BATTLE OF THE ROER PLAIN
Clearing the Inner Wings of the Armies
Coincident with the First Army’s push through the Stolberg Corridor and the Huertgen Forest, the November offensive of General Simpson’s Ninth Army began at 1245 on 16 November. The drive started from the periphery of the West Wall bridgehead secured in October on the east bank of the Wurm River north of Aachen. (See Map VI.)
Except for the timing, the fighting on the Ninth Army front was as different from that on the First Army front as, say, Normandy was from Guadalcanal. While the First Army was engaged within a forest and its purlieus, the Ninth Army fought for possession of village strongpoints dotting a fertile plain.
This was the Roer plain, lying between the Wurm and the Roer. Although geographers seldom isolate the Roer plain from the broader Cologne plain that stretches to the Rhine, the fact that the Roer River was the objective of the first phase of the November offensive sharply delineated the region between the Wurm and the Roer in the minds of the men who fought there. Encompassing a maximum width of about twelve miles, the Roer plain is bounded by the irregular skirt of the Huertgen Forest, by the Roer itself, and by the meandering course of the Wurm, which rises near Aachen and empties into the Roer about twenty-two miles north of Aachen near Heinsberg. As defined by American troops, the plain embodies approximately 200 square miles roughly in the form of a right-angle triangle marked at the corners by Aachen, Heinsberg, and Dueren.
Most of the terrain in this triangle is low and flat, providing long, unobstructed fields of fire and observation broken only occasionally by perceptible elevations. Scattered across the tableland are at least a hundred towns, villages, and settlements connected by an elaborate network of improved and secondary roads radiating like the strands of a spider’s web. The villages seldom are more than one to three miles apart. Much of the ground in between is given over to agriculture. Only in the southwest and south near the base of the triangle is there a marked difference. Here deposits of coal along the upper valleys of the Wurm and the Inde account for a more urban district featured by mines, slag piles, factories, and densely populated towns and villages. Having inherited the bridgehead carved onto the plain in October, General Simpson’s Ninth Army already possessed a portion of this urban district but still had to clear another portion along the interarmy boundary near the town of Wuerselen. An adjacent portion about the industrial town of Eschweiler was a responsibility of the First Army.
The Ninth Army’s initial assault was to be a simple frontal attack to break out of the West Wall bridgehead and gain a
crossing of the Roer in the southeastern corner of the army zone at Juelich. This was to be accomplished by the XIX Corps, commanded now by General McLain.
Like the First Army, the Ninth Army contemplated assistance from the preliminary bombardment by Allied planes, Operation QUEEN. Unlike the First Army, which wanted "carpet" bombing, the Ninth Army saw in the village strongpoints dotting the plain a need for "target" bombing. Air operations against the villages close to the army’s forward positions would be confined to the four groups of fighter-bombers available in General Nugent’s newly operational XXIX Tactical Air Command. Medium and heavy bombers were to concentrate upon communications centers some distance behind the line, like the village of Aldenhoven, three miles short of the Roer, and the Roer River towns of Juelich, Linnich, and Heinsberg.
A major consideration influencing General Simpson’s plan was that General Bradley had ordered the Ninth Army to protect the First Army’s north flank and make its main effort close alongside the First Army.1 This General Simpson had fulfilled from an army standpoint by assigning his main effort to the south-wing XIX Corps. Yet from a corps standpoint, if General McLain followed instructions to the letter, the first step of the main effort would have to be made through the urban coal-mining district about Wuerselen in the southwest corner of the corps zone. Judging from the 30th Division’s experience near Wuerselen in October, this might prove more difficult than a push through the rural regions a few miles to the north.2
His problem analogous to that posed to the First Army’s VII Corps by the Eschweiler-Weisweiler industrial complex, General McLain chose a course similar to that pursued by General Collins. In the VII Corps, the 1st Division was to make the main effort near the center of the corps zone; then, once past the congested urban districts, was to expand northward to the army boundary. General McLain similarly directed his 29th Division to make the XIX Corps main effort in the center of the corps zone on a narrow front, then later to broaden the main effort southward to the army boundary. In each case, the corps main effort would bypass a triangular sector where German defense might benefit from urban congestion.
In effect, the clearing of these two triangles would mark a renewal of the joint fight which the VII and XIX Corps had staged in October in closing the gap about Aachen. The front lines were much the same as they had been upon conclusion of the fight in October. The only real changes that had occurred were the transfer of the XIX Corps to the Ninth Army and the assignment of the 104th Division to carry the banner of the VII Corps in place of the 1st Division. To renew the fight for the XIX Corps, General McLain had the same 30th Division which had participated in October.
Assigned missions so similar and in a sense separated from their parent corps by the nature of the missions, the 30th and 104th Divisions formed, in effect, a kind of ad hoc corps. So long as the missions remained as originally given, the separate
fights to clear the two industrial triangles actually would represent a single, broader engagement to clear an industrial parallelogram along the inner wings of the two armies.
The Fight North of the Boundary
The interarmy boundary, which bisected this parallelogram, ran from the Ravelsberg (Hill 231) between Wuerselen and Verlautenheide—both of which had figured prominently in the October fighting—northeast between the villages of Kinzweiler, on the north, and Hehlrath, on the south, thence on to the northeast to cross the Inde River near Inden. South of the boundary, the 104th Division’s triangular share of the parallelogram was described clearly by existing front lines running from Verlautenheide southeast to Stolberg and by the trace o the Inde; while on the north, the triangle assigned to the 30th Division was less clearly defined without recourse to a map. One side was the existing front line, which ran from Alsdorf southwest to Wuerselen, the lower segment of the bridgehead arc the XIX Corps had forged in October. The second side was the boundary between the 29th and 30th Divisions. This ran southeast from a point near Alsdorf, past the villages of Hongen, Warden, and Luerken to the interarmy boundary. The sector embraced approximately twenty-four square miles.
