It’s confused overnight truck-ride and foot-march through sleet and snow brought the exhausted men to their new position at sunrise, so they could see that they had marched into their new home of ice, blasted trees, and shell craters nestled between a ditch and a cliff; they also saw the usual German gifts of barbed wire, booby traps, AP and AT mines (61), augmented by the Germans since the men of the 28-ID had left the immediate area.
The 121-IR’s plan was to duck through a part of the 4-ID’s sector and take the woods west of Hürtgen, and de-mine the road with the help of the 12-ECB and most of the division’s artillery. Parts of the 5-AD, with infantry support, were to storm out of the woods at daybreak and take Hürtgen and Kleinhau so that the 121-IR could occupy them. The attack unfolded in what was by now normal Hürtgen fashion, with heavier-than-usual casualties and little success; subsequent attacks met with similar German resistance, and battalion medics worked non-stop on mounting casualties (62); renewed attacks were also repulsed, including another thrust reinforced with additional armor on Nov 25.
Disabled and destroyed American tanks now blocked the only tank-worthy road in the area and on Nov 26, a change was made – the woods were cleared of German infantry and some elements of the 121-IR got close enough to see that the town of Hürtgen was still heavily fortified.
It was a rare step forward, and another was taken the next day when infantry and armor took the Kleinhau-Brandenberg road; tanks and tank destroyers proceeded to Hürtgen and blasted the town building by building (63) while the infantry slugged it out hand-to-hand with the defenders in fighting described as sheer pandemonium (64); clean up the following day involved the collection of corpses and round-up of nearly 350 German prisoners, while arrangements were made for the drive on Kleinhau, which was taken the next day with similar house-to-house fighting; it was also secured and an exploratory thrust toward Brandenberg met instant resistance.
Defensive positions were established and solidified while the next step was planned – a 5-AD offensive against Brandenberg with the 8-ID in support, beginning Dec 1.
That exact same day, the decision was made to relieve the 4-ID with the relatively fresh troops of the 83-ID. Some units of the 4-ID suffered a casualty rate of over 150% and the division as a whole suffered over 4500 total casualties65 and was reduced to another collection of wounded, sick, and near-frozen men who had acquitted themselves well in executing a plan that had been repeatedly proven ineffective.
Once again, another American infantry division had fallen victim not only to the forest, bad weather and the prepared and waiting Germans within, but also its own predictable, repetitive wide-front of troops that prevented mutual assistance and also the depth necessary to make penetrations and capitalize on them; and yet another division was to take its place.
Meanwhile, the push toward the Brandenberg–Bergstein Ridge by 5-AD began in early Dec and took heavy losses slugging it out with German armor – losing over 20 tanks and keeping only one tank destroyer serviceable. It stalled right outside Bergstein, and 5-AD sent 60 fresh men (just released from the hospital) to man the line outside Bergstein – they were exhausted, without proper winter equipment, and unarmed – they were forced to pick up various weapons from the dead on their way (66). They were unable to do much of anything in such a state, and the 2nd Ranger Battalion was called in to assist in taking Hill 400 on December 7, (hills were numbered by the Army according to elevation, in feet), which overlooked Bergstein and allowed German spotters to call down accurate artillery fire all around it; it was so heavily fortified that American troops referred to it as Castle Hill.
After a brief recon, the Rangers attacked up the icy slope, past the bodies of those who had tried before, firing and reloading as they ran; they took the hill, and many prepared a defense while 2nd platoon pursued the Germans down the far side of the hill (67); though they had the hill, they were now surrounded and could only wait for the inevitable counterattack. Shortly after their assault, they were shelled mercilessly by German artillery before the first infantry assault, which they repelled – but were by now left with 17 combat-effective men, of the original 65-man assault team. By noon, the Rangers had endured another artillery barrage and repelled another assault while outnumbered 10-to-1, this time managing to seize some German weapons. This routine continued throughout the day, and after their radios were knocked out they began sending the walking wounded back down the hill in an attempt to break through the German lines and get the 8-ID to send help.
