The Hatten-Rittershoffen Inferno

German PzKpfw. V Panther medium tanks, mounting high-velocity 75 mm cannon, advance along a snow-covered road in the Hagenau Forest and the lower
Vosges Mountains of France on January 31, 1945.

 Lt. General Jacob L. Devers, commander of Sixth Army Group, expressed his views and his reservations about the situation in his command, especially that of Seventh Army, in his Diaries. He had had to relinquish control of several divisions, especially to Third Army because they were short of divisions in November 1944 due to the costly fighting in Lorraine. Later he would lose several more as a result of General Patton’s sending a corps toward Bastogne in mid-December to prevent a German victory there.

A recent analysis demonstrates the way in which the German General Staff took advantage of Devers’ weakness:

By 21 December Hitler had decided on a new offensive, this time in the Alsace region, in effect, selecting one of the options he had disapproved due to Dietrich’s failure to break the northern shoulder [in the Ardennes Bulge], and with no hope of attaining their original objectives, both Hitler and Rundstedt agreed that an attack on the southern Allied front might take advantage of Patton’s shift north to the Ardennes…

This attack was designed to hit VI Corps in its southern flank.

After the fight in the Vosges repelling Northwind diminished in intensity and threat, Devers, in a diary entry on 8 January 1945 expressed his concern about a new assault on the Alsatian plain near Rimling, on the border between XV and XX Corps. This was to be an extension of Northwind although Devers couldn’t foresee this. General Alexander M. Patch, commander of Seventh Army, according to Devers’ Diary, was confident that the 79th Infantry Division could stop the assault at that point in the line. After a conference with Patch, in whom Devers placed great trust, he confided to his Diary for 16 January:

In my conference with Patch we again pointed that our present position is the strongest position we can occupy; that two American infantry divisions, the 79th and the 45th, had withstood 9 German divisions since the 1st of the year successfully; that the fighting had been tough; that they had been assisted by two armored divisions, the 12th and the 14th; that the Germans had brought in a new corps consisting of the 6th SS Mountain Division, the 7th Paratroop Division, and possibly the 10th Panzer Division; that all of these were big divisions, not small divisions; and that now we needed [the] help of at least one infantry division on this front; that as long as [Gen. Omar] Bradley was in trouble to the north we gave and gave and gave until we were stretched too thin; but that now that he is out of trouble we felt that we should be given a chance to push the Germans back on the defensive and we believed we could do this with very little; that it would pay great dividends in the future; that we could release this division by the 1 of February; that giving up terrain was a terrific slap in the face to the soldiers who had fought so hard and so well to retain it; this caused, more than any other thing, a great lowering of morale, and it is morale that wins battles….

It is puzzling that Devers could be so confident of things on the 16th, when the very enemy divisions he was citing were causing such trouble in the Hatten-Rfttershoffen sector, where the 14th Armored and units of the 79th and 42nd Infantry Divisions were fighting a desperate battle for their very existence. Never mind the idea that they were capable of defeating a foe that outweighed them in every department. To bring this question up now may seem strange, but it suggests the degree to which Seventh Army and Sixth Army Group seemed to be insulated from what was happening to those soldiers who fought hard and suffered and died at Hatten and Rittershoffen. Even the Official History, Riviera to the Rhine, devotes only a few pages to the fighting that occurred there in the second and third weeks of January 1944. This chapter will respectfully attempt to redress that imbalance.

The summons to action for the 68th AIB and other units of the 14th came on the morning of 11 January, when the battalion was ordered to help stem the offensive not too many miles west of the Rhine in the vicinity of two sleepy farming towns, Hatten and Rittershoffen, about a kilometer apart, respectively, west to east. The two towns were situated close to the axis of the Maginot Line, which here ran generally but not entirely north and south. The initial phase of Operation Northwind had developed from the north and northeast in the vicinity of Bitche in the Vosges Mountains, known as the Bitche Salient. The new German assault, starting in Gambsheim, adjacent to the Rhine River, had begun on 5 January. The advantages of this battle plan were twofold: the lines of communication and supply were quite short, and German artillery from across the river was capable of shelling Gambsheim and all the other small towns in the area. The other key town, north of Gambsheim, was Herrlisheim, which would later cause so much grief to the green 12th Armored Division.

