By Nick Deiuliis
Those with a keen interest in World War II are familiar with the European Theater’s famous Allied campaigns: Italy, D-Day and Normandy, Market Garden, Battle of the Bulge, and the final thrust over the Rhine River and into the heart of Germany. Movies, books, and series have been dedicated to them.
Yet there is a battle nestled in the middle of that chronology that gets little attention. It was the worst performance and drubbing the US Army suffered in World War II. A famous infantry division with Pennsylvania lineage played a central role and paid an epic price in the debacle.
The late 1944 campaign was the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.
Revisiting and analyzing the battle provides insights on leadership, strategy, and tactics that remain relevant both on battlefields and in board rooms.
The Allies were pushing up against the German border in September 1944. In sight were the gateway to the industrial Ruhr and the heart of Germany, and possibly the end of the war.
Farther to the south on the frontline sat a heavy forest just inside western Germany, the Hurtgenwald, occupied by German forces and cut by a stream, the Kall. The region is enclosed by a triangle, with corners of the cities of Aachen and Duren, and the town of Monschau.
The Hurtgen Forest area was part of the Siegfried Line and had been prepped by German engineers for prolonged battle. Trees were carefully cultivated for decades into neat, straight rows providing clear fields of fire. Mines were densely laid on trails, paths, and breaks. Pillboxes were built and set up to create kill zones.
39th Inf. passes through the dragon`s teeth north of Roetgen.
American leadership believed that for the advance to the Roer and Rhine Rivers and deep into Germany to continue, the forest had to be entered and the far high ground, the town of Schmidt, had to be seized.
The Allies quickly learned that wasn’t going to be easy.
American leadership was inept during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. Much of the blame can be attributed to 1st Army commander, Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges.
HIRTEEN COMMANDERS OF THE WESTERN FRONT photographed in Belgium, 10 October 1944. Front row, left to right: General Patton, General Bradley, General Eisenhower, General Hodges, Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson. Second row: Maj. Gen. William B. Kean, Maj. Gen. Charles E. Corlett, Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, Maj. Gen. Leonard P. Gerow, Maj. Gen. Elwood R. Quesada. Third row: Maj. Gen. Leven C. Allen, Brig. Gen. Charles C. Hart, Brig. Gen. Truman C. Thorson. Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History.
Hodges’ career up to the Hurtgen was out of a Hollywood script. A southerner who didn’t make it through West Point (geometry class flummoxed him), he rose through the Army ranks the hard way, starting his soldiering career in 1905 as a private.
He earned two Purple Hearts in World War I but discarded them and considered them “sissy.”1 Hodges’ boss during the Hurtgen ordeal was the legendary Omar Bradley, who prior to the war was Hodges’ subordinate, and who still addressed Hodges as ‘sir’ despite the reversal in who reported to whom.
Although Hodges competently led the 1st Army through France after D-Day, he was by late 1944 mentally exhausted and spent. The scale of duties overwhelmed him; he made decisions slowly and micromanaged. Worse, he would not visit the front line and tended to command from the rear, with little information (or worse, misinformation).
Hodges would brutally demote subordinate officers, sacking them at the first sign of setback. That made those reporting to him extremely cautious in decision-making, to the point of being paralyzed. It didn’t help that his staff and other direct reports were constantly infighting.
He was archaic in tactics, favoring a mentality more representative of World War I than the current conflict. Hodges favored the tactics of “straight on” and “smashing ahead” over flanking.2 Hodges and his staff believed the Germans were close to collapse, convincing him more of the need for blunt and direct frontal tactics.
Hodges saw the Hurtgen Forest as a threat to his flank in his drive east toward the Roer River and, ultimately, the Rhine River. Yet the density of the forest made it highly unlikely that the Germans could amass enough armor and infantry to serve as a credible threat to the Allied advance.
Historian Russell Weigley summed it up best: “The most likely way to make the Hurtgen a menace to the American Army was to send American troops attacking into its depths.”3
That’s exactly what Hodges did. And no one under him had the confidence or courage to question him.4
Early Phase of Battle
Thus, in late September 1944, the US 9th Division entered the Hurtgen, hoping to outflank the city of Aachen to the northwest. After a few weeks, little ground was gained at enormous cost; 4,500 causalities were suffered to advance 3,000 yards. That’s a casualty for every two feet of gained ground, an attrition rate that soon depleted the fighting strength of frontline battalions.
