Battle of Aachen
The Americans capture the German city of Aachen
13 September - 21 October 1944
author Paul Boșcu, January 2017
During the Battle of Aachen American forces battled German soldiers for control of the city. After heavy fighting the Americans captured the town. Aachen was the first German city to fall into Allied hands.

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The battle of Aachen was a major engagement of the western front of World War 2. The battle was fought in and around the city of Aachen between American and German forces. After the Wehrmacht’s retreat to the German border the city had been made a part of the German Siegfried Line defences, also known as the Westwall. Although the Allies had hoped that the city would fall quickly the Germans put up a tenacious defence which disrupted American plans for that period. The battle of Aachen was one of the largest urban battles fought by the US Army during the war.

Aachen had been Charlemagne's capital and the imperial city of the kings of Germania from 936 to 1531. As a result Hitler was adamant that the city be defended.

Joseph Collins' VII Corps was moving on a 56-km-wide front towards the Aachen corridor and began battalion-sized reconnaissance probes against the Scharnhorst Line of the Westwall.

The first US troops to reach German soil were a reconnaissance patrol of the 5th Armored Division, which crossed the River Our near Stalzemburg on the German-Luxembourg border. Although the V Corps made several other penetrations, General Leonard Gerow halted any further attacks in this sector. He realized that his forces were too limited to conduct any deep penetration of the defenses in the wooded, mountainous terrain of the Eifel. After a few brief days of fighting, the Ardennes-Eifel front turned quiet, and would remain so for three months until the start of the German Ardennes offensive in this area.

Hitler issued a Fuhrer directive. There was no room for strategic maneuver now that the enemy had reached German soil: every man was to "stand fast or die at his post." The city was defended by the 81st Corps.

To facilitate the defense, Hitler ordered the civilians evacuated and by mid September, the population had fallen from 165,000 to about 20,000.

The German 81st Corps assumed that the main US objective would be the city, and so assigned the defense to its best unit, the 116th Panzer Division.

The main objective of the VII Corps was to push up the Stolberg corridor with the aim of reaching the River Roer. The Combat Command B (CCB) of the 3rd Armored Division began moving forward, gradually battering its way up the Stolberg corridor. Closest to the city, the 16th Infantry stalled in the Aachen municipal forest. The penetrations accelerated over the next few days. The 1st Infantry Division pushed through the bunkers in the Aachen municipal forest, with two of its regiments reaching the southern outskirts of the city. Meanwhile the 16th Infantry furthest east reached Ellendorf at the edge of the Schill Line.

CCA of the 3rd Armored Division had the most dramatic gains, pushing all the way to the southern edge of Eilendorf to await infantry reinforcements. CCB of the 3rd Armored Division pushed northward out of the Monschau forest advancing with one task force into Kornelimunster and the other to the outskirts of Vicht.

German resistance varied considerably; some of the Landesschutz territorial defense battalions evaporated on contact, while small rearguards from regular army units fought tenaciously. Both combat commands of the 3rd Armored Division penetrated into the Schill Line, with CCA coming under determined fire from StuG III assault guns holding the high ground near Geisberg. The CCB's lead task force was stopped by tank fire from Hill 238 west of Gressenich. The 9th Panzer Division claimed the destruction of 42 US tanks that day - an exaggeration, but also a clear indication of the intensity of the fighting.

With the attack up the Stolberg corridor proceeding well, the 9th Infantry Division began a methodical advance into the Hurtgen forest on the right flank of the 3rd Armored Division, moving through both the Scharnhorst and Schill lines as far north as Schevenhiitte. The attempt to clear the Hurtgen forest gradually ground to a halt after encountering 32 elements of the 89th Infantry Division in bunkers of the Schill Line.

Even though the German defenders were outnumbered, the well placed bunkers considerably amplified their combat effectiveness. The determined defense by the regular infantry was a complete contrast to earlier fighting against the initial Scharnhorst Line where local territorial defense units were not so resolute.

