Late summer 1944, Rome had fallen, and the massive Allied invasion of Western Europe had bludgeoned Adolf Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, secured the beaches in Normandy, fought through the French hedgerows, and gained momentum in its drive toward Germany. Allied armies, fighting hard, swept northward from southern France, and the Wehrmacht, though offering stubborn resistance, was being driven back toward Germany. Confidence was high as German resistance often resembled headlong flight, and Allied leaders planned the invasion and eventual capitulation of the Third Reich; the question was no longer ‘if’, but ‘how’ and ‘when’ the war was going to end – buoyed by recent success in France and the apparent crumbling of the Wehrmacht, some planners, in their overconfidence, envisioned the occupation of Berlin by the beginning of 1945.
Unfortunately, the realities of warfare intruded on the idyllic daydreams of Allied commanders, and in actuality, they were experiencing supply difficulties as their lines grew longer; the advance slowed as lead elements ran short of materiel, mostly fuel and ammunition.
Conversely, German resistance stiffened and supply lines shortened as the Wehrmacht withdrew toward the Rhine River; no longer fighting for foreign territory, they were now fighting for their own survival and that of their homes and families. Adding to Allied difficulties, internal squabbles amongst coalition leaders stymied attempts to form effective invasion plans, and political considerations often overrode military sensibility; who did what was often more important than accomplishing the task at hand.
Ground Forces Commander, Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower, faced with several possibilities, opted for a wide frontal assault on the German Siegfried Line; without a great concentration of force in any one spot, the advance stalled in several areas. The German Army, greatly underestimated, was no longer fleeing, had regrouped, and turned to fight – and what began as reconnaissance in the forests south of Aachen became a lengthy battle of attrition often resembling WW-1 trench warfare; American commanders sacrificed advantages in manpower and armament by staging repeated frontal assaults in unfavorable terrain against determined and prepared defenders, often without a consistent strategic plan.
Only after weeks of heavy losses incurred while trying to dominate the forest did American commanders realize the importance of the Roer River dams beyond the forest and plan accordingly – without control of the dams, ownership of the forest was useless, as the Germans could flood the Roer valley and halt the American drive to the Rhine. By the time they came to realize the importance of the dams, American commanders had committed to a strategy that ignored doctrine and common sense, condemning thousands of men to die in the unnecessary meat grinder that was the Hürtgen Forest.
As the Allies drove toward Germany, two major courses were being laid for the events which would occur in the next few months: The Allied High Command was evaluating several different strategies for the invasion of Germany, and the Germans were regrouping, preparing defenses, and doing their utmost to prevent such an invasion. These two issues forced the Allies to choose between keeping them on the run, preventing extensive German preparation while facing dwindling supplies due to ever-lengthening supply lines, or stopping to regroup, shortening supply lines, and facing a rested and fortified German army in the near future, extending the war indefinitely (1).
Within that particular issue lay another burning question, one that would have to be addressed no matter what time frame was chosen – how would they enter Germany? A drive to the north of the Siegfried Line through Holland was rejected for reasons of poor terrain (canals, rivers), as was retracing the route through the Ardennes the German blitzkrieg had used a few years earlier (forests, hills); two options remained, pushing through the Siegfried Line at the Aachen Gap or toward the Saar Valley, south of the Ardennes (2).
On Sept 1, 1944, Gen Eisenhower also assumed command of all ground forces (SHAEF), replacing FM Bernard Montgomery (3), and was able to push his so-called ‘broad front’ strategy for the advance on Germany, which would theoretically stretch the German resistance thinly enough to a point where a breakthrough could be exploited while simultaneously providing a safe rear area for supplying the advance (4); this broad front consisted of Montgomery’s 21st Army Group on the northern flank, First Army and Ninth Army driving west toward Aachen, and Patton’s Third Army moving toward the Saar; one advance that could actually be considered three separate drives (5).
