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This Is War: Battle in Hurtgen Forest in 1944 and 20,000 Americans Killed

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College, and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters

this-is-warbattle-in-hurtgen-forest-in-1944-and-20-000-americans-killed
this-is-warbattle-in-hurtgen-forest-in-1944-and-20-000-americans-killed

Background

Many people say that war is a dirty business maybe yes but at the same time history of the world is a chronology of war down the centuries. The second world war was a war that was the last word in savagery. But all said and done it brought to the fore the human spirit which could overcome innumerable obstacles and hardships. Some stories may bring memories and bitterness but after the passage of 76 years, we have a chance of being forgiving. This is the story of a bitter battle where the German army fought tenaciously and the Americans suffered heavy casualties. The battle brought out the spirit of the soldier and his dedication to a cause. The story of the battle for the Huertgen Forest is one such story.

The first question is, where is the Hurtgen Forest? It's not a name that many people have heard and even when I was undergoing the staff course I heard this name for the first time. The Hürtgen Forest is located, south of the city of Aachen along the border between Germany and Belgium. I haven't been there but one American soldier described it as a “weird and wild” place. The forest, even in daytime, has a somber appearance with all-round pervading gloom. Sunlight didn't filter in because of the tall trees and this was one place where a favorable air situation had no meaning because with thick foliage and trees the air force was ineffective. This gave the advantage to the Germans who fought tenaciously. The forest floor was almost in perpetual darkness and soldiers had to be alert all the time. Besides the semi-darkness, there was a mixture of sleet, snow, rain, cold, fog, and almost knee-deep mud. This was the setting of one of the most tragic battles of World War II.

If dates have a meaning the battle of Hürtgen Forest was a series of fierce battles fought from 19 September 1944 to 10 February 1945 between the German army and the American 8th and 22nd infantry division.

The Hürtgen Forest was under the battle plan of the US First Army commanded by Lt Gen Courtney Hodges.

At the start, the forest was defended by the German 275th and 353rd Infantry Divisions. These forces were not at full strength but were well prepared — 5,000 men (1,000 in reserve) — and commanded by Generalleutnant Hans Schmidt. They had little artillery and no tanks. The Germans however sent in reinforcements as the battle progressed. The Americans gravely underestimated the German resolve and their expectations of the German troops being weak and ready to withdraw were not borne out by facts. This may have led to some complacency and could be the reason why the going was so tough in this battle.

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The battle

The battle began on September 19, 1944. As a beginning, the 3rd Armored Division and the 9th Infantry Division entered the forest with the stated aim of clearing the Germans for the drive into Germany. The Americans were in a hurry to finish the campaign but they hadn't contemplated the resistance by the Germans. Six additional infantry divisions were later called up but were badly mauled and reduced in numbers and low in spirits. Statistics reveal that for every yard gained, the battle in the forest claimed more lives than any other objective the Americans took in Europe.

The Americans quickly learned that control of formations larger than platoons was not possible. Troops couldn’t see each other. The forest was dense with tall trees and there were only small trails. The Germans had built up their defenses and were secure in their bunkers. When they saw the GI’s approaching they fired on them.

In such a scenario, Air support and Artillery had little meaning. The GI’s had to plunge into the forest aided only by machine guns and light mortars. This was a calamity. In the September action, the 9th Infantry Division and 3rd Armored Division lost up to 80 percent of their front-line troops. The American troops still pressed on as the generals repeatedly passed the order to 'attack.'

On November 2, the 28th Infantry Division was inducted. This division was known as the Pennsylvania National Guard and was called the “Keystone Division.” The division was given the order to attack and clear the forest. It was easier said than done because when the 28th tried to move forward, the Germans peppered them with a machine-gun, rifle fire, and mortars. The entire area was also heavily mined and that added its dimension to the problem. The result? The attack stalled.

The Americans thought they needed more firepower and orders were given to move tanks down the road called the Kall Trail. On November 5, tanks induction began. The tanks could not move forward as the so-called Kall Trail was solid mud blocked by felled trees and disabled tanks. The Infantry continued to move forward and in the process, all the officers in the rifle companies were killed or wounded.

The general staff now decided to give a turn to the fourth inventory division. The Germans in their pillboxes and heavy defenses fired on the division and it suffered the worst losses of all. Between November 7 and December 3, the division lost over 7000 men. The problem was that the Germans had mined the entire area and for every 10 paces there were a plethora of mines up to a distance of almost 4 miles. The Americans replaced the manpower lost and pressed on with the attack.

