by Cpt John C. Ausland
29th Field Artillery Battalion, 4th. Infantry Division
Chapter 12 - The Huertgen Forest
If war is hell, the Huertgen Forest was worse. No one who was there and came out of it alive, and many did not, can ever forget it. To say it was a nightmare is an understatement. Patton described it as an "epic of stark infantry combat." This description, however, glorifies a brutal and purposeless military operation, which chewed up five US Army infantry divisions. One of these was the 4th.
Before moving to my letters, it is necessary to set the stage. The allied forces which swept across France arrived at the German border exhausted, both the men and equipment. The supply lines from Normandy were too long. As a result of Montgomery's abortive efforts to make up for the failure of Market-Garden, he delayed destroying the German forces which were preventing the use of the port of Antwerp. Therefore, it did not become available until the end of November. General Bradley, in his A Soldier's Story, called Montgomery's delay in taking on this task "an irrevocable logistical loss to the Allies."
Eisenhower wanted to get on with the campaign but had to devote a great deal of time to problems with the British and French. Both disapproved of his conduct of the war. Aside from personalities, the key issue with the British was whether the Allied forces should make a one or two pronged drive into Germany. Montgomery wanted to concentrate on a drive in the north toward Berlin. Bradley wanted to make a two pronged attack to isolate the Ruhr. After considerable wrangling, Eisenhower approved Bradley's strategy. This called for attacks all along the front in November.
The 4th Division's task was to clear the Huertgen Forest, the fourth division sacrificed to this mission. These wooded hills were in the First Army sector, commanded by General Courtney R. Hodges. Specifically, we were in the VIIth Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. J. Lawton Collins. This was the same corps the division was with during the landing and breakout.
Fearing to have his forces advance south of Aachen with the forest on his right flank, Collins had decided it essential to clear the Germans from it. I am not the only one who finds this decision difficult to understand. The German generals were also puzzled why we did not just block the few roads running through the forest and go around. Since, however, Collins elected to fight in this forbidding terrain, the Germans had little choice but to defend it.
The decision to conquer this forest at great cost is even more puzzling when one takes into account the dams on the River Roer. Even if we had got through the forest, we could not have gone much further. The Germans would have used the dams, as they did later, to flood the area east of the forest. The puzzle therefore is: why did we not concentrate on capturing the dams rather than the forest? Before trying to answer this question, I will try to show you what three weeks in hell was like.
The 4th moved into an assembly area near Zweifall, just west of the forest, on November 7. Before arriving there, the 12th Regiment was thrown into battle suddenly in the middle of the night to rescue a badly mauled regiment of the 28th Division. This misbegotten operation had two results. Col. James S. Luckett was relieved of command of the 12th, and the regiment was not in condition to be of much help in the forest.
AFTER COBRA, THE GENERALS DECIDE
TO BOMB THE GERMAN REAR
After we arrived in the assembly area, we received word that a bombing, Operation Queen, would precede our attack. This led me to write the following letter:
Dear Dad, Somewhere in Germany, November 11, 1944
Yesterday I lectured one of my men for threatening to run should we go through another bombing like July 25. Yet I must admit that I am frightened myself. There is nothing so ominous as the uncertainty of a future battle.
The next blow could be the last, and I hope it will be. We are all anxious to bring this business to a conclusion. As always, we shall do our best.
Your son, John
We need not have been concerned about the bombing. As a result of the casualties during Operation Cobra, the bombers dropped their bombs well in advance of the forces. The drawback of this was that, whereas the attack in Normandy stunned the Germans, those immediately in front of us in the Huertgen were little affected by the bombing.
The prospect of another battle was not brightened by the reality that winter was upon us. In A Soldier's Story, General Omar Bradley says that his command had neglected preparations for winter in order to get more ammunition forward. This was not obvious to those of us at the front, for we seemed to be getting the winter gear we needed.
Dear Dad, Somewhere in Germany, November 14, 1944
Knowing the German weather at this time of year from World War I, it is unnecessary to tell you that it is wet, cold, etc. However, despite rumors to the contrary, as winter has approached, apparently our command has anticipated a winter campaign.
The first line troops are getting sleeping bags, warm clothes, and everything that will help them. Tentage and stoves for rear installations not in buildings are making their appearance. Thus life is still neither pleasant nor unbearable. At any rate, it doesn't warrant complaint.
Hitler seems to expect a winter offensive. I hope we don't disappoint him. However, it will be an unequal and messy struggle, I'm afraid.
Read a condensation of Chiang's book on China. Interesting, but vague as to concrete plans for the future. But perhaps he intended this. Would appreciate any comments from you on the Stillwell withdrawal. It is probably more important than it was pictured.
Dear Folks, Somewhere in Germany, November 14, 1944
It's been snowing and raining to beat the band around here. The other morning I went out and made a snowman. Other than that, we mainly try to keep dry and warm. Amazing though, no cold, and I feel fine.
Just finished reading Queen Victoria, starting Benjamin Franklin. Ordered Fortune the other day and renewed Dad's Time subscription, sending it to Valley Forge. No mail recently, but it should float in one day soon.
Send me a pair of bedroom slippers. I'll need them when the war is over and we start occupying. Optimistic, eh? Also, send more tea balls.
WE RUN INTO A SKILLFUL
AND DETERMINED GERMAN DEFENSE
These were my last letters before our attack began on November 16. Hoping that the rifle companies could surprise the Germans, General Barton ordered that there be no artillery preparation. Hence, I had little to do initially. My only recollection is of driving in my jeep over a small stream, the Inde River, on the near side of the forest. With mud everywhere, the engineers had laid a road of logs. After crossing the river, we entered the forest which would be our home for the next three weeks.
The German defense was brilliant. Using units which had been scraped together in a hurry, they made maximum use of the terrain, which was hilly and had few roads. There were concertinas of barbed wire and mines everywhere, covered by small arms or machine gun fire. Despite fantastic acts of bravery, the infantry found it impossible to move forward. The problem was finally solved for the 8th Regiment by using tanks to explode personnel mines and destroy the concertinas. For this, Major George L. Mabry Jr., commander of the Second Battalion, got the Medal of Honor.
There were two other Medals of Honor awarded for action in the Huertgen. President Truman hung one on Staff Sergeant Macario Garcia for destroying two machine gun nests after being wounded. Truman was, however, unable to hand one to Lt. Bernard J. Ray. While trying to destroy a concertina obstacle, Ray was wounded. As he fell, he set off the explosives which he had wrapped around his body and blasted a path through the wire. His sacrifice was in vain, because German fire prevented his platoon from advancing.
Although with courageous acts like these, the infantry made a little progress the first few days, the cost was terrible. After three days, there was a one day pause. The Germans took advantage of this to improve their position. I used it to write a very brief letter.
Dear Folks, Somewhere in Germany, November 20, 1944
All goes well. Read your newspapers.
I imagine the purpose of this letter was to let my family know that I was still alive, since they would have been reading in the press about the fighting.
Before we got to the Huertgen, Lt. Col. Cyril J. Letzelter had replaced Jack Meyer as Commander of the First Battalion. He had commanded it for a short while in Normandy but was wounded. Although a likable person, other officers I have talked to while writing this book have agreed there was something lacking. In the Huertgen, he would return at night to the battalion's rear command post. Capt. Ralph Thomas, the battalion S-3, and I would plan the next day's attack. He would prepare orders to the company commanders, and I would arrange any artillery preparation. Early in the morning Letzelter would return to our forward command post, and the attack would begin. If the companies ran into trouble during the day, their commanders would get together and decide how to deal with it.
One day an awkward situation arose, when regiment decided to have tanks attack along a road. The tank commander was clearly unenthusiastic about moving through the forest, since the Germans had anti-tank guns and the hand held panzer faust. About the same time as the tank commander showed up, so did Col. Richard G. McKee, who had replaced Col. Rodwell as commander of the 8th Regiment. The tank commander put increasingly difficult questions to Letzelter, which he had difficulty answering. Finally, Col. McKee intervened and the tanks set off down the road. A short time later a commander of one of the tanks showed up, sobbing. A German shell had hit the tank, and his best friend had had his face blown off.
