The Siegfried Line Campaign
11 September-15 December 1944
In the fact that the Germans and not the Allies wrote the end to the Siegfried Line Campaign rests a capsule summation of the entire campaign. Though the Germans never held the initiative, they more than the Allies had controlled the outcome. They had fought a large-scale delaying action with meager resources while at the same time building up a striking force to be used in the Ardennes. Although American patrols had crossed the border on 11 September, the deepest penetration into Germany ninety-six days later was only twenty-two miles inside the frontier. (Map X)
This was not, of course, the whole story. While the First and Ninth Armies had fought in the Huertgen Forest and on the Roer plain, the Canadians had opened Antwerp, and the British, with the help of the First Allied Airborne Army, had cleared the Netherlands south and west of the Maas River. In the south the Third Army had conquered Lorraine and reached the West Wall along the Saar River, while the 6th Army Group had occupied almost all the west bank of the upper Rhine except for a big pocket hinged on the city of Colmar. The Allies had accomplished these things while fighting not only the Germans but the elements and an acute logistical crisis as well. In the process they had so occupied their adversary that Hitler's field commanders had begged their Fuehrer to scale down his grandiose scheme for a counteroffensive.
Of the German divisions in the Aachen sector scheduled to participate in the counteroffensive, only one, the 10th SS Panzer Division, failed to make it; but this was hardly a true measure of the effect of the autumn fighting on the counteroffensive. The Siegfried Line Campaign had cost the Germans thousands of individual replacements who might have fought in the Ardennes, and it had worn out many of the divisions upon which Rundstedt was counting. In the Aachen sector alone, at least five panzer or panzer-type divisions had been reduced severely in strength and their rehabilitation dangerously delayed. One parachute and at least six volks grenadier divisions, the latter originally scheduled to have been spared active commitment before the counteroffensive, had been similarly affected. The Siegfried Line fighting also delayed use in the Ardennes of two corps headquarters and two assault gun brigades.
Although any attempt to fix German losses on a numerical basis would be little better than a guess, personnel losses obviously were high. This is evident from the fact that at least 95,000 prisoners passed through First and Ninth Army cages during the Siegfried Line Campaign.1
German tank losses probably were considerably below American losses, primarily because the Germans employed far fewer tanks. The First Army alone from 1 September to 16 December lost approximately 550 medium tanks. Entering the line in late September, the Ninth Army lost approximately a hundred.2
The First Army incurred 47,039 battle casualties during the Siegfried Line Campaign. This was approximately half the number of German prisoners taken.
Killed 7,024 Wounded 35,155 Missing and Captured 4,860
The Ninth Army's battle losses totaled approximately 10,000.
Killed 1,133 Wounded 6,864 Missing and Captured 2,059
American units serving under British and Canadian command during the campaign incurred approximately 11,000 casualties, bringing total American losses to approximately 68,000.3 To this figure should be added the number of so-called nonbattle casualties--those evacuated because of fatigue, exposure, accidents, and disease. The First Army incurred 50,867 nonbattle casualties; the Ninth Army, 20,787.4 Thus the over-all cost of the Siegfried Line Campaign in American personnel was close to 140,000.
The fact that most of these losses were incurred in the front-line units--the infantry and armor--meant that they had a particularly heavy impact on operations. The problem of replacements for the fallen, many of whom in this age of technical warfare were specialists requiring long hours of training, could never be fully solved. Contrary to experience among German artillery units, which were constantly on the defensive and thereby often subjected to direct attack, American artillery units incurred relatively few losses except among forward observer teams.5
Not only in these but in other aspects, the Siegfried Line Campaign was similar to the battle of Normandy. Instead of hedgerows, the Allies encountered pillboxes, dense forests, canals, urban snares, and defended villages, yet the effect on operations was much the same. It was exceedingly difficult to go very far very fast under these constricting conditions until overwhelming logistical and tactical strength could be built up or the enemy worn down by attrition. The campaign clearly had illustrated the problems that beset a military force weakened by lengthy pursuit, held in leash by taut supply lines, and confronted by an enemy that turns to fight behind strong natural and artificial barriers. The fact that the Allies approached the barriers in spread formation geared to pursuit did not help matters,
for once deeply involved in operations it takes time to reorganize and redistribute a large tactical force and start all over again.
