Sigolsheim and the men of Able Company, 141st Infantry, 36th Division (source After Action Report provided by Michael Higgins)
December 9th 1944 , Lt. Martin “Marty” Higgins outfit – Able Company, 141st Infantry followed Baker Company out of Riquewihr, moving on to the line of departure. Arriving on top of the hill 351, Higgins took the time to check with the unit in position on any German activity. Able Company took off and started to clear the ground detailed in the briefing. Lt. Higgins troops met several Germans coming back under Baker Company guard although Lt. Higgins did not see Baker Company moving out.
As Able swept its objective, a terrific shelling went overhead, and apparently on to the Baker Company position, who were then digging in (this shelling was "friendly fire," apparently from American tank destroyers - the unit number of which has escaped me). Having the choice of digging in on the hill or occupying the houses in Sigolsheim, if they were not occupied, Higgins chose the latter. Lt. Higgins held back his second platoon light machine gun and heavy machine gun sections in support in case of trouble which was expected by Higgins. Higgins sent his first and third platoon down into Sigolsheim, and word back for the other elements to follow.
Lt. Higgins followed his first platoon into Sigolsheim, expecting the reminder of the men to have no trouble following them in. As Higgins joined his men, who had already killed several, wounded a few and captured 17 Germans, he joined one squad and started to bird dog the town. They had lost one man, killed by a German sniper. Higgins told them to hold up because there were obviously more Germans in Sigolsheim than they could handle.
Higgins consolidated his first platoon so they could hold one section and keep their mission under fire. With that, Lt. Higgins contacted his third platoon, told them to stay in their position, which was the capuchin monastery between the town and the hill 351 they had just left. Higgins told them to stay in position until four o’clock. Meanwhile, Lt. Higgins had sent back one messenger at eleven o’clock to tell his second and fourth platoons to come into Sigolsheim and notify the Battalion Commander they were on their objective.
After contacting the third platoon, Higgins sent back another messenger to bring up the second light machine gun and heavy machine gun sections. Those men were still on top of the hill 351. Lt. Hancock, the mortar platoon leader, joined Higgins about three o’clock and told him that his acting Commo Sgt. was following them with wire from Battalion.
Unfortunately, the Commo Sgt. never did get to town with the wire that Higgins needed so badly! That night, for fear they would be out off from his third platoon, Higgins pulled them over to him, so that he could strongly set up the one corner of town he had and hold it at all costs. Before they came over, and while they were in position, his riflemen from first platoon opened up on three German tanks going from Sigolsheim to Bennwihr. Two of the tanks continued, while one tank remained behind to cover their withdrawal. The tank remaining behind, in swinging around to return the fire, got stuck in a soft shoulder. The Germans sent a half track out about an hour later to pull him in. One of Higgins bazooka men went out and tried a shot at a range of about 250 yards. His round fell short about 15 yards, but ricocheted into the half track and set it afire. This was an ammo track and it blew from about four o’clock that afternoon until midnight. The Germans then sent another truck out from Bennwihr, in attempts to pull in the tank and the men ruined the engine with rifle fire. So Higgins men had a road block of three German vehicles between Bennwihr and Sigolsheim, which the enemy could not remove until Lt. Higgins outfit were captured.
In the afternoon December 9, Lt. Martin Higgins sent a message back to Battalion, telling them what they had done, giving them grid coordinates of their position, and also telling Battalion that they needed help badly. About seven o’clock in the evening on December 9, Higgins men were attacked by a German Panzerschreck team, and during the evening there was light patrol activity from the Germans.
Higgins expected a strong attack at dawn December 10. None came! Lt. Higgins had Lt. Hancock over, about to send him back with a message explaining their situation, when a company of Germans were reported coming along the side of the hill 393 from Bennwihr. They let them come, hoping to ambush the entire enemy company. Unfortunately, one of Higgins men opened up too soon and a few Germans got away. Then hell broke loose all around the Americans. Higgins men were attacked from every side but they hold them all off until about noontime. The Americans figured they could hold out indefinitely, as Higgins expected reinforcements to come through, but the German tanks came up to support their infantry and fired several rounds into every house the Americans were in. Lt. Higgins Able men drove the Gemans back time and time again with rifle fire, but they finally got in so close, they could not resist them.
About one o’clock in the afternoon, Higgins was telling Lt. Hancock and Lt. Loomis to confiscate all food available on his order and that they would pay the French later for taking their supplies, when a German tank opened up where Higgins’s C.P. (Command Post) was and he heard a man scream. Lt. Higgins rushed over and they had already gotten the man out. He went into the downstairs room, thinking he might be able to get the German tank with a rifle grenade. Evidently the German Panzer saw him first and there was a loud explosion. Marty Higgins was spun around a couple times and his right leg went numb and he first thought it was missing. Lucky it was still there and two men came to his help to bring him upstairs. They wanted him to go down to the cellar but Higgins refused as he knew that from there he could not fire. So Higgins told Lt. Crown to tell the others that he was wounded and would be out of action temporarily, but to continue to fight. However, Lt. Crown never could get over to tell them and when fighting slackened off in the building they were in, the other platoons thought they were wiped out.
With the tank support, the Germans attacked each house, one by one, using smoke. Higgins said that it was the first time he saw that, and that is how they got most of Able Company. Higgins men called him – he was with about eight soldiers at the time – and showed him about 35 Germans within about 20 yards of the house. Lt. Higgins men continued firing and in one section started firing at figures running by the doorway, and suddenly realized they were shooting at friendly’s and so Higgins men knew the Germans had gotten their first platoon! Prior to that they could see Germans in every house where they had previously located US soldiers.
