Share This Article

Germans and Americans slugged it out for six months in the Hürtgen Forest beginning in September 1944, with both sides suffering enormous casualties. Given the ferocity of the seesaw struggle, it is difficult to believe that at the height of the battle the two sides paused for humanitarian reasons. But three times over the course of five days in November 1944 the opponents put aside their enmity so that wounded soldiers could be taken safely to the rear for treatment.

The Hürtgen Forest is a region of the Ardennes near Aix-la-Chapelle, Belgium, a terrain interspersed with areas of heavy forest, plains and ravines, beyond which lie the Roer River dams. Allied commanders feared that the dams, which supplied hydroelectric power to the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany, might be opened by the Germans to prevent or delay an Allied advance across the German frontier. Attacking through the Hürtgen and seizing the dams, the Allies believed, would surely hasten the end of the war.

For the attack, the U.S. First Army assembled 250,000 GIs in eight combat-seasoned divisions and a complement of several separate units. Their commander, Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges, had dropped out of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., but subsequently earned his commission through Officer Candidate School. During World War I, he gained renown and was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his sterling service in the Meuse-Argonne campaign. In 1941 Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall appointed Hodges chief of the infantry, and by 1944 Hodges had succeeded General Omar Bradley as commander of the First Army. Bradley then took command of the U.S. Twelfth Army Group.

In the fall of 1944, Hodges was leading his troops through an area similar to that in which he had distinguished himself as a machine-gun company commander in 1918. He was anxious to crush enemy resistance rapidly, to avoid the brutal trench fighting of the previous conflict. Moreover, intelligence sources assured him that the Germans were on the run.

On September 11, Hodges called a halt to the advance to wait two days for his XIX Corps, then 20 miles behind, to catch up. In the interim, he wanted the troops waiting along the 120-mile-long front to repair equipment. The First Army was supposed to have 1,010 medium tanks, but only 850 were on hand and many needed substantial repairs. But the VII Corps and V Corps commanders, Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins and Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow, were anxious to press onward to keep the Germans off balance. Hodges agreed, with the proviso that if either corps met substantial resistance, operations would cease until more supplies and ammunition arrived.

On the morning of September 12, General Collins directed the 3rd Armored Division to punch through German lines at a midpoint between the town of Aachen and the forest. The Germans, advantageously placed in bunkers or pillboxes under the cover of fir trees, fought back with anti-tank guns, and the Americans lost nine tanks in short order. The unit commander called a halt for the day, but other units made better progress. All the Allied units halted for the night, since ‘dragon’s teeth’ fortifications (mini concrete pyramids) blocked further armored progress.

Meanwhile, Collins assigned the 9th Infantry Division, under Maj. Gen. Louis A. Craig, to attack a ridgeline, a move that enabled them to protect the right flank of the armored divisions and the southern flank of the VII Corps. Craig launched his attack on September 13, but the Germans held the Americans at bay. The Germans fighting on this 19-mile front consisted of Colonel Eberhard Rösler’s 1056th Regiment of the 89th Division and the northern half of Infantry General Erich Straube’s 74th Corps.

During September and October 1944, the 9th Infantry Division had little progress to show for the protracted fighting in the Hürtgen. Hodges and his superior, Bradley, decided that some rearranging was in order. The new plan called for Hodges to cross the Rhine River south of Cologne. Protecting each flank would be the Ninth Army, under the command of Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson, and Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army. The XIX Corps would switch over to the Ninth Army, with the VIII Corps taking its place. Seizing the Hürtgen was now the main objective, and Hodges decided to transfer the mission from Collins’ VII Corps to General Gerow’s V Corps.

To lead the assault, Hodges brought the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division up from the rear. The ‘Keystone’ Division’s commander, Maj. Gen. Norman D. ‘Dutch’ Cota, had previously served as assistant divisional commander of the 29th Infantry Division on D-Day, when he earned the Distinguished Service Cross and the British Distinguished Service Order. Cota, a West Point graduate, had reservations about the mission. As he directed the Pennsylvanians into position to relieve the beleaguered 9th Division, the frozen, bloated bodies, discarded equipment and spent shells that littered the landscape offered eloquent testimony to the hardships that lay ahead. Nevertheless, Cota had his orders to attack on November 1, 1944. The assault was postponed by rain and fog until the following day.

