Battle of Hürtgen Forest
American and German forces battle on Germany’s western border
2 - 12 November 1944
author Paul Boșcu, January 2017
The Battle of Hürtgen Forest was a series of battles fought between German and American forces in Hürtgen Forest. The battle was the longest battle fought on German soil during the war. The Allies failed to capture the area and the Germans held it until they launched the Ardennes Offensive.
The capture of Aachen consolidated the US First and Ninth armies' positions, and set the stage for an offensive to reach the River Rhine. Generals Omar Bradley and Bernard Montgomery met Dwight Eisenhower at his headquarters to discuss plans. In spite of shortages of supplies and infantry, Eisenhower was insistent that the Germans enjoy no respite from Allied attack. He laid out a plan for a broad-front attack aimed at bringing the Allied forces up to the Roer in anticipation of a subsequent push to the Rhine.

The expectation was that this mission would take a few days, since German resistance in the sector was expected to be limited to a few battered infantry elements of the 275th Infantry Division numbering only about 3,350 troops.

For Bradley's 12th Army Group, the plan was to employ all three armies in a concerted attack with the final objective being a bridgehead over the Rhine south of Cologne. Hodges' First Army was scheduled to launch its attack, Operation Queen, with the focus being in the center with Collins' VII Corps. What would prove to be the most controversial element of the plan was in fact one of its secondary efforts - a preliminary operation to push through the towns in the center of the Hurtgen forest.

The desire to clear this area of the Hurtgen forest had several tactical goals: it was the first step in clearing a pathway to the key road junction at Duren and providing the First Army with tactical maneuver room beyond the constricted Stolberg corridor; and it would serve to undermine lingering German defense of the Monschau area by threatening them from the rear.

Generals Hodges and Collins were both uncomfortable with their flanks exposed to possible German counterattacks out of the forest, though given the terrain conditions this threat was remote. The 9th Infantry Division had already pushed through the western part of the woods. The attack stalled after reaching the open ridgeline that controlled the road from Hurtgen, through Kleinhau and Grosshau, which provided access to the River Roer plain in front of Duren.

The plan underestimated the German defensive potential in the woods and the difficulties of conducting infantry operations in the mountainous forest.

The Hurtgen operation was scheduled to be launched three days before the main assault, so that once the mission was completed, another attack could be launched through the town of Hurtgen, and then northward to Duren. Since the 9th Infantry Division was spent, the corps boundaries were shifted, with Gerow's V Corps taking over the Hurtgen sector and substituting the 28th Division for the 9th Infantry Division.

The 28th Division's three regiments covered a front about five km wide, and each was assigned a separate mission. The northernmost regiment, the 109th Infantry, was assigned to push north towards Hurtgen as a feint and to secure a launch point for a subsequent attack on Hurtgen.

The 112th Infantry in the center was assigned to launch the main attack: a two-pronged drive through Vossenack with the second thrust pushing southeast to capture Schmidt. The 110th Infantry to the south was assigned to push into the clearing east of Lammersdorf in order to secure roads to eventually reinforce and supply the 112th Infantry in Schmidt, since there were hardly any useful roads between Vossenack and Schmidt aside from a single dirt trail up the sides of the River Kall ravine.

In the meantime, the Germans were reconfiguring their dispositions near the Hurtgen forest, expecting an American attack at any time. The 5th Panzer Army was brought in to take over 7th Army's left flank from Geilenkirchen to Duren, including the western edge of the Hurtgen forest. This created some tactical issues, since the boundary between the two armies ran along the 81st and 74th Corps boundaries through the forest. As a result, the staffs of both armies along with key commanders were brought together by Walter Model at Castle Schlenderhan to conduct a command-post exercise to game possible responses to a US attack near the corps boundaries.

The German perspective of the Hurtgen was significantly different from the US appreciation. The German commanders anticipated that the principal US mission would be to strike immediately northward seize the open ridgeline and the associated road network stretching from Hurtgen through Kleinhau and Grosshau as an avenue to reach Duren. As a result, German defenses opposite the US 28th Division were heaviest along its northern shoulder. Two of the 275th Infantry Division's regiments were located there as well as a corps engineer battalion, working on the Wilde Sau ("Boar") minefield blocking Hurtgen.

The Germans were also concerned about the presence of dams in the Hurtgenwald linked to the Schwammenauel Reservoir, which controlled the water flow into the plains around Duren along the River Roer. Should the US Army advance over the Roer without first controlling the dams, the Wehrmacht could unleash the dams and flood the Roer plain. This had not yet been appreciated by Hodges and the US First Army, though it would later play a key role in prolonging the fighting in the Hurtgen forest.

The German tactical approach to combat in the Hurtgen forest was also different from the American appreciation. Based on the previous fighting between the 89th Infantry Division and the US 9th Infantry Division, the German commanders believed that it was most prudent to defend from the forest not the towns. This denied the US Army two of its most potent weapons - air support and artillery.

The autumn weather was already greatly limiting Allied air operations, but the forested defenses were very difficult to identify and strike from the air even on clear days.

