Operation Battle of the Colmar Pocket

The 'Battle of the Colmar Pocket' was fought between French and US forces against German forces in the Colmar area of eastern central France (20 January/9 February 1945).

The Colmar pocket lay the area in the central French region of Alsace by General Siegfried Rasp’s 19th Army from November 1944 to February 1945 against Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers’s US 6th Army Group. The pocket had been created when the 6th Army Group liberated the southern and northern parts of Alsace and the adjacent eastern part of Lorraine, but could not clear central Alsace. During 'Nordwind' (iii) in December 1944, the 19th Army had attacked to the north out of the pocket in support of other German forces attacking to the south from the Saar into northern Alsace. Late in January and early in February 1945, Général d’Armée Jean Joseph Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny’s French 1ère Armée, reinforced by Major General Frank W. Milburn’s US XXI Corps, cleared the pocket of German forces.

This German bridgehead on the western bank of the Rhine river was 40 miles (65 km) long and 30 miles (50 km) deep, and came into existence in November 1944 when German defences in the Vosges mountains collapsed under the pressure of an offensive by the 6th Army Group. de Lattre de Tassigny’s 1ère Armée forced the Belfort gap and destroyed General Erich Petersen’s IV Luftwaffe Feldkorps near the town of Burnhaupt in the southern part of the Vosges mountains. Soon after this, French forces reached the Rhine river in the region north of the Swiss border between Mulhouse and Basel. Likewise, in the northern part of the Vosges mountains, Général de Division Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque’s 2ème Division Blindée spearheaded an advance by Lieutenant General Alexander M. Patch’s 7th Army, forced the Saverne gap, and drove to the Rhine river, liberating Strasbourg on 23 November. The effect of these two advances was to effect the collapse of the German presence in southern Alsace in the area to the west of the Rhine river to a semi-circular bridgehead centred on the town of Colmar that came to be known as the Colmar pocket.

Apart from Normandy, the areas of France most determinedly defended by the Germans were Alsace and Lorraine. This occurred in part because the Allied surge across France in 1944 was slowed down by logistical difficulties as the Allies reached the easternmost extent of France, but the primary reason for the stout German defence of these regions was that Alsace and Lorraine were claimed as part of Germany and would be defended as strongly as any other German soil. This perception informed Adolf Hitler’s decisions of 24 November and 27 November committed Rasp’s 19th Army to a do-or-die defence of the region around Colmar. On 26 November, the Germans formed Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler’s Oberkommando Oberrhein with the task of defending the front between the Bienwald and the Swiss border. Of prime importance to the German defence around Colmar were the bridges over the Rhine river at Breisach and Chalampé, for these were vital logistical chokepoints.

Their own logistical crisis and heavy fighting in the autumn in 1944 had blunted the fighting edge of the Allied forces throughout north-western Europe, and the 6th Army Group was no exception. The limited extent of the available logistical support imposed limits on the expenditure of artillery ammunition and the number of divisions the Allies could effectively employ in any front-line role. Moreover, faulty forecasts for the numbers of replacements needed prevented US infantry companies from maintaining full strength. Separately from the Americans, the French first-line force were suffering as the French replacement system was limited by the quantity of training infrastructure the French had been able to re-establish since returning to France in August 1944, and was further strained by a controversial French decision to 'whiten' the French forces in Alsace by sending experienced Senegalese and other colonial troops, exhausted from fighting in Italy, to the south and replacing them with Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (French Forces of the Interior) troops of varying quality and experience. While the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur troops were capable of defensive operations, they had to undergo a steep learning curve in order to become effective in the offensive role, especially where complex undertakings such as combined-arms operations were concerned.

Thus, in the later part of November 1944, the 1ère Armée deployed two kinds of formations, in the form of highly experienced colonial units and newly-created units that had recently received a large influx of Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur troops. Coupled with a supporting arms structure which was weaker than that of other Allied field armies, the sag in the 1ère Armée’s capabilities allowed the Germans to hold the Colmar pocket against an unsuccessful French offensive between 15 and 22 December 1944.

On 1 January 1945, the Germans launched 'Nordwind' (iii), one of whose objectives was the recapture of Strasbourg. German troops of Generalmajor Otto Schiel’s 198th Division and Oberst Dr Franz Bäke’s 106th Panzerbrigade attacked to the north out of the Colmar pocket in 'Sonnenwende' from 7 to 13 January. Although Général de Corps d’Armée Joseph de Goislard de Monsabert defending II Corps d’Armée suffered some minor losses during this attack, the French held the front to the south of Strasbourg and frustrated German attempts to recapture the city. Following the failure of 'Nordwind' (iii), the 6th Army Group was ordered to destroy the Colmar pocket as part of General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s plan for all Allied forces to close on much of the Rhine river as a prelude to the invasion of Germany. Since the bulk of Allied troops surrounding the Colmar pocket were French, this mission was assigned to the 1ère Armée.