To strengthen the 30th Division in clearing the urban sector, General Simpson directed attachment of a regiment of the newly arrived 84th Division to act as a reserve. This freed all three of the 30th Division’s regiments for the attack.3 The corps commander, General McLain, added additional strength by placing three battalions of corps artillery in general support.4
The Germans in this sector composed the northern wing of General Koechling’s LXXXI Corps. In Wuerselen, five battalions of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division, which had denied the bulk of the town in October, still were around. The responsibility of this division, 11,000 strong, extended southeastward in the direction of Stolberg, including Verlautenheide, opposite the northern wing of the 104th U.S. Division. Northeast of Wuerselen from Euchen to include Mariadorf was the 246th Volks Grenadier Division’s 404th Regiment, while the rest
of the 246th held positions a little farther north opposite the center portion of the XIX Corps line. Of the three divisions in the LXXXI Corps at the start of the November offensive, the 246th was rated the weakest, despite the fact that its personnel numbered the same as the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division’s. After the debacle at Aachen, the 246th Division had been fleshed out with replacements, including all survivors of the defunct 49th Division. Part of the 404th Regiment contained survivors of the old Mobile Regiment von Fritzschen, which had made a dramatic entry into the October fighting near this same spot.5
Perhaps because of earlier experience at Wuerselen, the 30th Division commander, General Hobbs, expected stiffest resistance among the rubble-strewn streets and battered buildings of that town. To eliminate this obstacle, Hobbs planned a maneuver not unlike the game of Crack the Whip. By means of a concentrated attack at Wuerselen, Colonel Sutherland’s 119th Infantry was to act as the pivot or snapper, while the other two regiments in more extended formation were to swing southeastward in a broad arc to clear the remainder of the urban district. Although Colonel Johnson’s 117th Infantry on the end of the whip would have to cover at least three times more ground than the 119th Infantry, this was in keeping with the belief that resistance would be weaker on the less congested outer rim.
Much as did the divisions of the VII Corps, the units of the XIX Corps learned before daylight on 16 November that after many postponements the big offensive at last was to begin. In keeping with the fact that 1944 was an election year, "The Democrats have won" were the code words General McLain telephoned to General Hobbs to indicate that the attack was on.6
Only three of the villages in the 30th Division’s sector were hit in the aerial bombardment. Fighter-bombers of the XXIX Tactical Air Command struck both Mariadorf and Hongen in front of Colonel Purdue’s 120th Infantry in the division center. Medium bombers attacked Luerken, at the extreme eastern end of the 30th Division’s zone. None of these strikes was close enough to friendly positions to permit observation of the results.
In the ground attack, each of the 30th Division’s three regiments struck with two battalions abreast. Having studied the terrain thoroughly both on the ground and on sand-table models, the troops experienced few surprises. What did impress them was a prolific use of mines. Particularly disturbing were extensive nests of nonmetallic antipersonnel Schuh mines and antitank Topf mines, neither of which responded to ordinary mine detection devices.7 The first day’s worst losses occurred when the 117th Infantry’s Company F stumbled into an antipersonnel mine field on the western fringe of Mariadorf. German shelling forced abandonment of all attempts to extricate the company until after nightfall. The company lost sixty men.
So thick were antitank mines in Wuerselen that supporting tanks and tank destroyers were reduced to providing
static fire support. At any turn amid the rubble of the town a man or a machine might set off an explosion. Pvt. Alexander Mastrobattista of the 119th Infantry’s Company L had to lie in an exposed position for four hours with one leg blown off by a Schuh mine before a litter team preceded by probers and mine detectors could reach him.
For all the difficulty with mines, progress in the over-all division picture was encouraging. By nightfall four companies of the 117th Infantry had advanced more than a mile to establish firm control of Mariadorf. In the village of Euchen Colonel Purdue’s 120th Infantry had caught the Germans cowering in their holes to escape shelling and machine gun fire which supporting weapons were firing over the heads of the attackers. Only in Wuerselen was there no major gain, but a plodding advance in this stronghold was understandable. Fighting in Wuerselen had developed into myriad small unit maneuvers as one squad or platoon after another tried to penetrate intricate cross fires laid down by well-positioned machine guns.8 Despite the hard going at Wuerselen, the entire division on 16 November incurred only 137 casualties, almost half of them in the mine field at Mariadorf.
The penetration at Mariadorf disturbed the Germans particularly. As the 30th Division commander, General Hobbs, had hoped, the Germans saw this attack along the 30th Division’s north wing as a first step in a likely outflanking of Wuerselen. The Fifteenth Army headquarters (alias Gruppe von Manteuffel) authorized withdrawal to a second line of defense based on the next series of villages.9
At Broichweiden, a sprawling, loose confederation of four settlements a mile southeast of Euchen, the retiring troops of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division had little chance to get set before the 120th Infantry hit them a half hour before dawn on 17 November. The Americans literally charged into the northern half of Broichweiden. In the course of mopping up, Colonel Purdue’s battalions took 326 prisoners, including virtually the entire strength of one panzer grenadier battalion. Buttressed by artillery, the Americans were too well set to be dislodged when at noon the Germans counterattacked with the support of seven tanks and assault guns.
In Wuerselen the effects of the night withdrawal were readily apparent, yet advance in the face of a stubborn rear guard and an unprecedented profusion of mines still was agonizingly slow. Although a marked map captured from German engineers helped considerably, not until late afternoon was the whole of Wuerselen occupied.