It came the next day when a massive barrage from the American 56-FAB laid down around the hill gave the Rangers a respite and drove the Germans back, allowing the Rangers to be relieved by 8-ID. Lt Leonard G. ‘Bud’ Lomell, one of Col James Earl Rudder Rangers D-Day who became a hero for his role in the assault on the, claimed that the hellish fighting on D-Day didn’t compare to the ferocity of the hand-to-hand combat he endured on Hill 400, instead of calling Dec 7, 1944, his longest and most miserable day on earth (68). The Rangers suffered a 90% casualty rate in taking Hill 400, and unfortunately, the hill was lost two weeks later during the Battle of the Bulge.
The 8-ID (including its attached units and ad hoc task forces) had endured over 4000 casualties in this phase of the fighting and with the 1-ID and the 4-ID too depleted to attack further; its drive had stalled short of the town of Hof Hardt (69), and the 83rd Division was tasked with driving through the remainder of the forest; the 83-ID’s CG, Gen Robert C. Macon, was concerned with quickly taking the towns of Gey (331-IR) and Strass (330-IR) on the edge of the Hurtgen before more German reinforcements arrived and clearing the way for the 5-AD to push to the Roer River (70).
The fighting in this last phase was just as savage as it had been for all the other divisions, and the 83-ID suffered heavy infantry and armor losses, approximately 1600 men until Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive or the Battle of the Bulge began on Dec 16, and the fighting then raged to the south of the Hürtgen Forest; after that, the lines there held until after the Bulge was reduced in Jan 1945, and fighting in the area resumed in Feb over the still-contested parts of the Aachen-Hürtgen area (71), which had essentially been absorbed into the post-Bulge campaigns.
(61) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 143
(62-63) Marc F. Greisbach, Combat History of the 8-ID in WW II, (Nashville, Battery Press, 1988), 37, 40
(64) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 150
(65) Richard K. Kolb, 4th Fights Through Four Wars, VFW Magazine, (Feb 2007), 19
(66) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 167
(67) William R. Phillips, D-Day Was Not His Longest Day, World War II, (May 2002), 58
(68) Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers June 7, 1944 – May 7, 1945, 177
(69) Margry, The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, 29
(70) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 172
(71) David Colley, Horror in the Huertgen Forest, VFW Magazine, (Nov 1994), 15
The WW-1-style stalemate in the Hürtgen Forest involved around 200.000 men and chewed up several American and German divisions, producing almost 60.000 total casualties – but for what? The US Army had traded personnel, a lot of them, for roughly fifty square miles of wild forest that proved to be of little value in future operations – and it still could not go any further because it did not control the Roer River dams. It did, however, tie-down and eventually destroy German troops and equipment that could have been used in the Ardennes Offensive – conversely, those same German troops tied down and delayed a much larger American force and allowed the secret buildup that became the Ardennes Offensive – and after all, was said and done, they still retained the Roer dams and the power to flood the valley and either delay the Americans before they crossed the Roer, or destroy them in the valley (72).
So, how did this happen? How did the architects of the successful Normandy invasion engineer such a similarly unsuccessful campaign that even mystified their enemies, and what caused it to bog down and become labeled by some historians as a misconceived and basically fruitless battle (73) and grossly, even criminally stupid? (74)
Several factors contributed to the grinding battle of attrition that became the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, but the genesis of this campaign’s misdirected plan arose with the success of the Normandy invasion; as Allied armies pursued the exhausted and disorganized Germans across France, their leaders saw what they wanted to see, and optimism often overrode practicality. Instead of focusing on annihilating the German Army while it was stunned in France, the first post-Normandy plans centered on capturing territory, allowing the Germans to slip eastward (75), all the while underestimating their ability to counter-attack (76) and affecting future Allied attack plans. The Germans began to regroup, re-arm, and prepare for the defense of their homes and families, while the overconfident Allies experienced logistical difficulties as they marched across France – they were outrunning their supplies, and faced with an overarching planning dilemma – do they pursue now with less-than-ideal numbers and equipment, or hold up, re-arm, and face a rejuvenated enemy who had done the same? (77)
Montgomery favored a strong push from the north, Patton the same from the south, but ultimately the final decision rested with Eisenhower – and he favored a wide advance, his broad front plan, which he felt allowed for a safe rear area for supply and logistics operation for the push into Germany (78), as well as exploiting perceived German weakness, preventing them from massing in response to any strong Allied approach (79).
