V Corps Joins the Offensive
Except for the preliminary operation by the 28th Division to capture Schmidt, General Hodges originally had not contemplated employing General Gerow's V Corps until after the VII Corps had achieved a penetration. At that point, General Gerow was to have launched a major drive close alongside the VII Corps in the direction of Bonn.1 But by 19 November, three days after start of tile offensive, it had become obvious that extra weight was needed if the VII Corps was to achieve a genuine penetration. Because advance had not been sufficient to enable commitment of additional forces within the zone of the main effort, the most likely hope for quick assistance appeared to lie with the adjacent V Corps. (See Map VI.)
Sharing a common boundary running just south of Huertgen with the 4th Division of the VII Corps, General Gerow by 19 November had almost completed relief of the exhausted 28th Division with the full-strength 8th Division. By establishing a temporary corps boundary north of Huertgen and Kleinhau, this fresh division might be employed to broaden 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.
Commitment of the 8th Division surely could be expected to facilitate advance of the 4th Division through the Huertgen Forest. Aside from reducing the width of the 4th Division's zone by over a mile and enabling unrestricted use of all three of General Barton's regiments, relieving the 4th Division of responsibility for a staunchly defended objective like Huertgen would be a big help. With Huertgen in hand, the V Corps would be in position for continuing the attack to the southeast to clear the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge, which had proved such an embarrassment to earlier operations of the 28th Division.
General Hodges specified his decision late on 19 November. Laying on a new intercorps boundary, he directed that the V Corps take Huertgen and Kleinhau. To assist, he relieved the 5th Armored Division's CCR from attachment to the VII Corps and gave it back to General Gerow for attachment to the 8th Division. D Day for the attack was 21 November.2
Despite the misfortunes that earlier had befallen three regiments of as many different divisions on the bloody, wooded plateau north of Germeter and astride the Germeter-Huertgen highway, this was the only place within the V Corps boundaries
that presented any real chance of success in attacking Huertgen. Indeed, a stipulation from General Hodges that the V Corps accomplish a rapid passage of the 12th Infantry's existing lines so that the 12th Infantry might move quickly to the zone of its parent division all but dictated that the first stage of the attack follow the old pattern.
Both because of the configuration of terrain along the wooded plateau and because of defensive responsibilities inherited from the 28th Division, the burden of the first stage of the 8th Division's attack was to fall upon one infantry regiment. The division commander, Maj. Gen. Donald A. Stroh, had little choice but to conform rigidly to the framework that had been devised for the earlier attack on Huertgen by the 12th Infantry. As soon as the infantry could secure the long-sought line of departure along the woods line overlooking Huertgen, the attached combat command of armor would debouch from the woods against the village.3
Because two of the 8th Division's regiments already had occupied defensive positions around Vossenack, the logical choice for making the attack was the regiment which had not yet arrived from the division's former zone in Luxembourg. This was the 121st Infantry, commanded by Col. John R. Jeter. Unfortunately, when General Stroh received the order to attack, Colonel Jeter's 121st Infantry was 107 road miles away from what would be its line of departure. The regiment could not arrive in the Huertgen Forest until late on 20 November, only a few hours before H Hour at 0900, 21 November. The stage was set for the same kind of bruising tumble Colonel Luckett and the 12th Infantry had taken in this same sector little more than a fortnight before.
Though General Stroh ordered the 121st Infantry to begin moving north immediately, rain, fog, mud, and darkness so slowed the column that the last serial did not close in the detrucking area until just before dark on 20 November. The infantry then had a seven-mile foot march to assembly areas behind the 12th Infantry. Fatigued from the journey and the march, harassed by enemy shelling, and bewildered by the confusion of moving tactically into a strange woods at night, Colonel Jeter's troops at last lined up behind the 12th Infantry about three hours before daylight on D Day, 21 November.
Despite the dismal record of other units on the wooded plateau, some, including the army commander, General Hodges, believed that this fresh force had a strong chance for quick success. Indeed, by ordering originally that the attached armor pass through the 121st Infantry on the second day of attack, the corps commander had indicated an expectation that the infantry might reach the woods line on the first day.4 Even though General Gerow subsequently acceded to a request from General Stroh to leave the date of commitment of the armor indefinite, the V Corps commander hardly
could have felt any particular concern for the enemy set to oppose the fresh American regiment. Latest identifications had revealed that the same four understrength German battalions of the 275th Division which had fought the 12th Infantry for more than ten days still held the area.
In the immediate sector of the wooded plateau this was pretty much the true German situation. Yet intelligence officers had failed to note the arrival in the last few hours of the 344th Infantry Division, which German commanders had milked from adjacent corps farther south. Though these new troops might have "little combat value," as German commanders maintained, they still might give a good account of themselves in the constricted terrain of this region.5
An hour before the scheduled jump-off, V Corps artillery with an assist from some guns of the VII Corps began a preparation involving 4,500 rounds against known and suspected enemy gun positions. All were TOT missions with an average of five battalions of artillery on each target. Reinforced by guns of the 5th Armored Division's CCR and by two companies of chemical mortars, the 8th Division's organic artillery fired on the enemy's front lines and the villages beyond. By the end of the day 8th Division artillery was to have expended an impressive total of 9,289 rounds.6 Just how effective these fires were was hard to say, for the woods and a thick, low overcast severely restricted observation. The weather also prevented any assistance from fighter-bombers. Though medium bombers got through to drop thirty-two tons of bombs on Bergstein, their strike was too far in advance of the ground troops to have immediate value.7
With all three battalions on line, the 121st Infantry attacked at the scheduled hour, 0900, 21 November. One battalion headed north up the Weisser Weh valley, another moved astride the bloody plateau, and the third attacked along the Germeter-Huertgen highway.
Hardly had the artillery finished its bombardment before the pattern the ground fighting would take for the next four days emerged. On the first day, no unit made any appreciable advance except one company cast of the Germeter-Huertgen highway, which gained a meager 500 yards.8 The woods were as thick as ever with antipersonnel mines, with log 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. Any hope that the enemy might not have much fight left was quickly dispelled. For all the good the American infantry could detect, the attempts by American artillery to silence the enemy's big guns and mortars might have been made with
V CORPS ROCKET LAUNCHERS bombarding German Positions.
peashooters. Not until last light of the first day did Colonel Jeter's regiment complete even a passage of the 12th Infantry's lines.
For three more days the 121st Infantry plodded on, absorbing sometimes alarming casualties, enduring conditions that made men weep, and registering daily gains that varied from nothing to 600 yards. On the second day, 22 November, a cold, driving rain mixed at intervals with snow added to the other miseries. Visibility was so poor that no planes could operate, not even the brave little liaison planes from which observers registered artillery fires. Although 8th Division and V Corps artillery fired 12,500 rounds during the second day, many of them against suspected mortar positions, visibility was so restricted and sound and flash conditions so poor that no one could make any definite claim for these fires. On 23 and 24 November Colonel Jeter committed attached light tanks along the firebreaks, but they bogged helplessly in the mud. Other tanks trying to move up the Germeter-Huertgen highway fell quick prey to German guns in Huertgen.
German shelling prompted one American commander to remark that the enemy
"threw back an equal amount of artillery."9 As attested by a field artillery officer directly supporting the 121st Infantry, this, was hardly the case, but the artillery officer did note that the Germans "fired unusually heavy concentrations for them."10 The shelling probably took on added weight because the limited zone of operations permitted the Germans to concentrate their fires. For the first few days of the attack, German artillery and self-propelled guns estimated at from eight to ten battalions fired in excess of 3,500 rounds per day. At first, this fire was distributed equally between light and medium rounds, but by 23 and 24 November medium shells had come to predominate, indicating that the German light batteries might be displacing rearward.11
The first positive indication of success in the attack arose on 24 November on the 121st Infantry's left wing. Here the westernmost battalion was trying to drive up the Weisser Weh valley in order that the subsequent attack by armor might be made up the Weisser Weh road (Road W) instead of the cruelly exposed Germeter-Huertgen highway. In three days this battalion had registered only minor gains, but on 24 November the commitment of a company around the left flank resulted in an encouraging advance.
This news had scarcely reached the regimental command post when the bottom dropped out. The flanking company came suddenly under a heavy concentration of artillery fire, heightened as always in the forest by deadly bursts in the trees and followed by a sharp local counterattack. The strain of the previous days of fighting apparently had unnerved both men and officers of this company. The men fell back.12
Colonel Jeter promptly relieved both the company and battalion commanders involved in this incident and a day later had to appoint a third company commander when artillery fire cut down the second. These were the first in a wave of summary reliefs touched off by the inconclusiveness of the regiment's advance. In four days a total of three company commanders lost their commands. In one company all officers either were relieved or broke under the strain. A second battalion commander also was replaced. One platoon leader who refused to order his men back into the line was placed under arrest. Unless the regiment could find some way to break the impasse, heads higher up also might roll. Two days before, for example, the army commander had "made it quite clear" to General Stroh that he expected better results.13
Justified or not, the reliefs took place under extenuating circumstances imposed by the misery and incredible difficulty of the forest fighting. It was attrition unrelieved. Overcoats soaked with moisture and caked with freezing mud became too heavy for the men to wear. Seeping rain turned radios into useless impedimenta. So choked with debris was the floor of the forest that men broke under the sheer physical strain of moving supplies forward and evacuating the wounded. The fighting was at such close quarters that hand
grenades often were the decisive weapon. The mine fields seemed endless. A platoon could spend hours probing, searching, determining the pattern, only to discover after breaching one mine field that another just as extensive lay twenty-five yards ahead. Unwary men who sought cover from shellfire in ditches or abandoned foxholes might trip lethal booby traps and turn the promised sanctuary into an open grave. When a diabolical enemy planted booby traps underneath one seriously wounded soldier, the man lay motionless for seventy-two hours, driven almost insane in his efforts to maintain consciousness in order to warn whoever might come to his rescue.14
Added to all the other miseries was a constant reminder of the toll this bloody little plateau already had exacted. Because concern for the living had from the first taken precedence over respect for the dead, the swollen bodies of the fallen of three other regiments still lay about in grotesque positions. At the end of the fourth day of fighting on 24 November, the 121st Infantry had deposited fifty known dead of its own on the ground and incurred a total of about 600 battle casualties. Almost as many more men had fallen prey to the elements or to combat exhaustion.
By nightfall of 24 November, the 121st Infantry still had not gained the objective along the edge of the woods overlooking Huertgen. Unless some method could be devised for relieving the infantry of sonic of the offensive burden, there seemed to be no immediate hope of gaining the objective. Particularly disturbing was the fact that the regiment's left wing had failed to advance far enough tip the Weisser Weh valley to enable the attached armor to use the Weisser Weh road in preference to the exposed Germeter-Huertgen highway.
Despite the patent impossibility of committing the armor anywhere but along the perilous highway, a conference at 8th Division headquarters during the day ended in a decision to use the armor the next day as the only real hope for breaking what was beginning to look like a stalemate. The 8th Division commander, General Stroh, told the 5th Armored Division's CCR to move up the Germeter-Huertgen highway before daylight the next day, 25 November, and to strike at 0730 for Huertgen.
For his part, the CCR commander Colonel Anderson, noted that more than the enemy's long-range observation on the Germeter-Huertgen highway stood in the way of his combat command's successful debouchment against Huertgen. Although a company of the 121st Infantry had reached the woods line on the cast of the highway, the Germans still controlled several hundred yards of forest bordering on the west of the road, a logical hiding place for antitank guns or panzerfausts. So long as the Germans held there, engineers could not sweep that portion of the highway for mines. Besides that, a big bomb crater near the southern edge of the woods would have to be bridged before the tanks could get into position for their jump-off.
As the night deepened, the 121st Infantry and the 8th Division's organic engineers set out to put these matters right. At 0055, 25 November, the 8th
Division's assistant G-3 acted upon reports from the 121st Infantry to assure Colonel Anderson that both sides of the highway were clear as far as the woods line and that the engineers had swept the road for mines. Although the 8th Division recorded no specific message to the effect that the engineers had bridged the bomb crater, several recorded messages gave that impression. In any event, the 8th Division engineer personally assured the combat command that by daylight either the crater would be bridged or a path around it cleared. CCR got set to move.15
Just as day was breaking on 25 November the lead tanks of CCR's 10th Tank Battalion reached the crater. They found neither a path around it nor a bridge. A great, yawning chasm, the crater blocked all vehicular passage.
