Battle of Aachen | World War II

Battle of Aachen | World War II

Overview

The Battle of Aachen was a major World War II battle conducted between American and German forces in and around Aachen, Germany, from October 2 to 21, 1944. The Siegfried Line, Germany's major defensive network on the western border, had been incorporated inside the city. As a result, the Allies had anticipated overrunning it quickly and marching into the industrialized Ruhr Basin. Even though most of Aachen's civilian population was evacuated before the fight, the city was primarily damaged, and both sides incurred significant losses. Nevertheless, it was the first city on German soil to be conquered by the Allies, and it was one of the essential urban fights waged by US soldiers throughout WWII. Although the Germans eventually surrendered, their stubborn defence severely hampered Allied attempts to move into Germany.

Background

The Western Allies had reached Germany's western frontier, which was fortified by the vast Siegfried Line, by September 1944. On 17 September, American, British, and Polish forces started Operation Market Garden, a daring attempt to circumvent the Siegfried Line by crossing the Lower Rhine River in the Netherlands. The failure of this operation, along with a severe supply crisis caused by the enormous distances necessary in the quick drive across France, put a halt to the Allied sprint to Berlin. German fatalities in France were significant: Field Marshal Walter Model believed that only 25 of his 74 divisions were operational. But the Germans took advantage of the Western Allies' logistical issues to begin rebuilding their forces. The Wehrmacht high command reinforced the Siegfried Line in September, bringing overall military strength to 230,000 soldiers, including 100,000 recruits. The Germans had about 100 tanks in the West at the start of the month; by the end, they had over 500. As more personnel and equipment entered the Siegfried Line, they could achieve a defensive depth of 3.0 miles on average (4.8 km).

Under the directive of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) set their eyes on occupying the Ruhr, Germany's industrial heartland. General George S. Patton's Third Army was tasked with settling Lorraine, France, while General Courtney Hodges's First Army broke through the front at Aachen. Hodges had planned to avoid the city altogether, believing it was only defended by a small garrison that would probably surrender once isolated.

Because it was not a central hub of war production, the historic, gorgeous city of Aachen had little military significance in and of itself. The Allies had not heavily bombed the population of roughly 165,000 people. It was, nevertheless, a significant symbol for both the Nazi regime and the German people; it was not only the first German city to be attacked by an enemy during World War II, but it was also the ancient capital of Charlemagne the "First Reich's" founder. As a result, it had enormous psychological significance. The new attitude the local community had toward them as they battled on home soil for the first time-shifted the psyche of the city's defenders; one German officer remarked, "Suddenly we were no longer the Nazis, we were German troops." The Siegfried Line consisted of numerous belts of interconnected pillboxes, forts, and bunkers covered by vast hazards, "dragon's teeth" anti-tank obstacles, and barbed wire entanglements protected Aachen and its sector of the front. German defences were almost 10 miles (16 km) deep in certain regions. Learning from their understandings on the Eastern Front, the Germans deployed their primary line of defence within the defensive wall's cities, taking advantage of narrow streets to hinder enemy armoured vehicles' mobility. The defences guarding Aachen and the Ruhr were a formidable hurdle to the movement of American forces, who considered a breakthrough in this sector as critical, as the ground behind Aachen was mainly flat and hence particularly suited to the motorized Allied armies.

The fighting surrounding Aachen began in the second week of September, dubbed the "First Battle of Aachen" by the Germans. The 116th Panzer Division, commanded by General Gerhard von Schwerin, defended the city. Because of the proximity of Allied forces, the majority of the city's government officials fled before the population were fully evacuated. (All Nazi officials who had escaped were stripped of their ranks and sent to the Eastern front as privates due to this.) Instead of continuing the evacuation, von Schwerin chose to surrender the city to Allied forces; however, on September 13, before he could send a letter of surrender he had written, von Schwerin was directed to launch a counterattack against American forces penetrating southwest of Aachen, which he did, using panzergrenadier militaries. The German general's effort to surrender the city would soon be forgotten since his letter was never sent and instead fell into the hands of Adolf Hitler. He ordered the general's imprisonment right once. Colonel Gerhard Wilck took his place. Despite the resistance encountered on September 12–13, the US VII Corps continued to explore German fortifications. Despite strong fortifications and repeated counterattacks, the US 1st Infantry Division maintained its advance between 14 and 16 September, eventually forming a half-moon arc around the city. However, due to a supply difficulty and the diversion of existing gasoline and ammunition inventories for Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, this gradual advance came to a standstill in late September.

