Operation Battle of Aachen

The 'Battle of Aachen' was fought between US and German forces in and around Aachen, a city of western Germany (2/21 October 1944).

The Germans had incorporated the city into the 'Siegfried-Linie', the main defensive network on Germany’s western border. The Allies had hoped to capture it quickly and advance into the Ruhr industrial region. Although most of Aachen’s civilian population had been evacuated before the start of the battle, much of the city was nonetheless destroyed and each side suffered heavy losses. The 'Battle of Aachen' was one of the largest urban battles fought by US forces in World War II, and the first city on German soil to be taken by the Allies. The battle ended with a German surrender, but their tenacious defence significantly disrupted Allied plans for the advance into Germany.

On 12 September, the northern group of US, British and Canadian forces advancing to the west from the 'Overlord' lodgement in Normandy had linked with the southern group of US and French forces advancing to the north up the valley of the Rhône river after their 'Dragoon' (i) landing on France’s Mediterranean coast, and thus created a continuous front that moved toward Germany. By the same month the Allies had reached Germany’s western border, whose northern part was protected by the 'Siegfried-Linie'. On 17 September, British, US and Polish forces launched the related 'Market' and 'Garden' operations as an ambitious attempt to bypass the northern end of the 'Siegfried-Linie' by crossing the Nederrijn river at Arnhem in the Netherlands. The failure of this effort and acute logistical problems resulting from the long distances created by the rapid drive through France combined to end the Allies' high-speed race toward Berlin. German casualties in France had been high (Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model estimated that his 74 divisions on the western front had the actual strength of just 25) but the Allies' supply problems gave the Germans a respite, which they used to begin rebuilding their strength. In September, the German high command’s reinforcement of the 'Siegfried-Linie' brought its total troop strength to an estimated 230,000 men, including 100,000 fresh personnel. Moreover, whereas at the start of the month the Germans had about 100 tanks in the west by the end of this month they had about 500. As men and equipment continued to flow into the 'Siegfried-Line', the Germans were able to establish an average defensive depth of 3 miles (4.8 km).

The Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, set its sights on the occupation of the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army was given the task of occupying the French region of Lorraine,while Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army was ordered to break through the front near Aachen. Hodges had initially hoped to bypass the city itself, believing it to be held by only a small garrison, which would presumably surrender once isolated.

The ancient city of Aachen had little military value in itself, for it was not a major centre of war production, and its population of around 165,000 persons had not been subject to heavy bombing by the Allies. It was, however, an important symbol to both the Nazi régime and the German people: it was not only the first German city to come under direct threat during World War II, but also the historic capital of Charlemagne, founder of the 'First Reich'. As such, Aachen was of very great psychological value. The very nature of the defenders' mins was further altered by the different attitude the local population had toward them as they fought on home soil for the first time: as one one German officer commented, 'Suddenly we were no longer the Nazis, we were German soldiers.'

Aachen and its sector of the western front were protected by the 'Siegfried-Linie', comprising several belts of inter-connected pillboxes, forts and bunkers themselves shielded by extensive minefields, 'dragon’s teeth' anti-tank obstacles, and barbed wire entanglements. In several areas the German defenses were more than 10 miles (16 km) deep. Learning from their experiences on the Eastern Front, the Germans ran their main line of resistance down the centre of towns located in the defensive wall, taking advantage of narrow and twisty streets to limit the mobility of an opponents' armoured vehicles. Despite the low quality of many of the troops manning them, the fortifications protecting Aachen and the Ruhr were a formidable obstacle to the progress of the US 1st Army, which saw a breakthrough in this sector as crucial as the terrain behind Aachen was generally flat, and therefore highly favourable to the Allies' motorised forces.

Fighting in the Aachen sector started as early as the second week of September, in a period known to the Germans as the '1st Battle of Aachen'. At this time, the city was defended by Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin 116th Panzerdivision in General Friedrich-August Schack’s (from 20 September General Friedrich Köchling LXXXI Corps of General Erich Brandenberger’s 7th Army in Model’s Heeresgruppe 'B'. The approach of Allied forces had persuaded most of the city’s government officials to flee even before the evacuation of its citizens had been completed. (For this, Adolf Hitler had all Nazi officials who had fled stripped of rank and sent to the Eastern front as privates.) Instead of continuing the evacuation, von Schwerin decided to surrender the city, but on 13 September, before he could arrange for the delivery of the letter of capitulation he had written, von Schwerin was ordered to launch a counterattack against the US forces penetrating in the area to the south-west of Aachen.von Schwerin complied with elements of his Panzergrenadier strength. The German general’s attempt to surrender the city would soon become irrelevant as his letter was never delivered but instead fell into the hands of Hitler, who ordered von Schwerin’s arrest and replacement from 21 September by Generalmajor Siegfried von Waldenburgin. Major General J. Lawton Collins’s US VII Corps continued to probe the German defences, despite the resistance encountered on 12/13 September. Between 14 and 16 September Major General Clarence R. Huebner’s US 1st Division continued its advance in the face of strong defences and repeated counterattacks, ultimately creating a half-moon arc around the city, but this slow advance came to a halt late in September as a result of logistical difficulties and the diversion of existing stocks of fuel and ammunition to 'Market' and 'Garden' in the Netherlands.

