Get aquote
Click here to plan your next WW2 tour

The battle of Hürtgen Forest

U.S. soldiers climbing up a hillside in the Hürtgen Forest (Photo: U.S. Army)
U.S. soldiers climbing up a hillside in the Hürtgen Forest (Photo: U.S. Army)

After the breakout from Normandy, the Allies raced through France and the end of World War II seemed to be close. Capturing Berlin by Christmas seemed a real possibility. There was a general feeling that the Germans were already beaten and they were no longer able to put up a significant fight. This complacency on the Allies' side led to several mistakes: Operation Market Garden, the attempt to cut through the Netherlands before winter set in; the Battle of the Bulge, when the Allies failed to anticipate a strong German counterattack – and the Battle of Hürtgen Forest.
 
Germany's western border was protected by the Siegfried Line, an extensive network of bunkers, minefields and "dragon's teeth" tank barriers. The Allies’ first attempt to break through this line was at the German city of Aachen, were the outnumbered defenders quickly started to put up a surprisingly tenacious defense against the U.S. First Army led by General Courtney Hodges.

U.S. soldiers during the street fighting in Aachen (Photo: U.S. Army)
U.S. soldiers during the street fighting in Aachen (Photo: U.S. Army)

The Hürtgenwald is a thick fir forest, roughly 50 square miles in area and pockmarked by numerous valleys, located just to the south of Aachen. It was not a particularly important location in a strategic sense, but nevertheless, Hodges decided that it must be cleared of German troops and secured. This was a highly dubious decision.
 
Hodges claimed that if the forest was left in German hands, the Nazis might use it to launch attacks at the American flanks as Allied forces moved deeper inside Germany. This, however, was an unlikely scenario: the forest was too thick to allow tanks and other vehicles through in any real numbers, so a potential German attack out of the forest would have been easily contained. On the other hand, any American attack into the forest was also going to be extremely difficult for the same reason.

An M29 Weasel freeing a jeep from the mud in the Hürtgen Forest (Photo: U.S. Army)
An M29 Weasel freeing a jeep from the mud in the Hürtgen Forest (Photo: U.S. Army)

To be generous, there was one possibly reasonable goal to go into the forest for: the Rur River on the far side of it. (This river is not to be confused with the Ruhr Valley, where the Dambusters famously destroyed several dams, and which is located in a different part of Germany.) The Rur had several dams on it which were holding back a large reservoir. The Germans had the option to open the dams and flood the plains near Cologne, stopping the Allied advance for two weeks. Capturing these dams was a valid strategic goal, but one that Hodges and his staff didn't seem to be actually interested in; the operation in the Hürtgenwald only shifted toward this goal late in the battle, and then it was too late, and the Germans did flood the plains. The fact remains that when General Hodges decided to occupy the forest in September, he did it largely just because some German forces happened to be there, with not much thought given to the wider context of the plan.

A view of a section of the forest (Photo: histomil.com)
A view of a section of the forest (Photo: histomil.com)

The attack into the forest began on September 19, and Hürtgen Forest quickly earned its American nickname: the Green Hell. Vegetation was so dense that visibility in many places was reduced to a few yards. The Germans had built a labyrinth of bunkers and barbed wire obstacles throughout the forest. Tanks were largely restricted to narrow paths. Firebreaks and clearings were mined and registered for highly accurate artillery strikes. The thick growth of 100-foot-tall trees and the many valleys made radio communications spotty at best. Even the weather seemed to be against U.S. troops: fog and low clouds prevented the Allied air force from supporting ground troops, while mud bogged down soldiers and vehicles. American soldiers used white tape to mark safe passages through minefields, but the tape was regularly blown away by winds, or (as the year was drawing to a close) covered by snow.

American soldiers examine a captured German machine gun position in the forest (Photo: U.S. Army)
American soldiers examine a captured German machine gun position in the forest (Photo: U.S. Army)
Click here to plan your next WW2 tour

German artillery represented a particular danger due to their treetop bursts. German shells were set to explode in the air, showering the ground below with high-speed shrapnel and large splinters broken off from the trees. This was lethal to American infantrymen, who were trained to hit the ground when artillery was incoming: a man lying prone on the ground ended up exposing his entire torso and his limbs to the deadly payload from above. Survivors quickly learned to run to the nearest tree instead and hug it tightly, since this minimized their profile from above. By mid-October, the 1st Army advanced a mere 3,000 yards into the forest at the cost of 4,500 casualties – that's one man for every two feet of advance.

German heavy mortar firing at American troops in the Hürtgen Forest (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
German heavy mortar firing at American troops in the Hürtgen Forest (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The initial force, the 9th Infantry Division, was badly mauled after the first month of fighting, so a new unit was brought in to replace them: the 28th Infantry Division led by Major General Norman Cota. "Dutch" Cota was the hero of Omaha Beach and a rising star in American military circles. Omaha was the most hardly contested of the D-Day landing beaches. It was Cota's personal presence on the beach from early on, and hands-on, lead-from-the-front attitude that allowed U.S. forces to break out from the beach and secure the area without suffering even more casualties.

