SHAEF HQ, Versailles, France January 29, 1945

On this date in 1945 Allied armies in Western Europe returned to the offen­sive after having shut down Nazi Germany’s Oper­a­tion Nord­wind (German, Unter­nehmen Nord­wind) four days earlier. Nord­wind was the last major German offen­sive of World War II on the Western Front. It began on the last day of Decem­ber 1944 in what is today Rhine­land-Palati­nate in South­western Germany and Alsace-Lorraine in North­eastern ­France. Much of Alsace-Lorraine had been incor­porated into the Greater German Reich after the Franco-German armi­stice of 1940. Nord­wind ended on Janu­ary 25, 1945, the same day Allied armies ended Adolf Hitler’s ill-fated Ardennes Offen­sive, known in the West as the Battle of the Bulge and in Germany as Unter­nehmen Wacht am Rhein, Operation Watch on the Rhine.

Operation Nordwind is sometimes referred to as the “other” Battle of the Bulge. The more well-known of the two battles of the bulge took place in the Ardennes region of Bel­gium, North­eastern France, and Luxem­bourg. Its objec­tive was to have the German Wehr­macht (armed forces) dash up the seam between the U.S. and Anglo-Cana­dian armies, ripping it in two, seize the Allies’ major supply port, the Belgian port of Antwerp 100 miles/­161 km west of the front lines, inflict crushing casual­ties on the Allied side, and force a nego­ti­ated settle­ment friendly to Germany. Simi­larly, Nord­wind in North­eastern France had as its objec­tive to break through the lines of Gen. Jacob Devers’ Sixth Army Group, com­prising the U.S. Seventh Army and the French First Army oper­ating in the Upper Vosges Moun­tains and the Alsatian Plain. Once that was accom­plished, the plan was to anni­hi­late the two enemy armies and retake Stras­bourg, France’s largest city on the Rhine River, across from which lay Nazi Germany itself (see map below for the loca­tions of the two bulges). This destruc­tion would open a path for another major Wehr­macht thrust (Unter­nehmen Zahnartz, Operation Dentist), this into the rear of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army redeployed to the Ardennes, and poten­tially lead to, as Hitler told his divi­sion comman­ders on Decem­ber 28, 1944, “exter­mi­nating the enemy forces wherever we find them.”

The twin late-war German counteroffensives aimed at halting the Allied advance into the German home­land were breath­taking in scope and audac­ity. Alas, for Hitler’s Thou­sand Year Reich the Western offen­sives ended in German losses in man­power, equip­ment, and morale that could never to be recovered. On Janu­ary 29, 1945, Allied armies in Alsace returned to the offen­sive. Early in March U.S. and French units linked up in the center of the Colmar Pocket, the now aban­doned German bridge­head that had stretched 50 miles/­80 km along the Rhine’s western banks south of Stras­bourg. As Wehr­macht units with­drew to safety east of the Rhine, Patch’s Seventh Army began a drive just over a week later to clear North­eastern Alsace of the enemy, and at month’s end had secured a foot­hold on German soil. Like the Battle of the Bulge, Oper­a­tion Nord­wind sowed con­sid­er­able con­fu­sion among Allied fighting units, added weeks to the inev­i­ta­ble capit­u­la­tion of Hitler’s Germany, and gen­er­ated large num­bers of killed, wounded, or missing: between 19,268 and 27,000 on the U.S. and French side and between 45,000 and 61,500 on the German side (figures include Colmar Pocket casualties).

Operation Nordwind, Germany’s Last Major Offensive of World War II on the Western Front

Map of two German-induced bulges, December 1944 to January 1945

Above: This map shows German forces swelling the Ardennes “bulge” (northern bulge on map) between Decem­ber 16, 1944, and early Janu­ary 1945. The Allies crushed the Ardennes bulge in late Janu­ary 1945. On New Year’s Eve 1944, two German armies, the First and Nine­teenth, launched a major offen­sive in France’s Alsace-Lorraine, Oper­a­tion Nord­wind, against the thinly stretched 68‑mile/­109‑km front line held by the under­strengthed U.S. Seventh Army on SHAEF’s southern flank. The Seventh Army’s Lt. Gen. Alex­ander Patch had rushed troops, equip­ment, and supplies north to rein­force Amer­i­can armies in the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge). SHAEF’s Supreme Allied Com­mander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, fearing entrap­ment of Patch’s 400,000 soldiers, dis­patched ammu­ni­tion and rein­force­ments to the southern bulge. They began trickling in on Janu­ary 5, the day Germany’s Oper­a­tion Nord­wind ground to a halt: German divi­sions were suddenly needed on the Eastern Front. Stras­bourg in Northern Alsace was saved by Gen. Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s French First Army, but the semi­cir­cular Colmar Pocket in Central Alsace remained a thorn in the Allies’ side until it was removed in the second week of Febru­ary 1945 when U.S. and French forces linked up.

Operation Nordwind: German infantrymen atop tank destroyer, January 1945Operation Nordwind: Tank destroyer en route to Gambs­heim near Stras­bourg, January 1945

Left: German infantrymen, some with white helmets, ride into battle atop a tank destroyer (Sturm­geschuetz) covered with white sheets to blend with the snow. The photo was probably taken north­west of Stras­bourg near Hague­nau, the scene of bitter fighting during Operation Nordwind.

Right: Two Allied tank destroyers manned by French troops rumble through war-ravaged streets of Betten­hoffen on their way to Gambs­heim near Stras­bourg, where German forces had brought in fresh forma­tions from east of the Rhine. On Janu­ary 25, 1945, the day the Germans sus­pended Oper­a­tion Nord­wind, the Allies con­trolled all of Alsace-Lorraine except for a strip of the north­eastern corner of France around Gambs­heim and the Colmar Pocket to the south.

Operation Nordwind: Allied advance on Colmar Pocket, Janu­ary 1945Colmar Pocket: French and U.S. soldiers, Rouf­fach, February 5, 1945

Left: Infantrymen accompany a camouflaged Sherman tank on a snowy, muddy road during the Allied advance on the Colmar Pocket in Janu­ary 1945. In late Janu­ary and early Febru­ary, the French First Army, rein­forced by the U.S. XXI Corps, a unit of the Patch’s Seventh Army, cleared the Pocket of German forces. Both armies were part of Devers’ U.S. 6th Army Group.

Right: Two smiling French Moroccans with the French First Army pass candy to African Amer­i­can soldiers in a Jeep in Rouf­fach, south of the town of Colmar, on Febru­ary 5, 1945, after their com­bined units had collapsed the Colmar Pocket.

Silent Footage from Operation Nordwind, Alsace-Lorraine, Northeastern France, January 1945