As in Normandy, the Americans had come up against obstacles for which they were at first ill prepared. They had had no specialized training against the hedgerows; neither were they prepared for the pillboxes. Though almost all units had undergone some training in the United States in attack against fortified positions, Normandy and the pursuit had made such inroads on trained personnel that almost all units had to learn again the hard way. Moving directly against the West Wall from the pursuit, American units had no time at first either to rehearse or to amass special assault equipment. The 28th Division's first performance against the pillboxes in mid-September, for example, was rudimentary when compared with the 30th Division's in October.
Nor was the weather of any assistance. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the deleterious effect inclement weather could exercise was the outcome of the big airborne attack, Operation MARKET-GARDEN. Yet the impact of unfavorable weather was marked elsewhere as well, particularly in the way it shackled supporting aircraft. It also added to the hardships of the front-line soldier and put muddy obstacles in the way of the men who were trying to supply him. Trench foot--the seriousness of which could be illustrated by the fact that in the first fifteen days of the Roer River offensive, trench foot cases constituted 8.2 percent of all medical admissions in the Ninth Army--was directly attributable to the wet and the cold.6
Inclement weather also accentuated a serious psychological situation arising from the fact that troops had to live under battle conditions for extended periods without relief. Though higher commanders were aware that prolonged exposure to combat conditions creates excessive fatigue, which in turn makes the soldier indifferent and careless, they had not sufficient troops to rotate units frequently.7 The system of individual replacements, although it has its virtues, contributed to the problem. A man who attacks day after day and fights off the enemy night after night with no prospect of relief other than through wounds eventually becomes sluggish.
It was a tribute to the remarkable resilience of the American soldier that he could recover his morale so quickly after such an ordeal. Some of his resilience was pure resignation to the fact that a job had to be done, no matter how painful, as exemplified by the sergeant from the 4th Division who climbed from his foxhole and resumed the attack with the remark, "Well, men, we can't do a ----- thing sitting still." The soldier's mind obviously had to make tremendous adjustment from the exhilaration of the pursuit to the depression of stabilized warfare, then to the optimism of the start of the November offensive and back again to the depression of the Huertgen Forest and the muddy Roer plain. That the American could do it is illustrated by the remarks set down during November in the diary of the First Army commander's aide-de-camp. The same man who before the start of the November offensive had revealed a genuine confidence that this might be the last big push
of the war could, a mere week later, record the following divergent observation: "No one but the most optimistic sky-gazers expected that we would crack the line in 24 hours and dash to the Rhine in the manner of the St. Lô breakthrough. There has been nothing but the stiffest kind of fighting and opposition all along our front and the gains recorded consequently have satisfied everybody."8
The torpor that sometimes evidenced itself among the troops in the line, was a partial reflection of similar symptoms at the command level. Noting that a general fatigue existed at First Army headquarters, the First Army G-3 recalled after the war that General Hodges during this period "was pretty slow making the big decisions. He would study them for a long time and I often would have to press him before I got a decision."9 If such a situation existed it could be understood in light of the fact that the Siegfried Line Campaign followed closely on a period that had been filled with momentous day-by-day decisions which taxed not only a commander's stamina but his ingenuity as well.
To some, the conduct of operations during the Siegfried Line Campaign was disconcertingly and even unnecessarily slow and conservative. The boldest and most daring plan to emerge during the period, Operation MARKET-GARDEN, was in reality an outgrowth more of the pursuit than of the Siegfried Line Campaign. Even the gigantic air support program for the November offensive was not a new solution but for all its size, a conservative copy of similar programs in Normandy. Many a student of the campaign would question whether the reasons for failing to give responsibility for the main effort of the November offensive to the Ninth instead of the First Army were sufficient in view of the difference in terrain confronting the two armies. Surely the approach to the question of the Roer River Dams was lacking in vigor and imagination.
