation time was very short, for most for Regiment Ayrer. Attacking time was set for 23.30 hrs. Around 22.20 hrs order received from AOK 19, all X-times were set to be 30 minutes later. Division headquarter raised concerns that this order will not reach the Raider troops on time, which already lay in attacking position. This was the reason, that most of the attacking Raider troops were hit by friendly fire – the assault failed!
Regiment Ayrer received again heavy fire and was again not able to leave the wooded area although the assault was supported by an artillery barrage. After that the Division order for Regiment Ayrer was to remain in its actual position and attack the enemy’s flank. With this action, the Germans were sure to bring another assault on Mont de Sigolsheim from east and south to a successful end and take the hill after all.
Situation on Hohe Schwaertz
Regiment Reimer’s defense position was heavily attacked from the Kleinthal during the whole day. Casualty rate was again high mostly through enemy mortars and artillery shelling.
Situation on Hill 621, F Company, 141st Infantry
Early the next morning, December 13, 1944, some of the original German force that had attacked Riquewihr, attacked Co. F's Command Post from Hill 666 in the rear. Savage fighting raged for two hours with friendly mortar and artillery shells crashing down on every side of the F Company men before the assault was repulsed.
Personal account of Werner Schaller, former Grenadier in Grenadier Regiment 1213, 13.12.1944 (taken from the book "Wir waren Feinde")
Today, we shall launch an attack from Bennwihr and Sigolsheim to take Mont de Sigolsheim. Our unit in Kientzheim is ordered to support this assault by carry out relief actions. During the night, Bennwihr was retaken by Waffen-SS soldiers of the SS-Unterführer-Schule Radolfzell. The Americans fell back and dug in on Hill 351 (this is the site where the French Military Cemetery is located).
We can see that SS troops take the hill while running in close formation, I guess those guys have not seen combat before at all. While running, the young SS troopers got hit by murderous US mortar fire and where completely annihilated! This useless assault is repeated and we think we can hear the screams of the wounded.
Around 10.00 a.m. our squad, as the right flank of the Kientzheimer Battalion, is launching the attack. Just before the top, about 3/4 up the Hill, we encountered an US machine gun nest containing 3 machine guns. We tried to bypass it, by going along a small stone wall to the right. While sneaking on the wall, Jupp Heidelberger got killed by a machine gun burst as he stood in front of a hole in the wall. He screamed “mother, mother please help me” and died shortly after. We tried to recover his body, but during the attempt we got two more men wounded. His friend Schorsch from Saarbruecken made several attempts to get to him but to no avail. We destroyed one machine gun with hand grenades but the two remaining one’s give us hell. We go back and while again in the cellar, I miss Schorsch from Saarbruecken. He returns around midnight from his dead friend to recover his Soldbook, dog tag, watch, wedding ring and other valuable personal things.
December 14, 1944
Although the enemy had been decisively routed by the Americans after each assault, his determination to continue attacking was not lessened. During the night of December 13th/December 14th, the skyline around Hill 393 was particularly brilliant as the Germans threw in one of the heaviest artillery concentrations of the war. The shells came crashing in just after an Engineer outfit had taken over E and G Companies' positions.
The Germans launched another artillery barrage at 5.30 a.m. followed by an infantry attack. However, the assault troops were all exhausted from the constant night fight as well as morally depressed by the friendly fire incident during the midnight assault. This resulted in another failure to take the important high ground.
At dawn, the Geb. Jaeger Kompanie of Geb.Jg.Btl. 201 in Kaysersberg was alerted to support another attack together with 2nd Battalion/Gren. Regiment 1213. Under the personal lead of the Division commander Generalmajor Eduard Zorn, the 3rd attempt was lunched to take “Bloody Hill”. A savage German infantry assault followed the artillery barrage, resulting in the capture of one US Engineer platoon, heavy casualties among the defenders and the loss of hill 351 in the middle of Mont de Sigolsheim. After the Germans fortified their position in the middle with a heavy Company of Regiment Ayrer and later with a Pionier Kompanie, they cleared most of the hill from the Americans. Only the wooded area on the western part of the hill remained in US hands due to heavy resistance!
Although battle weary and tired, the American soldiers of E and G Company, 141st Infantry, returned and fought their way back up the hill. Aided by two M4 Sherman tanks they succeeded in retaking all but a small pocket on the very summit by darkness of December 14th.
December 14 saw the end of the German effort. “Operation Habicht” the German plan to break through the 36th Division had been frustrated, and a terrific casualty toll inflicted upon them. Prisoner identifications showed that at least 6,800 infantry had been brought across the Rhine for this effort. Prisoners taken by the 36th Infantry Division during this period, December 6 to 14, totaled 1,360. The German Regiment Ayrer lost 472 men either killed, wounded or missing from December 12 to 14th in the struggle for Mont de Sigolsheim. Regiment Reimer had 330 K.I.A’s alone for the attack on Riquewihr on December 12!
Until December 17th I, K and E Companies, 141st Infantry, participated in continuous local attacks and counterattacks against the unceasing efforts of the Germans to establish and reinforce strong points on the top of Mont de Sigolsheim, containing hills 351 and 393. Over on Hill 621, F Company, 141st Infantry was engaged in similar activity. The enemy assaults never seemed to let up as the Germans remained determined to gain the highly sought ground; yet men of the 141st Infantry fought them to a standstill.
Among the American veterans of the 36th Infantry Division - few towns in Alsace are still vivid in their minds, but none of them who participated in the fighting during this period will forget Riquewihr, Sigolsheim, Kientzheim or Kaysersberg, nor hills such as 393, 351 or 621. To those of them who were up on these scrub-brush covered hills the Riquewihr area means days and nights of ceaseless enemy artillery and mortar shells crashing all around them, continuous enemy assaults, unforgettable bayonet charges, close-in fighting with the enemy on all sides, and the bodies of enemy dead surrounding the mud soaked foxholes.
Here was all the hellishness of war concentrated in one area — war as only the front line grunt can know and understand it, stripped of its glamour and exposed as the real nightmare that it is.
The Story of Pfc. Stanley W. Shirley, 3rd Infantry Division
Pfc. Stanley W. Shirley, HQ Company, 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division saw action in Italy and was fighting near Cisterna, where he was credited with capturing 26 German prisoners. Pfc. Shirley later fought in Alsace, France and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for actions during the Battle of the Colmar Pocket. He also got the EAME Campaign Medal with Arrowhead, the Good Conduct Medal and the World War 2 Victory Medal.
After the German counterattack, known as “Operation Habicht” (Operation Hawk) from Dec. 12 to Dec. 14 1944 failed, the 3rd Infantry Division relieved the 36th Division in this sector. Pfc. Shirley was in one of the German Bunkers built in 1915 on top of Hill 672 on Hohe Schwaertz on December 17, 1944. He wrote his name and address to one of the Bunker walls while on watch. Mr. A. Hugel from Riquewihr, who was 14 years old when elements of the 36th Division liberated his town on December 5, 1944, found the inscription and tried for 16 years to get in touch with a relative, to request more information as well as a photo of Stanley. In 1996 he wrote a letter to Stanley but unfortunately never got a reply from him. In November 2000, Stanley Shirley past away without sending any reply to Mr. Hugel’s information request. Now in September 2012, I was finally successful to contact one his son’s and obtain a photo and more information.
The Presidential Unit Citation Text for 2nd Battalion, 141st Infantry, 36th Division
War Department General Order 56-46, para 4, 17 Jun 46
Battle Honors. As authorized by Executive Order 9396 (sec 1, WD Bull 22, 1943) superseding Executive Order 9075 (sec 111, WD Bul 11, 1942), citations of the following units in the general orders are confirmed under the provisions of Section IV, WD Circular 333, 1943, in the name of the President of the United States as public evidence of deserved honor and distinction.
The citation reads as follows:
The 2d Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, for extraordinary heroism, gallantry, and esprit de corps from 7 to 19 December 1944 in France. During the 14 days of this action, the 2d Battalion held the most important single terrain feature on the exposed right flank of the 36th Infantry Division. The enemy hurled thousands of rounds of artillery and repeated infantry assaults against the battalion positions and each attack was thrown back with disastrous losses. On 12 December, the Germans infiltrated approximately 700 men to a point 2 kilometers behind the front lines and attacked the rear installations. By desperate fighting, the headquarters personnel of this battalion drove the enemy back and inflicted severe casualties. For the next 4 days, units of the battalion, cut off on three sides, withheld all enemy assaults and prevented the Germans from overrunning their positions.
On 17 December, despite having lost 40 percent of its fighting strength, the battalion launched a tank-infantry attack against the center of German resistance. With outstanding aggressiveness, they successively stormed the three towns from which the enemy had mounted his entire offensive. The
success of this brilliant attack, coupled with the overwhelming casualties inflected on the enemy, definitely ended the enemy's offensive capabilities in the area. More than 600 prisoners of war were taken by the 2d Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, 150 of whom were wounded, and at the conclusion of the operation, more than 600 enemy dead were found in the battalion's area.
(General Orders 175, Headquarters 36th Infantry Division, 15 May 1945, as approved by the Commanding General, 36th Infantry Division.)
All in all the 141st Infantry got 3 Presidential Unit Citations. The other two were for actions at Salerno and Southern France. The unit also got the French Croix de Guerre avec palm for gallantry.
I would like to thank the following persons and friends for helping in my research:
Denis W. Toomey of www.dogfacesoldier.org
Michael Higgins, son of Lt. Martin J. Higgins Jr
Andre Hugel of Riquewihr
Book worth reading:
"André Hugel, Wolfgang Krebs, Eberhard Neher: Wir waren Feinde. Elsässer, Deutsche, Amerikaner erinnern an die Kämpfe um die "Poche de Colmar" im Dezember 1944. Centaurus Verlag Freiburg 2006."
Source of the Photos of 1944/1945:
Some photos of 1944/1945 taken from www.ecpad.fr the French Department of Defense.
Some text taken from: