The Battle of Hurtgen Forest

The Battle of Hurtgen Forest by Charles Whiting (Pan, 2003)

Operation NEPTUNE, the assault phase of the Allied invasion of occupied north-west Europe, officially ceased sixty years ago last week. Yet some of the bitterest fighting was to come, with the Germans showing greater determination once they had been pushed back to their native soil, and Hitler making his last throw of the dice in the Battle of the Bulge. One of the costliest battles for the American forces has never received much publicity – possibly because of the humiliation caused by the U.S. Army retreat from ground once won. It was called the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, lasted from September 1944 to February 1945, and thirty thousand GIs were killed or wounded in it.  According to Charles Whiting, it was a battle that should never have been fought.

Hurtgen (strictly Hürtgen) Forest is just south of Aachen – fifty square miles of thick, rugged woods, spattered then with the remnants of the Siegfried Line, namely mines, barbed wire, and concealed pillboxes, where German snipers and artillerymen could overcome the traditional technological advantages of the US attackers. Whiting relates how division after division was thrown at the Forest, often with poorly trained troops, fresh off their transport ships, used as fodder by generals who never went close to the fighting zone. “Throughout the eleven-month campaign, mistake after mistake was made and subsequently hushed up by the generals for the sake of their prestige of the U.S. army and their own egos”, Whiting writes. It was called the “Green Hell”, and the “Death Factory”. Soldiers mutilated themselves so as to be hospitalized; some lost their minds. Wounded soldiers frequently had to be left behind, as German snipers attacked the medics, although both sides honored truces occasionally. Desertion was frequent: the first American deserter to be shot for eighty years, Eddie Slovik, was the scapegoat of this disastrous campaign, executed “to encourage the others”.

Charles Whiting uses a variety of sources to make this an engrossing tale. He draws on the official history (i.e. Charles MacDonald’s Three Battles), that portrays the grisliness but is overall uncritical, and he includes interviews with survivors from both sides to flesh out the drama. Occasionally he gets distracted by less relevant events, but mostly the story is taut, and horrifyingly realistic. He challenges the military objectives, indicating that the capture of the vital Roer River Dams (which could have flooded the plains where part of Montgomery’s army was trying to advance) was established as a post facto goal. Indeed, he criticizes the vacillation of Simpson’s Ninth Army as causing unnecessary casualties to the British and Canadian forces. He is harsher on Eisenhower’s level of focus and decisiveness than most accounts would have it.  He is skimpy, however, on suggesting alternative strategies for how the German stronghold should have been extirpated, such as actions to break its supply lines, which occurred to this puzzled, amateur armchair critic.

So what are Whiting’s credentials? His bio claims that he saw active service during the war, “serving in an armoured reconnaissance regiment attached to both the US and British armies.” Yet his identity is elusive: he uses three pseudonyms (Leo Kessler, Duncan Harding, and John Kerrigan), and, while described as “Britain’s most prolific military writer”, was born in New York in 1926, according to a Czech website. That makes him a very young combatant. Two other books on Hürtgen (by Miller, and Rush) have appeared since this volume first appeared in 1989, and the 1963 account by McDonald (who was there) has been reprinted. Readers interested in this tragic story may want to cast their net further afield.

Yet I do not doubt the overall veracity of this account, or the conclusions that infantrymen were needlessly sacrificed because of the whims and vanity of the generals. It is a story echoed at Passchendaele, in Vietnam, and even in some of the initial accounts coming out of Iraq. War is sometimes necessary, but battles are frequently ill-conceived and badly executed. Every individual soldier’s death is horrific, but even sadder when the cause is dubious. It is difficult to come to grips with the slaughter – on both sides – that was represented by the deadlock of Hürtgen Forest.  Whiting dedicated this searing book to the “dead young men and the old ones still alive who fought in the Death Factory”. They deserve our remembrance.

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