AFTER advancing nearly four hundred miles in the month following the invasion of southern France, the DRAGOON juggernaut had gained hardly fifteen miles in the subsequent six weeks. In mid-November, it remained pinned along the western slope of the Vosges Mountains: as Lucian Truscott had feared, the failure to force the Belfort Gap near the Swiss border had enabled the German Nineteenth Army, spavined though it was, to make a stand. Nine weak enemy divisions straddled the high ground along an eighty-mile front from Switzerland to the Rhine–Marne Canal. Opposing them was the 6th Army Group, formally created in September from two armies: Patch’s Seventh on the left, in the north, and De Lattre’s French First on the right, in the south. Eisenhower’s transfer of XV Corps from Third Army to Seventh—much to Patton’s annoyance—gave the Franco-American host four corps, nearly half a million men. They now steeled themselves for what was described as “the first crossing of the Vosges in history under winter battle conditions.”
Few could feel optimistic. The Vosges massif loomed like a granite glacis thirty miles deep and seventy miles wide; cleft by few passes, the range was so thickly wooded that a Guadalcanal veteran like Patch was reminded of jungle fighting. “Mountains, woods, and rain are things I do not like anymore, at least in a war,” John Dahlquist, the 36th Division commander, wrote his wife in November. “But I will probably see a lot more of them before I am through, so I had better get philosophical about them.” Italy veterans in the 36th, 45th, and 3rd Divisions had little stomach for another winter campaign in the uplands, and “alarming mental and physical lethargy” was reported in at least one regiment.
The season had been marked by straggling and desertion; replacements were described as “inept and poorly trained,” and the mud was so deep that even airstrips for spotter planes had to be corduroyed with logs painted olive drab. Trench foot, frostbite, mines, and steel-jawed bear traps planted by the Germans added to the misery. The first snow had fallen on October 27, and GIs smeared Vaseline on their tent seams in a vain effort to stay dry. Winter clothing arrived late, despite emergency shipments flown into Dijon aboard B-24s. Six hundred thousand men and almost a million tons of matériel had come through Marseille and Toulon and across the Côte d’Azur beaches by early November. But a long trek to the front, various miscalculations, and a thriving black market in the French ports—20 percent of the cargo unloaded in Marseille was stolen, often by Army freebooters—made for shortages of food, ammunition, and fuel.
“Dear Family,” wrote Lieutenant June Wandrey, a nurse in Seventh Army,
If it wasn’t against the family tradition to commit suicide, I’d do it, as wherever I’d go it would be warmer than it is here.… I’m tired of the noises of war, the trauma of war, the sleeplessness of war, the hunger of war.… Our cook was a mortician in civilian life. He embalms all our food.
The season also had been marked by the usual heartbreak, a reminder that even as millions perished in the global conflagration, they died one by one. Among those killed in late October was Dahlquist’s aide, Lieutenant Wells Lewis, son of the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Sinclair Lewis. A Harvard graduate named for H. G. Wells, young Lewis died in Dahlquist’s arms after being shot in the head by a sniper. “It is over two years since I last saw my son,” his mother wrote Dahlquist. “For a soldier to die in his General’s arms is in the great tradition, a literary symbol which I know Wells himself would appreciate.”
Killed the same week, by antitank fire, was Patch’s only son, Captain Alexander M. “Mac” Patch III, a company commander in the 79th Division who had returned to combat four days earlier after recuperating from a bullet wound to the shoulder suffered in Normandy. General Patch ordered Mac’s body brought to his headquarters at Épinal. “So long, son,” he said at the open grave, then muttered, “Well, he is not cold and wet and hungry.”
Two weeks later Patch wrote to his wife, Julia: “I’ve been dreading my first letter from you after you had heard from me. It came today.” He continued:
You, and only you, know how deeply hurt I am.… It is our private, strictly private grief. No one else’s. My hardest period is over. It was during the period after Mac’s death, when I kept getting letters from you—such happy letters.… You would tell me in those letters to please not let him get back to his outfit too soon. And I could hardly stand it, knowing I had done just that. I shall never be able to forgive myself.
“I cannot and must not allow myself to dwell upon our irreparable loss,” he told her. “As I write, the tears are falling from my eyes.… Providence decrees and we must obey.”
The good soldier soldiered on, but Omar Bradley later wrote that “the psychological effect on Patch has been so devastating as to impair his effectiveness as an army commander.” Reflecting on Patch’s loss, General Dahlquist told his wife, “It is almost beyond comprehension that the human being can stand so much.”
