The Battle of Aachen – Germany – by Capt Bruce K. Ferrell

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Sherman tank and M10 tank destroyer on the streets of Aachen, October 1944The October 1944 Siege of Germany’s West Wall (Siegfried Line), led to a MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) fighting in Charlemagne’s Historic City during the month of October 1944, (Reprint from the December 2000 Article of the Armor Magazine, by Captain Bruce K. Ferrell).

Preface

At this year’s Armor Conference in May 2001, Fort Knox officially opened and dedicated a new, state-of-the-art Mounted Urban Combat Training Site. This is a significant milestone in the Army’s attitude towards training for Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT). In years past, the mounted force often avoided serious MOUT training, handing it over to the light fighters like an unwanted problem. But the importance of being able to operate in cities has been vividly illustrated during our past and present operations in Panama City, Port-au-Prince, Mogadishu, and Bosnia. And the worldwide demographic trend towards more urbanized populations makes it all the more likely that mounted forces will conduct operations in urban areas. (Robert S. Cameron : It takes a village to prepare for urban combat … and Fort Knox is getting one.)


The Armor Center identified the need for a training center specifically for mounted forces early in the 1980s, and the training site that was recently dedicated has been a long time in coming. While the new training site will help us to develop new tactics, techniques, and procedures for our modern forces and modern weaponry, we can also learn a great deal about MOUT from military history. Indeed, many of the same urban combat TTPs used during WW-II by the US Army are still applicable today. Many of these lessons were learned by the 1-A during its siege of the first German city captured by the Americans, the city of Aachen, in October, 1944.

In the late summer of 1944, in accordance with Gen Eisenhower’s broad front strategy, the Allies were on the offensive in every sector of the Western European Theater. Despite constant British appeals for a focused narrow thrust into Germany to capture Berlin, Eisenhower maintained the strategy he believed would best accomplish the goal of German unconditional surrender. That strategy was to destroy Germany’s ability to wage the war. To do this, Eisenhower sought to capture the industrial areas of the Ruhr and the Saar in order to deprive Germany of the critically needed resources and infrastructure in these areas. Eisenhower’s plan employed armies along several major routes of advance into the heart of Germany. The most direct route to the Ruhr industrial area was the Maubeuge, France, the Liège, Belgium, and the Aachen axis. The 1-A, commanded by Gen Courtney Hodges, drew the task of moving along this axis, crossing the Rhine River, and capturing the area.

The German forces opposing the Allies in the Western Front were under the command of the Oberkommando der West (OB WEST). After the Allied breakout from the boccage country of Normandy, German forces were continuously on the verge of being routed. However, all through the summer of 1944, OB WEST had managed to hold a cohesive front against the Allies in a massive delaying action.

Hitler’s constant orders to hold at all costs were of little help to the commander of OB WEST, GFl Walther Model. Model sent report after report to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OBKW) begging for reinforcements.

In response to his constant appeals for help, Hitler replaced him with GFl Gerd von Rundstedt, who received the same hold at all costs orders. Von Rundstedt, knowing he would get no help from the German high command, immediately set about to stabilize his front.

He ordered his forces to fall back upon the West Wall, thus giving his forces defenses to fight from, shortening their interior lines and condensing the front. He didn’t know it, but OB WEST’s mission was to delay the Allies long enough for Hitler to assemble a massive force to conduct a sweeping counteroffensive out of the Ardennes and across the Meuse and on to Antwerp !

On both north and south, the Maubeuge, Liège, Aachen axis was bordered by severely restricted terrain. To the north, the waterways of the Netherlands hindered mounted movement, while the Eifel highlands and the Ardennes to the south were too restrictive to allow movement of large formations. The Germans tied the Wurm River, running approximately southwest to northeast in front of Aachen, into the West Wall defense as an anti-tank obstacle, but the river was not much more than a stream, at best, and easily fordable in most places.

Beyond the Wurm was an open plain dotted with small groups of built up areas, broken only by the Roer and Erft Rivers. Tied into this natural terrain was the complex of man-made defenses known as the West Wall, or as the Americans called it, the Siegfried Line. Hitler had built the West Wall in 1936 as a strategic counter-move to the French Maginot line. It had been a monumental effort at the time, but once the Nazis conquered France, the fortifications of the West Wall had fallen into disrepair. One of the most fortified stretches of the wall remained in the Aachen sector. Around the city, the West Wall split into an east and west branch.

