For the Austrian army it was indeed a moment to reflect on what had gone wrong in Italy and which reforms of tactics were now necessary. The practices of Guibert, the callous breaking of the rules of ‘civilised’ warfare, required a response. The Archduke Charles began to apply his considerable intellectual talents to thinking about new strategies to counter the innovative techniques of warfare used by the armies of Revolutionary France, now rapidly increased by the Levée en masse.
More formally, the Emperor and the ever-byzantine Aulic Council (Hofkriegsrat) focused on ‘essentials’. That meant first and foremost adapting the army’s appearance to the new era. The Adjustierungsvorschrift 1798 is a formidable document. Born in the aftermath of Napoleon’s victories in Italy and the surrender of Mantua, it is a clear attempt to breathe new life into an army fighting a modern war with an antique mentality.
The language alone was remarkable. Given that it bore the Imperial imprimatur it offered neither subtlety nor nuance in its condemnation of sloppy practices which by implication had cost the Imperial House so much blood and treasure in the fertile lands of the Po valley. The document was designed to shake the army out of its complacency and it brooked no argument.
For example the tendency of officers to wear items of civilian dress was described as a ‘dangerous delusion’ and a practice that not only ‘did not father a military spirit’ but was to be systematically ‘stamped out’ (ausgerottet). All luxury was to be eschewed and generals were not to appear in front of their men without their coats ‘fully buttoned’. Wigs were considered especially egregious and on these, along with the precise profile of officers’ porte-epée sword knots, the appropriate dimensions of command sticks and the amount of hair permissible under headdress, the new regulations were rigorous in attempting to impose a strict uniformity.
Visually the most significant development of the new uniform regulations was the phasing out of the old casquet headdress with its raised front (soon to be embraced and improved by the British army) in favour of a more impressive classical Roman-style helmet with a black and yellow crest. The crest was made of wool for other ranks and silk for the officers. Field and staff officers were to be equipped with helmets whose crests were made of a more luxurious ‘unturned’ silk.
The helmet, which was to be an imposing six-and-a-half Zoll high (16 inches), fitted the Josephinian legacy of relentless crusade towards total uniformity. It was to be worn by cavalry and infantry, and even Jaeger units, alike. Its front was adorned with a brass plate bearing the Imperial cipher. Ironically, this headdress would constitute one of the most expensive items of attire in the history of the Austrian army and would within ten years be replaced by a cheaper bell-topped shako.
While these regulations were implemented, Austria not only rearmed, she attempted to tie the dynasty to the army more closely. The Archduke Charles and his brother the Archduke John were both seen as figures to be exploited by the Emperor to raise the prestige of his House while at the same time ensuring that his own personal position remained uncompromised by any reversal in the fortunes of war. Thugut was convinced that in this way a certain counter to the prevailing zeitgeist could be organised to make sure the dynasty survived the storms that clearly were coming. That these tempests were on their way was the legacy of Campo Formio and a French army which needed to be supported by the loot and resources of countries outside France.
Austria had not been defeated. She had lost a few frontier battles but was still strong enough to bar an invading army. With Austria undefeated, Italy remained unconquered and the Napoleonic creation of the Cisalpine Republic as a satellite of France in northern Italy in 1797 remained vulnerable and flawed.
As a quid pro quo for digesting Venice, Austria had recognised the Cisalpine Republic where, by the order of the Directoire, Napoleon had declared the ‘people’ sovereign on 29 June. But in the new state, liberty after three coups d’état was equated with secularisation and the new regime of the Cisalpine Republic degenerated into arbitrary acts of violence and despotism. The earlier work of Joseph II was now brought to its logical conclusion: monasticism was abolished, the Papacy attacked, the churches and clergy pillaged. All religious orders were suppressed and all church property confiscated in two months of 1798. The secularisation of Italy was a tremendous revolution, again offering Vienna a great challenge: how could Austria tolerate Venetia continuing to apply the principles of the Ancien Régime alongside a revolutionary despotism aimed at driving the Catholic Church out of existence? These two systems could not survive side by side without an explosion. Thugut’s diplomacy had made certain that Campo Formio was the beginning of an immense general war, which would only end at Waterloo nearly twenty years later.
THE SECOND AND THIRD COALITION WARS
Although Austria’s armies had a mixed record against Napoleon, the fact remained that her forces were the only reliable ally England possessed. If Revolutionary France was to be contained, the Austrian army was the only instrument capable of doing so. The army continued to be in the forefront of every campaign. That it survived the hammer blows that now rained down upon it was a tribute to the long-lasting effect of reforms a generation earlier.
Barely was the ink dry at Campo Formio than Britain, Russia, Naples and Turkey began to see the ambitions of Revolutionary France in an ever darker light. As these countries drew together, it was apparent that the key to any credible coalition against Napoleon remained Austria. After much promise of gold on the part of London, Austria on 22 June 1799 formally signed a new alliance with Britain.
This war would bring new areas of campaign for the French, notably Egypt. For Austria, Italy would continue as a major theatre of hostilities. But the French remained obsessed with the Rhine. They therefore threatened Germany, which brought them inevitably into conflict with Vienna.
In the event, when war came, it was Switzerland that was to be the first battlefield to draw blood. Then as now, the Alpine lands were a strategic factor. They offered Paris the chance to cut the shortest lines of communication between the Austrian forces on the Danube and the Austrian army on the Po. Moreover, a strong position in Switzerland could always threaten any plans the allies might have for the invasion of southern France. An army of about 30,000 men under Masséna pushed east into the Engadine but soon faced a much stronger Austrian force under Hoetze and Bellegarde, a capable general of Saxon extraction. At Feldkirch the French were repulsed in some style. This encouraged the Swiss, unenthusiastic about the French occupation, to rise up and threaten Masséna’s lines of communication.
Meanwhile the French general Jourdan, nicknamed by his soldiers ‘the anvil’ on account of his always being beaten, crossed into the Black Forest at Basle where he promptly found himself face to face with the Archduke Charles at the head of 60,000 seasoned troops. On 21 March 1799, the Archduke attacked near Stockach, sending Jourdan reeling back towards the Rhine. At the crisis of this battle, the Archduke put himself at the head of six battalions of Hungarian grenadiers and twelve squadrons of cuirassiers in order to break up the attack on his right flank. It was an early sign of that complete disregard for his own person which became one of Charles’s hallmarks as a military leader. This physical courage was to be a feature of the Archduke’s generalship as much as his intellectual qualities.
Although the Austrians had fought well, it was their superiority in numbers that had, more than anything, carried the day. The Austrian grenadiers, formed into powerful elite tactical units following recent reforms, performed well. Notwithstanding his personal bravery, the Archduke was persuaded to relinquish the leadership of this attack to Karl Aloys zu Fürstenberg fifteen minutes after it started. Fürstenberg was promptly felled by case shot, forcing the Archduke to resume command.
Jourdan’s losses were about 5,000. The hotly contested woods of Stockach had cost the Austrians several thousand casualties as well. In typical Austrian style Charles contented himself with having put the French Army of the Rhine out of action rather than pursuing it and destroying it. To risk a battle when one’s opponents were already demoralised and defeated was not the Habsburg style and the Hofkriegsrat Aulic Council decreed that crossing the Rhine was too risky an operation. The Archduke was ordered to await reinforcements from Bellegarde and the arrival of Korsakow’s Russian corps. Jourdan was in any event already a broken man. Masséna on taking over the remnants of his army was horrified at the condition in which he found the troops.
Six weeks later, strengthened and reinforced, the allies renewed their attacks on the French positions around Zurich and the Archduke’s army crossed the Rhine near Constance. The French could not face such a concentration of forces and by mid-June the Austrians were in Zurich and the French had been driven off the St Gotthard Pass. Here the Archduke halted once again, though for practical reasons. His opponent, Masséna, had been re-inforced and had constructed a formidable defensive position on the Limmat behind Zurich. Reconnoitring the position, Charles saw immediately that to storm it would cost him many casualties. Critics of the Archduke in Vienna had already begun to play on the tensions between him and his brother the Emperor. Charles felt he could not risk putting a foot wrong with the cream of the Habsburg army if he was to enjoy the support of the court and government. Ideally, Charles envisaged a convergence attack but the other prong of this scheme, General Hadik’s men, had just been sent to join the Russians in northern Italy.
In Italy meanwhile the French were also checked. Schere, leading a fumbling attack on Vero, was beaten off by Kray at Magnano in the first week in April. By 6 April the French were behind the Mincio and by the 12th they had fallen back behind the Adda. In Rome and Naples, French troops were ordered to evacuate. Everywhere the military genius of Napoleon was absent, and indifferent leadership compromised French arms. When the Russian Suvorov joined Kray with his 30,000 men the allies could deploy 90,000 men and the Russian was made commander-in-chief. Napoleon was unimpressed; he described Suvorov as having the soul but not the brain of a great commander.
On 21 April Serurier’s division, left imprudently on the left bank of the Adda, was attacked by Suvorov and the Austrians. In a brisk action at Cassano, the French were virtually annihilated by an Austrian cavalry charge led by Melas, a talented officer and a Greek born in Transylvania. Once again the Austrian cavalry, in particular the Chevauxleger squadrons, proved that they were the most formidable horsed arm in Europe. Everywhere, the French fell back, heading for the safety of the Ligurian Alps. By late May, the Russians were in Turin, having defeated the French with Austrian help at the ferocious Battle of Novi.
At Novi, the French under Joubert effectively deployed their new tactic of mobile skirmishing infantry. The Austrian grenadiers were repeatedly driven back by swarms of French sharpshooters carefully positioned around their exposed flanks as they advanced. It fell to a young Austrian colonel who was Melas’s adjutant to see and suggest that the key to the French position was the right flank and ask for two brigades (Mitrovsky and Loudon) to help storm the position. This movement late in the day finally disordered the French whose commander Joubert fell with a bullet through his head just where the fighting was at its most violent. The Loudon Brigade of Grenadiers took their objectives at the point of the bayonet spurred on by the young colonel whose name was already becoming a legend: Radetzky.
In his official bulletin to the Emperor, Melas brought this name to wider attention:
I can find neither the words nor the expressions which can do justice to the courage and heroism of the army on this day. … Finally I cannot fail to mention to his Majesty the conduct of Lieutenant Colonel Count Radetsky who in so many moments displayed decisiveness, courage and restless energy and in this battle organising and leading the attack columns which contributed significantly to our victory.
Meanwhile another French force under Macdonald, which had evacuated Naples and attempted to menace the allied lines of communication, was caught by a combined Russo-Austrian force under Suvorov at Trebbia. In nearly three days of fierce fighting Macdonald lost more than 10,000 men and nearly all his guns. After barely three months, the French position in Italy had crumbled. In July both Alessandria and Mantua, which had been defended by French garrisons, had surrendered. Novi and Trebbia simply completed the picture of Gallic gloom.
Fortunately for the French, the old evil of malaria had once again sapped the Russian and Austrian soldiers’ strength and, for the moment, exhaustion prevented pursuit. Moreover, as was often to happen between the Russians and the Austrians, there emerged tensions at the level of command. Relations between Suvorov and Melas were cordial and the Russian made much use of the staff infrastructure the Austrian High Command put at his disposal but the allies moved at a slower pace than their opponents. Their failure to prevent Macdonald escaping with the remnants of his defeated army to join up again with Moreau showed that the Austrian military command had not digested the lesson that the new era of war exacted a high price for lethargy.
Moreover, there were political difficulties. Thugut in Vienna was unamused to hear that Suvorov single-handedly had restored the Piedmontese monarchy. Vienna was also understandably cautious at the prospect of invading France. A vigorous thrust towards Grenoble might have brought the entire edifice down but Vienna as usual was concerned with her own long-term interests, and these dictated action nearer to home. If there were to be an invasion of France then it would have to be through the old Austrian crown lands of Lorraine so that, when the time came to make another peace, these provinces could be under Habsburg occupation.
Archduke Charles withdrawn: Napoleon returns
Thus the fateful decision was taken to shift the bold Archduke Charles away from Zurich where he had achieved so much and move him back to the tributaries of the Rhine. In his place would come the Russians under Korsakow, a far less gifted commander than Suvorov. This weakening of the allies in Switzerland essentially doomed the coalition. As a British diplomat observed, ‘le vrai général’ in Austria was not Melas or the Archduke but Thugut.
A British expeditionary force of perhaps no more than 25,000 men might at this stage have ended the war, but no such force materialised and Masséna’s brilliant delaying tactics gave Buonaparte time to develop his strategy of threatening both the Danube valley and northern Italy. The stage was set for the moment when Napoleon returned from his triumphs in the shadows of the Pyramids and political victory in Paris to assume control over the armies he had led to victory barely a year earlier.
While the Archduke returned with his troops towards Mannheim, Mássena saw his chance. He faced only 45,000 Austro-Russian troops and the Russian contingent was inferior in quality and leadership. Mássena had been re-inforced and he now commanded 70,000 troops. On 25 September he attacked his opponents arranged in front of Zurich and sent them reeling. The French hold on Switzerland was consolidated further by movements that neutralised Suvorov’s and Korsakow’s attempts to renew the offensive.
Had the international situation been a conventional one, a negotiated peace might at this stage have been possible but Napoleon needed a dazzling military victory to shore up his domestic success after his elevation to First Consul. His regime needed glory as well as order to survive. Moreover, in Thugut he had a diplomatic adversary who was unwilling to concede defeat even if it meant the prosecution of a ‘war to the knife’. Events were all moving in Napoleon’s favour. The Russian–Austrian relationship was deteriorating as Thugut’s war aims were perceived by the Russians to have let them down in Switzerland. Thugut had become annoyed with his Russian partners over Piedmont and these feelings were reciprocated when the Austrians claimed Ancona. The Tsar had had enough of Austrian friction. He abruptly instructed his generals to begin their withdrawal. Russian troops would cease to be a relevant factor by February 1800. By holding Switzerland, the French had frustrated any attempt to invade the south of France.
The Austrians still possessed two fine armies in the field. That under Melas in northern Italy numbered nearly 110,000 men, while under Kray, in southern Germany, there was an even stronger force of 145,000. Napoleon would need to destroy one of these if his aims were to be realised. As their destruction would open the road to Vienna, the forces of Kray were Napoleon’s preferred target. But political problems soon arose over this.
Chief of these was Moreau, who commanded the French Army of the Rhine. He was both stubborn and unimaginative. Even after the events of Brumaire, Napoleon’s position was not so powerful that he could remove as prestigious a commander as Moreau. Moreover as First Consul there was a legal issue as to whether Napoleon could hold command in the field. Therefore Napoleon tried to foist on to Moreau his plan for the destruction of Kray by a swift march to outflank and annihilate the Austrian right wing. But Moreau found the strategy too bold and risky. As Napoleon wrote later from St Helena, ‘Le plan que Moreau ne comprend pas’ would have to be executed in northern Italy, very much Napoleon’s second choice, as a victory there was unlikely to end the war.
While Moreau advanced along the Danube sluggishly, Napoleon entered Italy along the most difficult and westernmost of the passes, the St Bernard. He had hoped to cross using the lower passes of the Simplon and St Gotthard but Melas was on the move and he could not risk debouching on to Melas’s troops. Moreover, if he was to rescue all that was left of the army of Italy at Genoa and Suchet’s forces on the Var, time was of the essence. Moreau meanwhile pushed Kray back, capturing some of his depots and taking some 12,000 Austrian troops prisoner. But the decisive battle was skilfully avoided by Kray, who kept his army together in a well-executed withdrawal that deprived Moreau of the ‘battle without a morrow’ which was always Napoleon’s aim.
