On the evening of 11 September 1944, a US patrol crept across the German border from Luxembourg. The following day, US General Courtney Hodges’ First Army pushed forward towards Aachen with the intention of breaking through the west wall, or Siegfried Line – the last line of defence of Hitler’s Third Reich– to reach the Rhine. This line of defences along Germany’s western border, built to match the French Maginot Line, consisted of a series of fortifications with interlocking fields of fire, minefields and anti-tank obstacles.
Eisenhower’s overall plan was to coordinate and advance his three army groups together, liberating German territory without committing troops too far ahead of a broad north-south front. The setback around Colmar and Axis resistance in the Netherlands meant that the corps in the centre of the Allied front were moving slightly faster than the rest. Reluctant to halt the advance of Hodges’ American troops – who could make a spectacular breakthrough and shorten the war – the Allies decided to press on, but Hodges realized he must first protect his right flank. This meant taking control of the Hürtgen Forest (Hürtgenwald), and its high point, crowned by the village of Schmidt. This ostensibly simple operation would prove anything but. The Germans lay in wait in the forest, and the ensuing six-month battle was the longest the western Allies would fight on German soil.
The forest constituted unfamiliar and forbidding terrain, and its defenders were easily concealed. These gloomy evergreen woods, bare hilltops and deep gorges bounded by Aachen, Duren and Monschau were of no obvious strategic importance, but the natural landscape provided a perfect snare. The Germans had scattered the thickets with pillboxes, machine-gun nests, barbed wire and minefields, while the woods were difficult to penetrate, either on foot or by vehicle. Heavy rainfall and then snow compounded the formidable task of the American soldiers.
Underestimating the German defences and the difficulties of the terrain, the Americans suffered heavy losses, particularly during a bitter confrontation from 2 November 1944 for the village of Schmidt, northwest of the Rur Reservoir. The US 28th Infantry Division committed three regiments to the advance on Schmidt. On the second day, one managed to reach the village church. The other two regiments struggled in the thick woods, sustaining substantial casualties. The American units in Schmidt then came under artillery fire from the German 89th Infantry Division and the 272nd “People’s Grenadier” Division, while American tanks sent in as support were disabled by the terrain.
All Allied attempts to resupply Schmidt failed. The American troops on the bare ridge between Vossenack and Schmidt were pounded by German artillery until 8 November, when their withdrawal was finally ordered. The reason for the unexpectedly tenacious defence of the woods became clear only later: the Germans needed to hold the Hürtgen Forest as a marshalling area for their planned offensive in the Ardennes – the Battle of the Bulge. It was only after the Battle of the Bulge was concluded in early 1945 that the Allies were finally able to take possession of the forest that had cost so many lives.
Museum of Hürtgenwald in 1944 and in Peacetime
The Battle of Hürtgen Forest in the autumn and winter of 1944 claimed the lives of thousands of German and American soldiers, as well as leaving villages, farmland and forest utterly devastated. Evacuated inhabitants returning to their homes at the end of the war saw the labour of generations annihilated. During the summer of 1945, forest fires burned for months and spontaneous explosions of unspent ammunition killed many men, women and children. Displaying immense courage and dedication, the local population set about the daunting task of rebuilding their lives and their land from scratch.
The Museum of Hürtgenwald explores the military confrontation as well as the plight of the civilian population during and after the battle. It is run entirely by volunteers, and most of its objects were collected in the Hürtgen Forest area after the war.
Vossenack was almost completely destroyed between November 1944 and February 1945. The village changed hands nearly thirty times between German and American forces, while the front ran straight through its parish church, which witnessed close-quarters combat and was reduced to rubble.
The church was rebuilt and newly consecrated after World War II. An inscription on the door commemorates 68,000 soldiers who died in Hürtgen Forest, but this figure is inaccurate. Current estimates suggest around half that number perished here; 68,000 is most likely a mix-up of the dead and injured.
The Vogelsang complex was built between 1934 and 1936, on a wooded mountain spur above the Urfttal dam, as a National Socialist training institution for young party fanatics. The imposing buildings were intended to show the dominance of state and party over nature, and great trouble was taken to create a relief effect on the hillside. Those who came here adhered to a cult of prowess and virility: physical health, beauty and strength were equated with the ideal of the “Aryan race”.
