Operation Battle of the Hürtgenwald

The 'Battle of the Hürtgenwald' was a series of battles fought between US and German troops in the Hürtgenwald, a 54-sq mile (140-km²) area about 3.1 miles (5 km) to the east of the Belgian/German border (19 September/16 December 1944).

This was the longest battle on German territory during World War II and is the longest single battle ever fought by the US Army.

The initial object of the US leadership was to pin down German forces in the area to keep them from reinforcing the front lines farther to the north in the 'Battle of Aachen', where the US forces were fighting against the 'Siegfried-Linie' network of fortified industrial towns and villages spotted with pillboxes, tank traps and minefields. The first US tactical objectives were to take the village of Schmidt and clear Monschau, and the second to advance to the Rur river as part of 'Queen'.

Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model, commander of Heeresgruppe 'B', intended to bring the Allied thrust to a standstill. While he interfered less in the day-to-day movements of units than he had in the 'Battle of Arnhem', he still kept himself fully informed on the situation, slowing the Allies' progress, inflicting heavy casualties, and taking full advantage of the fortifications the Germans called the 'Westwall', better known as the 'Siegfried-Linie'. The fighting in the Hürtgenwald cost Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army at least 33,000 men killed and wounded, including both combat and non-combat losses, with upper estimate at 55,000. The German casualties were 28,000 men. The city of Aachen in the north eventually fell on 22 October at high cost to Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army, but the US forces failed to cross the Rur river or wrest control of its dams from the Germans. The battle was so costly that it has been described as an Allied 'defeat of the first magnitude' and a major defensive success for Model.

The Germans fiercely defended the area because it served as a staging area for the 'Wacht am Rhein' 1944 winter offensive in the Ardennes, and because the mountains commanded access to the Rur dam at the head of the Rur reservoir. The Allies failed to capture the area after several heavy setbacks, and the Germans held the region until they launched their last-ditch offensive into the Ardennes. This last began on 16 December and ended the Hürtgenwald offensive. The so-called Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes gained widespread press and public attention, leaving the 'Battle of the Hürtgenwald' less well remembered.

The overall cost of the 'Siegfried-Linie' campaign in US personnel was close to 140,000.

By the middle of September 1944, the Allied pursuit of the German forces after the 'Neptune' (iii) amphibious landings in Normandy and subsequent 'Overlord' land campaign was slowing as a result of the Allied armies' overextended supply lines and increasing German resistance. The next strategic objective was to advance to the Rhine river along its entire length and prepare to cross it. Hodges′s 1st Army experienced strong resistance pushing through the 'Aachen gap' and perceived a potential threat from German forces using the Hürtgenwald as a base. Major General Clarence R. Huebner’s US 1st Division arrived early in October, joining elements of Major General Charles H. Corlett’s US XIX Corps and Major General J. Lawton Collins’s US VII Corps, which had encircled Aachen. Although the 1st Division called for the surrender of the city’s German garrison, Oberst Gerhard Wilck refused to capitulate until 21 October.

The Allies also thought it was necessary to remove the threat posed by the Rur dam, for the water stored behind this structure could be released by the Germans, swamping any forces operating downstream. In the view of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, commander of the US 12th Army Group, as well as Hodges and Collins, the direct route to the dam was through the forest. Some military historians are no longer convinced by these arguments: one such was Charles B. MacDonald, who served in the Hürtgenwald battle, who has described it as 'a misconceived and basically fruitless battle that should have been avoided.'

The Hürtgenwald occupies a rugged area between the Rur river and Aachen. In the autumn and early winter of 1944, the weather was cold, wet and cloudy, and this was a major impediment to the delivery of air support. Apart from the poor weather, the dense forest and rough terrain also prevented proper use of Allied air superiority, which had great difficulties in spotting targets. The dense conifer forest is broken by few roads, tracks and firebreaks, and vehicle movement is restricted. The ground became a muddy morass, further impeding vehicular traffic, especially of heavy vehicles such as tanks.

The German defenders had prepared the area with improvised blockhouses, minefields, barbed wire entanglements and booby-traps, hidden by the mud and snow. The area was also liberally strewn with concrete bunkers, mostly belonging to the deep defences of the 'Siegfried-Linie', and these were centres of resistance. The dense forest facilitated the use of infiltration tactics and flanking attacks, and it was sometimes difficult to establish the precise position of the front line or to be confident that an area had been cleared. The small numbers of routes and clearings in the forest had also allowed German machine gun, mortar and artillery teams to pre-register their weapons and therefore to fire with great accuracy.

