Between the Hammer and the Anvil

In the battle soon to be engaged, the Americans were seriously outnumbered, and the fighting in and around Hatten-Rittershoffen would take a terrible toll on both sides as well as on the civilians. Some veterans of the combat considered it one of the great tank battles of the war, especially those who fought amid the streets and houses, whether as infantry or tankers, whether engineers of reconnaissance troops, headquarters or ordnance troops.

One of those who was there was Sgt. Darrell E. Todd, a loader in a Sherman tank in C Company of the 48th Tank Battalion. He was one of those involved in the fiery contretemps on 10 January. His tank scored a hit on a panzer, which set it aflame. His friend, “Mac” McAfee told him that the tally of three destroyed tanks was his birthday present, his twenty-second. Despite this small victory, Todd’s Company rotated back to Rittershoffen after their failed attempt to take Hatten. The Germans continuously fired what the Gls called “screaming meemies” (from the Nebelwerfer multiple rocket launcher), missiles that were less lethal than more accurate mortars or artillery rounds but which kept the men on edge with their eerie scream. Todd remembers the attack:

The next morning, 11 Jan was foggy with 8 inches of snow on the ground. The Germans had sent in screaming meemies all night and at 0630 hours started their attack against our positions. Their tanks were painted white, ours were covered with OD [olive drab] sandbags; and their infantry wore white parkas. The first German tank I spotted was 75 yards in front of my tank. Through my telescopic sight I could see my tracer disappear into the Kraut tank turret. I traversed left and fired [the] 2 rd into the next tank turret.

Todd had been promoted to gunner in December and had learned well his deadly trade. But again, the enemy was about to surprise the American tankers, who learned the hard way of the ingenuity and deception of their stealthy foe. Todd’s tank was hit by a round from a captured American tank destroyer—another instance of a captured TD inflicting harm on a Sherman:

I spotted what I thought was a German tank with their gun tube pointed in our direction. Before I could fire Lt. Stair shouted that it was one of our attached tank destroyers. At this time I traversed left to search for more targets and our tank was hit by the TD, which we later learned was abandoned by the American crew and manned by a German crew.

The TD hit on Todd’s Sherman would result in of several serious problems for its crew as the tank started to burn and then explode stored rounds inside the tank. When Pvt. Nathan McAfee climbed out of the top hatch he was hit by machine-gun fire. Todd and the other crewmembers descended out of the bottom hatch, the safer exit. He managed to crawl into a potato furrow about eight inches deep and, although freezing, reached the safety of the other tanks in the platoon. During the ordeal depicted by Todd, according to the 14th AD’s History written by Capt. Joseph Carter, “Multi-colored German tracers crisscrossed in the dawn. A tank burst into flames. A corporal gunner remarked, ‘I sat in that seat and picked a spot on the steel side of the tank where I figured the first 88 would come through. I cursed the mist on the sight’.”

The S-2 and S-3 Journals of the 68th Armored Infantry Battalion recorded what was happening from a message from CCA to the 68th. Enemy artillery, approximately 250 rounds, fell on the 48th TB’s positions from the direction of the Rhine to the east. “At 0810 about 200 ey began an atk on Hatten from the East. They have fire support from S of town which may develop into an attack.”

It most certainly would, according to the 68th’s history: “The summons came the morning 11th January and we were ordered to stem a German offensive in the vicinity of Rittershoffen. We moved up and dug in positions east of Kuhlendorf. The stage was set but little did we know that this time what a tremendous job had been cut out for us…. to relieve the pressure on the 3rd Battalion, 315th Infantry, 79th Division.”26 The specific instructions from CCA to the 68th articulated the need for the 48th TB and the armored infantry to coordinate their movements: “48 will hold positions strongly vic Rittershoffen, preventing both enemy armor and inf. from moving to W or NW. 68 complete its defense positions and hold this position, preventing any movemen [sic] to W or NW past it. Both Bns be prepared for hvy ey armored atk that is likely to come at any time today [the 11th]. Both Bns make plans for C/Atk to E and SE. Boundary between bns to be E-W 34 grid line. This C/Atk will be launched only on orders from this Hq….” (S-2 and S-3 Journals, 11 Jan. 1945).

According to the 14th’s History, 0630 on the morning of 11 January, Company C of the 48th was assaulted by “a company of German tanks [approximately 16 or 17] and 300 infantrymen supported by a heavy artillery concentration. The attack was repelled at 0730” (n.p.). This is the attack which destroyed Darrell Todd’s tank and took the life of his friend “Mac” McAfee. The First Platoon now had only two tanks, the Second one, and the Third three, and so the company was ordered back to “the high ground north of Rittershoffen.” S/Sgt. Robert M. Winslow sketched the fight from his perspective:

We were to move south across the railroad track, then due east across the “pool table”—flat, treeless land around Rittershoffen and Hatten. Our objective was the Hatten-Seltz road that A Company had cut the first night, It wasn’t very far as distance goes, perhaps two kilometers away.

As we moved out into the open the Germans began laying artillery, but we received no direct fire from Rittershoffen. When we reached the point where we were to cross the tracks, my section went across the line, covered by the other section. The other section 1st platoon was moving east, south of the tracks. As my section crossed the track, we were fired on from somewhere on the south or the west of Hatten. My section apparently got out of the traverse of these guns but as we moved up 100 yards further two more German flat trajectory guns opened up on us. Behind me, Captain [Robert G.] Elder’s tank was hit twice in quick succession. Four more tanks were hit and we still couldn’t pick up the flashes. It’s a strange feeling to see a shower of sparks cover the turret of the tank in front of you. Your whole whole body goes tense, you are scared to your fingertips. “Driver, back! Hard right! Move out straight! See that knocked-out Kraut tank? Get behind it, kick hell out of it. Communications went out. You’re helpless then. Darkness came down like a blanket. (Carter, n.p.)

The 68th AIB’s unit history explains that its infantry attack was scheduled for 1545 hours, “with two platoons of A Company on the left, C Company on the right, and one platoon of engineers in reserve. We jumped off.” B Company advanced along with the 48th TB in order to make a similar move from the south side of Rittershoffen “All went well until the orchard on the west edge of Rittershoffen was reached, and the ‘Kraut’ from his high vantage point opened up with terrific mortar and artillery barrages and grazing small arms fire.” C Company had only managed to capture two houses in the southwest part of town. “This strong defense, plus the oncoming darkness forced us to consolidate our positions. Digging in the snow-covered frozen ground was a task in itself.” S/Sgt. William D. Rutz of C Company and a small group managed to find cover in a barn on the outside of town. Rutz and two other sergeants spotted a panzer and grabbed a bazooka and a small amount of ammunition to kill the tank, but they were unsure of what was following the tank and went back to get some more rounds for the bazooka. As Sgt. Rutz delineated the event:

Sergeant [Martin C.] Diers was the lead guy going back, and as he jumped up and had taken three or four steps to cross the alley, the tank had moved and had visibility at that point and fired a direct hit on him. It must have been only 30 or 40 yards away. He was so close to the muzzle of the gun that he was covered with black gun powder. He didn’t make a move. 

Sgts. Rutz and Elmer C. Bullard made it out of that harrowing situation, but Rutz was wounded by a shell that exploded in a building where he and his squad were housed. Worse, on the next day Sgt. Bullard was killed. Sgt. Rutz was taken to hospital and returned to the fight six weeks later.

The open flat ground around Rittershoffen and Hatten to the north, except for the protection of Hagenau Forest to the south, gave little protection to the infantry. The German artillery observers had a clear field, and the frozen ground made it difficult if not impossible to dig in. Sometimes only a slight furrow of ground, dug by an Alsatian farmer, offered protection for the stranded GIs. B Company seemed especially exposed to German fire.

Further complicating the situation for Battalion, Combat Command, and Division commanders was the fact that C Troop of the 94th Cav Recon had been trapped in the town of Hatten by their opponent’s combined tank and infantry attack that had already cost the 48th TB losses in men and vehicles. The troopers had managed to slip west into the town of Rittershoffen, but that was a dubious sanctuary after they lost Sgt. Leslie E. Koontz, suffered several wounded, and forfeited both an armored car and a peep.

The attack would continue regardless, and orders issued on 11 January at 1415 by CCA to the 68th AIB provide specific instructions for the taking of Hatten: “68 to move rifle co’s SE along creek line to position SW of Rittershoffen. 68—Above co and Co A south and push on to East and capture Northern half of Hatten” (S-2 and S-3 Journals). This would prove to be a tall order, and by the end of the fighting neither the Americans nor the Germans could control either of the towns entirely.

Nevertheless, a Citation in February 1945 read the action somewhat differently:

By 1630 the enemy was so mauled by tank fire that he was forced to fall back into the village. The tanks were in the assault wave and, by their determination, indefatigable spirit and initiative, were able to establish a foothold in this sector of Rittershoffen for the first time. The infantry could now move in, take up positions and carry on the attack under more suitable close-in fighting conditions….

Whether the troops stuck in the hell of the two towns until 20 January would agree that such “close-in fighting conditions” were “more suitable” is highly doubtful. Even the 14th AD’s Commander, “General Albert C. Smith later described the impending operation as ‘… about as prolonged and vicious an engagement between armored units as we can cite in the military history of our Army’.” In another context, during a conversation between a tanker and an infantry soldier, when the tanker protested about the thinness of the armor on his tank, the “dog face” pointed to his shirt and asked, “How thin is this?”

Robert H. Kamm, a “buck sergeant” as he remembered himself, from A Company of the 68th, survived the onslaught in the orchard and the entrance into the town: “I can remember being pinned down in the orchard and trying to dig in the frozen ground. I remember the German tanks and the flame-throwers, and also in taking part in trying to clear the town house-by-house, only always to pull back. I thought then that we’d never get out of there. I lost a dear friend in that battle, Pfc. Henry Houselog from Chicago.”

S/Sgt. Donald L. Haynie, also of A Company, and also the target of a multiplicity of projectiles from small arms to rockets, protected himself but saw others terribly wounded and killed:

I made myself as flat as I could and, I believe, dug into the ground with my belly to afford as small a target as possible. My companions all around me were being hit. I saw one of them being picked up by the medics. As he was being loaded into a jeep, I saw him reach down and bring his newly severed leg into the vehicle.

Once he and his squad got into town, they tried driving hostile artillery observers from the belfry of the Lutheran Church, without much success.