An element of the II Corps d’Armée, Major General John W. O’Daniel’s US 3rd Division had moved into the Vosges mountains during the middle part of December to replace Major General John E. Dahlquist’s exhausted US 36th Division and thus was already in place to support the reduction of the Colmar pocket. Realising that the French would need the assistance of additional US troops for the coming battle, Devers arranged for the transfer of a US division from another part of the front, and Major General Norman D. Cota’s 28th Division duly arrived from the Ardennes front to take up position along the right flank of the US 3rd Division. With the 28th Division in the Kaysersberg valley, the 3rd Division would be able to concentrate for an attack against two German formations, Oberst Wilhelm Bleckwenn’s 708th Volksgrenadierdivision and Oberst Eduard Zorn’s 189th Division. Additionally, the US 10th Armored Division was scheduled to support the offensive, but as events developed it was Major General Roderick R. Allen’s US 12th Armored Division that was eventually committed to the battle.

The winter of 1944/45 was uncommonly cold for north-western Europe, with temperatures of -20° C (-4° F), strong winds and more than 3 ft (1 m) of snow. The Alsatian plain on which the battle was fought is flat and offers an attacker practically no cover other than occasional woods. The plain is also a drainage basin for the Rhine river, and is thus cut by many streams and drainage canals with alluvium-coated bottoms, making them treacherous for vehicles to ford. Dotting the plain are small villages made up of sturdy masonry houses whose multi-storey construction offered defending troops a commanding view of the surrounding fields.

Général de Corps d’Armée Emile Béthouart’s I Corps d’Armée attacked on 20 January. Général de Brigade Marcel Maurice Carpentier’s 2ème Division d’Infanterie Marocaine and Général de Brigade André Eugene Navereau’s 4ème Division Marocaine de Montagne had as their initial objective Ensisheim. Général de Division Joseph Abraham Auguste Pierre Edouard Magnan’s 9ème Division d’Infanterie Coloniale conducted secondary attacks on the corps' right flank, to the north of Mulhouse. In support was the armour of ere tanks of Général de Division Jean Louis Alain Touzet du Vigier’s (from 8 January Général de Division Aimé Sudre’s) 1ère Division Blindée. Attacking in a snowstorm, the I Corps d’Armée initially achieved tactical surprise against its opponent, Generalleutnant Erich Abraham’s LXIII Corps. The I Corps d’Armée’s attack then slowed through the night as German counterattacks began. The difficult weather and terrain, coupled with a German defence in depth blunted the I Corps d’Armée’s advance and severely limited its success. The French attack succeeded in drawing to the south German mobile reserves (the 106th Panzerbrigade and the 654th schwere Panzerjägerabteilung) and Generalleutnant Hans Degen’s 2nd Gebirgsdivision. However, even this limited success was not without significant cost: one brigade of the 1ère Division Blindée, Combat Command 1 (CC1), lost 36 of some 50 medium tanks to land mines. Losses in other armoured units were similar.

Unlike most of the terrain on the Alsatian plain, the terrain on which the I Corps d’Armée fought in was hemmed by woodlands and urban areas, so ground was won only slowly in January after the first day of the attack. The 4ème Division Marocaine de Montagne was able to push only some 1.85 miles (3 km) to the north-east in the direction of Cernay. On the division’s right flank and to the south-east, the 2ème Division d’Infanterie Marocaine had greater success, pushing almost 3.7 miles (6 km) to the north-east in the direction of Wittelsheim. On the right flank and starting from the city of Mulhouse, the 9ème Division d’Infanterie Coloniale also pushed 3.1 to 3.7 miles (5 to 6 km) through the suburbs of Mulhouse and the woods to the north of the city, with CC1 taking Richwiller and the 6ème Régiment d’Infanterie liberating Wittenheim. On 24 January, a German armoured counterattack near Richwiller was repulsed by the French colonial troops, the Germans losing 15 tanks and tank destroyers. In overall terms, the gains of the I Corps d’Armée were greater in the western part (right flank) of its sector of the front, but the Germans in large part succeeded in stalemating the corps' advance.

de Goislard de Monsabert’s II Corps d’Armée began its attack on 22/23 January. The attacking units were the US 3rd Division and Général de Brigade Pierre François Marie Joseph Garbay’s 1ère Division de Marche d’Infanterie, and to the south of the US 3rd Division, the US 28th Division defended its sector of the front. In reserve was Leclerc’s French 2ème Division Blindée.

