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Battle of Hurtgen Forest (1944-45): 9-Minute History

Jeff Duff has been a history buff since his teenage years, when he read about the Vietnam War - and other events - in the daily newspaper.

Prelude to the Battle of Hurtgen Forest

The armies of Nazi Germany had been retreating steadily since America's allies' (Great Britain, Canada, Free French, et al) successful invasion of Normandy in northern France on June 6, 1944. By early September, the victorious Allied armies had almost reached the western border of Germany, literally just a few miles short of the "Fatherland."

The British and Canadian armies filled the northern end of the Allied battle line, while the Americans took the center of the same line and the Free French forces filled in the southern end. The line was to be contested doggedly by a German army that most of the allies considered to be nearly defeated and fatally weakened. Unfortunately for all concerned, the Nazi leadership had called upon the German soldiers to defend their homeland to the death.

Also unfortunately for the allies, they were still having supply problems from the last 3 months of battles and advances toward Germany. Add in a general feeling of the allied soldiers' exhaustion from three continuous months of combat—and too much initial optimism by their military leadership and soldiers—and you have some key components to the impending Battle for Hurtgen Forest.

This battle would be the longest battle ever experienced by the American army and the longest battle ever fought in Germany. American soldiers would come to call this battle "The Death Machine." American General Lawton Collins called the Hurtgen battle "Green Hell."

General Courtney Hodges, commander of the American 1st Army and primary leader for the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.

General Courtney Hodges, commander of the American 1st Army and primary leader for the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.

American Leaders and Forces

In line of command, the Supreme Allied Commander on the Western Front in 1944 was Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower. Next in line of American leadership, for the central European line and overall commander of the coming Battle of Hurtgen Forest, was General Oma Bradley, followed by local commander, General Courtney Hodges.

All three men were competent and experienced military leaders and, and to the American soldiers' later regret, all three generals shared their subordinates' belief that the German Army in the west was exhausted, undermanned, and undersupplied – a push-over.

The underlying misjudgments made by American leaders included the belief that the entire western front – from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Swiss border in the south – should be kept in a more or less straight, continuous line. Because of this, no serious thought was given by the Allied leadership to simply sealing off and bypassing the dense 70-square-mile Hurtgen Forest. They thought that Hurtgen Forest had to be overrun by direct force – by the American Army!

Every two or three weeks of the Battle for Hurtgen Forest, the American commanders would send in one army division after another to overrun and crush the "weak" German forces in Hurtgen Forest. No one considered that by sending in American divisions one at a time, the defending German forces would be able to grind up these divisions in detail.

Where five American divisions attacking at the same time could probably have taken the Hurtgen Forest in a week – although possibly with heavy losses – these five American divisions were fed piecemeal into a "green hell" filled with bunkered German divisions.

There were many American divisions and other units that participated in the battle, one way or the other, but the primary combat units were the army's 1st, 4th, 8th, 9th, and 28th Divisions. All of these divisions were to suffer massive losses in the forest battle to come.

Field Marshal Walter Model, commander of German forces in and around the Hurtgen Forest.

Field Marshal Walter Model, commander of German forces in and around the Hurtgen Forest.

German Leaders and Forces

By the fall of 1944, the German Reich's Nazi Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, was in sole command of all German armies. In more immediate command of German army forces in the Hurtgen Forest area (the western front in central Europe) was a very competent German Field Marshal, Walter Model. Although most of his units actually were weak, Model and his army units did have significant advantages when fighting in the Hurtgen Forest.

For years, the German army had supervised civilian and prisoner laborers in the construction of huge belts of defensive positions, from north to south, called the West Wall. These defensive positions included large anti-tank concrete barriers (called "Dragon's Teeth"), fortified pillboxes, fox holes, and trenches, plus the placement of hundreds of thousands of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines in the roads and paths of the forest. The Germans also knew every square meter of the Hurtgen Forest.

