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

On 16 April 1945 the 3rd and 45th Infantry Divisions encircled Nuremberg and began to probe its defenses. In the words of the official history, “It was a grueling fight for Nuremberg, made all the more difficult by deadly antiaircraft fire directed against the men on the ground. Once the ring of flak guns was broken, the fight developed into the slow, often costly, business of clearing one crumbling building after another.” It took two days for the 3rd Infantry Division to reach and breach the medieval walls of the inner city. On 20 April, Hitler’s birthday, the “Rock of the Marne” Division defeated the last German counterattack and cleared the city.

Meanwhile, on the army’s right flank, Brooks’s VI Corps pushed south along the Neckar to cut off Stuttgart. Sixth Army Group’s plan called for the French to finish clearing the Black Forest and, once VI Corps had cut off the German retreat from Stuttgart, to attack Stuttgart from the west and southwest. With these maneuvers, Devers hoped to encircle the remnants of German Nineteenth Army in the Stuttgart area and the southern Black Forest. Jenkins summarized the intent of the plan and the anticipated role of the French: “The original concept of this operation was that the initial effort by First French Army would be more in the nature of a holding effort which would indicate weakness and encourage the German to stay in his position until VI US Corps was in proper position. . . . [This] was explained in considerable detail to General de Lattre personally at a conference in his office on the afternoon of 17 April.”

But de Lattre had other ideas. Believing that such a plan “destroyed all benefits of the maneuver of the last ten days,” he ordered de Monsabert to begin his attack against the Stuttgart area from the west and southwest on 18 April 1945. In Jenkins’s words, “General de Lattre’s premature action to the west of Stuttgart carried his troops across the Neckar into the zone of action of the VI Corps.” The French general took this action in spite of several cables from Devers ordering him to stop. “As a result a goodly portion of the German Nineteenth Army escaped to the southeast.” Without the help of VI Corps, it took the French three days to clear the Germans out of Stuttgart. When Devers ordered de Lattre to turn the city over to VI Corps, the French general refused, based on orders from de Gaulle.

In war, depravity and bestiality affect both sides. After the French seized Stuttgart, they initially failed to establish order among the 800,000 residents and the tens of thousands of newly liberated slave laborers in the city. Reports soon reached Devers that French troops had committed more than 30,000 rapes, and the city was out of control. Devers sent the 100th Infantry Division into Stuttgart to establish order and a military government, and he ordered de Lattre to withdraw the French troops. De Lattre protested the establishment of a U.S. military government and informed Devers that de Gaulle had ordered him to hold Stuttgart as part of a de facto French occupation zone.

After learning of the situation in Stuttgart, Devers “sent a stern cable to General de Lattre” and called Smith to explain the situation. He then traveled to Stuttgart to investigate. He recorded in his diary: “Upon arriving in Stuttgart on April 27th I immediately contacted General Patch and General Burress [commander of the 100th Infantry Division]. . . . I had with me Colonel Lodge. I verified facts and found them to be substantially as stated . . . but greatly exaggerated.” There had been 1,500 to 2,000 rapes and much looting. Devers and Lodge visited the French headquarters, and Devers told the French commander, “I desired very much in the interest of the French nation that he take immediate steps to correct these conditions.” The French executed a few rapists but continued to ignore Devers’s and Eisenhower’s orders to evacuate the city. Devers was forced to accept the situation, and he changed the boundary between the French and Seventh Army, giving Stuttgart to the French. He left Lodge in Stuttgart for several days to ensure that the French restored order.

The French occupation of Stuttgart undermined Allied cohesion. Eisenhower made this clear in a letter to de Gaulle on 28 April:

As you are aware, orders were issued by General Devers to General de Lattre de Tassigny to evacuate Stuttgart. . . . I regret to learn that because of instructions received direct from you General de Lattre has declined to obey the orders of his Army Group Commander. . . . Under the circumstances, I must of course accept the situation, as I myself am unwilling to take action which would reduce the effectiveness of the military effort against Germany. . . . I can do nothing else than fully inform the Combined Chiefs of Staff of this development, and to point out that I can no longer count with certainty upon the operational use of any French forces they may contemplate equipping in the future.

De Gaulle responded by telling Eisenhower that the military use of the city and its administration were not the same thing, and no one was denying Devers the use of Stuttgart for logistical and administrative purposes. The French leader also took Eisenhower’s letter as acceptance, “with regret,” of a French garrison in the city.

De Lattre later excused his disobedience by reasoning that “since all fighting in that region had ceased, we were no longer in the operational circumstances in which I was subordinated to the Allied Command.” Instead, he deemed it a political issue and felt obligated to follow the orders of the French government and de Gaulle, who instructed him “to keep a French garrison in Stuttgart and to establish a military government there.”

