November 3, 1944 - The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
November 3, 1944. The sun rises on a disaster in the small German town of Schmidt. The 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania National Guard, has made an almighty effort to seize this key feature of the Hurtgen Forest and have paid dearly. Pennsylvania’s Black Week of World War II is not the first, or the last, attempt to seize this tiny patch of woods. The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest will be one of the most bitter and tragic American fights of World War II.
What made the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest so tragic, in the end, was that hopes had seemed so high only a few months ago. The final Allied victory in the Normandy Campaign had nearly destroyed a German Army Group, and after this triumph the British, Canadian, American and French forces had swept all before them. Paris was liberated, the French Riviera conquered, Belgium overrun. Anything seemed possible, and the optimism of the generals as well as the rank and file only grew higher. The Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, might be looking at a total victory. Was Nazi Germany about to collapse? Could they be in Berlin before Christmas? Was the war in Europe about to end in 1944?
Sadly, no. No, it wasn’t. Two big factors slowed, then stopped the Allies at their moment of triumph. The biggest factor was a lack of sufficient supplies. The Allies had failed to capture a port facility capable of sustaining their enormous armies at peak efficiency, especially since the Germans had done so much to sabotage the ports they DID manage to capture. 90 days after the D-Day landings, supplies were still being dragged ashore across the Normandy beaches, which was inefficient and dangerous thanks to the autumn storms in the Channel. The same winds that had changed history in 1066, when they kept William the Conqueror from crossing too early, and in 1588 when they scattered the Spanish Armada, played a role again in 1944 when it came to supplying the Allied forces. See? The English Channel has been a Chekov’s Gun this whole time!
When Bernard Montgomery’s British and Canadian forces had rolled into the Belgian city of Antwerp in September 1944, it seemed like Eisenhower’s prayers had been answered. Antwerp, one of the largest ports in Europe, had been captured by surprise – and its extensive port facilities were completely intact. One major problem remained, though: the Scheldt estuary, a set of swampy lowlands and islands that separated Antwerp from the Atlantic, was still in German hands. It would take two months for the Canadians to clear the German troops from the Scheldt, without which Antwerp was useless. The Scheldt campaign is one of World War II’s many forgotten battles, and the Canadians paid a steep price for the Allies’ logistical problems.
They also paid a steep price for Montgomery’s error. There was a chance in those heady days of 1944 for Montgomery to cut off and destroy the German forces before they occupied the Scheldt. Instead, Montgomery expended Allied resources and troops on his great bid to end the war by Christmas – Operation Market-Garden. But Market-Garden failed dramatically, as we all know if we’ve been reading my posts religiously. (Not to fear, I’m gonna post a timeline including all the posts and contexts leading up to this post in the comments.) With Montgomery’s resources shot in the Market-Garden attempt, and henceforth committed to defending a pencil-thin corridor thrust deep into the Netherlands, the chance to seize the Scheldt early faded away in September 1944.
Without this supply bottleneck broken, the Allies would be fighting on a limited supply of fuel, ammunition, and reinforcements for the remainder of 1944, waiting for the Canadians to finish clearing the Scheldt and open up the routes to Antwerp. An American G.I. required 66 lbs of supply per day, an infantry division 1,600 tons per day, and adding more troops to the Continent before they could be supplied would only make the logistic situation worse. American divisions slated for the European theater began to stack up in England, waiting for the supply flow in Western Europe to be large enough to support them. So the Allies had to push forward on a wide front with less troops, ammunition, and fuel than they had hoped by a long shot.
This ended up slowing the Allied advance to a crawl just as the German forces were recovering. Hitler had shifted Walther Model, the defensive genius known as the “Fuhrer’s Fireman” for his indispensability in a crisis, to shore up the crumbling Western Front. Model had juggled his units and worked miracles in stopping the Allies before they could penetrate Germany’s defensive lines. By now, the German military was on its last legs, though still full of determination and ideological zeal. This would seem to imply that the German forces facing the Allies were a broken reed, and by all accounts they should have been. The Wehrmacht could be divided broadly into two groups: a shrinking but lethal elite force of Panzer divisions and SS units, and the mass of torn-up infantry divisions that were astonishingly tenacious in defense but lacked almost any military skill. Most of the professional soldiers were dead in Russia or in Allied POW camps in the States.
