The Last German Offensive
The following extract is from "The Seventh United States Army Report of Operations", Vol. I and II, pages 559-579, Battery Press, 1988. The following section deals with the action of Task Force Herren and other Units during the opening moves of Nordwind.

The German army struck in the closing hours of the old year with fanatical force. The 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division spearheaded one attack group, its initial objective being the town of Rohrbach in the eastern Sarre Valley. (See Map 1) It was supported by two other divisions, the 19th Infantry Division and the 36th Volks Grenadier Division on its right. The 559th, 361st, and 256th VolksGrenadier Divisions comprised another attack group and struck southward from the Bitche area in the Low Vosges Mountains.

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Looking south from Bitche
"...The enemy struck southward from the Bitche area to the Low Vosges Mountains..."

Before recounting the German attack in detail, it is perhaps appropriate to recapitulate briefly the situation on Seventh Army's front and to sum up what has been learned subsequently, from captured documents and other sources, of actual German battle plans. It has already been stated that on 29 December Seventh Army G-2 estimated that the Germans would launch a series of limited objective attacks for the purpose of keeping Seventh Army under sufficient pressure to prevent it from sending troops north against the Ardennes salient, or, as the next probability, that they would attack south from the Bitche- Sarreguemines area with from five to eight divisions to seize the Saverne and Ingwiller passes, to fan out to destroy the Seventh Army in the Rhine Valley, and to recapture Alsace. Such a drive, it had been foreseen, might well be coordinated with a drive northward from the Colmar bridgehead and the establishment of a Rhine bridgehead in the Gambsheim area. The Seventh Army preparations for defense had been intensified accordingly. During the early part of the last ten days of December VI Corps had begun to prepare an alternate main line of resistance along the Maginot Line. Both VI Corps and XV Corps had been preparing counterattacks against possible enemy penetrations as well as consolidating lines of defense.

During the last two days of the month these preparations were completed. A radio message from Sixth Army Group received on 30 December warned

that a hostile attack against your flank west of Bitche may force you to give ground from your main position. To meet such a possibility, it is necessary that your west flank be protected by a reserve battle position. With this in mind, reconnaissance and organization of a reserve battle position will be instituted without delay along high ground on the general line: Hill east of Landroff - Benestroff - Sarre-Union - Ingwiller. One half of each division and attached troops currently earmarked as SHAEF reserve, located in your area, may be employed at any given period of time to assist in organization of ground provided that troops so employed can be reassembled and prepared for movement on six hours' notice.

These directives were carried out by New Year's Eve. XV Corps prepared its secondary main line of resistance with its western part in the Maginot Line. The SHAEF earmarked units, the 36th Division and the 12th Armored Division, plus the 2nd French Armored Division upon its ar- rival in the Seventh Army area were ordered to be ready to counter- attack against enemy penetrations.

Both corps planned to defend on their forward lines until ordered to withdraw and then to fight delaying actions to the secondary line. The 14th Armored Division in VI Corps reserve was ordered to move to the vicinity of Phalsbourg and to prepare to counterattack to the northwest in the XV Corps sector, or to the southeast toward Selestat. On the Seventh Army's left flank Third Army was "limiting the enemy offensive and ... preparing to counterattack." On the right the French First Army contained the Colmar Pocket and prepared defensive positions in depth.

On New Year's Eve General Patch visited the XV Corps com- mand post at Fenetrange and there warned both the XV Corps and the VI Corps Commanding Generals that an enemy attack was to be ex- pected during the early hours of New Year's Day. Official holiday celebrations were cancelled. Preparations had already been made to move the Seventh Army command post from Saverne to Luneville, a more central position for the direction of both XV and VI Corps defense. This move was completed on 2 January, after the Germans had launched their initial assault. (See Map 2)

The German Plan

German documents subsequently captured revealed that the German High Command West apparently had concluded from Allied withdrawal of bridgeheads in the Sarre area that forces on this front south from the Ardennes to the Rhine had been weakened. On 21 December German Army Group G was directed to exploit this situation, specifically through local attacks and preparations for a surprise attack to regain the Saverne Gap. Signal operations instructions issued on 25 December designated the new operation by the code word Nordwind.