There was another pause, and the Germans took advantage of it to move reinforcements into the forest opposite us. At this point, however, Col. McKee ordered the Second Battalion to make a big demonstration, with artillery, smoke, and the lot. It then remained in place, while the First Battalion moved forward with no artillery or mortar preparation. This worked well. The Germans fired their artillery and mortars at the demonstrating battalion, which remained in covered dugouts. The First moved forward without resistance until it reached the regimental objective, a monastery in the forest at Gut Schwarzenbroich. There, however, it ran into German resistance. (It was during this action that Corp. James R. Flannigan earned his DSC, but more on this later.)
On November 25, eight days after the attack began, General Barton ordered the 8th and 22nd to consolidate, while the 12th moved between them. This gave each regiment a more reasonable front to cover. It was, however, too late. All the units had suffered so many casualties, particularly in company officers, that they were hollow shells. Joe Gude's C Company for example, had only forty-four men. Before replacements could get to where he was, many were wounded or killed by artillery or mortar fire.
A VISIT TO A SHOWER POINT
AND TO THE INFANTRY
I took advantage of the pause to write another letter.
Dear Folks, Somewhere in Germany, November 25, 1944
Dad writes that he and mother have gone to Mayos. Hope they do not have an unpleasant stay there and that they are soon back in Philly.
Haven't had much time lately to do any extensive writing, but perhaps we shall in time. Had a shower today. Feel fine.
The Quartermaster Corps had erected a number of shower points behind the lines. Every couple of weeks we were trucked to one of them. We would take off our clothes at one end of a long tent, in which there were showers. When we emerged from the other end, we got clean clothes. While this helped, it did not take care of one serious problem, trench foot. This disease was the result of having wet feet over a prolonged period. Many men succumbed to this. It was easy to avoid trench foot by simply washing your feet regularly and putting on dry socks. Unfortunately, the various military headquarters were slow in introducing foot discipline. This was necessary, because a few men did not mind getting trench foot in order to get out of combat. Some of them paid by having their feet amputated.
During our pause, Henry Gorrell, the United Press correspondent whom I had met in Spa, sent in a report on the fighting which appeared in The New York Times. It was a vivid account which included the statement, "The past ten days of fighting in the dark alleys of Huertgen Forest have been worse than the hedgerow battles of Normandy. And when the roll is called the folks back home will understand we've paid a high price for our drive through the woods. But it had to be done." Well, what was he to say to the folks back home, that it was a pointless battle?
When the fighting resumed, I found myself in a situation which severely tested my nerves. Capt. Jack Tate, who was commanding Battery A of the 29th, and I had gone forward to visit one of the forward observers. As we were leaving him, German artillery began bursting in the trees near us. When we started to get in our jeep, a man staggered out of the woods. One of his arms was hanging by a shred. I told him to get in our jeep, so we could take him to an aid station. Tate, however, insisted on putting a splint on his arm first. I said, "Jack, he is going to lose that arm. There is no point in putting a splint on it." As we were arguing, I heard shell fragments hit our jeep. Tate, however, insisted and began putting on a splint, using tree limbs. Every instinct within me screamed to run, but I didn't. We finally got the man in the jeep and drove out of danger.
On another occasion, I was in my jeep with my driver, looking for one of the infantry companies to talk with a forward observer. As we moved along the road, I suddenly noticed that it was very quiet. Not sure where we were or what lay ahead, I told the driver to turn around. As we drove back, we passed a jeep lying on its side, which I had not noticed before. It had hit a mine on the road. This reminded me of how foolish I had been to venture out into unknown terrain.
Another incident also showed how careless I had become. Driving through the woods, I saw three Germans running toward me through the trees. I reached for my sidearm but found to my horror I had put my raincoat over it. Before I could extricate the 45, the Germans were almost to my jeep. To my relief, they wanted to surrender.
One day I saw Bill Sydnor walking through the trees as though in his sleep.
I shouted, "Hey, Sydnor, wake up." He shook his head and said, "I
was sitting on a chair, leaning against a tree. Suddenly a shell landed under
me. It was a dud and did not explode." No wonder he was in shock.
Sydnor also took a prisoner in a bizarre way. During the night a German on patrol fell through the canvas Sydnor had stretched across his slit trench.
THE 4TH, EXHAUSTED,
IS RELIEVED BY ANOTHER DIVISION
On December 1, General Barton went to see General Collins, explained the condition of the division, and recommended that it be relieved. Two days later, the 83rd Division began moving into our positions, to resume the attack.
