On Nov. 2, 1944, the U.S. 28th Infantry Division moved to capture the town of Schmidt, which controlled many key roads through Germany’s Hürtgen Forest.

The hilly and impenetrably wooded Hürtgenwald was the last major physical barrier before the wide and flat plain leading directly to the Rhine River. Just five months after landing in Normandy, the Allies had pushed the German army out of France, and the Germans were starting to call up old men and young boys. Most Allied commanders assumed the badly pummeled Wehrmacht was on the verge of collapse. That assumption turned out to be a bad one.

The 28th Infantry Division was deployed along a north-south ridgeline, with Schmidt on a parallel ridge immediately to the east. Between the two ridges the Kall River snakes through a steep and very deep gorge. It was perfect ground for defense.

Maps showed a logging trail running into the gorge and a bridge at the bottom over the Kall. That would be the main avenue of attack and the division’s main supply route, but no one sent out a reconnaissance patrol. That caused serious problems during the attack.

The main effort was made by the 112th Infantry Regiment, down one side of the gorge, up the other side and into Schmidt. Meanwhile, the 109th Infantry Regiment attacked north along the western ridge, while the 110th Infantry Regiment attacked into the gorge to the southeast—but neither was actually to cross the Kall. In other words the division’s three regiments diverged, instead of converging on the objective.

Making matters worse, the Germans controlled a piece of high ground labeled on maps as Hill 400, which was not an attack objective. Hill 400 overlooked the entire battlefield, and German observers could and did call down fire on anything American that moved.

The 112th got across the gorge with great difficulty and took Schmidt on November 3. Then the Germans counterattacked. By November 8 they had pushed the 112th back across the Kall to its original line of departure. The 109th and the 110th also were mauled in their own piecemeal actions.

By the time the battle ended on November 8, the 28th Infantry Division had sustained 6,184 casualties. It was among the worst American defeats of the war. 

Lessons:

Don’t underestimate your enemy. The Germans had taken a beating to that point, but they were now fighting in their homeland and among the most skillful and tenacious defenders in the history of warfare.

Never diverge your combat power. The farther apart your forces get, the more difficult it is for them to provide mutual support. In the case of the Schmidt attack it was impossible.

Control the key terrain.  Key terrain is the ground that will cause your operation to fail if the enemy controls it, or bring you victory if you control it. As long as the Germans sat atop Hill 400, the American attack didn’t have a chance.

Never advance blind. Maps are nice, but there is no substitute for eyes on the ground. MH

This article appeared in the January 2021 issue of Military History magazine. For more stories, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook: