By September 1944, the Allied offensive in Western Europe had swept from the Normandy beaches all the way to the West Wall, or Siegfried Line, the formidable defensive position along the German border consisting of concrete bunkers fronted by antitank obstacles. Anxious to move quickly through the West Wall, Major General J. Lawton Collins, commander of the First Army’s VII Corps, plotted an advance south and east of Aachen through a 70-square-mile section of heavily wooded terrain known as the Hürtgen Forest. Within the Hürtgen lay several massive dams that managed the flow of the Roer River and its tributaries. Rather than the useless real estate of the forest, the flood-controlling dams were genuine strategic assets, but the American planners initially ignored their value and drew up no plans to secure them. Their strategy was fixed upon crossing the Roer and seizing the city of Düren.
Collins, who subsequently lectured that the three most important initial aspects of a campaign were ‘terrain, terrain, terrain,’ apparently had not absorbed that lesson when he decided to move his corps through the Hürtgen. The forest, largely planted and nurtured by the Third Reich, presented an almost solid growth of trees that reduced visibility to a few yards. It contained few roads, steep hills and a handful of clearings for sev-eral villages. Although German strategists believed no sensible adversary would seek to penetrate the forest, they had nevertheless honeycombed it with thickly shielded emplacements capable of providing interlocking fire to one another.
On September 14, 1944, the 9th Infantry Division became the first to test the defenses. A Regular Army outfit commanded by Maj. Gen. Louis A. Craig, the 9th had fought in North Africa and then across France. Like many Allied divisions, its ranks had been severely depleted during prolonged combat. The division’s 60th Infantry Regiment was at less than 40 percent strength. The 9th’s other two regiments, the 39th and 47th, were also understrength.
|An M-10 from the 893rd Tank Destroyer Battalion moves down a logging trail on its way to Schmidt, Germany, during the fighting in the Hürtgen Forest. Vehicles found it extremely difficult to negotiate the heavily wooded terrain south of Aachen, and the bloody fight for the forest quickly became an infantryman’s battle. (National Archives)|
In spite of its weakness, the 47th jumped off from near Aachen on the 14th and plunged ahead as much as six miles against little opposition. Chester Jordan, a Company K platoon leader who had joined the division just as the Normandy breakout began two months earlier, said: ‘For two days we saw nothing but trees. We saw no Germans, no buildings. Nothing. On the second day, we were so close to Zweifall [a village] that their air raid sirens sounded as though they were in the next row of trees. Our radios picked up their air raid warning: ‘Achtung! Achtung!’ ‘
On the third day, Jordan and his companions, tacking northeast, were perched on a hillside trail. Below them, in plain sight, people in the hamlet of Schevenhütte pursued their business seemingly without regard for the war. The astonished lieutenant then saw a German officer strolling along near his position studying a map. Jordan recalled: ‘None of us had ever heard of a Kraut officer going anywhere alone, so we expected the shit to fly at any minute. We grabbed guns and ran or fell down the steep slope. It was a German colonel, who was not only surprised but pissed off something terrible. We de-souvenired him and sent him back.’
The platoon continued over a road and climbed another ridge. ‘Sergeant Myers was the last to cross the road, and as he did, he heard a motorcycle coming from the east,’ Jordan said. ‘Obviously a courier chasing after the colonel. Myers knelt next to a tree and fired. He blew the rider into the ditch. I called a halt and radioed for instructions. They said, ‘Take the village.’
‘We did a left face and raced down the hill to the village. Our speed was the product of the steep hill rather than combat zeal. As we ran through the backyards, I looked for the handiest back door. The one I opened led into a small commercial kitchen and then directly into the taproom of a small hotel. The only inhabitant was a dignified old man with a large mustache who was wearing a frock-tailed coat and a shirt with a winged collar. I motioned him behind the bar and had him draw beer for the three of us in the room. I was getting ready for a second round when I heard rifle fire outside.
‘As I emerged from the bar I could see the [American] machine gun section standing by the church on the Gressenich road [another town within the forest]. The section had been going down the road to set up the MG when a Volkswagen jeep with four Kraut soldiers came barreling by. The Germans waved, and our men reciprocated and both realized at the same time that they were fraternizing with the enemy. They had managed a few rifle shots, but by that time the car had turned left at the church and headed for Düren.’ The foe vanished, abandoning the vehicle by a creek whose bridge had been blown.