Comparison of Forces

German Defenders in Aachen

The 1st, 2nd, and 12th SS Panzer Divisions and the 9th and 116th Panzer Divisions took advantage of the reprieve on the front lines by moving them offline. In October, General Friedrich Köchling's LXXXI Corps, which contained the 183rd and 246th Volksgrenadier Divisions and the 12th and 49th Infantry Divisions, was assigned command of the Aachen sector's defence. These troops totalled around 20,000 men and 11 tanks, including the associated 506th Tank Battalion and 108th Tank Brigade. Köchling was also promised a refurbished 116th Panzer Division and a reconstituted 3rd Panzergrenadier Division, totalling 24,000 men. In Aachen proper, the 246th Volksgrenadier Division replaced the 116th Panzer Division, the 183rd Volksgrenadier Division and 49th Infantry Division guarded the northern approaches, and the 12th Infantry Division guarded the southern systems. On the 7th of October, units of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler were released to bolster Aachen's defences. Despite the arrival of reinforcements, the LXXXI Corps' forces were severely harmed; the 12th Infantry Division had lost half of its fighting strength between 16 and 23 September, and the 49th and 275th Infantry Divisions had to be moved off the front lines to recover. At the commencement of World War II, German infantry divisions had an average strength of 15,000–17,000 soldiers, but this had steadily been reduced to an official (table of organization) size of 12,500 by November 1944, and the average actual strength of a Heer division was 8,761 men.

In an attempt to deal with the Wehrmacht's personnel difficulties, the Volksgrenadier divisions were formed in 1944. Each division had an average total strength of just over 10,000 men. Although around a quarter of these were veterans, half were young conscripts and convalescents, and the rest were Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine transferees. These divisions were frequently equipped with the most modern small arms but lacked artillery and motorization, severely restricting their tactical utility. In the instance of the LXXXI Corps, the 183rd Volksgrenadier Division had only been triggered in September, expressing that the division had not had time to train as a part despite being overstrength by 643 men. The 246th Volksgrenadier Division was in a alike situation, with many of its soldiers having only ten days of infantry training. However, the intrinsic strength of the well-planned, well-constructed fortifications surrounding Aachen overcame all of these personnel inadequacies to some extent.

American Forces

General Charles H. Corlett's XIX Corps 30th Infantry Division with the involved 743rd Tank Squadron and Joseph Collins' VII Corps 1st Infantry Division were tasked with capturing Aachen. The 2nd Armored Division would help General Leland Hobbs' 30th Infantry Division exploit the 30th division's breach of the Siegfried Line, while the 29th Infantry Division would cover their flanks. The 3rd Armored and the 9th Infantry Division Division backed the 1st Infantry Division in the south. Throughout the last two weeks of September, these divisions took advantage of the temporary pause in the action to rest and repair, bringing in a considerable number of replacements. By 1 October, nearly 70% of General Clarence Huebner's 1st Infantry Division's soldiers were replacements. The remaining two weeks of September were devoted to teaching these men how to fight in villages and weapons. The upcoming offensive's strategy called for both infantry divisions to avoid street fighting in Aachen instead of linking up and encircling the city, with a small force assigned to conquer it. In contrast, the bulk of US forces pushed east.

Even though American units were usually able to replenish their numbers swiftly, the replacements lacked tactical instruction. Many junior officers lacked tactical and leadership experience. Other tankers were sent to Europe without ever having driven a car, and some tank commanders were obliged to train their soldiers how to load and fire their tank guns in the field before missions. Because the American replacement system prioritized quantity over quality, most new troops arriving on the front lines were unprepared for combat. Within the first few days of fighting, it was not uncommon for half of a unit's replacements to be killed. For example, during the closing stages of the combat on 18–21 October, a newly armoured battalion of the US 28th Infantry Division was instantly launched into direct assaults upon Aachen to bolster the depleted US 1st Infantry Division.

The Ninth Air Force, which had pinpointed 75% of the pillboxes along the frontlines and prepared an initial bombardment with 360 bombers and 72 fighters; new aircraft would be employed for a second aerial wave, which included the deployment of napalm, backed up these troops. Due to the Germans' lack of anti-aircraft weapons and the Luftwaffe's limited backup, the Allies had near-total control of the skies over Aachen.