One important point is that Lt. Higgins tried his “300” MC radio at about 2.30 hours which hadn’t worked. Higgins got through to the Charlie Company radio man, but he was seemed too nervous, so he could not take Higgins message.
After seeing all their positions overrun with German Grenadiers belonging to 326th Grenadier Regiment, things looked pretty bad, and Higgins asked his eight men if they wanted to fight on or give up. The told him whatever he did would be ok with them. Three things influenced Lt Higgins decision – there was no help coming, most of the Company was already taken and Higgins himself was in a daze from the shell concussion. If he had not been wounded, Higgins was sure that his men could held out another two or three hours, but the final result would have been the same. They had fired all their ammo, including that taken from the 23 German POW’s . Higgins said that when they walked out it was the most miserable feeling he had ever in his life. He felt down by the Regiment, plus being shaken up and further, they all expected to be shot right away for holding out as long as they did. Higgins men found out later that they were attacked by a regiment of German supported by a few tanks because the enemy thought the Americans were a Battalion.
Personal account of Lt. Martin J. Higgins Jr. / 36th “Texas” Division (Text and photo provided by Michael Higgins, son of Lt. Martin J. Higgins Jr.)
On 10 December 1944, 1st Lt. Martin J. Higgins Jr. was captured in the Alsatian town of Sigolsheim after a desperate two-day engagement with an enemy force at regiment strength supported by Panzer IV. The German force was comprised of Companies 2, 4, and 7; 326th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Division together with one company of the 1213th Grenadier Regiment, 189th Infantry Division. Promised American support (on both of his flanks) failed to materialize. Company B was torn to pieces by "friendly fire" from tanks and tank destroyers, and Company C never left the line of departure.
Again, my father and Co A, 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, were greatly outnumbered. They inflicted heavy losses upon the enemy, destroyed two Panzer MK IV tanks, one ammunition carrier, and took 23 prisoners in house-to-house fighting.
Lt. Martin “Marty” Higgins was wounded while trying to take-out a Mk IV Panzer with a grenade launcher. The tank fired, catching him with a piece of shrapnel in his knee. His men carried him to a bed on the second story of a house they defended. Lt. Higgins continued to direct the operation of the unit. Able Company ran out of ammunition awaiting re-enforcements that, in the confusion, mistakenly went to Mittelwihr, instead of Sigolsheim.
Late in the day on 10 December, Lt. Martin “Marty” Higgins and 77 men, the remnants of Co A were captured. A German Sergeant relieved Lt. Higgins of his carbine, grenade launcher, and .45 pistol. Under guard, Able Company was marched to Colmar. At dusk, on 12 December they crossed the Rhine at the French city of Neuf-Brisach and marched across the bridge to the German city of Breisach. The officers were separated from the enlisted men.
Lt. Marty Higgins and his officers, 1st Lt. John C. Crown, and 2nd Lt. Leland Hancock, and 2nd Lt. William F. Loomis were taken to a small hotel. There they were interrogated by Reichsführer-SS, Heinrich Himmler, who was in Alsace to personally direct operations. Himmler had difficulty believing citizen soldiers, led by an accountant, punished his troops so badly. At the end of the interrogation, through an interpreter, Himmler told Lt. Higgins: "Fuer Dich ist der Krieg vorbei!" (For you the war is over!).
The enlisted men of Co. A, 141st were sent first to STALAG III-B (Furstenburg, Germany) and some were then sent to STALAG III-A (Luckenwalde, Germany). Higgins, Crown, Loomis, and Hancock were sent to OFLAG 64 in Schubin (or Szubin), Poland – arriving there on Christmas Eve, 1944. On 21 January 1945 they began a six-week, 350-mile forced march in sub-freezing temperatures. On 4 March, my father arrived (with the wounded and infirm) at STALAG III-A in Luckenwalde, Germany. The main body of American officers now numbering some 400, out of the original 1400 officers who embarked on the march, including General Patton’s son-in-law, Lt. Colonel John K. Waters, arrived at STALAG XIII-B in Hammelburg, Germany on 9 March. Dad was reunited with some of the enlisted men of Co. A, 141st. He was able to speak with T/Sgt Eddie Guy through the wire that now separated officers from enlisted men.
However, Himmler was wrong, for Lt. Martin “Marty” Higgins, the war was not over. On 22 April, 1945 he escaped from STALAG III-A, reached American lines, and was then flown to the largest of the recuperation camps, or "cigarette camps," Camp "Lucky Strike," at Saint-Sylvian, 5 kilometers from Saint-Valery-en Caux, France. At Camp Lucky Strike, 1st Lt. Higgins learned he had been promoted to Captain two days after his capture on 10 December 1944.
T/Sgt. Eddie Guy and four enlisted men also made their way to the Elbe River and freedom. They too, were sent to Camp Lucky Strike.
Some rare vestiges of the furious battle of the "Colmar Pocket" during the winter 1944 – 1945 still remain in Sigolsheim today. The Church of Saint Pierre et Saint Paul from the 12th century was almost destroyed in 1945 and was restored from 1950 till 1960. However, during the fierce and ruthless battle, the town of Sigolsheim was completely destroyed.
Personal account of Private George L Vaughn (ABLE Company, 1st Battalion, 141st Inf Regt, 36th Inf Div (Information provided by Michael Higgins, son of Lt. Martin J. Higgins Jr.)