Major General Norman "Dutch" Cota (Photo: U.S. Army)

This time, however, Cota's problems weren't only the Germans in front of him, but also General Hodges behind his back. Hodges was a "mustang": a soldier who started his career as a private, and was brought into the officer corps from the outside, without traditional schooling. He was known to care for his men very much, and was sometimes seen standing by a road and openly weeping at the sight of the dead and wounded being carried through. Unfortunately, he also had a strategic mindset largely set on "frontal attack", no appreciation of logistics, and zero tolerance for subordinates who showed initiative and didn't do exactly as they were told.
 
In this case, Hodges drew up the plans for Cota's push into Hürtgen Forest, and Cota's reservations and doubts were brushed aside. And it was a bad plan.

Layout of the general area. Blue: the Kall river, red: the Kall supply trail (Source: LTC (ret) Thomas G. Bradbeer)
Layout of the general area. Blue: the Kall river, red: the Kall supply trail (Source: LTC (ret) Thomas G. Bradbeer)

Cota, whose forces were located near Germeter on the map above, was to use the three regiments of his division as three equal forces. One regiment was to head north and capture the village of Hürtgen. The second was to push south and capture Simonskall and Steckenborn. Both of these, however, were just supporting operations intended to protect against German counterattacks coming from these two directions. The big effort was for the third regiment to move down the center, secure Vossenack, cross the Kall river (blue on the map) and move on and liberate Schmidt.

Infantrymen of the 28th Division advancing through the Hürtgen Forest (Photo: U.S. Army)
Infantrymen of the 28th Division advancing through the Hürtgen Forest (Photo: U.S. Army)

This was a fundamental mistake in assigning forces. General military wisdom holds that supporting advances must be performed by the minimum force necessary to leave more men for the main push. Cota was forced to only use one third of his men for the most important advance, and Hodges refused to budge on the matter.
 
Cota also made his own mistakes, though.  For reasons which are not quite clear, he seems to have lost the initiative he had shown in Normandy. He failed to send scouts into the forest to map out German positions. He failed to check out the route which was supposed to supply his forward units. In fact, he spent almost all of the battle in his command headquarters 10 miles away from the frontline, relying on spotty radio messages for information.

Warning sign for troops at the edge of the forest (Photo: U.S. Army)
Warning sign for troops at the edge of the forest (Photo: U.S. Army)

His lack of attentiveness (and, let's add, Hodges's fundamentally bad plan) led to the deaths of many American soldiers. The red line in the map above marks the supply trail for the push to Schmidt. It was a muddy dirt trail only nine feet wide, barely enough for a single Sherman to fit through. Any tank that stopped would hold up every other vehicle behind it. The trail descended into the steep, deep gorge the Kall river runs through, crossed a bridge, then ascended on the other side with numerous switchbacks. These were so sharp that the otherwise nimble M29 Weasel cargo carriers couldn't pull an ammunition trailer up the path. The trailers had to manually unhitched, work up around the needlepoint turn, then hitched back to the carrier – and this had to be done at every single turn.

American tank destroyers on the supply trail (Photo: U.S. Army)
American tank destroyers on the supply trail (Photo: U.S. Army)

As the saying goes, "when it rains it pours". Unknown to the Allies, they had one more problem to contend with. Walter Model, one of Germany's best defensive commanders, who had just defeated Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, was staying in the nearby city of Cologne to organize a wargame for staff officers. The subject of the game? A theoretical American attack into the Hürtgen Forest. As soon Cota's push began, Model started using actual reports from the forest for the wargame and sending back orders from some of Germany's best and brightest officers.

Model (third from left) near Aachen a few days before the Battle of Hürtgen Forest began (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Model (third from left) near Aachen a few days before the Battle of Hürtgen Forest began (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The 28th Division moved out on November 2 and were immediately thrown into a meatgrinder. The regiment on the left flank ran into a minefield after 300 yards of advance, got pinned down by mortar and artillery fire, and was harassed by German counterattacks. They took a mile of ground two days, then had no choice but to dig in and stay in one place while casualties mounted.
 
On the right flank, heading south, the regiment failed to gain a single yard on the first day due to heavy German defenses. After a week of fighting, they were reported as "no longer an effective fighting force".

American soldiers marching past a group of dead Germans who were all killed by a single grenade. The Germans were equipped with a captured American .30 caliber Browning machine gun. (Photo: U.S. Army)
American soldiers marching past a group of dead Germans who were all killed by a single grenade. The Germans were equipped with a captured American .30 caliber Browning machine gun. (Photo: U.S. Army)

Miraculously, the main push in the center fared better, at least at first. Vossenack was taken (though the area was not cleared of German presence), and the men marched on. They crossed the gorge of the Kall river, took Kommerscheidt, and captured Schmidt after a brief battle against some very surprised German defenders. By this time, however, they were exhausted, wet from crossing the Kall, and had barely any sleep over the last 72 hours. They ostensibly dug in and prepared to hold Schmidt against German counterattacks, but their defenses were flimsy. During the night, they received a supply shipment of anti-tank mines. Instead of properly digging them into the ground, they were content with just placing them on the hard surface roads entering the town from the west, northwest and southwest.

