Looking east from the little German border villages southeast of Aachen, the Huertgen Forest is a seemingly impenetrable mass, a vast, undulating, blackish-green ocean stretching as far as the eye can see. Upon entering the forest, you want to drop things behind to mark your path, as Hansel and Gretel did with their bread crumbs.
By the end of September 1944 the 60th Infantry of General Craig's 9th Division already had tested the forest, encountered small but resolute German units, and drawn back bloodied. Seeking to pass directly through the woods to capture the Huertgen-Kleinhau road net along ridge-top clearings that characterize the eastern half of the forest, one regiment had proved no match for an enemy utilizing the defensive potentialities of the forest to advantage. Even an attempt to gain a compromise objective had failed. This was the try at turning south through Deadman's Moor (the Todten Bruch) to link with another regiment which had stalled half in, half out, of the West Wall in the Monschau Corridor. (See Map IV.)
As October opened and First Army's General Hodges prepared to clear up unfinished business before renewing a general offensive, the Huertgen Forest still stood unconquered athwart the path to the Roer River of the right wing of General Collins' VII Corps. It could not be wished away. To General Collins, who had served in the Meuse-Argonne campaign of World War I, the Huertgen Forest was a logical spot for concealed assembly and counterattack into the right flank of the VII Corps, much as the Argonne Forest had posed a threat to the American left flank twenty-six years before.1 As had American commanders in the Argonne in October 1918, those in October 1944 believed they might neutralize the forest facing them by seizing heights along the eastern edge.
Beyond this negative factor of neutralizing the forest against enemy concentration, the prospect of conquering the forest posed several positive advantages. Most of these centered about the crossroads village of Schmidt, which sits astride one of the highest ridge tops west of the Roer in a clearing on the southeastern fringe of the forest. En route to Schmidt, an attacker might pave the way for subsequent capture of the Huertgen-Kleinhau road net leading northeast to Dueren by occupying the villages of Germeter and Vossenack. From Vossenack, a move two miles to the southeast across the deep gorge of the little Kall River leads to Schmidt. Occupying this crossroads village would expose from the rear the stubborn pillbox defenses in the Monschau Corridor that had halted the extreme right wing of the VII Corps in September. With both Schmidt and the Monschau
The Roer River Dams
Corridor in hand, the VII Corps might peg its right flank firmly along the upper reaches of the Roer from Schmidt to the headwaters at Monschau. Another part of the front would have been put in order in preparation for the main drive across the Roer to the Rhine.
Having cut the 9th Division's frontage in half since the mid-September fighting, General Collins told General Craig to regroup the division for a stronger attempt to penetrate the forest. The objective he assigned was Schmidt.2
The Neglected Objective
As the 9th Division in early October prepared to attack, few within the American command appeared to appreciate the critical importance of another objective which capture of Schmidt might expose. This was a multiple objective, a series of seven dams near the headwaters of the Roer. Though three of the seven are on tributaries of the Roer, all came to be known collectively as the Roer River Dams. (Map 5)
The two principal dams are the Urft and the Schwammenauel. Constructed just after the turn of the century on the Urft River between Gemuend and Ruhrberg,
the Urft Dam is capable of impounding approximately 42,000 acre-feet of water. Built in the mid-thirties near Hasenfeld, about two miles downhill from Schmidt, the Schwammenauel Dam creates a reservoir encompassing about 81,000 acre-feet. The Schwammenauel is of earth construction with a concrete core. Both the principal dams were designed for controlling the Roer River and providing hydroelectric power for Dueren and other cities downstream to the north.3
Lesser dams downstream from the Schwammenauel are at Heimbach and Obermaubach. These were designed primarily to create equalizing basins in accordance with industrial needs farther downstream. Of the other three dams, the Paulushof, near the confluence of the Roer and the Urft at Ruhrberg, was designed primarily to regulate water levels at the headwaters of the Schwammenauel reservoir; the Kall Valley Dam, on the upper reaches of the Kall River near Lammersdorf, has only a small capacity; and the Dreilaenderbach Dam creates the Hauptbecken Reservoir near Roetgen on the headwaters of the Vicht River. The
Dreilaenderbach Dam was in American hands before the 9th Division's October attack.4
Value of the Roer River Dams to German defense was outlined several days before the 9th Division's October attack by the division G-2, Maj. Jack A. Houston. "Bank overflows and destructive flood waves," Major Houston concluded, "can be produced [on the Roer River] by regulating the discharge from the various dams. By demolition of some of them great destructive waves can be produced which would destroy everything in the populated industrial valley [of the Roer] as far as the Meuse [Maas] and into Holland."5 The intimation was fairly obvious: should the Allies cross the Roer downstream from the dams, the Germans could release the impounded waters to produce a flood that would demolish tactical bridges and isolate any force east of the Roer. Allied troops beyond the river would be exposed to destruction in detail by German reserves.
