NORTHWEST Europe in November and December was a miserable place. A mixture of sleet, snow, rain, cold, fog, and flood. The already poor roads were churned into quagmires by military vehicles; veterans speak of the mud as knee-deep and insist that it is true.
In the centre of the American line, in the Ardennes, portions of First Army did go into something like winter camp. It was a lightly held, quiet area, where divisions just coming into the line could be placed to give them some frontline experience. The terrain made it the least likely area the Germans might counterattack. All was quiet there. But north and south of the Ardennes, First and Third armies were on the offensive, the weather be damned.
Replacements were steadily coming onto the line from England. The new divisions were made up of the high school classes of 1942,1943, and 1944. The training these young men had gone through stateside was rigorous physically but severely short on the tactical and leadership challenges the junior officers would have to meet.
Paul Fussell was a twenty-year-old lieutenant in command of a rifle platoon in the 103rd Division. He found the six months' training in the States to be repetitious and unrealistic. In the field, "our stock-intrade was the elementary fire-and-flank manoeuvre hammered into us over and over at Benning. It was very simple. With half your platoon you establish a firing line to keep your enemy's heads down while you lead the other half around to the enemy's flank for a sudden surprise assault, preferably with bayonets and shouting. We all did grasp the idea," Fussell remembered, "but in combat it had one single defect, namely the difficulty, usually the impossibility, of knowing where your enemy's flank is. If you get up and go looking for it. you'll be killed." Nevertheless, Fussell saw the positive benefit to doing fire and movement over and over: "It did have the effect of persuading us that such an attack could be led successfully and that we were the people who could do it. That was good for our self-respect and our courage."
Fussell was a rich kid from southern California who had a couple of years of college and some professional journalism behind him. There were hundreds of young officers like Fussell, lieutenants who came into Europe in the fall of 1944 to take up the fighting. Bright kids. The quarterback on the championship high school football team. The president of his class. The chess champion. The lead in the class play. The wizard in the chemistry class. America was throwing her finest young men at the Germans.
AMONG THE fresh divisions was the 84th Infantry. It came into France on November 2, assigned to the new US Ninth Army, which had taken over a narrow part of the front. The 84th's K Company, 333rd Regiment, was outside Geilenkirchen, some twenty kilometres north of Aachen.
"K Company was an American mass-production item," one of its officers remarked, "fresh off the assembly line." It certainly was representative. There were men who could neither read nor write, along with privates from Yale and Harvard, class of 1946.
K company's first offensive was Operation Clipper. The 84th's mission was to seize the high ground east of Geilenkirchen along the Siegfried, in conjunction with a British offensive to the left (north). For Clipper the 84th was under the command of British general Brian Horrocks. To K Company what that meant, mostly, was a daily rum ration, about half a canteen cup.
For the first three days of Clipper, K Company did the mopping up in Geilenkirchen, taking 100 prisoners with no casualties. The company congratulated itself and relaxed. "Someone was playing a piano," Private Jim Sterner remembered. He looked into a house and found a half-dozen men and his CO, Captain George Gieszl, playing the piano with a British lieutenant. The song was "Lili Marlene," and "our guys were laughing and singing along with him. What I remember most is a feeling of total exhilaration. Boy, this is really great the way a war ought to be."
On November 21 it was K Company's turn to lead the attack. Sherman tanks with British crews showed up to support the GIs. The company advanced. It took possession of a chateau the Germans had been using as an observation post but had not tried to defend. It moved forward again but was soon held up by artillery fire. Sergeant Keith Lance led his mortar squad forward to provide support, but as he approached, "we started taking machine-gun and rifle fire from a stone farm building off to our right." A British officer in a tank gave the farmhouse three quick rounds. Thirty to forty Germans poured out, waving white flags.
