Operation Nordwind: U.S. Army’s 42nd Infantry Division Stood its Ground During World War II

8/31/2006 • World War II

It was bitter cold with a foot of snow on the ground and no moonlight the night of January 24, 1945, as the green GIs of the 42nd ‘Rainbow Division’s 222nd Infantry Regiment strained to see the enemy. But a low ground fog covering the firebreak between their positions in the Ohlungen Forest and the Haguenau Forest before them made this an almost useless exercise. More chillingly, they could hear sounds from the woods beyond, sounds of tramping feet and loud talking. Water turned to ice in the bottoms of their foxholes. Anxiety built as they waited for the unseen enemy to come swarming out of the woods.

By January 1945, Adolf Hitler’s Ardennes offensive was faltering, and in a last-ditch effort to break through Allied lines, the Führer scraped together what forces he could to launch an offensive into Alsace. Earlier German attacks in the area had created two small salients above and below Strasbourg and had forced the U.S. Seventh Army back on an arm that pivoted on Bischwiller, not far from the Rhine River, and extended northwest along the Moder River.

German plans called for a pincer movement to be launched from each of these two salients. It was hoped that this attack would either cut off Haguenau northeast of the Moder, or so seriously threaten it that the Americans in the city would withdraw back to open country, where the panzers could make quick work of them. In order to cut off Haguenau, however, the Germans would have to destroy American positions in the Ohlungen Forest. Poised to strike the 222nd were elements of the 25th Panzergrenadier, 47th Volksgrenadier and 7th Fallschirmjäger divisions.

The 42nd Division had arrived in France only a week before and was just becoming acclimated to combat conditions. Some of the 222nd’s companies had fought in a few small engagements, but the bulk of the regiment’s men were untried. After withdrawing behind the Moder on January 21, the regiment’s commander, Colonel Henry L. Luongo, had spread his men along five defensive positions. From west to east, these were: a series of low hills on the left of the line, the town of Neubourg, the Mill d’Uhrbruck, the edge of the Ohlungen Forest where it formed an arc opposite the Moder’s entry point into the Haguenau Forest, and finally, the town of Schweighausen on the right flank of the regimental front. By the evening of the 24th Luongo’s men were as ready as they could be.

The Germans made no secret of their preparations as they hollered to each other in tones that to the scared GIs sounded half drunk. This particular portion of the forest stretched in an arc overlooking a suspected German bridging site. The left-flank squad of Company F prepared to give covering fire to its left supporting the 1st Platoon of Company E, which was dug in around the base of the arc.

At 1800, German artillery fire hit Schweighausen, then Neubourg. It eventually spread to the entire length of the regiment’s line. At Neubourg and on Company K’s front, the Germans threw not only artillery shells but also Nebelwerfer rockets that cut low, flaming trails through the fog. This fire continued relentlessly for an hour and a half, then slackened. Veterans later recalled that the night was filled with periods, often 20 minutes long, of intense artillery barrages. Despite the darkness, the German artillery fire, which had been preregistered on important points along the line, was very effective. Major Donald J. Downard, the 2nd Battalion’s commander, moved his command post (CP) to a cellar at 1930, and at 2146 Major Walter J. Fellenz reported to Luongo that his 1st Battalion CP had taken a direct hit. Against this barrage, the 222nd’s supporting artillery was unable to respond because darkness and woods prevented observation. During the first hour of the barrage almost all the regiment’s phone lines were knocked out and their radios proved to be ineffective in the woods.

At about 2015, the men of Company E heard the Germans advancing toward the firebreak, shouting as they ran. Sergeant Arthur Innes’ heavy machine gun on the western end of the arc of woods, and that of Sergeant John Murch on the eastern end, fired at the Germans as they came out of the forest. Sergeant John O’Laughlin poured mortar shells on them, and Sergeant Charles Hunt, with a light machine gun, shot down the few who got as far as the firebreak. Company E’s commander, Lieutenant George A. Carroll, quickly moved his supporting platoon up a previously reconnoitered trail to positions below the arc. The reinforcements’ firepower, combined with that of the platoon already in position, was overwhelming. A half hour of this punishment was enough for the Germans, and they pulled back to the safety of the Haguenau Forest.

The men of Company E, however, had little time to catch their breath. At 2045 Panzergrenadiers struck with force at the Mill d’Uhrbruck. Swarming past the mill and into the woods, they began to advance up a knoll to the southeast, where Company E had its mortar and machine-gun strongpoint. Although the Company E men killed dozens of Germans, they were quickly overwhelmed. Lieutenant Richard B. Break gathered men from the right, where the pressure had eased up, and led them in a counterattack to save the men at the strongpoint. Break’s force was thrown back three times. By this time the Germans had taken control of the mill and the knolls behind it and were pouring into the woods beyond.