Although the German defenders also paid a heavy price, the German high command in mid-October was confident the Americans would not be foolish enough to attempt another assault through the Hurtgen Forest. Field Marshal Model understood how the forest neutralized Allied advantages in mobility, armor, and airpower.
But the Germans misread the extent of ineptitude and stubbornness of American leadership.
The 28th Division Enters the Forest
The US 28th Infantry Division was originally a Pennsylvania National Guard organization. Its original nickname, the Keystone Division, was derived from its keystone insignia on uniforms (the keystone is the emblem of Pennsylvania).5
The 28th had done it all in Europe leading up to the Hurtgen Forest: fighting and dying through the impenetrable hedgerows of France following D-Day, marching through Paris triumphantly, and breaking through the famous fortified defenses of the Siegfried Line. The 28th crossed from France onto German soil in September 1944, having learned valuable lessons from prior campaigns but paying a high price in casualties. A rest was badly needed.
So, in late September, the 28th was moved into reserve in Belgium. Major General Dutch Cota, who enjoyed a stellar reputation till the Hurtgen, rested the 28th while rebuilding the ranks with inexperienced replacements and preparing for the next fight.
General Eisenhower and Major General Cota at the 28th Div. C.P. Rott.
But the 28th Division was the only corps in reserve after the failed attempt of the 9th Division to give the Hurtgen a go. Thus, in late October it was hastily brought forward and ordered back into action.
Ironically, the 28th Division’s motto was “Fire and Movement.”6 The Battle of Hurtgen Forest presented a situation where the former was challenging while the latter was often impossible.
The assault into the Hurtgen commenced on November 2 after a few days of delay due to cold, cloudy, and wet inclement weather; conditions that would be the norm for the duration of the campaign. Cota deployed three infantry regiments, the 109th, 110th, and 112th, in the attack. Tanks were attached to each regiment but were often useless in the terrain and weather.
American plans were for the 109th to aim for the village of Hurtgen to the northeast, the 110th targeted Raffelsbrand/Simonskall to the southeast, while the 112th was to head east to Kommerscheidt and then to the key objective of Schmidt.
That’s three separate lines of attack. And due to delays in launching attacks at other points across the wide front, the 28th in the Hurtgen would be the only attack occurring those first few days of November, meaning the Germans could dedicate full attention to the battle.
The first day of attack on November 2 devastated the 110th; as they attempted to advance to the southeast they were mowed down by machine guns and artillery. Zero progress was made and by the end of the week the 110th had lost effectiveness as a fighting force.
The 109th made limited progress until it encountered a dense minefield, stopping short of Hurtgen village and suffering heavy casualties.
The best American progress on November 2 was by the 112th in the middle, having reached the village of Vossenack on the way to the ultimate objective of Schmidt. By the next day, the Americans in the 112th traveled down the ravine to the Kall stream, traversed the stream, and climbed the opposite bank toward Schmidt. Germans in the town were taken by surprise, and the Americans surprisingly held Schmidt by late afternoon on November 3.
But snipers made movement in and around Schmidt impossible. And it was tough to reinforce the position with 30-ton Sherman tanks due to the muddy, narrow, and steep Kall trail.
Field Marshal Model and the Germans were initially surprised by the attack, thinking the Americans would be too smart to try an assault into the impenetrable forest. Ironically, at commencement of the 28th’s attack, Model and his staff were conducting map war game exercises to play out a hypothetical American campaign in the area.
Model responded quickly. He sent some officers to the front and kept others back at his headquarters to monitor and manage the battle. Cloudy weather negated Allied air power and the Germans were able to quickly move troops and tanks to the outskirts of Schmidt and Hurtgen village.
The Americans in Schmidt were too few to handle the coming counterattack. They were oblivious to the threat, felt the Germans lacked enough remaining armor to mount an attack, and were short of anti-tank equipment and mines. General Cota remained far from the front lines, out of touch with developments and thinking the battle was already won.