The commander of the first tank, 1st Lt. J. A. Macaulay, was not easily discouraged. "I'm going to try to jump the damned thing," he called back on his radio. Gathering speed, his tank roared up the muddy road. At the last moment, the driver applied one final burst of speed. It wasn't enough. The tank slammed into the far wall of the crater, rolled to the left, and lay disabled on one side.
The Germans obviously would not ignore the sound of all this activity along the road. Aided by increasing daylight, they began to plaster the road with mortar and artillery fire. Even though the 121st Infantry had reported the woods along the highway clear, small arms fire from the woods inflicted serious losses on CCR's armored infantry. In less than an hour one of the infantry companies took over sixty casualties, including all platoon sergeants and platoon leaders.
Through the rest of the day men and commanders worked to get the armor moving. In a constant search for the enemy guns that were pounding the exposed highway, supporting artillery and tank destroyers poured over 15,000 rounds into enemy lines. A temporary break in overcast skies enabled three squadrons of the IX TAC's 366th Group to bomb and strafe suspected tank and artillery positions near Huertgen and along the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge. Chemical mortars laid down smoke so that the engineers might try to bridge the big crater.
Aided by a slight lessening of hostile shellfire, the engineers finally got a bridge across the crater in midmorning. First to cross was a tank commanded by Sgt. William Hurley. The tank had proceeded along the road only seventy-five yards when it struck a mine. Disabled, the tank blocked passage as effectively as had the crater. Though a tank retriever moved up and nosed Sergeant Hurley's tank aside, a round from an enemy tank or antitank gun ripped into the retriever. Again the highway was blocked.
Though the armored infantry tried later to advance alone, this was in effect the end of CCR's abortive attempt to reach Huertgen on 25 November. Having lost some 150 men in an unfortunate experience, the combat command withdrew.
In the meantime, that part of Colonel Jeter's 121st Infantry that was west of the highway had been renewing the attempts to penetrate the forest. Though the infantry began to make toilsome but encouraging progress during the after-
ENGINEERS REPAIR A ROAD in the Huertgen Forest, 25 November.
noon, the advances came too late to save Colonel Jeter his command. In midafternoon General Stroh relieved him. The 8th Division's Chief of Staff, Coll. Thomas J. Cross, assumed command of the regiment.16
To the fatigued men of the 121st Infantry, the failure to shake the armor loose on 25 November meant another prolongation of their trials. No doubt impressed by the facility with which German guns in Huertgen could deal with armor, General Stroh directed that the infantry alone take Huertgen. Only then, with firm control of the Germeter-Huertgen highway assured, would CCR's armor be committed in quest of the remaining objective, the village of Kleinhau.
The prospects of the infantry reaching the woods line and then taking Huertgen were not so dismal as a cursory look at the first five arduous days of fighting might indicate. Whereas the 121st Infantry's advances had been laborious, the regiment nevertheless had prodded the enemy from the more readily defensible lines in the forest. To the north, fairly consistent progress by the 4th Division had outflanked those Germans still in the woods along the left flank of the 121st Infantry. By juggling troops on the defensive fronts held by the 8th Division's other two regiments, General Stroh had freed the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry, to assist in renewing the attack. He gave this battalion to Colonel Cross, the new 121st Infantry commander, who told the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Morris J. Keesee, to circle around through the forest into the 4th Division's zone and on 27 November to strike for Huertgen along the left flank of the 121st Infantry from the woods line northwest of the village.
On 26 November, while Colonel Keesee's battalion was shifting position, the 121st Infantry tried again to clear the Huertgen woods line. Even the most optimistic hardly could have predicted the ease with which the battalions advanced. The Germans had withdrawn from the woods. Only mines, sporadic shelling, and a few stragglers barred the way. By 1100 the 121st Infantry overlooked Huertgen from the west and southwest.
The 121st Infantry commander, Colonel Cross, ordered an immediate attack on Huertgen. A report from the Intelligence
and Reconnaissance Platoon of a neighboring regiment to the effect that the Germans had abandoned the village spurred the preparations.
Unfortunately, as men of the 121st Infantry and Colonel Keesee's battalion of the 13th Infantry soon discovered, the report of withdrawal from Huertgen was unfounded. The village that for more than two months had lain so near and yet so far still was not to be had at a bargain price.
On 27 November tank destroyers took position along the woods line to spew covering fire into the village, and a platoon of Sherman tanks joined the leading infantry battalion. Artillery took quick advantage of improved observation and in one instance knocked out a German tank with five hits, not a unique but a nonetheless noteworthy accomplishment for guns laid indirectly.17 By nightfall the Germans still held the bulk of Huertgen's shell-shattered buildings; but Colonel Keesee's battalion had severed the Huertgen-Kleinhau highway and gained a toehold in the northeastern edge of the village, while a battalion of the 121st Infantry under Lt. Col. Henry B. Kunzig wriggled into a few buildings in the western edge.18
Bolstered by the 31st Machine Gun Battalion, one of several small units General Brandenberger's Seventh Army had solicited from the inactive front farther south, the enemy would make a fight of it in Huertgen for still another day. Even when Colonel Keesee's battalion at daybreak on 28 November seized Hill 401, a strategic height a thousand yards northeast of Huertgen, commanding the village, the Germans held on in Huertgen. They folded only in the afternoon after Colonel Kunzig's reserve company, riding medium tanks of the 709th Tank Battalion, edged onto the main street. Over 200 prisoners had been rounded up when Colonel Cross was able to announce about 1800 on 28 November that Huertgen was in hand. Scores of other Germans lay buried amid the debris that long weeks of war had inflicted upon this little agricultural community. For a long time the village would bear the terrible stench of war.
About the time Huertgen fell, the 8th Division commander, General Stroh, was departing the division on a leave of absence. A veteran of the fighting since the North African campaign, 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 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. Gen. William G. Weaver, assumed command of the 8th.19
As one of his first official acts in his new post, General Weaver directed the attached CCR, 5th Armored Division, to move to Huertgen. CCR was to attack at dawn the next day, 29 November, toward the 8th Division's next objective a mile north of Huertgen, the village of Kleinhau.