Around the park are several sculptures depicting favourite Nazi images of the master race, the Herrenmensch. The most conspicuous of these is Willy Meller’s The Torchbearer, which borrows heavily from Christian and Greek mythology. The raised torch references the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus, bringing fire to mankind; the flame symbolizes the rebirth of the nation through the victory of Nazi Germany; while the chilling inscription echoes Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, directly addressing the cadets: “You are the torchbearers of the Nation, you carry forth the light of spirit in the fight for Adolf Hitler”. When American soldiers captured Vogelsang in 1945, they fired on The Torchbearer and the site’s other sculptures. Look out for the bullet marks, which are still clearly visible today.
This medical aid bunker is the only bunker of its type in all Nordrhein-Westphalia, and its inventory is almost completely original. Conditions were very cramped, with four medics caring for twenty or thirty infirm soldiers. Visits can be arranged via the Museum of Hürtgenwald in Vossenack, which is run by the same volunteer organization that renovated the bunker.
In November 1944, several units of the 28th US Infantry Division advanced towards the village of Schmidt via the so-called “Kall Trail”, a rough road cutting through the dense forest. After eight days of fighting, the Battle of Schmidt ended in German victory and the exhausted US soldiers were forced to fall back on their front line in Vossenack. On their return, the troops had to cross the Kall Bridge, leaving them vulnerable to German forces who had retaken the surrounding valley. Between 7 and 9 November, Dr Stüttgen, a German captain in the medical corps, managed to negotiate a series of short ceasefires at this bridge, allowing wounded soldiers from both sides to be treated. While the effect of these ceasefires was limited, the lives of numerous US soldiers were saved by German doctors and paramedics. After the war, Dr Stüttgen was honoured by the Governor of the State of Pennsylvania for his act of humanity. The events at Kall Bridge are immortalized in the painting A Time for Healing, which is displayed at the National Guard Museum in Washington DC; a replica can be seen at the Museum of Hürtgenwald in Vossenack.
A simple sculpture by Michael Pohlmann marks today’s bridge.
Thousands of American and German soldiers died during the six months of bloody fighting for Hürtgen Forest. Most American servicemen were repatriated to the US for burial, but some of the German soldiers who lost their lives during the campaign were laid to rest in German war cemeteries at Hürtgen or Vossenack, or at communal cemeteries in the area. Many more were transferred to German war cemeteries in Belgium and the Netherlands.
The Vossenack German Cemetery was constructed on a hill by the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge) between 1949 and 1952. Today, the cemetery contains the graves of 2347 war dead, among them 35 men who lost their lives during postwar operations as members of an “Ammunition Search and Removal Team”. A monument at the entrance commemorates Julius Erasmus, a German engineer captain who – at great risk – recovered the remains of around 1500 of his former comrades from the Hürtgen Forest battlefields and personally buried them on this hill.
During the battle for Hürtgen Forest, this 15th-century Trappist abbey served as a hospital for casualties on both sides. The Nazis closed the abbey before the war because of its opposition to their regime, arresting some brothers and conscripting others. A few were allowed to stay on as farmhands, working the fields of the monastery.
Not all the wounded treated here could be saved – 414 men are buried in the military cemetery nearby.
When Hodges’ American soldiers arrived at Hürtgen Forest, they had to adapt quickly to fighting in the wooded terrain. Their German counterparts, meanwhile, were reinforced by troops returning from the Eastern Front who were familiar with the tactics demanded by forest warfare. In areas such as Ochsenkopf and Peterberg, the Germans had another advantage: they could withstand American fire in the pillboxes that dotted the hills. These formed part of the Westwall, or Siegfried Line – the last line of defence of Hitler’s Third Reich. In the northern Eifel, the pillboxes were generally situated in dense spruce forests, where trees doubled up as tank obstacles. In the bewildering forest, every German company and regiment could hide behind the pillboxes’ massive concrete walls.
The scant remains of a number of pillboxes can still be made out in the forest.
Top image: Sunlight in the forest, Germany © Shutterstock