Bloody Colmar Pocket
Hachimette Travel Blog› entry 28 of 50 › view all entries
I was trying to find something interesting about the village of Hachimette a place I stopped at for its pure beauty and the fact that there was a small shop where I ended up buying some bad cherries. There was not much interesting to say until I found a written memory of the Colmar offensive during WW II in 1944, when this whole area suffered from some heavy fighting's. The memo starts its story in Hachimette. Bloody Colmar Pocket (Ardennes-Alsace Campaign) By December 20, 1944, the 3rd Division had moved out of Strasbourg, and the 7th Infantry CP moved south to the tiny Alsatian village of Hachimette.
I was trying to find something interesting about the village of Hachimette a place I stopped at for its pure beauty and the fact that there was a small shop where I ended up buying some bad cherries. There was not much interesting to say until I found a written memory of the Colmar offensive during WW II in 1944, when this whole area suffered from some heavy fighting's. The memo starts its story in Hachimette.
Bloody Colmar Pocket
By December 20, 1944, the 3rd Division had moved out of Strasbourg, and the 7th Infantry CP moved south to the tiny Alsatian village of Hachimette.
The First French Army was on our right, holding a line surrounding the Colmar Pocket, which was a bridgehead some forty miles long and twenty-five miles deep on the west bank of the Rhine River, still held by the Germans in strength. The French had proved incapable of driving them back across the Rhine. The First French Army was a collection of "Free French" from North Africa, made up mostly of Moroccans and Algerians under French officers. They were outfitted by the Americans, using American vehicles, weapons, uniforms, rations, artillery, and ammo.
The French were having trouble containing the Colmar Pocket, let alone eliminating it. As the German offensive in the Ardennes faltered, and German Operation Nordwind began, the American Third Division was temporarily assigned to the First French Army to help them destroy the German bridgehead on the west bank of the Rhine. The plan was that the Third Division would punch a hole through the northern edge of the German bridgehead and then the 2nd French Armoured Division would go through them to sweep south and cut off the German retreat across the Rhine bridge at Neuf-Brisach. What actually happened was that the Third Division did, in fact, punch a hole through the German line as ordered and the French armour poured through. But instead of heading southeast to cut off the Germans at Neuf-Brisach, they went southwest to occupy the city of Colmar. We never saw the French after the first day of the attack. When we had cleared the last German from the west bank of the Rhine, the French government awarded the entire Third Division the Croix de Guerre which authorized everyone in the Division, to wear the red and green fourragere over the left shoulder. Not to be outdone, the President of the United States awarded us a Division Distinguished Unit Citation, one of only four Divisional awards made during the entire War. The other three went to the 101st Airborne (Bastogne), the 4th Armoured (relief of Bastogne) and the 1st Marine (Guadalcanal). I visited our old battle area many years later while on vacation in Europe. I saw several War Memorials to the gallantry of the French soldiers in liberating Alsace and never a mention of the Americans.
The Colmar Pocket was in the heart of Alsace. Most of the people spoke both German and French. The names of the towns gave an indication of the turbulent history of this border area. German names like Ostheim, Kunheim, Beisheim and French names like Ribeauville, Hachimette and Neuf-Brisach. The people were not friendly, but neither was there any overt resistance by civilians. This was farm country and the people were very poor. And the campaign was fought in the dead of winter, January and February 1945, in about a foot of snow at sub-freezing temperatures, the worst winter in fifty years! We rarely saw the civilians. They stayed in their cellars where they were relatively safe and didn't have to associate with us. We had no qualms about taking over their houses, but since this was technically still France, we allowed them to remain in their cellars. Later, in Germany, we often ran the occupants out. And the Wehrmacht soldiers that faced us were as tough and battle-wise as any we had ever encountered. They were initially flushed by the early German success in the Ardennes, by their belief that this was to be the offensive which would lead them to final victory, by the fact that their backs were to the Rhine and the next battle would be in their homeland.
Before leaving Strasbourg, we had received replacements and I became quite friendly with two young second lieutenants assigned to the Battle Patrol. Sharing the same house, I got to know Lt. Richard Brown, a friendly young man, quiet and unassuming. Lt. Stanley Petropolis, also billeted with us and was more the outgoing, self-confident type, but also very friendly. The third officer of the Battle Patrol, a direct opposite of the other two, was Lt. Bill Moeglin, a "man of the world" from Brooklyn, N.Y. His big concern at the time was that he had contracted a case of V.D. and if he reported for treatment, he would be transferred back to his former unit, Charlie Company. These three officers were all killed in action in the first ten days of the attack!
At the start of the attack, I remember trying to move through the French 2nd Armoured Division in a small village near the city of Selestat. It was snowing, bitter cold and late at night. The roads were a sheet of ice. As I led the CP advance party into the village, I found the streets and roads almost completely blocked with French vehicles of every description; tanks, halftracks, trucks and jeeps. Many of them were in roadside ditches, having slid on the ice and then been abandoned. Every house in town was occupied by French troops, (Moroccans and Algerians). I found a French officer and demanded that he vacate one house for our Regimental CP. (I spoke fluent French at the time.) He refused! I demanded to see his senior officer and he agreed to take me to him. As we negotiated the icy streets on foot, a French tank came along, (an American built Sherman with French markings). He was moving slowly because the road was solid ice. As he approached a slight downward grade, the tank started to slide. The driver applied the brakes and the tracks locked. Nevertheless, the tank continued to slide slowly down the hill, all thirty-five tons of it, gradually picking up speed. It finally crashed through the wall of a house at the foot of the hill, the floor collapsed and the tank fell into the cellar! What a circus! The French officer took me to his CO who was more understanding. He ordered the junior officer to vacate whatever building I chose for our Regimental CP. We got out of there the next day and I never saw the French Army again until the War was over.
Progress was slow and the Germans fought back fiercely. Artillery fire was very heavy on both sides, and the villages in our path were almost completely destroyed. The weather was awful and the rifle companies, who for the most part could not take shelter in the buildings or their remains, suffered severely from the wet and the cold. Evacuations for trench foot and frostbite were very high.
My principal responsibilities during this period were recon patrols and CP defence. It was becoming almost impossible to find a building for the CP that was relatively intact and we were grateful that the Europeans used nothing but stone in their construction. On one of my Recon excursions through a town whose name I can no longer remember, I was subjected to my first German TOT (Time on Target). This was a deadly technique used by the artillery of both sides. What they did was aim every piece of artillery within range, perhaps several hundred guns, at a single target and all guns would fire simultaneously at a time which was predetermined to the second. Hundreds of rounds would come crashing in on the single target with no advance warning. The results could be devastating because there was no time to take cover. Fortunately I wasn't hit, but it was an experience one never forgets!
While I was still out on this recon, the direction of advance was changing and the Colonel wanted another recon to the village of Ostheim to set up an advance CP in that town. (I will never forget Ostheim!) Since I was not available, and the Colonel was not willing to wait for my return, he sent my CO, Captain Alarie and the Communication Officer, WO Keough, on the recon which would otherwise have been mine. When I returned to the CP, I was told that both Captain Alarie and WO Keough had been seriously wounded in Ostheim, both with shell fragment wounds in the neck, and both had been evacuated. (Neither returned until the War was nearly over.)
I was now the sole surviving officer in Headquarters Company! Brown, Petropoulos, and Moeglin had been KIA and Alarie and Keough had both been WIA and evacuated. We had lost five of our six officers in ten days! I was appointed Acting Company Commander and was ordered to take over the job that Captain Alarie and WO Keough had been attempting to do. I took Sergeant Anderson, the senior non-com in the Communications Platoon, and we set out for Ostheim with two jeeps and six men.
There was not a single building in the town of Ostheim left standing. The location I chose was not a building, but rather the largest pile of rubble in the area which still had an entrance to the cellar. Sgt. Anderson brought up some more men, set up a switchboard in the cellar and put men to work running lines to the Battalion CPs. I brought the rest of my platoon up and set up a defensive perimeter in the surrounding rubble. We were under heavy enemy shellfire and scattered small arms fire throughout this operation.
Many years after the War, I sought out Ostheim during a vacation trip to Europe. The village had been completely restored and I couldn't find the spot where I had located the CP. There was, however, one destroyed building left untouched as a memorial. The entrance was marked with a plaque headed "A Nos Mortes," which in English means "To Our Dead." Only two partial walls and part of a chimney were standing and it could have been our old CP. My eyes teared and I can't describe the emotion I felt upon seeing that memorial. I had my camera with me, but it seemed sacrilegious to take a picture at that moment.
We stayed in Ostheim for two days and then moved forward again to the village of Kunheim. The advance had ground to a halt with the rifle companies deployed in the farmland between Kunheim which we held and the next town, Beisheim, which the Germans held. The towns were less than a mile apart. Our CP was in a farmhouse at the southern (forward) edge of Kunheim and I had part of my platoon in another farmhouse across the dirt road. Sergeant Anderson became 2nd Lieutenant Anderson and a couple of days later, Captain Brink, a burned out rifle company commander, was made CO of Headquarters Company. I moved back to 1st Lt., Executive Officer and Platoon Leader of the Recon Platoon. Having no aspirations toward an Army career, this arrangement suited me just fine.
