The Siegfried Line
Siegfried Line was the German defensive line on the western border
author Paul Boșcu, January 2017
The Siegfried Line was the German defensive line along the western border. The Allied forces begun encountering the Siegfried Line in September 1944. Fighting on the Siegfried line lasted for six months. During this time the line was subjected by the Allies to a large offensive, executed mainly by American troops.
The western frontier of the Third Reich was protected by the Westwall fortifications, better known to the Allies as the Siegfried Line. The Allies began encountering the Siegfried Line in September 1944 after pursuing the retreating Wehrmacht through Belgium and the Netherlands. Fighting along the Westwall lasted for more than six months, with the final major operations in March 1945 in the Saar

All of the major Allied formations, including Montgomery's 21st Army Group, Bradley's 12th Army Group, and Devers' 6th Army Group, were involved at one time or another in fighting against the Westwall defenses.

Given its nature as a historic invasion route towards Germany's industrial heartland in the Ruhr, the Wehrmacht fortified the border area around Aachen with a double line of bunkers.

The campaign in the was one of the most frustrating and costly efforts by the US Army in the European theater in World War II, reaching its crescendo in the hellish fighting for the Hurtgen forest. Although the US Army finally broke through the defenses and reached the River Roer, the German counteroffensive in the neighboring Ardennes put a temporary halt to the fighting. Afterwards, the fighting along the line resumed, culminating in Operation Grenade, the crossing of the Roer.

The Wehrmacht in the west was in a desperate crisis. Following the Allied breakout from Normandy, the German forces in northern France had become enveloped in a series of encirclements starting with the Roncey pocket, the Falaise pocket, the River Seine, and the Mons pocket in Belgium. These catastrophes destroyed much of the 7th and 15th armies along with parts of the 19th Army. The US Army staged a second amphibious landing on the Mediterranean coast in southern France.

The US Seventh Army raced northward towards Lorraine, threatening to cut off the remainder of German occupation forces in western and central France. As a result, there was a hasty withdrawal of the German 1st Army from the Atlantic coast as well as elements of the 19th Army from central France, precipitously ending the German occupation of France. German losses in the west in the late summer totaled over 300,000 troops, and another 200,000 were trapped in various ports along the Atlantic, such as Brest, Lorient, and Royan.

From the perspective of Gen Dwight Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters-Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) , the strong feeling was that the Wehrmacht was in its death throes, much like the German Army on the Western Front in November 1918.

German officers had tried to kill Hitler, and it seemed entirely possible that the Wehrmacht would totally collapse. After the stupendous advance in France, bold action seemed the order of the day. The otherwise cautious General Bernard Montgomery proposed an audacious and imaginative plan to streak through the Netherlands by seizing a bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. This would propel the 21st Army Group into Germany's vital Ruhr industrial region. This would effectively cripple the German war industry. Operation Market Garden, a combined airborne-mechanized campaign from Eindhoven to Arnhem, proved to be a disappointing failure.

Instead of facing a retreating rabble, the Wehrmacht seemed to grow in strength the closer the Allies approached the German frontier. By the third week of September, it was becoming clear that the Wehrmacht had already reached its nadir and was beginning to recover its ferocious defensive potential. This abrupt change was later dubbed the "miracle of the west."

The momentum of the campaign in northwest Europe began to slow abruptly as the Allies outran their supply lines. Initial planning had not anticipated that the Allied armies would advance so rapidly, and logistics were beginning to place a limit on Allied operations. On September 11, 1944, the first day US troops entered Germany, the Allies were along a phase line that the Operation Overlord plans did not expect to reach until D+330 (May 2, 1945) - some 233 days ahead of schedule.

While Montgomery was attempting to reach the "bridge too far" at Arnhem, Patton's Third Army had been forced to halt in Lorraine, even though the path seemed open for a rapid advance on Frankfurt and the Rhine. Allied logistics could only support one major offensive at a time until new supply lines could be established.

The rail network through France had been smashed by Allied pre-invasion bombing and many of the French ports had been thoroughly wrecked before the German garrisons had surrendered.

