The 103rd (Cactus) Division and the 36th (Texas) Division fight for Selestat, December 1 to December 12, 1944

American Operation Map
American Operation Map

Selestat, the junction of several important roads including the main Strasbourg – Colmar highway, lay within American grasp. The tactical mission was to cut the German supply lines to their 19th Army in the Colmar Pocket, South of Strasbourg. In order to do so, Selestat was a key subject which had to be taken. An attack was launched almost immediately with four Battalions converging on the town from North, East and South. The plan was to secure the bridges on December 1 and attack Selestat on December 2, 1944, and secure a phase-line in the city. German artillery positions in the Schlunck and Gartfeld area in Selestat, shelled Dambach, which have been taken by the 409th Infantry Regiment on November 30, several times during the day.

 

Two Battalions of the 409th Infantry, 103rd Division, moved South-East from Dambach-la-Ville on December 1st, through the town of Scherwiller, with the objective of clearing the northern half of the town. (Regarding to Selestat residents, around 11.00 p.m., US patrols advanced along the Giessen River up to the first houses, while another US patrol made it up to the Giessen River Bridge in the Steinweg area, which will be blown up by German Engineers on December 2. Both patrols went back after the recon mission).

US patrol East of Selestat
US patrol East of Selestat

The Second Battalion, 143rd Infantry, 36th Division, still attached to the 142nd Infantry, 36th Division, advanced directly East from Chatenois, and the Third Battalion, 142nd Infantry, from Chatenois circled South through Kintzheim, then East to attack Selestat from the South.

 

The Second Battalion, 143rd Infantry fought against stiff resistance to enter the western edge of Selestat to stop short of the railroad yard for the night. The two Battalions of the 409th Infantry stopped at dark about half way between Scherwiller and Selestat, then before dawn the following morning, December 2, moved into the northern suburbs of Selestat.

During the night, Third Battalion, 142nd Infantry, positions received a heavy shelling, but also captured a German patrol of six men near Neubruch. At 06.30, December 2, with Company “I” and Company “K” leading, the Battalion moved off for Selestat. Flooding in the plain along the Ill River, which runs parallel to the main road, narrowed the Third Battalion sector of advance North to the right or East of the road.

The Selestat Water Tower - Then and Now
The Selestat Water Tower - Then and Now
German Roadblock in the Gartfeld area
German Roadblock in the Gartfeld area

Enemy contact was soon established with Germans in the town and enemy artillery tried to break up the attack. A German 88 gun and road block near a road junction offered strong resistance. The 88 knocked out a tank second in column. But when that happened, the leading tank rushed the block, firing, and routed off the enemy crew. Men from “I” Company completed the assault and sized the block. From then on in the clearing of the Third Battalion’s assigned portion of Selestat, was hampered only by intense enemy sniper fire. This area included all to the East of the main Northeast – Southwest road to the circle, and all South of the lateral street East from the circle. By nightfall, December 2, this area had been cleared to a portion in the Southeast corner, where German activity still flared in a closely-knitted group of buildings.

The Roadblock site today - June 2013
The Roadblock site today - June 2013

At 16.00, an enemy column of approximately 150 soldiers, apparently sent to reinforce the enemy garrison, was sighted marching into Selestat on the road to the Southeast. This was thoroughly dispersed by prompt artillery fire.

 

In the action of December 2, the Second Battalion, 142rd Infantry, striking at Selestat from the West, crossed the railroad under heavy enemy fire and succeeded in driving the enemy from its assigned sector. The 409th infantry on the North during the day did not penetrate the line of the old city wall, which forms a semi-circle on that end of Selestat.

The Ill Bridge at the southern end of the town in 1944
The Ill Bridge at the southern end of the town in 1944

On the following day, December 3, “K” Company led the Battalion in clearing the Southeast corner and in reaching the bridge over the Ill River, which the Germans had blown. A strong exchange of fire raged from houses on both sides of the Ill River and Company “K” was prevented from securing the site. On the North, contact with the 409th Infantry was not established.

