Cover image for Hell in Hürtgen Forest : the ordeal and triumph of an American infantry regiment
Hell in Hürtgen Forest : the ordeal and triumph of an American infantry regiment
Rush, Robert S., 1951-
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Publication Information:
Lawrence : University Press of Kansas, [2001]

Physical Description:
xx, 403 pages : illustrations, maps, plans ; 24 cm.
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D756.5.H8 R87 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Some of the most brutally intense infantry combat in World War II occurred within Germany's Hurtgen Forest. Focusing on the bitterly fought battle between the American 22d Infantry Regiment and elements of the German LXXIV Korps around Grosshau, Rush chronicles small-unit combat at its most extreme and shows why, despite enormous losses, the Americans persevered in the Hurtgenwald "meat grinder".

On 16 November 1944, the 22d Infantry entered the Hurtgen Forest as part of the U.S. Army's drive to cross the Roer River. During the next eighteen days, the 22d suffered more than 2,800 casualties -- or about 86 percent of its normal strength of about 3,250 officers and men. After three days of fighting, the regiment had lost all three battalion commanders. After seven days, rifle company strengths stood at 50 percent and by battle's end each had suffered nearly 140 percent casualties.

Despite these horrendous losses, the 22d Regiment survived and fought on, due in part to army personnel policies that ensured that unit strengths remained high even during extreme combat. Previously wounded soldiers returned to their units and new replacements, green to battle, arrived to follow the remaining battle-hardened cadre.

The German units in the Hurtgenwald suffered the same horrendous attrition, with one telling difference. German replacement policy detracted from rather than enhanced German combat effectiveness. Organizations had high paper strength but low manpower, and commanders consolidated decimated units time after time until these ever-dwindling bands of soldiers disappeared forever: killed, wounded, captured, or surrendered. The performance of American and German forces during thisharrowing eighteen days of combat was largely a product of their respective backgrounds, training, and organization.

Rush's work underscores both the horrors of combat and the resiliency of American organizations. While honori



Introduction And the place we were going to fight in, which I had taken a good look at, was going to be Passchendaele with tree bursts. I say that too much. But I think that too much. Ernest Hemingway Gray November skies hung low over the irregular line of foxholes and bunkers that made up the forward positions of the German 275th Infanterie Division. On 16 November, as a steady drizzle dripped through the trees that stood in dense rows throughout the forest known as the Hürtgenwald, small groups of chilled soldiers patrolled its dark recesses. Mud sucked at boots and the occasional thump of artillery sounded in the distance as the men crisscrossed the land between the Roter and Weisser Weh streams, looking for signs of the expected Ami attack. A kilometer away, American soldiers in the rifle and weapons companies of the 22d Infantry Regiment rolled their blankets and ate what would be their last hot breakfast for eighteen days, while officers and NCOs made last minute preparations for the assault. Later, soldiers in the forward companies crossed the Roter Weh and began climbing the slope through the firs toward the Rur Plain just five miles ahead, entering into eighteen days of unmitigated hell in the "death factory" of the Hürtgen Forest.     Second Platoon, Easy Company, led by Second Lieutenant Erwin Mitman, made the first contact. The ensuing action was to exemplify the 22d's experience in the days ahead, both in human terms and in tactical results: Easy Company 2d Battalion, the next company in line, was supposed to come up on the left flank of George Company when it reached the top of the hill. However, the lead platoon swung too far north of Hill 201 and encountered a booby-trapped stretch of tangle-foot barbed wire twenty-five yards deep. The wire stretched across a small draw and protected several bunkers hidden among the pine trees. As soon as the 2d Platoon stopped to survey the obstacle, heavy concentrations of German mortar fire landed in the draw, and when the lead scouts moved forward into the thicket, they came under blistering small arms fire. Second Lieutenant Erwin Mitman, recently awarded a battlefield commission, was up front with the platoon scouts reconnoitering the position. Fragments from a mortar round struck and killed him. Private First Class Harry Coles, the platoon medic, was killed when he raced forward to help the fallen officer. These two soldiers were probably the first from the 22d Regiment to die in the Hürtgen Forest. There would be many, many more.     