As one hikes down the Kall Trail today in Germany’s Hürtgen Forest, it is almost impossible to visualize how U.S. forces in November 1944 managed to get M4 Sherman tanks and M10 Wolverine tank destroyers down that steep and narrow footpath. From the village of Vossenack west of the Kall River, the trail plunges almost 500 feet into the river gorge and then climbs almost as steeply to an open field just outside the village of Kommerscheidt east of the river. On the Vossenack side there is no room to maneuver. The right side of the trail runs smack up against the steep hillside, while the left side drops straight into the gorge. At its tightest point, a place American soldiers dubbed “the rocky outcropping,” the trail is a few inches narrower than the 8-foot, 7-inch width of a Sherman.
Even more difficult to understand is how this narrow goat path could have served as the axis of the 28th Infantry Division’s dagger-like main thrust toward the town of Schmidt, as it sought to break through the Hürtgen and reach the Rhine. Of course, the entire division wasn’t trying to come down that single path, only the 112th Infantry Regiment. But that actually compounded the problem. The other two regiments were advancing in widely diverging directions, which meant their attacks were not mutually supporting and the division’s combat power would dissipate as it advanced. Any second lieutenant with a basic grasp of Tactics 101 should have known that such a scheme of maneuver was a recipe for disaster. And it was.
When the Americans started into the gorge on Nov. 3, 1944, they had not even reconned the trail and had no idea whether tanks could make it. Worse still, they didn’t know if the small bridge over the Kall that showed on the map was still standing or, if it were, whether it could support tanks. By November 5, against almost overwhelming odds, a platoon of Shermans under 1st Lt. Raymond Flieg and a platoon of M10s under 1st Lt. Turney Leonard had managed to get down the trail, across the bridge and up the other side, only to run into German Panthers outside Kommerscheidt. Within two days the Germans counterattacked and destroyed all the American armored vehicles. Flieg later received a Silver Star and Leonard a posthumous Medal of Honor.
The Americans had tried to move more tanks across the gorge, but about noon on November 4, a Sherman threw a track and hung up on the rocky outcropping, blocking the trail. For the next 15 hours nothing moved while tankers and engineers argued about whether to recover the tank or push it over the side. Meanwhile, their buddies outside Kommerscheidt were taking a severe beating from the 89th Infantry Division.
On the hillside less than 200 feet down from the rocky outcropping, an abandoned forestry hut became the main American aid station. As the battle raged over the next four days, control of the aid station passed back and forth repeatedly between the Germans and Americans. The Germans brought medical supplies to the aid station, and eventually their own wounded and medics. Throughout the battle German and American medics and doctors worked together, treating hundreds of casualties from both sides.
By November 8, the Germans had stopped the attack and pushed the Americans back across the Kall and completely out of the gorge. The 28th ID had sustained 6,184 casualties in just six days of fighting.
Today almost nothing remains to suggest the terrible events of November 1944, unless you know what to look for. The rocky outcropping bears scars where American engineers finally set off explosives in an attempt to clear the trail. The crumbled stone foundation of the forestry hut/aid station is still there, but it’s overgrown and hard to find. The Germans ultimately did blow the bridge, but the replacement built in the 1950s is largely unchanged. The Kall Trail today offers an idyllic walk in the forest, but for anyone familiar with the savage fighting of November 1944, the forest is still thick with ghosts.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.