Operation Battle of Strasbourg

The 'Battle of Strasbourg', perhaps better described as the 'Liberation of Strasbourg', took place during the 'Alsace Campaign' of November 1944/March 1945 in the course of the last months of World War II (23 November 1944).

After the liberation of Mulhouse on 21 November 1944, Général de Division Jean Louis Alain Touzet du Vigier’s 1ère Division Blindée and Général de Division Philippe François Marie Jacques Leclerc de Hauteclocque’s 2ème Division Blindée advanced on Strasbourg after having liberated Sarrebourg and La Petite Pierre, which cleared the way to the city of Strasbourg.

One day later, de Leclerc de Hauteclocque’s 2ème Division Blindée, along with Général d’Armée Jean Joseph Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny’s 1ère Armée, had been assigned the capture of Strasbourg by Allied supreme command. That same day, the 2ème Division Blindée moved up to the vital pass at Saverne, which had been taken by US forces, about 25 miles (40 km)to the north-west of Strasbourg. This Saverne 'gap' is the historic gateway through the barrier of the Vosges mountains, opening a line of advance on Strasbourg. On 23 November, units of the 2ème Division Blindée entered the city and raised the Free French flag over Strasbourg cathedral at 14.30.

The German collective memory of the battle is rather more bleak, and it has been claimed that that the 'Battle of Strasbourg' was one of the more 'inglorious episodes' in German military history, characterised by a collapse of the German defence that was both premature and ignominious. It was hastened by a panic of senior Nazi leadership as many officials fled even before the start of the Allied push. This led to a general demoralisation of the army, Waffen-SS and Luftwaffe ground forces as well as a breakdown in discipline. One historian states that 'The SS had looted Strasbourg before withdrawing. According to one general defending the town, soldiers ordered to ''fight to the last round'' tended to throw away most of their ammunition before the battle, so they could claim that they had run out and then surrendered. Generalmajor Fanz Vaterrodt, the [city’s military] commander, was scornful about the behaviour of senior officers and Nazi Party officials. ''I’m surprised that Himmler did not have anyone hanged in Strasbourg,'' he told fellow officers after his surrender. ''Everyone ran away, Kreisleiter, Ortsgruppenleiter, the municipal authorities, the mayor and the deputy mayor, they all took to their heels, government officials – all fled.''' The Alsatian-born chief magistrate also fled toward Germany on foot with a backpack as he had signed many death warrants and collaborated within the German occupation system and was a marked man.

The rapid liberation of Strasbourg by the 2ème Division Blindée produced an outpouring of joy in the newly liberated French nation and was a hugely symbolic victory for the French people and the Western Allies in general. Leclerc de Hauteclocque was well respected and liked by his US contemporaries, unlike some other French commanders. The liberation and the raising of the French flag over the cathedral were considered to be the last major objectives in the liberation of France.

Unfortunately, the Allies were unable to make a rapid exploitation of the German collapse. While fuel shortages and the increasing difficulty of supporting armies with lengthening supply lines played a role, General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s lack of interest in his southern flank largely doomed any further exploitation around Strasbourg. Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers, commander of the Franco-US 6th Army Group, believed he could cross the Rhine river quickly at Rastatt, thereby seizing an important bridgehead. Devers’s ambitious nature and aggressive personality somewhat alienated other commanders such as Eisenhower, however, and Devers failed to convince Eisenhower of the value of this thinking.

A bridgehead at Rastatt, had it been quickly seized, would more than likely have secured the southern flank and would have severely disrupted the coming German 'Wacht am Rhein' offensive in the Ardennes. But Eisenhower never seriously considered the opportunity as he seemed fixated on a more direct route to Berlin. As a result, Strasbourg would come under threat during the 'Wacht am Rhein' offensive known to the Allies as the 'Battle of the Bulge'.

Early in January 1945, the German 'Nordwind' (iii) counter-offensive into France was quickly contained, but not before both Eisenhower and Devers considered a general withdrawal from Alsace, which would have left Strasbourg undefended. The French provisional government considered this an anathema as it would be, in Général d’Brigade Charles de Gaulle’s words, 'a national disaster'. The German radio announced that in a few days the Swastika flag 'will fly over Strasbourg Cathedral'. In addition to this, hundreds of thousands of Alsatians would be vulnerable to German reprisals. As a Strasbourgoise woman said in an interview: 'To have enjoyed six weeks of liberty after three years of permanent tension, permanent fear, and to believe once again that [the Germans] would come back, was beyond my strength. It was such a panic, a true fear as I have never known since then. Neither the bombings nor anything else but to hear they might come back!'

The talk of a strategic withdrawal was also a blow to morale of Major General Edward H. Brooks’s US VI Corps that had fought hard and suffered many casualties securing the area. Moreover, de Gaulle threatened to pull his forces out of the overall SHAEF command, creating a serious row with Eisenhower. With the support of Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, de Gaulle won over Eisenhower after a contentious argument. Strasbourg was not to be abandoned as the order to withdraw to the east of the Vosges mountains was rescinded, and thiswas a significant boost to the US VI Corps' morale.

de Lattre de Tassigny announced to the civilian population that Strasbourg, 'liberated by Frenchmen, would be defended by Frenchmen'. French units of the 1ère Armée then fought with a dogged determination against five German divisions despite the threat of a major defeat, or even to the point that units, such as the Bataillon du Pacifique (a Tahitian battalion) and a veteran of the 'Battle of Bir Hakeim', were almost destroyed. The French held their ground and the German advance was halted in desperate fighting about 25 miles (40 km) to the west of Strasbourg, and 'Nordwind' (iii) thus became another disaster for the German army and the Waffen-SS, whose divisions suffered further major losses.