* * *
The town of Baccarat had been liberated in late October and its famous crystal works captured intact, including an elegant service ordered by Hermann Göring but instead confiscated by Allied officers from which to sip champagne. Dahlquist also bought 100,000 gallons of beer from a French brewery, and engineers rigged pumps to siphon it to the troops. Many toasts were drunk—to the dead, to the living, to fickle life itself. “Rain has started again,” Dahlquist wrote home, “and how I hate it. It makes the job ten times harder.”
Perpetual friction with the French made the job harder still. General de Lattre de Tassigny, that animal of action, struggled to whip his quarter of a million men into an army rather than a mob. “Our African soldiers felt lost in the dark forests,” De Lattre later wrote. Colonial troops still wearing summer uniforms were “unsuited to the winter climate,” he added, and cruelly susceptible to trench foot; some French troops wore wooden shoes. On De Gaulle’s orders, many colonials were sent to the rear to make room for untrained FFI irregulars. This blanchiment, or whitening, was intended to nurture French national unity; De Gaulle also wished both to relieve the African troops, who had carried a disproportionate burden of France’s fight in the Mediterranean, and to bring some 400,000 Resistance fighters—many of them communists—under military control. The colonials had once made up more than half the manpower of the French army; now that share would decline to about one-third. Senegalese and Cameroonians shambled from the Vosges front, handing their rifles, helmets, and greatcoats to white Frenchmen trotting into the line. This “crusade” for French self-respect, as De Lattre called it, would add to the French First Army some 137,000 maquis, a “vibrant and tumultuous force” with thin combat skills and paltry logistical support. De Lattre found himself waging what he called “a battle against shortage, anarchy, and complaisance.”
Base 901, the French supply organization, in late fall consisted of twelve hundred men with two hundred vehicles. American logisticians calculated that an eight-division army should have more than 100,000 support troops, but De Lattre would never have even a third of that number. Consequently he relied on the Americans—with all of the pathologies that dependency engendered—for everything from the one-third liter of wine included in French rations to the ten pounds of crushed oats, fourteen pounds of hay, and two ounces of salt needed each day for a mountain mule. For every French soldier in Europe, the U.S. Army billed De Gaulle $6.67 per day in support costs.
Franco-American frictions intensified as winter approached. When only 25,000 uniforms could be found for French troops, in a Canadian warehouse in Algiers, De Lattre announced that unless his men received wool clothing he would be “forced to withdraw them from combat.” To the 6th Army Group headquarters, he wrote: “This army has been discriminated against … in a way seriously prejudicial to its life and to its capabilities for action.” The French First Army, he charged, received less than a third of the ammunition, fuel, and rations provided Seventh Army, causing an “asphyxiation of the front line.” U.S. quartermasters bitterly denied the allegation and countered that reckless French troops had ruined three thousand pyramidal tents at a time when canvas was “extremely critical.” An American general wrote of De Lattre, “He goes into these tirades at least twice a week, at which time he seems to lose his balance.” One ill-advised tantrum, launched in the presence of a visiting George Marshall, included allegations that Truscott’s VI Corps had pilfered gasoline allocated to the French. The chief of staff walked out. Later, he rounded on De Lattre with pale fury. “You celebrated all the way up the road. You were late on every damn thing. And you were critical of Truscott, who is a fighter and not a talker,” Marshall said. The chief finished with the worst epithet he could conjure: “You are a politico.”
“It was our duty,” De Lattre subsequently explained, “to be dissatisfied.”
Now Truscott was gone, initially summoned by Eisenhower to organize the new Fifteenth Army as an occupation force—“You won’t like it,” the supreme commander warned—but then just as abruptly dispatched instead to command Fifth Army in Italy, after General Mark W. Clark took over all Allied forces there. At a farewell ceremony in the Vosges, a band crashed through “The Dogface Soldier” as tears streamed down Truscott’s rough cheeks. His successor as commander of VI Corps was Major General Edward H. Brooks, a New Englander who had commanded both the 11th and 2nd Armored Divisions.
With Truscott’s departure, the dominant figure on the southern front was the officer who would orchestrate the offensive to breach the Vosges: Lieutenant General Jacob Loucks Devers, the 6th Army Group commander. Now fifty-seven, Devers was the grandson of a blacksmith and son of a jeweler in York, Pennsylvania. There young Jake had climbed a ladder every Sunday with his father to make sure the courthouse clock on East Market Street was correct to the second. A classmate of Patton’s at West Point, he played baseball, basketball, and lacrosse, later returning to teach mathematics; the academy yearbook described him as “clever”—always suspect in the Army—and as “an exceedingly earnest youth with rather Puritanical views.” A gifted artilleryman and administrator, Devers, like De Lattre, was among the youngest officers in his army to become a general, jumping over nearly five hundred more senior colonels to win his first star in 1940. As chief of the armored force for two years, he helped modernize a tank arm rife with traditionalists nostalgic for the horse. (“I made a lot of mistakes today,” he would tell subordinates during maneuvers. “So did you.”) With Marshall and McNair as patrons, in May 1943 he became commander of U.S. forces in Europe until Eisenhower’s return to London for OVERLORD, whereupon Devers was bundled off to the Mediterranean as the eventual commander of the forces that now formed the right wing of the Allied armies in northwestern Europe.
Capable and decisive, he had a knack for provoking the enmity of his peers. Perhaps it was his brazen ambition—it was said that when Marshall appointed him to a committee to recommend general officers worthy of further promotion, Devers listed himself first. Perhaps it was his overeager smile, the mien “of a boy who hasn’t grown up,” as one British general said. He and Mark Clark detested each other to the point of not speaking, and Devers’s classmate Patton considered him “a very small caliber man.” In Beetle Smith’s assessment, “Devers talks too much and doesn’t care what he says.” Bradley condemned him, with both barrels, as “overly garrulous … egotistical, shallow, intolerant, not very smart, and much too inclined to rush off half-cocked.”
Worse yet, according to a recent entry in Patton’s diary after a conference in Paris, “Ike hates him.” The supreme commander evidently nursed old resentments: Devers’s reluctance in 1943 to shift bomber squadrons from England to North Africa had displeased Eisenhower, as did his refusal a year later to release Truscott from the Mediterranean for OVERLORD. “E. says that [Devers] talks a lot but never gets down to facts,” Kay Summersby told her diary. Devers brought out the conniver in E., who told Marshall, “I have nothing in the world against General Devers,” but allowed that he had previously harbored an “uneasy feeling” about him. When Marshall asked Eisenhower to assess thirty-eight senior American generals in Europe, Devers ranked twenty-fourth on the supreme commander’s list and elicited the only pejorative comments of the lot:
Enthusiastic but often inaccurate in statements and evaluations; loyal and energetic.… He has not, so far, produced among the seniors of the American organization here that feeling of trust and confidence that is so necessary to continued success.
Eisenhower sold Devers short. The top U.S. airman in the Mediterranean, Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker, considered him “the ablest commander I saw in the war.” Among other skills, Devers was second only to Eisenhower in his ability to reconcile national differences and forge an effective Allied military coalition. While acknowledging in his diary that De Lattre “is a very difficult man to handle, hears only the things he wants to hear [and is] a temperamental personality who causes more trouble within his own staff and troops than he does with us,” Devers showed a sure touch in dealing with a warrior he recognized as “a great inspirational leader”—even if “I never did learn to pronounce that name.” De Lattre spoke no English, and French had been Devers’s worst subject at West Point, but they shared what Devers called “that common language—the gesture and the smile.” More practically, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., a former U.S. senator who had been schooled in France and now wore a lieutenant colonel’s uniform, served as an able liaison between the two.
As for his compatriots, Devers displayed more than a little naiveté. To his diary in November he described Bradley as “the same fine character as always”; in fact, Devers had modeled his headquarters after that of 12th Army Group, which he admired. Though he brooded, in a letter to his wife, about possible “enemies” at SHAEF and “the undercutting that goes on,” he believed Eisenhower and Smith to be friendly, “in their way.” But even the bouncy sangfroid and the too-ready smile sometimes slipped a bit as his troops prepared to fling themselves into the Vosges. “Nobody but an utter fool would do what I’m about to do,” he told subordinates. “That’s the reason why we’ll take them by surprise—they won’t be expecting us.” A staff officer close to Devers concluded, “He’s lonely as the devil.”
* * *
SHAEF’s orders called for 6th Army Group to shield Bradley’s southern flank, destroy the enemy in Alsace west of the Rhine, breach the Siegfried Line, and secure river crossings near Karlsruhe and Mannheim, respectively forty and seventy miles northeast of Strasbourg—all in service of Eisenhower’s plan to cleanse the Rhine’s left bank from Switzerland to Nijmegen before pushing across Germany in 1945. Privately the planners in Versailles expected little from the southern front, given the difficulties of the past six weeks. New, unblooded units now weighted the American force, including the 100th and 103rd Infantry Divisions and the 14th Armored Division, not to mention those callow amateurs flocking to De Lattre’s flag.
Devers had grander ambitions. German forces along the Vosges were believed to have a strength equivalent to no more than four infantry and two panzer divisions. The general calculated that an offensive launched in mid-November ought to break onto the Alsatian plain and reach the Rhine in two weeks, before swinging north to isolate the Saar. A vengeful urgency now gripped the French: the Germans had begun scorched-earth reprisals, dragging many able-bodied Alsatians between sixteen and sixty across the Rhine as forced laborers, while SS brigands burned farms, villages, and towns rather than cede winter shelter to the Allies. “Don’t get stuck in those mountains,” Devers warned his subordinates. “You’ll never get out.”
De Lattre made the first move, attacking on Tuesday, November 14, after heavy snow created what he described as “a Scandinavian landscape.” Various deceptions—including phony command posts and an announcement that French troops would begin holiday leave in mid-November—suggested that the army either had designs on the High Vosges to the north or was moving into winter quarters. Instead, De Lattre sent blacked-out convoys bearing his I Corps along the Doubs River near the Swiss frontier. A two-hour artillery barrage caught the Germans unawares, and French infantrymen surged forward at noon. Two divisions straddling the Doubs hooked north into the Belfort Gap, which sundered the Vosges from the Jura Mountains and Swiss Alps to the south. Moroccan riflemen killed a German division commander who had been trapped along the river by the artillery barrage; his effects included a map and notes detailing defensive positions on the German left flank.
By Thursday, French tanks were “decisive everywhere,” De Lattre reported. German gunners firing captured Russian howitzers had little ammunition, and thirty new 88mm antitank weapons arrived without sights and other vital components. Among the few reserves slapped into the crumbling line were riflemen pedaling through the snow on bicycles and an Ohren-Bataillon of deaf soldiers. French shock troops swarmed into Belfort town, surprising Wehrmacht bakers at their dough trays. Three French tank columns with lights burning clattered east along Highway N-463, and at 6:30 P.M. on Sunday, November 19, a patrol from the 1st Armored Division reached the slate-blue Rhine, thirty miles east of Belfort and four miles above the Swiss border. Gleeful batteries lobbed a few shells across the river, the first French artillery to fall on German soil since 1940.
Having forsaken a substantial wedge of southern Alsace despite Hitler’s order not to yield a centimeter, the Nineteenth Army belatedly stiffened. Confusion in the French ranks helped. While a weak detachment wheeled north up the Rhine toward the bridge at Chalampé, other forces keen to liberate their Alsatian frères instead swung toward Mulhouse, seven miles west of the river. Twenty German Feldpost workers were captured at pistol-point while sorting the military mail on Monday morning, and sixty other deep sleepers surrendered on their cots. But Waffen-SS troops and a brigade of new Panthers sent straight from the factory in Nuremberg rebuilt the enemy line. Savage brawling in Mulhouse persisted for four days; south of Chalampé, a counterattack on Thursday, November 23, clubbed the French away, just three miles short of the bridge. De Lattre’s forces would come no closer for the next two and a half months: having captured fifteen thousand Germans at a cost of nine thousand casualties, the French First Army for the moment was a spent force.
* * *
Hopes for a decisive breakthrough now rested on Seventh Army’s eight divisions packed along Devers’s left wing. Here, where the High Vosges descended to the Low Vosges, the Saverne Gap provided a topographic counterpoint in the north to the Belfort Gap in the south. Barely a hundred yards wide in spots, the defile carried the main rail line to Strasbourg, as well as the Rhine–Marne Canal and an ancient roadbed, described by an eighteenth-century travel writer as “one of the masterpieces of man.” Twelve thousand infantrymen from a pair of Major General Wade Haislip’s XV Corps divisions had been gnawing at the western approaches to the gap since November 13, past moldering World War I trenches and conifers bent beneath wet snow. Four German defensive lines lay athwart the gap, manned by a few thousand Volksgrenadiers held in check by the threat of SS reprisals, producing what Seventh Army intelligence called “ersatz morale.”
By November 19, American firepower began to tell. Shelling “left little more of the woods than an old man’s scraggly beard,” and retreating Germans could be seen silhouetted against flaming houses they had put to the torch. On that Sunday, even as De Lattre’s men were spitting into the Rhine, the 44th Division rambled for nine miles along Highway N-4, and the 79th Division just to the south broke through to Sarrebourg. Tricolors appeared. French policemen pulled on uniforms hidden away four years earlier. Cries of“Kamerad!” could be heard from more surrendering Germans, including artillerymen overrun before they could limber their guns. Rain turned to snow, then back to rain—“as hard as I have ever seen it rain anywhere,” Devers told his diary on Monday. But not even the harshest weather would save a German line now cracked beyond repair.
Into the breach pried open by the infantry rode a familiar swashbuckler sporting a kepi and wielding a malacca cane. In August, General Philippe Leclerc’s French 2nd Armored Division had captured Paris; now, seconded to XV Corps, Leclerc eyed another enslaved ville in need of liberation. During his anabasis in Africa almost three years earlier, he and his warriors had taken a dramatic vow after capturing the Italian garrison at Koufra: “We swear not to lay down our arms until our colors, our beautiful colors, again fly from the Strasbourg cathedral.” For the past several days, between catnaps on the drawing-room floor of a forest château, Leclerc had studied maps of the logging tracks and farm paths spilling onto the Alsatian plain, his eyes narrowed and his lips pursed. “Beat the devil,” Haislip told him at last. “Leclerc, this is your country. Strasbourg is yours.”
En avant then, again. Pursued by French outriders in Sherman tanks, horse-drawn German caissons and gun carriages lurched around one hairpin turn after another, eastward through the Saverne Gap. “The brave horses were galloping as fast as they could,” a witness recounted.
They reached one more bend and then, under the staccato fire of the machine guns, saw themselves abandoned in a second by the German gun crews and drivers. The teams, running wild, were caught up by the armor, which were careful not to immobilize them across the road.
French tankers pulled abreast of the runaways and shouldered fifteen guns and fifty or more draft teams into the ditch in a whinnying moil of equine legs and spinning wagon wheels. As enemy soldiers emerged from the thickets with their hands high, the French detachment commander radioed Leclerc, “Now I am exploiting.” Among eight hundred prisoners captured in Saverne town on November 22 was a German general, described as “upright and gloved, in his long leather coat.” Frog-marched before Leclerc, he punctuated his sentences with a slight inclination of the torso while insisting, “All is not lost.”
Tout au contraire. “Advance without losing a second,” Leclerc commanded, and at 7:15 A.M. on Thursday, November 23—Thanksgiving—five columns of Shermans and armored cars swept toward Strasbourg in teeming rain. “We went roaring across the plains,” an American liaison officer reported. Sixteen strongholds named for martial demigods like Foch and Ney guarded the city’s western approaches, but they were toothless without heavy guns or German reserves. At 10:30 French tanks spilled into downtown Strasbourg, machine-gunning astonished Wehrmacht officers caught packing their sedans or window-shopping with their wives on the boulevards. Booming 75mm fire shattered seven antitank guns near the Parc de la Citadelle before German crews could fire a shot, and trailing French howitzers cut loose from a city park, drawing return fire from enemy batteries across the river that “sent windowpanes tinkling into the streets,” according to The New York Times. A coded radio message advised Leclerc,“Tissu est dans iode”—the cloth is in the iodine. The French vanguard was advancing through Strasbourg toward the Rhine bridges.
As rain drummed off his kepi, Leclerc now made for the city in an open jeep with an escort of light tanks, half-tracks, and seventy men. Through the downpour he soon spied the pink sandstone spire of Strasbourg cathedral, Goethe’s “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God,” which at nearly five hundred feet had been the world’s tallest building for more than two centuries. A tricolor flew from the pinnacle. “Now we can die,” Leclerc muttered.
But not yet. A captured German engineer was persuaded to phone his headquarters at noon on Thursday with a French surrender ultimatum; he managed to reach General Hermann Balck, the Army Group G commander, only to be told, “If you don’t immediately stop your activities in Strasbourg, your family will land in the concentration camp.” Most of the city already was lost to the Reich, and a furious Hitler threatened to demote every officer in Nineteenth Army by one grade. But the Rhine bridge leading to Kehl on the German shore remained in enemy hands. Blockhouses and an effective straggler line, reinforced by mortar and artillery fire, halted the French less than six hundred yards from the river. A stalemated struggle for the western bridgehead settled into what a French officer described as “a solid artillery argument,” with the Germans unwilling to retreat the final half-mile into Germany, and Leclerc unable to cudgel them across the Rhine.
“Lots of dead civilians in Strasbourg,” an American engineer informed his diary. “Children still playing in the street as though nothing had happened.” French and American forces finished mopping up isolated enemy outposts, using city parks and a brewery as detention centers for six thousand Wehrmacht soldiers and fifteen thousand interned German civilians. “One by one,” a French account noted, “we captured the human contents of the other forts, barracks, offices, and hospitals.”
* * *
Strasbourg’s emancipation brought two significant discoveries. Thirty miles southwest of the city, at Natzweiler, GIs overran their first concentration camp. Most of the seven thousand inmates still alive had been evacuated to the east, but ample evidence of atrocity remained. Built in 1941, Natzweiler had housed French résistants, Jews, homosexuals, and others deemed socially unfit; many had toiled in nearby granite quarries or munitions factories. A chamber built in an adjacent hotel had been used for poison-gas experiments, mostly against Gypsies imported from Auschwitz, and it was said that victims chosen for extermination were plied with sweets and cakes. Other human experiments involved typhus, yellow fever, and mustard gas. The corpses of gassed Jews were trucked by the score to a Strasbourg anatomy laboratory for dissection or preservation in alcohol as part of an SS study on “racial inferiority.” Other bodies were cremated, with families reportedly charged seventy-five Reichmarks to retrieve a clay urn of ashes. Seventeen thousand had died at Natzweiler and its satellite camps.
The second discovery was no less portentous. Close on the heels of Leclerc’s armored spearhead was an American intelligence unit code-named ALSOS, carrying secret instructions from the physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer and Luis W. Alvarez on clues to look for in investigating “the Y program”—the German atomic bomb effort. Evidence discovered in Paris and at the Philips factory in Eindhoven pointed to the University of Strasbourg as a key atomic research center. ALSOS agents darted through laboratories, offices, and homes, arresting German physicists and chemists; they retrieved unburned scraps of scientific papers stuck in the chimney of a potbelly stove. Their chief target, the physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, a close collaborator of the Nobel Prize–winner Werner Heisenberg, was away in Germany, but his papers, computations, and correspondence remained in Strasbourg to be confiscated by the agents.
As Lieutenant General Leslie R. Groves, Jr., the director of the Manhattan Project, later wrote SHAEF, the Strasbourg seizures provided “the most complete, dependable and factual information we have obtained bearing upon the nature and extent of the German effort in our field. Fortunately it tends to confirm our conclusion that the Germans are now behind us.” Far behind: top secret assessments found that “the enemy had made practically no progress” in building a bomb, that “the effort is not large,” and that “no evidence was uncovered of any uranium work on a production scale.” Despite the Y program’s supposedly high priority, captured documents showed that German scientists had been forced to file a “certificate of urgency” for permission to buy “two slide rules for carrying out a project of military importance.” Colonel Boris T. Pash, the ALSOS commander, reported that interrogations and other evidence confirmed that “the Nazis had not progressed in atomic development as far as our own project had early in 1941.”
Leclerc and his lieutenants bivouacked in the ballroom of the nineteenth-century Kaiserpalast, used for four years as the Wehrmacht headquarters and said by a 2nd Armored Division officer to be the only building in Strasbourg to which, “because of its pretentious design, it was pleasant to give a German name.” Shopkeepers switched their storefront signage back to French, reversing the changes of 1940, but the process of “dis-annexation” would be protracted and painful. More than half a million residents of Alsace and Lorraine had been deported to Germany as laborers, with another 140,000 forcibly drafted into the German army. Leclerc posted placards warning that “for every French soldier shot down in the city, five German hostages will be shot,” a threat promptly disavowed by Devers as a violation of the Geneva Conventions. “There is no question that the French hate with the greatest bitterness,” wrote the intelligence officer J. Glenn Gray. “They feed themselves on hatred. It is all strange and horrible.”
A ceremony near the cathedral commemorated Strasbourg’s return to French sovereignty with ringing bells and the usual bellowing of “La Marseillaise,” although the din from antiaircraft guns peppering eight Luftwaffe intruders distracted the celebrants. In a message to De Gaulle, Leclerc proclaimed the vow of Koufra fulfilled.
Hitler in a 1940 visit to Strasbourg had also made a pledge: “We will never give it back.” The Führer had kept his promise as well. He had not returned the city. The French had taken it.
* * *
For nearly three months Seventh Army had made ready to vault the Rhine. Two river-crossing schools, on the Rhône and on the Doubs, taught GIs the intricacies of bridge construction, raft and ferry tactics, and the swift-water operation of storm boats. Eight hundred outboard-motor operators were now trained, and engineers had scrutinized the German capacity to generate floods on the river, extracting private assurances from the Swiss that upstream weirs would be safeguarded. SHAEF rejected a proposal to capture a bridgehead with two airborne divisions—MARKET GARDEN had cast a pall over such initiatives—and now eight infantry battalions were charged with seizing the far bank.
Even if the bridge from Strasbourg to Kehl remained standing, that avenue led only to the labyrinthine Schwarzwald, the Black Forest, so Seventh Army planners had long eyed a crossing site at Rastatt, a Baroque German town twenty-five miles farther north. Patrols found few defenders along the river there; Devers, who alarmed his headquarters by vanishing for more than a day while personally questioning scouts in the bottoms above Strasbourg, envisioned an advance from Rastatt to Karlsruhe, then a pivot westbehind the Siegfried Line bunkers, thus trapping the German First Army between Patch and Patton. Even as Leclerc’s tanks cavorted through Strasbourg, convoys thirty-five miles long had begun rolling toward riverfront assembly areas with DUKWs, bridging equipment, and boats stacked on trucks. On Thanksgiving night, Patch’s engineers told him they could cross the Rhine on forty-eight hours’ notice.
