Battle of Hürtgen Forest

The little known Battle of Hürtgen Forest was fought from October 1944 to February 1945 south and east of Aachen, Germany. The ferocity and horrors of this long running engagement rank near the top for World War II. The name is sometimes Anglicized to be spelled Huertgen or Hurtgen.

A half-track of the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division makes its way through a muddy road in the devastated Hürtgen Forest at the end of the battle. 15 February 1945
A half-track of the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division makes its way through a muddy road in the devastated Hürtgen Forest at the end of the battle. 15 February 1945.
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The Battle of Hürtgen Forest

Eight U.S. infantry and two U.S. armored divisions fought the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. The 1st Infantry Division, the 4th Infantry Division, the 8th Infantry Division, the 47th Infantry of the 9th Infantry Division, the 2d Ranger Battalion, the 5th Armored Division's 46th Armored Infantry Battalion and Combat Command Reserve, and numerous supporting units all spent time in the "green hell of Hürtgen" or the "Death Factory" as it was variously called. More than thirty thousand American GI's became casualties in the longest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army.

Beginning of the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest

The Allied breakout from the Normandy landing area in France was followed by a series of rapid victories against the Wehrmacht, which seemed to be collapsing in the summer of 1944. Initial optimism became tempered by increasing Allied logistics problems and a stiffening of German resistance as they fell back toward Germany itself. By late September 1944, the Allies had reached the West Wall defenses of the Fatherland taking Aachen on 21 October, the first German city to fall.

Following the successful Aachen offensive, the Allied plan called for a drive to the Roer River, then to cross the Rhine River plain to reach the Rhine itself at Cologne. General Courtney H. Hodges' First Army was in the center of the drive, in the territory between Aachen on the left and the Hürtgen Forest on the right flank. To secure that flank for the Rhine operation, Hodges ordered the 28th Division into the Hürtgen Forest to relieve the 9th Division that had been operating there since 19 September 1944 with little success. The 9th suffered 4,500 casualties, up to 80% in some units, trying to secure Lammersdorf and Hill 554, an attempt to dominate the Monschau Corridor (one of the few routes through the Hürtgen Forest), to cross the Kall River and seize the small town of Schmidt.

Fighting in the Hürtgen Forest

Soldiers of Company E, 110th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division move through the Hürtgen Forest near the Raffelsbrand road junction. 2 November 1944
Soldiers of Company E, 110th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division move through the Hürtgen Forest near the Raffelsbrand road junction. 2 November 1944.

The Hürtgen Forest battle area was about 50 square miles that became a chamber of horrors in the late fall of 1944. The forest lies on a plateau adjacent to the Ardennes, cut through in the center by fast running Kall River and Weisser Weh Creek, with the Roer River as its southern and eastern boundary. It begins a few miles southeast of Aachen, Germany lying in a triangle defined by Aachen, Düren and Monschau. Its 100 foot high, closely spaced fir trees created the equivalent of a twilight jungle in Europe where the enemy could not be seen or attacked until far too late. Large units could not operate cohesively among the deep gorges, high ridges, and narrow trails. Small unit patrols were routinely cut to pieces by machine guns and mortars firing from well-hidden German bunkers or were ambushed by mines, booby traps, and trip wires. The well-built and dug in defenses included elements of the Siegfried Line that ran through the forest. The winter of 1944 was cold and wet keeping the rugged terrain covered with snow or mired in mud while sleet, snow and fog obscured the scene.

The initial objective of the 28th was the towns of Germeter, Vossenack, and Schmidt, the latter a road junction on a ridge of high ground in the eastern half of the Hürtgen Forest and close to the most important Roer River dams. If Schmidt could be secured, the roads would be available to support the First Army drive to the Rhine. On 2 November, after preparation by heavy artillery and air bombardment, the 28th Division moved into the region. They soon found that the bombardment had been ineffective in suppressing the German defenders as they came under intense attack from prepared positions where machine guns, mine fields, preregistered artillery and mortars, and small arms fire combined to make any progress extremely costly in the dense forest.

New habits were required as soldiers discovered that a wounded comrade might be rigged to a bomb, that a sheltering trench or foxhole could be wired to explode, or that incoming airburst artillery was survivable only by standing upright hugging a tree to keep your whole body under your steel helmet, protecting you from a deadly rain of sharp metal and wood fragments.