American artillery was not very effective in wooded areas against troops deployed in log-reinforced dugouts. This was because the rounds detonated in the trees overhead, and the log roofs protected the occupants from the shrapnel.

In contrast, German artillery was very effective against attacking American infantry. Exposed infantrymen were very vulnerable to the overhead artillery bursts and the artillery's lethality was increased by the spray of tree splinters.

The 28th Division began its assault, but the attacks on either wing progressed poorly from the outset. The 109th Infantry was immediately halted in the Wilde Sau minefield and counterattacked through the woods by the German engineers. On the southern wing, the 110th Infantry immediately encountered the defensive bunkers of the Schill Line around Raffelsbrand, and soon became caught up in the barbed-wire entanglements under intense machine-gun fire from the German bunkers and dugouts. The central American thrust by the 112th Infantry encountered little opposition at first.

The 2/112th Infantry was able to advance with tank support towards Schmidt. Having captured Vossenack without undue problem, the battalion took up defensive positions with one company in the town itself and the two other companies in a defensive semicircle in the fields east of the town under the enemy-controlled heights of Bergstein. This disposition would prove to be a tragic mistake as it left most of the defenders in open trenches exposed to the miserable cold and autumn rains with little protection against German artillery fire except for their waterlogged trenches.

The 112th Infantry commander, Colonel Carl Peterson, began the advance to Schmidt the following day with his other two battalions. There was no real road between Vossenack and Schmidt, only a narrow, winding dirt track through the forested Kall ravine. The 3/112th Infantry moved through the Rall ravine and proceeded into Schmidt, with the 1/112th following behind and occupying Kommerschei

With the German staffs conferring with Model at the time, the Wehrmacht response was unusually swift. With news of the attack towards Schmidt rather than Hurtgen, Model presumed that the Americans were heading for the dams and so had to be stopped. The 89th Division was ordered to turn around and recapture Schmidt. The German counterattack began in force and managed to take back the town.

The German 74th Corps was in the process of pulling out the 89th Infantry Division for refitting from the sector south of the US attack and replacing them with the 272nd Volks Grenadier Division . Although the 89th Division was badly understrength, it was readily at hand and familiar with the local terrain, having fought around Vossenack and Schmidt a month earlier against the US 9th Infantry Division.

Since the rest of the front was quiet, Model agreed to reinforce the 89th Division with the sector's best mobile reserve, the 116th Panzer Division, which was refitting east of Duren. The 116th Panzer Armored Reconnaissance Regiment was the first element of the division to arrive in the area. It was fairly well equipped by Wehrmacht standards. The rest of the division followed behind. At the time, the division was at 83 percent of authorized strength, with about 12,550 men and over 50 Panzers.

In contrast with the german forces, the American 3/112th Infantry in Schmidt was without tank support due to the poor road network in the area. Three tanks finally made their way up the Kall ravine trail to Kommerscheidt. In the process several other tanks lost their tracks and effectively blocked the trail for any further reinforcements.

A hasty attack was launched by Panzergrenadiers of the 116th Panzer Division against Vossenack. This failed to make much progress and was forced back to its start line by determined US infantry defenses stiffened by tank support. However, the 2/112th Infantry took a pounding all day long from an extensive array of German artillery.

Schmidt was vulnerable to counterattack, being at a road junction. The town was hit from three sides by elements of the 89th Infantry Division. The US battalion in Schmidt was outnumbered by over three to one. Aside from a small number of antitank mines, the only antitank defenses in the town were bazookas, and these proved ineffective against the attacking assault guns. By noon, the German infantry had seized the northern and western portions of Schmidt. A last-ditch defense of the southeastern corner of the town was finally overrun in the afternoon with the arrival of the 16th Panzer Regiment.

With the momentum of the attack in their favor, the Panzers and assault guns charged out of Schmidt towards Kommerscheidt. The 1/112th Infantry defenses in Kommerscheidt were backed by three M4 tanks. Three Panzer IV tanks were knocked out in quick succession and a fourth became trapped in a swamp even before reaching the town. The Panzers barreled into Kommerscheidt without infantry support and quickly lost three more in a short-range duel with the Shermans. The Panzers were forced to withdraw with their surviving five vehicles.

General Cota ordered a counterattack to retake Schmidt, a remarkably unrealistic order in the circumstances. The 1/112th Infantry was entirely exposed in Kommerscheidt, connected to the rest of the division by the thin muddy trail up the Kall ravine. The 116th Panzer Division made numerous attempts to cut this link. The trail and the nearby river bridge at the Mestrenger Mill changed hands several times during the fighting. After prolonged fighting with US engineer units in the ravine, the Mestrenger Mill was finally secured.

The attack by the 116th Panzer division was reinforced in the other direction by the Grenadier Regiment (GR) 1056 of the 89th Division, which had been slow to arrive due to the lack of roads in the area. The combined forces of the reconnaissance battalion and GR 1056 were ordered to capture the Mestrenger Mill, which controlled the only bridge over the River Kall.

