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Hürtgen Forest, Battle of

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Sadurian Mike
578533.  Fri Jul 03, 2009 11:31 pm Reply with quote

In the autumn of 1944, the Allies presumed that the Germans were in retreat and had little resistance to offer. The American commanders, in particular, were confident that they faced only a demoralised enemy who would crumble and withdraw rather than stand and fight. In this they were to be proved wrong, but it shaped their thinking and tactics and can be said to have led to the disaster that was the Battle of Hürtgen Forest.

Following the breakout from Normandy, the US 1st Army advanced to the city of Aachen and tried to force the defenders to surrender. Hitler, however, had designated Aachen one of the German cities that must be defended to the last (it was important symbolically as the burial place - and possible birthplace - of Charlemagne, leader of the "First Reich" in 824), and the fortifications surrounding the city formed part of the Westwall, better known in the West as the Seigfreid Line. The US 1st Army therefore had to fight through.

Aachen is flanked to the south by the Hürtgen Forest; a typical North European dense pine forest with small logging trails and limited access for vehicles. This forest was bordered to the East by the Rur (not to be confused with the Rhur) River and valley, a valley that was vulnerable to flooding if the Schwammenauel Dam on the Rur Lake was opened. A flooded Rur valley would block any attempt at crossing by the US who were trying to push West as fast as possible. The most direct access to the lake, and dam, was through the forest.

The US commanders decided that the forest had to be cleared for three reasons; to help flank Aachen, to deny its use as a base for counter-attacks by the Germans, and to secure the Schwammenauel Dam. Later historians have criticised this decision as unnecessary and a waste of both time and resources, but it should be seen in the light of late 1944 and not with hindsight. The US generals did not expect a great deal of opposition, and they were over-confident because they had experienced a superiority in numbers and firepower since breaking out from the Normandy beachhead. Air supremacy, in particular, meant that any serious pockets of resistance could be overcome with few casualties.

Committed to the attack were two US Corps; V and VII Corps, a total of 14 Divisions including 3 Armoured Divisions. The Germans initially had only two understrength Infantry Divisions defending the forest, but they were swiftly reinforced and enjoyed the prepared defences that the Seigfreid Line offered as well as pre-planned artillery, minefields and being able to predict the lines of advance of the enemy because of the limited routes through the forest. They also had another reason to defend the area; it had been chosen as the springboard for the German Ardennes Offensive (the "Battle of the Bulge") scheduled for late December 1944.

The US attack was the closest thing to the slaughter of mid-WWI that the Americans had experienced. Their infantry ran into prepared positions or artillery bombardments, but their own mortars could not find clear ground to set up and artillery shells burst in the treetops rather than on the ground, sending lethal splinters down to destroy unprotected advanced troops but having little effect on the dug-in Germans. Aircraft could not locate targets in the snowy trees, and the little armour that managed to negotiate the narrow paths and minefields was picked off by ambushing German troops with panzerfausts. Supplies could not be brought in by truck, and the wounded could not be taken back. Troops died or were incapacitated simply with the cold.

Some objectives were taken, but were lost again in German counter-attacks. The Germans defended with a vigor that the Americans hadn't planned for, absorbing more and more attacking troops and holding on despite an American advantage of 5:1 that saw the US commit 120 000 troops.

In December 1944 the Germans advanced from the forest in the Battle of the Bulge but were finally defeated in that battle by February 1945. US forces once more fought their way into the Hürtgen Forest and this time managed to gain their objectives and reached the vital dam. Unfortunately, the dam had been already been opened and the valley flooded, denying the Americans a crossing of the Rur for two weeks until the flooding subsided.

Some QI points about the battle:

> Lasting from 19th September 1944 until 10th February 10 1945, it was the single longest battle fought by the US Army.

> It was the single longest battle fought in Germany during WWII.

> The battle is estimated to have cost the US 23,000 casualties killed or wounded in battle, plus around 9,000 casualties as a result of the terrain and weather.

> One phase of the battle alone, a struggle for the town of Schmidt, cost the American 6,184 casualties and the Germans (estimated) less than half that. The US casualties at Omaha Beach during D-Day had been 4 000.

> Ernest Hemingway was present at the battle and described it as "Passchendale with tree bursts", referring to the artillery shells bursting in the trees.

> In the Hürtgen German military cemetery is a monument to Lt. Friedrich Lengfeld, a German who was killed whilst trying to save an American trapped in a minefield. The memorial was placed there by veterans of the US 4th Infantry Division and is the only known memorial to a German soldier from those he was fighting at the time.

> The first US soldier to be executed for "Desertion in the Face of the Enemy" since the American Civil War was Private Edward Slovik who was Court Martialled after refusing to fight in the Hürtgen Forest.

Edited for spelling.

Last edited by Sadurian Mike on Sat Jul 04, 2009 12:08 am; edited 1 time in total

578534.  Fri Jul 03, 2009 11:43 pm Reply with quote

Vonnegut mentions Slovik in Slaughterhouse Five, where one of the characters reads the book "The Execution of Private Slovik" by Huie whilst sitting in a waiting room.

Sadurian Mike
578535.  Sat Jul 04, 2009 12:03 am Reply with quote

I've just had to Google that one, it looks rather interesting (although Sci-Fi itself doesn't really interest me).

578536.  Sat Jul 04, 2009 12:55 am Reply with quote

Vonnegut is always a bit more than Sci-Fi, Vonnegut seems to have a little bit of an obsession with Slovik, he used his story in the libretto he wrote for Stravinsky's "Histoire du Soldat". Slaughterhouse Five is a reet weird bit of writing, but a worthwhile read. The film is one of the few that has actually pretty much stuck to the book.

578687.  Sat Jul 04, 2009 7:25 am Reply with quote

I read "Slaughterhouse Five" at uni and I can hardly concieve the film that it might be made into, I'll have to look out for it, cos I thought the book was brill!

Sadurian Mike
579302.  Sun Jul 05, 2009 1:36 pm Reply with quote

The battle of Hürtgen Forest, partly being as it was an attempt to outflank Aachen, brings me neatly to the trip Jan and I took to that city last year.

I shall skip the envy-inducing tales of German beer, bratwurst, cakes and the Christmas market that served hot food, Glühwein, and beer in quantity (there was even a barrel-organ player), and I'll gloss over the magnificent model/model railway shop with its "O" gauge railway running around it.

Instead, I'll concentrate on the damage caused by the Americans in 1944. The city was of no great strategic value. It had a little mining and was part of the Seigfreid Line, but alternative routes West were plentiful. The Americans even tried to bypass the place, asking the city to surrender in order to spare the historic buildings (and avoid being bogged down in urban fighting). For the reason mentioned above, Hitler had commanded that the place be held, however, and so the Americans had to take it.

Not having experienced street fighting before, the Americans made heavy going of the battle and their usual tactics of bringing in heavy artillery and air strikes was disastrous for the historic city.

In places you can still see the damage on older buildings, mainly shrapnel and bullet holes in the stonework. A poignant plaque commemorates the women of Aachen who, as the dedication says, held the city together and helped rebuild it while their menfolk were absent.

Alfred E Neuman
579312.  Sun Jul 05, 2009 2:16 pm Reply with quote

Very interesting post, Mike.


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