The liberation of Strasbourg

After increasing its numbers by incorporating soldiers of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), General Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured Division (2nd DB), integrated within XV Corps (part of the Third, and later the Seventh, US Army), was given Épinal as its objective. On 12 September, a detachment of the division joined up with members of the 1st Provisional Infantry Division (1st DMI, formerly the 1st Free French Division, or 1st DFL). Leclerc pushed through to Vittel, Contrexéville and Dompaire. With the help of the Resistance, Baccarat was liberated on 30 October. Badonviller was liberated on 17 September.

Leclerc planned to cross the Vosges mountains on either side of the Saverne gap, to reach the Plain of Alsace and Strasbourg. The United States’ General Haislip gave Leclerc permission to swoop down on Strasbourg to try to take the Kehl bridge intact. On 22 November, Leclerc gave orders to take Strasbourg and if possible Kehl, across the Rhine, while continuing to hold and keep watch over the Saverne gap, and to be alert to enemy reactions to the south. De Guillebon’s group was to push to the south of Strasbourg, while de Langlade’s group, comprised of the 12th Regiment of
Chasseurs d’Afrique, must seize the north of the city. Meanwhile, Dio’s group would carry on clearing the Saverne gap and act as flank guard to the north of the division. On 23 November, at 6.45 am, the groups set off. At 10 am, the first members of Rouvillois’s sub-group, the 12th Regiment of Cuirassiers, penetrated the Alsatian capital. In the early afternoon, Massu’s sub-group in turn entered the city. The tricolour flag was hoisted on the spire of Strasbourg Cathedral.

In an announcement, Leclerc reminded the people of Strasbourg that the liberation of the capital of Alsace had been his obsession for the past three years, since the famous oath he swore in Kufra, on 2 March 1941.
In his war memoirs, General de Gaulle wrote: “A message from General Leclerc informed me that his troops had entered Strasbourg as soon as they had done so. At the beginning of the session held that day by the Consultative Assembly, I announced the news. A shiver went through the hall, all those present suddenly above any debate. Arms have this virtue of prompting, on occasion, French unanimity.”

But Leclerc was unable to exploit his position to the south, where de Lattre had liberated Mulhouse. Furthermore, the Germans were intent on defending at all costs what they considered part of the territory of the Reich, the Vaterland. They were preparing a counter-attack that would drive the Allies far from the German borders. On 16 December, they launched a huge offensive in the Ardennes. The Americans were driven back. On 31 December, a new phase of the German offensive was launched on Alsace, between Bitche and Saverne. On 5 January, Strasbourg was threatened by a German bridgehead at Gambsheim. General de Gaulle persuaded the Americans to allow the 3rd Algerian Infantry Division to defend the city while the US troops retreated to a line between Haguenau and Wingen. On 9 January, the 10th Infantry Division (10th DI), formed of FFI troops, was brought in as reinforcement.

Between the River Ill and the Rhine-Rhône Canal, the German attack, launched on 7 January, drove back the 1st DMI, which suffered heavy losses. To the north, German tanks forced the Americans back across the Moder, but, on 22 January, energetic intervention from the 2nd DB (placed under the command of the French First Army) succeeded in stabilising the front about ten miles from the Alsatian capital, which nevertheless remained under threat from the Germans. In early February 1945, to relieve the pressure on Strasbourg and northern Alsace, General de Lattre de Tassigny decided to relaunch his offensive on Colmar and its pocket of German defence.

A total of 12 000 German soldiers were taken prisoner, including three generals - Brühn, Freiherr (89th Army Corps) and von Vaterrodt, military governor of Strasbourg; 2 000 Germans were killed, 850 armoured vehicles and 166 pieces of artillery destroyed. On the French side, 120 were killed or wounded, and 80 vehicles, including ten tanks, were destroyed.
After Paris, the liberation of Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace annexed to the Reich, enabled Leclerc to achieve the political objective assigned to him by de Gaulle. De Lattre, however, did not succeed in taking Colmar. So Alsace was not yet completely liberated. To achieve it, bitter fighting and heavy losses were yet to come, from December 1944 right through to February 1945.

  • Strasbourg Cathedral, 13-19 December 1944. Copyright ECPAD. Photo Jacques Belin. Ref.: TERRE 382-L9085

  • Soldiers of the 2nd DB erect an anti-tank barricade in Rue du Port du Petit-Rhin, during the liberation of Strasbourg. Copyright ECPAD. Photo Jacques Belin or Roland Lennad. Ref.: TERRE 339-L8049

  • The 2nd DB in Strasbourg, 23 November 1944. Copyright ECPAD. Photo Jacques Belin or Roland Lennad. Ref.: TERRE 339-L8067

  • German prisoners of war gathered in the Stirn barracks in Strasbourg, watched over by soldiers of the 2nd DB. Copyright ECPAD. Photo Jacques Belin or Roland Lennad. Ref.: TERRE 339-L8157

  • No man’s land between Strasbourg and Kehl, 16 January 1945. Copyright ECPAD. Photo Henri Malin. Ref.: TERRE 10087-G15