Company K’s right flank was hit even harder. Lieutenant John Berg, leader of the 2nd Platoon on the company’s right, went back through the mounting artillery barrage to report to the company CP. He was never heard from again. Sergeant Chambers, now in charge of the platoon, redistributed what ammunition remained. He was left with only 22 men to defend this important sector. Lieutenant Wilson C. Harper sent over three men from his 3rd Platoon to help Chambers. At the height of the artillery barrage, the desperate sergeant phoned for additional reinforcements and ammunition, saying they could not hold out much longer. Soon after he called, the line went dead.

A full company of Germans who came in under cover of an artillery and mortar barrage attacked the GIs in foxholes near the mill. When the artillery started to lift, the 2nd Platoon was struck first on the flanks and then in the center. The Germans overran several foxholes and the two light machine guns on the right. Noting their silence, Chambers sent a runner back to the company CP with a call for help and then pulled his men back from the woods’ edge to the road. There they tried to form a skirmish line but were unsuccessful.

Chambers decided to fall back to the CP, get reinforcements and then counterattack. The few remaining GIs crawled westward in the road ditch. When heavy fire came from their front, they tried to move back eastward but ran into additional fire. They then made a torturous and painfully slow withdrawal through the woods to the southwest, through ever-increasing numbers of Germans. Eventually they made it out of the woods to Uhlweller and then back to the company CP at Neubourg. They left behind 11 men who were either killed or taken prisoner.

Although Chambers’ decision to withdraw had left a gap in the line, he had little choice, with only 10 men and almost no ammunition, no mortar or machine-gun support and no communications with his company CP or other friendly units. As Chambers and the 2nd Platoon pulled back, they were unaware that Company K was trying to assist them. Harper knew that the three men he had sent over earlier were inadequate, and soon after the attack started he took six more and headed off in the direction of the 2nd Platoon. The six reinforcements, however, could not find the 2nd Platoon, so they returned to their CP.

After the phone lines went out, Lieutenant Carlyle Woelfer, commander of Company K, went to find out for himself what was happening on his right flank and, if possible, to regain contact with Company E. With Staff Sgt. Daniel A. Towse and Pfc Edmund C. Sheppard, he set out from the CP in a jeep pulling a trailer loaded with ammunition. Shortly after starting, the jeep broke down and their radio set went dead, so the men proceeded on foot.

When they reached the 1st Platoon, they found an intense firefight in progress between GIs and Volksgrenadiers who were threatening to advance from a grove in the middle of the firebreak. Mortar fire from the sand pit and Company M machine-gun fire prevented their advance.

During the heaviest artillery barrage, Lieutenant Otto Yanke, commanding Company M’s heavy machine-gun platoon, had gone out into the firebreak to repair and move the phone wires that ran between the two guns covering the grove. Yanke kept control of his platoon throughout the fight with the Germans. He was constantly on the move from one gun to the other giving orders and calming nerves. He kept the easternmost gun in position throughout the night, even when the riflemen to its right had withdrawn. He pulled his third gun from the edge of the woods and placed it where it could fire down the road to the east should the Germans try to move on Neubourg from that direction.

Meanwhile, Woelfer sent a runner back to the battalion CP with the report that Neubourg and Company K’s left were still intact. The lieutenant was fortunate enough to find an M8 Greyhound armored car of the 813th Tank Destroyer Battalion on the outskirts of Neubourg. He commandeered it and, along with Towse and Sheppard, started down the road eastward. As they came into the area the 2nd Platoon had abandoned, they ran into a volley of small-arms fire, and replied with machine-gun fire. Then Woelfer called out in German, promising to cease firing. One German, reportedly a company commander, stepped forward and surrendered. He had with him maps that revealed details of the German plan.

When they had gone another 300 yards down the road, they saw a German machine-gun squad crawling up a furrow toward the left side of the road, trying to get into position to fire. Woelfer and Towse shot four. Two others came forward with their hands up.

Moving 200 yards farther down the road they came under fire from another machine-gun nest on the right side of the road. The two prisoners on the M8 began to wave their arms as if signaling to their comrades. Woelfer called out to the Germans in the woods to come out and surrender but received no reply. Then he threw a grenade in front of the machine-gun nest, but its occupants still said nothing, nor did they fire, so Woelfer and Sheppard went in after them, Sheppard going to the left, Woelfer to the right. As Woelfer came up on a little rise behind the gun, lifting his submachine gun to fire, he saw Sheppard suddenly appear in front of the German gun, saw him raise his rifle, heard the report as the Germans fired and saw Sheppard fall–killed instantly. Woelfer then set upon the Germans with his submachine gun, killing the three-man crew.

By now the M8 was out of ammunition and one of its tires was flat. Woelfer and his little group found that the woods where the 2nd Platoon had been were now full of Germans and that there was no hope of getting through to Company E. But from the sound of firing, they knew that fighting was still going on somewhere to the east. Just before midnight, they headed back toward Neubourg to organize a detachment to reinforce the flank they had found so badly battered.

Shortly after their penetration at the Mill d’Uhrbruck, the Germans struck again, this time on the right flank of Company E. Although the tiny American force was able to kill many of them, the company had already shifted much of its strength to meet the counterattack on its left, which weakened the squad holding the company’s right flank. The Germans took advantage of this weakness, broke through the firebreak and entered the woods beyond.

Staff Sergeant Arthur Jones, manning the heavy machine gun on the left end of the arc of woods, used up five boxes of ammunition before his gun jammed. As he was attempting to clear it, several Germans attacked his dugout, forcing him and his men to retreat. They eventually were able to fight their way back toward Schweighausen. Sergeant John Munch and his crew on the right end of the arc fired 18 boxes of ammunition before they, too, had to withdraw. Soon afterward, Lieutenant Merrill, commanding the 2nd Platoon, Company F, withdrew those men he could to the outskirts of Schweighausen to regroup for a counterattack on the Ohlungen Forest, which was now full of Germans. The six men of Merrill’s left flank squad were overrun and never heard from again.

The middle of the 222nd’s line had been broken. Company E was entirely cut off. Company K’s right and F’s left were badly beaten up, and communications were out. Of the 55 men who had made up the three platoons in the area of the attack only hours before, three had been killed, 25 were missing (either captured or dead) and six were wounded. Sergeant Decaline of Company E, whose arm had been torn by shrapnel, was sent back to Ohlungen.

At about 0230, as the men despaired of ever receiving help, Lieutenant George Carroll decided that holding Company E’s present position was hopeless. The Germans seemed to have forgotten about them as they moved on farther into the woods, and Carroll took advantage of this lull to lead his men, about half the original company, back through the woods to the south. In two groups they made their way back to Ohlungen, fighting off Germans as they went. Company E had no further role in the battle.

For the rest of the night, the 222nd fought to contain the breakthrough. The right of the line, at Schweighausen, continued to hold. The strongest pressure on the town came from the west as German paratroopers moved up through the Haguenau Forest and came down through the wedge that had been driven between Companies E and F.

After the 2nd Platoon had been pulled back, Captain Al Truscott of Company H sent 2nd Lt. Klare Moyer, with a heavy weapons platoon, into the neck of the woods to re-establish the line. Twice they pushed 100 yards into the woods, but both times were forced to withdraw. Then Lieutenant Merrill, having reorganized his platoon and gathered all the extra men that Company F could spare, set out to clear part of the neck of woods north of the Neubourg-Schweighausen road. There they ran into heavy fire. Two men were killed, one missing and several wounded. When German artillery zeroed in on them, they withdrew back to the town. It was quiet until daylight, the Germans having been slowed down not only by Lieutenants Moyer’s and Merrill’s counterattacks, but also by Company G striking from the south.

Sergeant Decaline, sent back earlier to the battalion aid station, had gone first to the battalion CP and reported the news of Company E’s plight. Major Downard, seeing how excited Decaline was and the seriousness of his wounds, discounted his report but decided to send Company G, in reserve, to close the gap and re-establish the line. He ordered Captain Jere F. Palmes, Company G commander, to take his men up through the forest, follow the creek that cut across its southeastern corner, cross the creek and attack the Germans to the north.

If Company G had followed this route it might have contacted Company E and helped to check the flow of Germans across the firebreak. But the breakthrough was already too well established, and by the time Company G was on its way many of the Germans who had broken through were already chasing the retreating platoon from Company F eastward toward Schweighausen. Evidently they meant to attack Schweighausen immediately, without waiting for their right flank to be secured by the capture of Uhlweller and the high ground outside Ohlungen. But Company G failed to follow its assigned route, and instead of coming upon that part of the German penetration, which they had been ordered to attack, they encountered one equally if not more threatening. Although they failed to accomplish their original mission, they did a great deal to stem the German advance on Schweighausen.

