An Historiography of the Huertgen Forest Campaign 1944-1945.
In the summer of 1994, the countryside stretching between the German city of Aachen and the industrial town of Dueren was beautiful and serine. Narrow blacktopped roads meandering through the region connected small farming communities much like grapes on a vine. The villages were surrounded by rolling hills and occasional forested squares of tall fir trees planted with machine-like precision in perfect rows, rising tall and straight from the earth like the backs of huge black beasts. The gleaming tour bus--somewhat smaller than its American counterpart, but still a behemoth on the tiny roadway must have looked precariously out of place in this tranquil rustic setting. Curiously gazing out of its oversized tinted windows were aging veterans of World War II-former soldiers of the 13th Infantry Regiment who once wore the Golden Arrow shoulder patch of the 8th Infantry Division. Some had been here before; others had not made it this far. Wounded in the campaigns of Normandy or Brittany, they came to see the places they had heard about so often on the one weekend a year veterans speak freely of their experiences, the annual reunions. Others, like myself, came to see the place my father rarely talked about: the Huertgen Forest.
We paused for lunch in Vossenack--the town where in November 1944, the U.S. 28th Infantry Division had launched its ill-fated attacks on the vital road hub of Schmidt-- under curious eyes of locals sitting at a bar drinking beer. Across the street, the church that American tankers had once used as an aiming stake had since been completely rebuilt with a shortened steeple. Passing through Germeter, we drove toward the village of Huertgen, a town that remained an illusive objective to regiments of the 9th and later 28th Infantry Divisions in the earlier part of the campaign, but would be forever engrained in the memories of those in the 13th and 121st Infantry Regiments. The woods on either side of the road where G.I.'s had once died for yards showed no signs of the struggle once waged there. The sharp bend in the road, where M-4 Shermans once succumbed to German anti-tank guns concealed in Huertgen beyond, went by seemingly unnoticed.
Like Vossenack, Huertgen's church and the forrester's house opposite are now beautifully refurbished. On the other side of the street, a dairy farmer carrying tins of fresh milk seemed unconcerned as the veterans emerged from the bus with a curious mixture of anticipation and foreboding. Fred Scherrer, a former rifleman in B Company, 13th Infantry and retired doctor from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, noticed something out beyond the farmer's penned-in herd. "There it is," he said, staring out across the quilted field. He was pointing to a depression in the ground where the earth gradually dipped below the gentle rise where we stood. It was from this direction that the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry approached Huertgen from the northeast after executing a left hook to cut the Huertgen-Kleinhau road in support of their sister regiment, the 121st Infantry. It was here; Fred Scherrer tried desperately to evade an enemy sniper's bullet with a thirty-pound radio strapped to his back.
"If I could only make it to that defile," explained Scherrer, "I'd be out of his line of sight." Scherrer recalls the first bullet kicking up the dirt a few feet in front of him. He felt the second bullet lodge in the radio that was slowing him down. The third bullet found its mark. Fred Scherrer lay on the frozen ground paralyzed for hours. The bullet had pierced his helmet and entered the back of his neck, coming to rest dangerously close to his spine. "At first, I thought I had stepped on a mine," the former doctor recalled, describing the force with which the Mauser bullet struck. "I just laid there in the freezing mud, confident that my platoon would send a patrol out after dark to find me." They did. Fortunately, Scherer's paralysis was temporary.2
After several months convalescing and a series of operations, Fred Scherrer was able to lead a relatively normal life. After fifty years, he had returned to the exact spot where the war had ended for him. Thousands of soldiers who saw action in the Huertgen Forest from September to December 1944 were not so lucky. As Charles B. MacDonald estimates in the official history: "More than 8000 men from the First Army fell prey in the forest to combat exhaustion and the elements. Another 23,000 were either wounded, missing, captured, or killed. That was an average of more than 5,000 casualties per division."3
What happen in this seeming peaceful countryside of Germany in the fall of 1944 has sparked much debate. As it became apparent to me in 1994, there is little evidence in the Huertgen Forest region today that suggests the bitter struggle that took place here during the fall of 1944. Unlike neighboring France and Belgium, where commemorations abound at every battle sight, there are no monuments in the land of the vanquished. What is more, in the vast array of published literature that exists covering every aspect of World War II, only a tiny fraction is devoted to the Huertgen Forest Campaign. This historiographical essay is an attempt to analyze some of that literature.
On the whole, historians view the Huertgen Forest Campaign with disdain. That is to say, the secondary sources that comprise the bulk of this essay view the campaign as one that should never have been fought. The consensus conveys that the fighting in the Huertgen Forest resulted in an enormous waste of human life for no clear-cut or positive results in the series of events that led to the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. With few exceptions, the historians employ a considerable degree of hindsight in presenting their arguments. On the contrary, however, one could argue that the commanders on the spot did not enjoy the luxury of reflecting back to reevaluate miscalculations and possible alternatives decades after the fact. The time they had to assess the situation, draw plans, and execute them was, to a large extent, limited compared with the future judgments of history. This view notwithstanding, the historians have nothing positive to conclude about the Huertgen Forest Campaign.
The arguments vary in scope and degree of intensity; however, they are patterned around a few basic contentions. The historians agree that the fighting in the thick forest, where the American numerical advantages plus armor and air supremacy were severely limited and the Germans held the defensive advantage, should have been avoided. Inconsistencies occur, however, when a possible solution suggests bypassing the forest and conceivably breaching the Siegfried Line from a different avenue of approach. This point will be explored more fully a bit further on.
A second common theme centers on incompetent leadership on the part of the American commanders responsible for conducting the battles in the Huertgen Forest. The crux of the argument suggests the commanders employed the wrong tactics against the wrong objectives in their conduct of the battles. With a few exceptions, this criticism is leveled primarily at division, corps, and army commanders. Overall, none of the historians succeed in dramatically shifting directions and turning their line of reasoning into a true historiographical debate. No opposing schools of thought emerge; the historians do not confront each other with opposing viewpoints. Instead, many of the opinions overlap. Unavoidably, perhaps, many of the assertions made are simply borrowed from previous analysis, often expanded in an attempt to elucidate a former claim without offering any new theory.
Nowhere is this pattern more evident than in the controversy surrounding the Roer River dams. Charles B. MacDonald, perhaps the most prolific writer on the topic, first argued in 1963, in the official history of the United States Army in World War II, The Siegfried Line Campaign -- and develops again in The Battle of the Huertgen Forest -- that the First U.S. Army failed to recognize and appreciate the importance of the Roer River Dams as a primary objective of the campaign. Although it is not a central element of his overall thesis, Cecil B. Currey would briefly explore the argument again in Follow Me and Die: The Destruction of an American Division In World War II (1984), as would Charles Whiting in The Battle of Huertgen4 Forest (1989). In 1995, Major Edward G. Miller, then an ordnance officer and historian serving on active duty with the United States Army in Germany, would resurrect the argument once again, this time developing the thesis of his entire book, A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hürtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944-1945 around this argument. There are other similarities in style and analysis as well.
