by David Zabecki and Keith Wooster, January 1999
Reprinted with the generous permission of David Zabecki
In the cold and foggy pre-dawn hours of January 17, 1945, the U.S. 12th Armored Division's 43rd Tank Battalion prepared to renew the previous day's unsuccessful attack on German positions in and around the small Alsatian village of Herrlisheim. Thus far in that operation, the battalion had lost 12 of its tanks, and 11 others were damaged. Now, as the 43rd was resupplying and refueling its remaining 29 operational tanks, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Novosel, felt uneasy about what was to come. He was overheard telling another officer from the division: "Meyer, you're a lucky SOB. I think we?re not coming back from this one." Novosel's premonition would prove all too right for many of his men.
January 1945 was a tough time for the soldiers of Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers' Sixth Army Group. While the world's attention was riveted on the bitter struggle for the Ardennes, the Germans launched an unexpectedly strong counteroffensive against Devers' forces on the southern flank of the Allied line in Alsace. The series of attacks, which started on December 31, 1944, collectively came to be known by the Germans' name for the first of those attacks, Operation Nordwind ('North Wind').
The 12th Armored Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Roderick R. Allen, was relatively inexperienced. It had arrived in France in mid-November, and between December 7 and 12 the division's Combat Command A had taken part in operations around Singling, Rohrbach, Guisling and Bettwiller. On December 15, the 12th Armored became part of the reserve of Lt. Gen. Alexander M. Patch's U.S. Seventh Army.
When the Germans launched their attacks in the south, the Seventh Army was spread paper thin, holding a 126-mile-long front line with only eight divisions. On the left, the U.S. XV Corps manned an east-west line facing north into Germany's Rhineland. On the right, Maj. Gen. Edward H. Brooks' VI Corps held the remainder of the line, from the French town of Bitche to Lauterbourg, at the junction of the French-German border and the Rhine River. The VI Corps' line then bent south along the west bank of the Rhine to just north of Strasbourg. Thus, Brooks' line looked something like an inverted 'L.'
On January 5, the XIV SS Corps under General Otto von dem Bach attacked across the Rhine at Gambsheim and into the VI Corps' eastern flank. The Germans initially established the bridgehead with the 553rd Volksgrenadier Division and the 405th Infantry Division. That same day, units of the U.S. 79th Infantry Division, VI Corps, occupied the towns of Bischwiller and Rohrwiller in an attempt to contain the Gambsheim bridgehead. Another task force from the 79th tried?with little success?to clear the Germans out of the Steinwald, a patch of woods just to the north of Gambsheim.
The following day, the 79th Infantry made several more unsuccessful attempts to clear the bridgehead. Meanwhile, the 6th SS Mountain Division captured the town of Wingen, to the west in the low Vosges Mountains. That move drove a wedge between Patch's two corps and threatened the western flank of VI Corps, now heavily engaged on both sides and almost out of reserves. In response, Patch released the 12th Armored Division's Combat Command B to the VI Corps.
The Germans continued to build up the Gambsheim bridgehead. On January 7, the German LXIV Corps crossed the Rhine south of Rheinau, threatening the VI Corps' rear. That same day, the XXXIX Panzer Corps started shifting elements of the 21st Panzer and 25th Panzergrenadier divisions from west of Bitche to the Lauterbourg area in preparation for a major push down the west bank of the Rhine. Near the end of the day, the 12th Armored's Combat Command B arrived in the area, temporarily attached to the 79th Infantry, and was ordered to immediately prepare to attack the Germans in Herrlisheim.
By January 8, the Gambsheim bridgehead was about 12 kilometers wide and 5 kilometers deep. On its north flank, the Germans held the town of Drusenheim, situated near the Rhine. The southern anchor was Gambsheim, about one kilometer from the river. Herrlisheim, about four kilometers west of the river, was at the center of the bridgehead. The Germans also held Offendorf, about one kilometer from the Rhine, southeast of Herrlisheim and northeast of Gambsheim. American forces held Rohrwiller, one kilometer north of and across the Zorn River from Herrlisheim.