Although the British army had seized the vital port of Antwerp largely intact, in the haste to reach the Rhine the vital issue of clearing the ScheIdt estuary had been ignored. As a result, German forces could interdict shipping moving down the ScheIdt to Antwerp, effectively blocking the port. Antwerp was the natural logistics center for further operations into Germany, and until the ScheIdt could be cleared, Allied operations would have to operate on a thin stream of supplies. The failure to clear the approaches to Antwerp during the Wehrmacht proved to be one of the greatest Allied mistakes.

The German situation in the early autumn of 1944 was still desperate, but as the Wehrmacht reached the German frontier, the summer panic subsided and a sober stoicism returned. It was one thing to give up Holland and Belgium, but the western region of Germany was another matter altogether. By the time that the retreating survivors of Army Group B reached the frontier, new defenses had already been stitched together along the Siegfried Line using replacement units, local training units, and an assortment of rear-area troops.

In open combat against Allied mechanized formations, the German defenders stood little chance. But the German frontier was well suited to defense. The terrain was a mixture of industrial towns bisected by numerous rivers and interspersed with wooded forests and hills, such as the Reichswald and Hürtgenwald.

The autumn of 1944 was unusually wet. Almost double the usual quantity of rain fell. The mud dampened the chances for Allied mechanized operations and the overcast skies constrained air-support operations.

Generalfeldmarschall (GFM) Gerd von Rundstedt returned to command the OB West (Oberbefehlshaber-West, or Supreme Command West), having been relieved of the same post previously over disagreements with Hitler about operations in France. Following Rundstedt's reappointment, Walter Model remained as the Army Group B commander, responsible for the forces in northwestern Germany and Holland. The Aachen corridor was defended by the 7th Army, commanded by Erich Brandenberger.

Rundstedt was widely respected throughout the army for his leadership during the key Blitzkrieg campaigns and his reappointment was meant to reassure the troops after the harrowing defeats of the summer.

Rundstedt’s principal subordinate was Walter Model, who had held the dual posts of OB West and commander of Army Group B following the suicides of Gunther von Kluge, the previous OB West, and Erwin Rommel, the former Army Group B commander - both deaths connected with the July 20 plot against Hitler.

Model was a complete contrast to the gentlemanly and aristocratic Rundstedt. He was a brash and ruthless upstart, Germany's youngest field marshal, and one of Hitler's favorites for his uncanny ability to rescue the Wehrmacht from its deepest disasters. Model had been sent to the Russian Front in the summer of 1944 to help reestablish defensive lines after the crushing defeat of Army Group Center by the Red Army's Operation Bagration, a miracle that helped stall the Soviet summer offensive in Poland. Now he was expected to do the same in front of Aachen.

Model derided Brandenberger as "a typical product of the general staff system" and his traditional style did not earn him the favor of Hitler. Yet Brandenberger had a fine combat record, leading the 8th Panzer Division during the invasion of Russia and commanding the 29th Army Corps in Russia for a year before being given command of the 7th Army.

One of Brandenberger's initial tasks was to restore some measure of order amongst his edgy corps and divisional commanders. The "void" of late August and early September had left many divisional commanders to operate on their own initiative and it was Brandenberger's task to reestablish iron discipline.

Omar Bradley's 12th Army Group included two armies, Courtney Hodges' First and George Patton's Third. Much like Bradley, Hodges was a quiet professional, and so very much unlike the flamboyant Patton. However, Hodges did not have Bradley's intellectual talents and had flunked out of the US Military Academy, making his way up the command ladder through the ranks. He was in Bradley's shadow for much of the war, and many senior officers felt he gave too much power to his dynamic chief of staff, Maj Gen William Kean. Hodges was an infantryman with a dependable but stolid operational style.

Bradley had headed the First Army when it landed in Normandy, and was bumped upstairs once Patton's Third Army was activated. Hodges had been Bradley's chief of staff in the First Army and succeeded him.

The third corps commander, Maj Gen Charles "Cowboy Pete" Corlett was the odd man out in the First Army. He had commanded army units in the Aleutians i and on Kwajalein. He was brought to Europe in the hope that some of his amphibious experience would rub off on D-Day planners. He was widely ignored. For example, he had pointedly recommended increasing the artillery ammunition allowances based on his own experience, only to be proven right in the autumn when US Army ammunition reserves proved to be woefully inadequate. Corlett had several angry exchanges with Hodges and his staff, and was relieved during the Aachen campaign.

