Operation Nordwind: The Last Large-Scale German Offensive

(Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

Operation Nordwind was the last large-scale German offensive of the Second World War on the Western Front, and yet it continues to live in the shadow of the Battle of the Bulge. However, Operation Nordwind was a separate operation from the Battle of the Bulge, designed by Hitler himself.

The goal of this operation was mainly the destruction of as many enemy forces as possible. Historians have heavily analyzed the Battle of the Bulge, but Operation Nordwind remains relatively obscure in the history of the Second World War.

French Troops at the Rhine
French Troops at the Rhine, November 1944. (Photo Credit: U.S. Federal Government)

Battle of the Bulge

Operation Nordwind was in many respects a mini Battle of the Bulge, where the German Army attempted to incorporate lessons they learned in the Ardennes to another weakly defended stretch of the Allied front in hopes of a decisive breakthrough.

The Battle of the Bulge (also known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive) was an unsuccessful German attempt to push the Allies back from German home territory. During the summer of 1944, after the Invasion of Normandy (June 1944), the Allies moved across northern France into Belgium but lost momentum in the autumn of 1944.

On December 16, 1944, the Germans launched a surprise attack in the Ardennes with over 200,000 troops. The Ardennes was chosen because it was hilly and wooded and generally regarded as rugged terrain, so a large-scale offensive would not be expected. The Allies, who felt that victory was within reach, had become complacent since their landings at Normandy that summer.

The aims of the German counteroffensive were very extensive. They wanted to break through to Antwerp, which was the dividing line between the American and British armies, and seize the Allied supply port there.

If the Germans could cut off the British Army from the American forces and their supplies, the Germans figured they could then crush the isolated British Army. If the German forces accomplished this, Hitler was convinced that the war-weary American and British public would demand their leaders enter into a negotiated settlement with Germany.

US infantrymen in Battle of the Bulge
Three U.S. infantrymen in the snow during the Battle of the Bulge, January 1945. (Photo Credit: Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)

Initially, the Battle of the Bulge was a success for Germany as they scored victory after victory, creating confusion within Allied armies. However, by December 21, 1944, it was clear that German momentum was dwindling. Although the Germans were able to advance as much as 50 miles in some areas, the German advance was inevitably halted, falling short of its objective. By January 1945, the Allies had decisively crushed the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans suffered more than 100,000 casualties while the Americans suffered approximately 81,000.

Strategy for Nordwind

When it became apparent to Hitler that his Ardennes offensive was not going to achieve a breakthrough, Hitler began to look at Alsace for another attack. The French province of Alsace was of great symbolic importance to the Germans. Alsace and its neighboring province, Lorraine, had been German on and off throughout the centuries. Hitler believed that the recapturing of Alsace would be a major propaganda victory, as it would echo his previous successes of the 1940s.

Alsace was also chosen for another German attack because, during the Battle of the Bulge, the U.S. Seventh Army had been forced to take over the U.S. Third Army position in Alsace, which spread the Seventh Army very thin over a 68-mile front line. The Seventh Army’s Lt. General Alexander Patch had rushed troops, equipment, and supplies north to reinforce American armies during the Battle of the Bulge.

Operating to the south of the U.S. Seventh Army was the French First Army. The U.S. Seventh Army and the French First Army formed together to create the Sixth Army Group commanded by General Jacob Devers.

The proposed plan for Operation Nordwind involved the German First Army, led by Lt. General Hans von Obstfelder. The plan was for the German First Army to launch a major thrust into France. The main attack would involve four refitted infantry divisions, who would attack east of Bitche, through the mountains.

The German First Army would then link up and thrust northward with the German 19th Army, who was locked in a pocket around Colmar. These two German armies would then meet east of the Saverne Gap, recapture the city of Strasbourg, and trap the U.S. Seventh Army in northern Alsace.

Map showing the original planning for Operation Nordwood
Map in German that shows the original German planning for Operation Nordwind in 1945. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike the Ardennes offensive, Operation Nordwind would be a local offensive in Alsace. Hitler realized that launching a massive offensive in the West was no longer feasible for the German Wehrmacht. On December 28, 1944, Hitler told his generals that “this attack [Nordwind] has a very clear objective, namely the destruction of the enemy forces. There is not a matter of prestige involved here. It is a matter of destroying and exterminating the enemy forces wherever we find them.”

Therefore, the primary objective of Operation Nordwind was simple — to destroy as many enemy units as possible. If Operation Nordwind was successful, it would allow for a follow-up thrust, called Unternehmen Zahnarzt (or Operation Dentist), a major attack against the rear of General George S. Patton’s Third Army.

Operation Nordwind begins

December 31, 1944, was chosen as the start date for Operation Nordwind. The Germans hoped that the Americans would celebrate New Year’s Eve and be reasonably relaxed in their positions. Half an hour before midnight on December 31, 1944, Operation Nordwind was opened.

The opening attack was launched by three corps of the German First Army of Army Group G. On the night of December 31, the 17th SS Panzergrenadier and the 36th Volksgrenadier Divisions attacked the 44th and 100th Divisions near the town of Bitche.

The Germans made narrow inroads against the 44th’s line near Rimling during fighting characterized by constant American counterattacks supported by French armor and Allied air attacks. After four days of fighting, the Germans’ initial offensive had slowed. During the first four days of the Nordwind offensive, the Germans gained about 10 miles and were heading directly towards the Saverne Gap to link up with the German 19th Army.

Modern city of Bitche
Modern view of the city of Bitche. (Photo Credit: Andia/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, to the east of Bitche, the Germans took advantage of the elements (heavy fog and thick forests) to hit American lines. This advance came within 10 miles of the Saverne Gap, but it was eventually slowed by Allied resistance. American commanders shuffled around different units from elsewhere along the lines to plug holes and block advance routes to secure their positions.

By January 5, 1944, German advances had failed to break Allied lines or capture crucial territory, rendering operation Nordwind an early failure for the Germans. However, it is important to remember that the Ardennes offensive was still occurring at the same time as Operation Nordwind.

With the Ardennes bulge collapsing, German forces continued to attack Alsace as an alternative. A German division pushed across the Rhine to the south to take a 10-mile bridgehead near Gambsheim, just north of Strasbourg. On January 7, the Germans launched another attack, gaining ground to the edge of the Haguenau Forest, located 20 miles north of Strasbourg.

German soldiers advance in the Belgium-Luxembourg sector during the Battle of the Bulge. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)
German soldiers advance in the Belgium-Luxembourg sector during the Battle of the Bulge. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

The end of Operation Nordwind

Despite the German Army making minor gains, American armored divisions continued to fill the holes. During the night of January 24–25, 1944, Allied counterattacks made by the U.S. 222nd Infantry Regiments stopped the German advance near Haguenau. Hitler was now facing only marginal gains at huge human cost and inevitably abandoned his Alsace offensive and transferred many of the involved units to the Eastern front.

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Although often overshadowed by the Battle of the Bulge occurring at the same time, Operation Nordwind was a decisive win for the Allied forces. Hitler hoped that Operation Nordwind would infuse new life into the German war effort. The Allies were able to hold both Alsace and Strasbourg and eventually went on to capture Germany in the spring of 1945.