While the Stuttgart incident was unfolding, Seventh Army continued south with VI Corps, headed toward Ulm to seize crossings over the Danube. On 23 April, however, Seventh Army notified Sixth Army Group that French armor units were driving east toward Ulm, well inside VI Corps’ sector. Devers again ordered de Lattre to halt his advance into the American zone so that VI Corps could continue south. De Lattre again ignored Devers’s order. Fortunately, when French troops encountered outposts of the 10th Armored Division near Ehingen on 23 April, the American troops recognized the intruders as French and did not open fire. On 24 April the American 44th Infantry and 10th Armored Divisions and several French platoons seized Ulm. Brooks allowed the French to fly their national colors over the city’s old fort, as Napoleon had done in 1805 after defeating the Austrians. With honor satisfied, de Lattre withdrew his troops into his own sector.

Franco-American relations were further harmed by de Lattre’s decision to send forces to Ulm in spite of the boundary between his and Patch’s armies. However, de Gaulle’s insistence on seizing territory in Germany to force his Western Allies to give France a zone of occupation achieved the desired result. In June the French received a zone of occupation in the Rhineland, west of the Rhine. But in the words of Rick Atkinson, “France and the United States . . . would emerge from the war as wary allies, their mutual distrust destined to shape postwar geopolitics for decades.”

In spite of these political setbacks, the campaign continued to its inevitable end. Sixth Army Group’s G-2 intelligence estimate for 28 April noted that German Army Group G, “opposite 6th Army Group failed to receive sufficient reinforcements during the week to aid in either the establishment of a front line or even to replace the approximately 78,600 odd troops lost as prisoners of war during the period.” After crossing the Danube in a number of places, Seventh Army advanced across terrain lacking “any cross corridors of strong natural defensive positions” from which the Germans could reestablish defensive lines. Although rumors flew that the enemy might strongly defend Munich, there was growing evidence that the “hold of the Nazi overlords upon the Wehrmacht and the people is definitely weakening, particularly in Bavaria.”

There was plenty of evidence to support the G-2’s optimistic estimate. During the month of April, Seventh Army captured 265,556 enemy soldiers, and the French captured another 109,393.104 German civilians saw the writing on the wall. In the cities of Augsburg and Munich, they organized resistance groups to force the garrisons to surrender rather than allow the remnants of their cities to be destroyed in house-to-house fighting. In Munich a series of unconnected revolts took place beginning on the evening of 27 April. Although the Waffen SS units in the city fought back, the insurgents succeeded in preventing the die-hard Nazis from destroying the city’s bridges. American troops arrived on 29 April, and by the end of the next day, they had eliminated German resistance.

The final week of the war in Europe saw Seventh Army driving south to the Alpine passes, with its left-hand forces aiming for Salzburg, the center heading toward Innsbruck, and the right-hand corps moving toward Landeck and the pass into northern Italy. De Lattre, hoping to garner additional glory for the French and to occupy more enemy territory, tried to send an armored division toward the Alpine pass into Italy near Landeck. This time, however, “in an ill-disguised artifice not lost on General de Lattre, the 6th Army Group directed a change in the map coordinates” of the boundary between Seventh and French First Armies. This move denied the French access to the passes into western Austria.

At the same time, Seventh Army units controlled the road networks to Austria, forcing the French to continue south to the German-Swiss border. On 2 May the German forces in Italy officially surrendered, and a civilian resistance movement took control of Innsbruck, saving it from house-to-house combat.116 De Lattre then made a last, desperate attempt to get forces across the Alps by sending a ski-equipped French platoon over snow-blocked back roads toward Landeck. The effort was futile, as American forces reached Landeck and then linked up with Fifth Army troops coming from Italy on 3 May. To the east, Salzburg and Oberammergau surrendered, and troops from XV and XXI Corps converged on Hitler’s mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. “It was congestion, not resistance that slowed entry into Berchtesgaden.”

De Lattre was perhaps the only person unhappy with the way the Germans had surrendered in Austria and southern Germany. He believed German Twenty-Fourth Army should have surrendered to French First Army, since de Lattre’s forces had been opposite that army in the line. The Germans refused, saying that Twenty-Fourth Army no longer existed; its forces were part of Nineteenth Army, which surrendered to Brooks’s VI Corps on 5 May 1945. It was clear to Devers that Foertsch’s surrender in Harr applied to all the forces in Army Group G, including Nineteenth Army. Consequently, Devers refused to surrender the former commander of German Twenty-Fourth Army to de Lattre.

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