|A 70th Infantry Division GI batters down a door in Wingen, France. The house-to-house fighting in the Alsatian village would prove a horrific introduction to close-quarters fighting for the soldiers of two American infantry regiments that had just arrived in the European Theater of Operations. (National Archives)|
Outwardly, Wingen-sur-Moder (Wingen on the Moder River) was just a typical French village nestled in the Hardt Mountains. But it was here that GIs of the 70th ‘Trailblazers’ Infantry Division engaged in some of the most intense combat of the Alsatian campaign.
One of the key features of the small hamlet was a railroad line that sat on an embankment above the town and just below a ridge that dominated it to the north. In the town proper were the Wenk Hotel, the St. Flix Catholic Church and the train station. There were also two railroad underpasses going beneath the tracks at both ends of the town. The one most of the GIs would become familiar with was at the western end.
The terrain was difficult, with steep slopes surrounding the town. In January 1945 the weather was particularly cruel. The snow was waist deep, with drifts even deeper, and temperatures hovering around zero, as strong winds drove them even lower. For days the overcast sky brought early darkness to already short days.
At daybreak on January 3, the 361st Volksgrenadier Division (VGD), as part of the German Nordwind offensive, launched an attack on Reipertswiller, 10 miles northeast of Wingen. To complement this attack, the 1st and 3rd battalions of the 12th SS Gebirgsjäger (Mountain Infantry) Regiment, 6th SS Mountain Division, commanded by Colonel Franz Schreiber, were directed to push toward Wingen. This was the first appearance of the division on the Western Front. The two battalions (I/12 and III/12) were well trained for fighting in woods and mountains, veterans who had fought against the Russians in Finland between 1941 and 1944.
Schreiber’s troops were to attack south toward Wingen. The I/12 was to take Heideneck, a small village just northwest of Wingen, while the III/12 would capture Wingen itself. After both towns had been secured and a bridgehead established south of the Moder, the SS troops were to be reinforced by an assault gun battalion before advancing to the Saverne Gap to cut the American supply lines across the Vosges Mountains.
Defending Wingen at the time of the attack was the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry (1/179) command post, Headquarters and Service companies, the battalion aid station and service troops — about 300 officers and men. With the front lines a mile and a half to the north, the Americans felt reasonably secure. The 276th Infantry, 1st Battalion’s Charlie Company (C/276) was on line north of Wingen, A/276 in prepared positions on the high ground south of the village and B/276 to the northeast. The American units were untested, their leaders inexperienced.
On the night of January 3, the German Alpine troops bypassed the 179th Infantry’s positions and advanced through a gap in the American lines. At 0700 hours both battalions attacked the 276th’s positions. The III/12 advanced into Wingen on a 300-meter front, moving down the slope above the town in the predawn darkness, crossing the railroad tracks and striking toward the railroad station and the Catholic church. After two hours of house-to-house fighting, the SS troops secured Wingen. Attempts to advance farther were halted by American tanks to the south. The Germans did manage to move two companies across the Moder, which dug in while others prepared defensive positions in the buildings on the southern edge of the town. The I/12 had similar success in Heideneck and in the northwest part of Wingen.
The Germans, however, were unable to communicate with their headquarters, since their radio batteries had failed, so they could not report their success. The commander of the 361st VGD, Maj. Gen. Alfred Philippi, only learned of Wingen’s capture from an intercepted American message.
The German attack had caught the men of the 179th and 276th by surprise. The entire 179th 1st Battalion headquarters and its support troops were either killed, wounded or captured. Eight officers and 256 enlisted men were taken prisoner and quartered in the Catholic church. Another 30 to 40 were placed in a nearby house.
Schreiber’s III/12 established its command post in the Wenk Hotel. The I/12 set up its CP in the basement of a house about 400 meters west of the railroad station, and south of the railway embankment. Because of setbacks elsewhere along the front, Wingen became the focus of attention from the German high command, which was determined to exploit this deepest penetration of its offensive. A reinforced regiment of grenadiers and two more SS battalions were ordered to make their way to the area.
