The Huertgen Forest lies within a triangle formed by Aachen, Dueren on the Roer River, and Monschau. Its approximately 70 square miles lie just east of Germany’s border with Belgium. This area is collectively called the Huertgen Forest but consists of several smaller woods—Huertgen, Wenau, Eifel, Roetgen, and Monschau. West of the German border, it blends into the more famous Ardennes Forest. Along the east side of the German border lies the Siegfried Line, also called the Westwall. The Siegfried Line consisted of miles of concrete machine-gun bunkers and huge tank obstacles called “dragon’s teeth.” On the left or northwestern flank of the Huertgen, stretching from about 5 miles south of Aachen to the Roer River lies the Stolberg corridor with roads, farmland, and many small towns and villages.
The Battle for Huertgen Forest commenced on 19 September 1944. It was not one battle but many smaller battles. The American objective was to cross the Roer River and advance on easier ground to the Rhine River and its major industrial cities. The Battle for the Huertgen was interrupted on 16 December 1944 by the Battle of the Bulge (Ardennes Counteroffensive). Thus the Huertgen Forest campaign and the Battle of the Bulge overlapped in place and time and involved many of the same American units.
The Normandy Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge involved more troops and more casualties, but the Huertgen casualties per the number troops involved were more staggering. In that respect, the Battle for Huertgen Forest would classify as the costliest major American campaign in Europe.
Approximately 113,000 Allied troops were landed on the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, or shortly thereafter. But the Normandy campaign lasted through July 24 and involved 1.3 million Allied troops against 380,000 German troops. Allied Casualties totaled 120,000 dead, wounded, missing, or captured.
In the Battle of the Bulge, 200,000 German troops, eight infantry and five armored divisions, initially trapped 83,000 American troops belonging to four infantry and one armored division, but by 24 December, 610,000 American troops were engaged. There were 90,000 American casualties including 19,000 dead.
In the Huertgen, not more than 170,000 of the First Army’s 254,000 troops were engaged. There were 33,000 casualties, including 9,000 non-combat casualties. The German artillery attack on U.S. forces at Inden during the Huertgen Forest campaign was the heaviest of the war. There was constant exposure to cold, rain, mud, and dampness for months. Infantry trenches were frequently knee deep in mud. Consequently, casualties from combat fatigue, serious respiratory conditions, frostbite, and trench-foot added significantly to direct combat casualties.
Combat casualties fell heavily on six infantry divisions of the V and VII corps. Four of the five highest American division casualty rates in the war were heavy participants in the Huertgen campaign—the 1st, 4th, 9th, and 28th divisions of the First Army. Each suffered more than 20,000 casualties. Many infantry companies in these divisions incurred 90 to 100 percent casualties during the Huertgen campaign. Only the 3rd Division of Patton’s Third Army exceeded these divisions and all others in the European campaign with 25,879 combat casualties.
From September 1944 through the end of the war in May 1945, the 104th Infantry Division of “Lightning Joe” Collins’ VII Corp suffered 7,011 combat casualties and over 7,000 non-combat casualties for a total of over 14,000. The manpower table for the 104th called for a strength of 14,000. Including many replacements, the total who served was approximately 30,000. .
The Huertgen campaign has been obscured for two reasons. First, the more recent Battle of the Bulge, with its serious demonstration of unexpected German military prowess and its larger absolute numbers of troops and casualties, overshadowed it. But second, the Huertgen campaign was much delayed in achieving its objective in crossing the Roer and advancing to the Rhine, and the casualties incurred were far beyond expectations. Several infantry divisions were nearly ground to bits in the “Green hell” that American soldiers called the “Death Factory.” Other clear victories could be celebrated, but the top political and military brass preferred that the Huertgen campaign and all the questions surrounding it remain in obscurity.
Yet in obscuring the Battle for Huertgen Forest, we also obscure the tremendous valor, severe hardships, noble sacrifices, and dogged patriotic endurance of thousands of American soldiers who deserve better. The soldiers of the 104th Timberwolf Division alone received two Medals of Honor, 14 Distinguished Service Crosses, 642 Silver Stars, 2,797 Bronze Stars, and nearly 7,000 Purple Hearts.
There still exists a noble mystery of the German Medic who saved my friend, Howd Mosher’s life by tending his terrible shoulder wound. There is the mystery of the German Oberstleutnant (Lt. Col.) medical officer, who arranged a medical truce, so both Germans and Americans could treat and recover their wounded.
There is the further mystery of German Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Ludwig Havighorst, commander of the 15th Company of the Ninth Parachute Regiment, who claims (with witnesses) to have arranged a brief medical truce in Lucherberg on about 3 December 1944.
Havighorst enlisted in the Germany Army in 1935 and became an infantry NCO. He transferred to the German Air Force in 1940 and after training flew 427 combat missions, including 50 over Stalingrad, as a bombardier-navigator in the Heinkel 111 medium bomber, both as an NCO and an officer. He was wounded several times and experienced many narrow escapes from death. In October 1943, he was seriously injured in a truck accident requiring hospitalization and surgery. He was released on 1 July 1944, meanwhile having been recommended for the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest military honor. On 11 July 1944, he married his fiancée, Else, in St. Sixtus Church in Haltern. He wore his parade-dress uniform to demonstrate that a highly decorated German soldier could be a devout Christian and publicly say so. On 20 July, the day of the assassination attempt on Hitler, he received a telegram summoning him to the aircrew redeployment center at Quedlinburg. There he learned of his promotion to first lieutenant, but a medical examination disqualified him from further flying. Subsequently, he was assigned to a construction and engineering company of the Ninth Parachute Regiment. He was quickly made company commander, where his courage, example, and leadership were noted as exceptional by his men and his superior officers. He was one of seven brothers who served in the German Armed Forces during the war; only one was lost, posted as missing at the end of the war. Speaking of his early enthusiasm as a German Army NCO in 1939, Havighorst remarked,
“Not until many years later did it become clear to me what sort of Fuehrer we had served, but by then Germany was in ruins.”