All of the studies mentioned incorporate the top-down approach to analyzing this campaign. Charles B. MacDonald's Siegfried Line Campaign and a special studies companion volume in the United States Army in World War II Series co-authored by Sidney T. Mathews titled Three Battles: Arnaville, Altuzzo, and Schmidt, provide the most complete, balanced, and objective military history of the campaign. Arguably, the work of MacDonald sets the precedent and supplies the foundation from which others' viewpoints are constructed
The significance of this volume of the United States Army in World War II Series is that it places the Huertgen Forest Campaign in overall perspective. As MacDonald explains, tactical operations take precedence over all other aspects in this series. The book fully explains in comprehensive details the overall strategy-the change from Berlin to the industrial Ruhr as the ultimate objective and the repositioning of U.S. First Army. The logistical problem is thoroughly mapped out; the shortage of gasoline and other vital supplies is meticulously explained. The situations facing U.S. V and VII Corps, the two principal units that would engage in the Siegfried Line Campaign, and the initial battles waged while vying for position along the German border are dealt with in turn. Utilizing German manuscripts obtained from former German officers after the war, the German orders of battle are also explained throughout the text. In addition, the battle for the German city of Aachen is dramatically retold as well as the failed airborne Operation MARKET-GARDEN. Unlike the other works considered in this essay, The Siegfried Line Campaign clearly shows that the Huertgen Forest battles were not a separate entity in and of themselves, but rather part of an overall theater campaign and would play a role in the eventual outcome of the war.
The book is divided into parts, which are then subdivided into chapters. Parts Four and Five titled "The Roer River Dams" (pp. 323-374) and "The Huertgen Forest" (pp. 377-493) respectively provide the greatest amount of detail for the purposes of this essay. In Part Four, MacDonald first develops his "Neglected Objective" premise-the failure of the American high command to appreciate the importance of the Roer River dams, and, that the dams should have been the objective of the U.S. 9th Division in October, 1944, not the town of Schmidt. As already stated, this argument would endure for nearly forty years of writing on the topic. For ten days the 9th Division fought in the Huertgen Forest only to come up short of its objectives.
In "The Second Attack on Schmidt" (pp. 341-374), MacDonald recounts the mauling of the 28th Division in the first weeks of November 1944. This action will be covered in more detail a bit further when Cecil B. Currey's book is examined. It will suffice to emphasize here, however, that MacDonald believes "The second attack on Schmidt had developed into one of the most costly U.S. division actions in the whole of World War II."5
In Part Five, "The Huertgen Forest" (pp. 377-493) MacDonald takes a look at "The Big Picture in October" (pp. 377-389)-the introduction of a new U.S. Army, Lieutenant General William H. Simpson's 9th Army, and the problems facing tactical air support and once again comes back to the problems of logistics. A new plan was conceived for a thrust to the Rhine to be carried out by Courtney H. Hodges's First Army. In addition, a new November Offensive was to begin in the Huertgen Forest; this time instead of attacking piecemeal by division, it would be a two corps effort. In the north, the VII Corps [Major General Joseph Lawton Collins] would begin the attack from the village of Schevenhuette with the 1st Infantry Division in the van after a massive air bombardment. In Chapter nineteen, "V Corps Joins the Offensive,"6 MacDonald chronicles the coup de grace delivered in the south, when Major General Leonard T. Gerow's V Corps would join the concerted effort a few days later with the villages of Huertgen, Kleinhau, Brandenberg, and Bergstein eventually falling to elements of the 8th Infantry Division, 5th Armored Division, and 2nd Ranger Battalion. The volume concludes with the final breakout from the Huertgen Forest and the approaches to the Roer River at Dueren.
Chapter nineteen deals exclusively with the operations of the 8th Infantry Division and its attached units. MacDonald utilizes "official records of the 8th Division and CCR (Combat Command Reserve]), 5th Armored Division, and . . . extensive combat interviews with officers and men of both units"7 to narrate the bitter struggle for Huertgen and the high ground beyond. The full strength 8th Division, fully rested from its successful campaigns in Normandy and Brittany, would be the spearhead of the V Corps effort. It was hoped that "by establishing a temporary corps boundary north of Huertgen and Kleinhau, this fresh division might be employed to boarded the offensive. Thereby progress of the main effort might be facilitated while at the same time the bulk of the V Corps would be reserved for exploiting a breakthrough."8
MacDonald does his best to provide an adequate explanation for the controversial decision to deploy the 121st Infantry, still "107 road miles away from what would be the line of departure"9 to spearhead this important attack. "Because two of the 8th Division's regiments [13th and 28th Infantry] already occupied defensive positions around Vossenack," explains MacDonald, "the logical choice for making the attack was the regiment that had not yet arrived from the division's former zone in Luxembourg."10 After making the journey in open trucks through rain, fog, and bitter cold, the last elements of the 121st Infantry did not arrive in the Huertgen Forest until only a few hours before daylight, 21 November. They were expected to attack at 0900 that morning. If this were not enough, "the infantry then had a seven-mile foot march to assembly areas behind the 12th Infantry [4th Infantry Division]," all the while being "harassed by enemy shelling and bewildered by the confusion of moving tactically into a strange woods at night[.]"11
The plan called for the 121st Infantry to gain control of the forest on both sides of the Germeter-Huertgen Highway12 thus enabling CCR, 5th Armored to advance down the road leading to Huertgen and capture the town. Unfortunately, the attack did not work according to plan. Almost immediately the infantry encountered the same difficulties that other units had succumbed to in the preceding weeks. As MacDonald points out, "The woods were as thick as ever with anti-personnel mines, with bunkers bristling with automatic weapons, with barbed wire, and even more than ever with broken tree trunks and branches that obscured the soggy ground and turned any movement, even when not under enemy fire, into a test of endurance."13 In a mere footnote, MacDonald mentions the one man responsible for the meager gains of the 121st Infantry on that first day: Staff Sergeant John W. Minick. "Having picked his way through a mine field crisscrossed with barbed wire," explains MacDonald, "Sergeant Minick, a squad leader [I Company, 121st Infantry], personally dispatched a force of German defenders while killing twenty and capturing as many more. Later he knocked out a machine gun. As he tried to find a path through a second mine field, he stepped on a mine and was killed. Sergeant Minick was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor."14
For five-days, the progress of the 121st Infantry was measured in yards. In a desperate effort to support his infantry, Colonel John R. Jeter committed light tanks into the firebreaks that bisected the forest.15 In addition, he prematurely sent an armored thrust by a platoon of M-4 Shermans up the Germeter-Huertgen road, all to no avail. The light tanks became helplessly bogged in the mud while others fell victim to anti-tank guns concealed in Huertgen. "Though the infantry began to make toilsome but encouraging progress," writes MacDonald, " . . . the advances came too late to save Colonel Jeter his command."16 On 25 November, the division commander, Major General Donald A. Stroh relieved him and placed the 8th Division Chief of Staff, Colonel Thomas J. Cross in command of the 121st Infantry. As an added measure, Stroh lent Cross the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Morris J. Keesee.