At that time, the advance command post of the First Battalion was in a log and earthen bunker made by the Germans. As long as we remained in it, we were absolutely safe from German artillery or mortar fire, even if it hit the bunker. With nothing to do, I had time to dwell on what had happened and became convinced that I would never get out of the Huertgen Forest alive. I remained, therefore, in the bunker as much as possible for several days and became well acquainted with it. To help cope with my anxiety, I wrote a long letter home.
Dear Folks, Somewhere in Germany, December 5, 1944
It is too bad that there is not time to write to you from day to
day when we are fighting. As Dad can verify, it would make a picture
that you all at home would refuse to believe. For it is beyond description.
However, these images are so well impressed on my mind that I'm afraid
they will never be erased, should I so desire. If in the future, I
choose to recount these past six months, it will not be difficult
to recall broad outlines and a few of the more impressive
Just now I am sitting on my bedding roll, using my map board as a desk, candle light for illumination, and writing a letter in a dugout. The enlisted men are making coffee. All four officers, Ralph Thomas, a captain and S-3 of the infantry battalion I work with; Lt. Wittenberger, S-2; and Lt. Giles, anti-tank platoon leader; and myself are writing letters. The men are discussing various liquors.
As I look to the opposite corner, I see earth, with an M-1 rifle leaning against it. In the earth is stuck a trench knife with a candle stuck on top. At my right are our CP (command post) telephones, nerve system of our control of the infantry companies. Rifles, pistols, canteens, and web equipment hang about the place, always drab decorations.
Outside the night is clear, star-lit, and thus far moonless. A lone Jerry plane buzzes overhead. Over our heads and to the flanks the artillery rumbles.
Tomorrow at 0730 I shall have been in Europe six long months. Six months of days, hours, and minutes. Each at times an eternity. Now I wonder how many more of each of these this will continue. And how long a man can go on with it. The beach, Cherbourg, Periers, St. Lo, Mortain, Paris, the Siegfried Line, and now Germany. Each fight seems harder than the last.
Strangely, though, I feel better now than after any fight thus far. After the others I've been quite run down. Today, after a bath, haircut, shave, and change of clothes, I feel quite good. Perhaps I'm becoming battle-hardened. I hope not. Yet the dead and wounded have less and less effect. War has become a business.
I've organized my work; there is an efficient system to it; and seldom is there a hitch to it. Something is learned each day, and the technique is improved. The shellings, the chatter of machine guns, rifle fire, and air action have become commonplace. Seldom do I get excited, seldom over- frightened. Methinks it's about time to get this over with.
This has been difficult, but the men are in good spirits. The weather has been unpleasant, but not impossible. German defense has been stubborn and clever but not unbeatable. Perhaps it has been the beginning of the end. The "little" picture is always discouraging, only to see our work develop into big advances. Let's hope this is true now. We shall see.
I've had much mail of late. Letters from mother, dad, and Margaret. I'm very happy you did not tell me of mother's operation until it was successfully over, and I am equally relieved that all is well. Dad seems to be progressing nicely and I trust is now back to civil life. I'm quite curious as to what work he is doing and shall be quite disappointed in the CB&Q if they don't recognize him to be the capable person I know him to be.
All my love, John
Have a pleasant Christmas.
Dear Mother, Somewhere in Germany, December 6, 1944
Bless you, mother, for going through your illness without a complaint. I growl about my "hardships" and forget that other people have their difficulties too. I was quite concerned when dad told me you were operated on and quickly relieved by learning that you are recovering rapidly. Please do take care of yourself, and I look forward to a resumption of your letters. Meanwhile Dad is doing quite well at keeping me informed.
Love to you, John
Dear Dad, Somewhere in Germany, December 6, 1944
There are fights, and there are fights. But, as you know, some are more difficult than the others. This has been the worst yet. Rain, cold, the forest, and clever defense, and a desperate enemy have made it tough. Perhaps better days are ahead, but this has been terrible. And six steady months of war don't lighten the burden.
But, strangely, my nerves are fairly steady, my mind is clear, and my sense of humor intact. The only really bad moment was when I almost took up smoking to work off nervousness.
Your son, John
Although I told my parents my nerves were steady, this was far from true. By the time the fighting ceased, I was depressed. Remaining so much in the dugout which I described in my December 5 letter may not have helped.