The objective of the operation was to gain the Saverne Gap in the Phalsbourg-Saverne sector in order to annihilate Seventh Army forces in northern Alsace and to secure a juncture with the German Nineteenth Army. For this purpose two attack groups were to be readied. The first group was to attack from east of the Blies River toward the south in order to breach the Maginot Line at Rohrbach and there to make a junction with the right flank of the second group for a thrust against Phalsbourg. The second group was to attack from east of Bitche toward the south in several spearheads and then to link up with the first group, after which, depending on the situation, both were to attack either east or west or south toward the Phalsbourg-Saverne line.

On 26 December German High Command West informed Army Group G of the Fuehrer's request that the efforts of the right attack group be undertaken in such a way that with cover for its right flank against the Sarre River and with cover for its left flank against Saverne it could quickly reach the highway leading to the Phalsbourg-Saverne axis. Therefore it was necessary to move the right flank of the XIII SS Army Corps westward to Bliesbruck on the Blies River. From there the attack of Group I could be launched south by way of Woelfling, thence southeast to Rohrbach and the road net south of Rohrbach. The 25th Panzer Grenadier Division and the 21st Panzer Division were designated as reserves. They were to be so situated in the northern area that after the breakthrough they could be shoved rapidly south past Group 1, then theoretically at Rohrbach.

As early as 22 December it was proposed to support the opera- tions of Army Group G by employing special forces east of the Rhine which had been brought together under Army Group Oberrhein. The commander of this army group was instructed to support Operation Nordwind by shocktroop tactics and to assist in the establishment of bridgeheads north and south of Strasbourg. By 26 December it was decided that the attack over the upper Rhine was not to begin until 48 hours after the initial assault. At the same time a diversionary attack to the north on the Third Army front was called off. On the next day more detailed plans revealed that the Oberrhein command was to be committed only when the armored spearheads of the assault forces (see Map 3) driving south from Bitche had arrived at the eastern exits of the Vosges in the Ingviller-Saverne area. After having established its bridgehead across the Rhine north of Strasbourg the Oberrhein Army Group was to aid in the destruction of Seventh Army troops isolated in Alsace by attempting a juncture with Groups I and 11 which would be turning east from the Vosges Mountains to the Haguenau-Brumath area. The Fuehrer ordered the initial attack for operation Nordwind to start at 2300 hours on 31 December 1944.

The Initial Blows

On 31 December Seventh Army occupied an 84 mile front from the Rhine to a point a few miles west of Saarbrueeken and a flank along the Rhine north and south of Strasbourg. VI Corps held positions on the right from the Rhine River to Bitche with the 79th and 45th Infantry Divisions in the line and the 14th Armored Division less one combat command in reserve. On the VI Corps left flank, holding a front of about ten miles in the Low Vosges, was Task Force Hudelson. On the left flank of Task Force Hudelson XV Corps maintained a line west to within a few miles of Saarbrueeken employing the 100th, 44th, and 103rd Infantry Divisions with the 106th Cavalry Group on the left flank. The greater part of the Rhine flank, extending for about 40 miles, was a responsibility of Task Force Herren and Task Force Linden. These task forces were composed of infantry elements of the 70th and 42nd Infantry Divisions respectively, whose supporting troops had not yet arrived in the army area.

The 44th Infantry Division of the American VI Corps deployed between Sarreguemines and Rimling bore the full impetus of the enemy's right flank drive. In the space of a few hours the entire divisional front was engaged. On the left flank between Sarreguernines and Polpers- viller the 114th Infantry Regiment with the aid of concentrated artillery fire smothered a determined enemy effort to exploit his Blies River bridgehead at the bend north of the Sarreguemines airport. In the center the enemy attempted three crossings southeast of Habkirchen without success, as the 324th Infantry Regiment held inviolate the line of the Blies River.

The enemy unleashed the full fury of his attack against the 71st Infantry Regiment which held a line extending from Bliesbruck eastward to Rimling. A five company assault north of Rimling curled about the right flank of the 2nd

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". . . The enemy unleashed the full fury of his attack against the 71st Infantry Regiment which held a line extending from Bliesbruck eastward to Rimling . . ."

Battalion forcing a withdrawal of about 1,000 yards. The 3rd Battalion of the 71st Infantry moved out to help restore the overrun positions. However, three companies of the enemy had driven through the I st Battalion on the regimental left flank and had penetrated the Bliesbrucken woods 2,000 yards to the rear of the lines. The 3rd Battalion was diverted to meet this penetration and plunged into a pitched battle in the forest. Although assisted by a reserve battalion of the 324th Infantry, troops of the 71st Regiment failed to dislodge the enemy from his positions in the woods; but they contained his penetration and reformed the line along the southern edge of the forest.

Elements of the 2nd Battalion aided by a platoon of tanks restored "their original positions" by 0600 hours on 1 January only to be dislodged again at 0730 hours. A see-saw battle raged throughout the

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"... At the eastern edge of the forest, the line slanted southeast for over two miles to cover the northeastern approaches to Gros Rederching..."

day. At nightfall the right flank of the battalion rested on Maronviller form, which was attacked and set afire in the middle of the night. This action necessitated an additional withdrawal to a north-south line one mile, west of Rimling. Here the 2nd Battalion covered the readjustment of the remainder of the regiment before being placed in reserve. After dislodging or destroying isolated enemy groups behind the lines, reorganized troops established a line which ran west-east just below the Bois de Blies Brucken. At the eastern edge of the forest the line slanted southeast for over two miles to cover the northeastern approaches to Gros Rederching. The 3rd Battalion of the 253rd Infantry, which had been one unit of the recently disbanded Task Force Harris, was attached to the 71st Infantry and sent into the line on the right; the lst Battalion of the 71st Regiment was in the center and the 3rd Battalion on the left.

During the night of 1-2 January XV Corps had ordered the 12th Armored Division to establish and maintain a counter-reconnaissance screen west of the Sarre River and south of the Maginot Line to neutralize any infiltration of enemy armor. East of the Sarre River Combat Command A of the 14th Armored Division was given a similar mission which the 2nd French Armored Division was to be prepared to take over on 2 January. This relief was completed, and French armor

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'... XV Corps ordered the 12th Arrnored Division to establish and maintain a counter- -reconnaissance screen west of the Sarre River and south of the Maginot Line..."

blocked the western end of the Vosges passages from Meisenthal south to Phalsbourg. The unit also prepared to counterattack either in the direction of Drulingen-Sarre-Union, or along the line Drulingen-Rahling. Armor was poised for an equalizing blow should it be required.

On 3 January the line of the 71st Regiment was again assailed by enemy tanks and infantry. The 2nd Battalion of the 114th Regiment, now also attached to the 71st Infantry, helped the 3rd Battalion of the 253rd Infantry to stabilize the situation after the latter unit had been pushed back a few miles. Although the 71st Infantrv had been able to weld its elements into a line capable of withstanding severe enemy attack, strong enemy groups appeared behind that line. Elements of the lst and 2nd Battalions of the 255th Infantry, the second regiment of Task Force Harris to be attached to XV Corps, supported by Combat Command L of the 2nd French Armored Division, were required to stop the gap and to recapture Aachen which is three miles southwest of Gros Rederching. The appearance of powerful armored reserves at this point of penetration and the severe losses that the enemy had suffered during these attacks may have been factors in the German decision at High Command level to curtail the Sarre offensive.

Remnants of the enemy in the vicinitv of Aachen were eliminated on 4 January as the 2nd Battalion of the 71st Infantry made its way south toward the town, while the 2nd Battalion of the 255th Infantry cleared Aachen itself. The enemy in this sector became active again when elements of Combat Command L were driven from Gros Rederching by American tanks manned by Germans. After repelling an effort by the 2nd Battalion of the 71st Infantry to retake Gros Rederching the enemy withdrew. The Sarre pincer of Operation Nordwind had failed in its mission.

Drive Southeast of Bitche

Caught between the Sarre drive of German attack Group I and the drive near Bitche of German attack Group II was the 100th Infantry Division, holding the line on New Year's Eve between Rimling and Bitche. The initial German onslaught had swirled about both flanks of the division. A successful prosecution of the enemy plan would have cut the division off. As the situation developed, the 397th Infantry on the left flank was obliged to fight hard to hold Rimling against the assault of Group 1. The division's right flank was exposed when the 117th Reconnaissance Squadron of Task Force Hudelson was forced back to the line Lemberg-Mouterhouse by the attack of Group 11. The 399th Infantry Regiment then had to retire from the high ground south of

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"...the 397th Infantry on the left flank was obliged to fight hard to hold Rimling against the assault of Group I..."

