Militarily, the city of Aachen in October 1944 had little to recommend it. Lying in a saucerlike depression surrounded by hills, Aachen is no natural fortress, nor was it an artificial fortress, even though it lay within the two bands of the West Wall. The city's roads were relatively unimportant, since American drives both north and south of Aachen already had uncovered adequate avenues leading toward the Rhine. Not for a long time would the city's railroads be of use to anyone, so shattered were they already from Allied bombs.1
But in regard to Aachen the Germans had more to work with than usual military considerations. Nor was Hitler's insistence upon a fanatical, house-by-house defense of the city simply a superficial propagandism of the first major German city to be threatened with capture. No shrine of National Socialism in the sense of Munich or Nuremberg, Aachen nevertheless embodied a heritage precious to National Socialist ideology. Aachen represented the Holy Roman Empire, the First Reich.
Hitler had no need to remind his followers of Aachen's proud history, how at one time Aachen was capital of the Holy Roman Empire. The Germans would know that here, where the Romans had built thermal baths amid an alien wilderness, a Carolingian king had established his residence in Aquisgranum in the 8th century A.D. That here his son Charles was born--Charlemagne, first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. That from Aachen Charlemagne had reigned over an empire destined to last, in one form or another, more than a thousand years. That in Aachen, between the years 813 and 1531, thirty-two emperors and kings had been anointed.
Hitler and his disciples were aware further how Aachen and the Holy Roman Empire were tied to National Socialism. After Napoleon had smashed the legalistic shell to which by the year 1806 the political reality of the Empire had been reduced, the romantic element in German nationalism soon had forgotten the jibes leveled at the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation" and had identified itself with the ideological Empire, one of the eternal verities transcending temporal politics and nations, the secular counterpart of the universal Church. The romantic element in German nationalism in time had become the religion of National Socialism. Hitler himself often prophesied that his empire, like Charlemagne's, would last a thousand years.
To strike at Aachen was to strike at a symbol of Nazi faith.2
For all the importance of Aachen as a trademark of Nazi ideology, the Germans
Encirclement of Aachen
7-20 October 1944
in early October were little better qualified to deny the city indefinitely than they had been in September when the 116th Panzer Division's General von Schwerin had despaired of holding the city and sought to spare it further fighting. Schwerin long since had traveled the ignominious path of military relief, and his division had been withdrawn for refitting and reorganization; yet the higher headquarters which earlier had borne responsibility for the city still was on hand. This was Koechling's LXXXI Corps under Brandenberger's Seventh Army. That the LXXXI Corps was no leviathan already had been proved during the early days of October by the West Wall penetration of the XIX Corps.
On 7 October, as the XIX Corps entered Alsdorf on the first step of what looked like an easy move to encircle Aachen, General Koechling's LXXXI Corps comprised a nominal four divisions. (Map 4) North of Aachen were the 183d Volks Grenadier and 49th Infantry Divisions, both severely hurt by the American West Wall breakthrough. Aachen itself lay in the sector of the 246th Volks Grenadier Division, commanded by Col. Gerhard Wilck, the division which in late September had relieved the 116th Panzer Division. Southeast of Aachen the southern wing of the German corps was defended by Colonel Engel's 12th Infantry Division, which had arrived in the nick of time to thwart a breakthrough in the Stolberg Corridor but which had drawn a bloody nose in the process. The sum total of organic infantry and artillery combat effectives in these four divisions on 7 October was about 18,000 men.3
The LXXXI Corps had increased considerably since mid-September in artillery strength. Divisional and corps artillery totaled 239 serviceable pieces: 140 light, 84 medium, and 15 heavy guns. An antiaircraft regiment provided added strength. Ammunition apparently was adequate except for 14 Russian guns which had neither ammunition nor transport. Moreover, four headquarters artillery battalions to serve under corps control were en route to the sector on 7 October.4
Tank and antitank strength in the LXXXI Corps was less impressive. Among the divisional tank destroyer battalions were 12 serviceable assault guns and 26 heavy antitank guns, while under corps control were 2 assault gun brigades, 2 assault gun battalions, and a robot tank company, with a combined total of only 36 serviceable pieces. The 506th Tank Battalion had only 4 Mark VI (Tiger) tanks, while the 108th Panzer Brigade with 7 Mark V (Panther) tanks was
arriving in the sector on 7 October. Almost all these tanks and guns were clustered in the vicinity of Alsdorf where the XIX U.S. Corps was pressing southward in the direction of Wuerselen.5
In light of the condition and location of three of General Koechling's four divisions, the burden of the fighting at Aachen might fall upon the most recent arrival, the 246th Volks Grenadier Division. Though this division had engaged in no major action in its own sector, Colonel Wilck‘s troops already had been decisively weakened. In the desperate efforts to stem the XIX Corps breakthrough, General Koechling had rifled his front, including four of Colonel Wilck's seven organic infantry battalions. The entire 404th Infantry Regiment and a battalion each of the 352d and 689th Infantry Regiments had been attached to neighboring divisions.
From a local standpoint, the outlook for preserving Aachen as a citadel of Nazi ideology was bleak indeed. Yet General Koechling's superiors had not let him down completely. Their most immediate step was to try again to assemble an effective counterattacking force from diverse elements to strike this time at Alsdorf in hopes of thwarting encirclement of Aachen. The main component of this force was to be Mobile (Schnelle) Regiment von Fritzschen, which comprised three battalions of bicycle-mounted infantry and engineers. Major support was to come from the 108th Panzer Brigade and a total of twenty-two assault guns from various units.6
Any genuine hope of denying Aachen for an extended time lay not with this small force but with a promise from Commander in Chief West von Rundstedt to commit his most important theater reserves. These were the 3d Panzer Grenadier and 116th Panzer Divisions. Attaching these to headquarters of the I SS Panzer Corps (General der Waffen SS Georg Keppler), Rundstedt directed major operations intended to restore the situation about Aachen. Since leaving Aachen in September, the 116th Panzer Division had been built up to about 11,500 men and its tank regiment restored, but of 151 authorized Mark IV and Mark V tanks only 41 were on hand. Although the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division was little more than a motorized infantry division, it numbered about 12,000 men and had 31 75-mm. antitank guns and 38 artillery pieces.7
Through 5, 6, and 7 October General Koechling had waited in vain for appearance of these reserves. They were on the way, but railroad disruptions from Allied air attacks had imposed serious delays. General Koechling feared catastrophe at Aachen before the reserves could be committed.8
From the American viewpoint, the timing of the operation to encircle and reduce Aachen depended upon the progress of the West Wall penetration north of the city. As soon as the XIX Corps drive to the vicinity of Wuerselen gave evidence of success, General Collins' VII Corps was to attack north from a jump-off base at Eilendorf, east of Aachen, seize Verlautenheide, a strongpoint in the second band of the West Wall, and meet
the XIX Corps near Wuerselen. With Aachen isolated, a part of the VII Corps might reduce the city at leisure while the XIX Corps and the rest of the VII Corps drove east and northeast to the Roer River.9
The broad outlines of this maneuver had been determined when the First Army first was approaching the German border. That various factors had delayed the XIX Corps outside the West Wall until October and that the Germans had halted the overextended VII Corps in the Stolberg Corridor had in no way decreased the necessity of occupying Aachen eventually. Indeed, the job had become more pressing. Containing the city was tying down the equivalent of a division, a precious commodity needed for more remunerative tasks. Besides, indications were that German propagandists were trying to make of Aachen a rallying point, a kind of German Stalingrad.
Events at Alsdorf on 7 October convinced commanders on the American side that the time to force the issue at Aachen was at hand. To the commander of the 30th Division, General Hobbs, the job of moving three more miles from Alsdorf south to the intercorps boundary and the link-up objective of Wuerselen appeared at worst no more than a two-day assignment. General Hobbs urged that the VII Corps waste no time in launching the other part of the encirclement maneuver.10
The 30th Division alone bore responsibility for the XIX Corps role in the encirclement. Except for the 30th Division and the 2d Armored Division, which was holding the eastern and northeastern arcs of the West Wall bridgehead, the rest of General Corlett's corps still was occupied with the attenuated north flank west of the West Wall. Although Corlett on 6 October had stipulated that the armor help the 30th Division, he had grown wary of taking the armor away from defense of the West Wall bridgehead and left the task of link-up to the infantry alone.11 He had strengthened the two regiments of the 30th Division in the West Wall by providing relief of the 120th Infantry, which had been containing Germans southwest of the West Wall penetration at Kerkrade. He then committed the 120th between the 117th and 119th Regiments.