The US advantage in numbers (as great as 5/1), armour, mobility and air support was thus greatly reduced by the combination of adverse weather and difficult terrain. In the forest, relatively small numbers of determined and prepared defenders could be highly effective. To exacerbate matters, as the US divisions took casualties, inexperienced replacements had to be fed directly into combat.

The densely forested terrain also limited the use of armour and provided cover for German anti-tank teams equipped with Panzerfaust launchers firing shaped-charge warheads. The Allies made improvised rocket launchers, using rocket tubes from aircraft and spare Jeep trailers. Later in the battle, it proved necessary to blast tank routes through the forest. Transportation was similarly limited by the lack of routes: at critical times, it proved difficult to reinforce or supply front-line units or to evacuate the dead and wounded.

The Germans were hampered by much the same difficulties, worsened because their divisions had already taken heavy losses in the course of their long retreat through France and had been hastily replenished with untrained boys and old men, often unfit for normal military service. Transportation was also a problem, because of the difficult roads and the overall German lack of trucks and fuel: most supplies had therefore to be manhandled to the front line. Nonetheless, despite increasing numbers of inexperienced replacements, the German defenders had the advantage in that their commanders and many of their soldiers had been fighting for years and had learned the tactics required for fighting efficiently in winter and forested areas, whereas the Americans were often well-trained but inexperienced.

The Hürtgenwald lay within the area of the US 1st Army, and local command fluctuated between Major General Edward H. Brooks’s (from 5 October Major General Leonard T. Gerow’s) V Corps and Collins’s VII Corps. The main German formation in the area was General Erich Brandenberger’s 7th Army.

At the start of the battle, the forest was defended by Generalleutnant Hans Schmidt’s 275th Division and Generalleutnant Paul Mahlmann’s 353rd Division. Both of these formations were understrength but well prepared each with some 5,000 men (1,000 in reserve), but little artillery and no tanks. As the battle progressed, German reinforcements were added. US expectations that these formations were weak and ready to withdraw were overly optimistic.

The ultimate objectives of Major General Louis A. Craig’s 9th Division were the Rur river crossings at Düren. On 16 September, an attack by the 47th Infantry captured Schevenhütte on the northern fringes of the forest, with few casualties. The division had surprised the Germans, but lacked the strength to push on as two of its three regiments were committed to the south. Attacks on and around the Höfen-Alzen ridge by the 39th Infantry and 60th Infantry were met with strong resistance and pushed back. The 1 and 2/39th Infantry captured Lammersdorf, but could not dislodge Germans entrenched in the woods behind the village, and the 3/39th Infantry suffered heavy losses attacking Hill 554 near Lammersdorf. In these early engagements, the 9th Division was unable to eject the Germans from the periphery of the forest, and decided to push through it to the north-east and capture Hürtgen and Kleinhau. The engagement began on 19 September. Repeated probes entered the forest toward the objective, but were beaten back by the terrain and Germans dug into prepared positions. On 5 October, the 39th Infantry and 60th Infantry attacked toward the town of Schmidt while the 47th Infantry held a defensive position. The road linking Monschau and Düren was quickly cut, but both regiments were slowed by the defences and suffered significant casualties: The 2/60th Infantry was reduced to one-third after the first day. The 39th Infantry was halted at the Weisser Weh creek, and there were problems with narrow paths, the air bursts of shells in the trees, and fire breaks which were blocked or enfiladed. Casualty evacuation and supply were difficult or impossible. By 16 October, 3,000 yards (2745 m) had been gained at the cost of 4,500 casualties. Major General Norman D. Cota’s 28th Division arrived on the same day to relieve the battered 9th Division.

The 28th Division was reinforced with the 707th Tank Battalion, tracked M29 Weasel transport and air support. Of its three regiments, one was deployed to protect the northern flank, another to attack Germeter, and the third to capture Schmidt, the main objective. The area had extremely difficult terrain with the Kall trail running along a deep river ravine. The terrain was not suited to tanks, despite the need for armour to support the infantry. The 28th Division’s attack started on 2 November, and the German defenders were expecting it and were ready. The 109th Infantry, assigned to capture the woods to the north of Germeter, was impeded after 300 yards (275 m) by an unexpected minefield, pinned down by mortar and artillery fire, and harassed by local counterattacks. Just 1 mile (1.6 km) was gained in two days of combat, after which the 109th Infantry dug in and endured casualties. This initial attack was nearly all the ground the 109th Infantry would take during the battle. The 110th Infantry had to clear the woods next to the Kall river, capture Simonskall, and maintain a supply route for the advance on Schmidt: Again, these were very difficult tasks as a result of the weather, prepared defences, determined defenders, and terrain. The weather prevented tactical air support until 5 November.