For their part, American commanders were stunned by the swiftness and strength of the German attack. It was essential to drive them out quickly — if the Germans could bring more troops into Wingen they might cut off a large part of the U.S. Seventh Army. The Americans ordered an immediate counterattack, but the 276th was stretched very thin. The 1/276 was in a state of disarray, and its commander had been evacuated. C/276 and the survivors of B/276 were cut off from the rest of the battalion on the north side of the town. The only intact unit immediately available was the 3rd Battalion, 276th Infantry, strengthened by a company of medium tanks from the 781st Tank Battalion.
A counterattack was planned for 1330 hours on January 4. One platoon of tanks was to move from La Petite-Pierre through Puberg, west of Wingen, and then to the western railroad underpass. There the tanks were to be met by infantry.
In Puberg 1st Lt. Fred ‘Casey’ Cassidy, G Company, 274th Infantry, was ordered to take the ridge and secure the woods up to the edge of Wingen. Pushing back a line of German outposts during the night, Company G took up positions looking down into the deep pocket where the village lay. The German perimeter formed a rough oval oriented northeast to southwest. Meanwhile, companies of the 276th faced the Germans to the north, west and south.
The next day, January 5, the 3rd Battalion plus C/276, supported by tanks, was to move along the railroad southeast for a few hundred yards, then due east along the north side of the tracks. Preceding the attack, M Company, 276th Infantry, would lay down a mortar barrage. Company C was to hit the German positions above the town from the north and east. A/276 would attack along the Zittersheim road. From high ground there, a tank platoon would provide covering fire for the advance. Simultaneously, B/276 and I/276, accompanied by four tanks, would attempt to enter the town through the western underpass.
The drive by B and I companies was disastrous. The first tank got through the underpass and another 200 yards toward the town before a German Panzerfaust team opened fire, killing or wounding the crew and disabling the tank. Another Sherman slid off the icy road and had a difficult time getting underway again. Two more tanks managed to reach the underpass, with one at each end and the foot soldiers bottled up in between. In a desperate action, one of the tanks advanced out of the tunnel, only to be knocked out. The last tank, conveyed by five soldiers, attempted a rescue of the first. It too was hit. Sometime later a GI was handing out rations to the handful of survivors, and as tears streamed down his face, he lamented: ‘My God! There are only 38 of you left!’ Well over 100 men had started the attack.
South of Wingen the platoons from A/276, supported by a single tank, began their attack at 0800, moving north. The going was slow, hard and ultimately unsuccessful.
The 160 men of C/276 engaged the Germans along the top of the ridge, but the enemy dominated with their dug-in machine guns. When it became clear that the GIs were not accomplishing anything, word came to pull back.
The commanders of the 3/276 and 2/274 next decided that the 276th troops would continue efforts with the assistance of the 274th. At daybreak G/274 had moved toward the nose of the ridge west of Wingen. The company’s 2nd Platoon advanced along the base of the hill with scouts out. Reaching the tip of the ridge, the Americans headed for a patch of evergreens. The Germans waited until the GIs were almost on top of them before opening up with a pair of machine guns. The Americans continued to move forward until they were pinned down by intense fire from 50 yards away. The GIs were in a tough spot. The Germans were blazing away and were too close for mortar fire. Cassidy moved calmly through the woods despite the danger, reassuring his men and surveying the situation. He decided to pull his men back, shell the woods with mortars and then advance behind a rolling barrage.
As soon as the barrage lifted, the Americans started forward, firing their weapons and driving the Germans from the woods. There was no stopping the GIs. In short order they had cleaned out the woods and pushed to its eastern edge.
The battle in and around the town increased its tempo. Tracer bullets arced through the sky, while mortar shells were falling all around. About this time Lt. Col. Wallace R. Cheves arrived on the scene and ordered Cassidy to maintain his positions in the woods. Later, in the afternoon, E/274 and F/274 moved into the area in preparation for an attack. Cheves told his company commanders to get into the town any way they could.
The battle surged to a new level of fury. Fire was coming from all directions. No one knew which way was friend or foe. An American tank coming up from the south stopped about 300 yards from the men of the 274th and blasted away at their positions.
