The Battle of Hürtgen Forest was the longest battle on German ground during World War II, and is the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought. It was one of the most fierce and bloody battles of World War II. The battle was so costly that it has been described as an Allied "defeat of the first magnitude," with specific credit personally assigned to Nazi Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model's leadership.
Walter Model wearing his Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
German Landsers in Hurtgen Forest, late 1944 (Photo via Histomil)
The Battle of Hürtgen Forest was overshadowed by the American victory in the Battle of the Bulge, which gained widespread press and public attention, leaving the battle of Hürtgen Forest largely forgotten. As Ernie Herr has written "the Battle for the Hurtgen Forest was the worst of the worst; it was most tragic battle of World War II. Both German and American troops fighting here had to share these deplorable conditions: exposed to incessant enemy fire, fighting daily without relief, receiving little support from their own artillery, drenched in frequent rain, and without the possibility of changing clothes. Forsaken as they were they had no choice but to hold out and die in hopeless resignation".
517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team in the Hurtgen Forest (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Americans advance past the bodies of four Germans killed by a single grenade while firing a captured U.S. machine-gun (Photo via Histomil)
The Americans conquered 50 square miles of real estate of no real tactical value to future operations, and they had destroyed enemy troops and reserves, which the other side could ill afford to lose. The Germans, on the other hand, with meager resources, had slowed down a major Allied advance for 3 months.
An American artillery emplacement in the Hürtgen Forest. November 28, 1944 (Photo via Histomil)
The Hürtgen was the perfect storm of hubris, weather, rugged topography, and poor battle planning. After the war, German General Rolf van Gersdorff commented, "I have engaged in the long campaigns in Russia as well as other fronts and I believe the fighting in the Hurtgen was the heaviest I have ever witnessed".
A German heavy mortar firing in defense against a U.S. attack on Nov. 22, 1944 in the Hürtgen Forest (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Germans Landsers in Hurtgen Forest, Christmas 1944 (Photo via Histomil)
The battle took place in an area of heavy forestation, the Hürtgen Forest, about 50 sq mi (130 km2) east of the Belgian–German border, into a triangle outlined by Aachen, Düren and Monschau. This Forest was known for its near-impenetrable terrain, consisting of deep ravines, steep gorges, and narrow roads. The German defenders had prepared the area with blockhouses, minefields, barbed wire, and booby-traps, hidden by the snow. There were also numerous bunkers in the area, mostly belonging to the deep defenses of the Siegfried Line, which were also centers of resistance.
A leader of a foot patrol observes American frontline positions in the Hürtgen Forest, November 1944 (Photo via Histomil)
German soldiers of 116. Panzer-Division 'Windhund' in a Sd.Kfz. 250 passing by a destroyed M10 Tank Destroyer during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest (Photo via Histomil)
It was a series of fierce battles fought from 19 September 1944 to 10 February 1945 between American and German forces. The battle claimed 24,000 Americans; killed, missing, captured and wounded, plus another 9,000 who succumbed to trench foot, respiratory diseases and combat fatigue. For the cost, very little ground was gained. German casualties were 28,000 (12,000 of whom died).
A farmhouse on the main route through Hürtgen served as shelter for HQ Company, 121st Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division, XIX Corps, 9th US Army, as indicated on the bumper of the jeep. They nicknamed it the "Hürtgen Hotel" (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
2nd Battalion 22nd Infantry jeep rolling through the remains of Grosshau, Germany on December 1, 1944 (Photo via Histomil)
The American advantage in numbers (as high as 5:1), armor, mobility, and air support was greatly reduced by weather and terrain. The Hürtgen Forest lay within the area of the U.S. First Army under the command of General Courtney Hodges. Responsibility fluctuated between the V Corps and VII Corps. At the start, the forest was defended by the German 275th and 353rd Infantry Divisions; understrength but well prepared—5,000 men (1,000 in reserve)—and commanded by Generalleutnant Hans Schmidt. They had little artillery and no tanks. As the battle progressed, German reinforcements were added. American expectations that these troops were weak and ready to withdraw were not matched by events.
