Battle of Hürtgen Forest
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Located at the border of Germany and Belgium, the Hürtgen Forest was a wooded area 50 square miles wide that provided another possible corridor for the Allies to thrust into Germany. Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges' First Army, charged with taking the densely wooded terrain, quickly saw the advance becoming a standstill as the American material advantage were taken away by the fierce shelling from well defended German positions. "The enemy had all the advantages of strong defensive country, and the attacking Americans had to depend almost exclusive upon infantry weapons because of the thickness of the forest", said Dwight Eisenhower.
After nearly a month of fighting, the Americans suffered 4,500 casualties after pushing only a few kilometers into the forest. Had the Americans advanced further, the German defenders also had the option of opening the dams nearby and flood the entire forest. Meanwhile, elements of Hodges' army besieged the city of Aachen a short distance north of the forest; Aachen became the first large German city to fall under Allied control when it fell on 21 Oct 1944. Instead of enveloping Hürtgen Forest and move the bulk of his forces eastwards into the heart of Germany, Hodges decided to eliminate the German forces in the forest to secure his southern flank.
Early in Nov, the Allies launched a new offensive into the forest. The elements of the First Army encountered exploding trees, a technique deployed by the German defenders where shells exploded 80 to 100 feet above the ground, and the explosion at the treetops sent a rain of shrapnel and wood splinters of wood down at the American troops who ducked down, uselessly, at the first sound of explosion. The Americans, however, quickly learned to "hug a tree" in which they stood flat against large tree trunks to minimize exposed body area. Replacement troops flowed into the forest constantly, but not at a rate that replaced the mounting number of casualties; many units had over 100% casualty rate with the fierce fighting. "It was brutal," said Jacob Pennegar, an Army private who went into the forest as a replacement.
The Germans also booby trapped a three-mile wide zone in the forest with mines planted every eight paces to slow any possible American advance. To top it all off, on top of potential death delivered by shelling and mines, German snipers dotted the forest, taking out unsuspecting American soldiers who became lost in the directionless snow-covered landscape.
The Battle of Hürtgen Forest was the longest battle the Americans had ever fought in the history of the United States military. The American forces suffered 33,000 casualties (9,000 of which were attributed to non-combat causes such as illness and friendly fire), while the Germans suffered 28,000 casualty (12,000 of whom died). Despite the eventual American victory achieved with the "Yankee doggedness" as described by Dwight Eisenhower, many historians argued that the lives spent at Hürtgen were in vain for that the forest was of little strategic value. While the American troops fought the extended battle, dams on the Roer River remained under German control.
"One way or another, they got you. You froze to death or you got sick or you got blown to bits." Said Leonard Lomell, an Army lieutenant and a survivor of Hürtgen.
Dwight Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe
Carol Morello, "Brutal Battle in the Forest", Washington Post, 24 May 2004
University of San Diego History Department
Battle of Hürtgen Forest Interactive Map
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945