The Americans stage an offensive along the Siegfried Line
16 November - 16 December 1944
author Paul Boșcu,
During Operation Queen the Anglo-American forces staged an offensive against the German forces in the Rur river area. The offensive was suspended when the Germans launched their own offensive in the Ardennes.
Operation Queen was Omar Bradley's major autumn offensive on the Siegfried Line, but it was repeatedly delayed. The principal problem was the rainy and overcast weather that prevented the planned air strike, which was larger than any previous Allied air effort in the area. The Americans wanted to cross the Rur River, as a staging point to crossing the Rhine into Germany. When the Allies finally reached the Rur, they tried to capture its important dams. But the Germans launched their own offensive, Operation Watch on the Rhine. The resulting battle of the Bulge led to the immediate cessation of the Allied advance into Germany until the Wehrmacht’s attack was stopped.
Bradley saw Operation Queen as a replay of Operation Cobra in Normandy: a massive air strike which would pave the way for a quick US Army breakthrough out of congested terrain into open tank country, leading to a deep envelopment of German defenses. The starring role was given to the First Army and especially Joseph Collins' VII Corps, which would push out of the Stolberg corridor towards the Roer. In the meantime, Leonard Gerow's V Corps would have the task of continuing to push back the German defenses along the edge of the Hurtgen forest towards Duren. William Simpson's neighboring Ninth Army had the mission of pushing its forces up to the Roer on the left flank.
The German defenses in the sector had gradually improved, but were still operating on a minimum of forces while the best units were pulled back for refitting prior to the Ardennes offensive. Hasso von Manteuffel's 5th Panzer Army had held control of the northwestern sector for three weeks. But, since it was an essential element of the Ardennes plans, the headquarters was pulled out and replaced by Gustav-Adolf von Zangen's 15th Army under the phoney name of ‘Gruppe von Manteuffel’ on the eve of the US offensive. Walter Model's operational objective was to keep the US Army bottled up west of the Roer.
Collins' VII Corps faced three German divisions in the Stolberg corridor: the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division, 12th Volksgrenadier (VGD) and 246th VGD. Two of these divisions had been fighting in this sector for two months. The 12th VGD was renamed by Hitler to honor its earlier performance. The 246th VGD had been resurrected after the surrender of its previous namesake in Aachen. The 12th VGD was scheduled for replacement by the 47th VGD for refitting, and suffered the misfortune of carrying this out in the midst of the US attack.
The preliminary air bombardment was directed mainly against the towns along the Roer. The air attacks did not have a dramatic effect since they were not directed against the German frontline positions. The air attack was followed by a massive artillery preparation. The VII Corps attack was conducted by the 1st Infantry Division on the right and the 104th Division on the left. The American infantry divisions had tank support from the 3rd Armored Division. The initial American advance was slow.
Collins began to realize that his hope for a quick breakthrough to the Roer had evaporated. He began to use his exploitation reserve, the 3rd
Armored Division, to facilitate the breakthrough. Task Force Richardson from Combat Command A, 3rd Armored Division, was added to the 47th Infantry. It was positioned in the open ground near Nothberg for an advance along the 1st Division's left flank. In spite of the armored support, the attack was slow due to the mud, extensive minefields, and well-positioned German anti-tank guns. After a German counterattack, American infantry forces would start clearing villages one by one of German forces, until exhaustion.
At the outset of Operation Queen, the 104th Division advanced into the River Inde valley aiming for the hill town of Donnerberg, which had resisted numerous previous attacks. The initial attacks against the 12th VGD positions made little progress for the first two days of fighting. Finally, three major bunkers were cleared, with the 414th Infantry gaining the heights. The other two regiments were kept idle until the heights were captured. The 413th Infantry aimed for the industrial town of Eschweiler, while the 415th Infantry was to clear the northern half of Stolberg. The towns along the River Inde fell in succession, but the advance was costly due to German artillery.
Omar Bradley and the rest of the senior leadership were finally aware of the threat posed by the Roer dams. They were determined to gain control of them as well as to obtain another route to Duren. The difficulties of forest fighting had still not been fully realized by the senior leadership in spite of the horrible costs inflicted on the 9th and 28th Divisions in previous fighting. There was hope that German defenses in the forest would be weakened by the demands elsewhere on the Roer front. The main onus fell on the 4th Infantry Division, positioned further north than the hapless 28th Division. The American thought that German forces in the area were weak. However this was not the case.
The initial attempt by the 8th Infantry to advance through the woods was an ominous repeat of the situation facing the 109th Infantry a month before. The Germans had mined the forward defense line and built up another set of wire entanglements. After failing to penetrate it the first day, a second attempt resulted in 200 casualties in one battalion alone.
The German 7th Army reacted by dispatching the 344th VGD and reinforcing the 275th Infantry Division positions around Grosshau. These new troops slowed the advance of the US 8th and 22nd Infantry regiments to a crawl.