Despite this hazard, the Roer River Dams were not a formal objective of the 9th Division's October attack.6 Indeed, as the division prepared to attack, advisers to the First Army commander minimized the defensive value of any floods which might be produced. On 3 October, the day after the 9th Division's appraisal appeared, the First Army's intelligence section believed that if "all of the dams" in the entire First Army sector were blown, "they would cause at the most local floodings for about 5 days counted from the moment the dam was blown until all the water had receded."7 Two days later the First Army engineer amended this view somewhat with the opinion that "widespread flooding" might result.8 But not for a long time were American commanders to appreciate the true value of the dams to the Germans. One explanation might rest in the fact that during October all reservoirs in the system were "considerably drawn down, in amount estimated at 30-50 percent of total capacity."9 Yet as late as 28 November, after water level in the reservoirs had risen as high as two thirds of capacity, the First Army G-2 still could express the theory that "the economic importance of the dams to life in the Rhenish cities
could prevent the enemy blowing them up as part of a 'drowned earth' policy."10
Closer to reality was an early appraisal by the XIX Corps engineer. Aware that his corps eventually was to cross the Roer downstream from the dams near Juelich, where banks of the river are low, the XIX Corps engineer warned his corps commander on 8 October. "If one or all dams were blown," he estimated, "a flood would occur in the channel of the Roer River that would reach approximately 1,500 feet in width and 3 feet or more deep across the entire corps front . . . . The flood would probably last from one to three weeks."11
Unfortunately, the XIX Corps engineer went on to dismiss the subject because all the dams were in the VII Corps zone. The VII Corps, he noted, "could be requested to capture and prevent destruction although they can be presumed to do so as their area is affected also."12 On the contrary, General Collins and the VII Corps at this time were engrossed in plans to subdue Aachen and to send the 9th Division through the Huertgen Forest. They paid scant attention to an objective like the dams that did not lie along the planned route to the Roer and the Rhine.13
General Eisenhower's headquarters, SHAEF, remained aloof from the subject of the dams until 20 October, several days after the 9th Division's Huertgen Forest attack had ended. On that date the SHAEF G-2 repeated and enlarged upon information originally obtained by the V Corps from a German prisoner. In Dueren, the prisoner said, a persistent ringing of the city's church bells was to mean the dams had been blown. The people were to evacuate the city, because the flood there would reach a depth of almost twenty feet. Turning to photographic files, SHAEF noted that air cover of all dams except the Urft had existed since 10 September. Allied air officials, SHAEF remarked, were "prepared to study [the] question of [air] attack."14
Like the First Army, General Bradley's headquarters, the 12th Army Group, minimized the possible effects of a flood. Like SHAEF, the 12th Army Group in October looked upon the dams as "an Air Force matter."15
A realistic view toward the Roer River Dams was slow to come. All through October and November, the First Army and, in later stages, the Ninth Army were to fight to build up along the west bank of the Roer downstream from the dams without making any specific effort to capture the dams. Yet neither army could cross the Roer until the dams were either captured or destroyed.
Just how long it took the American command to adopt a realistic attitude toward the dams is apparent only from the denouement of First Army operations through October and November and into December. As one considers the unfolding
of operations in the Huertgen Forest and farther north amid the villages of the Roer plain, it becomes increasingly evident what a predominant role these dams came to play in German thinking and how determined German defense of the region of the dams had to become before American commanders heeded the danger.16
What happened in February 1945 as troops of the First Army at last neared the dams and the Germans attempted in panic to blow them was a flood in the valley of the Roer lasting one day short of two weeks.17 This the Germans accomplished with only partial destruction of but one dam, the Schwammenauel.
Had the Roer River Dams been an objective of the 9th Division's October attack, it is logical to assume that some extraordinary effort might have been made to reinforce the division. As it was, the division commander, General Craig, had a problem of concentrating enough strength to make a genuine difference between the projected attack and the one-regiment thrust which the 60th Infantry had launched without success in September.
Through September the 9th Division had operated on a front stretching from Schevenhuette, near Stolberg, south through the Huertgen Forest and the Monschau Corridor to the Hoefen-Alzen ridge, southeast of Monschau, a distance of almost twenty miles. Even after entry of the Ninth Army into the line in Luxembourg enabled the First Army to adjust its corps frontages, the 9th Division still covered a front of nine miles. One regiment, the 47th Infantry, had to remain on the defensive at Schevenhuette. (Map 6) This left but two regiments free to attack: the 39th Infantry, which had been relieved in the Monschau Corridor by the 4th Cavalry Group, and the 60th Infantry. Even this concentration would have been impossible had not an attached unit, the 298th Engineer Combat Battalion, held much of the Huertgen Forest front with roadblocks at intervals between Schevenhuette and Deadman's Moor (Todten Bruch).
Hope for success of the 9th Division's attack obviously rested less with American strength than an expectation of German weakness. For all the sacrifices the Huertgen Forest already had exacted from the 60th Infantry, no one yet had accorded any particular respect to the enemy units defending there. The division G-2, Major Houston, estimated that German strength opposite the entire nine-mile front totaled no more than 5,000 men representing some fourteen separate home guard and replacement battalions. These, Major Houston believed, possessed no definite regimental organization and probably were no more than loosely and ineffectively knit together under an ersatz division staff. Although German leadership was for the most part excellent, Major Houston remarked, morale was "characteristically low."18
The First Attack on Schmidt
6-16 October 1944
Basically, American intelligence estimates were correct. What they failed to remark was that in this kind of terrain high-level organization and even morale might not count for much.
Until the day after General Collins directed a new attack, German units opposite the 9th Division had represented two divisions, the 275th and 353d Infantry Divisions. During the battle of the Stolberg Corridor in mid-September, the 353d Division had been little more than a headquarters attached to the LXXXI Corps; but subsequently the division had been shifted into the Huertgen Forest, shored up with conglomerate units, and transferred to the neighboring LXXIV Corps (General Straube). In the meantime, the 275th Division had been falling back in front of the XIX U.S. Corps from Maastricht to the West Wall. After arrival of a new division to occupy the West Wall in front of the XIX Corps, the LXXXI Corps commander had transferred the remnants of the 275th Division into the forest near Schevenhuette. So that defense of the forest might not be weakened by a corps boundary, the Seventh Army commander, General Brandenberger, had transferred the 275th Division in place to the LXXIV Corps. During the latter days of September, both divisions had pursued the laborious task of rebuilding.