The 22d Infantry, as one of the three infantry regiments of the 4th Infantry Division, spent eighteen days of November and early December 1944 fighting in the Hürtgen. In a battle many now believe mattered little in the big picture, the 22d suffered 2,805 casualties, or 86 percent of its normal complement of 3,253 officers and men. Rifle companies went into the action in the Hürtgen averaging 174 soldiers of an authorized 193, with the high-strength company numbering 194 and the lowest 145; seven days later, these companies averaged only 87. And even at this reduced strength, no less than 42 percent of the companies' manpower consisted of soldiers who had arrived during the battle from replacement centers and hospitals. Companies would suffer heavy casualties one day, be refilled with replacements that night, attack the next morning, and again be bled white. The 22d Regiment lost every battalion commander within the first three days of the battle. Attrition among company commanders was so high that no fewer and quite possibly more than thirty-one officers commanded the regiment's nine rifle companies during the battle--reflecting a casualty rate greater than 300 percent. Casualties within the rifle companies during this eighteen-day battle reached a staggering average of 138 percent of their original strength, including replacements. Ninety-one percent of the enlisted men and 93 percent of the officers present for duty in these nine companies were casualties by 4 December.     German organizations facing the 22d in the Hürtgen suffered much the same fate, but with one important difference. Their casualties were seldom replaced, and the organizations were consumed in the attritional combat. As these bands of men grew smaller, they went through repeated consolidations with other units until they finally went out of existence, their men killed, wounded, captured, or surrendered.     The awful intensity of the carnage of the Hürtgen has long been recognized. William Walton, writing for Life Magazine in 1945, compared the battle to the American Civil War's Wilderness Campaign of 1864, a benchmark battle in that conflict for sustained bloodletting. Ernest Hemingway labeled it "Passchendaele with tree bursts," recalling the notorious battle in 1917 where British troops suffered 300,000 casualties for the gain of a five-mile-deep salient. Colonel Rudolf-Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff, the chief of staff for the German Seventh Army, the headquarters controlling the Hürtgen sector on the German side, described the fighting in the Hürtgenwald as worse than any he had seen on the Russian Front and compared it in intensity to the attritional battles of 1917 and 1918 in World War I.     In stark contrast to the commonly assumed image of fresh American units at full strength going against decimated German units, the attritional combat in the Hürtgen was more reminiscent of two punch-drunk fighters of equal stature circling one another while trying to survive the round. In sum, the 22d's experience in the Hürtgen Forest provides a limiting case for the endurance of American infantry under extreme combat conditions.     Nevertheless, the battle in the Hürtgen Forest did not differ significantly from the heavy combat other infantry regiments experienced, except that the 22d did not stop attacking after suffering more than 40 percent casualties. However, any attack against a prepared enemy resulted in heavy casualties. American units suffered heavy losses during the Normandy campaign, Aachen, Metz, and Monte Cassino, as did German organizations in Russia and Normandy.     The following analysis has three components. These are predicated on the fact that although the battle encompassed only eighteen days, the performance of individual units and soldiers was largely a product of their respective background, training, and organization as well as the terrain and weather in which the battle was fought. This was true of both sides.     Part One therefore provides essential background to this focus on no-holds-barred infantry combat, beginning with a detailed terrain analysis of the Hürtgen Forest and the weather. At the organizational level, I examine the 22d Infantry and the opposing German units' structure, previous operational experience, techniques of combat, and replacement procedures in effect June through November 1944. At the soldier level, separate chapters examine the backgrounds of the ordinary GI and Landser . These chapters also provide a ground level perspective of the induction and training of soldiers and their leaders within the 22d Infantry Regiment (1940-1943) and German organizations of the LXXIV Korps (1943-1944).     Part Two comprises the narrative of the 22d and the opposing German units in the Hürtgen. It is written from the viewpoint of the subordinate organizations and soldiers of the two armies fighting in and around the town of Grosshau. This examination of combat in organizations below the division level will immerse the reader in operations at squad, platoon, company, and battalion level and graphically illustrates what larger scale histories cannot: how, in the face of unremitting combat, horrific casualties, and terrible weather in a forest reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales, soldiers on both sides performed as they did.     Part Three applies my findings as the basis for a reevaluation of the currently accepted theories of operational effectiveness, unit cohesion, and morale. In examining the battle in the Hürtgen Forest, this book adds to the few analytical studies that examine in detail the combat performance of small units and their reaction to heavy losses in intense infantry combat, and tests the widely accepted theses of the following authors regarding morale, unit cohesion, and operational effectiveness.     Four of the more influential studies in English examine different theories as to what made the U.S. and German infantrymen fight as they did. S. L. A. Marshall's, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War emphasizes the primacy of the buddy group and fire discipline. In "Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II," Edward A. Shils and Morris Janowitz examine the German army in the same vein and point to primary group cohesion as the sustaining factor of the German army's endurance. Martin van Creveld's Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 compares and contrasts the two armies, emphasizing that German success rested on the excellence of the organization in nurturing and sustaining primary groups, while U.S. units did not. All of the above focus on the fundamental premise that it is the primary group consisting of soldiers who have served together for long periods of time that counts, whether in terms of firing weapons or movement; endurance; or sustaining operations.     Finally, Omer Bartov's work, beginning with The Eastern Front 1941-45: German Troops and the Barbarization of Warfare , maintains that ideological indoctrination and motivation had a greater impact on the fighting will of the German soldier on the Eastern Front than did unit cohesion. Although Bartov looks primarily at soldiers and organizations on the Eastern Front, training for the unit, leader, and individual was essentially the same for both fronts.     Evidence gleaned from my bottom-up examination of heavy combat challenges the current orthodoxy of cohesion and organizational historiography. Specifically, I address the validity of Martin van Creveld's theory of organizational effectiveness, challenging his contention that the American army organization was seriously deficient in comparison to that of the German army, especially with regard to replacement policies. I also use the experience of the 22d and its German opposites in the Hürtgen to evaluate S. L. A. Marshall's as well as Shils and Janowitz's theses concerning the importance of small-unit cohesion and its relationship to battlefield success. And, as I will demonstrate, neither van Creveld's analysis of U.S. Army organization nor Marshall's examination of small-unit cohesion satisfactorily explains the experience of the 22d Infantry during the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest. I have found that while the primary group counts, the traditional idea of long service together in itself is not necessary. Rather, cohesion is instead sustained by a common aim and common circumstances. Although some of those aims and circumstances are local and deal with the problems of the moment--weather, terrain, and being shot at--others are not, such as the common aim for the World War II GI of defeating the Nazis and the Japanese and believing in the cause for which they were fighting.     Additionally, by using a database that includes every personnel action of the 22d Infantry Regiment for the period 6 June through 5 December 1944, I intend to dispel certain myths about the replacement systems of the U.S. Army in 1944 that have gained credence over the past fifty-four years. Those for the Americans involve the return of evacuated soldiers to their original organizations, the number of soldiers who spent the entire war together from induction through combat, new lieutenants, and replacement casualties as well as the overstrength of headquarters units at the expense of line companies. For the Germans, using period regulations and captured manuscripts, I demonstrate that the German replacement policy and organizational structure detracted from rather than enhanced German combat effectiveness.     