709th Tank Battalion in Support, Hürtgenwald, the Bloody Triangle

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The failure of the 28th Infantry Division to take the town of Schmidt made it necessary for the the 1-A and the V Corps to secure another road which would serve as a supply route in the push to the Roer River, and to effect the seizure of the vital dams that influenced all operations to the north. An alternate route was found in the road Hürtgen to Kleinhau. Not only were there several approaches to the road but possession of the positions around Hürtgen on the Kleinhau – Bergstein Ridge would give the American forces observation while denying it to the Germans.

The Hurtgen Forest Battle (www.eucmh.com)

On November 14, the battered 28th Infantry Division was relieved from the front line and began a mutual interchange of positions with the 8th Infantry Division which was located in the relatively quiet VIII Corps sector to the south. On November 19, the 709th Tank Battalion, which had been attached to the 8th infantry Division throughout the European campaign, relieved in place the 707th Tank Battalion, the armored support of the 28th Infantry Division. Oral orders from the commanding general of the V Corps were received by the 8th Infantry Division early on the evening of November 10, necessitating a hurried move of the 121st Infantry Regiment which was still in Luxembourg. A letter of instructions followed which directed the attachment of CCR or the 5th Armored Division, to the 8th Infantry Division for an attack to seize the Hürtgen – Kleinhau – Bergstein Ridge on November 21 1944.

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In order to carry out the corps directive it was planned to divide the action into two phases. During Phase 1 the 121-IR, reinforced, was to pass through the 12-IR (4-ID) and, commencing at, 0900, November 21, was to seize as its first objective the northern and eastern edges of the forest south and west of the town of Hürtgen. This would provide a line of departure for CCR-5-AD, to initiate Phase II by its advance under cover of darkness from the west to seize the town of Hürtgen then Kleinhau and, finally, the ridge on which these towns were located. The 121-IR was then to relieve CCR, occupy Hürtgen, Kleinhau, Hill 401, and defend the ridge from counter attacks from the northeast and southeast while CCR continued the attack to Bergstein. The 121-IR had attached the 12th Engineer Combat Battalion to clear the road to Hürtgen which was heavily mined and obstructed by fallen trees. No serious threat from German armor was expected during the attack through the forest but there was a strong possibility of counter attacks when the edge of the forest was reached. To counter this possibility, Able Co, 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion, was attached to the regiment.

The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest (EUCMH)

The other regiments were to have little part in the attack on Hürtgen. The 28th Infantry Regiment was to remain in position in Vossenack and the 13th Infantry Regiment was to occupy defensive positions just north of the Kall River. The portion of the forest through which the attack on the town of Hürtgen had to pass lay generally along and west of the Hürtgen – Germeter Road. The Germans had correctly evaluated the defensive capabilities of the heavily wooded and boggy irregular terrain which was cut by numerous gullies and steep cliffs. They had prepared elaborate positions of wire entanglements, minefields, log bunkers, pillboxes and prepared fires. Maps of the forest used by the Germans had each section marked; when the observers in the log bunkers heard a noise in any section they called for fire on that point.

The mud, rain, and sleet of early winter added to the formidable nature of the obstacles opposing the American forces. The German troops opposing the attack of the 8-ID were not of the best quality. Their forces consisted of many provisional units which were formed of exceptionally old or young men many of whom had never been in combat and stragglers from units that had been disorganized in France. Some of the enemy units identified were, Kampfgruppe Weinem consisting of about 400 men, consisting of the remainders of Kampfgruppe Gombel, remainders of the 275.Infantry-Division, the 89.Infantry-Division and other non-divisional units. The morale of the defenders was generally low and for that reason certain of the SS troops were stationed west of the Roer to discourage any notion of surrender. A scarcity of officers was indicated with all platoons and most companies being commanded by noncoms officers. The poor quality of the defenders, however, was more than offset by the elaborateness of the defense. All approaches to the clearing in which the town of Hürtgen was located passed through dense woods with the two roads approaching from the west having sharp bends which provided ideal sites for strong points. The Germans took full advantage of these positions as outposts.

The frustrating obstacles of mud, mines, and limited mobility in the tangled masses of trees forced the 709-TB to be employed largely by platoons throughout the Hürtgen village operation. Even in this strength the available ground for maneuver was as so limited that tank operations frequently came to a standstill when a single tank immobilized by mines or mud blocked the path of the canalized column. The tanks played a minor role in the initial attack toward Hürtgen, and except during the attack on the village itself never rose above a supporting role during the entire operation.

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Assault to Hürtgen – November 12-28 1944

The 121-IR attacked with three battalions abreast at 0900, on November 21, toward the forest clearing southwest of Hürtgen. The attack was launched through the positions of the 12-IR (4-ID), located generally north and west of Wittscheid, but bogged down almost immediately because of the heavy concentrations of mortar fire and the dense AP mine fields encountered. Item Co, 121-IR, on the right flank of the regiment, was the only company to reach its objective, the edge of the forest southwest of the town of Hürtgen. On the following morning, the regiment resumed its attack with the 1/121-IR in the center making the main effort. The 3/12-IR on the right strengthened its positions on the edge of the forest but made little forward progress in spite of the repeated attacks and the support of the Corps artillery. The 2/121-IR meanwhile advanced about 200 yards and reached the edge of a fire lane short of the objective. The lack of success was due principally to mortar fire, dense woods, mine fields, and heavy artillery fire. By evening it was apparent that much greater progress must be made on the next day if a line of departure for CCR, 5-AD was to be secured.

On November 23, the regiment again attacked with three battalions abreast without appreciable gains. The 2nd Plat, Doc Co, 709-TB was attached to the 1/121-IR, and the 3 Plat, Dog Co, 709-TB was attached to the 3/121-IR. It was first planned to use the tanks of Dog Co’s 2nd Plat in the firebreaks ahead of its infantry battalion, but four of the five tanks bogged down before reaching their positions. It was then planned to use those of Dog Co’s 3rd Plat, in front of the 3/121-IR against a strong point which had been holding up both battalions. The tanks bogged down en route to the 3/121-IR, and when they finally arrived, at 1645, the lead tank became mired again and blocked the advance of the others. At 1700, the enemy counter attacked along the entire regimental front but was repulsed after a 30 minute engagement. By nightfall, the line of departure for the attack of CCR, 5-AD, which was to initiate Phase II still had not been secured and the attack of the Combat Command scheduled for December 24 was delayed.

On November 24, the remainder of the 709-TB (less Charlie Co) was attached to the 121-IR for employment on the following day and was held ready to follow the Combat Command in its attack on Hürtgen. Charlie-709-TB was attached to the 2/22-IR (4-ID). The 121-IR continued its attack with its 1st Battalion but made no gain. The 2nd Battalion, on the left, gained 500 yards to face the village from the west, and the 3rd Battalion on the right advanced about 200 yards east of the Germeter – Hürtgen Road. The Doc Co’s 3rd Play (709-TB), still attached to the 3/121-IR was given the mission of wiping out a machine gun that was holding up the infantry. At 0900, the 3rd Battalion began a coordinated attack on both sides of the road with the attached light tanks in support. The lead tank was disabled by a mine although the road had been cleared the night before. Either the Germans had mined it again or the engineers had failed to clear all the mines. The platoon leader dismounted to check for AT mines and ignited an AP mine which blew off his legs.

A German SP 88-MM Gun further disabled the tank with three direct hits, killing one member of the crew and wounding another one. The other four tanks turned back since they could not pass the first tank, which, together with a large crater beside it, blocked the road. At 2150, a tank recovery vehicle from Able-709-TB, went forward to pull the tank off the road. Some 200 yards short of its goal it hit a mine which knocked off a track. Men of the 12th Engineer Battalion went up during the night and blew up the tank in order to clear the road, but discovered two other large craters blocking the road beyond. Meanwhile, to the north-east, the Dog Co’s 2nd Plat with the 2/121-IR had the mission of supporting the infantry in an advance to the forest edge. Mines and obstacles halted the advance and the tank attack was called off.

The situation as seen at the close of November 24 by Division Headquarters was as follows : the advance of the 4-ID on the north seemed to insure that an attack by the 121-IR against the Hürtgen – Grosshau Ridge could be supported from that flank; progress had been slow in the 121-IR zone; combined attacks by light tanks, tank destroyers, and the bulk of the 3-121-IR made slight progress on the south flank. In general, the situation in the 121-IR zone vas still not conducive for an attack by CCR-5-AD, on November 25. However, the arrival of German reinforcements in the Hürtgen area and the expected arrival of more reinforcements indicated the necessity of an attack by the combat command without delay. The 8-ID plan contemplated that the 121-IR, reinforced by the 709-TB (-) and Able-644-TDB, follow CCR, mop up and occupy Hürtgen, Kleinhau and Hill 401 with one reinforced battalion on each. The 22-IR and 12-IR of the 4-ID were to support the attack from positions west of Hürtgen and Kleinhau, while Charlie-709-TB was to be made available to CCR-5-AD at Kleinhau.

At 0730, November 25, the 121-IR renewed its attack toward the edge of the forest. The 2/121 on the left made the only appreciable gain, about 700 yards. Dog Co’s 2 Plat, 709-TD, attached to this battalion, had been instrumental in its advance to the edge of the forest.

    [… To get to the edge of the forest, Easy-121, pulled out first. It had a detachment of Engineers from the 12-ECB and the Dog Co’s 2 Plat, 709-TB. George-121, went to the left of the minefield and then across country to a hairpin turn in the road to the east. They took out a machine gun which in a set of road blocks along the road near this turn. When a team was organized it went down the road. The infantry led, then the engineers, and finally the tanks. The infantry protected the engineers while they removed some 100 AT mines and 4 road blocks. Tanks helped knock out bunkers. Approximately 38 prisoners were taken. There was wonderful team work between the infantry, engineers, and tanks. None of the tanks were destroyed …]

    [… Easy-121 was walking around the tanks and about 4 men were riding the tanks. We met Jerries in log bunkers. Each bunker had at least one automatic weapon and small arms. The tanks exchanged a few shots with the Jerries in their log bunkers and easily persuaded them to give up …]

The push of the 2/121 improved the regiment’s position which was now on or around the crest side of Hürtgen. Meanwhile CCR had launched an attack at 0730 and again at 1630 through the 3/121 up the Germeter – Hürtgen Road but made no advances. The plan for the taking of Hürtgen by CCR-5-AD was abandoned and the mission fell to the infantrymen of the 121-IR.

Operations for November 26, came as somewhat of a breather with only limited objective attacks being made to straighten out the regimental front line by eliminating small pockets of resistance. Reducing this resistance, the 121-IR consolidated along the edge of the forest on the southwest, west and northwest sides of the Hürtgen. Fox-121 advanced to within 300 yards of the village but withdrew in the face of heavy fire. A coordinated attack on the village by the regiment with its attachments was planned in conjunction with the 1/13-IR, on the north. The employment of the tank battalion was not contemplated until the fall of Hürtgen in order that the restricted road net would not be blocked for tank destroyers and necessary light vehicles of the regiment.

On the following day the 1/13-IR, made an advance of approximately 1500 yards to the east on the north side of the village and cut the Hürtgen – Kleinhau road. The 1/121-IR advanced toward Hürtgen but made little gain because of reduced strength and the heavy fire encountered. The 2/121-IR also attacked toward the village but was stopped cold by small arms fire from the outlying houses and by mortar fire. The 1st and 2nd Platoons of Able Co were in support of the 2/121, but were of no major assistance. The 3/121 on the south continued to attack east through the forest. On the night of November 27, patrols from the 2/121 and from the 1/13-IR erroneously reported Hürtgen unoccupied; the town was nearly encircled by the Americans.

