SHAEF HQ, Versailles, France September 5, 1944

On this date in 1944 Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, Supreme Com­mander of the Allied Expedi­tionary Force, deter­mined that the route U.S. forces would take from liber­ated areas in France and Bel­gium east­ward into Nazi Ger­many would pass through the ancient city of Aachen, once the seat of govern­ment of Charle­magne’s Holy Roman Empire. From Aachen, which bisected Germany’s defe­nsive West Wall (Sieg­fried Line) con­sisting of pill­boxes, forts, bunkers, mine­fields, and anti­tank obstacles, Allied armies would have a clear shot at capturing the Ruhr Basin, an indus­trial region of huge eco­nomic, poli­ti­cal, and psycho­logi­cal impor­tance to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. The end of the war in Europe would surely follow an Allied victory in the Ruhr.

Fighting around Aachen began within days of Eisen­hower’s deci­sion. An attempt to save the pictur­esque city of 160,000 inhabi­tants by declaring it an “open city” (simi­lar to what occurred in Paris two weeks before) fell through when Hitler relieved the city’s divi­sional com­mander, who had all of 600 men and 12 tanks at his dis­posal, and replaced him with Oberst (Colonel) Gerhard Wilck, com­mander of the 246th Volks­grena­dier Infan­try Divi­sion. Despite many men in Wilck’s divi­sion having less than 10 days infan­try training, they proved to be exceedingly fero­cious adver­saries. Addi­tional German rein­force­ments took up posi­tions north and south of the city, followed by combat units moving into the mostly evacuated city itself, making 12,000 defenders in all.

When the American offensive began in earnest on Octob­er 2, 1944, the attackers (Maj. Gen. Leland Hobbs’ 30th Infan­try Divi­sion and Maj. Gen. Clarence Hueb­ner’s 1st Infan­try Divi­sion, both part of Gen. Court­ney Hodges’ U.S. First Army) were slowed by savage house-to-house fire­fights and grenade duels on the city’s out­skirts despite the U.S. Ninth Air Force bombing and strafing enemy posi­tions aug­mented by divi­sional heavy artil­lery at point-blank range. On Octo­ber 11, after Wilck ignored the U.S. ulti­ma­tum to surrender his garri­son, the Americans hit Aachen with intense heavy artil­lery and aerial bom­bard­ment. Five days later the two attacking U.S. divi­sions linked up to over­whelm the city’s nearly 4,400 well-entrenched defenders (over a hundred were police officers), who were supported by five tanks, nearly 50 assault guns, and one 20mm antiaircraft gun.

Cautiously American infantrymen, tanks and other armored vehicles, 155mm (6.1 in) “Long Tom” field guns, Browning M1919 machine guns, bazookas, flame­throwers, and other deadly hard­ware advanced into the city, shelling and firing into buildings and cellars ahead of them to clear or snuff out defenders. Because of a break­down in inter­nal commun­i­ca­tions, Wilck knew the loca­tion of only about 500 of his fighting men. By night­fall, as Amer­i­can troops methodically swept through the ruined city, some 1,600 more enemy soldiers were captured, which ended the Battle of Aachen.

Unfortunately for the Western Allies the six–week battle for Aachen threw a mon­key wrench into their time­table to cap­ture the Ruhr indus­trial com­plex and so cripple the enemy’s war­-making capa­bil­ity. And before that could happen there was the pesky matter of wresting con­trol of a series of Roer River dams behind the Huert­gen Forest, a short dis­tance south­west of Aachen, that stood in their way to a Rhine River crossing. At six months, the Battle of the Huert­gen Forest would prove to be the longest single battle the U.S. Army ever fought.