Battle

Allied heavy artillery bombarded German defences around Aachen for six days before the American offensive. Despite forcing the German LXXXI Corps to cease all daylight personnel and supply operations, the intense bombardment had little effect on the pillboxes and strongpoints. The first aerial bombardment, which began on October 2, did minimal damage to German defensive positions; the 450 planes failed to hit a single German pillbox in the first wave directly. The heavy cloud from the Allied artillery barrage had mostly masked their targets. The artillery started hammering the front lines as the planes ended their assault, firing 18,696 shells from 372 gun tubes in just a few hours.

Advance from the North: 2–8 October

The 30th Infantry Division began its advance on October 2nd, employing divisional heavy artillery to attack German pillboxes; even so, capturing a single pillbox took an average of thirty minutes. The Americans discovered that the Germans would undoubtedly counterattack if they did not move on to the next pillbox right away. Heavy resistance was unexpected, and one company lost 87 combatants in one hour; another company lost 93 of 120 soldiers to a German artillery strike. Nevertheless, the attackers could progressively cross the Wurm River and tackle German pillboxes with flamethrowers and explosive charges. By the afternoon of October 2nd, portions of the 30th Infantry Division had broken through German fortifications and arrived in Palenberg. In this area, GIs advanced house to house and engaged in a series of bloody hand grenade battles. The fighting in Rimburg was just as bad; American armour had been unable to cross the Wurm River and thus could not provide fire support to foot soldiers attempting to storm a historic castle that the Germans were using as a fort. On the first day of the movement, the 30th Infantry Division took down about 50 German pillboxes, often needing to envelop the structure and attack from behind. Diversionary strikes supported the division's efforts on their flank by the 29th Infantry Division, which led the Germans to believe that this was the Americans' primary onslaught. The German 902nd Assault Gun Battalion was instructed to mount a counterattack on the 30th Infantry Division on the night of October 2nd. Still, Allied fire delayed the raid's start, and the effort ultimately failed.

Even though American armour was made available to help the offensive on October 3, the invading forces were halted by a series of German counterattacks. On the second day of the operation, the town of Rimburg was captured, but progress against German defenders was slow as M4 Sherman tanks and M12 Gun Motor Carriage 155-millimetre (6.1 in) artillery guns were moved up to smash pillboxes at point-blank range. Fighting had also broken out for the town of Übach, where American tanks had pushed in to capture the city only to be trapped down by German artillery. Following fierce counterattacks, the Germans were only narrowly prevented from retaking the position by American artillery fire. The 30th Infantry Division had lost roughly 300 men and women in the forcing of the Wurm River and the building of a bridgehead by the end of the day.

German counterattacks against Übach continued, with significant fatalities from American artillery and infantry fire. Even though the failure to recover Übach convinced German leaders that they lacked the workforce to defend the approaches to Aachen properly, the counterattacks slowed the advance of American troops who may have otherwise proceeded on. The Allied advance on 4 October was modest, with just the towns of Hoverdor and Beggendorf seized, with the Americans losing around 1,800 soldiers in the previous three days of fighting. On the 5th of October, the 119th Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division took Merkstein-Herbach, making better progress. The Germans mounted another onslaught against Übach the next day but could not remove the Americans. German armour could not manage with the irresistible numerical superiority of American tanks, so the Germans launched concentrated attacks on American positions with whatever artillery and aircraft they could marshal in a last-ditch effort to halt the advance. A lack of reserves seriously hampered them. However, General Koechling sent a Tiger detachment to Alsdorf to stop the Americans from breaching Aachen's northern fortifications. On the 8th of October, the 1st Assault Battalion, a combat group of the 108th Panzer Brigade, and around 40 armoured fighting vehicles scavenged from available formations launched a counterattack.

A platoon of Shermans assisting an advance on Mariadorf was abruptly ambushed from behind, and they were only able to resist the Germans after an intense battle. Finally, a squad of soldiers and two German Sturmgeschütz IV self-propelled assault cannons reached Alsdorf, where they were fiercely repelled. Despite eluding American tanks, the two sluggish vehicles were eventually assaulted by American soldiers and forced back to their starting point. The 3rd Panzergrenadier Division was relocated to Aachen, followed by the I SS Panzer Corps, which contained the 116th Panzer Division and SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 101, an element of the 1st SS Panzer Division, as casualties mounted and the Americans approached.