Overnight, between the 11th and the 12th, C-68 Company patrols were able to reach some soldiers from the 315th Regiment, who had been trapped in the town, and to reassure them that at 0800 the following morning the rest of their battalion would arrive and relieve them. There were also troops from the 94th Cav Recon who were holding out in town after they had been cut off.

The desperate cold, darkness, and the mist made life miserable for both infantry and tankers, causing dangerous frostbite to the feet whether inside a tank or in a ditch. For the gunners in the tanks, the sights misted over and the lubricants in the guns congealed. Yet in the morning, the next attack began, with A Company of the 68th providing “protective fire.” B Company, combined with the armor of A Company, the 48th, made the assault under a tremendous array of enemy gunfire.

The 14th’s commander, General Smith, issued orders for the morning of 12 January: “CCA attacks at daylight, seize R; protect right flank of Div; screen passage CCB in attacking H…. attack in column of battalions, leading battalion to seize H and screen passage of following battalions; second battalion cut roads E of H and restore MLR….” On the left of CCA, Company B with the tanks of Company A of the 48th, were to attack along the main road from the west. “The main effort” by Company C of the 68th was to be closely articulated with the tanks, with C divided into four teams of two infantry squads, two tanks each, four light machine-guns and one rocket launcher (bazooka) per team. With Company A of the 68th providing a base of fire, the houses in the town of Rittershoffen would be cleared. A would then follow C into the town with the mortars, machine guns, and assault guns of Headquarters Company in support. An anti-tank platoon was designated to protect the flanks of the assault, and a platoon of the 125th Battalion of Combat Engineers would follow 300 yards behind as a reserve. The 62nd AIB with the 25th TB of CCB would bypass Rittershoffen to attack Hatten.

As Richard Engler, one of the isolated 42nd Division infantrymen struggling to survive, saw the situation, the tanks of the 25th were about 1000 yards behind the infantrymen of the 62nd in a field of white frozen ground. The Germans were able to fire on these exposed troops from fortifications and anti-tank positions. After they commenced firing on the 62nd AIB, its A Company lost some seventy men. The 25th lost five tanks. CCR, however, did not get involved in the fight on 12 January. Medical supplies were fired in by artillery shells during the night of 12 to 13 January, to treat the wounded, but little of this material got to them. Finally, CCR moved up in preparation for an attack on the thirteenth.

With all the casualties so far, there were many tragic stories of the heroism and sacrifice of soldiers, and one of these was that of Harry and Larry Kemp of Company C of the 68th, twin brothers from Lakeland, Florida. Both served in the 68th AIB along with Bob Davies. In December, after being trapped in a foxhole partially filled with icy water for five days in Ober-Otterbach, Harry developed symptoms of pneumonia. As he told the story to the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, he regretted being off the line:

“I didn’t want to leave my brother, but I was on the verge of getting pneumonia,… It was more or less an order from my platoon leader.”

While Mr. [Pvt., later Lt.] Kemp was recovering in an Army aid station in a French village, a captain informed him of his brother’s death.

Mr. Kemp had to go back to the fighting the next day. His brother’s body was sent to an American cemetery [at Epinal, France].

His brother had been killed outside Rittershoffen while acting as an exposed artillery observer protected by a tank, but a sniper managed to shoot Larry in the head and kill him instantly. Especially painful for Harry was to try to see his brother’s body before internment. The officer in command refused to allow Larry’s face to be seen since the sniper’s bullet, presumably, had terribly damaged it. The loss of his brother made Harry especially anxious to inflict as much damage on the enemy as was possible. While the fight was still raging in Rittershoffen, he had his chance:

One day in Rittershoffen a German halftrack pulled up and parked about a block away from my position. The halftrack was loaded with German soldiers. An American Sherman tank was parked behind the house where I was located. The tank commander had his hatch open so I told him about the German halftrack and he pulled up to where he could see it and blew it to kingdom come with one shell from his tank.

Thus was the departed twin avenged by the surviving twin.

It was in the nature of the fighting in the twin Alsatian towns that both sides had infantry, either on foot or in halftracks, and tanks and other vehicles hiding around the corner from one another and waiting for an opportunity to kill their opposite numbers. Some combat events occurred on purpose, but others just seemed to be the result of chance, which the alert fighter had to take advantage of chance opportunity, or else be victimized by the same.

For example, there was the wounding and survival of Bob Davies’ co-platoon sergeant of Company B-68. Neither one wanted to be NCO Platoon Leader but agreed to serve together with each other. On Company B’s advance into town on 12 January, Chet Green was hit in the forehead by a sniper’s bullet that, by good fortune for Green, had already passed through a seriously wounded comrade, who would die from the bullet. That comrade was S/Sgt. Willard R. Kirchner, Bob Davies’ assistant squad leader, who was recorded as killed in action on 13 January, a day later. While wounded and lying on the ground and “playing possum,” Green was then hit by mortar fragments and by more bullets fired evidently by the same sniper. Furious at this punishment but acting dead, Green waited for the sniper to show himself. Green then shot the sniper, who tumbled out of a barn window, dead.