Eisenhower knew almost nothing of Devers’s plans. On Friday morning, November 24, he and Bradley drove into the Vosges, following a brief conference with Patton in Nancy. They found Devers and Patch waiting for them in Lunéville at 11:30 A.M.; the small convoy then wheeled down Highway N-4 through spattering rain for thirty miles to the XV Corps command post at Sarrebourg. Devers looked “happy and boyish as usual,” wrote Bradley’s aide, Major Chester Hansen, although “Patch appeared grave, much older.” After lunch with Haislip, at two P.M. they continued south another thirty miles through Baccarat to the VI Corps command post at St.-Dié, where the Cosmographiae Introductio—the book that had first used the name “America” for the New World—had been published in 1507. Now St.-Dié’s textile mills, lumber yards, and eleventh-century church lay in ashes, pillaged by German demolitionists with incendiary grenades and dynamite. Residents with “square, impassive Alsatian faces” huddled in the rain along the charred walls that had once been their homes, wrote Hansen. Eisenhower called it “one of the most appalling sights of wanton destruction I’ve ever seen.”
A final forty-mile drive to the west brought the convoy to the 6th Army Group headquarters in Vittel at six P.M. Revived by a boisterous cocktail party with ample scotch, the travelers enjoyed a late dinner at the elegant Heritage Hotel. After coffee, Devers led Eisenhower and Bradley to his penthouse suite, where the three men sat at a table.
The supreme commander wasted no time. Patton that same morning had pleaded for the return of XV Corps from Seventh Army, and Bradley agreed that the transfer of at least two divisions was warranted to reinforce Third Army’s seventy-mile front. Despite the capture of Metz, Patton remained roadbound and not yet on the Saar.
“He’s in the mud, and he’s up against a concrete bastion,” Devers said sympathetically.
Eisenhower frowned. New reports of a German counterattack from the north against Haislip’s troops were unsettling: seventy tanks from the Panzer Lehr Division had routed cavalrymen eating their Thanksgiving turkey, and only massed artillery and timely help from Patton’s 4th Armored Division would blunt the enemy advance. Eisenhower was even more nonplussed to learn that much of Seventh Army was heading for the Rhine at Rastatt. A crossing there, he complained, was “a helluva way to get to Berlin.”
“Ike, I’m on the Haguenau river, moving north,” Devers said, his voice rising. “I’ve got everything in the woods there to cross the Rhine. On the other side there are a lot of pillboxes, but they’re not occupied.”
“Those pillboxes are like hedgerows,” Bradley said.
“Brad, we haven’t got any hedgerows. We’ve got pillboxes, and the pillboxes aren’t occupied,” Devers said. “We can do this with a minimal force—as a raid, really—and this will cause the Germans no end of trouble.”
The conversation dragged into the small hours of Saturday morning, the tone ever sharper. Devers noted that SHAEF had encouraged opportunism in seizing Rhine bridgeheads. Why flinch now? Shouldn’t Seventh Army be strengthened rather than Third? Was it unreasonable to think that Patton’s army should be shifted to the 6th Army Group so that together they could envelop the Saar?
Devers grew shrill. Eisenhower’s plan to clear the entire west bank of the Rhine before advancing into central Germany seemed pointless. Was SHAEF intent on destroying the enemy or simply on occupying territory? Yet Devers undercut his own argument by describing the lunge across the Rhine at Rastatt not as a great wheeling movement by an army group, but as a sally that would take only “a matter of hours.” Further, he likened it to Patton’s effort in August 1943 to loop behind the enemy with an amphibious landing by a single battalion on the north coast of Sicily at Brolo—a misbegotten analogy, since that operation had ended in calamity.
Eisenhower remained immovable, and in truth he had made up his mind days earlier. The advances through Alsace, though welcome and applauded, were “far from the Ruhr,” he observed, and a Rhine crossing here led to no “definitely decisive area.” Weary of arguing, he gave Devers explicit orders: Seventh Army would immediately pivot northward, west of the Rhine, while the French finished expelling the enemy from Alsace below Strasbourg. Although reportedly “mad as hell” at Devers’s obstinacy, Eisenhower offered a compromise, telling him that XV Corps would remain under 6th Army Group and even be strengthened with another armored division.