The rifle platoons, meanwhile, were taking a pounding. The company autobiography describes it: "The concentration of German firepower was absolutely overwhelming with its violence, surprise, and intensity. Artillery fire, 88s and 75s from hidden tanks, and 120 mortars with apparently limitless supplies of ammunition hit us. Machine-gun fire whipping in from pillboxes seemed almost an afterthought. The noise, the shock, the sensation of total helplessness and bewilderment, the loss of control, the sudden loss of every familiar assumption nothing in civilian life or training offered an experience remotely comparable. Our new-boy illusions of the past two days dissolved in a moment."
It was K Company's welcome to the Western Front. Every rifle company coming on the line that November had a similar experience and drew the same conclusion: there was no way training could prepare a man for combat. Combat could only be experienced, not played at. Training was critical to getting the men into physical condition, to obey orders, to use their weapons effectively. It could not teach men how to lie helpless under a shower of shrapnel in a field crisscrossed by machine-gun fire. They just had to do it, and in doing it, they joined a unique group of men who have experienced what the rest of us cannot imagine.
AT METZ, Patton remained steadfast for advance. The plan was to have the 5th Division attack to the northeast of Metz, while the 90th Division would break through the German lines to the south of the city. The two divisions would link up east of Metz, isolating it. Meanwhile, the 95th Division would push into the city itself, supported by the 10th Armoured Division.
Torrential rains and stiff German resistance held up the 5th and 90th divisions for a week, but by November 15 the encirclement was almost complete. Metz was finally within Patton's grasp.
It fell to Colonel Robert Bacon to take the city. On November 16 he began advancing in two columns, with tanks at the head. By dusk the next day the columns were near Fort St. Julien, four kilometres from the city centre. The old Vauban-designed fort had a garrison of 362 Germans. They had no heavy weapons, but with their machine guns and rifles they could prevent American movement on the roads. St. Julien was the one fort that had to be taken.
The assault began at dawn, November 18, in the fog. By noon the 95th had fought its way to the moat. At 1300 the infantry began to dash across the causeway and two Shermans moved forward to spray enemy firing slits with their machine guns. But the GIs ran into an iron door that blocked access to St. Julien's interior. The Shermans fired point-blank at it, but the 75-mm shells just bounced off. A tank destroyer with a 90mm gun fired six rounds at 50 yards. They had no effect. With the fire from the Shermans keeping the Germans back from the firing slits, a 155-mm howitzer was wheeled into place. The big gun slammed twenty rounds into the door's mounts. Finally the door collapsed inwards with a mighty crash. Infantry moved through the opening, bayonets fixed. They were met by Germans with their hands up.
The 155-mm had taken the place of the battering ram. This was an altogether new use of self-propelled artillery. It was part of what was becoming the essence of American tactics in ETO-whenever possible, use high explosives.
With the fall of St. Julien the 95th Division began to move to the centre of Metz. On November 22 Metz was secured-except that six forts around the city were still defiant. Soon enough they began to surrender. The last to give up was Fort Driant, which finally capitulated on December 8. Patton had taken Metz.
In August, Third Army had advanced almost 600 kilometres, from Normandy to the Moselle River. From September 1 to midDecember it advanced thirty-five kilometres east of the Moselle. The Siegfried Line was still a dozen or so kilometres to the east. Third Army had suffered 47,039 battle casualties.
UP NORTH of Aachen, K Company continued to attack, side by side with the British. Just south of Aachen lay the Hurtgen Forest. Roughly 50 square miles, it sat along the German-Belgian border. It was densely wooded, with fir trees twenty to thirty metres tall. They blocked the sun, so the forest floor was dark, damp, devoid of underbrush. The firs interlocked their lower limbs at less than two metres, so everyone had to stoop all the time. It was like a green cave, always dripping water-lowroofed and forbidding. The terrain was rugged, a series of ridges and deep gorges.
