If someone refers to a battleground as “A Green Hell” the normal assumption is that they would be talking about jungle warfare, perhaps Borneo, Kokoda or Vietnam. But on this occasion it refers to the battle of Hurtgen Forest. It is the most important battle few people have heard about.
Hurtgen Forest lies on the German side of the Belgian/German border. It covers about fifty square miles (130 sq Km). Its steep ravines and gullies are densely covered with mature pine trees, so much so that the ground is in permanent shade. It is a dark and foreboding place.
The Americans attacked on the 19th of September, 1944 just as one of the worst winters for many years was kicking off. The ground was so hard that the entrenching tools were unable to break the surface although some units were lucky enough to get dynamite to help dig their foxholes. Their commanders must have been puzzled at the fanatical defence the German General Model put up. After all, once the D-Day beaches were stormed, the only significant resistance the Allies encountered was around cities and towns. This was just a small unimportant forest. It seemed hardly worth the effort. Their initial objective was to tie down German resources that could be used to reinforce the current battle for the city of Aachen – a particularly tough nut to crack. Little did they know that the battle was going to cost 33,000 Americans killed and wounded and drag on to be the longest single battle in US history as well as the longest battle on German soil in WWII. One particular death became famous around the world – Private Eddie Slovik was shot for desertion and became the first US soldier to be executed for the crime since the US Civil War. None of the other 27,000 American convicted deserters in WWII faced the firing squad.
The reason the Germans fought so hard was that Hitler had one more surprise for the Allies. The Battle of the Bulge. For months Hitler ignored his Russian Front commander’s warnings about an upcoming winter offensive and quietly built up his forces for one last thrust into Europe in an attempt to recapture Antwerp an Atlantic Port, and hopefully force the Allies into making Germany too hard to capture.
In a big offensive like the Bulge, forces are placed in staging areas behind a line designated as the start point for everyone. This combined with coordinated time keeping, ensures that everyone attacks at once and along the same start line, maximising the effectiveness of each unit. Unbeknown to the Americans, if they had taken the forest as easily as they expected to, they would be in a position to swing around the start line, disrupting the staging areas and worst of all, attack the attacking Germans from their rear whist simultaneously cutting off their supply lines.
So the Germans fought, and fought hard. In one section 4500 Americans died in a single month, capturing only 3000 yards of this Green Hell. When the American 1st Army stepped out of the forest on the other side, Hitler had only four months to live. The Americans had lost men at a similar attrition rate as the prisoners on the Death Railway in Thailand – one for every yard.
Even though the American forces were on paper at least, stronger, the battlefield favoured defenders as their air superiority counted for nothing if pilots could not see through the trees and snow, nor could artillery be effective as the trees disrupted their normal arc of fire. Tanks and other vehicles could operate on the tracks, but these were easily and effectively mined.
At great cost in men and time, the Americans prevailed. General Model did not issue an order for surrender, his men were doing that in droves. It was the beginning of the great wave of surrendering Germans, one lone American private set off to find the MPs with 78 prisoners, by the time he found them his charges had grown in number to 1200!
Towards the end, General Bradley offered a Bronze Star for any soldier who brought in General Model – dead or alive. All they managed to find was his Mercedes. Model told a group of soldiers looking to him for orders “Go home boys. The war is over for us.” He then took an aide out into the forest, said “Bury me here” and blew his brains out.
The newspapers of the day were full of stories from the Battle of the Bulge so Hurtgen Forest and all those wasted men were quietly forgotten.
Lest we forget.
(c) Paul Hannah