In an attempt to regain Schmidt, Cota formed Task Force Ripple around the 3/110th Infantry, which moved through the ravine on and established a defensive line behind Kommerscheidt near the edge of the woods. The ravine remained a confused no-man's land, with German units intermingled with American units in the rough hills and foliage.

The 2/112th Infantry in Vossenack remained under assault. But the terrain made it much more difficult for the Germans to mass forces, and US artillery was able to break up some of the attempts. Nevertheless the US forces in town were under heavy attack, and suffered from combat fatigue. The germans attacked in force and managed to take the town but a US counterattack managed to dislodge the Germans from the town. Both sides suffered heavy losses.

The attacks on Vossenack eventually involved both Panzergrenadier regiments of the 116th Panzer Division. The situation here was reaching breaking point due to the intense German artillery bombardment and the badly exposed positions of two of the three infantry companies in the rain-soaked fields outside the town. When a new company commander arrived on the scene to visit his exposed platoons, he found the troops in such a poor state that he wanted them all withdrawn for combat fatigue. The situation was not helped by the regimental headquarters, which reported back to divisional headquarters that it was still in excellent combat condition.

The 116th Panzer Division was ordered to launch a pre-dawn attack on Vossenack, but the regrouping in the hills under rainy conditions delayed the attack by several hours. Nevertheless, an intense 30-minute bombardment took place anyway, pounding the exposed American trenches outside the town one more time.

Following the barrage, rumors began to spread through the beleaguered US infantry that the Germans had broken through and in the darkness, chaos broke out. As troops fled back into the town, they set off a wave of panic that peeled back platoon after platoon. Officers managed to hold back about 70 men, but most of the two companies fled back to Germeter.

The German attack finally began, conducted by two companies from the 2nd Battalion of the 156th Panzergrenadier Regiment. In the meantime, the US 146th Engineer Battalion was rushed into the town as improvised infantry. 1st Battalion of 156th Panzergrenadier Regiment attempted to reinforce the attack from the northwest, but heavy US artillery fire pushed it back. House-to-house fighting continued until well after dusk, with the Panzergrenadiers finally capturing the town church shortly before midnight.

The 146th Engineer Battalion counterattacked the remaining Panzergrenadiers of the 116th Panzer Division, who had fought their way into the eastern side of Vossenack around the church. By the end of the day, most of the town had been retaken with heavy German losses. Nevertheless, US losses had been far more severe.

The heavy losses suffered by the 28th Division had forced the V Corps to take notice. The 4th Infantry Division dispatched its 12th Infantry to take over the 109th Infantry positions in anticipation of further attacks against Hurtgen but from positions further north. This permitted the dispatch of 2/109th Infantry to Vossenack to take over the positions abandoned by the 2/112th Infantry.

The 89th Infantry Division began organizing for a renewed counterattack against Kommerscheidt with Panzer support. Meanwhile the 116th Panzer along with the 1056th Grenadier Regiment cut off the US positions from behind through the Kall ravine. The attack began from two directions. The fighting lasted for four hours, finally pushing the last US troops out of the town. In the meantime, the American 28th Division had tried to form another task force under the assistant divisional commander, General George Davis, but the force reached the Kall ravine only after Kommerscheidt had already fallen.

The remaining defenses east of the Kall were pulled back after Cota received permission from First Army. The disaster that had befallen the 28th Division led to a visit by all the senior US Army brass, including Eisenhower, Bradley, Hodges and Gerow.

The reasons for the debacle were many. To begin with, the attack plan dispersed the 28th Division on three separate and uncoordinated missions leaving each regiment isolated. With two of the regiments tied down in the German defenses on the shoulders, this left the 112th Infantry exposed to the full force of two German divisions. The isolation of the battalions of the 112th Infantry due to the terrain allowed the Germans to destroy the 112th Infantry piecemeal, a battalion at a time. The dispositions of the 2/112th Infantry in Vossenack were poor, and Kommerscheidt's isolation due to the Kall trail made it unusually vulnerable. Both sides suffered heavy casualties.

Divisional casualties to date had been 6,184, with the hapless 112th Infantry having suffered 2,093 battle casualties, as well as 544 non-battle casualties from combat exhaustion and trench foot. Total German casualties in this phase of the Hurtgen fighting were 2,900, and the 116th Panzer Division alone needed 1,800 replacements.

The decision to postpone Operation Queen, the American autumn offensive, due to the poor weather doomed the 28th Division, since it allowed the German 7th Army to throw all of its reserves into the Hurtgen forest. This included a considerable amount of artillery, which was instrumental in reducing the 112th Infantry positions in Kommerscheidt and Vossenack, and also permitted the participation of the 7th Army's operational reserve, the 116th Panzer Division.

Heavy fighting would continue in Hurtgen forest through Operation Queen and the German winter offensive, Operation watch on the Rhine. When the latter failed, the Germans would jam open the Ruhr Dams’ floodgates before the Americans could capture the dam. With the Ruhr valley flooded the US advance to the Rhine was delayed until the waters subsided.