In the meantime, Colonel Johnson’s 117th Infantry on the division’s north wing had been keeping pace. One battalion moved in conjunction with the 120th Infantry’s drive on Broichweiden to occupy a miners’ housing development a mile southeast of Mariadorf. Another battalion met greater resistance in a drive northeast from Mariadorf against Hongen, but with the help of overhead fire from
supporting armor entered the village in midafternoon.
For all practical purposes, the 30th Division had broken the enemy’s hold on the strictly urban portion of the triangle north of the interarmy boundary by the end of the second day. The part remaining to be cleared was more rural in nature.
On the third day, 18 November, at Warden, southeast of Mariadorf, an adroit use of machine guns and assault guns across flat, coverless fields enabled the enemy to repulse two attacks before succumbing to a third; but this was, in effect, no more than a delaying tactic preceding another shift to a new line of defense. During the evening of 18 November, the XIX Corps intercepted a German message designating a gentle ridge line a mile east of Warden as the new main line of resistance. A northeastward extension of high ground lying north of Stolberg, that part of the ridge opposite the 30th Division was little more than a ground swell on the Roer plain.
The commander of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division, General Denkert, could have entertained no more hope of holding this line than he had had of holding the two he had occupied earlier. As seen by the corps and army commanders, the focal point of danger was not here but farther north, in the sector of the 246th Division and even farther north outside the zone of the LXXXI Corps. When General Koechling on 18 November had introduced the 47th Division opposite the VII US Corps and directed a general shift of division boundaries northward, he had done it in order that the 246th Division might achieve greater concentration. The 3d Panzer Grenadier Division thus became responsible for the entire sector opposite the 30th US Division and part of the 104th as well. At the same time the division was called upon to relinquish an infantry battalion for attachment to the 246th Division.10
Despite this situation, General Denkert hardly could have anticipated the celerity with which the 30th Division might break his new line. Because the 30th Division was nearing the extremity of the triangle it had been assigned to clear, General Hobbs could concentrate almost unrestricted fire support against one short segment of the new line-at the villages of St. Joeris and Kinzweiler. Virtually all the divisional artillery, two companies of the 743d Tank Battalion, as many tank destroyers, and the heavy weapons of an adjacent regiment were available to support an attack by the 117th Infantry.
The Germans might have done better to raise a white flag. During the morning of 19 November, two battalions of the 117th Infantry struck the villages simultaneously on the heels of thunderous supporting fire. In forty-five minutes both villages were secure. Two battalion commanders and 221 other prisoners were headed west. In St. Joeris the 117th Infantry sustained but eight casualties; in Kinzweiler, only three.
Although some mop-up work remained in the southern half of Broichweiden, General Hobbs might say without reservation that his division’s part in clearing the parallelogram was over. In four days, at a cost of sixty killed and 474 wounded, the 30th Division had erased a position which could have embarrassed the XIX Corps. Enemy losses included 1,595 prisoners, mostly from the 3d Panzer
Grenadier Division. In achieving this goal, the 30th Division had realized little direct assistance from units on either flank, for not until 19 November did the 104th Division embark in earnest upon its part in clearing the inner wings of the armies, and not until the last two days had the 29th Division to the north, making the XIX Corps main effort, come abreast.
The fact was that the 30th Division’s advance was one of the better gains made anywhere during the early days of the November offensive. Impressed by this development, the XIX Corps commander gave the division a new assignment. Redrawing his division boundaries, General McLain directed General Hobbs to renew his attack two days later. Along a front narrowing to a width of a mile and a half, the 30th Division was to cover a remaining six miles to the Roer.11
The Fight South of the Boundary
In view of the coup at St. Joeris and Kinzweiler on 19 November, the 104th Division could have chosen no more auspicious time to begin clearing that part of the parallelogram lying south of the interarmy boundary. Because of the proviso that the 104th Division make no major attack on its north wing until after capture of the Donnerberg (Hill 287), the height east of Stolberg, the two regiments which were scheduled to work alongside the 30th Division had been making only "pressure attacks," a kind of jockeying for position. But late on the day before, the Donnerberg had fallen. On 19 November the 104th Division was to attack with no holds barred.
Because the Germans had shifted their division boundaries slightly, the basic unit opposite two regiments of the 104th Division remained the same, the 12th Volks Grenadier Division which the 414th Infantry had encountered at the Donnerberg. Opposite the 413th Infantry on the left were a few contingents of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division.
The division commander, General Allen, intended that once the Donnerberg had fallen the 414th Infantry was to continue northeast through the Eschweiler woods into Eschweiler and a nest of industrial suburbs southeast of that town. Coincidentally, the 413th Infantry on the division’s north wing was to sweep northeast from Verlautenheide past the northern fringe of Eschweiler, or perhaps converge upon the town in the event the 414th Infantry ran into trouble. The third regiment, the 415th Infantry, was to clear the northern half of Stolberg and wooded high ground beyond. After serving briefly as a bridge between the other two regiments, the 415th Infantry under the original plan was to be pinched out short of Eschweiler.12
While the 414th Infantry consolidated gains made in the Eschweiler woods in a night attack, the other two regiments struck early on 19 November. Because of the enemy's general withdrawal to a new line marked in this sector by the towns of Roehe, a northwestern suburb of Eschweiler, and of Hehlrath, near St. Joeris and Kinzweiler, resistance was spotty. Nevertheless, harassed by Schuh mines, barbed wire, rubble, and congestion, the 415th Infantry (Colonel Cochran) took the entire day to clear Stolberg. Guiding on the Aachen-Cologne autobahn, the 413th Infantry (Colonel Waltz) pushed
DEVASTATED DUERWISS, saturated by Allied bombs.
the division’s north wing forward more than three miles to the base of the gentle ridge line marked by Roehe and Hehlrath.