By virtue of positions on an arc containing Aachen on the south and east, General Huebner's 1st Division was the logical choice to fulfill the role of the VII Corps. For more than a fortnight General Huebner had known his assignment; when General Hodges in late afternoon of 7 October endorsed the recommendation that the VII Corps begin to attack, the 1st Division needed little time for preparation. General Huebner announced a night attack to commence before dawn the next day, 8 October.12
General Huebner's primary concern in planning his part of the encirclement maneuver had been to reduce his long defensive frontage--more than twelve miles along a semicircle west, south, and east of Aachen--and thereby free at least one regiment to make the attack. Since the 9th Division was committed in the Huertgen Forest and the 3d Armored
Division at Stolberg, his corps commander, General Collins, had been unable to provide much help. He had exercised the only possibility, to put a corps engineer unit, the 1106th Engineer Combat Group (Col. Thomas DeF. Rogers), into the line south of Aachen, thus to release two battalions of the 18th Infantry to join the rest of the regiment for the first blow north against Verlautenheide. Another regiment, the 16th Infantry, could not participate in the offensive because of the necessity to defend the division's northeastern wing from a point near Eilendorf to a boundary with the 3d Armored Division at Stolberg. The third regiment, the 26th Infantry, also held a defensive line; yet the positions faced Aachen from the southeast so that the 26th Infantry might assault the city itself after the 18th Infantry had taken Verlautenheide and linked with the XIX Corps.
In terms of distance, the 18th Infantry's northward attack was no mammoth undertaking--only two and a half miles. On the other hand, terrain, pillboxes, and German determination to hold supply routes into Aachen posed a thorny problem. The first objective of Verlautenheide in the second band of the West Wall was on the forward slope of a sharp ridge, denied by a maze of pillboxes provided with excellent fields of fire across open ground. Crucifix Hill (Hill 239), a thousand yards northwest of Verlautenheide, was the next objective, another exposed crest similarly bristling with pillboxes. The third and final objective was equally exposed and fortified: Ravels Hill (the Ravelsberg, Hill 231).
Taking these hills was in itself no minor assignment, yet holding them afterward might prove even more difficult. This would absorb the regiment's three battalions successively and leave them exposed in a thin salient to German blows from two sides. To send to the 18th Infantry's assistance, General Huebner had in reserve but one battalion of the 26th Infantry, plus a hope that some contingent of the 3d Armored Division might be released to his aid. One way he hoped to spare the 18th Infantry was to launch the drive against the city itself the minute encirclement was complete, thereby to tie down those Germans west of the 18th Infantry's salient.13
Perhaps because the 1st Division had faced the enemy at Aachen for several weeks, the G-2, Lt. Col. Robert F. Evans, had a fairly accurate impression of enemy strength and dispositions. Counting support and service troops, his figure of 12,000 Germans in Aachen and the immediate vicinity was fairly accurate, even though attempts to halt the American penetration north of Aachen had sapped considerable strength from the 246th Division. Identifying this division and its neighbors correctly, Colonel Evans also ascertained most of the combat attachments to the 246th Division. These included a weak infantry battalion that formerly had belonged to the 275th Division, a battalion of Luftwaffe ground troops, a machine gun fortress battalion, and a Landesschuetzen battalion. The local or "fortress" commander of Aachen, Colonel Evans correctly identified as Lt. Col. Maximilian Leyherr. Neither Evans
nor intelligence officers of neighboring units knew of German plans to commit the 3d Panzer Grenadier and 116th Panzer Divisions; yet if events marched at the same pace as in recent days, the issue of Aachen might be settled before these reserves arrived.
The 18th Infantry Drives North
In preparing for the attack northward against Verlautenheide, the 18th Infantry commander, Col. George A. Smith, Jr., turned to the lessons he and his men had learned in their first encounter with the West Wall in September. Special pillbox assault teams were organized and equipped with flame throwers, Bangalore torpedoes, beehives, and pole and satchel demolition charges. A battery of 155-mm. guns and a company of tank destroyers, both self-propelled, were prepared to spew direct fire against the pillboxes on the slope about Verlautenheide. An air-ground liaison officer was to accompany each infantry battalion. Preceding the attack, eleven artillery battalions and a company of 4.2-inch chemical mortars were to fire an hour-long preparation. The division's other two regiments and the 1106th Engineers were to feign attack in their sectors. After daylight, a company of medium tanks was to join the infantry in the village.
Linked with a clever use of the cloak of night, Colonel Smith's elaborate preparations paid off, not only at Verlautenheide but against Crucifix Hill (Hill 239) and Ravels Hill (Hill 231) as well. Attacking before dawn on 8 October, a battalion commanded by Lt. Col. John Williams took full advantage of preliminary artillery fires and the darkness to gain Verlautenheide against defenders who for the most part cringed in their foxholes or pillboxes until too late. Other than minor disorganization inherent in a night attack, only one platoon, which stirred up a hornet's nest of machine gun fire along the Eilendorf-Verlautenheide road, met any real difficulty.
That afternoon a company of another battalion commanded by Lt. Col. Henry G. Leonard, Jr., followed preparation fires closely to overrun Crucifix Hill in an hour.14 A giant crucifix atop the hill was demolished later in the afternoon, victim either of shellfire or of American infantrymen who thought the Germans had used it as an observation post. The next night, 9 October, two companies slipped through the darkness past the yawning apertures of enemy pillboxes to gain the crest of Ravels Hill without firing a shot. Even mop-up of eight pillboxes at dawn the next morning was accomplished without shooting. Unaware that the Americans had taken the hill, four Germans unwittingly arrived during the morning of 10 October with hot food for sixty-five men, a welcome change for the Americans from cold emergency rations.
This was not to say that the 18th Infantry did not encounter serious fighting during the forty-eight hours it took to occupy the three objectives. Indeed, small-scale but persistent German counterattacks began as early as dawn the first morning (8 October), then reached a zenith during the morning of 9 October.
Since the enemy's 246th Division was absorbing punishment on two fronts, both from the 18th Infantry's northward push and from southward attacks by the XIX Corps, the Germans had a real problem in releasing troops for counterattack. A solution was possible only because the Americans' northward thrust was on a limited front. Shifting the boundary between the 246th and 12th Divisions two miles to the west at Verlautenheide, General Koechling transferred responsibility for most of the sector threatened by the 18th Infantry to the 12th Division, heretofore untouched by the American attack.15
More damaging than the local counterattacks was German shelling. Perhaps because both U.S. attacks to encircle Aachen were confined to a combined front measuring little more than five miles, the Germans could concentrate their artillery fire with deadly effectiveness. No sooner had Colonel Williams' infantry in Verlautenheide begun mop-up of pillboxes and buildings at daylight on the first morning than this shelling began. As riflemen left their foxholes to ferret the Germans from their hiding places, the shellfire took an inevitable toll. Shelling of open ground between Eilendorf and Verlautenheide prevented Colonel Leonard's battalion from reaching jump-off positions for the attack on Crucifix Hill until midafternoon of the first day. Neither were supporting tanks immune. Shying at the fire and maneuvering to avoid it, a company of tanks seeking to join the infantry in Verlautenheide lost six tanks to mines, panzerfausts, mud, and mechanical failure.
After capture of Crucifix and Ravels Hills, both these exposed heights were subjected to round after round of German fire. Captured pillboxes on the crests represented the only cover worthy of the name. When two tank destroyers tried to climb Ravels Hill, the enemy scored direct hits on both. In Verlautenheide Colonel Williams' infantrymen lived in cellars, popping out to man their foxholes only as shelling temporarily diminished and German assault appeared imminent. Because of thick morning mists that persisted in the form of ground haze for three days, neither American planes nor counterbattery artillery fires could deal effectively with the German guns.
Despite the shelling, the counterattacks, and the fact that the three battalions of the 18th Infantry were stretched thin, the regimental commander, Colonel Smith, succeeded in freeing two rifle companies to seize a fourth objective on 10 October. This was Haaren, a suburb of Aachen controlling the highway to Juelich between Crucifix and Ravels Hills. The division commander, General Huebner, wanted Haaren because capturing it would cut one of two major supply routes left to the Germans in Aachen. Just as in the 18th Infantry's three other attacks, the infantry found seizure of this objective relatively easy; mop-up and defense proved the harder tasks.
Occupation of Haaren underscored the success achieved during the preceding night against Ravels Hill. Because the position for making contact with the XIX Corps was at the base of Ravels Hill, the 18th Infantry's offensive role in encirclement of Aachen was over. Yet the regiment's defensive role might be stretched; for the 30th Division, which was making the XIX Corps attack, had encountered
unexpected resistance during the last three days.
