Death of an American
With their backs to the wall, German troops fought ferociously against
the American VI Corps in and around a small Alsatian village.
By David T. Zabecki and Keith Wooster
In the cold and foggy pre-dawn hours of January 17, 1945, the U.S. 12th
Armored Division's 43rd Tank Battalion prepared to renew the previous
day's unsuccessful attack on German positions in and around the small
Alsatian village of Herrlisheim. Thus far in that operation, the battalion
had lost 12 of its tanks, and 11 others were damaged. Now, as the 43rd
was resupplying and refueling its remaining 29 operational tanks, the
battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Novosel, felt uneasy
about what was to come. He was overheard telling another officer from
the division: "Meyer, you're a lucky SOB. I think we're not coming
back from this one." Novosel's premonition would prove all too
right for many of his men.
1945 was a tough time for the soldiers of Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers' Sixth
Army Group. While the world's attention was riveted on the bitter struggle
for the Ardennes, the Germans launched an unexpectedly strong counteroffensive
against Devers' forces on the southern flank of the Allied line in Alsace.
The series of attacks, which started on December 31, 1944, collectively
came to be known by the Germans' name for the first of those attacks, Operation
Nordwind ("North Wind").
The 12th Armored Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Roderick R. Allen,
was relatively inexperienced. It had arrived in France in mid-November,
and between December 7 and 12 the division's Combat Command A had taken
part in operations around Singling, Rohrbach, Guisling and Bettwiller.
On December 15, the 12th Armored became part of the reserve of Lt. Gen.
Alexander M. Patch's U.S. Seventh Army.
When the Germans launched their attacks in the south, the Seventh Army
was spread paper thin, holding a 126-mile-long front line with only
eight divisions. On the left, the U.S. XV Corps manned an east-west
line facing north into Germany's Rhineland. On the right, Maj. Gen.
Edward H. Brooks' VI Corps held the remainder of the line, from the
French town of Bitche to Lauterbourg, at the junction of the French-German
border and the Rhine River. The VI Corps' line then bent south along
the west bank of the Rhine to just north of Strasbourg. Thus, Brooks'
line looked something like an inverted "L."
On January 5, the XIV SS Corps under General Otto von dem Bach attacked
across the Rhine at Gambsheim and into the VI Corps' eastern flank.
The Germans initially established the bridgehead with the 553rd Volksgrenadier
Division and the 405th Infantry Division. That same day, units of the
U.S. 79th Infantry Division, VI Corps, occupied the towns of Bischwiller
and Rohrwiller in an attempt to contain the Gambsheim bridgehead. Another
task force from the 79th tried--with little success--to clear the Germans
out of the Steinwald, a patch of woods just to the north of Gambsheim.
following day, the 79th Infantry made several more unsuccessful attempts
to clear the bridgehead. Meanwhile, the 6th SS Mountain Division captured
the town of Wingen, to the west in the low Vosges Mountains. That move drove
a wedge between Patch's two corps and threatened the western flank of VI
Corps, now heavily engaged on both sides and almost out of reserves. In
response, Patch released the 12th Armored Division's Combat Command B to
the VI Corps.
The Germans continued to build up the Gambsheim bridgehead. On January
7, the German LXIV Corps crossed the Rhine south of Rheinau, threatening
the VI Corps' rear. That same day, the XXXIX Panzer Corps started shifting
elements of the 21st Panzer and 25th Panzergrenadier divisions from
west of Bitche to the Lauterbourg area in preparation for a major push
down the west bank of the Rhine. Near the end of the day, the 12th Armored's
Combat Command B arrived in the area, temporarily attached to the 79th
Infantry, and was ordered to immediately prepare to attack the Germans
By January 8, the Gambsheim bridgehead was about 12 kilometers wide
and 5 kilometers deep. On its north flank, the Germans held the town
of Drusenheim, situated near the Rhine. The southern anchor was Gambsheim,
about one kilometer from the river. Herrlisheim, about four kilometers
west of the river, was at the center of the bridgehead. The Germans
also held Offendorf, about one kilometer from the Rhine, southeast of
Herrlisheim and northeast of Gambsheim. American forces held Rohrwiller,
one kilometer north of and across the Zorn River from Herrlisheim.