While the Allies were organizing their advance and trying to solve logistical issues to keep it well-supplied, their supposedly ‘beaten’ German foe was far from defeated and organizing a massive defense at what they called the Westwall or, as the Allies knew it, the Siegfried Line. First begun in 1936, it was the German counterpart to France’s Maginot Line, a line of defensive fortifications that initially ran from the area near Holland to just north of Switzerland (6); expanded later in the 1930s to stretch along the Belgian border, it had become less a line and more a deep belt of overlapping pillboxes, shelters, command posts, vehicle barriers, and bunkers (7) that was designed to stop, or at least delay, an invading force.
It also used natural terrain features (lakes, rivers, forests) in its defensive construction, and though fallen into disuse and disrepair after the fall of France in 1940, was still a formidable obstacle on its own, even without troops to occupy it (8). The troops bound to both occupy the Westwall and reform elsewhere in the defense of the Fatherland were far from the beaten and ‘bedraggled enemy troops’ (9) in headlong flight toward home; even though they were often young teens or old men (10), they were fighting for their homes and families – and waiting for the Americans to come.
(1) Robin Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944 (New York: Overlook Press, 2005), 30-31
(2) Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 31
(3) Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 50
(4) Ted Ballard, Rhineland: The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II (U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1995), 4-5, 13
(5) Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 62
(6) Edward G. Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945 (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1995), 8
(7) Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963), 15
(8) Bruce K. Ferrell, “The Battle of Aachen”, Armor, (November/December 2000): 31
(9) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 9
(10) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 24
And come they did, with Gen Omar N. Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group (First, Third, and Ninth Armies) in the center; Gen Courtney Hodges’ First Army (V Corps, VII Corps, and XIX Corps) was tasked with punching through the Aachen Gap, south of Aachen and north of the Hurtgen Forest; assuming that Aachen would be heavily defended, it would bypass the city and encircle it, taking the heart of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne’s First Reich, and ancestral home to Adolf Hitler’s fading Third Reich (11).
Major road nets radiated from the city’s location in one of the more heavily fortified sectors of the Siegfried Line, and its possession (or destruction) would be a psychological blow to German resistance as well as a boon to transportation and logistics for the future of the advance (12); to the south of Aachen, straddling the German-Belgian border south lay several mountainous and heavily forested areas (the Meröder, Wenau, Hürtgen, and Rötgen forests) that came to be known collectively as the Hurtgen Forest (13), a place that American soldiers would come to curse in the coming months.
Despite the capture of Antwerp and the (mostly theoretical, as German resistance continued in the area) use of its ports, logistical issues still haunted the advance and it slowed in early September; a majority of the supplies needed to storm into Germany were still in Normandy, or somewhere in France while en route – either way, they were not where they were needed most (14). As a result, after successfully crossing the Meuse River and taking back several towns while protecting Montgomery’s flank, Gen Hodges ordered a halt in order to stockpile fuel and artillery ammunition, allowing only small eastward probes to test enemy strength. Infantry patrols breached the line near Luxemburg on Sept 11 and found empty pillboxes.
Lacking much reliable intelligence on enemy activity around the Westwall (15), and impatient to breach the Siegfried Line, Gen Joseph ‘Lightning Joe’ Collins (US VII Corps) suggested a so-called ‘reconnaissance in force’ (per the army’s field manual) between Aachen and the Hürtgen to determine, if possible, enemy resistance; Hodges allowed it so long as resistance was light, and if not, Collins would return and await supplies. Gen Leonard T. Gerow’s V Corps was given a similar order (16), as it was believed that the Germans were responding to the action up north in the Netherlands and down south in Lorraine, as no enemy units of any real significance had been seen in the area for over a week and resistance, if any, was expected to be light (17). If it were stronger than expected, they could withdraw with some new intelligence, and rest, regroup and resupply as planned.
While the Allies regrouped and prepared to probe the line in force, Hitler installed FM Gerd von Rundstedt and FM Walter Model to organize the Westwall defense (18); emptying out hospitals and rear-echelon and non-combat units, he scraped up roughly 150.000 men to defend against the Allied attacks, from every branch and service – and was graciously and uncharacteristically assisted by Hermann Göring, who combed out Luftwaffe units to provide approximately 30.000 men – about 20.000 paratroopers and roughly 10.000 support crew no longer needed for the faltering Luftwaffe (19). These men were added to severely understrength units to create the fortress battalions that would defend the Westwall and were supplemented by Himmler’s Volksgrenadier divisions, often raised from teen ‘Hitler Youth’ groups and supposedly infused with Nazi fanaticism; to make up for the smaller division size (10.000 men versus the normal army division size of 12.500), most of these men were armed with submachine guns instead of rifles (20), and possessed more antitank and artillery weapons (21). The men that were regrouping to man the Westwall were not elite soldiers, many could not even be considered ‘whole’ or ‘young’, but they didn’t have to be, as they were moving into and occupying heavily fortified positions designed for just such the defense they were about to mount (22). The tired men of the resurgent German army began to reoccupy the Westwall in force just as the Americans arrived.
Sept 13 marked Gen Collins’ and the VII Corps’ penetration of the Scharnhorst Line (the westernmost of the two divergent branches of the Siegfried Line, which parted north of Aachen and rejoined it in the Eifel Forest) south of Aachen; he had hoped to break into the Stolberg Corridor, a gap south of Aachen but just north of the town of Hürtgen, and hit the Schill Line (eastern part of the line) in force. The advance consisted of the 1-ID in the north, the 3-AD in the center, and the 9-ID’s 47-IR protecting the southern flank by entering the Hürtgen Forest (23); the German 353.Infantry-Division melted away and allowed elements of the US 3-AG to walk into an ambush by concealed AT guns – it lost six of its eight tanks (24), just a prelude of things to come in the Hürtgen Forest.
(11) Stephen E. Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers: The US Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944 – May 7, 1945 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 146
(12) Charles B. MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign (Washington DC: US Army Center of Military History, 1963), 28
(13) Robert Sterling Rush, Hell in Hurtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991), 2
(14) Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 24
(15) Charles B. MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, 31
(16) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 12
(17) Charles B. MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, 38
(18) James M. Gavin, “Bloody Huertgen: The Battle That Never Should Have Been Fought”, American Heritage, (December 1979): 36
(19) Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 56
(20) Robert Sterling Rush, “A Different Perspective: Cohesion, Morale, and Operational Effectiveness in the German Army, Fall 1944”, Armed Forces and Society, (Spring 1999): 480-482
(21) Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 14
(22) Charles B. MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, 35-36
(23) Karel Margry, “The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest”, After the Battle, (May 1991): 1-5
(24) Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 34-35
Meanwhile, the 47-IR, finding empty pillboxes and persistent rumors of German render up and down the line (25) had easily taken Zweifall on Sept 14 and captured the village of Schevenhutte on Sept 16, encountering up to this point very little resistance. What they didn’t know was that while they were moving west, the German 12.Infantry-Division, fresh and fully staffed and supplied, was brought in by rail to stop the American advance in the Stolberg Corridor and retake Schevenhutte (26); for almost a week elements of the 12-ID threw themselves at the Americans in Schevenhutte. Simultaneous action to the south by the American 39-IR (Lt Col Van H. Bond) attempting to push north near Monschau and meet with the 47-IR near Düren met stiff resistance from the German 89.Infantry-Division.
