Battle of Hürtgen Forest

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Battle of Hürtgen Forest
Part of World War II
HurtgenForest.jpg
Willys MB U.S. Army jeep beside the Hürtgen Hotel.
Date 19 September – 16 December 1944
Location 50°42′31″N 6°21′46″E / 50.70861°N 6.36278°E / 50.70861; 6.36278Coordinates: 50°42′31″N 6°21′46″E / 50.70861°N 6.36278°E / 50.70861; 6.36278
German-Belgian border
Result German defensive victory[1][2]
Belligerents
 United States  Germany
Commanders and leaders
United States Omar Bradley
United States Courtney Hodges
United States Leonard T. Gerow
United States Joseph Lawton Collins
United States Norman Cota
Nazi Germany Walter Model
Strength
120,000 80,000
Casualties and losses
33,000 (including 9,000 friendly fire and non-combat casualties)[3] 28,000[3]

The Battle of Hürtgen Forest (German: Schlacht im Hürtgenwald) is the name given to the series of fierce battles fought between U.S. and German forces during World War II in the Hürtgen Forest, which became the longest battle on German ground during World War II, and the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought.[4] The battles took place from 19 September to 16 December 1944, over barely 50 sq mi (130 km2), east of the Belgian–German border. The U.S. commanders' initial goal was to pin down German forces in the area to keep them from reinforcing the front lines further north in the Battle of Aachen, where the Allies were fighting a trench war between a network of fortified towns and villages connected with field fortifications, tank traps and minefields. A secondary objective may have been to outflank the front line. The Americans' initial objectives were to take Schmidt and clear Monschau. In a second phase the Allies wanted to advance to the Rur River as part of Operation Queen. Generalfeldmarshall Walter Model intended to bring the Allied thrust to a standstill. While he interfered less in the day-to-day movements of units than at 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 to the Allies as the Siegfried Line. A few days later, the Battle of the Bulge began, leaving the battle of Hürtgen Forest largely forgotten.

The Hürtgen Forest cost the U.S. First Army at least 33,000 killed and incapacitated, including both combat and noncombat losses; German casualties were 28,000. Aachen eventually fell on 22 October, again at high cost to the U.S. Ninth Army. The Ninth Army's push to the Rur fared no better, and did not manage to cross the river or wrest control of its dams from the Germans. The Rur triangle was later cleared during Operation Blackcock between 14 and 26 January 1945.

Hürtgen was so costly that it has been called an Allied "defeat of the first magnitude", with specific credit being assigned to Model.[5][6]:391

The Germans fiercely defended the area for two reasons: it served as a staging area for the Ardennes Offensive (what became the Battle of the Bulge) that was already in preparation, and the mountains commanded access to the Rur Dam[7] at the head of the Rur Reservoir (Rurstausee) which, if opened, would flood low-lying areas downstream and deny any crossing of the river. The Allies only recognized this after several heavy setbacks, and the Germans were able to hold the region until they launched their last-ditch offensive on the Western Front into the Ardennes.

Background[edit]

By mid-September 1944, the Allied pursuit of the German army after the landings at Normandy was slowing down because of extended supply lines and German Army rebuilding. The next strategic objective was to move up to the Rhine River along its entire length and prepare to cross it. Courtney HodgesFirst Army experienced hard resistance pushing through the Aachen Gap and perceived a potential threat from enemy forces using the Hürtgen Forest as a base.

The U.S. 1st Infantry Division arrived in early October, joining elements of the XIX Corps and VII Corps, which had encircled Aachen. Although the 1st Infantry Division called for the surrender of the German garrison in the city, German commander Oberst Gerhard Wilck refused to capitulate until 22 October.

It was also thought necessary to remove the threat posed by the Rur dam. The stored water could be released by the Germans, swamping any forces operating downstream. In the view of the American commanders, Bradley, Hodges and Collins, the direct route to the dam was through the forest.[8]:239

Military historians are no longer convinced by these arguments. Charles B. MacDonald—a U.S. Army historian and former company commander who served in the Hürtgen battle—has described it as "a misconceived and basically fruitless battle that should have been avoided."[8]:239

Geography[edit]

Map showing the area of the battle
View to the west over the Kall Valley.