During the advance into town, some of the 68th’s armored infantry had fallen behind the protective cover of the tanks of the 48th TB, but C Company continued toward the town, where they were sorely beset yet again in the town by enemy fire from multiple weapons. A Company of the 68th reported that “most of one plat are casualties and several casualties in balance of platoons,” but C-68 was “coming along fine; 5h/t’s [halftracks] in town. C-68 CP located in bldg in Rittershoffen (S2 and S-3 Journals, 12 January). C Company was able to progress because of the covering fire of Company A and the screening efforts of B Company, all of which produced so many casualties. One of the patrols encountered a squad of hostile infantry and three Mark IV tanks in town and were instructed to eliminate them. By this time, around 1100 hours, there were both tanks and infantry from both sides in Rittershoffen or in the process of moving into town from Hatten to the east. Artillery was falling on the town from both armies, some of the hostile rounds fired from a streambed to the east. CCA ordered “C/Btry on ey arty” and the tanks of A-48 to “fire to knock steeple off church in Rittershoffen.” The battle was becoming a confused meleé, with both sides risking hitting their own troops in the town.

Following the American armored doctrine of combined arms, “Tank-infantry teams,” with eight men to each tank, moved down the dangerous streets, each protecting the other. The infantry spotted hostile tanks and gun positions or concealed infantry with panzerfausts, and the armor blasted away with its main gun or machine guns to provide some safety for the foot soldiers. Each house was becoming its own fort and had to be challenged and even totally destroyed to insure safe passage. As the History of the 14th Armored fashioned the scene:

The tanks inched ponderously a few yards down the street, heavy cannon searching out machine gun nests, enemy strong points; the infantrymen moved along with them, running, dodging from building to building, throwing grenades in the cellar windows, going through each farm house room by room, rifles at the ready, hand grenades ready; the artillery and mortar fire screamed into the street and exploded the roofs; and the German machine gun fire swept the street in quick nasty blasts. 

A new horror in Rittershoffen was the enemy’s setting on fire any house that they abandoned. In addition, friendly tanks were being knocked out by concealed anti-tank guns and panzerfausts. These last were most hazardous to tanks because a single German soldier could pop out of a concealed position behind a door or in an alley and fire the weapon. The charges in the weapon were often fatal. The 48th Tank Battalion attempted several different vectors to enter the town and support the infantry, but as darkness fell, the tanks retired to relative safety over the brow of a hill.

The light tanks of the 94th Cav Recon had slightly better luck than those of the 48th. With armor on both sides suddenly appearing out of nowhere, it seemed, luck came to those who could get off the first shot. As mentioned earlier, the electric traverse of the Shermans allowed their gunners a moment of advantage denied to the panzer gunners, who were forced to use a manual crank. As Pfc. William Z. Breer recounted it, the 94th, lightly equipped as it was with thinly armored tanks, armored cars, halftracks, and open peeps, managed to get lucky in the orchard where previously friendly tanks and infantry had been savaged by enemy fire:

The orchard was on top of a hill and our tanks were able to fire a round from the crest of the hill directly at the enemy tanks and, then, reverse below the line of sight before the Germans could “zero” them in and then, repeat the procedure over and over from different positions, until we had knocked out several of their vehicles (both tanks and halftracks). 

The authors of the 68th’s history pause at this stage of the action to relate the newfound importance of this suddenly key town:

Rittershoffen was a small Alsatian town occupying no strategically important position, no communications center, no railway hub; it did not even afford the superior positions from which to attack or defend. Yet it had to be held at all cost until a strategic position could be dug in, for should the “Kraut” break through at this point, his offensive would probably have carried him to our rear installations [presumably Kuhlendorf]….

With members of the 68th occupying houses in Rittershoffen on the western edge of town, there were still significant numbers of civilians hiding in the cellars and anywhere else they could find shelter from the relentless artillery bombardment and house-to-house fighting. A friend of Sgt. Bob Davies, Sgt. James F. Kneeland, was out on patrol at night when he heard what sounded like a distress cry. He asked permission from his Company Commander, James M. Reed, B Company, to crawl into the cellar from which he had heard the cry. Although this could have been a clever trap, Reed assented, and, after the patrol, Jim crawled into the darkened cellar and found a woman and child in pitiable condition. They were eating melted snow to stay alive. Kneeland took them out and put them in a reasonably safe place and fed them.

The 68th was directed to make a second attack, along with tank support, to begin at 0800 hours on 12 January. With A Company laying down a base of protective fire, C Company plunged into the town again to “exploit the gains of the previous night.” The Company achieved the advantage of a few more houses in the southern part of the town down the main street—east and west. Then A Company joined the assault and redirected it from the east to the north. The exact time sequence is a little ambiguous.

The 68th’s history tells a story of what happened on the night of the 12th to C Company:

During the first night a “Kraut” patrol made their way to our OPLR [Outpost Line of Resistance] and into a cellar, after killing Pvt. [Joseph P.] Gorman who was guarding the door. This cellar was occupied by Lt. [Charles E.] Bailey of C Company, and part of his platoon. This patrol, reportedly clad in GI uniforms, heralded their approach with, “Are there any Yanks there.” The reply of “Yes” was met with a hail of “Potato Mashers” [grenades] and spraying of Burp Guns, seriously wounding Lt. Bailey and Pfc. [Phillip H.] Anderson of the Medical Detachment. The enemy patrol was wiped out.

Both the German and American infantrymen, in the close confines of the town and its narrow streets and small houses, favored short-barreled weapons: for the Americans the carbine, the Thompson submachine gun, and the notoriously ugly and unreliable M-3, the “grease gun”; the Germans preferred the Sturmgewehr 44 and the Schmeisser machine pistols or “burp guns,” effective weapons with a high rate of fire.

