Abstract of a thesis by Major Jeffrey P. Holt
The 28th Infantry Division completed the relief of the 9th Infantry Division on 27 October 1944.
Moving in to the 9th ID'S sector was a horrifying experience for the soldiers of the 28th, particularly for the large number of soldiers without combat experience.
The terrain was thickly forested and artillery had slashed trees into a variety of strange and frightening shapes. Scattered throughout the sector were the bodies of soldiers from the 9th ID.
The heavy losses and difficult terrain completely overwhelmed graves registration personnel. Discarded equipment and trash lay everywhere. The ragged and shattered appearance of the soldiers of the 9th ID also had a big impact on the 28th. The rumors of the heavy fighting in this sector of the front were proving true to the soldiers of the 28th. The popular nickname for this portion of the war was the "The Green Hell" The official unit history recorded the battle as the Huertgen Forest Campaign.
The Huertgen Forest, as the entire area became known, embraced a thickly wooded section of Germany approximately 50 square miles in size. The forest consisted primarily of fir trees, planted so closely together that a man often had to crawl to get through them. Sunlight had a tough time penetrating through the trees and observers described the area as " dark and forbidding." As units advanced in the forest, the separation and isolation of individual soldiers was significant. In some areas it was possible to see only the man to your immediate front or flank. Navigation was difficult to impossible for many units. Numerous ravines, some quite large, such as the Kall River Gorge, cut the ground and blocked almost all movement. Roads and trails, the few that existed, were deep in mud. Moving supplies forward over these paths proved to be a major challenge.
There were few battles in the ETO in which terrain had such an overwhelming physical and psychological effects on soldiers and units as did the Huertgen Forest.
The enemy defenses were equally formidable, though soldiers in this sector were certainly not Germanys finest. For the most part they were the very young, the very old, and the cadre of combat veterans provided the backbone for the units.
Their defensive fighting power in this terrain was formidable and American soldiers were to learn a tough lesson about the effectiveness of well- led soldiers fighting from prepared defenses. The Germans fought from camouflaged bunkers that had excellent interlocking fields of fire. The fires of automatic weapons extracted a heavy price from anyone that moved on the existing trails and firebreaks. The Germans planted thousands of mines in the area; many designed not to kill, but to maim instead. One mine was notorious for amputating legs and the male genitals. Artillery and mortars, though much smaller in numbers than those possessed by the Americans, were lethal and effective.
The thick evergreens turned many of the rounds into devastating air bursts. Soldiers learned quickly that lying prone on the ground while receiving artillery fire was the worst possible thing to do. Instead, soldiers learned to crouch or stand close against a tree, minimizing the bodily surface area they exposed to the blasts."
To make matters worse for the 28th, a field division, the 272d Volksgrenadier Division was in the process of relieving the 89th Infantry Division in this sector.
An additional German division, the 116th Panzer, was also in a position to counterattack the 28th. This meant that the 28th would face elements of up to four divisions during its attack in the forest. It was small consolation that most of the German units were badly understrength. Given the harshness of the terrain, this was a formidable defensive force.
The combined effects of the enemy and terrain created one of the most difficult barriers an attacking force could ever hope to encounter.
The withdrawing 9th ID endured almost two months of heavy fighting in this frightful landscape and suffered more than 4,500 casualties. The division had little to show for its efforts. It had captured few of its assigned objectives and penetrated the forest to a depth of only 3,000 yards. This was a best effort from one of the most highly regarded infantry divisions in the U. S. Army. Before the fighting ended in the Huertgen, eight American infantry divisions would fight in the forest. The average casualty total per division was more than 4,000 men. The 28th would fare worse than any of them.
The 28th launched its attack on the early morning hours of 2 November. A massive artillery barrage, one hour in duration, preceded the attack. Division and corps artillery units fired almost 12,000 rounds in support of the 28th. Fighter aircraft were scheduled to support the division, but poor weather limited their employment. Given the difficult terrain, the first day of the attack started well for the division. Two regiments, the 109th and the 112th, enjoyed mixed success, seizing portions of their assigned objectives and then digging- in for the night with only light casualties. The 110th Regiment, attacking in the south, met very stiff resistance. Casualties were heavy for the regiment and by nightfall it was fighting to hold onto its original start- line for the attack. Some rifle companies lost almost two- thirds of their strength on that very first day.
The second day of the operation was an enormous success for the 28th. The 3rd Battalion of the 112th Regiment launched its attack at 0700, advanced swiftly against light resistance, and by 1430 captured the town of Schmidt, the division’s prime objective. The 9th ID had fought unsuccessfully for weeks to capture this town. A state of euphoria swept the division and corps headquarters. Unfortunately, the 3rd Battalion was the only unit from the 112th that reached Schmidt on 3 November. The battalion was also without armor support. The only route into Schmidt open to the division was the Kall Trail and this route was proving to be nearly impassable for armor. The 3rd Battalion was dangerously exposed and its only anti- tank weapons were mines and bazookas. Its soldiers were also cold, wet, and exhausted. Leaders and soldiers alike sought out warm buildings during the night and prepared only the most rudimentary of defenses. The battalion sent out no patrols during the night and as a result, the commander was blind to what was around his bunk.
The 109th and the 110th made no progress on 3 November. In the south, tough German defenses continued to hold the 110th in check. Casualties for the regiment mounted steadily. The infantry units, unsupported by tanks, continued to force the assault despite the heavy casualties. By the end of the day, they still had nothing to show for their sacrifices. In the north the initial success of the 109th Regiment also ground to a halt. At dawn the 109th fought off two counterattacks and subsequently canceled plans for its own attack toward the town of Hürtgen. Much like the forward elements of the 112th, the 109th found itself surrounded on three sides by well dug-in defenders.