While the 1st Bn., 13th Infantry prepared to initiate its left hook out of the woods northwest of the village, the 121st Infantry also resumed its attack. A rumor spread among the units of the 8th Division that the German defenders had pulled out of Huertgen. Unfortunately, however, this rumor proved to be false. In spite of the impressive efforts of the 1st Bn., 13th Infantry in severing the Huertgen-Kleinhau highway and "seizing Hill 401, a strategic height a thousand yards northeast of Huertgen,"17 stubborn German defenders continued to resist. Only bitter hand-to-hand fighting and the presence of medium tanks of the 709th Tank Battalion constituted the fall of Huertgen at "1800 on 28 November."18 Unfortunately, General Stroh was not on hand to see the capture of the long sought after objective. "A veteran of the North African campaign," notes MacDonald of the worn out 8th Division commander, "General Stroh had seen his son shot down and killed while flying a fighter-bomber in support of the 8th Division at Brest. Higher commanders had deemed it time that General Stroh had a rest, with the proviso that he return later to command another division. A former assistant commander of the 90th Division, Brig[adier] Gen[eral] William G. Weaver, assumed command of the 8th."19
MacDonald continues with the capture of Kleinhau by the 1st Bn., 13th Infantry and CCR, 5th Armored Division. Combined operations between ground forces and P-38's of the 474th Fighter Group, IX Tactical Air Command (TAC) which, employed the use of napalm at tree-top level, was, as MacDonald points out, "a model of its kind . . . a spectacular example of the type of co-operation between air and ground arms that became increasingly effective as the fall campaign wore on."20 By 3 December, Brandenberg and Bergstein were secured and "Castle Hill" or Hill 400, as officially designated by the Army was captured by the U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion after a bitter contest.21 MacDonald points out the significance of the combined effort to capture Huertgen and Kleinhau, the importance of which, this reviewer believes, becomes lost in obsessive disagreement about neglected objectives principally the Roar River Dams:
The casualty count was heavy however. According to MacDonald's figures gleaned from after-action reports, the nine-day battle for Huertgen and Kleinhau resulted in 1,247 casualties. Loses among the combined units are broken down as follows: CCR, 5th Armored Division sustained "approximately 210 casualties of all types; 121st Infantry: 63 killed, 899 others; 1st Bn., 13th Infantry: approximately 75 of all types . . .based on figures for the entire 13th Infantry."23
The 8th Division spearheaded the V Corps attack and successfully broke out of the Huertgen Forest. The ordeal was particularly hard on the 121st Infantry. The men in the 13th and 28th Infantry Regiments also endured the severe cold, and relentless shelling of enemy artillery. In short, the 8th Division was worn out by the first week of December. MacDonald introduces a much-replicated quote that sums up the ordeal of the "Golden Arrow Division" in the forest:
It must be remembered that in the interim, the German Counteroffensive, which, became known as "The Battle of the Bulge", was launched on December 16, 1944, thus suspending operations in the Huertgen Forest. The 8th Division remained in defensive positions on the Brandenberg Ridge. Schmidt would finally fall in the first week of February 1945. As predicted, the Germans flooded the Roer River dams before the Americans could capture them. As a result, the Roer River crossings were delayed for approximately two weeks in February 1945, while the waters receded. MacDonald's volume is based primarily on official unit after-action-reports, combat interviews, and memoirs of major participants. This history is the most objective account and lays the foundation for other historians to build their arguments.
Charles B. MacDonald has contributed to the J.B. Lippincott Company's Great Battles of History Series with The Battle of the Huertgen Forest. Hanson W. Baldwin, longtime military editor for The New York Times, edits the series. Other World War II titles in the series include: Samuel B. Griffith: The Battle for Guadalcanal25 (1963); Fred Majdalay: The Battle of El Alamein26 (1965); and Martin Blumanson: Anzio: The Gamble That Failed27 (1963). At the time of writing, the author complained: "little has been written or published on the Huertgen Forest in either German or English."28 Unfortunately, this situation has not improved much at present. In an attempt to reach a broader audience, MacDonald softens the intricate details of his previous official military histories. At the same time, the author sheds somewhat the constraints of objectivity and develops the central thesis that the Huertgen Forest Campaign was an unnecessary venture that should never have been undertaken. This approach, however, does not compromise the integrity MacDonald has exhibited in his previous works. In fact, the book is an excellent primer for anyone less inclined to attempt the comprehensive official histories. For these reasons, The Battle of the Huertgen Forest makes a significant contribution to the literature of this bitter campaign.
MacDonald begins by describing the geography of the Huertgen Forest, questioning the very name itself. Although the Germans referred to the region as Huertgenwald, MacDonald informs us that the region is actually a continuation of the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg and the Eifel region of Germany. Containing "thick dark green fir trees seventy-five to one hundred feet tall so densely interwoven that they obscure the sky," the forest has the Kall River and Weisser Weh Creek cutting deep gorges through its center while the Roer River forms its southern and eastern boundaries. In this regard, the Huertgen Forest differs little from the Ardennes region farther south. To the American soldiers that were to fight and die there, however, "Huertgen was the name that caught on."29
MacDonald refers repeatedly to the "pursuit" and the material and psychological affects it had on the Americans as they reached the German border in September 1944. In terms of material affects, the American pursuit of the German forces across France had created a logistical problem of immense proportions. In short, the Allies had outrun their supply lines. Added to this were the difficulties the British 21st Army Group was having in Holland, both the reverberations of the failure of Operation MARKET-GARDEN and gaining the vital seaport of Antwerp. Thus, explains MacDonald, Eisenhower felt compelled to split his First and Third Armies, sending the First Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges, farther north in order to protect the British right flank. As a result of this realignment, First Army now approached the German border in the narrow gap between the city of Aachen and the Huertgen Forest. The author calls this, for the sake of convenience, the Aachen Gap. Thus setting the stage, MacDonald provides a highly readable narrative, one that should be the first introduction to the novice reader.
Within this intriguing account, MacDonald makes two important points. First, contrary to the official volume that emphasizes the campaign took place within the context of a much broader picture; he contends the Huertgen Forest gradually developed into its own separate struggle. With Aachen on his left, and the Huertgen Forest on his right, it may be recalled, General J. Lawton Collins of VII Corps had only a six-mile opening of the Stolberg Corridor, to make his main effort. Initial probes and a "Reconnaissance in Force" eventually grew into a full-fledged struggle. In less damaging language, the author maintains that the American commanders did not expect serious resistance. The failure of the 9th Division, however, spelled trouble and set the tone of the campaign to follow.
A second significant point MacDonald raises in the book is a strategic concept that came to be known as the Broad Front Strategy. MacDonald once again outlines the logistical problems facing the American armies, as they were poised along the German border. After the disappointment of the 9th Division advance in October, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower pondered the question, "What to do about the Huertgen Forest?"30 It became clear to the high command that "A plan for something new, something big, was the next order of business."31 MacDonald then discusses a meeting held at Brussels on 18 October attended by Eisenhower, 12th Army Group Commander Omar N. Bradley, and British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. It was at this meeting that "a strategy of advancing on a broad front and building up along the Rhine River before launching a final thrust into the heart of Germany,"32 the Broad Front Strategy, was finalized The general reader can benefit greatly by understanding this important concept. The advance of the 8th Division, comparable in scope to MacDonald's previous work, is discussed in depth in the chapter "The Village of Huertgen."33 All in all, Charles B. MacDonald has provided an excellent primer along with expanding some insights he brushed upon in the official history; a vital contribution.
If Charles B. MacDonald set the precedent for accurate, objective investigation of the Huertgen Forest battles, Cecil B. Currey set the pattern for blame. In Follow Me and Die: The Destruction of an American Division in World War II, Cecil B. Currey documents the mishandling of the U.S. 28th Infantry Division's ill-fated series of attacks on the heavily fortified German town of Schmidt. In a period of two weeks (November 2-16, 1944), the 28th Pennsylvania National Guard Division was nearly wiped out to the point of ineffectiveness in the Huertgen Forest. Writing from the infantryman's perspective, Currey asks why were these men sacrificed in this senseless battle of attrition? Currey places the blame squarely on inept leadership at the upper levels of American command. More precisely, Currey blames four distinct individuals: Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, "his was always the final voice declaring strategic courses of the war"; Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges, commander of First U.S. Army, "intemperate, unforgiving, and brittle, caught between leading First Army himself and allowing [his chief of staff Major General William B.] Kean to do so in his name"; Lieutenant General Leonard T. Gerow, commander of U.S. V Corps, "concerned more with having to reshuffle his divisions and boundaries than with basic inadequacies in Hodges' thinking"; and Brigadier General Norman D. "Dutch" Cota, having recently taken over command of the 28th Division on 13 August 1944. This theme of inadequate leadership straight up the chain of command from division to army forms the central thesis of this book. The book's title, a play on the slogan of the infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia, in a sense means Follow Me - Hodges, Gerow, and Cota - and Die. Clearly, Currey employs the "incompetent leadership" model to formulate his argument throughout.