Terrain and weather totally dominated the fighting around Herrlisheim. In January 1945, snow and heavy ground fog blanketed the region, neutralizing Allied air superiority. The west bank of the Rhine River was poor tank country?flat and open with small clusters of woods and crisscrossed by many small waterways swollen with snow and ice. There was very little concealment, and many of the bridges in the area had been destroyed. Those still standing were well-protected and under observation by the Germans.
On the northern edge of the bridgehead, the Moder River ran along the southern edge of Rohrwiller and then cut north through the center of Drusenheim. The Zorn River ran northeast along the western edge of Herrlisheim, joining the Moder about 200 meters northeast of la Breymuehl, a small cluster of buildings between Rohrwiller and Herrlisheim. Kleinbach Creek roughly paralleled the Zorn and ran through the center of Herrlisheim. The Landgraben River ran somewhat perpendicular to the Zorn, along the northern edge of the Steinwald and then through Offendorf.
In 1945 a two-lane road, the D-468, ran northeast through the area, connecting Gambsheim, Herrlisheim and Drusenheim. Another fairly good road ran from Bischwiller through Rohrwiller and la Breymuehl, joining the D-468 just north of Herrlisheim. A small secondary road connected Herrlisheim and Offendorf and then snaked south along the Rhine River to Gambsheim. A railroad line also ran along the eastern edge of Herrlisheim, roughly paralleling both the D-468 and the Zorn.
The railroad embankment provided perfect defilade positions for German anti-tank guns facing west, and the Steinwald, due north of Gambsheim, dominated the flat ground south of Herrlisheim. The flat, open plain bounded by Herrlisheim in the north, Offendorf and the railroad embankment in the east, and the Steinwald in the south formed a textbook-perfect armor kill zone.
The 12th Armored?s Combat Command B (CCB), commanded by Colonel Charles V. Bromley, was offered the opportunity to attack from the south through French lines, with the Rhine on its right flank. Bromley, however, decided to attack from the northwest, from Bischwiller and through Rohrwiller, which were still held by the 79th Infantry. In retrospect, that route clearly left CCB's left flank vulnerable to the German positions in Drusenheim.
Combat Command B attacked with two task forces in column. The armor-heavy rear element, Task Force Rammer, reached its assembly areas in Rohrwiller at about 2 p.m. on January 8. Meanwhile, elements from the leading infantry-heavy Task Force Power advanced southeast from Rohrwiller to scout the bridge over the Zorn at la Breymuehl. The scouts found the bridge intact in front of the la Breymuehl waterworks complex, and they radioed back for the tanks to advance. They did not realize that a second bridge, less than 100 meters down the road, had been blown?and all the division's Bailey bridges were still far in the rear.
The American tanks quickly jammed up at la Breymuehl, and CCB had to hastily modify its plan of attack. Deploying the tanks along the west bank of the Zorn for support, the 56th Armored Infantry Battalion moved across the swollen river to take up positions along Kleinbach Creek. The axis of attack ran perpendicular to the railway line on the far side of Herrlisheim. The advancing GIs were subjected to heavy German mortar and small-arms fire from their front, as well as enfilading fire on their exposed left flank from Drusenheim. The American attack stalled as infantry units bunched up and became tangled. Although Company B of the 56th Armored Infantry Battalion reached the Kleinbach at about dusk, they were later ordered to pull back to la Breymuehl.
That night there were at least four infantry companies packed into the waterworks buildings. At about 3 a.m. on January 9, mortar rounds began to fall on the waterworks. German troops infiltrated the buildings, and close-quarters fighting raged until daylight. Light tanks were used to evacuate the wounded back to Rohrwiller along the road the GIs christened 'Purple Heart Lane.'
Combat Command B planned to resume the attack early the next morning, but the men were delayed by surrendering Germans. After some 175 prisoners were rounded up, the attack began at 10:30 a.m. The lead elements of the 56th Armored Infantry reached the outskirts of Herrlisheim at about 11:30 a.m., but Company B suffered almost 50 percent casualties in the open, frozen fields. Once inside the town, the Americans ran into a German assault gun and heavy small-arms fire. Still held up on the west bank of the Zorn, American M4A3 Sherman tanks lined the banks of the river and provided fire support. Around dusk, German anti-tank guns started picking off the lined-up Shermans like targets in a shooting gallery. The American armor quickly withdrew back into Rohrwiller, leaving the infantry in Herrlisheim to fend for itself.
