36th Division in World War II

THROUGH THE SIEGFRIED

Little more than two miles north of Wissembourg the main line of German heavy fortifications--the Siegfried Line or Westwall--faced the Allied invaders as they plunged into Germany. As they had done all along the western border of Germany, German engineers at Wissembourg Gap had arranged a formidable defense, heaviest in the entire Seventh Army sector, to block this natural gateway to the Fatherland. Here the country is but slightly rolling and open, excellent for armor, flanked on the west by a jumbled mass of sharply rising, forested hills. The 36th Division, farthest in point of distance from the Siegfried on the March 15 jump-off line, and not provided with armored siege guns, was expected to do little more than make a serious demonstration upon reaching the obstacle - to uncover the Siegfried defenses - while the Army's main effort was delivered at closer range many miles to the Division left. But, after planting the Lone Star flag on the Schweigen customs house, T-Patchers smashed on through this hard core of the Westwall, taking to the hills in a strenuous pillbox-to-pillbox advance, and reducing the enemy's most violent opposition.
Texas flag flies over Germany. At the monumental customs house gateway at Schweigen, the Texas Lone Star flag, sent by Governor Coke Stevenson, was planted by Division MPs. The hastily chalked sign credits the 142nd as first unit through the archway.

The main defense belt in the flatland at Wissembourg, the familiar Westwall pattern of pyramided concrete obstacles, stretched across the plain from Ober-Otterbach to Steinfeld in the path of the 36th. It was further covered by fire from the overlooking heights West of Ober-Otterbach. In the hills a complex network of heavy concrete Pillboxes, set into the ground and carefully camouflaged, with interlocking schemes of fire, elaborate trench systems and wire obstacles constituted the bulwark of the enemy's vaunted line.

Three months earlier other troops of the Seventh Army had first driven into Germany along this same approach They spent three weeks in the hills near Rechtenbach and Ober-Otterbach, trying to force an opening, but it was not enough to gain success. Then for security reasons, a general withdrawal of the Seventh Army line to the Moder River was ordered.

As the 36th drew near to the Siegfried Line on the crisp, clear morning of March 19, the 142nd Infantry on the left moved into Wissembourg at noon. Enemy contact was spotty. The Germans had failed to show any strength in front of Wissembourg--only bridges blown and the remnants of a forced labor battalion, quickly seized. Though already worn from the previous day's long pursuit, the 1st Battalion, 142nd, because of its lead position, was ordered immediately on up the main road toward Bergzabern, and into the Siegfried Line.

Schweigen and Rechtenbach were both passed without drawing German fire. Then suddenly, as lead elements came into view on the down-slope before Ober-Otterbach, the German guns spoke, raining heavily upon the 1st Battalion, shelling Wissembourg, and covering the road from Wissembourg to Ober-Otterbach. Any thought that the Germans might have fled the Westwall or were ill-prepared to meet the assault was buried under the volume of shellfire now streaming forth from it.

Sketch approximates terrain which figured in battle through Siegfried. The 36th's lead columns, approaching from Schweigen and Rechtenbach, first tried for a quick opening in the flatland but were strongly rebuffed. Other elements took to the hills and began slow reduction of hidden pillboxes. Then the critical Grassberg height was seized and the attack pressed until Dorrenbach was entered, at the rear of the enemy's main line. Bergzbern fell on the following day. Long supply route across mass of hills had to be cleared and built. Click on the map to view a larger image.

C Company grouped three times before pushing down into Ober-Otterbach where, even after the town was cleared, the enemy continually strafed the streets from pillboxes on the nearby hills. The remainder of the 1st Battalion closed into Ober-Otterbach soon after dark and hastily prepared for a direct assault through the dragon's teeth to the front.

Meanwhile, other battalions of the Division were moving up to strike at other points along the Siegfried belt. The 2nd Battalion, 142nd, veered to the left of the 1st Battalion, clambering over the line of hills until heavily engaged in the mass of pillboxes west of Ober-Otterbach. Deep into the hills on a wide sweep to the left went Lt. Col. Everett S. Simpson's 3rd Battalion, 142nd.

In the flatland on the Division right, the 2nd Battalion, 141st, had crossed into Germany southeast of Wissembourg at 1100 hours of March 19--first unit of the Division over the border. By nightfall the 2nd Battalion had formed a line in front of the dragon's teeth one mile east of Ober-Otterbach and in early probings uncovered an array of 15 enemy machine-guns alert to meet it. During the night the 3rd and 1st Battalions, 141st, hastened up to move in alongside the 2nd on the 2nd's right. Six battalions, reading from left to right: the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st of the 142nd, the 2nd, 3rd, and 1st of the 141st, now lined up before the Siegfried. The 143rd remained, for the time, in Division reserve.

Next morning it became certain that a penetration would not be made in the lowland. The 1st Battalion, 142nd, found the enemy forces at the dragon's teeth beyond Ober-Otterbach too strong for any quick overthrow, withdrew to the cover of the town before daylight. The three battalions of the 141st lunged forward on a broad front at noon but soon were pinned down by heavy concentrations of nebelwerfer fire and of crossed machine-gun fires in the open terrain. Leaving only a token force to maintain enemy contact, the main body of the 141st was then withdrawn and turned to support the Division effort in the hills.

WAY OPENED

A break by the 3rd Battalion, 142nd, in capturing the Grassberg height, a critical feature in the enemy's defense, paved the way for the eventual collapse of the Siegfried Line in the Division zone.

A twelve-hour march uphill west of Rechtenbach brought the 3rd Battalion in position before the Grassberg height at noon of March 20. A deep draw running west from Ober-Otterbach formed a moat-like barrier to the base of the Grassberg ridge. In the draw and on the slopes of the objective, the Germans had felled large numbers of trees to provide ample fields of fire and to erect another obstacle. Men of the battalion scampered across the draw at its narrowest open stretch, dodging the long-range shots of a single enemy machine-gunner taking aim from the head of the draw.
Hot coffee revives radio team in Siegfried operation.

While the Battalion was thus hoping to effectively attain surprise, an incident occurred that should have touched off the whole German defense. Unknown to the Battalion commander, the leading platoon of the Battalion, from I Company, attacked the Grassberg hill before the main body was able to follow up in strength. The platoon succeeded in gaining the top but was driven off by fierce counter-action after the platoon leader was killed. The result was learned by Colonel Simpson as he directed the infiltration of the main body across the draw.

Yet, after the 3rd Battalion had struggled up over the log barriers and the steep slope, the men were able to drive the Germans from the forward edge of the top and establish themselves in the trenches about the pillboxes. Fighting was brisk until Grassberg was secured by late afternoon. After dark Germans attempting to filter back onto the hill from a nearby ridge were severely cut down.

Now it was imperative to exploit the advantage won, but the 3rd Battalion, still engaged and short on ammunition, could not move. The route that the 3rd Battalion had taken to reach its objective was a matter of 12 to 16 hours' march. For the nearest available battalion, the 1st, the round-about way from Ober-Otterbach would have required at least 20 'hours, and exhausted the men before fighting.

SHORT ROUTE SUCCEEDS

At 2200, Colonel Lynch ordered Lieutenant Colonel James Minor, commanding the 1st Battalion, to move to Grassberg and pass through the 3rd Battalion. But the move was to be made boldly up the deep draw due west from Ober-Otterbach under the very eyes and ears of the enemy in his defenses north of the draw. This short route, covered without stirring the enemy, enabled the 1st Battalion to arrive on Grassberg and jump off through the 3rd Battalion at 0715 on March 21.