The Hürtgen Forest occupies a rugged area between the Rur river and Aachen. The dense conifer forest is broken by few roads, tracks and firebreaks; vehicular movement is restricted. In the autumn and early winter of 1944, the weather was cold and wet and often prevented air support. Ground conditions varied from wet to snow cover.

The German defenders had prepared the area with blockhouses, minefields, barbed wire, and booby-traps, hidden by the snow. Also there were numerous bunkers in the area, mostly belonging to the deep defenses of the Westwall, which were also centers of resistance. The dense forest allowed infiltration and flanking attacks and it was sometimes difficult to establish a front line or to be confident that an area had been cleared of the enemy. The small numbers of routes and clearings had also allowed German machine-gun, mortar and artillery teams to pre-range their weapons and fire accurately. Apart from the bad and very cold weather, the dense forest and rough terrain also prevented proper use of the Allied air superiority which had great difficulties in spotting any targets.

The American advantage in numbers (as high as 5:1), armor, mobility, and air support was greatly reduced by weather and terrain. In the forest, relatively small numbers of determined and prepared defenders could be highly effective. As the American divisions took casualties, inexperienced recruits were brought up to the front as replacements.[6]:454, 468–69

The impenetrable forest also limited the use of tanks and hid anti-tank teams equipped with panzerfausts. Improvised rocket launchers were made using rocket tubes from aircraft and spare jeep trailers. Later in the battle, it proved necessary to blast tank routes through the forest. Transport was similarly limited by the lack of routes: at critical times, it proved difficult to reinforce or supply front-line units or to evacuate their wounded. The Germans were hampered by much the same difficulties, of course; their divisions had taken heavy losses on the retreat through France and were hastily filled up with untrained boys, men unfit for service, and old men. Transport was also a problem because of the difficult roads and the lack of trucks and fuel. Most supplies had to be manhandled to the front line. But the German defenders had the advantage in that their commanders and many of their soldiers had been fighting for a few years and had learned the necessary tactics for fighting efficiently in winter and forested areas, whereas the Americans were often well-trained but inexperienced.

The tall forest canopy also favored the defenders. Artillery fire was fused to detonate as tree bursts. While defenders were protected from shell fragments (and wooden splinters from the trees) by their dug-in defensive positions, attackers in the open were much more vulnerable.[9] Conversely, U.S. mortar platoons needed clearings in which to work; these were few and dangerous, being pre-ranged by German troops, so mortar support was often unavailable to rifle platoons.

Opposing armies[edit]

The Hürtgen Forest lay within the area of Courtney HodgesU.S. First Army. Responsibility fluctuated between the V Corps and VII Corps.

At the start, the forest was defended by the German 275th and 353rd Infantry Divisions; understrength but well prepared—5,000 men (1,000 in reserve)—and commanded by Generalleutnant Hans Schmidt, they had little artillery and no tanks. As the battle progressed, German reinforcements were added. American expectations that these troops were weak and ready to withdraw were not matched by events.

U.S. divisions[edit]

German divisions[edit]

Battle[edit]

First phase[edit]

This phase concentrated on the town of Schmidt, astride an important German supply route, within the southern part of the forest.

The engagement began on 19 September 1944, with a probe by the U.S. 60th Infantry Regiment that entered the Hürtgen Forest but was beaten back by the terrain and opposition.

On 5 October, the U.S. 9th Infantry Division attacked the town of Schmidt using the 60th and 39th Infantry Regiments while the 47th held a defensive position. The Monschau-Düren road was quickly cut, but both regiments were slowed by defenses and suffered significant casualties: the 60th′s 2nd battalion was reduced to a third after the first day. The 39th was halted at the Weisser Weh Creek; there were problems with narrow paths, air bursts in trees, and fire breaks which were blocked or enfiladed. Evacuation and supply was difficult or impossible.

The slogging match continued. By 16 October, 3,000 yd (2,700 m) had been gained at the cost of 4,500 casualties. The U.S. 28th Infantry Division—a Pennsylvania National Guard unit—arrived on 16 October to relieve the battered 9th.

The 28th Division was reinforced with armor, tracked M29 Weasel transports 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 terrible terrain with the Kall Trail running along a deep river ravine. The terrain was not suited for tanks, despite the need for armor to support the infantry.

A track from a U.S. armored vehicle that was hit and burned in the Kall Valley. The track section has melted into the road.