 

With the Third Battalion, 142nd Infantry, controlling the southeastern part of Selestat and the 409th Infantry still engaged in clearing the North section, the Second Battalion, 143rd Infantry, was withdrawn from the West part of the city during the morning of December 4, in order to rejoin the 143rd Infantry in the vicinity of Ribeauville.

The same place in June 2013
The same place in June 2013

An attempt by a reinforced Platoon of “L” Company to take a road junction on December 4, met with strong opposition, and in the face of heavy mortar and machine gun fire, the force was ordered to be pulled back to Selestat.

 

Patrols from the 409th Infantry contacted the Third Battalion, 142nd Infantry, on December 4. However, no sizeable force was seen and it was not definitely established that the North section of Selestat was cleared! A relief of the 409th Infantry strongpoints was ordered and carried out during the night of 4 – 5 December, Platoons taking over Company positions on the Northwest and Northeast of the city.

Selestat, Rue du President Poincare 1944. Check out the knocked out M4 Sherman on the left
Selestat, Rue du President Poincare 1944. Check out the knocked out M4 Sherman on the left

A Company of twelve light tanks of “D” Company, 753rd Tank Battalion was attached to the Third Battalion and assembled in Selestat during the night. In the morning, December 5, The First Battalion, which had been in reserve, moved into the South portion of the city to assume responsibility for this sector and to reinforce the Third Battalion defense. Only scattered German self-propelled fire interfered with the relieving operation. After taking over the 409th Infantry positions on the North, the Third Battalion conducted a thorough search of the buildings in the heart of Selestat.

This is approx. the place where the surprise crossing took place
This is approx. the place where the surprise crossing took place

On the night of 5 -6 December, at the Southeast corner of Selestat, the Germans hotly contested any attempt to cross the Ill River by the blown bridge. Before dawn of 6 December, the Third Platoon of “C” Company made a skillful reconnaissance, carefully planning the attack. Using one leaky shell riddled rubber boat and a three-man shuttle system (the last three had to swim as the boat sunk), 2nd Lieutenant Clarence F. Bradberry, the leading officer, effected a surprise crossing about 500 yards to the South of the bridge site. A hard fight followed. A second Platoon was sent in to help. Finally, after some delay, a footbridge was installed and before noon a firm bridgehead was secured and the enemy driven from the houses in that area. Still any further advance was limited to the single road cut by a second bridge 1000 yards farther.

 

Also during the night of 5 – 6 December, a Battalion of the 141st Infantry, attached to the 142nd Infantry, relieved the Third Battalion in the North sector of Selestat. The Third Battalion, 142nd Infantry, then occupied Orschwiller, St. Hippolyte and Rodern in reserve assembly areas.

Selestat 1944 after the Battle
Selestat 1944 after the Battle

Preparations were made during 6 December to push out to the Southeast from Selestat bridgehead. The Second Battalion was alerted for possible movement to follow through, if the bridge could be seized. A Platoon of “C” Company attempted to employ similar tactics of the night before in attacking this bridge site after dark. But the Germans were found to be using and underground shelter as a fortified position at the crossing and were extremely alert along the length of the stream. A place for crossing could not be found.

 

Lt. Col. James L. Minor, commander of the First Battalion of the 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th “Texas” Division, suggested a second try before daylight with a fresh Platoon of “A” Company and rubber boats. The rubber boats were rushed up from Chatenois in time, but the “A” Company Platoon was prevented from making a crossing by a heavy enemy shelling on the Platoon’s approach.

After this event, operations in this sector became defensive in character. A similar situation existed North of Selestat and blocked the advance of the French 2nd Armored Division which tied in on the Regiment’s left.

The story of Zack Sigler, Jack Durrance and Jim Price, 409th Infantry Regiment, 103rd Infantry Division

Jack Durrance - passed away on April 15, 2013
Jack Durrance - passed away on April 15, 2013

Regarding to veteran Jack Durrance who fought in “D” Company, 1st Battalion, 409th Infantry Regiment during the Battle of Selestat, on December 2, 1944, only fifteen men out of about one hundred and fifty-eight from Company “B” escaped capture or death that day, and only about six or seven from the First Platoon of Company “D”. The loss of these men happened within a very few hours in the early morning of December 2, 1944.