It was the opposite of the military principle of concentration of force and in this case, Eisenhower believed that stretching his forces would cause the Germans to stretch theirs (80). Unfortunately, the Allies lacked the required overwhelming superiority of numbers to make it work, especially when assaulting force multipliers such as the Siegfried Line or the Hürtgen Forest. As historian Robin Neillands asserts in his criticism of the broad front, just telling every commander to push ahead hardly amounts to a strategy (81), and that same vague idea would exhibit itself later in the campaign, in smaller ways – especially in the Hürtgen Forest, when the elements of Omar N. Bradley’s 12-AG (1-A, 3-A, and 9-A) themselves split into several broad fronts along divisional and regimental lines, resembling at any one time an up to a half-dozen parallel advances too weak to assist one another in any significant way, and lacking the depth to force and then exploit any breaches achieved (82).
A dozen years after the war, Montgomery, in his memoirs, called the broad front plan uncoordinated and lacking in that it allowed army groups to act with too much independence (83). This was borne out over and over later in the campaign when exhausted units made gains only to withdraw (or be destroyed) because they themselves were too weak to hold, and reinforcements were also too weak or nonexistent. Additionally, within the broad front lay the issue of materiel to funnel into the hoped-for logistics system – Antwerp was still in German hands, and supplies had to go through France, whose infrastructure was destroyed by Allied bombing in order to allow the Normandy invasion in the first place. The Allies had deprived the Germans in France of roads and railways, but they themselves inherited the fruits of their labors when they recaptured France and were limited in their ability to move while remaining well supplied; the safe area existed, but gasoline shortages meant that much of the needed materiel was trapped in Normandy, awaiting transport to the American units assembling near the Siegfried Line.
The American buildup at the Siegfried Line was nearly simultaneous with the German buildup within it; some American units found the line unoccupied on initial probes, only to meet fierce resistance upon their return a few days later. Despite the commonly held American belief that the German army was finished and no longer posed a serious threat, it was in fact still a potent force, and far from finished. FM Walter Model was given command of Army Group B and ordered by Hitler to reinforce the Westwall; described as a ruthless, coarse bully who resorted to threats and ultimatums to inspire his subordinates, Model was also a highly-regarded defensive specialist who, in his new role, was encouraged to make the most of his talents. In fact, his quick
rebuilding of the German army was referred to as the Miracle of the West (84).
In matters of technology, the resurgent German army was bolstered by the production surges of 1944 – hundreds of medium and heavy tanks were produced and ready to fight in the west, airplane production resumed at a high rate, and research continued on Hitler’s wonder weapons. It was widely accepted that German tanks, with their heavier armor and better guns, were superior to their American counterparts, but their superiority was offset by their numbers – fewer German tanks were available to combat the larger numbers of Shermans and tank destroyers. Ironically, the American tank destroyers possessed greater speed and the larger guns needed to penetrate German armor, but their thinner armor made their crews reluctant to engage German tanks without tank support (85).
The Shermans, however, had been adapted to utility tanks, such as flamethrower and bulldozer (86). On the squad level, the standard .30-caliber machine gun had a much slower rate of fire than the German MG-34/42, but the semi-automatic American M-1 Garand was superior to the bolt-action Kar 98, and though the newer Volksturm units were armed with machine pistols (MP-38/40, Neuemunster), the Kar 98 was still widely used. Artillery was fairly evenly matched, though doctrine for its use differed, and American fire control and communication were considered superior (87).
The new German divisions created by the comb-out of hospitals, rear-echelon, and Luftwaffe units (no longer needed because the Luftwaffe was a shadow of its former operational self), approximately 180.000 men, were combined with surviving units and reformed by the command elements of the German army that remained operational through the flight through France, and reconnaissance took place in the Hürtgen Forest while other units performed delaying actions. Himmler, now commander of the Replacement Army, rushed his (better-armed but smaller) Volksgrenadier Divisions to the Western Front, augmented by regular army training divisions (88).
The abandonment of the Westwall after the fall of France turned out to be a blessing, and years of neglect allowed the forest to take over, naturally camouflaging it; the German units mashed together in the reorganization fixed, rearmed, and manned existing bunkers and fortified the line with mines, wire barriers, trenches, and traps (89), and prepared for active defense.
The forest was more important to the Germans than the Americans, for several reasons; for one, it was an excellent place to delay and wear down the invading Americans by committing minimal forces, while protecting the rear for both a general troop build-up and Hitler’s planned counter-attack through the Ardennes (90). German leaders also knew the importance of the Roer River and its dams, and had to protect them – the Roer plain could, as a last resort, be flooded with the dams’ opening or destruction and delay the American advance to the Rhine River, so they had to be retained – and the most direct route to the major dams (Schwammenauel and Urft) lay through the Hürtgen Forest. The German plan to protect the dams, and the river, differed greatly from that of the Americans.
Both, Gen Hodges’ 1-A and Gen Collin’s VII Corps were veterans of WWI’s Meuse-Argonne fighting, and were wary of being outflanked by the enemy from any direction; the Hürtgen Forest represented a possible staging area from which the Germans could launch a flanking attack from the south against the 1-A’s advance on Aachen, and they felt that the forest could be taken with minimal effort, as intelligence indicated that the forest was populated by understrength German units loosely controlled and with very low morale (91). The plans that followed were heavily based on the assumption that they were, in fact, ready to vacate the forest and the Westwall in the same manner they left France (92). With a show of superior American forces, the Germans were expected to just leave, leaving open the way to the Roer River, the Rhine, and Germany itself. The warning provided by the 60-ID’s first hard-fought incursion in the forest went unheeded, and so possession of the forest and its towns and roads became the initial target of this campaign – and the US Army committed itself to the forest.
When it entered the forest, 1st Army’s VII Corps retained only its advantage in manpower and surrendered all of the other advantages it possessed – armor, artillery, and air power. The roughly 20 to 1 advantage in sheer numbers of tanks and tank destroyers enjoyed by the Americans (93) was nullified in large part due to the trees, lack of roads, and unfriendly topography. The few roads that existed were mined, blocked, or boobytrapped by the waiting Germans, and armor that entered the forest lost both its ability to maneuver and its advantages of speed over the defending German infantry; the resultant separation from its own infantry meant that it was no longer part of a combined arms offensive, and left it vulnerable – even the valuable experience gained in the Normandy hedgerows were no help here (94), and American armor suffered heavy casualties in the forest. The Kall Trail – Kommerscheidt debacle suffered by the Lt Flieg and the 707-TB is a shining example of how the forest topography, plus the Germans waiting in clearings near targeted villages, decimated American armor (95).
Artillery was also of limited use in the forest, as it was restricted, like armor, by the terrain. Mechanized like the armor, it didn’t always enjoy the mobility necessary for its proper deployment and the thick trees interfered with targeting and fire control – American observers couldn’t see targets, and the thick forest became advantageous shrapnel for German artillery (96) (the famous tree bursts) and it wasn’t as effective as it had been in the earlier drives across Europe – the Hürtgen Forest action was mostly an infantry engagement (97).
The same tree cover and thick forest, coupled with bad winter weather, grounded aircraft from both armies, and the overwhelming advantage enjoyed by the American air corps (approximately 14.000 Allied planes in the West alone, versus about 4500 total Luftwaffe aircraft in both theaters) were mostly nullified (98); on a few occasions air cover was able to assist, such as the P-47 dive-bombing prelude to the 9-ID’s Oct 6 attack and Operation Queen, but the air corps also did not enjoy the successes it had earlier in the year. In committing to this forest campaign, American commanders had surrendered their advantages in men, material, and offensive mechanized superiority – tanks, artillery, and air power – and had begun an infantry offensive against an enemy ensconced in his prepared fortifications, just the type of fighting in which the enemy had proven to be very, very good (99).