As evidenced in the chapter describing the LXXIV Korps 's organizational history, German units facing the Americans in the forest might be considered typical of those infantry elements on the Western Front not refitting for the Ardennes campaign. In November 1944, the LXXIV consisted of veteran divisions that had fought in the Normandy campaign and subsequent retreat from France, with only one division that was in France on 6 June withdrawn from frontline duty to reconstitute. The others reconstituted on the line, refilling their organizations by incorporating elements of disbanded divisions, Landwehr , fortress battalions, training and replacement units, as well as from the countless thousands of men rounded up after their individual escapes from France.     This is similar to the fate of other infantry units in France in June 1944. Of the forty-four Infanterie , static, training, and replacement divisions assigned to the two Armee groups stationed in France on 6 June, twelve were destroyed and not reconstituted and five were bottled up in the channel ports. Of the remaining twenty-seven divisions, only nine were reconstituted off the line, of which five were slated for the Ardennes campaign. The remainder reconstituted, as did the divisions of the LXXIV Korps , by incorporating stragglers and nondescript units into their formations as they held portions of the West Wall.     Although data for the German forces engaged in the Hürtgen are less plentiful than for the American forces, considerably more information exists than is commonly supposed. While none of the war diaries of any of the divisions in the LXXIV Korps is known to have survived, there are prisoner-of-war reports obtained immediately after capture, unpublished analyses of German soldiers' attitudes based on interrogations and captured personal mail, interrogations of German general officers after the war, a few personal diaries, and unpublished manuscripts prepared in support of the Center of Military History's Siegfried Line Campaign . Before proceeding further, it is necessary to define and explain four basic concepts central to my analysis. These are primary group, organizational structure, organizational cohesion, and cohort. The concept of the primary group was originally defined by Charles H. Cooley in his seminal work Social Organization as an "intimate face to face association and cooperation.... it is a `we,' it involves the sort of sympathy and mutual identification from which `we' is the natural expression. One lives with the feeling of the whole and finds the chief aims of his will in that feeling."     The "we" applies to those soldiers in immediate proximity to one another. Nora Kinzer Stewart, in her work on small-unit cohesion during the 1982 Falklands War, further defined the phenomena as coming from soldiers' trust, respect, and friendship with one another. These aspects of small-unit cohesion derive from soldiers working, training, living, and sharing successful experiences together.     Within the primary groups in combat, there are two types of cohesion at work. One is the "band of brothers" cohesion as described by Stewart and highlighted by Stephen Ambrose in his book, Band of Brothers . While the "band of brothers" model effectively explains cohesion in some circumstances, it clearly does not apply to all. Specifically, it does not adequately explain the sustained effectiveness of subordinate units of the 22d during the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest. It is evident, then, that there is a second kind of cohesion, situational in nature and imposed by circumstance and surroundings more so than long-term acquaintanceship and being a band of brothers. As will be demonstrated in Chapter 14, which addresses the theses of S. L. A. Marshall and Shils and Janowitz, this type of cohesion is more typical in wartime.     The 22d in the Hürtgen had a combination of these types, beginning with the "band of brothers" around which situational cohesion coalesced. This response is reminiscent of Private James Ryan's statement, in the movie Saving Private Ryan , that his fellow members of the 101st Airborne were "the only brothers I have left," after learning that his three brothers had been killed in action.     The flesh and blood of primary groups coalesce around the skeleton of organizational structure, which includes the formal organization of the combat elements and the administrative, logistical, and other support elements that minister to the soldier's primary needs, as well as providing the intangibles of unit history and tradition. Subunits link with the organization up, down, and horizontally. The linking function ties all units together, creating unity among the essential leaders in the organizations. This point where all suborganizations, systems, and procedures are in place and functional might be termed unit coherence. Added to organizational structure is the unit's officer and enlisted leadership (to include their training and ability to employ subelements toward achievement of the organizational objective) and the individual soldier's identification with the primary group or squad level cohesion based on soldiers' trust, respect, and friendship with one another.     