One squad of G/274 moved to the right to enter some houses along the Zittersheim-Wingen road. It was early afternoon, and the fighting in the town had died down to sniping. The squad dashed across 100 yards of open ground and entered the first houses. They found several GIs there, all wounded 276th infantrymen.
|Buildings in Wingen burn during American operations to clear out the town’s SS occupiers in January 1945. (National Archives)|
Colonel Albert Carroll Morgan’s 276th Infantry troops were fighting desperately to secure a foothold in the town. When the colonel spied the 1st Platoon, F/274, waiting at the edge of the woods while his own men were in an intense fight, he ordered its troops to follow some tanks into the town. The Americans had not gone far across the open ground when the Germans opened fire and stopped them. They were ordered to pull back.
Captain L.A. Sisson, E/274, held up his company in the first few houses at the edge of town at about 2300 that night. From the windows they looked out on a ghastly sight — gutted and burning buildings.
Although the German Alpine battalions were seasoned and well led, they were also operating under several handicaps. They had been unable to bring up their heavy mortars; radio communications had failed for more than 48 hours, preventing them from requesting artillery support; and their supply lines were precarious, running through the narrow gap in the American lines northeast of Wingen. The bitter cold had also incapacitated an estimated 30 percent of the German troops.
Lieutenant Wolf T. Zoepf, the commander of III/12’s headquarters company, would recall years later: ‘We appreciated the comparatively fair fight of the American soldier, fair when compared with the vicious way of the Russian soldier we were used to. We also appreciated the fact that the American soldier was obviously not experienced in night action. This fact gave us at least some little rest at night. After all that heavy shelling and house-to-house combat during daylight we yearned for the dark hours to come, that would grant us a little respite and rest.’
Back in Puberg that night, the American commanders were frantically trying to straighten out the situation. Impatient with the delay in securing the town, Brig. Gen. Thomas R. Herren, the 70th’s assistant division commander, placed Colonel Cheves in charge of operations. Troops of the 276th’s 1st and 3rd battalions were placed under his command, along with a company of tanks from the 781st Tank Battalion, giving him the equivalent of a regiment. The next attack was planned for 0800 on January 6. Both battalions of the 276th had suffered severe casualties during the past two days and were understrength.
All of the suffering had not been on the American side. The two SS battalions were cut off, hoping that a relief force would break through to them and open a corridor to the north. Their last rations, a half a loaf of bread per man, had been issued three days previously, and after two days in Wingen all the captured Americans K rations had been consumed. But worse than the lack of food was the short supply of ammunition. The MG42 machine guns had used up much of it. Gunners were now instructed to shoot only at clearly identified targets.
The American company commanders were called in and issued assignments for the next attack. At the 274th’s CP in Puberg, plans were made by candlelight in the corner of a large, bare room. All around, the floor was covered with outstretched GIs trying to catch a few minutes’ sleep.
Cheves asked if any of the company commanders wished to spearhead the attack. When no one volunteered, the colonel designated Captain Robert J. Davenport’s F/274 to lead, with E/274 mopping up behind, and put G/274, which had seen most of the action so far, in reserve. There was to be a 15-minute artillery preparation prior to the jump-off. The 781st Tank Battalion would provide armored support.
During the night the signal officer of the SS regiment made his way to Wingen with orders from General Philippi. Since no reinforcements could reach them, the two SS battalions were to withdraw. As it was almost daylight, that was out of the question — the German Alpine troops would have to hold on for another day.
On the morning of January 6, General Herren arrived and accompanied Cheves to the battalion observation post at the edge of the woods. Before them lay the village and the formidable railroad embankment. The GIs were nearly exhausted after three sleepless nights. Remaining in the shelter of the woods for as long as possible, the men of F/274 prepared to move to the underpass. Because this was the first attack ever made by the unit, Captain Davenport accompanied the 1st Platoon. At 0745 the artillery opened up. At 0800 the GIs moved out, although the promised tank support had not yet arrived.
At first not a shot was fired by the Germans. Well disciplined, they waited. Then their machine guns opened with a jackhammer staccato. The American guns, an octave lower, responded. For 10 minutes there was a fierce machine gun duel, but with no decided outcome.
As the lead elements of the assault approached a fork in the road, someone yelled for the GIs to watch out for the ‘blue house.’ It was a lieutenant of the 276th, who had been lying in the snow for more than 18 hours. But the GIs had no chance to take advantage of his warning. At a range of about 20 yards, the Germans cut loose with deadly machine gun fire.The platoon sergeant shouted for the men to take cover and then fell dead. Captain Davenport, his radio operator and four other GIs were all wounded. Some GIs headed toward a small drainage ditch, while others lay in the snow as bullets passed a few inches above their heads.
One GI managed to crawl up to a point opposite the house and started chucking grenades into a window. The machine gun stopped firing. Davenport spotted a German with a bazooka lying on the far side of the house, but could not fire because he had been hit in the arm, so he pointed out the German to another GI who took the bazooka man out with an M-1. Though wounded, Davenport refused to go to the rear. ‘This isn’t anything,’ he said, looking at the bullet hole in his arm. ‘We have to go on.’ His wounded radioman refused to give up his radio, and stayed with the captain.
Davenport decided to continue the advance up the small ditch, since it offered the only covered approach. A Sergeant Hammerloff’s squad moved to the right to protect the flank. Heading for the bank of the Moder River, which was no more than a creek at that spot, the squad was caught in the open. Machine guns cut loose on the left and from the cemetery to their front. With bullets whining all around them, they dashed for the creek and dived for cover — only about half the squad made it. The Germans continued to rake the area unmercifully. Bullets churned the snow, and Hammerloff was killed.
In the meantime, the leading elements with Captain Davenport moved down the ditch. The Germans were waiting and watching, holding their fire until the GIs were within easy range. Davenport, wounded twice more and bleeding badly around the face, was finally persuaded to go back for aid. A Sergeant Petty took over and pushed on. The executive officer, a Lieutenant Mahon, started forward to take command of the company, but a slug hit him in the chest, killing him instantly; however, the sniper died with him. Fighting was now house to house. A number of fires were started that blanketed the village with thick smoke. The assault force did not have supporting artillery on call and had to rely on the battalion’s heavy weapons: 57mm anti-tank guns, 81mm mortars and heavy machine guns. Even if the artillery had been available, it would have been difficult to use in the close-quarters fighting.
Radio contact with F/274 was out. All the men in the lead platoon had been hit. The 3rd Platoon, F/274, came forward in support. Lieutenant James Haines crawled up the ditch with his men until he reached the road junction.
While all this was going on, the 2nd Platoon, on the left, had its hands full. The 1st Squad moved rapidly toward the railroad embankment and held up in a shallow ditch. The Germans were in the upper floors of the houses along the railroad track, looking right down the GIs’ throats.
The Americans tried to move forward, but could not. Their scout was killed right away. The machine gun fire was so deadly it was suicide to raise one’s head. Three more men were hit. The Germans tossed a grenade into the ditch, killing two of the GIs. The squad’s BAR man started spraying the area, and although wounded in the arm, kept the Germans ducking until he slumped over dead — a bullet square in the forehead.
The American machine guns and mortars were now ripping up the town. When the bazookas joined in, there was a terrific din. The battle raged with an increasing tempo. Two GIs charged into one house, throwing hand grenades. The Germans came pouring from the building, only to be cut down merci-lessly by Americans waiting outside. One of the GIs later recalled, ‘We wanted to kill every bastard that got in our way.’
It was a furious and bloody fight at close range. The Germans refused to give up, firing from the cellar windows while the GIs continued to pour in grenades. Private First Class Gerald Soper was hit and fell by one of the windows. A medic, Bill Brush, came up to help him, moving calmly to where Soper lay, as four shots passed between his legs. Two white phosphorus grenades set Brush’s coat on fire, and he yanked it off. Soper used his good arm to take a grenade from under his shirt, pulled the pin with his teeth, and threw it through the window. A loud explosion followed. Then a rifle came out the window — the muzzle was placed against Soper’s chest and fired twice. Two enraged GIs rushed up and tossed in a couple more grenades. Another spotted Germans in the window above and let go with more grenades.
One of the GIs grabbed a German medic who came staggering out into the street and told him to go back into the house and tell the men inside to surrender, or they would blast the house with tank fire. The fact that they had no tanks did not matter — the ruse worked. After a few minutes the German came back with 11 prisoners.