On 1 October, as the 9th Division began to prepare its attack, the commander of the 275th Division, General Schmidt, unexpectedly received orders to absorb into his division both the troops and the sector of the 353d Division. Headquarters and noncombatants of the 353d Division were disengaged. A man who bore the same name as the 9th Division's objective now became lord of the entire Huertgen Forest.19
The total of General Schmidt's infantry combat effectives when he first had moved into the Huertgen Forest was roughly 800. By 3 October, when absorption of the 353d Division was complete, he could point to a combat strength of 5,000, plus an additional 1,500 men in headquarters and service units. As the 9th Division G-2 had predicted, regimental organization was shaky; nevertheless, the front had been formally broken down into three regimental sectors. In the north was the 275th Division's organic 984th Regiment; in the center, a variety of units from the 353d Division which were to be designated the 985th Infantry Regiment; and in the south, where the 9th Division was to strike, a former component of the 353d Division labeled the 253d Regiment. This regiment commanded a colorful array of unrelated units composed of replacements, Landesschuetzen, a few combat veterans, and others.
In division reserve, General Schmidt had a replacement battalion numbering about 200 men and the 275th Fusilier Battalion with about 400 men. Also available but currently engaged in constructing defenses near Dueren were about 600 men under one of the division's organic regiments, the 983d.
For artillery support, General Schmidt had only 13 105-mm. howitzers, 1 210-mm. howitzer, and 6 assault guns. Other
than bazookas and panzerfausts, the assault guns were the only weapons available for antitank defense.
Other weapons were almost as diverse as the men who manned them. Though machine guns and mortars were of various types, they had enough of neither. Even rifles were of various types and makes, a fact which further complicated an ammunition supply situation already acute. All weapons, particularly artillery pieces, had to practice stringent ammunition economy, though presence in the division sector of an adequately supplied antiaircraft artillery regiment was to alleviate the artillery situation somewhat.
During the first week of October, the 275th Division worked night and day on defensive positions. Mainly these were field fortifications--log bunkers, foxholes, connecting trenches, wire entanglements, mine fields, and roadblocks. The line followed generally the Rother Weh and Weisser Weh Creeks which bisect the approximate center of the forest, though some strong outposts were established west of the creek beds.
Like the Americans, General Schmidt at this stage apparently took no special cognizance of the Roer River Dams. His mission, as he interpreted it, was to repulse the Americans inside the Huertgen Forest in order to deny access to the high clearings near the Roer which overlook flatlands leading to the Rhine. If he considered any feature within his sector more important than the others, it was the Huertgen-Kleinhau road net which leads to Dueren. Paradoxically, neither adversary in the first big fight to occur in the vicinity of the Roer River Dams apparently was thinking in terms of this important objective.
To the First Clearing
The American commander, General Craig, directed attack from positions deep in the forest about a mile west of the Weisser Weh Creek. Ordering his two regiments to move abreast, he designated as first objectives the village of Germeter and settlements of Wittscheidt and Richelskaul, which lie north and south, respectively, of Germeter. Capture of these points would sever the main Monschau-Huertgen-Dueren highway and also provide egress from the forest into the first big clearing along the projected route to Schmidt.
Attacking toward Wittscheidt and Germeter, the 39th Infantry on the left wing also was to guard against counterattack from the north from the direction of Huertgen. After occupying the first objectives, the 39th Infantry was to push on to Vossenack and subsequently southeast across the Kall River gorge to Schmidt. Upon seizure of Richelskaul, the 60th Infantry on the right wing was to turn south to occupy high ground about two forest-cloaked road junctions. Control of these points would block enemy movement against the division's penetration from the direction of the Monschau Corridor and open the way for a subsequent advance into the flank of the corridor.
As demonstrated in later fighting over this same terrain, the weak point in General Craig's plan lay in an inability to protect the left (northern and northeastern) flank once the 39th Infantry left Germeter for Vossenack and subsequently for Schmidt. This flank would stretch eventually to at least six miles. To help protect it, General Craig would have at
best but one battalion in division reserve. This probably would be a battalion of the 60th Infantry which on the first day was to feign attack eastward from a position near Jaegerhaus, a forester's lodge southwest of Deadman's Moor (Todten Bruch).
If General Craig found any consolation in regard to this situation, it would have been in an erroneous belief which the division G-2 expressed two days after the attack began. "It is felt," the G-2 said, "that should a major breakthrough occur, or should several penetrations occur, the enemy will begin a withdrawal to the Rhine River, abandoning his Siegfried Line."20 It was late in the West Wall fighting for this kind of thinking to persist.
To initiate the attack on Schmidt, seven squadrons (eighty-four planes) of IX Tactical Air Command fighter-bombers were to hit three priority targets: first, a heavily forested plateau between the Weisser Weh and Germeter, where the enemy had located his main line of resistance; second, Germeter; and third, the forest-cloaked road junctions which were the 60th Infantry's final objectives. Supplemented by three battalions and two additional batteries of corps guns, 9th Division artillery was to follow the air strike with a sharp five-minute preparation.