The attack by 28th Division started on 2 November; the defenders were expecting it and were ready. The U.S. 109th Infantry Regiment was impeded after 300 yd (270 m) by an unexpected minefield, pinned down by mortar and artillery fire and harassed by local counterattacks. One mile was gained after two days, after which the 109th dug in and endured casualties. The U.S. 112th Infantry Regiment attacked Vossenack and the neighboring ridge, which were captured on 2 November. The 112th was then halted on the Kall by strong defenses and difficult terrain. The U.S. 110th Infantry Regiment had to clear the woods next to the River Kall, capture Simonskall, and maintain a supply route for the advance on Schmidt; again, these were very difficult tasks due to weather, prepared defenses, determined defenders, and terrain. The weather prevented tactical air support until 5 November.

The 112th captured Schmidt on 3 November, cutting the German supply route to Monschau, but no American supply, reinforcement or evacuation was possible, as the Kall Trail was blocked. A strong German counterattack by tanks of the 116th Panzer Division and infantry from the 89th Infantry Division rapidly expelled the Americans from Schmidt, and they were unable to counterattack. For two days, the 112th remained hard pressed to hold its positions outside Schmidt.

On 6 November, the U.S. 12th Infantry Regiment was detached from the U.S. 4th Division and sent to reinforce the 28th Division.

Across the Kall Bridge the troops of the 28th U.S. Infantry Division pushed forward at the beginning of November 1944 to capture the village of Schmidt. After a few days, the so-called Allerseelenschlacht (All Souls' Day Battle) resulted in a disaster for the Americans. As American troops tried to retreat across this bridge to Vossenack, great parts of the Kall Valley were already cut off by the Germans. A German regimental doctor—Hauptmann Guenther Stuettgen—managed to negotiate an unofficial ceasefire with the Americans at the Kall Bridge from 7–12 November, in order to attend to the wounded of both sides. The lives of many American soldiers were saved by German paramedics.[10]

At Vossenack, the 112th′s 2nd Battalion disintegrated after constant shelling and fled a German attack. Following the providential arrival of two U.S. armored platoons of tanks and M10 Wolverine tank destroyers, supported by those 2nd Battalion men who had held tight, and two companies of 146th Engineers operating as infantry, the Americans held on and the fighting for Schmidt continued until 10 November. After that, the positions at Schmidt and the Kall Trail were abandoned. It wasn't until February 1945 that the 82nd Airborne Division permanently captured the Kall trail and Schmidt.

Second phase[edit]

Main article: Operation Queen

The second phase was part of Operation Queen, the Allied thrust to the Rur River. In this phase, the U.S. 4th Division was to clear the northern half of the forest between Schevenhütte and Hürtgen, capture Hürtgen and advance to the Rur south of Düren. From 10 November, this would be VII Corps′ responsibility and it was part of the main VII Corps effort to reach the Rur. The 4th Division was now fully committed to the Hürtgen, although its 12th Infantry Regiment was already mauled from its action at Schmidt, leaving just two fully effective regiments to achieve the divisional objectives. U.S. VII Corps was opposed by German forces, mainly from the LXXXI Corps, consisting of three understrength divisions. In the Hürtgen, there was the 275th Infantry Division — 6,500 men with 150 artillery pieces. They were well dug-in and prepared.

The abstract of a U.S. report describes what happened:[11]

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 along the northern edge of the forest towards Düren, the 22nd further south in parallel. The open flanks invited infiltration. Similar tactics elsewhere in Hürtgen had "invited disaster".

A heavy German infantry gun firing in defense of a U.S. attack on 22 November 1944 in the Hürtgen forest.

Attacks by the 8th Infantry Regiment on Rother Weh Creek hit heavy resistance and were repulsed with heavy losses. The 22nd failed to take Raven′s Hedge (Rabenheck), beaten back by heavy machine-gun and artillery fire along the firebreaks. After three days, there were 300 losses, including officers and NCOs.

By 18 November, tanks were deemed essential, so engineers blasted tank routes through the forest. Communications and logistics remained a problem, so the next day the attack paused to allow re-supply and evacuation of the wounded. German reinforcements arrived from 344th and 353rd Infantry Divisions and resistance stiffened further.