The fighting was bitter all during the day as successive pillboxes were slowly reduced. Suddenly, during late afternoon, Company B broke loose and crashed down into Dorrenbach, a town at the rear of the German line, routing surprised kitchen crews And artillerymen. Following the 1st Battalion, 142nd, the 1st Battalion, 143rd, passed through to attack toward Bergzabern. Pushing on in the deep woods during the night and meeting continued resistance, the battalion at daylight found itself 1,500 yards south of Dorrenbach, 180 degrees off-course. They had been fighting the German main line from the rear! In the morning the 2nd Battalion, 143rd, joined in the advance on Bergzabern. It fought to cut the Bollenborn-Bergzabern road, then with the 1st Battalion on the right, pressed into Bergzabern after dark. By morning the outer defenses of the town had crumbled, the enemy's artillery fire over the Siegfried had ceased, and the Germans who had not been able to flee were giving themselves up by the hundreds.
Through the broken Siegfried . . .
. . . rolled a victorious 36th. Dash to Rhine followed.
Though a description of the breakthrough pattern deserves special attention, other battalions on the Division front contributed powerfully to the over-all success by whittling down German forces adjacent to the penetration. Men of the 2nd Battalion, 142nd, awoke on the morning of March 20 to find themselves locked in the midst of a maze of related pillbox fortresses on the hills west of Ober-Otterbach. Through the entire operation the battalion was engaged in clearing them one by one until fifty-four had been captured. Infantrymen and engineers tackled the pillbox problem in careful coordination. Tanks could not come within range because of the steepness of the slopes on which the defenses lay. Infantry cut the wire that hemmed in the defenders, chased the Germans from their trenches into the cover of the concrete enclosures, then kept these buttoned-up under fire while the engineers crept up to lay special demolition charges at doors and apertures. A sharp blast and the enemy might come running out in surrender. Or, safely under cover, he might counter by calling down mortar fire on his own position. Each strongpoint presented its own trying problem. The 1st Battalion, 141st, moved in on the right of the 2nd Battalion, 142nd, on March 21, and had cleared thirty-five of the strongboxes by the time opposition ceased.

SUPPLY TRAIL NEEDED

The 3rd Battalion, 143rd, and the 3rd Battalion, 142nd, fought to open a supply trail to Dorrenbach after the breakthrough at Grassberg had been achieved. When the main effort of the Division was directed into the hills it necessitated the opening up and construction of a supply route for the troops advancing on Bergzabern, as none other existed in the Division sector. When completed the trail wound seven and a half kilometers from Rechtenbach to a point near Bollenborn. Over it all of the Division armor and transport passed until the main road through the dragon's teeth to Bergzabern was cleared.

Enemy artillery, rocket fire, and six-barrelled mortars were very active during all of the Siegfried operation. Two nebelwerfer regiments showed up in the prisoner toll. Our own artillery countered just as heavily, but the Germans were relatively secure in their heavy emplacements.

With the Siegfried floodgate opened wide our forces rushed into Germany to rapidly mop up remaining resistance west of the Rhine River. The 143rd, in the lead, thrust due east from Bergzabern early on the morning of March 23, seizing Kappellen and Barbelroth. Leap-frogging through the 1st and 2nd Battalions, the 3rd Battalion, 143rd, first to be motorized, opened the road to Winden. By this time straggling groups of Germans were being overrun in great numbers. Resistance was negligible and, if at all, only hastily organized. The 4th Provisional Battalion (Colonel Denholm's specially created task force made up principally of Cannon and Anti-tank company elements) rolled through the 3rd, destroyed more serious German opposition at Minfeld, then pushed another fifteen kilometers beyond to search Neupfotz at 1645 hours. Here a large body of the enemy was overtaken before they could escape across the Rhine. Some 700 prisoners were rounded up, a battery of 170mm. horse-drawn artillery, a light tank, scout car and other equipment captured. Before dawn of March 24 the 143rd had seized Leirnersheim, on the Rhine, and the ferry sites which were its objective.

Troops mounted tanks and tank destroyers at Bergzabern.

On March 23rd tank columns raced 25 miles to the Rhine, rounded up hundreds of fleeing Germans.

Meanwhile, on a parallel route to the north, the 142nd, which had hastily removed from its Siegfried positions and had motorized the 1st Battalion at Bergzabern, moved out at 1330 to race to the Rhine in pursuit of the fleeing enemy. At Rohrbach, the column came upon a 14th Armored Division team on the same road and heading for the same objective, Hordt. But it was then held up by enemy resistance before Herxheim. Turning southward to by-pass both the resistance and the congestion of friendly elements on the same road, the 142nd drove twenty-five kilometers to gain its objective, ahead of the friendly team, soon after midnight, with one sharp skirmish in the dark at Kuhardt.

The Division was now drawn up along the Rhine. The clearing of the marshy, wooded fringes of the west bank occupied another two days. Within a week other Allied troops would be storming across and driving deep into German heartland. The battle at the Siegfried was the last great battle the 36th would have to face.

 

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