The West Wall incorporated natural obstacles like rivers, lakes, railroad cuts and fills, defiles and forests as much as possible, but where natural obstacles were inadequate, there were massive chains of dragon’s teeth, rows of reinforced-concrete pyramids, increasing in height from 2.5 feet (0.7 M) in the front rows to almost five feet (1.4 M) in the back rows.

Roads leading through the dragon’s teeth were blocked with gates made of steel I-beams, and all roads were additionally guarded by pillboxes. Pillboxes were 20 to 30 feet in width (6 to 9 M), 40-50 feet deep (12 to 15 M), and 20 to 25 feet high above the ground. (6 to 9 M). At least, half of each pillbox was underground, the walls and roofs made of reinforced concrete varying from 3 to 8 feet (0.9 to 3 M) in thickness.

They had living quarters for troops and firing ports sighted on designated areas. Additionally, to the rear of the pillboxes were bunkers, designed to house reserves and command posts. They were constructed in a similar fashion, with more living space and fewer firing ports. Though these fortifications were in poor condition, and the speed and maneuverability of modern mechanized warfare had made them obsolete, the Allies would soon learn that even outdated fortifications could lend strength to any defense.

In the center of all this lay the ancient city of Aachen. Militarily, the city was significant because it controlled most of the major roadways in the area. Gen Hodges knew he had to capture the city in order to secure his lines of communication for further advances east into the Ruhr. But aside from its strategic value, Aachen’s real significance lay in its political and ideological importance. Aachen would not only be the first German city besieged by the Americans, but was also the birthplace of Charlemagne (note : Aachen was also the birthplace of Doc Snafu) the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, which Hitler often referred to as the First Reich.

Hitler had declared the rule of the Nazis as the Third Reich, psychologically aligning himself to the Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne. To strike at Aachen, therefore, was to strike at a symbol of Nazi faith.

To accomplish the 1-A’s mission, Hodges directed Maj Gen Charles Corlett’s XIX Corps, to attack through the West Wall north of Aachen, in the vicinity of Geirlenkirchen. As part of this attack, Gen Leland S. Hobbs’ 30-ID, Corlett’s southernmost division was to break south over the Wurm River to capture Wurselen.

The 30-ID’s attack constituted the northern prong of an encircling maneuver to surround Aachen. The southern prong would be conducted by the 1-ID, under Gen Clarence Huebner. The 1-ID was from the VII Corps, commanded by Gen Lawton J. Collins. The division was to attack north to initially capture Verlautenheide and then capture Ravels Hill (Hill 231).
Once Aachen was encircled, the Allies would pound the city with air strikes and artillery barrages, then conduct a deliberate assault.

Facing the US XIX Corps and the US VII Corps was the LXXXI Corps of the German Seventh Army, commanded by the newly appointed Gen Friedrich Koechling. The German Seventh Army commander, Gen Erich Brandenberger, put Koechling in charge of the LXXXI Corps to replace Gen Friedrich August Schack, who had proved ineffective at controlling his subordinates.

It was revealed that Schack’s subordinate division commander in charge of the defense of Aachen, Gen Count Gerhard von Schwerin of the 116.Panzer-Division (Greyhound), had been planning to surrender the city to the Allies. Schack immediately relieved Schwerin, but failed to apprehend him in a timely fashion. Upon Koechling assuming command of LXXXI Corps, he pulled the 116.Panzer-Division out of Aachen and replaced it with the 246.Volkgrenadier-Division, commanded by Col Gerhard Wilck.
Koechling also had at his disposal the 49.Infantry-Division defending the north side of Aachen and the 12.Infantry-Division defending the south side of the city. But both of these divisions had taken recent poundings. The 12.Infantry-Division had recently arrived as a reinforcement from the German Seventh Army, but had been committed piecemeal by Schack, and therefore was forced out of Stolberg by the American 3-AD south of Aachen.

In the north, the 49.Infantry-Division was losing ground to the US 30-ID’s offensive to reach Wurselen. Gen Count Gerhard von Schwerin was now totally disillusioned with the war. He had been very successful in the Balkans, receiving the Knight’s Cross in 1943. But Schwerin was not a National Socialist and as the war dragged on, he struggled constantly at having to serve a master in whom he did not believe. When Hitler’s order to defend the city of Aachen at any cost came down to him, he quickly resolved to surrender Aachen upon the beginning of the Americans’ assault. He drafted a letter expressing such intentions in secret and planned to deliver it to the Americans when their offensive started. His letter was discovered during an SS raid in Aachen while they were evacuating civilians from their homes. To add to all this, the German Army spent enormous time and effort controlling the civilian populace of Aachen. Even after a forced evacuation by the SS troops, it was estimated that some 40.000 civilians remained in the city during the siege.