The Giessen River
The Giessen River

The Giessen River, (more of a small stream then a river), that ran along the northern border of Selestat came to play a “life and death” role for many of us that night. Company “C” along with Jack Durrance and his platoon were assigned to occupy houses in Selestat that did not require them to wade across the river that night. This perhaps saved their lives. Unfortunately, Company “B” and the First Platoon of Company “D” were ordered by Lt. Colonel Teal Therrell, commander of the First Battalion, to cross the river. They occupied the first six houses across the river, using up their bazooka ammunition to capture them.

The Giessen Bridge today 2013
The Giessen Bridge today 2013

German infantry supported by 6 tanks counter-attacked them about 3.30 a.m. There was no more ammunition left for the bazookas, which was their only weapon designated to defend against tanks. They were defenseless. The leading Tank went past the houses only to blow the bridge that had been vacated (regarding to the German after action report for the action on December 12, 1944, this bridge was only blown up on December 12 by German Combat Engineers!). The American escape route was gone and now the tanks focused on the machine guns in the houses.

This is the House Zack Sigler and his comrades were in during the Battle against German Tanks
This is the House Zack Sigler and his comrades were in during the Battle against German Tanks

As the cannons from the tanks leveled the houses occupied by American troops, the buildings became death traps. Three rounds were fired into the house they occupied. The first two rounds destroyed their machine-gun, instantly killed Sergeant Vernon Swanson and seriously wounded Jim Price and Zack Sigler and opened a large hole, and the third round caused parts of the house to collapse on those left inside. After the tank fire, Privates Jeff Jennings, Les Klie, Robert Peterson, Robert Kokensparger, Ted Jenkins and Donald McGregor went out of the house through a rear window and the hole. Unfortunately, McGregor and Jenkins, the last two men to climb out, found German soldiers waiting for them and were captured. Those ahead of McGregor and Jenkins escaped to temporary safety back across the river.

This is the Giessen Riverbank where Zack Sigler died of his wounds
This is the Giessen Riverbank where Zack Sigler died of his wounds

Though Zack was hit by shrapnel that broke his right femur, he managed to pull down the curtains that were now aflame. He also ordered Jim and Doug Merrill (not injured by the blast), to hide their hand grenades and to get rid of any German war booty that they had retrieved. It was apparent that they would become POW’s.

 

This is when Doug Merrill took over. He carried Jim Price to the basement and the three men played dead, when German infantrymen entered to inspect the house, they assumed the worst and left but remained outside the house for some time. At daybreak, assumed to be only 3 or 4 hours later, the three men headed for the river and safety. Doug carried Jim and Zack hobbled as best he could. Unfortunately, Zack collapsed at the Giessen river bank and died from blood loss or shock. Jim Price was then taken to the rear for medical treatment where his leg had to be removed, and Doug Merrill rejoined the remnants of Company “D”. Doug Merrill showed unusual courage in remaining with his wounded friends, Jim Price and Zack Sigler. The Germans captured the remaining men in this First Platoon of Company “D”.

Zack's final resting place at the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold, France (photo courtesy Zack Sigler)
Zack's final resting place at the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold, France (photo courtesy Zack Sigler)

The German Attack on December 12, 1944

The First Battalion, 142nd Infantry, 36th (Texas) Division, took over the defense of Selestat entirely on 8 December, relieving the 141st Infantry Battalion on the North of the town. Strongpoints were established on broad front.

 

It was somewhat of a surprise when the Germans launched a major attack on the morning of December 12, 1944.

The Germans prepare the attack on Selestat

German Assault on Selestat Dec. 12, 1944
German Assault on Selestat Dec. 12, 1944

On the same date as the German counter attack, known as “Operation Habicht” (Operation Hawk) was launched, Selestat was attacked too. The assault troops for this task were units of the 198th Infantry Division, with additional outfits attached. The plan was to annihilate the enemy from Selestat (Schlettstadt) and south of Ribeauville. With a successful assault, the SS-Begleit-Battalion was able to bypass east of Mittelwihr and Beblenheim and push north. The 198th Infantry Division’s troops had the following assault objectives:

Grenadier Rgt. 736:    with both Battalions on point, the big crossroad North of the town center of Selestat had to be taken, as well as the big signposted road junction to the East of the big crossroad, attacking from behind. This would open the East-West road in the northern part of Selestat. The attached Company of the Pionier-Battalion 708 (Combat Engineers) has to be split up in assault detachments and put also into action. After the first objectives are accomplished, the Regiment secures to the South of this road on the expanded frontline in direction to the town center. With the support of the Panzerbrigade 106 FHH (Feldherrenhalle) the Regiment clears the town.

