By mid-September 1944, the Allied pursuit of the German army after the landings at Normandy was slowing down because of extended supply lines and German Army rebuilding. The next strategic objective was to move up to the Rhine River along its entire length and prepare to cross it. Courtney Hodges′ 1st Army experienced hard resistance pushing through the Aachen Gap and perceived a potential threat from enemy forces using the Hürtgen Forest as a base.The U.S. 1st Infantry Division arrived in early October, joining elements of the XIX Corps and VII Corps, which had encircled Aachen. Although the 1st Infantry Division called for the surrender of the German garrison in the city, German commander Oberst Gerhard Wilck refused to capitulate until 22 October.It was also thought necessary to remove the threat posed by the Rur dam. The stored water could be released by the Germans, swamping any forces operating downstream. In the view of the American commanders, Bradley, Hodges and Collins, the direct route to the dam was through the forest.:239Military historians are no longer convinced by these arguments. Charles B. MacDonald—a U.S. Army historian and former company commander who served in the Hürtgen battle—has described it as "a misconceived and basically fruitless battle that should have been avoided.The Hürtgen Forest occupies a rugged area between the Rur river and Aachen. The dense conifer forest is broken by few roads, tracks and firebreaks; vehicular movement is restricted. In the autumn and early winter of 1944, the weather was cold and wet and often prevented air support. Ground conditions varied from wet to snow cover.The German defenders had prepared the area with blockhouses, minefields, barbed wire, and booby-traps, hidden by the snow. Also there were numerous bunkers in the area, mostly belonging to the deep defenses of the Westwall, which were also centers of resistance. The dense forest allowed infiltration and flanking attacks and it was sometimes difficult to establish a front line or to be confident that an area had been cleared of the enemy. The small numbers of routes and clearings had also allowed German machine-gun, mortar and artillery teams to pre-range their weapons and fire accurately. Apart from the bad and very cold weather, the dense forest and rough terrain also prevented proper use of the Allied air superiority which had great difficulties in spotting any targets.The American advantage in numbers, armor, mobility, and air support was greatly reduced by weather and terrain. In the forest, relatively small numbers of determined and prepared defenders could be highly effective. As the American divisions took casualties, inexperienced recruits were brought up to the front as replacements.454, 468–69
The impenetrable forest also limited the use of tanks and hid anti-tank teams equipped with panzerfausts. Improvised rocket launchers were made using rocket tubes from aircraft and spare jeep trailers. Later in the battle, it proved necessary to blast tank routes through the forest. Transport was similarly limited by the lack of routes: at critical times, it proved difficult to reinforce or supply front-line units or to evacuate their wounded. The Germans were hampered by much the same difficulties, of course; their divisions had taken heavy losses on the retreat through France and were hastily filled up with untrained boys, men unfit for service, and old men. Transport was also a problem because of the difficult roads and the lack of trucks and fuel. Most supplies had to be manhandled to the front line. But the German defenders had the advantage in that their commanders and many of their soldiers had been fighting for a few years and had learned the necessary tactics for fighting efficiently in winter and forested areas, whereas the Americans were often well-trained but inexperienced.The tall forest canopy also favored the defenders. Artillery fire was fused to detonate as tree bursts. While defenders were protected from shell fragments by their dug-in defensive positions, attackers in the open were much more vulnerable.Conversely, U.S. mortar platoons needed clearings in which to work; these were few and dangerous, being pre-ranged by German troops, so mortar support was often unavailable to rifle platoons.Historical discussion revolves around whether the American battle plan made any strategic or tactical sense. One analysis:240–241 is that U.S. strategy underestimated the strength and determination remaining in the psyche of the German soldier, believing his fighting spirit to have totally collapsed under the stress of the Normandy breakout and the reduction of the Falaise Pocket. American commanders in particular misunderstood the impassability of the dense Hürtgen Forest and its effects of reducing artillery accuracy and making air support impracticable. In addition, American forces were concentrated in the village of Schmidt and neither tried to conquer the strategic Rur Dams nor recognized the importance of Hill 400 until an advanced stage of the battle.Today tourists can visit a museum in Vossenack, look at a few of the surviving Siegfried Line bunkers, and take a walk along the infamous Kall Trail.