The Germans seized the opportunity presented by the brief respite to pulling SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Mohnke’s 1st SS Panzerdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler', SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Otto Baum’s 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich' and SS-Obersturmbannführer Hubert Meyer’s 12th SS Panzerdivision 'Hitlerjugend', as well as Generalmajor Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzerdivision and the 116th Panzerdivision out of the line. In October, responsibility for the Aachen sector’s defense was allocated to Köchling’s LXXXI Corps, which included Generalleutnant Wolfgang Lange’s 183rd Volksgrenadierdivision and Oberst Gerhard Wilck’s 246th Volksgrenadierdivision, as well as Generalmajor Gerhard Engel’s 12th Division and Generalleutnant Vollrath Lübbe’s 49th Division. These forces, along with the attached 506th Panzerabteilung and Oberstleutnant F. H. Musculus’s 108th Panzerbrigade, totalled something in the order of 20,000 men and 11 tanks. Köchling was also promised a re-formed 116th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Walter Denkert’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision, totalling about 24,000 men. The 246th Volksgrenadierdivision replaced the 116th Panzerdivision in Aachen proper, the 183rd Volksgrenadierdivision and the 49th Division defended the northern approaches, and the 12th Division was positioned to the south. On 7 October, elements of the 1st SS Panzerdivision were released to reinforce the defence of Aachen.

Although reinforcements continued to arrive, LXXXI Corps' units suffered heavily. The 12th Division had lost half its combat strength between 16 and 23 September, and it had been necessary to pull the 49th Division and 275th Division out of the line to recuperate. While German infantry divisions generally had a strength of between 15,000 and 17,000 men at the start of the war, this had gradually been reduced to a table of organisation size of 12,500 men, and by November 1944 the average actual strength of an army division was 8,761 men. In an attempt to cope with the manpower shortages plaguing the German armed force, the Volksgrenadier divisions were created in 1944 with an average strength of slightly more than 10,000 men. Although about one-quarter of these men were experienced veterans, half were fresh conscripts and convalescents, while the remainder were transferees from the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. These divisions often received the newest small-arms, but were short of artillery and motor vehicles, which wasa severe severe impediment to their tactical utility. In the case of the LXXXI Corps, the 183rd Volksgrenadierdivision, though overstrength by 643 men, had been activated only in September, meaning that the division had not had time to train as a formation. The 246th Volksgrenadierdivision was in a similar state, many of its personnel having received fewer than 10 days of infantry training. All these deficiencies of personnel were offset, at least to a degree, by the inherent strength of the well-planned and well-constructed fortifications surrounding Aachen.

The task of taking Aachen fell to Major General Leland S. Hobbs’s 30th Division (along with the attached 743rd Tank Battalion) of Major General Charles H. Corlett’s XIX Corps' and Huebner’s 1st Division of Collins’s VII Corps. Hobbs’s 30th Division was to be supported by Major General Ernest N. Harmon’s 2nd Armored Division, which would exploit the 30th Division’s penetration of the 'Siegfried-Linie', while their flanks were protected by Major General Charles H. Gerhardt’s 29th Division. In the south, the 1st Division was supported by Major General Louis A Craig’s 9th Division and Major General Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division. These formations had used the brief respite in the fighting during the last two weeks of September to rest and refit, absorbing large numbers of replacements. By 1 October, more than 70% of the men of Huebner’s 1st Division were replacements, and the last two weeks of September were spent giving these men village fighting and weapons training. The plan for the impending offensive called for both infantry divisions to avoid street fighting in Aachen, but rather to encircle the city, then assigning only a relatively small force to capture it while the bulk of US forces continued driving to the east.

