Schmidt, Huertgen Forest, Germany November 2, 1944

On September 19, 1944, elements of Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges’ First U.S. Army entered the 10‑mile-wide, 20‑mile-long Huert­gen Forest (German, Hürtgen­wald) south­east of the ancient city Aachen, the first major and western­most city in Nazi Germany to have fallen to the Anglo-American-Cana­dian armies. Before the out­break of World War II, there was no spe­cific area known as the Huert­gen Forest, a relative com­pact area of just over 50 sq. miles (130 sq. km) about 3 miles (5 km) east of the Belgian-German border (see map below). The wooded area that received that name on Amer­i­can maps was act­ually a plot of forested land that was the northern­most tip of the Ardennes region of Germany. A plateau of vol­canic origin, it appeared to be a region of hills because of the many streams that gouged their way through the area. Scattered vil­lages within the dark and for­bidding forest provided the only shelter and road net­work in the area. One such village was Huert­gen itself, which gave the forest its name. Another was the strateg­i­cally impor­tant vil­lage of Schmidt, which con­trolled many key roads through the forest and com­manded the west­ern approaches to the largest Rur (or Roer) flood con­trol and hydro­electric dams (Rur­tal­sperre and Urfttalsperre on the map). Trag­ically, Schmidt emerged as key to the grim and bloody 3‑month-long Battle of the Huert­gen Forest, the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought and, as it turned out, one of the most waste­ful American operations in the whole European war.

To be fair to the decision makers of those bygone days, the frantic retreat of the German armed forces in France in the sum­mer and autumn of 1944 led Hodges and his corps com­manders, as well as higher ups at Supreme Allied head­quarters, to think the Wehr­macht was much weaker than the Allies were at the moment. They were victims of their own sur­prising suc­cesses and momen­tum. Truth was, the resul­tant strain in logis­tical, tac­ti­cal, and oper­a­tional capa­bil­ities of the Allied armed forces caused by their rapid pur­suit of the enemy led to a num­ber of mili­tary stum­bles, the biggest, most dan­gerous for the Amer­i­cans being the Ardennes Offen­sive (Battle of the Bulge), which kicked off on Decem­ber 16, 1944. Hodges’ failed combi­na­tion of forest-clearing oper­a­tions in the Huert­gen Forest and a decis­ive break­through toward the wide and flat plain leading directly to the Rhine River across from which was the Western Allies’ lode­stone, the Ruhr, Germany’s indus­trial heart­land, was a stumble of a lesser magnitude.

By mid-October the Americans had renewed their efforts in the Huert­gen Forest. On this date, Novem­ber 2, 1944—All Souls’ Day in Germany—Hodges ordered the 109th, 110th, and 112th infan­try regi­ments from Maj. Gen. Norman “Dutch” Cota’s 28th Infan­try Divi­sion to cap­ture the town of Schmidt. Schmidt lay on one of two German-occupied paral­lel ridges formed by a very deep gorge through which ran the freezing Kall, a small river. Using a precip­i­tous trail the 112th regi­ment crossed the gorge and river with great dif­fi­culty yet managed to over­whelm the German garris­on and take its objec­tive, the vil­lage church, by night­fall the next day. The other two infan­try regi­ments found moving for­ward a tough slog in the thick woods and in awful weather. Neither regi­ment crossed the Kall nor con­verged on Schmidt, which now made for 3 distinct battlegrounds.

The defenders counter­attacked, shaping the battle­fields from their hill­top van­tage point and con­trol­ling the battles’ pace and out­comes. They mauled the 3 U.S. regi­ments in piece­meal fashion, directing most of their fury at the 112th regi­ment occupying Schmidt, which alone suffered 2,316 casual­ties out of a total strength of 3,100. The bitter con­fron­ta­tion ended on Novem­ber 8 when Cota ordered a with­drawal. The 28th Infan­try Divi­sion lost 6,184 out of 16,000 attached men as of Novem­ber 2, making the 7‑day Battle of Schmidt (German, Aller­seelen­schlact) among the worst U.S. battlefield losses up to that time.

Hellacious Battle of Huertgen Forest, Septem­ber 19 to Decem­ber 16, 1944

Map Huertgen Forest

Above: Map of the Huertgen Forest (Hürtgen­wald) and sur­rounding villages. The terrain con­sisted of an expanse of tall, dense pine­woods rising from steep rocky crags and tree­less ridges laced by plunging valleys and deep winding ravines and streams in the Eifel Moun­tains of the German state of North Rhine-West­phalia. The Amer­i­cans’ assump­tion that the Huert­gen Forest-clearing cam­paign by ele­ments of Lt. Gen. Court­ney Hodges’ First U.S. Army would be short-lived was itself short-lived after ini­tial attempts to pene­trate the hilly and wooded forest­land were thwarted by the dif­ficul­ties of the ter­rain and the stout resis­tance of the Wehr­macht. Further­more, U.S. troops under­estimated German defenses in the Huert­gen Forest, which, unbe­knownst to the West­ern Allies, had become a staging area for Adolf Hitler’s planned Ardennes Offen­sive—the Battle of the Bulge (Decem­ber 16, 1944, to Janu­ary 25, 1945). (Hodges’ first thought was that Hitler’s Ardennes Offen­sive was a spoiling attack intended to disrupt his own forest-clearing cam­paign.) Hodges’ Huert­gen Forest mis­ad­ven­ture cost the First Army at least 33,000 killed and wounded of the 120,000 men deployed. The 33,000 figure included 9,000 friendly-fire and non­combat casual­ties among men suffering from hypo­ther­mia, frost­bite, pneu­monia, trench foot (aka immer­sion foot), self-inflicted wounds, and com­bat exhaus­tion (8,000 cases of “psycho­logical collapse”). The Germans suffered 28,000 com­bat and non­combat losses, of which 12,000 were fatal­i­ties. Not until Febru­ary 23, 1945, did U.S. forces finally clear the Huert­gen Forest of enemy sold­iers and ford the Rur (Roer) River on their way to the Rhine.