We were so far forward at the Kunheim CP that most of the artillery fire was going over our heads and landing behind us in the centre of the village. We were, however, subjected to flat trajectory tank fire and SP 88mm fire. During the first night in Kunheim, we took direct hits on both buildings, fortunately on the second floor. And hits on nearby trees, which spattered the buildings with shell fragments. The windows had wooden shutters which we closed at night and covered with blankets to serve as blackout curtains. There was no electricity of course, but we did use candles after dark. Just before the shelling, I had been sitting at the table writing a letter by candlelight. Sergeant Duprey was at the cellar door dealing with some problem with the owner of the house who had come up the stairs with a request or a complaint. I got up and went over to the cellar door to find out what the problem was. When the first shell burst, a large shell fragment came through the top of the wooden shutter, smashed the glass lighting fixture over the table, left a hole in the back of the leather chair in which I had been sitting and lodged in the wall behind the chair. Had I not moved, it would have killed me. Across the street in the War Room, another large shell fragment came through the window shutter and split the table around which the Colonel and several members of his staff had been studying a map. The next day, he had me get someone to brick up the window.
The Battle Patrol was billeted in the house behind mine and their jeeps were kept in the courtyard adjacent to the house. An exhausted foot patrol came in early in the morning after an all night patrol, went up to the second floor where they were billeted and began to shed their gear. One of the men took off his cartridge belt and webbed suspenders, with two grenades attached by the pull rings, and dropped it on the floor. The jolt of hitting the floor was enough to dislodge the safety pin, the spoon flew off and a live grenade rolled across the floor, its four second fuse hissing. Another of the men quickly scooped it up and threw it out the window. It landed in the courtyard below and exploded wounding four men. I remember the incident clearly because I can still visualize one of the wounded with a perfectly square hole in the bridge of his nose exactly between his eyes where a fragment of the "pineapple" grenade had lodged. He showed no emotion at all, just waited patiently for his turn to be treated and hopefully evacuated. (And thankful to still be able to see).
I had two men assigned to each Battalion CP to evacuate POWs. During the fighting for Beisheim, "Ike" Clanton and another of my men assigned to 1st Battalion, headed for the rear in total darkness with twelve German POWs under guard. They were ambushed by a German patrol and were captured. The Krauts then sent them to the German rear under guard by two of the former POWs. While en route, they were ambushed by an American patrol from the 1st Battalion and the guards again became POWs and vice-versa. This time they arrived without incident. It was wild!
Beisheim finally fell to the 2nd Battalion on February 4 and some 500 German prisoners were taken. The rifle companies moved on toward Vogelsheim and Neuf-Brisach, the last two towns before the Rhine River bridge across which the Germans were escaping before blowing it up. The Regimental CP was moved forward to Beisheim. On the road between the two towns, which were about a mile apart, there stood a jeep with an American major and his driver, both dead and frozen stiff, sitting upright in their seats behind a bullet riddled windshield. The vehicle was not from our Regiment and I could only conclude that the major was lost and had driven through Kunheim during the night and run right into the Krauts. On a European vacation trip, long after the War, I visited Kunheim briefly during the same side trip to Ostheim. I looked for our old CP without success. The village had been completely restored and the two lane dirt road separating the CP from the building that I occupied, was now a wider paved road. Our location had been at the very edge of Kunheim, but Kunheim had now expanded for about a quarter mile into the farmland between it and Beisheim. I could find no familiar landmark. There was no memorial here as in Ostheim, but there was one on the outskirts of town. It was an American Sherman tank with all French markings sitting on a concrete base. There was a large plaque which credited the French 2nd Armoured Division with the liberation and told of the intense fighting. There was no mention of American participation! I saw no French troops anywhere near that area when the fighting was going on. Just one more example of the politicians rewriting history.
It took four more days to clean out the remainder of the bridgehead and the "Colmar Pocket" was now in American hands, except for the city of Colmar which had been occupied by the French. The 7th Infantry Regiment took up positions along the Rhine overlooking Germany and the Regimental CP was moved back to Kunheim, which was more centrally located for this mission. We stayed in these positions for about ten days after which the decimated 7th Infantry moved north by truck to an area one hundred miles north of Nancy, (a town called Dieulouard) to absorb replacements and prepare for the invasion of the German "Fatherland" and the crossing of the Rhine.
Russ Cloer - 2nd Lt., lst Lt, Cpt., 7th Inf, 3rd Inf Div, WWII - Written memory dated July 15, 1998.