German mortar position near Schmidt, manned by very young soldiers (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
German mortar position near Schmidt, manned by very young soldiers (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Meanwhile, the supply trail across the Kall predictably broke down. One Sherman tank ran onto a mine, one veered off course and plunged off the trail, and three had thrown their tracks. There was a general lack of a sense of urgency among the tank crews, and the vehicles were only pushed off the trail and into the gorge on the morning of November 5. A bulldozer sent to clear away some large boulders and wide the trail broke down after half an hour. Military engineers started to work on the rock with shovels and pickaxes. And meanwhile, the units holding Schmidt were not getting ammo or other supplies.

Modern photo of tank tracks embedded in the ground in the Hürtgen Forest. They were laid down during the battle to increase traction for other vehicles. (Photo: historytrips.eu)
Modern photo of tank tracks embedded in the ground in the Hürtgen Forest. They were laid down during the battle to increase traction for other vehicles. (Photo: historytrips.eu)

Meanwhile, German tanks approached Schmidt along the roads, easily avoided the highly visible mines, and fell on the American defenders. Without supplies, the latter had no way of holding the town and retreated to the north. At least one company fled in the wrong direction amid the confusion and ran into German lines where they were captured. Not content with recapturing Schmidt, the tank force then headed north toward Kommerscheidt. They were only stopped by a small force of Shermans and tank destroyers that managed to drive down the supply trail before it became plugged.

A medic writing a medical tag for a wounded GI during the battle (Photo: histomil.com)
A medic writing a medical tag for a wounded GI during the battle (Photo: histomil.com)

By this point, Cota had lost control of the battle. Initial reports of the main advance triggered jubilation and congratulatory telegrams from other high-ranking officers along the front. However, reports started to become sporadic, confused and confusing as the attack slowed down and turned into a desperate defense against German counterattacks. The division's officer corps was getting gutted on the battlefield, with a surprisingly high ratio of officer casualties. After several more grueling days, Cota finally got Hodge to authorize a retreat to the northwest side of the Kall river. The order reached the American holdouts, who were pressed on all sides by then, on the 8th. The nighttime evacuation was just as nightmarish as the days of combat preceding it. Exhausted men slugged through mud in the darkness, each having his hand on the shoulder of the man in front so the group would stay together in the dark. Some men tread on the wounded, too tired to lift their feet higher. Of the 2,000 men who fought on the south side of the Kall, only 300 returned. Some of those 300 ran into German pickets, and only made it home because the Germans simply decided to let the miserable men go.

Cota (right) reporting to Eisenhower during the battle. "“Well, Dutch, it looks like you got a bloody nose" – Ike remarked on the occasion (Photo: U.S. Army)

The next day, American forces started digging in along the north side of the Kall. Thousands of wounded, from both sides, were exchanged between November 7-12 after a German regimental doctor by the name of Günter Stüttgen negotiated an unofficial ceasefire. Fighting eventually resumed, but events elsewhere had taken over the Hürtgen debacle. Further to the north, Hitler ordered his last great counterattack against the Western Allies in the Ardennes, and Hürtgen Forest lost its importance. Nevertheless, it took the Allies until the end of February 1945, a full month after winning the Battle of the Bulge, to finally secure the Green Hell where 55,000 Americans and 28,000 Germans died, were wounded or captured in a battle that never needed to be fought in the first place.

Bernard J. Ray, one of the men who received a posthumous Medal of Honor for their actions during the battle. (Photo: cmohs.org)
Bernard J. Ray, one of the men who received a posthumous Medal of Honor for their actions during the battle. (Photo: cmohs.org)

However, neither the mistakes made by commanders nor their eventual defeat should be taken a slight to the infantrymen and tankers who fought with utter gallantry in the Green Hell. Their heroic effort is proven by the 12 Medals of Honor that were awarded for actions in or in the vicinity of Hürtgen Forest. It is hard to pick one act of heroism out of so many, but we will mention 1st Lieutenant Bernard J. Ray by name. On November 17, Ray's company was stopped by enemy fire and a wire barrier. He picked up several explosives and wrapped a primer cord himself for easy of carry, then made a dash for the wire, attracting the undivided attention of German mortarmen. He was hit and seriously wounded by an explosive shell just as he setting up the explosive. Ray felt that he didn't have the strength to finish the job before succumbing to his wound. He quickly finished the setup and pushed down on the charger handle while the primer cord was still wrapped around his body and the explosives right next to him. He immediately died in the explosion, but his sacrifice blew a hole in the wire barricade, allowing his men to get through.

Click here to plan your next WW2 tour
Facebook Facebook
Instagram Instagram
Website Website
YouTube YouTube
Reply this email
Copyright © *|CURRENT_YEAR|* *|LIST:COMPANY|*, All rights reserved.
*|IFNOT:ARCHIVE_PAGE|* *|LIST:DESCRIPTION|*

Our mailing address is:
*|HTML:LIST_ADDRESS_HTML|* *|END:IF|*

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

*|IF:REWARDS|* *|HTML:REWARDS|* *|END:IF|*