In Italy, Melas’s troops were thinly spread with some 30,000 of his men pinned down by Suchet on the Var. A further 25,000 of his troops invested Genoa.This made it difficult for Melas to cover all the passes. Apart from a brisk defence at the formidable fortress of Bard where Captain von Bernkopf’s garrison held out for ten days from 21 May until 1 June, Melas’s troops held the Val d’Aosta lightly. The news of Bernkopf’s heroic stand did not reach Melas until Napoleon had managed to pass the bulk of his army over the Alps. When Bernkopf finally surrendered, Napoleon razed the fortress to the ground.
As the day of 14 June dawned, Melas’s troops were completing their concentration on the Scrivian plain near the village of Marengo. Melas knew his business well. He was old enough to remember the relevant lessons of the Seven Years War and under him the Habsburg army demonstrated that it had lost none of its ability to mislead its opponents. A successful Austrian strategy of disinformation hoodwinked Napoleon completely. Fires were lit to give the impression that Melas was retreating towards Genoa. A number of ‘agents’ and ‘deserters’ found their way to Napoleon with tales of extremely low morale among the Austrian officers. The French pickets barely a few hundred yards away from the Austrian front line heard signs of movement at night but assumed it was the Austrians retreating. Even when the Austrian artillery opened up at dawn Napoleon believed it was simply a diversion to cover their withdrawal.
After an earlier engagement at Montebello, Melas had sent a trusted spy by the name of Toli to report to Napoleon on 11 June that the Austrians were extremely despondent and were only thinking of retreat. Primed deserters reinforced the message, including a prisoner whom Napoleon personally interrogated. This particular deserter was an émigré cavalry officer still wearing his Bourbon decorations, and his tale of Austrian ‘ruin’ was believed by Napoleon with near-disastrous consequences for him. Napoleon was therefore blissfully unaware of the forces deploying against him. He detached two divisions, one to watch the Po crossing, the other, commanded by Desaix, to march towards Novi in case Melas withdrew towards Genoa. The Austrians by then had seen the French dispositions around Marengo and, organising his army into three columns to cross the river Bormida at daybreak on the 14th, Melas promptly attacked with overwhelming force.
At first none of the French piquets could believe what was happening. As the Austrian columns marched out of their bridgehead in front of Alessandria with flags flying and bands playing, it became ominously clear that this was not the expected prelude to an Austrian withdrawal. Surprised and divided, Napoleon’s men were within hours fighting for their lives against a much larger force. Melas throughout showed considerable tactical flair and by 11.30 a.m., with Ott’s division threatening to outflank the French, the Austrian General Staff felt confident their opponent’s centre was about to break.
This battle, so decisive and important for Napoleon, ironically was a small one with barely 60,000 troops committed in total by both sides. By the standards of the later Napoleonic Wars it was a modest affair; ‘one of the smallest battles we ever fought,’ Radetzky recalled, though its political consequences were to be enormous.
Austrian confidence was justified as the grenadier battalions of Splenyi and the Chevauxleger cavalry of the Lobkowitz regiment had both distinguished themselves in the morning during spirited attacks, notwithstanding a murderous fire put up by the French around the village of Marengo which was protected by the Fontanone river. Radetzky suggested a flank attack on the village across one of the streams and Melas ordered Zach to execute it. But in the first sign of that mental and physical weariness which was to have such devastating consequences for the Austrians later that day, Zach, who had been on unbroken night watches for three days, was so exhausted that, having fallen asleep, he could not be roused quickly. It took him, Radetzky recalls, some time to ‘pull himself together and wake up’.
The flank attack finally went in with great elan before noon. At one stage the Jaeger and the grenadiers of the Splenyi regiment crossed the river Fontanone running over the backs of seventeen tough pioneers who formed a human bridge for forty-five minutes. Their success caught Napoleon by surprise and he tried in vain to deploy his guns. Much of his artillery, however, had been held up crossing the Alps thanks to the tenacious defence at Bard by Bernkopf’s men. By two in the afternoon the French centre was broken and Napoleon reluctantly conceded that he would have to fall back if he was to avoid the kind of annihilation he usually reserved for his opponents. Melas, leading a charge of the Kaiser Chevauxlegers personally (with Radetzky at his side), sealed the fate of Napoleon’s centre, which was forced to construct hastily a fighting withdrawal.
The French Consular Guard, Napoleon’s reserve, was committed and demonstrated the value of shock troops. They first fought stubbornly against an attack by Austrian dragoons, before seeing off the grenadiers of Splenyi. Finally surrounded, they formed a hollow square against the Austrian artillery. This ‘granite redoubt’, as Napoleon later called it, bought valuable time, but at great cost. Of the 800-strong Consular Guard more than 300 fell in less than an hour.
By 3 p.m., seeing the French lines beginning to break, Melas considered the battle won. Marengo was occupied and his grenadiers were triumphantly waving the debris that the French troops had abandoned on the field. French shakos were raised as trophies on the ends of Austrian muskets and bayonets. The units that had poured into Marengo now lost cohesion as they began plundering the abandoned French equipment. They had been fighting without respite for more than six hours.
Their 71-year-old commander, Melas, was also weary. Throughout the battle he had demonstrated an energetic front-line leadership which had been admired by many of the younger Austrian officers. He had taken part in two cavalry charges. Two horses had been shot from beneath him and one of his falls had left his arm severely bruised. As he picked himself up and regarded the battlefield, the General could be forgiven for thinking the battle won. Everywhere he looked, all he could see were the backs of the French infantry carrying out a forced retreat covered by their reserves.
Having been in the saddle for eight hours, and exhausted, he decided to retire from the battle, so he handed over command to his subordinates Kaim and Zach to organise the pursuit. Melas’s orders were clear: they were to destroy as much of the French army as possible with artillery and cavalry before they crossed the river Scrivia. Unfortunately, many of the Austrian generals, seeing their commander abandon the battle presumably to pen a letter to Vienna giving news of a great victory, followed his example.
Melas might be forgiven for underestimating his opponent. Napoleon’s military career lay mostly in the future but the Austrian made the unforgivable error of believing a battle was won when, in reality, it was far from over. It was Torgau all over again, only this time there was no Daun to extricate the Austrians from their fate.
There is no doubt that a determined and energetic pursuit by Zach with his cavalry would have crushed Napoleon before Desaix arrived so dramatically an hour later to turn the tide of battle. But Zach was still exhausted and had been cat-napping yet again when Melas ordered him to take over command. Indeed it was only with the greatest of difficulty that Zach was woken up. His bleary-eyed countenance did not augur well for an energetic pursuit. Meanwhile, rather than let his cavalry and artillery pursue the French, Kaim wasted much time bringing the units in and around Marengo to a semblance of parade ground order. As the Wallis regiment belatedly advanced up the road towards San Giuliano supported by the Liechtenstein Dragoons and artillery, the French began to organise a new line from which to attack the Austrians.
Marengo: a battle lost
While Zach struggled with his exhaustion, on the French side, a youthful, exuberant officer called Desaix, who had been deployed far away from Marengo, had heard the artillery fire of the battle. Immediately, he decided to disobey his orders and march his troops to the sound of the guns. He now arrived to greet Napoleon with the famous words: ‘This battle is completely lost. But there is time to win another.’ As the Austrians slugglishly organised a pursuit column, Desaix reordered his division to attack them. Another young and gifted officer, Kellermann, with barely 400 cuirassiers, charged the leading elements of the Austrian column in the flank with devastating effect just as they were reeling from Desaix’s initial counter-attack. Marshal Marmont recalls in his memoirs how the Austrian grenadiers of the Lattermann regiment were cut to pieces while thousands of Austrian cavalry looked on, seemingly mesmerised and frozen to their position barely a hundred yards distant.
Rarely in military history has a hastily improvised cavalry charge proved more effective. Marmont later said that three minutes earlier and the charge would have been repulsed, while three minutes later it would have come too late and Lattermann’s grenadiers would have broken Desaix’s assault. As Kellerman’s first squadron crashed into the Austrian flank, Desaix fell dead from a musket ball. But he had lived long enough to see the first fruits of his work. When the peaks of the tall Austrian grenadier hats had crested the slight ridge ahead of San Giuliano, the 9th Light Infantry had hurtled towards them with drums beating the pas de charge and with bayonets fixed. At the same time Marmont’s artillery had opened up on them with canister. The effect was dramatic. The grenadiers staggered and fired a volley, and it was Kellerman’s good fortune to strike the grenadiers in the flank ten seconds after they had discharged this volley. Caught in the act of reloading, the grenadiers were defenceless. As the semi-official Austrian account drily noted: ‘This attack, unexpected and executed with surprising swiftness, threw the Austrian infantry into disorder and dispersed it after a short resistance; many men were cut down.’
Under this murderous three-arm assault, coordinated to perfection, the rest of the Austrian column recoiled and then appeared frozen to the ground. A young grenadier ensign was bayoneted and his colour seized as his fellow soldiers looked on in amazement, seemingly paralysed. Behind them, one of their artillery wagons exploded. The Wallis regiment then broke and fled while the grenadiers continued to be slaughtered by Kellerman’s Cuirassiers.
More French cavalry arrived and one trooper seized the astounded Zach by the throat. The Liechtenstein Dragoons who should have immediately grasped the opportunity to counter-attack the French cavalry also seemed rooted to the spot by the sudden transformation of events. As some of Kellerman’s horse charged them they simply fled in terror, stampeding the ranks of the Pilati cavalry brigade who were attempting to ride to the rescue of the infantry. They found themselves surrounded by French cavalry reinforcements organised by Murat and galloped away in panic. Until this moment, the Austrian cavalry had still been regarded as the finest in Europe. Their pitiful performance, coming so suddenly at this stage of the battle, would rankle for generations to come. Even Radetzky in the months before his death would dwell on the Austrian cavalry’s failure to support the grenadiers at Marengo. Their action that evening required ‘closer analysis’ (‘es wäre interessant hierueber näheres zu erfahren’).
One of the Austrian accounts underlined this general incomprehension over the behaviour of the Austrian cavalry that day: ‘No one in the main column could understand the flight of the cavalry. The main Austrian formations, broken by the cavalry fleeing through it, began also to give way.’
Certainly, as Kaim attempted to deploy some infantry, the fleeing cavalry spread only panic and disorder. At one stage it looked as if the entire Austrian central column would be annihilated by the pursuing French. Fortunately for the Austrians, six battalions of fresh grenadiers under Weidenfeld were advancing towards the Austrian centre from Marengo. Their action demonstrated that, ably led, these new elite formations of grenadier battalions could perform wonders when grouped in larger tactical units.
Deploying as if on the parade ground, Weidenfeld’s battalions gave a textbook demonstration of a disciplined rearguard action, forming square to repulse Murat’s cavalry while allowing the fleeing central column to find its way back to the Austrian bridgehead. There a captured French officer observed the chaos and confusion: ‘I have witnessed some defeats in the course of my military career but I never saw anything like this.’ In the stampede this officer was thrown nearly 500 paces.
But despite this panic, the Austrians were not annihilated. Napoleon – or rather, Kellerman and Desaix – had won a great victory but they had not crushed the Austrians. French losses were one in four while Austrian losses were one in five. The Austrian losses still amounted to nearly 6,000 wounded and 963 dead. Though General Hadik died of his wounds, none of the other dead officers was of higher rank than captain. The fourteen officer fatalities were unusually low and hinted at the Austrian army’s officer corps having deteriorated in the 1790s.
But the First Consul had got all that he needed: a brilliant success and all the glory with which to ensure the continuation of his rule. Napoleon understandably named his favourite horse Marengo (at Marengo he had been mounted on another favoured steed Styria), and legend insists that his preferred dish was poulet à la Marengo. Melas cannot be faulted, save for giving up command too early. His troops had on the whole fought well for more than nine hours and his tactical disposition was inspired. He had 25 per cent superiority over his opponents when the battle opened. As one historian has noted: ‘It is hard to ask much more from any commander’s strategy.’
At first Melas could not believe what he was told but the abrupt change in fortune brought him rapidly to his senses and the following day he sued for peace at Alessandria, where Napoleon put the seal on the Austrian surrender of Lombardy and all her strong points in Piedmont. The ‘secondary’ theatre had after all furnished a decisive victory.
The details of the battle that reached Vienna caused consternation and anger. Radetzky later recalled that Melas possessed a ‘head which was better than his feet’. Irrespective of how good his head was, Vienna demanded it on a plate. Together with the hapless Zach, Melas was dismissed. The Austrian forces in Italy were placed under the command of Bellegarde.
The armistice of Alessandria was only a punctuation mark. During the next few months Austria’s army displayed that admirable tenacity which characterised Habsburg forces throughout their struggles with Napoleon and made them his most implacable foe on the Continent. Under Bellegarde, the army in Italy was reinforced to 120,000 men while the forces on the Danube were built up to a nominal and impressive 280,000 men. These were to deal with Moreau, who, with some 100,000 men, was encamped around Munich. Vienna found Napoleon’s peace terms unacceptable and was resolved to continue the war. The strategy involved remaining on the defensive in Italy while attacking Moreau in Bavaria. The Alessandria armistice was a vital breathing space.
Meanwhile enjoying the laurels of Marengo, Napoleon could now afford to give even Moreau orders. He no longer suggested but instructed Moreau to advance on Vienna along the traditional invasion route of the Danube. Macdonald would cover his right flank while Augereau on the Main would protect his left.
But for Moreau to achieve this, he had first to cross the river Inn where the Archduke John, nominally in command of the Austrian army there, enjoyed a strong defensive position. The Archduke John was another of the talented sons of Leopold who had to contend with a far less imaginative brother as Emperor. Unfortunately for the army, unlike the Archduke Charles, the inexperienced 18-year-old John’s gifts did not lie in the military sphere.
Intrigues around the archdukes: the Archduke John
Kray’s army that had faced Moreau had been beaten in a number of inconclusive actions and this was enough for the Emperor Francis and Thugut to request that Kray relinquish command. The obvious candidate for his replacement, the Archduke Charles, dropped out on the grounds that the Emperor, who had earlier resisted calls to place him in command, might be perceived as bowing to something as vulgar as popular pressure. Thugut warned that the appointment of Charles would only underline the mistaken earlier decision not to appoint him. Such were the convoluted thought processes of the court.
Baron Thugut, with ever an eye to the practicalities of the situation if they gave him the chance to ingratiate himself with his master, encouraged these thoughts with his own observation that the Archduke Charles would ‘only demand reinforcements’ which, as they were not available, ‘would only force him to push for peace’. Thugut knew well how to pander to the Emperor’s suspicions and jealousies of his brother. Charles, increasingly frustrated by his attempts at military reform running into the sands, took himself off to Prague, pleading one of his recurring attacks of epilepsy. Charles saw no point in Austria’s armies fighting a war in their present unmodernised condition. He counselled peace and a policy of playing for time to allow Austria to build up her strength.
This eminently wise policy was anathema to Thugut, who was prepared to gamble everything on a conflict with France à l’outrance. Thugut’s own position after Marengo was becoming precarious. His grasp of foreign affairs would pass to Cobenzl, a protégé of Kaunitz who favoured the old Kaunitz policy of seeking an agreement with France, even a Revolutionary France. These tensions proved disastrous not only for Thugut, who was forced to resign in September, but also for Austria. Cobenzl’s Francophile policies would not save him from a similar fate and he was dismissed shortly after Austerlitz in 1805.
Thanks to these petty intrigues, the army found itself in the curious position of not having a titular commander by the end of August 1800. What was needed, Thugut suggested, was a twin-track solution: two commanders. The first should be a de facto commander of enormous experience and proven courage; the second should be an enthusiastic archduke, not too difficult to handle, who would add the aura of the Imperial House to the cause.
Franz von Lauer
For the first candidate Thugut strongly recommended Feldzeugmeister Franz Freiherr von Lauer, a senior officer in the Engineers corps with a long experience of fortification design but little direct exposure to the challenges of command on the battlefield. Lauer had served under Wurmser in the First Coalition War and had been with him when Mantua fell. As a gifted specialist he had even won the coveted Order of Maria Theresa but his service record described him as lacking finesse and possessing a raw and aggressive temperament, which was married to ‘extreme self-regard’. He was also described as lacking that most important of military qualities: decisiveness. If these weaknesses were not enough, another report noticed that his soldiers held him in low esteem. All these personality defects paled into insignificance compared to his loyalty to Thugut, and Lauer’s impeccable connections: his sister was a lady-in-waiting to the influential Queen of Naples.
Thus, as is so often the case despite the apparent triumph of egalitarianism, connections triumphed over ability. To add lustre to this uninspired choice, the Emperor Francis knew there would need to be a figurehead to raise morale after the armies’ earlier defeats, and it could not be himself because the risk of defeat had to be kept at arm’s length from the throne.
But who was to be this hapless archduke: the scapegoat for any failure Francis’s army might incur? Francis first approached Archduke Ferdinand, brother of the Empress Ludovika, but Ferdinand wisely refused, having had long experience of court intrigue. Francis then suggested the role might suit the Archduke Josef, who pleaded Hungarian constitutional commitments. One by one, Thugut ticked the archdukes off his list until he reached John. It would after all only be a question of ‘appearances’ (Schein). The ‘real’ command would lie with Lauer.
John was certainly a talented young man and, like his military brother Charles, he was to develop outstanding intellectual gifts but at this stage he was only 18 and had not even completed his basic military training. He had just about mastered how to sit correctly on a horse but his hours were still spent being shouted at on the drill square.
John only realised that he was destined for the army on the Danube at the beginning of September. Unsurprisingly, he was shocked. His astonishment would no doubt have been even greater had he known that he was to be given ‘command’. That detail was still kept secret from him and he fondly imagined he might serve as some unimportant adjutant.
These thoughts were confirmed when John received his orders to join Charles at the front. It is worth noting as another symptom of Habsburg methods in dealings with each other that the Archduke John did not possess even a uniform, or for that matter much more than the odd shirt. Materially and mentally he was unprepared for what was coming. It was winter but luckily his aunt, the Queen of Naples, hearing that her nephew was off to war, sent him some beautiful Neapolitan shirts of exquisite wool and cotton.
Joining the Emperor the two brothers rode together for some days until they reached the Bavarian pilgrimage village of Altötting. Not by a single phrase did the Emperor let slip or imply that he had plans for his brother. It was only two days later that the Emperor summoned John to his presence and gave him a letter outlining his ‘command’. John was dumbstruck but knew where his duty lay. The Kaiser explained painstakingly that the ‘command’ was really about raising the morale of the troops and that the real power of executive command would rest with Lauer. John would obey Lauer to the letter and not question or withhold his signature from any of Lauer’s orders, which would be published as if they hailed from the Archduke. All communication with the Emperor was to run directly and exclusively through Lauer.
In this way Francis was ensuring that should disaster befall his forces not an iota of criticism would fall on him. The Archduke would act as a form of covering fire; a dazzling decoy for the opprobrium that might otherwise have attached itself to the Emperor. And if things went well, then Lauer could always be praised to ensure it did not all go to the young Archduke’s head. Moreover, it would be good to have another archduke competent in military affairs to prevent excessive prestige passing to the Archduke Charles. There are few more revealing episodes than this to illustrate the Habsburgs’ internecine rivalries and the callousness with which members of the family could be sacrificed to the ‘greater good’.
Lauer’s plans were not entirely without merit but their weaknesses soon became apparent. He first decided to abandon the very strong position his forces enjoyed along the Inn and push Moreau back on to the Bavarian Alps. This operation had barely got under way when Lauer changed his mind and decided to give up outflanking Moreau and to attack frontally, despite the fact that Moreau was now digging into a good defensive position near the forest of Hohenlinden.
The Archduke John meanwhile, young, sensitive and insecure and, full of doubts over the ambiguity of his role, had sought the advice of his talented brother Charles. But Charles knew better than to interfere with his elder brother’s plans and simply offered John the following counsel: ‘However difficult and tough your situation is, you must not flinch from it. Remember that the really great man reveals himself when, despite the crisis he finds himself in, he remains always calm and collected’ (‘in keiner Gelegenheit aus der Fassung kommt’).
A few days later, Charles sent some strategic recommendations to John concerning the lie of the land in the Bavarian theatre. But in a confidential letter, which for once did not pass through Lauer’s hands, Charles was at pains to stress that he could not help his younger brother and that his own isolation at court now meant that his advice would always be questioned. ‘Do what you wish with my suggestions but it may be best not to make any use of my letter. It is my desire to serve but not to appear.’
Lauer was convinced that the strong defensive position he had enjoyed on the Inn could now be sacrificed in favour of a more aggressive policy. The Austrians had used the succession of truces which had been declared during the autumn months to reorganise and replenish their forces: volunteer units from Tyrol, insurrection levies from Hungary, an assortment of light troops, all made their way to join Lauer.
The weather had turned to snow and sleet, making it increasingly difficult for the Austrian scouts to judge either the strength of their opponents or their precise dispositions. This contributed significantly to the slow speed at which Lauer advanced, and it allowed Moreau to dig in for a strong defensive battle. Unfortunately, in this vacuum of intelligence Lauer’s chief of staff Franz Weyrother believed the situation to be much more favourable for attack than in reality it was. He ordered a swift march to crush Moreau’s right flank but this march soon degenerated into bottlenecks and delays. Lauer and Weyrother now changed plan and favoured a march along a new route towards Munich.
The first contact was on the Austrian left flank at Ampfing. The Austrians here had overwhelming superiority but the redoubtable Ney commanded the French and he conducted an exceptionally stubborn defence. Nevertheless, the numbers the Austrians brought to bear forced the French back. The Austrian offensive had been a success although the Austrians incurred nearly twice as many casualties as the French.
Four Austrian columns advanced on Hohenlinden, which lay astride the Munich road. It was heavily forested, which meant that communications would be impaired, and the onset of more snow and sleet did nothing to help. Moreau conceived a plan of particular elegance. He surrendered the high points of the forest to give the impression he was falling back while luring the Austrian column under Kolowrat into a trap. As they debouched from the woods and approached Hohenlinden, a strong flanking force led by Decaen and Richepance would take the Austrians by surprise.
As the Austrian advance guard emerged from the woods it quickly overwhelmed the French. Two grenadier battalions of the Sebottendorf regiment under General-Major Spannochi attacked their opponents with a bayonet charge and drove them back. Supported by three Bavarian battalions, the grenadiers advanced steadily until a strong French counter-attack drove them back to the treeline. Attacked by cavalry, the grenadiers formed square and repulsed three charges by a hundred chasseurs. Though it had been Moreau’s strategy to lure the Austrians, he was surprised at the ease with which they advanced: one by one the hamlets around Hohenlinden fell to the Austrians. A battalion of the Gemmingen regiment stormed Forstern while another battalion, this time of the Branchainville regiment, captured the village of Tarding. Spurred on by their commander Prince Schwarzenberg, another battalion, the old Walloon regiment of Murray, swept into Kronacker, the key to the French left wing.
But on the French right wing the forward elements of Richepence’s division had had better luck against the Austrians under Riesch and Kolowrat. They outmanoeuvred Kolowrat’s forces. Riesch’s troops took so long to reach the battlefield that Richepence was able to move his forces between the two columns with devastating consequences for Kolowrat. Suddenly Kolowrat, already engaged to his front and flank, faced an attack from his rear.
News of Richepence’s movements quickly reached Weyrother, who rode swiftly in the direction of the fighting to see for himself what was happening. A storm of artillery greeted him, throwing him from his horse and depriving Lauer of his chief of staff at the critical moment in the battle. Three regiments of Bavarians who held this sector of the front cracked under the pressure of four infantry charges and fled. (The high ratio of Bavarian prisoners to casualties has been interpreted as suggesting the Bavarians’ heart was not in the struggle.) As Kolowrat’s regiments on the Austrian right flank were gradually surrounded by Decaen and Grouchy, the situation on the Austrian rear and right flank became critical.
Meanwhile at Kronacker, Schwarzenberg became aware that all was not well with the rest of the Austrian forces. He received an order to withdraw. Suddenly, a lull in the fighting occurred. As the smoke parted, a French officer appeared with a white flag, the traditional method for the victor or vanquished to parley, and called on the Austrians to surrender. Schwarzenberg replied by ordering his artillery to redouble their rate of fire. But the Austrians were falling apart, caught in a tactical noose which Moreau was relentlessly tightening.
Fortunately for the Austrians, it being December, darkness fell over the battlefield by five o’clock and under the cloak of this natural camouflage Schwarzenberg found a path through the woods to extricate what was left of his men. The battle was over. Hohenlinden was as complete a victory for the French as any general could have wished. Moreau, with none of the dash or energy of Napoleon, had won a decisive victory. In Napoleonic style he had destroyed his opponents’ army far more convincingly than even Napoleon had done at Marengo. For the loss in dead and wounded of fewer than 3,000 men, Moreau had inflicted more than 12,000 casualties, including prisoners of the Austrians and their Bavarian allies. The loss of 50 Austrian guns, a number unheard of since the Seven Years War, was a disaster of particular humiliation. The utter failure of the Austrians to coordinate their attacks was dubbed by a Bavarian general present as ‘ignorance and ineptitude’.
During the orgy of blame that engulfed Vienna in the aftermath of the disaster of Hohenlinden, little attention was paid to the fundamental flaws in the Austrian strategy. The Archduke Charles with his keen strategic sense noted that the battle had been lost by ‘fragmentation’ of the Austrian forces which, divided into columns beset by poor communications, invited defeat. But no one listened to the Archduke Charles. Unfortunately, Weyrother, after surviving Hohenlinden, would live to devise another over-complicated allied battle plan, this time near the Moravian village of Austerlitz. In the meantime, the Archduke Charles was summoned back to take command of the shattered remains of the army and pick up the pieces.
The Archduke Charles returns
Agreeing in his own words to ‘willingly sacrifice myself for the interests of the state’, Charles replaced his brother and Lauer on 17 December with full Imperial authority to command. The sight which greeted him was beyond his experience and as he reported to his brother, the Emperor, dispiriting. Less than half the army that had fought at Hohenlinden was still intact and what remained looked more like an ‘Asiatic horde than a disciplined European army’.
An armistice was a priority for the army though Thugut opposed it, still favouring a ‘war to the knife’. Charles noted: ‘if Moreau refuses to sign we are lost’. Fortunately Moreau had his own concerns, notably the Austrian citadels threatening his lines of communication, which he had had to bypass. Accordingly, the next day an armistice was signed at Steyr in Upper Austria.
While the Archduke Charles took over the remnants of the Austrian army north of the Alps, Melas was succeeded south of the Alps by Bellegarde. To his credit, Melas did everything to ensure the transition was as smooth as possible. Preliminaries were signed at Treviso in late January. A few weeks later a Neapolitan force under the ‘unfortunate’ Mack, an Austrian general of whom we shall hear more, was wiped out. Much of Italy was again under French control and the Second Coalition against France had collapsed. Constrained by her pledge to London not to make peace until February, Vienna prevaricated until the formal peace was signed on 9 February at Lunéville. Blamed for all the disasters that had befallen Austrian arms, Thugut was sacked.
The Austrian diplomats who convened at Lunéville were led by Cobenzl and faced an unhappy task. After Marengo, Napoleon would have been satisfied with a frontier on the Mincio for his satellite Cisalpine Republic. After Hohenlinden he would accept nothing less than the Adige much further east. The Treaty of Lunéville confirmed Archduke Charles’s warning that Austria would pay a high price for going to war in such an ill-prepared way. The treaty terms were of a harshness unknown in earlier Habsburg history. France cemented her claim to the left bank of the Rhine, and Austria had to accept the German principalities’ ‘mediatisation’ as well as recognising the ‘independence’ of the Ligurian, Cisalpine and Batavian republics which, together with Switzerland, were now firmly within Napoleon’s sphere of influence. Such a state of affairs could not represent the status quo for the Habsburgs. The humiliating terms of Lunéville meant that Vienna would immediately prepare for the next war against Napoleon.
The four years of peace were not wasted by Vienna. A series of reforms helped the army rebuild morale and ensured that the mistakes of the Second Coalition War were not repeated. Principal among these was the central issue of command. The Archduke Charles was not only given a command but he was placed in charge of the deliberations of the Aulic Council. But in a repeat of the previous campaigns’ errors of judgement, the Archduke was not to be present at the principal theatre of the coming conflict. Instead of realising that Marengo had been Napoleon’s choice of ground for unusual reasons and that he would have preferred to fight on the road to Vienna, the Austrians continued to believe that northern Italy would be the principal theatre of operations in the coming war. The Archduke was therefore given a command in that theatre.
To be fair, the Archduke Charles only had himself to blame for this assessment. On 3 March 1804, he had submitted a memorandum detailing how the French were unlikely to want to march all the way across Swabia and Bavaria and would therefore, in the event of hostilities, almost certainly seek a resolution in northern Italy where their lines of communication were far more cohesive. Moreover, the Archduke argued, in the Italian theatre there would be a tempting opportunity for the French to drive the Austrians back on to the Alps beyond Trieste. A victorious French army could menace Vienna via Styria as it had done in the closing phase of the First Coalition War.
Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard
Between Brünn and Olmütz, where the allies were concentrating, Napoleon carefully reconnoitred the landscape and found, a few miles outside Brünn, the Pratzen plateau. He felt sure this would be where his troops would fight a great battle.
At Olmütz meanwhile, Kutuzov was greeted by both the Russian and Austrian Emperors. It was immediately apparent that the Tsar was primus inter pares and in command. The Austrian contingent was relatively small and undistinguished. The Habsburg Emperor felt it was beneath his dignity to oppose the will of the Tsar. The only Austrian to retain any influence over the military decisions was the ill-starred Austrian Chief of Staff, Weyrother, who had taken the place of the able Schmidt, killed by a musket ball at Dürnstein.
Unlike Schmidt, Weyrother lacked a firm grip on reality and, as we have already seen, had contributed significantly to the fiasco at Hohenlinden. The wiser counsels – Bagration, Kutuzov, Miloradovič and Dokhturov – favoured playing for time and if necessary wintering in the Carpathians to await re-inforcements, including the Archduke Charles, as well as the imminent declaration of war by the Prussians on the French.
But Tsar Alexander favoured a more dramatic response and Weyrother fell into line with typical Austrian Anpassungsfähigkeit (ability to fit in) and urged an advance on Brünn where the allies could menace Napoleon’s right flank and send him retreating through the trackless mountains above Krems far to the west.
Weyrother divided the 89,000 troops at the allies’ disposal into five columns but resolved to keep each column in close communication with the others, perhaps having learnt the dangers of excessive fragmentation at Hohenlinden. The Austrian contingent, 25,000 men including 3,000 cavalry, was commanded initially by Kolowrat but was transferred to Prince Liechtenstein. By the time battle was engaged, it had dwindled to twenty and a half battalions and forty-five squadrons of cavalry, amounting to 15,700 men.
From the beginning the allied deployment was plagued by inconsistency and woolly thinking on the part of the Austrian staff under Weyrother. Weyrother had planned to menace Napoleon’s right flank but, by the time the allied army began to concentrate, it was heavily configured against the French left flank. The need to correct this error took 48 hours partly because Weyrother had only the haziest idea as to where Napoleon’s right flank was.
