- 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
As General Hodges prepared plans for his move across the Roer River and on to Cologne on the Rhine, he looked with some concern at the Huertgen Forest. General Hodges and General Collins were both veterans of World War I. They recalled the heavy fighting in the Argonne Forest, and they knew that the Huertgen could provide cover for a German, force that might seriously threaten their right flank. So far, they had not given any thought to the dams. They believed, however, that their present widespread deployments could sweep through the forest without too much delay, and in so doing seize the high ground overlooking the Roer. The veteran 9th Division was chosen for the task. Its 38th Infantry Regiment was given the principal mission. It crossed the German border and entered the village of Lammersdorf on September 14. It was protected by the 47th Infantry Regiment, which was about seven miles to the north, and the 60th Infantry Regiment, also of the 9th Division, about five miles to the south. This deployment of the three regiments was far too widespread to break through serious resistance. The 39th learned quickly that the Germans were manning the pillboxes of the Siegfried Line. It was the toughest defense situation that they had encountered since Normandy. After three days of costly, bitter fighting, they had advanced only about a mile and a half. The Germans continued gradually to build up their defenses, and the battle raged back and forth through the pillbox area. It was a special kind of warfare for which our troops were not well trained or equipped. As it turned out, the 9th Division was the first of a steady procession of American units which in subsequent weeks would learn to equate the Huertgen with gloom, misery, wounds, and death. General Collins decided to stop the attack and to regroup his forces. The forest remained unconquered.
Early in October the decision was made to attack once again, using the same 9th Infantry Division. At last, the higher staff were beginning to attach some importance to the dams. Some prisoners told them of the German plans for the dams and that arrangements had been made to ring church bells in the villages downstream when the flooding began. The 9th Infantry Division launched its attack on October 6 with Schmidt, which overlooked the Schwammenauel Dam, as its objective. Again the German resistance stiffened. The Infantry found themselves widely dispersed, and their losses were appalling. Vehicles and tanks bogged down in the forest. The dense tree cover denied them support from their own air force. German artillery projectiles burst in the tops of the trees, hurling shell fragments earthward. Replacements were lost by the hundreds before they could even join their outfits. When they did arrive, they found that the problem of the tree bursts made it necessary for them to cover their foxholes with logs. When caught in the open, the soldiers learned that the safest defense was to stand or to crouch rather than to lie flat on the forest floor. By late October the Huertgen had taken its toll. The 9th Division had gained no more than three thousand yards, which they paid for in one and a half casualties per yard. The division had lost about forty-five hundred men, and according to the official report, “The real winner appeared to be the vast, undulating, blackish-green sea that virtually negated American superiority in air, artillery, and armor to reduce warfare to its lowest common denominator.” The forest refused to yield, and now there were the dams.
Toward the end of October General Hodges set the date of November 5 for the main attack that would take his 1st Army across the Roer and on to the Rhine. The principal effort was to be given to Joe Collins’ VII Corps. His mission was to clear the Huertgen Forest and seize the high ground to the east. The dams were transferred to General Gerow’s V Corps on Collins’ right. Hodges was anxious that the V Corps get started as soon as possible and he set the date of November first. Its mission was to clear the Vossenack-Schmidt-Lammersdorf triangle down to the headwaters of the Roer River, so as to protect the right flank of the 1st Army. To increase the V Corps’ strength, it was given the 28th Division and a combat command of the 5th Armored Division. The 28th was the Pennsylvania National Guard Division. It had made the Normandy assault and was fresh and experienced in every respect and ready for its difficult mission. By now, the Huertgen was recognized as a tough nut to crack. Considerable pressure was put on the 28th Division commander, Major General Norman D. Cota. His principal mission was to seize Vossenack, cross the Kail River gorge, seize Kommerscheidt, and then Schmidt, enabling the V Corps to command a position close to and overlooking the Schwammenauel Dam. The 112th Infantry Regiment (of the 28th Division), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Carl L. Peterson, was assigned the central position. It was supported on its left by the 109th Infantry, which moved toward the village of Huertgen, and on the right by the 110th Infantry, which moved to the south in the direction of the village of Raffelsbrand. It should be noted that the three regiments diverged from the beginning and, in fact, uncovered the flanks of the middle regiment, the 112th Infantry, which had a difficult mission at best and one that could have been catastrophic if its flanks were attacked in the Kail River gorge. The division was opposed by the German 275th Division, which had proved its mettle against the 9th Division earlier.
By this time heavy autumn rains and dense fogs and mist plagued the attackers. Soon there would be snow. The infantry could expect little air support.