The following notes have been copied from a small address book, which Private George L Vaughn (ABLE Company, 1st Battalion, 141st Inf Regt, 36th Inf Div.) filled with small notes while being held prisoner. The ledger he found while in Munich after his liberation on April 30, 1945.
December 9, 1944 / Sigolsheim, France
Moved into the little town of Sigolsheim, in Alsace-Lorraine near the German border. I was made asst. squad leader a few days ago & they put in for my stripes. I didn’t want the job, but we’re so short handed now I hated to refuse. I have a feeling that all is not well here. Our company of 78 took this town with little or no resistance. We have 24 prisoners, taken in several different sections of town. We moved in here under fire & have lost contact with forces in our rear. I hope Marty sends some of the guys back for rations too. The people here aren’t too friendly. In many of the homes I saw pictures of boys in German uniforms.
December 10, 1944 / Sigolsheim, France
Well, the war is now over for me! I was captured at 2:00 P.M. this afternoon with my company – only 78 of the original 178 remains. We were under constant fire of tanks & were forced to take refuge in the cellars of several houses at 10:00 A.M. this morning. Our prisoners are with us & scared to death. Also a number of women & little children have come in. Darling, I’m a little scared too. I guess I’ve been seeing too many movies.
We have finally used up all our ammo (I got 8 & maybe 9) this morning – the guy went down, anyhow.
Marty Higgins, our Company Commander, is the bravest man I have ever seen, but even he knows that we haven’t a chance here. The time has come – I can hear the Krauts outside telling us to surrender or die – so out we file one by one with our hands up. The Jerries are seasoned troops, I see, and not green kids that we have been seeing lately. We are searched and my fountain pen and onyx ring were taken. My watch I hid in my boot & it was saved. We are not mistreated, but are fed bread, beer, and meat before we are crowded on the trucks for shipment back to the rear.
All of the fellows are much relieved now – you can see it in their faces, or in the way they drag on a cigarette. Yes, it’s all over now – for us – but the guys back there won’t stop, we all know that.
Remarks and facts regarding Sigolsheim provided by Michael Higgins
The important thing about ABLE company at Sigolsheim was, that prior to the German counterattack (at Regiment strength) on 10 December, ABLE company had been the only American unit to pierce the German "Kaysersberg-Sigolsheim Line", which was the major defensive obstacle protecting Colmar. For that brief moment the 141st Infantry Regiment / 36th Infantry Division had a clear shot at Colmar - if only Regiment and Division had exploited ABLE's efforts the battle would have had a different outcome.
Unfortunately, that was not to be and it would cost 8000 men
and three months of fighting to subdue the "Colmar Pocket" during the first week of February 1945.
Because the 36th Infantry was spread so thin, it was unable to capitalize on ABLE company's success...and the hole opened by Marty Higgins and the men of ABLE was never exploited to Allied advantage.
The engagement in Sigolsheim would also have had a different outcome had Captain Harry Huberth and BAKER Company not been torn to pieces by "friendly fire" from Tank destroyers and had CHARLIE Company and elements of the 2nd Battalion showed up on the right flank when they were supposed to have - which they never did.
The absolute kicker came when a patrol from CHARLIE went to
Benwihr instead of Sigolsheim and reported ABLE not present....when at that exact moment ABLE was engaged in a running gun battle house-to-house with an enemy force at regiment strength,
supported by four Panzer Pk IV tanks!
The efforts of ABLE Company in breaking through the German line have gone unheralded by military historians because the After Action Report for this engagement was "missing." To this day, CHARLIE Company's absence has never been explained.
When Lt. Martin J. Higgins returned home from being a POW, one of the first things he did was write and send the AAR for the Sigolsheim engagement to 36th Infantry Division commander, General John Dahlquist. Today, this AAR report is among the general's papers held by the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, PA.
According to Ms Lise Pommois, a French author, ABLE Company
engaged units of the German 326th Grenadier Regiment, 198th Infantry Division at Sigolsheim.
The 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Division (of which Co A was a part) battled the 198th all the way from the Mediterranean landing site near Frejus - Calanque Antheor (BLUE BEACH) Operation DRAGOON, 15 August 1944; to the Alsacian plain at Sigolsheim, 9-10 December 1944.
At St Ame (near St Etienne and Remiremont), ABLE Company destroyed a 50 vehicle German convoy of the 198th. Lt Marty Higgins captured a Battle Group commander and his staff. ABLE Company broke through a German road block, liberated St Ame, and turned it over to the US 3rd Infantry Division.
In the Vosges, Foret de Champ, Co A battled the 198th Fusilier Battalion and the 933rd Volks-Grenadier Regiment for seven days during the "Lost Battalion" engagement (24-31 October 1944).
So, it is exceedingly ironic that Co A, 1st Battalion, 141st had repeatedly bested the 198th for five months of non-stop combat - who would think a unit from the 198th would finally capture Company A?
The attack on Sigolsheim and Bloody Hill (Hill 351) by the 15th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, December 22 to December 28, 1944
Near Bennwihr is a hill called Mont de Sigolsheim containing Hill 351 and Hill 393, where a group of die hard SS troops of SS-Unterfuehrerschule Radolfzell and attached to Regiment Braun (commander SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer Willy Braun) made their last stand. The grassy mound is now known as “Bloody Hill”. Mont de Sigolsheim was also a German target of the counterattack operation, known as “Operation Habicht” (Operation Hawk), which was launched on December 12, 1944 and ended December 14, 1944. Two German attempts to take the hill have been repulsed by the Americans and only the 3rd assault on December 14 was a success and Mont de Sigolsheim fell into German hands (see chapter “The Battle of Riquewihr and Operation Habicht”).