>Wehrmacht soldiers, not realizing the Americans were in control, wandered into Schevenhütte for the next three days. The GIs utilized a massive communications bunker in the village for their headquarters. Jordan’s battalion commander sent a German-speaking sergeant up to intercept messages detailing assembly points. He promptly relayed the data to the artillery. Isolated from the remainder of the company, Jordan and his small band endured several days of sparse rations and the unsettling noise of vigorous activity by enemy troops nearby. Eventually, the platoon pulled back to the ridge above Schevenhütte, while others from the 47th took up positions in the area.
|Thomas W. Gilgore, a soldier in the 121st Infantry Regiment, shows the strain of his time in the Hürtgen during a brief lull. (National Archives)|
Elsewhere, other 9th Infantry Division soldiers entered a much more deadly environment. The 39th Regiment, about eight miles south of Schevenhütte, pressed an attack at Lammersdorf on the edge of the forest. From a hill overlooking that village, the Germans pounded the Americans with everything from small arms to heavy artillery. ‘The enemy attacked five or six times,’ a German officer reported. ‘The regularity was amazing, the more so since each attack was repulsed mostly with great losses. For the latter reason, the enemy requested a short, one-day armistice to recover wounded and bury dead. That was granted. Nevertheless, the attack was repeated the following day at the usual time.’ It took two weeks for the 39th to dislodge the defenders.
The advance of the 60th Regiment toward the Hüfen-Alzen ridge south of Simmerath, proved equally frustrating. Command and control broke down as the density of the trees in the forest limited visibility to no more than a few feet. Tree bursts showered deadly shrapnel upon prone soldiers and those crouched in foxholes. Enemy fire drenched open areas, and the available maps provided little information on the few trails that could be found. Radios functioned poorly in the thick woods. Mines lurked just beneath the surface. The steel-reinforced concrete bunkers, often protected by layers of earth, were impervious to satchel charges. It often required as many as a dozen hits from 155mm artillery shells to force the inhabitants to surrender. The pillboxes defied even Allied fighter-bombers.
Buttressed by their massive defensive positions, the Germans counterattacked, hitting the 39th and 60th regiments hard. Nevertheless, aided by tanks from the 3rd Armored Division, the Americans slowly forged ahead. The Germans, however, rushed in reinforcements to confront the deepest penetration by the GIs, the town of Germeter, three miles from the strategic hub of Schmidt. From October 6-16 the 9th Division gained about 3,000 yards at a cost of some 4,500 men killed, wounded or missing. Having battled its way only a short distance into the forest, the 9th Division was exhausted. To relieve the division, the First Army commander, Courtney Hodges, next called on the 28th Division, a Pennsylvania National Guard outfit that had several months of combat under its cartridge belts. The division, led by Maj. Gen. Norman ‘Dutch’ Cota, prepared to renew the drive toward Schmidt. The 28th, part of Maj. Gen. Leonard Gerow’s V Corps, was close to full strength, having recently received several thousand replacements. For added punch, Cota could also call on support from the 707th Tank Battalion. The infantrymen and tankers had little experience working together however. Tank commander 1st Lt. Raymond Fleig commented: ‘You’d never know we were in the same Army. We married up with the infantry on the run. There was little or no coordination of communication [or] routes of attack.’
Despite the losses suffered by the 9th Division, high hopes pervaded the First Army chieftains. Major William Sylvan, aide-de-camp to Hodges, reported on November 1: ‘Gen. Gerow came to see the general for final discussion of V Corps’ attack tomorrow morning and with him the general left for a visit to the 28th Division, which was to spearhead the attack. He found them in fine fettle, raring to go, optimistic over their chances of giving the Boche a fine drubbing. The general said their plan was excellent. The feinting toward the north in hopes of fooling the Boche into belief this was the main effort and then whacking him with everything in the direction of the town of Schmidt. General [George] Davis [the 28th’s assistant commander] was chiefly responsible for the plan.’
On November 2, the 28th Division entered a disfigured forest area that was littered with debris from the battered 9th Division and the German defenders. Autumn rains pelted the troops. Sergeant Al Burghardt recalled that ‘The Hürtgen Forest, on first observation, looked like heaven….