At the time of the Aachen fighting, Hodges had three corps: Gerow's V Corps, Collins' VII Corps and Corlett's XIX Corps. Maj Gen Leonard Gerow was older than both Bradley and Eisenhower. He commanded Eisenhower in 1941 while heading the War Plans division of the general staff, and he led V Corps during the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach. He was a quintessential staff officer with a tendency to micromanage his divisional commanders, and so was a comfortable fit with the First Army commander.

One of the divisional commanders was new, Norman Cota of the 28th Division. He had commanded the 116th Regimental Combat Team of the 29th Division on Omaha Beach on D-Day. His exceptional leadership that day earned him command of the 28th Division. The tragic fate of the 28th Division, first in the Hurtgen forest and then in the Ardennes, would haunt his career.

When Hodges needed more tactical flair, he turned to Maj Gen Lawton "Lightning Joe" Collins. He had commanded an army division on Guadalcanal, and had proven to be an imaginative practitioner of mechanized warfare in France. Collins had executed the most impressive US Army successes of the summer, the envelopment of Cherbourg and the Operation Cobra breakout. Although he had a very different tactical sensibility to Hodges, they proved to be a complementary team through the war.

When Simpson's Ninth Army arrived, Bradley placed it adjacent to the British 21st Army Group. Bradley was aware of Montgomery's tendency to poach US forces to make up for his own shortages, and he did not want his more experienced divisions in the First Army transferred to British control. Ninth Army was fairly small during the Aachen campaign, with only a single corps for much of the time.

The collapse of the Wehrmacht after the disasters in Belgium in early September 1944 was partly averted by absorbing territorial and training units once its battered divisions reached Germany. The Wehrmacht consisted of both a Field Army, which controlled tactical combat units, and a separate Replacement Army (Ersatzheer) within Germany itself. In desperation, the untrained units from the reserve training divisions and sometimes even the staffs of the training schools were thrown into combat. Each military district also had several Landesschutzen battalions, local home guard units made up of older men, and usually commanded by World War I veterans.

Another source of personnel for the army was the Luftwaffe, since many of its ground personnel were freed from their usual assignments by the growing fuel shortage that grounded many aircraft. While some men were absorbed directly into replacement units, others were organized into Luftwaffe fortress battalions.

The Luftwaffe fortress battalions were not necessarily assigned to the Westwall bunkers. They were so named because their troops had little infantry training and were poorly armed, and so were useful only for holding static defense positions. These units were not well regarded by the army due to their tendency to retreat on first contact with enemy forces. In subsequent months the army preferred to simply absorb excess Luftwaffe and navy personnel directly into army units.

The unification of command of these disparate units did not take place until early September, with the reconstitution of the 7th Army. Following the encirclement in the Falaise pocket and the deeper envelopment on the Seine, the German 7th Army ceased to exist and its remnants were attached to the 5th Panzer Army. It was reconstructed under Gen Erich Brandenberger and assigned the task of defending the Westwall in the Maastricht-Aachen-Bitburg sector. Recognizing the weakness of the units assigned to the 81st Corps, the 7th Army attempted to reinforce the Aachen sector as soon as resources became available, and three divisions were assigned.

The 81st Corps had the task of defending the Herzogenrath-Dieren area, the 74th Corps from Roetgen to Ormont and the 1st SS-Panzer Corps in the Schnee Eifel from Ormont to the 1st Army boundary near Diekirch. The 81st Corps covered the sector attacked by the US VII and XIX Corps

The two other divisions sent as reinforcements were the 183rd and 246th Volksgrenadier divisions (VGD). The 183rd VGD was assigned to take over the Geilenkirchen sector from the 275th Infantry Division, which was then shifted to cover a gap on the corps' southern wing in the Hurtgen forest. The 183rd VGD was moved from Bohemia. Its arrival permitted the 116th Panzer Division to be gradually pulled out of the line for refitting and to serve as the corps reserve.

The 353rd Infantry Division had little more than its headquarter elements, so the 81st Corps used it to man the Westwall defenses in the Aachen area by assigning it the various Luftwaffe and Landesschützen bataillons.