TANK ATTACHED TO THE 8TH DIVISION moves through Huertgen.
To soften up the objective, 8th Division and V Corps artillery and IX TAC fighter-bombers co-operated closely during the afternoon of 28 November in an attack by fire against Kleinhau. The artillery first laid down an antiflak barrage which the fliers subsequently termed "very effective."20 As the planes appeared, the artillery switched to red smoke to mark the target. Coming in at treetop level, P-38's of the 474th Group dropped sixty-three napalm fire bombs, some as close as 300 yards to friendly infantry.
Pilots ecstatically reported the objective "practically destroyed by flames." More reserved in their comments, ground observers nevertheless praised the accuracy of the strike. This joint air-artillery operation was a model of its kind, one of the more spectacular examples of the type of co-operation between air and ground arms that became increasingly effective as the fall campaign wore on.
At 0730 the next day, 29 November, a task force from CCR composed of two companies each of medium tanks and armored infantry under Lt. Col. William A. Hamberg, commander of the 10th
Tank Battalion, moved forward. Because prisoners had reported an antitank mine field between Huertgen and Kleinhau, Colonel Hamberg attacked first with dismounted infantry; but when German fire forced the infantry to cover, he had little choice but to throw his tanks into the assault echelon.
If the Germans actually had a mine field protecting Kleinhau, they had neglected to mine the road itself. Following closely in the tracks of a lead tank commanded by Capt. Francis J. Baum, the tankers plunged into the village. By 0900, only minutes after entering the fight, the Shermans were cruising in the center of Kleinhau.
A lone Mark IV tank in Kleinhau knocked out one Sherman before the Americans could eliminate it, and an SP gun in the woods east of the village scored one hit. Enemy shelling also made it difficult for infantry to accompany the tanks in mopping up. Not until early afternoon when the weather cleared and American planes appeared did the shellfire abate. "The mere presence of the planes caused a noticeable decrease in enemy artillery . . . ."21 By midafternoon some fifty-five prisoners from diverse units were en route to PW enclosures. Kleinhau was clear.
Task Force Hamberg continued to receive fire from the neighboring village of Grosshau to the north. This the armor could do little about, because the 4th Division was to have assaulted Grosshau at the same time CCR hit Kleinhau. During the morning the 4th Division's attack had been delayed, so that Colonel Hamburg had obtained permission to fire on the village to silence antitank guns, but by midafternoon the 4th Division's attack was on again. Grosshau again was out of bounds to fire from CCR.
In late afternoon, Colonel Hamberg pushed a small force beyond Kleinhau to establish two roadblocks, one on either side of a commanding eminence, Hill 401.3. The armor did not occupy the hill itself because—Colonel Anderson, the CCR commander, said later-the crest was "as flat as a billiard table" and the tanks could control it by fire.22 Colonel Keesee's battalion of the 13th Infantry during the night relieved Task Force Hamberg.
For all the speed of the attack on Kleinhau, it was not without appreciable cost. In armor, Task Force Hamberg had lost 8 tanks—2 to high-velocity fire and 6 to mines; 13 half-tracks, most of which were recovered; and 1 tank destroyer. In personnel, the task force lost approximately 6o men, most of them victims of German shellfire.
The nine-day fight for Huertgen and Kleinhau had cost the 121st Infantry and the attached CCR and 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry, a total of approximately 1,247 casualties.23 This was an awesome price to pay for a limited advance, but all who fought in the Huertgen Forest came to know that this was the kind of price that had to be paid. German casualties were at least equal and probably greater in view of the fact that the enemy lost 882 in prisoners alone.
A question existed as to whether this limited attack had, as intended, materi-
ally assisted advance of the VII Corps; but, even if the answer was negative, the fact was that control of Huertgen and Kleinhau marked an important contribution to subsequent operations. In driving northeastward on the Roer at Dueren, the 4th Division now could flaunt its tail at Kleinhau, something which heretofore would have been perilous. Possession of the two villages spelled control of a sizable segment of the only good road network between the Huertgen Forest and the Roer and represented in effect a "bridgehead" upon the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge, the most commanding terrain in the vicinity. Capture of the ridge would enable the V Corps to gain the Roer—a little more than two miles from Huertgen—and at last provide the long-sought secure right flank for the main drive of the VII Corps. The Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge also was important to any drive that subsequently might be aimed at the Roer River Dams. Anyone familiar with the 28th Division's tragic attack for Schmidt could attest to that.
It hardly could have come as a surprise when General Hodges late on 28 November directed a continuation of the V Corps offensive to take the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge. Indeed, so obvious was the assignment that even before consultation with General Hodges the corps commander had told the 8th Division's new commander, General Weaver, to get started. CCR of the 5th Armored Division remained attached for the operation.24
Attacking the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge from Huertgen and Kleinhau was infinitely preferable to the other route of approach across the heavily wooded draw from Vossenack, but the preferred route had drawbacks nonetheless. The Kleinhau-Brandenberg highway, running southeast along the spine of the ridge, marks a narrow corridor between two woods. On the southwest the enemy still controlled the Tiefen Creek woods between the ridge and Vossenack. He also still held a stretch of woodland embracing the northeastern slopes of the ridge. Advancing down the highway from Kleinhau to Brandenberg would be like attacking down a fairway while the enemy controlled the rough on either side.
With explicit detail quite typical of most of his orders during the fall campaign, the V Corps commander, General Gerow, told General Weaver how to overcome the obstacle.25 Using part of the 28th Infantry Regiment from Vossenack and a battalion of the 121st Infantry, General Weaver was to clear the Tiefen Creek woods as far east as a dip in the ridge line about halfway between Hill 401, already held by the 121st Infantry, and Brandenberg. At this point the main effort might be launched southeast from Hill 401 via the Kleinhau-Brandenberg highway.