Mont de Sigolsheim (Hill 351 and 393), the town of Bennwihr and a large number of POW’s was the holiday gift that Brigadier General Robert N. Young, acting 3rd Division commander, received from the 15th Regiment. However, the price of the victory was high. Former member Bill Weinberg remembered: “We called Hill 351 “Christmas Hill” and the Germans called it “Bloody Hill”. Both names were fitting. Another veteran named George Mohr summed up the sacrifice: “B Company had the largest casualties that day. We lost all our officers and over 40 percent of the Company.”
Sigolsheim, December 22, 1944
Lt. Colonel Ware’s First Battalion moved from Riquewihr to assembly areas in Kientzheim in the early morning hours of 22 December, preparatory to attacking Sigolsheim.
At 07.30 hours, 22 December, both the First and Third Battalion jumped-off in a coordinated two-pronged attack, the latter against Bennwihr (see the chapter Battle of Bennwihr). A and C Companies moved against Sigolsheim. During the past few days, Bennwihr and Sigolsheim had been severely shelled from the air and artillery. Both Battalions moved out under terrific concentrations of artillery. The Regiment brought nearly every bit of fire power it could muster on the two towns. The Second Battalion remained in a blocking position on the high ground supporting the attack by fire.
A and C Company drove east from Kientzheim along the axis of the two main roads to Sigolsheim and were immediately hit by fire from enemy small arms, machine guns and mortars. A platoon of light and medium tanks thrust ahead, followed closely by the infantry. Once in the open, German artillery and mortars hit the men and suddenly from the south end of the town, three German tanks opened up as well as machine guns and rifles from positions along the edge of Sigolsheim.
The Americans took up the firefight across the flat fields and vineyards at 300 yards, and worked up to the walls of the town, where the enemy defended with fierce mortar and machine gun fire and hand grenades. By mid-morning, A Company had pushed through to take the first four houses on the main road east from Kientzheim and pounded on through the hail of intense mortar fire.
The tank attack was not faring well. Roadblocks and rubble prevented the tanks from pushing into Sigolsheim and already one was knocked out and two bogged down. In the meantime, C Company was attacking the monastery north of Sigolsheim. Located on Hill 351 which dominated Sigolsheim, it was hard core enemy resistance. From here, the Germans, well entrenched and dug into the rubble piles, poured a continuous stream or mortar and machine gun fire on the approaches to the town as the American troops moved in.
Time after time, C Company tried to work tanks and infantry into the convent walls, but the enemy fought off every attack and then counterattacked twice with Waffen-SS troops to engage the Americans in deadly hand-to-hand fighting. Still the assault pressed on, despite the painfully slow progress and heavy casualties. By noon, C Company controlled the first four houses in northwest Sigolsheim and the fighting raged on. Fire was so heavy, casualties could not be evacuated. Tank destroyers finally succeeded in working into firing positions from which they could blast at the monastery. In the afternoon, fighter bombers blasted and strafed the town and the roads and streets were raked by US artillery. By the evening, both A and B Companies were still at the edge of Sigolsheim and had made no further progress. Only one M4 Sherman tank of the 756th Tank Battalion was left out of the original nine tanks.
C Company, at the monastery, was still battling the enemy entrenched in the rubble and dugouts, but was making no progress clearing them out. A Company had been badly hit and the strength of the entire First Battalion had been down to only 225 men! The Battalion was ordered to hold for the night and form A and C Companies into a defensive line along the outskirts of the town.
The Germans were not content, however, to have their hold on Sigolsheim threatened to such an extent, and that night they launched the inevitable counterattack. After bringing up armor and infantry reinforcements, the Germans first hit C Company’s left flank with tanks and infantry. The counterattack came from the high ground and from the center of the town and while the German tanks swirled around pouring fierce fire on the First Battalion’s positions, mortar and artillery fire came in with deadly effect. At the same time, the enemy put a holding force on A Company, preventing any action on their part. Then, with the main weight of the assault against C Company, they closed in. After withstanding blow after blow, the Company became badly disorganized. Casualties were heavy and the Company, no longer able to hold its position, broke under the onslaught of blows.
A Company succeeded in standing firm since the full pressure of the assault was not against them, but when C Company failed to halt the enemy, their position was also imperiled. Battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Ware, therefore first ordered a withdrawal to a new line along the cemetery wall on the western outskirts of Sigolsheim. However, the pressure of the enemy assault was even too strong for this. C Company was too weak to hold and was down to just a handful of men. The Battalion therefore withdrew to Kientzheim, while A and C Companies proceeded on to Riquewihr to reorganize, leaving B Company to help the 7th Regiment defend Kientzheim. It has been a disastrous day for the First Battalion. Approximately 90 battle casualties were suffered and several men were taken prisoner by the Germans. Five tanks were lost.
Hill 351 known as “Bloody Hill" or "Blutbuckel”, December 24 to December 26, 1944
Sigolsheim remained the only uncaptured objective of the 15th Regiment’s offensive. Hill 351 was held by approximately 200 Waffen-SS troops of Kampfgruppe Braun. This objective was the dominating feature in the entire sector and should the First and Second Battalion succeed in taking it, the German defense of Sigolsheim would be hopeless. The strongly defended town, however, could not be taken before Hill 351.