At 8 on the morning of November 2, a 12,000-round artillery barrage began. As the assault commenced, the Americans discovered that the area was heavily mined. When American engineers tried to clear paths for troops and medical personnel, the Germans repulsed them with machine-gun and mortar fire–a frustrating situation that continued for nearly a week. In addition to the mines, disabled tanks and felled trees blocked roads and hampered evacuation of the wounded.

This was the worst of times for the Keystone Division, which acquired the sobriquet ‘Bloody Bucket,’ a reference to both the soldiers’ red keystone shoulder patches and the casualties they suffered during this period. Nevertheless, despite the ferocity of the fighting, three cease-fires were engineered, all of which took place on the Kall Trail.

The trail, which parallels the Kall River in North Eifel, connects the German towns of Vossenack and Kommerscheidt. Midway between the towns is the Mestrenger Mëhle, a mill with a bridge crossing the Kall River. It was there on November 7 that the first casual truce took place.

Sergeant Provencher, a member of Company M, 112th Infantry, 28th Division, later recalled there had been rumors that the Germans would allow parole for wounded personnel and their medics about that time. Provencher and two other GIs volunteered to carry evacuees. They realized that they would have to cross a valley that was in enemy hands, and in order to show their humanitarian intent, the men had to proceed unarmed.

None of the litter-bearers knew which evacuation route to take. Their general orders were to follow a road to the rear and make contact with the 109th Infantry. Cold weather, snow and mud dogged their progress, and the men practically had to drag their litter cases along.

At one point a German sentry challenged the GIs. Apparently he could not speak English, and Provencher did not know German, but when Provencher tried French on the sentry, the German soldier became receptive. Provencher managed to deceive him into thinking that the German high command had authorized the GIs safe passage through the lines to an American aid station.

At first the sentry demanded that the wounded be taken to a German aid station about 100 yards down the river. Provencher demurred, and there was another tense moment. But when one of the litter-bearers had the bright idea of offering the German a cigarette, the sentry seemed pleased and indicated that his commander was likely to approve the evacuation of the wounded men.

While he was puffing his cigarette, the litter party decided not to wait for the sanction from higher command to continue on their way. Provencher took one last look back as they left. Just then he spied three Germans in a large foxhole behind a heavy machine gun that had been covering the litter-bearers during the whole exchange. Apparently the men had agreed with the sentry’s decision, since they allowed the GIs to pass. Provencher’s group proceeded to the rear without further incident.

On November 9 there was rain that changed to snow, worsening the plight of the wounded men. Regimental surgeon Major Albert Berndt of the 112th Infantry, who was in the rear command post, heard that the previous night some wounded had been evacuated to an aid station near the Kommerscheidt woods. Since this was close to German lines, he asked his commanding officer if he might approach the enemy under a white flag, in an effort to arrange a temporary cease-fire. Although his request was denied, the CO asked him to try to find out the enemy’s attitude on the matter.

By the time Berndt and his jeep driver, Technician 4th Class Wheeler W. Wolters–who would act as a truce flag bearer and interpreter–arrived at the aid station, medics were loading wounded soldiers onto two trucks and a cargo carrier. Unknown to Berndt, the cease-fire had been authorized while he was en route. Seeing that the wounded were on their way to the rear, Berndt and Wolters walked down the Kall Trail to the river. A German soldier appeared briefly and then ran off, apparently to sound an alert. Several minutes later a German lieutenant and six soldiers appeared and asked, through Wolters, if the Americans had weapons. Berndt said no and explained their mission.

Just then they heard someone with an American accent, a wounded GI crying for help from across the river. Fortunately, two American medics appeared at that point and asked for permission to get water from the river, and Berndt told them to try to help their wounded comrade to safety.

‘Can we have a truce to get the wounded out of Kommerscheidt?’ Berndt asked the German lieutenant. ‘They have already left,’ came the reply. But the German did offer to evacuate the aid station casualties. Berndt declined, fearing that it was a ruse and the Germans might take the medical personnel prisoner. The Americans were then allowed to pass. Berndt and Wolters went back up the Kall Trail, helping the aid station wounded onto vehicles. By that time the two medics who had gone down to the river had succeeded in moving the wounded GI to a safe position near a group of American combat engineers.