General Friedrich August Schack of the 81st Corps realized that the main US goal was to push through the Stolberg corridor, but the presence of the 1st Infantry Division on the doorstep of Aachen and the constant American shelling of the city suggested that the capture of the city was also an American objective. As a result, he kept Schwerin's 116th Panzer Division defending the city instead of attacking the flank of the American assault.

The momentum of the battle shifted following the arrival of the 12th VGD. This fresh, full-strength division had been allotted by Hitler to ensure the defense of Aachen, and was commanded by one of Hitler's former military adjutants, Col Engel. Although Schack attempted to keep it intact for a decisive action, he was forced to commit it piecemeal. An initial Fusilier Regiment 27 counterattack was beaten back with heavy losses.

The arrival critical German reinforcements permitted counterattacks all along the American lines, including determined attacks against the US 9th Infantry Division near Schevenhiitte by Grenadier Regiment (GR) 48. With his own troops overextended and short of ammunition, Collins ordered his troops to consolidate their positions, except for the 9th Infantry Division still fighting in the Hurtgen forest. The Wehrmacht succeeded in halting the advance, but at a heavy cost in infantry.

Skirmishes continued over the next few days with little movement as both sides tried to wrest control of key geographic features, such as the hills around Stolberg, and the towns of Verlautenheide and Schevenhiitte.

The newly arrived 12th VGD dropped in combat strength from 3,800 to 1,900 riflemen. The 9th Panzer Division and its attachments lost over a thousand men, equivalent to about two-thirds of their combat strength compared to a week earlier.

General James Collins hoped that the 9th Infantry Division could push southeast out of the Hurtgen forest and seize the towns in the clearing on the road to Duren. With the fighting along the Stolberg corridor stalemated, the continuing US advance in the woods attracted the attention of the Seventh Army commander, General Erich Brandenberger. He scraped up a few assault guns to reinforce the patchwork 353rd Infantry Division holding these towns. Both sides were badly overextended and exhausted. After repeated attempts, the 9th Infantry Division's push east through the wooded hills was halted short of the Hurtgen-Kleinhau clearings.

While most of the fighting by the US First Army had been concentrated in the VII Corps sector, Charles Corlett's XIX Corps had taken advantage of the weak German defenses in the southern Netherlands to push up to the Westwall. In spite of the severe fuel shortages, the 2nd Armored Division pushed beyond the Albert Canal to Geilenkirchen. The 30th Division pushed towards Rimburg. Nevertheless, German resistance was continuing to harden, and the XIX Corps was unable to intervene in the fighting around Aachen as a result.

With the launch of Operation Market Garden further north in the Netherlands by the 21st Army Group, US operations against the Westwall came to a halt for a short period. Low on supplies, out of fuel, overextended by the vagaries of the summer advance, and now facing a much more vigorous defense, it was time to recuperate and take stock. General Hodges made this official, with instructions to shut down the remaining offensive operations in the VII Corps and XIX Corps sectors.

The US forces in the Aachen sector reorganized with the arrival of the Ninth Army. The new army was wedged between the British 21st Army Group to the north in the Netherlands, and the US First Army around Aachen.

To push to the River Roer, XIX Corps needed to breach the Westwall north of Aachen to come in line with VII Corps. By now, the Wehrmacht was alerted to the threat, and Gen Corlett expected the defenses to be fully prepared. As a result, an effort was made to breach the Scharnhorst Line more methodically. In preparation, the XIX Corps artillery set about trying to eliminate as many bunkers as possible. The new German 81st Corps commander, Gen Kochling, mistakenly believed that the renewed American offensive would again take place in the Stolberg corridor He viewed the preparations north of Aachen as a feint.

It was evident from captured bunkers that the divisional 105mm and 155mm howitzers were not powerful enough to penetrate them. Fortunately, the US Army had anticipated the need for special weapons to deal with the Siegfried Line and had requested the dispatch of about seventy-five M12 155mm gun motor carriages to France. These were old World War I French 155mm GPF guns mounted on an M4 tank chassis, and they made formidable bunker-busters.

The XIX Corps began a concerted campaign to bombard the German bunkers with divisional artillery to damage nearby field entrenchments and strip away camouflage from the bunkers. The M12 155mm GMC were then moved up close to the front under the cover of darkness, and set about attacking the bunkers from a few hundred meters away.