Attacking from Germeter, the 112th Infantry took Vossenack and the neighbouring ridge by the afternoon, but was then brought to a halt by strong defences and difficult terrain. The 1 and 3/112th Infantry moved across the Kall valley and captured Kommerscheidt and Schmidt respectively on 3 November. The German supply route to Monschau was now severed but US supply, reinforcement, and evacuation were very limited as the Kall trail had poor terrain and was infiltrated by the Germans. At dawn on 4 November a strong German counterattack by tanks of Generalmajor Siegfried von Waldenburg’s 116th Panzerdivision and a chance encirclement by troops of Generalmajor Walter Bruns’s 89th Division rapidly expelled the 3/112th Infantry from Schmidt, and the Americans were unable to counterattack. The battalion disintegrated after constant shelling and a fierce attack by the 116th Panzerdivision, and some of the men inadvertently fled to the east only to be captured by the Germans. The rest of the battalion retreated to Kommerscheidt to join the 1/112th Infantry. Realising the gravity of the situation, eight M4 Sherman medium tanks of Company A, 707th Tank Battalion attempted to cross the Kall valley, but only three actually made it across to support the beleaguered 112th Infantry. The 116th Panzerdivision again attacked with tanks and infantry several times. The US tanks, along with infantry and air support, destroyed five of the Germans' PzKpfw IV battle tanks. At Vossenack, the 2/112th Infantry was almost forced out of the town on 6 November by a determined German counterattack, but was assisted by engineers in retaking the western part of the town. The Americans across the Kall valley at Kommerscheidt held until 8 November, when they received an order to withdraw. The positions at Schmidt and the Kall trail were abandoned. It was not until February 1945 that Major General James M. Gavin’s 82nd Airborne Division permanently captured the Kall trail and Schmidt.

A German regimental doctor, Hauptmann Günter Stüttgen, negotiated an unofficial ceasefire with the Americans at the Kall bridge from 7 to 12 November, in order to attend to the wounded of both sides, numbering several thousands. The lives of many US soldiers were saved by German medical personnel.

The second phase of the undertaking was part of 'Queen', the Allied thrust to the Rur river. In this phase, Major General Raymond O. Barton’s 4th Division was to clear the northern half of the forest between Schevenhütte and Hürtgen, capture Hürtgen, and advance to the Rur river in the area to the south of Düren. From 10 November, this would be the VII Corps′ responsibility, and it was part of the main VII Corps' effort to reach the Rur river. The 4th Division was now fully committed to the Hürtgen area, although its 12th Infantry had already been mauled in its action at Schmidt, leaving just two fully effective regiments to achieve the divisional objectives. The VII Corps was opposed by German forces largely from General Friedrich Köchling’s LXXXI Corps, comprising three understrength divisions. In the Hürtgen area was Generalleutnant Hans Schmidt’s 275th Division with 6,500 men and 150 pieces of artillery. This German formation was well dug-in and fully prepared.

An abstract from a US report describes what happened: 'The VII (U.S.) Corps, First Army attacked 16 November 1944, with 1st Inf Div, 4th Inf Div, 104th Inf Div, and CCR 5th AD to clear Huertgen Forest and the path of First Army to the Rur River. After heavy fighting, primarily by the 4th Infantry Division, VII Corps' attack ground to a halt. V Corps was committed on 21 November 1944. Attacking with 8th Inf Div, and CCR 5th AD, the V Corps managed to capture Huertgen after stiff fighting on 28 November 1944.'

The attack started on 16 November. The two infantry regiments attacked in parallel columns: the 8th Infantry along the northern edge of the forest toward Düren, the 22nd Infantry farther to the south in parallel. The open flanks invited infiltration. Similar tactics elsewhere in the Hürtgenwald area had 'invited disaster'. Attacks by the 8th Infantry on Rother Weh creek encountered heavy resistance and were repulsed with considerable losses. The 22nd Infantry failed to take Rabenheck, beaten back by heavy machine gun and artillery fire along the firebreaks. After three days, there were 300 casualties, including numerous officers and non-commissioned officers.

