Germans and Americans slugged it out for six months in the Hürtgen Forest beginning in September 1944, with both sides suffering enormous casualties. Given the ferocity of the seesaw struggle, it is difficult to believe that at the height of the battle the two sides paused for humanitarian reasons. But three times over the course of five days in November 1944 the opponents put aside their enmity so that wounded soldiers could be taken safely to the rear for treatment.
The Hürtgen Forest is a region of the Ardennes near Aix-la-Chapelle, Belgium, a terrain interspersed with areas of heavy forest, plains and ravines, beyond which lie the Roer River dams. Allied commanders feared that the dams, which supplied hydroelectric power to the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany, might be opened by the Germans to prevent or delay an Allied advance across the German frontier. Attacking through the Hürtgen and seizing the dams, the Allies believed, would surely hasten the end of the war.
For the attack, the U.S. First Army assembled 250,000 GIs in eight combat-seasoned divisions and a complement of several separate units. Their commander, Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges, had dropped out of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., but subsequently earned his commission through Officer Candidate School. During World War I, he gained renown and was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his sterling service in the Meuse-Argonne campaign. In 1941 Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall appointed Hodges chief of the infantry, and by 1944 Hodges had succeeded General Omar Bradley as commander of the First Army. Bradley then took command of the U.S. Twelfth Army Group.
In the fall of 1944, Hodges was leading his troops through an area similar to that in which he had distinguished himself as a machine-gun company commander in 1918. He was anxious to crush enemy resistance rapidly, to avoid the brutal trench fighting of the previous conflict. Moreover, intelligence sources assured him that the Germans were on the run.
On September 11, Hodges called a halt to the advance to wait two days for his XIX Corps, then 20 miles behind, to catch up. In the interim, he wanted the troops waiting along the 120-mile-long front to repair equipment. The First Army was supposed to have 1,010 medium tanks, but only 850 were on hand and many needed substantial repairs. But the VII Corps and V Corps commanders, Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins and Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow, were anxious to press onward to keep the Germans off balance. Hodges agreed, with the proviso that if either corps met substantial resistance, operations would cease until more supplies and ammunition arrived.
On the morning of September 12, General Collins directed the 3rd Armored Division to punch through German lines at a midpoint between the town of Aachen and the forest. The Germans, advantageously placed in bunkers or pillboxes under the cover of fir trees, fought back with anti-tank guns, and the Americans lost nine tanks in short order. The unit commander called a halt for the day, but other units made better progress. All the Allied units halted for the night, since ‘dragon’s teeth’ fortifications (mini concrete pyramids) blocked further armored progress.
Meanwhile, Collins assigned the 9th Infantry Division, under Maj. Gen. Louis A. Craig, to attack a ridgeline, a move that enabled them to protect the right flank of the armored divisions and the southern flank of the VII Corps. Craig launched his attack on September 13, but the Germans held the Americans at bay. The Germans fighting on this 19-mile front consisted of Colonel Eberhard Rösler’s 1056th Regiment of the 89th Division and the northern half of Infantry General Erich Straube’s 74th Corps.
During September and October 1944, the 9th Infantry Division had little progress to show for the protracted fighting in the Hürtgen. Hodges and his superior, Bradley, decided that some rearranging was in order. The new plan called for Hodges to cross the Rhine River south of Cologne. Protecting each flank would be the Ninth Army, under the command of Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson, and Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army. The XIX Corps would switch over to the Ninth Army, with the VIII Corps taking its place. Seizing the Hürtgen was now the main objective, and Hodges decided to transfer the mission from Collins’ VII Corps to General Gerow’s V Corps.
To lead the assault, Hodges brought the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division up from the rear. The ‘Keystone’ Division’s commander, Maj. Gen. Norman D. ‘Dutch’ Cota, had previously served as assistant divisional commander of the 29th Infantry Division on D-Day, when he earned the Distinguished Service Cross and the British Distinguished Service Order. Cota, a West Point graduate, had reservations about the mission. As he directed the Pennsylvanians into position to relieve the beleaguered 9th Division, the frozen, bloated bodies, discarded equipment and spent shells that littered the landscape offered eloquent testimony to the hardships that lay ahead. Nevertheless, Cota had his orders to attack on November 1, 1944. The assault was postponed by rain and fog until the following day.