To General Huebner, a final sealing of the ring about Aachen nevertheless must have appeared little more than formality. On 10 October he ordered delivery of an ultimatum to the commander of the enemy garrison in Aachen. If the commander failed to capitulate unconditionally within twenty-four hours, the ultimatum warned, the Americans would pulverize the city with artillery and bombs, then seize the rubble by ground assault. Already troops of the 26th Infantry were jockeying for position in preparation for starting the attack against a jungle of factories lying between the city proper and Haaren.
Full meaning of the capture of Ravels Hill was no more lost upon German commanders than upon General Huebner. Appealing for replacements, Field Marshal Model reported in the trite phraseology of the day that "the situation around Aachen has grown more critical." Unless replacements arrived, Model noted, "continued reverses will be unavoidable."16
Though making no promise of individual replacements, the OB WEST commander, Rundstedt, took notice of the first arrivals of the 3d Panzer Grenadier and 116th Panzer Divisions in the Aachen sector on 10 October. On the same day he gave first official authorization for commitment of these two divisions under the I SS Panzer Corps. Yet several days still might elapse before the 18th Infantry or any part of the 1st Division encountered these reserves, for to his authorization Rundstedt attached a proviso that the reserve divisions must not be committed piecemeal but as closed units. In the light of this condition, the Army Group B commander, Field Marshal Model, saw no hope of a major counterattack before 12 October.
In the meantime, as these German reserves massed, as the ultimatum to the commander of Aachen expired, and as the 26th Infantry began to attack the city, the 18th Infantry continued to hold thinly stretched positions at Verlautenheide and Haaren and atop Crucifix and Ravels Hills. Long days and nights in the line began to tell on the infantrymen, sometimes with costly results. One night someone in a group laying antitank mines on Ravels Hill inadvertently set off one of the mines and precipitated a chain reaction that exploded twenty-two mines. Some thirty-three men were either killed or wounded. Another night a rifle company commander guided a relief platoon from a different company toward his own defensive positions from the enemy side. Confusion and casualties resulted before he could convince his own men of his identity. Setting out on two occasions to contact the 30th Division to the north, patrols made virtually no headway. Possibly no patrol could have accomplished the mission, and accidents like those with the mines and loss of direction are not uncommon; yet the fact remained that the men involved were nervous and tired. Even when not defending their foxholes or hugging the earth to escape shell fragments, they had to attack to clean out a multitude of pillboxes that dotted the landscape or man roadblocks on highways running on either side of Ravels Hill. Relieving these battalions for rest was out of the question in view of the impoverished state of General Huebner's reserve.
The Germans missed a chance for success when they failed to detect the true
condition of the 18th Infantry's defenses. Here was a likely spot for counterattacking to enlarge the pathway into Aachen, yet the Germans in preparing a counterattack missed the spot by a few hundred yards.
That the Germans might be preparing a big blow became apparent to the 1st Division on 14 October upon receipt of an intelligence report noting that the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division was moving to the Aachen sector. Through the early daylight hours of 15 October, both the 18th Infantry and its sister regiment, the 16th Infantry, which defended between Verlautenheide and Stolberg, reported build-up of German infantry and armor in the vicinity of Verlautenheide. By 0830, despite repeated shelling of enemy concentrations, reports indicating a pending attack persisted. An air strike by fighter-bombers at 0900 seemingly failed to deter German preparations. An hour later the Germans attacked.
To the Americans, the thrust which followed was a powerful, well-prepared attack that shattered nerves at more than one echelon of command. In reality, the thrust was a hasty compromise growing out of events that had begun as early as five days before on 10 October. On that day, in cognizance of indications that Aachen might be sealed off before the 3d Panzer Grenadier and 116th Panzer Divisions arrived in entirety, Field Marshal Model at Army Group B authorized piecemeal employment of first arrivals of the 116th Panzer Division.17 Although this measure was to be used only in event of dire emergency threatening loss of all access to Aachen, German commanders on the ground had not far to look during these hectic days to find plenty of dire emergencies. Less than twenty-four hours after receipt of Model's authorization, the Seventh Army's General Brandenberger directed commitment of a regiment of the panzer division against the XIX U.S. Corps.
This precedent established, Brandenberger had no real trouble convincing his superiors that another emergency existed at Verlautenheide, justifying commitment there of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division. A comprehensive plan for a co-ordinated counterattack thus became infected with the fungus of counterattack by installments that quickly ate away what could have been an effective reserve force. German counterattacks now had no genuine relationship other than a common goal of widening the corridor into Aachen.
Subordinated directly to the Seventh Army rather than the LXXXI Corps, the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division concentrated upon a first objective of high ground south and southwest of Verlautenheide, lying generally between that village and Eilendorf. From there the division commander, Generalmajor Walter Denkert, intended to swing northwest against Crucifix Hill (Hill 239).18
General Denkert directed his 29th Panzer Grenadier Regiment to make the main effort on the north from the skirt of a forest east of Verlautenheide. With a current strength of from ten to fifteen Tiger tanks, the bulk of the 506th Tank Battalion was to support the main effort.
Anchoring a left (south) flank on the Aachen-Dueren railroad east of Eilendorf, the 8th Panzer Grenadier Regiment was to launch a coincident subsidiary attack.
From the American viewpoint, the two German thrusts were to strike near the boundary between the 18th and 16th Regiments south of Verlautenheide. Here a 2,000-yard front covering the high ground between Verlautenheide and Eilendorf was held by a battalion of the 16th Infantry commanded by Lt. Col. Joe Dawson. The German thrusts were to converge not against the weakened 18th Infantry but against the extreme left wing of the 16th Infantry.
Upon leaving the woods line that represented the line of departure, both German columns had to cross a flat open meadow before reaching the base of the high ground held by Colonel Dawson's battalion. Forewarned by reports of enemy assembly, artillery of both the 1st Division and the VII Corps was ready. Using prearranged fires, six field artillery battalions were able to concentrate their fire within six minutes of the first warning. Watching the attack from the woods line, the German commander, General Denkert, was impressed with the volume of American shellfire. "It was obvious," General Denkert noted later, "that an advance through this fire was impossible. It was equally impossible to feed the attack from the rear, to move up reserves or ammunition."
General Denkert had no way of knowing that his attack actually was much closer to success than he believed. Though the defensive artillery fires stopped the bulk of his infantry, the Tiger tanks ploughed through to pour direct fire into American foxholes. The men said some of the tanks were captured Shermans and that one still bore the unit markings of an American armored division.19
About noon, less than half an hour after the full fury of the attack hit, Colonel Dawson reported communications to his two left companies disrupted and the situation there "serious." The commander of one of the companies had called for artillery fire upon his own command post. "Put every gun you've got on it," he told his artillery observer. Only a short while later, a messenger arrived at Colonel Dawson's command post. The Germans, the messenger reported, were overrunning both companies.20
Possibly because he had so little concrete knowledge of what was going on, the regimental commander, Col. Frederick W. Gibb, delayed committing his reserve, which consisted only of tanks and tank destroyers. A section each of light tanks and tank destroyers in position in the threatened sector had managed to make but one kill. Instead, Colonel Gibb called for air support and for whatever assistance the 18th Infantry might provide. A report that the 18th Infantry's right wing company had been overrun already had prompted the 18th Infantry commander, Colonel Smith, to send a company from Haaren to set the matter right. Finding the report erroneous upon arrival at Verlautenheide in midafternoon, this company subsequently assumed defensive positions blocking a gap along the interregimental boundary. This was the only force Colonel Smith could spare.
General Huebner wasted no time alerting the division reserve, the battalion of the 26th Infantry, and requesting the
corps commander, General Collins, to alert anything the 3d Armored Division might spare. But like Colonel Gibb, General Huebner delayed committing the reserve until he could know more specifically the extent of the enemy attack.
In the meantime, both corps and division artillery continued to pound the German attack. Seven battalions, plus some of the 3d Armored Division's artillery, participated. Although the situation remained obscure on Colonel Dawson's left wing, the attack by the 8th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, which hit a company on the right wing, definitely collapsed in the face of this fire and after loss of two out of three supporting tanks. The situation there never reached critical proportions.
Arrival of air support in time to save the day appeared doubtful until at 1340 the 30th Division announced release of a squadron which already had dispensed most of its bombs but which still had plenty of strafing ammunition. Ten minutes later P-47's of the 48th Group's 492d Squadron led by Capt. George W. Huling, Jr., were over the 16th Infantry's lines. Two 500-pound general-purpose bombs that the squadron still had the pilots dropped "in the midst" of a concentration of some thirty German vehicles. Then they strafed. "They came in about 25 feet from our front lines," an ecstatic 1st Division G-3 later reported, "and strafed the hell out of the enemy and came down so low they could tell the difference between the uniforms." It was a "beautiful job." So impressed by the performance was the corps commander, General Collins, that he sought the number of the squadron in order to commend the pilots.21
Though the air strike alone hardly could be credited with stopping the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division's attack, it effectively crowned the achievements of the artillery. The fire fight went on at close quarters for the rest of the day, but no real penetration developed. As the situation cleared, General Huebner held on to his reserve. A battalion of tanks from the 3d Armored Division, made available at the height of the fighting, likewise remained uncommitted.