That the Germans intended to stand here was readily apparent early the next morning, 20 November. Not until late in the afternoon, after a TOT by VII Corps artillery using time fire, was one battalion able to gain a toehold in Roehe. Clearing the objective took another twenty-four hours. In the meantime, another battalion crossed the army boundary to Kinzweiler in order to use an approach to Hehlrath that afforded a measure of cover in houses and farmyards. Although this battalion and a platoon of supporting tanks got into Hehlrath before nightfall, they had to mop up from house to house in the darkness. As General Allen earlier had informed a neighboring commander, men of his 104th Division "don’t go to bed too early. In fact, they have insomnia."13
Roehe and Hehlrath were clear examples of the pattern which fighting on the Roer plain would assume. There was seldom any "high ground" in the usual sense of the term. Here the men fought instead for towns, villages, and settlements. For one thing, the upper stories of buildings and the spires of churches often provided the only genuine observation advantage; for another, the buildings represented the only cover worthy of the name and spelled relief from cold, rain, mud, and sometimes sleet and snow. Seldom, if ever, would the Germans re-
linquish a town or a village without a fight. If the buildings happened to occupy ground rising above the surrounding fields, then that made them correspondingly harder to get at.
Unlike the 413th Infantry, the 104th Division’s other two regiments would serve a stint of street fighting before plunging fully into combat typical of the Roer plain. This was because of the industrial towns of Eschweiler and Weisweiler and their suburbs.
Under General Allen’s original plan, the center regiment, the 415th Infantry, was to have been pinched out short of Eschweiler. But on 19 and 20 November, the 414th Infantry on the right wing became too embroiled in Eschweiler’s southeastern suburbs to afford much promise of an early capture of the industrial town itself. In a belief that the Germans would abandon Eschweiler if advances north and south of it threatened encirclement, the VII Corps commander, General Collins, suggested that General Allen "let [Eschweiler] go."14 General Allen for his part saw no reason to skip this objective—the largest town remaining to the Germans west of the Roer—so long as he had a ready force in the form of the 415th Infantry to take it. While the two flank regiments pushed their attacks on the north and south, Colonel Cochran was to take Eschweiler. Instead of converging at Eschweiler, the two flank regiments would converge a few miles farther east at Weisweiler.
When the 415th Infantry first probed the western outskirts of Eschweiler on 21 November, no evidence of German withdrawal was apparent. Yet on this day the 413th Infantry north of the city, in renewing the fighting more typical of the Roer plain, pushed a mile beyond Hehlrath into Duerwiss. From the German viewpoint, Eschweiler was outflanked. OB WEST granted approval for withdrawal to a new line east of the town.15 Four hours before dawn on 22 November, two companies of the 05th Infantry entered Eschweiler in a night attack to find no more than a feeble and sleepy rear guard remaining. Hot food and burning candles told how recent had been the withdrawal.
This matter of authorized withdrawals was a departure from Hitler-imposed tactics. Having always insisted upon standfast tactics in the West,16 Hitler had allowed himself early in November to be reconciled to limited withdrawal in an attempt to avoid committing those forces which he had earmarked for the Ardennes counteroffensive. The Fuehrer nevertheless had stipulated that his reversal of policy not become known below the level of army headquarters.17 OB WEST sanction of the withdrawals in this sector resulted partly from a hope of shortening the line and gaining some local reserves and partly from a recognition that, authorized or not, the withdrawals were inevitable.18
In the southeastern suburbs of Eschweiler, the 414th Infantry had begun to attack two days before the German withdrawal. Close to the boundary with
the 1st Division, the 414th Infantry’s objectives of Bergrath and Nothberg were subject to observation from Hills 187 and 167, which were holding out against the 1st Division’s attached 47th Infantry. Here German mortars and artillery put backbone into an infantry defense amid houses and factories. Because of a five-day siege of inclement weather beginning on 20 November, fighter-bombers could not temper the curse of this fire. The 414th Infantry measured its advance to Bergrath in blood-stained yards until finally, late on 21 November, artillery supporting the adjacent regiment smothered Hill 18 7 with fire. The next morning the 414th Infantry moved into Nothberg against nothing more than rear guard opposition.
Early the same day, 22 November, the 413th Infantry encountered one of the few instances during the battle of the Roer plain where high ground other than that occupied by towns or villages figured prominently in the enemy’s defense. The next objective facing the 413th Infantry was Puetzlohn, which occupies the western slope of a sharply discernible ridge line lying two miles west of the Inde River. Here the Germans would have to stand or else expose the entire valley of the Inde in the 104th Division’s sector to damaging observation. To hold here, they counted not only upon defending Puetzlohn but upon denying a high point of the ridge south of Puetzlohn, Hill 154. To the south the new German line covered the western periphery of Weisweiler; to the north, the town of Lohn across the U.S. army boundary in the sector of the 30th Division.
