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 (Rush, Hell in Huertgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment, 302). The existing system provided men with basic training, and further training, if required, was 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 (Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944, 242, 251).
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 weakening the unit as a whole but also creating 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 (Rush, Hell in Huertgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment, 320-321)
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, (Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Huertgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 207) 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 (Allen R. Millett & Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 474) 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 Huertgen 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 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 Huertgen 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, (Margry, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 34) 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 (Miller, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Huertgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945, 209-211).
With containment of the forest and a more southerly move between the Huertgen and Ardennes Forests through the so-called Monschau Corridor, the US Army would have been able to move through clear terrain (Terdoslavich, “Battle of Huertgen Forest”, 212) 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 Huertgen Forest, as it were, may not have occurred at all, (Charles B. MacDonald, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest, 199) and become the loser that our top brass ever after never seemed to want to talk about (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). 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 Huertgen 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 Huertgen 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 Huertgen Forest: victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan.
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, at 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.
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