The trio of generals retired for a few hours’ sleep, not a happy man among them. Orders went forth the next morning. Seventh Army Staff Memorandum X-376 on Saturday advised commanders that the plan “has recently been changed. At the present, no crossing of the Rhine River is contemplated and the direction of the advance will turn north astride the Vosges Mountains and generally parallel to the Rhine.” Letter of Instruction No. 3 from 6th Army Group ordered the French First Army to extirpate the remaining Germans west of the river, with Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division driving south from Strasbourg under De Lattre’s command. SHAEF planners began concocting a collaborative attack by Patton and Patch, while noting that “although the joint Third Army–Seventh Army offensive is not the most important sector of the front, it offers the best chance of quick returns and of getting the main offensive underway once more.”
To his diary Devers confided, “The decision not to cross the Rhine was a blow to both Patch and myself, for we were really poised.”
* * *
Even the Army official history, published half a century after the event and disinclined to second-guess the high command, found Eisenhower’s decision “difficult to understand.” The supreme commander “had opted for an operational ‘strategy’ of firepower and attrition—the direct approach—as opposed to a war of opportunistic maneuver.” After encouraging a bloody attack through the Vosges, SHAEF possessed neither a coherent strategic goal for its southern wing nor the agility to exploit unexpected success. Even Patton believed Devers should have jumped the Rhine, yet little thought seems to have been given either in Versailles or in Luxembourg City to using Third Army’s tank legions to exploit a bridgehead at Rastatt. In “misusing 6th Army Group,” as one Army historian later charged, Eisenhower unwittingly gave the Germans a respite, allowing Hitler to continue assembling a secret counteroffensive aimed at the Ardennes in mid-December. Crossing the Rhine after Thanksgiving might well have complicated German planning for what soon would be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Surely the supreme commander’s personal distaste for Devers informed these events. Some also believed he played favorites with Bradley, his classmate and confidant. Devers emerged from the midnight session in Vittel wondering whether he was “a member of the same team.” In a letter to his wife a day later he scornfully referred to unnamed “great strategists” and lamented not receiving “a little encouragement … to bring the war to a quicker end.” In his diary he added, “The tragedy to my mind has been that the higher command has not seen fit to reinforce success on the flank.”
Yet Devers made errors of his own—not least, he failed to recognize how feeble the French were. Six of eight German infantry divisions in the Nineteenth Army had been destroyed, leaving a fifty-thousand-man remnant in a rectangular Alsatian pocket that extended for forty-five miles along the Rhine and twenty-five miles west toward the High Vosges. Although Hitler on November 26 decreed that “to give up Alsace is out of the question,” Rundstedt estimated that the pocket, which centered on the town of Colmar, could hold out for only three weeks. Devers told his diary, “It is hoped that the French Army will be able to destroy the Germans in their sector by 15 December.”
This was not to be. De Lattre would claim that thirty German battalions reinforced the pocket “with the help of darkness and fog,” but in fact only a few thousand more troops arrived west of the Rhine in the fortnight after Hitler’s decree. French exhaustion, losses among junior officers, and “confusion I have never seen anywhere,” as an American general put it, allowed the Germans to cauterize their lines.
Still more disheartening was the internecine bickering among Frenchmen who loathed one another at least as much as they loathed the enemy. Leclerc flatly refused Devers’s order to march south from Strasbourg to join De Lattre’s command, declaring, “I will not serve with any commanders who previously obeyed Vichy and whom I consider to be turncoats.” For their part, De Lattre’s men disdainfully refused to use Leclerc’s nom de guerre, calling him instead by his antebellum name, Hauteclocque. Paris seemed unable to resolve the bickering, and Devers confessed to his diary, “Having a great deal of trouble keeping the French at their job of closing the pocket.” He later added, “This was the only failure in command I ever had in war.” Even when reinforced with the U.S. 36th Infantry Division, De Lattre failed to crack the Colmar Pocket; it was to remain an open wound in the Allied flank for months and the source, as an American colonel wrote, of “a great deal of consternation and ill-feeling between Jakey Devers and Eisenhower.”
Seventh Army engineers trucked their storm boats back to supply dumps near Lunéville to await a brighter day. German dynamite on December 2 dropped the Kehl bridge into the Rhine with a thunderous splash, and the Strasbourg bridgehead escaped by boat to the Fatherland. Two railroad spans and three pontoon bridges closer to Colmar would keep the pocket victualed through the winter. Vicious sniper and artillery fire regularly swept back and forth across the river. Loudspeaker broadcasts from Kehl warned Alsatians that the Reich would soon return to reclaim Strasbourg.
“SHAEF treats us as bastard children,” a Seventh Army officer later wrote his family, “slightly ashamed of our progress.” Once again, an apparent battlefield victory was etched with vexation. Perhaps the taste of ashes was the flavor of war itself.