First French Army in west Germany (March–April 1945) I


General de Lattre de Tassigny, that animal of action, struggled to whip his quarter of a million men into an army rather than a mob. “Our African soldiers felt lost in the dark forests,” De Lattre later wrote. Colonial troops still wearing summer uniforms were “unsuited to the winter climate,” he added, and cruelly susceptible to trench foot; some French troops wore wooden shoes. On De Gaulle’s orders, many colonials were sent to the rear to make room for untrained FFI irregulars. This blanchiment, or whitening, was intended to nurture French national unity; De Gaulle also wished both to relieve the African troops, who had carried a disproportionate burden of France’s fight in the Mediterranean, and to bring some 400,000 Resistance fighters—many of them communists—under military control. The colonials had once made up more than half the manpower of the French army; now that share would decline to about one-third. Senegalese and Cameroonians shambled from the Vosges front, handing their rifles, helmets, and greatcoats to white Frenchmen trotting into the line. This “crusade” for French self-respect, as De Lattre called it, would add to the French First Army some 137,000 maquis, a “vibrant and tumultuous force” with thin combat skills and paltry logistical support. De Lattre found himself waging what he called “a battle against shortage, anarchy, and complaisance.”

Base 901, the French supply organization, in late fall consisted of twelve hundred men with two hundred vehicles. American logisticians calculated that an eight-division army should have more than 100,000 support troops, but De Lattre would never have even a third of that number. Consequently he relied on the Americans—with all of the pathologies that dependency engendered—for everything from the one-third liter of wine included in French rations to the ten pounds of crushed oats, fourteen pounds of hay, and two ounces of salt needed each day for a mountain mule. For every French soldier in Europe, the U.S. Army billed De Gaulle $6.67 per day in support costs.

Franco-American frictions intensified as winter approached. When only 25,000 uniforms could be found for French troops, in a Canadian warehouse in Algiers, De Lattre announced that unless his men received wool clothing he would be “forced to withdraw them from combat.” To the 6th Army Group headquarters, he wrote: “This army has been discriminated against … in a way seriously prejudicial to its life and to its capabilities for action.” The French First Army, he charged, received less than a third of the ammunition, fuel, and rations provided Seventh Army, causing an “asphyxiation of the front line.” U.S. quartermasters bitterly denied the allegation and countered that reckless French troops had ruined three thousand pyramidal tents at a time when canvas was “extremely critical.” An American general wrote of De Lattre, “He goes into these tirades at least twice a week, at which time he seems to lose his balance.” One ill-advised tantrum, launched in the presence of a visiting George Marshall, included allegations that Truscott’s VI Corps had pilfered gasoline allocated to the French. The chief of staff walked out. Later, he rounded on De Lattre with pale fury. “You celebrated all the way up the road. You were late on every damn thing. And you were critical of Truscott, who is a fighter and not a talker,” Marshall said. The chief finished with the worst epithet he could conjure: “You are a politico.”

“It was our duty,” De Lattre subsequently explained, “to be dissatisfied.”

Into Germany

In southern Germany General Devers’s Sixth Army Group – consisting of General Patch’s Seventh Army and the French First Army under General de Lattre de Tassigny – was pushing across the Black Forest. Its left flank advanced into Swabia. After the capture of Karlsruhe, they moved towards Stuttgart. Eisenhower, still concerned about an Alpine Fortress, wanted the two armies to head south-eastwards for the area of Salzburg and meet up with Soviet forces in the Danube valley.

On 27 March 1945 Sixth Army Group issued orders for a continuation of the offensive. Seventh Army was instructed to encourage aggressive independent action by its corps and to be ready to advance in several directions, depending on the situation. French First Army was directed to regroup, cross the Rhine in the Germersheim area on order, and then seize Karlsruhe and Pforzheim. Three days later, Devers ordered de Lattre to speed up preparations for a crossing of the Rhine near Speyer. Anticipating this order, de Lattre had already set his forces in motion for a crossing the next morning. This came as a surprise to Sixth Army Group, but it was possible because de Lattre took advantage of the German disarray caused by Seventh Army’s advances farther north. The French crossings took the Germans completely by surprise, although the enemy fought stubbornly to defeat them.

De Lattre’s decision to accelerate his assault over the Rhine came in response to de Gaulle’s order to cross, “even if the Americans are not agreeable and even if you have to cross it in boats.” De Gaulle feared that France would not get into Germany before the end of the war and therefore would not be assigned an occupation zone. By having French First Army advance at least as far as Stuttgart, he believed he would be in a stronger position with the Anglo-American Allies over the issue of a French zone. De Gaulle’s desire to use French First Army to achieve strategic political goals would badly complicate Devers and de Lattre’s relationship in the final weeks of the war.

The French assault on Easter morning, 31 March, 1945 succeeded in spite of a severe shortage of bridging and assault boats and fierce German resistance. Brooks helped de Monsabert with bridging and boats and allowed French armor and artillery units to cross on bridges in VI Corps’ sector.63 Devers and the other American leaders of Sixth Army Group were more than willing to let the French take part in the heavy fighting inside Germany. Over the next five days, the French expanded their bridgehead and pushed south to capture Karlsruhe. More than 130,000 French troops in four divisions had joined Seventh Army in southern Germany.

Just as his army succeeded in crossing the Rhine, de Lattre created unnecessary friction when he issued a notice “requiring all German military personnel within the zone” occupied by his army to surrender by a certain date or face draconian measures. Devers took exception to the notice because it stated that every German soldier who did not surrender “would be held responsible as a partisan . . . without regard to his clothing, open carriage of arms or other circumstances.” He also found it unacceptable that “every German soldier in civilian clothes will be considered a spy and shot.” Devers ordered de Lattre to amend his notice to fit the rules of land warfare and to conform to Sixth Army Group’s “Directive for Military Government of Germany,” dated 2 December 1944. De Lattre did so grudgingly.

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