Document Source: Reprint from the December 2000 Article of the Armor Magazine, by Capt Bruce K. Ferrell. The October 1944 Siege of Germany’s West Wall (Siegfried Line), led to a MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) fighting in Charlemagne’s Historic City during the month of October 1944 as well as the birthplace of Doc Snafu on May 4, 1955.
At this year’s Armor Conference in May 2001, Fort Knox officially opened and dedicated a new, state-of-the-art Mounted Urban Combat Training Site. This is a significant milestone in the Army’s attitude towards training for Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT). In years past, the mounted force often avoided serious MOUT training, handing it over to the light fighters like an unwanted problem. But the importance of being able to operate in cities has been vividly illustrated during our past and present operations in Panama City, Port-au-Prince, Mogadishu, and Bosnia. And the worldwide demographic trend toward more urbanized populations makes it all the more likely that mounted forces will conduct operations in urban areas. (Robert S. Cameron: It takes a village to prepare for urban combat … and Fort Knox is getting one.)
The Armor Center identified the need for a training center specifically for mounted forces early in the 1980s, and the training site that was recently dedicated has been a long time in coming. While the new training site will help us to develop new tactics, techniques, and procedures for our modern forces and modern weaponry, we can also learn a great deal about MOUT from military history. Indeed, many of the same urban combat TTP used during WW II by the US Army are still applicable today. Many of these lessons were learned by the US 1-A during its siege of the first German city captured by the Americans, the city of Aachen, in October 1944.
In the late summer of 1944, in accordance with Gen Eisenhower’s broad front strategy, the Allies were on the offensive in every sector of the Western European Theater. Despite constant British appeals for a focused narrow thrust into Germany to capture Berlin, Eisenhower maintained the strategy he believed would best accomplish the goal of German unconditional surrender. That strategy was to destroy Germany’s ability to wage the war. To do this, Eisenhower sought to capture the industrial areas of the Ruhr and the Saar in order to deprive Germany of the critically needed resources and infrastructure in these areas. Eisenhower’s plan employed armies along several major routes of advance into the heart of Germany. The most direct route to the Ruhr industrial area was the Maubeuge, France, the Liège, Belgium, and the Aachen axis. The US 1-A, commanded by Gen Courtney Hodges, drew the task of moving along this axis, crossing the Rhine River, and capturing the area.
The German forces opposing the Allies on the Western Front were under the command of the Oberkommando West (OB WEST). After the Allied breakout from the bocage country of Normandy, German forces were continuously on the verge of being routed. However, all through the summer of 1944, OB WEST had managed to hold a cohesive front against the Allies in a massive delaying action. Hitler’s constant orders to hold at all costs were of little help to the commander of OB WEST, GFM Walter Mödel. Mödel sent report after report to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OBKW) begging for reinforcements. In response to his constant appeals for help, Hitler replaced him with GFM Gerd von Rundstedt, who received the same hold at all costs orders. Von Rundstedt, knowing he would get no help from the German high command, immediately set about stabilizing his front. He ordered his forces to fall back upon the West Wall, thus giving his forces defenses to fight from, shortening their interior lines and condensing the front. He didn’t know it, but OB WEST’s mission was to delay the Allies long enough for Hitler to assemble a massive force to conduct a sweeping counter-offensive out of the Ardennes and across the Meuse River and on to Antwerp!
On both north and south, the Maubeuge, Liège, Aachen axis was bordered by severely restricted terrain. To the north, the waterways of the Netherlands hindered mounted movement, while the Eifel highlands and the Ardennes to the south were too restrictive to allow movement of large formations. The Germans tied the Wurm River, running approximately southwest to northeast in front of Aachen, into the West Wall defense as an anti-tank obstacle, but the river was not much more than a stream, at best, and easily fordable in most places. Beyond the Wurm River was an open plain dotted with small groups of built-up areas, broken only by the Roer River and the Erft River. Tied into this natural terrain was the complex of man-made defenses known as the West Wall, or as the Americans called it, the Siegfried Line. Hitler had built the West Wall in 1936 as a strategic counter-move to the French Maginot Line. It had been a monumental effort at the time, but once the Nazis conquered France, the fortifications of the West Wall had fallen into disrepair. One of the most fortified stretches of the wall remained in the Aachen sector. Around the city, the West Wall split into an east and west branch.
The West Wall incorporated natural obstacles like rivers, lakes, railroad cuts and fills, defiles and forests as much as possible, but where natural obstacles were inadequate, there were massive chains of dragon’s teeth, rows of reinforced-concrete pyramids, increasing in height from 2.5 feet (0.7 M) in the front rows to almost five feet (1.4 M) in the back rows. Roads leading through the dragon’s teeth were blocked with gates made of steel I-beams, and all roads were additionally guarded by pillboxes. Pillboxes were 20 to 30 feet in width (6 to 9 M), 40-50 feet deep (12 to 15 M), and 20 to 25 feet high above the ground. (6 to 9 M). At least, half of each pillbox was underground, the walls and roofs made of reinforced concrete varying from 3 to 8 feet (0.9 to 3 M) in thickness. They had living quarters for troops and firing ports sighted on designated areas. Additionally, to the rear of the pillboxes were bunkers, designed to house reserves and command posts. They were constructed in a similar fashion, with more living space and fewer firing ports. Though these fortifications were in poor condition, and the speed and maneuverability of modern mechanized warfare had made them obsolete, the Allies would soon learn that even outdated fortifications could lend strength to any defense.