‘On second observation [the] forest looked ominous. It was dark, and as we went to our positions, we could see some of the problems that the 9th Division faced. The pine forest, which comprised 99 percent of the forest, was littered with branches, and it was difficult to go in a straight line because of all the debris. We noticed the trees were scarred from shrapnel, and many trees were down from direct artillery hits. In general, the forest floor was a mess. This was caused by what we learned to fear — the tree burst. The 9th Division and German dead were all over the area.’
Guns from the VII and V corps announced the start of the renewed U.S. offensive. Artillery elevated its barrels as the foot soldiers moved out to avoid friendly fire casualties. The Germans took advantage of this lull to begin a ruthless barrage.
The 707th Tank Battalion, spearheading the advance of the 112th Infantry, led a column over one of the few stretches of open ground. The tanks rumbled ahead, breaking into Vossenack on the path toward Schmidt. The armor poured shells point-blank into the buildings, rousting out the enemy inside. Once the hamlet was secured, Gerow and Cota directed the 112th to station its 2nd Battalion on a ridge east of Vossenack to prevent any interference with the attack on Schmidt. Unfortunately for the attackers, these positions lay exposed to enemy observation from another ridge. For 90 hours, the men of the 2nd Battalion endured a merciless pounding by German artillery.
The regiment’s 1st Battalion, driving toward Schmidt from the south on November 3, met a hail of bullets, mortars and artillery that inflicted heavy casualties and halted progress. But the 3rd Battalion, slanting down from the north, forded the icy Kall River and forged forward against minimal resistance. The battalion occupied Schmidt, set out a perimeter defense and awaited the arrival of tanks to ward off the inevitable counterattack. The only approach route, however, was no more than a wagon trail that could not support heavy armor. A few Weasels (M-29 small tracked amphibious vehicles) brought in ammunition, food and antitank mines, but holding Schmidt demanded more.
While American engineers labored to improve the trail for the 707th to reinforce the garrison in Schmidt, the Germans struck hard early the next morning. Gray-clad infantrymen, accompanied by tanks, rolled toward the town while artillery blasted GI positions. Panzerkampfwagen Mark IV and Mark V Panthers from the 16th Panzer Regiment maneuvered around antitank mines strewn over the ground in front of Schmidt. Bazooka rounds exploded against the sides of the Panthers but did little damage as the tanks methodically waddled about the streets, firing directly into foxholes and anywhere the embattled infantrymen sought shelter. The survivors of the 112th’s 3rd Battalion fled into the woods. Handfuls of soldiers reached their own lines, but at least 133 were captured.
The panzers and supporting infantry next clanked toward the the American’s most advanced positions at Kommerscheidt, east of the Kall River, a mile or so from Schmidt. Because of an impasse west of the Kall, Ray Fleig’s tank was the only one to make it to Kommerscheidt. Two more from his platoon were about to join him. Five disabled Shermans littered the Kall Trail behind. Fleig checked in with Major Robert Hazlett, commander of the 1st Battalion in Kommerscheidt, who ordered him to ‘Get out there and stop those tanks.’ Nearby infantrymen advised Fleig there were ‘lots of Germans with tanks over that hill.’
The trio of Shermans led by Fleig advanced toward the enemy. As they crested a slight rise, the Shermans opened fire. Fleig believed his gunner accounted for two of the attackers while another Sherman knocked out a third. On the outskirts of Kommerscheidt, Fleig saw a tank screened by an orchard. He called instructions on the range and location to the gunner. A shot rang out and he saw a bright splash of light on the turret of the Mark IV. He called for another round. A fiery eruption on the tank signified another hit. Two Germans could be seen leaping from the tank.
