The 21st Theater Sustainment Command conducted a staff ride of the Siegfried Line Campaign on May 2-5, 2023 to develop the general staff’s understanding of sustainment and operational maneuver. Maj. Gen. James M. Smith, then the commanding general of the 21st TSC, chose the Siegfried Line campaign because it allowed participants to study a corps-level breach through a prepared enemy defense and the sustainment challenges associated with supporting it. "It is imperative for sustainment staffs to study the other warfighting functions, especially movement and maneuver, during staff rides in order to fully appreciate the required synchronization, and what it takes to generate and apply combat power against our enemy forces," said Smith.
The Siegfried Line campaign also has many similarities to the annual DEFENDER Europe exercises, such as the M3 (multi-domain, multinational, multi-echelon) Command Post Exercise.
The U.S. Army has conducted staff rides since 1906 when Maj. Eben Swift, the deputy commandant of the U.S. Army General Service and Staff School (now the Command and General Staff College) led a group of 12 officers on horseback to examine the Atlanta campaign of 1864. The Army continues this type of training today, which involves the systematic preliminary study of a campaign, an extensive site visit (also known as a field study), and an opportunity to integrate derived lessons. "Staff rides are indeed training events,” said Smith, “and should be incorporated into a unit's training plan and leadership development program. They prepare the staff to meet the complex challenges of today's and future operational environments."
The 21st TSC’s staff ride led by historians Maj. Ryan Hovatter and retired Col. Scott Wheeler, PhD, focused on the Siegfried Line campaign, which consisted of a series of attacks into prepared German defenses to break through the Aachen gap, and included the battles of Aachen and the Huertgen Forest, from September to December 1944.
The 24 participants began by studying the situation leading up to the Allied offensive, which included how the Allies established the Normandy lodgment and broke through the initial German defenses, and the logistical challenges the Communication Zone troops faced while keeping the armies moving. The participants also studied Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s decisions before the Siegfried Line Campaign, especially where to apply critical supplies and replacement Soldiers. After massive success following the Normandy breakout, the Allied armies were spread out along the Siegfried Line from the Netherlands to Switzerland by early September 1944, and yet their main port was still the Normandy beachhead. Eisenhower had to prioritize his many objectives since he did not have the means to supply all of his armies at the same time.
Each participant was assigned a character or topic to study in depth and present at one of the stands during the field study portion of the staff ride. Characters included corps and division commanders to understand how commanders visualize the battlefield. Characters also included officers and noncommissioned officers at the battalion and company level to understand the realities of combat for units and individuals.
While preparing for the staff ride, Sgt. James Stuermer learned about the massive logistical undertaking required to sustain the Allied offensives in Europe. What stood out to Stuermer, a civil affairs specialist with the 21st TSC, was the innovative Red Ball Express, which employed more than 200 truck companies to move supplies until the rail system could begin operations. Although ingenious, the truck convoy system was costly and was never able to meet the armies’ logistical needs. “The lack of fuel for combat vehicles strains the ability of a combat group to conduct combined arms operations,” Stuermer said.
The field study was split into two phases. In the first phase, the group studied First Army’s attack to seize Aachen in October 1944 in order to open the way for an Allied advance into the Ruhr River valley, the heart of Germany’s industrial might. Launched just after the failed Operation Market Garden, VII Corps encircled and assaulted the fortified city. This was the first U.S. attack into a major Germany city. Characterized by intense street fighting, the battle held significant propaganda value since it was the historic capital of the Holy Roman Empire, which the Nazis viewed as the First Reich.
From there, the staff began the second phase of the field study, a detailed look at the Battle of the Huertgen Forest. First Army’s seizure of Aachen was successful; however, their subsequent operation was an utter disaster. First Army commander Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges believed that the Germans could counterattack from the Huertgen Forest to his army’s right flank and decided to clear the forest in order to secure the Aachen gap. From September to December 1944, First Army launched attacks into the dense Huertgen Forest at grave cost to U.S. forces, and resulting in the longest single battle ever fought by American Soldiers. Hodges’ assault into the Huertgen Forest, along with Field Marshal Montgomery’s failed attack with airborne and armored forces in the Netherlands, exhausted the already overtaxed sustainment system. The Allied armies culminated along the Siegfried Line, just before the German Wehrmacht launched Operation Wacht am Rhein in mid-December 1944, resulting in the Battle of the Bulge.
Maj. Matthew Mosteiko, operations officer with the 21st TSC, studied Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow who commanded V Corps in their attack into the Huertgen Forest. Mosteiko and the other participants learned something key about commander’s visualization, which is the mental process of developing situational awareness and envisioning the broad sequence of events to achieve a desired end state. “[Gerow’s difficulties] illustrate how commanders may not see everything from their perspective,” Mosteiko said. He added that seeing the scope of the battlefield and understanding what inhibits a commander from developing a clear understanding emphasizes trusting your subordinates and executing decentralized leadership.
The staff ride focused on more than just operations and maneuver. Participants researched and presented on sustainment topics such as the involvement of chaplains, the personnel replacement system, and medical aspects of the campaign. Jennifer Lares, civilian mortuary officer with the 21st TSC, said her participation helped her understand mortuary operations in large-scale combat operations. She now plans to train her own team with a staff ride to an American Battle Monuments Commission cemetery, focusing on historic mortuary operations.
Channing Brown, a civilian logistics management specialist with the 21st TSC, agreed with others that his research helped him mentally prepare and be more involved in the staff ride. Brown noted that the weather was drastically different from the start to the end of the Siegfried Line campaign, beginning in late summer and continuing through a bitterly cold winter. Even Eisenhower failed to requisition enough cold weather clothing for his troops – instead favoring the short “Ike” jacket. In the end, Brown commented, “Soldiers suffered for a while until the proper clothing was tested and made.”
The final phase in any staff ride is perhaps the most important—the reflection on lessons learned. "Staffs should synthesize and integrate lessons learned to not only better themselves professionally, but to also better prepare the unit to conduct its wartime mission, said Smith.
After each day of study, the team discussed their insights into the campaign over dinner—the logistical challenges, the influence of individual commanders, and the realities of combat. All agreed they left with a better understanding of sustainment and maneuver in large-scale combat operations, and are prepared to conduct the multitude of missions and exercises assigned to the 21st TSC.
Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and Gen. James McConville acknowledged that staff rides are an integral part of leadership development and team building. They wrote in the Staff Ride handbook that participants “will reap the rewards of enhanced understanding of those key elements and of the essential fact that battle are not systematic, logical undertakings but rather chaotic contests of human beings, with all their frailties and strengths.”
Anyone can lead a staff ride. They do not have to be an expert or a historian; they just need to treat the staff ride as a training event and plan accordingly. For more on how to run a unit staff ride, the Army’s Staff Ride guide (CMH Pub 70-21) walks leaders through how to plan, prepare, and run their own. It is available in print and online here: https://history.army.mil/catalog/pubs/70/70-21.html