Finally, Norman B. Ryder defines a cohort as "an aggregate of individuals who experience the same event within the same time interval." In the case of the 22d Infantry, this relates to four sets of soldiers. When the battle started, there were three distinct sets: commissioned officers, veteran noncommissioned officers (NCOs), and privates bundled within three different cohorts located over time: pre-D-Day, June-July replacements, and August-September replacements. A fourth set, replacements for the wounded and killed, arrived to fill in each set throughout the battle. Each group had a different reason for getting out of the foxhole and attacking.     The Hürtgen Forest was a classic battle of attrition in which the 22d Infantry fought longer than was normally expected. Dorothy Kneeland Clark, in her authoritative work, estimated that after 20 to 30 percent losses, units are no longer considered combat-effective. In contrast, Colonel Charles T. "Buck" Lanham, the 22d Regiment's commander, wrote on 9 December 1944 to the officers and men of the regiment that "By the end of the sixth day you had suffered approximately 50 percent casualties, the point at which a regiment is considered to lose much of its effectiveness as a fighting instrument.... You fought twelve days beyond that point." By the night of 20 November, or just five days into the battle, the regiment's rifle companies had lost more than 40 percent of their strength. Many of these initial losses were veterans who had trained together in the United States and formed the backbone of the regiment's platoons and squads. As evidenced in the narrative detailing the battle in the Hürtgen Forest, the 22d Infantry suffered extremely heavy casualties during its ordeal in the forest. However, the U.S. Army policy of replacing casualties while units were still in combat prevented the unit from ever falling below 75 percent strength. Total replacements for the regiment during the Hürtgen numbered 2,013. In contrast, the German army allowed units in contact to wither to nothing, consolidating them when they grew too small and instead committing unit after unit of relatively fresh but untried and untrained men--to little avail.     The 22d Regiment was well trained and well led. Major General J. Lawton Collins, the VII Corps commander and later Chief of Staff of the Army, considered the 22d one of the premier infantry regiments in the European theater of operations. Just before the battle, General Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke highly of Colonel Lanham, the regimental commander, and Lanham was listed in George C. Marshall's fabled "black book" of potential commanders. Although well trained and ably led, the battle in the Hürtgen Forest reduced the 22d Infantry Regiment to a hollow shell of its former self by 3 December.     What motivated the soldiers of the regiment to fight on day after day in the slaughterhouse of the Hürtgen? A complex phenomenon such as combat clearly cannot be reduced to a single motive (or a single collection of motives). Officers of the 22d said they did not want to embarrass their families or discredit the regiment. Veteran noncoms and privates wanted to get the war over so they could restart their lives, and replacements did not "want to be left behind."     As related in Chapter 5, which details how the soldiers in the 22d Infantry were inducted, trained, and led, the regiment's members trained together for almost three and one-half years before landing on the beaches of Normandy on 6 June 1944. By 31 July, 72 percent of the soldiers who landed with the regiment on D-Day had been listed as casualties. Nevertheless, enough of the original complement, counting the returned recovered wounded, remained to impart to the replacements combat lessons learned through hard experience and to provide them with a catalyst around which to coalesce. The regiment rebuilt itself during the pursuit across France and, battle tempered, was recognized as one of the leading infantry regiments in the European theater. Using Able Company as a detailed example, 40 percent of the soldiers in the company at the time of the Hürtgen were pre-D-Day members, 40 percent had arrived between June-July 1944, and the remaining 20 percent, between August and November 1944.     The 22d Infantry went into the Hürtgen Forest at nearly full strength and, in the words of William S. Boice, one of the regiment's wartime chaplains, was "a fighting machine trained to an efficiency not matched at any time during the war. It was an aggressive, battle-scarred, confidently experienced regiment bent on the destruction of the enemy."     The soldiers had confidence in their unit and their leaders and bonded to the organization through those who had trained together in the United States. Eighteen days later, the regiment emerged from the Hürtgen Forest, hurt and battered, Excerpted from Hell in Hürtgen Forest by Robert Sterling Rush. Copyright (c) 2001 by University Press of Kansas. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.