Though the attack was scheduled for 5 October, low-hanging clouds which obscured targets from the fighter-bombers prompted successive postponements. At noon General Craig called off the attack until the next day. On 6 October, the weather cleared over the targets, but local fog over airfields in Belgium persisted. To the infantrymen, waiting with keyed nerves beneath the dark umbrella of fir branches, it looked like another dry run. At last, shortly after 1000, a steady drone of planes drew near.
Against targets marked with red smoke by the artillery, the bombing began. Diving low, P-47 Thunderbolts of the 365th and 404th Groups struck with precision. Then outgoing shells from the throats of big artillery pieces stirred the tops of the tall firs. Three minutes of fire. Five minutes of silence. Two minutes of fire. At 1130, attack.
Men of both regiments discovered early that the first clearing in the Huertgen Forest was much farther away in terms of fighting and time than was indicated by the mile that showed on maps. Still 800 yards west of the Weisser Weh, the 2d Battalion, 60th Infantry, under Maj. Lawrence L. Decker, smacked against an outpost position that eventually would require almost a week to reduce. Though the 39th Infantry pushed back outposts in its sector, it was a gradual process crowned by even more rigid resistance from pillboxes along the east slope of the Weisser Weh. The Germans and the forest together were putting a high price on this little piece of real estate.
Some idea of the stiff asking price was apparent from the first. One company of the 2d Battalion, engaging the outpost west of the Weisser Weh, ended the first day with two officers and sixty men, little more than a platoon. Though not engaged during the day by small arms fire, another battalion lost a hundred men to shellbursts in the trees.
As reflected in casualty figures, advances were for the most part painfully slow. Because each regimental sector contained only one trail leading east and because these and the firebreaks were blocked with mines and felled trees, tanks
and other direct fire weapons could not assist. Fighting was reduced to the simple equation of man against man, rifle against rifle, machine gun against machine gun. Though supporting artillery averaged about 5,000 rounds a day along the division front and fighter-bombers were active most of the time, so closely were the combatants locked that little of this fire could be directed against those positions posing the immediate problems. Relatively impervious to shelling themselves, the Germans in their bunkers could direct mortar and artillery fire to burst in the treetops and spray deadly ricochet fragments upon the floor of the forest. On the American side, the fight amid the firs was a plodding exercise in unsupported infantry maneuver.
Two exceptions to the pedestrian pace developed, both on the second day, 7 October. While P-47's strafed and bombed Germeter, a company of the 39th Infantry slipped past German positions on the wooded plateau between the Weisser Weh and Germeter to gain the woods line overlooking the village. In the face of immediate reaction by fire from Germans in the buildings, the battalion commander, Colonel Thompson, hesitated to order the company from the concealment of the woods. Before risking his men in the open astride a main highway, Colonel Thompson wanted tanks or antitank guns and some means of supplying them other than by long hand-carry through the woods.
In the 60th Infantry's sector, a battalion under Colonel Chatfield faced much the same situation. Committed around a flank of the German outpost that had stymied the 2d Battalion west of the Weisser Weh, Colonel Chatfield's men by nightfall were overlooking the settlement of Richelskaul. Like Colonel Thompson, Colonel Chatfield was reluctant to debouch from the woods without armor or antitank support.
To grant passage for heavier weapons, engineers worked around the clock clearing firebreaks and trails. Because the Germans opposing Major Decker's 2d Battalion west of the Weisser Weh continued to hold out obstinately, the most direct route to the rear for the 60th Infantry was denied. Supply parties hand-carrying rations and ammunition incurred severe losses from shelling, antipersonnel mines, and roving patrols. Not until nightfall of the third day (8 October) did tanks and tank destroyers negotiate the tortuous terrain to gain the woods line.
From the German viewpoint, an American offensive in such "extensive, thick, and nearly trackless forest terrain" had come as a surprise.21 The 275th Division commander, General Schmidt, nevertheless had marshaled his 275th Fusilier Battalion and committed it, as the Americans had anticipated, against the north flank of the 39th Infantry. That regiment took care of the thrust in short order. On 8 October the 275th Division engineers and 600 men of the 983d Regiment arrived from Dueren to strike Colonel Chatfield's battalion of the 60th Infantry near Richelskaul. In a case like this, the Germans instead of the Americans were prey to tree bursts and other confusions of the forest. They fell back in disorder.
By 8 October German shelling had increased. It stemmed from an order by the LXXIV Corps commander, General Straube, that more than doubled the 275th Division's original artillery strength. General Straube directed support from batteries of the neighboring 89th Division,
an antiaircraft artillery regiment, and a volks artillery corps.
The Seventh Army commander, General Brandenberger, provided meager assistance in the form of two fortress infantry battalions, but both battalions incurred forbidding losses on the first day of commitment. By the end of the third day the Germans still maintained a continuous line along the west edge of the first clearing at Wittscheidt, Germeter, and Richelskaul, but further counterattacks before additional reserves could arrive were out of the question. The impoverished state of German reserves was illustrated dramatically on 9 October when two companies of overage policemen from Dueren were thrust into the line near Wittscheidt.
The Germans in the Huertgen Forest were convinced that they faced an enemy with a well-nigh unlimited supply of top-notch, rested, and well-equipped combat troops specially trained and experienced in forest fighting. That the two regiments of the 9th Division could create an impression so different from the fact of a tired, overextended division, replete with inexperienced replacements, represents perhaps the highest tribute that can be paid them. The Germans were awed particularly by the efficiency of American communications as manifested by lightning shifts and adjustments in artillery fires.