The northern sector facing the US XIX Corps was held by two significantly under strength infantry divisions, the 49th and 275th. The 49th Infantry Division had been trapped in the Mons pocket. By the time it reached the German frontier it had only about 1,500 men, mostly from the headquarters and support elements. The 275th Infantry Division suffered terribly in Normandy and it was described as "practically destroyed." It was partly rebuilt and had only one infantry regiment.

The principal units facing the US VII Corps were the 116th Panzer Division, centered around Aachen, and the 9th Panzer Division in the Stolberg corridor. The 116th Panzer Division was the best-equipped unit in this sector. But, when it took control of the defense of Aachen, it had a combat strength of about 1,600 men, with its Panzergrenadier battalions about half-strength and only three PzKpfw IV tanks, two Panther tanks, and two StuG III assault guns. Reinforcements reestablished its combat strength in infantry, but it was down to only about 2,000 liters of fuel, leaving it immobilized.

The 9th Panzer Division was still withdrawing through Belgium and was a mere skeleton. Its armored strength had been reduced to eight operational Panther tanks, and six StuG III assault guns. Its two Panzergrenadier regiments were down to about three companies. The division was so weak that the 7th Army reinforced it with the remnants of Panzer Brigade 105, which had lost most of its Panzergrenadiers and was down to five Panther tanks and three assault guns. After the surviving battle group withdrew across the frontier, the division was rebuilt with a hodgepodge of territorial and Luftwaffe units in its sector.

The first reinforcements to arrive was the 12th Infantry Division, which had been reconstituted in East Prussia in the late summer after heavy combat on the Russian Front. Its arrival in the Aachen sector was a major morale boost for the locale civilian population, as the division was fully equipped with young, new soldiers.

The Westwall program began in 1938, but the role of the Westwall was fundamentally different from the much more elaborate Maginot Line nearby in France. It was intended as a defensive fortified zone facilitating offensive action. The initial construction program ignored the Aachen area, since it faced neutral Belgium. Once the section facing central France was complete, Hitler decided to extend the Westwall along the Belgian frontier due to concerns that the French could deploy their mobile forces through Belgium. By 1944 the line was largely abandoned and the German defenders had to hastily reinforce it.

In 1938, Hitler was already planning military actions against Czechoslovakia and Poland, and fortifications played a vital part in these plans. The Westwall could be held by a modest number of second-rate troops while the bulk of the Wehrmacht was deployed in combat to the east.

There was never any expectation that the Westwall alone could hold out against a determined enemy, but after the experiences of trench warfare in World War I, there was a clear appreciation that modest fortifications could amplify the defensive capabilities of the infantry. The Westwall began with a barrier of antitank ditches and concrete dragon's teeth anti tank obstacles. The layout and density of the subsequent bunkers depended on the geography and were designed to exploit local terrain features.

The Westwall in the Aachen area, called the Duren Fortification Sector (Festungsdienststelle Duren) was one of only two sectors with a double set of defensive lines. The other was in the Saar, which like the Aachen corridor was one of the traditional invasion routes between France and Germany. The initial defensive line was called the Scharnhorst Line and was located about a kilometer behind the German border. A second defensive belt, called the Schill Line, was created to the east of Aachen.

Machine-gun bunkers were placed to cover all key roads and approaches as well as to prevent the antitank obstacles from being breached. Anti tank bunkers were equipped with the 37mm antitank gun - adequate in 1939 but obsolete in 1944.

The Westwall was a far less elaborate defensive system than the Maginot Line. With few exceptions, the fortifications were relatively small infantry bunkers with machine-gun armament, and few of the elaborate artillery bunkers that characterized the French defenses.

Another characteristic type of bunker was a forward observation post for artillery spotters, connected to the rear to take maximum advantage of artillery firepower in defending the frontier. In the Aachen area, the Westwall had a linear density of about 60 bunkers per 10 km stretch.

The Westwall was stripped of anything removable such as wire obstructions, armored doors, gun mounts and armored fittings to equip the Atlantic Wall against the impending Allied invasion. As a result, when the Wehrmacht retreated into Germany the Westwall was overgrown and largely abandoned. There was a hasty effort to refurbish the defenses.