Currey states his purpose for writing this book as twofold: first, to chronicle the Huertgen Forest battles in general and the operations of the 28th Division in particular by allowing surviving veterans "to speak at length in their own words . . . before time obscures and blurs completely their story," and secondly, to set the record straight in what the author believes was an attempt by the U.S Army to shelve-by classifying original after action reports and interviews-an embarrassingly unsuccessful operation34. Currey was writing not only as an historian, but also as a former National Guardsman and active reservist. This perspective may have contributed to the existence of a noticeable bias against the U.S. Army that permeates through the language Currey chooses throughout the pages of this otherwise excellent battle narrative.
After completing graduate study at the University of Nebraska (1959-60) and the Municipal University of Omaha (1961-62), Cecil Barr Currey, the son of a Nebraskan store manager, earned his Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in 1965. Besides his associate professor of history duties at the University of South Florida, Tampa, Currey also served in the Army National Guard (1965-79) and later the U.S. Army Reserve (1979-92) as a chaplain, eventually rising to the rank of colonel. He has acted as Vietnam history consultant and technical adviser on numerous radio and television programs. Not surprisingly, Currey has received numerous awards for his longstanding achievements. Among them are: Meritorious Service Medal, Department of the Army, 1991; and the Teaching Incentive Program Award, University of South Florida, 1995. Currey has written extensively on a variety of topics throughout his career. Among his publications are: The Craft and Crafting of History (Sarasota, Florida: Omni/Burgess, 1975) and, under the pseudonym Cincinnatus, Self Destruction: The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army during the Vietnam Era (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981). It is precisely this blend of metaphor--Cincinnatus, the citizen soldier who beats his plowshare into swords and returns once again to the land--and genuineness --Nebraska native, turned National Guardsman, and active Reservist-that would resonate throughout Follow Me and Die35.
Currey begins by describing the origins of the 28th Division attacks in the Huertgen Forest. It may be recalled that as the American forces were poised along the German frontier in the fall of 1944, it was determined that the U.S. VII Corps under the command of Major General J. Lawton "Lightning Joe" Collins would lead the main drive to cross the Roer and ultimately the Rhine Rivers with Germany's third largest city of Cologne as its main objective. General Collins feared the Huertgen Forest could act as a possible staging area for a German counterattack into the right flank of VII Corps. Both Generals Hodges and Collins agreed the Huertgen Forest was too big an obstacle to be by-passed. It was therefore decided to neutralize the forest. Briefly describing the failure of the U.S. 9th Infantry Division during October 1944, the author introduces the November offensive of General Gerow's V Corps and the U.S. 28th Infantry Division respectively. The operation was deemed a diversionary attack to draw enemy forces away from Collins's VII Corps.
Echoing Charles B. MacDonald, the author agrees that General Collins was suffering from ghosts of the First World War36. Contrary to both Charles B. MacDonald and Cecil B. Currey, General Collins had not experienced combat in the Great War37. Nevertheless, Currey holds that memories of how the Germans had utilized the Argonne Forest to threaten the left flank of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive influenced his decision to secure the Huertgen Forest before the VII Corps scheduled attack date of November 5, 1944. Unfortunately, however, Currey neglected to cite any evidence that confirmed that General Collins actually was comparing the Huertgen Forest with the Meuse-Argonne. It can only be assumed that the general's knowledge of military history actually contributed to the planning of operations in the Huertgen. Yet, the author believes that "Collins was responsible for the American fascination with the Hürtgen."38
Regardless, Currey deems General Collins' fears were not justified. Contrary to Generals Collins and Hodges, the author contends the Huertgen Forest could have indeed been by-passed. Citing Russell F. Weigley's Eisenhower's Lieutenants, Currey agrees that only "battered remnants" of the enemy possessed the Huertgen Forest and would therefore be unable to thrust out to menace the VII Corps right flank. Instead, the German forces could only defend their own lair like rats.39
Currey criticizes General Cota's view of the mission. Besides protecting Collins' right flank, securing the 28th Division main objective of Schmidt, Cota reasoned, would gain a valuable road net-Schmidt-Steckenborn-Strauch-Kesternich-Rollsbroich-- that could later be used to supply VII Corps's drive to the Rhine. Cota's attack was scheduled to begin on 2 November 1944. The VII Corps attack, it may be recalled, was planned to go on 5 November 1944. Consequently, this left Norman Cota with only a few days to complete his mission. Cota believed he could do it. Currey states that this was not only "wishful thinking" on the part of General Cota, "it also was folly."40 Throughout the book, the author emphasizes the pressure Cota was under from Hodges and Gerow at a time when American division and regimental commanders were being relieved of command at the slightest hint of failure.
It should be appropriate to mention at this point the Roer River dams. Repeating the contention previously argued by Charles B. MacDonald, Currey asserts specifically that neither Cota, Gerow, nor Hodges realized that the capture of Schmidt would place the American forces in an ideal position to launch an attack upon the vital Urft and Schwammanaeul Dams. Currey rehashes the argument made by MacDonald about the possible delays that would hamper the advance of First Army should the Germans destroy the gates and flood the entire area. He also repeats the fact that the dams came under some consideration at 9th Division Headquarters; however, Currey is attempting to suggest that Hodges, Gerow, and Cota deserve an equal share of the blame.41
Of the three factors generally associated with thwarting American success in the Huertgen Forest- terrain, weather, and the staunch German defense-Currey again argues that Hodges, Gerow and Cota are primarily to blame for ignoring these basic dynamics. Currey suggests the three American commanders underestimated the difficult terrain, failing to realize this would be primarily an infantry contest and that the movement of supporting armor would be severely hindered in the confines of the rugged gorges that bisected the Huertgen Forest. In addition, the author states that the planners failed to take into consideration the fact that bad weather would inevitably prevent adequate aerial reconnaissance and close-in ground support. The author describes in detail the effects of weather on men and equipment: the malady of foot immersion commonly referred to at the time as "trench foot"; the quagmire that would consume what inadequate roads and fire lanes existed in the forest. Currey writes: "If general superiority led American forces, General Winter and Logistics smiled upon German defenders."42
Currey sites three critical mistakes made by General Cota during the execution of his attack. First, he divided his forces. Attacking piecemeal with a different objective being assigned each regiment of the 28th Division, the main effort fell upon one regiment--the 112th Infantry43. The 28th Division operational area would, says Currey, be under constant German artillery observation during the entire action, specifically from the high ground near the towns of Brandenburg and Bergstein. Apparently, according to the author, failure to eliminate the threat of enemy observation stemmed from First Army's not having sufficient troops to clear this ridge so vital to the German defense. This conclusion seems obvious since one division was given an assignment that should have been undertaken by three.
Cota's second mistake involved failing to gather adequate intelligence about the enemy. The author states that the Division G-2 section (Intelligence) knew about the German 89th and 275th Infantry Divisions but fell short in detecting the existence of a third division - the 272nd Volksgrenadier. Currey has also determined that General Cota's intelligence officers did not pick up on the fact that the 89th Division had also been beefed up with Reserve Grenadier Regiment 1023, 189th Füsilier Battalion, 5th, 9th, and 14th Luftwaffe Battalions, as well as 1403 Festung Infantry Battalion. Here, Currey's point becomes somewhat contradictory when the author neglects to elaborate on his earlier reference of "battered remnants" and his suggestion that Cota's ignorance of the "extremely heterogeneous" forces that waited in front of him led to his failure to perceive that they suddenly posed a threat.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Currey blames General Cota for designating the tiny Kall Trail as the main supply route (MSR) for the 112th Infantry attack. This narrow meandering path winding down a perilously steep gorge from the town of Vossenack to Kommerscheidt-the latter serving as an outpost and springboard for the attack on Schmidt-crosses a bridge on the tiny Kall River before winding its way to Schmidt. Currey asserts the General Cota knew little about this hazardous trek because he neglected to order reconnaissance patrols of the trail. Currey states that although patrols are a dangerous fact of life for the combat infantryman, particularly when the enemy "were exceedingly sensitive to such American probes" they "are essential if a commander needs information about the enemy he faces" He goes on to claim, " Cota was negligent in not insisting upon thorough and regular patrols that could have supplied much of the knowledge he needed. His [Cota's] reticence to do so ultimately cost his division far more lives than would have been lost on patrol duty."44
Ultimately, the vital lifeline was lost. Initially, tanks and tank destroyers [TD's] failed to negotiate the tiny trek and were immobilized by mechanical breakdown or enemy fire. The vehicles thus became obstacles on the already narrow trail. Combat engineers reached the end of their tether trying unsuccessfully to blast away rock outcroppings, salvage the disabled tanks, and maintain the path from the erosive effects of the elements. After the Germans had reversed the initial successes of the 112th Infantry, by counterattacking in force with armor from three directions, they managed to break the determined defense of Kommerscheidt, eventually cutting off the vital artery of supply. Here again, the author blames General Cota for failing to guard the one and only means of supplying his troops and evacuating the wounded. As Currey observes: "No TD crews, no tankers, no engineers, no infantrymen had responsibility for guarding the trail. All previous planning by division, regiment, and battalion officers ignored this one crucial necessity."45
Since the book deals primarily with the 28th Division's ordeal in the Huertgen Forest, the 8th Infantry Division is mentioned only briefly when, from 16-20 November the latter "arrived to replace the worn out and haggard men" of the "Bloody Bucket."46 Currey makes several legitimate points throughout the book, however, he stresses the naivety of the American commanders in question a bit too far at times. It is difficult to conceive that upper level commanders, given the state of professional schooling that existed within the American armed forces by this time, could be as stupid as Currey would like his readers to believe. Granted, certain aspects of the 28th Division operations were grossly mishandled. Since the author pinpoints his criticisms at the Corps and Army level, one might ponder if the 8th Division had been sent into the Huertgen Forest first, instead of the 28th Division, would it had been mismanaged in the same way. Or, would the benefits of extensive stateside training possibly have enabled it to prevail as it had in Normandy and Brittany? As we have seen, the weight of the eventual 8th Division attack on Huertgen was also placed on only one regiment despite the added weight of Corps artillery and coordinated ground-air attacks. One of the great ironies of these two divisions is that when the 28th Division was pulled out of the Huertgen Forest for some much needed rest, it took up the same positions the 8th Division had occupied in Luxemburg the previous October. It was here, on 16 December that the full weight of General Hasso von Manteuffel's 5th Panzer Army advanced out of the Ardennes and hit the unlucky "Keystone Division" with all its might.47 One can also wonder how the 8th Division would have prevailed had it remained where it was instead of being ordered to the Huertgen Forest.
In The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, Charles Whiting breaks no new ground. Echoing previous writers, Charles MacDonald and Cecil B. Currey, Whiting repeats the standard opinions that the Huertgen Forest Campaign should have been completely avoided and places blame upon the American High Command. "It was a mistake," he writes, "perhaps the greatest one made by the Americans in the eleven-month campaign in Europe."48 Whiting introduces new expressions to the lexicon of accountability such as "Death Factory" and "Green Hell," curiously unseen in previous literature. The informed reader will immediately notice the length Whiting attributes to the campaign. Whereas Charles B. MacDonald suggests the Siegfried Line Campaign ended roughly around the time the Ardennes Counteroffensive began on December 16, 1944, Whiting asks his readers to believe the fighting continued well into February 1945. Rather than treat the German Counteroffensive as an interruption of the Huertgen fighting, Whiting incorporates it into his narrative. The reason for this unfortunately becomes apparent midway through the book.
Born in England 18 December 1926, Charles Henry Whiting served in the British Army during World War II. He was educated in Germany and England, attending Cologne University (1949), Leeds University (1949-1953), and Saarbruecken University (1955-1956). Whiting has taught at the University of Maryland as well as Universities in Trier, Saarbruecken, and Bielfeld, Germany. His awards include the Sir George Dowty Award and Cheltenham Festival of Literature.
Whiting has written extensively in both fiction and nonfiction. He has contributed to the Ballantine World War II Series with such titles as: Decision at St. Vith (1969), Battle of the Ruhr Pocket (1971), as well as biographies of Patton (1970), Bradley (1971), and Skorzeny (1972). Whiting has also written dozens of World War II titles under the pseudonym Leo Kessler, among other pen names.49
Battle for Hurtgen Forest begins harmlessly enough by openly questioning the legitimacy of the Huertgen operation and describing the brutality of the fighting and the harshness of the unforgiving terrain. In spite of the hardships of life at the front, Whiting describes the efforts that were made to provide some rest and recreation for the American infantrymen. Whiting tells of Red Cross club mobiles set up in the Rear where ladies would hand out doughnuts and free coffee to the tired troops. There were also United Service Organization (USO) Shows that included such celebrities as German-born Marlene Dietrich. From this point, however, this informative account takes a turn for the worse.
"But for young men whose life expectancy in the infantry was exceedingly limited," contends Whiting, "something else was needed - women [original emphasis]!"50 The author goes on to describe how soldiers were routinely rotated out of the line for seventy-two-hour passes to Paris. Like a writer of bad pulp fiction, the author digresses into the city's famous red-light district the Americans all too commonly referred to as "Pig Alley." There, explains Whiting, "whores" who had serviced Germans for the previous four years were now infecting Americans by the hundreds with venereal disease. Unlike the First World War, however, the advent of penicillin had made the social malady only a temporary discomfort. "That fall," observes Whiting, "the United States Army sent 606 men, the equivalent of a battalion daily to the 'pox doctor.'"51 Unfortunately, the author cites no source and provides no evidence for this claim.
Whiting emphasizes that while Americans were dying in combat, carousing in Paris, or deserting by the thousands,52 Supreme Commander Eisenhower was living comfortably in a French Château "far to the rear."53 Whiting takes several opportunities to discredit several close associates of the supreme commander especially General Eisenhower's British "chauffer-cum-mistress"54 Kaye Summersby. Similarly, he refers to General Everett S. Hughes as Ike's "card-playing, hard drinking womanizing crony"55 who once called a WAC [Women's Army Corps] "a double breasted GI with a built in foxhole."56 Whiting, once again, fails to cite a source or give evidence for this last sexist remark.
The author also deems it necessary to include V Corps commander General Leonard T. Gerow in his sensationalistic diatribes. It seems Gerow's second wife, Marie-Louise, had family in France who "had allegedly collaborated with the Germans during the occupation."57 Whiting quotes a memo General Hughes had written to himself published in David Irving's The War Between The Generals58 as saying: "Must not get involved with 'Gee's' [Gerow's] relations, think they are collaborationists."