O’Daniel’s US 3rd Division attacked to the south-east on 22 January, aiming to cross the Ill river, bypass the city of Colmar to the north, and open a path for the armour of Général de Brigade Henri Jacques Jean François de Vernejoul’s 5ème Division Blindée to drive toward the railway bridge supplying the Germans in the Colmar pocket at Neuf-Brisach. The division’s 7th Infantry pushed to the south, clearing the region between the Fecht and Ill rivers. The 30th Infantry moved to the south-east, crossed the Ill river to the north of the timber bridge at the Maison Rouge farm, and moved to the south early on 23 January, capturing the Maison Rouge bridge. The 30th Infantry then moved to the south into the Bois de Riedwihr in the direction of the towns of Riedwihr and Holtzwihr. The Maison Rouge bridge proved incapable of supporting the weight of US tanks, and so the 30th Infantry had only minimal anti-tank capability (bazookas and three 57-mm anti-tank guns) when it was counterattacked late in the afternoon by German infantry and heavy tank destroyers of the 708th Volksgrenadierdivision and 280th Sturmgeschützabteilung. Without cover and unable to dig foxholes because of the frozen terrain, the 30th Infantry was forced to withdraw, sustaining heavy casualties when the withdrawal assumed the character of a rout. The 30th Infantry re-formed on the western bank of the Ill river but was out of action for three days while it was reorganised.

On 25 January, the US 15th Infantry followed the course of the 30th Infantry and recaptured the bridge at Maison Rouge. A German counterattack, again supported by heavy tank destroyers, overran an exposed rifle company of the 15th Infantry at about 08.00, but was unable to drive on the bridge because of the US defensive fire. Later in the day, US engineers erected a bridge over the Ill river in an area to the north of Maison Rouge, and a tank-supported battalion of the 15th Infantry attacked to the south, finally securing a bridgehead. Over the next two days, the 15th Infantry drove to the south toward the towns of Riedwihr and Holtzwihr, entering the Bois de Riedwihr Woods. There were several German counterattacks, but the US troops were able to parry them with the support of tanks and tank destroyers. Riedwihr was taken by the 15th Infantry on 26 January, and Holtzwihr was taken by the 30th Infantry on 27 January. The 30th Infantry continued to the south, reaching the Colmar Canal on 29 January.

The capture of Jebsheim was necessary to protect the northern flank of the 3rd Division’s advance. With the 3rd Division advancing ahead of Garbay’s 1ère Division de Marche d’Infanterie on the 3rd Division’s northern flank, O’Daniel committed the US 254th Infantry, which was a component of US 63rd Division but attached to the 3rd Division for the duration of operations in the Colmar pocket) to capture Jebsheim. On 26/27 January, troops of the 136th Gebirgsjägerregiment defended Jebsheim against the advance of the 254th Infantry, which nonetheless took Jebsheim on 28/29 January with the support of the French tanks of Combat Command 6 and one battalion of the 1er Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes. Subsequently, the 254th Infantry continued to push eastward in the direction of the Rhône-Rhine Canal. Meanwhile, the 7th Infantry had moved forward, and along with the 15th Infantry Regiment and the tanks of de Vernejoul’s 5ème Division Blindée, were positioned to drive on the fortified town of Neuf-Brisach, about 5 miles (8 km) distant from the 3rd Division spearheads.

On the left flank and north of the 3rd Division, Garbay’s 1ère Division de Marche d’Infanterie, formerly known as the 1st Free French Division, attacked to the east on 23 January with the Rhine river as its objective. Facing four battalions of the 708th Volksgrenadierdivision, which was an element of Generalleutnant Max Grimmeiss’s LXIV Corps supported by heavy tank destroyers and artillery, the 1ère Brigade of the 1ère Division de Marche d’Infanterie fought in conditions similar to those experienced by the Americans to the south. The Germans mounted a defence in depth, using positions in the villages and forests to command the open ground to their front and sowing land mines on a liberal basis to slow and channel the French advance. Two battalions of the 708th Volksgrenadierdivision counterattacked the French bridgeheads over the Ill river at about 17.00 on 23 January but were repulsed. Wishing to avoid dug-in German infantry and armour in the Bois de Elsenheim, Garbay directed the 1ère Brigade to concentrate its advance along the road from Illhaeusern to Elsenheim. On 26/27 January, the 1ère Brigade concentrated on opening this route and skirting the obstacle posed by the Bois de Elsenheim, with a key attack into the woods made by the 3/Régiment de Marche of the Légion Etrangère on 27 January. At heavy cost, the village of Grussenheim was taken on 28 January by supporting tanks of the 2ème Division Blindée. Against crumbling German resistance, the French surged forward, taking Elsenheim and Marckolsheim on 31 January and reaching the Rhine river on the following day. In the course of its operations in the Colmar pocket, the 1ère Division de Marche d’Infanterie suffered casualties of 220 men killed, 1,240 wounded, 96 missing and 550 struck down by trench foot.

