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.