As previously mentioned, Whiting describes the opening of the German Counter-offensive commonly referred to as The Battle of the Bulge. It appears his motives are not to illustrate its correlation to the Huertgen Forest Campaign, but rather to exemplify the unpreparedness and social gaiety at Eisenhower's Headquarters. As the author explains, while the Panzer spearheads were roaring through the Ardennes, General Eisenhower was attending a wedding and champagne reception for two junior members of his staff-Mickey McKeogh and WAC Sergeant Pearlie Hargrave. In yet another effort of tabloid journalism Whiting writes:
Whiting's sarcasm is evident-his message is clear, his evidence is lacking. I have included these passages to demonstrate what I believe is the author's purpose for writing this sensationalism-to sell books. In fairness, Whiting makes some legitimate points concerning the Huertgen Forest battles and it is safe to assume that few readers are naïve enough to think that officers at the highest level did not enjoy considerable more creature comforts than the combat rifleman sweating it out in a foxhole in the Huertgen Forest. It is the style in which he chose to present this view, however, that greatly lessens his credibility as a serious examiner, which the opening paragraphs of the book initially suggest. The telling of the love affairs of generals may sell books but is of little importance in the thorough analysis of a significant battle such as the Huertgen Forest. Several of the authors have commented on how few books there are examining the Huertgen Forest Campaign. Unfortunately, while doing a search on the topic at a local county library in an effort to ascertain what books if any on the Huertgen Forest Campaign were available to the general reading public, one surfaced in the entire system - Charles Whiting's Battle for Hurtgen Forest.
Whiting's coverage of the 8th Infantry Division is scant when compared to the other works considered in this essay. The author begins by rightfully attributing the capture of "the paratrooper general . . . General Ramcke" to the 8th Division in Brittany61. Whiting refers to General Stroh as "a spent force,"62 suggesting his division's initial lack of drive in the Huertgen Forest was a direct result of Stroh witnessing his son's plane crash near Brest. The author dramatizes the single-handed charge made by John W. Minick by adding dialog borrowed from a popular account of Medal of Honor recipients during World War II63. "Just follow old Minick, Skipper," Whiting cites the platoon sergeant as reassuring his company commander, Captain Jack Melton before his daring assault, "and when I stop, you'd better stop because you ain't going no further." Only yards from the enemy command post and moments away from his own death, Minick is quoted as yelling defiantly at his astonished foe: "Come on out . . . come on out and fight!" Regardless of the accuracy of this account, Whiting makes it clear that the heroics of one man could not justify the lack of progress of the entire division.
Before reaching their objectives, Whiting declares the "fighting regiments" of both the 4th and 8th Infantry Divisions as being "decimated" and in need of relief. "But [Major General Raymond O.]Tubby Barton [commanding 4th Infantry Division] and the new commander of the 8th [Division], General Weaver, were not letting their men off the hook just yet. They had to achieve their objective! The honor of the division depended on it."64 Whiting quotes heavily from Boesch for the battle narrative of Huertgen, however, not even this valuable resource can save this mediocre work from attaining a semblance of credibility
In A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hürtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams 1944-1945, Edward G. Miller emphatically supports the thesis that the American planners chose "road junctions and towns"65 as primary objectives when in fact they should have concentrated their efforts on the Roer River dams66. Miller contends that the dams should have been the main objective from the onset of the campaign. If this had been the case, he argues, there would have been no need to enter the Huertgen Forest, thus eliminating the chance of becoming embroiled in a bitter contest there. In addition, Miller supports the claim that in order for the Americans to cross the Roer River successfully they first had to secure the dams to prevent the Germans from destroying the dams and flooding the entire region causing substantial delay of the Roer crossings.
Miller states that his attempt in writing this study was to concentrate the focus at company, battalion, and regimental level. "It is here," he writes, "that soldiers had to carry out the 'command decisions' and implement doctrine."67 This he has accomplished most successfully. Miller conducted an enormous amount of research and synthesized a mountain of evidence that includes the standard primary and secondary sources, as well as a substantial amount of correspondence and personal interviews from not only American but also German veterans of the fighting.
The author has succeeded in blending thorough analysis with readable narrative. It is these qualities that make Miller's book attractive to both the scholarly community and the general reading audience. On the one hand, his thesis is clearly stated. On the other hand, however, I would argue his premise lacks sufficient evidence to be concrete. I doubt that Miller will have the last word in the ongoing controversy surrounding the Huertgen Forest Campaign.
To reemphasize, Miller skillfully retells the sequence of events that made up the Huertgen Forest Campaign. From the VII Corps's first encounter with the forest; the October attacks of the 9th Division; the tragedy of the 28th Division efforts in and around Schmidt; to the renewed November offensive that resulted in the capture of the village of Huertgen, Kleinau, and the Brandenburg Ridge to the final capture of the elusive Roer River dams, Miller covers the complete campaign with thoroughness and efficiency. Most significantly, however, the author contributes an "analysis"68 at the end of the book. Within his conclusions, he makes some valid observations that welcome response.
In his analysis, Miller restates his claim that the Americans sacrificed mobility and firepower-by entering the Huertgen Forest-in order to pursue the wrong objectives. Miller concludes: "The U.S. Army often placed the concept of objective first among the nine principles of war that it recognized. Army doctrine stipulated-and still does-that all levels of command have a clear defined objective toward which it directs its forces."69 Miller correctly acknowledges that the "ultimate strategic objective"70 of the war was to destroy the enemy and his ability to wage war; however, he mistakenly confuses this aim with an obsession with the Rhine River on the part of the American commanders. Miller paraphrases historian Martin Blumenson suggesting that the American High Command had their minds focused on the Rhine and failed to appreciate the difficulty the Roer crossings would produce if the Roer River dams were not initially secured. Miller writes: "Rather than concentrating on the destruction of the German armies in the field, notes Blumenson, [Omar N.] Bradley had his eyes set on breaking through the Westwall and reaching the Rhine, and Eisenhower 'was gazing beyond [it]!'"71 In checking this source, it is obvious that Martin Blumenson is referring to the failure to destroy the Germans trapped inside the Falaise Pocket, not on the German border. Further, although the Rhine and Westwall may have been implied in Blumenson's book, they are not mentioned specifically. Clearly, in this instance, Blumenson was writing about the failure at Falaise, nowhere else.
Miller draws some other conclusions that are well thought out. The author admits that it would probably been dangerous for the Americans to by-pass the forest initially, but that this does not mean First Army should have committed units time and time again in a fruitless battle of attrition. Miller states that the area north of the city of Aachen presented the best avenue of approach into Germany, yet he stops there without substantiating this suggestion or offering a suggestion of how this maneuver could have been carried out. Similarly, Miller implies that had Bradley and Hodges been "willing to take the risk" V Corps, "might have succeeded" in taking the Roer River Dams in September or October. Again, the author offers no clear plan on how this would have been performed other than to state that the weather "had not yet turned bad." He then goes on to state that had V Corps been reinforced with one or two regiments, it "would likely have taken the Urft and Schwammenauel Dams in November" [my emphasis]72.
Miller has written a fine book; however, he does not present enough convincing evidence to support some of his contentions.
Of course, no examination of the literature about a campaign of this magnitude would be complete without a view from the infantryman's perspective, the ordinary soldiers who experienced the everyday reality of the Huertgen Forest.
Without a doubt, the best memoir to emerge from the carnage of the Huertgen Forest battles is Paul Boesch's Road To Huertgen: Forest in Hell73. Although not achieving as much fame as Charles B. MacDonald's own memoir Company Commander74, -- MacDonald wrote the introduction75 and influenced its publishing--the book was widely received and quickly became a frequently quoted source utilized by most of the authors under consideration here. Besides Boesch's excellent combat narrative, the work also contains poems by the author as well as sketches by Robert H. McCall. This poignant memoir, long out of print, is a significant contribution to the writings of the Huertgen Forest.
In 1944, Paul Boesch was a strapping young man over six feet tall and weighing well over 200 pounds. Born in New York, Boesch tried his hand at being a lifeguard, professional wrestler, and pro-basketball player before volunteering for the infantry. It must have been acknowledged early during training that this huge man with a cauliflower ear had what it took to lead men, because Boesch advanced quickly through Non-Commissioned Officer's (NCO) School, and Officer Candidate's School (OCS) and received his commission. After undergoing advanced training with the 63rd Infantry Division in the States, Boesch ended up in Brittany with the 121st Infantry, 8th Division, where his story begins.