The general mayhem continued unabated. On the second night for the GIs in the town, 12–13 January, a German combined infantry and tank attack, including flamethrower tanks, roused the friendly units in town to a frenzied response. As the 68th AIB’s history relates it, artillery was called in, and preregistered 105mm rounds hammered the tanks and decimated the German panzer grenadiers. C-68 bazooka teams neutralized some of the flamethrower tanks with their hollow-shell projectiles. When tanks were introduced by the British in World War I, at first infantry fled at the sight of the approaching monsters; but in January 1945 both sides had rocket weapons that a single infantryman or a two-man team could use to destroy tanks. Still, it was not a picnic in Rittershoffen since the anti-tank teams had to get pretty close to get a shot at the tank to hit one of its vulnerable spots. The presence of flamethrowing tanks introduced a powerful element to terrorize infantry.

Despite the agonizing tension of that night, the men of the 68th and their other comrades in the infantry and tank battalions and the 325th Engineers in reserve would get no rest the following morning. The division had been given the difficult assignment of driving the Germans out of both the towns of Hatten and Rittershoffen. Over the coming days, all the armored infantry battalions, the 19th, the 62nd, and the 68th, and the tank battalions, the 25th, the 47th, and the 48th, would be committed to the inferno, and only the 325th Combat Engineers would remain in reserve. Thus, the division which was the reserve of VI Corps would itself have to call upon its reserve to extricate it from a battle which could at best result in a draw. The continual refrain from the commanders would be to “restore the MLR.” The enemy was placed in a similar conundrum: it was supposed to drive VI Corps and Seventh Army off the Alsatian plain and back to the Vosges Mountains to the west. The German forces also faced the prospect of a disappointing stalemate after the expenditure of ordnance, armor, and infantry in a demanding effort, perhaps beyond what they were capable of achieving.

Soon after the war, an analysis of the battle by Committee I of the War College reflected the Operations instructions No. 10, published 122000 January:

1. CCA would continue its attack “at daylight to clear RITTERSHOFFEN….”

2. Combat Command B was to attack both towns ‘by fire only along the RITTERSHOFFEN-LEITERSWILLER road”

3. “The Reserve Command was to make the main effort on the 13th. Colonel Hudelson would assemble his forces in the vicinity of NIEDERBETSCHDORF prior to daylight and then attack around the south flank of the Division at daylight to seize HATTEN; rescue the remnants of the 2nd Battalion, 315th Infantry, still isolated in town [apparently in addition to those already rescued by the 68th on the twelfth].” CCR would, among other things, secure the right flank.

4. Two troops of the 94th Cavalry would also protect the left flank.

5. The fire plan for the attack included the support of VI Corps artillery. Some 8-inch howitzers would be used in the close support of the troops in HATTEN. [These guns were necessary to fire on the solidly built old churches and other massive targets that demanded large caliber rounds to destroy them.

Committee 1 saw this plan for January 13th as similar to that on the 12th, the major difference being the vector of the assault from the south and the employment of more and heavier artillery. At this stage of the fighting, it would seem that it was like “making the rubble bounce.”

Lt. Col. Joseph C. Lambert, G-3 of the 14th, also sketched the plan for the morning of 13 January, which developed from the south, between Hagen-au Forest and Rittershoffen. Armored cavalry patrolled the right flank at the edge of the forest while Combat Command B made a demonstration on the left flank and provided a base of fire. CCB also had to be on the alert for a German threat from Wissembourg to the north. Snow had fallen that night, and the infantry had had a long march the day before.46 Nevertheless, the attack would be launched. The 62nd AIB was paired with the 25th Tank Battalion, with A and C Companies of armored infantry in tandem with C Company of the 25th, the 62nd’s B Company and the remainder of the 25th’s tanks in support. As the 14th’s History narrates, “The 62nd’s attack managed to get 1000 yards past the line of departure: the men clad in OD’s stood out like targets on a rifle range against the white snow, and the German fire cut them down; artillery fire, mortar fire, small arms fire sweeping the open flat land.”

Colonel Francis J. Gillespie, Commander of CCB, responding to a question about the operation, grimly replied that

It was snowing heavily at the time of our attack. We moved directly from the road, from march formation, to the line of departure, and attacked on time. The attack was not successful, but it undoubtedly relieved the pressure from the troops in RITTERSHOFFEN and HATTEN. At times, because of the snow, we could not see more than a hundred yards in advance. The ground was frozen and there was no opportunity to take cover of any sort, which considerably worried the troops. There was no evidence at the time that the holding attack had been launched; and as far as I could find out, the holding attack, if at all organized, had not gained ground.

The “holding attack” evidently refers to the support given by B-68 and the rest of the 25th tanks, which did not have any appreciable effect on the primary effort.

A Company of the 62nd AIB had suffered the worst casualties, losing about seventy men and a beloved leader, Captain Daniel R. lannella, and the tanks of C Company, the 25th, also took some serious losses. Captain lannella had been seriously wounded but couldn’t be evacuated because of the intense hostile fire. Several tanks were hit and began to burn, including that of Lt. Gisse, the 2nd Platoon Leader, already noted in previous action. Later, when B Company of the 62nd, along with more tanks of the 25th TB, advanced again, the result was basically the same: as soon as the tanks and artillery made their way into the open, they were scathed by fierce enemy fire, not only machine-gun, mortar, and artillery fire, but also fire from captured American anti-tank guns. Like the men, the tanks were especially vulnerable in the near white-out conditions because of their standard O.D. (olive drab) color. They were in the open, but their opponents’ guns were camouflaged both by the snow and their own usually effective masking techniques.

