Bloody Huertgen: The Battle That Should Never Have Been Fought

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The attack on Schmidt was launched on November second in characteristically bad weather. Despite poor conditions, however, both V Corps and VII Corps supported the forthcoming attack with artillery barrages. By H-hour the 28th Division artillery had fired 7,313 rounds. The high command had at last learned respect for the German defenses and they were taking no chances. The attack went off on schedule and the second battalion of the 112th Infantry captured Vossenack by early afternoon and soon were digging foxholes on the forward slopes overlooking the forested valleys below. The two remaining battalions of the 112th Infantry moved through Vossenack down the trail across the Kail River gorge, virtually unopposed, until they were all the way across the Kail and crossing the open farm country in sight of Kommerscheidt.

Kommerscheidt and Schmidt, in turn, were seized with little opposition. There was elation in the 28th Division Headquarters, and the division commander, General Cota, was to say later that he felt like “a little Napoleon.” But the elation was short-lived. Actually, the Germans were in the process of replacing the forces that had been defending Schmidt.

The following day the Germans counterattacked with armor and drove the defenders from their water-filled, icy foxholes around Schmidt back on Kommerscheidt, and later pushed the survivors of Kommerscheidt to the edge of the Kail River gorge. In addition, they attacked all along the gorge, thus cutting off the remnants of the two attacking battalions that had just been driven from Schmidt and Kommerscheidt. Repeated orders by the 28th Division to recapture Schmidt were meaningless, as the survivors were incapable of mounting an attack. The regimental commander was directed to report to division headquarters. Although he was physically exhausted and twice had been wounded by artillery fire, he started down the trail of the Kail River gorge. He was in bad physical shape when the engineers on the trail found him, put him in a jeep, and started him back. He must have been a sight to see when he walked in on General Cota. At the sight of him, Cota fainted. Before the engagement was through, the 28th Division suffered over six thousand casualties.

The 28th was followed in turn by the 4th, the 8th, and the 83rd infantry divisions, and a combat command of the 5th Armored Division. Tragically, before it was over, not only were the casualties frightful, but the real objective turned out to be not the Huertgen Forest itself but the dams over the Roer River on the far side of it.

Over twenty-four thousand Americans were killed, missing and captured, or wounded in the fighting in the Huertgen and another nine thousand succumbed to the wet and cold with trench foot and respiratory diseases, for a total cost of thirty-three thousand men. In retrospect it was a battle that should not have been fought. Once we were in it, the higher command did not seem to appreciate the incredible conditions under which the infantrymen had to fight. Unlike other battles in Europe up to that time, we sacrificed our ground mobility and our tactical air support, and we chose to fight the Germans under conditions entirely to their own advantage, in which they fought from strong fortifications on ground they knew very well. In an interview after the war, General Major Rudolph Gersdorff, chief of staff of the German 7th Army, said, “The German Command could not understand the reason for the strong American attacks in the Huertgen forest… the fighting in the wooded area denied the American troops the advantages offered them by their air and armored forces, the superiority of which had been decisive in all the battles waged before, etc.” But the Huertgen was over and I think it fair to say that little was learned from it and less understood.

From October until mid-December the Germans had fought hard to protect the assembly of the armies that Hitler had earmarked for his great counteroffensive—the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans had fought with skill and courage and took heavy casualties. The Allies had no idea of the coming counteroffensive, so one must judge the German defense as having been entirely successful. On December 16, 1944, Hitler launched three field armies against the Allied center, on a seventy-mile front. At once the Huertgen lost its importance as all attention was focused on the Ardennes.

Military critics have argued about the battle of the Huertgen Forest ever since World War II. Today, at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, it is presented by the faculty to each new incoming class as a case history. Particular emphasis is placed upon the attack of the 28th Infantry Division across the Kail River gorge, and on to Kommerscheidt and Schmidt. They point out the disastrous consequences that can befall a command when the generals do not know the environment in which the troops must fight. A troublesome aspect of the Huertgen battle is that it was fought by experienced, courageous battle leaders who made few other mistakes during the war in Europe. So why did it happen?

In the first place there was the optimism that was so pervasive throughout all echelons of the Allied forces in the late summer of 1944. It seemed clear that the Germans were beaten, badly beaten. Then there was the unbelievably poor intelligence of the Allied high command. Up to the fall of 1944 the Allies depended heavily upon ULTRA SECRET , that priceless information that came to them from radio intercepts of German communications to and from tactical headquarters.