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When the Odds Were Even: The Vosges Mountains Campaign, October 1944-January 1945

When the Odds Were Even: The Vosges Mountains Campaign, October 1944-January 1945

by Keith E. Bonn

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In three months of savage fighting, the U.S. Seventh Army did what no army in the history of modern warfare had ever done before–conquer an enemy defending the Vosges Mountains.

With the toughest terrain on the Western Front, the Vosges mountain range was seemingly an impregnable fortress, manned by German troops determined to hold the last barrier


In three months of savage fighting, the U.S. Seventh Army did what no army in the history of modern warfare had ever done before–conquer an enemy defending the Vosges Mountains.

With the toughest terrain on the Western Front, the Vosges mountain range was seemingly an impregnable fortress, manned by German troops determined to hold the last barrier between the Allies and the Rhine. Yet despite nearly constant rain, snow, ice, and mud, soldiers of the U.S. Seventh Army tore through thousands of pillboxes, acres of barbed wire, hundreds of roadblocks, and miles of other enemy obstacles, ripping the tenacious German defenders out of their fortifications in fierce fighting–and then held on to their gains by crushing Operation Nordwind, the German offensive launched in a hail of steel at an hour before midnight on the last New Year’s Eve of the war.

Keith Bonn’s fascinating study of this little-known World War II campaign offers a rare opportunity to compare German and American fighting formations in a situation where both sides were fairly evenly matched in numbers of troops, weapons, supplies, and support. This gripping battle-by-battle account shatters the myth that German formations were, division for division, superior to their American counterparts.

From the Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“An excellent and long-overdue account of one of World War II’s forgotten campaigns.”
–Carlo D’Este, author of Patton: A Genius for War

From the Paperback edition.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.55(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.66(d)

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The Battleground

In the wooded mountain terrain, the formation of a contiguous front was not possible. The individual strongpoints were far apart. The intervening land could only be covered through flanking fire of heavy weapons and artillery. The fighting always consisted of small battles in the underbrush, man on man. The American infantryman, accustomed to the protection of superior airpower and artillery, and used to advancing behind tanks, suddenly found themselves robbed of their most important helpers. The persistent bad weather hindered their air force, and the terrain limited the mobility of their armor to a significant degree. Here, the individual soldier mattered the most. For the German soldier, theirs was the courage of despair that gave rise to the utmost resistance: after many years of combat all over Europe, his back was to the wall of the homeland. On their side, the Americans believed that the banner of victory was already half-fastened to their colors and that it would only take one last energetic exertion for them to victoriously end the war. So both sides fought with unbelievable bitterness and severity.
Gerhard Graser, veteran and chronicler of the 198th Infantry Division, writing about combat in the Vosges Mountains in 1944–45

The Vosges Mountains have always been a refuge and a great defensive bastion. They rise dramatically from the Rhine Valley near Belfort to peaks of four thousand feet or more. Running parallel to the Rhine along the broad, flat Alsatian Plain for about ninety miles, they become even more rugged as they descend to their northern terminus near the Lauter River. Generally, geomorphologists divide the thirty-mile-wide range into two parts: the High Vosges, to the south, made up mainly of granite and gneiss, and the Low Vosges (which many Germans call the Hardt), composed mainly of sedimentary rock such as red sandstone. The High Vosges were formed by titanic terrestrial upheavals during the Paleozoic era, but were somewhat smoothed by glaciers later on; thus, their slopes are somewhat even and they allow easy east-west crossings at a few passes. The Low Vosges to the north of the Saverne Gap were never affected by the vast, abrading seas of ice that planed the higher formations to the south. Thus, although these more northerly mountains do not reach elevations much in excess of three thousand feet, they afford even fewer places to cross due to their steeper, more dramatic crescendos and diminuendos in relief.

During the dim prehistory of Alsace, several hundred years before Christ, a still-unidentified Celtic people inhabiting the Vosges attempted to supplement their mountain fastness with the construction of a ten-kilometer-long, three-meter-high wall around a mountain peak (the modern Fliehburg) near contemporary Obernai. Known as the Heidenmauer (Heathen Wall), due to its pre-Christian origins on the site of the shrine of Saint Odilia, patroness of Alsace, it represents one of the earliest known fortification systems in the Vosges.