On Sept 18, Gen Hodges, seeing the forest as a place for Germans to hide and from which to counter-attack (27) ordered to 60-IR Infantry forward to close the gap between the 39-IR and the 47-IR, and consolidate the line; and so, the 60-IR (Col Van Houten) was the first American unit to fully submerge itself in the dark green gloom of the Hürtgen Forest. High ridges and deep valleys dominated the terrain and tall, ancient trees blocked out the sun, parted only by small trails and narrow firebreaks; there were no clearings worthy of note, except near the villages; but damp wet ground and mud that sucked at shoes and mired vehicles. Only small groups could move about together in the thick wooded darkness, and larger groups lost one another as they constantly crouched under the trees and tried to navigate using inaccurate maps and occasionally, German tourist guides to the forest. The few roads that existed were narrow and muddy, barely traversable by tanks (28), and the thick woods rendered radios almost useless (29). Constant rain and snow perpetuated the dreary muddiness of the forest – even the Germans, whose land it was, thought it strange; Gen Hans Schmidt of the 275.Infantry-Division, called it weird and wild, even in the daytime a somber appearance is to cast gloom (30) and American soldiers didn’t feel much differently. The days were so terrible that I would pray for darkness, and the nights were so bad I would pray for daylight (31), said Pvt Blakeslee.
These were just the effects of nature on the men in the forest – the Germans had augmented its natural defenses with deep bunkers, thickly laid minefields, hidden and well camouflaged machine-gun nests with overlapping fields of fire, pre-sighted artillery to make the most use out of tree-bursts (artillery shells were timed to explode at treetop level, showering the men below not only with shards of metal shrapnel but also with tremendous amounts of splinters of the exploding trees), deep belts of overlapping barbed and concertina wire, and roadblocks loaded with mined booby-traps (32).
In entering the forest, Hodges had committed his men to an infantry battle, surrendering their advantages in air power and artillery to the thick forest, and advantages in manpower to the prepared German defenders, whose man-to-man firepower advantage and fortified defenses acted as force multipliers against the besieging Americans. The objectives of the 9-ID on Sept 19, were the towns of Kleinhau and Hürtgen; the 60-IR would take the ominously named Dead Man’s Moor on its way to the town of Germeter, and the 39-IR would take some trails in the nearby Weisser Weh valley and move on to Kleinhau and Hürtgen. Already below full strength, the attacks would be made only by partial units of these elements (33). Despite these shortages, the 39-IR proceeded through the gloom and dug in at the Weisser Weh, only to be met by Gen Paul Mahlmann’s German 353.Infantry-Division the next day and then recalled from the valley to help the 47-IR in Schevenhutte, which was under attack by the fresh German 12.Infantry-Division (Gen Gerhard Engel).
The 60-IR ran into machine-gun nests and disguised bunkers, taking heavy losses in what became a raging, close-combat struggle over a few pillboxes. The 39th got to Schevenhutte to find that it wasn’t needed and slogged back through the Weisser Weh only to find that the Germans had set up residence in their old position – their first taste of the confused, disorganized fighting that was to come. The advance, despite reorganizations and changed plans, had stalled in the thick forest. Absent the traditional American accent on airpower and artillery, the heavy losses incurred in these pure infantry struggles forced the 9th to stop at the end of September, and Gen Gerow’s V Corps took over some of the VII Corps’ line positions (34).
Despite what was essentially a failure in the first real incursion into the Hurtgen, intelligence officers still felt that should a major breakthrough occur, or several penetrations occur, the enemy will begin a withdrawal to the Rhine River, abandoning his Siegfried Line (35), so General Craig consolidated his troops for a second thrust into the forest, this time toward the village of Schmidt, which sat at the nexus of most of the major roads in the forest. Again, however, he was to attack at nowhere near his full strength, as the 47th Infantry was stuck defending Schevenhutte – so the 39th would take another stab at Germeter on the left, and the 60th would move on the right (36). They would be opposed by the German 275.Infantry-Division, a hodgepodge of men squeezed together in the peculiar German habit of forming new units from remnants, rather than reinforcing older, depleted units (37); the German defenders, with decent defenses and a larger-than-average number of heavy guns per unit, seemed to appear whenever and wherever they were needed – and approximately 6500 of them were beefing up their positions when the 9th came once again at the forest. On October 6, a short artillery barrage and P-47 dive-bomb attacks precluded the 9th’s next attack into the forest.
The 39-IR advanced without a secure northern flank and with inadequate (mostly absent) air cover and regular and repeated attacks so predictable that they were chewed up by accurate German artillery fire called down from observation posts (38), bogging down under that and fire from well-concealed pillboxes, and stopping a mile from Germeter; the 60-IR was decimated by machine-gun fire and artillery tree-bursts, made it about 700 M before stopping in the wet forest just short of Reichelskaul; commanders were reluctant to proceed without the tank support that couldn’t get to them because of German mines, roadblocks, and narrow, muddy trails (39).
By the time the tanks arrived, the 60-IR was hunkered down and barely enduring further German barrages. The 39-IR reached Germeter only on Oct 10, to find it empty – neither Gen Erich Brandenberger (CG 7-A) or his subordinates could figure out American motives in the forest, but they also could not ignore them, and were forced to shuffle their own troops around to offer continual resistance (40).
The 39-IR crept toward Vossenack but was outflanked by the German Wegelein Regiment (Oberstleutnant Helmuth Wegelein) just arrived as reinforcements; after 3 days of fighting, the 39th had regained its original positions, and little else. By Oct 16, the 9-ID had slugged it out with its German opposition in the wet, miserable forest, fighting characterized by confused thrusts from one line to another against prepared positions – it had failed to take the town of Schmidt and its vital road net but gained approximately 3000 yards of dense forest that now needed to be held, at the very high cost of about 4500 casualties. It was so depleted that it was no longer combat-effective, but the US 1-A still didn’t have its secure flank – so Gen Hodges, still believing that the forest itself should be taken and held, had to come up with another plan (41).
This plan was strikingly familiar to the old one, with a few changes. First, in personnel, with Gerow’s V Corps now tasked with taking the town of Schmidt, his 28-ID relieved the 9-ID on Oct 26. Second, in armament, as he added tank destroyers, chemical munitions, forty-seven Weasels, extra engineers, and artillery, all to support the infantry divisions. Other than a different division with added mechanization, the plan was essentially the same, and attacks would be made with understrength units with exposed flanks, much to the dismay of Gen Normand ‘Dutch’ Cota, CG of the 28-ID. When his men assumed the 9-ID’s positions, they were greeted with a tableau of dead bodies (human and animals), discarded materiel, shredded trees, and craters left by artillery shells (42); a landscape resembling a slaughterhouse on a (tree-filled) moon.
Adding to his frustration was the fact that his men were now committed to the same plan of attack that gave birth to such a place, and with the same meager military resources and limited operational freedom – between the limiting terrain and the plan he was ordered to follow, he had little leeway. Cota’s men would first have to fight uphill through the woods to get to the few roads that existed, as they were on the exposed ridges overlooking the Kall River, and no one was sure if any of the mechanized pieces (tanks, tanks destroyers, artillery pieces) could even get through the woods to face German armor, which had the luxury of roads leading into their side of the valley.
Thus reinforced, the 28-ID was to push toward Schmidt as part of another broad front drive east toward the Rhine River, with the 109-IR on its northern wing, the 112-IR in the center, and the 110-IR on the southern flank. In addition to Schmidt, it was also to take the Vossenack ridge and the woods adjacent to the town of Hürtgen. The larger offensive, which also included the VII Corps’ parallel thrust to the north, was scheduled to begin on Nov 5, so the V Corps and the 28-ID were to attack no later than Nov 2. Because of bad weather (already a constant), the larger attack was moved back to Nov 10, but for some reason, the 28-ID was still to go forward on Nov 2 as originally planned; as a result, on that day, it moved out alone after an artillery barrage (also a calling card, a here we come warning to the defenders) but again without air support due to bad weather. The attack of the 28-ID unfolded as its own mini broad front, with each regiment moving in a different direction and unable to provide mutual support to the others if needed (43); the 110-IR on the southern edge was forced back by a WW-1 style no-man’s-land of pillboxes, barbed wire, and mines, with nothing to show for it but casualties and the 109-IR in the north was stalled by a similar setup of minefields and overlapping fields of machine-gun fire.