As has been previously mentioned, in the crazy-quilt pattern of authority and power in the Third Reich, with all its fiefdoms doled out by the Führer, there was a desperate competition among the traditional Wehrmacht, the Waffen SS Divisions, the Luftwaffe (with its ground troops), and even the late and lowly Volksturm (the recent amalgam of the very young, the very old, and the very sick) for the implements of war. Heinrich Himmler, in addition to his other responsibilities, was in charge of these last two forces, most importantly the SS Divisions, which were the best equipped of all units. Hitler had given Himmler command of Army Group Upper Rhine, which was active in Operation Northwind, despite his lack of proper military training and experience.

As Richard Engler reminds us, he determined to discontinue operations in the Bitche Salient because of the stubborn resistance of the GIs and the difficulty of moving armored and other vehicles on icy roads with frequent snowfall. What had made it difficult for American vehicles also made it difficult for the panzers, a problem that similarly bedeviled the panzer armies up in the Ardennes. The Northwind offensive accordingly was switched from the mountains to the plains on an axis from Wissembourg south to Gambsheim—“the most fateful decision of the entire campaign!” American infantry, including elements of the 42nd, of which Engler was a member, and the 79th Infantry Divisions, had been holding the Maginot forts for the most part since November. Himmler wanted to break through not only at Gambsheim but also through the Line—an effort which would consign these units and the 14th Armored Division to a fiery inferno.

Flares signaled the attack on the twin towns on 9 January. Engler, who has argued that the 42nd was besieged beyond measure, remarked that the 242nd Regiment’s Journal reported that 28 German tanks were bypassing Hatten and aiming toward Rittershoffen to the west, with ME-262 jet aircraft flying overhead in support of the thrust toward the town. In a very short time, two out of three American anti-tank platoons were eliminated from the contest, manning under-powered anti-tank guns. The Cannon Company of the 242nd Regiment fired “point-blank” at the advancing panzers but with little effect. A terrified private later remembered what he called “the poise of cooler heads”:

The tanks were right on us and firing point-blank, and a lot of men were going down. Our captain just went berserk. He rushed out and started throwing snowballs at the tanks. He was cut down quick. A sergeant brought us out with most of our vehicles. I was sure he was taking us in exactly the wrong direction. But he got us out of there. Later we went back and retrieved the guns we’d left.

The ultimate intent of the German Command in the West was the capture of Strasbourg, just short miles to the south of Gambsheim—not only primarily to destroy the First French Army defending Strasbourg but to outflank and defeat the American Seventh Army. On 2–3 January, Major General Edward H. Brooks’ VI Corps had begun its transfer from the Vosges Mountains toward the Maginot Line. Seventh Army, after it had delegated responsibility for Strasbourg to the French, planned a new MLR, a fallback position along the Moder River. Ironically, after the battle of Hatten-Rittershoffen, that is exactly where they would be anchored, for the 14th Armored, the 315th Battalion of the 79th Infantry, and remnants of the 42nd Infantry Division would be forced to take up defensive positions along the Moder River, well north of Strasbourg in the vicinity of Hagenau Forest.

However, in the meantime, between the 9th and 20th of January, those units cut off in Hatten especially but also in Rittershoffen, including soldiers from the 42nd, struggled to hold out. They received supplies by airdrop but not much else support until the 14th Armored battled vigorously to get to them. The unit historians of the 68th Armored Infantry Battalion, Lt. Madden and Private Kovanda, liked to employ the image of a roving back (presumably in American football) to charge quickly to any critical spot in the MLR which needed sudden defense or an immediate offensive thrust against the enemy. As it developed, the entire 14th would be needed dramatically to rebut the hostile assault and rescue those men in the two infantry divisions trapped there in the twin Alsatian towns. The division was not committed as a whole at one time in a powerful charge but fed piecemeal into the fight, mostly with a tank battalion customarily paired with an armored infantry battalion. Other units, like the 94th Cav Recon, not only did scouting but also took on enemy tanks whenever possible. The 125th Armored Combat Engineers performed their usual tasks besides fighting in place as infantry or in reserve. After the war there would be criticism of this gradual deployment of forces, but at the time it seemed the only way to prevent those cut off from being overwhelmed and swallowed by the maw of war.

