Combat of Hurtgen Forest | World War II

Combat of Hurtgen Forest | World War II

Overview

The Combat of Hurtgen Forest was a sequence of violent battles conducted on the Western Front between American and German forces from September 19 to December 16, 1944, in the Hurtgen Forest, a 54-square-mile area about 3.1 miles east of the Belgian–German border during World War II. It was the most extended fight fought on German soil during World War II and the most extended single action waged by the U.S. Army. The initial goal of U.S. commanders was to encircle German forces in the area to prevent them from reinforcing the front lines in the Battle of Aachen, where the U.S. forces were battling against the Siegfried Line network of fortified industrial towns and villages dotted with pillboxes, tank traps, and minefields. Outflanking the front line could have been a secondary goal. The initial tactical plans for the Americans were to capture Schmidt and clear Monschau. Then, as part of Operation Queen, the Allies sought to advance to the Rur River in a second phase.

Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model's goal was to bring the Allied offensive to a halt. While he did not interfere as much in the day-to-day movements of units as he did at the Battle of Arnhem, he remained entirely informed on the condition, braking the Allies' advancement, imposing heavy fatalities, and taking full advantage of the German fortifications known as the Westwall, or the Siegfried Line to the Allies. The Hurtgen Forest caused the US First Army at least 33,000 killed and injured, including combat and non-combat deaths, with a higher estimate of 55,000; German casualties were 28,500. The U.S. Ninth Army eventually took Aachen in the north on October 22, but they could not cross the Rur or seize control of its dams from the Germans. Nevertheless, the combat was so costly that it was dubbed an allied defeat of the first magnitude, with Model receiving particular praise.

Because the mountains ordered access to the Rur Dam at the top of the Rur Reservoir, the Germans aggressively defended the area, which acted as a staging ground for the 1944 winter attack Wacht am Rhein. After numerous crushing reverses, the Allies failed to seize the territory, and the Germans effectively held it until they launched their last-ditch drive into the Ardennes. This was founded on December 16, marking the end of the Hurtgen attack. The Battle of the Bulge received a lot of press and public attention, so the Battle of Hurtgen Forest isn't as well known. The Siegfried Line Campaign cost close to 140,000 dollars in American human resources.

Background

Due to stretched supply lines and increased German resistance, the Allied pursuit of the German army following the Normandy landings slowed by mid-September 1944. The next strategic goal was to advance up to the Rhine River and cross it along its entire length. Pushing through the Aachen Gap, Courtney Hodges' First Army encountered stiff resistance and feared German forces via the Hurtgen Forest as a base. The 1st Infantry Division of the U.S. arrived in Aachen in early October, joining the XIX Corps and VII Corps that had encircled the city. The German garrison in the town was ordered to surrender by the 1st Infantry Division, but German commander Oberst Gerhard Wilck refused until October 21.

The Allies also believed that removing the threat posed by the Rur Dam was necessary. The Germans might release the stored water, flooding any forces acting downstream. Moreover, according to the American leaders Bradley, Hodges, and Collins, the direct way to the dam was through the Forest. These reasons no longer convince some military historians. The Hurtgen combat, according to Charles B. MacDonald, a U.S. Army historian and former company commander who participated in the action, was a misconceived and largely futile battle that should have been avoided.

Geography

The Hurtgen Forest is located between the Rur River and Aachen in a mountainous location. Infiltration and flanking attacks were expected due to the dense woodland, and it was sometimes impossible to create a front line or be confident that an area had been cleared of the enemy. Moreover, due to the limited number of roads and clearings in the Forest, German machine gun, mortar, and artillery squads could pre-range and fire their weapons precisely. In addition, weather and terrain drastically limited the American advantage in the workforce, armour, mobility, and air support. When the American divisions lost troops, inexperienced replacements had to be thrown into the fray to make matters worse.

Tanks were also constrained by the thickly forested terrain, which provided cover for German anti-tank troops equipped with panzerfaust shaped-charge grenade launchers. Despite an influx of inexperienced replacements, German defenders had the advantage that their superiors and many of their militaries had been fighting for years. They had learned the necessary tactics for fighting effectively in winter and forested areas, whereas the Americans were often well-trained but inexperienced.

Opposing Armies

The Hurtgen Forest was part of the US First Army's command area, which Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges led. The V Corps and the VII Corps alternated in command. The German 275th and 353rd Infantry Divisions defended the woodland at first, with 5,000 soldier’s understrength but well equipped and led by Generalleutnant Hans Schmidt. They didn't have much artillery and no tanks. German troops were brought in as the fight proceeded. The assumption that these troops were weak and ready to withdraw was unduly optimistic on the part of the Americans.

U.S. Divisions and Formations

 

Divisions and Formations

 

Commander-in-Chief

1st Infantry Division

Maj. Gen. Clarence R. Huebner

4th Infantry Division

Maj. Gen. Raymond O. Barton

8th Infantry Division

Maj. Gen. Donald A. Stroh

9th Infantry Division

Maj. Gen. Louis A. Craig

28th Infantry Division

Maj. Gen. Norman Cota

29th Infantry Division

Maj. Gen. Charles H. Gerhardt

78th Infantry Division

Maj. Gen. Edwin P. Parker Jr.

82nd Airborne Division

Maj. Gen. James M. Gavin

83rd Infantry Division

Maj. Gen. Robert C. Macon

104th Infantry Division

Maj. Gen. Terry de la Mesa Allen Sr.

