Key point: Many lives were spent trying to hold or seize objectives that didn't matter. It was one of many reasons why Nazi Germany lost World War II.
In their directive to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in northwestern Europe, the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff ordered Allied forces to land in France in June 1944, break out of Normandy, and mount an offensive “aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.”
To this end, Allied planners designated the first major target inside the Reich to be the Ruhr industrial region, an area of vital economic importance. An offensive against the Ruhr would compel the Germans to commit their remaining forces so that the Allies might bring them to battle and destroy them.
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There were four major approaches to the Ruhr from France: the Plain of Flanders, the Ardennes Forest, the Metz-Kaiserlauten Gap, and the Maubeuge-Leige-Aachen axis north of the Ardennes. On September 5, 1944, Eisenhower chose the route the American armies would follow through the German defensive line known as the Siegfried Line or West Wall directly to the north and south of the ancient city of Aachen. Once Aachen and its environs were captured, the Allied high command envisioned a rapid advance to the Rhine and then on to the Ruhr with the end of the war in Europe soon following.
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Militarily, Aachen had little to recommend it. Lying in a saucer-like depression surrounded by hills, it was not a natural fortress. This was surprising since in October 1944 the town lay between the twin bands of the Siegfried Line that split north and south of the city. To the west was the relatively thin Scharnhorst Line, while to the east and behind Aachen stood the more heavily fortified Schill Line.
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Aachen itself was defended by the 246th Volksgrenadier Infantry Division commanded by Colonel Gerhard Wilck. The 246th had taken responsibility for this sector in late September 1944 from the 116th Panzer Division. North of the city were the 183rd Volksgrenadier and 4th Infantry Divisions, while to the south lay the 12th Infantry Division, collectively designated the LXXI Corps under the command of Lt. Gen. Friedrich J. Kochling.
Although the 246th Division had not engaged in any major combat within its own zone, Wilck’s troops had nevertheless been decisively weakened. In the desperate efforts to stem the American First Army’s recent breakthrough of the West Wall, Kochling had stripped his front of troops, including four of Wilck’s seven infantry battalions. The entire 404th Infantry Regiment and a battalion each of the 352nd and 689th Infantry Regiments had been attached to neighboring divisions.
On October 7, 1944, the U.S. XIX Corps entered Alsdorf, six miles north of Aachen, in an initial move to encircle the city and attack it from the rear. From there the Americans pressed southward toward Wurselen.
The prospects for keeping Aachen in German hands looked bleak, yet Kochling’s Wehrmacht superiors had not let him down completely. Their most immediate step had been to assemble an effective force to retake Alsdorf in hopes of preventing the enemy encirclement of Aachen. The main component of this force was the Schnelle (Mobile) Regiment von Fritzschen comprising three bicycle-mounted infantry battalions and an engineer company. In support was the 108th Panzer Brigade with 22 self-propelled assault guns.
Any genuine hope of denying Aachen to the Americans for an extended time lay not with the small Schnelle combat group but with a promise from Commander-in-Chief West Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt to commit his most potent theater reserves. These were the 3rd Panzergrenadier and 116th Panzer Divisions. Attaching these to the headquarters of the I SS Panzer Corps headed by General Georg Keppler, von Rundstedt intended to stabilize the front in the Aachen region. Since leaving the city in September, the 116th Panzer Division had been built up to 11,500 men but it fielded only 41 tanks out of an authorized armor force of 151 PzKpfw. IV and PzKpfw. V Panther medium tanks. Although the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division was in reality little more than a motorized infantry division, numbering 12,000 soldiers, 31 75mm antitank guns, and 38 field artillery pieces.
From October 5 to 7, Kochling waited in vain for the arrival of the promised reinforcements. They had been dispatched earlier, but disruptions by Allied air attacks on the rail lines had resulted in serious delays. In the meantime, Kochling feared Aachen would be lost. At the time, the number of German troops defending Aachen and its surrounding area was 12,000, including the reduced 246th Volksgrenadier Division, a battalion of Luftwaffe ground troops, a machine-gun fortress battalion, and a Landesschutzen Battalion, all under the command of Lt. Col. Maximilian Leyherr.