In the first century before Christ, the frightened Sequanians, Aeduans, and other Celtic tribes retreated to the craggy protection of “Mons Vosegus” when Ariovistus and his Suevi (Swabians) crossed the Rhine and threatened to subjugate them and occupy their territory. When Caesar marched northeastward to Alsace from southern Gaul, he and his proud legions successfully ejected the Germans from the area by defeating them in battle near Vesontio (modern Besançon). Fortunately for the Romans and their Gallic allies, Ariovistus chose to retreat northeastward across the Alsatian Plain toward the area that is today Sélestat in an attempt to link up with reinforcements; had he and his Germans withdrawn to the Vosges, Caesar may never have crossed the Rhine, however briefly.

After later defeating the Belgae in northern Gaul and consolidating Roman control of the entire area, the Romans built numerous roads, including several through the greater and lesser Vosges passes.Indeed, the Vosges became militarily significant again before the end of the Roman period in the fifth century, as they provided a refuge for Alsatians threatened by the successive invasions of Burgundians and Huns. By the time the tribesmen returned to the valleys and plains from the safety of the highlands, Roman rule had been swept away and the chaos that was the early Middle Ages in Europe descended.

During the medieval era, the Vosges became an oft- contested barrier between empires. By the Treaty of Verdun in 843, the heirs of the ruler of the First Reich, Charlemagne, or Karl the Great, divided up the Frankish Empire. The Vosges and all of Alsace fell within the sphere of Lothair, whose name was given to his “Middle Kingdom” between the realms of his victorious brothers, Charles the Bold and Louis the German. As with so many “middle” lands throughout history, Lotharingia (from which the modern name “Lorraine” is derived) became a battleground for the armies of subsequent disputing rulers. Although the Vosges region was never crossed by force of arms during this period, it and all of Alsace eventually (by 925) became a part of the German duchy of Swabia, and as such was absorbed by the Holy Roman Empire.

Far from the home of the Houses of Hohenstaufen and Hapsburg, Alsace remained very much a distant border region to these great and powerful rulers. It is not surprising, therefore, that Alsace should have been governed through an extremely complicated system of vassalage that became so confusing even to the nobles of the time that armed bickering became inevitable. Indeed, the history of Alsace during the later Middle Ages is a troubled one, marked by frequent conflicts between various landed overlords, the holders of minor fiefs, and the guildsmen of the ten free cities of the region. Suffice it to say, however, that no outsider ever conquered Alsace, much less crossed the Vosges by force during this period. Even Charles the Bold purchased, rather than conquered, Alsace to bring on the brief period of Burgundian domination in the late fifteenth century.

The Peasants’ War swept through Alsace from southwest Germany in 1524–25, adding more pages to the growing chronicle of armed conflict in the Vosges. The craggy, compartmented nature of the area gave rise to a fascinating mosaic of Calvinist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic pockets, often separated by only a ridge or a valley.8 The region remained a bloody but indecisive battleground for the forces of religious reaction and reform, of French aspiration, and of Hapsburg domination as the Thirty Years’ War brought the Vosges and the rest of western Europe into the early modern age.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the peaks of the southern portion of the range became crowned by numerous fortresses, which blocked the passes from east to west. To the north, more castles appeared, and the likes of the Fleckenstein (near modern Lembach) and the Falkenstein (near modern Philippsbourg) were built, preventing easy transit between France and the lands of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Illustrative of the Vosges Mountains’ military history of this period were the fortunes of the château that came to be known as Haut-Koenigsbourg. Sitting atop the Staufenberg at an elevation of 2,484 feet, the château looked out over the vast, flat Alsatian Plain to the east toward the Black Forest. Erected upon the ruins of walls originally built by the Romans to protect the approaches to a high pass in the southern Vosges (today called the valley of Ste. Marie-aux-Mines), the fort had a long and complicated history between the time of its construction as a medieval military edifice in the twelfth century and its destruction in 1633.

Mirroring the stormy history of Alsace, the château passed from the ownership of the House of Hohenstaufen to the House of Lorraine, and eventually from the House of Wurttemberg to the Hapsburgs. It served at various times as a fortress-residence of vassals of the Dukes of Lorraine and the Bishops of Strasbourg, as a haven of the robber barons who preyed on traffic through the nearby pass, and as a bastion of the Holy Roman Empire. In fact, its garrison was under the command of an Imperial officer, Capt. Philippe de Lichtenau, when it was besieged in May 1633 during the “Swedish” phase of the Thirty Years’ War.