Part of the assault, largely to take some fire off the 62nd, was the march of the 68th AIB, which jumped off at 0800 hours and immediately gained lodgement in a few houses in the town. By noon the men had advanced 400 yards, and a CP was established. The battalion made contact with elements of the “lost battalion,” the 315th of the 79th Division. By 1900 the western side of Rittershoffen was cleared, at least partially due to the able support of the 500th Armored Artillery Battalion. The 68th, which initially in this fight had been attached to Task Force Wahl of the 79th, was now under the direct control of General Smith, commander of the 14th Armored Division. By evening the 62nd AIB was dug in on the Rittershoffen Leiterswiver Road, while the 25th Tank Battalion retired to Hohwiller for resupply. By the end of 13 January, the second battalion of the 315th was relieved. All in all, there was a slight positive movement in Rittershoffen for the American troops, but the cost had been high, as well as for their foes, battered by heavy tank and artillery fire.

Richard Engler, with elements of the 42nd Infantry Division still trapped in Hatten, comments that one of the purposes of the attack on 13 January was to retake the Maginot Line forts lost earlier. CCB was limited in its aggressive potential because of damage suffered the day previous, but it would attack by fire along the road between Rittershoffen and Leiterswiller. The vehicles of CCR managed to crawl over icy roads during the night to their assembly point in Niederbetschdorf. Captain Joseph Carter, Headquarters Company, who would later write the outstanding unit history of his division, was in one of the tanks:

If you were a driver, you saw nothing except the vagueness of the fields alongside, the dark strip of road a few feet ahead, the deeper black of the woods. All the light in the world was the twin red blackout-tail-lights of the vehicle in front and the indirect glow of the dials on the instrument panel. If you were a vehicle commander, you stood up every now and then to check your column—it was too cold to stay standing. You could see the long line of tanks and halftracks behind you, creeping ominously along through the blackness, blackout lights just barely visible. Every now and then you heard the angry howl of a 500 horse tank engine as the driver shifted for a bad stretch of road. 

The men of the 19th Armored Infantry Battalion knew little about what was ahead of them in the attack on the 13th. Colonel Hudelson of CCR sent a ten-man patrol ahead to answer many questions about the roads, road junctions, the woods, and the streams in the Hatten area, in addition to discovering the disposition of enemy forces, but there was not a great deal of information which the patrol could collect. The 19th was teamed up with the 47th Tank Battalion along the railroad tracks to the south of Hatten. Company A was on the left, B on the right, C in reserve. The Assault Gun Platoon, the machine-gun platoon, and the mortar platoon supported the attack. The third platoon of the tankers of C-47 supported 19-A and B with a total of five tanks. While the men of the 68th AIB remembered well the battle of Rittershoffen, for the men of the 19th Armored Infantry, their special trip into hell was aimed at Hatten. As the unit history of that battalion sets the scene for the attack and the grim results:

At the same time that our battalion jumped off on the south side of the railroad, the 47th Tank Battalion had jumped off on the north side to proceed to a high ridge just west of town from the south. They did partially reach this ridge, but were stopped cold by a hail of anti-tank gun and direct tank fire. A look, out across the fields on both sides of the railroad tracks, would make anyone shudder, for artillery and mortar fire was falling everywhere, and tanks were being knocked off one right after another in the exposed fields. The enemy just had too many anti-tank weapons and tanks well placed, dug in, and on the commanding ground. To add to the fury, a raging battle was also going on with CCA in Rittershoffen, the next town to our west, but we were too busy to pay much attention.” 

The unit history of the 47th Tank Battalion describes what happened to 2nd Lieutenant Seth D. Sprague, Platoon Leader of Third Platoon, C Company when it began its advance on the morning of 13 January:

His radio is crackling softly and then the green light on his receiver flashes on and he hears his call word crackling. “Move out! Move out!” “Wilco,” he says, and switches to interphone. “Move out,” he says to the driver, “Move out.”

The tank engine roars suddenly in his ears and he does not hear the driver shift into gear. The tank lurches a little and pulls ahead. He feels its familiar grating progress as the steel tracks claw at the ice-hard roads. The engine roars again and the driver shifts to third. Sprague’s head is even with the windows of the houses and he can see the road better before him….

At 0913.

“Heavy enemy artillery fire,” he says. “Can’t see, visibility poor, all I know is that it’s coming in!”

The enemy is on the high ground to his left; they are behind him now, in Rittershoffen. He is in his tank, the engine roaring hot behind him, creaking and jolting over the frozen ground. His turret hatch is closed now. He cannot see the infantry, but he can see the craters suddenly appear in the frozen ground ahead of him. He can feel the lift of the tank sometimes as one hits close, and he can hear the shrapnel smash angrily at the armor sides.

At 0930.

Captain Persky is on the air. “Can’t contact Sprague,” he says. “I’ve lost two tanks out of his platoon.” Later it turns out to be three and fourteen men.

Pfc. B. J. Trauner, Company C of the 19th, remembered waiting in the woods for the attack to commence:

The worst place to be during an artillery barrage is in a forest. With tree bursts some shrapnel sprays down so there is no protection like you might ordinarily have in an open field where you can drop flat when you hear a shell coming in. Tree bursts explosions are especially loud and visible and you can hear the chunks of shrapnel as they rocket all around you. You find yourself continually saying your little prayers, not knowing just when the end will come and how much it’s going to hurt.

For an infantryman it was an impossible situation: tree bursts in the forest, no protection on the frozen ground, clothes the wrong color for winter, and an enemy that seemed to have both the high ground and a vast supply of ammunition.

Companies A and B of the 19th were able to advance about 300 yards but were then caught in a withering hail of machine-gun fire both from the front and the left, and even C Company in reserve was pelted with tree bursts. It was next to impossible to find safe ground, and so the numbers of killed and wounded began to mount. Many men were occupied tending to the wounded along with the aid men, who were overwhelmed, and there were few places of refuge. B Company’s communications were severed, and T/Sgt. John J. Conroy “volunteered to run the gauntlet” to re-establish communications in order to get supporting fire to allow the company to withdraw. Recorded in the unit history are acts of bravery by Pfc. Roy Thompson, S/Sgt. Raymond L. Hart, Pfc. Samuel L. Lhober, and Pfc. Jan Braley, as well as others crushed between the hammer and the anvil. Lt. Robert L. Policek and Pfc. Frank S. Bonnano ran over a field exposed to enemy fire to get some direct tank fire and artillery fire. They succeeded in bringing smoke to cover a withdrawal and shellfire to make the enemy pay for the damage they had just done to the 19th AIB. Lt. Policek, the Forward Artillery Observer, was killed later that day trying to enter Hatten in a halftrack. During the carnage, one soldier watched the helmet of Pfc. Zolen Newman of B Company, “victim of a direct hit by an 88,” as Carter puts it, spinning in the air.

Later in the day, at 1500 hours, General Smith, commander of the 14th AD, ordered another attack—to chase the Germans out of Hatten and “secure the forts of the MAGINOT LINE north of HATTEN.” Colonel Daniel H. Hudelson, who had led the fight in the Vosges on New Year’s Day with his hard-pressed task force, was given the job of leading the attack. In his own words, he details what happened:

Due to the extremely heavy small arms, mortar, tank, anti-tank, and artillery fire falling in the area of CCR, I decided to delay the attack until dusk. The Light Tank Company of the 94th Reconnaissance Squadron (12 tanks) and two companies of the 47th Tank Battalion (23 tanks) were assembled in the woods 800 yards south of HATTEN. The remaining combat troops of the 19th Armored Infantry Battalion were loaded on these 35 tanks under the command of the 19th AIB Major Forest Green at 1700 hours 13 January 1945. These tanks, loaded with the infantry, dashed into HATTEN at top speed. The infantry dismounted and was engaged in a bitter house-to-house fight within a matter of minutes…. By 2400 hours our attack lost its momentum. About three-fourths of the town was then in our hands. 73 casualties were incurred by the armored infantry during the house-to-house fighting prior to 2400 hours. Three of the five tanks that had been left in HATTEN were knocked out and were replaced immediately. 126 Germans were captured. 91 dead Germans were found in that portion of Hatten held by CCR at 2400 hours on 13 January 1945.

But this hellish day was not over by any means. At 2115 hours, German troops attacked again, “with flamethrowers, tank and artillery fire,” driving more Gls out of Hatten even as friendly artillery fire tried to protect them. The enemy thrust forward also in Rittershoffen, pushing back the 68th AIB and the 48th TB, but CCA and the third battalion of the 315th held on.

With German heavy artillery weighing in, hostile forces, as Col. Joseph Lambert reported, “converged on the Reserve Command (CCR) from Buhl and from the direction of Seltz (to the north). One-half the gain [of the 14th’s attack] was lost.” The 68th in Rittershoffen was now proceeding house by house—progress was made slowly against a cacophony of various fires. Two enemy tanks were eliminated, and then a smokescreen was laid which allowed the battalion to reach the church in Rittershoffen. However, the third battalion was still encountering ferocious resistance. The 48th Tank Battalion, with seven medium tanks, forced its way to the road between Hatten and Rittershoffen. The German counterattack, which had driven back the 19th AIB and the 47th Tank Battalion, hurled itself against the 68th and the 47th. Both division and corps artillery responded vigorously to stifle the counterattack. In Rittershoffen, C Company of the 68th employed bazookas to stop the hostile tanks in town while A Company, still trapped in the orchard, fought alongside the 48th’s tanks and terminated the enemy assault. The 68th’s S-2 and S-3 Journals record that 16 P-47’s dropped supplies to “isolated troops of the 315 lnf.” The Forward CP reported to the Rear CP, “We are held up by hvy fire from bldgs which we are attempting to destroy.” As a Seventh Army History characterizes the combat:

The battle thus boiled down to a desperate infantry fight within the towns, with dismounted panzer grenadiers and armored infantrymen fighting side by side with the more lowly infantry. Almost every structure was hotly contested, and at the end of every day each side totaled up the number of houses and buildings it controlled in an attempt to measure the progress of the battle.