The obvious answer to the question of which unit should make the main effort was the attached combat command, the 5th Armored Division's CCR. Of the 8th Division's remaining infantry, two battalions of the 13th Infantry were to maintain defensive positions in the Huertgen Forest southwest of Vossenack;
Colonel Keesee's battalion of the 13th Infantry was to continue to hold the division's north flank at Kleinhau; and those two battalions of the 121st Infantry not engaged in clearing the Tiefen Creek woods were to assist the armored drive by clearing the edges of the woods north of the dip. This latter task First Army's General Hodges made easier administratively by shifting the V Corps boundary temporarily in order to permit the V Corps to operate through almost all of the woods north and east of Brandenberg.26
Perhaps because the premature commitment of CCR toward Huertgen was fresh in mind, General Weaver insisted upon a healthy margin of safety before sending the armor down the fairway to Brandenberg. Before committing the armor, he intended to hold not only the Tiefen Creek woods as far east as the dip in the ridge line but also a comparable position in the woods on the other side of the route of attack.
In executing these precautions, infantrymen of both the 121st and 28th Infantry Regiments found in these offshoots of the Huertgen Forest the familiar pattern of stubborn German defense behind mine fields, barbed wire, and log emplacements for automatic weapons. Not until nightfall of 1 December was the infantry able to occupy the desired line. Even then a pocket of small arms resistance held out in a wooded gully just southwest of the dip.
Having regrouped after capturing Kleinhau, CCR's Task Force Hamberg launched the main effort down the road to Brandenberg shortly after dawn on 2 December. At the start it must have seemed to the tankers and armored infantry that somebody had slipped them the same old script CCR had used in the fiasco on the Germeter-Huertgen road. No sooner had the tanks reached the dip in the ridge line between Hill 401 and Brandenberg than one of the lead tanks struck a mine. "Things not going worth a damn," reported the tank company commander.27 A few minutes later this officer had even greater cause for concern. Two more tanks struck mines. Small arms and mortar fire, much of it from the uncleared gully near the dip, stymied the armored infantry. Long-range, high-velocity fire from the Kommerscheidt-Schmidt ridge to the south greeted every movement the tankers tried to make. Ironically, it had been the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge which had posed serious problems for the 28th Division in the earlier attack against Kommerscheidt and Schmidt; now the situation was reversed. "Having hell of a fight," was the way CCR's S-3 put it. Tank losses soon had risen to four.
Not much time elapsed before the 8th Division commander, General Weaver, became convinced that Task Force Hamberg could do nothing until the mine field in the dip had been cleared. Considering the enemy's observation, that could not be done until after dark. Assuring Colonel Hamberg that the infantry battalions would clear the small arms opposition during the rest of the day, General Weaver told the tankers to seek defilade and prepare to renew the attack the next morning.
That night, as artillery of CCR, the 8th Division, and the V Corps executed a determined program of interdictory fires,
men of CCR'S 22d Armored Engineers probed carefully, perilously, through the darkness for mines. By daylight of 3 December they had removed from the road and adjacent fields in the vicinity of the dip some 250 mines. Few veterans in Task Force Hamberg could recall ever having encountered a mine field so intricately patterned nor one so effectively blocking all passage. Even after the engineers had lifted this impressive total of mines, the task force was destined to lose two more tanks in the same mine field.
At 0800 on 3 December, two battalions of the 121st Infantry in the woods north of Brandenberg, another battalion of the 121st Infantry and all of the 28th Infantry in the Tiefen Creek-Vossenack area, and CCR in the dip resumed their respective roles in the attack. Of the infantry units, the two battalions in the woods north of Brandenberg made the readiest progress. Patrols probing northeast reached the corps boundary, almost a mile inside the woods east of Hill 401. At one point they found mute testimony to the effectiveness of American artillery fire in "a mass" of dead enemy, dead horses, and abandoned vehicles.28 In the meantime, progress in the Tiefen Creek woods was spotty. Aided by medium tanks of the 709th Tank Battalion that somehow negotiated the muddy trails and firebreaks, one battalion gained positions on a nose of the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge southwest of Brandenberg, but other units could make scarcely any advance in the face of stubborn German strongpoints.
In the main effort by Task Force Hamberg along the spine of the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge, the decision to postpone the attack until 3 December proved a happy one. For the first time in several days, the weatherman smiled early and benignly. As supporting artillery completed a ten-minute preparation, P-47's of the 366th Group circled the area. A controller with a very high frequency (VHF) radio mounted in a tank at headquarters of Task Force Hamberg "talked" the pilots onto the target, the village of Brandenberg. "Keep the buzz boys up," was the reaction of the leading tank company commander, "they are doing a good job." Maintaining close contact with the planes through the ground controller, the task force with infantry mounted in half-tracks began to roll. Even after reaching the very threshhold of the village, the leading company commander was loath to relinquish his air support. "Keep the buzz boys up," he cried again. "We are at a critical stage." Six minutes later (at 0926) the first tanks and infantry entered Brandenberg. As soon as tank guns had blasted the buildings, the infantry boiled down into the cellars with rifles, tommy guns, and hand grenades to root out a cowed enemy. At 1115 Colonel Hamberg could report the village in American hands.29
Apparently carried away by the momentum of the attack, a platoon leader in charge of three tanks, Lt. George Kleinsteiber, roared all the way past the objective across the less than half a mile into Bergstein. Quickly knocking out two antitank guns, Lieutenant Kleinsteiber and his companions might well have seized the entire village had not Colonel
Hamberg called them back. Although Colonel Hamberg himself originally had recommended that Brandenberg and Bergstein be taken in a single operation, he had come to recognize that his task force had not the strength to hold both villages. Task Force Hamberg was far understrength by this time, and all other elements of the 8th Division and attachments, including CCR's other task force, were occupied elsewhere. Not until some other unit could be freed to defend Bergstein was it wise to take that village.
As if to emphasize the capriciousness for which the weather had become noted during the Siegfried Line Campaign, the weatherman withdrew his support soon after Task Force Hamberg had taken Brandenberg. Though the weather remained favorable in the Huertgen Forest area, it began to close in at the air bases farther west in Belgium. The P-47's had to scurry home.
