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". . . the accent of a coming foot, The opening of a door."

Emily Dickinson

XIII

Haguenau--Siegfried Offensive

If the roads aren't completely bottomless with mud, Haguenau is about a ten minute drive from Bischwiller. Tourists, if there are any, generally approach the place from Saverne, but we were hardly sightseeing when we visited it in March, so we followed our MSR from quaint Brumath, speeded up to pass the one or two favorite spots that Jerry accurately pulverized for several weeks, and effected the relief that started us on our last bitter phase of the war.
 
Like most French towns with two or more tracks running through, Haguenau was classified as a rail center. Since late November it had served as a battleground, often with certain rubbled streets marking the division between the Wehrmacht and the Allies. The 45th Division first littered the town with their northward push after breaking through the Saverne Gap Thanksgiving night, and later when the German counterattack crashed into the Seventh Army it served as a hub for both the enemy's offense and our defense. Innumerable rounds of artillery, arched from guns American and German, had shattered this near sieged city for nearly four months. The small arms spatterings from a score of bitter street fights had left their unmistakable brand around the doors and windows of those structures still standing. plate14.gif (15682 bytes)
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For the most part, the civilians of Haguenau seemed indifferent to the progress of war, other than the daily misfortune that was their lot. To them war was a continual affliction. It's surprising the number that remained, even in the most desolate areas. A lot of help was offered and given by some of them, but then there were those who were German in birth as well as in sympathy, and they gave no cheers for the liberators. One old man explained with some indignation that he had slept nightly since Christmas in the safety of a big champagne cellar, but that American Engineers now kept him awake till midnight with their motion picture machine.

In between the twisted railyards and the center of town it wasn't too bad, but when our business carried us into the large city square or into one of the ruins near the Moder itself, then your chances for getting caught in a street sweeping job by an MG-42, firing from across the stream, were pretty good. Also, three months of familiarization with every house, archway and alley left little adjusting to be done by enemy artillery observers.

Naturally, it was into this dangerous part of the city that we went. The 1st Battalion occupied the left flank of the sector, taking positions for the most part along the edge of the Moder, with one platoon of A Company in a few houses on the German side. The 3rd Battalion served as the right flank, while the second rested in temporary reserve in the towns of Batzendorf and Harthausen, both handily within the range of Jerry's cannon. The enemy held the most uncomfortable part of Haguenau, with positions north of the river and in the woods that hemmed the town. Curious to see whom he would be fighting the next few days, he kept the sky well lighted during the exchange. Still curious the next morning, 30 Jerrys attempted to cross the river near Kaltenhaus but were dispersed by fire from the 3rd Battalion mortars.

Probably the most precarious place in Haguenau was the four house bridgehead that was turned over to us by the 143rd and which was the object of the German efforts. Shells dropped in constantly, once so heavily that three of the houses were destroyed and the ruins were temporarily abandoned. Shortly afterwards the places were retaken along with two new houses, but they too were eventually demolished.

In looking back on our labors since New Years, it was noticed that we hadn't done much gaining or liberating. Any big movements we made were parallel to the enemy's line and not through it. We had been fighting pretty steadily — no shortage of work in this game — but our fighting was unlike any before in France. At times our struggle had been to hold what was already ours, and if you are successful at this you don't move at all. With this somewhat stable situation, come the numerous patrols; small groups of men whose job it is to leave the beauty of the squad area and poke around in places they have no business. Haguenau, like Herrlisheim and Montbronn, was one of those places.

"Don't let him rest. Let's see what he's doing over there. Find out where he is, then come back. But when you come, bring one of them with you so we can see what he has to say about it. Be careful because the whole damn place is one big mine field. Take three men with you."

Such instructions were frequent during our two weeks stay at Haguenau.

The Moder, normally what we would call a creek, was still violent from the early warmth and rain. In some places it was eight feet deep and about 40 or 50 feet wide. The steep banks on either side made swimming a poor solution for crossing. Nevertheless the river was crossed, time and time again, and our patrols ranged deep into the enemy held part of Haguenau. The prisoners that returned did not hesitate to describe their unfortunate state. One, which was taken to the regimental command post, openly revealed the low morale of his diminished outfit and requested that he be permitted to broadcast a surrender plea to his comrades. He felt sure that verbal persuasion could bring them in. Division stated that a raiding party might be the needed pressure to bring the Germans to their knees.

We spent eleven days in Haguenau. Except for the final attack they were days of sporadic firing and intermittant artillery and the nights were full of patrols, flares and the sound of armor moving in and moving out. It was also our first inland experience with life preservers. Over all was a mounting feeling of a pending push. To the north the Germans were being driven back across the Rhine and it seemed evident that their stay in this little corner of France would not be too long.

On the morning of March 10th Company B, which had relieved Able Company in the small foothold over the river, took five more houses, but aroused a German counterattack that developed into an all day affair. By extensive use of bazookas they drove our men back toward the bridge and into the original holding. This ugly half acre, which consisted of ten badly beaten houses all standing in a row facing the river, was bounded on the north by a very active cemetery whose high walls made a natural lurking place for the resisting Krauts. As the time passed our efforts slowly turned, almost completely, to this contended strip.

Three days later the 2nd Battalion, which had taken over the 1st Battalion's sector, launched an early morning surprise attack on the enemy forces and succeeded in enlarging our area on the north side of the Moder. Thirty-six prisoners, some with medals showing they had fought on the Eastern Front, were taken. The short attack was preceded by a torrent of artillery fire that was centered around the cemetery and its neighboring buildings. Machine guns raked every possible haven of enemy in the rubbled defense, and our troops moved in without the usual interference of German small arms. So violent had been our preparatory fire that many of the thickly sewn mine fields were laid bare by the pulverizing effects.

Later on, however, the Krauts came back, on foot and in tanks, and by nightfall the muzzles of the Tigers were poking into the houses held by the two forward companies. Our own armor was balked by the stream, so artillery was the feeble solution for halting the onslaught. Even Division was concerned about this particular situation and ordered that a bazooka team would knock out the tanks before morning, but daylight found the giants still at large. By noon, though, most of the area was still in our hands and the fury of the enemy effort had spent itself. Each defensive unit in a house (or reasonable facsimile) was furnished with a bazooka team which fired so effectively that the armor slowly backed away.

One of these tanks, about the size of a small warehouse, was dubbed the "Monster" by our supporting tankmen.

With the information secured during the battle, the German force along the regimental front was estimated to be about 300 Infantrymen with a few tanks and self-propelled guns.

 

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