In any event the Pratzen heights were to be critical to both sides’ thinking. For Weyrother and the Russians it was the key to the French right. For Napoleon it would be the bait to lure the Russians into a battle of annihilation. Austerlitz, as Napoleon told his marshals on the eve of the battle, was not to be ‘just an ordinary battle. … I prefer to abandon the ground to them and draw back my right. If they then dare to descend from the heights to take me in my flank, they will surely be beaten without hope of recovery.’
To persuade the ranks of green-coated Russians to descend the heights an elaborate and theatrical ‘retreat’ by Murat’s cavalry was staged. By mid-afternoon, the Russians indeed began to descend and Napoleon had a leisurely dinner of Grenadiermarsch (fried potatoes, noodles and onions), confident that his trap was about to be sprung. At dawn, he issued further instructions and the village of Tellnitz was cleared of a squadron of Austrian chevauxlegers. A thick fog concealed the movements of Napoleon’s army from the Russians on the heights. As the visitor to the battlefield can see today, the roads at the foot of the hill would be invisible from the heights in bad weather and Napoleon planned to take full advantage of his opponent’s ‘blindness’.
For his part, Weyrother did not discern the subtlety of his opponent’s thinking. An allied officer, Langeron described how the Austrian ‘came in with an immense map showing the area of Brünn and Austerlitz in the greatest precision and detail’. (The Austrian military cartographic institute set up by Maria Theresa was renowned for its maps.) As Langeron noted: ‘Weyrother read his dispositions to us in a loud voice and with a boastful manner which betrayed smug self-satisfaction.’ His audience of Russian generals was scarcely any better mentally prepared. Kutuzov had been drinking heavily for some days and was dozing half asleep in his chair. He and the other officers showed little interest in what the Austrian said.
Weyrother proposed a left flanking movement spearheaded by the Austrian contingent with a powerful mixed column under Kienmayer, who would force the lower Goldbach stream with five battalions supported by twenty squadrons of cavalry. Two strong Russian columns would then cross the Goldbach and begin a decisive attack on the French right. All the reports, concluded Weyrother, suggested the French were weary and suffering from poor morale, especially their cavalry. As Weyrother pointed out, the Austrian army knew every inch of the terrain as they had conducted exercises there in 1804. It is still subject to debate to what extent the Russians understood what the Austrian was proposing. As Weyrother’s orders were written in German, some time was needed to translate them into Russian.
Unsurprisingly, the execution of Weyrother’s plan left a lot to be desired. While Kienmayer’s battalions of barely 3,000 men, drawn from far from undistinguished regiments, was soon engaged, the Russian columns collided with each other. Liechtenstein’s cavalry milled about aimlessly without orders until the Prince ploughed a route through the Russian infantry to reach the point where he assumed he was supposed to be. As the Russian columns became mixed up with each other, Weyrother watched from a hill, his face increasingly anxious. He felt he could hear the French below, but neither he nor anyone else on the hill could see them.
Meanwhile below, Kienmayer’s Szekler infantry was bravely storming the village of Tellnitz only to be cut down by well dug in French voltigeurs. Five times they stormed across the Goldbach only to be driven back. Eventually the elite 7th Jaeger reinforced them and drove the French out. But Kienmayer’s skirmish was a sideshow. A strong French force advanced under the cover of the mist on to the Pratzen heights to emerge in what Napoleon would later refer to as the golden sun of Austerlitz.
Towards nine in the morning a fierce battle developed along most of the front. As the French retook part of Tellnitz they began fanning out. An Austrian regiment of Hessen-Homburg hussars under Oberst Mohr charged them with devastating effect and Kienmayer was able to reoccupy the village. Mohr mistook the French 108th regiment for Bavarians, whom the hussars hated; few Frenchmen escaped.
The hapless French survivors of the 108th attempted to flee to the north only to come under murderous fire from their own side, a French light infantry regiment. Tellnitz was now safely in Austrian hands and two regiments of Austrian cavalry passed through it to take up attacking positions to the west. Further to the east, the village of Sokolnitz was engulfed in flames as Russian artillery bombarded it at close range. An hour later Sokolnitz had been occupied by the Russians, who had engaged the best part of 5,000 men to clear the village of a single regiment. However, the arrival of two French brigades sent the Russians back into the north-western corner of the village from where they repeatedly failed to drive the French out. Some 33,000 Russian and Austrian troops were now bogged down, attempting to put the Goldbach and its villages well behind them.
Meanwhile on the Pratzen heights, the French under Ste-Hilaire and Vandamme had collided with the fourth Austro-Russian column delayed by the usual deployment problems, the chief of which was Liechtenstein’s improvised passage through their ranks. The surprise and shock of seeing the French, who seemed to appear from the fog below, galvanised the senior Russian officers. Suddenly the allied position had become immensely perilous as the rear of their three most advanced columns was about to be threatened by the unexpected appearance of the French on the heights. With commendable speed the fourth allied column recognised the danger and deployed, splitting into two. At the same time, the second allied column, which still had not reached the plain of the Goldbach, halted and, seeing what was happening on the heights behind them, reversed front and marched back up the heights against the right flank of Ste-Hilaire’s breakthrough.
Major Frierenberger’s guns
Meanwhile from the east a mass of unidentified regiments was advancing towards Ste-Hilaire. In the mist it was difficult to make out who they were. As they approached an officer called out from 300 yards in barely audible French: ‘Don’t shoot. We are Bavarians.’ At first the Frenchman appeared satisfied by this but an enterprising officer as a precaution reordered his line to fire on the newly arrived troops if they proved hostile. As he climbed forward to reconnoitre at close range, he recognised the white Austrian uniforms. Although at first the troops appeared rather unpromising – the French account noted a number of invalids – the brigade which had emerged under General Rottermund contained 3,000 men, recognisable by their orange facings, of the elite Salzburg ‘House’ regiment, tough mountain fighters who with their Styrian counterparts would become some of the most highly decorated units in the Austrian army. Supported by a Russian brigade, the Austrians stormed the heights at the point of the bayonet. Weyrother watching from nearby had his horse shot from beneath him. But the French held on to the Pratzenberg, counter-attacking with the bayonet and slaughtering the wounded. Slowly the Russians fell back. Langeron’s attempts to reinforce them from the plain below ran into a withering crossfire. At the little hamlet that is now called Stare Vinohrady, the Salzburgers fought stubbornly until attacked by two and a half brigades from three sides, but the allied fourth column on the Pratzen had ceased to exist. As the French poured in their fire from every side, the allies began to break into disorder.
Further to the north, attempts by Hohenlohe to deploy cavalry floundered on the clay and vines of Stare Vinohrady. Time and again the allied cavalry counter-attacks were poorly coordinated. The Austrian artillery showed its traditional professionalism when a Major Frierenberger arrived with a battery of 12 guns from Olmütz.
These guns from Olmütz reached Rausnitz at the moment when fugitives came pouring back to confirm the frightful news of the various disasters experienced by the army. The commander, although he had no real covering force, positioned the battery on the most advantageous site on some high ground to the right of Welloschowitz. The army he faced was a victorious one. Undaunted, the Austrian battery opened up in its turn against the main battery of the French and their leading troops. The Austrians fired their guns with such skill that they compelled the French to pull back their batteries in a matter of minutes. Some of the French pieces were silenced and the advance of the whole French left wing ground to a halt.
The gallant Austrian artillery major had not only enabled Bagration’s units to escape total destruction, he had successfully blocked the road to Hungary. Frierenberger’s actions were but a glimpse of success in an otherwise grim landscape. In an epic cavalry engagement the Russian Chevalier Garde, resplendent in dazzling white uniforms, had been annihilated by Napoleon’s Guard cavalry, putting paid to the Russian reserve’s attempts to retake the Pratzen heights. With the heights secured, Napoleon attacked the rear of the first three allied columns as they battled along the Goldbach below. A giant pincer movement was about to destroy a good third of the allied army. At Tellnitz, the Austro-Russian force which had been in non-stop action for nearly eight hours began to organise a fighting withdrawal. It had screened the retreat of the remnants of two Russian columns and it was high time to fall back. The Austrian cavalry formed the rearguard and the O’Reilly Chevauxlegers, perhaps the finest light horse the Habsburgs possessed, repeatedly charged the pursuing French cavalry and deployed a battery of horse artillery to good effect, keeping at bay an entire division of dragoons under General Boye. Napoleon, having seen this, was furious at the Austrian cavalry’s superior quality. He ordered a hapless aide-de-camp to go and ‘tell that general of my dragoons that he is no f— good’.
‘A battle has been fought …’
Kienmayer had conducted a model withdrawal without losing a single gun. But as the sun shone through the mist nothing could disguise the scale of the defeat. The Austrians and Russians now rallied on the road to Hungary. Though reinforcements were arriving, notably Merveldt, it was clear to both Emperors that this coalition war was over. Francis with his characteristic detachment sent a message to his wife saying simply, ‘A battle has been fought … It has not turned out well.’
Francis knew it was time to see what terms he could secure from the French Emperor. Liechtenstein was sent to arrange the preliminaries, and at two in the afternoon on 4 December, a carriage escorted by a squadron of lancers and a squadron of hussars came into sight on the road to Hungary. The Austrian cavalry halted 200 paces behind while the carriage continued, stopping only where Napoleon was waiting in front of a hastily prepared fire. The door of the carriage opened and out stepped, immaculate in white and red beneath an enormous greatcoat, the Austrian Emperor. With all the breeding of his House he gazed impassively as Napoleon made to embrace him. Not by a flicker did he betray for a second his emotions. The Frenchman may have crowned himself an Emperor but in every inch of his demeanour the Austrian Kaiser demonstrated that, galling though the aftermath of a lost battle might be, the Habsburgs were above such petty humiliations. Prince Liechtenstein attempted to break the ice but it was Francis himself who thawed the atmosphere with a few polite superficialities designed to put the Corsican upstart at his ease. Eyewitnesses noted Francis’s solemn bearing. Though only 36 years old, Francis appeared a generation older, his hat balanced on the back of his head, carrying a stick and incapable of the slightest spontaneous movement, so it seemed to the French.
The chill in the air soon dissipated, and within twenty minutes the sounds of laughter could be heard. Francis had won an armistice for himself and it would take effect within 24 hours. The hard-pressed Russian and Austrian troops could withdraw unmolested.
Austrian dead numbered about 600, considerably less than those of their Russian allies, many of whom appeared to have lost their lives as wounded men bayoneted by the French towards the end of the battle. Another 1,700 Austrians ended up as prisoners but, on the whole, the army’s discipline had held throughout the day, in contrast to their Russian allies.
By 1400 hours, the Allied army had been dangerously separated. Napoleon now had the option to strike at one of the wings, and he chose the Allied left since other enemy sectors had already been cleared or were conducting fighting retreats
But Weyrother’s planning had proved another example of disastrous Austrian staff-work. Once again allied columns, as at Hohenlinden, had been too far apart to offer each other practical support. Once again, as the battle developed in a way different from Weyrother’s calculations, Austrian staff-work had proved incapable of adapting. The Russian generals lost each other in an orgy of blame but on the whole the collective Austrian view appears to have taken its cue from the Kaiser’s low-key response. The Austrian units had fought well, in some cases exceptionally well, but the battle itself had ‘not gone very well’.
The diplomatic consequences were to prove demanding for the Habsburg Emperor and his empire. Venetia, Friuli, Dalmatia and Istria went to the arriviste ‘Kingdom’ of Italy, while Tyrol and the Vorarlberg were handed over to the detested Bavarians. The spineless leaders of the German states were rewarded for their craven behaviour and elevated to such portentous titles as Grand Duke or, in the case of Bavaria and Württemberg, King. Kaiser Franz lost more than 2.5 million of his subjects and his family’s traditional hegemony in Germany and Italy. It was not in the nature of the House of Austria to regard these calamities as anything more than a temporary setback. In four years the sword would be taken up again and this time at the head of the Austrian army there would be one of the outstanding soldiers of the age.
Stalin’s relationship with Zhukov had the same foundation as the Soviet dictator’s relations with all his senior military: their loyalty and competence and his trust in them. Throughout his military career Zhukov had been loyal and respectful of his superiors even if not to all his subordinates and peers. His respect for Stalin’s authority was reinforced by the panegyrics of the dictator’s personality cult—to which Zhukov, like everyone else, subscribed, albeit moderately in his case. But more important was the force of Stalin’s personality. Stalin dominated everyone who came into close contact with him, and Zhukov was no exception.
Besides their professional relationship Stalin and Zhukov had a lot else in common. Both were from a peasant background. Both their fathers had been cobblers and prone to inflict corporal punishment on their sons. The two men’s mothers had striven to ensure their sons received a good education. Both men were sentimental about their own children (in Stalin’s case, more so in relation to his daughter than his two sons). The Russian Civil War had been a brutal, formative experience for Zhukov and Stalin, albeit with the former as a lowly soldier and the latter as a high-ranking political commissar. Although Stalin had some intellectual pretensions he, like Zhukov, saw himself primarily as a praktik—a practical man of action. Both were single-minded in pursuit of their goals and as ruthless as necessary to achieve them. Politically, Stalin and Zhukov shared not only their communist ideology but also a profound patriotic commitment to the defense of the Soviet Union as the protector of all the nationalities and ethnic groups—more than 100 of them—that constituted the multinational state that was the USSR. It was this “Soviet” patriotism that united the Georgian Stalin and the Russian Zhukov. In the case of Hitler and the Nazis they faced not merely a foreign invader but one who sought to exterminate millions of Soviet citizens (especially the Jews) and to enslave the rest.
Zhukov’s relationship with Stalin began to evolve when he became chief of the General Staff in January 1941 but was forged fully only in the crucible of war. The war showed Stalin that Zhukov could be relied upon in even the direst circumstances; that he would not panic under pressure; and that he had the talent and determination to rise to the challenge of dealing with a supreme emergency.
What Zhukov thought about Stalin is evident from a chapter in his memoirs devoted to the functioning of the Stavka (HQ) of the Supreme Command. Zhukov’s primary aim in writing the chapter—added to his memoirs when he revised them in the early 1970s—was to defend the reputation of the wartime leadership of the Soviet Supreme Command, not least his own role as deputy supreme commander. But he also wanted to refute the critique of Stalin’s war leadership inaugurated by Khrushchev in what became known as his Secret Speech to the 20th Party Congress in 1956. Zhukov succeeded brilliantly—his remarkable pen portrait of Stalin as supreme commander became one of the key texts in the rehabilitation of the dictator’s reputation as a successful warlord.
In the course of the war Zhukov met Stalin in his Kremlin office more than 120 times, a very large number of meetings considering that he spent most of his time at the Front. Many additional meetings took place at one or other of Stalin’s country dachas near Moscow. When he didn’t see Stalin in person Zhukov talked to him on the phone or via telegraph, sometimes daily. Not surprisingly, Zhukov came to know Stalin quite well during the war. “I had never associated with him as closely before, and initially felt a little awkward in his presence.… In the early period of our association Stalin did not have much to say to me. I felt that he was sizing me up most attentively and had no fixed opinion of me.… But as experience accumulated I became more confident, more bold in expressing my ideas. I noticed, too, that Stalin began to give them more heed.”