This situation gave rise to one of the few noteworthy interventions by the Luftwaffe since the ground campaign along the German border had begun. Starting in early afternoon, about sixty Messerschmitt 109's roared in over the V Corps sector. Strafing front-line troops and bombing and strafing artillery and rear-echelon installations as far back as the V Corps headquarters city of Eupen, the planes were active for more than an hour. It was a new experience for most of the American troops, for even the most seasoned rarely had seen more than one to three German planes at a time. "Send up some more .50-cal ammo," an officer of CCR radioed back from Brandenberg; "have knocked down 3 Me 109's and there are still plenty to shoot at."30
That appeared to be the spirit with which most V Corps troops accepted the Luftwaffe's venture. For the first time in months antiaircraft units got an opportunity to do what they were trained to do. The corps subsequently claimed 19 of the enemy aircraft destroyed and 10 others probably destroyed. The antiaircraft unit attached to the 8th Division claimed 8 of the definites. As for the effectiveness of the enemy strike, it was not the kind of thing to sell anybody on the value of air power. Hardly any matériel damage resulted, and not a single unit reported a man killed or wounded.31
The enemy's air strike over, Task Force Hamberg settled down for the defense of Brandenberg—somewhat unhappily, for Colonel Hamberg was perturbed both about his lack of strength and about dominant German observation on the village. At Bergstein and on the Kommerscheidt-Schmidt ridge the Germans were on higher ground; in particular Colonel Hamberg was conscious of enemy observation from Castle Hill (the Burg-Berg, Hill 400.5), a conical eminence a few hundred yards outside Bergstein that rises like a giant pimple at the eastern end of the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge. Enemy shelling directed from some or all of these places pointed up the depleted condition of Colonel Hamberg's command and the need for additional troops before attacking Bergstein and Castle Hill. Although the attack on Brandenberg had not been particularly costly in itself, the cumulative losses since the armor's first action in this sector on 25 November had reduced the task force markedly. In Brandenberg
were only eleven tanks, five tank destroyers, and 140 infantrymen.
Officers of the combat command chafed in their desire to get CCR's other task force into Brandenberg. Led by Lt. Col. Howard E. Boyer, commander of the 47th Armored Infantry Battalion, basic components of this second and smaller task force were a company each of tanks and armored infantry. The 8th Division commander, General Weaver, had attached Task Force Boyer to the 28th Infantry Regiment in Vossenack for a special operation. The armor was to eliminate a German strongpoint located amid the debris of the northeasternmost houses of Vossenack, a strongpoint that had withstood infantry attempts at reduction. The position had become known as the "rubble pile." It had fallen into German hands during latter stages of the 28th Division's Schmidt operation after the tragic experience of an infantry battalion exposed to guns on the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge had prompted abandonment of the more exposed portion of the Vossenack ridge.
So expertly had the Germans organized the "rubble pile," so thickly had they fenced it with mines, and so deeply had they burrowed into the debris that Task Force Boyer fought all day on 3 December and well into the next day before overrunning the position. In the meantime, the 8th Division commander had no other unit to send to Brandenberg, either to strengthen Task Force Hamberg or to attack Bergstein. So concerned was General Weaver about his lack of a reserve that he petitioned General Gerow for use of the 2d Ranger Battalion, a special unit which had been backing up the line in this sector for about a week under V Corps control. General Gerow himself earlier had noted the complete involvement of the 8th Division and had taken care to provide a corps reserve by moving an infantry regiment to back up the line a few miles to the south opposite the Monschau Corridor.32 Although General Weaver might have used his organic engineer battalion as a reserve, he had become so perturbed over the depleted condition of some of his infantry battalions that he already had put the engineers into the line in the woods north of Brandenberg to bolster the infantry.
Having fought almost continuously for thirteen days since 21 November, the 121st Infantry was particularly feeble. Although this regiment had received several score of replacements, these men for all their individual courage hardly were equivalent to the veterans who had fallen. The conditions of cold, rain, and close contact with the enemy under which these men were introduced to front-line warfare made matters worse. "Our missing men were mostly replacements," the 121st Infantry's sergeant major commented later. "Some were captured before they could get into action." Heavy shellfire, this same noncommissioned officer remarked, caused some of the new men to "scatter and run."33
Trench foot and combat fatigue hit veteran and replacement alike. Because few men had a chance to dry out, little could be done to reduce instances of trench foot. Severe cases of combat fatigue had to be evacuated through regular medical channels, but others merely
A SEA OF MUD in the Huertgen Forest.
retired to a rest tent in Huertgen. There they were given "coffee, a shot of whiskey, and some sleeping pills. After a day or two of rest and warm food, they went back." For one of the few times in the history of the 121st Infantry, some men refused to stay in the line. "We have found," said the sergeant major, "that old men break down under this weather. When we see they are about to crack we bring a lot of them back to do overhead work and thus keep down court martial cases of this type and also crack-ups."34 Nevertheless, the regiment soon had eleven men awaiting trial.
This was how a regimental staff officer saw the plight of one battalion:
The men of this battalion are physically exhausted. The spirit and the will to fight are there; the physical ability to continue is gone. These men have been fighting without rest or sleep for four days and last night were forced to lie unprotected from the weather in an open field. In some instances men were forced to discard their overcoats because they lacked the strength to wear them. These men are shivering with cold and their hands are so numb that they have to help one another on with their equipment. I firmly believe that every man up there
should be evacuated through medical channels.35
To men in this condition, there obviously was scant consolation in the knowledge that German troops were undergoing similar hardships. "Great losses were occasioned by numerous frostbites," one German officer recalled later. "In some cases, soldiers were found dead in their foxholes from sheer exhaustion."36
Unable to reinforce Task Force Hamberg on 4 December, General Weaver delayed attacking Bergstein until the next day, when Task Force Boyer should be available after having cleared the "rubble pile." In the interval, he concentrated on pushing his infantry farther east and southeast through the woods on either side of the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge in order to provide flank protection for the projected armored thrust.
Not all the infantry battalions were so bitterly fatigued or so woefully depleted as that described by the staff officer of the 121st Infantry' but they were a far cry from the formations which first had entered the Huertgen Forest a fortnight before. On 4 December a sleet storm that carried over from the preceding night added to the discomforts. By nightfall the infantry still had a long way to go before providing secure flanks for an armored drive on Bergstein.
In the woods north of Brandenberg, Colonel Keesee's 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry, moving east from Kleinhau, and a battalion of the 121st Infantry pushed deep into the forest to gain the corps boundary in the wake of patrols that had reached that line the day before. Another battalion of the 121st Infantry, trying to drive eastward to seal off Bergstein from the north by occupying wooded noses of high ground overlooking the Roer River, made virtually no progress. As night came this battalion still sat in the woods north of Brandenberg, in no spot to assist a drive on Bergstein and so perilously understrength that the regimental commander strove to ready another battalion to take its place.
