Operation Waldfest

forest festival

'Waldfest' was a German scorched-earth operation and countermeasures undertaking against French resistance activity in the Vosges mountains of German-occupied France (1 September/November 1944).

The undertaking was carried out in two stages between September and November 1944 by units of the German army and the Allgemeine SS with the object of countering the British 'Loyton', to disrupt the local French resistance, to destroy local villages in order to prevent them serving as shelter for Allied forces in the upcoming winter, and to deport all men of fighting age in the area to Germany as forced labour.

The operation led to the destruction of 7,500 buildings, the execution in accord with Adolf Hitler’s 'Commando Order' of 39 men of the Special Air Service who had been captured, saw almost 1,500 French civilians killed in the fighting or executed and close to 14,000 French civilians deported to concentration camps or as forced labour. Of the almost 3,800 civilians deported to concentration camps, two-thirds died there.

Following the success of the Allied 'Overlord' invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944 and before the liberation of Paris on 26 August, German forces in the Vosges mountains were ordered to establish a defensive position to the west of the mountains' ridge line as the 'Schutzwall West' (Protective Wall West). Up to 30,000 Hitlerjugend members from Germany were committed to help with the construction of this line, which had been planned as a major fortification stretching from the southern part of Belgium to the Swiss border: in practice, little of it was completed because of a lack of resources, but also because of harassment of the work groups by the French resistance.

The German plan was to destroy all villages in front of this protective wall to eliminate any shelter for Allied forces in the upcoming winter. The local population was to be evacuated and all members of the male population aged between 15 and 60 was to be deported to Germany as forced labour. This 'scorched-earth' policy had earlier been applied predominantly in eastern Europe, but never before on the Western front.

An order of 8 July by Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the Oberkommando der Wehmacht’s high command, stated that all able-bodied civilians in any way involved or suspected of involvement with local resistance efforts were to be taken to transit camps and deported to Germany as forced labour. A subsequent order of 2 November by General Hermann Balck, commander of Heeresgruppe 'G', stated that all German forces in the Vosges mountain area were to withdraw to the predetermined defence line. In the process, the area to the west of this was to be destroyed and any assets such as livestock and food were to be evacuated. The local population was either to be deported, as ordered by Keitel, or to be concentrated in one part of any village. These parts were to be selected so that they could be taken under artillery fire, while the other parts were to be destroyed. All bridges were to be rendered unusable, and the object was that no Allied forces should be able to find any habitable building during the cold of the imminent winter season.

The region to the east of the Vosges mountains' ridge line had become part of Germany after 1940, as it had been from 1870 to 1918, and was, at the time, predominantly German-speaking. Virtually no active resistance existed in the eastern part while, in the western part, it greatly increased from the middle of 1944.

'Waldfest' was carried out in two parts named 'Waldfest I' and 'Waldfest II'. The importance of 'Waldfest' can be seen in the fact that Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, himself took part in a conference at Gérardmer on 6 September to ensure that the German border in the west was defended at all costs.

The responsibility of the German army for 'Waldfest' was vested in Generalmajor Erich von Kirchbach, the battle commandant of Epinal, and Hermann Balck. For the Gestapo and SS, SS-Obergruppenführer Carl Oberg, the SS and police leader for France (originally based at Nancy but relocated to Fraize in mid-September), Friedrich Stuhr, SS and police leader in Alsace, and Erich Isselhorst, commander of the Sicherheitspolizei in Baden and Alsace.

The main base for the operation was Schirmeck, location of the Sicherungslager Schirmeck-Vorbruck and commanded by Karl Buck. Schirmeck was a sub-camp of the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp.

In 'Waldfest', the Germans were supported by French collaborators and French militia.

'Waldfest I' began in September 1944 under the command of Isselhorst and his deputy, Wilhelm Schneider, and was organised from Strasbourg after the Germans failed to defeat the local resistance movement. Isselhorst’s efforts were successful and the SAS force in the region, part of 'Loyton', were either captured or killed. 'Waldfest I' lasted from 1 to 30 September, and was carried out by small Einsatzkommando units varying in strength from 30 to 100 men. Support was provided by army Jagdkommando units under the command of Generalmajor Franz Vaterrodt, based in Strasbourg.

'Waldfest II' lasted from 1 October into November, and targeted the local resistance, the Groupe Mobile d’Alsace, but also the civilian population and towns and villages.

The Vallée du Rabodeau, which had already been targeted on 24 September in 'Waldfest I', when 424 civilians were deported to concentration camps in which 362 were killed, was hit a second time on 5/6 October. This time, 392 young men were arrested and deported: 246 of these later died. A third attack, which was the most violent of the German efforts, took place on 8 November. This time, almost 8,000 civilians were deported forced labour, but some were freed en route by approaching French units.

'Waldfest' came to an end when the region was liberated at a time late in November by Major General Withers A. Burress’s US 100th Division of Major General Edward H. Brooks’s US VI Corps in 'Dogface'.

It was Isselhorst who had ordered the execution of the captured SAS men, as well as a number of French civilians, three French priests and four US airmen. The prisoners were taken by truck over the Rhine river to Gaggenau on 21 November. The leader of the execution commando, Karl Beck, thought it unwise to leave mass graves of shot Allied soldiers in an area so close to the front line. The prisoners were initially kept in a local jail, but then on or shortly after 25 November, they taken to a local forest and shot in the head in a bomb crater. One prisoner attempted to escape, but was also killed.

'Waldfest' saw 376 civilians executed and 110 resistance fighters killed in action. Another 1,000 civilians died in bombardments, and 3,762 civilians were deported to concentration camps, in which two-thirds of them were killed.

More than 11,000 civilians from the Vosges mountains were deported to Germany for forced labour, either directly or as part of the so-called Service du Travail Obligatoire. 'Waldfest' was also characterised by the destruction of more than 7,500 of the region’s buildings. St Dié des Vosges, where 2,000 houses were destroyed, burned for five days after having been set alight on 14 November and was liberated by the US Army on 23 November. It was the most-destroyed town of eastern France during the war.