Many of Zhukov’s encounters with Stalin took place at night. The dictator was a late riser and he generally worked through to the early hours of the morning. His punishing work routine of fifteen-to-sixteen-hour days was as tough on his subordinates as it was on himself. The Soviet leader required briefing by the General Staff two or three times a day and he never took important operational decisions without consulting the relevant members of his Supreme Command, especially the chief of the General Staff, and from August 1942 his new deputy supreme commander, Zhukov. During briefings Stalin would pace up and down the room smoking a pipe or Russian cigarettes, stopping now and again to scrutinize the situation maps. Zhukov recalled: “as a rule he was businesslike and calm; everybody was permitted to state his opinion.… He had the knack of listening to people attentively, but only if they spoke to the point.… Taciturn himself, he did not like talkative people.… I realized during the war that Stalin was not the kind of man who objected to sharp questions or to anyone arguing with him. If someone says the reverse, he is a liar.” Zhukov rated Stalin’s military talent and judgment highly:
I can say that Stalin was conversant with the basic principles of organising operations of Fronts and groups of Fronts and that he supervised them knowledgeably. Certainly, he was familiar with major strategic principles. Stalin’s ability as Supreme Commander was especially marked after the Battle of Stalingrad.… Stalin owed this to his natural intelligence, his experience as political leader, his intuition and broad knowledge. He could find the main link in a strategic situation which he seized upon in organising actions against the enemy, and thus assured the success of offensive operations. It is beyond question that he was a splendid Supreme Commander-in-Chief.
Zhukov most liked Stalin’s general informality and lack of pretension. The dictator rarely laughed out loud but he had a sense of humor and liked a good joke. On the other hand Stalin could be willful, impetuous, secretive, and highly irritable at times: “And when he was angry he stopped being objective, changed abruptly before one’s eyes, grew paler still, and his gaze became heavy and hard. Not many were the brave men who stood up to Stalin’s anger and parried his attacks.” Nonetheless, Zhukov was besotted rather than fearful and, like so many others, under Stalin’s spell:
Free of affectations and mannerisms, he won people’s hearts by his simple ways. His uninhibited way of speaking, the ability to express himself clearly, his inborn analytical mind, his extensive knowledge and phenomenal memory, made even old hands and eminent people brace themselves and gather their wits when talking to him.
In post-Soviet versions of his memoirs and in other material that has come to light, Zhukov was a little more critical of Stalin than in his officially published memoirs but Zhukov’s positive view of Stalin as a great warlord remained.
What Stalin thought about Zhukov is more difficult to know since the dictator gave little away about his private thoughts. Certainly he had a fondness for many of his generals. He admired their professionalism and was willing to learn from them, even though he had pretensions to great generalship himself. The best guess is that Stalin respected Zhukov more than most of his inner circle, many of whom were prone to fawning. Equally, Stalin was suspicious of anyone like Zhukov who displayed too much independence of mind, even when their loyalty was beyond question. Stalin’s attitude to Zhukov is perhaps best summed up by his treatment of him when the two men fell out after the war: banishment for lack of deference followed by rapid rehabilitation once Zhukov had proved his loyalty again.
Zhukov’s first assignment from Stalin after his victory at Yel’nya was to go to the defense of Leningrad. When the Germans first invaded the USSR their main goal was not to reach Moscow but to capture Leningrad. Only after Army Group North had seized Leningrad were German forces to be concentrated against Moscow. Initially, all went according to plan. Soviet defenses on the Lithuanian border were easily penetrated and within three weeks the Germans had advanced 300 miles along a wide front and occupied much of the Baltic region. But the pace of the German advance slowed as the Red Army’s resistance stiffened. Not until early September 1941 did the Germans reach the outskirts of Leningrad. At this point Hitler made Moscow his main target instead and decided that rather than take Leningrad by storm, the city should be besieged, its defenses worn down, and its population starved into submission. The Germans were confident the city would fall sooner rather than later. On September 22, 1941, Hitler issued the following directive on Leningrad: “the Führer has decided to erase the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth. I have no interest in the further existence of this large population point after the defeat of Soviet Russia.… We propose to closely blockade the city and erase it from the earth by means of artillery fire of all caliber and continuous bombardment from the air.”
For the Soviets the threat posed to Leningrad was even more dangerous than their contemporaneous collapse in Ukraine. If Leningrad fell the way would be open for the Germans to make a flanking attack on Moscow from the north. Losing the Soviet Union’s second city would also deprive the country of a pivotal center of defense production and the negative psychological impact of the cradle of the Bolshevik Revolution falling to the Nazis would have been immense.
Stavka was not pleased with the performance of its Northwestern Front. On July 10 Zhukov—at that time still chief of the General Staff—admonished the Front command for failing “to punish commanders who have not fulfilled your orders and who have without authorization withdrawn from defensive positions. Such a liberal attitude by you towards cowards cannot be defended … go immediately to forward units and deal with the cowards and criminals on the spot.” That same day Stavka created a multi-Front Northwestern Direction to replace the Northwestern Front. Included in the new Direction was the Northern Front, which faced the Finns north of Leningrad, Finland having joined in the German attack in June 1941 in order to restore territorial losses sustained during the Winter War of 1939–1940.5 Placed in command of the new Direction was Kliment Voroshilov, the former defense commissar. His orders from Stavka were to counterattack in the Sol’tsy, Staraya Russa, and Dno areas near Lake Il’men southeast of Novgorod. Voroshilov’s attacks in mid-July and again in early August held up the German advance but did not halt it and Stavka became increasingly dissatisfied with his command, too. On August 29 the Northwestern Direction was merged with the Leningrad Front, commanded by General M. M. Popov. Voroshilov was named commander of a new Leningrad Front, with Popov as his chief of staff. But Stalin was still not happy, and the strain of constant defeats and retreats since June 22 was beginning to tell on him. That same day he sent a telegram to his foreign commissar, Vyacheslav Molotov, who was in Leningrad at the head of a high-powered political commission sent to examine the city’s defenses:
I fear that Leningrad will be lost by foolish madness and that Leningrad’s divisions risk being taken prisoner. What are Popov and Voroshilov doing? They don’t even report to us what measures they are thinking of taking against this danger. It is evident that they are busy looking for lines of retreat. Where do they get their enormous passivity and pure peasant fatalism from? What people—I can’t understand anything.… Do you think that someone is deliberately opening the road to the Germans in this decisive sector? Who is this person Popov? … I write about this because I’m very anxious about what for me is the incomprehensible inactivity of the Leningrad Command.
On September 9, Shlisselburg, on the banks of Lake Ladoga northeast of Leningrad, fell to the Germans, thus cutting the last land link to the city. Spurred to action, Stalin placed the trusted Zhukov in command of the Leningrad Front. According to Zhukov, on September 9 he was recalled urgently to Moscow and when he arrived that evening at the Kremlin he was ushered not to Stalin’s office but into the dictator’s private apartment. After a discussion about the situation in Leningrad Zhukov was ordered to fly to the city and take command. “You must be aware,” Stalin told him “that in Leningrad you will have to fly over the front line or over Lake Ladoga which is controlled by the German air force.” Stalin then gave Zhukov a note for Voroshilov—on which was written: “turn over command of the Front to Zhukov, and immediately fly to Moscow”—and told him that the order on his appointment would be issued when he arrived in Leningrad. “I realized,” wrote Zhukov, “that these words reflected concern that our flight might end badly.” Zhukov also discussed the impending fall of Kiev with Stalin and suggested that Timoshenko be appointed the new commander of the Southwestern Front and that General Konev should take over his Western Front command. Stalin “telephoned Shaposhnikov (Zhukov’s successor as chief of the General Staff) right away and instructed him to summon Marshal Timoshenko and transmit the order to Konev.” Zhukov’s flight to Leningrad the next day proved almost as dangerous as Stalin feared: when his plane reached Lake Ladoga it had to dive and fly low over the water pursued by two Messerschmitts.
While his flight to Leningrad may well have been as dramatic as Zhukov remembered, the rest of the story seems to be yet another colorful but inaccurate anecdote. According to the official record Zhukov met Stalin on September 11 in the dictator’s office, not in his apartment. The meeting began at 5:10 P.M. and lasted four hours. Shaposhnikov was present, as was Timoshenko. In the middle of the meeting—at 7:10—a directive was sent to the Leningrad Front on the change of command, as was the norm when announcing such decisions. A few minutes later the directives on the Konev and Timoshenko appointments were also issued.
Accompanying Zhukov to Leningrad were Generals I. I. Feduninskii, M. S. Khozin, and P. I. Kokorev. According to Feduninskii the plane took off for Leningrad on the morning of September 13 protected by fighters. He doesn’t mention being chased by Messerschmitts but then Feduninskii’s memoir was published during the Khrushchev era when Zhukov was in disgrace and his portrait of the new commander of the Leningrad Front was not very flattering. Indeed, Zhukov came across as rather vague and ill-informed, having no idea, for example, of what job he would give Feduninskii when they got to Leningrad. Even more negative was another Khrushchev era memoir, by General B. V. Bychevskii, chief of the Red Army’s engineering section in Leningrad. Bychevskii depicted Zhukov as a martinet, barking out orders and throwing his weight around to little effect.
It is not difficult to imagine Zhukov behaving boorishly. This was his favored way of asserting his authority when he took over a new command. Whether he was as ineffective as the Feduninskii and Bychevskii accounts suggest is another question. When Zhukov arrived in Leningrad the situation had taken a new turn for the worse. Having closed their encirclement of the city on September 9 the Germans were now probing for weaknesses in its defenses. Zhukov responded by ordering counterattacks. His general operational order on September 15 was:
1. Smother the enemy with artillery and mortar fire and air attacks, permitting no penetration of defenses.
2. Form five rifle brigades and two rifle divisions by 18 September and concentrate them in four defense lines for the immediate defense of Leningrad.
3. Strike the enemy in the flank and rear with the 8th Army.
4. Coordinate the 8th Army’s operation with the 54th Army, whose objective is to liberate the Mga and Shlissel’burg regions.
Two days later, on September 17, Zhukov and his Military Council issued an order on the defense of Leningrad’s vital southern sector: “all commanders, political workers and soldiers who abandon the indicated line without a written order from the front or army military council will be shot immediately.” Stalin wholeheartedly endorsed both the spirit and letter of Zhukov’s threat. On September 21 he wrote to Zhukov and the Military Council ordering them to pass on this message to local commanders:
It is said that, while advancing to Leningrad, the German scoundrels have sent forward among our forces … old men, old women, wives and children … with requests to the Bolsheviks to give up Leningrad and restore peace.
It is said that people can be found among Leningrad’s Bolsheviks who do not consider it possible to use weapons and such against these individuals. I believe that if we have such people among the Bolsheviks, we must destroy them … because they are afraid of the German fascists.
My answer is, do not be sentimental, but instead smash the enemy and his accomplices, the sick or the healthy, in the teeth. The war is inexorable, and it will lead to the defeat … of those who demonstrate weakness and permit wavering.…
Beat the Germans and their creatures, whoever they are, in every way and abuse the enemy; it makes no difference whether they are willing or unwilling enemies.
When Zhukov took command in Leningrad he had about 450,000 troops at his disposal, deployed in the 8th, 23rd, 42nd, and 55th Armies. Facing him were an equivalent number of German troops, although the Germans had two tank divisions, whereas Zhukov had none, and the Luftwaffe had complete air supremacy. In addition, fourteen Finnish divisions were attacking Leningrad and Soviet Karelia in the north. The main battle, however, centered on the southern approaches to Leningrad, where the Germans attained positions just a few miles from the city limits. The fighting ebbed and flowed throughout September but by the end of the month the Soviets had stabilized their defenses and the German attacks had petered out.
As the battle raged Zhukov found time to write to daughters Era and Ella:
Greetings to you from the front. As you would wish I am fighting the Germans at Leningrad. The Germans are suffering big casualties and are trying to take Leningrad but I think we will hold it and chase the Germans all the way to Berlin.
How are you getting on there? I want to see you very much but I think that only when I have beaten the Germans will I be able to come to you, or you to me. Write more often. I don’t have time—there is battle all the time.
I kiss you both affectionately.
Historians have differing opinions about Zhukov’s performance at Leningrad. According to David Glantz, “Zhukov’s iron will … produced a ‘Miracle on the Neva.’ ” In a similar vein John Erickson wrote, “in less than a month, Zhukov had mastered the gravest crisis, organised an effective defence and repaired morale, as well as restoring discipline which had crumpled disastrously before his arrival.” Evan Mawdsley was not so sure Zhukov achieved such striking success at Leningrad. Even before Zhukov’s arrival in Leningrad Hitler had begun to redeploy forces from Army Group North to support the coming attack on Moscow. The Germans may well have been able to take Leningrad had they persisted with a full-force attack deploying all Army Group North’s armor, argues Mawdsley, while the Russian historian Vladimir Beshanov points out that Zhukov was sent to Leningrad to lift the blockade—a task he came nowhere near to achieving.
One thing was certain: Zhukov’s reputation was growing. Khalkhin-Gol, Yel’nya, and now Leningrad—maybe not as great a success as the Zhukov legend came to suggest but relatively successful nevertheless. Zhukov was proving to be Stalin’s lucky general; wherever he went there was success, or at least the absence of defeat, and Zhukov’s achievements compared well with the disasters suffered elsewhere by the Red Army. Kiev fell in mid-September and the Germans marched on toward the Crimea and Rostov-on-Don—gateway to the Caucasus and the Soviet oilfields at Baku. In early October the Germans resumed their march on Moscow and achieved immediate results with massive encirclements of Soviet forces at Viazma and Briansk that resulted in the Red Army losses of another half million troops. Faced with yet another emergency, Stalin decided to recall Zhukov to Moscow. On October 5 Stalin phoned Zhukov in Leningrad and the following conversation took place:
STALIN: I have only one question for you: can you board a plane and come to Moscow. In view of complications on the left flank of the Reserve Front in the Ukhnov region Stavka would like your advice on the necessary measures. Maybe Khozin could take your place?
ZHUKOV: I ask for permission to fly out tomorrow morning at dawn.
STALIN: Very well. We await your arrival in Moscow tomorrow.
As Zhukov left Leningrad the city’s ordeal was just beginning. Leningrad was to remain encircled and besieged by German and Finnish forces for three more years. During the siege 640,000 civilians died of starvation while another 400,000 perished or disappeared during the course of forced evacuations, many into the icy waters of Lake Ladoga during the winter of 1941–1942. More than a million Soviet soldiers lost their lives fighting in the Leningrad region. The Germans tried on many occasions to breach the city’s defenses and to break the defenders’ resistance but never again came as close to success as in September 1941. In November–December 1941 the Red Army conducted a successful counteroffensive at Tikhvin east of Leningrad, which secured Moscow against a German encirclement maneuver from the northwest. Thereafter, Leningrad lost its strategic importance, except for the large numbers of enemy forces it pinned down (a third of the Wehrmacht in 1941).
With his recall to Moscow Georgy Zhukov’s moment had arrived. The impending battle for the Soviet capital would either bolster or demolish his reputation; much more importantly it would determine the fate of Operation Barbarossa—Hitler’s attempt to conquer Russia in a Blitzkrieg invasion designed to avoid a costly war of attrition on the Eastern Front.
