The Battle of Huertgen Forest.
The site of one of the bloodiest battlegrounds for U.S. troops during World War II, yet few outside of Germany know of its whereabouts or what transpired there in 1944.
Most military historians agree that the battle and the ground it was fought on had no strategic or tactical value. Military historian Charles MacDonald described it as "a misconceived and basically fruitless battle that could have, and should have, been avoided." At the time, however, it was Nazi-controlled terrain.
The Huertgen Forest covers approximately 50 square miles, from Aachen to
Düren to Monschau near Germany's western border. The forest has closely spaced fir trees 100 feet in height, saturated ground and dramatic changes in elevation. During World War II, there were only unimproved roads and trails, barely wide enough for one vehicle, making it difficult to move tanks or supplies through the area.
How did the 4th Infantry Division end up in Huertgen Forrest?
The 4th Infantry Division stormed Utah Beach on June 6, 1944 -- D-Day. At the time, the division had three organic regimental combat teams -- the 8th, 12th and 22nd, roughly 3,200 Soldiers in each, broken down into three infantry battalions.
Throughout the summer and fall of 1944, the 4th Inf. Div. fought Nazi troops throughout occupied France, pushing its way east toward Germany.
By autumn, Nazi resistance in France collapsed as the division, and the rest of Allied Forces, closed to within striking distance of Germany's western border.
Just within the German border, stretching for more than 390 miles from north to south, were thousands of Nazi fortifications, minefields, fox holes and concrete obstacles, known as "dragon's teeth." This span of was known the allies as the Westwall, or "Siegfried Line."
The U.S. would spend months breaching these obstacles and pushing through Nazi lines, including those at Huertgen Forest.
On November 6, the 12th RCT was called forward to relieve one of 28th Inf. Div.'s regimental combat teams just south of Huertgen Forest. The mission of the 12th RCT was to clear the woods south of the town of Huertgen, located in the southern portion of the forest.
After five days on the ground, and scores of attacks and counterattacks, the 12th RCT incurred more than 500 casualties. They were unable to penetrate enemy lines or the enveloping landscape.
The remainder of the 4th Inf. Div. was tasked on Nov. 16 with pushing east, clearing the forest and securing the road network from the town of Schevenhuette, south three miles to Huertgen.
The terrain and weather proved as difficult as Nazi troops. Five days after receiving the order to attack east, 8th RCT and 22nd RCT made it no further than a mile and a half east, suffering more than 1,800 casualties in the process.
In the following days, 4th Inf. Div. troops secured two roads and, on their second attempt in three days, took the town of Grosshau on Nov. 29. Four days later, the Ivy Division was relieved by the 83rd Inf. Div.
Two weeks after the 4th Inf. Div. left the Huertgen Forest, while in a defensive position in Luxemburg, the depleted division helped repel the German offensive that would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
The Battle of Huertgen Forest, which began in Sept. 1944 and culminated in Feb. 1945, cost the U.S. Army more than 33,000 casualties. In its one month of fighting in the Huertgen Forest, the 4th Inf. Div. suffered 4,053 battle casualties and more than 2,000 non-battle casualties -- the equivalent of two regimental combat teams.
Three Ivy Division Soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their actions above and beyond the call of duty during the Battle of Huertgen Forest: Lt. Col. George Mabry, Jr.; 1st Lt. Bernard Ray; and Pfc. Marcario Garcia.
There are no Hollywood films that highlight the lives lost or the battle waged in the Huertgen Forrest -- just a handful of books written by those who were there or had the honor of knowing the brave and fortunate survivors.
On March 30, Headquarters, 4th Inf. Div. leaders conducted a battle staff ride of the Huertgen Forest. They walked the grounds where many young men died defending it, saw the fighting positions that are but softened outlines of what they once were and toured the cemeteries that are the final resting places of thousands of WWII Soldiers - unforgettable lessons from a place long forgotten.
Editor's Note: Charles MacDonald is the author of The Siegfried Line Campaign (Center of Military History, 1963), which provides the official U.S. historical account of the Battle of Huertgen Forest.