Bitche which compelled the divisional right flank to bend southward to guard against the enemy threat from the east.

Since this movement greatly extended the flank, the 3rd Battalion of the 255th Infantry was put in to bolster the line. At the end of 1 January the 141st Infantry Regiment of the 36th Division relieved the 399th Regiment and the 3rd Battalion of the 255th Regiment from respon- sibility for the southern end of the flank and took positions on the line Sarreinsberg-Goetzenbruck-Lemberg. The 100th Division had been forced to form what was in effect a "second front" south to Sarreinsberg at a right angle with the original divisional front which extended from Rimling to the vicinity of Bitche.

The enemy maintained a constant pressure expressed by countless probing attacks along the "new" front until 5 January. However, the stubborn fighting qualities of the defenders plus the early dispatch

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"...Task Force Hudelson was holding a line extending from a point just south of Bitche east through Eguelshardt..."

of reinforcing elements stabilized the situation. For the remainder of the period the enemy showed little inclination to continue the attack, but reacted fiercely to attempted aggression by our troops against the upper shoulder of the Bitche salient.

On the left flank of VI Corps holding a front of about ten miles in the Low Vosges was a group of miscellaneous units known in the aggregate as Task Force Hudelson. Most important of these units were Combat Command R of the 14th Armored Division less one tank battalion, Company B of the 645th Tank Destroyer Battalion, Company B of the 3rd Chemical Mortar Battalion, and the 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. Task Force Hudelson was holding a line extending from a point just south of Bitche east through Eguelshardt and Neunhoffen with the 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron on the left, the

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"...Although the terrain was rugged, Task Force Hudelson's lines were paper thin..."

94th Cavalry Squadron in the center, and 62nd Armored Infantry Battalion on the right.

As the new year began the enemy 256th and 361st Volks Grenadier Divisions moved southeast in a two pronged drive from Bitche without rnortar or artillery preparation. The western column constituted the main enemy effort, though constant heavy pressure was maintained in the east and strong enemy infiltrations occurred there. Although the terrain was rugged, Task Force Hudelson's lines were "paper thin." In the center the 94th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron was attacked shortly after midnight, but the enemv withheld his strength until 0530 hours. Troops of the reconnaissance squadron then attempted to establish a position along the Mouterhouse-Baerenthal road. However, they found the Mouterhouse-Baerenthal road already cut by the enemy. The American lines had been overwhelmed; the enemy was everywhere; there remained only the expedient of forming small groups to effect an escape by flight.

To the east the forward groups of the 62nd Armored Infantry Battalion withdrew to the Bannstein-Philippsbourg highway to avoid envelopment. The enemy pushed against the lines, and German armor was observed to be approaching Bannstein from the northwest. Half-tracks of the 19th Armored Infantry Battalion, joined by vehicles of the 117th and 94th Cavalry units, moved southeast toward Philippsbourg. Meanwhile, other elements of the 62nd Battalion, their front lines riddled by the enemy, retired to Bannstein where they maintained a perimeter defense until 1130 hours the following morning, 2 January. They then withdrew by infiltration southeast to Baerenthal. By this time the enemy had gained partial control of the Philippsbourg-Bannstein highway and were threatening both Philippsbourg and Baerenthal.

On the left flank of the Hudelson Task Force the bulk of the 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron had been hit hard and virtually surrounded at Mouterhouse. The situation here became obscure to task force and corps commanders, as communications with reconnaissance troops were maintained only with the greatest difficulty. The enemy had overrun their forward positions north of Mouterhouse in the early stages of the offensive. Withdrawal from a second defensive line under heavy enemy pressure was accomplished during 1 January. The squadron command post, which had been in Mouterhouse, was reestablished in Wingen; and by the end of the day the 117th Cavalry had drawn back to final defensive positions which were maintained. On the morning of 2 January the 179th Infantry was brought up and disposed along the line already held.