Lack of persistence certainly was no failing of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division. Despite the sound defeat during the afternoon of 15 October, the Germans came back before daylight the next morning. By the light of flares, Colonel Dawson's left unit, Company G, spotted a company of infantry and two tanks as they reached the very brink of the defensive position. Quickly overrunning two squads, the Germans poured through. Confusion reigned. "Nobody knew what the situation was," someone said later, "because the enemy was in front and on both sides of you." Soon thereafter another German company and three tanks struck the adjacent unit as well. This company commander resorted to the stratagem of calling down artillery fire on his own positions. His men later counted some forty enemy dead.
The main threat remained on the left in the sector of Company G. So concerned was General Huebner about the situation there that he released a company of his reserve battalion to back up the threatened sector and directed the rest of the reserve to move to an assembly area close behind the line.
Though the reserve stood by, it never
entered the fight. Aided by mortar and artillery support that was possible because communications remained constant, Colonel Dawson's infantry alone proved equal to the occasion. Though Germans were all among the foxholes and the enemy tanks perched little more than twenty-five yards away to pump fire into the holes, the men held their positions. Had it been daylight, the sight of some withdrawing might have infected others; as it was, the men stayed, basically unaware of what the over-all situation was. Out of little clumps of resistance and individual heroism they fashioned a sturdy phalanx.
Colonel Dawson tried to institute a fire plan whereby his men were to burrow deep in their holes while he called down a curtain of shellfire on and behind the enemy tanks. Coincidentally, a platoon of tank destroyers was to engage the Germans frontally. "The whole thing," Colonel Dawson said, "is to knock them out or make them fight."22 Whether this did the job--indeed, whether the plan worked at all in the maelstrom of confusion--went unrecorded. What mattered was that soon after dawn the German tanks fell back under concealment of a heavy ground haze. The threatened rifle company soon thereafter cleared the last enemy from the positions.
At intervals throughout 16 October the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division continued to probe this weakened sector but usually with small units of infantry supported by two or three tanks. The Germans had lost their chance to break through, thwarted by a rifle company that would not recognize when it was beaten.
The preponderance of losses incurred thus far by the 1st Division had occurred during the first two days while the 18th Infantry was pushing northward and during 15 and 16 October while the left wing of the 16th Infantry was repulsing these enemy thrusts. During the first two days the division incurred 360 casualties of all types; during the latter two, 178. Through 16 October the 1st Division had lost about 800 men, a relatively low figure that reflected the defensive nature of much of the fighting.23
On the German side, severe losses prompted abandonment of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division's fruitless counterattack until the division could regroup.24 In but two days of fighting, this division had lost about one third of its combat effectives.25 Men of the 16th Infantry could attest to these losses; for in front of the left company alone they counted 250 dead, "a figure," the G-3 noted, "unprecedented in the division's history." That went a long way toward explaining why the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division never again came close to breaking the 1st Division's defensive arc.
The 30th Division Strikes South
Thus had the 1st Division seized and then protected its assigned objectives during the first nine days of the operation to encircle Aachen. In the meantime, farther north, the 30th Division of the XIX Corps had been executing the other part of the joint maneuver.
Having turned southward from the West Wall penetration in high spirits on 7 October, the 30th Division commander, General Hobbs, had hoped by nightfall
the next day to be sitting tight on his final objective, awaiting arrival of 1st Division troops. So optimistic was General Hobbs that early on 8 October he told his corps commander that "the job is finished as far as this division is concerned . . . ." He added that he hoped the First Army commander would appreciate "what this division has done."26
As General Hobbs was to learn to his chagrin, he had allowed the easy success of the day before, when his troops had plunged a third of the distance to the link-up objective of Wuerselen, to color his thinking. In the nine days that followed, the three-mile distance remaining before the job actually was completed was to become a route bathed in blood and frustration.
Unlike the 18th Infantry, the 30th Division had no problem at first with enemy pillboxes, for the bulk of the troops already were behind the West Wall. Only the right wing regiment in the west was to encounter pillboxes at the start, and these might be rolled up from a flank. Yet this did not mean that the route of advance was not replete with obstacles. This region to the north and northeast of Aachen is highly urbanized coal mining country, honeycombed with slag piles, mine shafts, and villages that might be adapted readily to defense.
General Hobbs could count on no direct assistance from other divisions of the XIX Corps. Already occupied in protecting the elongated corps north flank west of the West Wall, the 29th Division had had to stretch its resources to send the 116th Infantry to contain Germans holding out northwest of Aachen in order to free the 30th Division's third regiment from that task to join the southward drive. This regiment, the 120th Infantry, commanded by Col. Branner P. Purdue,27 General Hobbs thrust into the center of his sector to attack with his other two regiments on 8 October. The remaining division, the 2d Armored, still held the northern and eastern flanks of the West Wall bridgehead. General Corlett hesitated to weaken this defense, because German penetration of this bridgehead might cut off the 30th Division's southward drive at its base.
Although indications existed that the 30th Division already had neutralized all local German reserves, General Hobbs dared not concentrate on his southward drive to the exclusion of protecting a left (east) flank that would stretch steadily as his troops moved south. To shield his east flank, he directed the 117th Infantry (Colonel Johnson) to seize high ground in the vicinity of Mariadorf, about two miles southeast of Alsdorf, the town which the regiment had taken with ease on 7 October. In addition, he told the 120th Infantry (Colonel Purdue) to take the high ground northeast of Wuerselen.
General Hobbs also told Colonel Purdue to capture high ground east of Wuerselen, between that town and Broichweiden, in order to assure firm control of an arterial highway running diagonally across the 30th Division's zone
from Aachen northeast toward Juelich. This maneuver also was to set the stage for taking Wuerselen. The division's third regiment, the 119th Infantry (Colonel Sutherland), was to take North Wuerselen, little more than a mile (2,000 yards) from Ravels Hill, northernmost 1st Division objective, and protect the division's right (west) flank. Guarding the west flank appeared no major assignment, because the flank would rest on the Wurm River and Germans west of the Wurm seemed a sedentary lot.
Having dealt harshly with the enemy's 49th and 183d Divisions, General Hobbs expected now to encounter primarily portions of the 246th Division, which was specifically responsible for defending Aachen. General Hobbs also might expect to meet diverse contingents of the 12th Division, that might be spared from defense about Stolberg and possibly a panzer brigade which the XIX Corps G-2 persistently warned was in reserve a few miles to the east. Otherwise, the route to Wuerselen seemed clear, unless the enemy should rush in mobile reserves from other sectors or refitted units from deep behind the front. Should the Germans commit major reserves, the most likely spot was against the division's eastern and southeastern flanks.
The XIX Corps G-2, Colonel Platt, had displayed his usual prescience, for this was about the sum of things from the German viewpoint. Even as the 30th Division planned renewal of the southward drive, the panzer brigade which Colonel Platt had warned against, the 108th, and a unit rushed from another sector, Mobile Regiment von Fritzschen, were preparing to strike into the 30th Division's east flank. Reserves from deep behind the front in the form of the 116th Panzer and 3d Panzer Grenadier Divisions were on the way.
That the Germans soon might strike was not apparent on 8 October on the west and in the center of the 30th Division's sector. Closely following the valley of the Wurm, Colonel Sutherland's 119th Infantry picked a way through mined streets of a village on the east bank of the Wurm opposite Kerkrade, then pushed a mile and a half to another village. Advancing in the center toward objectives at Wuerselen and Broichweiden, Colonel Purdue's 120th Infantry soon secured two hamlets despite thick mine fields covered by small arms and antitank fire.
With Colonel Johnson's 117th Infantry on the east the situation at first was much the same. Moving southeast out of Alsdorf toward Mariadorf and the Aachen-Juelich highway, the regiment found advantage in a thick morning mist. The attack progressed steadily until about 0930 when leading platoons began to cross a railroad a few hundred yards west of Mariadorf. Germans from Mobile Regiment von Fritzschen suddenly emerged from Mariadorf behind a curtain of small arms and artillery fire. They quickly sliced off a leading platoon commanded by Lieutenant Borton, who had played a prominent role in the crossing of the Wurm at the start of the West Wall attack. Lieutenant Borton and twenty-six of his men were either killed or captured. German guns disabled three out of four supporting American tanks. Another platoon that tried to advance even after the Germans struck also was cut off; only six men ever made their way back. So costly was the fight that when one of the leading companies eventually retired west of the railroad, only thirty-three men were on hand.
Mobile Regiment von Fritzschen as it appeared against the 117th Infantry on 8 October was an effective force. In addition to two organic infantry battalions, the regiment possessed several attachments, including the eleven tanks available on this date in the 108th Panzer Brigade, which included the 506th Tank Battalion, twenty-two assault guns in three assault gun battalions, an engineer battalion, and a depleted battalion from the 246th Division.28 The mission of this force was to retake Alsdorf and thereby close a great gap in the line of the 49th Division which the Americans had torn the day before in occupying Alsdorf.29
The German corps commander, General Koechling, had intended that Regiment von Fritzschen would attack before dawn on 8 October in order to cross an expanse of open ground between Mariadorf and Alsdorf before the Americans could bring observed artillery fires to bear. Instead, because of air attacks and fuel shortages, the regiment failed to reach Mariadorf until dawn. By the time the regiment was ready to attack the 117th Infantry's drive had reached the railroad west of Mariadorf. No matter how severe the casualties on the American side, German losses were greater. American artillery fire was particularly disturbing, because by the time the Germans struck, morning mists had begun to lift.
This charge west of Mariadorf was but half of Regiment von Fritzschen's attack. At the same time a force of equal size drove toward Alsdorf via the village of Schaufenberg. This attack, too, might have bogged down in the face of American shelling had not the buildings of Schaufenberg provided a partial oasis. From there, some of the tanks and infantry gradually fought their way into Alsdorf, a move that posed the possibility of trapping the bulk of the 117th Infantry southeast of the town.
In Alsdorf, men manning regimental and battalion command posts rallied to the defense. Though surrounded, men in a battalion observation post under the personal leadership of their battalion commander, Colonel McDowell, held off the Germans with carbines and pistols.
Roaming the winding streets of Alsdorf, attached tanks of the 743d Tank Battalion dealt the coup de grâce to Regiment von Fritzschen's attack in less than an hour after the first Germans penetrated the town. The tankers knocked out three Mark IVs, while tank destroyers searched the streets the rest of the day for another which the crewmen christened The Reluctant Dragon. Weaker now by about 500 men, Regiment von Fritzschen shifted to defense.
The counterattack had blunted the 117th Infantry's offensive thrust effectively. Both the regimental commander, Colonel Johnson, and the division commander, General Hobbs, acted to reinforce the regiment at Alsdorf in event this was but an opening blow in a major German counteraction. Colonel Johnson authorized a withdrawal from the railroad to the fringe of Alsdorf, while General Hobbs moved a neighboring battalion of the 120th Infantry into a reinforcing position and solicited assistance from the nearest combat command of the 2d Armored Division. The combat command alerted a
medium tank company for possible commitment at Alsdorf.
These measures taken, General Hobbs ordered resumption of the attack the next morning (9 October). This Colonel Johnson accomplished successfully at Schaufenberg, where a battalion routed remnants of Regiment von Fritzschen, but the bulk of the regiment could not advance across the open ground toward Mariadorf. Evidence existed to indicate that the 117th Infantry's long period of attack without rest--a total now of more than a week--had begun to tell. About noon General Hobbs approved a request from Colonel Johnson to defend the division's east flank from Schaufenberg and Alsdorf rather than from the original objective of Mariadorf.
Though the 117th Infantry made no major gains on 9 October, Colonel Johnson could note with relief that the Germans had not renewed their counterattack against his regiment. The fact was that opening of the VII Corps drive northward against Verlautenheide the day before had diverted German attention. Upon the instigation of Field Marshal Model, an infantry battalion, an engineer battalion and the 108th Panzer Brigade (including the 506th Tank Battalion) had been detached from Regiment von Fritzschen late on 8 October. This force, reinforced by the 404th Infantry Regiment, now returned to its parent 246th Division, was to launch a new thrust farther southwest in the direction of Bardenberg, northwest of Wuerselen, presumably to thwart what looked like impending juncture of the two American drives.30
As events developed, the 404th Regiment and the 108th Panzer Brigade had a hard time getting a thrust going on 9 October because every attempt ran into a prior American attack. Both at Euchen and Birk, two villages astride the route to Bardenberg, the Germans encountered battalions of the 120th Infantry which were driving toward that regiment's final objective, high ground near Wuerselen. Small-scale counterattacks and continuing pressure denied the Americans both Euchen and Birk, but the German timetable for the push to Bardenberg was seriously upset. Not until after dark did the Germans get started on the final leg of their journey.
In passing through Euchen and Birk, the 108th Panzer Brigade had cut directly across the front of the 120th Infantry. In pushing on to Bardenberg, the brigade was to encounter the 30th Division's right wing regiment, the 119th Infantry. During the day of 9 October this regiment had been experiencing bountiful success in a drive aimed at North Wuerselen. Moving against halfhearted resistance from demoralized remnants of the 49th Division, two battalions of Colonel Sutherland's regiment had occupied Bardenberg in late afternoon. With a last burst of energy before night set in, both battalions had charged southeast more than a mile into North Wuerselen. Here they stood little more than 2,000 yards short of the 18th Infantry's objective of Ravels Hill (Hill 231). Closing this gap looked like little more than a matter of mop-up and patrols.
Although the Germans had not known of this last advance when they had planned their thrust against Bardenberg, the chance timing of the attack made them appear Argus-eyed and omniscient.
By striking when and where they did, they made it hurt.
When the two battalions of the 119th Infantry moved into North Wuerselen, they left behind to protect their line of communications at Bardenberg an understrength company commanded by Capt. Ross Y. Simmons. Captain Simmons put the bulk of his troops about a roadblock on the eastern edge of the village astride the highway leading east to Birk and Euchen. Not long after nightfall a covey of half-tracks spouting fire from 20-mm. antiaircraft guns struck this roadblock. No sooner had the Americans beaten back the half-tracks when a larger portion of the 108th Panzer Brigade estimated at five tanks and 300 infantry attacked with fury. Captain Simmons and his men could not hold. The panzer brigade poured through into Bardenberg.
The portent of the German success at Bardenberg was not hard to see. Whether the enemy had strength enough to continue northward and cut off the XIX Corps West Wall penetration at its base was conjectural, but by taking Bardenberg he already had severed communications to the main body of the 119th Infantry in North Wuerselen.
The regimental commander, Colonel Sutherland, alerted his service company and regimental headquarters personnel for possible line duty and ordered his reserve battalion under Colonel Cox to retake Bardenberg from the north. Though one of Colonel Cox's companies got into action quickly, the Germans in Bardenberg were not to be pushed around. The advance carried no farther than a church in the northeastern part of the village.
Tension that prevailed through the night was relieved somewhat early the next morning, 10 October, by a report from the 120th Infantry. Having tried without success the day before to capture the Birk crossroads, a battalion of the 120th Infantry moved by stealth at 0530 and literally caught the Germans in Birk asleep at their posts. The battalion fired only one shot, that by accident. This lack of vigilance at a strategic point controlling the only road by which the enemy in Bardenberg might be supplied and reinforced helped convince General Hobbs and his regimental commanders that the 108th Panzer Brigade had no real knowledge of what an advantageous point d'appui it held there. When the Germans virtually ignored the main body of the 119th Infantry in North Wuerselen until late in the day on 10 October, this belief was strengthened.
That capture of the Birk crossroads had imperiled the 108th Panzer Brigade in Bardenberg hardly was apparent when Colonel Cox's battalion of the 119th Infantry renewed the attack to clear the village soon after daylight on 10 October. The Germans fought back intensely, their tanks hidden in gardens and behind houses, the cellars turned into imitation pillboxes. An estimated ten to twenty half-tracks mounting the pernicious multi-barrel 20-mm. antiaircraft gun formed a protective screen that thwarted all attempts at infiltration. As darkness approached, Colonel Cox could point to little ground gained; only in the knowledge that the attack was making inroads on enemy strength was there consolation. During the day, for example, at Bardenberg, North Wuerselen, and Birk, 30th Division troops and artillery had knocked out twelve German tanks. Ingenious soldiers of the 120th Infantry had destroyed one with a captured Puppchen, a two-wheeled bazooka.
At nightfall Colonel Sutherland reluctantly ordered withdrawal from Bardenberg to permit the artillery to pummel the enemy through the night without concern for friendly troops. In the meantime General Hobbs had become impatient to reopen the line of communications to the main body of the regiment at North Wuerselen so he could get on with the job of linking with the 1st Division. He decided to commit a fresh unit, the reserve battalion of the 120th Infantry.
Early on 11 October this battalion moved into Bardenberg against virtually no opposition. Not until reaching the southern half of the village did the battalion meet the grenadiers of the 108th Panzer Brigade with their ubiquitous tanks and half-tracks. Here the battle was met, but the attrition of the preceding day and night and the commitment of a fresh American battalion had done the trick. The battalion commander himself, Maj. Howard Greer, made a sizable contribution in other than his command role by personally knocking out two tanks with a bazooka. The total bag of enemy armor was six tanks and sixteen half-tracks. Though wounded, a squad leader, S. Sgt. Jack J. Pendleton, ensured the advance of his company by deliberately drawing the fire of an enemy machine gun. He gave his life in the process.31
As the fight progressed in Bardenberg, expeditious use of artillery on other parts of the 30th Division front, the effect of the blocking position of the 120th Infantry at the Birk crossroads, and the action of four squadrons of IX Tactical Air Command fighter-bombers prevented the Germans from sending help. Clearing weather enabled planes to operate for the first time in three days. By last light on 11 October both Bardenberg and the route to North Wuerselen were clear.
Commitment of the 120th Infantry's reserve battalion in Bardenberg absorbed the last infantry unit available in the 30th Division. This worried the division commander, General Hobbs, for reports of continued German build-up with likelihood of a large-scale thrust from east or southeast continued to come in. A worrisome but ineffective visit by the Luftwaffe added to General Hobbs's concern; attention from the long-dormant Luftwaffe had been received with such increasing frequency of late that one hardly could miss the importance the Germans attached to this sector.32 Furthermore, one of the reports General Hobbs received indicated that the 116th Panzer Division might be arriving soon.
Under these conditions, Hobbs believed that to continue his attack eastward and southeastward into the teeth of what might develop into a major enemy blow had the makings of disaster. Since both the 117th Infantry near Alsdorf and the 120th Infantry near Euchen now occupied stanch defensive positions, he decided to forego further attempts to expand his left flank. He told these units to hold in place where they might be ready for any eventuality. Until German intentions were clear, he would confine offensive efforts to capture of Wuerselen in order to accomplish the primary mission of closing the gap in the circle about Aachen.
GERMAN BOY weeps over the few possessions saved from his home outside Aachen.
Viewed from the German side, General Hobbs's concern was not without foundation, though urgency occasioned by continuing American successes might prompt dissipation of incoming German strength. Late on 11 October the first of the 116th Panzer Division's regimental combat teams, composed primarily of the 60th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, had arrived. On the same day, the LXXXI Corps was reinforced further by arrival of a Kampfgruppe Diefenthal, a hybrid collection of survivors of two defunct SS panzer divisions33 in strength of about two battalions. Also arriving on 11 October, headquarters of the I SS Panzer Corps (Keppler) at 2100 assumed command of the northern portion of the LXXXI Corps front.
Faced with the 108th Panzer Brigade's failure at Bardenberg and with loss of North Wuerselen, the Seventh Army commander, General Brandenberger, deemed this emergency serious enough to justify use of Field Marshal Model's recent authorization to employ the 116th Panzer Division as it arrived. Reinforcing the 60th Panzer Grenadier Regiment with the main body of Kampfgruppe Diefenthal, remnants of the 108th Panzer Brigade, and two assault gun units possessing a total of thirty assault guns and howitzers, Brandenberger directed an attack early on 12 October. The mission was to push back the XIX Corps to a line Bardenberg-Euchen, that is, to widen and defend the corridor into Aachen.34 This was a far cry from original German intentions of using the 116th Panzer and 3d Panzer Grenadier Divisions in a concerted counterattack to wipe out the entire West Wall penetration north of Aachen; indeed, commitment of the 60th Panzer Grenadier Regiment was the precedent which four days later was to lead to similar piecemeal use of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division near Verlautenheide.
In line with the decision to maintain a static front except at Wuerselen, General Hobbs directed that the right wing of the 120th Infantry first was to seize high ground just northeast of the town. Thereupon, both the 119th and 120th Infantry Regiments were to reduce Wuerselen. This was the agenda for 12 October on the American side.
As events developed on 12 October, the 30th Division could not accomplish even the advance of little more than a mile from the Birk crossroads to the high ground northeast of Wuerselen. Every unit had to turn to the defensive, for at
almost every point the front blazed. Apparently the Germans during the night had directed that the counterattack by the 60th Panzer Grenadier Regiment be reinforced by local stabs all along the line.
The fight began just after dawn at Birk when a battalion of the 246th Division counterattacked in conjunction with about ten tanks under the 506th Tank Battalion. A three-hour fight ensued. At first, the battalion of the 120th Infantry at the crossroads had but one tank, that commanded by S. Sgt. Melvin H. Bieber. Engaging a brace of the German tanks simultaneously, Sergeant Bieber and his crew forced the enemy to abandon one tank and knocked out the other after twelve hits. As an early morning fog began to lift, other Shermans of Sergeant Bieber's company arrived. Together with supporting artillery, they accounted for five more of the enemy tanks.35
The situation appeared grim at one spot in the 120th Infantry's line when a rifle company lost all four attached 57-mm. antitank guns and when enemy shellfire knocked out the artillery observer and wounded another who tried to take his place. At last the battalion's artillery liaison officer, Capt. Michael S. Bouchlas, made his way forward. Up to this time friendly artillery had been firing spasmodically, sometimes even falling short. After Captain Bouchlas miraculously threaded his way through shellfire to the observation post, the picture changed. Within a half hour the threat was over. By 1030 the regimental commander, Colonel Purdue, could report the situation under control. "I never did see men going like these have been going," Colonel Purdue reported ecstatically. "We are as strong as we can be . . . ."36
Another fight developed as a meeting engagement southeast of Bardenberg when Colonel Cox's battalion of the 119th Infantry moved to strengthen the bulk of that regiment in North Wuerselen. Aided by artillery fire, Colonel Cox quickly drove off the Germans, but identification of prisoners promoted anxiety. Colonel Cox had met a battalion of the 60th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. General Hobbs's fears about arrival of the 116th Panzer Division apparently had materialized. Another identification near nightfall of that division's Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion underscored the concern.
At North Wuerselen, about 200 infantry supported by eight tanks and a few assault guns struck the main body of the 119th Infantry. After destroying five tanks and an assault gun, the 119th Infantry beat off this attack with celerity; but here too identification of prisoners nurtured apprehension. Here the German infantry was SS-Battalion Rink, that part of Kampfgruppe Diefenthal which in happier days had belonged to the 1st SS Panzer Division (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler). To General Hobbs and his anxious staff, this posed the possibility that the entire 1st SS Panzer Division either had arrived or was on the way.
Both General Hobbs and the XIX Corps commander, General Corlett, were frankly worried. They talked in terms of another Mortain and of commandeering antiaircraft, artillery, and service troops to back up the line. "If the 116th Panzer and Adolf Hitler [1st SS Panzer] are in there," General Corlett said, "this is one of the decisive battles of the war."37
While anxiety stimulated by these identifications remained, the 30th Division by noon of 12 October had contained every German thrust. The infantrymen were quick to transfer much of the credit to their supporting artillery and to fourteen squadrons of fighter-bombers that droned about the front all day like reckless but disciplined wasps. Sparkling weather gave both artillery and planes a clear field. At one time the planes attacked a concentration of a reported forty enemy tanks; they left eighteen of them, ground observers said, in flames. "The Germans are nibbling and pushing," General Hobbs reported in midafternoon, "but no general attack."38 Everything was under control or--as General Hobbs put it--his men had "their tails over the dashboard."
The First Army commander, General Hodges, was less sanguine. Even should the 30th Division continue to defend successfully and even should the fight fail to develop in the proportions Generals Corlett and Hobbs feared, the persistent problem of closing the circle about Aachen still would remain. Less visibly perturbed about German potentialities than his two subordinates, General Hodges insisted that they get going again on this primary task. "We have to close that gap," he told General Corlett; "it will have to be done somehow."39
In turn, General Hobbs pleaded for assistance. After almost two weeks of fighting, including the first set attack against the West Wall, his men were worn out, their numbers depleted. Since the start of the West Wall attack on 2 October, the 30th Division had incurred 2,020 casualties, most of them hard-to-replace riflemen. Yet the First Army could provide little help other than to place the separate 99th Infantry Battalion (Maj. Harold D. Hansen) in XIX Corps reserve and to assume control over a combat command from the relatively inactive V Corps front in order to create an Army reserve. If the 30th Division was to be reinforced, General Corlett would have to do it by shuffling his own units.
