15 September 1944 - 21 March 1945
An excerpt of the Rhineland Campaign, U.S. Army Center of Military History pub. 72-25
Despite the worsening weather and the stiffening German resistance, Eisenhower resolved to maintain the attack throughout the winter of 1944. Writing after the war, he noted that "by continuing an unremitting offensive we would, in spite of hardship and privation, gain additional advantages over the enemy.... We were convinced that this policy would result in shortening the war and therefore in the saving of thousands of Allied lives."
General Dwight D. Eisenhower - Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery - General Omar N. Bradley
The shape that the winter offensives would take was largely determined when Eisenhower conferred with Montgomery and Bradley in Brussels on 18 October to plan future Allied strategy. Orders issued on 28 October and 2 November conformed to Eisenhower's broad-front strategy, with Allied forces closing up along the length of the Rhine and extending the enemy by hitting him at every possible point. The main effort would shift from the British 21 Army Group to the U.S. 12th Army Group until Montgomery opened Antwerp to shipping. In the north, clearing the Schelde estuary remained Montgomery's focus. Then the 21 Army Group would attack east of Eindhoven towards the Ruhr to establish bridgeheads over the Rhine and the IJssel. In the center, Hodges' First Army would make the main thrust for the 12th Army Group, with the mission of establishing a bridgehead across the Rhine south of Cologne. Simpson's Ninth Army would protect the First Army's left flank between Sittard and Aachen until the Roer was crossed and then swing northeastward toward Krefeld. Bradley, leery that Eisenhower might give in to Montgomery's persistent requests for an American army to reinforce his Northern Group of Armies, had repositioned the Ninth between the First Army and the 21 Army Group on 22 October. In this way, Bradley sought to avoid the loss of the veteran First Army to Montgomery. On the First Army's right flank, Patton's Third Army would also support Hodges by advancing in a northeasterly direction. In the south, the 6th Army Group clearly had a subsidiary role. Devers' forces would advance to the Rhine, secure crossing sites, and protect the 12th Army Group's flank by denying the area of Luneville to the Germans. Once all three army groups had established bridgeheads over the Rhine, the main attack would shift back to Montgomery's sector for the drive into Germany.
J. Lawton Collins, Courtney Hodges, Leonard T. Gerow, Norman "Dutch" Cota
Collins' VII Corps was scheduled to make the principal effort for the First Army attack on 5 November. There was, however, one nettlesome problem. The uncleared Huertgen Forest, potentially an area where the Germans could secretly assemble a counterattack force, threatened Collins' right flank. Before launching his main attack, Hodges thus decided to secure the area from Monschau to Schmidt. Since the crossroads town of Schmidt dominated the Huertgen, seizing that town was the linchpin to this plan. Hodges gave the task of capturing Schmidt to Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow's V Corps. Gerow, in turn, passed the mission to Maj. Gen. Norman D. Cota's 28th Division.
The Huertgen Forest was a dense, primordial woods of tall fir trees, deep gorges, high ridges, and narrow trails: terrain ideally suited to the defense. The Germans had carefully augmented its natural obstacles with extensive minefields and carefully prepared positions because they realized something the Allies had not yet fully grasped- losing Schmidt exposed the Roer River dams to attack. So long as the Germans controlled the dams, they could flood the Roer River Valley, thereby destroying Allied tactical bridging and trapping any units that had crossed the river. These isolated forces could then be destroyed by German reserves. Consequently, the Germans were determined to hold Schmidt, knowing the almost impenetrable terrain of the Huertgen Forest would add depth to their defense and neutralize the American superiority in aircraft, tanks, and artillery.
The soldiers of the First Army were no strangers to the Huertgen Forest. In late September, the 60th Infantry of Maj. Gen. Louis A. Craig's 9th Infantry Division had tried to attack directly through the forest to capture the Huertgen-Kleinhau road network. The regiment withdrew after a brief, but bloody, encounter with the German defenders. From 6-16 October, the 9th Division again entered the Huertgen with Schmidt its objective. The division's two attacking regiments pushed some 3,000 yards into the forest at a cost of 4,500 casualties. As the soldiers of the 28th replaced those of the 9th Division on 26 October, they were struck by the fact that the men they relieved were "tired, unshaven, dirty, and nervous" and "bore the telltale signs of a tough fight." In addition to the rigors of the forest, the 28th Division would also have to contend with miserable late autumn weather. Although strongly reinforced with tanks, tank destroyers, engineers, and artillery, Cota shared the foreboding of his men. He later recalled that he believed the 28th Division had only "a gamblers chance" at success.