 

Grenadier Rgt. 305:      attacks behind the right flank of Grenadier Rgt. 736, push’s through the western part of Selestat, regardless of the fighting Grenadiers of the 735th Regiment, and attacks Chatenois from there. After Chatenois has been taken, the hills on the west of the town had to be taken as well and the line Muehlbach north of Chatenois – south end Val de Ville – western slope le Rothenberg had to be hold.
After this line has been secured, the attached Platoon of Pionier-Battalion 235 has to be pulled out and returns to the Pionier-Battalion 235 in the northern sector of Selestat.

 

Grenadier Rgt. 308:      stretch’s the HKL (Hauptkampflinie or Main Line of Resistance) with its first Company, after Grenadier Rgt. 305 attacked, to the West along the railway track up to the road to Strassbourg and secures the flank and the rear of the attacking units.

 

I./Grenadier Rgt. 760:    attacks behind the Company of Grenadier Rgt. 308, taking the area of the Giessen river, from the road to Strassbourg up to the northern area of Chatenois and secures to the North.

 

Pz. Brigade 106 FHH:    after Grenadier Rgt. 736 opened and secured the main East – West road, Panzerbrigade 106 FHH has to push in the northern part of the town until the railway track. From there, along the railway line to the southern town entrance and depending on the railway crossing possibilities, attack Chatenois or Kintzheim. After one of the two towns have been taken, parts of Panzerbrigade 106 FHH attacks Hoh-Koenigsburg and the main part merge with Stossgruppe South and attacks in direction Bergheim.

La Maison Avian - Bld. Thiers in Selestat 1944
La Maison Avian - Bld. Thiers in Selestat 1944

At about 06.30, December 12, 1944, Selestat, which the 1st Battalion, 142nd Infantry, under Lt. Col. James L. Minor was defending, received a heavy enemy artillery bombardment. Abeline and Brownwood Companies thinly spread along the outskirts of Selestat and Colemann Company in reserve resting from its crossing of the Ill River; the 1st Battalion awoke to find itself the recipient of a terrific artillery shelling. When the barrage finally lifted things began to happen.

 

At dawn a full-scale enemy attack of 1’000 enemy soldiers infiltrated in strength in the Viehweg area and drove deep into the northwest corner of the city surrounding several of the defending strongpoints. German troops who had infiltrated Brownwood’s lines during the night, emerged from houses, cellars and dugouts in Brownwood’s midst. Still more started advancing across the open fields directly to the Battalion’s front. Fierce fighting took place, but finally the Battalion’s outposts were driven in, and elements of Brownwood isolated. The friendly unit holding a post on the North on the immediate left of the 142nd Infantry withdrew after seeing the strength of the enemy, leaving a large gap through which the Germans poured their forces. This was not known until early noon and therefore presented a grave threat to Chatenois and Scherwiler and, of even more concern, the 132nd Field Artillery Battalion, in position just to the rear of Selestat, was in danger of being overrun.

 

By 12.00 hours, the Germans controlled the factory area on the north flank as well as a half-mile stretch of houses along the first North-South Street.

The German situation until 11.30 a.m.

This is in the Gartfeld area of Selestat 1944
This is in the Gartfeld area of Selestat 1944

06.30, the assault is launched.

 

Around 07.00, the right flank of Grenadier Regiment 305 reached the most northern houses (at the railway line) of the North – South road and brings in seven prisoners.

 

07.15, Grenadier Regiment 305 meets stiff American resistance in the Viehweg area- The MLR (Main Line of Resistance) is the North – South road, all occupied houses are like fortresses, left flank of Grenadier Regiment 736 secures the southern crossroad.