On the other hand, a supply situation which was not effectively alleviated until very near the close of the Siegfried Line Campaign was hardly conducive to boldness in operations. Neither was the shortage of reserve forces. Once the airborne divisions were committed to their lengthy fight in the Netherlands, even SHAEF had no real reserve. "You can't take chances without a reserve," the First Army G-3 believed. "The situation was that we had many times played our last card. All we could do was sit back and pray to God that nothing would happen."10
Perhaps the real difficulty lay in the fact that the First Army fought in the Aachen area in the first place. It was not, before the invasion, planned that way. The First Army originally was to have advanced south of the Ardennes in close conjunction with the Third Army. The shift had come as a compromise when Montgomery asked Eisenhower to send both the 12th and 21st Army Groups north of the Ardennes in a single powerful thrust into Germany. This Eisenhower had not agreed to, but he had shifted the First Army northward to protect Montgomery's flank for a push into Belgium to gain certain intermediate objectives, notably Antwerp. Montgomery, in turn, had oriented his forces through Holland, away from the time-honored route of the
Aachen Gap, leaving that route to the First Army in what was at first a secondary effort.
Would a more advantageous use of resources have been to send the First Army, protecting Montgomery's flank, through the Ardennes-Eifel, thus leaving the Aachen Gap to the British and thereby avoiding the pitfalls of terrain in the Netherlands? The Ardennes region--as the Germans had proved in 1914 and 1940 and were to demonstrate again in December 1944--is not the bugaboo it is commonly assumed to be. What is more, this region in September 1944 was almost devoid of Germans to defend it, perhaps the weakest-held sector along the entire Western Front. A lone US. armored division, the 5th, proved that point at Wallendorf, but the bulk of the First Army by that time already had been committed in the Aachen Gap.
The result was a virtual stultification of First Army maneuver within an Aachen Gap which was almost as constricted as it had been in 1914 when the Imperial German armies respected Dutch neutrality. The Peel Marshes confined the U.S. forces on the north; on the south, they were confined by a reluctance to mount a big push through the Ardennes.
Would the Siegfried Line Campaign have produced more far-reaching results--or would a slow, dogged campaign have been necessary at all--had the Ardennes-Eifel not been disregarded as a route of major advance? The question can be answered only by conjecture, but no analysis of the Siegfried Line Campaign can be complete unless it is at least considered. In a renewal of the offensive after the enemy's Ardennes attack, General Bradley's 12th Army Group turned this region to distinct advantage.
The Siegfried Line Campaign had demonstrated, as did earlier and later fighting in Europe, the basic efficacy of the American infantry-tank-artillery team. Indeed, the campaign had underscored what was fast becoming accepted fact, that the long-standing infantry-artillery relationship badly needed in almost every instance the added power of the tank. The fighting around Aachen, in particular, had shown that neither side, German or American, could make substantial progress without tank support. The airborne troops in Operation MARKET-GARDEN were at a tremendous disadvantage when the arrival of supporting armor was delayed. Those commanders in the Huertgen Forest who dared attempt a solution of the vexing problems involved in using tanks in the forest were amply repaid.
The campaign, on the other hand, had provided few examples of what exponents of armor consider true armored warfare. In general, both Germans and Americans used their tanks in an infantry support role. Germans more than Americans employed them for this purpose singly or as roving single artillery or antitank pieces; but this was attributable more to limited numbers of tanks than to any predilection for the practice.
Weapons of both sides had, in general borne up well under the rigors of the campaign. On the American side, the fighting had underscored the need for a higher velocity weapon on the M-4 Sherman tank and the U.S. tank destroyer, both in light of the enemy's heavier tanks and the excellence of his dual purpose 88-mm. gun. But the campaign had done little to answer the question of whether the U.S. Army erred in depending on a medium tank, for all its advantages
in mobility, transportability, and ease of maintenance, to the virtual exclusion of a heavy tank. Though tanks more and more had assumed antitank roles, in addition to their other assignments, the self-propelled, lightly armored tank destroyer had in many instances proved its worth, despite a tendency of some commanders to misuse it as a tank. On many occasions commanders employed tank destroyers in battery to supplement divisional artillery. The destroyer clearly had shown up the general obsolescence of towed antitank pieces, particularly the 57-mm. gun, which many units by the end of the Siegfried Line Campaign were almost ready to discard. The short-barreled 105-mm. howitzer of the regimental Cannon Company also had contributed little in its normal role as artillery directly under control of the infantry regimental commander. Probably because the smooth-working relationship between the infantry regiment and divisional artillery made presence of the Cannon Company within the regiment unnecessary, many divisions shifted the company to the direct control of the divisional artillery to supplement its fires.
