WW II's Most 'Costly, Unproductive, Ill-Advised' Battle
Following the Allied breakout from the Normandy beachhead in July 1944, the German army fled back through northern France, Belgium and southern Holland to the frontiers of the Reich. The British and Canadians took Brussels on Sept. 3, 1944, and entered Antwerp the next day while American units crossed the German frontier near Charlemagne’s old capital of Aachen. It looked as if the war would be over by Christmas. The Allies were suffering a bad case of victory fever. General Eisenhower’s brilliant Chief of Staff, Walter Bedell Smith, told the press that “militarily the war is over,” a sentiment shared by Winston Churchill who told President Franklin Roosevelt that he wouldn’t be surprised if Germany “surrendered within weeks.” The Allies failed to note Napoleon’s warning: “The most dangerous moment comes with victory.” The war would drag on for eight more months, months that would see some of the worst fighting in the West.
Allied optimism was fueled by an almost total collapse of the German army in the West in late July and August. They had suffered 400,000 casualties in the fall of France, including at least 55,000 killed while losing masses of equipment including much of their armor and artillery.
The question facing Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, in the first weeks of September 1944, was what to do next. In the process, the Allies would commit two blunders that marred their great success since the Normandy landings and contributed to prolonging the war.
Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, commanding British and Canadian forces, convinced Eisenhower to provide him the precious resources to launch an attack from Antwerp designed to bypass German forces and enter the Reich along the lower Rhine, the operation known as Market Garden. It proved a disaster. The Allies suffered 17,000 casualties, wasted valuable resources and cost precious lives, for no appreciable gain. What made the failure more glaring was Montgomery’s failure to open the port of Antwerp, the largest in Western Europe. Despite seizing the city itself with most of the port facilities intact, he neglected to clear the 60-mile Scheldt estuary that led to Antwerp, thus rendering the port useless and starving the Allies of needed supplies of material and manpower that had to come by road and railroad 400 miles away in France. The Germans held the Scheldt until late November when they were finally ousted in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war at the cost of 13,000 Canadian, British and Polish casualties. Thus in two months of fighting the Allies sustained losses of 30,000, this at a time when British manpower, in particular, was drying up.
Operation Market Garden has captured the imagination of students of World War II, as well as being the inspiration for a number of books and a popular movie, A Bridge Too Far. An even more disastrous, but less well known example of Allied misguided thinking, was an attempt by American forces to launch a frontal attack on German forces south of Aachen, in the Hurtgen Forest.
The Battle for the Hurtgen Forest lasted from mid-September until Dec. 16, when the Germans launched their attack on the American position in the Ardennes, what is known as the Battle of the Bulge. The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest is an example of what is called ‘The American Way of War,’ a concept that dated back to General Grant’s campaigns in the Civil War and General Pershing’s frontal assaults in World War I — destroy the enemy at his strongest point. The price will be high but the battle briefer. It didn’t work out that way at the Hurtgen Forest.
The Hurtgen Forest, an area of 200 square miles, lies just west of the strongest German defensive position in the West, the Siegfried Line—a series of dragon teeth, pill boxes and small forts. The Germans held the ridges and the high ground in the Hurtgen and sowed the forest floor with thousands of mines and booby traps. After their rout in France, the Germans had recouped quickly, using veteran forces they turned the Hurtgen Forest into a near impregnable fortress. It was a dark and forbidding landscape, perfect for ambushes. Beyond the forest ran the Roer River which was controlled by seven dams, capable of flooding the entire area which the Allies would have to capture before reaching the Rhine.
All of the advantages that the U.S. forces held — mobility, overwhelming air superiority, armor that found the terrain impassable, proved useless in fighting that resembled the battles in World War I or on the Eastern Front. What the Americans confronted resembled nothing they had experienced in the European theatre of operations. The Marines on Iwo Jima and Okinawa would know what Hodges’s forces went through.
In late August-early September, the Hurtgen Forest was reached by the U.S. First Army, a force consisting of six divisions, 250,000 men and commanded by General Courtney Hodges. Hodges was one of those World War II generals known as ‘Eisenhower’s Lieutenants,’ military figures like Mark Clark, Omar Bradley and George Patton, who rose to command the American Army in Europe in World War II. Hodges was 53, quiet, unassuming, methodical, and known as something of a military technician. Having flunked out of West Point, he joined the Army and rose through the ranks, helped by a good record in World War I and a reputation as one of the best pistol shots in the United States Army. He lacked the flair of Patton or the ability to relate to the average soldier that gained Bradley the reputation as “the soldier’s soldier”’ As a result he is the least known of the American generals who helped win the war against Germany. The disaster of the Hurtgen campaign may also have something to do with this.
Beginning in mid-September, Hodges launched a series of probing attacks into the Hurtgen Forest and got bloodied in the process. Over the next two months, six U.S. Armies fought their way through the Forest with little success. The 28th Pennsylvania Rainbow Division took a fearful battering in November trying to clear the Forest. The 4th Infantry Division followed them, and in two weeks suffered 25 percent casualties, including 2,000 cases of trench foot. Pneumonia and combat fatigue became endemic with cases of company commanders suffering nervous breakdowns.
Hodges kept on committing a classic military blunder — reinforcing defeat — until the fighting came to a sudden halt when the Germans launched the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 16. The fight for the Hurtgen Forest had cost the Americans 33,000 casualties, 24,000 killed or missing and 9,000 cases of disease or battle fatigue. A terrible waste of human life.
General James Gavin of the 82 Airborne probably provided the best epitaph for the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest: it was “one of the most costly, most unproductive, and most ill-advised battle that our army ever fought.”