 

07.45, Grenadier Regiment 305 got stuck 100 meters in front of the house row in the Viehweg area, due to heavy American defense fire. After an American counter attack, Grenadier Regiment 736 lost the southern crossroad again and is now in Northeastern position of it.

This the road from Muttersholtz - view to Selestat
This the road from Muttersholtz - view to Selestat

08.30, Nashorn Tank Destroyers* are brought into action and attack from the East, to break up the heavy defense around the cross road, supported by Grenadier Regiment 736 which attacks from the North on the same time. In addition, small raiding detachments attacking from the West against the signposted road junction. The attack fails!

 

Around 10.00, radio messages say, that the right Battalion, Grenadier Regiment 736 went too far to the right and is now mixed with outfits of Grenadier Regiment 305.

 

10.00, 1./ Pionier-Battalion 235 which was attacking together with Grenadier Regiment 305, blows off the bridge over the Giessen river at the North entrance of Selestat, and set positions left and right of the road.

 

11.00, German artillery barrage against the signposted road junction and another attack by Grenadier Regiment 736 with supporting Nashorn Tank Destroyers* against this objective. The assault fails again and the German casualties are high!

The Nashorn Tank Destroyer (courtesy Bundesarchiv)
The Nashorn Tank Destroyer (courtesy Bundesarchiv)
The ruins of the former factory
The ruins of the former factory

To counter this situation, I Company was attached to the First Battalion and trucked to Selestat from Orschwiller arriving about 11.00 a.m. (this traffic is also mentioned in the German After Action Report at around 11.30). The reminder of the Third Battalion was then ordered to Chatenois to block any penetration along the river between Scherwiller and Chatenois.

 

In Selestat, two light tanks drove through the besieged Company “B” Platoon and thereby lent additional effective Machine gun support. By noon two medium tanks had arrived. These in support of a reserve Company “C” Platoon began to work North of the road junction, systematically clearing the enemy from each house. At about the same time, a force consisting of another Platoon of “C” Company and a Platoon of “I” Company engaged the Germans in the Northwest corner at the factory.

The German situation from 12.00 a.m.

A dead German Grenadier lies behind his MG42
A dead German Grenadier lies behind his MG42

12.00, Another German artillery barrage against the signposted road junction, however, strong American mortar, antitank and tank fire prevent any advantage of the artillery shelling.

 

12.35, American counter attack was repulsed.

 

14.30, in a another assault, two Sturmgeschuetze (Assault Guns) together with a Company of First Battalion, Grenadier Regiment 760 (arrived only at 11.30) get to the houses east of the signposted road junction, however roadblocks with mines prevent any further advance. The signposted road junction itself has not been taken. Several American counter attacks have been repulsed. Five American prisoners including one officer.

 

15.30, advanced observer say, that Second Battalion, Grenadier Regiment 305, after deadly house to house fighting got into the factory area around noon. One American counter attack supported by 2 tanks repulsed, one US tank knocked out and made immobilized. After reports of the commanding officers, some units are mixed up due to the wild and heavy fight. Casualty rate is very high, especially through US sniper fire. Running traffic through heavy fire almost impossible.

German POW's walk through Selestat
German POW's walk through Selestat

16.00, US tanks and trucks with infantry can be seen coming from Ebersheim to Selestat.

 

Around 16.00, reports have it that after heavy US fire our infantry was pushed back of the Viehweg area to the East and to the Northeast of the signposted road junction.

 

Hard fighting lasted all afternoon within the factory area as the Germans used the cover of walls, machinery, etc. in defense and stubbornly had to be pried out. The Company “C” Platoon took a position on the right of the factory from which it delivered strong fire on the Germans attempting to make an exit from the factory under pressure of the “I” Company Platoon.

 

16.20, the factory was finally re-taken by ten US tanks and supporting US infantry. Own Battalion fell back to the houses on the East of the factory and set up defense position.

 

During late afternoon a clean-up of the enemy was being made in this fashion as they were rooted out of the houses which they had taken earlier in the day.

House of Henri Sengler Rue du Schlunck Selestat 1944 - Then and Now
House of Henri Sengler Rue du Schlunck Selestat 1944 - Then and Now

21.00, Sturmgeschuetze (Assault Guns) ordered back from positions at the signposted road junction, Second Battalion, Grenadier Regiment 305 (30 to 40) until 16.00 fully cut-off and made it back to the own lines with only small casualties.

 

21.05, the Corps orders to establish the actual line and set defense positions.

 

Regarding to the German After Action Report of December 15, 1944, the reasons for the failure were the following:

 

1. The area of the attack was almost fully flooded and the main assault had to be carried out only on the road and the railway tracks and was hit by heavy US mortar and artillery fire.

 

2. Because a deserter, told the upcoming assault plan to the American, the moment of surprise was lost.

 

3. The houses at the outskirts of the town and used as the MLR, very heavily fortified by the Americans as well as many snipers caused havoc. Own assault had to be over open territory with no cover at all-

 

4. A shortage of officers. The Division lost 72 officer from November 20 to December 10, 1944.

 

5. NCO’s with combat experience almost inexistence. The “old breed”, the core of the leaders stayed at the Belfort Gap.

 

6. The attack was carried out by mostly inexperienced troops with almost no combat or basic training, mostly men from the Luftwaffe who saw combat for the first time.

 

7. The preparation time of the attack was too short. Considering the poor training of the NCO’s and the troops, the lack of officers as well as the limited communication tools and due to the strangeness of the terrain for the attacking troops, a careful reconnaissance mission would have been necessary.

 

*(The Nashorn Tank destroyers were attached to the Panzerbrigade 106 FHH and belonged to 1st Company, schwere Panzerjäger-Kompanie 93 (Oberleutnant Komorek), an independently operating outfit, which originally was equipped with 12 Nashorn Tank Destroyers at the end of November 1944.

On February 17, 1945, order came, that schwere Panzerjäger-Kompanie 93 with its remaining 10 Nashorns, has to be integrated into the Panzerbrigade 106 FHH and being transferred to the operation area of Heeresgruppe B to Bruehl near Cologne, Germany)

From the involved American Company’s point of view

Allied troops outside Selestat
Allied troops outside Selestat

Headquarters Company’s Situation

 

Even the boys in the Battalion Headquarters Company were in the thick of the scrap, the Antitank Platoon, using two of their 57mm guns, set up a road block to protect B Company’s flank. During the night, the German’s infiltrated the Platoon’s position and the dawn disclosed the fact that they were completely surrounded! The Antitank boys then started to work on the Germans with M1’s instead of their 57’s. From 07.20 on the 12th December until dark that night, the Platoon slugged it out. When dark came, the AT boys had driven the enemy from around their positions, and had retaken all the ground which they had lost. Pvt. Edward L. Smith’s action and deeds later brought him the DSC for the day’s work.

 

“A” Company’s Situation

 

The 1st Platoon was ordered to attack and moved out with the weapons platoon attached. The 2nd and 3rd Platoon were in reserve. The 1st Platoon with Machinegun section plus the TD’s met fierce fighting and stiff enemy resistance, however they took houses about three or four hundred yards ahead of “A” Company’s positions. The Platoon was ordered to withdraw and take up a defensive position on the edge of the town connecting with 2nd Platoon.

The next morning, the 1st Platoon retook the houses, capturing a number of Germans and killing and wounding several more. During the entire maneuver, the light Machinegun section was attached to the 1st Platoon and was used often with leading the squad, killing many of the enemy on the way. At the same time, the TD’s knocked down a few houses which were taken immediately. The 2nd Platoon was on the right flank and was continuously sending patrols to the fort and out in front of the 1st Platoon. The 3rd Platoon, held in reserve, was often used for patrols. During the big counter-attack, all Platoons held their ground and the Mortar section, using three mortars, fired so many rounds that it had to replace the barrels.

US Tanks in the Streets of Selestat
US Tanks in the Streets of Selestat

“B” Company’s Situation

 

At 06.00 the attack began with a prelude of heavy artillery. It continued for about an hour, and when it was over, our communication system was completely out of order. The Platoons were cut off from one another, and from the Company CP when the attack started in force.