Noting the difficult progress of all Allied units against German resistance in the Colmar pocket, de Lattre de Tassigny requested reinforcements from the 6th Army Group, and Devers subordinated the headquarters of Milburn’s US XXI Corps to the 1ère Armée. The XXI Corps took up position between the two French corps on 28 January and assumed command of the US 3rd Division and US 28th Divisions. Two additional US divisions, also assigned to the XXI Corps, were Major General Ray E. Porters' 75th Division and the 12th Armored Division. Finally, Vernejoul’s 5ème Division Blindée, 1er Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes and 1er Bataillon de Choc were placed under command of the XXI Corps, which was assigned the mission of capturing the city of Colmar and driving on the bridge at Breisach.

For their part, the German high command misread the Allied objectives, believing the Allied assault to be a general pressure along the front designed to induce collapse at any given point. Hitler had agreed to a partial withdrawal in the north (the Erstein salient) during the night of 28 January, but forbade any general withdrawal over the Rhine river. German outposts in the Vosges mountains were pulled back, but the confusion of the withdrawal and the pressures of the battlefield resulted in many units becoming mixed with one another. While this did not affect the numbers available for combat, it did lower the defensive cohesion of the German units. On 29 January, the Oberkommando 'Oberrhein' was dissolved as a headquarters, and the units in the Colmar pocket were again subordinated to SS-Oberstgruppenführer under Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s Heeresgruppe 'G'.

The 3rd Division continued its sidestepping manoeuvre to the south and east. On the evening of 29 January, the divisional artillery fired 16,000 105- and 155-mm (4.13- and 6.1-in) rounds during a three-hour preparation for the southward assault of the 7th and 15th Infantry across the Colmar Canal. The infantry crossed between 21.00 and 00.00. After the crossings had been secured, engineers began the construction of three Bailey bridges over the canal to allow armoured vehicles to cross. On the following day, the French CC4 and CC5, both of the 5ème Division Blindée, crossed the canal, with CC4 supporting the US 7th Infantry and CC5 the US 15th Infantry. Soon after this, the 15th Infantry and CC5 took Urschenheim in a brisk action, while the 7th Infantry was held up in front of Horbourg. On the same day, the 254th Infantry attacked eastward in the direction of Artzenheim with the support of the French CC6 armoured combat command, but the Germans employed artillery support and dug-in Jagdpanther tank destroyers to parry the thrust, destroying six French tanks and four half-tracked vehicles. Artzenheim was taken by the French II Corps d’Armée on 1 February.

Fighting in the zone of the US 3rd Division, the 1er Bataillon de Choc attacked and seized Widensolen early on 31 January. By 17.00, patrols of the US 3rd Division had reached the Rhône-Rhine Canal some 5 miles (8 km) to the south-east of the division’s crossing points over the Colmar Canal. On the same day, CC6 was relieved from attachment to the US 3rd Division, having taken severe losses with only 13 operational tanks in its tank battalion and 30 effectives in its Légion Etrangère infantry company. In this combat command’s place arrived a combat command of the 2ème Division Blindée. On 1 February, the 15th Infantry and 30th Infantry advanced to the south along the Rhône-Rhine Canal, reaching the area just to the north of Neuf-Brisach. On 2/3 February, the 7th Infantry drove to the south along the same canal, passing through Artzenheim and taking Biesheim after a severe day-long battle.

After a day spent consolidating its positions, the US 3rd Division moved to the south once more on 5 February, taking Vogelgrun on the following day. The fortified town of Neuf-Brisach was swiftly entered and taken on 6 February by the 30th Infantry with the help of two French children and another civilian, who showed the Americans undefended passages into the town. After evacuating what remained of their men and equipment, the Germans had destroyed the bridge over the Rhine river at Breisach. The taking of Neuf-Brisach marked the end of operations in the 'Battle of the Colmar Pocket' for the US 3rd Division.

The US 75th Division entered the line on 31 January between the US 3rd Division and US 28th Division. Attacking on 1 February, the 289th Infantry cleared Horbourg and the 290th Infantry advanced on Andolsheim, occupying the town at 14.00 on 2 February. On this same day, the 75th Division made diversionary attacks to cover the Allied drive on the city of Colmar, adjacent to the division’s western sector. On 3 February, the 75th Division cleared the Forêt Domaniale and consolidated its gains the following day. Moving again on 5 February, the division overran Appenwihr, Hettenschlag and Wolfgantzen. On 6 February, the US 75th Division reached the Rhône-Rhine Canal to the south of Neuf-Brisach, and this ended the US 75th Division’s operations in the 'Battle of the Colmar Pocket'.