Although US formations and units were usually able to replenish their numbers quickly, the replacements rarely had sufficient tactical training, and many of the junior officers were short of tactical and leadership abilities. Some tank personnel were shipped to Europe without having so much as driven a car before, and some tank commanders had to teach their men how to load and fire their tank guns in the field before missions. The US replacement system, which focused on quantity rather than quality, meant that most fresh troops reaching the front were not fully trained for combat. It was not unusual for half of a unit’s replacements to become casualties within the first few days of entering combat. These front-line losses required ever-more troops to be fed into the fighting: a freshly reinforced battalion of the 28th Division, for instance, was immediately committed into direct assaults against Aachen to buttress the depleted 1st Division during the final stages of the 'Battle of Aachen' on 18/21 October.

The ground forces were supported by Major General Hoyt S. Vandenberg’s 9th Army Air Force, which had pinpointed 75% of the pillboxes along the front line and planned an opening bombardment including 360 bombers and 72 fighters, with more aircraft earmarked for a second wave. The weapons to be used included napalm. As the Germans had few anti-aircraft batteries and were to receive severely limited support from the decimated Luftwaffe, Allied superiority over Aachen was almost total.

For six days before the start of the offensive, US heavy artillery targeted the German defences round Aachen. Although the heavy bombardment forced the LXXXI Corps to halt all daylight personnel and supply movements, it had little effect on the pillboxes and strongpoints. The opening aerial bombardment on 2 October also caused little damage to the German defensive positions: the 450 aircraft which took part in the first wave failed to register a single direct hit on any German pillbox, one of the reasons being the fact that their targets had been largely obscured by the thick smoke and dust from the artillery barrage. As the aircraft finished their assault, the artillery resumed its bombardment of the front line, firing 18,696 shells from 372 pieces of artillery within two hours.

The 30th Division began its advance on 2 October, using the divisional heavy artillery to target German pillboxes. Despite the weight of the US artillery bombardment, it nonetheless took an average of 30 minutes to capture a single pillbox. The Americans found that if they failed to press forward immediately to the next pillbox, the Germans inevitably counterattacked. Heavy German resistance had not been expected, and one company lost 87 men in just one hour, and another lost 93 out of 120 men to a German artillery attack. The US infantry was slowly able to cross the Wurm river and engage German pillboxes with flamethrowers and explosive charges. By the afternoon of 2 October, elements of the 30th Division had breached the German defences and reached the town of Palenberg, where the US infantrymen advanced in house-to-house fighting involving costly hand grenade duels. The fighting for the town of Rimburg was just as severe. US armour had not been able to cross the Wurm river, so the infantrymen were bereft of fire support as they attempted to storm a mediaeval castle which the Germans were using as a fort. The 30th Division overcame about 50 German pillboxes on the first day of the advance, often having to envelop the structure and attack from the rear. The division’s effort was aided by the 29th Division’s diversionary attacks on their flank, persuading the Germans that this was the main attack. On the night of 2 October, the 902nd Sturmgeschützabteilung was ordered to launch a counterattack against the 30th Division, but Allied artillery delayed the start of the raid, and ultimately the attempt failed.

US armour became available to support the advance on 3 October but, even so, the attacking forces were brought to an abrupt halt by several German counterattacks. The town of Rimburg was taken on this day, but fighting through German defences remained slow as M4 Sherman medium tanks and M12 self-propelled 155-mm (6.1-in) guns were brought up to blast pillboxes at point-blank range. Fighting had also begun to develop for the town of Übach, where US tanks rushed in to take the town, only to be pinned down by German artillery. Fierce counterattacks followed, with US artillery fire narrowly preventing the Germans from retaking the town. By the end of the d3 October, the forcing of the Wurm river and the creation of a bridgehead had cost the 30th Division some 300 men killed and wounded.

German forces continued their counterattacks on Übach, suffering heavy casualties to US artillery and infantry fire. Although their inability to retake Übach persuaded German commanders that they had insufficient forces for a truly effective defence for the approaches to Aachen, the counterattacks did tie down US troops which could have otherwise continued the advance. On 4 October, the US advance was limited, with only the towns of Hoverdor and Beggendorf taken. The US forces had now lost about 1,800 men in the past three days of combat. Better progress was made on 5 October, as the 119th Infantry of the 30th Division captured Merkstein-Herbach. On the following day the Germans launched another counterattack against Übach, but once more failed to dislodge the US forces. German armor was unable to cope with the overwhelming numerical superiority of the US tanks, and as a last-ditch effort to halt the advance the Germans began concentrated attacks on US positions with what artillery and aircraft they could muster. The Germans also found themselves severely limited by lack of reserves, although Koechling was able to deploy a Tiger detachment to the town of Alsdorf in an attempt to seal off the US penetration of Aachen’s northern defences.

A German counterattack developed on 8 October, in this instance by one infantry regiment, one assault battalion, one Kampfgruppe of the 108th Panzerbrigade, and some 40 armoured fighting vehicles gathered from available units. Although hindered by the fire of the US artillery, the left wing of the attack managed to cut off a US infantry platoon, while the right wing reached a road junction to the north of the town of Alsdorf. One platoon of Sherman tanks supporting an attack on the town of Mariadorf suddenly found itself under attack from the rear, and was able to repel the Germans only after heavy fighting. Two Sturmgeschütz IV self-propelled assault guns and a squad of infantry entered Alsdorf, where they were heavily counterattacked. Although the two self-propelled guns managed to elude US tanks, they were finally engaged by US infantry and forced back to their starting point. With casualties mounting and the US forces drawing ever closer, the German high command transferred Generalmajor Kurt Cuno’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision to Aachen, followed by the I SS Panzerkorps, which included the 116th Panzerdivision and the 101st SS schwere Panzerabteiling, an element of the 1st SS Panzerdivision.

In the south of the US offensive, the 1st Division began its undertaking on 8 October, aiming to capture the town of Verlautenheide and Hill 231 (soon known as 'Crucifix Hill') near the town of Ravelsberg. The division’s attack was preceded by a major artillery barrage, which helped the division to seize their objectives quickly. By 10 October, the 1st Division was at its designated position to link with the 30th Division. This success was met with a German counterattack toward Hill 231, which was the scene of intense fighting that ended ended with the Germans leaving more than 40 men killed dead and 35 taken prisoner. Despite repeated German counterattacks that slowed its advance, the 1st Division was able to capture the high ground surrounding the city.

On 10 October, Huebner delivered an ultimatum to German forces in Aachen, threatening to bomb the city into submission if there was no garrison. The German commander refused. In response, US artillery began to pound the city on 11 October, firing an estimated 5,000 shells, and the city was also heavily bombed by US aircraft.

US casualties were climbing as a result of both frequent German counterattacks and the inevitable cost of storming pillboxes. The Germans had spent the night of 10 October turning many of the house cellars in the town of Bardenberg into fortified pillboxes. The US attackers were forced to withdraw and instead shell the town into submission. On 12 October, the Germans launched a major counterattack against the 30th Division. It was disrupted by heavy artillery fire and well-sited anti-tank defences. In the village of Birk, a three-hour engagement broke out between German tanks and a single US Sherman, which knocked out one PzKpfw IV battle tank and compel another to withdraw but was itself soon attacked by others. This lone tank was eventually joined by elements of the 2nd Armored Division, and the Germans were driven from the town. The 30th Division soon found itself in defensive positions all along its front, but was nevertheless ordered to continue pushing to the south for its intended link with the 1st Division. To accomplish this, two infantry battalions of the 29th Division were attached to the hard-pressed 30th Division.

On this same day of 12 October, to the south, two German infantry regiments attempted to retake Crucifix Hill from units of the 1st Division. In fierce fighting the Germans temporarily took control of the hill, but had been dislodged by the end of the day, by which time both German regiments had been virtually destroyed. From 11 to 13 October, Allied aircraft bombarded Aachen, selecting targets closest to the US lines. On 14 October, the 26th Infantry was ordered to clear an industrial zone on the edge of Aachen in preparation for the attack on the city itself. On 15 October, in an effort to widen the gap between the two arms of the US pincer, the Germans again counterattacked the 1st Division. A number of heavy tanks managed to break through the US lines, but the bulk of the German force was destroyed by artillery and warplanes. On the next day, the Germans attempted to mount local counterattacks with the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision, but after sustaining heavy losses were forced to suspend further offensive action.

The 30th Division, with elements of the 29th Division and 2nd Armored Division, continued its push to the south between 13 and 16 October, in the sector of the village of Würselen. Even with heavy air support, however, they could not break through German defences and link with the US forces to the south. The Germans took advantage of the narrow front to pound advancing attackers with artillery, and progress remained slow as German tanks used houses as bunkers to surprise and overwhelm US infantrymen. Hobbs, commander of the 30th Division, then attempted to outflank the German defences by attacking along another sector with two infantry battalions. The attack was successful, and allowed the 30th Division and 1st Division to link on 16 October. So Far, the fighting had cost the XIX Corps more than 400 men killed and 2,000 wounded, of which 72% were in the 30th Division. The Germans had fared no better: up to 14 October around 630 of their men had been killed and 4,400 wounded; another 600 were lost in the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision's 16 October counterattack on the 1st Division.

