Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Recognition Delayed, Welcomed for WWII Operation Northwind; Veterans Recall 26 Days in France That Left 11,000 Americans Killed, Seriously Wounded or in Enemy Hands

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Recognition Delayed, Welcomed for WWII Operation Northwind; Veterans Recall 26 Days in France That Left 11,000 Americans Killed, Seriously Wounded or in Enemy Hands

Article excerpt

Byline: Steve Patterson, The Times-Union

During the last winter of World War II, while America celebrated success at the Battle of the Bulge, Ralph Crawford fought for his life in the French countryside with thousands of other GIs.

But almost no one noticed.

More than 100 miles from the storied battle in the Ardennes forest, the U.S. Seventh Army was pounded by German troops desperate to retake the Alsace region near the Rhine River and stop the resupply of Allied armies. Weeks of combat in the mountains and open plains close to Strasbourg left more than 11,000 Americans killed, seriously wounded or captured in the last German offensive in western Europe.

Yet the story of their battle, which began New Year's Eve 1944, went overlooked for decades by both the public and historians.

"After the Battle of the Bulge, the general public in America went around slapping each other on the back and saying 'we did it.' . . . Everybody was convinced that the war [in Europe] was over," said Crawford, 84, now a retired foreign service officer living in Jacksonville.

Only in recent years, as age claims more of the surviving veterans, has the offensive that the Germans named Operation Northwind received new attention in the United States.

"They fought an extremely important action," said Keith E. Bonn, a former West Point military history professor. "They fought the last German reserves, the last fresh units in the West, to a standstill. They paid a high price."

That was the last thing Crawford, a private in the New Jersey-based 70th Infantry Division, had expected when he reached France two weeks earlier.

"We thought it was going to be smooth sailing," he said.

An hour before the start of 1945, the first units from a force of 150,000 Nazi troops began surging toward Allied lines.

It was a last-gasp attack, and German commanders sent almost everything they had, Bonn said: flame-throwing tanks, unbeaten SS mountain fighters and makeshift infantry units. Squads of Russian defectors had been given German uniforms and sent to front lines, where they ran screaming across snow-covered fields, trying to unnerve their enemies.

"It was some terrible fighting going on all along the Rhine," said Ken Carpenter of Ponte Vedra Beach, who was a staff sergeant in the Army's 42nd Infantry Division.

The Americans' misery was compounded by the weather, Carpenter recalled. There was snow and sleet, and temperatures that dropped well below zero.

Allied warplanes that could have harassed the Germans were mostly grounded by bad weather.

Americans had been stretched thin in eastern France by the Battle of the Bulge, where the Germans' fast advances forced Gen. George Patton's Third Army to race north and reclaim the Ardennes.

As Patton's forces moved out, the Seventh Army had to spread itself over a 126-mile front, creating a weakness in Alsace that Adolf Hitler ordered his commanders to exploit. …

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