Review of A Dark and Bloody Ground: the Hürtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams 1944-45

A Dark and Bloody Ground: the Hürtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-45 by Edward C. Miller is a scholarly history of the battle which is well worth reading (4 Stars). The author served in the US Army, retiring several years ago, and has an outstanding grip on how the US Army functioned in World War Two. (It didn’t function very well.)

He shows clearly and methodically how US commanders made blunder after blunder and how they threw away the three key advantages the US Army had over the Germans: mobility, artillery, and air superiority.

While stationed in Germany in the mid 1980s, the author took the time to explore the actual battlefield. He writes: “I found out firsthand that it is one thing to sit in the comfort of one’s office or home and study a terrain map; it is quite another to walk through the hilly forest in a chilling autumn rain.” His research and footnotes are impeccable. This book will stand for many, many years as standard work on the subject.

A few quotes from this work:

“During an attack on the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, a cook ‘discarded his meat cleaver for a bazooka’ and managed to knock out a German tank that had the entered the battalion trains area (supply area). ‘What a man!’ sighed members of the company. ‘If he could only cook.'”

“(German) Shells with fuses deigned to explode on contact hit the trees and burst above the infantrymen. To dive to the ground for cover, as the men had been trained to do, meant exposing much of the body to a rain of hot metal and wood splinters. The best way to survive, the Americans learned was to…literally hug a tree.” By adapting this technique the American GIs exposed only their heads, covered by their helmets, to the tree bursts. Sometimes the Germans fired for several hours. Imagine the terror a man must have felt.

Said an American GI, “The days were so terrible I would pray for darkness, and the nights were so bad I would pray for daylight.”

In the midst of one of the many German attacks, American wounded drifting back to an aid station set up in a dugout which eventually fell behind German lines. “…a German patrol stopped at the aid station and the patrol leader offered to share rations and any supplies the Americans might need. He told the American medical officer in charge that as long as the aidmen and assistants remained unarmed, the Germans would permit them to stay in the dugout.”

Another book on the subject, although focused just on one regiment, is Hell In Hürtgen Forest: The Ordeal And Triumph Of An American Infantry Regiment by Robert S. Rush. I haven’t read this book so I won’t rate it but I will point out that it is one of the many books in the series: Modern War Studies by the University Press of Kansas. They are the best and most outstanding university press in the US for books on World War Two. They only publish scholarly works. An author’s research and footnotes have to withstand their rigorous scrutiny because any book they print on World War Two usually becomes the history of record on that specific topic. When in doubt, you can’t go wrong by purchasing a book published by the University Press of Kansas.

[Image courtesy of Life.]

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

The Hürtgen Forest campaign is a battle that should never have been fought. Thousands upon thousands of American GIs were killed or wounded for no reason in this bloody series of battles. In their CPs far behind the lines, American generals would often wait for hours and hours to hear the results of attacks they had ordered. But word often didn’t come until the next day when a scout from another unit would report the attacking unit had been completely shattered with half their men killed and almost everyone else wounded. This went on for months.

The fighting was so intense that platoons, companies, battalions would have three or four commanding officers in the same number of days. Many units sustained 100% casualties in a few days. When the Battle for the Hürtgen Forest concluded, the “butcher’s bill” was as follows: 24,000 Americans: killed, missing, captured, and wounded, plus another 9,000 non-battle casualties which includes soldiers suffering from trench foot, respiratory diseases, and combat fatigue, this last also known as ‘shell shock’, ‘battle fatigue,’ and now ‘post traumatic stress disorder’. Many soldiers put in a situation of constant danger for long periods of time will suffer various psychiatric symptoms. Everyone has a breaking point and the longer a person is in a situation such as that the sooner they break.

Writing in Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945, the journalist and historian Sir Max Hastings gives the following figures on combat fatigue in the US Army in the ETO (European Theater of Operations):

In the course of the north-west Europe campaign, British Second Army recorded twelve men per thousand as psychoneurotic admissions to hospitals. Comparable American ETO figures were fifty-two men per thousand, a total of 109,989 cases. Some 8.9% of all men who passed through the US Army in the Second World War were recorded as suffering at some time from combat fatigue.

In addition to the number of men who suffered combat fatigue, with almost all cases of combat fatigue confined to front line infantry or bomber crews, there was also a number, probably a relatively large number, of men who shot themselves in the foot. The army doesn’t like to talk about it. These men are put into the category of non-battle casualties but if you read books by veterans they certainly talk about it.

Captain Sawyer had sent a runner to Colonel Rudd to report that another SIW (Self Inflicted Wound) had shown up at battalion aid. This was the third one today.

– From Crossing the Sauer: A Memoir of World War Two by Charles Reis Felix.

(In the Wehrmacht, any soldier found guilty of causing a self inflicted wound was shot.)

Finally, and this is not confined to the Hürtgen Forest campaign, there is the issue of desertion in American forces in Europe, mainly from combat units. I will post on this at greater length next week but suffice it to say that Sir Max Hastings writing in Armageddon cites the following official statistics: “desertion rates in the US Army ran as high as 43 men per thousand in 1944 and 63 men per thousand in 1945.” Historian Martin van Creveld states that in the roughly one year the US Army fought in Europe, several hundred thousand men went AWOL or deserted, obviously not all at the same time and many AWOL eventually returned to their units. The US Army Provost Marshal, who controlled the Military Police, admitted to a figure of 18,000 deserters on the run in the European Theater in January of 1945. Why weren’t these men rounded up? There is a reason Eisenhower was the first US Army Commander since the Civil War to have someone shot for desertion.

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.

Hubris, Stupidity, and Incompetence: The US Army High Command and the Battle for the Hürtgen Forest (Part 1 of 3)

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.