As summer 1944 turned into autumn, two Allied armies crossed France on converging trajectories to meet in Alsace.
US General Patton’s Third Army (part of the 12th Army Group) moved eastwards from Normandy and Paris, making unexpectedly rapid progress until it reached the Moselle. With supply lines stretched, Patton effectively ran out of fuel and had to call a halt while he established his headquarters at Nancy (liberated on 15 September). The other force came from the south, having landed in Provence as part of Operation Dragoon. This was the 6th Army Group, consisting of the Seventh US Army under General Patch and the First French Army under General de Lattre de Tassigny. It too made quick progress, until being checked by the uplands of the Vosges and the onset of winter.
The two armies met on 10 September 1944 in the northeastern region of Alsace, the only part of France to escape occupation because of its contested identity. Even today, the three departments of Moselle, Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin have a culture which is more Germanic than Gallic.
For a long time this territory, sometimes called Alsace-Lorraine, was claimed by Germany. In 1871 it was annexed to the Reich after the Franco-Prussian War, and remained German until the peace at the end of World War I returned it to France. There followed an intense period of Francization to counteract the previous four and a half decades of Germanization. In the 1930s, the fortifications of the Maginot Line were built, which emphasized the inclusion of Alsace and Lorraine within France.
In 1940, when Germany invaded France, the Third Reich took what it considered to be its own lands back. Alsace and Moselle were not annexed or occupied; they simply became part of Greater Germany. Their citizens became eligible for military service. Some were willingly to fight for Nazism; most conscripts, however, resented fighting for the other side and became known as the malgré nous – meaning “against our will”.
In 1944, Alsace was of both military and symbolic importance. Its capture would be a necessary precursor to crossing the Rhine into Germany, but for the French, it meant more than that: they wanted to regain what was theirs, taken in 1940. The battle for Alsace was a bloody struggle, as the Germans considered it an integral part of the Fatherland. To lose it would mean the beginning of the end.
Patton’s Third Army had the easier task in the Alsace-Lorraine campaign. Some towns and cities in central northern France were relinquished without a fight by the Germans. Both Reims and Verdun – a mausoleum to some of the most difficult battles of World War I – were taken in August. Elsewhere, the Germans resisted or counterattacked. Tanks clashed at Arracourt between 18 and 29 September in one of the great armoured battles of the war. The city of Nancy was only taken after a bitter clash; once recaptured it became Patton’s headquarters. Patton continued his progress towards the Rhine by taking Metz on 22 November (although the forts around it held out until 13 December).
Leclerc, meanwhile, with his 2nd Armoured Division of the Free French Army, was directed to enter Strasbourg, which he did on 23 November, although the adjacent bridge across the Rhine remained in German hands. The gains in Alsace – including Strasbourg – were subsequently threatened by the German Nordwind counteroffensive, launched on 31 December 1944. For a time, a tactical retreat looked likely, but the French were adamant that they would not give up their recaptured territory. By 25 January 1945, the incursion had been repulsed and the Germans driven back across the Rhine. A cornered German army in the so-called Colmar Pocket was slowly and painfully cleared by 9 February, leaving the French and American armies free to bring war to Germany when the order came. For General Eisenhower, the invasion of Germany could only begin when he was sure that the Allies were in control of the battlefields to the north of Alsace in Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands.
As the American and French armies homed in on Alsace in November 1944, the German 19th Army was surrounded on three sides, with its back against the Rhine. Instead of crossing the river, it stood its ground in a redoubt that came to be known as the “Colmar Pocket”: a crude semicircle of land defined by the Rhine in the east and an arc stretching from the south of Strasbourg to the north of Mulhouse in the west. The two sides had much invested in the struggle. According to the Reich, this was officially German soil, while for the Free French Army the pocket represented the theft of a piece of France. Victory at Colmar would be highly symbolic for either army.
The 160km front line proved difficult to break, especially after the 19th Army was reinforced by fresh German troops in December. The Allies were also handicapped by a shortage of supplies, making offensive actions difficult to sustain. Nevertheless, the pocket was gradually reduced in size, and in February 1945 the Germans were forced to evacuate. The Allied victory at Colmar meant that Eisenhower’s armies now had control of the west bank of the Rhine from the Swiss border to well north of Strasbourg.