Committee I of the War College rendered this verdict on the action of January 13th: US artillery had fired 6,142 rounds in support of the effort and though the gains of the attack were “negligible,” “a major enemy counterattack had been stopped” and American positions had increased in strength (at a high cost indeed). All of those writing about the action agreed that there would still be another week of desperate and bloody fighting. The Commander of CCB, Brig. Gen. Charles H. Karlstadt, urged the following approach to the situation: “Our battalions will seize anything in R that can be taken without undue loss of personnel. Attack by fire. There will be full watchfulness for enemy attacks, and buildings and grounds now held will be maintained. The impression of the usual attack will be given without excessive fire. Organizations will be kept in hand, in full strength to meet probable enemy attacks.”

The above represented Committee l’s reading of the situation by 14 January. Perhaps General Karlstadt’s policy at the time would not have earned the satisfaction of General George Patton in its measured caution. However, by this time the already dangerous foe, who had put up such a fight, were being reinforced by the 104th Volksgrenadier Regiment and the 47th Volksgrenadier Division.

In response to enemy tactics, CCA instructed the 68th AIB to fight toward the center of Rittershoffen, the location of the key enemy strongpoint, the ancient Lutheran church with stout stone walls. A 155mm SP (self-propelled gun) was ordered in to destroy the church, but it was “A Mighty Fortress” as Luther termed “our God.” Bob Davies remembers advancing down the street carefully with one eye on the steeple of the church and the others on windows and doorways where a nervous Volksgrenadier might be waiting.

Robert H. Kamm, a “buck sergeant” in A Company of the 68th, as he portrayed himself, had survived the onslaught in the orchard and the dangerous entrance into the town: “I can remember being pinned down in the orchard and trying to ‘dig in’ in the frozen ground. I remember the German tanks and the flamethrowers, and also in taking part in trying to clear the town house-by-house, only always to pull back. I thought then that we’d never get out of there.”59 Corporal Earl Hardin of A-68 vividly relived the fight in town:

I was in the fourth platoon, as part of the anti-tank crew. We didn’t have it as rough as the riflemen and the machine-gunners…. We went into Ritershoffen on a Saturday night in January of 1945. I will never forget that night. It was after dark when we set up our 57mm gun in between the third and fourth houses on the edge of town. We had a little field of fire over in the old orchard. There was a German tank about one hundred yards away and it was on fire.

One of the most amazing stories is told by Pfc. David Groves of B Company of the 19th, which was trapped in Rittershoffen, now mostly destroyed. Almost no activity, he wrote, could be conducted during daylight hours, whether the movement of tanks or armored infantry or bringing up supplies or evacuating wounded. The German guns were firing at everything that moved more than an inch, and there were no white or Red Cross flags to allow the transfer of casualties. Everything was done in darkness. The enemy had brought up some heavy tanks, Panthers or Tigers, and these prowled the streets at night after their foot patrols had located the houses in which the GIs were ensconced. Then the panzers destroyed those houses with shellfire, thus forcing the American infantry to keep rotating from one house to another.

This nocturnal routine, of course, got on everyone’s nerves, waiting inside of a house or in the street for the tank to blast them. Groves again:

One large tank, in particular, would come up the street directly in front of us at night. The tank would fire three or four rounds into our positions and then retreat. The tank had a special muffler that had been muffled. Even though we knew it was coming, and knew the approximate time, we often missed it in the shelling and firing. Again and again we suffered the loss of position and the loss of lives because of the quiet and effective movement.

One of the men, the smallest in the platoon, a man Groves calls Aaron (but not his real name) got thoroughly fed up with the situation and hatched a plan, known only to himself. He went out two nights in succession and dug a hole in a part of the street over which the tank would pass, covering it during daylight with a sheet from a closet in the house in which the men were staying. “And then he told us ‘Tonite, I’m going to take out Jonah’s white whale.’ He picked up a couple of bazookas’.” Groves especially noted that they were German bazookas, not the American bazookas so must have been either panzerfausts or panzerschrecks.

The story continues with Aaron, on the third night of the shelling, venturing out with his two weapons and climbing down into his “own private foxhole.” Then he covered the hole with the white sheet and waited:

On schedule the large, white, German Tank [sic] came up the street in the cover of darkness. After all, had it not been successful each night in destroying our positions; had it not been effective in killing or maiming us and putting us out of action; after all had it not come and gone at its own pleasure without any successful action to deter it on our part.

Aaron quietly waited in the dense darkness until the monstrous tank was just past him, with its vulnerable, less armored rear, open to Aaron’s almost biblical determination to kill it:

Though we had not been able to perceive its previous comings, we did hear the explosion—that great explosion…. And in the light of its burning, we could see its silhouette. The tank was destroyed. The tank crew was dead. Death by that enemy vehicle would come no more.

That one gratifying but small victory would not slow down the hostile juggernaut of armor and infantry. The S-2 and S-3 Journals of the 68th AIB record the messages at the end of that terrible day, the 13th of January:

2323 “Enemy tanks through L-31 5. Careful.”

2344 “Additional enemy tanks and halftracks entering Rittershoffen from Hatten.” 

The last message for the day from the Rear CP to the Forward CP was “Order for tomorrow, 14 Jan 45, continue the attack….” Neither side was willing to give a centimeter for the two towns that neither considered, of themselves, essential.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.