Next morning, the 2/121 attempted to enter Hürtgen from the southwest but was surprised to meet resistance. The 1/121 attacked from the woods to the south of the village but was stopped by machine gun fire coming from the town. The regimental attack bogged down but by noon was reorganized into a combined infantry-armor assault which advanced into Hürtgen despite heavy artillery and mortar fire. The Able’s 1st Plat, 709-TB, led the attack, followed by infantrymen from Easy-121 and a squad of the 12-ECB with minesweepers mounted on the tanks of the leading wave. Fox and George Cos, 121-IR, advanced on foot. As the combined arms team approached the village one tank was hit by artillery fire which wounded all of the infantrymen aboard. Small arms fire was received and the troops of Fox and George Cos dropped behind. Then the tanks reached the outlying buildings of the town the infantry and engineers dismounted and took shelter on both sides of the street. No mines were encountered in the town so the engineers fought as infantry. The foot troops advanced house by house on both sides of the street while the tanks moved ahead firing into each building with their 75’s after which the infantry cleared it top to bottom. Ninety-five percent of the prisoners were taken from reinforced concrete cellars. The Germans were terrified by the tank fire more than anything else. As the lead tank neared the church in the center of Hürtgen, it was hit by a Panzerfaust and set on fire. A few minutes later a tank destroyer was knocked out by a Panzerschreck in the same vicinity, however, by 1730 the village was secured after all houses had been cleared.

Officers of the 709-TB felt that the infantry should have advanced at least three houses ahead of the tanks in the town fighting to prevent tank losses from enemy AT fire. Charlie Co, 13-IR, advanced into Hürtgen from the 1/121-IR positions on the northeast of the town, where during the day, it had repulsed several counter attacks. The remainder of the 1/121 seized Hill 401, south of Kleinhau, then joined the 2/121 in mopping up. Combat Command Reserve, 5-AD was alerted and ordered to jump of at daylight November 29 to capture Kleinhau and the high ground to the northeast.

Hürtgen, the Corps Objective, November 29 – December 5

With the fall of Hürtgen a foothold on the Hürtgen – Kleinhau – Brandenberg ridge was seized which gave CCR-5-AD, room to maneuver. Accordingly, CCR attacked at daylight and captured Kleinhau and Hill 401 to the northeast. Here it was relieved by the 1/13-IR, in order that it could regroup and push south to Brandenberg. The 1/121 and 2/121, consolidated positions in the vicinity of Hürtgen while the 3/131 continued its attack east through the forest and gained 1000 yards south of the town. Elements of the 28-IR in Vossenack to the south pushed eastward and occupied Hill 50. The 709-TB was still attached to the 121-IR but remained in regimental reserve helping to consolidate and to organize defensive positions around Hürtgen.

On the next day new orders were given to the 709-TB. The Assault Gun PLat was attached to the 56th Field Artillery Battalion. Able Co was attached to a task force with the mission of assisting in clearing remaining enemy resistance west of the Kleinhau – Brandenberg Road. Dog Co plus one platoon of Baker Co was attached to the garrison under Lt Col Streiter which as being organized with two rifle companies and a platoon of TD’s for the defense of Kleinhau. En route to Kleinhau a light tank from Dog Co turned over killing an officer and one enlisted man. Baker Co, (less one platoon) vas ordered to outpost and defend Hürtgen, and lost one tank during the day when it ran over an AT mines. The drive for the dams gained headway again once the bottleneck of Hürtgen was removed. The picture on the 8-ID front for this day includes the building up of defenses along the line Hürtgen – Kleinhau to ward off any attack from the northeast; the push of elements of the 121-IR just south of Hürtgen toward the Kleinhau – Brandenberg ridge; and the breakout of the Vossenack thumb by the 28-IR in the direction of the Kleinhau – Brandenberg Road.

All the while CCR, 5-AD, was pushing down this road in the direction of Brandenberg and Bergstein. Though bloody fighting continued the stalemate was crumbling. Able Co, 709-TB, continued to operate on December 1 in the reduction of enemy resistance west of the Kleinhau – Brandenberg Road. The 1st Plat was ordered to attack with the 2/121 against the enemy to the southeast of Hürtgen. The 2nd Plat also joined the attack with the mission of giving supporting fire. The attack was successful and the 2/121 crossed the Kleinhau – Brandenberg Road by evening. The 3/121 launched its attack in the same area. Just before the attack jumped off 4 American tanks appeared on the scene. Maj Hogan, the Battalion Commander, talked with the tank platoon leader who informed him that his mission was to support the 2/121. Maj Hogan requested that they support him instead. Shortly afterwards when the 3/121 was held up by pillboxes the tank platoon commander requested and received permission to assist them. An infantry sergeant was placed in the lead tank and coordinated the tank fire with that of the infantry on the strong points which were holding up the attack. The Germans placed fire on the tanks but failed to destroy them. After assisting the infantry to gain 70-100 yards in the entire days fighting the tanks returned to Hürtgen for the night.