Terrain and weather totally dominated the fighting around Herrlisheim.
In January 1945, snow and heavy ground fog blanketed the region, neutralizing
Allied air superiority. The west bank of the Rhine River was poor tank
country--flat and open with small clusters of woods and crisscrossed
by many small waterways swollen with snow and ice. There was very little
concealment, and many of the bridges in the area had been destroyed.
Those still standing were well-protected and under observation by the
the northern edge of the bridgehead, the Moder River ran along the southern
edge of Rohrwiller and then cut north through the center of Drusenheim.
The Zorn River ran northeast along the western edge of Herrlisheim, joining
the Moder about 200 meters northeast of la Breymuehl, a small cluster of
buildings between Rohrwiller and Herrlisheim. Kleinbach Creek roughly paralleled
the Zorn and ran through the center of Herrlisheim. The Landgraben River
ran somewhat perpendicular to the Zorn, along the northern edge of the Steinwald
and then through Offendorf.
In 1945 a two-lane road, the D-468, ran northeast through the area,
connecting Gambsheim, Herrlisheim and Drusenheim. Another fairly good
road ran from Bischwiller through Rohrwiller and la Breymuehl, joining
the D-468 just north of Herrlisheim. A small secondary road connected
Herrlisheim and Offendorf and then snaked south along the Rhine River
to Gambsheim. A railroad line also ran along the eastern edge of Herrlisheim,
roughly paralleling both the D-468 and the Zorn.
The railroad embankment provided perfect defilade positions for German
anti-tank guns facing west, and the Steinwald, due north of Gambsheim,
dominated the flat ground south of Herrlisheim. The flat, open plain
bounded by Herrlisheim in the north, Offendorf and the railroad embankment
in the east, and the Steinwald in the south formed a textbook-perfect
armor kill zone.
The 12th Armored's Combat Command B (CCB), commanded by Colonel Charles
V. Bromley, was offered the opportunity to attack from the south through
French lines, with the Rhine on its right flank. Bromley, however, decided
to attack from the northwest, from Bischwiller and through Rohrwiller,
which were still held by the 79th Infantry. In retrospect, that route
clearly left CCB's left flank vulnerable to the German positions in
Combat Command B attacked with two task forces in column. The armor-heavy
rear element, Task Force Rammer, reached its assembly areas in Rohrwiller
at about 2 p.m. on January 8. Meanwhile, elements from the leading infantry-heavy
Task Force Power advanced southeast from Rohrwiller to scout the bridge
over the Zorn at la Breymuehl. The scouts found the bridge intact in
front of the la Breymuehl waterworks complex, and they radioed back
for the tanks to advance. They did not realize that a second bridge,
less than 100 meters down the road, had been blown--and all the division's
Bailey bridges were still far in the rear.
The American tanks quickly jammed up at la Breymuehl, and CCB had to
hastily modify its plan of attack. Deploying the tanks along the west
bank of the Zorn for support, the 56th Armored Infantry Battalion moved
across the swollen river to take up positions along Kleinbach Creek.
The axis of attack ran perpendicular to the railway line on the far
side of Herrlisheim. The advancing GIs were subjected to heavy German
mortar and small-arms fire from their front, as well as enfilading fire
on their exposed left flank from Drusenheim. The American attack stalled
as infantry units bunched up and became tangled. Although Company B
of the 56th Armored Infantry Battalion reached the Kleinbach at about
dusk, they were later ordered to pull back to la Breymuehl.
night there were at least four infantry companies packed into the waterworks
buildings. At about 3 a.m. on January 9, mortar rounds began to fall on
the waterworks. German troops infiltrated the buildings, and close-quarters
fighting raged until daylight. Light tanks were used to evacuate the wounded
back to Rohrwiller along the road the GIs christened "Purple Heart
Combat Command B planned to resume the attack early the next morning,
but the men were delayed by surrendering Germans. After some 175 prisoners
were rounded up, the attack began at 10:30 a.m. The lead elements of
the 56th Armored Infantry reached the outskirts of Herrlisheim at about
11:30 a.m., but Company B suffered almost 50 percent casualties in the
open, frozen fields. Once inside the town, the Americans ran into a
German assault gun and heavy small-arms fire. Still held up on the west
bank of the Zorn, American M4A3 Sherman tanks lined the banks of the
river and provided fire support. Around dusk, German anti-tank guns
started picking off the lined-up Shermans like targets in a shooting
gallery. The American armor quickly withdrew back into Rohrwiller, leaving
the infantry in Herrlisheim to fend for itself.