The hospital train limped along the trail. Because a cargo carrier had a hole in its gas tank, Technician 3rd Grade John Shedio had to walk alongside it, pouring in fuel from jerry cans. Then a new group of Germans appeared, along with some wounded GIs, and they stopped the convoy to check for Geneva Convention cards. The Americans accepted the wounded, and the Germans allowed them to continue toward Allied lines.

Two days later a third impromptu truce took place. First Lieutenant Heinz Munster, commander of the German 14th Company, 1056th Infantry Regiment, 89th Division, recalled meeting some Americans at the Mestrenger Mëhle on the Kall Trail. ‘It had become almost impossible to move supply items, human replacements and medical assistance to either forces,’ said Munster. ‘The multitude of calls for help in this area indicated the worst of all situations.’

Dr. Gënter Stëttgen, the German unit’s medical officer, decided to arrange for a temporary cease-fire by entering into direct negotiations with the Americans, so that both sides could aid their wounded and withdraw their dead. Colonel Rösler, Munster’s regimental commander, issued orders to offer safe passage for an American officer to enter the field command post.

Rösler’s intention was to arrange for additional breaks in hostilities by direct communications at command level, in order to convince his Allied counterparts of the sincerity of his proposal. As a result, Munster recalled: ‘Dr. Stëttgen, a medic and myself, identified by Red Cross signs on chest and back, wearing white arm bands and being unarmed, proceeded on foot from the field HQ Gerstenhof through the forest towards Mestrenger Mëhle. As intended, we approached and entered the American lines of defense. The Americans were surprised and kept us under close guard. After a brief conversation, their unit leader appeared and greeted us in German. He agreed immediately to discuss details of our proposal at our command post in the mill. The situation in this front sector was much more serious, however, than anticipated. Between deserted and destroyed tanks [lay] dead and wounded from both sides. Friend and foe hid in their foxholes, totally wet, hungry and demoralized. The fighting was briefly halted, and each side was busy retrieving their dead and wounded. To the dismay of the Americans, our soldiers did not hesitate to climb into [U.S.] Sherman tanks in order to forage for food and cigarettes.

‘While we led our guest [a U.S. officer] blindfolded towards the mill,’ Munster continued, ‘enemy artillery suddenly showered us with projectiles. We escaped to the mill’s basement, which also served as shelter for our wounded. We all hit the ground for protection. Our soldiers chuckled as they recognized the presence of an American officer.’

A quick phone call to Colonel Rösler resulted in a 180-degree turn of events. Munster said: ‘We learned that the Americans went on the offensive from Vossenack. Bad timing indeed since our own artillery was ordered to cease [firing] for the duration of our negotiation mission. We had to end our attempt [at negotiation] at once in order to enable our regiment to become fully operational again. The American officer still shook hands in parting with us and expressed his hope that we may see each other again someday under less threatening circumstances.’

After the last truce, both sides returned to vigorous fighting. Two battalions of the 112th Regiment of the U.S. 28th Infantry Division and elements of the 707th Tank and 893rd Tank Destroyer battalions crossed the Kall River on their way to seize Kommerscheidt and nearby Schmidt. However, it turned out to be their route of withdrawal as well. German forces cut off the armor’s supply lines on the west side of the Kall. During the course of this and related actions, Mestrenger Mëhle changed hands three times. Eventually, a contingent of Wehrmacht soldiers evacuated the mill when it came under simultaneous American and German artillery bombardment.

The Germans retaliated against the Americans with a relentless artillery barrage. General Hodges switched corps again, and on November 13 ordered VII Corps’ 4th Infantry Division to replace the battle-weary 28th, which had suffered 6,184 dead and wounded in less than two weeks. The Germans lost about half that number.

Falling back to the Luxembourg border, the 28th Division received a well-earned break at that point. Late in December it returned to the front lines to help stem the German counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge, the last Axis push of the war. Thereafter, the heaviest fighting shifted to another sector of the Hürtgen Forest until February 1945. The Kall Valley, where Americans and Germans thrice sought moments of respite to care for their casualties, reverted to a relative state of peace at last.


This article was written by Sloan Auchincloss and originally appeared in the November 1999 issue of World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!