When the time came for the First Battalion to move out of the line on December 11, I arranged for my jeep driver to pick me up at 07:00 in the morning. As I emerged from the dugout, I could see him waiting on the road at the bottom of the hill. As I started down, I heard artillery shells coming in and ducked into another dugout. Once inside, my body froze and I began to shake, for I remembered that the Germans shelled that area every morning at that time. I had simply forgotten.
When the shelling ceased, I ran down to the jeep, where I found a frightened and unhappy driver. As we sped away, he said, "Capt. Ausland, we could have been killed." I was too ashamed to tell him of the mistake I had made.
That night, when wandering through the woods in which the 29th Field Artillery Battalion headquarters was located, I looked up at a star studded sky and asked myself whether there was not a better way to deal with the world's problems. This rumination was an important event in my life, for it was then I resolved to become a diplomat. This showed how innocent I was, for I only later came to understand that it is not always easy to separate diplomacy from war.
SOME COMMENTS ON CASUALTIES
AND AN AID STATION
During the Huertgen Forest fighting, five American divisions had more than 24,000 casualties, killed, missing, captured, and wounded. Another 9,000 fell by the wayside from trench foot, respiratory diseases, or combat fatigue. Thus the total was 33,000. The 4th Division had over 4,000 battle casualties, of which over 400 were killed. There were also over 1,500 non-battle casualties. This meant that more than a third of the division was lost during the battle. Again, it must be kept in mind that most of these casualties were suffered by the rifle companies, which made up about a third of the division.
At that point in the war, the Army was having great difficulty providing replacements, or what were euphemistically called reinforcements. It was combing the rear areas for all available men. Often, they went into battle with little training and did not last very long. Sometimes men were killed or wounded the same day they joined their unit, before they had time even to learn the names of their company officers.
Army doctrine recommends against the collocation of command posts and aid stations. Seeing the wounded can discourage a commander from conducting an attack vigorously. One day when I visited an aid station near our command post, I saw why. Although the doctors and medical personnel were doing their best, there were a great many men in great pain, and their screams echoed through the trees. Not all of them were, however, unhappy. I asked one officer I knew what had happened to him. He replied, "John, I have a joy wound in my leg. It is not so serious that I will not be able to walk again but bad enough that I will never be returned to combat."
While I was visiting the aid station, Col. McKee, a gentle mannered man, appeared. As he stood there, watching, he noticed some men wandering around aimlessly. He asked a doctor, "What is wrong with those men?" The doctor turned from the man he was treating and replied, "Shock. They can't take any more." The doctor went back to his work, and Col. McKee departed without saying anything further. What can one say to a soldier who has seen more slaughter than he can cope with?
In Crusade in Europe, Eisenhower said he would only undertake actions where the Germans would have at least two casualties for every one of ours. Germans records for this battle are incomplete and hence do not tell us what their casualties were. Given the advantage the forest gave them, however, it is unlikely they met Eisenhower's criterion of two to one.
OBSERVATIONS ON THE HUERTGEN
A HALF CENTURY LATER
My final letter regarding the Huertgen Forest was sent from Luxembourg, to which the 4th Division moved to lick its wounds and to guard the approaches to Luxembourg City.
Dear Dad, Luxembourg, December 15, 1944.
The Huertgen Forest has been cleared of the enemy. Another battle is ended. Thank God for that. All is well, and I can afford no complaints.
The next day Von Rundstedt launched the surprise which he had been preparing while we were slogging our way through the Huertgen Forest. One of the consequences of that battle was that the 4th was in such a weakened condition that the Germans came close to breaking through and capturing Luxembourg City. If they had, the war would have taken an even more dangerous course than it did.
What conclusions can be reached about the battle of the Huertgen Forest? Perhaps the most telling comment is that the Army Command and General Staff College for a time after the war used it as an example of how not to fight a battle.
In his autobiography, Collins admitted his intelligence had let him down in not informing him about the dams. By the time he learned of them, as a member of Hodges staff commented, "We had a bear by the tail and couldn't let loose." Put another way, they did not want to admit failure.
The late Charles B. MacDonald in his book The Battle of the Huertgen Forest concluded, "Those in the Huertgen Forest fought a misconceived and basically fruitless battle that could have, and should have, been avoided."
John C Ausland
July 14, 1920 - May 13, 1996