The Battle of Huertgen Forest
The Battle of Huertgen Forest was named after a series of battles fought within the Huertgen Forest, from which afterwards branded by both Americans and Germans as the Huertgenwald. The Huertgen Forest lies within a triangle formed by the towns of Aachen, Duren, and Monschau. It covers an area of about fifty square miles and is located on the Belgian-German border.
The Battle of Huertgen Forest occurred from September to December 1944. Backed by the success from the breakout at Normandy and the race to Germany, the American High Command became overconfident and advanced to the Huertgen Forest without even realizing some important strategic points of the location. About 120,000 American soldiers charged ahead the Germans located in this forest. It is considered to be one of the toughest and bloodiest battles during the World War II.
Tall fir trees with about 75 to 100 feet soared the place and made the forest a sort of mystifying place where the vividness of noon was nullified into a creepy twilight. During the battle, the forest floor was either frozen hard due to snow or a sort of muddy texture. The Germans took advantage of the deceiving peacefulness of the snow. They set up a series of booby traps and land mines that took the American soldiers by surprise. The American soldiers could not do anything about the traps but to just bear with it. It seemed that the bitter cold weather was on the German side.
The Battle of Huertgen Forest was initiated with the American High Command not recognizing the important strategic points on the forest. The Huertgen Forest is occupied by massive dams that controlled the stream of the Roer River and its branches. These flood-controlling dams were indeed indisputable strategic places, not the other useless real estates that reside in the forest. The American tacticians initially ignored the value of these dams and planned to traverse the Roer River to conquer the city of Duren. This ignorance made the American soldiers suffer many casualties.
General J. Lawton Collins, First Army’s VII Corps commander initiated the plan to take over the cities near the Huertgen Forest. With towering trees that were nurtured in the forest, the visibility was reduced to about a few yards. German strategists did not even expect that a rational challenger would want to break through the forest. Even so, they placed the forest with thickly protected emplacements with the ability to give interconnecting fire to other emplacements.
With the thickness of the forest, exchanging bullets would seem to bear minimal danger, but the deadliest fire from a soldier’s point-of-view was those that disintegrated in tops of trees and blew up with its shrapnel towards the forest ground, destroying minds and bodies of the soldiers literally and figuratively. Soldiers, fearing when mortars or artilleries hit the treetops, quickly learned that the least way that they could do to prevent injury from these artillery attacks was to “hug a tree”.
The first chapter of the Battle of Huertgen Forest made the Americans focused on taking over the town of Schmidt and within the southern part of the forest where a very significant course where German supplies and resources are delivered. The first encounter of the American and German troops commenced on September 19, 1944 when a search squad went into the Huertgen Forest and was forced to retreat due to the natural terrain of the forest which became a significant advantage for the German defenders.
Several attacks were initiated by the American forces and on November 3, 1944, they captured the town of Schmidt which resulted to stopping the German supply to be delivered to Monschau. However, supplies for the American forces were impossible, so were reinforcements or evacuation since the Germans blocked the Kall Trail. A German counterattack consisting of tanks from the 116th Panzer division and the 89th Infantry division made the American troops to abandon Schmidt and stationed outside the town.
The second phase of the battle began on November 16, with the 8th Infantry regiments attacked along the northern edge of Huertgen leading to Duren and the 22nd Infantry regiments positioned to attack further south in parallel. On November 18, engineers blast some parts of the forest for tank routes, though there were still problems with the communications and logistics.
The Huertgen Forest was captured by the American forces on November 29, while the battle carried on to Kleinhau, a mile away north of the forest. On the northeastern edge of Huertgen Forest, Merode was located. This village was where the final actions of the Battle of Huertgen Forest took place.
The Battle of Huertgen Forest ended with the Americans triumphing over 50 square miles of real estate, having no strategic value and tactical importance for any other operations in the future. Aside from destroying the German army and reserves that were based in the Huertgen Forest, no other sensible advantage had been gained by the American after the said Battle. On the other hand, the Germans were the ones who benefited more on the Battle of Huertgen Forest. With too little resources to supply the battle, the Germans managed to slow down a main Allied attack for three months. The very important targets (the dams along the Roer River) were still in the hands of the German troops during the end of November. The tactical value of the dams was not realized by the Americans until the latter part of the Battle of Huertgen Forest.
If only the American tacticians realized early the strategic value of the dams during the early parts of the battle, the Battle of Huertgen Forest would have never existed. Had the American troops prefer to advance straightforwardly from the South to seize the dams on the Roer River, there would be at least a clear objective, so as to say that the said mission to take over the Huertgen Forest is of tactical importance.
After the series of battles at the Huertgen Forest, approximately more than 24,000 American soldiers were either killed, missing, held as captives, or severely injured from a total of 120, 000. Also, 9,000 Americans suffered to despair because of trench foot, some respiratory diseases, and from weariness from the battle. The Germans, on the other hand, fought with approximately 80,000 soldiers and suffered at least 28,000 casualties.
The Battle of Huertgen Forest, I think, is just an act of futility on the side of the Americans. The American troops and the German troops alike clashed in a useless and unproductive battle which could have been and should have been avoided. Fighting for an unimportant and futile war was the real misfortune that was the result of the Battle of Huertgen Forest.
MacDonald, Charles B. 2003. The Battle of the Huertgen Forest. University of Pennsylvania: New York