Disaster struck the 28th during the early morning hours of 4 November.
A strong German counterattack composed of armor from the 116th Panzer Division and infantry forces from the 89th Infantry Division struck the 3rd Battalion in Schmidt just after dawn. German artillery conducted a brief but fierce shelling of the town immediately prior to the German assault. The shelling stunned the American infantry in their hastily prepared positions.
The German infantry made good use of the artillery barrage and attacked the town from almost every angle. German tanks, impervious to the bazooka fire of the American infantrymen, followed close on the heels of the attacking infantry. Due to communications difficulties American artillery did not begin to provide support until the German attack was over an hour old. Confusion within the 3/112th grew rapidly and soon turned into panic. Soldiers began to flee for the woods and leaders lost all semblance of control. In little more than three hours of fighting the Germans recaptured Schmidt and the 3/112th ceased to exist as an effective combat force.
The German counterattack next struck the 1/112th, defending the village of Kommerscheidt. Here the American defenses were better prepared and had armor support in the form of three Sherman tanks. Leaders also rounded up and put into the line approximately 200 of the panic- stricken soldiers from Schmidt. The defenders beat back the German attack, though not without substantial losses. Early the next morning, nine tank destroyers and six tanks further reinforced the position at Kommerscheidt. This discouraged any immediate German efforts to launch another counterattack.
Fighting on 5 and 6 November took on a confusing and fragmented pattern. Small unit engagements occurred in the zones of all three regiments. The 110th Regiment had settled into a battle of attrition with the enemy. Progress was impossible given the ferocity of the enemy resistance, the well- positioned obstacles, and the difficult nature of the terrain. Soldiers of the regiment dug- in almost with1 hand grenade range of the enemy. Each day they received new orders to attack and each day leaders forced men from their holes. Within minutes, the advance would be halted and soldiers would return to their cold, wet foxholes. Such persistence almost completely shattered the offensive capability of the 110th.
In the north, the 109th was also subjected to strong German pressure, but managed to hold on to its positions. In this portion of the forest, it was difficult for the Germans to support their attacks with armor. The lesson for both forces was that even in this restrictive terrain, attacks without armor support had little chance of success. The Germans managed to briefly cut the only supply route into Kommerscheidt, but a small American task force of armor and infantry reopened the Kall Trail on the morning of the sixth. The situation for the 28th was growing worse by the hour. By now the regiments discarded all thought of counter offensive operations, they were instead fighting for their lives. Incredibly, the division continued to order units to attack, few of which complied. Many of the infantry companies were now well below 50 percent strength. The 28th had lost all offensive capability and was fighting to survive. The division began to push replacements forward; at the head of the line were the 250 soldiers that the division trained in October. Brought forward during the night, these frightened and inexperienced soldiers were put into foxholes with little or no training. As an example, on 8 November, the 2/ 112th Infantry, with an authorized strength of approximately 850, received 515 replacements. Even more incredibly, the battalion received the mission to attack on the following morning. It was impossible for any unit to accept such large numbers of replacements and remain an effective force. For the unfortunate replacements it was almost a case of murder. Many of them would be evacuated at each sunrise, victims of trenchfoot, battle fatigue or enemy fire.
The enemy was not the only source of casualties within the 28th. The cold and wet weather, with temperatures hovering around freezing, took a terrible toll on soldiers. Trenchfoot and respiratory infection cases skyrocketed. Many soldiers were still without necessary cold weather clothing items such as overboots, field jackets, woolen caps, and long underwear. The continual lack of hot rations also damaged the health and morale of soldiers. Rations consisted of cold K- Rations or C- Rations and many soldiers ceased eating. The situation was much too dangerous to risk bringing hot meals or drinks forward. The soldiers were also unable to build fires, since their proximity to the enemy was sure to draw rifle and mortar fire. Less than a week into the operation the division was virtually worn out as a fighting force.
On the morning of 6 November, another infantry battalion collapsed. This time it was the 2/ 112th, defending an exposed position along a ridge near the town of Vossenack. The battalion had been subjected to almost continuous fire from German artillery for three days. Soldiers, most of them green replacements, had become so demoralized that leaders had to force them to eat and drink. Finally, they were pushed beyond the breaking point. Imagining themselves about to be overrun, first one soldier, then another began to head for the rear. The panic became overpowering for many of the soldiers. The efforts of officers and NCO's could halt only a small percentage. There had been no German counterattack, only blind panic. The 2/ 112th was left with only a thin line of resistance holding half of the town. An engineer battalion rushed in to bolster the defenses. The next morning the engineers attacked and within hours cleared the remainder of Vossenack of German resistance.
The next day the Germans struck the 1/ 112th in Kommerscheidt, protected from air attack by a steady winter rain. The defenders held firm initially, but gradually began to pull back under the weight of the German attack. The 1st Battalion conducted its withdrawal in good order and managed to reestablish a weak defensive line just outside the town. The panic that acted the other two battalions of the 112th did not occur in Kommerscheidt. Nevertheless, by the end of the day, the defenders had been pushed from the town. The following day, this small group of infantry and armor, along with other scattered elements still on the east side of the Kall River, withdrew to the west bank. This withdrawal effectively ended offensive operations for the division. The division ordered further attacks in the zones of the 109th and 110th Regiments. The units executed the attacks with little determination and achieved nothing except to add to the division's casualty totals.
Finally, on 14 November, the Huertgen ordeal came to an end for the 28th
The U. S. 8th Infantry Division moved forward and relieved the 28th and prepared to begin its own ordeal.
A thesis presented to the Faculty of the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College
by Major Jeffrey P. Holt