The Battle of Hürtgen Forest (German: Schlacht im Hürtgenwald) was a series of battles fought from 19 September to 16 December 1944, between American and German forces on the Western Front during World War II, in the Hürtgen Forest, a 140 km2 (54 sq mi) area about 5 km (3.1 mi) east of the Belgian–German border. It was the longest battle on German ground during World War II and is the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought.
The U.S. commanders’ initial goal was to pin down German forces in the area to keep them from reinforcing the front lines farther north in the Battle of Aachen, where the US forces were fighting against the Siegfried Line network of fortified industrial towns and villages speckled with pillboxes, tank traps, and minefields. The Americans’ initial tactical objectives were to take the village of Schmidt and clear Monschau. In a second phase, the Allies wanted to advance to the Rur River as part of Operation Queen.
Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model intended to bring the Allied thrust to a standstill. While he interfered less in the day-to-day movements of units than at the Battle of Arnhem, he still kept himself fully informed on the situation, slowing the Allies’ progress, inflicting heavy casualties, and taking full advantage of the fortifications the Germans called the Westwall, better known to the Allies as the Siegfried Line. The Hürtgen Forest cost the U.S. First Army at least 33,000 killed and wounded, including both combat and non-combat losses, with upper estimates at 55,000; German casualties were 28,000. The city of Aachen in the north eventually fell on 22 October at high cost to the U.S. Ninth Army, but they failed to cross the Rur river or wrest control of its dams from the Germans. The battle was so costly that it has been described as an Allied “defeat of the first magnitude,” with specific credit given to Model.: 391
The Germans fiercely defended the area because it served as a staging area for the 1944 winter offensive Wacht am Rhein (known in English-speaking countries as the Battle of the Bulge), and because the mountains commanded access to the Rur Dam[notes 3] at the head of the Rur Reservoir (Rurstausee). The Allies failed to capture the area after several heavy setbacks, and the Germans successfully held the region until they launched their last-ditch offensive into the Ardennes. This was launched on 16 December and ended the Hürtgen offensive. The Battle of the Bulge gained widespread press and public attention, leaving the battle of Hürtgen Forest less well remembered.
Sixteen East Tennesseans were killed in this brutal conflict. One survivor, now deceased, Command Sergeant Major Ben Franklin with the 16th Regiment, First Infantry Division, described it as the worst fight he experienced during the war: The Hürtgen Forest was an unexplainable mistake of the American General staff, one not to be questioned by simple soldiers. We just obeyed orders. Four divisions took part in the area of the Hürtgen Forest. We had massive casualties out of those four divisions. If you figure the average division normally has 14,000 to 16,000 men in it, but after they’ve been on the line for six months like we had been, we were reduced down to a division, maybe a 10,000 division. So out of 40,000 or 45,000 troops that participated in the Hürtgen Forest, we had 33,000 casualties. You can readily see the impact casualty wise. Now why? One, there were no roads through the forest; there were simply fire trails. Two, the trees were so dense, so close together that you could not even drive a Jeep between them. So everything was on foot, and you had to carry everything, and the weather was miserable!”
Families who lost loved ones have finally gotten closure after decades of uncertainty owing to today’s advanced forensics employed in recent years to identify the remains of these four East Tennesseans, now back home again: