TIME/DATE: 3:15 a.m., January 25, 1945
LOCATION: Wooded area 15 miles north of Colmar, France
MISSION: Attack and seize a hill defended by German infantrymen
UNIT: 10-man Free French infantry squad
ENEMY: Up to 10 German infantrymen armed with rifles, machine pistols and possibly an MG42
You are Sergeant Èmile Brouchard, leader of an infantry squad in French 1st March Infantry Division (formerly designated 1st Free French Division), a unit in General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s 300,000-man French 1st Army. French 1st Army and General Alexander M. Patch’s U.S. 7th Army comprise the fighting forces of U.S. 6th Army Group, commanded by General Jacob L. Devers.
After invading German-occupied southern France in August 1944, 6th Army Group’s French and American soldiers advanced into the country’s northeastern province of Alsace, which is bounded by the borders of Germany and neutral Switzerland. On December 31, German 19th Army launched a powerful counteroffensive against 6th Army Group, and by January 20, 1945, the Germans had seized a 30-miledeep by 40-mile-wide pocket around the Alsatian city of Colmar.
As part of 6th Army Group’s effort to eliminate the “Colmar Pocket,” French 1st March Infantry Division is now attacking the pocket’s northwestern sector. Yet the German soldiers there, with their backs to the Rhine River – the last barrier to the Western Allies’ invasion of Germany – are putting up a fierce fight.
Like many Free French soldiers, you were among the thousands of French army troops evacuated from Dunkirk to escape Germany’s conquest of France in June 1940. Others joined Free French forces during the 1942-43 Allied campaign in North Africa. As is the case with most soldiers in French 1st March Infantry Division, you are combat experienced, having fought in Tunisia, Italy and the campaign to liberate France.
Free French forces are armed, equipped and clothed by the United States. Thus, you and your men wear American helmets and uniforms and carry U.S. M1 rifles and carbines. Your squad’s main fire support weapon is a Browning automatic rifle (BAR).
Last night your platoon leader, Lieutenant Garbay, assigned your squad the mission of attacking before dawn to seize a German position situated on a low wooded hill a few hundred meters to the east. The enemy force appears to be a squad-sized unit of eight to 10 infantrymen armed with bolt-action K98 rifles and a few MP40 machine pistols (submachine guns). The Germans also may have an MG42 machine gun, a particularly devastating weapon that has earned the nickname “Hitler’s Buzz Saw” for its extremely high rate of fire – 1,200 rounds per minute versus the BAR’s 600 rounds per minute.
As you consider your tactical options, your assistant squad leader, Corporal Reynaud, kneels beside you. “Sergeant,” he asks, “did the lieutenant say whether we will have any artillery or mortar support for our attack?”
“No,” you reply. “He says the squad must handle this mission on its own.”
WHAT IS YOUR DECISION, SERGEANT BROUCHARD?
ASSESSMENT OF THE TACTICAL SITUATION
In general, Free French infantry forces employ the same standard “fire and maneuver” tactic used by the U.S. Army. In squad-level combat, this typically involves the assistant squad leader setting up a base of fire with the BAR and half of the squad, while the squad leader takes the other half of the unit and maneuvers to assault the enemy position. Yet if the enemy is supported by an automatic weapon, particularly a machine gun, the squad’s maneuver element can become pinned down, resulting in an uncoordinated attack that fails.
One way to overcome such enemy resistance and prevent a stalled attack is to use increased firepower – tanks, artillery or mortars. Unfortunately, that option is not available to you in the current situation. Thus, if the German force is indeed supported by an MG42 machine gun, using the fire and maneuver tactic could cause your attack to fail. While the BAR is an excellent automatic weapon, it is no match for an MG42 in a firepower “duel.”
On the other hand, if the Germans are armed only with rifles and machine pistols, using the fire and maneuver tactic will be the quickest and most efficient means of accomplishing your mission.
POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION
You see two possible courses of action for your squad’s attack. Although both can be executed during the predawn darkness, the key difference is how they take into account the German force’s firepower capability.
The first option is to attack the German position using the standard fire and maneuver tactic. Under this course of action, Corporal Reynaud will establish a base of fire using half of the squad’s men and the BAR, while you lead the other half of the squad to assault and defeat the enemy.
The advantage of this plan is that it is the quickest way to accomplish the mission, and your combat veterans have successfully employed this tactic so often that they will execute it like a well-oiled machine. However, if the Germans do have an MG42, that significant firepower advantage could allow them to overwhelm your base of fire, pin down your maneuver element and defeat your attack while inflicting potentially heavy casualties.
The alternative is for you to lead the entire squad in a wide flank march through the woods to the north – remaining concealed and staying clear of any potential machine-gun field of fire – and position it closely behind the Germans. From there, your men will rush and overrun the enemy position before the defenders can react and bring effective fire against your attacking squad.
While this option has the advantage of avoiding any machine-gun fire, it entails a long, circuitous route through the snow-covered woods. Thus, employing this plan may delay accomplishing the mission for two to three hours, and your exhausted soldiers might react sluggishly in combat with possibly fatal results.
SQUAD LEADER’S ORDERS
“Listen carefully,” you announce to the squad, “because today we will not be using our usual fire and maneuver tactic. The Germans may or may not have an MG42, but I won’t run the risk of betting they don’t. Instead, I’ll lead the squad on a wide, roundabout flank march through the woods to get behind the defenders, where we will be in position to overrun them in a final rush. Above all, we must avoid any area where a machine gun might have a clear field of fire.
“Now men, don’t make the mistake of thinking this will be some easy walk in the woods; we will be cold and exhausted after tramping through the snow for hours in the dark. Yet we must remember the lesson we’ve learned many times before: the more we sweat, the less we’ll bleed.
“I want the BAR to stay close to me at all times. Corporal Reynaud, you bring up the rear to keep everyone closed up and moving forward. Now, let’s go!”
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief.
Historical Note: Too often, historians have unfairly overlooked the significant contribution Free French forces made to the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Indeed, by V-E Day, Free French forces numbered 1.3 million troops – the fourth largest Allied army after American, British and Canadian armies.
The contribution of Free French forces was particularly vital to the success of U.S. 6th Army Group (French 1st Army comprised half of the army group’s strength). Notably, Free French forces (eight divisions supported by four U.S. divisions) spearheaded 6th Army Group’s January-February 1945 effort that eliminated the Colmar Pocket and positioned the army group for its March 1945 Rhine River crossing and invasion of Germany.
Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Armchair General.