They shouldn’t have been much of a foe. Most of the German units the Allies faced in the last months of the war were hollow shells, a cobbled-together mass of teenagers and old men, redundant naval and air force personnel, Soviet POWs, and medically disqualified draftees sprinkled with a seasoning of veteran NCOs and officers. But this was enough. Their mission was to defend the West Wall, a range of fortifications along Germany’s border that served as a final fallback position to defend the Reich. Instead of rolling over, however, the remaining German units fought with terrifying tenacity and courage. Hopped up on Nazi propaganda and beaten into submission by arbitrary discipline, this tough shell of German soldiers would hold back the Allies for months.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the narrow Aachen corridor. The Allies selected this spot to try and puncture the West Wall with their limited troops and resources, since it offered the shortest route and the best terrain between them and the Rhine River. The Aachen corridor was assigned to Omar Bradley’s American forces, spearheaded by Courtney Hodges’ 1st Army and Joe Collins’ 7th Corps. Just over the Belgian border and past the West Wall lay the medieval city of Aachen, a beautiful relic that had served as Charlemagne’s capital; beyond it lay Cologne, the keystone of the Rhine River. On the southern side of the corridor, virtually unnoticed during the planning stages, was a speck of green known as the Hurtgen Forest.
Hodges and Collins drove into the Aachen corridor in October 1944, doing their best to encircle the city from both sides. The ensuing Battle of Aachen was a desperate and grim struggle, with the 1st Infantry Division and 30th Infantry (North Carolina Guard) having to hammer their way in against intense German opposition. The 1st Infantry had to call up self-propelled artillery pieces to blast Aachen’s ancient cathedrals and castles to rubble at point-blank range with 155mm howitzer shells, and Big Red One infantrymen had to fight with bayonets and lanterns in the sewer systems to expunge the Nazi resistors. By October 19, 1944, Aachen had been surrendered – the first German city to fall to Allied forces in World War II. Only 300 more to go! And if they all took 100,000 soldiers and 2,000 dead to capture, this was not going to go quickly.
1st Army’s capture of Aachen left an open corridor to the Rhine – if, and only if, American forces could clear the Hurtgen Forest and capture the high-ground village of Schmidt on its eastern edge. This town would provide the 1st Army with more maneuver room and artillery positions for the final thrust to the Rhine. Let’s be clear: the days of the Liberation of France were over. Instead of freewheeling columns of tanks and trucks advancing at top speed across the open plains like August and September 1944, the Allies now had to chew their way forward painfully, slowly, and with heavy losses. It was a war of attrition once again. And the Hurtgen Forest was about to become the byword for attrition.
Four major tracts of woodland came together to form the Hurtgen, eleven miles long and five miles wide. Careful logging and replanting had turned it into a model forest, a huge mass of fir trees that were nearly evenly spaced like in a modern suburban housing project. But much of it was wild, with deep ravines and creek beds that cut through the picturesque wood like scars. This was the German forest of Grimm’s fairy tales, an impenetrable mass of pine needles and fallen logs where the sun barely shone. It was also packed to the brim with German bunkers, aligned carefully with interlocking kill zones, and dense minefields.
The 9th Infantry Division was the first to try and crack the Hurtgen throughout September and October 1944. It was a disaster, a travesty of the highest order. The 6,500 defenders of the German 275th Division lost half their number, but they stopped the 9th Division in their tracks as it staggered forward through hails of machine-gun fire and nightly ambushes. Trees were stripped yellow or reduced to stumps by rifle fire. The G.I.s faced bombs hanging from branches or strapped to the rear of tree trunks – the Nazi version of IEDs. German reinforcements included two companies of policemen from Duren, known as the “father companies” because most of the men were at least 45 years old.
The trackless forest terrain became a dense, dark hell as artillery fire sprayed wood splinters and shrapnel across the hapless Americans. American superiority in all arms was nullified by the claustrophobic forest. Tanks could barely maneuver due to the dense wood and narrow paths. Artillery could not find a target, and aircraft could not spot their prey below the pale green canopy. The German positions were barely visible in the darkness and green-brown blur of the Hurtgen Forest, and they could move nearly unseen through the ravines and creek beds to strike at will. The Hurtgen was some of the most perfect defensive terrain in the world, and the 9th Division was chewed up, losing almost 4500 casualties in its futile efforts to hammer through. Many soldiers who knew their history compared it to the Civil War Battle of the Wilderness. One GI called it “the worst place of any” that he ever encountered.
