The Battle of Hürtgen Forest (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 in its history. The battles took place between September 19, 1944, and February 10, 1945, over barely 50 square miles (129 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, between Aachen and the Rur (Roer) River, 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, clear Monschau, and advance to the Rur. 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 of the Germans called the Westwall, better known to the Allies as the Siegfried Line.
The Hürtgen Forest cost the U.S. First Army at least 33,000 killed and incapacitated, including both combat and noncombat losses; Germans casualties were between 12,000 and 16,000. Aachen eventually fell on 22 October, again at high cost to the U.S. Ninth Army. The Ninth Army's push to the Roer River fared no better, and did not manage to cross the river or wrest control of its dams from the Germans. Hürtgen was so costly that it has been called an Allied "defeat of the first magnitude", with specific credit being assigned to Model.
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 Schwammenauel Dam at the head of the Rur Lake (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 final major, last-ditch offensive on the Western Front, into the Ardennes.
In early October, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division arrived, 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 Colonel Gerhard Wilck refused to capitulate until October 21.
It was also thought necessary to remove the threat posed by the Rur dam. In German hands, the stored water could be released, 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.
In hindsight, military historians are no longer convinced by these arguments. Charles B. MacDonald, a US 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.”
The Hürtgen Forest occupies a rugged area between the Rur river and Aachen. The dense conifer forest is broken by few roads and 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 Siegfried Line, 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 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.
The impenetrable forest also limited the use of tanks and hid anti-tank teams equipped with panzerfausts. 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. Conversely, U.S. mortar platoons needed clearings in which to work — these were few and dangerous, being preranged by German troops, so mortar support was often unavailable to rifle platoons.
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 General 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.
On October 5, 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 October 16, 3,000 yards had been gained at the cost of 4,500 casualties. The U.S. 28th Infantry Division, a Pennsylvania National Guard unit, arrived on October 16 to relieve the battered 9th.
The 28th Division was reinforced with armor, tracked transport Weasels 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. This was not tank country, despite the need for armor to support the infantry.
The attack by 28th Division started on November 2; the defenders were expecting it and were ready. The U.S. 109th Infantry Regiment was impeded after 300 yards 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 November 2. 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 November 5.
The 112th captured Schmidt on November 3, 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 116th Panzer Division and infantry from 89th 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.
Across the Kall Bridge the troops of the 28th US 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 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, Captain Guenther Stuettgen, managed to negotiate an unofficial ceasefire with the Americans at the Kall Bridge from November 7 to 12, in order to attend to the wounded of both sides. The lives of many American soldiers were saved by German paramedics.
At Vossenack, the 2nd battalion of the 112th 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 November 10.
The abstract of a Defense Technical Information Center report describes what happened:
The VII (U.S.) Corps, 1st 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 1st Army to the Roer 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 November 16. 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.”
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 November 18 tanks were deemed essential, so engineers blasted tank routes through the forest. Communications and logistics remained a problem, so on November 19 the attack paused to allow re-supply and evacuation of the wounded. German reinforcements arrived from 344th and 353rd Divisions and resistance stiffened further. On November 20, Russell J. York, a medic with the 4th Engineer Battalion, earned a Silver Star in the Weisser Weh battle when heavy shelling hampered efforts to install a bridge.
Responsibility was returned to V Corps and, on November 21, 8th Division attacked the Weisser Weh valley, continuing towards Hürtgen. The 121st Infantry Regiment hit heavy defenses immediately. Despite armored support from the 10th Tank Battalion, daily advances were less than 600 yards. Hürtgen was taken on November 29 and the battle continued to Kleinhau, one mile north.
The final action in the Hürtgen Forest was at Merode, on the northeastern edge of the forest. Two American companies took the village but they were later destroyed in a German counterattack.
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 November 14, the 2nd Ranger Battalion arrived to relieve elements of the 112th Infantry Regiment. On December 6, the Rangers moved on Bergstein and subsequently took the strategic position of Hill 400 from defending troops from Grenadier Regiment 980 of the 272nd Volksgrenadier Division. Shortly thereafter, on December 12, the towns of Gey and Strass were taken by American Forces.
Military actions at the Westwall up to December 15, 1944 alone brought death, injury, or captivity to over more than a quarter million soldiers from both sides.The 1st and 9th US 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 traumata. German Armed Forces presumably 12,000 dead, 95,000 captured (documented), and an unknown number of wounded.
The Ardennes Offensive was completely halted by mid-January, and in early February, American forces attacked through the Hürtgen Forest for the final time. On February 10, the Schwammenauel dam was taken by American forces, although the Germans had opened the floodgates of the dam the day before and thus the Rur Valley was flooded, halting the U.S. push for the Rhine across the river for two further weeks, until the attackers finally managed to cross the river on February 23rd when the waters had receded.
Two soldiers of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division were awarded Medals of Honor for action in the battle. One was Lieutenant Colonel George Mabry , the second-most highly decorated U.S. soldier of World War II. The other was Pfc Francis X. McGraw, whose medal was awarded posthumously.
Private Edward Donald Slovik, assigned to the 28th Division, chose a court martial rather than fight in the Hürtgen Forest. On January 31, 1945, he became the first American soldier to be executed for desertion since the American Civil War.
The U.S. Army's Center of Military History has estimated that 120,000 troops, plus replacements, were committed to Hürtgen; by the end there had been 23,000 battle casualties plus 9,000 non-battle. Two divisions, the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the U.S. 9th Infantry Division, were so badly mauled that they were withdrawn from the line to recuperate.
The battle for Schmidt cost 6,184 U.S. casualties — compared with about 4,000 losses by the two divisions at Omaha Beach. German casualties were fewer than 3,000.
In the second phase, the U.S. 4th Division had advanced 1½ miles by November 20, having suffered 1,500 battle casualties plus non-battle casualties numbering in the several hundreds due to trench foot, frostbite, and exhaustion. After two weeks, three miles had been gained for 4,053 battle and 2,000 non-battle casualties, bringing the November totals to 170 officers and 4,754 men.
Some units fighting in this operation also fought at Omaha Beach; comparing the two, veterans said the Battle of Hürtgen Forest was a much bloodier fight than Omaha. Ernest Hemingway, who was there, described the battle as "Passchendaele with tree bursts", an appropriate epitaph.
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.