Several outpost houses of Sgt. Berbrich’s squad were captured, as German Panther tanks and Grenadiers began the assault. There were about a thousand German’s and the Americans were but a company on the point, so they were able to infiltrate “B” Company’s positions and cut everyone off. Then “B” Company received help from the reserve Company, Colemann, and parts of Sgt. Freeman’s 2nd Platoon. They counterattacked and recaptured some of the men, including Sgt. Jones, Pulley, Pfc. Regenbogen, Gooley and a few others. After being prisoners for a few hours, the released men took up the fight again. Capt. Dewey Mann was directing Tank fire, artillery was falling, Sgt. Cross’s weapon Platoon was inflicting heavy casualties with its mortars and Sgt Broach’s Machine guns, and the enemy began to slow down.

 

“C” Company’s Situation

 

So efficiently were the Germans maneuvers carried out, and so well informed were they about the positions of the American troops in the town by civilian sympathizers, that outside of a little more noise than usual, the rest of the Battalion deployed in other sections of Selestat were unaware of the full situation until about 12.00. At that time, Lt. Col. James Minor, issued the order to move out and take back lost ground.

 

Two avenues of approach led to the German held section of town. Down one went Coleman’s Company’s third Platoon, led by 2nd Lt. Clarence F. Bradberry. The Third had the mission of attacking up the main highway leading out of town in the vicinity of the factory area, in an effort to free one of Brownwoods outposts still believed holding out. Advancing down the right side of the road, the Third had just cleared four houses and crossed the road toward a group of barracks built to house the workers of the factory, when they were stopped by an enemy outpost situated on a 20 foot bank directly to the front.

 

Every possible means was used to knock out the emplacement. It was not until S/Sgt. Shelby Sheights (later commissioned and five time winner of the Silver Star) succeeded in scoring a 125 yard hit with a rifle grenade that the Platoon was able to push on. A few minutes later they ran into Brownwood’s outpost which had held out from early daybreak against numerous German attempts to take it. Because of the large sector, I Company was attached to the 1st Battalion and greatly assisted Coleman in clearing out the factory area.

“D” Company’s Situation

 

About 05.30, December 12, 1944, the 1st squad of the 1st Platoon of “D” Company was alerted by the guards on the Machine gun who saw a force of over 100 Germans approaching the position. The gunner immediately opened up and delivered over 500 rounds of effective fire, thus disrupting the entire enemy attack, causing much confusing and the immediate capture of practically the entire attacking force.

 

As the enemy withdrew to reorganize, an 81mm mortar observer picked them up, zeroed in his guns and immediately delivered effective battery fire on the entire attacking force. During the assault, the mortars fired 1900 rounds of High Explosive Ammunition.

 

By nightfall, all lost ground had been regained, 333 prisoners were on the way back to the stockade. Over a 100 Germans could be counted dead and littered the area and a likely number could be considered wounded. It is estimated that 1st Battalion inflicted a t least 600 casualties on the enemy force of 1’000! Apparently the German Grenadiers had expected tank support which did not arrive in time!

Aftermath

This is the Himmler order to hold Sigolsheim as the Americans held Selestat
This is the Himmler order to hold Sigolsheim as the Americans held Selestat

In comparison the 1st Battalion’s casualties were very light: five K.I.A’s, (three names are Sgt. Esiquel Archuleta, Pfc. Joe D. Lasserter and Pfc. Paul R. Rainford), twelve wounded in action and eight missing in action. For its outstanding performance in the defense of Selestat, the 1st Battalion, 142nd Infantry, got a Presidential Unit Citation.

 

Another citation, from notorious Henrich Himmler, who had come to Alsace to take personal command of what was to be the Battle to disrupt the 36th Division, paid tribute to the defenders of Selestat. In an order to his own troops Himmler stated: "Build up immediately Sigolsheim’s defenses by all available means. Resolute troops cannot be thrown out of a village when every house becomes a strongpoint. What the Americans could do in Selestat, I expect you and your men to do also." (see the chapter the Battle of Sigolseim).