From the American viewpoint, the timing of the operation to encircle and reduce Aachen depended on the progress of the penetration of the West Wall north of the city. As soon as XIX Corps took Wurselen, three miles to the north of Aachen and behind the Siegfried Line, Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins’ VII Corps in the south was to attack from a jump-off point near the town of Eilendorf east of Aachen, seize Verlautenheide, a strongpoint in the second band of the West Wall, and connect with XIX Corps at Wurselen. With Aachen isolated, part of the VII Corps would reduce the town while XIX Corps and the rest of VII Corps drove east and northeast to the Roer River. Once the Roer was crossed, a quick thrust through the Cologne Plain would bring the U.S. First Army to the Rhine within easy striking distance of the Ruhr.
On October 7, with Alsdorf in American hands, Maj. Gen. Leland Hobbs, commander of the U.S. 30th Infantry Division, urged his XIX Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Corlett, to order an immediate advance on Wurselen. Hobbs was confident he could join his division with those of the VII Corps in two days. With approval from Lieutenant Courtney H. Hodges, commander of the First Army, Maj. Gen. Clarence R. Huebner’s 1st Infantry Division, VII Corps began its drive to Wurselen that afternoon.
The 1st Division’s 18th Infantry Regiment, under Colonel George H. Smith, was tasked with capturing Verlautenheide. For this job the regiment formed assault teams armed with flamethrowers, Bangalore torpedoes, and pole and satchel explosive charges to eliminate the German pillboxes guarding the objective. In support of the special attack teams, a self-propelled battery of 155mm field guns and a company of tank destroyers would direct fire on the enemy defenses. Air assets and 11 batteries of artillery would soften up Verlautenheide before the infantry went in. The division’s other two regiments were to aid the attack by making feints on their respective fronts. Once the town was captured, a company of tanks would join the infantry there.
Because the American attacks were confined to a combined front of only five miles, German shelling inflicted significant losses. However, simultaneous American assaults prevented the German defenders from mounting adequate counterattacks to meet the dual threat to their positions. As a result, by October 10 the 18th Regiment had reached its final objectives, including the Aachen suburb of Haaren a mile north of the city, and had cut the two main roads into Aachen. On the same day, 1st Division captured its initial objectives and 30th Division prepared to advance southward on the jungle of factory buildings lying just outside Aachen.
The same day the Americans were closing the ring around Aachen, lead elements of the 3rd Panzergrenadier and 116th Panzer Divisions reached the town and were committed to battle. However, Field Marshal Walter Model, commander of Army Group G, which included German forces in Holland and Belgium, did not feel he could launch any serious counterattack until October 12.
On October 11, the 26th Infantry Regiment initiated an attack on Aachen while the 18th held a line from Verlautenheide to Haaren. In response, a hasty but strong German counterattack by the 3rd Panzergrenadier led by 15 PzKpfw. VI Tiger and captured American-built M4 Sherman tanks was launched on the 15th. The appearance of Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter bombers and massive American artillery fire broke up the German attack the following day.
As the 1st Division battled outside Aachen, to the north Hobbs’ 30th Division started its run from Alsdorf to Wurselen, a distance of only three miles, on October 7. For the next nine days its advance was bathed in blood. Hobbs’ path south to Wurselen was impeded by numerous pillboxes even though his division had begun its advance beyond the West Wall. In addition, Hobbs had to navigate through highly urbanized coal mining country filled with slag piles, mine shafts, and villages all well suited for defense.
Further, on several occasions the Germans threatened the American advance. The first attempt was a move on Alsdorf by the 108th Panzer Brigade and the von Fritzschen Regiment against the division’s eastern flank on October 8. This effort was foiled by the American 743rd Tank Battalion, which drove the enemy out of Alsdorf after the Germans lost several tanks. On the 11th the “Old Hickory Division” clashed with the 108th Panzer Brigade again and stopped this second German counterattack, clearing the road to Wurselen with the aid of air strikes.