The US Army by the time of the Siegfried Line campaign had moved beyond its growing pains and had become an experienced and highly capable force. First Army included some of the most experienced US units such as the 1st Infantry Division and 2nd Armored Division, which had served in North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy. Combat leaders were experienced and battle hardened.

The US Army had not yet begun to suffer the serious shortages in infantrymen caused by the autumn and winter 1944 fighting, so infantry divisions tended to operate near full strength. The US Army continued to feed replacements into the divisions in combat, and, while rifle companies were often under strength during intense battles, they seldom became as depleted as German rifle companies.

The Hurtgen forest fighting proved to be especially costly and frustrating for the infantry. In many respects, the forest fighting was an aberration due to the lack of tactical flexibility at the lower levels forced on the infantry divisions by the orders of higher headquarters. The divisions fought on extended frontages in difficult weather and terrain conditions with little or no tank support, poor logistical support, and little opportunity to maneuver.

The US infantry divisions had adapted well to the changing terrain and tactical demands, from the hedgerow country of Normandy the pursuit operations of August, and the fortification and urban fighting of September-October.

Artillery was the main killer on both sides, and the US infantry was at a distinct disadvantage due to its offensive posture. Advancing American infantrymen were far more vulnerable to artillery air-bursting in the trees overhead than the defending German infantry in log-protected dugouts. As a corollary, the usual US advantage in divisional field artillery did not apply in the Hurtgen forest because of the decreased lethality of US artillery when used against protected German infantry dugouts in heavily wooded areas.

The US armored divisions fought as combined-arms formations, amalgamating their tank, armored infantry, and armored field artillery battalions into three battle groups called combat commands. The standard US tank of this period was the M4 "Sherman" medium tank, mostly with a 75mm dual-purpose gun but with an increasing number of 76mm guns optimized for the antitank role. The M4 was the best tank in combat in 1943 in North Africa, but by 1944 its time had passed and it was inferior to the better German tanks, such as the Panther, in terms of firepower and armor protection.

The disparity between American and German tanks was not especially significant in the Siegfried Line fighting, since there were so few German tanks present. However, the M4 had only moderate armor, which did not offer adequate protection against the most common German antitank gun, the 75mm PaK 40, or against infantry Panzerfaust antitank rockets, which were the main tank killers in the autumn fighting.

The summer campaign had been costly to the US armored divisions. Tank losses during the August pursuit were the highest experienced by the US Army in Europe up to that time and were only surpassed during the Battle of the Bulge. The US Army had underestimated the likely loss rate of tanks in combat based on the experience in North Africa and Italy and so had only allotted a monthly attrition reserve of 7 percent compared to the British reserve of 50 percent.

Allied planning for the defeat of Germany intended to "rapidly starve Germany of the means to continue the war," with an emphasis on the capture of the two industrial concentrations in western Germany, the Ruhr and the Saar basin. Of the two, the Ruhr industrial region was the more significant, and the loss of the Ruhr combined with the loss of the Low Countries would eliminate 65 percent of German steel production and 56 percent of its coal production. Four traditional invasion routes into Germany were considered: the Flanders plains, the Maubeuge-Liege-Aachen corridor to the north of the Ardennes, the Ardennes-Eifel, and the Metz-Kaiserslautern gap.

The Flanders plains were far from ideal for mechanized warfare due to the numerous rivers and water obstacles. The Ardennes was also ruled out due to the hilly, forested terrain, and its equally forbidding terrain on the German and Luxembourg side, the forested Eifel region in Germany, and the mountainous terrain around Vianden in Luxembourg.

Of the two remaining access routes, the Aachen corridor was a traditional invasion route and the most practical. Although the terrain had some significant congestion points due to its high degree of industrialization, it offered the most direct route to the Ruhr. The Kaiserslautern gap was also attractive, especially for access to the Saar; however, its access to the Ruhr was more difficult up along the narrow Rhine Valley. As a result of these assessments, the Aachen corridor was expected to be the preferred route for the Allied advance.