Because the excavation of a strip mine blocked the direct route eastward from Duerwiss to Puetzlohn, the 413th Infantry again had to enter the 30th Division’s sector to reach its objective. Attacking early on 22 November, the regiment’s leading battalion scarcely had re-entered its own sector when savage fire from tanks or assault guns in Puetzlohn and from artillery caught the men in open fields west of the village. By working forward slowly under cover of artillery concentrations, the infantry at last gained the westernmost buildings, but even this advance was wiped out partially in late afternoon when flanking fire from the 30th Division’s sector forced a slight withdrawal. Puetzlohn and the high ground about it obviously were going to be hard to crack. Recognizing this as night came, the division commander, General Allen, prodded Colonel Touart’s 414th Infantry to get a complementary drive under way. "Weisweiler is necessary," General Allen said, "to take the curse off Puetzlohn."19
The Push to the Inde
For all the difficulty at Puetzlohn, the 104th Division by nightfall of 22 November had cleared the bulk of its share of the industrial parallelogram along the interarmy boundary. Only Puetzlohn and Hill 154, both about two miles short of the Inde, plus Weisweiler and a trio of little towns hugging the west bank of the river, remained to be taken. Although the fighting at times had been severe, the 104th Division had incurred no more than moderate casualties. The 415th Infantry, for example, in a four-day fight from & northern reaches of Stolberg to the capture of Eschweiler had lost 37 men killed, 7 missing, and 118 wounded. The entire
division took 600 prisoners. The Germans listed total casualties for the 12th Division, part of which also had opposed the north wing of the 1st U.S. Division, at 1,845.20
The noteworthy aspect of the 104th Division’s campaign to this point was that the attack had carried almost four times as far as had the 1st Division’s in the VII Corps main effort, despite the urban nature of the battlefield. Because the 104th Division’s start line had been farther west than had the 1st Division’s, the two units by 22 November were approximately on line. The VII Corps commander, General Collins, saw in the situation an opportunity to revise his original plan. In the beginning he had directed that the 104th Division be pinched out at the Inde while the 1st Division was to assume responsibility for the entire northern half of the corps zone across the remaining five miles to the Roer. General Collins now redrew one of his boundaries, much as had General McLain of the XIX Corps three days before. The 104th Division now was to continue across the Inde all the way to and beyond the Roer.21
Upon the immediate employment of the 104th Division’s regiments, General Collins’ change in plan had no effect. Colonel Waltz’s 413th Infantry on the north wing was to continue to attack Puetzlohn and Hill 154, then to take two of the three villages along the west bank of the Inde. Colonel Touart’s 414th Infantry on the south wing was to occupy Weisweiler and the remaining village. Only upon reaching the Inde did General Allen intend to vary his formation by replacing the 414th Infantry with Colonel Cochran’s 415th Infantry. The latter regiment had gone into reserve after taking Eschweiler.
As the 104th Division renewed the attack before daylight on 23 November, another aspect of fighting upon the Roer plain was emphasized: many of the towns and villages were mutually supporting. Conquest of Puetzlohn was influenced by progress of the adjacent 30th Division against Lohn; capture of Weisweiler, by the degree of success in the 1st Division’s sector against Huecheln and Wilhelmshoehe.
Turning once again to the stratagem of night attack, two companies of the 413th Infantry moved in the predawn darkness of 23 November, one against Puetzlohn, the other against Hill 154. Although the Germans at each place were awake to the attack, their artillery and assault guns now lacked the observation necessary to prevent advance. Company L got atop Hill 154, while Company K gained a tenuous hold on the southwestern fringe of Puetzlohn.
Soon after daybreak, the Germans counterattacked for the first time since the 104th Division had jumped off five days earlier. They used only an Alarmbataillon and six to eight tanks borrowed from a GHQ battalion operating farther north; yet even this force made for a disturbing day because the Americans had but two companies on the objectives and because in the daylight German fire on open fields around the objectives could deny reinforcement. As night came, the 413th Infantry still controlled both Puetzlohn and Hill 154, but at a cost to Companies K and L of 116 casualties, including 16 killed and 50 missing.
In the meantime, at Weisweiler, the 414th Infantry was encountering a more
passive defense, though it was none the less stubborn. On General Allen’s theory that "The more they push under cover of darkness the better it is for ‘em,"22 the 414th Infantry also tried a night attack, but by the time the men had threaded their way to the line of departure, the predawn darkness of 23 November had dissipated. The men were subject to a house-by-house German defense along the route of approach while at the same time drawing flanking fire from Huecheln on the south and a high, flat-topped slag pile almost a mile square on the north. Not until the next day, 24 November, after the slag pile had been cleared, was any substantial progress made. One battalion reached the southwestern fringe of Weisweiler, while a company from another made a daring night attack to carry a power plant a few hundred yards west of the town. Once inside the plant, the men became acutely aware that they had sneaked into a building that housed a host of Germans. When the enemy commander assembled his men in an adjacent courtyard preparatory to routing the intruders, the American commander, Capt. Charles Glotzbach, called for time fire from his supporting artillery. While his men took cover in the building, the Germans in the courtyard caught the full force of the fire.23
Although the 414th Infantry had gained a steppingstone leading to the conquest of Weisweiler, actions outside the regimental sector actually brought about the fall of the town. The first of these was capture of Puetzlohn and Hill 154 on 23 November, thereby affording observation upon Weisweiler from the north. The others occurred at nightfall of 24 November and in the morning of 25 November in the 1st Division’s sector when Task Force Richardson took Huecheln and Wilhelmshoehe. By early afternoon of 25 November, German withdrawal from Weisweiler was clearly evident. Taking quick advantage of the first break in the weather in five days, fighter-bombers of the IX Tactical Air Command roared to the attack. Only the size of the withdrawing columns limited the scope of the kill.
Though the actual occupation of Weisweiler was easy, the condition of the battalion of the 414th Infantry which had borne the brunt of the attack on the town showed how creditable had been the early stages of the German defense. So spent and depleted was this battalion that Colonel Touart wanted to replace it before following the enemy’s withdrawal. The battalion was particularly hard hit in rifle company commanders. On 24 November when all three had assembled with the artillery liaison officer and a lieutenant from the weapons company for a conference, the Germans had captured the entire group.
