Bloody Huertgen: The Battle That Should Never Have Been Fought

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Optimism was widespread in the Allied high command in Europe in the late summer of ’44. As the summer waned, the world was treated to the spectacle of the German 7th Army and the 5th Panzer Army fleeing from the battlefields of Normandy. Handcarts, horses and wagons, bicycles, baby carriages, anything that they could lay their hands on were used to help in their escape. Elsenhower’s staff seemed convinced that the war was over. His chief of staff, Lieutenant General Bedell Smith, announced to the press in early September, “Militarily the war is over.” Most astounding, post exchange officers sent orders back to the States to stop all Christmas packages. The war would be over by Christmas. And the optimism went beyond the generals. Meeting with President Roosevelt at Quebec on September 10,1944, Winston Churchill remarked, “Victory is everywhere.” And later he added, “I would not be surprised, now that the American 3rd Army is standing on the border of Germany, if the enemy surrendered within weeks.” But the very success of Eisenhower’s armies contained the seeds of trouble. By September he had outrun his supplies. Trucks bringing gasoline and ammunition to George Patton’s army, for example, had to travel 360 miles back to the Normandy beaches. And by the end of August, 90 to 95 per cent of the supplies for Eisenhower’s armies lay in depots near the beaches.

The northernmost of the U.S. armies was the 1st U.S. Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges. I had known General Hodges when he was Chief of Staff of the Philippine Division from 1936 to 1938. He was an intelligent, thoughtful, studious sort of officer. Unlike the other U.S. Army commanders, he was not a West Pointer. He attended the military academy but dropped out during his plebe year, enlisted, and earned his commission from the ranks. He was a veteran of World War I and knew his trade well; some thought him rather colorless—certainly he was when compared with Patton—but those who knew him had great respect for the consideration he showed for his troops; he was always careful not to waste his men and was cautious in his tactical deployments.

The 1st U.S. Army was a veteran command. It had made the Normandy assault and promptly accomplished its first mission, capturing Cherbourg. Thereafter, it endured very heavy fighting in the Normandy hedgerows for almost two months. In July, Patton’s 3rd Army came ashore and was committed to battle on the right of the 1st. It rampaged through Brittany and directly contributed to the defeat and rout of the Germans in mid-August. Both the 1st and 3rd armies pursued the enemy vigorously, and by mid-September they were up to the German frontier. The U.S. 1st Army was still in pursuit, with all three of its corps in line across a front of more than 120 miles—far too widespread to engage in heavy combat—as they considered themselves to be still in pursuit of a beaten enemy. Furthermore, during the long trek across France, maintenance of vehicles, especially tanks, had been badly neglected. For example, the 3rd Armored Division had only 75 serviceable tanks out of an allotment of 232. Then, too, some combat divisions had dropped their artillery far behind in order to use the artillery tow trucks to carry infantry.

As they neared the German frontier, there was much speculation about the Siegfried Line. Rumor had it that the pillboxes and fortifications were unmanned. But General Hodges anticipated heavy fighting and he thought it best to delay his advance for about two days to permit his forces to regroup. The corps commanders were impatient, however, particularly Major General Joe Collins, commander of the VII Corps; they wanted to get on with the attack while they had momentum and before the Siegfried Line could be manned. Collins reasoned that if he penetrated the line, so much to the good, but if unexpected resistance occurred, he still would not have lost anything. However, the Germans were far from defeated. Indeed, they were preparing a major counteroffensive.

 
 

On September 5, 1944, Hitler called back Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. He had dismissed him earlier, in July, after von Rundstedt, upon being queried by the German high command on what they should do, replied, “End the war, you fools.” Now he was forgiven in the hour of need. He was respected throughout the German army and was the one soldier who could rally the Wehrmacht. His problems were many, but he went about solving them in a very businesslike manner. To begin with, he managed to bring General Gustav von Zangen’s 15th Army from Calais by barge and boat to positions in Holland to confront the Allies. Systematically, efforts were made to round up and reassign individuals and small groups of German soldiers that had made their way back from the battlefields of France. Fortunately for von Rundstedt, the high-command structure down to and including some of the combat divisions was generally intact. While von Rundstedt was assembling troops, Hitler took additional steps to bolster the defenses. About a hundred “fortress” infantry battalions were hastily re-equipped and hurried to the front. These had been used in rear areas and they were made up mostly of undertrained and overage individuals. They were to give a good account of themselves in manning the Siegfried Line.