In the center of all this lay the ancient city of Aachen. Militarily, the city was significant because it controlled most of the major roadways in the area. Gen Hodges knew he had to capture the city in order to secure his lines of communication for further advances east into the Ruhr. But aside from its strategic value, Aachen real significance lay in its political and ideological importance. Aachen would not only be the first German city besieged by the Americans but was also the birthplace of Charlemagne the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, which Hitler often referred to as the First Reich. Hitler had declared the rule of the Nazis as the Third Reich, psychologically aligning himself to the Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne. To strike at <Aachen, therefore, was to strike at a symbol of Nazi faith.
To accomplish the US 1-A’s mission, Hodges directed Gen Charles Corlett’s US XIX Corps, to attack through the West Wall north of Aachen, in the vicinity of Geirlenkirchen. As part of this attack, Gen Leland S. Hobbs’ US 30-ID, Corlett’s southernmost division was to break south over the Wurm River to capture Würselen. The US 30-ID’s attack constituted the northern prong of an encircling maneuver to surround Aachen. The southern prong would be conducted by the US 1-ID, under Gen Clarence Huebner. The US 1-ID was from the US VII Corps, commanded by Gen Lawton J. Collins. The division was to attack north to initially capture Verlautenheide and then capture Ravels Hill (Hill 231). Once Aachen encircled, the Allies would pound the city with air strikes and artillery barrages, then conduct a deliberate assault.
Facing the US XIX Corps and the US VII Corps was the LXXXI Corps of the German 7.Armee, commanded by the newly appointed Gen Friedrich Koechling. The German 7.Armee commander, Gen Erich Brandenberger, put Koechling in charge of the LXXXI Corps to replace Gen Friedrich August Schack, who had proved ineffective at controlling his subordinates. It was revealed that Schack’s subordinate division commander in charge of the defense of Aachen, Gen Gerhard Helmut Graf von Schwerin (116.Panzer-Division Greyhound), had been planning to surrender the city to the Allies. Schack immediately relieved Schwerin but failed to apprehend him in a timely fashion. Upon Koechling assuming command of LXXXI Corps, he pulled the 116.PD out of Aachen and replaced it with the 246.Volkgrenadier-Division, commanded by Oberst Gerhard Wilck. Koechling also had at his disposal the 49.Infantry-Division defending the north side of Aachen and the 12.Infantry-Division defending the south side of the city. But both of these divisions had taken recent poundings. The 12.Infantry-Division had recently arrived as a reinforcement from the German 7.Armee, but had been committed piecemeal by Schack, and therefore was forced out of Stolberg by the US 3-AD south of Aachen.
In the north, the 49.ID was losing ground to the US 30-ID’s offensive to reach Wurselen. Gen von Schwerin was now totally disillusioned with the war. He had been very successful in the Balkans, receiving the Knight’s Cross in 1943. But Schwerin was not a National Socialist and as the war dragged on, he struggled constantly at having to serve a master in whom he did not believe. When Hitler’s order to defend the city of Aachen at any cost came down to him, he quickly resolved to surrender Aachen upon the beginning of the Americans’ assault. He drafted a letter expressing such intentions in secret and planned to deliver it to the Americans when their offensive started. His letter was discovered during an SS raid in Aachen while they were evacuating civilians from their homes. To add to all this, the German Army spent enormous time and effort controlling the civilian populace of Aachen. Even after a forced evacuation by the SS troops, it was estimated that some 40.000 civilians remained in the city during the siege.
Aachen was primarily Catholic and therefore had been persecuted by the Nazis. They saw the oncoming American attack as liberation. Many of them hunkered down in cellars or attics, trying to avoid the SS troops sent to root them out of their homes, waiting for the Americans. A combination of logistical shortages and lack of air cover due to poor weather forced Hodges to halt his offensives in mid-September. The pause in fighting allowed the Americans to re-tool their units for decisive action. Hobbs planned to make a three-pronged attack in the north, employing all the regiments of the US 30-ID simultaneously. The 117-IR (Col Johnson), was ordered to seize the high ground in the vicinity of Mariadorf to secure the division’s left flank. The 120-IR (Col Purdue), was ordered to seize the high ground northeast of Wurselen and also to cut off the Aachen–Jülich highway running northeast out of Aachen. The 119-IR (Col Sutherland), was ordered to take the north of Wurselen in order to link up with elements of the US 1-ID and close the encirclement of the city.
In the south, Huebner’s 1-ID was also preparing to resume its offensive. Because of his extended front, he could only free the 18-IR (Col Smith), for his portion of the attack. In preparation for the attack, Col Smith organized special pillbox assault teams equipped with flamethrowers, Bangalore torpedoes, beehive munitions, and demo charges. They trained for several days on the tactics to reduce pillboxes. Smith also task-organized M-10 tank destroyers and 155-MM howitzers for direct fire suppression of fortifications. Additionally, tanks and tank destroyers were used for a variety of secondary purposes. Flamethrower tanks were especially useful for clearing out pillboxes and bunkers. Bulldozer tanks were used to bury those pillboxes that could not be destroyed.
On the German side, Koechling was assembling ad-hoc units from stragglers, deserters, and anyone else he could throw into the lines. Then on Oct 7, von Rundstedt released his theater reserve, the I.SS-Panzer-Corps to Koechling to reinforce the defenses of the city. Unfortunately, Koechling was so desperate for reinforcements, that he began committing the Panzer Corps units as soon as they arrived in his sector, rather than waiting to use them as a concentrated force. The same day, the US 30-ID resumed its offensive in the form of a massive aerial bombardment, followed by mass artillery barrages. The division commenced its ground assault immediately after the strikes. Determined patrolling had revealed the locations of most of the Germans’ manned fortifications, so the attack was focused on destroying those positions. The division attacked from Alsdorf south towards Ubach and Wurselen, with their final objective being Hill 194 south of Wurselen.