Battle of Schmidt Huertgen Forest: 110 Infantry Regiment north of SchmidtBattle of Schmidt Huertgen Forest: 28th Infantry Division assume defensive positions

Left: 110th Infantry riflemen advance warily through the Huert­gen Forest near the town of Vossen­ack north­west of Schmidt, early Decem­ber 1941. Note the for­bid­ding forest mass, which signif­i­cantly favored the defenders. The dark green fir trees, rising to heights of 75 to 100 ft (22.8 to 30.5 m), were thick and inter­twined. Trees stood as close as 4 ft (1.2 m) from each other—impos­sible for tanks to navi­gate. Most days’ sun­light never pene­trated to the forest floor, which was con­stantly wet, a result of all the streams flowing through the area and the lack of day­light on the sun­niest days. The dis­mal forest reminded intruders of the type immor­tal­ized in old German folk tales. Cota was unhappy with the oper­a­tions order 28th Infan­try Divi­sion was given and said so, but his com­plaints were given short shrift by V Corps com­mander, Maj. Gen. Leo­nard Gerow, his imme­di­ate supe­rior and by Hodges, who responded to Cota’s obser­va­tions with icy silence. After the battle Cota con­fessed to an inter­viewer that he doubted his men ever had a gambler’s chance of success.

Right: Taking up defensive positions in a clearing in the Huertgen Forest, soldiers of the 28th Infantry Division prepare to engage the enemy.

Battle of Schmidt Huertgen Forest: Destroyed town of HuertgenBattle of Schmidt Huertgen Forest: Battle ended, leaving Schmidt

Left: The meat grinder that was Schmidt (undated photo). Cota’s 28th Infan­try Regi­ment was assigned to cap­ture the town of Schmidt to secure the right flank of Maj. Gen. “Light­ning Joe” Collins’ VII Corps advance on the Rhine. (VII Corps, First Army, was the southern pincer of Omar Brad­ley’s 12th Army Group.) Schmidt sprawled spread-eagled across a bald ridge. Who­ever held the town would also con­trol the road net­work and Rur River dams. On Novem­ber 4, a day after vacating Schmidt, the Germans hit the 112th infan­try regi­ment with a supe­rior num­ber of fear­less infan­try­men and sup­porting armor. Unnerved, Amer­i­can units wavered and panicked, aban­doned their wounded, and tore for the exits. It was sheer bed­lam. Cota faced real­ity: he was no longer in con­trol of his Huert­gen Forest-clearing oper­a­tion and faced being penned in. On Novem­ber 8, under a freezing cloud­burst and enemy mortar fire, many of Cota’s tattered rem­nants set out in single file, each GI holding the shoulder of another, for safety behind friendly lines. It was the last time the 28th Infan­try Division would see action in the Huertgen Forest. Not until Febru­ary 10, 1945, was Schmidt perma­nently in Amer­i­can hands, this cour­tesy of Gen. James Gavin’s 82nd Airborne Division.

Right: Despite the painful American retreat that ended the Battle of Schmidt (Novem­ber 2–8, 1944), the U.S. Army and the U.S. Army Air Forces con­tinued to blast away at the tena­cious German hold on the Huert­gen Forest. Nearly 100,000 Allied sol­diers fought in or near the dreary forest in the effort to expel the enemy. Six days after Cota’s men aban­doned Schmidt, 1,191 Boeing B‑17 Flying For­tress of the U.S. Eighth Air Force dumped 4,000 tons of frag­men­ta­tion bombs on the ruins of Schmidt. Heavy bombers and 1,000 fighter bombers of the Ninth Air Force followed in their wake with yet more frag­men­ta­tion explo­sives and mil­lions of 50‑caliber rounds. Late in Novem­ber a regi­ment from Gerow’s V Corps 8th Infan­try Divi­sion, with armor sup­port, drove the stub­born defenders out of near­by Huert­gen town. German mortar and artil­lery rounds con­tinued to pum­mel the town after its cap­ture, turning it to rubble. This photo shows weary 8th Infan­try rifle­men tramping through a tree­less vista and desolate village­scape that was once Huertgen.

Battle of Huertgen Forest: Unrelenting Bloodbath in Woods Southeast of Aachen