(25) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 21
(26) Margry, “The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest”, 6
(27) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 2
(28) 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, 168
(29) Paul Duke, “A Catastrophic Battlefield”, The Virginia Quarterly Review, (Autumn 2002): 745
(30-31) 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, 168-169
(32) Steve Snow, et al. CSI Battlebook II-A: Hürtgen Forest (Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute, 1984), III-3 – III-8
(33) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 27
(34) Margry, “The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest”, 8
(35) Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 240
(36) Margry, “The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest”, 8
(37) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 33
(38) Gerald Astor, “The Deadly Forest”, World War II (Nov 2004), 27
(39) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 38
(40-41-42) MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 63-86-90
(43) Edward G. Miller and David T. Zabecki, “Tank Battle in Kommerscheidt”, World War II (November 2000), 44
Attacks by the 109-IR and resultant counter-attacks by the defending 116.Panzer-Division (Gen Siegfried von Waldenburg) resulted in an American spike of captured turf near the Weisser Weh river, but flanked by the enemy (44), but American casualties were so high that the 109-IR was quickly relieved by the 12-IR (4-ID), and relegated to a support role in Vossenack. The 112-IR, however, in the center of the thrust, took Vossenack on Nov 2 and, despite taking heavy casualties due to artillery tree-bursts (again), began its ill-fated advance toward Schmidt down the Kall Trail. The trail itself had been mapped (45) but no one had actually looked at it, so without any real recon, the armor was committed to move through what amounted to little more than a goat trail down a steep grade into a valley that may or may not have a usable bridge to the other side (46).
The infantry passed through Kommerscheidt unopposed and took Schmidt, leaving one battalion in each village to prepare a defense until the armor could catch up. The 707th Tank Battalion tried the Kall Trail first, and declared it unusable after the first tank’s weight crumbled the narrow trail, barely wider than the tank itself, and almost sent the tank tumbling into the gorge; engineers were sent in to make the trail usable, initially with only hand tools, and no explosives; heavy equipment took most of the night to get there (47).
In the end, three Weasels with AT mines arrived in Schmidt, and a basic defense was set up.
Early on Nov 4, the Germans’ 16.Panzer-Regiment (10 tanks in all) and elements of the 1055.Infantry-Regiment rolled over the American 112-IR in Schmidt after a massive artillery barrage; with small arms and bazookas, totally ineffective against the marauding Panthers, the American infantry was driven out of Schmidt easily; over 100 were taken prisoner, while the rest fled into the woods and back toward Kommerscheidt (48), where they were later attacked again by infantry with Panther support (49). Three Shermans of A Co, 707-TB led by 1/Lt Raymond E. Fleig (leaving five behind them mired on the Kall Trail) finally arrived in Kommerscheidt to assist the battered 112-IR, destroying five German tanks and driving off the infantry before being reinforced by more Shermans and the 893rd Tank Battalion and its M-10 tank destroyers later in the day.
Meanwhile, elements of the 112-IR in Vossenack continued to endure endless pounding from German artillery on the nearby Brandenberg – Bergstein Ridge. The next morning, the Germans counter-attacked in Kommerscheidt with nine Panthers and two Jagdpanther, retaking the town with a well-coordinated attack against a disorganized static armor defense; American forces lost eight Sherman tanks and eight M-10 tank destroyers, plus Kommerschiedt – and most of the 112-IR, which had been almost entirely destroyed (50). The fighting in this area was so intense and casualties so high for both sides, that a few cease-fires took place between Nov 7 and Nov 9 near the Mestrenger Muhle, a mill, and bridge over the Kall River. Truces arranged by American litter-bearers challenged by German sentries on the line escalated to direct communication between leaders from both sides in order to evacuate the dead and the wounded. At some points, German and American medical officers worked side-by-side until the area was evacuated before shelling resumed and both sides targeted the mill, ending the truce (51).