While the artillery preparations were under way, the infantry from the 30th Division was being trained in bunker-busting tactics. Two specialized weapons were issued: man-portable flamethrowers, and demolition charges mounted on poles to attack the vulnerable embrasures. Supporting tank units were also trained in bunker tactics, with some tanks being fitted with flamethrowers in place of the hull machine gun.

The attack by two regiments of the 30th Division against Rimburg-Palenberg was accompanied by feints further north and south to confuse the Germans as to the actual focal point.

The XIX Corps attack was preceded by a major air attack by medium bombers of the Ninth Air Force, but the bombing had little effect on German fortifications already ravaged by artillery.

The first obstacle facing the 117th and 119th Infantry was the River Wurm, but they found that it was far less formidable than feared. Palenberg and Marienberg were captured, but the 119th Infantry was stalled by a disguised bunker reinforced by strong points near the medieval Rimburg castle. The 117th Infantry pushed into Ubach, but the 119th Infantry again became stalled after encircling and clearing the Rimburg castle. The capture of Ubach prompted General Charles Corlett to commit a combat command of the 2nd Armored Division into the bridgehead earlier than expected in spite of the congestion.

In the 117th Infantry sector, the new bunker-busting tactics proved very effective. Once artillery fire lifted, the embrasures were kept under machine-gun and bazooka fire while the infantry with pole-charges and flamethrowers advanced into range. The flamethrowers kept the pillboxes suppressed while the pole-charges were put into place against the embrasures or doors.

The scale of the fighting made it clear to Kochling that the focus of the attack was in the Palenberg-Rimburg sector, but reinforcements were slow in arriving and the planned counteroffensive fizzled out. The main attack managed to push back one US infantry company of the 119th Infantry before German artillery accidentally hit its own advancing troops, disrupting the attack.

A third attack later in the day against Ubach ran into a planned attack by a task force of CCB, 2nd Armored Division. The German infantry battalion was badly mauled. The other task force set out in the late afternoon under heavy German artillery fire, but once it exited Ubach, it picked up momentum. The locations of the German bunkers were well known, and coordinated tank-infantry attacks cleared them out. By nightfall, CCB had made some significant advances, though at a heavy cost in infantry and tanks.

The American attacks had proven so worrisome that both Rundstedt and Brandenberger personally visited the 8Ist Corps headquarters and pledged to send Kochling as many reinforcements as they could muster to stamp out the American bridgehead. Kochling himself was able to rearrange his corps in order to squeeze out a few more battalions for a counterattack. The counterattack was delayed by the usual problems of moving the troops into place. Many of the reinforcements were committed piecemeal to resist the renewed US attacks. The counterattack but was a pale shadow of the intended attack and the Americans managed to enlarge their bridgehead and reach Alsdorf.

In reality, German resources were stretched thin, and the reinforcements from the Seventh Army were the usual mishmash: NCO training school battalions from Duren and Julich, a single battalion from the 275th Division, a fortress machine-gun battalion, and elements of an artillery brigade.

German artillery fire proved to be unusually heavy, as Kochling had managed to shift more and more batteries into the threatened sector. By this stage, the German artillery included two railroad guns, a heavy howitzer battalion, forty-seven 150mm gun-howitzers, forty 105mm howitzers, thirty-two 88mm guns, and a variety of small-caliber weapons.

The American front exploded when CCA, 2nd Armored Division moved into the breach. The 117th Infantry, with the support of the 743rd Tank Battalion, overran the German 49th Division, which by that stage had been reduced to a single infantry regiment. The advance put the 30th Division in Alsdorf, to the northeast of Aachen.

In less than a week, XIX Corps had punched a considerable hole in the Westwall north of Aachen and threatened to link up with VII Corps somewhere north of Stolberg. Kochling's 81st Corps at the time had four understrength divisions including the 49th and 183rd divisions that had been battered in the Palenberg-Rimburg fighting. The 246th VGD replaced the 116th Panzer Division in Aachen to permit its refitting. The 12th Infantry Division was still in position southeast of Aachen to block any further advances by VII Corps.