Having been on the defence up to this time in the battle, Cota’s US 28th Division was teamed with the CC4 armoured combat command and told to take the city of Colmar. Leading with the 109th Infantry on 2 February, the infantry crossed an anti-tank ditch to the north of the city, while the French armour located a crossing point over the obstacle. This accomplished, the French armour plunged into Colmar, reaching the Place Rapp at 11.30. On 2/3 February, the 109th Infantry, CC4, the 1er Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes and commandos cleared the city of Germans. In a symbolic act, the 153ème Régiment d’Infanterie re-entered Colmar, its pre-war garrison. Driving to the south on 3 February, the 112th Infantry entered Turckheim and cleared Ingersheim to the west of Colmar. Other units of the US 28th Division joined the French in blocking German exit routes from the Vosges mountains. On 6 February, the US 28th Division moved eastward to the Rhône-Rhine Canal on the southern flank of the US XXI Corps, thereby ending the US 28th Division’s participation in the battle.

On 3 February, the 12th Armored Division moved to the south through the lines of he US 28th Division with the objective of linking with the I Corps d’Armée and splitting the Colmar pocket. Combat Command B seized a bridgehead near Sundhoffen and CCR advanced on the road between Colmar and Rouffach. On the following day, CCA captured Hattstatt on the road linking Colmar and Rouffach, but CCR found its way blocked by the German defences. On 5 February, CCA entered Rouffach and made contact with the 4ème Division Marocaine de Montagne of the I Corps d’Armée, some 17 days after this corps had launched its assault. On the same day, CCR entered the village of Herrlisheim près Colmar. Thereafter, the US 12th Armored Division screened German exit routes from the Vosges mountains and provided fire support for the US 28th Division.

At the start of February, the I Corps d’Armée was still clearing scattered German resistance in the area to the south of the Thur river between Cernay and Ensisheim, both of which were still under German control. The clearing of this area was not completed until 3 February. On 4 February, the I Corps d’Armée assaulted to the north across the Thur river and, encountering only limited German resistance, the 4ème Division Marocaine de Montagne was able to push to the southern outskirts of Rouffach. Abandoned by the Germans, Cernay was occupied on the same day. On the following day, the 4ème Division Marocaine de Montagne linked with the US 12th Armored Division in Rouffach, and the 9ème Division d’Infanterie Coloniale attacked Ensisheim, the original corps objective. Hirtzfelden was taken by the 2ème Division d’Infanterie Marocaine on 6 February and the 9ème Division d’Infanterie Coloniale completed the capture of Ensisheim and drove to the east into the Bois de Harth. On 7 February, both the 9ème Division d’Infanterie Coloniale and the 1ère Division Blindée reached the Rhône-Rhine Canal to the east of Ensisheim. The Spahi cavalry brigade and the 151st Infantry cleared the Bois de Harth on 8 February while the 1st Armored Division advanced to the south toward the German bridgehead at Chalampé in addition to linking with elements of the 2ème Division Blindée at Fessenheim in the course of the same day.

During this period, the shrinking German presence on the western side of the Rhine river was subjected to heavy artillery fire and air attacks by US and French aircraft. Finally, on 9 February the I Corps d’Armée eliminated the German rearguard at Chalampé and, with no major elements of their forces left on the western bank of the Rhine river in the region of Colmar, the Germans blew up the bridge over the Rhine river at Chalampé. This signalled the end of Allied operations in the 'Battle of the Colmar Pocket' and the end of any significant German military presence in Alsace.

In compliance with Eisenhower’s directive, the Colmar pocket had been eliminated, and the 6th Army Group stood on the Rhine river, from the Swiss border to a region well to the north of Strasbourg. Though not completely destroyed, the 19th Army had lost most of its experienced combat troops, only the 708th Volksgrenadierdivision escaping somewhat intact, and was forced to re-form in Baden, using large infusions of inexperienced Volkssturm to replace its grievous losses on the plains of Alsace. The Germans left behind 55 armoured vehicles and 66 pieces of artillery. The elimination of the Colmar pocket allowed the 6th Army Group to concentrate on 'Undertone', its assault to penetrate the 'Siegfried-Linie' and invade Germany, undertaken in March 1945.

For the fourth time in 75 years, the province of Alsace had changed hands between France and Germany.