The Rur River ran along the eastern edge of the Hurtgen. Beyond it was the Rhine. First Army wanted to close to the Rhine, which General Hodges decided required driving the Germans out of the forest. Neither he nor his staff noted the obvious point that the Germans controlled the dams upstream on the Rur. If the Americans got down into the river valley, the Germans could release the dammed-up water and flood the valley. The forest could have been bypassed to the south, with the dams as the objective, but the generals went for the forest. The Battle of Hurtgen was fought under conditions as bad as American soldiers ever had to face. Sergeant George Morgan of the 4th Division described it:
"The forest was a helluva eerie place to fight. You can't get protection. You can't see. You can't get fields of fire. Artillery slashes the trees like a scythe. Everything is tangled. You can scarcely walk. Everybody is cold and wet, and the mixture of cold rain and sleet keeps falling."
The 3rd Armoured Division and the 9th Infantry Division began the attack on September 19. The lieutenants and captains quickly learned that control of formations larger than platoons was nearly impossible. Troops more than a few feet apart couldn't see each other. There were no clearings, only narrow firebreaks and trails. Maps were almost useless. When the Germans, secure in their bunkers, saw the GIs coming forward, they called down pre-sited artillery fire, using shells with fuses designed to explode on contact with the treetops. When men dived to the ground for cover, they exposed themselves to a rain of hot metal and wood splinters. They learned that to survive a shelling in the Hurtgen, hug a tree. That way they exposed only their steel helmet.
Tanks could barely move on the few roads, as they were too muddy, too heavily mined, too narrow. The artillery could shoot, but not very effectively, as forward observers couldn't see ten metres to the front. The Americans were committed to a fight of infantry skirmish lines plunging ever deeper into the forest, with machine guns and light mortars their only support.
For the GIs it was a calamity. In their September action the 9th and 3rd Armoured lost up to 80 per cent of their frontline troops and gained almost nothing. In October the reinforced 9th tried again, but by mid-month it had suffered terribly. Casualties were around 4,500 for an advance of 3,000 metres.
Call it off! That's what the GIs wanted to tell the generals, but the generals shook their heads and said. Attack. On November 2 the 28th Infantry Division took it up. Major General Norman Cota, one of the heroes of D-Day, was the CO. The 28th was the Pennsylvania National Guard and was called the Keystone Division. Referring to the red keystone shoulder patch, the Germans took to calling it the Bloody Bucket Division.
It tried to move forward, but it was like walking into hell. From their bunkers the Germans sent forth a hail of machine-gun fire and mortars. Everything was mud and fir trees. "The days were so terrible that I would pray for darkness," Private Clarence Blakeslee recalled, "and the nights were so bad I would pray for daylight."
For two weeks the 28th kept attacking, as ordered. There were men who broke under the strain, and there were heroes. On November 5 the Germans counterattacked. An unknown GI dashed out of his foxhole, took a bazooka from a dead soldier, and engaged two German tanks. He fired from a range of 25 metres and put one tank out of action. He was never seen again.
By November 13 all the officers in the 28th's rifle companies had been killed or wounded. Most of them were within a year of their twentieth birthday. Virtually every frontline soldier was a casualty. Colonel Ralph Ingersoll of First Army staff met with lieutenants who had just come out of the Hurtgen: "They did not talk; they just sat across the table and looked at you very straight and unblinking with absolutely no expression in their faces, which were neither tense nor relaxed but completely apathetic. They looked, unblinking."
GENERALS Bradley and Hodges remained resolute to take the Hurtgen. They put in the 4th Infantry Division. It had led the way onto Utah Beach on June 6 and gone through a score of battles since. In the Hiirtgen the division poured out its lifeblood once again. Between November 7 and December 3, the 4th Division lost over 7,000 men, or about ten per company per day.
Sergeant Mack Morris was there with the 4th: "Hiirtgen had its firebreaks, only wide enough to allow jeeps to pass, and they were mined and interdicted by machine-gun fire. There was a Teller mine every eight paces for three miles. Hurtgen's roads were blocked. The Germans cut roadblocks from trees. They cut them down so they interlocked as they fell. Then they mined and booby trapped them. Finally they registered their artillery on them, and the mortars, and at the sound of men clearing them, they opened fire. Their strongpoints were constructed carefully, and inside them were neat bunks built of forest wood, and the walls of the bunkers were panelled with wood. These sheltered the defenders. Outside the bunkers were their defensive positions."