Pvt. Stephen A. Underwood Jr. - severely wounded in Selestat Dec. 17, 1944, by mortarfire, died in 1993 complications of war wounds (courtesy Greg Underwood)
Pvt. Stephen A. Underwood Jr. - severely wounded in Selestat Dec. 17, 1944, by mortarfire, died in 1993 complications of war wounds (courtesy Greg Underwood)

But the Battle at Selestat was not a local or isolated attack. It was only a part of the onslaught which hit the entire division on that date. Shortly after daylight a full-scale attack was launched in the center against Mittelwihr and up the draw behind nearby Hill 251. This attack struck the 1st Battalion, 143rd Infantry and the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry. The German main effort, however, was directed at the Division right flank. Here a large force, the entire student body of an officer candidate school, at least 100 strong, attempted to envelop the Division flank and reach the Ribeauville-St. Marie road. Had they succeeded in this the 36th Division would possibly have been destroyed.

Lt. Col. James L. Minor

Commander 1st Battaliond Lt Col. James Minor
Commander 1st Battaliond Lt Col. James Minor

James Minor was born at Haskell, Texas, October 29, 1918 and the youngest officer of that rank in the US Army. He commanded the First Battalion of the 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th “Texas” Division. Minor sailed for overseas in March 1943, with the Advanced Detachment of the 36th Division, landed at Casablanca, North Africa. As First Lieutenant, he was in the assault wave at “The Bloody Salerno Landing”, September 9, 1943, when the 36th Division was the first Division to set on Continental European soil in World War II. James Minor was in seven major campaigns and got arrowheads for being in the assault waves at both, Salerno Italy and Southern France landings. He was wounded in action three times; at Cassino, Italy, near Hagenau, France and at Wissenbourg, Germany in the Siegfried Line. His Battalion, First Battalion of the 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th “Texas” Division, received the Presidential Unit Citation for defending the town of Selestat, France on December 12, 1944.

Minor returned to the States in June 1945 and was released from the service with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, November 11, 1945. He past away on August 4, 1976 and is buried at the Terrace Cemetery, Post, Texas.

Personal account of Grenadier Walter Kern, Grenadier Regiment 308, 198. Infanterie-Division, in the north-western sector of Selestat, December 1944

Grenadier Walter Kern (Courtesy Family Burtsche)
Grenadier Walter Kern (Courtesy Family Burtsche)

Walter Kern was a young Grenadier of the 6. Company / II. Battalion, Grenadier Regiment 308, 198. Infanterie-Division. His outfit was very well dug in near the first houses of the Alsatian town of Obenheim. My squad of 7 men, was responsible to defend this small town with one machine gun and 5 rifle men. In addition to that one Assault gun was assigned to my small group. The combined assault of French and US troops started already at 08.00 a.m. supported with 15 tanks! Our Assault gun was able to knock out 3 enemy tanks and two were knocked out with Panzerfaust by myself but 10 still remained in action against us. After a short but intensive battle, I gave the order to cease fire as any further resistance would have resulted in complete annihilation. So we dropped our weapons and went into a basement to hide ourselves. At around 11.00 a.m., we surrendered to the French and right away were lined up against a wall to be shot by a French officer. At the very last second myself and my men were saved by an US officer. This all has been witnessed by a small French boy who was present.

 

Greandier Walter Kern on the right side while serving chow (Courtesy Family Burtsche)
Greandier Walter Kern on the right side while serving chow (Courtesy Family Burtsche)

After the rescue of the US officer we became P.O.W’s and were sent to Southern France and from there to Marseilles to help off-load US supply ships. After almost three years in Allied captivity I was sent home on January 9, 1947.

 

After a few years, I visited the place with my family, where I and my men were almost shot. During this visit, I was able to meet the small French boy who witnessed this scene in December 1944. He confirmed to me that the French Officer told him “I am going to kill now all of them”. Lucky us that the US officer followed the Geneva Convention.

Acknowledgements:

I would like the following persons for their support to make this research possible:

 

·         Lisa Sharik, Deputy Director, Texas Military Forces Museum,

·         Zack Sigler, the Archivist for the 103d Infantry Division

·         Greg Underwood

·         Jean-Jacques Strum, Ostheim

·         Family Burtsche, Wannweil

 

 

Some Text take from Wikipedia, personal account of Jack Durrance, veteran of the 409th Infantry, German After Action Report of the 198. Infantry Division.