Requiring most of its strength to defeat German counterattacks and secure the area around Aachen, the 1st Division was able to allocate just one regiment to the task of taking the city. The task fell to the 26th Infantry, under the command of Colonel John F. R. Seitz, which had available only two of its three battalions. Armed with machine guns and flamethrowers, the 2/26th Infantry and 3/26th were initially supported only by a few tanks and a single 155-mm (6.1-in) howitzer. The city was defended by about 5,000 German men including converted navy, air force and city police personnel. For the most part, these men lacked experienced and were untrained, and were supported by only a handful of tanks and assault guns. However, Aachen’s defenders could make use of the maze of streets constituting the city’s historical centre.

The 26th Infantry’s initial attack on 13 October provided important insight on the nature of the fighting: US infantry were ambushed by German defenders using sewers and cellars, forcing the advancing US infantry to clear each opening before continuing down streets, while Sherman tanks found it impossible to manoeuvre in order to suppress German fire. German civilians were cleared as the 26th Infantry advanced, and no Germans were permitted to remain in the US battalions' rear. Success in Aachen was measured by the number of houses captured, for the advance proved to be sluggish. To cope with the thick walls of the city’s older buildings, the 26th Infantry used its howitzer at point-blank range to destroy German fortifications. The howitzer created passageways that allowed infantry to advance from building to building without having to enter the city’s streets, where they could be pinned down by German fire. Sherman tanks were ambushed as they entered intersections by concealed German anti-tank guns, and after this the US tanks and other armoured vehicles advanced more cautiously, often shelling buildings ahead of the accompanying infantry to clear them of possible defenders. Pinned on the surface by Allied aircraft, German infantrymen made use of the city’s sewer system to deploy behind JUS units and attack them from the rear. Resistance was fierce as the Germans launched small counterattacks and used armour to halt American movements.

On 18 October, the 3/26th Infantry prepared to assault the Hotel Quellenhof, which was one of the last areas of resistance. US tanks and artillery fired on the hotel, which was the city’s defence headquarters, at point-blank range. That night, 300 men of a Waffen-SS battalion were able to reinforce the hotel and drive off several attacks on the building. A furious German counterattack managed to overrun a number of US infantry positions outside of the hotel and temporarily eased the US pressure on the Quellenhof before being beaten off by concentrated US mortar fire.

Two events then aided the final advance. First, to lessen front-line infantry casualties, it was decided to bombard the remaining German strongpoints with 155-mm (6.1-in) guns and secondly, to assist the 1st Infantry, a battalion of the 110th Infantry of the US 28th Division, was been moved up from the V Corps sector on 18 October to close a gap between the 26th Infantry’s forward elements within the city. The defensive mission of this new battalion was changed on 19/20 October to close support of the urban assault, participating as the depleted 26th Infantry’s absent third battalion. On 21 October, men of the 26th Infantry, supported by the reinforced battalion of the 110th Infantry, finally took the centre of Aachen, and that day also marked the surrender of the last German defenders, in the Hotel Quellenhof, thus ending the battle for the city.

The 'Battle of Aachen' had cost both the Americans and Germans dearly: the former suffered more than 7,000 casualties, while the latter lost more than 5,000 men killed or wounded, and 5,600 men taken prisoner. Since 2 October 1944, the 30th Division had suffered about 3,000 men killed or wounded, while the 1st Division took at least 1,350 casualties (150 killed and 1,200 wounded). The Germans lost another 5,100 casualties during the fighting in Aachen itself, including 3,473 men taken prisoner. During the battle, the Germans lost two complete divisions and had another eight severely depleted, including three fresh infantry divisions and a single refitted Panzer division: this resulted largely from the manner in which the Germans fought, as although an equivalent of 20 infantry battalions had been used during various counterattacks against the 30th Division alone, on average each separate attack involved only two infantry regiments. During the conflict, the Germans also developed a respect for the fighting ability of US forces, noting their capability to fire indiscriminately with overwhelming quantities of artillery fire support and armoured forces.

Though ultimately unsuccessful, however, the German resistance in Aachen upset the Allies' plans for a continued advance to the eastward. After the end of the fighting in Aachen, the US 1st Army was tasked with the capture of a series of dams behind the Hürtgen Forest, from which the Germans could release water to flood the valleys which opened the road to Berlin. This would lead to the 'Battle of Hürtgen Forest', which was to prove still more difficult than the 'Battle of Aachen'.