First Army put the 8th Infantry Division into the attack. On November 27 it closed to the town of Hurtgen, the original objective of the offensive. It fell to Lieutenant Paul Boesch, Company G, 121st Infantry, to take the town. When he gave the signal, the company charged. "It was sheer pandemonium," Boesch recalled. Once out of that forest, the men went mad with battle lust.
Boesch described it as "a wild, terrible, awe-inspiring thing. We dashed, struggled from one building to another shooting, bayoneting, clubbing. Hand grenades roared, fires cracked, buildings to the left and right burned with acrid smoke. Dust, smoke, and powder filled our lungs, making us cough, spit. Automatic weapons chattered while heavier throats of mortars and artillery disgorged deafening explosions. The wounded and dead-men in the uniforms of both sides-lay in grotesque positions at every turn." The company took nearly 300 prisoners.
The 8th Division didn't get far beyond Hiirtgen. By December 3 it was used up. A staff officer from the regiment was shocked when he visited the front that day. He reported, "The men of this battalion are physically exhausted. The spirit and will to fight are there; the ability to continue is gone. These men have been fighting without rest or sleep for four days and last night had to lie unprotected from the weather in an open field. They are shivering with cold, and their hands are so numb that they have to help one another on with their equipment. I firmly believe that every man up there should be evacuated through medical channels."
IN LATE November the 2nd Ranger Battalion entered the forest. Following heavy losses at Pointe-du-Hoc and Omaha Beach on D-Day, and an equally costly campaign in Normandy, the battalion had been attached to various divisions and corps as needed. Although the battalion had taken more than 100 per cent casualties, the core of the force that Lieutenant Colonel James Earl Rudder had led ashore on June 6 was still there. Altogether the battalion had 485 enlisted men and 27 officers, less than half the size of a full-strength battalion.
The battalion was assigned to the 28th Division in the Hiirtgen. Lieutenant James Eikner and others were disappointed. Eikner explained, "We were a very specialized unit. All volunteers-highly trained in special missions-putting us out on a front line in a defensive position wasn't utilizing our skills and capabilities."
As the battalion moved into the line, it took casualties from mines and artillery. Then the men sat in foxholes and took a pounding. This wasn't the Rangers' idea of war at all.
On December 6 opportunity arrived. Hill 400 (named after its height in metres), on the eastern edge of the forest, was the objective of the campaign. It was the highest point in the area and provided excellent observation of the Rur River to the east and of the farmland and forest around it. The Germans had utilized it so effectively that neither GIs nor vehicles moved during the day, as the slightest movement in daytime would bring down 88s and mortars. The village of Bergstein huddled at the base of the hill.
First Army had thrown four divisions at Hill 400. Concentrated artillery fire and Jabo attacks preceded each attempt to drive the Germans off the hill. In every instance the Germans had stopped the advancing GIs. Hundreds had been sacrificed, with no gain.
Something new had to be tried. The desperate 8th Division commander asked for the Rangers. As Lieutenant Len Lomell put it, "Our Rangers tactics seemed to be needed, stealthful and speedy infiltration and surprise assaults where they were not expected, at first light. The bigger outfits were too visible. We could sneak into the line."
Shortly after midnight on December 7 the Rangers marched to Bergstein. As they approached. Sergeant Earl Lutz came out from the village to guide them in. "I was told to go to a certain road," Lutz recalled. "I got to the road but there was nothing to be seen, no sound, not even a cricket. I guess I swore a little, and the Rangers raised up all around me."
In town the Rangers replaced the 47th Armoured Infantry Battalion, 8th Division. There was no ceremony. Three Ranger lieutenants showed up at the 47th's CP Gerald Heaney wrote: "They asked for enemy positions and the road to take; said they were ready to go. We heard the tommy guns click and, without a word, the Rangers moved out. Our morale went up in a hurry."
By 0300 three companies of Rangers-A, B, and C-had dug in on the edge of a wood near the base of the hill. Companies D, E, and F took possession of Bergstein. The companies near the hill prepared to charge it at first light. They could hit the hill through open fields some 100 metres wide, exposing themselves to enemy fire. or try a flanking move through known minefields. Major George Williams chose the open field. Sergeant Bill Petty recalled that "tension was building up to the exploding point."
At first light, shouting "Let's go get the bastards!" and firing from the hip, the Rangers charged. They got through the snow-covered field and started up the rocky hill. Four machine guns were firing point-blank on the Rangers, who kept moving, yelling, and firing. Sergeant Bud Potratz remembered hollering, "Hi ho, Silver!"
The Germans were caught by surprise. Small-arms fire kept them pinned down, while other Rangers tossed grenades into the bunkers. When Sergeant Petty reached the top of the hill with another Ranger, named Anderson, he approached the main bunker and heard Germans inside. They pushed open the door and tossed two grenades inside. Just as they were ready to rush in and spray the room with their Browning automatic rifles, a shell exploded a few feet away-the Germans were firing on their own position. The explosion blew Anderson into Petty's arms. He was killed instantly by a big piece of shrapnel in his heart.
One squad chased the remaining Germans down the hill, almost to the river, then pulled back to the top. It was 0830. The shelling intensified. Rangers took shelter in the bunkers and waited for the inevitable counterattack. Petty recovered Anderson's dying brother and "had the dubious distinction of having hold of both brothers while they were in the process of dying within an hour's time."
At 0930 the first of five counterattacks that day began. They came mostly from the south and east, where woods extended to the base of the hill and gave the Germans cover almost all the way, in company-size strength. Months later Major Williams told Sergeant Forrest Pogue of the Historical Section, "In some cases Germans were in and around the bunker on the hill before the Rangers were aware of their presence. They used machine guns, burp guns, rifles, and threw potato masher grenades. Hand-to-hand fights developed in which some use was made of bayonets."
Through the day and into the night the Germans attacked Hill 400. At times, Lieutenant Lomell remembered, "we were outnumbered ten to one. We had no protection, continuous tons of shrapnel falling upon us, hundreds of rounds coming in." In 1995 he commented, "June 6, 1944, was not my longest day. December 7th, 1944, was my longest and most miserable day on earth during my past 75 years."
As Ranger numbers dwindled and ammunition began to run out, the American artillery saved the men. The field of vision was such that a forward observer, Lieutenant Howard Kettlehut from the 56th Armoured Field Artillery Battalion, could call in fire all around the hill. The Rangers later said Kettlehut was "the best man we ever worked with." During the night ammo bearers got to the top of the hill and brought down wounded on litters-terribly difficult on the snow, ice, and rocks. The combined strength of the three companies left on top was five officers and eighty-six men. Lomell was wounded.
Late on December 8 an infantry regiment and tank destroyer battalion relieved the surviving Rangers. A week and two days later, the Germans retook the hill. Not until February 1945 did the Americans get it back. The Rangers had suffered 90 per cent casualties.
WITH THE Battle of Hill 400, the Htirtgen campaign came to a close. The forest they held, for which they had paid such a high price, was worthless.
The Battle of Htirtgen lasted ninety days. Nine divisions plus supporting units on the American side were involved. There were more than 24,000 combat casualties, another 9,000 victims of disease or combat exhaustion. German general Rolf von Gersdorff commented after the war, "I have engaged in the long campaigns in Russia as well as other fronts and I believe the fighting in the Hiirtgen was the heaviest I have ever witnessed."
On December 8, from Hill 400, Lieutenant Eikner remembered: "We could see across the Rur River to a town called Nideggen. Trains were puffing in there and bringing in troops and all."
They were heading south. Eikner had cause to feel discouraged. If, after all that pounding, the Germans were building a reserve somewhere to the south, why then it was the Germans, not the Americans, who had won the battles of attrition in the fall of 1944. The Americans had no reserve at all, save the 82nd and 101st Airborne, which were near Reims, being brought up to strength after the Holland campaign. Every other division in ETO was committed to offensive action.