Elsewhere along the front that day, the XXXIX Panzer Corps penetrated
the VI Corps' center, driving the American line back into the Haguenau
Forest. The VI Corps was now fighting for its life on three sides. Brooks
committed his final remaining reserve, the 14th Armored Division, to
the fierce fighting that followed in the towns of Hatten and Rittershoffen.
The Germans in Herrlisheim, meanwhile, continued to fight back. That
night, the Germans slipped more armored vehicles and white-cloaked infantrymen
into the town. By 3 a.m. on January 10, the 56th Armored Infantry was
effectively cut off. At dawn that morning, CCB attempted to move up
several M-8 self-propelled assault guns, but the vehicles crashed through
the ice on the waterways and could not be recovered until after nightfall.
Several light tanks made it into Herrlisheim that day, but they proved
useless in the heavy building-to-building fighting.
Later that day, the Bailey bridges finally arrived and the Shermans
of Company C, 714th Tank Battalion, 14th Armored, prepared to charge
across the Zorn to relieve the 56th Armored Infantry. The attack was
preceded by an artillery bombardment along the northern edge of the
Steinwald. Just as the barrage started, however, German artillery fired
back in response. Several of the 714th's tanks were knocked out, and
the advanced command post of the 56th took a direct hit. The armored
attack was canceled.
56th Armored Infantry in Herrlisheim was now down to an effective strength
of only 150 men. Around 4 p.m., General Allen ordered the combat command
to renew the attack. Colonel Bromley protested, arguing that it would be
more effective to contain the bridgehead and let the Germans wear themselves
out trying to sustain it. Allen relieved Bromley of his command, but later
that night the general also ordered the evacuation of Herrlisheim.
For the next several days, both sides tried to build up their forces
while glaring at each other across the fogbound fields and frozen streams.
The Germans fed more units into the bridgehead, hoping to build up enough
mass to punch through to the Germans fighting at Hatten and Rittershoffen,
thereby pinching off the VI Corps' salient. On January 13, Patch gave
the VI Corps the 36th Infantry Division and Combat Command A of the
12th Armored, and Brooks immediately ordered the combat command to close
on Gambsheim. That same day, Combat Command B repelled a strong German
attack from Herrlisheim toward Rohrwiller. From about January 15 on,
all German operations in the bridgehead came under the control of the
XXXIX Panzer Corps, which now included the 10th SS Panzer Division,
the 7th Parachute Division, and the 384th and 667th Assault Gun brigades.
The 12th Armored planned to renew its effort to take Herrlisheim on
January 16, this time with two combat commands. CCB would attack again
from Rohrwiller, while CCA would come in from the southwest, crossing
the Zorn near Weyersheim, which was still in American hands. Combat
Command A's actual objective was Offendorf, which would cut off the
Germans in Herrlisheim. At the same time, the 79th Infantry Division's
2nd Battalion, 314th Infantry, would attack Drusenheim, and the French
3rd Algerian Infantry Division would attack north along the Rhine from
Kilstett toward Gambsheim.
The Steinwald was the key to CCA's attack. Unless the woods were cleared
of Germans, the plan would be doomed to failure. The combat command
organized into three task forces. Task Force 1 consisted primarily of
the 43rd Tank Battalion, and Task Force 3 was essentially the 17th Armored
Infantry Battalion. Both had Offendorf as their final objectives. Task
Force 2, consisting of the 66th Armored Infantry Battalion and a tank
platoon from the 43rd Tank Battalion, had the vital mission of clearing
Prior to the attack, Allied Intelligence estimated that between 500
and 800 German infantrymen and Volksgrenadiers held Herrlisheim. The
Germans, in fact, had major elements of the 10th SS Panzer Division
in both Herrlisheim and Offendorf. In the Steinwald, the Germans had
one company of well-dug-in infantry, a mortar company, three anti-tank
guns and at least six other armored vehicles.