Though General Corlett hesitated to weaken the northeastern and eastern defensive arcs of the West Wall bridgehead, he nevertheless agreed to give General Hobbs a battalion of the 2d Armored Division's medium tanks. In addition, by assigning the 30th Division a battalion of corps engineers, he relieved the 119th Infantry of responsibility for protecting the division's right flank along the Wurm River. By putting another corps engineer unit, the 1104th Engineer Combat Group (Lt. Col. Hugh W. Cotton), into the line near Kerkrade to contain the enemy in those pillboxes lying west of the Wurm, he freed the regiment of the 29th Division that had been doing that job. This regiment, the 116th Infantry, minus one battalion already attached to the 2d Armored Division, Corlett awarded to Hobbs for continuing the link-up offensive. These orders issued, General Corlett directed that the 30th Division attack early the next morning, 13 October. Though Corlett suggested a wide end run southeast from the vicinity of Alsdorf, both General Hobbs and his regimental commanders demurred. Again they were reluctant to abandon good defensive positions on the east and southeast lest the indicated German strength materialize. Another suggestion that the drive be directed south along the east bank of the Wurm also was abandoned for fear the
rest of the 116th Panzer Division had assembled there. An attack southward along the west bank of the Wurm was out, not only because that also might encounter the panzer division but also because it would involve either a river crossing or a frontal attack against pillboxes in the sector now held by the 1104th Engineers. Only one method of effecting the link-up appeared feasible: to advance on a narrow front through the streets and buildings of Wuerselen.
Assisted by attached tanks from the 2d Armored Division, the two fresh battalions of the 116th Infantry launched this attack on 13 October, but to no avail. Because the attack was on such a narrow front, the Germans were able to concentrate against it the fire of an estimated 6 to 7 battalions of light artillery, 1 or 2 medium battalions, and at least 2 batteries of heavy artillery. Co-ordination between the 116th Infantry and the tanks of the 2d Armored Division was slow to come.40 Neither on 13 October nor on the next two days could the 116th Infantry make more than snaillike progress.
During these three days General Hobbs constantly exhorted the 116th Infantry commander, Col. Philip R. Dwyer, and even called on the commander of the regiment's parent division to help prod the unit forward. But more than this was needed to pry apart the German defense of Wuerselen. Here was located the entire 60th Panzer Grenadier Regiment supported by dug-in tanks and other armor cleverly concealed amid the houses and gardens of the town. Prisoner identifications also pointed to the presence of the 116th Panzer Division's engineer and reconnaissance battalions. Even three dive-bombing missions and an artillery TOT just before a third attack on 15 October failed to turn the trick.41
The First Army commander, General Hodges, was audibly perturbed at the slow pace. Indeed, both Generals Corlett and Hobbs considered they were "walking on eggs" in their relations with the army commander. "I always thought you ought to relieve Leland [Hobbs]," General Hodges told Corlett. "He hasn't moved an inch in four days." General Hobbs, Hodges observed, was always "either bragging or complaining." But General Corlett demurred. He could not believe that General Hodges or his staff realized how severe and constant had been the fighting to close the gap. On the other hand, Corlett was the first to admit that something had to be done to get the drive moving. By nightfall on 15 October he had become convinced that the 30th Division could not make it without broadening its effort. Ordering General Hobbs to make a general attack all along the line, General Corlett met every objection by repeating one sentence: "I want to close the (Aachen) gap."42
General Hobbs nevertheless remained reluctant to order the troops on his east wing to leave prepared positions for exposed ground, capture of which would do little, Hobbs believed, toward closing the Aachen Gap except to provide diversion for the southward drive. Although no additional troops of the 1st SS Panzer Division had been detected, General Hobbs was concerned about identification of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division opposite the VII Corps and about reports that at least another panzer grenadier regiment of the 116th Panzer Division had arrived. In addition, the XIX Corps G-2 had been predicting cautiously that the 9th Panzer Division, unidentified for some days on the British front, soon might be committed here. Hobbs insisted that the troops on his east wing should not debouch into the open to face these possibilities; they should make only diversionary demonstrations.
At last General Hobbs wore down his corps commander's objections. Born almost of desperation, a plan for a new link-up attack the next day, 16 October, took form.
Sealing the Gap
Concern on the American side about delay in forging the last arc of the circle about Aachen was matched if not exceeded by anxiety on the German side that the doom of Aachen was near at hand. Late on 15 October, for example, Field Marshal Model at Army Group B reiterated that "the situation in Aachen may be considered serious."43
Among German commanders, the only hope of relieving Aachen rested with the counterattacks by the 3d Panzer Grenadier and 116th Panzer Divisions. In reality, this was a fairly vain hope, as demonstrated on 15 October when the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division failed to break the lines of the 1st Division's 16th Infantry near Verlautenheide and Eilendorf. The Germans might have noted further that even though the entire 116th Panzer Division had arrived by 15 October, that division had been able to accomplish nothing offensively except for the first commitment of the 60th Panzer Grenadier Regiment four days earlier. So sure of their position were the Americans that they had delivered a surrender ultimatum to the commander of the Aachen garrison five days before on 10 October and the next day had begun assault against the city itself.
Though not so fatalistic, concern on the American side was just as genuine. General Hobbs had expected to reach the 1st Division and Ravels Hill on 8 October; now, seven days later, a gap of more than a mile still existed, In the last three days the 116th Infantry, in striking what was literally the stone wall of Wuerselen, had gained no more than a thousand yards. Obviously, if contact was to be made, the attackers would have to try some other maneuver.
No matter the earlier objections to driving south along the east bank of the Wurm or to crossing the Wurm and striking south along the west bank, these two routes appeared now to offer the only solutions. General Hobbs chose them both. He ordered Colonel Sutherland's 119th Infantry to send two battalions before daylight on 16 October
across the Wurm into the village of Kohlscheid, thence south along the west bank. The remaining battalion was to launch the main effort close along the east bank to seize Hill 194, just across the Aachen-Wuerselen-Linnich highway, northwest of Ravels Hill (Hill 231). The 116th Infantry and a battalion of the 120th Infantry were to renew the frontal assault on Wuerselen, while the separate 99th Infantry Battalion moved from corps reserve to back up the line. General Hobbs's other two regiments, the 117th Infantry and 120th, were to stage diversionary attacks in company strength southeast from Alsdorf on the division's eastern flank. There could be no toleration of halfway measures. This was it.
Even as supporting engineers worked under mortar fire to bridge the Wurm, two battalions of Colonel Sutherland's 119th Infantry forded the river at 0500, 16 October. Within half an hour one of the battalions had reached the fringe of Kohlscheid; the other joined the mop-up an hour before daylight. By noon Kohlscheid was clear.
The main effort by Colonel Cox's 2d Battalion, 119th Infantry, along the east bank of the Wurm did not go so easily. Here SS-Battalion Bucher of Kampfgruppe Diefenthal and a relatively fresh home guard unit, the 2d Landesschuetzen Battalion, had extended the line southwest from Wuerselen. Fire from pillboxes occupied by these units stalled Colonel Cox's leading platoons short of a hilltop lying about halfway between the line of departure and the objective of Hill 194. The situation was disturbing until a platoon under Sergeant Holycross, who early in the West Wall attack had become something of an expert at reducing pillboxes, managed to slip around to one flank. Urging both his men and accompanying tanks forward through a driving rain, Sergeant Holycross once more demonstrated how pillboxes should be taken. Pinning the defenders in their shelters with tank fire, he worked his riflemen in close for the assault. Holycross and his men successively reduced seven pillboxes and captured about fifty prisoners.
As Colonel Cox tried to push through a fresh company to continue the drive to Hill 194 and link-up, the Germans took the intermediate hill under such deadly shellfire that hopes for success of the main effort fell. While seeking to avoid the fire, the tanks became stuck in the mud. Without them the infantry could not advance.
At about this same time the first of the diversionary efforts on the 30th Division's east wing began. Mortars and artillery in support of the 117th and 120th Infantry Regiments maintained a smoke screen across the regimental fronts for half an hour, then opened fire to simulate a preparatory barrage. The Germans bit. Enemy artillery shifted from Colonel Cox's battalion west of Wuerselen to pummel the two east wing regiments. The thunder of the German fires awed the most seasoned fighters.
The more guns the Germans turned against men of the 117th and 120th Infantry Regiments, who were relatively secure in foxholes, the less they had to use against the exposed troops of the 119th Infantry. Leaving one company on the intermediate hill as a base of fire, the rest of Colonel Cox's battalion once more shook loose to advance methodically southward toward Hill 194. Since one of the battalions on the west bank of the Wurm had come abreast, Colonel Cox was assisted by fire into the enemy's flank. Though the
116th Infantry's attack at Wuerselen was still a study in frustration in terms of ground gained, it assisted Colonel Cox by tying down that enemy strongpoint.
Lest the Germans fathom the deception on the east and again turn their full wrath against Colonel Cox's battalion, the two east wing regiments in early afternoon launched another diversion. This time a company of each regiment actually attacked along the common regimental boundary to occupy a limited objective. Two platoons of the 120th Infantry gained the objective, though they had to wade through withering fire to make it. Later in the afternoon, as they sought to withdraw, only well-planned covering fires permitted their escape.