Around 07.00 hours, December 24, 1944, C Company went forward in a skirmish line, with the first and second platoons spearheading the advance, followed by the third platoon in the rear. B Company, 50 yards from the top of the hill, remained fast until C Company could draw up and consolidate itself with B Company into an arc like defense.
C Company worked its way slowly up the Hill, under heavy enemy fire, for a distance of 50 yards. Gaining a position just short of the peak, the attacking forces hit three German machine guns. For three hours these men engaged the Gemans in a fierce firefight, but to no avail. C Company was forced to take up its original positions from which this last attack had been launched.
F Company, meanwhile, attacked up the west slope of Hill 351, with G Company pushing from the north, leaving E Company in its reserve. For five hours they fought bitterly against the enemy without a single advantage in their favor. C Company on the right, was part way up the Hill, when it met stiff resistance from about 30 Germans well dug in on one of the terrace which marked the Hill. The harassing mortar and artillery fire which the enemy was placing on the Company was creating a serious block to the advance. On the Company’s right flank was Staff Sergeant Robert W. Watson. He led four men in a charge which forced the Germans to withdraw to the next terrace up the Hill, where they sought cover behind a wall. Watson placed his men along the terrace the enemy had left and had them throw hand grenades until the German soldiers abandoned this position for a third terrace. As Watson started across the terrace to lead his men over the wall, he was killed by a German sniper when he exposed himself to do so. Nevertheless, the assault troops inched their way over the frozen ground, scoring small gains in spite of the enemy. At 15.00 hours the artillery and mortar fire supporting the attacking troops seemed at last to have a telling effect. German resistance began to slacken at this time, with the result that some of the forward elements reached a ledge about 200 yards from the top of the Hill. However, as these spearheads began to broaden, the Germans unleashed the most murderous hail of shells and bullets yet. Under no conditions could these attacking forces make further progress, and so they withdrew, preparing at once for still another attack, in coordination with the First Battalion, against the elaborate defense system the Germans maintained at the top of Hill 351.
At 23.30 hours, the Second Battalion again flared into action. F Company, on the west slope and G Company on the northern slope pushed forward a third time from their positions about 200 yards from the crest of the Hill. G Company, rather than to try to continue its advance over the same route which twice proved impossible, swung in an almost easterly direction to join forces with D Company, and together pushed forward. However, the First Battalion line felt the full force of the German defense at the crest of the Hill, which just prior to the attack had been again reinforced by the its Sigolsheim reserves. Five minutes before the attack, C Company’s 60mm mortars zeroed in on German positions, paving the way for the jump-off. However, the two skirmish platoons still found it impossible to move forward in the face of the blinding hail of enemy bullets and shell fragments. Therefore, C, F and G Companies gave ground and took up their primary positions.
B Company, meanwhile, confined its offensive to a series of patrol clashes with small combat patrols in an effort to locate a weak spot but no progress could be reported, so the troops waited until morning. Casualties on Christmas Day were high, with no reinforcements available. Battalions were reduced in size of companies and companies into platoons.
With little or no rest, the First and Second Battalion prepared for their fourth attack upon Bloody Hill. B Company was to make the assault towards the eastern top of the Hill, with C Company attacking over the saddle, while A Company secured a position on the left flank and followed close behind the attacking forces of the Battalion. B Company would block the southeast slopes of Mont de Sigolsheim, with F Company continuing up the west slope and G Company the north. A platoon of tanks of the 756th Tank Battalion was brought up a small trail behind B Company just before daylight, December 26, 1944, to reinforce the assault.
It was about 06.00 hours when the combined attack jumped-off, which each Company containing no more than a handful of men. The assaulting force met four times the fire it could possibly return. Nevertheless, the men reached a point 150 yards from the large cross at the southern crest of the Hill, and were into the thick of the enemy’s elaborate emplacements.
Once in reach of the Germans, it was easily determined why the ascent had been so difficult. The German troops had adhered strictly to their oath of “Defend or Die”. One Waffen-SS soldier was manning a machine gun with a check of his buttock shot off. Another gunner remained at his post with a severe shoulder wound and another one stuck to his gun with three gaping leg wounds. G Company covered the advance of F Company and with both Companies at the top there was still a great deal to be done in this sector. The Germans had to be dug, pulled and burned out of their emplacements. Fierce and bloody fighting continued most of the day.
In the meantime, the First Battalion was attacking. At dawn C Company struck out in its fourth attack upon the Hill. With all three platoons committed and assisted by armor provided by the 756th Tank Battalion, C Company soon managed to silence the remaining two machine guns, which had previously made the Company’s attacks so costly. With this obstacle removed, C Company fought its way up to B Company, and together formed the line they had been fighting two days ago to establish.
B and C Companies were now in a position to apply constant pressure against the Germen defense line about 150 yards away just below the last incline that led to the peak of Hill 351.In a short while, the enemy left this defense line and ran to the summit of the Hill, but the approach of B Company towards the slope of the Hill brought such a ferocious concentration of artillery and mortar fire, the men were forced to dig in for cover.
At this time, First Battalion commander Lt. Colonel Leith Ware, arrived with his S-3 and the commander of D Company to see the progress of the attack. He too, came under heavy enemy fire. After inspecting the dug in positions of the assaulting companies, he personally went on a recon, to determine the best routes of approach to the crest of the Hill and to discover the exact nature of the defense. Walking about 150 yards ahead of the most forward positions, his figure drew aimed enemy fire. He continued his recon for two hours in the face of heavy fire, miraculously escaping death. Returning to B Company, he went to man to man encouraging them, pointing out best routes of approach and designating where he had discovered enemy machine guns to be emplaced.