The vicious fighting and misery of the forest affected both sides so severely that the war was set aside, at least temporarily, for more immediate humanitarian concerns.
The fighting raged on in the other parts of the forest, and by Nov 6, under merciless shelling, the men of the 112-IR in Vossenack had had enough; they broke and ran, leaving the armor behind in the town. Men of the 146-ECB were rushed in as infantry to hold what they could of the town. An additional Task Force, TF David, was assembled to retake Schmidt but it never made it because four of its TDs were destroyed on an exposed ridge before the woods. In the meantime, a battalion of the 109-IR got lost and ended up near Reichelskaul. Heavy forest, malfunctioning radios, broken telephone lines, and sheer terror all contributed to communications difficulties. Lt Col Carl Peterson, CO of the 112-IR, was erroneously ordered to the Division CP and when he arrived after being wounded twice and exhausted to the point of near-unconsciousness, Gen Cota reportedly fainted upon seeing his condition (52).
The recent failures in the forest – Vossenack, Kommerscheidt, especially the second attempt to take Schmidt – and the associated loss of men and armor forced another evaluation of the battle by upper echelons, and the US 1-A Commanding General, Gen Hodges’ answer was to remove Gen Cota from his command of the 28-ID (53), blaming the man and not the mission.
After a meeting with the various involved commanders (all the way up to Eisenhower), Hodges backed down, and on Nov 8, American units were to pull back to the near side of the Kall Gorge. The unfortunate men in the impromptu neutral zone aid station near Kommerscheidt didn’t make it out immediately, but most managed to struggle back in the next few days. The actions by the 28-ID in the Hürtgen cost it over 6000 men, two-thirds of its armor, and the second attempt at taking the town of Schmidt was the most costly American divisional action of the Second World War; the Germans sacrificed roughly half that many men, but still held their forest (54).
While American commanders prepared for yet another offensive deeper into Germany, Adolf Hitler, and his generals were shuffling and augmenting existing units along their defensive lines while pouring in additional men and materiel with the dual purposes of holding the lines while protecting and hiding the buildup for Hitler’s planned Ardennes offensive, his last-ditch attempt to break out and recapture Antwerp, eliminate the Allied western front, and return his attention to the Russians in the east. Whatever the Germans’ motive, it meant a general buildup and increased resistance for the next step in the Allied advance; all done in secrecy – and as history shows, the Allies didn’t really know what was coming, and weren’t prepared for it.
On Nov 16, Gen Raymond O. Barton’s 4-ID was sent to take the town of Hürtgen and clear the forest between Hürtgen and Schevenhutte, after that moving east toward the Roer River. The 4-ID’s efforts were to be part of a larger offensive including also the 1-ID, the 8-ID, the 9-ID, and the 104th Infantry Divisions as well as the 3-AD and the 5-AD, supported by over 300 tanks, almost three-dozen battalions of field artillery, and huge numbers of aircraft in an attempt to reach the plain adjacent to the Roer River (55); air support (Operation Queen, the largest assemblage of aircraft in support of infantry to date) was to preclude this operation.
The 4-ID would advance with the 8-IR (north), the 22-IR (center), and the 12-IR (south) being flanked by 8-ID on its right (south) and the 1-ID to its left (north). It would face the remainder of the German 275.Infantry-Division reinforced with men from other units, which had been in the woods for a few weeks and had already fought well against the 9-ID and the 28-ID; were dug in, and well-prepared (56) with the normal Hürtgen defenses, pillboxes, mines, and elaborate fortifications.
