The Capture of Bitche in Summary
Before entering Bitche, I thought it would be helpful to recap and summarize the events up to and including the capture of Bitche.
From November 1 to early December 1944, the 100th Infantry Division battles the German Army and drives them almost 75 miles east towards Bitche and the Maginot Line, liberating French towns along the way.
In mid-December, the Division assaults the heavily protected forts of the Maginot Line, including Schiesseck and Freudenberg. After capturing these fortresses, the US dismantles all of the weaponry leaving only the shell. These forts are located just west of Bitche and will be a factor in the capture of the town in mid-March.
Although the 100th Infantry division is both capable and poised to capture Bitche in mid-December, they are ordered to hold their position in support of intense battles north in the Ardennes Mountains, better known as “The Battle of the Bulge”.
After New Year’s the German Army launches a major offensive “Operation Nordwind”. Over a two week period, they re-take control of the areas around Bitche including the Forts Schiesseck and Freudenberg to the west, the high ground Schorbach to the north and Camp de Bitche to the East. Those three areas will be the targets of the US forces.
Between mid-January and mid-March, both sides continue fighting but there is no material change in position.
On March 15, 1945, the 100th Infantry Division is ordered to capture Bitche.
The Division has three regiments; 397th,398th, 399th. The plan is straightforward. The 397th is on the left to take the high ground to the north and stop German mortar and rocket fire. The 398th is in the center to take the Forts Schiesseck and Freudenberg and enter the town from the west. The 399th is on the right and will take Camp de Bitche to the east before entering the town. This will all happen simultaneously.
At 1:00am on March 15 a barrage of heavy guns are fired on German positions continuously for hours, a second barrage began at 3:00am.
The 100th Infantry did not begin their advance until first light at 5:00am instead of pursuit in darkness for one reason, land mines. The forts offered little defense but shelter, so the Germans had laid extensive patterns of land mines that needed to be carefully removed for the troops to advance. The Germans used a combination of artillery fire from the high ground with sniper fire just ahead to stop the 398th Infantry.
Company F was following Company E that morning and this is a firsthand account of PFC Andrews:
“The beginning of the Bitche attack was not too tough. The Jerries did not see us until we came out of the woods and were going down a dirt road. As the Company cleared the woods, one man behind the other, it all began. For most of us it was the first time we had heard rocket shells coming in. the only cover we could get was a ditch, about two feet deep, along the left side of the road. No one hesitated to jump into the ditch and lay down, and I do mean flat! I know I was so close to the ground, my nose was buried well into the hard surface of the earth. The rockets and mortar shells were coming in all around us. We were so close together that each man’s head was touching the next man’s feet from one end of the Company to the other. The troops stayed there in the ditch at least two hours in the very same positions and conditions. Barrage of mortars and rockets came in constantly. Several men were hit. Two, about only eight feet from me, were wounded badly. With the care and protection from God, no one was killed.
Arthur M. Silva (Company F) recounts his experience following Company E; he calls it the “Bee line Dash”:
It was the day of the attack on March 15. We were going past Fort Freudenberg to Fort Schiesseck and we were crossing open ground of about 300 yards, when suddenly I heard what seemed to be a bee, whizzing past my ear. I remember Limbaugh coming up from behind and telling me that it was snipers shooting at us. As tired as I was, I started a 200-yard dash that undoubtedly broke all track records!
Tom’s unit, Company E was at the forefront of this phase and when he came under direct sniper fire, he returned the fire, killing the sniper and was awarded the Silver Star, as the advance of the 398th was a key to entering the town according to the citation.
All three regiments executed their battle plans flawlessly, and most of the remaining German forces retreated, leaving the area during the night of the fifteenth.
Having encircled the entire town, the only remaining German presence was small arms fire on the morning of March 16th.
At 5:00 am E Company, followed by the second battalion entered the streets of Bitche at 7:30 am. The townspeople quickly became aware that liberation was at hand. Among the first to greet the troops was George Oblinger, innkeeper and proprietor of Auberge le Strasbourg. He brought out the American flag that his wife Maria had secretly created and presented it to Captain Thomas H. Garahan.
Soon after receiving the flag, Tom, with a few members of his company, took the flag to a second floor apartment above a shop, just a few doors away. A war correspondent photographer was present and took the photo. It was published in Stars and Stripes the following day and virtually every Sunday newspaper in the US two days later. The photo is part of the National Archives and the file notes are listed below.