Fleig’s gunner was using high-explosive rather than armor-piercing (AP) shells. The thick skin of the Panther protected it, and the Germans who abandoned the tank were not hurt, only frightened. Fleig’s crew scrambled to retrieve the AP shells stowed on their tank’s exterior. The Germans seized the time to re-enter their own tank and begin firing at Fleig. Fleig, however, ultimately won the duel. His first AP round sliced the enemy gun barrel. Three more shells pierced the thinner side of the Panther’s hull, setting it ablaze and killing its entire crew.
|A GI helps his squad’s BAR man up a steep wooded hill in the Hürtgen. The terrain was ideally suited to the German defenders, who used the landscape to conceal hundreds of deadly MG34 and MG42 machine guns. (National Archives)|
Meanwhile, the 110th Infantry, operating in the woods to the south, reeled from a devastating bombardment. Ed Uzemack, a replacement, said: ‘We spent the night in previously dug foxholes after being instructed to prepare to move out at dawn with only light combat packs. It was still fairly dark when we moved into an orchard and spread out. Despite orders not to, we lit cigarettes and smoked them with cupped hands to shield the glow. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. The Jerries had zeroed in on the orchard and were lobbing mortar shells and artillery fire in a continuous barrage that lasted about 45 minutes….
‘A GI crawling ahead of me had both his legs blown off by a shell that landed on his limbs. Another shell hit so close to me that I could feel the heat on one side of me as it exploded, and my ear buzzed. I kept crawling toward where I thought the shells were coming from and eventually left the orchard with the survivors, mostly combat vets. A sergeant told me to round up the guys who had come with me as replacements. I told him I didn’t even know who the hell they were, but I would do my best. Somehow I managed to find about half a dozen totally frightened replacements, and suddenly I realized I was just as scared as they were. But that morning we became combat vets.’
Through hours of tough fighting, the Americans had managed to hold off the German attacks. Around 1600 the Wehr-macht retired to regroup. Astonishingly, only an hour earlier, division headquarters blithely ordered the GIs, frantically digging in to preserve themselves and stop the counterattack, to retake Schmidt. That occurred even though the assistant division commander, General Davis, had come to the command post for the battle at Kommerscheidt to confer with the regimental leader. He remained overnight in a cellar before returning to Cota’s command post (CP).
At First Army, the grim news coming out of the Hürtgen pricked the bubble of anticipated success. ‘The general did not leave his CP today,’ said a staff officer, ‘but spent most of his time in the war room and also in G-3 following the corps attack closely. Things did not go very well. The 3rd Battalion of 112th was counterattacked and at 10 o’clock withdrew almost a mile to the vicinity of Kommerscheidt. Early yesterday afternoon after a heavy artillery concentration and air bombardment was placed on Schmidt, the 3rd Battalion attempted to regain the village, but this attack was met by a counterattack of a battalion of infantry with a dozen tanks. Our progress toward Schmidt at nightfall was only about 300 yards. Reports from General Gerow to General Hodges this evening are to the effect that the 3rd Battalion suffered very heavy casualties. Some progress was made by 109th Infantry 2nd and 3rd battalions toward village of Hürtgen area. Progress was slow because of numerous mines and accurate artillary fire.’
Perhaps under pressure from their superiors, Cota and Davis directed another venture against Schmidt. To carry out this attack, the 28th’s commander created Task Force Ripple, an assault team led by the 707th’s commander, Lt. Col. Richard Ripple, that consisted of nine surviving tanks from Company A, the entire armored complement of Company D, which fielded light tanks, a handful of tank destroyers from the 893rd Tank Destroyer Battalion and approximately 300 demoralized foot soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 110th Infantry.
|The crew of a 155mm self-propelled gun from the 981st Field Artillery Battalion shells German positions outside Kleinhau on the edge of the Hürtgen Forest. (National Archives)|
Task Force Ripple was doomed from the start. The light tanks never arrived. The plan called for the 110th Infantry’s 3rd Battalion to shift from its sector on the right flank of the 112th to meet up with the armor at Kommerscheidt and pass through the depleted ranks of that organization and capture Schmidt. The Germans, however, vigorously protected their interests on the trail across the Kall Valley. Their defense reduced the already understrength battalion by two officers and 15 men before it even reached the woods north of Kommerscheidt.
The inability to advance in the Hürtgen only doubled the resolve of the strategists who developed a plan for a massive all-out offensive toward the Roer, including a significant effort in the forest. To maintain the striking force, Hodges ordered the 12th Infantry Regiment from the 4th Division to be attached to the 28th Division and relieve the shattered 112th. As soon as possible, the 4th’s 8th and 22nd regiments would take over the remainder of the 28th’s positions. In addition, the 1st Infantry Division, which had finally taken Aachen, was summoned for an attack from the north. Along the left flank of the 47th Infantry Regiment, GIs would strike toward Gressenich from their Schevenhütte outpost. To soften resistance, a massive bombing attack by the U.S. Eighth Air Force and the British RAF would precede a sustained cannonade from corps and division artillery. Despite this massive bombardment, the Germans refused to wilt.