Battle of Aachen: Urbanized Meat Grinder for U.S. and German Armies

Battle of Aachen: Map of U.S. encirclement of Aachen, October 7–20, 1944

Above: Map of U.S. encirclement of Aachen, the first impor­tant city on German soil to fall to the advancing Allies, who launched attacks from mul­tiple directions (see arrows). Eighty per­cent of the city was destroyed by aerial and field bom­bard­ment when the Battle of Aachen (Octo­ber 2–21, 1944) ended. Amer­i­cans and Germans each suffered 5,000 casual­ties. The U.S. took over 11,600 German pri­soners, including nearly 3,500 captured within the city. Aachen was one of the largest urban battles fought by U.S. forces in World War II. Though the battle ended in the city’s capit­u­la­tion, the Germans’ tena­cious defense signif­i­cantly disrupted Allied plans to advance into Germany.

Battle of Aachen: M4 Sherman tank commander scopes out enemy targets, Aachen, October 1944Battle of Aachen: M12 155mm self-propelled gun shells Aachen target, October 1944

Left: The commander of an M4 Sherman tank looks through binoc­ulars from his turret hatch on the day before the city of Aachen fell. The tanks mounted an extra .50 caliber machine gun in front of the turret, use­ful in street fighting for sup­pressing fire from upper-story windows. In the dis­tance is an M10 tank destroyer, a lightly armored vehicle sporting a 3‑in gun and a fully rotating, open-topped turret specifi­cally designed to take out enemy tanks. In one two-day period (October 9–10) the 30th Infantry Division claimed 20 German tanks: 12 destroyed by 105mm howitzers, 5 by supporting tanks and tank destroyers, and 3 by bazookas.

Right: American artillerymen fire a powerful M12 155mm (6.1 in) self-propelled gun at a target in the streets of Aachen in October 1944. These weapons were used to clear out German bunkers when tank fire proved ineffec­tive. With bitter expe­ri­ence as a teacher, GIs assumed every building, cellar, air-raid shelter, and sewer was occu­pied by hos­tile forces. Light artil­lery and mortar fire thus swept enemy streets ahead of advancing infan­try­men, who made pro­active use of demo­li­tion charges, flamethrowers handled by two-man teams, bazookas, and grenades. The Battle for Aachen was remembered by one person as a fight “from attic to attic and sewer to sewer.”

Battle of Aachen: Col. Wilck of 246th Volksgrenadier Infantry Division enters U.S. captivity, October 21, 1944Battle of Aachen: German POWs march through ruined street, Aachen, October 1944

Left: Col. Gerhard Wilck (sitting in front pas­sen­ger seat, head bowed) and his head­quarters group after their surren­der. On the after­noon of Octo­ber 19, 1944, Wilck, who com­manded the 246th Volks­grenadier Infan­try Divi­sion, which had taken respon­si­bility for this sector of the Sieg­fried Line, issued a written order of the day: “The defenders of Aachen will prepare for their last battle. Con­stricted to the smallest pos­sible space, we shall fight to the last man, the last shell, the last bullet, in accor­dance with the Fuehrer’s orders. . . . I expect each and every defender of the ven­er­able Imperial City of Aachen to do his duty to the end, in fulfill­ment of our Oath to the Flag. . . . Long live the Fuehrer and our beloved Father­land!” Fanat­i­cal exhor­ta­tions like this one did little to fore­stall the city’s tragic end. On Octo­ber 19 and 20 resis­tance swiftly collapsed inside and out­side Aachen. Their bags already packed and ready to go, Col. Wilck and his staff surrendered to the Americans on October 21, 1944.

Right: The endless procession of German pri­soners captured in the fall of Aachen march through ruined streets into cap­tivity. Civil­ians who wit­nessed their homes reduced to rubble by advancing Amer­i­cans and well-entrenched German defenders heaped abuse on their exhausted country­men as they passed by, causing Amer­i­can soldiers to occa­sionally separate the two groups. “The city is as dead as a Roman ruin,” wrote a U.S. observer, “but unlike a ruin it has none of the grace of gradual decay. . . . Burst sewers, broken gas mains and dead animals have raised an almost over­powering smell in many parts of the city. The streets are paved with shattered glass; tele­phone, electric light and trolley cables are dangling and netted together every­where, and in many places wrecked cars, trucks, armored vehicles and guns litter the streets.”

Contemporary Newsreel Account of Battle for Aachen, October 1944

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