The Allied Forces had raced across France the summer of 1944 after the breakout from Normandy in July. The Germans were reeling and in what was deemed to be complete disarray. By mid-September the Allies had reached the Hitler’s Third Reich that was meant to last a thousand years. The Allies expected it to crumble by Christmas 1944. The American forces were anticipating encountering beaten forces as they drew near Germany. Yet, eight months later after much struggle, in May of 1945, the Reich finally was subdued.
Part of the story is the Battle of the Huertgen Forest at the western border of Germany. It was a twenty mile by 10 mile forest, some 200 total square miles of forest. The West Wall or what the Allies eventually called the Siegfried line, 390 miles (630km) long with 18,000 bunkers, tank traps and tunnels ran through it. It was built between 1938 and 1040. And contrary to thinking after the Fall of France where the Maginot line was inconsequential to lightning warfare, here Blitzkrieg warfare was stymied. Terrain, weather contributed. The Huertgen Forest removed the tank and the air might from the military equation. The narrow trails or fire breaks through the forest were generally not passible for tanks or a tank in the narrow confines of the forest often hit a mine and blew out a track, ending up blocking it. The Americans could rarely use the Air Force to “soften” targets. In the fall and winter of 1944 in the inclement weather, overcast skies and the dense forest these elements were negated.
Combat here has little relation to the dashing heroics accompanied by complete ineptitude of the enemy so many of Hollywood’s war movies like the Dirty Dozen, Saving Private Ryan, and Fury among many others, portray. In fact the famous Army Rangers, 2nd battalion spent a few days taking Castle Hill near Bergstein near the Roer fought bravely, but were delighted to get out as torn up as they were. Here a soldier would likely to spend days in a cold, frozen, wet foxhole, being subject to mortar fire, machine guns, artillery shells and infiltration or counter attack, praying, hoping and sometimes crying that you get out alive. The weather in northern Europe in inclement in the Fall and Winter with rain, sleet, snow.
Fighting here was no picnic. Land mines were a constant danger for men and military vehicles including tanks. At night in the forest it was normally literally pitch black. You didn’t leave you foxhole for fear of stumbling near someone and being shot. Tree bursts in the dense forest showered deadly shrapnel down on you and a foxhole was no help unless covered with thick foliage and tree trunks. Standing up was the best policy in that situation.
Thousands of casualties came from combat fatigue: frost bite in which toes and fingers and limbs were lost, trench foot in which feet were constantly wet and cold, mental breakdown, etc. This was as close to hell on earth you will find. This battle was a literal “death factory” as the soldiers who were there called it.
I know of only one movie that accurately depicts combat conditions in the Huertgen Forest; When the Trumpets Fade. This was a 1998 made for TV movie available on YouTube. (This movie is rated R for a reason: strong language and violence.) But it conveys the absurdity of modern combat and the Huertgen Forest combat in particular, completely accurately. No Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks or John Wayne ever stoic and confident, here. Those fearless types were likely to die right away. This is the kind of combat that can break many a good man. That saw desperate prayers and uncontrollable crying and mental breakdown as well as great heroics.
Processions of several divisions were sent into the forest over three months from Mid-September to Mid-December and were basically decimated. Many men found themselves back at the aid stations for a variety of mental distress among other disabilities. Dereliction of assigned duties became a big problem. There were some who gave themselves self-inflicted wounds, like shooting themselves in the big toe to escape the hell. It became such a problem it was decided that someone like Ernie Slovik, a deserter, was executed as an example to others; the first since the Civil War.
This battle is forgotten; just south of the Forest the battle of the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge was fought beginning December 16, 1944. Essentially 5 to 6 months the Allies were stalled on the Siegfried Line with the Battle of the Bulge punctuating the lack of advancement.
Much of the failure to push the Germans aside in the fall of 1944 hinged on the lack of supplies. Supplies were coming from Cherbourg, France the closest deep water port, farther then Normandy. It was only until November 28 that the major port Antwerp was freed up for shipping, the Netherland coastal areas being held by the Germans up until then.
By the autumn of 1944 there began to be a shortage of front line riflemen. There were 12 men supporting 1 man up at the front in the American Army. The Germans it was 5 to 1. But nonetheless it demonstrates an army operated like other bureaucracies; people tend to avoid the dirty work. And it got no more dirty, than this. It was the end of the war and people knew it was only a matter of time before Germany capitulated and who wants to die just before the war ends?
In the three months up to December 16 only a few miles of territory were gained. They were trying to reach the Roer River, which flowed north south here, paralleling the much larger Rhine River, the border of ancient Germany. In those three months casualties totaled 32,000.
Combat in the forest could include house to house fighting and even a rare bayonet charge; the forest and areas surrounding it was dotted with settlements. And in the dense forest infiltration by the enemy was a constant danger; sometimes trenches would be only 30 yards apart.
The Germans were vastly outnumbered, somewhere 5 to 1 but were masters at this type of warfare. The forest was part of the West Wall with bunkers, pill boxes and many a defensive entrenchment not easily spotted. They mined extensively as noted above. Their artillery and mortar fire was accurate and deadly.
The American infantryman was often a teacher, desk clerk, bank teller or some such. Brick layers and construction workers and such went to the Army engineers not the infantry. The American Army had two classifications: general fitness and noncombat. The British had physical fitness classes A through I with the A, top, going to the infantry. The Germans with a similar system sent their top physical specimens to the infantry. When the American soldier fought with the tremendous advantages in the number of tanks, planes and such, it didn’t matter. In the forest few of those standard advantages were present.
Due to the large amount of attrition that occurred in the forest, replacements were individually inserted into the battalions, companies, platoons and squadrons with little or no instruction, training or insight into the type of fighting they were going to encounter. This is no way improved combat effectiveness since the replacements didn’t have the advantage of what prior units had learned.
The greatest irony of the Huertgen Forest is that it lacked any strategic value. The initial idea was to push aside the weak German units in the Huertgen Forest that were presumed to be in disarray and drive straight to the Roehr River. The situation was found to be much different but the upper echelons of the American military continued to pursue that objective. However, it was finally realized after about four months that the true strategic goal was the dams on the Roehr south of the forest that held enough water to flood the Roehr plain for miles downriver. A failed attempt was made in early February to capture the dams but they were too late. The sluices were destroyed by the Germans and huge volumes of water cascaded down the river and flooded the plain anyway. For a period of weeks the Americans were blocked from crossing the Roehr and the Germans on the other side were freed up to attack the British and the Canadians farther north. The Americans were able to cross the Roehr on February 23, 1945, some 5 months after plan. That completed the fustercluck that was the battle of the Huertgen Forest.
Lessons I draw from the battle: 1) lightning tank warfare has limited application where here it ceased to be a factor. There were no rapid breakouts 2) fighting in the Huertgen forest was fiendish and 3) Hollywood’s depiction of combat over the years bears only a slim resemblance to the Huertgen Forest combat except in a made for TV movie, When Trumpets Fade, which faithfully recounts the conditions of combat in this battle.
Final note, learning about this battle gave me even more appreciation for the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation who we owe our freedoms to. They’ve largely passed, only a few remain. A memorial was finally erected in 2004 for those who gave service in World War II. Of course that was 59 years after the war; the majority who gave service had already passed including my father.