After the 4th Division was expended, the First Army put its 8th Infantry Division into the attack. On November 27, it closed in on the town of Hürtgen. The 8th division did not go beyond the town as it was so exhausted that it was incapable of advancing further.

The Americans now brought in the 2nd Ranger Battalion which had fought with distinction in the landing at Normandy. It immediately took casualties from mines and artillery, and the men sat in foxholes and took a pounding. On sixth December orders were passed to capture a point calling Hill 400. This was a vantage position and could control the battle. The Rangers charged the hill with bayonets fixed. The Germans were good but not good enough and the hill was taken.

The Germans were ordered to recapture the hill. Field Marshal Model offered two weeks' leave and iron crosses to any German who helped capture the hill. The Germans threw everything into the battle and despite the best efforts of the Americans the hill was captured by the Germans. The battle line now stabilized and the Germans held onto the hill and their line of control. It was not till 19 February 1945 that the Americans could retake the entire area. The battle was now over.


this-is-warbattle-in-hurtgen-forest-in-1944-and-20-000-americans-killed

Analysis

The battle is interesting and in hindsight, one cannot understand how the flower of American youth was asked to clear an area which in retrospect was of very little strategic importance.

The Americans threw 120,000 troops in the battle while the Germans had about 80,000. Despite their preponderance in numbers, the Americans suffered almost 55,000 casualties with an estimated 20,000 dead. In contrast, the German suffered 28,000 casualties.

After the war, General Rolf van Gersdorff commented, “I have engaged in the long campaigns in Russia as well as other fronts and I believe the fighting in the Hürtgen was the heaviest I have ever witnessed.”

The Americans would not like to publicize this battle because of the casualties suffered and besides stress shifted to the battle of the bulge which Hitler launched on December 45.

It was an uphill battle all the time. The officers from the level of a captain down to enlisted men performed and died with great courage and bring to mind Lord Tennyson's famous poem " it was not to reason why but to do and die."


Comments

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 27, 2020:

Manstein was lucky he escaped the noose and got 20 years but was released to help out.

tom on September 27, 2020:

manstein rebuild west german army he was half jew like franco,i ave read hismemoirs

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 05, 2020:

Thanks Tom, I must watch this movie.

tom jose on September 05, 2020:

movie when trumpets fade is based on this

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 04, 2020:

Thank you, Bill, for sparing time and commenting.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 03, 2020:

I watched a documentary about this battle about a month ago. Absolutely horrendous what those men went through. The bravery and desperation and fear. Mankind raining inhumanity down upon one another...never-ending misery....

Thanks for sharing this account!

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on August 31, 2020:

Friedrich von Paulus had been made Field Marshal by Hitler, who surmised no German Field Marshal had surrendered and would sooner kill himself. Von Paulus disliked Hitler as much as the other non-Nazi military hierarchy, and wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of another 'political corpse'. The Russians couldn't - or wouldn't - believe he was a Field Marshal until he showed them the telegram his radio operator had handed him before the surrender after advising Hitler he had no ammunition or food and effective command was no longer possible by 2nd February, 1943. Less than three years earlier he had taken the salute in Paris after the German defeat of France, his men had goose-stepped their way into history. Now they'd creep through the streets of Moscow after being deloused, their hair shaved short, shouted and spat at, ready for some hard work that less than a quarter of their number would survive. The most ardent Nazis among their number would be 'worked on' psychologically, maybe worn out... The Russian winter was the great leveller as Napoleon found out 131 years earlier.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 30, 2020:

Yes, Americans thought that Manstein could be of some use to them and so they released him in 1953. He was not tried at Nuremberg but he gave incriminating evidence to nail others. He was tried in a separate war crimes trial at Hamburg and given 18 years but released after four. He escaped primarily because Hitler had dismissed him in 1944 and he was not given another command till he was captured by the British. Capt Liddlehart in his "Other side of the hill" has rated Manstein as the best of the German generals. But I understand when he became the advisor to the Americans they quickly realized that his concept of warfare is outdated and he was allowed to go home and rest in peace. Another general who gave evidence at Nuremberg was General Later FM Paulos. His evidence was crucial in nailing many of the Nazi top brass.I understand that Paulos and other generals captured by the Soviets were better treated and they were kept in a monastery which had been converted into a jail close to Moscow. This was Stalin's brainwashing method and most of the generals became pro-Soviet. Paulos came back to Germany and settled in East Germany and died in 1957 of cancer. In my personal opinion, General Guderian was the best of the German generals but Hitler never made him a field Marshall and I wonder why.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on August 30, 2020:

On the Yesterday channel here a while ago there was a programme about Von Manstein, who was given the task of breaking through Soviet lines to Stalingrad to give a lifeline to Von Paulus' 6th Army. Turned out he couldn't quite manage it, but did succeed in getting a lot of their troops out of trouble. He was freed by the US and given a consultative brief on how to tackle the Soviet army in the case of a concerted attack by the Warsaw Pact (or something like that, it's been over a year now since I saw it).

Guderian was clever as a general, with his book on tank warfare that few in France or the UK seem to have read, except maybe De Gaulle who had an inkling of what the Germans were about in 1940. He spent more time fighting his own generals than the Germans. Tank warfare wasn't properly understood by the British High Command either, being used purely to strengthen the infantry. It was only in the Western Desert that tank warfare developed in the British Army, but the tanks weren't very clever, especially not the Cromwell that proved to be ideal target practice for German tank gunners. Guderian's failing was in his reading of politics and Hitler. Should've kept to military matters.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 29, 2020:

Von Rundstedt was from the old school who believed that the ruler is supreme and so he was guilty of countersigning Hitler's order to kill the Commissars along with the Soviet army as well as Jews. He was lucky he escaped Nuremberg. Though he was the nominal commander of the Ardennes offensive the entire plan was Hitler's brainchild. It was an audacious plan and in the case, as envisaged he had captured Antwerp he would have cut the allied front into two and things may have been different. Guderian was also lucky like Von Rundstedt. He surrendered to the Americans who interred him and released him in 1948. In contrast, Kesselring got a life sentence and Von Manstein 18 years. The cold war had commenced and the Americans refused to extradite Guderian to Russia. He died in 1954 and till his death maintained that Nazism was a"fine philosophy"

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on August 29, 2020:

After having had the stuffing knocked out of them by the Germans, from landing in North Africa ('Operation Torch' I believe), they had Kesselring to put up with in Italy. Interesting Hitler put Kesselring in charge in Italy and not Rommel, or maybe he'd had the stuffing knocked out of him by Monty. Whatever, Kesselring made use of the Apennine Mountains ('the spine'). We've dealt with him before so off he trots from the stage to give way to Von Rundstedt, another clever man. He was sidelined wasn't he, for disagreeing with the 'Bohemian corporal'? I believe he was instrumental in planning the 'Battle of the Bulge', before passing on his baton?

What happened to Guderian?

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 29, 2020:

When the commander of the western front was to be chosen Churchill pressed for Montgomery. Monty had done very well and had taken the wind out of the sails of Rommel in North Africa but Roosevelt and Marshall were for Ike to command. This was because the fulcrum of power has shifted in favor of the Americans who were the biggest suppliers of weaponry to the allies including Russia. Monty had a lot of ego. He didn't particularly like Field Marshal Slim, overall commander in the East. The reason? Monty and Slim had both sat for the entrance examination to the military and boys with better marks were sent to the British Indian Army and Slim had more marks than Monty and this always rankled Monty. Most of the American generals should be thankful that when they went into battle against the Germans they had complete control of the air as the Luftwaffe had become redundant. In addition, they faced the second 11 as we say in cricket as the first 11 was facing Russia. Despite this, they took almost a year to move into Germany. Another person who needs a kick in his pants is Stalin. Marshall Zhukov even three days before the German invasion had requested Stalin to order an alert because intelligence agents had passed information about the German invasion. Stalin used a four-letter word for the agent and at the same time said that he would not order alert as it would anger Hitler. If Stalin had ordered the alert at that time the millions of Russian soldiers taken POW would be saved. Out of the American generals, one can say that Patton was the best but historians give him lower credit than Manstein and Guderian.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on August 29, 2020:

Ike was a 'desk general' at best, emge. His grasp of military leadership was a bit limited, as was Bradley's. Worse still was Maj Gen. Lucas at Anzio, digging in and consolidating when he could have had the Germans on the run in Italy. They didn't even know he was there at first. Monte Cassino could have stayed intact but for him. The prize goes to Patton for "go-getting", but he was at the mercy of the 'Red Ball Express', the supply chain. Then he turned into a bull in a china shop where politics was concerned, and alienated the Russians with his anti-Soviet outbursts. He'd have been of little use in this forest battle, but might just have done what Monty would have done: go and wipe out the Germans' flanks.