A distinctly encouraging aspect of the campaign was the performance of new divisions. In Normandy it had become almost routine for a division in its first action to incur severe losses and display disturbing organizational, command, and communications deficiencies for at least the first week of combat indoctrination.11 Yet in no case was this tendency present to a similar degree among those divisions receiving their baptism of fire during the Siegfried Line Campaign. General Collins might admonish the 104th Division at the Donnerberg "in no uncertain terms to get moving and get moving fast," but a division of similar experience in Normandy might have required sweeping organizational and command changes before achieving a creditable performance. In the case of the 104th, General Collins and other officers, after observing the division only a day or so longer, could pay it nothing but tribute. "General Hart [First Army artillery officer] says the whole artillery section functions beautifully according to the book and what the General [Hodges] particularly likes thus far of what he has seen of the 104th is their ability to button up tight and hold the place tight once they have taken it. There is no record yet of the 104th giving ground."12
New divisions, in general, entered the line during the fall of 1944 under more favorable circumstances than existed during the summer. That obviously had something to do with improved early performance. Training based on actual battle experience and reduced cannibalization of units to serve as individual replacements also may have contributed. Another factor was the caliber of the personnel. Almost all the new divisions going into action during the Siegfried Line Campaign possessed a high percentage of men transferred from the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), which had contained men of proved intelligence studying under army sponsorship in the nation's colleges and universities.
The amount of time consumed by and the cost of the Siegfried Line Campaign were tremendous if one looks only at the relatively small amount of territory taken
during the campaign. On the other hand, what would have happened had the Allies suspended offensive operations at the German border and waited until they could have hit harder? How successful would the counteroffensive in the Ardennes have been under those circumstances? Given several months to get ready, could the Germans have held the West Wall?
The fact is that the Siegfried Line Campaign, for all its terrible cost, paid off, not so much in real estate as in attrition of the German armies. Indeed, the Siegfried Line Campaign turned out to be primarily a battle of attrition, though it had not been intended that way. Just how effective the campaign was as a contribution to German defeat would be apparent only after the unfolding of action in the Ardennes and a renewed Allied drive toward the Rhine.
1. FUSA AARs, Sep-Dec 44; Conquer--The Story of Ninth Army, p. 112.
2. FUSA Rpt, Vol. 2, Annex 5; Conquer--The Story of Ninth Army, p. 113. FUSA's losses were almost double those of the Third Army for the same period. See Cole, The Lorraine Campaign, p. 592.
3. FUSA Rpt of Opns, Annex I ; Conquer--The Story of Ninth Army, p. 112; 12th A Gp G-1 Daily Summaries, 25 Sep-16 Dec 44. Ninth Army figures do not include the army's defensive phase between 4 October and 16 November. Though figures for this period are available in 12th Army Group Daily Summaries, they apparently also include the latter stages of the campaign at Brest and thus are misleading. American losses under foreign command are noted above in Chapters VIII, IX, and X.
4. 12th A Gp G-1 Daily Summaries, 11 Sep-16 Dec 44.
5. See NUSA Opns, IV, 209.
6. NUSA Opns, IV, 209.
7. See FUSA Rpt of Opns, 1 Aug-22 Feb, Vol. I , pp. 167-68.
8. Sylvan Diary, entry of 21 Nov 44.
9. Interv with Thorson, 12 Sep 56.
11. See Blumenson, Breakout and Pursuit, passim.
12. Sylvan Diary, entries of 16 and 26 Nov 44.