In the Tiefen Creek woods between Vossenack and Brandenberg-Bergstein the going was equally slow. Nevertheless, by nightfall of 4 December, a battalion of the 28th Infantry had gained a road that winds from the Kall River gorge to Brandenberg from which fire could control an exposed nose southwest of Bergstein. Thus a measure of assistance could be provided from this quarter for the next day's armored drive.
No matter what the shortcomings on 4 December, General Weaver scarcely could afford to delay longer before assaulting Bergstein. Though he sanctioned a late attack hour (1400) in hope the weather might clear sufficiently to permit air support, he insisted that whether the skies cleared or not, CCR was to attack on 5 December. CCR would more than welcome air support; for, even with the addition of Task Force Boyer, the combat command had only twenty-two medium tanks and some 200 armored infantrymen.
Though the weather did improve, CCR failed to get the kind of closely coordinated air support which Task Force Hamberg had enjoyed during the attack
VETERANS OF THE HUERTGEN FOREST
on Brandenberg. The difficulty appeared to lie in misunderstandings between CCR's controller and the air officer at 8th Division headquarters as to who was responsible for directing the strike.
"STANZA screwed it up," the CCR controller said at 1415, referring to the Air Force code name for the 8th Division.37 "[He] told planes Bergstein [was] ours and sent them to Nideggen. [I] got them back and put them on wooded hill east of town and southeast part of town . . . ."38
Fifteen minutes later the CCR controller was thoroughly piqued. ["]FOXHUNT here," he said, referring to the 366th Fighter Group. "Hard to work [the] planes—STANZA constantly interferes . . . . Finally got FOXHUNT to bomb and strafe ... southeast of Bergstein. Between weather, STANZA, and questions from turret, am tearing [my] hair."39
CCR evidently could thank a clever attack plan and an apparent breakdown in enemy communications for offsetting the deficiencies in air support. Having placed assault guns in defilade northeast of Brandenberg to provide covering fire, the combat command divided into three attacking forces, each composed of married companies of tanks and armored infantry. One delivered a long left hook against the northeastern fringe of Bergstein; another delivered a right hook against the southwestern fringe; and the third struck down the middle. In a matter of minutes the force in the middle had penetrated the edge of the village. Not until this force had reached the objective did German shellfire begin to fall and then apparently in response to a series of signal flares.
Again CCR's controller was in a state. "FOXHUNT bombing," he reported at 1437. "STANZA put them on [the] town while I was trying to tell them our troops [are] there. Finally got them off and back on the enemy." An hour later the controller had another scare. "Nearly frantic," he radioed. "STANZA nearly had Bergstein bombed."40
CCR's tankers and armored infantrymen in Bergstein hardly could have been aware of these near mix-ups, so occupied were they with their own problems. What the enemy's artillery fires lacked in timing, they made up in intensity. And the German infantry was not going to relinquish the objective without a fight. Not until nightfall was the bulk of Bergstein in hand. Even then snipers and small pockets of resistance held out.
As CCR prepared to defend the village, few considered the objective secure. Towering menacingly on the eastern fringe of the village, Castle Hill (Hill 400.5) in itself was enough to discourage a sense of security. In addition, Bergstein was exposed to counterattack from almost every side. Only at one point, where a battalion of the 28th Infantry was covering the exposed nose southwest of Bergstein, was there physical contact with friendly forces. To the north, where CCR had reason to expect protection, not even patrol contact existed. A battalion of the 121st Infantry, which was to have pushed through the woods to reach the Roer and seal off Bergstein from the north, had gained but 400 yards
during the day. That was not nearby enough to do the job.
Although the enemy had been markedly parsimonious with his counterattacks up to this point, few could expect that he would let Bergstein and the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge go without at least a token attempt to retake it. Not a man to endorse the use of armor in a defensive role under hardly any circumstances, the CCR commander, Colonel Anderson, looked with particular antipathy upon the situation in which he now found his command.41 Not only was he concerned about the exposed nature of his position but also about the number of men and tanks he had to defend it with. By combing every source—including his organic engineers and reconnaissance platoon—he was able finally to assemble about 400 men, including crewmen of six remaining tank destroyers and sixteen tanks. For defending an exposed position, that left little margin for comfort.
Colonel Anderson may well have been concerned. German commanders considered CCR's penetration of "critical importance." Should the Americans reach and cross the Roer River at this point, they reasoned, it would "jeopardize the execution of the Ardennes offensive."42
On the basis of this thinking, the Seventh Army's General Brandenberger already had resorted to committing the remnants of the 47th Volks Grenadier Division on 29 November in a switch position along the threatened Roer sector northeast of the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge. He now turned to the only nearby unit that had sufficient strength to afford any real promise of a successful counterattack. This was the 272d Volks Grenadier Division (Col. Eugen Kossmala), holding a quiet sector in the Monschau Corridor while awaiting an assignment in the counteroffensive. Reluctantly, for all concerned shuddered with the realization that heavy casualties at this late date would seriously hamper the effectiveness of the division in the Ardennes, OB WEST gave permission, but with the proviso that the division be released in time to regroup for the Ardennes. Two-thirds of the 272d Volks Grenadier Division started marching toward the threatened sector, while the remainder continued to hold the Monschau Corridor.43
At 0710 on the morning of 6 December first arrivals of the 272d Volks Grenadier Division counterattacked at Bergstein. Supported by at least five tanks or assault guns—all the Seventh Army could provide—some 200 to 300 men of the 980th Regiment took advantage of early morning haze and darkness to get almost upon the village before discovery.
The fight raged not on the approaches to Bergstein but amid the debris and the few remaining buildings. German infantry stalked the American tanks with Panzerfausts while CCR's gunners tried desperately to locate the German armor in the darkness. Even when they managed to pin their sights on the enemy vehicles, CCR's tankers had trouble. Most of the
remaining American tanks were armed with 75-mm instead of 76-mm. guns; rounds from the 75's "bounced off."44
Fifteen more minutes of darkness, some participants ventured later, might have done the Americans in.45 With the coming of daylight, those few American tanks equipped with the more powerful 76-mm. guns made quick work of the enemy armor. As the German infantry fell back, artillery fires requisitioned from both the 8th Division and the V Corps pummeled the retreat. By 0900 CCR again was in control of Bergstein.