After tanks and tank destroyers at last reached both American regiments late on 8 October, plans progressed to break out of the forest into the first clearing the next day. At Richelskaul, Colonel Chatfield's battalion attacked in a wedge formation behind a platoon of medium tanks. Their machine guns and cannon blazing, the tanks stormed so quickly from the forest that the Germans had virtually no chance to fight back. When a lieutenant dared to rise from his foxhole to fire a panzerfaust, one of the tank gunners sliced him in half with a round from his 75. So demoralized were the other Germans that almost a hundred surrendered and others fled. A count revealed fifty German dead.
In the sector of the 39th Infantry, another day was needed before both attacking battalions could build up along the woods line. Only two platoons that occupied westernmost buildings of Wittscheidt emerged from the woods on 9 October. Before dawn the next morning, a local counterattack apparently staged by a conglomerate German force overran these platoons. Retaking the position with the aid of tanks was all that could be accomplished here during the rest of 10 October. Of the two platoons, which had totaled forty-eight men, only one body was found.
Wariness over this action on the regimental north wing forestalled any major offensive action by Colonel Thompson's battalion at Germeter until early afternoon when patrols reported that the Germans had withdrawn. Advancing cautiously into the village, the battalion found only enemy dead. After five days the 39th Infantry at last had gained one of its first objectives. From the line of departure west of the Weisser Weh to the first clearing, the forest fighting had cost the 9th Division's two regiments together almost a thousand men.
Toward Raffelsbrand and Vossenack
Having gained the first clearing a day ahead of the 39th Infantry, the 60th Infantry began the second leg of the attack on 10 October even as the other regiment
was moving into Germeter. Shifting his reserve battalion to hold Richelskaul, the regimental commander, Col. John G. Van Houten, directed Colonel Chatfield to re-enter the woods to secure the first of the two road junctions which were the regiment's final objectives. The first was near Raffelsbrand, a forester's lodge about a mile southwest of Richelskaul.
As Colonel Chatfield's battalion attacked soon after noon on 10 October, the first impression was of dreary repetition of the pedestrian pace which had prevailed most of the time elsewhere in the forest. Then suddenly, as one company knocked out a pillbox near the road leading from Richelskaul to Raffelsbrand, the drive picked up momentum. Urging their men forward, the company commanders unhesitatingly bypassed enemy strongpoints. The Germans began to surrender in bunches. In less than three hours Colonel Chatfield's men seized the road junction and staked claim to the wooded high ground around it. They had taken more than a hundred prisoners.
Despite this creditable operation, as night fell Colonel Van Houten must have considered his regiment in an unenviable position. His reserve committed at Richelskaul, he had no force available to prevent the Germans cutting in behind Colonel Chatfield's advanced position. The 2d Battalion, commanded now by Maj. Quentin R. Hardage, still was engaged west of the Weisser Weh against the German outpost which since the opening day of the offensive had shown no signs of collapse. Continued attacks against the position had shrunk the battalion alarmingly.
Before daylight the next morning, 11 October, German action began to emphasize these concerns. A company-size counterattack struck Colonel Chatfield's position at Raffelsbrand. Though beaten off, the enemy maintained pressure here the rest of the day and crowned it just before dark with a bayonet charge. Although tanks and tank destroyers passed the roadblocks to reach Raffelsbrand, their presence complicated the supply picture. As expected, German patrols and snipers made supply through the thick forest a hazardous task.
Taking the risk of defending Richelskaul with but one company, Colonel Van Houten sent the rest of his "reserve" battalion in midmorning to attack northwest from Raffelsbrand toward the regiment's remaining objective, Road Junction 471. This road junction lies not quite half the distance between the two forester's lodges of Raffelsbrand and Jaegerhaus.
Hope that this move might develop into a rapid thrust like Colonel Chatfield's was stymied, a direct result of the fact that Colonel Chatfield's battalion had advanced so quickly the day before. Of two companies which headed for Road Junction 471, one became fruitlessly embroiled with pillboxes which had not been cleared along the Richelskaul-Raffelsbrand road. The other became similarly engaged with a pillbox in rear of the Raffelsbrand position.
Events on 11 October might have proved thoroughly discouraging had not Major Hardage's 2d Battalion west of the Weisser Weh at last begun to detect signs of collapse in the outpost that had thwarted the battalion for five days. Driving southward against a flank of the outpost, the battalion began to make measured but steady progress. By the end of the day, the Germans had fallen back about 800 yards. While the weary
riflemen probably could detect little difference between one forest-cloaked piece of terrain and another, the battalion's position at nightfall actually posed a threat to the remaining regimental objective, Road Junction 471.
Reports from prisoners that they had received no reinforcements and had not eaten for three days somewhat dimmed the luster of this advance; yet Major Hardage's battalion after five days of Huertgen Forest fighting was almost as depleted as the enemy unit. Any numerical advantage the Americans may have possessed lay only in bug-eyed replacements who had begun to arrive in small, frightened bunches.
Like the others of the two regiments when they first entered the Huertgen Forest, these replacements had to adjust themselves to the tricks of woods fighting. Protection against shells that burst in the treetops was the main thing. Foxholes, the men soon learned, meant little unless roofed with logs and sod. If caught by shelling while out of a foxhole, your best bet was not to fall flat but to stand or crouch close against the base of a tree so that the smallest possible body surface would be exposed to fragments from above. As anyone would tell you, moving about at night was tantamount to suicide. Adjusting artillery and mortar fire by sight was impossible, even with the aid of smoke shells. You had to rely on sound. If you had a map, you might determine your position in the forest by means of cement survey markers to be found at intersections of firebreaks. Numbers on these corresponded to numbered squares on the map. Without a map, you had to depend on a compass--if you had a compass. There was a lot to learn in the Huertgen Forest.
