1945 - The liberation of Colmar
The 2 February 1945 is a key date in the city´s history. For the citizens of Colmar, it marked the end of the war, even if fighting continued for a time elsewhere in Europe. The battle of the Colmar pocket was the last to be fought on French soil. Three whole months would pass between the liberation of Strasburg and the one of Colmar, with desperate German resistance holding up the Allied advance before finally collapsing.
The operation was supposed to be done in a short period of time. In November 1944, General De Lattre de Tassigny´s 1st Army launched a crushing offensive in the south of Alsace that broke through the German front line to take Belfort and then pushed on to the Rhine, liberating Mulhouse on 21 November. Two days later, General Leclerc´s 2nd armoured division entered Strasburg, after a campaign that had started in Koufra in Chad. The liberation of Alsace then seemed to be a question of days or even hours. The panic-stricken Nazi authorities in Colmar had already fled the city and the Colmarians were getting ready to celebrate their liberation.
But then the Americans wavered and De Lattre decided to call a halt to his offensive in the plain of Alsace and to withdraw the 5th armoured division to the rear of the French lines. The German reaction was swift. Operation Nordwind was launched on 1 January 1945 in the north of Alsace, as part of the German counter-attack that had already successfully regained the initiative in the Ardennes since 16 December 1944.
In Upper Alsace, since December, the French troops had been halted to the north of Mulhouse and to the south of Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr. On 22 January 1945, despite the freezing cold and the snow, General de Lattre launched a pincer movement to liberate Colmar and reach the Rhine at Brisach. Colmar was skirted from the north and the west. General Schlesser´s daring night attack on 1 and 2 February brought the French army into Colmar and the city was at long last liberated. Fighting in the Colmar pocket would continue until 9 February. The battle itself had lasted twenty one days in freezing conditions and resulted in heavy Allied losses, with 8,000 American dead and 16,000 French. The 19th German Army, under General Raspe, lost over 20,000 men, with a further 16,000 been taken prisoners.
After the liberation - The French triumph
"In all the years of my long life, I have never witnessed such popular enthusiasm as the one which we experienced during the days after the liberation of 18 November. Regiments marched into Colmar, one after the other, in the midst of an indescribable frenzy of waving flags and heaving crowds. And all around one could see Alsatian women dressed up in traditional costumes in the blue, white and red of the French flag, that they had hastily sewn together to be able to greet their liberators. Government leaders and army marshals such as Clemenceau, Poincaré, Joffre and Foch, were all welcomed over the next few weeks with fervour and warmth as had never been seen before."
Joseph Rey, Mayor of Colmar from 1947 to 1977, had, like thousands of other Colmarians, witnessed the heady first days of the liberation. After the hardships and mourning of the five previous years, they could at last let themselves go and the whole city launched itself into a huge celebration, ignoring the last few German nationals who had not yet left the city. Colmar had generously opened its arms. France suddenly became the symbol of all virtues under the sun and heaven, a land bedecked by the three-coloured flag. The walls were covered in posters and proclamations printed in blue, white and red. Extravagant garlands hung between the houses and a joyous crowd had taken over the city, singing and doing its utmost to say the few words of French they knew. "Crowds of young people were singing with the Alsatian accent; "Fife la France, merte la Prusse, Fife la République".
"And regiments of infantry walked up and down, headed by a band playing "Vous n´aurez pas l´Alsace et la Lorraine", followed by squadrons of cavalry, riding with drawn sabres and accompanied by trumpets sounding out lively fanfares" (Pierre Burger). The crowd was in the streets or gathered at the windows, cheering the infantry and cavalry as they made their way through the city, the wheels of the artillery trailers and the great cannons thundering along behind them. Girls dressed up in Alsatian costume and local associations with banners proudly unfurled marched gaily behind the military might. On 22 November the celebrations started afresh for the visit of Raymond Poincaré, the President of France and Georges Clémenceau, the Prime Minister. There seemed to be no end to euphoria.