Monday, January 31, 2011

The Battle of Holtzwihr, 26 January 1945

The Battle of the Week 2011-04

The Congressional Medal of Honor is the United States' highest award for valor. Originally commissioned during the Civil War to recognize valor in combat, it has grown more important--and harder to receive--in the years since. Official criteria for the Medal read in part: awarded in the name of Congress to a person who...distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States....

The part about "gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty" makes the Medal appropriately hard to receive, and it means many recipients don't survive earning it. Since the U.S. entered World War II, 856 men have received the Medal of Honor; 527 of those awards were posthumous. Since Vietnam, Congress has awarded ten Medals, nine of them posthumously. Reading a Medal of Honor citation is often enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up as I wonder, "How could a human being do that?"

Audie Murphy's actions at Holtzwihr on 26 January 1945 evoke just that sort of reaction. His name is almost cliché in Army circles, a catchphrase for bravery we use when we want to praise (or make fun of) another soldier. "That guy's a doggone Audie Murphy" probably means he's done something exceptionally brave or gone out of his way to get the job done; "You're a real Audie Murphy" probably means you're talking too much about yourself and you need to shut up and get to work. But for all we throw his name around, surprisingly few of us really know the details of his heroism in World War II--and heroism it certainly was, whatever you think of his career after the war.

Murphy's Company B, 15th Infantry Regiment, assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, was part of the Colmar Offensive, an operation intended to push the last German troops out of France in late January 1945. On the 24th and 25th of January it had been cut to pieces in an attack through heavy woods on the fortified village of Holtzwihr. All the company's officers except Murphy (by this time a first lieutenant) were killed, and 102 of its 120 men killed or wounded.

By the morning of the 26th, Company B faced Holtzwihr from the edge of the forest. Murphy and his 18 remaining men, reinforced by two M10 tank destroyers, sat astride a road that ran into the forest behind them--a road the Germans needed to control if they were to mount a counterattack into the woods with their armor. Murphy's mission was to hold his position until he could be relieved by fresh troops, but by two o'clock no relief had come. The Germans decided it was time to start their counterattack.

The men of Company B watched as six tanks and 250 or so infantrymen began forming in front of the village for an attack. Murphy immediately called for artillery support, but artillery could only even the odds so much--the company was going to have a hard fight on its hands very quickly.

As soon as the enemy tanks came within range, the two tank destroyers opened fire with their 90mm main guns--to no effect. The shells bounced off the Panzers' thick armor. See, a WWII tank destroyer looked much like a tank, but mounted a heavier gun and much thinner armor. The German tanks paid little attention to either, and shortly one tank destroyer was burning and the other, after doing some damage to the infantry with its machine guns, slid into a ditch and became useless. Company B faced the counterattack alone.

Murphy knew his handful of men could never hold the road on their own, so he ordered them to fall back into the woods while he stayed behind directing artillery fire over a field phone. The shells fell thick among the advancing Germans, but still they came on. Shortly his carbine was out of ammunition.

He was preparing to fall back and rejoin his men in the woods when he noticed the .50 caliber machine gun on the burning tank destroyer was still undamaged. Realizing the machine gun was his best chance to slow the Germans down and keep his men alive, he jumped onto the vehicle and started firing.

Very few weapons on the battlefield convey moral authority to an infantryman like a .50 cal. The M2, or "Ma Deuce", our soldiers use in Iraq and Afghanistan today is much the same weapon Murphy used that day. It can fire its half-inch-diameter bullet more than a mile with devastating force; nothing that walks on a battlefield, and not many that roll, will take a .50 cal bullet and keep going. A single shot will go through two men and into a third. Infantrymen stop moving and put their heads down when they hear the thud-thud-thud of a .50 and see their friends going down around them. And tanks don't like to roll into forest without infantry covering them--without them, enemy infantry can easily use the cover of the trees to get close.

So even though he couldn't kill the tanks with the .50 cal, Murphy could stop their infantry cover--and that stopped the tanks. The smoke billowing around him from the burning tank destroyer obscured him from view, and the artillery bursting around them masked the sounds of his firing so the German infantry could not tell where it was coming from. For more than an hour he stayed there, gunning down any Germans that tried to move toward him. Finally the clouds cleared enough to allow American aircraft to start strafing the German positions, and they began to fall back. Murphy, by this time bleeding from a leg wound, returned to his company and organized a counterattack that drove the Germans from the field and regained the company its earlier position. American forces took Holtzwihr the following day.

Audie Murphy received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Holtwihr. And historians and soldiers alike read the story of his bravery, scratch their heads and wonder, "How does a human being do that?"

It's just the sort of over-the-top ridiculous hero story we scoff at when we see it in movies and books. The kind of story we say could never happen. Except Audie Murphy really did it.

Have a historical story you want to see here? A battle you want me to write up? Let me know! And in the meantime...

Get your nerd on!

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