Halting of this counterthrust meant no day of serenity in Bergstein. Possessed of observation from Castle Hill (400.5), the enemy's big guns chewed viciously at the village. Twice more during the day contingents of the 272d Volks Grenadier Division came out of the woods and counterattacked. Fortunately, they made these sorties only in company strength. CCR beat them back.
As night approached on 6 December, CCR was without question too weak to defend Bergstein with any degree of assurance. In medium tanks, for example, the combat command was down to seven. Had the two adjacent infantry regiments made any real progress toward clearing the woods north and south of Bergstein, that might have compensated somewhat for the day's losses in men and armor. Yet neither regiment had gained substantially, although a battalion of the 121st Infantry after nightfall at last was to reach a point overlooking the Roer north of Bergstein and thereby provide some protection from that quarter.
To the V Corps, the 8th Division commander, General Weaver, appealed for aid. Again he had absolutely no unit with which to reinforce CCR, either for defending Bergstein or for seizing Castle Hill. He asked permission to use the 2d Ranger Battalion, that force which was present in the 8th Division's zone but which still was under V Corps control. Cognizant of the importance of Castle Hill both to defense of Bergstein and to accomplishment of the 8th Division's mission of reaching the Roer, both General Gerow and First Army's General Hodges approved the request. General Weaver promptly set about to commit the Rangers at Bergstein before daylight on 7 December.
The 2d Ranger Battalion was a special assault force, organized originally to perform especially hazardous and arduous tasks. The first of these had been to seize a dominating cliff on a flank of OMAHA Beach on D Day in Normandy.46 Composed of about six companies of sixty-five men each, the battalion still had many of its original members. Its commander was Maj. George S. Williams.47
Probably no news short of rotation to the United States could have cheered the men of CCR more than did the word that the Rangers were coming. This was how three officers of the 47th Armored Infantry Battalion described it:
About midnight a guy came down the road, then two others, each one five yards
behind the other. They were three Ranger lieutenants. They asked for enemy positions and the road to take; said they were ready to go. We talked the situation over with the officers. They stepped out and said, 'Let's go men.' We heard the tommy guns click and, without a word, the Rangers moved out. Our morale went Lip in a hurry.48
In addition to seizing Castle Hill, Major Williams' Rangers were to strengthen the defense of Bergstein by establishing roadblocks on three noses of the ridge, southwest, south, and southeast of the village. Reinforced by two platoons of self-propelled guns from the 893d Tank Destroyer Battalion, three companies of the 2d Ranger Battalion had established these roadblocks two hours before daylight on 7 December. Because a battalion of the 121st Infantry by this time protected Bergstein on the north, this meant that the village was relatively secure on all sides except the east. In that direction lay Castle Hill.
Designating one company to support the attack by fire, Major Williams sent his two remaining companies charging up the height just as dawn was breaking. So swiftly did the Rangers move that the Germans were thoroughly cowed, even though these were respectable troops of the 272d Volks Grenadier Division. By 0835 the two companies had taken twenty-eight prisoners and held the crest.
That was when the real fight began. Before the Rangers could dig in, a hail of enemy shellfire descended. Because the hill was predominantly wooded, bursts in the trees heightened effect of the fire. All morning the enemy kept up the shelling, so that by noon the two Ranger companies were perilously depleted. They could muster only thirty-two men between them.
In the afternoon the Germans counterattacked twice, each time with about 150 men, and maintained constant pressure. By 1600 the Rangers had only twenty-five men left. Although Major Williams dispatched an urgent message to General Weaver for reinforcements, he must have known that his only real hope lay in those of his own men still in Bergstein. He scraped together a platoon and sent them scurrying up the hill. The help arrived at precisely the right moment. The Germans fell back.
The explanation for the seeming paradox of one platoon turning the tide against a superior enemy force lay, Major Williams said, in the artillery support he had received. The Rangers got that support primarily through one man, 1st Lt. Howard K. Kettlehut, a forward observer from CCR's 56th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. The Rangers said Lieutenant Kettlehut was "the best man they ever worked with." At one point this officer requested simultaneous support from almost every caliber of artillery in the American arsenal up to 8-inch and 240-mm. guns, a total of eighteen battalions. Lieutenant Kettlehut directed this fire not only to keep the Germans out of the hilltop positions but also to hem them in so that the infantry could destroy them with small arms and mortar fire. The key to his men's resistance, Major Williams said, was artillery.
So certain was General Weaver that the back of the opposition in this sector had been broken that he ordered the remnants of CCR to withdraw from Bergstein during the night of 7 December. In the meantime, the 28th Infantry had renewed attempts to clear the woods south of
Bergstein and had advanced almost to the southern exit of the village. No longer were the troops in Bergstein exposed to enemy fangs on any side.
By nightfall of 8 December, General Weaver had adjusted his lines in order to free a battalion of the 13th Infantry. This battalion went up Castle Hill, and the Rangers came down. The engagement had been but a two-day fight for the 2d Ranger Battalion, yet it had made up in intensity what it lacked in duration. The Rangers had lost more than a fourth of their original strength—107 men wounded, 19 killed, and 4 missing.
Anyone who stood atop Castle Hill and looked south could have predicted with a fair amount of certainty the direction of the next effort by troops of the V Corps. For from Castle Hill, one can see Schmidt, and beyond Schmidt the waters of the Roer backed up behind the Roer River Dams. After a day or so of skirmishing the 8th Division would be overlooking the west bank of the Roer in the little angle formed by the Kall River and the Roer. Much farther to the north, troops of the Ninth Army earlier had closed to the river, and First Army's VII Corps could not be denied much longer. Unless those dams could be breached from the air, somebody would have to take them in a ground attack. That somebody obviously would be the V Corps.
"You can say," said one officer of the 8th Division, "that we got to the Roer River by sheer guts."49 A look at the casualty figures would bear him out. Total losses for the 8th Division, the 5th Armored Division's CCR, and the 2d Ranger Battalion were nearly 4,000, including approximately 1,200 felled by exposure or combat exhaustion. The 8th Division (and its attachments) would go down in the book as another victim of the Huertgen Forest.