The effective combat strength of these four divisions was in the order of 18,000 infantry. Although German effective strength had fallen due to the fighting, its artillery had continued to increase and totaled 239 weapons, including one hundred and forty 105mm, eighty-four 150mm, and 15 heavy guns.

Armored support was very weak compared with American strength, with only 12 serviceable StuG III assault guns, four Kingtiger tanks, and the Panzer Brigade 106 was down to seven Panthers. The Panzer units that had played such a central role in the fighting for the Stolberg corridor - the 9th and 116th Panzer Divisions and Panzer Brigade 105 were refitting.

To preempt the link-up of the American XIX and VII Corps, Model proposed launching a counteroffensive using the partly reequipped 116th Panzer Division and 3rd Panzergrenadier Division through the open terrain northeast of Aachen towards Julich. The US First Army planned to close the gap using the overstretched 1st Infantry Division. The attack started using combined tank-infantry tactics to bust open the bunkers in the Schill Line defenses. The initial objectives were a series of hills with commanding views of the area north of the city at Verlautenheide, Crucifix Hill and Ravels Hill.

The XIX Corps attack from the north was conducted by the 30th Division aimed at Wurselen. Against this advance, Model committed Mobile Regiment von Fritzchen - slapped together from three infantry battalions, and supported by 11 tanks of Panzer Brigade 108, a few Kingtigers and 22 StuG III assault guns. This battlegroup was ordered to clear Alsdorf of the 30th Division as a means of keeping open the corridor to Aachen.

The initial advance by the 30th Division went smoothly, but the lead elements of 117th Infantry were struck on their eastern flank by elements of Mobile Regiment von Fritzchen from Mariadorf. The attack on Alsdorf found the town occupied by headquarters elements of the 117th Infantry, who set up a hasty defense. They were soon supported by some tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion, which knocked out the four Panzers supporting the German infantry and helped to break the back of the attack. Although both attacks were beaten off with heavy German casualties, the 30th Division attack towards Wurselen was halted for the day.

Mobile Regiment von Fritzchen was then shifted into the gap between the US 30th and 1st Infantry divisions in an attempt to prevent the link up. However, the German attacks were frustrated by corresponding US attacks, and the 119th Infantry managed to push into northern Wurselen, very close to the 18th Infantry positions on Ravels Hill. This spearhead was hit that night by an attack of 300 infantry and five tanks from Panzer Brigade 108 around Bardenburg, which threatened the 30th Division advance. The capture of Birk the following morning by the 120th Infantry trapped the German force.

Elements of Model's counterattack force included Kampfgruppe Diefenthal, which had been scraped together from survivors of the 1st and 12th SS-Panzer divisions, as well as Panzergrenadier Regiment (PGR) 60 of the 116th Panzer Division. In view of the gravity of the situation around Wurselen, Model authorized Brandenberger to use the units as they became available instead of waiting for the whole force to arrive. The outlying positions of the 30th Division were hit by a succession of German attacks, heavily supported by Panzers. After days of overcast conditions, the weather that day was crystal clear, allowing Allied air power to intervene.

The final push in Wurselen was reinforced by two battalions from the 116th Infantry, 29th Division, a battalion of tanks from the 2nd Armored Division, and an engineer battalion staging a direct frontal assault through the streets of Wurselen. The attack was very slow going, and little progress was made in three days of fighting.

Having already committed bits of the arriving 116th Panzer Division, Brandenberger received permission from Model to commit the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division against the other wing of the American advance, the 18th Infantry positions on the hills around Verlautenheide. The Germans, supported by King Tigers and captured M4 tanks of attacked, but the opposing VII Corps artillery was waiting.

When the German attack formed up in the meadows in front of the US positions, it was hit by fire from six US artillery battalions, leading the divisional commander, General Walter Dekert, to conclude that "it was obvious that an advance through this fire was impossible." The artillery stripped away the Panzergrenadiers, but a few Kingtiger tanks ploughed into the American lines and began shooting up the forward trenches. Panzergrenadier Regiment 8 tried to attack later, but was pummeled by artillery and subsequently strafed by a squadron of P-47 fighter-bombers. The violent attacks finally petered out by evening, with the US infantry still in control of their defenses.