Hitler’s plan had worked well so far, except that the Red Army exacted a heavier than expected toll on the Wehrmacht as it marched across Russia. In summer 1941 alone the Germans suffered twice as many casualties as they had in conquering France in 1940. But the cost to the Soviets was even greater. Although the Red Army had an available personnel pool of millions of former conscripts who had already served in its ranks for a year or two, it would take time to mobilize, retrain, and reequip this massive reserve. The Red Army was beginning to run out of equipment as well as trained troops. The German occupation of a big chunk of European Russia denied the Soviets access to a significant portion of their industrial resources. As the Germans advanced the Soviets had performed little short of a miracle in dismantling and shipping eastward hundreds of factories together with hundreds of thousands of industrial workers. But it would take time to get the relocated factories up and running to produce desperately needed tanks, planes, and munitions. The Soviet Union’s western allies—Britain, the United States, and other countries—were beginning to send aid, but this did not begin arriving in significant amounts until 1942. In the meantime the Soviets faced Operation Typhoon—an attack on Moscow by seventy divisions, consisting of a million men, 1,700 tanks, 14,000 artillery pieces, and almost 1,000 planes. If Hitler could capture the Soviet capital it would be the death knell for Stalin’s regime. The Soviets might have been able to survive the loss of their capital for a while but it is difficult to imagine the Red Army coming back from such a devastating defeat, particularly if Hitler’s ally Japan had decided to launch an attack on the Soviet Far East rather than on the United States at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Zhukov was not placed in charge of Moscow’s defense immediately. First, on October 6, Stavka appointed Zhukov its representative to the Reserve Front he had commanded at Yel’nya and issued strict instructions that any decisions he took about the deployment and use of its troops were to be fully implemented. Then, on October 8, Zhukov was named commander of the Reserve Front in place of Marshal Budenny. Finally, on October 10 Stalin unified the Western and Reserve Fronts into a single Western Front commanded by Zhukov. Konev, the existing commander of the Western Front, was made Zhukov’s deputy. A few days later, however, Konev was placed in charge of a newly formed Kalinin Front, composed of armies drawn from the Northwestern and Western Fronts, and tasked to guard Zhukov’s northern flank.
The precise circumstances of Zhukov’s appointment to command the new Western Front have been the subject of an arcane but instructive controversy. In Konev’s contribution to a book on the battle of Moscow published in 1968 he claimed Zhukov was made head of the Western Front as a result of his recommendation. In the same book Zhukov asserted that his appointment as commander of the new Western Front followed a telephone conversation with Stalin—one of many that he had with him after his return from Leningrad. During that conversation, wrote Zhukov, Stalin asked him if he had any objections to Konev being his deputy. Another variation of the story, related by Zhukov to the journalist and writer Konstantin Simonov in 1964–1965, was that during the telephone call Stalin said he wanted to court-martial Konev because of the failures of the Western Front and only desisted when Zhukov persuaded the dictator that Konev was an honest man who did not deserve an end like Pavlov, the ill-fated commander of the original Western Front who was executed in July 1941.
While Konev’s version of events is supported by the documentary record, Zhukov’s assertion that he enjoyed Stalin’s confidence is true, too. Zhukov’s appointment to a central role in the defense of Moscow was inevitable because Stalin did not recall him from Leningrad simply to make him commander of the Reserve Front.
Behind this minor skirmish in the 1960s between the two retired generals lay a long history of professional rivalry and personal animosity. During the war Konev emerged as one of Zhukov’s main rivals for fame and military glory—a rivalry that climaxed with their race to take Berlin in 1945. When Stalin demoted Zhukov after the war, Konev took his place as commander-in-chief of Soviet ground forces. In 1957 when Zhukov was dismissed by Khrushchev as minister of defense, Konev was the most prominent of his public critics, even going so far as to publish an article in Pravda that trashed Zhukov’s war record. It is little wonder that Zhukov resented any suggestion he owed his appointment as commander of the Western Front to Konev. Indeed, Zhukov’s memoirs are peppered with direct and indirect digs at Konev’s performance as a wartime commander.
At the root of the personality clash between Konev and Zhukov were the similarities in their temperament and leadership style. Like Zhukov, Konev was an energetic and exacting commander who did not suffer fools gladly and was prone to hot-tempered outbursts. Equally, his preparation for battle was meticulous and his conduct of operations highly controlled. Unlike Zhukov, Konev’s background was in artillery and he started his career in the Red Army as a political commissar during the civil war. Only in the mid-1920s did he switch to a strictly military command. He then rose through the ranks, his path paralleling that of Zhukov, but not until the battle of Moscow did the two men serve together for the first—but not the last—time.
Zhukov’s brief as commander of the Western Front was to halt the German advance on Moscow. His problem was that he had few forces with which to do so. The Viazma and Briansk encirclements of early October had been even more disastrous than those at Minsk and Kiev in the summer. The Briansk, Western, and Reserve Fronts lost a total of sixty-four rifle divisions, eleven tank brigades, and fifty artillery regiments, leaving Zhukov with only 900,000 troops to defend the Soviet capital. Even before Zhukov’s arrival Stavka had ordered a retreat to the Mozhaisk Line—a series of defensive positions about seventy-five miles west of Moscow that stretched for 150 miles from Kalinin in the north to Tula in the south. But this line did not hold for very long. By mid-October the Germans had broken through on the flanks, capturing Kalinin and threatening Tula, where there began a tremendous battle that went on for weeks. Mozhaisk was abandoned on October 18 and with the road to Moscow open, panic broke out in the Soviet capital. There were riots, looting, and mass attempts to flee the city. The tense atmosphere was heightened by rumors the authorities were preparing to evacuate the city (which they were). Nerves were steadied by a radio broadcast on October 17 by A. A. Shcherbakov, the Moscow Communist Party leader, who assured citizens that Comrade Stalin remained in the capital. The situation was stabilized further by a GKO (State Defense Council) resolution published on October 19 that declared a state of siege, imposed a curfew, and announced that Zhukov was in command of the Front defending Moscow. The next day Stalin rang David Ortenberg, editor of Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star)—the Red Army newspaper—and ordered him to publish a picture of Zhukov. He was also told to pass the picture to Pravda so that they could publish it, too. When the photograph appeared in Krasnaya Zvezda on October 21 it was the first time the paper had printed a picture of a Front commander. The photograph was also published by Pravda the same day. Ortenberg claims that Zhukov later said to him the picture had only been published to ensure he got the blame if the city fell to the Germans. The more charitable explanation is that Stalin had the picture published in order to inspire people’s confidence in the defense of Moscow.
Zhukov responded to this grave crisis in the same way as he had in Leningrad: draconian discipline; no surrender and no retreat; counterattack wherever and whenever possible. The first edict Zhukov issued as commander of the Western Front was a declaration on October 13 that “cowards and panic-mongers” fleeing the battlefield, abandoning their weapons, or retreating without permission would be shot on the spot. “Not a step back! Forward for the Motherland!” it concluded. This threat was as applicable to high-ranking officers as ordinary ranks. On November 3 Zhukov announced that Colonel A. G. Gerasimov, commander of the 133rd Rifle Division, and divisional commissary G. F. Shabalov had been shot for ordering an unauthorized retreat.
It is reported that Zhukov read War and Peace during the battle of Moscow and it may be that Tolstoy’s monumental novel set during the Napoleonic Wars inspired this appeal to patriotic sentiment: “The fields and forests where you are now standing in defence of mother Moscow are stained with the sacred blood of our predecessors who have gone down in history for their defeat of the Napoleonic hordes,” Zhukov declared to his troops on November 1. “We are the sons of the great Soviet people. We were brought up and educated by the party of Lenin and Stalin. For a quarter of a century we have built our lives under its leadership and in this hour of danger we will not spare our forces or our lives in erecting a steel wall in defence of the Motherland and in defence of its sacred capital, Moscow. Blood for blood! Death for death! The complete destruction of the enemy! For honour and freedom, for our Motherland, for our sacred Moscow!”
Exhortations notwithstanding, Zhukov was forced to retreat to new defensive positions, initially on a line running from Klin just northwest of Moscow through Istra to Serpukhov, southwest of the city. But Zhukov’s policy of constant counterattacks and withdrawal at the last possible moment had taken its toll on the enemy and by the end of October the German offensive was running out of steam. In addition, the Germans became increasingly bogged down in the autumn mud of that part of the world—what the Russians called the Rasputitsa (the season of bad roads). The Germans decided to pause and regroup, which gave Zhukov time to bring in reinforcements. From November 1 to 15 the Western Command was replenished with 100,000 additional troops, 300 more tanks, and 2,000 extra pieces of artillery.
The pause also provided a political opportunity for the Soviet leadership. On November 1 Stalin summoned Zhukov to Stavka and asked him if it was safe to go ahead with the celebration on November 7 of the anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia. Zhukov assured him it was indeed safe, but because of the threat posed by German air raids the anniversary meeting for the party faithful was held underground, in the Mayakovsky metro station. Stalin spoke at this meeting and the next day he addressed the troops parading through Red Square on their way to the battlefield just outside Moscow. The situation was grave, Stalin told them, but the Soviet regime had faced even greater difficulties in the past:
Remember the year 1918, when we celebrated the first anniversary of the October Revolution. Three-quarters of our country was … in the hands of foreign interventionists. The Ukraine, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Urals, Siberia and the Far East were temporarily lost to us. We had no allies, we had no Red Army … there was a shortage of food, of armaments.… Fourteen states were pressing against our country. But we did not become despondent, we did not lose heart. In the fire of war we forged the Red Army and converted our country into a military camp. The spirit of the great Lenin animated us.… And what happened? We routed the interventionists, recovered our lost territory, and achieved victory.
In his conclusion Stalin worked the patriotic theme, invoking past Russian struggles against foreign invaders:
A great liberation mission has fallen to your lot. Be worthy of this mission.… Let the manly images of our great ancestors—Alexander Nevsky [who defeated the Swedes], Dimitry Donskoy [who beat the Tartars], Kurma Minin and Dimitry Pozharsky [who drove the Poles out of Moscow], Alexander Suvorov and Mikhail Kutuzov [the Russian hero generals of the Napoleonic Wars]—inspire you in this war. May the victorious banner of the great Lenin be your lodestar.
In his memoirs Zhukov was generous in his praise of Stalin’s role in saving Moscow from the Germans, noting that the dictator stayed in the city throughout the battle and played a crucial role in organizing its defenses: “By his strict exactingness Stalin achieved, one can say, the near-impossible.” At the same time, Zhukov was at pains to distance himself from several wrong decisions by Stalin during the battle. But reading Zhukov’s orders, edicts, and records of conversations during the battle of Moscow, he comes across mainly as a general willing to execute the orders of his superiors without demur and who expected the same of those serving under him. It was, above all, Zhukov’s disciplined attitude that endeared him to Stalin, not his supposed forthrightness or insubordination. One example of Zhukov’s hierarchical and discipline-based command style is his response on October 26, 1941, to Rokossovsky, the commander of the 16th Army, then engaged in battle with the Germans in the Istra area, who complained about the weight of German opposition against him. Zhukov told him:
You are wasting time for no reason. Time and again we get reports from you about the incredible forces of the enemy and the insignificant forces of your army—this is not expected of a commander. We know and the government knows what you have and what the enemy has. You must not proceed from fear, which is even more dubious, but from your missions and the real forces that you have at your disposal. The instructions of the government and its command must be implemented without any advance excuses.
When the muddy roads froze in mid-November the Germans were able to resume their offensive, making some progress on the flanks, but the Red Army’s defenses held in the critical position directly west of Moscow. The turning point in the battle for the capital came at the end of November when Stavka released reserves to plug gaps in Zhukov’s defenses. Faced with fresh enemy forces and deteriorating weather conditions, the German advance on Moscow foundered only a few miles from the city center.
Zhukov and Rokossovsky clashed again during the November battles when the latter wanted to withdraw forces to the Istra River. Zhukov refused but Rokossovsky appealed over his head to Shaposhnikov, the chief of the General Staff. Shaposhnikov agreed and gave the requisite permission. When Zhukov found out he cabled Rokossovsky: “I am the Front Commander! I countermand the order to withdraw to the Istra Reservoir and order you to defend the lines you occupy without retreating one step.” “This was like Zhukov,” complained Rokossovsky. “In this order you could feel: I am Zhukov. And his personal ego very frequently prevailed over general interests.… Certain superiors … thought that only they could handle matters effectively and only they desired success. And shouts and intimidations had to be employed against all the rest in order to bring them over to the chief’s wishes. I would also put our front commander among such individuals.”
According to Rokossovsky this incident was only one of many during the battle of Moscow and it illustrated the difference between his and Zhukov’s command style. Zhukov, Rokossovsky recalled, “had everything in abundance—talent, energy, confidence in himself” and was “a man of strong will and resolution, richly endowed with all the qualities that go into the making of a great military leader.” But, wrote Rokossovsky, “we had different views on the extent to which a commander should assert his will and the manner in which he should do it.… Insistence on the highest standards is an important and essential trait for any military leader. But it is equally essential for him to combine an iron will with tactfulness, respect for his subordinates, and the ability to rely on their intelligence and initiative. In those grim days our Front Commander did not always follow this rule. He could also be unfair in a fit of temper.”
Interestingly, Rokossovsky compared the tempestuousness of his relations with Zhukov to the support and encouragement he received from Stalin. Expecting an abusive telephone call from Zhukov, Rokossovsky picked up the phone and was pleasantly surprised to hear Stalin’s “calm, even voice” and appreciative of the “concern displayed by the Supreme Commander.… The kind, fatherly intonations were encouraging and raised one’s self-confidence.” Much like Zhukov, Rokossovsky saw in Stalin a mirror image of himself and his own command style.
While Zhukov fought the defensive battle of Moscow, Stavka was planning and preparing for a counteroffensive. As early as October 5 Stalin had decided to establish a strategic reserve of ten armies. Some of these were thrown into the battle to halt the German advance on Moscow but the bulk of them were reserved for the counteroffensive. According to Vasilevsky, at that time deputy chief of the General Staff, planning for the counteroffensive began in early November but was disrupted by renewed German attacks and did not resume until the end of the month. Zhukov’s claim to have played a central role in the preparation of the counteroffensive plan seems exaggerated, given his responsibilities as Front commander. During the battle of Moscow Zhukov met Stalin in his Kremlin office only once (on November 8). On November 30 Zhukov submitted his Front’s plan for a counterattack to Stavka. This called for an attack north of Moscow by Zhukov’s right flank in the direction of Klin, Solnechnogorsk, and Istra, and by his left flank south of Tula in the direction of Uzlovaya and Boroditsk. To stop the Germans switching their forces Zhukov also proposed to launch a strong attack directly in front of Moscow. On Zhukov’s proposal Stalin simply wrote: “Agreed. J. Stalin.”
The aim of Zhukov’s counteroffensive was to destroy the German forces attempting to envelop Moscow from the north and south. In the center the ambition was limited to pinning down German troops. At the same time, the possibility of a more substantial advance in the center was not ruled out if the situation developed favorably, including the prospect of a drive so deep that it would split German Army Group Center and open the road to Smolensk on the Mozhaisk–Viazma axis.
The Moscow counteroffensive was launched by Konev’s Kalinin Front on December 5, followed by Zhukov’s attack the next day, and then an advance by Timoshenko’s Southwestern Front. The Red Army’s effective combat strength was 388,000 troops supported by 5,600 guns and mortars and 550 tanks. Opposing it were the 240,000 troops, 5,350 artillery pieces, and 600 tanks of Army Group Center. Progress was slow at first, and on December 9 Zhukov issued a directive to his army commanders. The aim, he reminded them, was “to defeat as rapidly as possible the flanking groups of the enemy, and finally, driving swiftly forward … destroy all the armies which are in front of our Western Front.” Zhukov complained, however, that some units were launching attacks on the German rearguard rather than carrying out swift encirclements, methods that played into the hands of the enemy and gave them the chance to withdraw to “new positions, to regroup, and to organize a new resistance to our forces.” The proper technique, instructed Zhukov, was to pin down the rearguard and outflank it, not to make head-on attacks on fortified positions.
On December 12 Zhukov reported to Stalin that the Western Front had inflicted 30,000 fatalities on the Germans and liberated 400 towns and villages.43 Among the liberated areas was Zhukov’s home village of Strelkovka, though the Germans had burned the village, including his mother’s house. But she and Zhukov’s sister’s family had already been evacuated. Zhukov’s mother did not survive the war, however, dying of natural causes in 1944.