Elsewhere along the front that day, the XXXIX Panzer Corps penetrated the VI Corps' center, driving the American line back into the Haguenau Forest. The VI Corps was now fighting for its life on three sides. Brooks committed his final remaining reserve, the 14th Armored Division, to the fierce fighting that followed in the towns of Hatten and Rittershoffen.
The Germans in Herrlisheim, meanwhile, continued to fight back. That night, the Germans slipped more armored vehicles and white-cloaked infantrymen into the town. By 3 a.m. on January 10, the 56th Armored Infantry was effectively cut off. At dawn that morning, CCB attempted to move up several M-8 self-propelled assault guns, but the vehicles crashed through the ice on the waterways and could not be recovered until after nightfall. Several light tanks made it into Herrlisheim that day, but they proved useless in the heavy building-to-building fighting.
Later that day, the Bailey bridges finally arrived and the Shermans of Company C, 714th Tank Battalion, 14th Armored, prepared to charge across the Zorn to relieve the 56th Armored Infantry. The attack was preceded by an artillery bombardment along the northern edge of the Steinwald. Just as the barrage started, however, German artillery fired back in response. Several of the 714th's tanks were knocked out, and the advanced command post of the 56th took a direct hit. The armored attack was canceled.
The 56th Armored Infantry in Herrlisheim was now down to an effective strength of only 150 men. Around 4 p.m., General Allen ordered the combat command to renew the attack. Colonel Bromley protested, arguing that it would be more effective to contain the bridgehead and let the Germans wear themselves out trying to sustain it. Allen relieved Bromley of his command, but later that night the general also ordered the evacuation of Herrlisheim.
For the next several days, both sides tried to build up their forces while glaring at each other across the fogbound fields and frozen streams. The Germans fed more units into the bridgehead, hoping to build up enough mass to punch through to the Germans fighting at Hatten and Rittershoffen, thereby pinching off the VI Corps' salient. On January 13, Patch gave the VI Corps the 36th Infantry Division and Combat Command A of the 12th Armored, and Brooks immediately ordered the combat command to close on Gambsheim. That same day, Combat Command B repelled a strong German attack from Herrlisheim toward Rohrwiller. From about January 15 on, all German operations in the bridgehead came under the control of the XXXIX Panzer Corps, which now included the 10th SS Panzer Division, the 7th Parachute Division, and the 384th and 667th Assault Gun brigades.
The 12th Armored planned to renew its effort to take Herrlisheim on January 16, this time with two combat commands. CCB would attack again from Rohrwiller, while CCA would come in from the southwest, crossing the Zorn near Weyersheim, which was still in American hands. Combat Command A's actual objective was Offendorf, which would cut off the Germans in Herrlisheim. At the same time, the 79th Infantry Division's 2nd Battalion, 314th Infantry, would attack Drusenheim, and the French 3rd Algerian Infantry Division would attack north along the Rhine from Kilstett toward Gambsheim.
The Steinwald was the key to CCA's attack. Unless the woods were cleared of Germans, the plan would be doomed to failure. The combat command organized into three task forces. Task Force 1 consisted primarily of the 43rd Tank Battalion, and Task Force 3 was essentially the 17th Armored Infantry Battalion. Both had Offendorf as their final objectives. Task Force 2, consisting of the 66th Armored Infantry Battalion and a tank platoon from the 43rd Tank Battalion, had the vital mission of clearing the Steinwald.
Prior to the attack, Allied Intelligence estimated that between 500 and 800 German infantrymen and Volksgrenadiers held Herrlisheim. The Germans, in fact, had major elements of the 10th SS Panzer Division in both Herrlisheim and Offendorf. In the Steinwald, the Germans had one company of well-dug-in infantry, a mortar company, three anti-tank guns and at least six other armored vehicles.
The American attack went badly from the start. Almost simultaneously, the Germans launched a drive down the west bank of the Rhine from Lauterbourg, attempting to link up with the Gambsheim bridgehead. The 79th Infantry Division, to the north of the bridgehead, took most of the brunt of that attack, but CCB also came under heavy artillery fire and again was unable to get its tanks across the river.