Responsibility was returned to V Corps and, on 21 November, 8th Division attacked the Weisser Weh valley, continuing toward Hürtgen. The 121st Infantry Regiment hit heavy defenses immediately. Despite armored support from the 10th Tank Battalion, daily advances were less than 600 yd (550 m). Hürtgen was taken on 29 November and the battle continued to Kleinhau, 1 mi (1.6 km) north.

The final action in the Hürtgen Forest was at Langerwehe-Merode, on the northeastern edge of the forest. Two American companies took the village but they were later destroyed in a German counterattack. Later the secret daily report of the Supreme High Command of the German Army (Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH)) of 27 November stated that in the old Langerwehe penetration area the U.S. Army (enemy) won terrain.[12]

Elements of the 8th and the 28th Infantry Divisions then advanced on Brandenberg. The 28th Division—just like the 9th before it (and the 4th Infantry Division, which would relieve the 28th)—also took heavy casualties during its stay in the Hürtgen Forest. On 14 November, the 2nd Ranger Battalion arrived to relieve elements of the 112th Infantry Regiment. On 6 December, the Rangers moved on Bergstein and subsequently took the strategic position of Hill 400 from defending troops from 980th Grenadier Regiment of the 272nd Volksgrenadier Division. Shortly thereafter, on 12 December, the towns of Gey and Strass were taken by American Forces.

Military actions at the Westwall up to 15 December alone brought death, injury, or captivity to over more than 250,000 soldiers from both sides. The First and Ninth U.S. Army — 57,039 battle casualties (dead, wounded, captured, missing in action); 71,654 non-battle casualties, i.e. accidents, diseases such as pneumonia, trench foot, frostbite, and trauma. German Armed Forces presumably 12,000 dead, 95,000 captured (documented), and an unknown number of wounded.[6]:616

Aftermath[edit]

A U.S. halftrack of the 16th Infantry Regiment/1st U.S. Division in the Hürtgen Forest, 15 February 1945

On 16 December 1944, German forces began the Ardennes Offensive, more commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge. The surprise German offensive caught Allied forces off guard. The Germans attacked with nearly 30 divisions; including the 1st SS, 2nd SS, and the 12th SS Panzer Divisions. They forced a gigantic bulge in the American lines, but never attained their key goals in the northern sector of their attack. The key to the German advance were Rollbahns in the north that would take them directly to Antwerp. These routes were never opened. SS-Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich's 6th Panzer Army been selected to make the main effort.[13] It was entrusted with the offensive's primary objective, capturing Antwerp. However, the Germans never came close to their objective, held up by the 1st, 2nd, 9th, and 99th Infantry Divisions who refused to yield ground in the battle for Elsenborn Ridge. The 1st SS Panzer Division—spearhead of the 6th Panzer Army—never got more than halfway to the Meuse River.

To the south, the Germans had somewhat more success. They swept over the vastly unprepared 106th Infantry Division, overrunning two of its regiments who surrendered virtually intact, and finally capturing the key road and railroad network in St. Vith. But they didn't get far beyond the village, as the 7th Armored Division and the remaining regiment of the 106th Infantry Division—with elements of the 28th Infantry Division and the 9th Armored Division—held firm outside that town. They never captured the key town of Bastogne and were forced to bypass it, and although they got within a few miles of the Meuse River, their advance was stopped by the 8th and 104th Infantry Division, and the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.

The Ardennes Offensive came to a complete halt in early January when German forces in the northern shoulder of the bulge were blocked by a strong American defence, the destruction of bridges by American engineers, and a lack of fuel. In early February, American forces attacked through the Hürtgen Forest for the final time. On 10 February, the Rur dam was taken by American forces, although the Germans had jammed open the dam's floodgates a day earlier, flooding the Rur Valley and delaying the U.S. advance to the Rhine for two further weeks, until 23 February, when the flood waters had receded.

Casualties[edit]

A memorial in Vossenack dedicated to the battle for the Hürtgen Forest by Father Laurentius Englisch, OFM

The Americans suffered 33,000 casualties during the course of the battle, and the Germans suffered 28,000 casualties.

