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Nazi Germany Wasted Many Lives Trying to Keep Aachen from the Allies

October 12, 2019 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: HitlerGermanyWorld War IIU.S. ArmyMilitaryHistoryAachen

Nazi Germany Wasted Many Lives Trying to Keep Aachen from the Allies

Foolish.

The following day the Nazis showed they still had fight left in them when they once more attacked the 30th Division. This drive was spearheaded by the 108th Panzer Brigade and supported by the newly arrived 60th Panzergrenadier Regiment and Kampfgruppe Diefenthal. After an all-day contest, the American line remained intact thanks in large measure to massive air and artillery support. However, Hobbs had suffered more than 2,000 casualties in six days of heavy fighting. He felt compelled to call for assistance in closing the gap around Aachen.

Reinforced with the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division and a battalion of Sherman tanks from the 2nd Armored Division, Hobbs’ men had battled their way by October 16 to Hill 194 on the southern fringe of Wurselen, 1,000 yards from the advance positions of the 1st Division’s 18th Regiment. The Aachen gap was finally closed.

When the American encirclement of Aachen began on October 7, the city was already a scarred shell. Of a prewar population of 165,000 souls, less than 20,000 remained there. By early October 1944, a number of Royal Air Force bombing raids had reduced Aachen to a sea of rubble. Few of its inhabitants could have doubted that the end was near when on October 10 the Americans delivered an ultimatum to the garrison commander to surrender. Dutifully, Lt. Col. Leyherr rejected the demand in accord with Hitler’s “last stand” order. Two days later, Wilck took over as the city’s military commander and established his headquarters in the Palast-Hotel Quellenhof in Farwick Park in the northern part of the town.

To storm Aachen proper, Huebner had only two infantry battalions of his 26th Regiment—less than 1,100 combat infantrymen under Colonel John F.R. Seitz.  The rest of the division was spread out elsewhere along the front, and one additional battalion was his only reserve. Within the inner city defenses Wilck had 5,000 men, most of them from his division, as well as 200 police officers under arms. His armor strength was only five PzKpfw. IV tanks. The artillery consisted of eight 75mm, 19 105mm, and six 150mm guns. As long as he could communicate with the outside, Wilck could receive substantial additional artillery firepower.

General Huebner planned to cautiously attack Aachen because American positions at Wurselen and Haaren were so thinly held that German reinforcements from outside the city might break into the town from the northeast. As a divisional staff member put it, the 26th would have to attack “with one eye cocked over its right shoulder.” Yet in striking from the east through Aachen’s back door, the regiment had a distinct advantage since the German defenses in that area were understandably the weakest.

Prior to its attack on Aachen, the 26th Regiment had been chewing away at the eastern suburb of Rothe Erde. To reduce the regiment’s frontage, Seitz placed a provisional infantry company on his left facing the city and tied into the defenses of the 1106th Engineer Battalion positioned south of Aachen. Although the engineers were to keep contact with the attacking force, they were not equipped to participate in the assault. That attack was to be led by the 2nd Battalion, 26th Regiment under Lt. Col. Derrill M. Daniel. Its starting point was the ruins of Rothe Erde, and the battalion was to move westward through the heart of the city. The 26th’s 3rd Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. John T. Corley, stationed between Rothe Erde and Haaren, was ordered to attack north and west, take the factory district lying between Aachen and Haaren, and then move west to seize three hills dominating Aachen on the city’s northern edge. The bulk of the hill mass 3rd Battalion was to capture had been made into a public park known as the Lousberg. The high ground rose 862 feet and cast a shadow over the entire city. To the Americans it was known as Observatory Hill after an observation tower on its crest. A lower knob on the southeastern slopes of the hill was crowned by a cathedral and is called the Salvatorberg. Down the southeastern slope in Farwick Park stood the Palast-Hotel Quellenhof.

On October 11, the IX U.S. Tactical Air Force dropped 62 tons of bombs on the outer perimeter of Aachen. Twelve artillery battalions of the 1st Division and VII Corps then unleashed 4,900 rounds on the town. After the fire fell silent, American patrols entering still encountered strong enemy fire. Over the next two days more air raids were conducted, and another 5,000 artillery shells hit the town.

By nightfall on October 12, the 3rd Battalion had cleared the industrial area between Aachen and Haaren in preparation for the main assault. Moving through the center of Aachen on a 2,000-yard front, Daniels’ men had to plow through the maze of rubble and damaged buildings in their path and maintain contact with Corley’s command.

Dividing his men into small assault teams, Daniels sent one tank or tank destroyer with each platoon. The armor would keep the buildings under fire until the accompanying riflemen made their assault; the armor would then shift its fire to the next building. Augmented by light and heavy machine-gun fire from the streets, the tank shelling drove the German defenders into the cellars where the American soldiers would then attack using hand grenades. When they met strong resistance, the Americans used demolition charges and flamethrowers handled by two-man teams attached to each company. The men did not wait for actual targets to appear; they assumed each building held hostile forces. Light artillery and mortar fire swept forward several streets ahead of the infantry, while heavier artillery pummeled German positions farther to the rear.

To maintain contact between his units, each day Daniels designated a series of checkpoints based on street intersections and prominent buildings. No unit was to advance beyond a checkpoint until it had established contact with an adjacent unit. Each rifle company was given a specific site to advance to; company commanders in turn designated a street to each of their platoons. After a few bitter experiences of Germans bypassed in cellars and sewers emerging to attack the GIs from behind, the Americans learned that firepower and deliberate progress were more important than speed.

In the other half of the attack, Colonel Corley’s battalion driving west toward the high ground on Observatory Hill found its route blocked on the first day by stoutly defended blocks of apartment buildings. The men measured their gains in buildings, floors, and even rooms. Someone said after the battle that the fight was “from attic to attic and sewer to sewer.” As riflemen from Company K advanced down Julicher Strasse, a 20mm cannon opened fire from a side street, driving them back. Two American tanks were then knocked out by Panzerfaust shots. One of the steel monsters was remanded by Company K’s Sergeant Alvin R. Wise, who began to spray adjacent structures with the tank’s machine guns. He and two buddies got the engine started and drove the vehicle to safety.

Having discovered that some buildings and air raid shelters could withstand tank and tank destroyer fire, Corley called for 155mm self-propelled artillery support. The next morning the big weapons proved their worth by devastating a strongly built house. Impressed, the regimental commander sent one of these artillery pieces to his other battalion.

By nightfall on the first day, Corley’s men had reached the base of the Lousberg. The next day, October 14, a rifle company was able to reach Farwick Park. Yet the American hold on that objective was tenuous at best since the rest of the battalion was hung up battling defenders holed up in structures approaching the park. The Germans still held the hotel, the Kurhaus, the Orangerie greenhouse, and several garden buildings.

As early as October 13, Wilck had asked for reinforcements. That night 150 men from the 404th Infantry Regiment strengthened the defenses on Observatory Hill. SS Battalion Rink, part of Kampfgruppe Diefenthal, attempted to join the defenders but was sidetracked by an attack on Wurselen by the 30th Division. The next day, Kochling was able to slip eight assault guns into the city to help the garrison. On the 15th, SS Battalion Rink finally entered the town.

On the same day, Colonel Corley renewed his attack on Farwick Park. By noon, under cover of a mortar barrage, his men had wrested control of the garden buildings and the greenhouse from the enemy but were unable to capture the Hotel Quellenhof. Just as the colonel sent a company supported by a 155mm gun to flank the hotel, the Germans launched a counterattack. Made up of the remains of the 404th Regiment and SS Battalion Rink, the Nazi blow was parried by the an infantry company occupying the north edge of Farwick Park. The fight continued for an hour before the Americans had to fall back from the enemy advance, which was supported by several assault guns. By 5 pm, the steam had run out of the German attack.