Advance from the South: 8–11 October

The 1st Infantry Division launched an onslaught in the south on 8 October, aiming to capture Verlautenheide and Hill 231 (named "Crucifix Hill") near Ravelsberg. Their assault was prepared by a heavy artillery barrage, which aided them in quickly capturing their objectives. Captain Bobbie E. Brown, commander-in-chief of C Company, 18th infantry, silenced three pillboxes with pole charges on Crucifix Hill and continued to lead his troops into the attack while being wounded, earning the Medal of Honor. The 1st Infantry Division had arrived at its allocated position for link-up with the 30th Infantry Division by 10 October. A German counterattack countered this success on Hill 231, which resulted in a fierce firefight, with the Germans losing almost 40 men and 35 prisoners. Despite being slowed by successive German counterattacks, the 1st Infantry Division was able to take the high ground surrounding the city. General Huebner issued an ultimatum to German forces in Aachen on October 10th, threatening to attack the town if the garrison did not surrender. The German commander was adamant in his refusal. In response, American artillery began bombarding the city on October 11th, firing an estimated 5,000 shells, totalling approximately 169 short tons (153 t) of explosives; the town was also heavily bombarded by American planes.

Link Up: 11–16 October

The number of American casualties increased due to numerous German counterattacks and the high cost of breaching pillboxes. Germans spent the night of October 10th turning cellars of buildings in Bardenberg into defensive pillboxes, forcing American forces to retreat and instead shell the town into surrender. The Germans launched a powerful counter-offensive against the American 30th Infantry Division on October 12th. Heavy artillery bombardment and well-placed anti-tank fortifications slowed it down. A three-hour battle between German tanks and a lone American Sherman broke out in the town of Birk; the Sherman managed to take out an enemy Panzer IV and force another to retire but was soon attacked by more.

The Germans were eventually forced out of town after units of the 2nd Armored Division joined this lone tank. Despite being commanded to continue pressing south to meet up with the 1st Infantry Division, the 30th Infantry Division found itself in defensive positions all along its front. As a result, two infantry battalions from the 29th Infantry Division were added to the 30th Infantry Division.

Two German infantry regiments attempted to reclaim Crucifix Hill from GIs of the 1st Infantry Division on the same day (12 October) to the south. The Germans temporarily took possession of the hill after a hard battle but were driven off by the close of the day, with both troops annihilated. Allied aircraft pounded Aachen from October 11 to 13, targeting sites nearby to American lines; on October 14, the 26th Infantry Regiment was asked to clear an industrial zone on the outskirts of Aachen in preparation for an attack on the city itself. The Germans counterattacked the 1st Infantry Division on 15 October to expand the gap between the two American pincers; while a few heavy tanks could break through American defences, the rest of the German forces were demolished by artillery and air assistance. The next day, the Germans attempted local counterattacks with the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division but were forced to call off the effort after suffering heavy losses.

Between 13 and 16 October, the 30th Infantry Division, along with elements of the 29th infantry and 2nd Armored divisions, continued their push south in the sector of Würselen; however, despite heavy air support, they were unable to break through German defences and link up with allied forces to the south. German artillery pounded approaching assaults, and progress was slow as German tanks utilized buildings as bunkers to surprise and overwhelm American footmen. The 30th Infantry Division's commander, General Hobbs, then attempted to outflank the German lines by striking with two infantry battalions along with another sector. The offensive was successful, and the 30th and 1st Infantry Divisions could link up on October 16th.

The action had cost the American XIX Corps approximately 400 lives and 2,000 injuries, with the 30th Infantry Division accounting for 72 per cent of the casualties. The Germans had fared no better, with roughly 630 killed and 4,400 wounded by the 14th of October; another 600 were killed in the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division's onslaught against the US 1st Infantry Division on the 16th of October.

Fight for the City: 13–21 October

The 1st Infantry Division was able to allocate only one regiment for the task of conquering Aachen because it needed the majority of its strength to fend off German counterattacks and hold the territory around Aachen. Colonel John F. R. Seitz's 26th Infantry Regiment, which had just two of its three battalions on hand, was given the duty. The 2nd and 3rd Infantry Battalions, armed with machine guns and flamethrowers, would initially be supported by only a few tanks and a single 155-millimetre (6.1 in) howitzer. Around 5,000 German forces guarded the city, including converted navy, air force, and city police. These men were primarily inexperienced and unskilled, and a few tanks and assault rifles only backed them up. The tangle of streets that occupied Aachen's historical core, on the other hand, could be used by the city's defenders.