Little by little the Germans were driven back. The Americans were picking them off as they ran out into the open. But the 3rd Platoon was still waiting in the ditch for the 1st Platoon to move on. From his vantage point, Cheves observed F/274’s attack. The enemy was in much greater strength than he had been told. The colonel’s radio operator recalled that General Herren was also there, constantly pestering the colonel. The attack was not going fast enough to suit the general, who kept telling Cheves to get things moving. The colonel remained calm and told Herren that he planned another attack for 1300. That was not soon enough for the general, but Cheves replied that he was losing too many men and wanted to be sure everything was coordinated before they jumped off again. The tank commander finally reported, and they huddled to work out plans for the attack.
What was left of F/274 was told to hold and that they would be relieved as Companies E and G passed through. While F/274 had succeeded in securing a foothold, it had paid a heavy toll. Half of the 120 men in its attack echelon were casualties: 19 killed and 40 wounded. Added to that were many victims of exposure who had to be evacuated.
The supporting Shermans moved into position near the Zittersheim road. Cheves wanted the tankers to move up to the underpass and support Fox Company, which had gained about 600 yards in its advance. But the tank platoon leader insisted that his vehicles be surrounded by a shield of foot soldiers. He did not believe that there were many GIs who would leave the shelter of the houses to give protection to the armor. Only when promised that Company G would come down the hill and meet them at the underpass did the tankers agree to advance.
The second wave of the attack was due to move out at 1300. Company G would advance to the left, alongside the railroad, while Company E paralleled it to the right. While preparations were underway, there was no lull in the fighting in the village. The cemetery in the south part of town was the source of withering German fire. A dozen men of Company G’s 1st Platoon, braving the fire, made their way to the safety of a nearby house. They found its basement filled with wounded Americans and Germans.
By the time the second assault started, the Americans had already captured at least 50 prisoners and inflicted considerable casualties, but German resistance had not diminished. The situation was made more complicated because the 3/276 had been unable to take the dominating heights to the north. Concealed by the thick woods there, the Germans poured a murderous fire into the left flank of the assaulting Americans.
At the same time the Shermans still had not moved. Their platoon leader reported that a minefield was blocking the road to their front. Engineers from the 274th went down to clear the road, and the tanks began to inch forward.
From the cemetery on the right and the towering hill to the left, enemy fire enfiladed G/274 and E/274 as they moved abreast. Company G continued to advance as E/274 was pinned down. Finally, as the tanks began to provide support, joined by mortar fire from H/274, E Company’s attack proceeded.
But a new danger developed to the north. The advance of the 3/276 — actually only a company and a half — was so slowed by stubborn German resistance on the ridge that its line lagged some 500 yards behind Company G, creating a dangerous gap. The Americans had not been able to use artillery for fear of hitting their own troops, but now all available heavy fire was directed on the high ground.
Company G had cleared the first four houses before being slowed by fire from the ground on the left, but continued to push forward. The GIs advanced mercilessly. Houses were burning all around. Dead Germans littered the ground. The GIs ignored them unless they moved, and, according to one source, put them out of their misery if they did.
Cassidy met with Lieutenant Wayne Meshier, Company E platoon leader, to make plans for continuing the assault. Meshier and Cassidy had attended the same university, entered the Army at the same time and had trained together. The two officers decided to split the town, with Meshier’s platoon taking the right and Cassidy’s men the left.
Easy Company had been following to the right rear of Fox Company when the order came to push through. The leader of the 1st Platoon’s 2nd Squad, Staff Sergeant William Donofrio, and his men were held up by what they thought were snipers on the wooded ridge to their left. As they huddled behind a building, they saw a number of GI bodies scattered about a field to their right — members of F/274 who had been cut down as they came across the field.
Lieutenant Meshier led his platoon forward. While searching for a route of advance, he was wounded. Diving for cover, he was hit again and killed. Sergeant Norman Phillips took over and tried to push forward, but got nowhere. The tanks arrived at last, and with their added firepower the GIs started moving again.
Private First Class James D. McCullough, a 19-year-old messenger with Company G’s Weapons Platoon, recalled that a machine gun section was located in a school at the top of a T intersection, its guns firing out the window. Just as it was getting dark, McCullough went to see if he and his Thompson submachine gun could lend some help. As he entered the rear doorway that faced the intersection, there was a flash from down the street. An explosion blew him back out the door and flipped him over. Shaken, he found the others there blinded by plaster dust, but also uninjured.