The Hurtgen Forest battle became a scandal after the war, since it served no ultimate strategic purpose. There was no reason that the Americans couldn’t have flanked the Hurtgen, screened it off, and drove on; the Germans could never use the Hurtgen to launch an attack for the same reasons the Allies could not take it. But 1st Army’s General Courtney Hodges was adamant that he could not advance farther into Germany without taking the Hurtgen due to the “threat” it posed to its flank. A bunch of middle-aged policemen from Duren weren’t going to launch a lethal attack against an American field army, but Hodges refused to acknowledge this fact. One historian later noted that the most dangerous thing about the Hurtgen was the American fixation on taking it. The worst thing to do was to send more American boys into its darkness. But with the 9th Division chopped up, the task now fell to the 28th Infantry Division.
The 28th “Keystone” Infantry Division, led by General Norman J. Cota, was and is the main formation of the Pennsylvania National Guard. The 28th had experienced moderate fighting in Normandy and in previous skirmishes along the West Wall, and Cota was one of the more talented junior generals in the American Army. The 28th was assigned the task of finally taking the Hurtgen. It had recently received large numbers of new recruits stripped from antiaircraft units and the Army Air Corps, untrained as infantry. Ernest Hemingway, who set up near the frontline to watch the 28th go into the Hurtgen, noted that it would “save everyone a lot of trouble if they just shot them as soon as they got out of the trucks.” The 28th Division was about to go face-first into the meat grinder and they knew it.
Throughout late October, the 28th Division assembled beneath the forbidding pine branches and prepared their assault. The battle plan was badly flawed. While the rest of the Western Front would be relatively quiet, the 28th would be the only unit attacking, and therefore the only unit attracting the attention of the demonic genius Field Marshal Walther Model. The plan required Cota’s division to attack in three separate directions, with one regiment each attacking to the north, the east, and the southeast. The 112th had the main objective: reach the eastern end of the Hurtgen and capture Schmidt, the village that the 9th had tried and failed to take for the last month. The battle was to begin on November 2, 1944.
On that cold, misty Thursday, the GIs crawled out of their foxholes to advance into the hell of the Hurtgen Forest. They were preceded by a curtain of artillery fire that flayed the forest with steel, but most of the shells detonated in the tree canopy without ever touching the ground. The 110th Regiment attacking southeast was mowed down by machine gun fire, gaining not a single foot of ground and by the end of the week “no longer an effective fighting force.” The 109th Regiment, to the north, ran into a brace of IEDs and anti-personnel mines, with random boys from Pittsburgh and Schuylkill County having their feet and legs blown off by sudden “pops” emanating from the ground. After a day and a half the 109th held a thin salient of ground, with German forces constantly attacking into their rear.
But it was the poor 112th Infantry Regiment that had the worst of it. At first things seemed to go well. Throughout November 2 and 3, the regiment burst through the German defenses and unexpectedly stormed the key villages of Vossenack and Schmidt. Seven Sherman tanks somehow picked their way through the dense forest to come blasting into Vossenack, and even though German rocket launchers and mines destroyed three of them the tanks helped carry one of the 112th’s battalions into the town. Schmidt was seized by the 3rd Battalion of the 112th on November 3, 1944, surprising the German garrison and seemingly gaining a surprise triumph. Cota was sent congratulations from his higher headquarters: finally, after so long, it looked like the Hurtgen might be conquered after all.
But bad luck was about to descend on the 28th. News of the American success reached Field Marshal Model just as he was – no shit – rehearsing reactions to a possible American attack from the Hurtgen Forest. Model assessed the situation, recognized that low cloud cover would prevent Allied air strikes, and made a quick call to send the 116th Panzer Division and 89th Infantry Division galloping towards Schmidt. With no other issues to distract him, Model was quite happy to strike the Pennsylvanians with the back of his hand.
