As the Allies pushed farther and farther into Axis-held lands, they encountered a deep, dark forest filled with heavily-armed Nazi troops. How much do you know about the Battle of Hurtgen?
The battle began in September 1944, as the war began spiraling towards the end of the Third Reich. The German army was battered and bruised by years of war, but it still had plenty of viciousness left to direct at the Allies.
The Hurtgen Forest was an area of woodlands on the Germany-Belgium border. These days, the forest is about 50 square miles in size.
Beginning in September, the battle continued until the middle of February. Both sides suffered from the bitter European winter weather.
The Allies had landed in Normandy on June of that year. Now, they were pushing eastward in an attempt to probe the German defenses in the forest. Unbeknownst to the Allies, the Germans had created powerful fortifications in the woods.
The battle was and still is the longest single battle ever fought by any army from the United States. As such, it was also one of the most miserable experiences in U.S. war history.
Some of its units weren't at full strength, but the Nazi soldiers were battle-hardened and ready to fight. They were determined to maintain their ground so it could be used for later offensives.
This battle mostly pitted the U.S. First Army versus the Germans. The American forces were instructed to keep the Nazis busy so that they couldn't reinforce their troops fighting in other areas of the Western Front.
The weather and thick woods meant it was difficult for the Allies to make use of their air superiority. The Germans used this fact to their advantage, moving their troops around the area without being spotted.
The Siegfried Line was part of a long line of German fortifications built along the Western Front. It had more than 18,000 bunkers, many of which stretched through the Hurtgen Forest.
There were about 120,000 troops fighting at the Battle of Hurtgen. A large percentage of them would not live to see the end of the fight.
With about 80,000 troops, the Germans were outnumbered. They had a tremendous advantage, though -- they were hiding amid their strong fortifications, forcing the enemy to come to them.
Gen. Courtney Hodges was as World War I hero who was placed in command of the First Army at Hurtgen. He also played a key role in beating back the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge.
The Allies had plenty of tanks -- numbering around 700 -- but making use of these armored vehicles was difficult given the dense forest.
The Germans timed the fuses on their artillery shells to explode right at tree level. This tactic meant that the shells blew up trees, showering the Allies with dangerous shrapnel.
Allied intelligence regarding the Germans was completely wrong -- the figured the Nazis were in low spirits and that they wouldn't fight very hard. Instead, the Germans in many cases fought to the death.
The Allies waded into the woods facing one of the finest tactical minds of the entire war. Walter Model was known for his exceptionally adept defensive strategies, which would punish the Allied men trying to breach Nazi lines.
The forest was so thick that tanks simply couldn’t make any real progress. American troops often used explosives to blast stands of trees so that their tanks could move towards German lines.
After nearly half a year of grinding combat, the Americans found that the German war machine was not yet broken. The Germans came out on top.
The second phase of the offensive was named Operation Queen. This operation was meant to capture the area around the Rur River, which would give the Allies the ground they needed to attack the German homeland.
Günther Stüttgen was a German medic who managed to obtain a temporary ceasefire, which allowed both sides to tend to their wounded soldiers. In some cases, German medics saved the lives of American troops, too.
The 109th flung themselves into the heart of the German defenses and gained about a mile. Ominously, that was about all of the ground they would take during the entire five-month battle.
German troops pruned many of the trees near ground level. This created a clear line of fire so that their machine guns could cut down advancing Allied infantry.
During the five-month ordeal, American troops captured about 95,000 Germans. Even with those significant losses, the Nazi army still had plenty of manpower to initiate another large-scale offensive in the months following Hurtgen.
As the battle raged, Allied commanders realized that the Germans controlled the large Rur Dams. Had the Germans blown up those dams, they could have flooded the battlefield for many miles, slowing the Allied advance. The Nazis never blew the dam and the Allies took control of the area.
Wilde Sau means "Wild Sow," which became associated with a large German minefield. It gained fame in part because a Nazi soldier died trying to save an American troop from the mines.
Of 120,000 men involved at this battle, about 33,000 were killed or wounded. That number includes non-combat injuries, too.
Casualties figures for both side were roughly even. The Germans probably absorbed about 28,000 casualties while keeping the Americans at bay.
American commanders didn’t fully understand how thick the forest really was. The tall conifers were crowded together and sometimes so densely that troops had their visibility reduced to only a few yards.
The Battle of Hurtgen happened shortly before the heavily publicized Battle of the Bulge, which occurred in an area blanketed with journalists. The latter battle became enshrined in history -- while Hurtgen was largely forgotten.
Given the dense darkness of the forest, the Germans were sure that the Americans would flee the forest and look for an easier route. Instead, the Allies pushed deeper and deeper into the treacherous terrain, a strategy that cost them many lives for no real gain.