The tankers and the infantrymen were not getting along well. About an hour before dark, the tank platoon commander requested permission to withdraw to Zittersheim to service, refuel and reload his tanks. Cheves’ simmering anger finally exploded, and he told the tank commander what he thought of them. Undaunted, the armor officer went over his head to General Herren and received permission to withdraw. Cheves fumed as the tanks moved back.
The situation, which had seemed promising only moments before, suddenly took another turn. Herren was sure the Germans were attempting to reinforce their positions and wanted the village taken before fresh forces could arrive. As they tried to meet the general’s nightfall deadline, Companies E and G became overextended. Finally, the two companies were ordered to hold up and organize defenses for the night. Before the troops could respond, a wave of screaming Germans came rushing down the hill on the left, crossing the railroad and hurtling themselves down the steep embankment. They cut off elements of Company G. Even the battalion observation post came under fire.
The village was a scene of burning buildings, tracer bullets etching paths through the evening sky and explosions rocking the houses. Bazooka rockets and hand grenades crashed and exploded. Cheves ordered: ‘Goddamit, hold! We will not let them get through here!’ Right behind the advance elements of Company G was a group of five or six men with Cassidy. When they became cut off, Cassidy prepared his men for a last stand.
Two German companies had become isolated. Communications between the battalion in the town and the other on the ridge were cut. Lieutenant Zoepf and Lieutenant Hans Hermann Carlau rallied all the available men at the command post in the hotel, perhaps a dozen, and formed them into a ‘fire brigade.’ They moved out of the hotel, around the corner, and up the road to the railroad station, blazing away with Schmeisser machine pistols and Finnish Suomi submachine guns. The fighting was intense, but they managed to reestablish contact between the town and the ridge. Then the action quieted down as both sides caught their breath.
The Americans planned the final knockout punch for 0900 the next morning, an hour after daybreak. They figured that the Germans would be expecting an attack at dawn and might be surprised by a later move. There would also be no preceding artillery barrage. Cheves was up all night again, checking and coordinating every detail.
As daylight approached, it was deathly quiet. The morning sky brought snow, but that had stopped when word came to move out. Unknown to the Americans, during the night the main body of German troops had slipped away, leaving behind a few isolated pockets of resistance. Supporting tanks blasted their way through the town, house by house, the riflemen charging in, throwing hand grenades.
While the 274th was taking the town, the 276th cleared the high ground to the north. As Easy Company closed in on the Catholic church, two GIs dashed to the entrance and prepared to toss in a couple of grenades when the doors swung open and someone shouted: ‘Don’t shoot! We’re Americans.’ GIs came swarming out the doorway, shouting jubilantly. Most were from the 179th Infantry and had been held captive in the church without food or water for four days. About 250 men were freed.
Wingen, or what was left of it, had been won. Only one building was undamaged. The streets and buildings were littered with dead. It became apparent, as the SS Alpine battalions mustered their men later that day, that they had taken a beating. The III/12 was reduced to only 110 officers and men from a strength of 450 just four days before. All its officers except the battalion commander and his adjutant were casualties. One of the companies had only one NCO and seven enlisted men left, and the I/12 was in similar shape.
Losses in 2/274 were 25 killed and 84 wounded, plus uncounted GIs suffering from exposure. Soon after the fighting ceased, the battalion was pulled out and moved to a convent near Oberbronn to recover. Many of the men had not had a full night’s sleep since leaving Drusenheim on January 3.
The German strength at Wingen had been terribly underestimated by the American commanders. This may explain why the inexperienced and unsupported rifle companies were ordered to attack the town again and again. But Wingen had to be taken.The units of the 6th SS Mountain Division were arguably the best on the Western Front at the time, as good as the troops of the 274th and 276th were inexperienced. Zoepf would write some years later, ‘The men of the new 70th Division mustered courage and heroism to a degree that bordered on self-sacrifice.’ A Pfc Swain of Easy Company simply remembered, ‘We were green as hell and were up against the toughest soldiers we ever ran into.’
This article was written by Allyn Vannoy and originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of World War II.
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