Huertgen, Germany November 16, 1944

On September 19, 1944, elements of Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges’ First U.S. Army entered the 10‑mile-wide, 20‑mile-long Huertgen (Hürtgen) Forest south­east of Aachen. The ancient capital of Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne and a node on Germany’s “dragons’ teeth” defensive West­wall (known to the Allies as the Sieg­fried Line), Aachen was the first major city inside Germany targeted for capture by the Western Allies. It eventually fell on Octo­ber 21, 1944. From Aachen Hodges’ First Army made for the Huertgen Forest, which lay less than 10 miles away and stood in the First Army’s path to a Rhine River crossing south of the large cathedral city of Cologne. Tragically, it was in the thick, hilly forest that GIs experienced some of the fiercest close-combat fighting of the entire Euro­pean War. Indeed, the battle to push through the Huertgen Forest to the Rhine was the longest fought on German soil during World War II and was the longest single battle ever fought by the U.S. Army.

Initially, the goal of U.S. Army commanders was to pin down German forces in the area to keep them from rein­forcing their front lines further north during the Battle of Aachen. In a second phase the army wanted to advance to the Roer (Rur) River, which flows from Belgium into Germany and on to the Nether­lands. Of course, beyond the Roer was Hodge’s real objective, a bridge­head on the Rhine’s east bank. How­ever, little did Ameri­can com­man­ders know that the reason for the desperate German defense in the Huertgen Forest was to prevent a break­through just north of their staging area for the forth­coming Ardennes Offen­sive, better known to the Allies as the Battle of the Bulge (December 16, 1944, to January 25, 1945).

On this date, November 16, 1944, Hodges moved the men and equip­ment of his First Army through the Huertgen Forest toward the banks of the Roer River. Over­head, U.S. and British war­planes flew in the war’s largest air support of ground troops. Unfor­tu­nately, Hodges’ grinding assault to reach the Rhine failed even to secure the Roer, dammed at two stra­te­gic loca­tions. (The dams were secured in Febru­ary 1945 after the Germans had destroyed the dams’ out­flow con­trol appa­ra­tus, flooding the Roer, and there­by delaying the Amer­i­cans’ final push to the Rhine by a cri­ti­cal two weeks.) The casual­ty rate for every forested meter taken was mind-boggling and a need­less trag­e­dy. The First Army lost 25,000 out of nearly 100,000 men fighting in and near the forest. One infan­try divi­sion lost three com­man­ders in a single day. A rifle com­pany suffered more than 500 per­cent casual­ties after replace­ments were factored in. The short tenure of new com­pany and platoon leaders meant that some men never learned their leaders’ names. Local foresters provided German units with much of their intel­li­gence, which gave the enemy an advan­tage denied to the intruders. Also, although it limited their visi­bility, the tangled forest pro­vided enemy snipers a safe venue from which to operate. Amer­i­can offi­cers tucked their field glasses inside their shirts to avoid being tar­geted. In other areas the Germans trimmed the lower branches of trees to provide better fields of fire for their machine guns.

In villages such as Huertgen, which was taken on Novem­ber 28, fighting was often hand to hand and house to house, with GIs using rifles, machine guns, and grenades thrown through doors and windows. So chaotic and brutal was combat in the Huertgen Forest that many German officers said it exceeded that on the Eastern Front. In early Decem­ber, with Hodges’ men finally out of the forest yet exhausted by a remark­ably resil­ient enemy in the reck­less first phase of fighting, the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) prepared its Ardennes Offensive.

U.S. Thrust Into Huertgen Forest Bogs Down, Turns Hellish

Huertgen Forest battleground, September 1944 to February 1945

Above: Map of the Huertgen Forest (Hürtgenwald) and surrounding villages. From Septem­ber 19, 1944, to Febru­ary 10, 1945, U.S. and German forces fought each other in the thickly wooded Huertgen Forest. The terrain was a 50‑sq.-mile expanse of tall, dense pine­woods rising from steep rocky crags and ridges laced by plunging valleys and deep winding ravines and streams east of the Belgian border in today’s German state of North Rhine-West­phalia. The forest cam­paign cost an over-con­fi­dent U.S. First Army at least 33,000 killed and wounded out of 120,000 men deployed. The 33,000 figure includes 9,000 friendly-fire and non­combat casual­ties among men suffering from hypo­thermia, frost­bite, pneu­monia, trench 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. Many were killed by U.S. artil­lery or fighter-bombers before they reached the front lines. Mortar rounds caused the greatest pro­por­tion of battle casualties on both sides.

121st Infantry Regiment HQ, Battle of Huertgen Forest, January 1945German artillery battery, Battle of Huertgen Forest, November 1944

Left: This destroyed farmhouse on the main route through the Huertgen Forest served as shelter for a regi­mental command post. The men of Maj. Gen. William G. Weaver’s 8th Infan­try Divi­sion, 121st Infan­try Regi­ment nick­named the farm­house the “Hürtgen Hotel” (see sign on wall). Photo taken January 8, 1945.

Right: A German 155mm heavy mortar crew firing in defense against a U.S. attack on Novem­ber 22, 1944, in the Huertgen Forest. German defenders fired mortars and artil­lery from posi­tions whose ranges had been calcu­lated in advance. Germans also used their 88mm guns to fire at Allied bombers en ­route to Rhine­land cities or to fire on Allied tanks or through forest tree­tops. Though Amer­i­can fire­power was greater (8 inch and 240mm), it was initi­ally limited by an ammu­nition short­age (fewer than four rounds per day). Both sides used their artil­lery to smash and shred the tangled trees, some as tall as tele­phone poles whose splinters, along with red-hot shell frag­ments, smashed down on men and inflicted heavy casualties on anyone caught in the open.

Half-track negotiates muddy road, Battle of Huertgen Forest, February 1945517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team in Battle of Huertgen Forest, early February 1945

Left: A 1st Infantry Division half-track negotiates a muddy road in the Huertgen Forest. Roads, tracks, and fire­breaks were often mined, some­times three mines deep. Each platoon of light tanks required a squad of infantry and another squad of engi­neers to per­form mine removal. Both sides booby-trapped the narrow paths and forward posi­tions by laying trip-wires hidden in the churned-up earth or snow. For Amer­i­cans at this stage in the war in Europe, forest fighting was learned on the job, a risky business when com­bined with short­ages of ammu­nition, seasoned veterans, and good weather. Photo from February 15, 1945.

Right: Men of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team trudge along a snowy track through the Huertgen Forest on a misty day in early February 1945. The men must has been confi­dent that the enemy had evacu­ated the area or at least had not zeroed in their mortars on this track, a tech­nique Germans com­monly employed in the other­wise impen­e­trable forest. The 517th RCT fought engage­ments in the Ardennes Forest (Decem­ber 16, 1944, to Janu­ary 25, 1945) followed on Febru­ary 3, 1945, by engage­ments in the Huertgen Forest, where it was mostly attached to the new 78th Infantry “Lightning” Division in Hodges’ U.S. First Army.

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

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