Hubris, Stupidity, and Incompetence: The US Army High Command and the Battle for the Hürtgen Forest (Part 2 of 3)

To make the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest worse, American GIs were badly supplied, equipped, and trained. Incredibly, the US Army was actually short of riflemen since planners in Washington had miscalculated the amount of infantry required to do battle in Western Europe and way underestimated what their casualty rate would be. And their casualty rate was high. By the winter of 1944/45, the US Army was taking 20,000 casualties – killed or wounded – every week. While five million men had been drafted into the American Army, so many were in specialized positions that only 300,000 men were available in infantry and armor to take on the Germans in North West Europe in late 1944/45.

Cooks, clerks, and surplus ground crew from the US Army Air Force (the US Air Force was part of the US Army until 1947) were rounded up and sent into the line as infantry replacements. Support formation commanders who were ordered to produce a certain number of infantry replacements sent their misfits and jail birds. Men in rear echelons convicted of various offenses short of capital crimes were offered service in the infantry instead of imprisonment. Although most of the German Luftwaffe had been shot out of the sky, the US Army still deployed 198 anti-aircraft battalions. Finally the absurdity of that was noticed and 52 battalions were broken up, producing 38,000 infantry replacements.

Few of these replacements had received substantive infantry training and there wasn’t time to train them. Because the US Army was short of men, it could not pull formations out of the front line for rest, refit, and the training and absorption of replacements. In order to bring decimated units back up to strength, individual replacements were sent.

Those unfortunates were led at night to a foxhole by a corporal or a sergeant. The replacements did not know anyone, did not know their officers or NCOs, did not know where they were, and did not know where the enemy was. It’s hard to imagine a lonelier feeling. Many did not even know how to fire a rifle and many were usually killed or wounded the first day. If one of these men survived for a week or two, he would find himself one of the few veterans and probably be made an NCO. That’s how high the casualty rate was. Many units suffered losses of 150% meaning that all the original men in the formation had been killed or wounded and half the of the new men used to bring the unit back to strength were also killed or wounded. This might happen in a few weeks.

In the Hürtgen Forest hot food was a luxury seldom seen by front line troops. Men lived for weeks at a time on canned rations – constipation being a side effect relieved only by bouts of diarrhea the men suffered because of bad water, fear, sodden food, dirt, and disease. Soldiers went weeks at a time without any hot water available for bathing, washing uniforms, or shaving. Consequently, they simply wore the same damp and dirty underwear and undershirts, sweaters, field jackets, and heavy pants. They stank. They got skin rashes. Hot coffee was a luxury. There was hardly enough potable water available to drink much less brush one’s teeth. Personal sanitation was impossible.

What is even hard to understand is the US Army’s constant neglect of the well being of front line US infantry in World War Two. What I have described isn’t isolated. It was the norm and is recounted in memoir after memoir. In the Hürtgen Forest campaign, critical items were in short supply and never issued to the troops including the most important of all: US Army winter boots which the army referred to as ‘shoepacs’. Curiously, almost all rear echelon units had these boots.

These were lace up boots made from rubber lowers and greased leather uppers. Boots made by L.L. Bean and sold by them for decades look exactly alike winter boots issued by the US Army. The regular leather boots the men wore were not waterproof so their feet were always wet. Foxholes usually had water in them. There were thousands of cases of trench foot which occurs from prolonged immersion in water. Symptoms included numbness in the feet, swelling, blisters, open sores, and fungal infections. If left untreated, gangrene sets in and part or all of the foot must be amputated.

In Hürtgen Forest the men lived in the open, exposed to the elements. GIs did not have all weather sleeping bags, just blankets. Their main protection against the elements were wool overcoats which became so heavy when wet, the men threw them away and just shivered in their regular field jackets. Almost no one was ever dry because of the constant rain or snow. Men would march for miles for their jump off position for an attack and they would be soaked with perspiration. Upon reaching their objective, they often had to dig in and wait for night to pass. Their uniforms would freeze to them.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

3 thoughts on “Hubris, Stupidity, and Incompetence: The US Army High Command and the Battle for the Hürtgen Forest (Part 2 of 3)”

  1. Don’t forget Bradley’s involvement in the escape of German forces from Sicily across the Straits of Messina, which helped turn the Italian campaign into a bloody, relentless, inconclusive side-show of death. When a free nation demands its men give up their ordinary lives to fight a war, it has a duty to at minimum ensure its troops are adequately clothed, armed, fed, trained and lead with opportunities to rest and replenish periodically.

    In the European theater, I think the only Allied (Anglo-American) force to show any degree of adaptability, appropriate training, aggressiveness, tenacity and willingness to hit hard was the Royal Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic.

  2. All very good points, Andrew. I’m going to write more on the US Infantry in the ETO but you certainly hit all the main points. The corruption in the supply chain was breathtaking. According to Max Hastings in Armageddon, 70 Jeeps were stolen every single day in the ETO. I may be wrong here, but I recall that at Tarwara, when the worst fighting was going on during the terrible first day and the Marines were taking frightful casualties, that “Howlin’ Mad” Smith personally went and hit the beach two hours after the assault started and said something later to reporters like: “My men were taking heavy casualites and I thought they were sure as hell entitled to have their commanding officer present.” I can’t think of an instance like that in the ETO. I am also going to post on the disparity in Generals KIA on the German side and the US side. Bradley has been given such a pass. I don’t understand it. The war would have ended six months earlier and there would have been no Battle of the Bulge if he had been aggressive enough to close the Falise Gap. A pathetic performance.

  3. I am glad you’ve chosen to write on this sadly overlooked campaign. I’m not a student of this operation, but I’ve read enough to think it reflects in a nutshell everything that was wrong with the USGF in the ETO, from flawed leadership at the top to minimal training at the bottom and incompetent tactical planning and execution. Your term “hubris” is the word I’ve looked for.

    I’ve never understood how Bradley has gotten more or less a free pass from popular media — he was stolid, stubborn and unimaginative, not the best choice for large scale offensive operations. Patton had his moments of brilliance, but he could be as unreasonably stubborn as anyone else. A few divisional corps leaders such as Lightning Joe Collins, Terry Allen and James Gavin showed some real promise. And Eisenhower could be ruthless in weeding out the real incompetents. As you move down the ladder, logistics were corrupt, the NCO/Jr. Officer turnover was appalling. Combat troops were not trained or pushed to be aggressive, they were chronically exhausted, hungry, ill-dressed, sick and hopeless — no hope of escaping combat for rest and refit as even the German’s did right to the end. The replacement system was joke. The Heurtgen Forest meat grinder was a micrcosm of every flawed aspect of the USA in Europe.

    Interestingly on the other side of the world, the USMC was more successful thanks to leaders more up to the challenge, excellent training, long periods of rest and refit and powerful esprit de corps. Howland Mad Smith and Roy Geiger were ruthless commanders who believed in hitting hard and not accepting excuses. Their general excellence really stood out in combined ops with Army forces. They hit hard and fast, then got out. Their all-arms communication grew to maturity, to the benefit of all combat marines. Where front line troops in the ETO were low-men on the logistic totem pole, Marines were buried under the totem pole.

    I think Gen’ls Kreuger and Eichelburger of MacArthur’s USA force had a good chance of excelling in the ETO — they were held back by MacArthur’s jealousy, yet still performed fairly well with what they had. Heurtgen was indeed a sad and senseless chapter in the WWII American history of the ETO.

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