Although soon left behind American lines, Reims – situated in nearby Champagne-Ardennes – played an integral role in the conclusion of the war. In the early hours of 7 May 1945, German General Alfred Jodl agreed to the unconditional surrender of the German army here, thus ending World War II in Europe. West of the Porte behind the train and bus station, the Museum of Surrender is based around an old schoolroom that served as Eisenhower’s headquarters from February 1945, where the capitulation was signed.
The Soviets were concerned that they had been excluded from the process, however. The Americans had signed their own armistice with the Germans, which was expressly prohibited by US-Soviet agreements. As a consequence, the capitulation had to be formally signed again the next day in Berlin. The room in which the armistice was signed has been left exactly as it was (minus the ashtrays and carpet), with the Allies’ battle maps on the walls.
The series of defences built in the 1930s to protect France against invasion – and that failed to do so in 1940 – are a poignant reminder of why the Liberation was necessary. Many Maginot installations in Lorraine and Alsace can be visited. The best of them include three forts – Schoenenbourg (rue commandant Martial Reynier, Hunspach, lignemaginot.com); Four-à-Chaux in Lembach (lignemaginot.fr); and Hackenberg (61 grande rue, Veckring, maginot-hackenberg.com). The Memorial Museum of the Maginot Line of the Rhine in Marckolsheim (route du Rhin, grandried.fr) is also worth a trip.
An 18th-century arched vault which served as an air-raid shelter during the war has since been turned into a museum explaining the hell of the Colmar Pocket, where fighting continued for several months over the midwinter of 1944–45.
A precursor of the horrors to come, Natzweiler-Struthof was the first concentration camp to be discovered by the Allies. It was built in 1940 on the orders of Heinrich Himmler to house forced labourers who worked at a nearby granite quarry. The site, at 800m altitude, was once an outdoor recreation area for the citizens of Alsace.
Natzweiler-Struthof wasn’t officially a death camp, but executions were still regularly carried out. In August 1943, 86 Jews were gassed in an outbuilding of a nearby hotel, as a result of a pseudoscientific experiment that would contribute to the Final Solution. In October 1943 a crematorium was built in the camp. The use of one of the camp’s concrete structures has never been explained; called the kartoffelkeller – potato cellar – by the Germans, it was certainly not designed to store potatoes.
The camp was evacuated between 2 and 5 September 1944, its inmates being transported east to other camps. Soldiers of the US Sixth Army entered Natzweiler-Struthof on 23 November 1944.
Now run as a museum, the camp's primary purpose is to keep the memory of what happened here alive and to educate future generations. Various objects brought from other camps are on display, including a Zyklon B canister from Majdanek.
The graves here are of 10,482 American soldiers who were killed in Lorraine and Alsace, mostly while driving the German forces from the fortress city of Metz toward the Siegfried Line and the Rhine river. The memorial, which stands on a plateau to the west of the burial area, includes battlefield maps cast in ceramic.
In 1934, Charles de Gaulle, ambitious but unheard of, bought property in the town of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises in the department of Haute-Marne, a short hop over into Champagne-Ardennes. When the former French general and president died in 1970, he was buried here in the local churchyard. A modern building was later placed amid this rural landscape to commemorate the man’s achievements and legacy. It stands beneath a giant Cross of Lorraine, the double-barred cross that was adopted as a symbol by the Free French in answer to the Nazi swastika. Through multimedia displays and various exhibits, the memorial tells the story of de Gaulle’s role in the Resistance and the Liberation, with space dedicated to explaining his military theories.
This memorial-museum retraces the history of the region of Alsace and Moselle from 1870 to the present day, with a particular focus on World War II. It is partly dedicated to French-German reconciliation and to European reconstruction after the war.
Situated just outside Strasbourg, the MMPark museum displays a huge collection of items related to the armies of World War II. There are literally hundreds of mannequins, armoured vehicles, trucks, motorcycles and personal belongings, as well as an aeroplane and a German speedboat. For more active explorers, there’s even a D-Day obstacle course.
During the battle to eliminate the Colmar Pocket, Jebsheim witnessed fighting between 20 and 29 January 1945. It has been called the “Alsatian Verdun”, although this is something of an exaggeration. Its modern memorial takes the form of the outline of a cross in the middle of a three-part design, representing the three armies of France, the USA and Germany.
Top image: Colmar today © Claudio Giovanni Colombo/Shutterstock