The three isolated American infantry companies and machine gun platoon that held Schmidt were unaware of the storm about to descend on them. Throughout the night of November 3, they were harassed by snipers and mortar fire, and were unable to receive any reinforcements; every other unit was engaged or trapped elsewhere. Tank support could not find its way forward in the night, and the unit was short on mines and ammunition. Due to the confusion and chaos that always wracked the Hurtgen Forest, Cota was unaware of the 112th Regiment’s vulnerability until it was far, far too late.
On November 4, as rain descended in torrents, German artillery fire began to plunge into the small town of Schmidt. GIs scrambled for cover. A flare lit up the dawn sky as Panther and Panzer tanks lunged over the hillsides from the northeast, their cannon fire blasting the town apart. Machine gun fire ripped through the American positions and bazooka rounds bounced off the Panthers’ armor like dodgeballs. German infantry descended on the town from every direction with their machine pistols to join the panzers in their assault.’
The 112th held out as best they could, begging over the radio for tank support. Radio communication was fitful at best due to atmospheric and terrain conditions, and reinforcements got lost in the Hurtgen. A column of Sherman tanks trying to thread its way down a narrow forest path managed to get only three tanks across a hairpin turn after using winches tied to trees; the other five failed to get past, repeatedly throwing their tracks on the muddy switchbacks. Rain turned the trails to mud, then a morass, as men struggled forward against German ambushes and mortar fire to save the units at Schmidt. But it was not only the isolated forces in the town that were in trouble; the entire division was faced with near annihilation. All across the Hurtgen, the German counterattack threatened to swamp isolated pockets of cold, tired, scared boys from the Pennsylvania hills, and the Forest turned minutes to hours as reinforcements struggled forward.
The result was disaster. The final tanks protecting Schmidt were turned into fiery ruins, and the GIs were flooded out of their foxholes by the downpour. A battalion of the 110th Infantry sent in as a rescue operation was shattered by artillery fire in the open, and the darkness and rain blurred everything into a horrific morass. Day after day passed with the 28th Division’s units hanging on by slender threads. November 6 saw one battalion of the 112th finally shatter, streaming back in disarray and panic, throwing away equipment and trying to outrun the artillery.
Cota had no choice; he ordered the units still in Schmidt to withdraw back into the safety of American lines. Soldiers built makeshift litters from tree limbs and overcoats, smashed radios, shot the engine blocks from broken Jeeps and shed excess gear. The survivors of the Schmidt garrison broke out during the night of November 8, rushing like blind cattle through the underbrush as the black night closed in behind them, punctuated only by the pinpricks of light signalling another German artillery barrage. The 28th’s Battle of the Hurtgen was over.
The 28th’s tragic failure in the Hurtgen nearly ruined the division, and was one of the single worst American defeats of World War II in Europe. The week-long battle had cost the division over 6,000 men, nearly 505 casualties; the 112th Regiment had been reduced from 2,200 men to 300, while one battalion was down to only 57 men. The 28th Division had been so thoroughly wrecked that it would not recover for months. Pennsylvania’s Black Week of World War II had been a miserable failure.
The 28th would be replaced by the 8th Infantry, and then the 4th Infantry, and even with the help of a Ranger battalion these units would fail to penetrate the dense, dark hell of the Hurtgen. The Americans would spend three months trying to bludgeon their way into that hellscape, and the cost would be terrible. Out of 120,000 G.I.s committed to the Hurtgen slaughter, almost 55,000 would become casualties. The Hurtgen meat grinder wore on as the Allies slowly inched towards Germany. The stupidity of Hodges’ repeated attempts to take the Forest, and the high price his soldiers paid for it, stand as one of the U.S. Army’s bleakest chapters of World War II.
But the Germans had held the Hurtgen for reasons unrelated to bleeding the Americans dry. They needed the hills behind it as a staging area for their last great offensive of World War II, the one they hoped could split the Western Allies and maybe turn the tide of the war. It wasn’t Model’s idea, but Hitler’s. Could the victory of 1940 be repeated in the Ardennes once again? The Germans needed the Hurtgen as one of the launching areas for the great December offensive that would become known as the Battle of the Bulge.
And never fear, I will cover THAT in great detail. Consider it a Christmas present.