Rain, fog, and poor visibility postponed the attack from 31 October to 2 November. At 0800, artillery from V Corps, VII Corps, and the 28th Division shattered the morning calm with an hour-long preparation of over 11,000 rounds. At 0900, Lt. Col. Carl L. Peterson's 112th Infantry, the 28th's main effort, began its attack from Germeter to take Schmidt. But as soon as Peterson's lead companies crossed the line of departure, they began taking casualties from German artillery fire. The Germans had perfected the method of firing into the tops of the huge firs of the forest, hence combining deadly wood splinters with the fragments of their artillery shells. Nevertheless, the regiment continued to advance, and by the evening of 3 November a battalion of the 112th controlled Schmidt. Although the progress of the 28th's other regiments was behind schedule, Cota and his staff were pleased, if somewhat surprised, with the unexpectedly easy capture of the town.
The German response to the capture of Schmidt came on the morning of 4 November. Following an artillery barrage, German tanks and infantry pushed the U.S. soldiers out of the town with some 200 American survivors joining the 112th's other defenses in nearby Kommerscheidt. The Germans continued to press their attack. The tanks and tank destroyers attached to the 28th Division were no match for the German Mark IV and V tanks, while the American infantrymen's bazooka rounds merely bounced off the thick German armor. First Lt. Turney W. Leonard, a platoon leader with Company C, 893d Tank Destroyer Battalion, won the Medal of Honor in the desperate defense at Kommerscheidt, which saw Leonard's armored vehicles destroy six enemy tanks and the lieutenant rally several infantry units whose leaders had become casualties. Nevertheless, on 7 November, the 112th abandoned Kommerscheidt.
The determined German attacks at Schmidt and Kommerscheidt marked only the first phase of their counterattack. Hodges had postponed the 5 November start of his offensive because of inclement weather. The delay allowed the Germans to commit three divisions, one a panzer unit, against Cota's 28th, since Allied activity elsewhere in the First or Ninth Army sectors remained negligible. The carnage in the Huertgen thus continued until 13 November, when Hodges finally came to the realization that the battered division could not secure the right flank of the VII Corps and replaced it six days later with the fresh 8th Infantry Division.
The 28th's attack had been one of the most costly actions by any U.S. division during World War II. Over 6,000 men were casualties. Materiel losses were also high; sixteen M10 tank destroyers, thirty-one Sherman tanks, and vast numbers of trucks, antitank guns, machine guns, mortars, individual weapons, and personal equipment littered the Huertgen. In the aftermath of the battle, many members of the 28th Division would sardonically rechristen their red keystone shoulder patch the "bloody bucket". After its relief, the 28th moved to what was thought to be a quiet sector to rest and refit. Tragically, the division's new positions, in the Ardennes, would place it squarely in the path of the German counteroffensive in the coming Battle of the Bulge.
Weather was a key factor in launching the 12th Army Group's main November offensive. Bradley had planned a huge aerial bombardment, dubbed Operation QUEEN, to precede the ground attack, but overcast skies caused several postponements. On 16 November, however, the skies finally cleared sufficiently and some 4,000 Allied airplanes, including more than 2,400 heavy bombers, dropped over 10,000 tons of bombs on German positions and towns. Unfortunately, the attacking First Army soldiers had been withdrawn some two miles from the German positions as a safety measure. By the time the American forces closed back on the German lines, the defenders had recovered from the shock of the bombing and fought stubbornly.
In the north the Ninth Army's progress, good during the first few days of the offensive, slowed in the face of stiff German resistance. It took the rest of November, and some 10,000 casualties, before Simpson closed to the Roer River in most of his sector. It was tougher in the First Army area. Hodges' main effort, the VII Corps, had to cross difficult terrain before it could reach the Roer. In the north lay the Eschweiler-Weisweiler industrial area, in the center the Hamich ridge, and in the south the killing ground of the Huertgen Forest. By 22 November, Collins had pushed past Eschweiler and Hamich but still had made little progress in the Huertgen.
Hodges was resolved to take the Huertgen Forest and throughout late November and early December threw units from the VII and V Corps into its bloody maw. The 1st Infantry Division, the 4th Infantry Division, the 8th Infantry Division, the 47th Infantry of the 9th Infantry Division, the 2d Ranger Battalion, the 5th Armored Division's 46th Armored Infantry Battalion and Combat Command Reserve, and numerous supporting units all spent time in the hell that was the Huertgen. After months of fighting, the forest floor had taken on an aspect reminiscent of the ravaged "no-man's-land" of World War I. Wasted machines and shattered equipment were strewn throughout the forest and the stench, from bodies left in the open, was almost unbearable. The dead had to wait for some future graves registration teams to move them from the forest as the many wounded swamped the overtaxed evacuation system.
