- Historic Sites
Bloody Huertgen: The Battle That Should Never Have Been Fought
In his reassessment of a tragic World War II battle, General Gavin concludes that, for the Germans, holding the Huertgen Forest was Phase One of the Battle of the Bulge. For the Americans, trying to occupy the forest was a ghastly mistake.
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
The Battle of the Bulge came to an end in the closing days of January, 1945. The combat divisions were immediately redeployed to resume the offensive into Germany, and the 82nd Airborne, which I commanded, was ordered into the Huertgen Forest, a densely wooded area astride the Siegfried Line, just inside the German border. In the fall of 1944 there had been many grim stories in the Stars and Stripes , the army newspaper, about the fighting in the Huertgen. We were not looking forward to the assignment.
I opened the division command post in the midst of the forest in the small town of Rott on February 8, and a few hours later stopped at corps headquarters to get an outline of our next mission. Then, traveling by jeep, I started through the Huertgen Forest to the clearings on the far side where our jump-off positions would be. I learned my first lesson about the Huertgen. It could not be traversed by jeep. The mud was too deep and the jeep bellied down. In addition the forest was heavily fortified and highly organized for defense. Although I had seen heavy pillbox fortifications in Sicily, they were nothing compared with those in the Huertgen Forest. In the Huertgen they were huge (frequently consisting of several rooms). They were dark, and landscaped to blend with the trees—so well covered by leaves and pine needles that they were hardly visible. I was startled when I first realized that I was looking right at one only a short distance away and hadn’t realized that it was a pillbox. In.addition to the pillboxes, concertina barbed wire was stretched across the forest floor. This, with trip wires, antipersonnel mines, and antitank mines, reduced the fighting to its most primitive form: man against man at grenade distance.
Having been preoccupied with the Battle of the Bulge, the Allies had paid little attention to the Huertgen Forest for the past several months. I found a road that a jeep could travel on, and went to the town of Vossenack on reconnaissance without meeting any enemy. The Germans presumably had withdrawn to the Roer River or very close to it. I left my jeep in the town and started down the trail that crossed the Kail River valley. I was accompanied by the Division G-3, Colonel John Norton, and Sergeant Walker Woods. It really was a reconnaissance, since I did not know what the lay of the land would be, and what, if any, enemy might still be there. Our orders for the following day were to attack across the Kail River valley from Vossenack and seize the town of Schmidt. By now most of the snow had melted and only small patches remained under the trees. I walked down the trail, which was obviously impassable for a jeep. It was a shambles of wrecked vehicles and abandoned tanks. The first tanks that had attempted to go down the trail evidently had slid off and thrown their tracks. In some cases tanks had been pushed off the trail and toppled down the gorge among the trees. Between where the trail began outside of Vossenack and the bottom of the canyon there were four abandoned tank destroyers and five disabled and abandoned tanks. In addition, all along the sides of the trail there were many, many cadavers that had just emerged from the winter snow. Their gangrenous, broken, and torn bodies were rigid and grotesque, some of them with arms skyward, seemingly in supplication. They were wearing the red keystone of the 28th Infantry Division, the “Bloody Bucket.” It evidently had fought through there in the preceding fall, just before the heavy snows. I continued down the trail for about a half a mile to the bottom, where there was a tumbling mountain stream about six feet wide. A stone bridge that once had crossed it had long since been demolished, and a few planks were placed across the stone arches for the use of individual infantrymen. Nearby were dozens more dead men. Apparently an aid station had been established near the creek and in the midst of the fighting it had been abandoned, many of the men dying on their stretchers. About fifty yards off to the right, a hard road appeared. Across it were six American antitank mines. On the near side of the mines were three or four American soldiers who apparently had been laying the mines and protecting them when they were killed. Beyond the American mines, about ten feet away, were some German Teller mines, connected like beads on a string. And on the other side of these were three or four German dead, a dramatic example of what the fight ing must have been like in the Huertgen. It was savage, bitter, and at close quarters.