Combat Command A's attack from the south commenced at 1 a.m. on the 16th. By 4:45 a.m., the 66th Armored Infantry Battalion reached Landgraben River, the line of departure for the Steinwald attack. There they were pinned down by heavy German fire. When the attack was called off at noon, Companies A and C of the 66th Armored Infantry were reduced to a combined strength of only 65 survivors.
At 10:30 a.m., the whitewashed tanks of the 43rd Tank Battalion started to move across the open field south of Herrlisheim. The Steinwald was supposed to have been cleared by that time?but it was not. Caught in that perfect tank kill zone, the 43rd Tank Battalion started taking fire from the Steinwald to its south, from Herrlisheim to its north and from Offendorf to its east. To make matters worse, the 43rd could not return fire into the Steinwald because the tankers believed American troops were still trying to take it. After 12 of his tanks were knocked out and another 11 were hit, Colonel Novosel finally ordered a withdrawal two kilometers to the west and requested airstrikes on the Steinwald.
The 17th Armored Infantry Battalion, commanded by Major James W. Logan, also took heavy fire during its advance. Some of the light tanks attached to the battalion managed to reach the railroad embankment, but they were quickly torn to pieces by German anti-tank fire from Offendorf and the Steinwald. Even the normally dependable 3rd Algerian Infantry Division failed to get anywhere close to Gambsheim that day.
On January 17, Combat Commands A and B of the 12th Armored Division went at Herrlisheim again. For this attack, the 23rd Tank Battalion was pulled from CCB and given to CCA. In exchange, CCB got Company C of the 17th Armored Infantry Battalion.
Combat Command B's objective was the point just north of Herrlisheim where the D-468 and the rail line crossed, but the Americans' attack again stalled almost before it started. Trying to extend the tenuous bridgehead east of the Zorn, the combat command ran into heavy artillery, mortar and small-arms fire. After several hours of slugging it out, CCB pulled back to the Zorn.
Combat Command A's attack began at 4 a.m., when the 66th Armored Infantry Battalion jumped off to clear the Steinwald. Although severely mauled the day before, the 66th Armored Infantry had been reinforced with Company A of the 119th Armored Engineer Battalion (fighting as infantry) and Company B, 23rd Tank Battalion. That effort went no better than the day before, and by 7 a.m. the 66th had been thrown back to its line of departure along Landgraben River. At dawn, meanwhile, both the 17th and the 43rd started moving across the northern edge of the Steinwald toward the D-468 and then the rail line leading north into Herrlisheim. Although their movement was partially screened by heavy ground fog, the 43rd Tank Battalion still lost four tanks to fire from the Steinwald before it reached the southern outskirts of the town. At 7:40 a.m., Novosel radioed that he was preparing to enter Herrlisheim.
At 8:50, the 43rd Tank Battalion's S-3 (operations officer) reported taking German anti-tank fire from inside the town. Shortly after that, Major Ernst Tetsch, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 10th SS Panzer Regiment, 10th SS Panzer Division, advanced with several Panther medium tanks from Offendorf toward Herrlisheim. Running into American fire from the town, he lost one tank and his 3rd Company commander, who was wounded. Faced with an uncertain situation in very limited visibility, Tetsch withdrew to his regimental assembly area in Offendorf.
At about 10 a.m., the 17th Armored Infantry Battalion, now inside Herrlisheim, lost radio contact with the 43rd Tank Battalion. A few minutes later, Novosel reported his position to CCA as being somewhere in the eastern section of the town. At 10:30 a.m. Novosel radioed, "Yesterday was a circus compared to what it is today."
The 23rd Tank Battalion also took heavy casualties in its attack on Offendorf. By midmorning, Companies A and C had been reduced to an effective strength of 20 tanks. With CCB's attack in the north failing, CCA changed the 23rd's objective from Offendorf to Drusenheim. To reach Drusenheim, the 23rd Tank Battalion would have to cut to the north and either skirt or go directly through Herrlisheim. Late that morning, the battalion commander, Major Edwards, entered Herrlisheim to determine the situation in the town. Although the 43rd was still in radio contact with CCA at that point, Edwards could find no trace of them in the fog. Shortly after, Edwards sent his 20 tanks into Herrlisheim. They never made it through. They quickly joined in the fighting inside the town as they tried to support the 17th Armored Infantry.