By 18 November, tanks were deemed essential, so engineers blasted tank routes through the forest. Communications and logistics remained a problem, so on the following day the attack was paused to allow resupply and evacuation of the wounded. German reinforcements arrived from Generalmajor Eugen König’s (from 16 December Generalmajor Georg Kossmala’s) 344th Division and Mahlmann’s 353rd Division, and the German resistance stiffened further.

Responsibility was returned to V Corps and, on 21 November, Major General Donald A. Stroh’s 8th Division attacked the Weisser Weh valley, continuing toward Hürtgen. The 121st Infantry immediately ran into heavy defences, and despite armored support from the 10th Tank Battalion, daily advances were less than 600 yards (550 m). Hürtgen was taken on 29 November and the battle continued to Kleinhau, 1 mile (1.6 km) to the north.

The final action in the Hürtgenwald was at Langerwehe-Merode on the forest’s north-eastern edge. Two US companies took the village, but were later destroyed in a German counterattack. More than 300 men of Huebner’s 1st Division were killed in action on 29/30 November 29.

Later, the secret daily report of the Oberkommando des Heeres on 27 November stated that in the old Langerwehe penetration area, the US Army had won terrain.

Elements of Stroh’s 8th Division and Cota’s 28th Division then advanced on Brandenberg. Just like the 9th Division before it and the 4th Division, which would relieve it, 28th Division also took heavy casualties during its stay in the Hürtgenwald. On 14 November, the 2nd Ranger Battalion arrived to relieve elements of the 112th Infantry. On 6 December, the Rangers moved on Bergstein and subsequently took the strategic position of Hill 400 from defending troops from the 980th Grenadierregiment of Oberst Eugen Kossala’s 272nd Volksgrenadierdivision. Shortly after this, on 12 December, the towns of Gey and Strass were taken by US forces. On the last day of the Hürtgenwald battle the Germans retook the hill from the 13th Infantry, which had had replaced the Rangers. The US Army would not seize Hill 400 again until February 1945.

Between 1 and 12 December, the 309th Infantry, 310th Infantry and 311th Infantry of Major General Edwin P. Parker’s 78th Division relieved elements of the 1st Division in the line near Entenpfuhl. On 13 December, these regiments smashed into Simmerath, Witzerath and Bikerath, and were fighting the 'Battle of Kesternich' against Kossmala’s (from 16 December König’s) 272nd Volksgrenadierdivision when Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber 'West', launched his counter-offensive in the Monschau area. On 15 December the 2/309th Infantry was destroyed when the 272nd Volksgrenadierdivision counterattacked and retook Kesternich. The Germans knew that from the heights at Kesternich the Americans could detect the troop build-up for 'Wacht am Rhein' and site artillery there to fire on advancing German troops.

Military actions along the 'Siegfried-Linie' up to 15 December alone brought death, injury or captivity to more than 250,000 soldiers from both sides. The US 1st and 9th Armies suffered 57,039 battle casualties (dead, wounded, captured or missing) and 71,654 non-battle casualties (accidents, diseases such as pneumonia, trench foot, frostbite, and trauma). The German losses are believed to have been 12,000 men killed, 95,000 men taken prisoner and an unknown number of men wounded.

On 16 December 1944, the Germans launched 'Wacht am Rhein', and as a result further fighting in the Hürtgenwald ended.

The 'Battle of the Hürtgenwald' ended in a German defensive victory, and the whole offensive was a dismal failure for the Allies.

Early in February 1945, US forces attacked through the Hürtgenwald for the final time. On 10 February, the Rur dam was taken by US forces and the forest itself was not cleared until 17 February, when the 82nd Airborne Division reached the Roer river.

Historical discussion revolves around whether or not the US battle plan made any operational or tactical sense. One analysis is that the Allies underestimated the strength and determination remaining in the psyche of the German soldier, believing his fighting spirit on the Western Front had collapsed under the stress of the break-out from Normandy and the reduction of the Falaise pocket.

US commanders, in particular, misunderstood the impassibility of the dense Hürtgenwald, and its effects of reducing artillery effectiveness and making air support impracticable. The better alternative, namely of breaking through to the south-east into the open valley, where their advantages in mobility and air power could come into play, and then heading to the north-east toward the actual objectives, seems not to have been seriously considered by the higher headquarters. Moreover, the US forces were concentrated in the village of Schmidt, and neither tried to take the strategically important Rur dam nor recognised the importance of Hill 400 until an advanced stage of the battle.