Farther east the task force employed the larger part of its reserves to relieve pressure on the right flank. The 62nd Armored Infantry Battalion had established positions which held Philippsbourg safe until the 275th Infantry of the 70th Division could be moved up to the. line to assume control. After the enemy attack near Bannstein which ultimately breached positions in this area, the 19th Armored Infantry Battalion and a medium tank company of the 25th Tank Battalion had set up, under task force orders, a perimeter defense around Baerenthal. The Task Force command post pulled back at dusk southwest to Reipertswiller. The enemy continued to pour through; in mid-afternoon a force of perhaps 500 troops was observed two miles west of Baerenthal. Before the end of the day countermeasures were taken. A battalion of the 313th Infantry Regiment of the 79th Division had moved in north of Reipertswiller to check advances in that zone; and a battalion of the 275th Infan- try Regiment, which had been attached to the 45th Division, was placed in position southeast of Baerenthal to block that axis.

Still farther to the east the initial enemy thrust of Group II was met by troops of the 45th Division who joined Task Force Hudelson in a defense anchor at Neunhoffen. This attack was contained just west of Neunhoffen by the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Division. Further attempts at infiltration in force between Philippsbourg and Obersteinbach were repulsed with heavy enemy casualties. These actions aided in delimiting what was to be known as the enemy's "Bitche Salient."

During the first few days of the new year the 45th Division was strenuously engaged in regrouping its organic forces and the numerous units which had been recently attached preparatory to taking command of the Low Vosges sector and neutralizing the enemy thrust. To minimize the effects of a possible complete collapse of the Low Vosges front Combat Command B of the 14th Armored Division established a counter-reconnaissance screen studded with roadblocks in the wooded mountain passes along the line Neuwiller-Ingwiller-Rothbach-Zinswiller-Niederbronn which extended along the eastern edge of the Low Vosges Massif.

On 2 January the 179th Infantry Regiment moved by motor to the corps left flank and established itself on a line two miles north of Wingen. On this flank the enemy succeeded in establishing a road-block on the Meisenthal-Wimmenau road which separated two battalions of the 179th Regiment. A few miles to the east the enemy pushed a two-company attack from the north along the two parallel roads leading into Reipertswiller. The attack was stopped by elements of the 313th Regiment. Late in the day a battalion of the 314th Infantry Regiment arrived to bolster the Wildenguth-Reipertswiller line.

On the eastern shoulder of the salient of 2 January the 275th Infantry Regiment held the Baerenthal-Zinswiller and the Bannstein-Niederbronn passes. On the road southeast of Baerenthal two attacks by an estimated 200 to 300 enemy supported by armor were repelled. In the pass to the north the enemy manifested little aggressiveness, thereby enabling troops of the 275th Regiment to establish positions on the road northwest of Philippsbourg. Sarreinsberg on the west, Relpertswiller in the center, and Baerenthal-Philippsbourg on the east shoulder of the salient became the focal points of action as 2 January came to a close. Identification of elements of the 6th SS Mountain Division indicated that the enemy was investing considerable strength in his Low Vosges assault. The prompt appearance of Seventh Army reserves, however, was depriving the situation of its fluidity. The outlines of the salient had been formed and were hardening.

On 3 January the enemy made a determined effort to enlarge his Bitche salient. The counterattack of the 179th Regiment on the left flank was met head on. Heavy inconclusive fighting, in which elements of the 21st Panzer Division were identified, ensued. In the nose of the salient elements of the 361st Volks Grenadier Division attacked Reipertswiller from the north, northwest, and due west. A small group of the enemy managed to infiltrate south of the town, but in general these attacks were contained. On the eastern shoulder the 476th Panzer Grenadier Regiment overran forward positions of the 275th Regiment to reach Philippsbourg.

The enemy's incessant hammering against the walls of the salient drew the 180th and 276th Infantry Regiments to this sector. The 179th Regiment retained its positions on the left flank near Sarreinsberg. South of this point the 276th Infantry Regiment arrived to set up a security line and to clear Wingen of the estimated 200 troops who had infiltrated during the night of 3-4 January. The 276th Regiment fought its way to the outskirts of Wingen by 2130 hours on 4 January.