The commitment of the 8th Infantry Division complicated the 7th Army's defense of the Hurtgen plateau, but the advance of the 4th
Infantry Division remained slow. The 8th and 22nd Infantry finally reached the woods' edge near Grosshau after employing deception.
After heavy fighting and two attacks, the city fell into American hands.
The capture of Grosshau fundamentally altered the momentum of the attack since now the 4th Infantry Division could call on the support
of the 5th Armored Division to assist in the drive north along the open portions of the plateau. The timing was opportune as the Germans launched a major counterattack from Gey, which was beaten back at the last minute by heavy artillery concentrations. The 4th Infantry Division was transferred to a quiet sector of the front for rebuilding - the Ardennes - where it lay directly in the path of the upcoming German offensive.
While the 4th Infantry Division was conducting its final fight for Grosshau, the newly arrived 8th Infantry Division deployed two of its
regiments in the Vossenack area. The burden of the task fell on the 121st Infantry, which was allotted the mission of pushing up the road to
Hurtgen. The only difference this time, compared with the previous debacles of the 109th and 12th Infantry, was that the 121st Infantry was
allotted a combat command from the 5th Armored Division to reinforce the attack once it penetrated the initial forward German defense lines.
The 8th Division attack was renewed after the 121st Infantry was reinforced. While the US infantry had taken heavy casualties, US artillery had inflicted substantial losses on the German infantry as well. Within a day, the 121st Infantry had advanced to the woods on the western and southern side of Hurtgen. The town was taken by US forces, but the Germans put up a determined resistance.
With the road through Hurtgen finally clear, the 5th Armored Division was ordered to try its hand against Kleinhau, the next town on
the plateau, to coincide with the 4th Infantry Division attack on Grosshau. The weather permitted air strikes to supplement artillery bombardment of the town and the pilots reported that Kleinhau had been ‘practically destroyed by flames’. The attack succeeded, and the town fell into American hands.
The importance of the capture of Kleinhau was that it opened up a route towards the Roer dams across the top of the plateau instead
of through the woods beyond Vossenack. Rather than push north towards Duren, V Corps was ordered to proceed eastward to seize the
Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge, which provided a good road network that cut across the northern neck of the Hurtgen forest. The Americans were successful and the town of Brandenberg was captured.
After Bergstein fell, the German 7th Army shifted two regiments of the 272nd VGD to counterattack. About 250 infantry supported by five Panzers attacked Bergstein, and a vicious close-range battle ensued, with the German infantry hunting down US tanks with Panzerfaust anti-tank rockets. As daylight arrived, the US tanks made quick work of the supporting German Panzers, and the German infantry withdrew. Afterwards the American Rangers captured ‘Castle Hill’’, a prominent rise beyond Bergstein where German artillery observers were directing fire against the town. They succeeded, and the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge was in American hands.
The First Army had fought its way through the Hurtgen forest, but at a terrible cost. General G. von Gersdorff, chief of staff of the German 7th Army and a veteran of the Russian front, called the Hurtgen fighting the heaviest of the entire war.
During the reorganization of the front after the Aachen fighting, the XIX Corps became the principal element of the newly arrived US Ninth Army. The terrain in this sector was fundamentally different than in the First Army sector, consisting of relatively flat farmland interspersed with small farm villages. Indeed, Walter Model had expected the main US effort to be in this sector precisely because of the
better terrain. However, Bradley decided to entrust the main thrust to VII Corps due to its greater experience, in spite of the congestion and
terrain difficulties in the Stolberg corridor. Meanwhile XIX was to attack the German flanks at Würselen and Geilenkirchen.
As in the First Army sector, Operation Queen began with a massive air strike that mainly hit the towns along the Roer. The 30th Division began its assault with all three regiments in line, with the expectation that the northernmost regiment, the 117th, would advance the quickest. The southernmost, the 119th Infantry, would move the slowest due to the need to clear the remainder of Wurselen and its associated Westwall bunkers. The intention was to swing the division around Wurselen. The attack was slow going, but the Americans managed to capture Wurselen.
The attacks resumed with the 30th Division being ordered to take Altdorf. The division wanted to stage a night attack due to the prevalence of German machine-gun nests and the absence of tank support due to the mud. The corps headquarters ordered a daylight attack coinciding with the neighboring 29th Division push for Kirchberg. Initially the attack was repulsed, but during the night American forces managed to take the town from the defending Germans.
The advance in the center by the 29th Division did not go as smoothly. General Gerhardt believed that tactics developed in Normandy
would work best - attacking through the ‘weak spots’ between the towns, and then reducing the towns afterwards. This proved to be
fundamentally flawed, as was evident on the first day when battalions of the 115th and 175th Infantry quickly became pinned down by small arms fire from the village strong points. The division finally began to make broad progress along its front against the 246th VGD, finally taking Steerich, Bettendorf and the coal mine at Siersdorf, the initial layer of the Julich defenses.
