After a meeting with the various involved commanders (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 Huertgen 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 (Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 120).
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 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 (Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, Battle of the Bulge & Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 247) 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 (Steve Snow, et al. CSI Battle book II-A: Hürtgen Forest, IV-2) 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 (Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Huertgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 98). 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 (Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 249). 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 (Margry, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 25) 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 was 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 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 (Steve Snow, et al. CSI Battle book II-A: Hürtgen Forest, IV-27,28).
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 others received much-needed relief.
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.
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 (Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Huertgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 143), 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 (Marc F. Greisbach, Combat History of the 8-ID in WW II, (Nashville, Battery Press, 1988), 37, 40) 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 while the infantry slugged it out hand-to-hand with the defenders in fighting described as sheer pandemonium (Marc F. Greisbach, Combat History of the 8-ID in WW II, (Nashville, Battery Press, 1988), 37, 40) 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 casualties (Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Huertgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 150) 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 to 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 (Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Huertgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 167). 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 the 2nd platoon pursued the Germans down the far side of the hill; (William R. Phillips, D-Day Was Not His Longest Day, World War II, (May 2002), 58) 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.