To the northeast, Able’s 3rd Plat attacked with the 1/13-IR. The attack started at Kleinhau and the platoon progressed some 1500 yards to the south, losing but one tank which struck a mine. The attack south of Hürtgen continued on December 2 against the remaining enemy pockets west of the Kleinhau – Brandenberg Road with the Able’s 2nd Plat in support. Lt Bush and Sgt Harper of the infantry were placed in one of the tanks with an SCR 300 radio and coordinated tank fires with those of the infantry. One pillbox was knocked out by a tank firing at it from pointblank range with its 75-MM. An advance of 150 yards against stiff resistance was made and 55 prisoners were taken. Sgt Carlton R. Brown, operations Sgt of the 3/121, stated in a combat interview regarding this action : Tanks were not of much value except that psychologically they scared the enemy and encouraged us.

The 2/121, to the east of the Kleinhau – Brandenberg Road reported that an American tank fired on them killing two men and wounding two others before it could be stopped. They also reported that later one of the tanks in the same group ran over a pile of 20 mines which destroyed the tank, killed the crew, and injured some of the nearby infantrymen. The Able-709’s 1st and 2nd Plats attacked with the 3/121, cleared out the pocket west of the Kleinhau – Brandenberg Road and crossed into the woods on the east by the evening of December 3. The 1st Battalion of 3/121 pressed its attack east of the road supported by the Able-709’s 3rd Plat, gaining 300 yards before they consolidated their gains for the night. On this date, Combat Command Reserve (5-AD) seized Brandenberg. While the 121-IR was clearing out the resistance on both the east and west sides of the road, the 28-IR to the south, had been pushing east and southeast from Vossenack attempting to straighten out the line from Vossenack to Brandenberg. On this date, Baker-709’s 2nd Plat, moved to Vossenack to support one of the attacks of that regiment. Mud and woods interfered with the coordination of tanks and infantry and the tank platoon withdrew to Germeter. The 1st and 2nd Plats, Able-709, on 4 December, assisted the 28-IR in a final attack to secure its objectives on the Kleinhau – Brandenberg Ridge.

Lt Bush, 3/28 was again placed in one of the lead tanks as the attack moved forward. Mortar fire was encountered, but it bounced off the tanks without damaging them. The infantry complained of the reluctance of the tanks to leave the fire lanes and enter the woods. When they did so, however, the tanks knocked out two machine gun nests before bogging down. 3/28 was on the Corps objective (the Kleinhau – Brandenberg Ridge) by nightfall. Meanwhile, Baker-709’s 1st Plat, supported the 2/28 in an attack to the southeast of Vossenack. The attack jumped off after heavy artillery preparation but met no success and lost all of the tanks of the platoon, presumably to enemy tank fire. The remnants of the tank crews returned to Germeter. On December 5, Charlie-709 returned to the control of the 709-TB after seeing considerable fighting with the 4-ID. The phase of the action that ended on December 5 saw the 121-IR in possession of the high ground which included Hürtgen, Kleinhau and Brandenberg with control of supply routes necessary to continue the attack southeast to the vital dams on the Roer River. The 28-IR had pushed elements east as far as Brandenberg and Bergstein. The action of the 709-TB in the area near Hürtgen was concluded and the weight of armored support was shifted to the 28-IR.