(72) Margry, The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, 34
(73) Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 205
(74) Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers June 7, 1944 – May 7, 1945, 167
(75) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 6
(76) Duke, A Catastrophic Battlefield, 745
(77) Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 31
(78) Ballard, Rhineland: The US Army Campaigns of World War II, 6
(79) G.E. Patrick Murray, Eisenhower as Ground-Forces Commander: The British Viewpoint, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (2007), 158
(80-81-82) Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 62, 47, 177
(83-) Murray, Eisenhower as Ground-Forces Commander: The British Viewpoint, 158
(84-85) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 7-9, 207
(86) Ferrell, The Battle of Aachen, 32
(87) Snow, et al. CSI Battlebook II-A: Hürtgen Forest, III-12
(88) Rush, A Different Perspective: Cohesion, Morale, and Operational Effectiveness in the German Army, Fall 1944”, 480
(89) Margry, The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, 34
(90) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 5
(91) Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 60-61
(92) Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 239-240
(93) Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, 14
(94) Sullivan, Armor Against the Huertgen Forest: The Kall Trail and the Battle of Kommerscheidt, 25-26
(95) Astor, The Deadly Forest, World War II (November 2004), 29-30
(96) Rush, Hell in Hurtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment, 22
(97) Jay Marquart, Going the Distance with the Old Reliables, World War II (February 2004), 45
(98) Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, 14
(99) Peter R. Mansoor, The G.I. Offensive in Europe: The Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941-1945 (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1999), 188
The attack on the Hürtgen Forest became a small war in itself, an infantry-based, WW-1 style battle for the terrain. The battle plan was fairly simple, a microcosm of Eisenhower’s broad front in which units were to push forward with few, and in some cases, no reserves. Starting with the 9-ID’s first action in the forest in September, American units moved abreast of one another leaving their flanks exposed, sometimes for miles (100), unable to offer mutual assistance or supporting attacks. They were also grossly unprepared to attack prepared fortifications like those of the Siegfried Line, lacking the special equipment (Explosives, Bangalore Torpedoes, Flamethrowers) essential for the reduction of pillboxes (101) and the experience to maximize such equipment’s effectiveness. Only through painful experience did the 9-ID come up with detailed procedures for pillbox destruction – and they still took up valuable time. The 9-ID finished its time in the forest with a frontal assault that nearly finished it (102), and it was removed from the line in Oct with a net gain of 3000 yards, in exchange for roughly 4500 casualties.
Such massive casualties forced removal from the line for much-needed rest and the acquisition of replacements. Early in the battle, Maj Houston of 9-ID had warned that the Roer Rover dams posed a threat to American forces and were extremely important to German resistance; the dams could be opened or destroyed by the Germans, flooding the plain and stopping the American thrust, or be used to flood the plain after the Americans crossed it, cutting them off from any assistance and most likely ensuring their destruction (103). However, the forest remained the objective and the 28-ID was to proceed in a similar fashion – Gen Norman Cota was given little input on his division’s deployment, tactics, or plan of attack. The differences this time were added mechanized elements and engineer and chemical munitions support for the infantry; the 28-ID advanced alone, with its 109-IR, 110-IR, and 112-IR regiments moving in different directions and unable to support one another. The end result was to be expected, with heavy casualties (over 6000) and the loss of huge amounts of valuable (and limited) equipment; the 28-ID, like the 9-ID, was sent into the forest, driven out with crippling losses, and sent to a quiet sector to rest and refit. For a second time, the same basic plan had failed.
By Nov, the Roer River dams had begun to enter the minds of Allied planners, but not their strategy – the forest was still the target and the newest plan was an amplified version of the earlier broad front plans, involving a massive buildup of five infantry divisions and two armored divisions, preceded by the aforementioned Operation Queen – the largest-ever air operation in support of a ground operation. The 4-ID Division took its place in the line, opposing the same German troops in the same fortified positions that had already proven almost invincible. Adding to existing problems was the fact that the 4-ID was starting its offensive in a weakened state, as one of its regiments had already suffered huge casualties in the Hurtgen – its 12-IR had assisted the 28-ID earlier in Nov. So, already weakened, the 4-ID went forth just like its predecessors in the forest – regiments abreast, no reserves, and with gaping holes in its lines, inviting infiltration (104); the result was, not surprisingly, the same as enjoyed before – heavy casualties, little gain, and lost time.
The 4-ID, given the same mission in the same terrain in the same weakened state, had become a victim of not only the forest and the German enemy inside it, but also the unimaginative and repetitive planning of the US Army (105); the exact same tactics that had failed with the 9-ID and the 28-ID before, had also failed with the 4-ID, and it traded 4000 men for three miles of forest (106). For whatever reasons, the US Army commanders still failed to realize that their pinprick attacks, one spread-out division at a time, allowed the Germans to rearrange their forces at will to repulse the (by this time) predictable American assaults (107), and the same fate, via the same method, awaited the next division to visit the area. In its own chapter in the Hürtgen forest saga, in late Nov, the 8-ID was tasked with taking the town of Hürtgen itself – which it did, after slogging through the frozen mud and ice of the worst German winter in recent memory, and sustaining over 4000 casualties by Dec 8. The last major action of 1944 in the Forest occurred in the town of Merode, where only 13 men, out of two companies, survived a German counter-attack (108). The Germans still held Schmidt and its road nexus, part of the forest, and the Roer dams.
Curiously, American interest in actually planning for the capture of the Roer Dams had escalated toward the end of Nov and early Dec (109), but the fighting for the Hürtgen Forest was swallowed up by the Ardennes Offensive and lines remained relatively stable during the so-called Battle of the Bulge to the south (110). By that time the battle had taken months of valuable time, involved over 120.000 men, and cost the US Army over 33.000 total casualties; the Germans suffered around 28.000 (111), and the major Roer River dams, the Schammenauel and the Urft, were still in German hands. The 78-ID finally wrested them from German hands on Feb 9, 1945, after the Germans had used them to cause some flooding in the Roer valley (112). The Battle of the Hürtgen Forest had become its own war, insulated from the fighting around it, and even from the true objectives it shielded the Roer River dams; the fighting itself sucked in more and more men, and the objective became the territory itself, which ironically held no intrinsic value (113). It became a self-feeding meat grinder, in which a cycle of attack and counter-attack was perpetuated by replenishment and repeat, with no end in sight save the annihilation of one of the combatants.
A few major factors contributed to this cycle of destruction – the massing of troops at the Siegfried Line caused it to become the sole focus of the early stages of the advance, to the exclusion of anything else (114), and the aforementioned lack of creativity on the part of the US Army was bred in part by what soldier and historian Charles B. MacDonald (who fought a couple of miles southward in Belgium, Krinkelt-Rocherath with the 2-ID, there and won a Silver Star and a Purple Heart) calls breakthrough thinking (115), in which commanders were stuck in a sort of rut – the idea that a major push somewhere could lead to a breakthrough, and be exploited for gain. Unfortunately, tied in with the broad front idea, this caused thrusts and advances, often without reserves or reinforcements, that were too weak to make gains or breakthroughs in any one place.
When met with failure, they subscribed to the belief that one more push, one more unit, one more day or week, would succeed – and so, based on that thinking, repeatedly committed troops to the forest the same way each time, without any substantial alteration. The forest became an end in itself, and the repeated attacks caused by this repetitive strategy suffered because the senior Allied commanders were, as a whole, unfamiliar with the battlefield, and often had no idea what was happening in it. In their initial planning, they failed to acknowledge the value of the forest to the defending Germans and the advantages it gave to their outnumbered forces (116); by ignoring the forest topography and making no subsequent attempts to familiarize themselves with it, upper-echelon leaders tasked men and their machines with the impossible (117) – such as the lack of recon of the Kall Trail, little more than a goat trail – but labeled a road on maps given to the tank crews that would eventually plunge off of its cliffs, or the small clearings on maps that were actually miles wide118, causing men to advance long distances on foot exposed to heavy artillery and machine-gun fire.
Rather than reevaluate the planning, leaders at the Army and Corps levels pushed for unrealistic goals and assigned blame to the men asked to do the impossible with virtually nothing (119). When lower-level commanders failed in achieving the unlikely or improbable, despite often suicidal bravery, they were very often replaced, without regard to their circumstances120, adding to the ever-present and climbing rate of attrition.
Such straight-ahead frontal-assault infantry tactics and the constant grinding combat lead to spiraling casualties, and the need for replacement soldiers to replenish the ranks. The German and American replacement systems differed greatly, as the German system was unit-based – units were normally removed from battle and trained as a whole, giving the individual soldier the benefit of older unit members’ experience, and also giving him a sort of home – but the American system was patterned after an assembly line, with each soldier being a replaceable part of a unit, a cog in a machine. The machine was running full-time and required replacements, men and officers, and many units struggled to stay at even minimum strength.
