Bloody Huertgen: The Battle That Should Never Have Been Fought

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While these moves were under way, Hitler made one of his intuitive decisions. On Saturday, September 16,1944, he had a conference in his East Prussian headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair. Field Marshal Jodl was ticking off the depressing statistics: shortages of ammunition, shortages of tanks, German troops withdrawing from southern France. Suddenly, Hitler interrupted, “I have just made a momentous decision. I shall go over to the counterattack, that is to say,” pointing to the map unrolled on the desk before him, “here, out of the Ardennes, with the objective—Antwerp.” The counterattack was scheduled for a launching within two months, although, as it finally developed, it took three months. To deny the Allies the type of information that they had obtained by radio intercept in the past, Hitler insisted that all communications would be by wire, written messages, or staff visits. There would be no radio communications among the higher formations. Thus he undertook to organize a counteroffensive that would involve three field armies, consisting of twenty-one divisions, including eight Panzer divisions.

Opposing the U.S. 1st Army was the German 7th Army commanded by General der Panzertruppen Eric Brandenberger. His mission, once Hitler’s decision had been made, was to hold off the U.S. 1st Army until the counteroffensive could be launched. At this point another factor entered into the German thinking. Behind the Siegfried Line, in the Huertgen Forest area, were a series of major dams that controlled the flow of water into the Roer River. By opening these dams, General Brandenberger could effectively block the U.S. 1st Army from crossing the Roer and thus making its way to the Rhine at Cologne. So, Brandenberger’s mission was to protect the dams, using the Siegfried Line and all the odd-lot troop formations that he could find, as well as one or two battle-experienced formations. And finally, the German positions were to be held at all costs to permit the build-up of a great counteroffensive, which Hitler was convinced would split the Allies and bring about a petition for peace. Thus the stage was set for the battle of the Huertgen Forest.

The Huertgen,” the GI’s called it. To the soldiers the word “Huertgen” was synonymous with getting hurt. It was to be known as one of the most costly battles in our history. Yet, when the fighting in the Huertgen Forest began, no one, neither American nor German, had a clear idea of how intense and costly it would be. The Americans wanted to seize the eastern edge of the forest and in so doing protect the right flank of the U.S. 1st Army, which was moving on to Cologne. But neither side could guess the other’s objective and both sides were surprised by the intensity and heavy cost of the fighting that followed.

The Huertgen Forest is part of a heavily wooded area of about fifty square miles. It begins about five miles southeast of the city of Aachen. As the official U.S. Army History described it: “Looking east from the little German border villages southeast of Aachen, the Huertgen forest is a seemingly impenetrable mass, a vast undulating blackish-green ocean stretching as far as the eye can see. Upon entering the forest, you want to drop things behind to mark your path, as Hansel and Gretel did with their bread crumbs.”

After traversing the forest for three or four miles, one came upon open farming country on higher ground. Two ridges thrust like fingers toward the distant Roer River. On the north, extending to the northeast for three miles, was the ridge containing the towns of Huertgen, Menhau, and Grosshau. To the south was a longer ridge, extending from the town of Lammersdorf toward Schmidt, the town which overlooked the principal dam on the Roer River. Between these cleared ridge lines lay the deep Kail River gorge.

The famed Siegfried Line, or West Wall, consisted of two lines of fortifications, running parallel and several miles apart, directly through the Huertgen Forest. Each line had to be taken in turn, and each contained a large number of pillboxes with interlocking fields of fire, bunkers, and command posts.