"Mountains are greater obstacles than rivers. One can always cross a river, but never a mountain.” Napoleon
In November 1944, the Allies could not wait through the winter until the better spring weather before renewing their advance. The Eisenhower broad front strategy dictated an advance on all fronts, in part to protect against counter attack on exposed extended flanks. The Seventh Army XV Corp went on the offensive to the south of the Third Army. The 44th held the left wing of the advance and attacked on November 13th. The mission: Break through the strong enemy defenses along a line of Remoncourt, Leintrey and Veho in the Vosges Mountains and capture the key city of Sarrebourg 25 kilometer away.
Top right- Captured roadblock opens up the road to Sarrebourg for tankers.
The Vosges Mountains historically serve as a contested barrier between German and French empires. Known as the Hardt Mountains, in Germany, this range consists of two distinct sections divided by the Saverne Gap, the high Vosges to the south and low Vosges in the north. Contesting the Allied advance in the Vosges high ground was a strategic and tactical German imperative in late 1944. Holding this high ground conferred to them the critical advantage of conservation of manpower and resources and imposed the opposite effect on the American and French attackers. The Germans needed breathing room and time to free its most capable units for the upcoming Ardennes offensive. The German strategy of late fall 1944, a rare Hitler sanctioned elastic defense. The Vosges was to be a killing ground, hotly contested from fortified positions. Retreat authorized but only when synchronized with the ’Rundsdet Offensive' timetable.
Middle right- Moving up to the line, 71st Regiment near Fort Simserhof
Generals must grasp the qualities of terrain to conduct battles. Students of history should do the same to understand their outcome come. (1) The Vosges was the equalizer for the Germans of 1944. The nature of the battleground determines what type of battle can be waged. The Vosges negated the American advantages of superior numbers, mobility, tactical air-power and communications capability. This fight could have become a step back in time, a close cousin to the artillery and infantry dominated frontal assaults of the Western Front of World War I. The German defenders were sufficient in number and quality and adequately supplied to hold the line as dictated by German will and not the Allies. Instead of hammers, the attacks were precise and co-coordinated. The Germans were out-generaled. Through maneuver and boldly exploiting opportunities, the 44th enveloped and cut-off the defenders. By superior small unit leadership and upon the backs of the tough and brave G.I., the Allies carried the day, in the winter in the mountains. The Germans were outgeneral and outfought by the 44th and the other units of the 7th Army.
The low Vosges is primarily composed of open red sandstone gorges with open fields of fire. Steep slopes of between 15 to 30 degrees made advance difficult and mechanized movement outside of a few roads impossible. The high ground allowed the control of territory and observation of the surrounding land. Passes and roads are few and narrow. Options for attack limited. The few obvious avenues of attack are easily defended due to long fields of fire under direct observation by an invisible enemy. Lines of supply numbered but a few winding sloped roads, easily blocked by pre-targeted artillery fire or one burning Sherman tank knocked out by a Panzer Faust. Even a successful attack would be compelled to pause and give the Germans time to organize resistance due to restricted and constrained resupply. (2)
The Germans strengthen theses natural defensive positions by extensive building of earth works and fixed defensive positions. Old stout stone houses were converted readily into pillbox like defensive positions. Anti-tank and personal minefields were liberally laid in the thousands. The deadly and difficult to detect Toft plastic mine, the first of its kind, was encountered by the Allies first at Mountbann and by the 44th. Roads were blocked and fields of fire enhanced by the cutting of forests.
Mountain warfare is massively difficult because both the topology and climate conspire against the attacking soldiers. Mountain warfare in winter is perhaps the most extreme and cruel type of combat possible. The 44th grunts lived a troglodyte existence, outdoors in the cold mud and snow. His German counterpart, a sedentary and sheltered existence in fixed positions. The American enemy included mud, cold and extreme fatigue. The availability of warm food or dry socks were matters of life or death or the difference between debilitation and active combat. According to a West Point scientific study, the physical stress imposed on a well conditioned male carrying a basic infantry load increase exponentially with vertical slope. In other words, the physical stress of fighting in the Vosges in slopes between 15 to 30 degrees is 100 times greater than that created fighting in the flat land of Normandy, Belgium. (3)
bottom right- Soldiers from the 324th clean up in the woods.
It was under such circumstances that the soldiers of the 44th Infantry went on the offensive. Terrain alone does not determine the outcome. The rapid and dynamic final victory in Vosges by XV Corp is attributed to:
1: Superior quality of the Yankee troops versus the German defenders
2: Superior U.S. Army training
3: The battle field application of sound American battle doctrine
4: American Army organization
5: Superior skill and daring of American commanders versus their German counterparts. (4)
1- "Battlegrounds. The Geography and History of Warfare", National Geographic Press, Michael Stephnson, page 6
2- Source: "When The Odds Were Even", Keith Bonn, Chapters One & Two
3- "When The Odds Were Even", Keith Bonn, page 26; reference to "Comparison of Metabolic Responses of Men and Women in Acute Load Bearing Situations" Robert W. Stauffer, Wet Point, N.Y. 1988, 1-4"
4- ibid, Chapter 5