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Winter in Northern Alsace

John E. Pretsch Drawing - 1945For those who have never seen this place it is hard to fully understand the disaster. Flat ground has often been described as being like a billiard table. Herrlisheim is no exception. From the positions in the eastern edge of the Langenau woods, as well as from the Stainwald patch or from Gambsheim, the complete profile of our objective could be seen. Equally as well, the enemy, known to be in Offendorf and dug in along the edge of Herrlisheim, had as little difficulty in observing any trespassing across the open land. Running generally north and south along the road from Gambsheim to Herrlisheim was a railroad bed set high to avoid just such floods as were now taking place. This bed, along with a few scattered trees on the western edge of town and along the road, offered the only protection from complete observation. It was like trying to run the length of a football field with the enemy sitting in the stands. Such a thing as a covered route of approach for the 3rd Battalion, selected to strike from the South, was non-existant.

Being attacked was nothing new to this naked town. Some weeks previous, tanks of the 12th Armored Division had rumbled across the same barren fields in hopes of breaking the German foothold in this corner of France, and the iron shells of defeat still remained. From the air, pilots claimed these tanks that were destroyed gave the appearance of an armored group still in formation for an attack, so accurately and so heavy was the fire from Germans guns. With this undisturbed evidence before them, the 3rd Battalion moved out into the darkness of the first hours of morning in hopes of taking Herrlisheim by surprise.

Continual rains had caused the Zorn River to rise four feet during the night and the two bridges, one foot and one treadway, that the Engineers were constructing, were necessarily late in completion.

The general plan was that I Company on the right should cross the treadway and, guiding on the highway, move northeast into the town. Company K, farther north, was to cross the River Zorn and guide on it into Herrlisheim. Tanks were then supposed to follow and deliver their power where it was needed. Success for the entire operation depended upon the element of surprise and upon the ability to maintain contact in the dark. None of the softening agency of artillery was to proceed the advance.

John E. Pretsch Drawing - 1945
". . . No sense of both of us crossing that open field. I'll stay here and cover you from this pill-box . . ."
Moving into Herrlisheim that dark morning will be remembered by many as more of a matter of swimming than walking. Great stretches of water expanded by the rains of that night were waist deep. Often beneath all this water was a sheet of ice that had been flooded before the sudden thaw could melt it. Movement was painful, slow and unsure across the 1200 yards, and the ever present possibility of mines was no comfort. Constant falling because of the slick mud or ice, or the complete submerging in some hidden hole or ditch, drenched clothing and clogged rifles. Herrlisheim seemed very far away. One huge lake caused I Company to proceed more north than east at the beginning of the march, and the two attacking companies were side by side when the first chatter of German machine guns revealed that the enemy was there and awake. Despite the difficulty of such a movement everything was pretty well under control when flaming rags ignited by one of our rockets lighted the cellar of a house on the edge of town and gave our leading elements their first indication that Herrlisheim was but a hundred yards ahead. Not long after, dawn outlined the saftey of the buildings and everyone dashed for them. Open ground is dangerous at night, but death in daylight.

Full light found the situation more than serious. The houses that we had taken were in the center of a strongly defended German position supported by fire from emplacements along the southern edge of town and along the banks of the canal. Attempts by leaders to dash from house to house in order to reorganize proved futile in the face of grazing fire from enemy held houses, and fighting became more a matter of private groups hopelessly struggling against an organized enemy.

The tanks assembled behind the bridge never crossed because of accurate fire from nearby Offendorf. The 1st Battalion had reached the objective line north of Herrlisheim, but neither they nor the 2nd Battalion could do anything in the way of reinforcing since crossing the open tract would have been mass suicide in the light of day. With the John E. Pretsch Drawing - 1945apparent build up of enemy power and with the bitter knowledge that the supporting tanks were still back beyond the river, the situation was deemed hopeless. Both units had suffered heavily during the approach march and the house fighting, and weapons, fouled with mud and water, refused to function. Some men had to stop and clean their usually reliable M-1's in order to fire a single shot. By noon the ammunition supply was dangerously low with no chance for resupply. Further attempts to expand their position and continue the attack were impossible. It was a matter of being annihilated or captured, or attempting the dangerous withdrawal back across the open wasteland.

Little can be said about the withdrawal, if it can be termed such, other than it was a case of letting fly with what you had and getting the hell out. It was in this phase of the battle that we lost most heavily. Wounded had to crawl or be helped through the same flooded areas, back past the mangled hulks that monumented the first deathly failure at Herrlisheim. It is likely that some of the wounded may have drowned in their effort to swim the canal. A bitter, miserable group reached the safety of the woods, cold, wet, without weapons or helmets. Nearly a hundred remained behind.

The lesson at Herrlisheim was too expensive to be forgotten.


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