Soon after 2000, Company G was moving through the woods with its 3rd Platoon on the left, 1st on the right and four scouts leading each platoon. They came to a clearing 150 yards across. As the first scouts reached the edge of the woods on the other side, they touched off a tremendous German volley. Two of the scouts were instantly killed, and the advance platoons were pinned down by four machine guns and a company of riflemen. Mortar fire now zeroed in on them as they lay exposed in the snow in the clearing. Captain Palmes ordered an attack. As Tech. Sgt. Sigman Poskus stood up to lead the 3rd Platoon forward, a mortar shell killed him. Nevertheless, his men moved up. To their right, Tech. Sgt. Mike Walters led his 1st Platoon. They crawled into firing positions and poured flanking fire into the Germans. By moving forward, both platoons helped pull the company out of a hopeless position. After five hours, Palmes ordered a withdrawal to Ohlungen. They brought back with them four dead and 19 wounded. After the battle 67 German dead were found in the area of the engagement.

Meanwhile, at Neubourg, a small group of GIs fought to stop the German assault there. Shortly before midnight, when Woelfer came back from his raid, he met a group of 25 men from the 1st Platoon, Company L. Captain Harold Bugno, the 3rd Battalion’s executive officer, led the platoon. Bugno commandeered an armored car and started down the road toward the Mill d’Uhrbruck. The captain led the men on the left side of the car while the platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Othal J. Fletcher, led the men on the right. Their mission was to re-establish Company K’s right flank and, if possible, get through to Company E.

They proceeded to Sergeant Roger A. Peck’s machine-gun position along the Schweighausen-Neubourg road on the left of Company K, where they were told Germans were ahead. Fanning out from either side of the armored car, the patrol moved on but had only gone a little way when they were fired upon. They had stumbled on a platoon of Germans advancing on Neubourg. After an hour and a half of fighting, 16 Germans came out yelling Kamarad! The rest either had been killed or wounded or had retreated.

The prisoners were sent to the rear and the platoon moved on toward a machine gun Sergeant Fletcher could hear firing in the distance–probably in Company E’s area. They had gone about 300 yards when they saw a group of Germans dressed in white ahead of them in the woods. For 45 minutes the German force, about 30 men, tried to break through Bugno’s American skirmish line.

Private Herman J. Bergeth saw Privates Franklin Van Nest and Joe A. McGraw and one other GI engaged in hand-to-hand combat in a ditch with several Germans. According to Bergeth, Van Nest, a big man, was wielding a knife as large as a Roman short sword. They seemed to have won their struggle when a couple of German grenades were tossed into the ditch, wounding both men.

Germans firing submachine guns came in on the left, threatening to outflank the Americans. Private Robert Owen killed four before Bugno withdrew his men to the site of their earlier fight, where they would be supported by Peck’s machine gun. There they managed to stop the German advance.

Although wounded, Van Nest and McGraw refused to retreat and continued to kill the few Germans who tried to advance. When word came from battalion of a possible tank attack from the direction of the Mill d’Uhrbruck, Bugno sent back for bazookas. No tanks came, but German voices were heard. Then, German artillery fire began falling on them. Realizing that they had been zeroed in, Bugno ordered his men to retire.

As they stood up to retreat, artillery rounds killed Bugno, McGraw and Van Nest. The rest fell back, several of them wounded by shrapnel. They could hold out no longer, but they had done their job. They had blunted the German effort toward Neubourg.

Company I, meanwhile, had its own troubles stopping attempts by the 104th Volksgrenadiers to flank Neubourg from the west. Groups of German infantry tried throughout the night to knock out the machine guns of the 1st Platoon, Company M, and to crack the line of foxholes that guarded the open ground beyond the town. At the time of the main attack on the Ohlungen Forest, after the artillery barrage, the Volksgrenadiers opened fire with machine guns from the river, and then, bellowing at each other, started to attack. One of the M8s on the western outskirts of Neubourg added its fire to that of the Company M machine guns and mortars, and after a prolonged hammering broke up the assault.

But even while the Volksgrenadiers were attempting to flank Neubourg from the west and Panzergrenadiers were trying to break through Captain Bugno’s men and flank the town from the east, other Germans drove south through the forest toward Uhlweller. Here, as on the other end of the line, the German plan misfired. If the Volksgrenadiers were less than aggressive in their assault, the paratroopers and Panzergrenadiers were foolhardy. The paratroopers attacked Schweighausen before securing their right by taking the high ground near Ohlungen, and as a consequence were held up by Company G. The Panzergrenadiers advanced toward Uhlweller. They were stopped by a company from the 1st Battalion, which, like Company G, failed in its assigned mission but instead accomplished something of greater value.

The reserve 1st Battalion had been alerted at 2050 and prepared to send elements out from Ohlungen to check German attempts to break out of the forest to the south. At midnight, Major Walter Fellenz received orders to send a company to sweep the woods up to the Mill d’Uhrbruck and to plug the gap there. Unsure of exactly what was happening, he believed that the western end of the forest could be cleared and that Company K’s sector could be restored–which he ordered Company B to do.

Company B moved out of Ohlungen shortly after midnight on the road toward Uhlweller, but turned off to the right just before reaching the town, taking the road leading up through the woods to the Mill d’Uhrbruck. It moved through the woods, with an advance platoon led by scouts on either side of the road. The scouts came to the edge of the woods and moved in slowly. Suddenly, there was a burst of machine-gun fire, followed by a volley of small-arms fire that grew in intensity as a second machine gun joined the first, pinning down Company B. Because the machine guns were able to fire up the rising fields on either side of the company, the GIs were unable to move into flanking positions. After nearly an hour of exchanging fire, Company B advanced.

Second Lieutenant George A. Jackson took five men from his 2nd Platoon and, under covering fire, moved up into the woods to the west of the road. They found the German machine guns positioned close together on the opposite side of the road. Jackson and his men ran across the road, moved up behind the two machine guns and opened fire from a distance of about 25 yards. Then they charged. A bullet nicked the top of Jackson’s head but he kept going until he was on top of the machine-gun nest. Staff Sergeant Darwin C. Freeman ran forward firing his rifle until it jammed. Then he clubbed one German with the rifle butt. All seven Germans manning the machine guns were killed.

The company was now free to fan out and move into the woods. They had lost eight men killed and 15 wounded during the attack. Later they counted 50 dead Germans in the woods. The 222nd Infantry had effectively stopped the German breakthrough, established a line along the German bulge and, in spite of rumors that Neubourg had fallen, retained control of the important crossroads town.

At 1030 on January 25, reinforcements arrived and began to push forward beyond the line that Captain Bugno and the Company L platoon had defended, and which Company K now held with Company B on its right, while Major Fellenz’s 1st Battalion held the southern edge of the forest. Shortly after daybreak Fellenz sent part of Company A up to dig in on Company B’s right. The line then extended south along the edge of the woods, where Company G had dug in after its fight on the previous night. The rest of the 1st Battalion was deployed with Company D and the balance of Company A defending Ohlungen, while Company C defended the nearby high ground. Although the Germans had forced their way down to the southwest corner of Schweighausen, Companies F and H still held the town.

Early in the morning the commander of the 314th Infantry, which had been ordered to come to the support of the 222nd, arrived at the regiment’s headquarters in Keffendorf. He planned to send two companies of his 3rd Battalion, supported by three tanks, along the same route that Company B had taken the night before. These two companies would sweep up from the southwest corner of the forest to re-establish the line around the Mill d’Uhrbruck. He also planned to send elements of his 1st Battalion down the road from Ohlungen to Schweighausen, pass along the western outskirts of the town, move through Company F and re-establish the line’s right flank.

Meanwhile, the 68th Armored Infantry Battalion, 14th Armored Division, which had arrived at Ohlungen shortly after daybreak, was to attack the southeast corner of the forest and drive up to the center of the original line. It was hoped that this three-pronged attack would restore the 222nd’s positions and halt any further German attempts to outflank Haguenau.

Companies I and K, of the 314th, moved directly to Neubourg, then out to the line Bugno had held, and formed up for an attack. This line bent south from a draw situated halfway between Neubourg and the Mill d’Uhrbruck that cut from the firebreak south into the woods, almost to the road. There, on the east side of a little bridge over the draw, were placed the two Company M machine guns that had been employed throughout the night farther to the east. The guns formed part of a thin defensive line that included a platoon of riflemen drawn from the 3rd Platoon, Company K, and the remains of Captain Bugno’s battered Company L platoon.

The veterans of the previous night’s action greeted the newcomers with silent gratitude. Company I, off to the north side of the road, and Company K, to the south of the road, looked on as the men of the 314th shoved off into the woods toward the Mill d’Uhrbruck.

About 200 yards from the mill they encountered heavy German fire. After fighting for about an hour and a half the 314th withdrew to a line that ran south from a point midway between the draw and the mill. While not linking up with the 1st Battalion, they hit the Germans near the mill so hard that they prevented them from launching their own attack. The two companies dug in and established new positions around noon, tying in with the 222nd’s Company B. The two Company M machine guns and the 3rd Platoon, Company K, which had been forced to pull back when Bugno withdrew, were now able to return to their original positions.

The unit’s history summed up the action: We took a mauling, but held our ground. We had proved that the Americans could fight with a cold passion and a fury even without that unlimited supply of material which so many believe is responsible for American success in battle.

This article was written by Allyn Vannoy and originally appeared in the February 2001 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!

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