The German 15th Army was very reluctant to commit its reserves, but the threat to the River Roer line was so great that Model freed up
the 340th VGD, which had been sequestered for the Ardennes offensive. The insertion of fresh infantry from the 340th VGD temporarily halted the 29th Division's advance.
Unlike its neighboring divisions, which consolidated their positions, the 29th Division kept up a steady series of attacks towards Julich. The division managed to drive onward, taking the towns along its path. The 29th Division had cleared the western bank of the Roer up to the city of Julich.
The 2nd Armored Division formed the left wing of the XIX Corps assault, aimed at Gereonsweiler and Linnich. Its sector was so narrow
that the attacking force was limited initially to the Combat Command B. The advance proceeded well in spite of the mud. Anti-tank defenses around around Apweiler proved to be especially intense, but CCB made good progress. In Puffendorf the Americans suffered heavy loses when they had to react to a German counterattack. Nevertheless the American tanks made good progress.
The 2nd Armored Division's six-day battle to push out to the Roer was one of the few clear successes of Operation Queen. In spite of
the miserable weather and exposed terrain, Harmon's skillful use of tanks and infantry succeeded even in the face of strong counterattacks by the only major German Panzer reserves in this sector. For the rest of the XIX Corps, Operation Queen ended after three weeks, with hopes for an easy breakthrough over the Roer dashed by stiff German resistance and the miserable weather.
Probably the most fearsome German defensive position in the Aachen sector apart from the Hurtgen forest was the town of Geilenkirchen, sitting on the River Wurm within a belt of Westwall bunkers. The town was in an awkward position for Allied planning too, as it sat astride the boundary between Bradley's 12th Army Group and Montgomery's 21st Army Group. As a result, the attack on Geilenkirchen was a combined British-US affair dubbed Operation Clipper, with the British 43rd Division assaulting the German positions north of Geilenkirchen, while the US 84th Division attacked from the south.
During the lull in the fighting in the third week of November, Rundstedt correctly assessed that the British front in Holland was likely to remain dormant. German units in that sector including the 10th SS-Panzer Division were shifted southward to the contested Roer sector. The new VIII Corps initiative was to push northward to the Roer by taking the heights in front of Lindern. After a few days of fighting the Allied forces managed to take the town. The new VIII Corps had not quite reached the Roer except at Linnich, but had pushed beyond the Siegfried Line.
Of the four corps taking part in Operation Queen, three had reached most of their objectives along the River Roer. Curiously enough, it was
the main push by Collins' VII Corps that had failed to meet its objective, due in no small measure to the intractability of the Hurtgen defenses. As a result, Collins called a halt to the VII Corps operations to permit reorganization. The aim of this final series of actions was to push the VII Corps conclusively out of the Hurtgen up to the edge of the Roer and the key city of Duren. Within a few days, American forces managed to take a few towns west of Duren.
The 83rd Division had the unenviable task of pushing through the final portion of the Hurtgen forest to reach the towns of Gey and Strass.
In the end, the VII Corps reached the Roer the same day the German offensive in the Ardennes struck the neighboring V Corps.
With US forces approaching the Roer, the issue of the Roer dams took on a new urgency. The ferocity of the fighting in the Hurtgen raised the possibility that the dams would not be taken in time. Eisenhower's headquarters raised the issue with the RAF. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris was not optimistic: the big Schwammenauel dam was an earthen dam, and thus not easily breached. In spite of this, attacks began by the RAF without any perceptible effect. They were halted afterwards by bad weather and the start of the German Ardennes offensive. The Allies had failed to reach the dams in time, and the Germans flooded them, delaying the Allied advance into Germany.
The Battle of the Bulge crippled the Wehrmacht in the west. In January 1945, the Red Army launched its main offensive over the River
Oder, rumbling towards Berlin. Priority for troops and equipment shifted back to the Russian Front, and the Wehrmacht in the west made
do with the leftovers. With the Bulge cleared, the Allied offensive in western Germany was renewed, and the Third Reich’s days were numbered.
The Siegfried Line campaign was one of the most costly fought by the US Army during World War II. The rationale for the bloody push into the Hurtgen was confused, and the conduct of the campaign was clumsy. As an attritional campaign, it mauled six German divisions and hampered German efforts to rebuild its forces prior to the Ardennes offensive. From a tactical perspective the Hurtgen operation was a failure: at its conclusion the Americans did not have enough operational strength to push on to the Roer dams. Operations in the Aachen corridor were more successful. The Germans committed their reserves for a offensive in the west which failed.
Germany has had little reason to memorialize the terrible battles of the autumn of 1944. Few monuments or museums exist to commemorate the bitter fighting. There is a small museum at Vossenack. There are quite a few military cemeteries in the area. The one at Vossenack contains the grave of Walter Model. He committed suicide rather than surrender in the spring of 1945. The concrete fortifications of the Westwall are one of the few durable reminders of the war. Even in this case, they have been much more thoroughly obliterated than the German fortifications along the Atlantic coast.