Many have never heard of the Hürtgen Forest, much less the bloody battle that took place there 71 years ago. Located in western Germany between the Ruhr River and the city of Aachen, the Hürtgen was the scene of some of the grittiest combat of World War II, and the battle still holds the record as the longest land engagement in U.S. Army history. The Hürtgen Forest itself is also known for its near-impenetrable terrain, consisting of deep ravines, steep gorges, and narrow roads. During the battle, it was this topography that restricted the use of armor and air power, and virtually negated the almost 5-to-1 numerical advantage held by American forces.
By September 1944, the Allies were flying high on the wings of victory. The landings on the beaches in Normandy were successful, Paris had been liberated, and the word on the street was that Berlin was within reach and American fighting men would be home by Christmas. The Nazi Wehrmacht had other ideas, however.
Originally intended to put pressure on German forces to keep them from reinforcing Aachen to the north, the Allied assault into the Hürtgen Forest was also dubiously intended to enable the Army to zero in on the industrial centers of the Ruhr Valley. Initial American thrusts during the first phase in late September and early October centered on the village of Schmidt, which U.S. forces attempted to access via the narrow and treacherous Kall Trail. Terrain in the area was incredibly rough, however, and resupply and armor support severely restricted. Dotted with German minefields, snipers, and rocked by intense artillery bombardments, the forest was also a deathtrap for the advancing troops. Within the first three weeks of fighting, casualties were appalling at over 4,500 American troops killed and wounded — and for the cost, very little ground was gained.
The same difficult geography that caused problems for the Americans provided German forces with significant defensive advantages. In addition, the reinforced concrete fortifications on what remained of the Siegfried Line, built by Hitler in the 1930s as a defensive measure to protect the German heartland, created pockets of resistance that lasted into 1945. Fog, rain, and ice also helped the Germans by marginalizing American air support, or rendering it completely non-existent throughout October. Schmidt was eventually taken by American forces in early November, but with resupply along the Kall Trail either tedious or completely cut off, they were unable to hold on. By Nov. 10, fighting continued, but with supply lines stretched to the breaking point, efforts to retake Schmidt and hold the Kall Trail were ultimately abandoned.
Upon losing Schmidt, American leadership re-assessed its strategy and opted for direct support of Operation Queen. This second phase was part of a larger action to overrun and hold the Ruhr Valley, disable a significant part of the larger German war industry, and create a staging point to launch attacks into the Rhine region. It was problematic to say the least. Initial advances through the Hürtgen after Nov. 18 were slow and bloody, with results similar to those seen during the battle’s first phase. Casualties remained absurdly high, and difficulties with armor support and resupply persisted. American engineers ended up blasting paths for their tanks through the thick woods, but the meat grinder continued. By Dec. 16 — the first day of the Battle of the Bulge to the south — the Army’s efforts in the Hürtgen forest had resulted in over 33,000 killed, wounded, and missing, and efforts to continue the fight there dropped dramatically.
In early February 1945, the Allies gave the Hürtgen Forest one final try, advancing through German forces greatly weakened by months of hard fighting against Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army in Belgium. The Ruhr was finally captured as well as the Kall Trail.
Today the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest has been largely overshadowed by the stunning successes and intense drama of the Battle of the Bulge. Historians still debate whether military efforts there made any real sense because very little was gained for all the resources spent and human life wasted. In truth, the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest ended up as one of the Army’s most colossal military blunders, right up there with the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. Army leadership gravely misunderstood the impracticalities of the difficult geography, which limited air support, logistical resupply, and the use of armor for infantry support. To boot, much attention was focused on the taking of the villages of Schmidt and Vossenack — two locations with very little military value — while almost no attention was paid to the far more strategic targets of the Ruhr dams to the north (at least until late in the battle), which would have provided unfettered access to the German war machine.
Last, it is likely that military commanders of the day underestimated the zeal of Nazi forces fighting on their home soil. Assuming the Wehrmacht was bitterly demoralized after its failure to block the Normandy invasion then subsequently being driven back into Germany, American leadership simply got cocky. The Hürtgen was the perfect storm of hubris, weather, rugged topography, and poor battle planning. After the war was over, Nazi Gen. stated, “I have engaged in the long campaigns in Russia as well as other fronts and I believe the fighting in the Hurtgen was the heaviest I have ever witnessed.”
Not much about the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest exists in 21st century media, but HBO explored its history in a 1998 film called “When Trumpets Fade,” which is available on YouTube.