3rd Armored Division

Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose

5th Armored Division

Maj. Gen. Lunsford E. Oliver

2nd Ranger Battalion

Unknown

5th Ranger Battalion

Unknown

366th Fighter Group

Unknown

99th Infantry Division

Maj. Gen. Walter E. Lauer

Table: U.S. divisions and formations

German Divisions

  • 85th Infantry Division
  • 6th Infantry Division
  • 275th Infantry Division
  • 344th Infantry Division
  • 347th Infantry Division
  • 326th Volksgrenadier Division
  • 353rd Infantry Division
  • 3rd Parachute Division
  • 3rd Panzergrenadier Division
  • 116th Panzer Division
  • 12th Volksgrenadier Division
  • 47th Volksgrenadier Division
  • 246th Volksgrenadier Division
  • 272nd Volksgrenadier Division

Battle

First Phase

The Rur River crossings at Duren were the final goal of the 9th Infantry Division. The same day, the United States 28th Infantry Division, a Pennsylvania National Guard outfit, arrived to replace the devastated 9th. The 707th Tank Battalion was linked to the 28th Division, providing tracked M29 Weasel transport and air support. The 110th Infantry Regiment of the United States had to clear the woods along the Kall River, secure Simonskall, and keep a supply path open for the push on Schmidt. Due to the weather, constructed defences, motivated defenders, and geography. Tactical air support was not possible until November 5 due to bad weather.

The U.S. 112th Infantry Regiment had taken Vossenack and the surrounding mountain by the afternoon, attacking from Geometer. The 3rd Battalion was quickly ejected from Schmidt by a powerful German counter-attack commanded by tanks from the 116th Panzer Division and a fortuitous encirclement by troops from the 89th Infantry Division at dawn on November 4, and they were unable to counter-attack. After persistent shelling and a vigorous onslaught by the 116th Panzer Division, the Battalion dissolved, and some troops unintentionally fled east, where the Germans caught them. The rest of the unit disbanded and joined the 112th's 1st Battalion in Kommerscheidt. The 82nd Airborne Division did not permanently seize the Kall Trail and Schmidt until February 1945.

Hauptmann Gunter Stuttgen, a German regimental doctor, arranged an unofficial ceasefire with the Americans at the Kall Bridge from November 7–12 to care for the thousands of wounded on both sides. As a result, German medics saved the lives of numerous American soldiers.

Second Phase

The 4th Infantry Division of the United States was supposed to clear the north half of the Forest among Schevenhutte and Hurtgen, seize Hurtgen, and push to the Rur south of Duren during this phase. The 4th Division was now completely dedicated to the Hurtgen, despite its 12th Infantry Regiment having already been mauled in combat at Schmidt, leaving only two fully operational regiments to meet the Division's goals. The 275th Infantry Division had 6,500 men and 150 artillery pieces in the Hurtgen. The two infantry regiments struck in parallel columns: the 8th along Forest's northern border toward Duren and the 22nd south. On November 29 and 30, 1944, around 300 men from the 1st Infantry Division were killed.

Later, on November 27, the secret daily report of the German Army's Supreme High Command claimed that the U.S. Army (enemy) had won terrain in the former Langerwehe infiltration area. The 8th and 28th Infantry Divisions pushed on Brandenberg after that. Throughout its stay in the Hurtgen Forest, the 28th Division suffered tremendous fatalities like the 9th before it. The 2nd Ranger Battalion arrived on November 14 to relieve troops of the 112th Infantry Regiment. Hill 400 would not be retaken by the U.S. Army until February 1945. The 78th Infantry Division's 309th, 310th, and 311th Infantry Regiments relieved parts of the 1st Infantry Division in the line around Entenpfuhl from 1–12 December.

Aftermath

The Hurtgen combat concluded in a German defensive triumph, and the Allies' entire advance was a disaster. The Americans sustained 33,000 casualties during the conflict, ranging from 5,000 to 55,000, including 9,000 non-combat fatalities, representing a 25% casualty rate. The Germans had also sustained significant losses, with 28,000 casualties, most of whom were non-combatants and POWs.

The German Ardennes onslaught caught the Allied forces off guard. With the northernmost point of the battlefront concentrated on Monschau, the Germans struck with roughly 30 divisions, including the 1st, 2nd, and 12th SS Panzer Divisions. They created a massive salient in the American lines about sixty miles deep at its peak. But, on the other hand, the Germans never came close to achieving their primary goal of capturing Antwerp. When German troops in the northern shoulder of the bulge were halted by a robust American defence, the obliteration of bridges by American technologists, and a lack of fuel, the Ardennes Offensive came to a total halt in early January.

American forces attacked the Hurtgen Forest in early February for the final time. American forces seized the Rur Dam on February 10, 1945, but the Forest was not cleared until February 17, when the 82nd Airborne Division reached the Roer River.

Historical Analysis

Whether the American battle strategy was operational or tactically sound has been debated throughout history. According to one theory, the Allies underestimated the strength and determination that remained in the German soldier's psyche after the Normandy breakout and the reduction of the Falaise Pocket, believing that his fighting essence had distorted under the stress of the Normandy breakout and the removal of the Falaise Pocket.

The impenetrability of the dense Hurtgen Forest, and its implications of decreasing artillery efficiency and making air support impractical, were misunderstood by American commanders in particular. The better option of breaking through southeast into the exposed valley, where their benefits in movement and airborne army could come into play, and then heading northeast towards the simple objectives seemed to have escaped the attention of higher headquarters. Furthermore, American forces were concentrated around the settlement of Schmidt, and they did not attempt to seize the strategically important Rur Dams or grasp the significance of Hill 400 until late in the battle.

Last updated: 2022-January-13
Tags: History World War II
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