Boesch does not try his hand at historical analysis. Instead, he describes the people, places, and things that confronted the combat rifleman in the snow and mud of the dark November of 1944. Boesch is harshly critical, however, of shirkers, including officers who broke or performed less than admirably under the strain of continued and increasingly bitter combat. For instance, after being given command of G Company, 121st Infantry--not by choice but rather because all the officers with more seniority had been either killed or wounded--Lieutenant Boesch tried repeatedly for three days to drive the enemy from the first houses leading into the village of Huertgen. G Company, worn down to a mere forty men, was isolated and alone with Lieutenant Boesch concerned that he was not getting adequate support from his rear. Support came, however, in the form of a task force commander from the 2nd Infantry Division. In praising Colonel P.D. Ginder, Boesch writes: "The officer impressed me. "Here was a man who knew what he wanted to do and was determined to do it."76
Boesch also displays prejudice when it came to inter-unit rivalry. The author's tone is evident in conveying his perception of a sister unit in the 8th Infantry Division, the 13th Infantry. It may be recalled that the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry was attached to the 121st Infantry to flank the town from the opposite direction from which the 121st Infantry resumed its attack on 27 November. In his first meeting with a unit of the 13th Infantry, Boesch writes:
At the time Boesch felt "this encounter [with the 13th Infantry] consumed more of the precious time we needed to reach the line of departure on schedule before daylight revealed our movement to the enemy."78
Boesch again had mixed feelings about the 13th Infantry when the two units converged in the center of Huertgen near the bombed out church. During the first night in the town, a patrol from Boesch's G Company was surprised when "they came upon men of C Company, 13th Infantry." "In fact," Boesch continues, "they had almost engaged in an internecine fire fight, because neither force had any inkling that the other was in the town."79 In a moment of exasperation aimed at his superiors, Boesch confesses, "I was amazed and disgusted. Surely somebody should have had the sense to let us know that someone had entered our objective from another direction. Confusion, I breathed to myself, thy name is combat."80
As far as Boesch was concerned, relations between the two units did not improve, however. The next day, when the attack to secure the town of Huertgen was to resume, Boesch feared the intermingling of the two units would cause more confusion. "Contrary to my expectations," Boesch recalls, "we experienced no real problem with the friendly forces around the church."81 "The first men we came upon were from Charley Company of the 13th Infantry. I tried to get them to join us. 'No sir, lieutenant,' a spokesman answered. 'Our C.O.82 told us to stay right in the church, and that's where we got to stay until he orders us out.' Boesch's reaction was typical: "I wondered what the hell good they thought they were doing sitting on their butts in the church, but I did not press the issue. Technically, I might have assumed jurisdiction over them, but again I saw no point in augmenting our force with reluctant dragons."83 One does not have to read too far between the lines here to conclude that perhaps Boesch is being a bit unfair in his treatment of the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry. It was this cooperative effort that many believe was the key to the whole Huertgen campaign, the capture of the strategically important town of Huertgen.
Yet there was a compassionate side to this man as well. From stateside training at Camp Wheeler, Georgia right up until they entered combat, Boesch had a close buddy: Jack Bochner, "the one really close friend I had made in the Army."84 As many veterans will attest, close friendships are an emotional gamble when death is constantly present on a daily basis. It was not uncommon for men to avoid making new friends entirely, particularly among the new incoming replacements. Yet, Boesch describes the times he and Jack spent together telling stories, laughing and anticipating that far-reaching and uncertain eventuality of finally returning home. Feeling that he had come up from a rougher background than Jack, Boesch assumed the role of protector and worried about him constantly. Almost inevitably, Jack was wounded during the battle to capture the town of Huertgen. Hearing that Jack had been wounded but not knowing the severity or the condition of his friend, Lieutenant Boesch agonized until he too was wounded a short time later. Like Fred Scherrer, Paul Boesch and Jack Bochner would leave the Huertgen Forest as casualties, lucky to have survived. Though at times opinionated, Paul Boesch provides a testimony of the Huertgen equal with that of Charles B. MacDonald's epic memoir of the Ardennes. Moreover, Boesch provides the most important human element to the factual accounts of the battle of Huertgen village as told by MacDonald, Miller and others. Nowhere is this more apparent than the following passage from the book:
Gerald Astor has recently contributed a valuable piece to the Huertgen Forest canon. The importance of The Bloody Forest: Battle for the Huertgen: September 1944- January 1945 is its heavy reliance on oral history. With excellent narration, Astor retells the battles in the Huertgen Forest from the point of view of those who were there. The author has done a remarkable job finding veterans and conducting interviews from nearly every unit that participated in the fighting. At the end of the book, he supplies a Roll Call86 giving a brief biographical sketch of the veterans who contributed to the book. Sadly, World War II veterans are dying at an alarming rate. It must be remembered that the nineteen year-old rifleman who carried an M-1 in the Huertgen is today in his mid-seventies. It is for this reason that Astor's book is such a noteworthy achievement.
Aside from the excellent testimonials from the veterans, Astor offers some insight of his own into the Huertgen Forest Campaign. In an essay at the end of the book titled: Postmortems87, Astor gives his assessment of the battle. It is here that his efforts border on mediocrity; however, gleaning from every source considered in this essay, the author offers nothing new. Astor echoes several of the aged old arguments concerning the Huertgen Forest. For instance, Astor sides with other writers in that the Roer River dams should have been the primary objective of the campaign. Astor, like Weigley and others, does not place much reliability on J. Lawton Collin's belief that German units deployed in the Huertgen Forest threatened the right flank of his VII Corps during its initial probes of the Siegfried Line defenses. In addition, Astor states "Collins, his superiors-Hodges, Bradley, and even Eisenhower-the upper echelon strategists, and even the division commanders apparently relied on maps to define the battlefield. Theirs was a two-dimensional understanding of the terrain and its defenses."88 Astor does, however, argue in favor of the field grade, and company grade officers along with noncoms who had the difficult task of conquering the Huertgen Forest. Here, as in the narrative, Astor reinforces his position by incorporating the oral histories to offer the participant's view. The fact that Astor has offered nothing new in the way of analysis, however, suggests that perhaps a new examination of the Huertgen Forest battles is sorely needed. Perhaps a fresh evaluation of the campaign to answer some of the longstanding arguments would be a welcome addition to World War II scholarship. Nevertheless, in spite of these shortcomings, Astor has utilized the strength of the oral histories remarkably: a vital contribution.