The stubborn and valiant de Lichtenau managed to hold out for more than three months within the battered redans of the château, refusing all of the dire surrender ultimata of the attacking Swedes of the Hubalt Regiment. Finally, out of food and ammunition, with troops of the garrison mutinously evaporating into the night, de Lichtenau surrendered and the structure was sacked and burned by the Swedes. The siege marked the height of Protestant venture into Alsace, however, and no further advance through the Vosges was made from Haut-Koenigsbourg.

The Vosges continued to prove impenetrable in the early modern era. When Alsace officially became a part of France under the terms of the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, Vauban, Louis XIV’s chief military engineer, went to work improving the damaged and increasingly obsolete defenses of this new border region. The massive red sandstone citadel originally constructed according to his plans at Bitche, in the Low Vosges, for example, was again strengthened with typi- cal bastioned outworks in 1714. Nearly eight decades later, in the autumn of 1793, it was attacked by Prussians under the Duke of Brunswick, but it never fell.

Indeed, during the first war of the modern era to be fought in Alsace, the 1870–71 Franco-German War, the attacking Germans wisely chose to make their main effort away from the barrier of the Vosges. Attacking from the Palatinate, the Germans drove in the direction of Metz, in Lorraine, and on toward Sedan with two field armies, while a third army, under the crown prince of Prussia, pinned down mobilizing French troops in Alsace.

Although the Germans gained a significant tactical victory over the French at Woerth and Elsasshausen, towns in the eastern foothills of the Low Vosges, they never had to face much in the way of serious opposition in the mountains and hills themselves; Marshal MacMahon withdrew his recently defeated troops well beyond them through the Sa-verne Gap to the east in an attempt to link up with the French armies massing around Metz. The only real resistance met by the German Third Army while pursuing the French to Lorraine was offered by the garrisons in a series of fortresses that blocked the east-west roads in the Low Vosges. Interestingly, the Prussian crown prince did leave Bavarian troops behind to invest the French garrison of about a thousand in the 156-year-old citadel at Bitche, but they never succeeded in capturing the place. The proud tower was not surrendered until after the general armistice several months later.

Alsace and Lorraine were, of course, ceded to the Germans after 1871, becoming known as the Reichsland. Recognizing the new military realities of this dramatic territorial alteration, the French during the interbellum years conducted a massive buildup of their aging defensive fortifications in the Champagne region. Taking advantage of both the successive series of escarpments and the rivers (Meuse, Moselle, and Meurthe) that run north-south in this area, the French created a formidable set of man-made barriers that protected the remainder of their homeland from further German conquest. To avoid what surely would have turned into a pointless slugging match, the German General Staff decided upon a holding action along the eminently defensible Vosges and a vigorous main attack through neutral Belgium and Luxembourg—what became known, somewhat inaccurately, as the Schlieffen Plan.

Because this plan called for a complete change of combat venue from that of 1870–71, the Vosges were spared much bloodshed in World War I. The French First Army attacked in the southern High Vosges across the crest of the range toward Guebwiller and Thann during the opening days of the conflict, and succeeded in seizing Mulhouse on the Alsatian Plain. The German Seventh Army attacked toward Épinal through the Saverne Gap, but never got far beyond the Meurthe. The relatively static warfare that characterized the conflict in the rest of France also occurred in the Vosges. Some of the fortifications in the Parroy Forest and along the northeast side of the Meurthe, created after the stabilization of the lines in the autumn of 1914, were so sturdy that they were used by the Germans in 1944. Although fighting certainly took place in the Vosges region, and Mulhouse was eventually recaptured by the Germans, neither side tried seriously to force the Vosges passes during the course of the conflict.

From the Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

A master parachutist and ranger, Keith E. Bonn (1956—2005) served in various airborne, infantry, and light infantry command and staff assignments in the continental United States and Korea, as well as a joint assignment in Central America. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, he earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago. Attributing his passion for the military to his heritage as the son, grandson, and great-grandson of NCOs, Bonn was the author of several books on professional military topics. After retiring from the military, he founded The Aberjona Press, a small publishing company specializing in World War II historical literature, where he was editor-in-chief. Warrior, scholar, loving husband, proud father, and dear friend, he will be terribly missed.

From the Paperback edition.

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