Now that the 104th Division possessed dominant observation upon the three villages along the floor of the shallow valley of the Inde, a German withdrawal to the east bank of the river would not have been unexpected. Yet this was not to be, probably because the villages made excellent outposts for the high ground on the east bank. Though the 12th Volks Grenadier Division was so depleted—down to 800 combat effectives—that it soon would be lumped with the 47th Division under the designation Gruppe
Engel, the division had some fight left and on 28 November would be replaced by the 3d Parachute Division. Not until 2 December—a week after the fall of Weisweiler—were the last Germans to retire or be eliminated from the west bank of the Inde.
Employing automatic weapons and light mortars from trenches along the western periphery of the villages, the Germans halted the attacking infantry in flat, open fields leading to the villages. With antitank guns and a few tanks hidden among the buildings, they held off American tanks and destroyers. From eminences east of the river, almost as high as the Puetzlohn ridge, they had unrestricted observation upon the shallow valley for their artillery. Observers for the 104th Division plotted more than forty gun positions between the Inde and the Roer capable of firing into the valley of the Inde.
Perhaps because the Germans had little time to perfect this pattern before the first blow, Colonel Touart’s 414th Infantry took the southernmost village of Frenz on 26 November without undue difficulty. At the other two villages, Lamersdorf and Inden, the enemy was ready. A first try by the 413th Infantry to roll up the line by striking first Lamersdorf and then Inden from the 414th Infantry’s positions at Frenz was abandoned after only a half day’s exposure to crippling fire from the big guns east of the Inde. The regimental commander, Colonel Waltz, next directed separate attacks on each of the two objectives.
Despite persistent efforts by tactical aircraft and divisional and corps artillery to silence the German batteries, and despite attempts to hide behind smoke, the attacks developed into costly slugging matches. Even the 104th Division’s forte of night attack brought little advantage. Once when the battalion driving on Inden tried it, one company got lost and ended up assisting the 30th Division against the neighboring village of Altdorf.
Not until after three days of close combat at Lamersdorf did the Germans finally withdraw the last of the tanks and antitank guns from this village to the east bank. Demolishing the Inde bridges behind them, they left only a thin rear guard in the village. By midnight Of 29 November, Lamersdorf was in hand.
Inden took longer. By nightfall of 28 November, a rifle company had gained a toehold in the village and had even grabbed a bridge intact and put a platoon onto the east bank of the river, but the hardest fighting began later. During the night, this village passed to the responsibility of the enemy’s 3d Panzer Grenadier Division. Using miscellaneous forces from this division, plus some troops provided for the occasion by the LXXXI Corps, the Germans counterattacked in strength. Not only did they drive the platoon from the east bank, they split the American company and denied co-ordination with another company which arrived during the night as reinforcement. Shortly before daylight on 29 November the Germans captured about a platoon of men from both companies who had become intermingled in a factory alongside the river.24 Their bag included one of the company commanders. Two other men—S. Sgt. Paul Shesniek and Pvt. Ben J. Travis—eventually escaped by hiding under heavy sacks filled with nuts.
Though cut to pieces, the bulk of these two companies fought on through the day of 29 November. By late afternoon Colonel Waltz was ready to relieve them by attacking with his reserve battalion and a company of the 750th Tank Battalion. Only three of the tanks escaped both German fire and paralyzing mud, but the infantry gained entry into the village. The next day the reserve battalion commander, Lt. Col. William M. Summers, took command of all five companies in Inden and began a methodical attempt to rid the village of Germans.
Despite pressure to complete the job so the 104th Division could mount a crossing of the river, Colonel Summers could find no ready formula for rapid reduction of Inden. Enemy artillery fire, "at times, reached fifty rounds per minute."25 Infantry reinforcements arrived when the 246th Volks Grenadier Division, recently pulled from the line for a quick, three-day rehabilitation, took over from the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division.26 Colonel Summers and the companies of the 413th Infantry nevertheless gradually increased their holdings. Late on the fifth day the Germans finally retired to the east bank. In the five-day fight, two American battalions had lost 319 men, 40 of them killed and 156 missing.27 Inden was nothing but rubble.
The last German position in the industrial triangle south of the interarmy boundary thus eliminated, the 104th Division turned next to crossing the Inde. In keeping with the change in plan which the VII Corps commander had directed on 22 November, the division was to continue to the Roer alongside the corps main effort. That the main effort by 2 December was sputtering on the fringe of the Roer plain at Langerwehe and Merode did nothing to lessen the need for the 104th Division to get across the Inde in order to come abreast of the main effort and void the tactical divorce which the meandering Inde heretofore had imposed.
The obvious key to d successful crossing was the village of Lucherberg, which crowns the high ground a mile beyond the river. In comparison to other high ground on the Roer plain, the Lucherberg ridge line is almost clifflike. Though not quite so high as the Puetzlohn ridge, the Lucherberg ridge’s western approaches are steep, gutted by strip mines with sheer walls, and further obstructed by a nest of factories. From the southwest and south, the village and the ridge are denied by the bed of the Weh Creek, a slag pile, and more strip mines, one of which had filled with water to form a lake. On the north, the approach is open as the ridge line slopes gently northward parallel to the Inde. Recognizing that possession of Lucherberg spelled control not only of the Inde valley but also of a remaining three miles of flatland east to the Roer, the Germans had crisscrossed the northern approach with deep trenches from which machine guns might spew grazing fire across open fields. The positions were currently occupied by the 3d Parachute Division’s 8th Regiment.28
Had the Inde River been more of an obstacle, the 104th Division commander, General Allen, might have asked to attack from the 1st Division’s sector on the other side of the river, where troops of the 47th Infantry on 28 November had taken the Frenzerburg. But the Inde normally is little more than a winding creek, and even after abnormally heavy rainfall during the previous month was easily fordable by infantry at several points.
