Thursday, July 17, 2014

Operation North Wind in World War II

I always thought the Battle of the Bulge was the last major offensive by the Germans on the western front in World War II. In writing the biography of my friend, Ed, a World War II infantryman during Operation North Wind, I learned something new.

For Operation North Wind (Unternehmen Nordwind), Hitler gave orders to destroy the American forces in the Vosges Mountains.

As the German advance in the Battle of the Bulge stalled, Hitler went back to one of the rejected earlier plans. The fighting in the north had pulled Patton’s army to the Ardennes, so the new attempt at attacking the allies occurred in the Alsace region on December 31, 1944, one hour before midnight.

With the movement of Patton’s troops to fight in the Battle of the Bulge to the north, the lines of the Seventh Army were spread thin.

For the second time within the month of December, allied command was surprised by a ferocious German attack, this time on New Year’s Eve. Earlier, the British had been able to intercept and break the code of radio communications from the Germans. This worked very well when the Germans were in French territory. But after the German forces withdrew into Germany, they relied on wire communications rather than wireless that could be intercepted.  The allies had lost surveillance of a number of German units but did pick up hints of a buildup opposite the American Seventh Army. Other evidence included increased refugee movement toward the west and a break in German radio silence on New Year’s Eve.

Dissent also existed within allied command. With some of the initial signs of a buildup of enemy troops, Eisenhower had given orders to General Devers of the Sixth Army Group to retreat if attacked. He wanted to avoid another situation as in the Battle of the Bulge where the Germans had surrounded allied troops in Bastogne. The Sixth Army Group consisted of the US Seventh Army under General Patch and the French First Army under General Lattre de Tassigny. Patch had the unenviable position of defending a front of over 125 miles with six infantry divisions. Within the Seventh Army, General Haislip’s XV Corps made up of the 44th, 100th and 103rd Divisions had thirty-five miles along the Vosges to defend.

De Gaulle became aware of Eisenhower’s direction to Devers to be prepared to fall back and strenuously objected, since he did not want to give up Strasbourg, which had been recaptured by the Allies. Strasbourg lay on the French side of the border, but had been a contested city for years between France and Germany. De Gaulle knew that if the Germans retook the city, numerous French citizens would be slaughtered for defying the Nazis. Strasbourg remained second only to Paris as a symbol of the rebirth of France after German domination. De Gaulle threatened to pull the French troops out of the alliance if Strasbourg were not defended. This led to a meeting between Churchill, Eisenhower and De Gaulle. Churchill sided with De Gaulle that Strasbourg should not be given up. A repercussion was that de Gaulle lost his trust in American command, which played out years later in his independent attitude, refusal to join NATO and hostility toward the United States.

The initial advances made by the Germans early in January, 1945, in Operation North Wind were stopped, and from then on, the Allies made the advances.

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