As the number of American divisions was fixed at eighty-nine, there weren’t always enough idle divisions available to relieve divisions that were actively engaged, and the ones in combat relied on replacements (officers also) to maintain their effectiveness (121). The existing system provided men with basic training, and further training, if required, provided in the field. In the Hürtgen, that often meant that men with minimal training were rushed to the front, sometimes not even knowing what unit they were assigned to before being injured or killed (122). They were replacing men with valuable combat experience while making mistakes attributable to their inexperience – bunching up, talking loudly, giving away their position – and lacking the additional knowledge and skills necessary to survive in the unique battlefields in which they’d just arrived. These mistakes not only reduced their effectiveness by keeping their performance at a lower level that weakened the unit as a whole but also created division within units as the few remaining veterans often avoided the newer men whose mistakes were liable to get them wounded or killed. Veteran was also a subjective term, as men who’d simply survived a few days were labeled as such. Between constant combat that reduced available training time and frequent veteran reluctance to fraternize with newer men, valuable lessons that should have been passed from experienced to inexperienced soldiers were not shared, and units that enjoyed paper strength did not always possess full combat effectiveness (123)
High casualties amongst officers also caused similar problems, as new leaders with no experience with either combat or the men under them were to lead them into battle; total strangers who’d never met one another and had little in common aside from a common uniform rushed into battle together, with insufficient training and little cohesion – inexperience at all levels eventually caused more inexperience, which in turn contributed to higher casualties, necessitating the need for more inexperienced replacements. The American replacement system was designed to maintain the administrative effectiveness of the organization, at the expense of the individual – it kept units at paper strength, but not always at practical fighting strength (124), and this greatly affected the men fighting in the interminable gloom and misery of the Hürtgen Forest.
The fighting in the Hürtgen Forest also had the unintended result of turning back the clock of warfare to some extent and became a negative struggle for territory reminiscent of the Meuse-Argonne campaign near the end of WW-1 (125), dominated by close-quarters infantry combat, frontal assaults, and artillery duels. The drive to batter through the Siegfried Line and cross the Roer River toward the Rhine carried the American army into the Hurtgen Forest, where resistance, if any, was expected to be minimal – when the U.S. Army was surprised by heavy German resistance there, it responded in kind – and the battle grew into its own war, seemingly insulated from the greater war, diverting the American invaders from their initial purpose. It became a sort of black hole, eating up lives and military assets at a pace barely sustainable by its combatants, but no one could afford to leave as long as the enemy remained; the Americans had to eliminate the threat to its flanks, and the Germans had to hide and protect their planned breakout. And so, the carnage in the Hurtgen escalated and may have continued unabated for the unforeseeable future were it not swallowed up the Battle of the Bulge, in which the Germans expended the last of their offensive capability. Until the Bulge occurred, 1-A’s Gen Hodges stubbornly protected his southern flanks by feeding a chain of infantry divisions into the forest, hoping for that breakthrough that the next division might provide. Though the fighting in the Forest had the unintended and accidental result of destroying four German divisions that may have faced the Americans and changing the face of the German breakout later in Dec (126), it also expended valuable American resources and the forest itself was a diversion from his stated purpose of breaking through the Siegfried Line and advancing east to the Rhine.
Though he cannot be faulted for attempting to secure the southern flank of the forest, Bradley and Hodges could also have attempted containment of the forest after meeting the first German resistance and forsaken the eventual siege of the forest, towns, and road nets within it; the delay in the forest allowed Germany to retain control of the dams until Feb 1945 (127). With containment of the forest and a more southerly move between the Hurtgen and Ardennes Forests through the so-called Monschau Corridor, the US Army would have been able to move through clear terrain (128) and assault the dams much earlier in the fall of 1944, completely cutting off the Germans in the Hürtgen; without reinforcements and supplies, German resistance would have lessened or stopped and the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, as it were, may not have occurred at all (129), and become the loser that our top brass ever after never seemed to want to talk about (130). Though well-intentioned and grounded in military doctrine, Hodges’ desire to protect his southern flank spun out of control and without coherent strategic direction, became an invasion of the Hürtgen Forest and a war in itself. By committing fully to the forest, the US Army’s advantages in manpower and materiel were negated by the terrain, with the impassable forest hampering the movement of men and supplies and severely limiting the effectiveness of armor, artillery, and air power – three linchpins of American doctrine. The battle became an infantry struggle reminiscent of WW-1, with commanders who were unfamiliar with the terrain repeatedly committing troops to frontal assaults against a fortified and prepared enemy.