Although the 28th Division had some initial success, actually capturing Schmidt briefly by the evening of 3 November, powerful German armored counterattacks overran their positions and forced them back to Kommerscheidt where they were again overrun on 7 November. A 5 November operation on the Kall Trail found only mud, roadblocks and burned out tanks blocking the advance which stalled with heavy losses. By 13 November, virtually every officer in the rifle companies of the 28th had been killed or wounded and there were so many casualties among the enlisted men that the 28th only existed on paper. They were relieved and the remnants sent to the Ardennes for R&R, replaced by the 8th Division. Ironically, this move meant that the 28th took the initial brunt of the unexpected German attacks in the Battle of the Bulge.

The 4th ID fared no better. From 7 November to 3 December, the 4th Infantry Division lost over 7,000 men in the Hürtgen Forest and followed the 28th to the Ardennes to recover.

Operation Queen, a combined offensive by ten divisions of the First and Ninth U.S. Armies to seize the Rhine River crossings, launched on 16 November 1944 to the north, while inconclusive fighting went on and on in the Hürtgen Forest. The 8th Infantry Division came into the Hürtgen Forest battle on 16-20 November and resumed attacks on strong points. On 21 November, the 121st Infantry Regiment (8th Division) was sent in to gain control of both sides of the Germeter-Huertgen Highway, but bogged down in the familiar pattern of failure. After replacing its commander and adding armored support, the 8th Division finally captured the town of Hürtgen on 28 November. Kleinau and the Brandenburg Ridge were then captured, significant progress at last.

The forest itself, the cold and wet weather, and the ineffectiveness of artillery, tanks and air support in such tight quarters with limited visibility, all made the Hürtgen Forest a perfect environment for the defending Germans who showed a stubborn dedication to their task. As the months wore on the forest was devastated by artillery and bombing from both sides and the ground was covered with twisted and broken foliage, fragments of smashed fortifications, wrecked military equipment, and other debris of the battle in addition to the bodies and parts of bodies found everywhere soldiers had been.

The emotional toll on the soldiers was very high. A large percentage of ordinary soldiers and officers broke down under the stress and became "battle fatigue" casualties, in addition to the thousands of wounded and killed. In forward areas, isolated groups of soldiers spent as much as two weeks under continuous enemy fire, in muddy foxholes, without hot food or drink. Frost bite, trench foot and other diseases took a heavy toll. One officer after another had to be relieved for failure to make progress or for mental collapse from the continuing horror.

End of the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest

The 2nd Ranger Battalion was brought in to take Castle Hill (aka Hill 400) at the eastern edge of the Hürtgen Forest, a high point that the Germans used to dominate the surroundings that had not fallen to multiple attempts by First Army. On 7 December, the Rangers (who fought on Omaha Beach on D-Day) charged the hill and dislodged the surprised Germans in vicious hand to hand fighting that lasted all day through wave after wave of German counterattacks. The amazing Rangers held until reinforced on 8 December, although there were nearly 100% casualties by then. Nine days later the Germans retook Hill 400 and held it until February 1945 at the end of the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest.

On 13 December, the newly committed 83d Infantry and 5th Armored Divisions emerged from the Hürtgen Forest near the towns of Gey and Strass. Although the eastern section of the forest including Schmidt were still held by the Germans, First Army forces had finally reached the west bank of the Roer. Early in the morning of 5 February 1945, American soldiers attacked into the Hürtgen Forest for the final time. The ruins of Schmidt and Kommerscheidt fell on 7 February, opening the way for the advance that finally secured the Roer dams on 10 February. The First Army's ordeal in the Hürtgen Forest ended.

Cost of the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest

More than 120,000 Allied troops fought in the Hürtgen Forest, in organized units plus thousands of replacements, opposed by 80,000 Germans in six full divisions and parts of others. More than 24,000 American soldiers were battle casualties with another 9,000 victims of disease or emotional collapse, a staggering casualty rate of more than 25%.

The net result was only that the Germans bought a little time as the fighting in the Hürtgen Forest, combined with the larger Battle of the Bulge to the south, delayed the Allied march on Germany. The Allies captured the Hürtgen Forest real estate, of little value in itself, and had neutralized additional German military units, little to show for the horrific price. The capture of the Roer River dams might have been possible without the Hürtgen Forest battle, a point still in debate.

Recommended Books about the Battle of Hürtgen Forest

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