Another grim irony of this grave situation was that the 48th Tank Battalion had figuratively waltzed through the towns only weeks earlier, before the enemy had had a chance to regroup after being chased up the Rhone Valley by Truscott’s VI Corps. There would be no waltzing of any kind when the Americans returned in frigid January, a month that broke century-old records for freezing temperatures. Of the American divisions fighting in this sector, only the 79th Infantry could be said to be battle-wise. The 14th had learned as much as they could since disembarking in October; the 12th Armored had no experience to speak of. They were pitted against a strong and dangerous force which dominated the rolling farmland north of the two towns on the high ground near the towns of Buhi and Stundwiller. This position gave the enemy an enormous advantage in spotting for artillery and mortars, and it had ample ammunition for both. In place were the 21st Panzer Division, considered a crack outfit, and the 25th Panzer Grenadier Division.

Before the commitment of the tanks from the 48th Tank Battalion on 9 January and other units of the 14th AD on succeeding days, there were only the remnants of the 242nd and two battalions of the 315th Regiment, respectively of the 42nd and the 79th Infantry Divisions. But they were, unsupported and no match for the panzers and the artillery arrayed against them. The Hagenau forest just to the south of the towns and a number of Maginot forts almost touching the towns were supposed to be defended by the 42nd Division, but the fight for the forts, although causing serious German casualties, led to their abandonment. Those infantrymen who could sought shelter in the two towns, but as Richard Engler described the situation, these men were in a parlous state with German armor flowing through the area.

Orders were issued to the 14th AD to redress the situation, but at first it was only C Troop of the 94th Cav Recon acting as reconnaissance and patrolling the north edge of the forest. Following on was the 48th Tank Battalion. The German attack against the dug-in GIs in Hatten possessed overwhelming tank and artillery superiority, which kept the desperate Americans pinned down in the houses of the town hoping for the best awaiting rescue. The unit history of the 48th Tanks characterizes the fearful situation of the “doughfeet”:

They were pretty green to begin with, not their fault, and they’d been kicked around in a couple of other engagements; in short, they were pretty easy meat for even the ordinary run of Heinie guts and tricks. Then one night Jerry pushed into the east edge of Hatten (the other little town) where the battalion in that sector had its Command Post in a cellar by the church near the center of town. At first the next morning it looked rough for them, and then it didn’t, then it did. And during that night and the next day the battalion was cut off, the remainder of the regiment was beaten back and Heinie was in Rittershoffen too. But’s that’s too fast for the story because we got tangled in it soon after Heinie threw himself into Hatten.

Tec 5 Vernon H. Brown, Jr., with D Troop of the 94th Cav Recon, observed the beginning of the action when the men of the 242nd Infantry stepped off on 7 January:

Before long the firing started and shortly after that a procession of peeps pulling little trailers reappeared down the road bringing casualties to the rear. The infantry had jumped across frozen fields whereupon the Krauts caught them with machine gun and tank fire. When they moved into the woods the mortars sought them out with tree bursts. The ones that had thrown away their entrenching tools had no choice but to run for it, and the situation went from bad to worse. Eventually the infantry was able to disengage and pull back through our screen [of light tanks and armored cars], and as the enemy made no attempt to follow up, much to our relief we also returned to Weyersheim.

There was then and still now, among some veterans of the 14th AD, reluctance to give much credit to the men of the 242nd Regiment of the 42nd Infantry Division. Richard Engler wrote The Final Crisis to rebut this negative picture of his regiment’s and his division’s fighting ability, and to correct, from his perspective, the record as a combat veteran fighting in cold Alsace in the winter of 1945.