Aachen was primarily Catholic, and therefore had been persecuted by the Nazis. They saw the oncoming American attack as liberation. Many of them hunkered down in cellars or attics, trying to avoid the SS troops sent to root them out of their homes, waiting for the Americans. A combination of logistical shortages and lack of air cover due to poor weather forced Hodges to halt his offensives in mid-September. The pause in fighting allowed the Americans to re-tool their units for decisive action.

Hobbs planned to make a three pronged attack in the north, employing all the regiments of the 30-ID simultaneously. The 117-IR (Col Johnson), was ordered to seize high ground in the vicinity of Mariadorf to secure the division’s left flank. The 120-IR (Col Purdue), was ordered to seize high ground northeast of Wurselen and also to cut off the Aachen – Juelich highway running northeast out of Aachen. The 119-IR (Col Sutherland), was ordered to take north Wurselen in order to link up with elements of the 1-ID to close the encirclement of city.
In the south, Huebner’s 1-ID was also preparing to resume its offensive. Because of his extended front, Huebner could only free the 18-IR (Col Smith), for his portion of the attack. In preparation for the attack, Col Smith organized special pillbox assault teams equipped with flame throwers, bangalore torpedoes, beehive munitions, and demo charges. They trained for several days on the tactics to reduce pillboxes. Smith also task-organized M-10 tank destroyers and 155-MM howitzers for direct fire suppression of fortifications. Additionally, tanks and tank destroyers were used for a variety of secondary purposes. Flamethrower tanks were especially useful for clearing out pillboxes and bunkers. Bulldozer tanks were used to bury those pillboxes that could not be destroyed.

On the German side, Koechling was assembling ad-hoc units from stragglers, deserters and anyone else he could throw into the lines. Then on October 7, von Rundstedt released his theater reserve, the I.SS-Panzer-Corps to Koechling to reinforce the defenses of Aachen. Unfortunately, Koechling was so desperate for reinforcements, he began committing the Panzer Corps units as soon as they arrived in his sector, rather than waiting to use them as a concentrated force.

On October 7, the 30-ID resumed its offensive in the form of a massive aerial bombardment, followed by massed artillery barrages. The division commenced its ground assault immediately after the strikes. Determined patrolling had revealed the locations of most of the Germans’ manned fortifications, so the attack was focused on destroying those positions. The division attacked from Alsdorf south towards Ubach and Wurselen, with their final objective being Hill 194 south of Wurselen.

They received stiff resistance from the 108.Panzer-Brigade and the Mobile Regiment von Fritzschen, recently arrived into their sector from the I.SS-Panzer-Corps. On the eastern flank, the Mobile Regiment von Fritzschen successfully blocked the 117-IR at Mariadorf. Then on October 8, the Mobile Regiment attacked north-west towards Schaufenberg and Alsdorf searching for the regiment’s flank. This move threatened to encircle them.

Fortunately, elements of the 743-TB were roaming the streets of Alsdorf when the Mobile Regiment entered the city. The tanks and tank destroyers of the 743-TB quickly took out three Mark IV tanks. The shock effect of this halted the German counterattack. The 117-IR then re-established the division’s left flank during their counter-attack on October 9.

On the western flank, the 120-IR quickly moved to its objective of North Wurselen, a mere 2000 yards from the link-up point at Ravels Hill. However, their quick advance had overextended their lines, and on October 9 the 108.Panzer-Brigade counter-attacked into Bardenberg, threatening the 120-IR’s line of communication. It took three days of counter-attacks by both the 120 and 119-IRs to uproot the Germans from Bardenberg. On October 11, the skies cleared, enabling the Army Air Force to attack the columns of German counterattack forces. With the help of air power and field artillery, the 30-ID retained a tenuous hold on its initial objectives.

Meanwhile, the southern prong attack of the encircling offensive commenced on October 8. In order to offset its numerical disadvantage with surprise, the 18-IR (1-ID) conducted its attack in the pre-dawn darkness. As a result, the regiment successfully captured all of its initial objectives with minimal resistance.

By evening on October 9, the 18-IR was in possession of Ravels Hill, the designated link-up point with XIX Corps. In addition, by October 10, the regiment had captured Haaren, a suburb of Aachen astride the two major highways leading east out of Aachen. Thus, the 18-IR had cut the Germans’ lines of communication into the city. The real challenge was to hold their objectives despite vicious German counterattacks.