The other diversionary attack by Company E, 117th Infantry, met insurmountable difficulties. First the company had to pass through 500 yards of woods, thick with enemy outposts, before reaching main German positions astride a slag pile and a railroad embankment. Here sat the second of the 116th Panzer Division's panzer grenadier regiments, the 156th.
Although devastating fire from automatic weapons drove back one of Company E's attacking platoons, the other struggled on almost to the railroad embankment. Then the panzer grenadiers emerged from a mine shaft in rear of the platoon. Only six of the Americans ever made their way back.
Reorganizing those of his men who had withdrawn, the company commander, Capt. George H. Sibbald, inched forward in an effort to rescue his surrounded platoon. For more than an hour he and his men fought doggedly through a hail of small arms and shellfire. They still were straining forward when word came that the diversionary thrust had done the job expected of it. Captain Sibbald made a last attempt to reach the surrounded platoon but failed. Reluctantly, he gave the order to withdraw.
Though Company E had lost about fifty men, the diversion had, indeed, helped accomplish the main objective. At 1544 on 16 October, the 1st Division's chief of staff had telephoned to say that men of his 18th Infantry on Ravels Hill could see American troops along the southwestern fringe of Wuerselen. They were men of Colonel Cox's 2d Battalion who had reached their objective, Hill 194. They were less than a thousand yards from the closest foxholes of the 18th Infantry.
Led by S. Sgt. Frank A. Karwell, a patrol left Hill 194 to make the actual physical contact, so long awaited. En route, German fire cut down Sergeant Karwell and prevented the main body of the patrol from crossing the Aachen-Wuerselen highway. Yet the two scouts, Pvts. Edward Krauss and Evan Whitis, continued. As they started up Ravels Hill, they made out figures in American uniforms.
"We're from K Company," the men on the hill shouted. "Come on up."
"We're from F Company," Whitis and Krauss replied. "Come on down."
The men from the 1st Division talked faster and more persuasively. Whitis and Krauss went up. At 1615, 16 October, they closed the Aachen Gap.
1. See 1st Lt. Harry D. Condron, The Fall of Aachen, a preliminary MS in 1st Div Combat Interv files.
2. For a similar view, see MS # A-991 (Koechling, comdr of the LXXXI Corps).
3. LXXXI Corps, KTB, Anlagen, Meldungen der Div. This figure takes no account of division staffs and organic service troops, corps troops, or attached units. For the German story, see Lucian Heichler, The Fall of Aachen, a manuscript prepared to complement this volume, in OCMH.
4. LXXXI Corps KTB, Anlagen, Kampf um Aachen (Corps AAR on Second Battle of Aachen) (hereafter cited as LXXXI Corps, Kampf um Aachen). For historical purposes, the Germans divided the fighting around Aachen into three phases or "battles": first, penetration of the West Wall by the VII U.S. Corps in September; second, penetration of the West Wall north of Aachen and encirclement and reduction of the city; and third, operations east of Aachen in November, referred to in this volume as the "Battle of the Roer Plain." As a result of preservation of LXXXI Corps records covering the period of the "Second Battle of Aachen," plus many other types of sources, detailed information on almost every aspect of this engagement from the German side is available. Only a small portion could be used in this study. Additional details may be derived from the original records and from Heichler, The Fall of Aachen.
5. LXXXI Corps KTB, Tagesmeldungen.
6. Order, 49th Inf Div to Regt von Frittschen, 8 Oct 44, LXXXI Corps KTB, Meldungen der Div.
7. See General Inspekteur der Panzertruppen, Zustandsberichte Panzer-Divisionen, Sep-Oct 44, and Zustandsberichte Panzer Grenadier-Divisionen, Oct 44-Jan 45.
8. OB WEST KTB, 5, 7 Oct 44.
9. FUSA Dir, 29 Sep, as cited in FUSA and VII Corps AARs, Oct 44.
10. 30th Div AAR and G-3 Jnl file, Oct 44; Hewitt, Workhorse of the Western Front, p. 126.
11. XIX Corps Ltr of Instrs, 6 Oct, XIX Corps Ltrs of Instrs file, Oct 44; subsequent tel convs between Corlett and Hobbs, 30th Div G-3 Jnl file, Oct 44.
12. VII Corps AAR, Oct 44.
13. Unless otherwise noted, the 1st Division story is based on official unit records and combat interviews. The records include a special account, Report of Breaching the Siegfried Line and the Capture of Aachen, dated 7 November 1944. A division history, Danger Forward (Atlanta, 1947), is primarily a collection of impressions by war correspondents, of little value for this study.
14. A driving force in the attack on Crucifix Hill was the company commander, Capt. Bobbie E. Brown. Though wounded three times, Captain Brown personally led the attack and knocked out three pillboxes himself. He subsequently received the Medal of Honor.
15. LXXXI Corps, Kampf um Aachen. Unless otherwise noted, subsequent German material in this chapter is based upon the same source.
16. TWX, Rundstedt to Jodl, 1130, 11 Oct 44, relaying Msg, Model to Rundstedt, 1045, 10 Oct 44, OB WEST KTB, Befehle und Meldungen.
17. TWX, A Gp B to Seventh Army, 1145, 10 Oct 44, A Gp B, Operationsbefehle.
18. The German side of this action is based upon MS # A-979, Die 3. Panzer-Grenadier-Division in der Schlacht von Aachen (Denkert). Basic facts are corroborated by contemporary German records.
19. The 5th; possibly captured at Wallendorf.
20. 16th Inf S-3 Jnl, 15 Oct 44.
21. See Msg, sub: Mission Y-21-1, FUSA G-3 file, Oct 44, and IX FC and IX TAC Unit History, Oct 44.
22. 16th Inf S-3 Jnl, 15-16 Oct 44.
23. Casualty figures from VII Corps AAR, Oct 44.
24. OB WEST KTB, 16 Oct 44.
25. LXXXI Corps KTB, Meldungen der Div.
26. 30th Div G-3 Jnl file, 7-9 Oct 44. The telephone journals in this file and others for this period are especially valuable. Unless otherwise noted, the 30th Division story is from these journals, from other official unit records of the division and the XIX Corps, from several noteworthy combat interviews, and from the division's unofficial unit history, Hewitt, Workhorse of the Western Front. The XIX Corps G-2 reports for this period are particularly well done.
27. The previous commander, Colonel Birks, had left on 6 October to become assistant division commander of the 9th Division.
28. Order, 49th Div to Regt von Fritzschen, 8 Oct 44, LXXXI Corps KTB, Meldungen der Div.
29. AAR concerning opns of Regt von Fritzschen on 8 Oct 44, 49th Div to LXXXI Corps, 10 Oct 44, LXXXI Corps KTB, Meldungen der Div. Details of this action on 8 October are available in Heichler, The Germans Opposite XIX Corps.
30. Tel Conv, Seventh Army to LXXXI Corps, 1100, 8 Oct 44, LXXXI Corps KTB, Kampfverlauf; Order, LXXXI Corps to all divs, 8 Oct 44, LXXXI Corps KTB, Befehle an Div.
31. Sergeant Pendleton was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Major Greer received the Distinguished Service Cross.
32. On 9 October Field Marshal von Rundstedt said the greatest danger to the entire Western Front was presently at Aachen. OB WEST KTB, 9 Oct 44.
33. 1st and 12th SS Pz Divisions.
34. TWX, Seventh Army to A Gp B, 1315, 11 Oct 44, A Gp B, Operationsbefehle.
35. Sergeant Bieber subsequently received the DSC.
36. 30th Div G-3 Jnl, 12 Oct 44.
39. XIX Corps G-3 Jnl, 12 Oct 44.
40. A tank company commander, Capt. James M. Burt, did more than his share to alleviate the situation. Though he had two tanks shot from under him and was wounded at the outset on 13 October, Captain Burt personally directed artillery fire from exposed positions, reconnoitered into enemy territory, and rescued several wounded. "Captain Burt held the combined forces together," says his citation for the Medal of Honor, "dominating and controlling the critical situation through the sheer force of his heroic example."
41. Details of the 116th Infantry attacks are available in regimental journals and AAR's for October 1944; see also Tel Convs in 30th Div G-3 Jnl for the period.
42. 30th Div G-3 Jnl, 15 Oct 44; XIX Corps G-3 Tel Jnl, 14-16 Oct 44, loaned by General Corlett; Ltr, Corlett to OCMH 20 May 56; Sylvan Diary, entry of 14 Oct 44.
43. Rpt, OB WEST to OKW/WFSt (relaying rpt, A Gp B), 1800, 15 Oct 44, OB WEST KTB, Befehle und Meldungen.