To return to the combat, the 48th TB of the 14th made a serious effort to help those American soldiers trapped in the two towns, which previously had enjoyed relative peace with the war flaring around it. The unit history provides a graphic picture of the initial efforts on 9 January to stem the tide of the panzer juggernaut. “A” Company was assigned the task of leading a counterattack to assist and rescue the men of both the infantry divisions in the towns. The tankers had been resting and refitting in Kuhlendorf, where Bob Davies’ 68th AIB had been doing the same thing. That town is northwest of Rittershoffen about three kilometers away. From that “good pivot” at 0930 hours on 9 January, A Company had been rushed to assembly positions east of Rittershoffen,” all set for a big Jerry drive through and past the doughfeet [infantry] MLR.” As the 48th history breathlessly continues, “It was 1300 sharp when Captain Ace [Joel P. Ory] quietly told 1st Platoon leader [Lt. Edgar P.] Woodard to bring the boys back up with a hell of a bang while he whipped over to Hatten in the peep [jeep] to talk to the doughfeet Colonel.”

When Captain Ory made contact with the infantry in Hatten, he could feel the nervousness, almost panic, in the air. The fear was understandable when soldiers are almost completely surrounded by German tanks and halftracks crammed with infantry and under intense German shelling. There was in place a friendly Tank Destroyer Battalion on the west edge of Hatten, although its commander was reluctant to engage the enemy. Fortunately, one Sherman tank commander put his gun in the right direction and “sent the lead [hostile] halftrack up in a shower of sparks, range 75 yards….”

A humble corporal of the 48th’s A Company, Franklin J. McGrane, kept a diary (although orders forbade such recordkeeping) of the fighting on that as well as other days:

This was friendly country, we knew that. We had passed through it a few weeks before and gone beyond the Maginot Line, those forts that followed this entire area along the northern edge. We had been untouched, we pushed north—toward the Rhine. To the south stretched the forest [of Hagenau], a coniferous snow covered group. A valley lay tranquilly between the forest and a snow-padded highway which seamed the North and South sectors together. Between the Maginot and the forest at either end of the road sat two towns, foreign as yet to war’s destruction, Rittershoffen at the west, Hatten at the east. The country between the chain of forts to the north and the wooded sector on the south rippled gently. 

That tranquil scene would not last as Company A went to work. A recon officer jumped out of a jeep. He shouted that there were German tanks to the right, in the valley: “Tanks on your right—German tanks—in the valley—Get ’em Get ’em!…” Corporal McGrane and his fellow tankers couldn’t believe it. “They couldn’t be there….” Nevertheless the tank platoon swung to the attack in a position overlooking the valley. “These were ours, of course—they weren’t ours! Fire! Gunner, Fire! Five tanks spat flame, one still on the move. It was a two-minute job—.”

Three factors allowed the instant success of Corporal McGrane’s platoon:

    (1)       The M-4 Sherman tanks in January of 1945 were late models of that standard tank, and they possessed a new 76mm gun, which had increased muzzle velocity to penetrate the armor of the German Mark IV panzer.

    (2)       The reconnaissance of the Americans in this instance was superior.

    (3)       The Shermans were equipped with an electric traverse, which allowed the gunners to get off the first shots. The panzers were equipped with only a mechanical traverse, more laborious and slower.

The heavier Mark V and Mark VI, the feared and infamous Panther and Tiger tanks, might have provided a more deadly challenge to the Shermans, even the up-to-date “Easy Eight” Shermans, since the German panzers possessed up to six inches of armor on their front slopes, several more than any of the American or British tanks. The thick armor on the Panther’s glacis was set at an angle to encourage enemy rounds to glance off the surface. The only real chance for a Sherman was to get a lucky shot off the sides or rear, which were much less protected. There was more than one complaint by American tankers that their rounds just bounced off enemy armor.

But to return to this stage of the battle in Alsace. The German offensive had to be stopped, and the “lost battalions” in the two towns had to be rescued. “It was time to seize the initiative and restore the MLR by committing the power of an entire armored division.” The orders from Major General Edward H. Brooks of VI Corps to the 14th AD were to “pass through the 79th Division positions and attack to capture the line Stundwiller-Buhl-Forest of Hatten.”