The 8th Infantry Division is well represented in Astor's book. The chapters, "Thanksgiving Celebrations"89 and "Deeper into the Woods"90 are particularly noteworthy for those interested in the "Golden Arrow Division's" critical role in the campaign. The author faces a common historian's dilemma when choosing sources concerning this unit, however. On the one hand, the sons of Col. Thomas J. Cross, the officer who took over command of the 121st Infantry from the ousted Col. John R. Jeter, permitted Astor access to their father's unpublished papers. The diary entries and other notes written by Cross provides new and valuable insights to the campaign91. On the other hand, Astor seems to place too much credibility on the "histories of the 13th, 28th, and 121st Regiments."92 Commonly referred to as "The Blue Books" these yearbook type publications were made available to discharged veterans at the end of the war. Although treasured for their keepsake value, particularly the sections containing portrait photographs taken of veterans, their biased narrative was written from the perspective of a victorious United States Army over the evil of Hitler and his Nazi regime at the close of World War II. To illustrate this point on sources, Astor, records Cross's "unhappiness with the declining enthusiasm of the GIs"93 after two weeks of bitter fighting in the Huertgen. "Still having trouble with stragglers [writes Cross], using MPs [Military Police] to stop them in the main roads. Not pleasant to feel that Americans will shirk front line duty, but there are hundreds of them that will do anything to keep from fighting. I intend to handle them roughly."94 Astor draws an obvious if somewhat amusing conclusion: "The official regimental histories [Blue Books] take no note of this aspect of the Huertgen campaign."95
The oral history testimonies of 8th Division veterans are also worth mentioning. In addition to relying heavily on Boesch's memoir, and the Cross papers previously mentioned, other veterans provide a significant contribution to the book. These veterans include: Earnest G. Carlson (Co. D, 28th Infantry); Mike Cohen (12th Engineer Combat Battalion); Norris Maxwell (Co. A, 121st Infantry); Author Wagenseil (56th Field Artillery Battalion, 8th Division); and Stephen "Roddy" Wofford (Co. A, 121st Infantry). A generous supply of photographs of the village of Huertgen and other areas where the 8th Division operated make this package a worthwhile investment.
As we have seen, the controversy surrounding the Huertgen Forest Campaign centers around three themes: neglected objectives, incompetent leadership, and the probability of bypassing the forest completely. It is a consensus among the historians that any one of these themes alone or in combination were responsible for the significant losses of men and materiel that occurred in the fall and early winter of 1944 on the border of Germany. These arguments coupled with the three traditional factors blamed for the failure-weather, harsh terrain, and the staunch German defense--form the conclusions in the literature thus far. Perhaps a reevaluation of the evidence and a rebuttal to the argument is sorely needed. Is a refutation to these conclusions possible?
Since Charles B. MacDonald first proposed the neglected objective thesis, historians have accepted this notion unequivocally. Russell F. Weigley, a highly regarded American military historian, believes the Roer River dams were "the only objective across the Huertgen that could have at all warranted the expenditure of lives and divisions in the forest."96 Undoubtedly, the premise makes sense since, as it turned out; the Germans did flood the Roer plain, consequently delaying the Roer River crossing operations of February 1944. Most agree that the Roer River dams should have been an early objective to the campaign; however, the historians hesitate when the question arises of how the dams should have been taken. For instance, Miller offers the suggestion that this likelihood existed for V Corps to capture the dams early on but does not elaborate on the possibility.97 Surely a different avenue of approach would be necessary. The Roer River dams were situated farther into Germany, beyond the heavily fortified town of Schmidt. As we have seen, the fighting to capture this town badly mauled the 9th Division in October and nearly destroyed the 28th Infantry Division in November 1944. One could contemplate any number of problems Schmidt would pose to an American force trying to reach an objective beyond. Russell Weigley points out that the Monshau Corridor; "the thin band of open country between the Huertgen and Monshau Forests" was the best alternate route, however, he admits that it "would not be easy."98
In spite of the benefits of hindsight, the answers to these complex questions do not come easily. Arguably, the road-net that began at the town of Monchau, continuing northwest through Simmerath, Rollesbroich, Richelskaul, and eventually winds through the fortified villages of Germeter, Huertgen, Kleinhau, and the high ground of the Brandenberg Ridge, was essential for the First Army advance toward Dueren and eventually Cologne. The shortest approach to acquire this critical stretch of road was, certainly, through the Huertgen Forest. The Germans perceptively realized this road network was the key to the American advance-they did not fortify these towns and grudgingly defend them for nothing. Yet this important road-net receives little attention compared with the obsession these historians have with the Roer River Dams.
Incompetent leadership is another convenient solution for several of the historians. Coming from a military background himself, Currey suggests the blame shot right up the chain of command from division to corps to army. Since the 28th Division was assigned to V Corps, Currey puts General Gerow, the V Corps commander, in his rightful place in the triad of accountability. Yet the focus on this man soon fades in Currey's account. Instead the attention quickly shifts to the crucial VII Corps and its talented commander J. Lawton Collins. This move adds a degree of confusion to Currey's predictable pattern of blame and presents the author with some difficulty in keeping his argument in accordance with the tidiness of the chain of command. Nevertheless, in spite of the ongoing accusations, one could counter that the American planners did not have fifty years to analyze this campaign; they had only a few weeks, perhaps a couple months. In this short timeframe, they developed a strategy-sound but not perfect-and they stuck with it.
Perhaps the most controversial argument implies the Huertgen Forest should have initially been bypassed. Even the Germans did not understand why the Americans did not go around the Huertgen Forest and leave the defenders to wilt on the vine. I would argue simply, it was not U. S. Army policy to bypass resistance; it was policy to destroy the German armed forces. This policy is clear in Eisenhower's post-war writings. For example, in his Report by The Supreme Commander To the Combined Chiefs of Staff on the Operations in Europe of the Allied Expeditionary Force, 6 June 1944 to 8 May 1945, Eisenhower states the mission he was given during the planning for OVERLORD in a directive issued 12 February 1944. In brief, the order states: "You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces [my emphasis]."99 Eisenhower repeats this over and over again in his memoirs.100
This strategy of annihilation so vehemently adhered to by Eisenhower, offers the historian the opportunity to reassess the concept of the controversial Broad-Front Strategy while at the same time, utilizing the Huertgen Forest campaign as a case study. The conclusions of a carefully researched argument would illustrate that bypassing the forest would compromise the essence of the broad front.
As we have seen, much emphasis has been placed on the logistical considerations of advancing on a broad front. Could further investigation uncover an operational element to this strategy as well? Could Eisenhower have been trying to avoid the encirclement type battles that were commonplace on the Russian Front? From a tactical standpoint, advancing on a broad front with an army protecting the flank of the one next to it in a simultaneous offensive would arguably avoid salients and the need to sacrifice valuable troops guarding vulnerable flanks. At the squad, platoon, or company level, this was all too common. As soon as a unit advanced out too far, the Germans would infiltrate behind the advance, and cut it off, and oftentimes Americans had to fight their way back to their own lines over the same ground or wait-cut off until adjoining units could straighten out the line. In short, the Germans were masters at infiltration. An in-depth investigation could reveal that Eisenhower realized this when he strongly demanded that the flanks of his armies be protected and that no enemy strong points or holdouts be bypassed101. In other words, if the German tactics involved infiltrating the American rear, when a salient presented itself, why help them achieve this by bypassing points of resistance and literally placing the enemy in your own rear area? When viewed from the perspective of the Huertgen Forest, however, this argument disputes the present school of thought favored by those historians that contend the German forces within the Huertgen Forest would have posed no threat to the flanks of advancing American units.
Thus in keeping with Eisenhower's broad-front policy I believe he was right in not bypassing the Huertgen Forest. Contrary to the views expressed by others that the American commanders were being overcautious, I would argue that the American high command, particularly J. Lawton Collins was utilizing sound tactical judgment by showing concern for their flanks. Considering the points just mentioned, a reevaluation of the Huertgen Forest Campaign would be a significant addition to the longstanding arguments surrounding this bitter campaign. Without a doubt, the Huertgen Forest was a costly piece of real estate; the butcher's bill was indeed high. I agree with J. Lawton Collins102, however, that in spite of its cost, the Huertgen Forest campaign was necessary not only as a preliminary operation to reaching the Roer River, but also the eventual elimination of the threat the Roer River dams posed as well. Until a more convincing premise emerges to suggest a plausible alternative, I hold that by-passing the Huertgen Forest was inconceivable, both at the operational level in addition to contradicting Eisenhower's overall strategic scheme to destroy the German armed forces and its ability to wage war.