South Carolinian Marcus Dillard, still six weeks shy of his 19th birthday and a mortar gunner with the 12th Infantry’s Company M, had stepped onto Utah Beach on D-Day.
‘We were alerted to move at once on the 6th of November,’ recalled Dillard. ‘We were told to cover our division insignia on our helmets, remove or cover our shoulder patches and all markings on our vehicles. At about 1800 hours we started moving north. It was cold, miserable and raining. We arrived and started detrucking about 0200 in the morning of the 7th.
‘It was dark and I mean dark, raining, cold, wind blowing. We all wondered, ‘Where are we?’ This was a secret move, and no one except the top brass knew where we were. I looked up trying to see something, and all I could make out were the tops of trees swaying and hear the wind whistling through them. We were told to move out and to follow the man in front as close as possible. We didn’t want anyone to get lost. We were told to leave our 81mm mortars behind. We would take the ones left by the unit we were relieving, and they would get ours. We walked, stumbled and slipped for the next couple of hours, barely able to see where we were going. We finally halted and were to stay in place. Wet and miserable as I was, I dropped off to sleep — I don’t know for how long — but then we were told we would take the foxholes and positions of the soldiers we were to replace. It was starting to get daylight, and we could see the shoulder patches of the 28th Division. They didn’t say much. They just moved out and looked tired and exhausted.
‘As it got brighter, what I saw scared me. Shell holes all over, the trees, most of them looked like shredded matchsticks with points. Half of the trees standing, the bark was torn off by shrapnel. Just utter devastation. It was cold, rainy, foggy. Just plain miserable. No hot food, just K rations. Our positions must have been the only open area around because we had to have clearance overhead in order to fire our 81s. The Germans had to know our positions because of that. We could not see our targets but were told what they were.
‘The artillery fire on us was very intense. The Germans started a barrage that lasted over three hours. We had cut logs and put them over the slit trenches that had mounds of dirt around them. We could not even get out to our mortar positions, which were about 20 to 30 feet out in the clearing. The telephone line to the company CP was cut by the barrage, and we had no communication. We could not give supporting fire until we fixed the cut lines.’
A day after their arrival, the 4th Division troops began an attack designed to eliminate a salient that extended into the Weisser Wehe Valley. Dillard remembered: ‘As we started through a fire break, there was a minefield and barbed wire. The company commander stepped on a mine. Then the Germans started shelling us. They must have had an observer in the woods. Almost all supplies had to be hand carried over trails and paths barely wide enough to walk [on]. We had never encountered terrain like this.’When the regiment renewed its drive on November 9, Companies I and K were designated as the main assault units, but a 500-yard-wide minefield separated them.
Company I had to withdraw from its frontline position, and a support platoon from Company L replaced it. ‘Company K,’ said Dillard, ‘moved rapidly until it reached booby-trapped concertina wire covered by machine gun fire. All this time we in Company M were laying down a mortar barrage in front of K. Company I, which circled around the minefield, came up in the rear of K, then swung to the left. They too caught intense small-arms fire. Both of our infantry companies were calling for our 81mm mortars, but the Germans were well dug in. [Companies] K and I had to dig in for the night, all the time under intense artillery and mortar fire.’
The German gunners, mines and soldiers with small arms effectively broke up the attack, inflicting severe losses. When some GIs tried to return to their old foxholes, they found Germans in residence. Again, command and control broke down; shortages of food and ammunition bedeviled the Americans. The splintered 12th Regiment reverted to the 4th Division. Only three days after being committed, it was a shambles, counting 562 casualties among its complement of 2,300. Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Sibert, the 2nd Battalion commander, recalled: ‘God, it was cold. We were hungry and thirsty…that night we really prayed….In the morning we found that God had answered all our prayers. It snowed during the night, and the whole area was covered with fog — perfect for getting out….The supply line was littered with dead. The men that came out with me were so damned tired that they stepped on the bodies — they were too tired to step over them.’
The 4th Division’s 8th Regiment was next. The regiment was given a ruined monastery a mile and a half into the forest beyond Schevenhütte as an objective. To reach the site, the soldiers would have to pass through a thick belt of enemy mines and defensive positions. Air support and artillery failed to eliminate the well-dug-in defenders. When the 2nd Battalion of the 8th headed out on November 18, it entered a carpet of mines in front of an extensive wall of barbed wire. The first attacks cut down every rifle company commander, along with most of the platoon leaders and senior noncoms. A second attempt, begun with the addition of tanks, was expected to carve a path through the minefield and help breach the concertina wire. Mud and a deep slope bogged down four of the five tanks. The remaining one did carve a pathway through the minefield, but it could not penetrate the wire.
Major George Mabry, who had received a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) in recognition of his D-Day exploits, assumed command of the battalion, which even with 200 replacements still added up to only 60 percent of the normal complement. Mabry personally reconnoitered the terrain, then led an attack. The major noticed indentations in the snow, which he reasoned indicated mine locations. He dug some out with his trench knife to make a safe passage. Mabry himself rushed several bunkers with a small group of soldiers, and his troops gained their objective. He received a Medal of Honor for his valor.
Two days earlier, the 1st Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment had moved on the village of Hamich. Two companies of German soldiers held the village and the woods in front of it. Platoon leader Lieutenant John Beach, with C Company, 16th Infantry Regiment, recalled: ‘The platoon was down to 36 men. Two squads of machine gunners from D Company were attached to me for the attack. I therefore had 56 men under my command at the jump-off line.’ Beach said his orders directed him to attack ‘regardless of casualties.’ Toting a Thompson submachine gun, he followed instructions after the enemy began to fire artillery, killing one man and wounding another.
‘I fired into the slit from which the machine gun protruded while Strickland, now acting leader of the right squad, fired some antitank grenades. A few well-placed grenades fell into the open top of the emplacement, killing most of the crew. The two surviving Germans immediately jumped up with their hands in the air. We disarmed them and sent them to the rear, making sure the machine gun could not be used again. A second machine gun emplacement met us as we moved forward and effectively stopped us. By a direct assault we killed one man and wounded another, taking the remaining prisoner. We were now coming out of the woods to a group of buildings, Woody’s objective. Woody came up with his platoon, and we conferred briefly. ‘All right, Beach, here’s where I leave you,’ he said. ‘I’ll see you later.’ We didn’t expect that our next meeting would not take place until three months later in a German prisoner of war camp.’
The attack quickly ground to a halt under a merciless German artillery barrage. Soon Beach and the rest of the 16th Infantry’s 1st Battalion were struggling to hang on to what little they had. ‘I swung over to the right and counted my men before continuing the advance,’ Beach remarked. ‘They added up to 14 left out of the 56 that I had started with a few hours before. I was studying the map when Dyer interrupted. ‘There’s a Heinie,’ he observed. A German was rushing toward us with fixed bayonet. One of the men already taking aim behind us shot the enemy down within two feet of us. I looked down at the map again. We had to cross an open ditch to reach the final area, and I posted the 14 men there as best I could before being called back to company headquarters.
‘No sooner had I arrived there than I received a frantic call that the Germans were counterattacking. I rushed back to my position. The Germans had pushed back one squad, killing four men and taking the area they were holding. Strickland was out there wounded. Dyer was holding up the remaining eight men. A particularly heavy enemy burst came from one direction. I yelled, ‘Dyer’ but there was no answer. A German in front of me began waving a white flag. A moment later German medics ran out from cover, turning over the green-clad bodies to determine who survived, dragging the living out of the firing area. I carefully relaxed the finger with which I had taken up the slack on the trigger of my tommy gun.
‘I was no medic but there were some of my men out there too. If only those who were wounded could be given first aid, perhaps carried to the rear, their lives might be saved. Deciding to take a chance I laid down my submachine gun, stood up empty-handed and walked quickly but carefully toward the spot where several motionless olive-drab figures lay. Suddenly, I heard the enemy machine gun open up again. Simultaneously, I saw flashes of fire from beneath and alongside the white flag, and felt sharp stabs of pain in both legs. I felt paralyzed.’