While the 60th Infantry re-entered the forest to seize the road junctions southwest of Richelskaul, the 39th Infantry attempted to move into the open, to advance across fields from Germeter to the regiment's second objective, the village of Vossenack. From Vossenack the 39th Infantry was to continue southeastward across the Kall gorge to Schmidt, the final objective.
In this instance, men of the 39th Infantry found that the thick forest which they hated actually might be employed to advantage. During 11 October several attempts by Colonel Thompson's battalion in Germeter to move across open ground to Vossenack accomplished nothing. Each time German assault guns in Vossenack exacted a prohibitive toll of Thompson's supporting tanks. Yet at the same time another battalion under Lt. Col. R. H. Stumpf advanced under the cloak of a wooded draw from Wittscheidt to a position north of Vossenack, only a few hundred yards from the objective.
Though delayed at first by a severe shelling, once Colonel Stumpf's battalion entered the woods east of Wittscheidt, the men found surprisingly light resistance. By late afternoon the battalion had advanced almost a mile apparently undetected, and was ready to emerge from the woods onto an open nose of the Vossenack ridge northeast of the village, where it could cut off the objective from the rear.
Despite the encouragement provided by this battalion's success, the 9th Division commander, General Craig, was cautious. To defeat Colonel Stumpf's move against Vossenack, all the Germans had to do was to hold fast in the village while striking with another force from the north into the rear of Stumpf's battalion. General Craig directed that Colonel Stumpf delay until
the next day when Colonel Thompson's battalion in Germeter might hit Vossenack simultaneously from the west.
As night came on 11 October Colonel Stumpf‘s battalion was stretched in an elongated column of companies through the woods north of Vossenack. This put a maximum strain on still another battalion of the 39th Infantry that heretofore had not participated in offensive thrusts eastward, yet had been heavily engaged nevertheless. Commanded by Lt. Col. Frank L. Gunn, this battalion had been charged with protecting the regimental north flank against likely counterattacks from the direction of Huertgen. This was no minor task, as Colonel Gunn soon discovered. Though the 298th Engineers and the 9th Division's reconnaissance troop assumed responsibility for blocking the Weisser Weh draw, Colonel Gunn's companies still became overextended. After Colonel Stumpf‘s battalion had moved fingerlike into the woods north of Vossenack, Colonel Gunn not only had to defend Wittscheidt but also had to send a company east of the highway to maintain contact with the tail of Stumpf's battalion.
Plans for 12 October were for Major Hardage's 2d Battalion, 60th Infantry, to continue southward down the Weisser Weh to Road Junction 471 and for the 39th Infantry to launch a co-ordinated, two-battalion attack against Vossenack. Though no battalion of the two regiments could field more than 300 men and neither the regiments nor the division had other than a nominal reserve, prospects for success on 12 October were relatively bright. Both the preceding days had brought undeniable cracks in German defenses.
Though persisting in the belief that the enemy's over-all policy was withdrawal, the 9th Division G-2 noted that the enemy's more immediate concern was to re-establish a Huertgen Forest line similar to that which had existed before the 9th Division's attack. The most likely direction for a counterattack to take to accomplish this, the G-2 remarked, was from the northeast against the 39th Infantry, probably from Huertgen. In addition, the enemy might counterattack the 60th Infantry with a complementary drive from the south.
As to the enemy's immediate plans, the 9th Division G-2 hardly could have been more prescient, even had he known that on 10 October the enemy commander, General Schmidt, had been honored by visitors who had promised help. These were the army and corps commanders, Generals Brandenberger and Straube, who had informed Schmidt they would send him a regiment with which to counterattack on 12 October.
During the night of 11 October trucks carrying 2,000 men of Regiment Wegelein rolled north from former positions along the Luxembourg border. Commanded by a colonel from whom the regiment drew its name, the unit was well equipped with machine guns and heavy and medium mortars. The men were of good quality, about half of them officer candidates. General Schmidt had reason to expect big things from the counterattack on 12 October.
Behind a brief but concentrated artillery preparation, Colonel Wegelein launched his counterattack at 0700 due southward along the wooded plateau between the
Weisser Weh and the Germeter-Huertgen highway. The objective of Richelskaul appeared at first to be within easy reach. Quickly enveloping a part of Colonel Gunn's overextended battalion of the 39th Infantry, the Germans poured through to cut an east-west trail leading into Germeter, a trail which served as the 39th Infantry's main supply route.
The 39th Infantry commander, Colonel Bond, had virtually no reserve to throw against the penetration. Receiving an erroneous report that the engineer roadblock on the Weisser Weh road had been overrun, he requested the 298th Engineers to send their reserve there. He told Colonel Thompson, whose positions at Germeter were under pressure by fire, to release two platoons to Colonel Gunn's assistance. These two platoons actually had a strength no greater than one. Judging from the wording of this order, Colonel Bond believed Colonel Stumpf's battalion in the fingerlike formation north of Vossenack also to be under attack. In reality, Colonel Stumpf had experienced no enemy action and knew virtually nothing about what was going on to his rear.