Later, around 14.00 hours, Lieutenant Colonel Keith Ware, acting commander of 1st Battalion, led a force of two officers (his S-3 and the Heavy Weapons Company commander), nine men and one tank of the 756th Tank Battalion commanded by Sergeant Simon Bramblett (a former professional baseball player before the war in the St. Louis Browns' organisation) against 200 German Waffen-SS troops. Ware was in front of his attack force, and time after time, he fired his BAR. He'd call up the tank and Bramblett blasted the machine gun or fortifications. After he was out of BAR ammo, Ware picked up a M-1 rifle from a wounded soldier and continued. This procedure continued - Ware would fire on a target, defining it, and Bramblett would move up and blast it out. Lt Colonel Ware personally accounded for five Germans killed and 20 captured, while Bramblett cleared the Hill of the six German machine guns, four of them under the direction of tracer fire from Lt. Colonel Ware. For this action, Lieutenant Colonel Ware was awarded the Medal of Honor and he was directly responsible for the taking of Hill 351.
The Battle for Hill 351 itself lasted for an hour, ending in victory at around 15.00 hours. Clearing out the German diehards on "Bloody Hill" (twenty were killed, thirty were taken P.O.W.'s and the remainder were put to flight) permitted the Third Battalion to subsequently take the town of Sigolsheim.
Sigolsheim, December 27, 1944
The plan of attack for December 27, 1944, was for K Company to swing along the north edge of the town and block to the west, G Company, now attached to the Third Battalion, was to swing along the south edge of Sigolsheim and block to the south, while L Company struck the center of Sigolsheim, thus surrounding the powerful German forces within, and trapping them once and for all.
At 07.30 December 27, 1944, G Company moved downhill to the road East of Sigolsheim and attacked the town along the South road in coordination with K and L Company at 09.30. At around noon, G Company was continuing the attack on Sigolsheim. L Company were meeting strong resistance in the East part of the town and moved forward on the center road while G Company moved along the South road. By noon on December 27, 1944, the Germans were still resisting strongly within Sigolsheim and the Germans had to be killed or hopelessly wounded before they would give an inch of this bitterly contested town. It can be said, that in all its long combat record never had the 15th Infantry Regiment encountered such bitter diehard resistance.
While 1st Battalion remained in position on Hill 351 until noon of December 28, 1944, blocking and supporting the assault on Sigolsheim, 2nd Battalion had G Company continuing the mission of clearing Sigolsheim with K and L Company against stubborn German resistance. A Company achieving its objective, the road junction, a little after noon. However, the Germans would not admit defeat in this sector and threw in more troops in the afternoon, hammering at the positions of K Company had established from the west, and from the monastery to the north. Every German attempt to crack the lines of the determined Company was thrown back.
Now L Company left its location in the northeast corner of Sigolsheim and swung directly south, to attack the town from the center. The advance was costly and difficult. A large pocket of Germans located in the vineyards just below the northeastern tip of Sigolsheim throw everything possible at the advancing Company , to prevent themselves from being trapped within the town. In spite of their stubborn resistance, L Company struck the town from the east, and swung south clearing as they went. The Germans, with their last defenses in this region beginning to crack under the constant and unrelaxing pressure of the 15th Infantry, clung to their foothold to the last, and fought as a demon, even though they were wounded or hopelessly surrounded. Slowly, L Company inched its way into Sigolsheim, digging the Germans out of their firing positions and steadily pushing its way south. This small fighting force for days had bucked almost insurmountable odds, as had the rest of the units of the Regiment, with no reinforcements available. It was cut down to a handful of men, yet, each one by his fighting spirit and dogged persistence, outfought the Germans, man for man and whipped them soundly.
Lt. Eli Whitely, demonstrated the fighting spirit of L Company (see below). Only after four serious wounds and a shell fragment tore into his right eye, he consented to be evacuated. And some other men in the same platoon, seriously wounded, fought on, at the side of their platoon leader. And this was the way L Company fought through the village of Sigolsheim.
The German roadblock in the south central part of Sigolsheim (defended by SS-Obersturmführer Leithner's fighting group at the Mittel Mill) and the schoolhouse in the town center (defended by Major Vonalt and his men) still formed the most difficult defenses. Stiff fighting and bloody hand-to-hand pitched battles, however, rubbed out the remaining German resistance and by nightfall, L Company had established a headquarter in the blood drenched schoolhouse (see Major Vonalt’s situation on Dec. 27, 1944 below).
The 15th Regiment finally cleared the enemy from the town late on December 27 except for stragglers as by 21.00 hours G Company had, after heavy fighting in its sector, established its own roadblock on the southern artery, leading west out of Sigolsheim and had the town cleared all the way to L Company positions in the town center of Sigolsheim (the very last enemy activity ceased on December 28 at around 10.30).
After the battle was over, the Americans counted over two hundred tubes from spent Panzerfausts!
The Story of Grenadier Walter Laich, 8./Grenadier-Regiment 1212 (Kindly provided by Family Roland Laich)
Among those who fought in Sigolsheim and made their last stand under Major Vonalt fighting group, was Grenadier Walter Laich, 8. Company, Grenadier-Regiment 1212, from Stuttgart-Feuerbach.
On December 19, Sigolsheim was shelled by artillery and mortar fire from Kientzheim at around 02.00 p.m. followed by an Allied attack half an hour later with tank. Five Sherman tanks of 1er R.C.A. 2éme Escadron, 1er Peloton, 5ème D.B (commanded by L’Aspirant Camille Girard ) attacked the Mittelmill in the south of Sigolsheim.
