The Ardennes Offensive

Aachen, Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge

By the end of August 1944 the US 3rd Army had broken through the fierce German resistance and difficult country of Normandy and reached Paris. Further north the 2nd British Army advanced north-east as the Canadian 1st Army made for Le Havre. On the Eastern Front the Soviet armies advance from Bucharest towards Austria and Germany whilst in the south the US 7th Army and the French Army B drove a German retreat northwards towards its southwestern border with France.

 

In July the bomb plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler failed but its significance shocked Germany. Morale was poor and the country’s populace could see the end coming. Hitler however had other ideas which even surprised his own staff.

Memorial in Berlin to Oberst Count Von Stauffenburg and the plotters

(Photo taken in 2013)

In the first week of September the Allies were at the River Meuse and they were in Brussels; they had reached Antwerp and were looking towards the Rhine. At this stage though there were some serious setbacks which included disagreements and rivalries amongst senior commanders, German denial of the Scheldt Estuary, which blocked the use of Antwerp’s port for supplies to the vast Allied force, the wrecked infrastructure of France and the failure of Operation Market Garden at Arnhem. It took until the end of November before the port could be used but progress was grinding to a halt at the border with Germany where the Siegfried Line had been reinforced to almost provide parity of forces.

 

In early December the 1st Canadian Army and 2nd British Army of the British 21st Army Group under Field Marshal Montgomery were consolidating in the north on the River Maas. In the centre Lieutenant General Bradley commanded the US 12th Army Group with 9th US Army under Lieutenant General Simpson on his left, 1st US Army under Lieutenant General Hodges in his centre and 3rd US Army under Lieutenant General Patton to the south on his right. 9th Army had passed Aachen to the north, fought through the Siegfried Line and advanced to the River Roer to await the Roer dams being taken by 1st Army which now had to deal with Aachen. After Aachen would come the Hürtgen Forest before the dams could be taken. 3rd Army had captured Metz and planned advancing to the River Saar on 19th December. All these armies were finding firmer resistance on German soil as Hitler’s orders were for the cities were to be defended to the death.

The Eifel, map by Rhein-Mosel-Verlag, Zell

The Battle for Aachen

As the allies advanced eastwards towards the industrial areas of the River Ruhr the Supreme Commander General Eisenhower ordered General Hodge’s 1st US Army to attack through the Aachen area and General Patton’s 3rd US Army to occupy French Lorraine. This made Aachen, the historic seat of Charlemagne the Great, the first German city to be threatened by the allies on the ground. The city was protected to the south and west by the Siegfried Line’s formidable defences up to 10 miles in depth and by further defence works to the east. During September the general defending the city with a Panzer Division was sacked for planning to surrender. Subsequently the 1st US Infantry Division met strong defences and determined counterattacks during September but ended the month by half encircling the city. This operation became known in Germany as the First Battle of Aachen.

Aachen from the west at Drielandpunt, Vaals, Netherlands, where Belgium, Germany and the Netherland borders meet.

The cathedral can be made out in front of the very tall building. The city is overlooked by the surrounding highground.

Map by Stetson Conn

The 30th Infantry Division under Major General Hobbs attacked on 2nd October from the north with 29th Infantry Division providing a diversionary attack to its right flank. The fighting was tough all the way, pill box by pill box and house to house through the outlying towns and villages and with difficulties crossing the River Wurm. Palenberg and Rimburg were taken on the 2nd, then Übach, Hoverdor and Beggerdorf until Merkstein was reached on the 5th October. German counter-attacks were persistent all the way and casualties were very heavy but on 8th October German forces were withdrawn into Aachen.

Ubach Palenberg

The villages fought through were mostly destoyed and have been rebuilt together with some expansion. Traces of wartime damage can still be seen on some of the few older properties where they are still standing.

Beggendorf

Most of the villages remain small and widely separated by open farmland. Some here and elsewhere, such as Merkstein have been built over and become large industrial sites.

The 1st Infantry Division then attacked from the south on 8th October with Verlautenheide and a Hill 231 near Ravelsberg as their objectives about 5 km northwest of Aachen. Here they were to link up with 30th Division and they were there by 10th October holding the high ground surrounding Aachen. The fighting again was hard and although the city was called to surrender the Germans continued to counter-attack and inflict heavy casualties on the Americans. The city was bombed and shelled intensely from 11th October in an attempt to force a surrender but it still resisted and a strong counter-attack was mounted against the 30th Division. This Division was prevented from linking up and two battalions from 29th Division reinforced them.

 

The German counter-attacks and strong local defences meant that the 1st Division could only deploy the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 26th Infantry Regiment to take the city. They had Sherman tanks and 155mm howitzers in support but by now were well under their establishment strength of 700 men. They were also relatively inexperienced. They faced a mixture of German units which totalled about 18,000 men under the command of Oberst Wilck who had the advantage of defending a densely built-up city.

 

The third attack started on 13th October and advanced slowly building by building, bunker by bunker or cellar by cellar using mouse-hole techniques through houses blasted by their howitzers. The enemy used sewers where they were not destroyed to move and engage the attackers from their rear. Resistance was fierce and stubborn. Direct fire only was used to ensure control and German artillery was swiftly put out of action but their 120mm mortars remained and were used with some success. There was no American bombing but controlled ground-attack aircraft were used which boosted infantry morale as well as hitting the enemy. The cathedral was spared from ground fire but otherwise Aachen was almost completely destroyed. The Germans fought desperately to prevent the 1st and 30th Divisions linking up but this was eventually achieved on 16th October. By the 18th October one of the few remaining German strongholds at the Quellenhof Hotel was assaulted by the 3rd Battalion in a tough fight. The 1st SS battalion reinforced the hotel that night and defended it strongly until being decimated by heavy mortar fire. The garrison under Wilck surrendered on 21st October.

The Quellenhof Hotel

The Rathaus

Aachen cathedral surrounded by narrow streets

Henri - Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial

This cemetery in Belgium near the village of Henri-Chapelle has 7,992 graves of US military combatants who died during the advance into Germany after the Normandy landings . They include many of those who died in the battles of Aachen, Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge.

An open and much reduced section of the Siegfried Line or West Wall

As the battle closed the Russians arrived on German soil in the east, the British and Canadians were clearing the Scheldt Estuary and securing Antwerp for resupplying the large armies now deploying to take Germany and end the war. Eisenhower now tasked 1st US Army with securing a bridgehead over the Rhine south of Köln. In the meantime Adolf Hitler had been working on plans to shock the Western Front as well as surprising his own generals when he told them on 16th September. His strategy would be to counter-attack and advance through the Ardennes with Antwerp as the objective. Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Runstedt was made Commander in Chief West and Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model commanding Army Group B would leadthe operation through the Ardennes starting in November when the allies would be hampered by bad weather. The tough German resistance which the American forces would meet next was there because they were approaching the northern edge of the start line for the Ardennes offensive.