On December 13 the Soviet press carried the news of Zhukov’s stunning success in turning the tide at Moscow, including a large photograph of him. Zhukov also featured centrally in Soviet newsreels of the battle. The western media began to take notice of Zhukov, too. In January 1942 his picture appeared on the front page of the London Illustrated News with the caption: “Russia’s Brilliant Commander-in-Chief Central Front: General Gregory [sic!] Zhukov.” In June 1942 Alexander Werth, Sunday Times correspondent in Moscow, wrote in his diary: “The name mentioned most frequently, next to those of Stalin and Molotov, is Zhukov’s. Zhukov played a leading part in organising not only the Russian counter-offensive in Moscow, but it was largely he, and perhaps entirely he, who saved Leningrad in the nick of time. Somebody today remarked that when the well-informed German military attaché was asked, shortly before the war, who was the greatest Russian general, he replied without a moment’s hesitation: ‘Zhukov.’ ”
By the end of December the Red Army had advanced 100–150 miles along a broad front.
Zhukov’s handling of the battle of Moscow was the beginning of the wartime Zhukov myth. From now on it began to be said that with Zhukov in charge success was assured. This was not true and Zhukov was to suffer many setbacks on the road to Berlin. But belief in the myth inspired confidence in him at every level of the Red Army, not least among the lower ranks to whom he became a legendary figure, a giant of Russian military history, the contemporary counterpart of Suvorov and Kutuzov, who had saved the motherland from Napoleon. Most Red Army soldiers were peasants or had a peasant heritage and Zhukov was one of their own. While he had a reputation for cruelty and crudeness he was also seen as the man who would get the job done and lead the troops to victory.
THE RZHEV-VIAZMA OPERATIONS
The success of the December counteroffensive opened up the possibility of a more ambitious offensive to encircle and destroy a significant part of Army Group Center and Stavka began to formulate such a plan from mid-December onward. Broadly, the goal was to advance to Rzhev and Viazma and to destroy all the German forces east of the line between the two cities. The mission was entrusted to Zhukov’s Western Front with the support of the Kalinin Front commanded by Konev. Initially, the hope was that the Moscow counteroffensive could be expanded to encompass this second goal but it proved impossible when the Germans—on instructions from Hitler not to retreat—dug in for defense and held the line. In response, Stavka regrouped and launched what became known as the first Rzhev-Viazma operation.
The goal of the Rzhev-Viazma operation, set out in Stavka’s directive to the Kalinin and Western Fronts on January 7, 1942, was the encirclement of Army Group Center in the Yukhnov-Viazma-Gzhatsk-Rzhev area. Some fifty divisions from Stavka’s reserves were allocated to the operation. Between them the Western and Kalinin Fronts had fourteen armies, three Cavalry Corps, and substantial air support—a total of 688,000 troops, 10,900 guns and mortars, and 474 tanks, as against the Wehrmacht’s 625,000 troops, 11,000 artillery pieces, and 354 tanks. The operation began on January 8 with an offensive by the Kalinin Front in the direction of Rzhev. Two days later the Western Front joined in the attack, driving toward Yukhnov and Viazma, while Zhukov’s 1st, 16th, and 20th Armies continued their attack in the direction of Gzhatsk. At the end of January Stavka established a Western Direction (the original one having been abolished in 1941) to coordinate the Western and Kalinin Fronts. Zhukov was appointed commander of the Direction with overall responsibility for the Rzhev-Viazma operation.
Although the Rzhev-Viazma operation made little headway, it persisted for more than three months. Stalin was convinced the Wehrmacht’s failure to take Moscow meant that Operation Barbarossa could be rapidly reversed and the Germans driven out of Russia. On January 10, 1942, Stalin issued the following general directive to his commanders:
Our task is not to give the Germans a breathing space, but to drive them westwards without a halt, force them to exhaust their reserves before springtime when we shall have fresh big reserves, while the Germans will have no more reserves; this will ensure the complete defeat of the Nazi forces in 1942.
In line with this view of events, the Red Army launched attacks all along the Soviet-German front, but with little or no success. By the time the Rzhev-Viazma operation was called off on April 20 the Kalinin and Western Fronts had suffered in excess of 750,000 casualties. Nor was that the end of the matter. At the end of July the two fronts launched a second offensive in the Rzhev-Viazma area that continued until the end of September, again without success, and costing nearly 200,000 more casualties. In November–December the Soviets tried once more to break through with an operation code-named Mars. While Mars’s goal was limited to the destruction of the German 9th Army in the Rzhev-Sychevka area, Stavka also had in mind a much bigger encirclement of Army Group Center. Operation Mars failed, however, at the cost of 350,000 casualties including 100,000 dead.
During the first Rzhev-Viazma operation the 33rd Army, led by General M. G. Efremov, was given the job of capturing Viazma. In support were General P. A. Belov’s 1st Cavalry Corps and the 11th Cavalry Corps from the Kalinin Front. Unfortunately, the attempt to take Viazma failed and Efremov’s formation found itself surrounded by the Germans. Belov’s cavalry and some other units managed to escape but the bulk of Efremov’s forces, including Efremov himself, were destroyed. Zhukov devoted quite a lot of space in his memoirs to this episode. His treatment included some criticism of Efremov but his overall conclusion was more self-critical: “Viewing the events of 1942 critically I can say now that we misjudged the situation in the Viazma area. We had overrated the potential of our troops and underrated the enemy. He proved to be a harder nut to crack than we believed.”
The loss of the 33rd Army has been a source of considerable controversy in Russia, with some historians arguing that Zhukov tried to take Viazma too quickly and then did not sufficiently support Efremov when the operation failed. Reading the contemporary documentation, however, it is clear that Zhukov did what he could to make the operation succeed and to save the 33rd Army. He failed for the reason stated in his memoirs: his forces were not strong enough to overcome the Germans in the given circumstances.
Interestingly, during the second Rzhev-Viazma operation Zhukov received a rebuke from Stalin (and Vasilevsky) criticizing the Western Front’s failure to aid three of its divisions encircled by the Germans. Dated August 17, 1942, the note pointed out that when German divisions were encircled the Wehrmacht did all it could to help them. “Stavka considers it a matter of honour that the Western Front command save the encircled divisions.”
Stavka’s persistence in the Rzhev-Viazma area reflected the High Command’s belief that the decisive theater of the Soviet-German war was the Moscow-Smolensk-Warsaw-Berlin axis and that the key to a Soviet victory was the destruction of Army Group Center. The problem was that the Red Army proved incapable of delivering this objective until 1944. One reason for failure was the limited forces available to the Red Army in the context of the demands of many other fronts; another reason was that the Soviets faced a tenacious and increasingly well dug-in enemy in heavily forested regions that lent themselves to defense.
The Russians have a saying: while success has many fathers, failure is an orphan. The Rzhev-Viazma operations were Zhukov’s major preoccupation in 1942. Even after he left the Western Front to become Stalin’s deputy supreme commander in August 1942 he continued to devote a lot of time and attention to these operations. Yet in his memoirs he preferred to focus on his role in the Red Army’s momentous victory at Stalingrad in November 1942. The little attention he did give to the Rzhev-Viazma operations was largely devoted to explaining how the failures had nothing to do with him. Zhukov argued the first Rzhev-Viazma operation failed because he was not allocated sufficient forces. The record shows, however, that Zhukov was given quite a lot of troops, more than was allocated to other fronts.
German PzKpfw. V Panther medium tanks, mounting high-velocity 75 mm cannon, advance along a snow-covered road in the Hagenau Forest and the lower Vosges Mountains of France on January 31, 1945.
Lt. General Jacob L. Devers, commander of Sixth Army Group, expressed his views and his reservations about the situation in his command, especially that of Seventh Army, in his Diaries. He had had to relinquish control of several divisions, especially to Third Army because they were short of divisions in November 1944 due to the costly fighting in Lorraine. Later he would lose several more as a result of General Patton’s sending a corps toward Bastogne in mid-December to prevent a German victory there.
A recent analysis demonstrates the way in which the German General Staff took advantage of Devers’ weakness:
By 21 December Hitler had decided on a new offensive, this time in the Alsace region, in effect, selecting one of the options he had disapproved due to Dietrich’s failure to break the northern shoulder [in the Ardennes Bulge], and with no hope of attaining their original objectives, both Hitler and Rundstedt agreed that an attack on the southern Allied front might take advantage of Patton’s shift north to the Ardennes…
This attack was designed to hit VI Corps in its southern flank.
After the fight in the Vosges repelling Northwind diminished in intensity and threat, Devers, in a diary entry on 8 January 1945 expressed his concern about a new assault on the Alsatian plain near Rimling, on the border between XV and XX Corps. This was to be an extension of Northwind although Devers couldn’t foresee this. General Alexander M. Patch, commander of Seventh Army, according to Devers’ Diary, was confident that the 79th Infantry Division could stop the assault at that point in the line. After a conference with Patch, in whom Devers placed great trust, he confided to his Diary for 16 January:
In my conference with Patch we again pointed that our present position is the strongest position we can occupy; that two American infantry divisions, the 79th and the 45th, had withstood 9 German divisions since the 1st of the year successfully; that the fighting had been tough; that they had been assisted by two armored divisions, the 12th and the 14th; that the Germans had brought in a new corps consisting of the 6th SS Mountain Division, the 7th Paratroop Division, and possibly the 10th Panzer Division; that all of these were big divisions, not small divisions; and that now we needed [the] help of at least one infantry division on this front; that as long as [Gen. Omar] Bradley was in trouble to the north we gave and gave and gave until we were stretched too thin; but that now that he is out of trouble we felt that we should be given a chance to push the Germans back on the defensive and we believed we could do this with very little; that it would pay great dividends in the future; that we could release this division by the 1 of February; that giving up terrain was a terrific slap in the face to the soldiers who had fought so hard and so well to retain it; this caused, more than any other thing, a great lowering of morale, and it is morale that wins battles….
It is puzzling that Devers could be so confident of things on the 16th, when the very enemy divisions he was citing were causing such trouble in the Hatten-Rfttershoffen sector, where the 14th Armored and units of the 79th and 42nd Infantry Divisions were fighting a desperate battle for their very existence. Never mind the idea that they were capable of defeating a foe that outweighed them in every department. To bring this question up now may seem strange, but it suggests the degree to which Seventh Army and Sixth Army Group seemed to be insulated from what was happening to those soldiers who fought hard and suffered and died at Hatten and Rittershoffen. Even the Official History, Riviera to the Rhine, devotes only a few pages to the fighting that occurred there in the second and third weeks of January 1944. This chapter will respectfully attempt to redress that imbalance.
The summons to action for the 68th AIB and other units of the 14th came on the morning of 11 January, when the battalion was ordered to help stem the offensive not too many miles west of the Rhine in the vicinity of two sleepy farming towns, Hatten and Rittershoffen, about a kilometer apart, respectively, west to east. The two towns were situated close to the axis of the Maginot Line, which here ran generally but not entirely north and south. The initial phase of Operation Northwind had developed from the north and northeast in the vicinity of Bitche in the Vosges Mountains, known as the Bitche Salient. The new German assault, starting in Gambsheim, adjacent to the Rhine River, had begun on 5 January. The advantages of this battle plan were twofold: the lines of communication and supply were quite short, and German artillery from across the river was capable of shelling Gambsheim and all the other small towns in the area. The other key town, north of Gambsheim, was Herrlisheim, which would later cause so much grief to the green 12th Armored Division.
As has been previously mentioned, in the crazy-quilt pattern of authority and power in the Third Reich, with all its fiefdoms doled out by the Führer, there was a desperate competition among the traditional Wehrmacht, the Waffen SS Divisions, the Luftwaffe (with its ground troops), and even the late and lowly Volksturm (the recent amalgam of the very young, the very old, and the very sick) for the implements of war. Heinrich Himmler, in addition to his other responsibilities, was in charge of these last two forces, most importantly the SS Divisions, which were the best equipped of all units. Hitler had given Himmler command of Army Group Upper Rhine, which was active in Operation Northwind, despite his lack of proper military training and experience.
As Richard Engler reminds us, he determined to discontinue operations in the Bitche Salient because of the stubborn resistance of the GIs and the difficulty of moving armored and other vehicles on icy roads with frequent snowfall. What had made it difficult for American vehicles also made it difficult for the panzers, a problem that similarly bedeviled the panzer armies up in the Ardennes. The Northwind offensive accordingly was switched from the mountains to the plains on an axis from Wissembourg south to Gambsheim—“the most fateful decision of the entire campaign!” American infantry, including elements of the 42nd, of which Engler was a member, and the 79th Infantry Divisions, had been holding the Maginot forts for the most part since November. Himmler wanted to break through not only at Gambsheim but also through the Line—an effort which would consign these units and the 14th Armored Division to a fiery inferno.
Flares signaled the attack on the twin towns on 9 January. Engler, who has argued that the 42nd was besieged beyond measure, remarked that the 242nd Regiment’s Journal reported that 28 German tanks were bypassing Hatten and aiming toward Rittershoffen to the west, with ME-262 jet aircraft flying overhead in support of the thrust toward the town. In a very short time, two out of three American anti-tank platoons were eliminated from the contest, manning under-powered anti-tank guns. The Cannon Company of the 242nd Regiment fired “point-blank” at the advancing panzers but with little effect. A terrified private later remembered what he called “the poise of cooler heads”:
The tanks were right on us and firing point-blank, and a lot of men were going down. Our captain just went berserk. He rushed out and started throwing snowballs at the tanks. He was cut down quick. A sergeant brought us out with most of our vehicles. I was sure he was taking us in exactly the wrong direction. But he got us out of there. Later we went back and retrieved the guns we’d left.
The ultimate intent of the German Command in the West was the capture of Strasbourg, just short miles to the south of Gambsheim—not only primarily to destroy the First French Army defending Strasbourg but to outflank and defeat the American Seventh Army. On 2–3 January, Major General Edward H. Brooks’ VI Corps had begun its transfer from the Vosges Mountains toward the Maginot Line. Seventh Army, after it had delegated responsibility for Strasbourg to the French, planned a new MLR, a fallback position along the Moder River. Ironically, after the battle of Hatten-Rittershoffen, that is exactly where they would be anchored, for the 14th Armored, the 315th Battalion of the 79th Infantry, and remnants of the 42nd Infantry Division would be forced to take up defensive positions along the Moder River, well north of Strasbourg in the vicinity of Hagenau Forest.
However, in the meantime, between the 9th and 20th of January, those units cut off in Hatten especially but also in Rittershoffen, including soldiers from the 42nd, struggled to hold out. They received supplies by airdrop but not much else support until the 14th Armored battled vigorously to get to them. The unit historians of the 68th Armored Infantry Battalion, Lt. Madden and Private Kovanda, liked to employ the image of a roving back (presumably in American football) to charge quickly to any critical spot in the MLR which needed sudden defense or an immediate offensive thrust against the enemy. As it developed, the entire 14th would be needed dramatically to rebut the hostile assault and rescue those men in the two infantry divisions trapped there in the twin Alsatian towns. The division was not committed as a whole at one time in a powerful charge but fed piecemeal into the fight, mostly with a tank battalion customarily paired with an armored infantry battalion. Other units, like the 94th Cav Recon, not only did scouting but also took on enemy tanks whenever possible. The 125th Armored Combat Engineers performed their usual tasks besides fighting in place as infantry or in reserve. After the war there would be criticism of this gradual deployment of forces, but at the time it seemed the only way to prevent those cut off from being overwhelmed and swallowed by the maw of war.