The Germans, however, were busy as well according to Colonel Hans von Luck, the leader of the “Kampfgruppe” named after him, a miscellaneous group of soldiers who had been driven back from Normandy over the summer and fall. Just as the Americans had to rescue some of their men, the enemy had to rescue combatants from the 25th Panzer Grenadiers, who held the southern portion of Hatten. By the evening of 9 January, “only a small breach” had been made. The 25th PGD with von Luck’s troops tried to force their way into Rittershoffen and capture the Maginot bunker line running north of the town. Von Luck’s parent division was prepared to take the town on 10 January, but the 192nd Regiment, which had been assigned the task, had failed in its mission. On the following morning, Major Spreu of the 192nd took the bunker and captured its occupants by employing antitank guns and machine guns against the apertures in the concrete structure. Major Spreu’s account is as follows:

At first light I moved up with the platoon of engineers while my heavy weapons company fired nonstop at the gun-ports of the bunker. We charged through the snow and within a few minutes were at the bunker. The engineers threw hand grenades into the ports, while others ran around to cut the barbed wire and cleared mines. When we ran around to the rear entrance, the door opened and a white flag appeared with five officers and a garrison of 117 men.

The besieged Gis, before surrendering, managed to call in artillery fire on their own positions and caused some serious casualties among the attacking grenadiers. After many of the bunkers were overrun, the infantry of the 242nd had retreated to the town of Rittershoffen and took to the houses to employ as fortifications, but the Germans were “lodged firmly in the railroad station.” The wounded were removed to the few bunkers still in American hands. The battle for Hatten had already become disjointed and disconnected, and although the rallying cry at American higher headquarters was to “restore the MLR,” in truth there was no discernible line to restore. Once the fighting invested the two towns, they were doomed to a terrible fate.

Colonel von Luck continues his account of his Kampfgruppe’s struggle in Rittershoffen. On 10 January, his regiment made their attack, and by evening it had forced its way into the farming village, “but there too, just as at Hatten, the enemy held out in the houses and at once mounted a counterattack with tanks and infantry [the 48th TB and the 2nd Battalion of the 315th regiment]. This hit my II Battalion in particular, which had established itself in the center near the church.” From von Luck’s perspective, as a seasoned veteran commander on several fronts, “There now developed one of the hardest and most costly battles that had ever raged on the western front.” Von Luck construed the American effort as designed to recapture the Maginot Line bunkers and pillboxes, but as the fighting continued, it was more a matter of taking houses and sections of the two towns. Soon it would simply be a matter of clusters of soldiers on both sides trying to survive, with foes only yards apart and sometimes on different floors of the same building. Both sides employed incendiary shells and the Germans flame-throwing tanks, even phosphorus grenades thrown into doorways and windows. It would be no wonder that the towns would cease to exist except as burned and shattered rubble. Tactical urgency overcame any other military considerations.

The most distressing element of the battle was the suffering and dying of the civilian population and their domestic animals and livestock:

Even now the civilian population remained in the two villages. Women, children, and old people, packed in like sardines, sat in the cellars of the houses. Electricity had been cut off, the supply of food was short, and there was no water for the pipes were frozen. We [the German troops] tried to help as much as we could. By day any movement was fatal; our supplies could be brought up only by night in armored vehicles. In this we were helped by a hollow [supply road] which concealed us from the enemy, whose flares threw the area into brilliant light.

The fiery stalemate forced Major General Edward H. Brooks, commander of VI Corps, to commit the 14th Armored Division to fight, beyond the initial action of the 94 Cav Recon and Company A of the 48th Tank Battalion. The fight was eating up infantry at an alarming rate. General Albert Smith’s order to his division stated, “Div attacks RH: CC abreast, daylight 12 Jan 1945 to restore VI Corps MLR.”18 However, as Richard Engler and others recounting the battle were to conclude, there was no MLR to “restore.” The combat was disorienting for the troops, and commanders at any and all levels on both sides could not change the disorientation.

Before the morning of the 13th, the 14th AD had not committed all of its armored infantry battalions, but everyone was on alert, and it was just a matter of time before these were thrown into the cauldron. The S2 and S-3 Journals of the 68th AIB had reported the action between A 48 and the panzers on 9 January at 1315 hours: OP’s report 16 Mark IV Tks, 9 personnel carriers, 8 halftracks moving toward Hatten….” Elements of the 827th Tank Destroyer Battalion were advancing toward the combat. Formal armored doctrine ordained that in cases where a tank versus tank clash was anticipated, tank destroyers were to be favored. The TD’s possessed a 76.2mm gun and later in the war a 90mm gun, and before the Sherman was upgunned to the 76mm gun, the TD possessed more hitting power. However, the armor was at the most only one and a half inches, so they were not safe places to be when fighting against panzers was imminent. Eventually, by the end of the war, the Tank Destroyers would be phased out, but that didn’t help the crews at Rittershoffen and Hatten. The 68th’s S-2 and S-3 Journals intercepted a message indicating that more TD’s of the 827th’s TD Company B had shifted toward the fight and that Company C of the 48th TB was doing the same.