2nd Battalion 22nd Infantry 81mm mortar team in action in Grosshau, December 1, 1944 (Photo via Histomil)
The U.S. commanders' initial goal was to pin down German forces in the area to keep them from reinforcing the front lines farther north in the Battle of Aachen, where the Allies were fighting against a trench warfare defense between a network of fortified industrial towns and villages speckled with pillboxes, tank traps and minefields. A secondary objective may have been to outflank the front line. The Americans' initial tactical objectives were to take Schmidt and clear Monschau. In a second phase the Allies wanted to advance to the Rur River as part of Operation Queen.
Muddy road in the Hurtgen Forest (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model intended to bring the Allied thrust to a standstill. While he interfered less in the day-to-day movements of units than at Arnhem, he still kept himself fully informed on the situation, slowing the Allies' progress, inflicting heavy casualties and taking full advantage of the fortifications the Germans called the Westwall, better known to the Allies as the Siegfried Line. The city of Aachen in the north eventually fell on 22 October at high cost to the U.S. Ninth Army, but they failed to cross the Rur or wrest control of its dams from the Germans.
2 GI’s inspect a German machine gun position. Around the tunneled outpost are 2 MG42’s, field radio and telephone, rifles, helmets, ammunition, and multiple grenades (Photo via Histomil)
The Germans fiercely defended the area because it served as a staging area for the 1944 winter offensive Watch on the Rhine (Battle of the Bulge), and because the mountains commanded access to the Rur Dam at the head of the Rur Reservoir (Rurstausee). If the floodgates were opened, the resulting surge would flood low-lying areas downstream and temporarily prevent forces from crossing the river. The Allies failed to capture the area after several heavy setbacks and the Germans successfully held the region until they launched their last-ditch offensive into the Ardennes.
Soldiers of the 461st Antiaircraft Battalion fire a 40mm Bofors near Monschau, Germany (Photo via Histomil)
As Gregory N. Canellis has written "the controversy surrounding the Huertgen Forest Campaign centers around three themes: neglected objectives, incompetent leadership, and the probability of bypassing the forest completely. It is a consensus among the historians that any one of these themes alone or in combination were responsible for the significant losses of men and materiel that occurred in the fall and early winter of 1944 on the border of Germany. These arguments coupled with the three traditional factors blamed for the failure-weather, harsh terrain, and the staunch German defense - form the conclusions in the literature thus far".
US Army veterans of the Battle of Hürtgen Forest (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Historical discussion revolves around whether the American battle plan made any operational or tactical sense. One analysis is that the Allies under-estimated the strength and determination remaining in the psyche of the German soldier, believing his fighting spirit to have totally collapsed under the stress of the Normandy breakout and the reduction of the Falaise Pocket.
An American anti-aircraft gun, towed by a truck camouflaged with foliage, moves into position in the Hürtgen Forest to provide fire support against ground targets. November 6, 1944 (US Army Signal Corps photograph taken by C A Corrado - Photo via USHMM)
Mortar men of the 754th Tank Battalion fire an 81mm mortar at German positions during the heavy fighting in the Hürtgen Forest. December 15, 1944 (US Army Signal Corps photograph taken by C. Tesser - Photo via USHMM)
American commanders, in particular, misunderstood the impassability of the dense Hürtgen Forest and its effects of reducing artillery effectiveness and making air support impracticable. The better alternative of breaking through south-east out into the open valley where their advantages in mobility and airpower could come into play and then head northeast towards the actual objectives seems not to have been really considered by the higher headquarters.
Men of 2nd Platoon, D Company, 39th Infantry Regiment in action (Photo via 9th Infantry Division)
In addition, American forces were concentrated in the village of Schmidt and neither tried to conquer the strategic Rur Dams nor recognized the importance of Hill 400 until an advanced stage of the battle.