Another grim irony of this grave situation was that the 48th Tank Battalion had figuratively waltzed through the towns only weeks earlier, before the enemy had had a chance to regroup after being chased up the Rhone Valley by Truscott’s VI Corps. There would be no waltzing of any kind when the Americans returned in frigid January, a month that broke century-old records for freezing temperatures. Of the American divisions fighting in this sector, only the 79th Infantry could be said to be battle-wise. The 14th had learned as much as they could since disembarking in October; the 12th Armored had no experience to speak of. They were pitted against a strong and dangerous force which dominated the rolling farmland north of the two towns on the high ground near the towns of Buhi and Stundwiller. This position gave the enemy an enormous advantage in spotting for artillery and mortars, and it had ample ammunition for both. In place were the 21st Panzer Division, considered a crack outfit, and the 25th Panzer Grenadier Division.
Before the commitment of the tanks from the 48th Tank Battalion on 9 January and other units of the 14th AD on succeeding days, there were only the remnants of the 242nd and two battalions of the 315th Regiment, respectively of the 42nd and the 79th Infantry Divisions. But they were, unsupported and no match for the panzers and the artillery arrayed against them. The Hagenau forest just to the south of the towns and a number of Maginot forts almost touching the towns were supposed to be defended by the 42nd Division, but the fight for the forts, although causing serious German casualties, led to their abandonment. Those infantrymen who could sought shelter in the two towns, but as Richard Engler described the situation, these men were in a parlous state with German armor flowing through the area.
Orders were issued to the 14th AD to redress the situation, but at first it was only C Troop of the 94th Cav Recon acting as reconnaissance and patrolling the north edge of the forest. Following on was the 48th Tank Battalion. The German attack against the dug-in GIs in Hatten possessed overwhelming tank and artillery superiority, which kept the desperate Americans pinned down in the houses of the town hoping for the best awaiting rescue. The unit history of the 48th Tanks characterizes the fearful situation of the “doughfeet”:
They were pretty green to begin with, not their fault, and they’d been kicked around in a couple of other engagements; in short, they were pretty easy meat for even the ordinary run of Heinie guts and tricks. Then one night Jerry pushed into the east edge of Hatten (the other little town) where the battalion in that sector had its Command Post in a cellar by the church near the center of town. At first the next morning it looked rough for them, and then it didn’t, then it did. And during that night and the next day the battalion was cut off, the remainder of the regiment was beaten back and Heinie was in Rittershoffen too. But’s that’s too fast for the story because we got tangled in it soon after Heinie threw himself into Hatten.
Tec 5 Vernon H. Brown, Jr., with D Troop of the 94th Cav Recon, observed the beginning of the action when the men of the 242nd Infantry stepped off on 7 January:
Before long the firing started and shortly after that a procession of peeps pulling little trailers reappeared down the road bringing casualties to the rear. The infantry had jumped across frozen fields whereupon the Krauts caught them with machine gun and tank fire. When they moved into the woods the mortars sought them out with tree bursts. The ones that had thrown away their entrenching tools had no choice but to run for it, and the situation went from bad to worse. Eventually the infantry was able to disengage and pull back through our screen [of light tanks and armored cars], and as the enemy made no attempt to follow up, much to our relief we also returned to Weyersheim.
There was then and still now, among some veterans of the 14th AD, reluctance to give much credit to the men of the 242nd Regiment of the 42nd Infantry Division. Richard Engler wrote The Final Crisis to rebut this negative picture of his regiment’s and his division’s fighting ability, and to correct, from his perspective, the record as a combat veteran fighting in cold Alsace in the winter of 1945.
To return to the combat, the 48th TB of the 14th made a serious effort to help those American soldiers trapped in the two towns, which previously had enjoyed relative peace with the war flaring around it. The unit history provides a graphic picture of the initial efforts on 9 January to stem the tide of the panzer juggernaut. “A” Company was assigned the task of leading a counterattack to assist and rescue the men of both the infantry divisions in the towns. The tankers had been resting and refitting in Kuhlendorf, where Bob Davies’ 68th AIB had been doing the same thing. That town is northwest of Rittershoffen about three kilometers away. From that “good pivot” at 0930 hours on 9 January, A Company had been rushed to assembly positions east of Rittershoffen,” all set for a big Jerry drive through and past the doughfeet [infantry] MLR.” As the 48th history breathlessly continues, “It was 1300 sharp when Captain Ace [Joel P. Ory] quietly told 1st Platoon leader [Lt. Edgar P.] Woodard to bring the boys back up with a hell of a bang while he whipped over to Hatten in the peep [jeep] to talk to the doughfeet Colonel.”
When Captain Ory made contact with the infantry in Hatten, he could feel the nervousness, almost panic, in the air. The fear was understandable when soldiers are almost completely surrounded by German tanks and halftracks crammed with infantry and under intense German shelling. There was in place a friendly Tank Destroyer Battalion on the west edge of Hatten, although its commander was reluctant to engage the enemy. Fortunately, one Sherman tank commander put his gun in the right direction and “sent the lead [hostile] halftrack up in a shower of sparks, range 75 yards….”
A humble corporal of the 48th’s A Company, Franklin J. McGrane, kept a diary (although orders forbade such recordkeeping) of the fighting on that as well as other days:
This was friendly country, we knew that. We had passed through it a few weeks before and gone beyond the Maginot Line, those forts that followed this entire area along the northern edge. We had been untouched, we pushed north—toward the Rhine. To the south stretched the forest [of Hagenau], a coniferous snow covered group. A valley lay tranquilly between the forest and a snow-padded highway which seamed the North and South sectors together. Between the Maginot and the forest at either end of the road sat two towns, foreign as yet to war’s destruction, Rittershoffen at the west, Hatten at the east. The country between the chain of forts to the north and the wooded sector on the south rippled gently.
That tranquil scene would not last as Company A went to work. A recon officer jumped out of a jeep. He shouted that there were German tanks to the right, in the valley: “Tanks on your right—German tanks—in the valley—Get ’em Get ’em!…” Corporal McGrane and his fellow tankers couldn’t believe it. “They couldn’t be there….” Nevertheless the tank platoon swung to the attack in a position overlooking the valley. “These were ours, of course—they weren’t ours! Fire! Gunner, Fire! Five tanks spat flame, one still on the move. It was a two-minute job—.”
Three factors allowed the instant success of Corporal McGrane’s platoon:
(1) The M-4 Sherman tanks in January of 1945 were late models of that standard tank, and they possessed a new 76mm gun, which had increased muzzle velocity to penetrate the armor of the German Mark IV panzer.
(2) The reconnaissance of the Americans in this instance was superior.
(3) The Shermans were equipped with an electric traverse, which allowed the gunners to get off the first shots. The panzers were equipped with only a mechanical traverse, more laborious and slower.
The heavier Mark V and Mark VI, the feared and infamous Panther and Tiger tanks, might have provided a more deadly challenge to the Shermans, even the up-to-date “Easy Eight” Shermans, since the German panzers possessed up to six inches of armor on their front slopes, several more than any of the American or British tanks. The thick armor on the Panther’s glacis was set at an angle to encourage enemy rounds to glance off the surface. The only real chance for a Sherman was to get a lucky shot off the sides or rear, which were much less protected. There was more than one complaint by American tankers that their rounds just bounced off enemy armor.
But to return to this stage of the battle in Alsace. The German offensive had to be stopped, and the “lost battalions” in the two towns had to be rescued. “It was time to seize the initiative and restore the MLR by committing the power of an entire armored division.” The orders from Major General Edward H. Brooks of VI Corps to the 14th AD were to “pass through the 79th Division positions and attack to capture the line Stundwiller-Buhl-Forest of Hatten.”
The Germans, however, were busy as well according to Colonel Hans von Luck, the leader of the “Kampfgruppe” named after him, a miscellaneous group of soldiers who had been driven back from Normandy over the summer and fall. Just as the Americans had to rescue some of their men, the enemy had to rescue combatants from the 25th Panzer Grenadiers, who held the southern portion of Hatten. By the evening of 9 January, “only a small breach” had been made. The 25th PGD with von Luck’s troops tried to force their way into Rittershoffen and capture the Maginot bunker line running north of the town. Von Luck’s parent division was prepared to take the town on 10 January, but the 192nd Regiment, which had been assigned the task, had failed in its mission. On the following morning, Major Spreu of the 192nd took the bunker and captured its occupants by employing antitank guns and machine guns against the apertures in the concrete structure. Major Spreu’s account is as follows:
At first light I moved up with the platoon of engineers while my heavy weapons company fired nonstop at the gun-ports of the bunker. We charged through the snow and within a few minutes were at the bunker. The engineers threw hand grenades into the ports, while others ran around to cut the barbed wire and cleared mines. When we ran around to the rear entrance, the door opened and a white flag appeared with five officers and a garrison of 117 men.
The besieged Gis, before surrendering, managed to call in artillery fire on their own positions and caused some serious casualties among the attacking grenadiers. After many of the bunkers were overrun, the infantry of the 242nd had retreated to the town of Rittershoffen and took to the houses to employ as fortifications, but the Germans were “lodged firmly in the railroad station.” The wounded were removed to the few bunkers still in American hands. The battle for Hatten had already become disjointed and disconnected, and although the rallying cry at American higher headquarters was to “restore the MLR,” in truth there was no discernible line to restore. Once the fighting invested the two towns, they were doomed to a terrible fate.
Colonel von Luck continues his account of his Kampfgruppe’s struggle in Rittershoffen. On 10 January, his regiment made their attack, and by evening it had forced its way into the farming village, “but there too, just as at Hatten, the enemy held out in the houses and at once mounted a counterattack with tanks and infantry [the 48th TB and the 2nd Battalion of the 315th regiment]. This hit my II Battalion in particular, which had established itself in the center near the church.” From von Luck’s perspective, as a seasoned veteran commander on several fronts, “There now developed one of the hardest and most costly battles that had ever raged on the western front.” Von Luck construed the American effort as designed to recapture the Maginot Line bunkers and pillboxes, but as the fighting continued, it was more a matter of taking houses and sections of the two towns. Soon it would simply be a matter of clusters of soldiers on both sides trying to survive, with foes only yards apart and sometimes on different floors of the same building. Both sides employed incendiary shells and the Germans flame-throwing tanks, even phosphorus grenades thrown into doorways and windows. It would be no wonder that the towns would cease to exist except as burned and shattered rubble. Tactical urgency overcame any other military considerations.
The most distressing element of the battle was the suffering and dying of the civilian population and their domestic animals and livestock:
Even now the civilian population remained in the two villages. Women, children, and old people, packed in like sardines, sat in the cellars of the houses. Electricity had been cut off, the supply of food was short, and there was no water for the pipes were frozen. We [the German troops] tried to help as much as we could. By day any movement was fatal; our supplies could be brought up only by night in armored vehicles. In this we were helped by a hollow [supply road] which concealed us from the enemy, whose flares threw the area into brilliant light.
The fiery stalemate forced Major General Edward H. Brooks, commander of VI Corps, to commit the 14th Armored Division to fight, beyond the initial action of the 94 Cav Recon and Company A of the 48th Tank Battalion. The fight was eating up infantry at an alarming rate. General Albert Smith’s order to his division stated, “Div attacks RH: CC abreast, daylight 12 Jan 1945 to restore VI Corps MLR.”18 However, as Richard Engler and others recounting the battle were to conclude, there was no MLR to “restore.” The combat was disorienting for the troops, and commanders at any and all levels on both sides could not change the disorientation.
Before the morning of the 13th, the 14th AD had not committed all of its armored infantry battalions, but everyone was on alert, and it was just a matter of time before these were thrown into the cauldron. The S2 and S-3 Journals of the 68th AIB had reported the action between A 48 and the panzers on 9 January at 1315 hours: OP’s report 16 Mark IV Tks, 9 personnel carriers, 8 halftracks moving toward Hatten….” Elements of the 827th Tank Destroyer Battalion were advancing toward the combat. Formal armored doctrine ordained that in cases where a tank versus tank clash was anticipated, tank destroyers were to be favored. The TD’s possessed a 76.2mm gun and later in the war a 90mm gun, and before the Sherman was upgunned to the 76mm gun, the TD possessed more hitting power. However, the armor was at the most only one and a half inches, so they were not safe places to be when fighting against panzers was imminent. Eventually, by the end of the war, the Tank Destroyers would be phased out, but that didn’t help the crews at Rittershoffen and Hatten. The 68th’s S-2 and S-3 Journals intercepted a message indicating that more TD’s of the 827th’s TD Company B had shifted toward the fight and that Company C of the 48th TB was doing the same.
At 1500 hours, the 94th Cav Recon reported to CCA Headquarters that “7 ey tks now burning at (165430)—time 1500.” This report was the result of the good work of Corporal McGrane’s A Company, for which its First Platoon would receive the following citation:
Recipient: 1st Platoon, Company A, 48th Tank Battalion, Lt. Edgar D. Wood ard, P1. Ldr., for outstanding performance of duty in action on 9 Jan 1945, near Hatten, France. Assigned to the mission of repulsing an enemy attack, the 1st platoon, consisting of four operating medium tanks, moved rapidly and decisively to the support of friendly infantry already partially over run by enemy armor. Displaying great skill and superior marksmanship, the platoon engaged sixteen Mark IV tanks in a deadly firefight, and without loss of men or equipment, destroyed four enemy tanks which the Germans were attempting to evacuate.
The critical reconnaissance work done by Troop C of the 94th Cav and Recon also received a citation in that they “supplied higher commanders with rapid, accurate information of the attack on Hatten by an estimated three armored infantry battalions of a Panzer Grenadier Division.”
Corporal McGrane of A Company of the 48th continues his vivid account of the scene after the counterattack begun at 1710 on the same day:
We left our commanding ground and eased down its sloping sides toward the valley floor past the smouldering Jerry tanks which burned like huge torches to guide our way in the gathering darkness. Doughfeet walked behind us, five to a tank. Now and then Heinie ammo within the flaming tanks would explode and throw hot metal into the sky to make of the sky a blanket of twisted colors. The night was cold; the wind was sharp. We stamped our feet against the floor as our tanks munched through the snow, exhausts coughing at their heavy vents. We pressed forward along the valley floor, going due east now. Our right flank, the forest wall [of Hagenau Forest], was close but invisible, it blended into the night.
Charlie Company of the 48th was to assume the role of attacker on the following morning, 10 January. It didn’t jump off until 1600 hours and advanced “due east, north of the Hatten-Rittershoffen Road into the teeth of German tanks and anti-tank defenses,” as the 48th’s History characterizes the situation. This time the panzers were not taken unawares, and they had three Mark V Panthers, possibly the best tank in the Wehrmacht arsenal. Corporal McGrane summarizes the furious action: “Within two minutes the Panzers were flaming coffins. Then Heinie struck back. Concealed antitank guns (you don’t see the flashes) took three of our tanks before we could recover.” Ever since the tank war in the African desert, German panzers had used the tactic of drawing enemy tanks onto the “stakes” of anti-tank guns after creating the appearance of a tank-to-tank battle. McGrane’s Sherman was hit twice by another camouflaged gun (or so he thought at the time), but it proved later that there were two captured American tank destroyers, with larger and more deadly guns than McGrane’s gun. Why the American crews of the TD’s, if they were physically able, did not neutralize the gun on their vehicle before they abandoned it is a puzzle.
The orders to the German divisions designated to make the attack on the tenth: the 7th Parachute, the 47th Volksgrenadiers, and the 2nd Mountain Division came from Hitler himself. He directed them to surge out of the Hagenau sector west to push the Seventh Army back to the Vosges Mountains and in the process cut if off between the Rhine and the mountains. If that gambit succeeded, the First French Army defending the Colmar Pocket would have been outflanked and either forced to withdraw or to stand fast and be destroyed. General DeGaulle had suggested that the French were willing to turn Strasbourg into a “Stalingrad,” but the costs would have been staggering and fruitless. To reinforce his attack, Himmier now received the 10th SS Panzer Divsion, the 21st Panzer Division, and the 553rd Volksgrenadier Division.
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….
“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.
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.