The US military hierarchy at the time was keen to point out that the British were tired of the war, but - aside from Patton - showed little or no spark of ingenuity or guile.

The British Army - and with it the Canadians under its command - had learned by bitter experience at Dieppe, Tobruk and elsewhere on the Western Desert about deception, deviation and digression. Large numbers of troops in certain situations can't achieve what smaller units can. The SAS proved that, but the US elite troops, the Rangers were misdirected and misused. A bayonet charge against an entrenched position is foolhardiness. Best to take it unawares, if possible through a gap in defences and from behind, like a commando operation. That's what the Rangers were formed for.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 28, 2020:

Alan, this battle shows that despite the bravery of the US soldier the generalship of the Americans was poor. Overall commander was General Omar Bradley, he should have bypassed the forest and continued forward. This is what Lieutenant-General Arora did in 1971 in East Pakistan. The Pakistan Army under Niazi had fortified the cantonments but General Arora simply bypassed them in his drive to Dhaka the capital. The battle in the forest brought out the limitations of the Western armies. In my opinion they were lucky that the German treated this front as of lesser importance than the eastern front. The bulk and finest troops of the Wehrmacht were on the Eastern front. One doesn't need a crystal ball or the opinion of historians to realise that in case there was no eastern front the Western allies would never have won or at least it would have taken them a long time to subdue Germany(if at all). All said and done the UStrooops showed tremendous bravery but as Monty brought out in his 'History of Warfare' it is not a substitute to good generalship. Maybe he was having a dig at Ike, as he always felt he deserved to be the overall commander. After Monty Published his memoirs, Gen Ike withdrew his friendship. This is all part of history and now only good for discussion.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 28, 2020:

Chitra, thank you for your nice comment

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 28, 2020:

Flourish, thank you for sparing time and commenting

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 28, 2020:

Pamela, its always a pleasure to read your comment.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on August 28, 2020:

The US forces were on a hiding to nothing... but why bring in the stores department? Under "The Battle", para. 6: "The general staff now decided to give a turn to the fourth inventory division..." Maybe they hoped the Germans' sense of orderliness would take over?

Only kidding, emge, but this made me stop in my tracks, reading through this action-packed saga.

What Allied generals learned in WWI in France was that you don't hang around in forests when the fighting starts. Just the same as in the old timber-built battleships cannon fire brought slivers of sheared-off wood and killed more than the cannon balls. Artillery, tanks and trees don't mix.

And sending in the Pennsylvania National Guard? Did the general staff think they were fighting the so-called "stomach battalions" (called such by British Lt. General Sir Brian Horrocks, referring to the German troops on the Rhine that faced Monty's when the Black Watch were the first to land on the east bank. He meant the old men that were left after their younger comrades had been either killed or captured).

Why didn't they bypass the forest and take the Germans from their flanks (north and south)? I'm surprised the Germans didn't consider a flanking movement... but then they knew how useless tanks and planes were in this environment, didn't they. Noddies fighting battle-hardened troops, probably fresh from the Eastern Front. The only thing, this was deadlier than Toytown, and Big Ears wasn't listening.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 28, 2020:

This sounds like a heartbreaking battle for the US with so many injuries and deaths. This is another one of your well-written articles on WWII. The line from the Tennyson poem is the perfect last line for this article.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 28, 2020:

So brutal, dismal and sad. I hadn’t heard much of all about this part of the war. You write engagingly and vividly and the way you ended this was perfect.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on August 28, 2020:

Well written and informative. Was not aware of this part of history.

Thank you for sharing another wonderful article.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 28, 2020:

Liz, so nice of you to spare time and comment.

Liz Westwood from UK on August 27, 2020:

I hadn't realised that the Americans suffered such heavy losses in this area. It's easy to assume that after D-Day there was a steady advance towards the end of the year. Clearly this wasn't the case, with many set backs along the way as the German army dig in to try to avoid defeat. Your article highlights the struggle well.