Erstwhile enemy remembered[edit]

There is a stone monument with a bronze plaque at the Hürtgen military cemetery dedicated by veterans of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division to the memory of Friedrich Lengfeld (29 September 1921–12 November 1944), a German lieutenant. Lengfeld died on 12 November 1944, of severe wounds sustained while helping a wounded American soldier out of the "Wild Sow" ("Wilde Sau") minefield. It is the only such memorial for a German soldier placed by his erstwhile opponents in a German military cemetery.[14]

The memorial sculpture "A Time for Healing"[edit]

The sculpture on the Kall Bridge

A memorial sculpture on Kall Bridge recalls that moment of humanity amidst the horrors of war. It was officially dedicated on the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire on the Kall Bridge, November 7, 2004. It was created by Michael Pohlmann, who commented;

"I didn't want to create a monument to heroes, no theatrical representation, no pathos, but wanted to appear more unassumingly with a frugal shape, hewn in stone, dignifying the actual place of the incident. A place perhaps, at which once everything may have started rationally, then however, became more and more irrational and totally out of control until a return to sanity—or was it still emotion?—made a humanitarian encounter come true."

The plaque was created by the sculptor Tilman Schmitten, Eupen. The memorial sculpture and plaque were endowed by the Konejung Foundation: Culture[10]

Historical analysis[edit]

Historical discussion revolves around whether the American battle plan made any strategic or tactical sense. One analysis[8]:240–241 is that U.S. strategy underestimated the strength and determination remaining in the psyche of the German soldier, believing his fighting spirit to have totally collapsed under the stress of the Normandy breakout and the reduction of the Falaise Pocket.

American commanders in particular misunderstood the impassability of the dense Hürtgen Forest and its effects of reducing artillery accuracy and making air support impracticable. The better alternative of breaking through southeast out into the open valley where their advantages in mobility and airpower could come into play and then head northeast towards the actual objectives seems not to have been really considered by the higher headquarters.[15]

In addition, American forces were concentrated in the village of Schmidt and neither tried to conquer the strategic Rur Dams nor recognized the importance of Hill 400 until an advanced stage of the battle.[16]

Today tourists can visit a museum in Vossenack, look at a few of the surviving Siegfried Line bunkers, and take a walk along the infamous Kall Trail.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ MacDonald (1984), p. 594
  2. ^ Zaloga (2007), p. 91
  3. ^ a b "World War II Database". 
  4. ^ Regan, More military blunders, p.178.
  5. ^ Whiting, Battle of Hurtgen Forest, pp.xi-xiv, 271–274.
  6. ^ a b c MacDonald, Charles B. Siegfried Line Campaign Center of Military History, United States Army, 1984.
  7. ^ The Rur Dam holds back the Rurstausee and is the major structure in a network. Upstream are other, smaller, structures: the Paulushof Dam holding the Obersee and the Urft Dam holding the Urfttalsperre.
  8. ^ a b c Neillands, Robin (2005). The Battle for the Rhine 1945. London: Orion Publishing Group. ISBN 0-297-84617-5. 
  9. ^ "Tree bursts" is a technique of using air bursts by timing artillery shells set to go off in the treetops. This causes hot metal shrapnel and wood fragments to rain down. Since American soldiers had been trained to react to incoming artillery fire by hitting the ground, the technique proved particularly deadly until American GIs learned to "hug a tree" instead, during bombardment.
  10. ^ a b Konejung Stiftung: Kultur
  11. ^ "Huertgen Forest: Offensive, Deliberate Attack, Forest, 16 November 1944". http://www.dtic.mil/. 1984. Retrieved 2007-02-03. 
  12. ^ Fabianek, Paul (2012). Folgen der Säkularisierung für die Klöster im Rheinland – Am Beispiel der Klöster Schwarzenbroich und Kornelimünster. Aachen: BoD. ISBN 978-3-8482-1795-3.  pp. 25–26 incl. picture of the daily report of the Supreme High Command of the German Army
  13. ^ Cole, Hugh M. (1965). U.S. Army in World War II: The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge (Chapter 5) (First ed.). Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept of the Army. Archived from the original on 7 August 2010. Retrieved August 12, 2010. 
  14. ^ de:Bild:Lengfeld memorial.jpg
  15. ^ Richard Atkinson (2013). The Guns at Last Light. pp. 320–324. 
  16. ^ “Hopes Dashed in the Hürtgen” by Edward G. Miller and David T. Zabecki August 16, 2005, originally an article in World War II magazine

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]