For his part, General Craig alerted the division reserve--which consisted of a portion of the division reconnaissance troop and a platoon of light tanks. Acting on his own initiative, the reconnaissance troop commander actually committed the reserve to cover the 39th Infantry's exposed left flank. Though General Craig approved the move, it left him with no semblance of a division reserve. In early afternoon he sought to remedy the situation by directing that the 47th Infantry at Schevenhuette withdraw two companies to create a motorized reserve.22
For reasons that at the time appeared inexplicable, Regiment Wegelein failed to advance farther than the east-west trail leading into Germeter. The 275th Division commander, General Schmidt, said later that the battalion commanders were to blame. Yet prisoners, including a loquacious adjutant, said the fault lay in inadequate communications. Colonel Wegelein had protested the communications arrangement before the attack, the prisoners said, but General Schmidt would not sanction a delay to set it right. American artillery fire had quickly dealt a death blow to a communications system that was shaky from the start.
Perhaps the genuine explanation lay in a combination of these two factors, plus the fact that confusion in the Huertgen Forest was not confined to the American side. Tenacious resistance by little knots of men in Colonel Gunn's battalion no doubt had contributed to the enemy's confusion. Although enveloped in early stages of the counterattack, Colonel Gunn's Ammunition and Pioneer Platoon and a platoon of Company G had held out in little islands of resistance while the Germans surged around them. Other groups also had continued to fight, though surrounded, including four men, three officers, and the crew of a heavy machine gun who represented Colonel Gunn's advance command group.
Unaware of the problem on the German side, Colonel Bond in midafternoon ordered Colonel Stumpf to withdraw from his salient in the woods north of Vossenack, leave one company east of the Huertgen highway to strengthen defense of Wittscheidt, and with the rest of his battalion attack the German penetration from the east. By nightfall Stumpf was poised for an attack the next morning, 13 October.
Though Regiment Wegelein's counterattack had struck before the 39th Infantry's planned attack against Vossenack had begun, the 60th Infantry already had started a new drive against Road Junction 471 before trouble developed. Pushing southward down the Weisser Weh toward the road junction, Major Hardage's battalion of the 60th Infantry ran into a force of about 300 men, which apparently was attempting to complement Regiment Wegelein's attack. Because American units controlled the only roads in the vicinity of Road Junction 471, this complementary effort was doomed from the start. A stiff engagement developed, nevertheless. After beating off the counterattack, the U.S. battalion had to spend the rest of the day in reorganization.
Though General Schmidt intended that Regiment Wegelein renew the attack on 13 October, the plan was crossed up by an order from the LXXIV Corps that all officer candidates in the regiment be detached immediately. This cut the regiment's strength in half. Having lost 500 men in the first day's fighting, Colonel Wegelein had only a smattering of his original force remaining. Further offensive action was out of the question.
By midafternoon of 13 October, the 39th Infantry had established a fairly solid line containing Regiment Wegelein's penetration. Then Colonel Bond set about to push the enemy back.
It took three days for the 39th Infantry to restore the original flank positions running from the engineer roadblock astride the Weisser Weh highway across the wooded plateau to Wittscheidt. In light of Regiment Wegelein's depleted condition, this turtlelike pace obviously was attributable less to stout opposition than to the fact that the forest fighting had left the 39th Infantry spent and groggy. One company commander had but two platoons left, one with twelve men, another with thirteen. One company lost two platoons in one fell swoop as they strayed into an ambush.23 Nevertheless, by nightfall of 15 October, Colonel Bond could point to the fact that his men had restored the northern flank and still held on to Wittscheidt and Germeter. Despite depletion of his units, he had been able to constitute a reserve with two companies of Colonel Stumpf's battalion.
Among the victims of the elimination of the German penetration was the enemy commander, Colonel Wegelein. During the morning of 14 October, a noncommissioned officer of Company E saw an enemy soldier walking alone in front of his position and shot him. It was Colonel Wegelein.
During this time the 60th Infantry resumed its attack to capture Road Junction 471. By nightfall of 13 October, Major Hardage's 2d Battalion possessed the road junction, though the Germans held on to nearby pillboxes. Uncontested claim to the objective came the next day after General Craig committed to the sector the two-company reserve from the 47th Infantry. Reinforced by a medium tank company on loan from the 3d Armored Division, these two companies had moved in the day before behind the 60th Infantry.
By 16 October few could have expected the 9th Division under existing circumstances to renew the offensive. As more than one division was to learn later with grim emphasis, it was impossible to fight
in the Huertgen Forest for ten days without ending up spent and depleted. Only in the matter of weather, which had been generally favorable, did the 9th Division have an easier time in the forest than those units which would come later.
Behind the scenes in the chain of command, plans progressed for the division's relief. The battle of Aachen was drawing to a close; thereupon, priority in the VII Corps was to go to the drive to the Roer. Although capture of Schmidt remained a prerequisite to the big drive, the VII Corps in providing a force to take Schmidt would have to siphon strength from the main effort. The First Army commander, General Hodges, erased this possibility by directing a temporary adjustment in the boundary between the V Corps and the VII Corps to give the V Corps responsibility for Schmidt. Running east-west just north of Huertgen, this boundary was to become effective on 25 October. The 9th Division, less the 47th Infantry at Schevenhuette, was to pass to the V Corps for relief and movement to the vicinity of Camp d'Elsenborn, while a fresh unit, the 28th Division, renewed the attack on Schmidt.24
The two regiments of the 9th Division had fallen far short of the objective of Schmidt. Yet for some 3,000 yards in depth they had carved from the Huertgen Forest, they had paid dearly with more than one casualty per yard. The division had lost about 4,500 men. The drive had enveloped about 1,300 prisoners and inflicted on the enemy an additional estimated 1,500-2,000 casualties.25 On the basis of these statistics, neither side could claim undisputed victory in the October fighting. The real winner appeared to be the vast, undulating, blackish-green sea that virtually negated American superiority in air, artillery, and armor to reduce warfare to its lowest common denominator. The victor thus far was the Huertgen Forest.