The morning of November 4 delivered a strong dose of reality. German artillery opened on Schmidt, tanks blew apart the town, and screaming German infantry surged toward the undermanned Americans. The Americans, routed and in disarray, fled. Schmidt was back in German hands by noon.
Some of the routed American forces regrouped at Kommerscheidt (between the Kall stream and Schmidt) and a few Shermans arrived up from the nearly impassable Kall trail. The Kall trail was the only avenue for reinforcement and supply, but it was a muddy, narrow mess. Engineers worked continuously to make it barely passable for tanks and antitank equipment. A tank broke down on the trail and impeded progress for days until it was shoved over the ravine. The pace to traverse the trail was excruciatingly slow, and the route was lightly defended and vulnerable to continuous German attack.
At the time when the desperate Americans needed leadership the most, they didn’t get it. General Cota remained far from the front and was confused. General Hodges showed up at Cota’s command post and went on a tirade. An intimidated Cota was sending orders to the front line for Schmidt to be retaken at once and to “roll on.”7 Obviously, the detached American generals had no clue as to the critical state of their troops or the battle.
By November 7, Kommerscheidt had fallen. The Kall trail was under heavy attack, making an attempted night retreat deadly and difficult.
It wasn’t until the next day that Generals Eisenhower and Bradley became worried enough to show up at Dutch Cota’s headquarters. Eisenhower commented, “Well, Dutch, it looks like you got a bloody nose.”8
The first winter storm hit on November 9. A truce allowed US wounded to be evacuated across the Kall stream and up the trail. Finally, the decimated 112th was off the front line. The 110th was possibly in worse condition, reduced to less than sixty infantry, including reinforcements.
Sherman tanks mounted with 105mm. howitzers open fire in a muddy field amid the Hurtgen Forest on November 17, 1944.
Of the over two thousand Americans who set foot east of the Kall stream during the battle, only three hundred managed to make it back to the western bank. In about a week of battle, the Americans suffered over 6,000 casualties, to the Germans 3,000.
The reputation of General Dutch Cota went from hero prior to the Hurtgen to inept leader after. The most likely explanation as to why he was not relieved of command was that prior purges by Hodges and the recent Hurtgen combat losses drained the depth of officers. There was no one able enough to replace Cota.
Costly Third Attempt
But the American generals, including Hodges, did not learn, and for months continued to throw troops into the meatgrinder of the Hurtgen Forest. Next up was the 22nd Infantry Regiment.
The regiment was commanded by Colonel Charles Lanham. Lanham led from the front to the point of recklessness. Many considered him brilliant but crazy. No one questioned his courage.
He expected much of his officers and told them, “As officers, I expect you to lead your men. Men will follow a leader, and I expect my platoon leaders to be right up front. Losses could be very high. Use every skill you possess. If you survive your first battle, I’ll promote you. Good luck.”9
A German bunker in the Hurtgen Forest (2018).
The 22nd started eighteen days of hell in the Hurtgen on November 18. After three days, the regiment lost its three battalion commanders, and the attrition rate among rifle company leaders was over three hundred percent. By the end of the sixth day, the regiment suffered fifty percent casualties.
Yet the regiment fought on, suffering more than 2,800 casualties to advance just over 300 yards a day. One soldier fell for every two yards gained. The casualty rate was a staggering eighty-six percent of normal regiment strength.
The Damned Dams
American leadership spent years after the battle defending the decision to enter the forest. One of the more popular explanations was the need to secure two forest dams that controlled the water level of the Roer River flowing northward, which sat to the east and between the Allies and the Rhine River. The Allies believed they could not attack eastward to the Rhine as long as the Germans held the dams and could threaten to flood the Roer River Valley.
Yet General Hodges made no plans prior to battle to capture the dams on the Roer, just inside the Hurtgen Forest. The dams were apparently the key to the river, but it would take prolonged battles in the forest by several divisions before Hodges ordered an attack against them.
Hodges did not press for air attacks on the Roer River dams until late November, but they failed. Direct hits were made, but the concrete structures were so massive that damage was negligible.
In mid-December, months after the Americans entered the Hurtgen, a ground assault on the dams was launched. It would not be until February 1945 that the Allies controlled the dams and could land on the eastern bank of the Roer River.