Before the 413th Infantry had become so involved in severe fighting at Inden, General Allen had intended that the 413th force a bridgehead opposite Inden while the reserve regiment, the 415th Infantry, crossed the river at Lamersdorf to seize Lucherberg. Faced with severe losses at Inden, General Allen directed instead that the 413th Infantry fall back as division reserve, Colonel Touart’s 414th Infantry take over the assignment at Inden, and Colonel Cochran’s 415th Infantry proceed as originally planned to accomplish the more critical task at Lucherberg.
Colonel Cochran had four days to plan and prepare for the river crossing before the final conquest of Inden gave a green light. Deciding early on his maneuver, he provided his officers and men an opportunity for detailed study of their roles and the terrain. Although aware of the obstacles to attacking Lucherberg from the west, Colonel Cochran was equally aware of the defenses the Germans had erected along the open northern approach. Confident of the ability of his men in night operations, he believed they might get past the strip mines, the factories, and the clifflike portion of the ridge into Lucherberg before the Germans awoke to their presence.
Colonel Cochran directed his 2d Battalion to send two companies across the river at Lamersdorf by fording—one to seize the nest of factories between the river and Lucherberg, the other to provide flank protection by taking a castle (Luetzelen) south of the factories. An hour after these companies began to move, the 3d Battalion was to send two companies across the river on the debris of a spur railroad bridge between Lamersdorf and Inden. These two companies were to skirt the north side of the factories and move directly into Lucherberg. Each company received a detailed map upon which the artillery had plotted concentrations by number at almost every conceivable point of trouble.29
For an hour before the attack, artillery of both the 104th Division and the VII Corps fired constant concentrations upon Lucherberg. These were to continue at intervals until the infantry requested a concentration of white phosphorus, a signal that friendly troops were entering the village.
At a point at Lamersdorf where the river was no more than knee deep, the two companies of the 2d Battalion waded across at 2300 the night of 2 December. Almost without enemy contact, one company raced southeast to Luetzelen Castle. In a matter of minutes, this objective on the south flank was secured. At the same time, the other company rushed through inky darkness into the factory buildings between Lamersdorf and Lucherberg. The Germans in the buildings were too surprised to offer more than desultory resistance. Under strict orders to use nothing but bayonets and hand grenades in the darkness, the Americans
knew that anyone who fired was a German. Within an hour after crossing the Inde, these men had a firm grip on the factories, though mop-up was a task that reached into the next day.
Having allowed an hour for these preliminary operations to get under way, the two companies of the 3d Battalion began to cross the Inde between Lamersdorf and Inden at midnight. Commanded by 1st Lt. John J. Olsen, Company I was first. The men crossed on the remains of a spur railroad bridge. They negotiated the gap in the bridge by holding onto one of the rails which still was in place and walking on the other, which had been blown to a twisted position underneath. Though this kind of tight-rope crossing enabled the men to reach the east bank with dry feet, it was a slow process. Not until 0100, 3 December, did all of Company I get across.
As Lieutenant Olsen and his, men picked their way southeastward across marshy bottomland toward the nest of factories and Lucherberg, a three-quarter moon emerged. Occasional small arms fire began to search the column. Though the fire was inaccurate, it prompted some confusion. Company I’s rear platoon became separated from the others. No doubt acutely conscious that success depended upon reaching Lucherberg before daylight, Lieutenant Olsen decided to continue with his two remaining platoons.
Unknown to Lieutenant Olsen, the Germans had begun to fire on the crossing site soon after Company I had reached the east bank. Company L could not follow. Through the rest of the night Company L was to wander errantly in search of another place to cross, while the onus of the attack fell upon Lieutenant Olsen and the forward platoons of Company I. In light of reports gleaned from prisoners the afternoon before, this was a big assignment. Some 500 to 600 Germans and several tanks, prisoners had reported, garrisoned Lucherberg and the vicinity.
Just how big the assignment was soon became apparent. Preceded by a platoon leader, 1st Lt. David Sheridan, who reconnoitered in advance, then sent a messenger back for the platoons, the men stumbled past the factories and up the steep slope toward Lucherberg more in a "column of bunches" than in any orthodox military formation. In spite of persistent but wild fire from an alerted German tanker, the men pushed into the village to gain three houses near a road junction in the northern end. At this point, trouble started. Even as the Americans tried to expand their holdings, the Germans set out to dislodge them. The company commander, Lieutenant Olsen, was shot in the head. He died before daybreak.
In the meantime, the rear platoon, which had become separated from the others, also reached Lucherberg, but the leaders didn’t know where to find the rest of the company. They holed up in what the men called a double house in the southwest part of the village. With this platoon were observers for both mortars and artillery, who had radio contact with the 3d Battalion headquarters. Unable to locate Lieutenant Olsen and the rest of Company I, they radioed the battalion commander for help. Though this request went out about 0400, no genuine assistance was to materialize until late in the day.
While this platoon held in the double house, one of those bizarre incidents that make war a logical haven for lunatics
was developing near the road junction in the north edge of Lucherberg. There a German medical officer, a lieutenant colonel, asked for a fifteen-minute truce in order that both sides might care for their wounded. As the truce more or less informally developed, most of Company I’s men leaned their weapons against walls of the houses and began to help with the wounded. Three German medics assisted in a vain attempt to sustain Lieutenant Olsen.