The American attack went badly from the start. Almost simultaneously,
the Germans launched a drive down the west bank of the Rhine from Lauterbourg,
attempting to link up with the Gambsheim bridgehead. The 79th Infantry
Division, to the north of the bridgehead, took most of the brunt of
that attack, but CCB also came under heavy artillery fire and again
was unable to get its tanks across the river.
Command A's attack from the south commenced at 1 a.m. on the 16th. By 4:45
a.m., the 66th Armored Infantry Battalion reached Landgraben River, the
line of departure for the Steinwald attack. There they were pinned down
by heavy German fire. When the attack was called off at noon, Companies
A and C of the 66th Armored Infantry were reduced to a combined strength
of only 65 survivors.
At 10:30 a.m., the whitewashed tanks of the 43rd Tank Battalion started
to move across the open field south of Herrlisheim. The Steinwald was
supposed to have been cleared by that time--but it was not. Caught in
that perfect tank kill zone, the 43rd Tank Battalion started taking
fire from the Steinwald to its south, from Herrlisheim to its north
and from Offendorf to its east. To make matters worse, the 43rd could
not return fire into the Steinwald because the tankers believed American
troops were still trying to take it. After 12 of his tanks were knocked
out and another 11 were hit, Colonel Novosel finally ordered a withdrawal
two kilometers to the west and requested airstrikes on the Steinwald.
The 17th Armored Infantry Battalion, commanded by Major James W. Logan,
also took heavy fire during its advance. Some of the light tanks attached
to the battalion managed to reach the railroad embankment, but they
were quickly torn to pieces by German anti-tank fire from Offendorf
and the Steinwald. Even the normally dependable 3rd Algerian Infantry
Division failed to get anywhere close to Gambsheim that day.
On January 17, Combat Commands A and B of the 12th Armored Division
went at Herrlisheim again. For this attack, the 23rd Tank Battalion
was pulled from CCB and given to CCA. In exchange, CCB got Company C
of the 17th Armored Infantry Battalion.
Combat Command B's objective was the point just north of Herrlisheim
where the D-468 and the rail line crossed, but the Americans' attack
again stalled almost before it started. Trying to extend the tenuous
bridgehead east of the Zorn, the combat command ran into heavy artillery,
mortar and small-arms fire. After several hours of slugging it out,
CCB pulled back to the Zorn.
Combat Command A's attack began at 4 a.m., when the 66th Armored Infantry
Battalion jumped off to clear the Steinwald. Although severely mauled
the day before, the 66th Armored Infantry had been reinforced with Company
A of the 119th Armored Engineer Battalion (fighting as infantry) and
Company B, 23rd Tank Battalion. That effort went no better than the
day before, and by 7 a.m. the 66th had been thrown back to its line
of departure along Landgraben River. At dawn, meanwhile, both the 17th
and the 43rd started moving across the northern edge of the Steinwald
toward the D-468 and then the rail line leading north into Herrlisheim.
Although their movement was partially screened by heavy ground fog,
the 43rd Tank Battalion still lost four tanks to fire from the Steinwald
before it reached the southern outskirts of the town. At 7:40 a.m.,
Novosel radioed that he was preparing to enter Herrlisheim.
At 8:50, the 43rd Tank Battalion's S-3 (operations officer) reported
taking German anti-tank fire from inside the town. Shortly after that,
Major Ernst Tetsch, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 10th SS Panzer
Regiment, 10th SS Panzer Division, advanced with several Panther medium
tanks from Offendorf toward Herrlisheim. Running into American fire
from the town, he lost one tank and his 3rd Company commander, who was
wounded. Faced with an uncertain situation in very limited visibility,
Tetsch withdrew to his regimental assembly area in Offendorf.