Most of the German army units in the Hurtgen area were a mix of war veterans, old men, and teenage boys. (The German manpower pool was nearly empty by this point in the war.) But, the dense Hurtgen Forest provided an unlimited number of defensive positions – such as behind trees, plus untold hundreds of man-made strong points, such as pillboxes and reinforced trenches. The German soldiers skillfully used all of these defensive positions to their advantage.

The Germans started the battle with just two undermanned divisions but were later to steadily feed an additional twelve half-strength infantry divisions into the battle, for a total of fourteen divisions. Although most of these divisions were undermanned and inexperienced, they did enjoy the advantage of fighting mostly behind prepared defensive positions and the natural terrain.

American soldiers pose near concrete 'Dragons Teeth' at the West Wall (aka Siegfried Line) in Germany.

American soldiers pose near concrete 'Dragons Teeth' at the West Wall (aka Siegfried Line) in Germany.

The Battle Commences

On September 16, 1944, the U.S. Army's 3rd Armored Division (primarily tanks and armored tank destroyers) made the first penetration of the Hurtgen Forest, from the north and northwest of the forest. The 3rd Armored was supplanted within days when it was discovered that the roads in the forest were narrow, muddy, and filled with anti-tank mines and traps, that decimated the initial armored patrols.

The German forest defenders were able to destroy American tanks and other armor by the dozens, while American tanks were often bogged down in mud and thickets. From that point in the battle, American and German tanks and other armored vehicles would only play an ancillary role in what was to become mainly an infantry (foot soldiers) and artillery (cannons) conflict.

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Coming in to gradually replace the stalled American 3rd Armored were elements of the 9th Infantry Division. As the Germans saw this hard push into the forest by the Americans, they also started to feed additional units into the forest, both to replace their mounting casualties and to increase their overall manpower.

General Model and the other German army leaders saw that the Hurtgen Forest was one of the strongest places to stop the American military advance into western Germany. The Americans' superiority in military aircraft was almost irrelevant in the thick forest and underbrush, especially given the likelihood of 'friendly fire' accidents against American infantrymen. In addition, American numerical superiority in tank and armored equipment was mostly nullified by the dense, muddy, and tangled forest land.

Typical muddy road in the Hurtgen Forest. American halftrack in the foreground.

Typical muddy road in the Hurtgen Forest. American halftrack in the foreground.

The Battle Continues

The German military leadership was amazed that the American army insisted on smashing itself against the heavily defended forest, instead of bypassing it. As American casualties mounted (for every German casualty, there would be two American casualties), the U.S. Army high command began to see the Hurtgen Forest battle as a test of wills – American boys vs. German boys.

The Germans simply saw the forest as a well-protected defensive "fortress," a place where they could inflict disproportionate casualties upon the Americans while using some of their least effective army units to do the damage.

For example, from October 6-16, the American 9th Division gained about 3,000 yards at a cost of some 4,500 men killed, wounded, or missing (a loss of 1.5 soldiers per yard). Having battled its way only a short distance into the forest, the 9th Division became decimated and exhausted.

Thereupon, the 9th Infantry was ordered to limp out, to be immediately replaced by the 28th Infantry, who were soon partially replaced by the American 4th Infantry Division, who was then partially replaced by the 8th Infantry, who was followed by the American army's most prestigious infantry division, the 1st Infantry (nickname: "The Big Red One").

One by one, these American divisions ground down the undermanned and undersupplied German infantry, but at a terrible cost in dead, wounded, captured, and missing. (Local civilians would still find the skeletons and scattered bones of American and German soldiers in the Hurtgen Forest, fifty years after the battle.)

The German Army units involved would gradually be ground down to a relatively few men, only to have the surviving soldiers recombined into other existing infantry divisions.

American G.I. standing in front of a captured German pillbox complex in the Hurtgen Forest.

American G.I. standing in front of a captured German pillbox complex in the Hurtgen Forest.

The Battle Concludes

"The Death Machine" some American soldiers called it and it surely would have seemed like it -–probably for both sides. During the length of the battle, snow and cold rain fell for many days and the skies were cloudy most days – adding to the forest's daily gloom. Artillery shells from both sides would explode among the 100-foot tall fir trees, sending shrapnel and wood splinters raining down on soldiers below.