The truce still was in effect when another group of about thirty Germans arrived under command of a captain. Refusing to honor the truce, the German captain directed his men to collect the American weapons. The Americans, he insisted, were to surrender. The men of Company I gradually became aware that in the darkness the new arrivals had stealthily encircled them.
Reminding the German captain of the tradition of discipline in his army, an interpreter, Sgt. Leon Marokus, insisted that the ranking officer, the lieutenant colonel, have the say. The captain refused. The lieutenant colonel, he said, was only a medical officer.
In the end, the captain agreed to a compromise. Angrily, he announced that he would give the Americans fifteen minutes to get out of the village. Conscious of their encirclement, Sergeant Marokus and his companions had little choice. As they assembled to leave, they became aware that only about twenty men out of an original two platoons and a machine gun section remained. Because the German captain insisted upon holding Company I’s sole remaining officer, Lieutenant Sheridan, as a hostage, Sergeant Marokus refused to part with the lieutenant colonel. Only as the fifteen-minute period expired were these two exchanged.
In the interim, the men of Company I’s rear platoon in the southwestern edge of Lucherberg had made contact with the others. Fleeing the truce site, Sergeant Marokus and the twenty who had escaped fell back to the double house. Through most of the day of 3 December, the composite group fought from this position, an island of resistance sustained only through persistent and effective employment of mortar and artillery fire. Fortunately for the forty-five men who made up the defense, two were the observers from the 81-mm. mortars and the artillery, 1st Lts. John Shipley and Arthur A. Ulmer. Some idea of the kind of fire support provided might be discerned from the day’s artillery statistics. During the twenty-four hour period, organic and attached artillery fired 370 missions and 18,950 rounds along the 104th Division’s front, now only four miles wide.
Reinforcing Company I was a slow process. Company L, which was to have followed Company I across the Inde the preceding night, had been stymied by fire both at the crossing site used by Company I and at the Lamersdorf site employed by the companies of the 2d Battalion. Not until daylight on 3 December had the company found another crossing site at Frenz. Conscious of German observation, the men crawled and infiltrated in small groups to the nest of factories west of Lucherberg, whence they might make a concerted effort to reach the village. So slow was the process that the last men of Company L did not reach the factory buildings until noon.
In the meantime, the reserve company of the 2d Battalion, Company F, tried infiltrating across the river at Lamersdorf
and reached the factories soon after Company L. Placing both companies under Capt. F. J. Hallahan, Company L commander, Colonel Cochran directed an attack on Lucherberg at 1500 that afternoon, 3 December. The infantry would have to attack alone, for German shelling had stultified efforts to bridge the Inde, and an alarming rise in the waters had prevented tanks from fording.
The ease and speed with which the attack progressed was hard to explain other than that an artillery preparation effectively pinned the enemy inside his foxholes and cellars. In a matter of only ten to fifteen minutes, both Companies F and L had broken into Lucherberg, and Company L had established contact with the forty-five men in the double house. Mop-up was slower, so that near midnight, when the men paused to strike a defense, some parts of the village remained in German hands.
Before the companies could renew their mop-up the next morning, 4 December, the Germans counterattacked with infantry supported by damaging concentrations of mortar fire. From upper stories of the buildings, the Americans turned the village into a shooting gallery. By noon, it was over. An hour or so later, engineers at last bridged the Inde at Lamersdorf, and a section of 57-mm. antitank guns reached Lucherberg. Before midnight, a platoon of tanks and a platoon of towed tank destroyers also arrived.
The enemy’s major effort to retake Lucherberg began before daylight on 5 December. Employing some eight to ten tanks and assault guns and about 450 infantry from the 3d Parachute Division’s 8th Regiment, the Germans sneaked into the village through the early morning darkness. For several hours the fighting raged at close quarters. Two of the American tanks and one of the 57-mm. antitank guns were knocked out early in the engagement. One of the towed tank destroyers accounted for two German assault guns which bogged in the mud on the fringe of the village. Firing upon a German rifleman who apparently was carrying explosives, a squad of American infantry watched in horror as the German literally disintegrated in a loud explosion. An enemy tank laid some direct hits into Company F’s command post, killing several men, including the company commander and the artillery observer.
Like a storm that blows itself out, the fighting in Lucherberg the morning of 5 December was too intense to last for long. Again with a noteworthy assist from mortars and artillery,30 the men of the 415th Infantry were in control of the situation by 0830. Leaving behind the hulks of two Tiger tanks, two Panther tanks, and two assault guns, the Germans began to withdraw to the northeast. By midafternoon the arrival of a fresh company to relieve what was left of Company I underscored the fact that the enemy’s chance of retaking Lucherberg had passed. Through means of continued shelling and a minor counterattack on 6 December, the Germans showed somewhat reluctant acceptance of that fact; but it was fact nonetheless.31
In the three-day fight for Lucherberg, the Germans lost at least 204 men killed and 209 captured, plus an estimated 400 to 500 wounded. Despite the initial
misfortunes of Company I, the 415th Infantry’s losses were relatively small. Incomplete figures showed 25 killed, 21 missing, and about 60 wounded.32
In pushing beyond the Inde, the 104th Division had come abreast of the other divisions of the VII Corps. A smaller bridgehead which the 414th Infantry had been establishing at Inden even as the 415th Infantry took Lucherberg made the division’s position more secure and provided an adequate base for renewing the push across the remaining three miles to the Roer. The 104th Division might have begun the new push immediately had not the corps commander, General Collins, ordered a pause. Because the other divisions of the corps had spent themselves in fighting to the fringe of the Roer plain, he needed time to replace them with fresh troops. Thereupon, the entire VII Corps would join the battle of the Roer plain in a final push to the Roer in the general direction of Dueren.