Platoon Leader: Aspirant Camille GIRARD (Soleil de Germaine) order of Battle for this assault:
M4 Sherman ”FORT DE FRANCE”
Radio sign:GERMAINE 21
Commander: GIRARD Camille
Driver: VINARDY Henri
Co-Driver: RUER Lucien
Gunner: LAURANT Roger
Loader /Radio Operator: MOLINA Henri
M4 Sherman ”FORT DAUPHIN ”
Radio sign:GERMAINE 22
Commander: FORGET Jean
Driver: BIGEARD Maxime
Co-Driver: LEUSSIER Pierre
Gunner: MARCHAL René
Loader /Radio Operator: VIALAR
M4 Sherman ”FORT DE BAYARD”
Radio sign:GERMAINE 23
Commander: SEVIN Maurice
Driver: PROCUREUR Pierre
Co-Driver: PROCUREUR Pierre
Gunner: CABIROL Maxime
Loader /Radio Operator: CASABAN Marcel
M4 Sherman ”FORT NATIONAL”
Radio sign:GERMAINE 24
Commander: HENIN Léon
Co-Driver: ROSSI Louis
Gunner: THAU René
Loader /Radio Operator: BALLUT
M4 Sherman ”FORT L'EMPEREUR”
Radio sign:GERMAINE 25
Gunner: SOLANA Raymond
Loader /Radio Operator: PLAT Paul
An additional Sherman tank and several half-trucks with infantry attacked from the north-west taking the Friedhofweg. Werner Schaller was manning an anti-tank gun and knocked out that Sherman and one half-truck. After that, he and his men were ordered to support the anti-tank platoon leader, a Feldwebel at the only remaining bridge over the Weiss river near the Mittelmill.
The Feldwebel and his anti-tank team was about to attack the 5 Sherman’s with Panzerfaust’s and destroyed one of them for good. Schaller and his group was ordered back to the north-west of Sigolsheim to support some Waffen-SS soldiers to bring the assault to a halt. In the meantime, the Feldwebel and his anti-tank platoon knocked out another 2 Sherman’s as well with Panzerfaust’s. Those two tanks were in fact destroyed by Walter Laich in front of the German CP on Route du Vin around 17.30 in the afternoon. However, the Feldwebel was severely wounded during this fight and died shortly after in the German Army hospital in Freiburg. The two remaining Sheman tanks - "DAUPHIN" AND "FORT L'EMPERUER" - managed to retreat back to Kientzheim. The French tank soldiers Cabirol, Cazaban, Gaillard, Procureur, Rossi and Thau were taken prisoners, Forget, Henin, Rossi and Ruer were wounded.
Walter Laich was also part of the defense battle and fought against the Sherman tanks’s on that day (Walter was most likely part of the anti-tank platoon on December 19, 1944). Two Shermans of the attacking five - one was Girards M4 "Fort de France" - were about to overrun the German command post of Major Vonalt, which was in the house no 8 at Route du Vin (near the Mittelmill) in the southern part of Sigolsheim on December 19, 1944 (the CP was for many days of the battle in the monastery).
Walter Laich was, regarding to some French accounts, in house no 4 at Route des Vin, and was ordered by Major Vonalt to fight the two approaching tanks (around 17.10 p.m.). He knocked out the two Sherman tanks with Panzerfaust’s on that day December 19, in Sigolsheim (Girard's Sherman at around 17.22 p.m. regarding to the radio messages), and was promoted to Unteroffizier and was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd class for his action. In his field post letter dated December 22, 1944, Walter writes to his family that he knocked out 2 tanks.
Walter’s final letter home is dated December 26, 1944, 11.00 p.m. He writes his family, that he knocked out his third tank this afternoon and that the Major (Vonalt ?) is very proud of him. His former squad leader Karl Merkle, saw him for the last time in the night of December 26, 1944.
On December 27, the US 15th Infantry launched another attack on Sigolsheim with tank support provided by B Company of the 756th Tank Battalion. Some of the tanks attacked from the north-east side of Sigolsheim, driving on the Rue de Bennwihr near the Sainte Anne Chapel and the cemetery (I believe that one of this tank's is the one, which will be shooting down the Grand Rue later on this day and shelling the school, where Major Vonalt and his men are hold out in the command post). On this day, Walter Laich and his men are in a ambush position near the cemetery armed with Panzerfaust’s waiting for the Sherman’s. Heavy fighting is breaking loose. Walter is trying to knock out another tank with his Panzerfaust, but this time he missed the Sherman! This information is in some way also mentioned in the after action report of Third Inf Div from 1201A, 26 Dec 1944 to 1200A, 27 Dec 1944. It is said that a Sherman tank of B Company, 756th Tank Battalion was hit by a Panzerfaust on Hill 351 but not knocked out. Also mentioned in the war diary of the 756th Tank Battalion, that on Dec. 27, 1944 two men were wounded when a Panzerfaust rocket hit a building next to the tank. That could be the missed shot by Walter Laich who knows?
During the fight with the Sherman’s, Walter was hit in the pelvis and severely wounded. One of his comrades saw him being carried away on a stretcher. He was taken to the aid station set up in the school, where Major Vonalt and his men were still fighting on.
Walter Laich died of his wound during the night and were among the men left behind by Major Vonalt’s fighting group, as they abandoned the school at 06.00 p.m. German prisoners said, that one dead German soldier with two tank destruction ribbons was among them, laid in front of the school in the morning of December 28 as the American 15th Infantry Regiment liberated Sigolsheim for good.