This caused gruesome injuries and deaths everywhere in the forest. Men were pulled out of line with fevers, trench foot, frostbite, exposure, and dozens of other illnesses. Men were constantly getting lost in the dark gloom, some to never be seen again. A German platoon (about 40-50 men) went forward one October night to scout nearby American positions – and they were never seen again.

The German Battalion commander then sent another platoon out the next night for the same reconnaissance patrol and they too mysteriously disappeared. The German Battalion commander decided to send out no more recon patrols at night. The same disappearances occurred among the American troops – almost every G.I. had a story of men leaving their fox holes at night to relieve themselves, but never coming back. Were they killed, captured, injured, hopelessly lost, deserting? Nobody knew.

The dead lay everywhere, American and German, and many had been dead for days or weeks. The stench of death mixed together with the smells of gunpowder, rain, wet dirt, and pine trees. Many of the dead and wounded lay between the front lines, where the injured could only yell for help. But unless a local truce between the sides could be arranged, no one could go out into the open to rescue the wounded or bury the dead - without becoming casualties themselves.

Finally, in early December, the American units were finally able to punch through to the other (eastern and southern) sides of the forest. German troops began to be withdrawn from the Hurtgen Forest, although small patrols and ambushes would continue to plague the American victors all the way into early February 1945.

Dead German soldiers on a rural road.

Dead German soldiers on a rural road.

Aftermath and Summary

The Battle of Hurtgen Forest resulted in approximately 55,000 total American casualties between September 16, 1944 and February 10, 1945 (although the major fighting had ended by December 16th). The Germans had suffered approximately 28,000 casualties, also men who were dead, wounded, captured, and missing.

Although the Hurtgen Forest had been mostly captured by December and completely captured by February, the forest itself had little by way of strategic or tactical value for the Americans or the Allies as a whole. It was simply a chunk of land that American soldiers could have either bypassed or marched directly through.

American military leadership chose to "march directly through the forest," although they never could have predicted how many American G.I.s would fall dead and wounded in the dark, cold, wet, and foreboding Hurtgen Forest.

As the Hurtgen Forest battle was far from a stellar victory for U.S. Army, the commanding officers in the army made every effort to minimize the news of the Hurtgen Forest battle. It was mostly suppressed – with the help of the American news journalists – because American soldiers had paid a dreadful cost for an otherwise rather irrelevant piece of German countryside.

Many American families were told that their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons had died in central Europe, but often "Hurtgen Forest' was never mentioned in the death notices. Between the censorship – "for civilian morale" – and the fact that the much better-known Battle of the Bulge began on the day after the Hurtgen Forest combat was winding down, combined to make the Hurtgen Forest battle "disappear" from the American public.

The fact that the overall American theater commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, also ran for President of the United States (just seven years after the battle), ensured that the Battle of Hurtgen Forest was barely mentioned during the 1950s and 60s.

The dreadful Battle of Hurtgen Forest was a Pyrrhic victory for the United States.

American Pfc. Robert Leightman with his captured German army souvenirs in village of Duren, Germany, during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.

American Pfc. Robert Leightman with his captured German army souvenirs in village of Duren, Germany, during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.

What Is a 9-Minute History?

Studies show that the average American teen or adult can read at the speed of about 250 words per minute, or approximately 2,250 words within nine minutes. The primary information in this article is 2,248 words in length.

Sources

1. Book: The Battle of Hurtgen Forest; Author: Charles B. MacDonald; Publisher: Siege Press; Date: April 2018.

2. Book: The Bloody Forest: Battle for the Hurtgen: September 1944 - January 1945; Author: Gerald Astor; Publisher: Presidio Press; Date: July 2000.

3. Internet: The Battle of Hurtgen Forest: A Tactical Nightmare for Allied Forces; Author: Michael D. Hull; Warfarehistorynetwork.com; Date unknown.

4. Internet: Battle of Hurtgen Forest; Author: Anonymous; Wikipedia.org; Last Edit: September, 2013.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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