The Battle for the Hürtgen Forest

5th October 1944 - mid February 1945

Eisenhower’s objectives east of Aachen were the Ruhr and Sahr industrial areas. From Aachen the Rhine was less than 20 miles with the River Roer about half way in between through the Hürtgen Forest. It is a heavily wooded area of nearly 150 square kilometres, semi-mountainous, and a formidable obstacle for both tanks and infantry. V Corps and VII Corps of General Hodge’s 1st US Army were tasked to clear and secure the Hürtgenwald capturing the southeast dams near Schmidt which could have been used to flood the route to Berlin.

 

Fighting in dense forest is extremely difficult. It is dark, visibility is limited, forest tracks and firebreaks are notoriously difficult to navigate and dense dark pine forests are hell to patrol at night. Shadows become the enemy. Add to this snow, ice, sleet and cold water constantly dripping from the trees means morale can go downhill fast. Add artillery fire and the sounds of tanks at night and it is all a bit unnerving. As one GI put it, “after five days you start talking to the trees, after six days they start talking back to you.”

Deep forest, narrow tracks, rugged terrain and poor lines of sight

Terrain map by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

The area is now within the Eifel National Park.

After initial probes on 19th September the US 9th Infantry Division attacked on 5th October with the mission to capture the town of Schmidt. After cutting the road between Monschau and Düren the attack slowed until action was effectively halted by 16th October with both sides fighting to a standstill and taking massive casualties. The German defences made maximum use of the difficult ground, the thick almost impenetrable forest, the Kall Trail and their minefields but suffered with untrained troops and the pressure of the attacks.

Düren

Typical Ardennes countryside, thick coniferous and deciduous forest, deep valleys with streams and ravines, open farmland and scattered villages.

The 9th Division was relieved on 16th October by the US 28th Infantry Division with a tank battalion, some tracked transport and air support. The terrain was impracticable for tanks, particularly as the route chosen via Vossenack to Schmidt was down the Kall Trail. This track is the most direct route but it is narrow, steep and contours in places which meant getting round any vehicle casualty blocking the track was extremely difficult.

Map by Microsome

28 Division attacked on 2nd November with the same objective of Schmidt but found the defence was ready for them. All three infantry regiments (each comprising three battalions) suffered heavy casualties and were halted. Nevertheless the 112th Infantry Regiment took Vossenack on 2nd November and Schmidt on 3rd November before a strong counter-attack by 116th Panzer Division expelled them. They withdrew to hold defensive positions outside Schmidt. Bad weather prevented air support and after further punishment the 112th withdrew about ½ mile to Kommerscheidt. They were attacked again but held the Germans off and fought on until the objective was abandoned on 10th November.

Vossenack village

VII Corps started the second phase on 16th November advancing to the River Rur through the forest but the attack was blocked after heavy fighting. Two infantry regiments advanced in parallel astride the north side of the forest. After heavy casualties they were stopped at Rother Weh Creek and Rabenheck.

 

V Corps was committed on 21st November after 3 days were spent blasting a route to get armour and supplies forward whilst evacuating casualties. The Germans took advantage of the delay and reinforced their defences at the same time. The Americans advanced through the Weisser Weh/Weg valley to Hürtgen which was taken on 29th November and on to Kleinhau (one mile northeast). The last action in the forest was at Langerwehe and Merode which were both taken. The advance then continued, reinforcements took over previous positions and fought their way forward to take Gey and nearby Strass on 12th December. Schmidt and the dams were not to be secured until February.

Gey village

Schmidt village

Rur-Stausee, one of the Rur dams

There were 33,000 American casualties out of the 120,000 soldiers deployed in this battle and German casualties also ran into many thousands. Most American remains were repatriated whilst others went to American Military Cemeteries on foreign soil. The American Graves Registration Service transferred many of the fallen Germans from Hürtgen Forest to German war cemeteries in Belgium and the Netherlands.

 

There are two German war cemeteries in this area, one at Hürtgen and the other at Vossenack. Both cemeteries were established by the German War Graves Commission and inaugurated in 1952. Hürtgen contains the remains of 3,001 war dead including some civilans, Russians, Poles, one Belgian and 100 men who died after the war as members of Ammunition Search and Removal teams. Vossenack contains the graves of 2,355 war dead and Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model. Like many others in both cemeteries he shares his grave with another soldier.

 

In the Vossenack cemetery there is a memorial to Captain Julius Erasmus, a German engineer officer who at great personal risk recovered the remains of 1,569 of his fellow countrymen and buried them here at the former strategic site of Hill 470 from where there is a steep 200 metre descent to the Kall river.

Hürtgen War Cemetery

Vossenack War Cemetery