The replacement system of the time, impersonal and often inefficient, ensured that army divisions remained at paper strength when in reality, undertrained and unprepared men were rushed into combat and quickly became casualties themselves, necessitating the insertion of more men of similar caliber. The true goals of the campaign in this sector, the Roer River and its dams were acknowledged by commanders but did not play a role in strategic planning until the fighting in the Hurtgen had reached a crescendo, just before being overshadowed by a new threat – Adolf Hitler’s last-ditch Ardennes Offensive. Other strategic options, such as containment of the forest or thrusts directed through more suitable terrain in weakly-defended sectors, were not explored until after the opportunity had passed, and valuable time and costly resources had been expended in the acquisition of intrinsically useless territory.
The grinding combat in the Hurtgen Forest had no effect on the eventual outcome of the war and was swallowed up by the larger campaigns in the region – by all accounts, the United States Army won the forest but lost the battle, and it was allowed to fade into relative obscurity, remembered mostly by those who were there.
In the years that followed, the forest debacle became a historical footnote, and the same men who engineered the successful Normandy invasion eventually distanced themselves from the disaster in the Hurtgen Forest – victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan.
(100-101) Charles B. MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, 328-330, 44
(102) Mansoor, The G.I. Offensive in Europe: The Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941-1945, 187-188
(103) Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 65
(104) Margry, The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, 24
(105) Mansoor, The G.I. Offensive in Europe: The Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941-1945, 190
(106) Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 250-251
(107) Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 202
(108) Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 253
(109) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 180
(110) Colley, Horror in the Huertgen Forest, 16
(111) Margry, The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, 34
(112) Charles B. MacDonald, Victory in Europe, 1945: The Last Offensive of World War II (Mineola: Dover Publications,2007 ), 81-83
(113) Charles B. MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, 493
(114) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 204
(115-116) Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 69, 202
(117) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 207
(118) MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, 493
(119) Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany: June 7, 1944 – May 7, 1945, 169
(120) Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 252
(121) Rush, Hell in Hurtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment, 302
(122) Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 242, 251
(123) Rush, Hell in Hurtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment, 320-321
(124) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 207
(125) Allen R. Millett & Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 474
(126) Margry, The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, 34
(127) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 209-211
(128) Terdoslavich, “Battle of Huertgen Forest”, 212.
(129) Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 199
(130) Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany: June 7, 1944 – May 7, 1945, 169
Gen Normand Dutch Cota – CG 28-ID
Gen Cota hoped to remain on active duty and perhaps be promoted to Lieutenant General. He had sent several letters to the Army G-1 requesting a variety of duty assignments but none of the letters were answered. With the war over and the army about to go through an enormous draw-down, he was ordered to take a physical. The writing was on the wall. Aged fifty-two and found to have a mild form of diabetes, he was directed to retire. With some regret, Dutch Cota became a civilian after twenty-eight years of military service. Postwar, he would become heavily involved in civil-defense work for the city of Philadelphia and was very active in a variety of veteran’s activities. Dutch died on Oct 4, 1971, age seventy-eight. He was buried alongside his wife Connie, at West Point.
Today, the hero of Omaha Beach and St Lô is largely forgotten. The Fighting General, whose division fought for eleven vicious months from Normandy to the Rhine and beyond, can teach us much about organizational leadership and leadership in combat. Though his division was destroyed in two weeks of the most difficult combat conditions imaginable, it was rebuilt, only to continue fighting until the final victory was achieved. Maj Gen Norman ‘Dutch’ Cota should be remembered for his heroic leadership, the example he set for others to emulate, and the lessons that can be learned when things don’t go right in combat. There are many lessons to be learned from this case study about Gen Cota and the 28-ID’s experiences during the battle of the Hürtgen Forest which encompass the art and science of battle command, its elements, and components for future leaders and commanders to analyze and consider.
End of Part Two – Go To Part Three