The liberation and defence of Strasbourg


On 2 March 1941, in Koufra, following a victory that has since become legendary, Colonel Leclerc swore an oath before his men that "we shall not lay down our arms before our colours, our beautiful colours, are flying above Strasbourg cathedral". And now, in the month of November 1944, the 2nd Armoured Division and its commander are about to honour this commitment.

After heavy fighting in Dompaire and Baccarat in Lorraine, the 2nd Armoured Division (2e division blindée or DB), which had forced its way over the River Meurthe at General Leclerc's sole initiative, needs to take a breather and reorganise. This interlude allows them to incorporate and train recruits from the French Forces of the Interior (Forces Françaises de l'intérieure – FFI) and replace equipment. Incorporated into the US 3rd Army XV Corps commanded by General Patton, the 2nd Armoured Division consists of three heavy battle groups—Colonel Dio's GTD, the GTL commanded by Colonel de Langlade, Lieutenant-Colonel de Guillebon's GTV and a light battle group—the GTR—commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Rémy.

Crossing the Vosges

There is just one obstacle remaining between the 2nd Armoured Division and Strasbourg, but it is a big one: the Vosges mountains in wintertime! On 10 November, Leclerc calls Colonel de Langlade and tells him his mission: to cross the Vosges via the Dabo road while avoiding the pockets of German resistance at Sarrebourg and Saverne that will be attacked by the GTD and swoop down on Wasselonne and Marmoutier. "The enemy will be waiting for you on the roads to Saverne but not via Dabo as no-one could expect an armoured division to tackle this mountain route…" On 15 November, Leclerc orders his light cavalry to attack Cirey-sur-Vezouze and its bridges. The Morel-Deville sub-group of the 1st RMSM (infantry regiment of “Spahi” Moroccan foot soldiers) seizes the target on the 18th, after bitter fighting during which Lieutenant-Colonel La Horie is killed after liberating Badonviller. On 19 November, the 2nd Armoured Division marches on Strasbourg. The GTD pushes onward towards Sarrebourg, Phalsbourg and Saverne via the Nationale 4 main road. While the Quilichini sub-group is tackling fierce resistance at Phalsbourg, Lieutenant-Colonel Rouvillois bypasses the obstacle, runs into the 316th Infantry Division and arrives in Alsace, to the north of Saverne, in the evening. The GTL, followed by the GTV, enters the Vosges mountains and seizes Dabo on 21 November. Despite the enemy's defences and resistance, the atrocious weather and unfavourable terrain, the barrier formed by the Vosges has been crossed and the battle groups swoop down into Alsace. After fierce fighting, Marmoutier, Saverne and Phalsbourg are liberated in the evening of 22 November.

The liberation of Strasbourg

The attack is launched at 6:45 a.m. on 23 November 1944 via four routes, with the River Rhine and Kehl bridge as the final target. Three hours later, three of the four columns are held up by the forts on the square which are occupied and interconnected by ditches and anti-tank defences. The stalemate is ended by Lieutenant-Colonel Rouvillois' fourth column which has taken the Hochfelden – Brumath – Schiltigheim route and surprises the German defence by arriving from this unexpected direction. In a deafening tumult, Rouvillois crosses the city with his tanks at top speed. The 5th squadron of the 1st RMSM regiment is first to arrive at the cathedral. Rouvillois then issues the famous coded message: “Tissu est dans iode” (The cloth is in the iodine) and hurries on towards the Rhine but is unable to prevent the destruction of Kehl bridge. While the 501th RCC (Combat Tank Regiment), the RBFM (Armoured Marine Regiment) and troops from the RMT (Chad Infantry Regiment) are mopping up pockets of resistance and snipers in the city, the Bompard platoon of the 5/1st RMSM regiment reaches the pink granite cathedral and can finally honour the oath sworn at Koufra. Spahi foot soldier Maurice Lebrun volunteers to climb the steeple and hang an improvised flag from the summit. Covered by his brothers in arms, he climbs ever upwards... "I suddenly realise that I'm not used to this sort of activity. And then there's the icy wind, the vertigo: 142 metres up and… what a perfect target! I keep climbing until I finally reach the top. I start out on the lightning conductor... and I now I'm really shaking. I take the flag out of my jacket; that's it, it's properly fastened but it takes me a while to get it free. I've been standing still in the wind for thirty seconds now and I believe I can hear a zip, zip, zip noise... I'd forgotten all about them. For a moment now they've had me in their sights without me realising it”. The mopping up operations continue and the forts surrender, one after the other. Finally, the German garrison surrenders to a detachment of the 2nd Armoured Division on 25 November. The following day, General Leclerc presides over a military parade on the Place Kleber.

The Alsace campaign

On the following days, the 2nd Armoured Division extends the safety perimeter around Strasbourg and liberates numerous villages. On 28 November, it reaches the Erstein sector, 15 km to the south-west of Strasbourg, where it is stopped by dogged resistance Although Strasbourg has been liberated, the city has not yet been saved! On 1 January 1945, Himmler—the German Commander-in-Chief in Alsace—launches Operation Nordwind, whose aim is to recapture Strasbourg. While Eisenhower is wanting to pull back his forward troops in Alsace, de Gaulle is urging General de Lattre de Tassigny to defend the positions already taken. Tension rises between the French and American commands. Churchill finally intervenes to resolve the crisis and de Lattre sets up the Strasbourg defensive system over a 248 km-long front. While awaiting the arrival of the 3rd DIA (Algerian Infantry Division), four mobile gendarmerie squadrons and members of the FFI (French Forces of the Interior) conduct operations to delay the arrival of the panzers heading towards Strasbourg. To the south, the 1st DMI (Motorised Infantry Division) is engaged in ferocious combat and loses the 24th Infantry Batallion (BM 24), which is wiped out at Obenheim during Operation Sonnenwende. Their sacrifice is not in vain, however, as on 13 January, the defeated enemy withdraws its best divisions which are sent to face the Soviet offensive in the East.

Leclerc warmly congratulates the 1st DMI in a message sent to General Garbay: “Well done, old boy!” In the end, the 1st Free French Division (DFL – 1re Division Française Libre) is probably responsible for saving Strasbourg after the 2nd Armoured Division had taken it. “I hope that it wasn't at too high a price. Congratulate everybody on our behalf and don't hesitate to make the truth known”. The solidarity of the Free French comes into play between Garbay and Leclerc. This allusion to the responsibilities of the command staff and General de Lattre in the loss of BM 24 is another illustration of the tensions between the Free French on the one hand and the Army of Africa on the other. After the liberation of Paris, the taking of Strasbourg by the 2nd Armoured Division confirms the Free French as the elite of the French Army. But means somewhat hastily forgetting the role played by the Army of Africa and its generals— Juin and de Lattre—in favour of the myth of an armed nation personified by the Resistance and the two Free French divisions, which persists to this day.

Pierre Dufour

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