Operation Queen kicked off with over 2000 US and RAF bombers leveling most of Düren and flattening the towns of Jülich and Dürwiss (57). Gen Barton’s 4-ID marched into the Hürtgen Forest already at a disadvantage, as his 12-IR had been sent to assist the 28-ID earlier in November, and had, of course, suffered heavy casualties there, it was to start the next phase of the battle at about one-third of its original strength (58). The 4th was also to follow the ‘tried, tested, and found wanting’ method of marching into the forest en masse, and choosing one of two fates, being chewed up on the roads by mines, bobby-traps, and Germans snipers or being split up by the terrain and losing cohesion. Following one resulted in heavy casualties, and the other resulted in the loss of a traditional front and opening one’s lines to infiltration, and of course, casualties.
As the 4-ID forged through the woods, it experienced the same misery its predecessors of the 9-ID and the 28-ID did; the 8-IR lost 200 men the first day, after meeting heavy resistance (including 8-foot-high concertina wire, a la WW-I) on the Wehe River, and even with tank and tank destroyer support made it only 1000 yards before being stopped. On its way to the villages of Grosshau and Kleinhau, the 22-IR spent 3 days losing 3 battalion commanders and 300 men (59), but eventually took Grosshau at the end of November. The 22-IR was the most successful of the 4-ID’s regiments, forming an eastward bulge in the German lines, but in doing so it had ground itself down to almost nothing.
The 12-IR incurred the (by now normal) heavy casualties in its attempt to take the highway between Germeter and the village of Hürtgen so that armor could move between them. The mission failed, and its commander relieved of duty. By Nov 19, no significant territorial gains had been achieved to offset the heavy losses incurred by the 4-ID Division, and the areas of responsibility between it and adjacent units were redrawn in order to lessen its frontage burden and create some sort of front from the no-man’s-land the forest had become; conversely, it had achieved a Pyrrhic victory of sorts in that its German counterpart in the area, the 275.Infantry-Division, had suffered such high casualties as well that it was no longer combat effective, removed from the line, and replaced by Gen Eugen König’s 344.Infantry-Division (60).
The only significant change in these recent incursions into the Green Hell was Gen Barton’s omission of a preparatory artillery barrage to maintain the element of surprise, as it had become a calling card of sorts, announcing to its targets that an attack was imminent; in addition, the weather cleared occasionally and air support was intermittently available in this sector. The 4-ID would continue to fight in the Hürtgen Forest for a few more weeks, while other units moved in and other received much-needed relief.
(44) Margry, The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, 12
(45) Miller & Zabecki, Tank Battle in Kommerscheidt, 44
(46) David T. Zabecki, Hallowed Ground: Kall Trail, Germany, Military History (Sept/Oct 2008), 76
(47) Margry, The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, 15
(48) Astor, The Deadly Forest, World War II (November 2004), 27
(49) Mike Sullivan, Armor Against the Huertgen Forest: The Kall Trail and the Battle of Kommerscheidt, Armor (May/June 2002), 25
(50) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 72
(51) Sloan Auchinloss, Three Cease-Fires Temporarily Halted the Bloodshed in the Hurtgen Forest and Saved the Lives of Many Wounded, World War II (November 1999), 20
(52) Margry, The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, 17-18
(53) Wiliam Terdoslavich, Battle of Huertgen Forest, in How to Lose WWII: Bad Mistakes of the Good War, ed. Bill Fawcett (New York: Harper, 2010), 209
(54) Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 120
(55) Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 247
(56) Steve Snow, et al. CSI Battlebook II-A: Hürtgen Forest, IV-2
(57) Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hurtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 98
(58) Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 249
(59) Margry, The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, 25
(60) Steve Snow, et al. CSI Battlebook II-A: Hürtgen Forest, IV-27,28
The 8-ID had relieved the 28-ID by Nov 19, and were to begin their attack on Nov 21, with the goals of taking the towns of Hürtgen and Kleinhau, and the Brandenberg Bergstein Ridge, nearing the Roer River and getting closer to Düren. The 8-ID had mostly assembled, its 13-IR and 28-IR, along with the attached 2nd Ranger Battalion, ready to go; its 121-IR was still trying to move north and rendezvous from Luxembourg.
End Part One – Go To Part Two