There are many battles in World War Two fought by the US Army which were badly planned and fought with untrained troops commanded by generals who had no idea what conditions their soldiers were fighting in or even what was happening at the front. But most of these battles had to be fought. A few did not. The Hürtgen Forest is one of these. The battle is little known. It is overshadowed by the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ which took place toward midway through the battle. We needed to capture territory on the other side of the forest as staging areas for Allied troops to cross the Rur and Rhine rivers. We also needed to seize two very important dams. We could have gone around the forest on one side or another which is precisely what the Germans expected us to do. But we didn’t. We marched right into it.
For almost five very wet and freezing months – mid-September 1943 until early February of 1944 – American soldiers were marched into this meat grinder. The three key advantages the US Army had in World War Two over the Germans (air superiority, artillery, and mobility) were the three things we immediately lost when our troops entered the Hürtgen Forest. The trees were so close together that even in the daylight it seemed like dusk. A soldier couldn’t see more than ten of feet in front of him and usually less. Command and control constantly broke down. Our artillery fire often hit our own soldiers. Colds and flu were the norm.
“It was a death factory,” said Leonard Lomell, a lieutenant who was sent to Hürtgen Forest as a commando in the 2nd Ranger Battalion. “One way or another, they got you. You froze to death or you got sick or you got blown to bits.” This quote is from an outstanding article in the Washington Post about the battle.
Neither the British nor the Americans realized how disastrous a failure Omar Bradley had been guilty of when he failed to close the Falaise Gap and allowed 50,000 German troops to escape from France. Among these fifty thousand men were many elite staff officers of the German general staff. It was around these men that the Germans quickly rebuilt units. We dawdled forgetting that if you gave the Germans a moment they could do a great deal of harm. The entire Allied command failed to grasp this basic principal: just because an army – in this case the German Army – has lost its offensive power, it hasn’t lost its defensive power. This was especially true of the German Army with its MG 42 machine gun capable of firing a thousand rounds a minute and the infantry squads formed around the machine gun. As I have mentioned before, in the German infantry they had so many machine guns that the job of the riflemen was not so much to shoot at the enemy but to protect the machine gunner.
Put that machine gunner in a camouflaged concrete bunker with a large amount of ammunition. Then try and attack him through a forest so thick you only know where the machine gun is when you take a bullet.