At about 10 a.m., the 17th Armored Infantry Battalion, now inside Herrlisheim,
lost radio contact with the 43rd Tank Battalion. A few minutes later,
Novosel reported his position to CCA as being somewhere in the eastern
section of the town. At 10:30 a.m. Novosel radioed, "Yesterday
was a circus compared to what it is today."
23rd Tank Battalion also took heavy casualties in its attack on Offendorf.
By midmorning, Companies A and C had been reduced to an effective strength
of 20 tanks. With CCB's attack in the north failing, CCA changed the 23rd's
objective from Offendorf to Drusenheim. To reach Drusenheim, the 23rd Tank
Battalion would have to cut to the north and either skirt or go directly
through Herrlisheim. Late that morning, the battalion commander, Major Edwards,
entered Herrlisheim to determine the situation in the town. Although the
43rd was still in radio contact with CCA at that point, Edwards could find
no trace of them in the fog. Shortly after, Edwards sent his 20 tanks into
Herrlisheim. They never made it through. They quickly joined in the fighting
inside the town as they tried to support the 17th Armored Infantry.
Around noon, Companies A and B of the 17th linked up inside Herrlisheim
at the junction of the road leading to Offendorf. The 43rd Tank Battalion
and the 17th still had not found each other in the fog. At 12:30, Novosel
radioed, "Things are hot," and requested more infantry support.
About an hour later, Combat Command A received the final radio message
from the 43rd. An unidentified soldier reported that the battalion commander's
tank had been knocked out and that the unit was now heavily engaged
east of the town.
Early that afternoon, 1st Lt. Erwin Bachmann, Tetsch's battalion adjutant,
rode into Herrlisheim on a motorcycle accompanied by two Panthers from
the 2nd Battalion's 3rd Company. Bachmann set up the two tanks supported
by Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons at a crossroads inside the town. He
then ambushed and knocked out several Shermans, captured some 60 GIs
and freed 20 German prisoners. Bachmann's force also captured intact
four Shermans and their crews, which he sent back to Offendorf under
guard. Bachmann then moved his small force to the northern edge of Herrlisheim,
where he knocked out two more Shermans.
Bachmann radioed his situation to his regimental headquarters in Offendorf,
requesting additional tanks. At about 4 p.m., the Germans launched a
strong attack out of the frozen mist enshrouding Offendorf. Six Panthers
attacked across the railway embankment into the flank of Company A,
17th Armored Infantry Battalion. That attack pushed the 23rd Tank Battalion's
surviving tanks out of Herrlisheim. A few hours later, all of the 17th's
survivors huddled in the dark in a single position on the southern edge
of the town. There still was no trace of the 43rd Tank Battalion.
General Allen decided to leave the 17th Armored Infantry Battalion
in Herrlisheim that night. At midnight the Germans launched a large-scale
infantry attack against Logan's position. The 12th Armored's divisional
artillery fired back in support of the besieged GIs, but the German
attacks continued throughout the early morning hours. At 4 a.m. the
Germans mounted their heaviest assault yet, and Major Logan sent his
last radio message, "I guess this is it." In the darkness
and confusion of the final German push, about 140 Americans managed
to escape and make it back across the Zorn.
As dawn broke on January 18, the 12th Armored still had no idea what
had happened to the 43rd Tank Battalion. Later that morning an artillery
observer flying over Herrlisheim reported spotting several destroyed
Shermans in the eastern section of the town. Flying just to the east
of Herrlisheim, he reported five more. Then in a field on the southeast
edge of town, he saw between 10 and 15 Shermans deployed in a circular
defensive perimeter. Some were still painted white; others were scorched
Allen immediately ordered a rescue mission. Company B, 66th Armored
Infantry, and Company B, 23rd Tank Battalion, attacked but were quickly
repulsed by the Germans. When a later air reconnaissance mission reported
German troops and vehicles swarming around the motionless American tanks,
Allen called off the rescue. Later that day Colonel Bromley returned
to CCB, restored to his command. The command made one last attempt to
attack across the Zorn: it failed. At dusk all American forces west
of the Zorn were ordered to go on the defensive and dig in. The Germans
now held the entire east bank and controlled all the bridges.