A few examples from Medal of Honor citations won in the Huertgen illustrate the desperate kind of heroism fighting in the forest inspired. First Lt. Bernard J. Ray, Company F. 8th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division, set out alone to blast a path through a German concertina entanglement that blocked his unit's advance. Ray stuffed blasting caps in his pockets, wrapped primer cord around his body, and grabbed several bangalore torpedoes. He made it to the wire but was severely wounded as he set his charges. Apparently, realizing his wounds would disable him before he could complete his task, Ray connected a bangalore to the caps in his pocket and the primer cord around his body and set off the explosion. Pfc. Francis X. McGraw, Company H. 26th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, withstood a German artillery barrage and then halted the German ground assault with fire from his heavy machine gun. Running out of ammunition, he hurriedly replenished his stocks and continued firing until he had again exhausted his ammunition. Grabbing a carbine, McGraw continued to engage the advancing Germans until he was finally killed. S. Sgt. John W. Minick, Company I, 121st Infantry, 8th Infantry Division, single-handedly assaulted and neutralized an enemy machine gun. Continuing forward, he encountered a German company and again attacked, killing twenty Germans and capturing twenty more. Minick continued his one-man advance, knocking out another enemy machine gun position. Once more moving ahead of his unit, the young sergeant stepped on one of the many mines planted in the Huertgen and died.
On 13 December, the newly committed 83d Infantry and 5th Armored Divisions finally emerged from the Huertgen Forest near the towns of Gey and Strass. Although the eastern section of the forest and the town of Schmidt remained in German hands, First Army forces had finally closed on the west bank of the Roer.
Hodges had belatedly realized the implications of not holding the Roer River dams and refused to attack across the Roer until he could neutralize their potential effects. Initially, the Allies tried to breach the dams by bombing, but they proved too strong. Hodges then decided to take them by ground attack and gave the mission to Gerow's V Corps.
Gerow planned an envelopment of the dams. Maj. Gen. Edwin P. Parker, Jr.'s newly arrived 78th Infantry Division would attack through the Monschau corridor and continue through the eastern edge of the Huertgen Forest. After seizing Schmidt, the division would attack the dams from the north. Maj. Gen. Walter M. Robertson's veteran 2d Infantry Division would attack northward into the Monschau Forest from the villages of Krinkelt and Rocherath, approaching the dams from the southeast. A regiment of the 99th Infantry Division would secure Robertson's right flank.
The attack began on 13 December but halted three days later when the Germans began their counteroffensive in the Ardennes. The Germans still controlled part of the Huertgen Forest, Schmidt, and the dams. It had been a rough month for the First Army; from 16 November to 15 December it had suffered some 21,500 casualties with few gains to show for its losses. ~ ~ ~ ~ Simpson's Ninth Army, under the operational control of the 21 Army Group, prepared to launch Operation GRENADE. Simpson's forces would drive northeastward to link up with the attacking Canadians on the Rhine. H-hour for GRENADE was set for 0530 on 10 February. There was, however, a problem; the troublesome Roer River dams had not been taken. Simpson was loath to cross the Roer until the dams were neutralized, and he therefore postponed his army's attack.
The V Corps, now under the command of Huebner-Gerow having left in January to command the newly organized Fifteenth Army oriented to occupation duty-drew the mission of taking the key Schwammenauel Dam. Parker's 78th Infantry Division was responsible for the main attack, while elements of the 82d Airborne Division and the 7th Armored Division made supporting efforts.
Jumping off early in the morning of 5 February, American soldiers attacked into the Huertgen Forest for the final time. The ruins of Schmidt and Kommerscheidt fell on 7 February, opening the way for the advance that finally secured the dam on 10 February. Although the Germans had not blown the dam as the Allies feared, they had destroyed its discharge valves. Instead of the anticipated massive flood, a steady flow of water gradually inundated the Roer Valley. Nevertheless, with the threat posed by the dams ended, the First Army had finally finished its protracted ordeal in the Huertgen Forest.
The flooding of the Roer delayed Simpson's attack until 23 February. At 0230 on that date the first assault forces slipped across the still flooded Roer, surprising the Germans. By the end of the day some twenty-eight battalions had crossed the river, firmly establishing a Ninth Army bridgehead.