1. See Interv with Collins, 25 Jan 54.
2. VII Corps Opns Memo 101, 1 Oct, confirming oral orders of 30 Sep, VII Corps Opns Memo file, Oct 44.
3. A theory prevalent among Americans that the Schwammenauel Dam was constructed with an eye toward augmenting the West Wall defenses cannot be supported.
4. One of the better contemporary studies of the Roer River Dams is to be found in Annex 2 to 5th Armd Div G-2 Per Rpt 85, 24 Oct, 5th Armd Div G-2 file, Oct 44. See also FUSA Rpt of Opns, Vol. I, p. 95; VII Corps Engrs, Study of Possible Flooding of the Rur (Roer) River, 17 Nov, 1st Div G-2 Jnl file, 19-20 Nov 44.
5. Annex I to 9th Div G-2 Per Rpt 78, 2 Oct, 9th Div G-2 file, Oct 44. The first recorded references to the dams were contained in reports by Belgian officers on 23 and 30 September. See Memo to Col. Dickson (G-2 FUSA), 23 Sep, FUSA G-2 Tac Jnl file, Sep 44; Memo to CofS from 1st Div, 23 Sep, VII Corps G-3 file, Sep 44. FUSA repeated the report of 30 Sep in its G-2 Per Rpt 113, 1 Oct, FUSA G-2 Tac Jnl file, 1-3 Oct 44. Existence of the dams and reservoirs could have been no secret, for the 1:25,000 maps in use at the time showed most of them in detail. On 6 October a Belgian agent sent FUSA a report on the Urft Dam that was inexplicably labeled Secret, yet the agent's source was a French edition of Baedeker's Rhineland.
6. See VII Corps and 9th Div FO's for this attack; also Notes for Chief of Staff, 22 and 23 Sep 44, in VII Corps G-3 file, 23 Sep 44, which relate plans and objectives of the 9th Division attack as discussed by Generals Collins and Craig. The dams are not mentioned. See also, Ltr, Craig to OCMH, 31 Aug 53.
7. Record of tel conv between G-2, MASTER Command, and G-2 FUSA (Tac), 3 Oct, FUSA G-2 Tac Jnl file, 1-3 Oct 44.
8. Msg, FUSA Engr to VII Corps Engr, 5 Oct, VII Corps G-3 file, 5 Oct 44. See also FUSA G-2 Estimate 31, 8 Oct, FUSA G-2 Tac file, 8-9 Oct 44.
9. Ltr, FUSA to 12th A Gp, 29 Oct, FUSA G-3 Ltrs and Inds file, Oct 44.
10. FUSA G-2 Per Rpt 171, as cited in VII Corps G-2 Per Rpt 164, 28 Nov, FUSA G-2 Tac Jnl file, 29 Nov 44.
11. Memo, XIX Corps Engr for XIX Corps G-3, 8 Oct, XIX Corps G-3 Jnl file, 12 Oct 44.
13. Planning for an offensive by the V Corps to complement a VII Corps push to the Rhine was in progress at this time, though it subsequently was canceled. Like the VII Corps, the V Corps made no plans to seize the dams. See V Corps Operations in the ETO, pp. 272-278.
14. Msg, SHAEF (MAIN) to 12th A Gp, 20 Oct, FUSA G-2 Tac Jnl file, 20-21 Oct 44.
15. 12th A Gp Weekly Intel Summaries 11 and 12 for weeks ending 21 and 28 Oct, dtd 22 and 29 Oct, respectively, 12th A Gp G-2 AAR, Oct 44.
16. See Interv with Col Akers, 11 Jun 56.
17. See The Last Offensive, a volume in preparation in the series UNITED STATES ARMY IN WORLD WAR II.
18. Intel Annex to 9th Div FO 39, 3 Oct, 9th Div AAR, Oct 44. Unless otherwise noted, this account is based upon official unit records and a series of detailed combat interviews at company and battalion level. An accurate presentation at a small unit level is available in an unpublished manuscript by Maj. Henry P. Halsell, Huertgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, copy in OCMH files through courtesy of Major Halsell.
19. The basic source for the German side of this action is MS # B-810, Generalleutnant Hans Schmidt, Kaempfe im Rheinland 275. Infanterie Division. Additional details may be found in Lucian Heichler, The First Battle of the Huertgen Forest, a manuscript prepared to complement this volume and filed in OCMH.
20. 9th Div G-2 Per Rpt 84, 8 Oct, 9th Div AAR, Oct 44.
21. MS # B-810 (Schmidt).
22. See Ltr, Craig to OCMH, 20 Apr 56.
23. In another instance, Pvt. James E. Mathews earned the posthumous award of the DSC as he saved his company commander from ambush at the cost of his own life.
24. See VII Corps Opns Memo 107, dtd 18 Oct, confirming oral orders issued 17-18 Oct, VII Corps Opns Memo file, Oct 44.
25. Although both American and German losses are for the entire month of October, most occurred during the ten days of offensive action. In MS # B-810, General Schmidt estimates German losses through 12 October at 1,600 men, obviously conservative in light of confirmed prisoner statistics.