Later that night several German soldiers discovered Beach. Using a blanket from the pack of a nearby American casualty, they improvised a stretcher to carry him to a building with a large room filled with the Hürtgen fallen. He watched a priest give last rites to a number of men while medics gave injections to the wounded, changed bandages, occasionally signaling to two men with a litter who would move quickly and remove the body of someone who had died.
The 1st Division’s 18th and 26th regiments had gained minimal ground against the stubborn enemy, who met every step forward with artillery, mortar and small-arms fire. Although the Americans were staggered by their losses, the Germans also suffered fearsome casualties. Entire companies already reduced to perhaps 100 men were annihilated, ammunition ran short, and the functioning number of tanks dwindled.
Unwilling to stop the attacks, Hodges committed another organization. The 8th Infantry Division was next to be sent into the forest. The first unit in on November 22 was the 121st Infantry Regiment. As was the case of its predecessors, the 121st jumped off with no intelligence on enemy positions or adequate maps. Colonel Tom Cross, executive officer of the division, said the attacks were not succussful: ‘Each time they attempted to move, a rain of mortar and antitank shells dropped on them. All firebreaks in the woods were mined and apparently communications from forward positions to gun and mortar positions were perfect. Morale of the troops very poor. Other regiments had been chewed to pieces in this area….’ Within three days, the 121st counted 50 killed and almost 600 wounded, a loss of nearly 20 percent.In spite of the appalling casualties — the toll for the 4th Division alone added up to close to 4,000 — the GIs doggedly pressed the enemy. The First Army upped its ante, bringing on the 5th Armored Division, the 83rd Infantry Division, the 2nd Ranger Battalion and ultimately portions of the 82nd Airborne.
The snows of December and the surprise German penetration in the Ardennes, which created the infamous bulge in the U.S. lines, delayed a final offensive through the Hürtgen. In the interval since the initial onslaught, the Americans had also realized that control of the big dams was essential. If the floodgates were opened, passage to the Roer and beyond would be severely affected. At the end of January, a fresh outfit, the 78th ‘Lightning’ Division, along with the 5th and 7th Armored divisions, launched attacks aimed at securing the Paulushof Dam and the immense Schwammenauel Dam.
Despite the odds against them, the shrinking force of defenders refused to quit. Their stiff resistance slowed the advances, but it could not stop the GIs. Lieutenant Colonel Andy A. Lipscomb, commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 78th Infantry Division’s 311th Infantry Regiment, reported on a successful assault on Huppenbroich, deep in the Hürtgen. ‘We were fighting the elements,’ he said. ‘The men were tired when they moved up the hill. The snow was very deep. The wind was very high, sweeping the snow in their eyes so that they could barely see or hear. They were so very numb and tired they couldn’t hit the ground when the artillery and mortar fire fell beside them….Every house contained enemy.’ Still, they took the village.
Kesternich, within range of the Schwammenauel Dam, fell at a cost of 224 men from the 309th Infantry. Securing the dam itself required seizure of the former deathtraps for the 28th Division — Kommerscheidt and then Schmidt. An all-out assault by the 78th’s three regiments wiped out resistance in the villages, and the reconstituted 60th Regiment from the 9th Division, having seized the Urft Dam, joined the movement toward the Schwammenauel.
On February 10, 1945, the Americans were finally out of the Hürtgen. But they had paid a terrible price. The First Army had suffered 24,000 dead, wounded, captured or missing in action, plus another 9,000 disabled by other nonbattle injuries. Estimates of German casualties were high but below that of the Americans. It was a questionable victory that left several U.S. organizations in tatters. Major General Rudolph Gersdorff, chief of staff of the Third Reich’s Seventh Army, later said: ‘The German command could not understand the reason for the strong American attacks in the Hürtgen Forest. The fighting in the wooded area denied the American troops the advantages of use of their air and armored forces, the superiority of which had been decisive in all of the battles waged before.’
Hodges, Collins and others who decided to strike at the forest said they feared a devastating flanking attack if the area was left unsecured. But in fact, the same conditions that denied the First Army swift movement — the density of trees, the absence of decent roads and the hilly topography — would have prevented any strong, sustained advance against the U.S. forces. The nearly five-month Hürtgen campaign was a mistake, and one that cost dearly in blood and life
This article was written by Gerald Astor and originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!