At 1500 hours, the 94th Cav Recon reported to CCA Headquarters that “7 ey tks now burning at (165430)—time 1500.” This report was the result of the good work of Corporal McGrane’s A Company, for which its First Platoon would receive the following citation:

Recipient: 1st Platoon, Company A, 48th Tank Battalion, Lt. Edgar D. Wood ard, P1. Ldr., for outstanding performance of duty in action on 9 Jan 1945, near Hatten, France. Assigned to the mission of repulsing an enemy attack, the 1st platoon, consisting of four operating medium tanks, moved rapidly and decisively to the support of friendly infantry already partially over run by enemy armor. Displaying great skill and superior marksmanship, the platoon engaged sixteen Mark IV tanks in a deadly firefight, and without loss of men or equipment, destroyed four enemy tanks which the Germans were attempting to evacuate. 

The critical reconnaissance work done by Troop C of the 94th Cav and Recon also received a citation in that they “supplied higher commanders with rapid, accurate information of the attack on Hatten by an estimated three armored infantry battalions of a Panzer Grenadier Division.”

Corporal McGrane of A Company of the 48th continues his vivid account of the scene after the counterattack begun at 1710 on the same day:

We left our commanding ground and eased down its sloping sides toward the valley floor past the smouldering Jerry tanks which burned like huge torches to guide our way in the gathering darkness. Doughfeet walked behind us, five to a tank. Now and then Heinie ammo within the flaming tanks would explode and throw hot metal into the sky to make of the sky a blanket of twisted colors. The night was cold; the wind was sharp. We stamped our feet against the floor as our tanks munched through the snow, exhausts coughing at their heavy vents. We pressed forward along the valley floor, going due east now. Our right flank, the forest wall [of Hagenau Forest], was close but invisible, it blended into the night.

Charlie Company of the 48th was to assume the role of attacker on the following morning, 10 January. It didn’t jump off until 1600 hours and advanced “due east, north of the Hatten-Rittershoffen Road into the teeth of German tanks and anti-tank defenses,” as the 48th’s History characterizes the situation. This time the panzers were not taken unawares, and they had three Mark V Panthers, possibly the best tank in the Wehrmacht arsenal. Corporal McGrane summarizes the furious action: “Within two minutes the Panzers were flaming coffins. Then Heinie struck back. Concealed antitank guns (you don’t see the flashes) took three of our tanks before we could recover.” Ever since the tank war in the African desert, German panzers had used the tactic of drawing enemy tanks onto the “stakes” of anti-tank guns after creating the appearance of a tank-to-tank battle. McGrane’s Sherman was hit twice by another camouflaged gun (or so he thought at the time), but it proved later that there were two captured American tank destroyers, with larger and more deadly guns than McGrane’s gun. Why the American crews of the TD’s, if they were physically able, did not neutralize the gun on their vehicle before they abandoned it is a puzzle.

The orders to the German divisions designated to make the attack on the tenth: the 7th Parachute, the 47th Volksgrenadiers, and the 2nd Mountain Division came from Hitler himself. He directed them to surge out of the Hagenau sector west to push the Seventh Army back to the Vosges Mountains and in the process cut if off between the Rhine and the mountains. If that gambit succeeded, the First French Army defending the Colmar Pocket would have been outflanked and either forced to withdraw or to stand fast and be destroyed. General DeGaulle had suggested that the French were willing to turn Strasbourg into a “Stalingrad,” but the costs would have been staggering and fruitless. To reinforce his attack, Himmier now received the 10th SS Panzer Divsion, the 21st Panzer Division, and the 553rd Volksgrenadier Division.