Original Allied planning assumed that this mission would be undertaken by the British/Canadian 21st Army Group under Bernard Montgomery. This did not occur due to other developments. The V-weapons campaign against Britain prompted Churchill to urge Eisenhower to push forces further north along the coast to capture German launch sites, and this task fell to the 21st Army Group. Montgomery insisted that Eisenhower cover his flank with at least one US army. As a result the First Army was directed further north than might otherwise have been the case, leaving Patton's Third Army the task of assaulting the Metz-Kaiserslautern gap on its own.

The failure of Market Garden had several implications for Allied operations. In the short term, it drained the Allied forces of their limited reserve of supplies and precipitated a temporary logistics crisis. The long-term consequence of the Market Garden operation was that it distorted original Allied strategic planning for the campaign into Germany.

The British/Canadian 21st Army Group was now tied down on an axis facing the less desirable Flanders plains, not the Aachen corridor as had been expected. Bradley's 12th Army Group was bifurcated by the Ardennes, with Hodges' First Army covering Montgomery's southern flank whilst being aimed at the Aachen corridor. Patton's Third Army was further south in Lorraine aimed along the Metz-Kaiserslautern axis. As a result, the US First and newly arrived Ninth armies fought a campaign completely disconnected from Patton's operations in the Saar, and the northern element of Bradley's 12th Army Group now faced the Aachen corridor.

One of Eisenhower's options was to conduct relatively modest operations along the German frontier until the logistics caught up. Eisenhower was not keen on this option, fearing it would permit the Germans to rebuild the Wehrmacht in relative peace, and result in a more formidable opponent when the offensive resumed. Instead, Eisenhower decided to conduct limited offensive operations, which would drain the Wehrmacht by attrition.

Some senior US commanders, such as Bradley, believed that it might be possible to reach the Rhine in the autumn. This viewpoint gradually succumbed to reality in the face of determined German defenses along the Westwall.

The short-term objective in the Wehrmacht was simply to survive after the devastating losses suffered in the summer. This process was greatly aided by two factors: the returning morale of the German troops on reaching German soil, and the halt in the Red Army offensive in Poland. The panic and chaos in the units of Army Group B quickly subsided. Even if the Westwall was more symbolic than real, there was a sense that the frontier could and should be defended.

The halt of the Red Army offensive along the River Vistula also freed up resources for the western front. While fighting continued in the Balkans and in other peripheral theaters, the main front facing central Germany remained quiet until January 1945.

The Wehrmacht was living on borrowed time. The loss of Romania's oil fields doomed the German war effort, since it meant that petroleum would eventually run out. Although large coal reserves kept German industry running, fuel shortages led to a severe curtailment of Luftwaffe operations, cut training of Panzer and aircrews to a minimum, and led to severe restrictions on fuel usage, even in the combat theaters.

The autumn weather in that year was unusually rainy and the resultant mud made mechanized operations along the German frontier extremely difficult. In addition, it substantially suppressed the Allies' greatest advantage - their tactical air power.

Geography aided the defense in two respects. On the one hand, the proximity of the front to German industry and supply dumps simplified German logistics, just as it complicated Allied logistics. On the other hand, the congested industrialized terrain of the Roer, and the mountainous forests of the Hurtgenwald, were well suited to defense.

The central element in determining the shape of German operational planning in the west was Hitler's decision to launch a counteroffensive against the Allies sometime in the late autumn or early winter. The plan was dubbed Wacht am Rhein ("Watch on the Rhine"), a deliberate deception to suggest that the forces being mustered for the Ardennes attack were merely being gathered to conduct the eventual defense of the River Rhine. The plan required that the most capable units, the Panzer Panzergrenadier and best infantry divisions, be withheld from the autumn fighting and built back up to strength in time for the operation.

The first draft of the plan was completed but it remained a secret to all but the most senior commanders such as Rundstedt and Model, who were briefed.

Holding the River Roer was absolutely essential to the success of the Ardennes offensive. If the US Army advanced across the river, they could strike southward against the right flank of the attacking German forces. The challenge to Rundstedt and Model was to hold the River Roer line with an absolute minimum of forces while building up the strategic reserve for the Ardennes operation. This inevitably meant that the defense along the Roer would be conducted mainly by second-rate divisions that could be reinforced with fresher or more capable divisions only under the most dire circumstances.