The initial attack by the 26th Infantry on October 13th revealed a lot about the nature of the battle: American infantry had been ambushed by German defenders using sewers and cellars, forcing the advancing American infantry to clear each opening before continuing down streets, while Sherman tanks couldn't manoeuvre to suppress enemy fire. As the 26th Infantry advanced, German civilians were removed; no Germans could remain in the Americans' rear.

The 26th Infantry Regiment used its howitzer at point-blank range to destroy German fortifications in Aachen, as the advance proved sluggish. To deal with the thick walls of the older buildings in the city, the 26th Infantry Regiment used its howitzer at point-blank range to destroy German fortifications. The howitzer constructed corridors that allowed foot soldiers to advance from building to building without being pinned down by enemy fire in the city's streets. German anti-tank guns ambushed Sherman tanks as they approached junctions. Soon after, American tanks and other armoured vehicles would move slowly forward, frequently firing buildings ahead of the soldiers to rid them of potential defenders. German foot soldiers would use sewers to deploy behind American formations to attack them, pinned on the surface by Allied aircraft. The Germans fought a valiant fight, launching tiny counterattacks and using armour to impede American movements.

On the 18th of October, the 26th Infantry Regiment's 3rd battalion was preparing to attack the Hotel Quellenhof, one of the city's last bastions of resistance. American tanks and other guns were firing at point-blank range on the hotel, which served as the city's defence headquarters. However, the hotel was reinforced that night by 300 soldiers from the 1st SS Battalion, who could repel multiple attacks. In addition, a frenzied German counterattack managed to capture several American infantry positions outside the hotel, relieving pressure on the Quellenhof for a short time before being repulsed by coordinated American mortar fire.

Two events then aided the final push. At first, it was planned to use 155 mm cannons to bombard remaining German strongpoints to reduce frontline infantry casualties. Second, on 18 October, a battalion of the 110th Infantry Regiment, US 28th Infantry Division, was deployed up from the V Corps area to plug a gap between forwarding 26th Infantry Regiment components within the city to help the 1st Infantry Division. Third, on the 19th and 20th of October, the new battalion's defensive purpose was shifted to closely support the urban assault, serving as the regiment's missing third battalion. Finally, on October 21, soldiers from the 26th Infantry Regiment, assisted by the 110th Infantry Regiment's reinforced battalion, ultimately seized central Aachen; that day also marked the surrender of the last German garrison Hotel Quellenhof, bringing the war for the city to a close.

Aftermath

The Americans and the Germans sustained heavy losses in the Battle of Aachen; the former suffered over 7,000 casualties, while the latter suffered over 5,000 wounded and 5,600 prisoners. The 30th Infantry Division has lost around 3,000 men since October 2, 1944, while the 1st Infantry Division has lost at least 1,350 men (150 killed and 1,200 wounded). During the combat in Aachen, the Germans suffered another 5,100 casualties, including 3,473 captives. The Wehrmacht lost two complete divisions and had another eight severely depleted during the battle, including three new infantry divisions and a single refitted armoured division; this was due primarily to how they fought, as despite using the equivalent of 20 infantry battalions during various counterattacks against the 30th Infantry Division alone, each separate attack only involved two infantry regiments on average. The Germans respected American soldiers' combat prowess during the war, citing their ability to fire indiscriminately with massive artillery fire support and armoured forces. The 30th infantry and 1st Infantry divisions received distinguished unit decorations for their actions at Aachen.

However, Allied hopes to continue their eastward march were thwarted by German resistance in Aachen. After the battle in Aachen ended, the Western Allies' First Army was entrusted with capturing a series of dams behind the Hürtgen Forest that the Germans could use to flood the lowlands that opened the path to Berlin. As a result, the Battle of Hürtgen Forest would be fought, which would be more complicated than the Battle of Aachen.

On October 31, the Allies appointed Franz Oppenhoff as Mayor of Aachen, but once his identity was revealed, he was assassinated on Heinrich Himmler's orders on March 25, 1945, in Unternehmen Karneval (Operation Carnival).

Last updated: 2022-January-13
Tags: History World War II
Share this Article
Facebook Google+ Twitter