On the morning of January 19, the 10th SS Panzer and the 22nd SS Panzergrenadier
regiments launched strong westward attacks from both Offendorf and Gambsheim.
The German attacks started to make headway, but fortunately for the
American defenders, the weather began to clear around noon. Allied tactical
air assets responded immediately with 190 sorties, dropping more than
100 tons of ordnance in the Herrlisheim-Offendorf area.
the pounding from Allied aircraft, the German attacks continued through
the afternoon. At about 5 p.m., 400 German infantrymen supported by 17 tanks
almost succeeded in attacking across the Zorn from Landgraben River. North
of Herrlisheim, the Germans pushed across the Zorn and almost overran CCB's
command post in Rohrwiller. As clerks and other personnel started to panic
and prepared to evacuate the area, Colonel Bromley shouted out: "Stop
this goddamn panic. We're not retreating anywhere. We're defending this
command post; we're holding this line. We're soldiers; we have weapons;
The American line held, but the 12th Armored was in a precarious position
at nightfall on January 19. During the last 11 days the division had
taken more than 1,250 casualties and lost 70 combat vehicles. Divisional
artillery was down to less than 50 rounds per battalion--enough for
five minutes of sustained firing.
Relief finally came when the VI Corps ordered the 36th Infantry Division
to assume the 12th Armored's positions. By 9 p.m. the 36th Infantry's
142nd and 143rd Infantry regiments took control of their assigned sectors,
and the 12th Armored pulled back. The following day the 12th was assigned
to the VI Corps reserve, and on January 22 the division passed to the
control of the French First Army for operations south of Strasbourg.
To this day there remains some confusion as to the fate of Colonel
Novosel and the 43rd Tank Battalion. On the night of January 18, a German
radio broadcast reported the capture of an American battalion commander
and 300 of his men at Herrlisheim as well as the destruction or capture
of 50 tanks. Novosel did not have that many tanks to start with, but
the number would be about right if it included the tanks of the 23rd
Tank Battalion. In sharp contrast, the U.S. Army's official history,
Riviera to the Rhine, cites a February 23, 1945, U.S. graves registration
report stating, "Some twenty-eight destroyed tanks of the 43rd
Tank Battalion were later recovered, as were the bodies of the battalion
commander and many of his men."
Ironically, the German broadcast was correct. The July 7, 1945, edition
of the Hellcat News, the 12th Armored Division's newspaper, carries
a report of a letter written by Novosel from a hospital in Michigan
where he had been sent after his liberation from a German prisoner-of-war
camp. He had been wounded 17 times before being captured at Herrlisheim.
His tank was hit by a mortar round just as he was attempting to radio
CCA for the last time. Novosel noted: "I was hit [at] about two
and don't remember much after that. The rest held out until five or
On the strategic level, Germany's position was hopeless in January
1945, yet the battle for Herrlisheim was a tactical draw. Both sides
gave good accounts of themselves. The Germans, especially the 10th SS
Panzer Division, proved once again that they still had the best tanks
on the battlefield and that the German soldier, even with his back to
the wall, was a force to be reckoned with. The 12th Armored Division
proved that even a new unit with inexperienced GIs could stand up against
the best the German army could throw at it. Both sides exhibited outstanding
Perhaps the best summation of the battle for Herrlisheim can be found
in the description given by Major Brendan Phibbs, the surgeon for Combat
Command B. Writing in his memoirs, The Other Side of Time, Phibbs said:
"Decisions now up to lieutenants, sergeants, privates, organizing
confusion, calling for artillery fire, siting machine guns, building
defenses. No bridge, no mass tank attack, no disorganized German home
guard running away; instead, determined German infantry attacking hard
out of mist and snow. Our men hunker in the snow, shoot at blurs. The
battlefield has stepped in and is shaping the battalion's actions; colonels
and generals may as well bay their orders to the moon."
By David T. Zabecki and Keith Wooster from the January 1999 issue of
World War II.