Conclusions

Supply was no great problem to the company commanders of the 709-TB. The Battalion S-4 brought the supplies to the company area each night. Light tanks were used at times to carry supplies forward and also to evacuate the wounded. In the operation the tank companies kept on hand 2 days reserve rations, one and a half days oil and gas, and one day of fire in ammunition. During the battle of the Hürtgen Forest the 709-TB discovered that some infantry officers were not acquainted with the capabilities and limitations of armor. On one occasion the infantry requested that tanks attack at night over un-reconnoitered terrain. In the town fighting in Hürtgen the tankers felt that had the infantry preceded the tanks by 3 or 4 houses the infantry would have been well supported and tanks would not have been lost to enemy AT fire. The abundance of German artillery made it expeditious for the noise of movement of armor to be covered by artillery fire in front of the area. German artillery fire also hampered the movement of infantry commanders while directing the attack. One infantry battalion commander found that by using a light tank as a mobile command post he could more effectively control his companies in the attack.

The winter conditions adversely affected the normal operation of equipment. Tank turrets had to be worked constantly to prevent them from freezing in the cold weather. Tank tracks would freeze to the ground and break if the tanks were not moved frequently. A great deal of difficulty as experienced with sights and periscopes freezing over. Frost on the drivers vision slot was particularly troublesome as it blinded the driver when buttoned up and made him entirely dependent for directions on the tank commander. Prior to the Hürtgen action, 19-AN/VRC-3 (SCR-300 for tank) radios were installed in tanks of the 709-TB. They here used successfully in operation with the infantry. Radios, frequently went out, during the operation but quick repair by skilled communications personnel minimized the problem.

Summary

The action of the 8th Infantry Division in the Hürtgen operation centered largely around the 121st Infantry Regiment which attempted to secure a line of departure for Combat Command R of the 5th Armored Division for an attack on the Hürtgen – Kleinhau area and then to the south. Light tanks of the 709th Tank Battalion were employed without success along the fire breaks in front of the infantry battalions and up Germeter – Hürtgen Road. The failure of armor at this time can be attributed largely to the fact, that mud mired the tanks and mines disabled them. Because of the slow progress of the 121st Infantry Regiment, the Combat Command Reserve of the 5th Armored Division tried to attack through them on November 25 without success. It was apparent that armor could not be employed in mass until the clearing which surrounded Hürtgen could be reached. It is interesting to note that on November 25, when CCR could not break through, a tank-infantry-engineer team employed farther west where advances had previously been halted was able to reach the edge of the forest. The theory of combined arms seems sound when the members of the team play their respective roles; the infantry protects the engineers while they clear a path for the tanks. It is to be emphasized that more grouping of the several arms does not in itself provide a team; teamwork and close coordination are essential. It is further noted that, after this success, the attack bogged down for about three days until at noon on November 28 another team, consisting of elements of A Company, 709-TB, the 2nd Battalion of the 121st Infantry Regiment, and part of the 12th Engineer Battalion, was formed and immediately moved in and captured Hürtgen. The effective results of the work of this team indicate that it would be advantageous for combined arms teams to have the opportunity of working and training together prior to actual combat.

The fall of Hürtgen permitted CCR to pass through the infantry, seize Kleinhau and continue its attack to the south. Also with the fall of Hürtgen the 28th Infantry Regiment in Vossenack began moving east in conjunction with the 121st Infantry Regiment. During the move of the 121st to the Corps objective tanks were used in platoon and section size units in support of the battalions in the forest. As the Corps objective was approached the main effort of the 8th Infantry Division began to shift to the zone of the 28th Infantry Regiment and the tanks were gradually shifted to that area. The role of the 709th Tank Battalion in the Hürtgen Forest battle is not one to be used as an illustration of armored principles of mass action, maneuverability, and violent attack. Rather, its main contribution was close support of infantry by individual tanks in slow, plodding advances that were measured in yards rather than miles. It is felt that the main lesson to be learned is the necessity for complete understanding, for coordination and cooperation between platoon size tank and infantry units which operate or expect to operate together.

The actions of the 709th Tank Battalion are very similar to those of the other separate tank battalions which were attached to infantry divisions in the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest. All five of the battalions normally fought individual tank platoons in support of infantry battalions. In one or two instances tanks were massed in company formations – never larger. But always, the tanks of these battalions supported the infantry to which they were attached, and their actions were ordinarily dictated by infantry commanders. An examination of the actions of the 5th Armored Division – the only large armored unit which fought in the Hürtgen Forest – may disclose whether its problems differed essentially from those of the tank battalions which have been discussed thus far.



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