Around noon, Companies A and B of the 17th linked up inside Herrlisheim at the junction of the road leading to Offendorf. The 43rd Tank Battalion and the 17th still had not found each other in the fog. At 12:30, Novosel radioed, "Things are hot," and requested more infantry support. About an hour later, Combat Command A received the final radio message from the 43rd. An unidentified soldier reported that the battalion commander's tank had been knocked out and that the unit was now heavily engaged east of the town.
Early that afternoon, 1st Lt. Erwin Bachmann, Tetsch's battalion adjutant, rode into Herrlisheim on a motorcycle accompanied by two Panthers from the 2nd Battalion's 3rd Company. Bachmann set up the two tanks supported by Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons at a crossroads inside the town. He then ambushed and knocked out several Shermans, captured some 60 GIs and freed 20 German prisoners. Bachmann?s force also captured intact four Shermans and their crews, which he sent back to Offendorf under guard. Bachmann then moved his small force to the northern edge of Herrlisheim, where he knocked out two more Shermans.
Bachmann radioed his situation to his regimental headquarters in Offendorf, requesting additional tanks. At about 4 p.m., the Germans launched a strong attack out of the frozen mist enshrouding Offendorf. Six Panthers attacked across the railway embankment into the flank of Company A, 17th Armored Infantry Battalion. That attack pushed the 23rd Tank Battalion?s surviving tanks out of Herrlisheim. A few hours later, all of the 17th's survivors huddled in the dark in a single position on the southern edge of the town. There still was no trace of the 43rd Tank Battalion.
General Allen decided to leave the 17th Armored Infantry Battalion in Herrlisheim that night. At midnight the Germans launched a large-scale infantry attack against Logan's position. The 12th Armored's divisional artillery fired back in support of the besieged GIs, but the German attacks continued throughout the early morning hours. At 4 a.m. the Germans mounted their heaviest assault yet, and Major Logan sent his last radio message, "I guess this is it." In the darkness and confusion of the final German push, about 140 Americans managed to escape and make it back across the Zorn.
As dawn broke on January 18, the 12th Armored still had no idea what had happened to the 43rd Tank Battalion. Later that morning an artillery observer flying over Herrlisheim reported spotting several destroyed Shermans in the eastern section of the town. Flying just to the east of Herrlisheim, he reported five more. Then in a field on the southeast edge of town, he saw between 10 and 15 Shermans deployed in a circular defensive perimeter. Some were still painted white; others were scorched black.
Allen immediately ordered a rescue mission. Company B, 66th Armored Infantry, and Company B, 23rd Tank Battalion, attacked but were quickly repulsed by the Germans. When a later air reconnaissance mission reported German troops and vehicles swarming around the motionless American tanks, Allen called off the rescue. Later that day Colonel Bromley returned to CCB, restored to his command. The command made one last attempt to attack across the Zorn: it failed. At dusk all American forces west of the Zorn were ordered to go on the defensive and dig in. The Germans now held the entire east bank and controlled all the bridges.
On the morning of January 19, the 10th SS Panzer and the 22nd SS Panzergrenadier regiments launched strong westward attacks from both Offendorf and Gambsheim. The German attacks started to make headway, but fortunately for the American defenders, the weather began to clear around noon. Allied tactical air assets responded immediately with 190 sorties, dropping more than 100 tons of ordnance in the Herrlisheim-Offendorf area.
Despite the pounding from Allied aircraft, the German attacks continued through the afternoon. At about 5 p.m., 400 German infantrymen supported by 17 tanks almost succeeded in attacking across the Zorn from Landgraben River. North of Herrlisheim, the Germans pushed across the Zorn and almost overran CCB's command post in Rohrwiller. As clerks and other personnel started to panic and prepared to evacuate the area, Colonel Bromley shouted out: "Stop this goddamn panic. We're not retreating anywhere. We're defending this command post; we're holding this line. We're soldiers; we have weapons; we?re expendable."
The American line held, but the 12th Armored was in a precarious position at nightfall on January 19. During the last 11 days the division had taken more than 1,250 casualties and lost 70 combat vehicles. Divisional artillery was down to less than 50 rounds per battalion?enough for five minutes of sustained firing.
Relief finally came when the VI Corps ordered the 36th Infantry Division to assume the 12th Armored's positions. By 9 p.m. the 36th Infantry's 142nd and 143rd Infantry regiments took control of their assigned sectors, and the 12th Armored pulled back. The following day the 12th was assigned to the VI Corps reserve, and on January 22 the division passed to the control of the French First Army for operations south of Strasbourg.
To this day there remains some confusion as to the fate of Colonel Novosel and the 43rd Tank Battalion. On the night of January 18, a German radio broadcast reported the capture of an American battalion commander and 300 of his men at Herrlisheim as well as the destruction or capture of 50 tanks. Novosel did not have that many tanks to start with, but the number would be about right if it included the tanks of the 23rd Tank Battalion. In sharp contrast, the U.S. Army's official history, Riviera to the Rhine, cites a February 23, 1945, U.S. graves registration report stating, "Some twenty-eight destroyed tanks of the 43rd Tank Battalion were later recovered, as were the bodies of the battalion commander and many of his men."
Ironically, the German broadcast was correct. The July 7, 1945, edition of the Hellcat News, the 12th Armored Division's newspaper, carries a report of a letter written by Novosel from a hospital in Michigan where he had been sent after his liberation from a German prisoner-of-war camp. He had been wounded 17 times before being captured at Herrlisheim. His tank was hit by a mortar round just as he was attempting to radio CCA for the last time. Novosel noted: "I was hit [at] about two and don't remember much after that. The rest held out until five or six."
On the strategic level, Germany's position was hopeless in January 1945, yet the battle for Herrlisheim was a tactical draw. Both sides gave good accounts of themselves. The Germans, especially the 10th SS Panzer Division, proved once again that they still had the best tanks on the battlefield and that the German soldier, even with his back to the wall, was a force to be reckoned with. The 12th Armored Division proved that even a new unit with inexperienced GIs could stand up against the best the German army could throw at it. Both sides exhibited outstanding combat leadership.
Perhaps the best summation of the battle for Herrlisheim can be found in the description given by Major Brendan Phibbs, the surgeon for Combat Command B. Writing in his memoirs, The Other Side of Time, Phibbs said: "Decisions now up to lieutenants, sergeants, privates, organizing confusion, calling for artillery fire, siting machine guns, building defenses. No bridge, no mass tank attack, no disorganized German home guard running away; instead, determined German infantry attacking hard out of mist and snow. Our men hunker in the snow, shoot at blurs. The battlefield has stepped in and is shaping the battalion's actions; colonels and generals may as well bay their orders to the moon."
Reprinted with permission from David Zabecki
About the Author
David T. Zabecki retired from the Army of the United States in 2007 as a Major General. He has served in Vietnam, the Balkans, and the Middle East. He also had extensive experience in NATO assignments during the Cold War. In 2003 he was the Senior Security Advisor on the U.S. Coordinating and Monitoring Mission in Israel, charged with advancing the Roadmap to Peace in the Middle East.His principal task was to serve as the lead negotiator between the Israeli Defense Force and the various Palestinian security organizations. In 2004 and 2005 he was the U.S. Department of Defense Executive Director for all 60th Anniversary of World War II commemoration events in Europe. He also commanded the joint military task force that supported the D-Day 60th Anniversary observances in Normandy. It 2005 and 2006 he commanded the U.S. Southern European Task Force Rear and served simultaneously as Senior U.S. Army Commander South of the Alps and Co-chairman of the Italian-American Joint Military Commission. He also was the Exercise Director of Exercise Torgau 2005, the largest Russian-American joint military exercise since World War II. From 2000 through 2008 he was the editor of Vietnam Magazine, the only periodical devoted exclusively to the Vietnam War. He is currently the Senior Historian of the Weider History Group, the world’s largest publisher of history magazines. He also is a member of the ABC-Clio Military History Advisory Board.
This article originally appeared in the January 1999 issue of World War II Magazine.