American leadership blundered by not proposing an easier avenue of approach southeast of the Hurtgen Forest, allowing Hodges to seize the dams and then clear the terrain downriver. The Battle of Hurtgen Forest didn’t have to be.
The Hurtgen’s Bloody Tally
The slaughter and misery dragged into December 1944, when the Americans finally pulled out of the forest. By that time, Allied attention was fixed on German Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s breakthrough in the Ardennes; what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
American soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division in defensive positions in the Hurtgen Forest, December 1944.
All said, 120,000 American troops were deployed in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, suffering 33,000 casualties.
Combat fatigue, pneumonia, and trench foot claimed 9,000 of that gruesome toll. Soldiers lacked sufficient boots and winter clothing. Hot food and dry cover were almost nonexistent. Men spent long nights frozen in foxholes. American domination of logistics and supply enjoyed throughout the war failed in the Hurtgen.
Making Coffee in the Hurtgen Forest, December 1944. By Tony Vaccaro.
The campaign absorbed enormous resources and destroyed morale. It weakened the American front and set the stage for the initial German success in the Battle of the Bulge. The worst American setback in the European Theater prolonged the war.
Historian Carlo D’Este saw the American performance in the Hurtgen Forest as “the most ineptly fought series of battles of the war in the West.”10 Hemingway referenced World War I by describing the Hurtgen Forest as “Passchendaele with tree bursts.”11 Colonel David H. Hackworth, a battalion commander in the Vietnam War, called the Hurtgen battle “one of the most costly blunders of World War II.”12
Because it was disastrous, and because we tend to best remember victories, the Battle of Hurtgen Forest has been virtually forgotten. It is only briefly mentioned in the memoirs of Generals Eisenhower and Bradley and has been overlooked by many historians.
The battle should have been avoided. Its lessons must be remembered if we are to honor those who paid the ultimate price.
The Battle of Hurtgen Forest provides six key lessons:
- Leadership matters, and poor leadership negates inherent advantage. Eisenhower, Bradley, Hodges, Collins, and Cota failed to understand the strategic irrelevance of the forest and the ability to reduce it and avoid it by flanking to the southeast. Hodges applied obsolete tactics and lost composure at the worst times. Hodges and Cota both led from the rear, failing to grasp the frontline situation as events unfolded, compounding mistakes with more mistakes.
- Preparation and homework are prerequisites to success. The Allied command went into the Hurtgen unprepared and with no clear agreement on why they were there to begin with. A simple reconnaissance of the Kall trail would’ve warned of its challenges. Much was made of the need to capture the dams on the Roer to the southeast of the Hurtgen as justifying the battles. Yet there was a lack of clarity, before and during the battle, on intended timing of dam capture, the impact the dams could have on flooding of the Roer River, and on alternatives to address the dams (including flanking or bombing them).
- Avoid terrain and environment that neutralizes your strengths. Since Sun Tzu, strategists understood the importance of picking the proper field of battle. Yet the Allies chose the worst place for battle. The Hurtgen’s thick woods, ravines, steep ridges, lack of roads, mud, and weather eliminated Allied superiority in mobility armor, and airpower. Tanks were largely useless until late in the battle and airpower was hampered by cloud cover.
- Supply chain weakness will hamper success in modern warfare and economy. The Kall trail was the primary lifeline for Americans on the frontline for much of the battle. Yet the trail was too steep, too narrow, too muddy, and too prone to German attack. This crucial artery of movement was far too fragile to feed a victory.
- Success demands teams have the proper tools and equipment. One of the Allies’ greatest strengths during the war, logistics, failed miserably during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. Soldiers were deprived of the basics: hot food, winter gear, and boots to protect from trench foot. The failure to equip troops with the essentials resulted in thousands of avoidable casualties.
- Underestimate your adversary’s capacity and will at your own peril. The Allies in late 1944 were too overconfident. They ripped across France, were now inside Germany, the industrial Ruhr was within reach, and the fighting spirit of the German army was thought to be poor. A blunt and direct assault into the Hurtgen would be easy and unresisted. The Germans benefitted from such ignorance and foolishness, which carried on beyond the Hurtgen and bled into the Battle of the Bulge.
History is written by the victors. But if the victors desire to remain on top, analyzing and learning from the failures is essential.