With the German counteroffensive petering out, Hodges put more and more pressure on the 30th Division to finish the task by sealing the gap with the 1st Division. Since Wurselen had proven impossible to take, Hobbs redirected the focus of the attack by the 119th Infantry west through Kohlscheid. Meanwhile diversionary attacks were staged further east by the 117th and 120th Infantry. The plan worked and American forces linked up at Ravels Hill. Aachen was now encircled.

The diversions were costly, but managed to distract German artillery enough for the 119th Infantry to finally reach Hill 194 by late afternoon, within 1km of the 1st Division positions. Patrols from both divisions linked up near Ravels Hill, finally closing the Aachen gap.

The US Army sent a delegation into Aachen with a surrender ultimatum. Based on Hitler's orders, it was rejected. Defending Aachen under the command of Colonel Gerhard Wilck was the 246th Division, which had three infantry battalions, two fortress battalions, some Luftwaffe troops, and about 125 city policemen. The 1st Infantry Division was so tied down defending the northern salient against attack that only two battalions of the 26th Infantry could be spared to assault the city center. The 2/26th Infantry was assigned the task of clearing the center of the old city while 3/26th Infantry took on the northern sector, which had a mixture of industrial, park and urban areas.

While under strength, Wilck's force actually outnumbered the attacking US infantry force about three to one. The reduction of the city began with artillery and air attacks. The 1106th Engineer Group attempted to demolish buildings near the outskirts by filling trolley cars with captured explosives and then rolling them into the city. Although three of these "V-13's" were launched, they had little effect.

The American infantry assault began. Both battalions methodically pushed forward, clearing the area of both troops and a large number of German civilians still trapped in the basements. During the fighting, the 55th Battalion "Rink" was sent into Aachen to reinforce the German 246th Division, and Wilck assigned it the task of stopping the 3/26th Infantry advance.

The 2/26th Infantry linked up with 3/26th Infantry and managed to secure a massive above-ground air-raid shelter that was housing about 200 soldiers and 1,000 civilians. With the two American columns closing in on the German divisional headquarters at Hotel Quellenhof, Wilck ordered a counterattack. The fighting along Hindenburg Strasse started around dusk, and, after about two hours of fighting the 2/26th Infantry, the German infantry battalion was repulsed with significant casualties on both sides.

As 3/26th Infantry approached the Quellenhof hotel, SS-Battalion Rink attacked and drove the US infantry back. After a two-day lull, the US attack resumed. They regained the lost ground, and assaulted Hotel Quellenhof. To conduct this final clearing operation, 3/26th Infantry was reinforced by Task Force Hogan from the 3rd Armored Division with an armored infantry battalion and parts of a tank battalion. About 1,600 German troops surrendered at the end, bringing the total number of German prisoners of war to 3,473 out of the original garrison of about 5,000.

Task Force Hogan attacked Lousberg from the west while 3/26th attacked through Salvatorberg from the east. The last German holdouts were ensconced near the divisional HQ in an air-raid shelter in Lousberg, where they were trapped by the 2/26th Infantry. An M12 155mm Gun Motor Carriage was driven up to the site to blast it open, but Col Wilck surrendered moments before.

US troops evacuated about 6,000 civilians during the course of the fighting, and a further 1,000 after the surrender.

During the battle both sides suffered significant casualties. The determined German resistance forced the Americans to delay their advance eastwards into Germany. After the battle was over the Americans were forced to battle the Germans at Hurtgen Forest. This battle would prove to be evan more costly that the one at Aachen.

During the battle each side suffered about 5.000 casualties. In addition the Americans took some 6000 Germans as POW’s.

After Aachen the First Army was tasked with the capture of a series of dams behind the Hürtgen Forest. These could have been used by the Germans to flood the valleys which opened the road to Berlin. This action led to the battle of Hurtgen forest, a battle that would prove to be evan more difficult than the one at Aachen.