A Sigolsheim inhabitant reported later of about 70 dead German soldiers, laying in front of the school when he left the cellar of the monastery. After the liberation of the Alsace all corpses of German soldiers which were found in the Sigolsheim area have been buried near today’s soccer field in Sigolsheim, the unidentified Germans body’s in three or 4 mass graves.
Until today, Walter’s final resting place is unclear. It is assumed that he might be among those unknown dead. In 1970 all those bodies have been moved to the German cemetery in Bergheim and re-buried as “Unknown soldiers”.
Kampfkommandant (Battle commander) of Sigolsheim - Major Vonalt's point of view for Dec. 27, 1944
Major Wilhelm Vonalt – the Sigolsheim Battle Commander – defended the school of Sigolsheim until December 27, 1944. Another die hard fighting group containing 25 men under the command of SS-Obersturmführer Leithner fought in the ruins in the southern part of Sigolsheim near the mill. Both remaining fighting groups were under constant fire of US tanks and machinegun fire. One or two US tanks were near the church with US infantry holding the houses next to the church while another US tank was just below the monastery, and all were shelling the school where Vonalt and his men held out.
December 27, 1944 Major Vonalt situation got worse and he decided to abandon his position with his remaining men, as the communication to Leithner’s group was broken and 95% of Sigolsheim was in American hands after the deadly house to house fighting. Only two small combat groups were fighting on to hold Sigolsheim - Major Vonalt's men in the school and SS-Obersturmführer Leithner's group in the south near the mill, where he had to hold off the Americans, now supported by 2 Tanks. Vonalt's group was almost completely surrounded by enemy infantry and the school was heavily shelled by US tank fire scoring several direct hits. All Panzerfausts have been used and the last ones have been given to Leithner's men. Complete annihilation was onyl a question of a short time.
To “Hold Sigolsheim at all cost” as ordered the night before by Himmler himself was not possible! After Vonalt discussed his plan to break out with the remaining officers in his group, the order to abandon the school was given at 05.50 p.m. Communication to Division was not possible and so it was Vonalt’s own decision to break out. The group of 30 men (officers and enlisted men together) left the school around 06.00 p.m. through a window on the west side of the house, under heavy US fire, only carrying ammo and weapons. Unfortunately all wounded as well as some medics had to be left behind as it was not possible to carry the wounded through the heavy US fire.
For this action, Major Vonalt was court-martialed for cowardice, as SS-Obersturmführer Leithner fought his way back to the school with 25 men and found the place abandoned. Leithner accused Major Vonalt, that he just abandoned his post although the order was to hold Sigolsheim at all cost! However, Major Vonalt was found “not guilty”. He was awarded the German Cross in Gold on March 22, 1945!
The French National War Cemetery and the US Memorial on Hill 351 (Mont de Sigolsheim)
Sigolsheim remembers the bloody battle fought in 1944. Along the National Necropolis from the 1st French Army with 1’684 graves, which was inaugurated in 1965, is the US memorial with the inscriptions of all the US Divisions which had fought on top of the hill, called by many people "Monte Cassino d’Alsace". This place reminds all of the sacrifices made by the young men who died for the freedom of Alsace and France.
Medal of Honor for actions in Sigolsheim on December 27, 1944
First Lieutenant Eli Whiteley of the L Company, 15th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, was leading his platoon on 27 December 1944, in savage house-to-house fighting through the fortress town of Sigolsheim, France. He attacked a building through a street swept by withering mortar and automatic weapons fire. He was hit and severely wounded in the arm and shoulder; but he charged into the house alone and killed its 2 defenders. Hurling smoke and fragmentation grenades before him, he reached the next house and stormed inside, killing 2 and capturing 11 of the enemy. He continued leading his platoon in the extremely dangerous task of clearing hostile troops from strong points along the street until he reached a building held by fanatical Nazi troops. Although suffering from wounds which had rendered his left arm useless, he advanced on this strongly defended house, and after blasting out a wall with bazooka fire, charged through a hail of bullets.
Wedging his sub-machinegun under his uninjured arm, he rushed into the house through
the hole torn by his rockets, killed 5 of the enemy and forced the remaining 12 to surrender. As he emerged to continue his fearless attack, he was again hit and critically wounded. In agony and
with 1 eye pierced by a shell fragment, he shouted for his men to follow him to the next house. He was determined to stay in the fighting, and remained at the head of his platoon until forcibly
evacuated. By his disregard for personal safety, his aggressiveness while suffering from severe wounds, his determined leadership and superb courage, 1st Lt. Whiteley killed 9 Germans, captured
23 more and spearheaded an attack which cracked the core of enemy resistance in a vital area. For this action, Eli Whiteley was awarded the Medal of Honor.
His final resting place is at the College Station Cemetery in Texas, Plot: Section F Lot 20 Space 8
The 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Sigolsheim - 1. February 2015
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.
- Family Roland Laich und Katrin Raabe
- Aimé Haubtmann and Société d'Histoire de Sigolsheim
- Tim Stoy, 15th Infantry Association
- Jeff Danby
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 and Les sociétés d'histoire d'Ammerschwihr, de Kaysersberg, de Kientzheim et de Sigolsheim photo book.
Some text taken from:
www.texasmilitaryforcesmuseum.org / Wikipedia / Combat History of the 15th Infantry Rgt. in WW2 / www.dogfacesoldier.org