The 180th Infantry Regiment was pulled out of the Maginot Line in the east and moved into the Reipertswiller sector to clear the area west and southwest of the town of those enemy elements which had infiltrated through the lines. A line one mile southwest of Reipertswiller was established despite heavy resistance offered by the enemy. Shortly after this attack, and perhaps because of it, pressure decreased in this area; the 313th Infantry was able to reestablish contact with elements cut off in Wildenguth.

On the eastern shoulder of the salient the 275th Infantry reestablished on 4 January the positions and communications which had been disorganized by the previous day's fighting. Philippsbourg was made secure, but an effort to extend the line northwest was stopped at the edge of the town. At the southwest end of the 275th's diagonal line fighting in the vicinity of Baerenthal was heavy but inconclusive.

The Bitche Salient Formed

On 5 January the 179th Infantry continued to exert steady pressure on the German forces in the Meisenthal-Sarreinsberg area, maintaining roadblocks and throwing back minor enemy attempts at infiltration. On the following day the 179th Regiment cleared the road to a point one mile southeast of Meisenthal in an attack synchronized with efforts by the 180th Infantry and the 313th Infantry. On 5 January the 180th Infantry had attacked north on a one mile front encountering especially heavy resistance on its right flank which neared Wildenguth. The heaviest fighting of all raged at the tip of the salient near Reipertswiller. The slight advances which had been made by the 313th Regiment on 5 January northwest of the town were off set by continued infiltration on the right flank east of Reipertswiller. On the next day the 180th Infantry assumed additional responsibility in the Wildenguth area, thereby releasing elements of the 313th Regiment to deal with the per- foration of the right flank. While the right flank problem was being liquidated, elements of all three regiments continued the straight, forward, slugging assault north of Reipertswiller.

To the southeast the 276th Infantry had been handicapped in its attempt to clear Wingen, because the presence of American prisoners in the town precluded the use of artillery. On 6 January the tenacious defense offered by the enemy was overcome; the town was cleared. This action marked the elimination of the enemy's deepest penetration in the Low Vosges.

Farther east the 2nd Battalion of the 276th Infantry assisted the coordinated attack of the 179th, 180th, and 313th Regiments by stopping up breaks in the line southeast of Reipertswiller. On 6 January this battalion cleared the town of Lichtenberg of the hostile forces which had infiltrated the previous day. On the following day, in conjunction with elements of the 313th and 274th Regiments the 2nd Battalion of the 276th Infantry continued its attack to the high, wooded ground north-east of Lichtenberg, trapped, and eliminated the remnants of an enemy battalion. All advances were painfully slow on 7 January, and the line was pushed forward only a mile north of the Wildenguth-Reipertswiller road. At last, however, it was apparent that enemy troops were on the defensive and that the force of their attack had spent itself.

On the eastern shoulder of the salient the 275th Infantry with lst Battalion of the 274th Infantry attached continued to hold a line extending from southwest to northeast in the Dambach area. The enemy had advanced toward Philippsbourg on 5 January but turned back when attacked by planes. On the following day three enemy assaults on Philippsbourg were hurled back; the first was broken by artillery fire; the second disorganized and repulsed by a counterattack; the third was contained after several hours of fierce fighting. These attacks involved an estimated two or three companies. On 7 January hostile activity was negligible.

Before the enemy had launched his January offensive VI Corps had been warned of the impending attack and directed to make ready both defensive positions and countermeasures. This preparedness permitted an acceleration in the process of regrouping to contain the Bitche salient. The VI Corps units, trading blow for blow with the enemy, sapped the strength of the German drive. According to the impressions gained by the German Chief of Staff, who was with his troops on 6 and 7 January, the rugged terrain had imposed an extreme physical strain upon the men who were compelled to fight without rest and live in the open. There was a visible abatement in combat strength.

On the other hand, after overcoming the initial shock VI Corps was able to increase the resistance it offered. By skillfully maneuvering shock troops through breaks in the line the American corps threatened German supply routes. One enemy commentary revealed that the situation in the Bitche salient as now constituted required new German forces if further exploitation was to be considered. However, the same terrain which hampered the development of a German breakthrough now served to protect the outlines of the salient which remained a real threat to Seventh Army troops in Alsace.

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