These counterattacks typically consisted of massive artillery barrages, followed by infantry attacking, supported by tanks and assault guns. Ironically, the American troops often occupied the very pillboxes they had cleared earlier in order to defend against the German counterattacks. Fighting was often from pillbox-to-pillbox, foxhole-to-foxhole, hand-to-hand. Because of the constant German local counterattacks, the 30-ID and 1-ID had still not effected a link-up. Despite this gap in the encirclement, Gen Huebner delivered his surrender ultimatum to the garrison of Aachen on October 10.

The task of assaulting the city fell to Col John Seitz’s 26-IR (1-ID). At his disposal, he had two battalions, Lt Col Derrill Daniel’s 2/26 and Lt Col John Corley’s 3/26. Daniel’s battalion would cross the Aachen – Cologne railroad and assault through the center of the city, while Corley’s battalion would initially attack around the north of Aachen to recapture the suburb of Haaren, then attack southwest to capture the dominating high-ground on the northern side of the city.

This high-ground consisted of several points of key terrain. The highest terrain was Lousberg, called the Observatory Hill by the Americans because of the obvious building on top. Below the Observatory Hill was the the Salvatorberg, a lower hill with a cathedral on it. Below the Salvatorberg was the Farwick Park, slightly elevated on the east side of Aachen. The Farwick Park was even more important because the Quellenhof Hotel was located in it, and this is where the 246.Volksgrenadier-Division’s headquarters was located.

While the Americans were preparing to take the city, the Germans were still holding out hope that they could relieve the siege. Even as the American air bombardment and artillery barrage delivered over 300 tons of explosives on Aachen on October 11 and 12, elements of the 3.Panzer-Division and the rebuilt 116.Panzer-Division began to arrive to reinforce the LXXXI Corps. In addition, Koechling sent the Battalion Rink (1.SS-Battalion) into thre city to reinforce the 246.Volksgrenadier-Division.

On October 12, Lt Col Corley’s 3/26 commenced its attack by securing the suburb of Haaren. Then on the 13 of October, the battalion began its attack to seize the Observatory Hill, while Lt Col Daniel’s 2/26 simultaneously began its assault into the center of the city. Daniel had anticipated very determined German resistance during his assault, and had prepared his men for the fight.

Artillery and mortars would pummel the streets ahead of advancing infantry. The pattern of indirect fire was coordinated by city blocks. Once the clearing teams reached a certain point, the indirect fire would shift to the next city block. Infantry squads clearing houses were given either a tank or a tank destroyer to suppress houses and buildings as the infantry approached. Once the infantry reached the house, the tank or tank destroyer would shift fires to begin suppressing the next house or building. The infantry and combat engineers would clear buildings using flame throwers, hand grenades, and demolition charges.

Checkpoints were established at street intersections and no unit could advance beyond a checkpoint without coordinating with their adjacent unit at that checkpoint. These measures made the advance very slow and deliberate, but were necessary to ensure there would be no pockets of enemy resistance left behind and to prevent fratricide.

Despite the deliberate nature of the assault, the Germans fought viciously both in the city and outside against the American encirclement. The Germans used the sewers very effectively, which took the Americans by surprise at first. Because of this, the attacking Americans would weld each manhole shut as they progressed through the streets. Also, the Germans effectively used cellars and basements.

They even knocked down walls between the cellars of adjacent buildings so they could move troops from one building to another. They found that the reinforced concrete walls of the more modern apartment buildings could withstand direct fire from even tanks and tank destroyers, so they turned every apartment building into a collection of room-to-room strong points.

The only way the Americans found to penetrate such buildings was to use 155-MM howitzers in direct fire mode.

Outside the city, German forces continued to attack to break the encirclement. On October 12, two regiments of the 116.Panzer-Division, the 60.Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment and the Kampfgruppe Diefenthal, attacked the towns of Birk and the north of Wurselen to break the 30-ID’s encirclement.

The American defense of these positions played out like a ballet of reinforcing units. While individual small groups held their ground, battalions, regiments and the division would rapidly feed reserve forces into any penetration of their lines. The see-saw fighting between the 116.Panzer-Division and the 30-ID continued through October 15.

Meanwhile, by October 14, Lt Col Corley’s 3/26 had advanced into the Farwick Park. On that same day, forward positions of the 18-IR near Verlautenheide reported the buildup of German forces opposite their positions. These forces were the 29 and the 8.Panzer-Grenadier-Regiments, the leading forces of the 3.Panzer-Division, more reinforcements from the I.SS-Panzer-Corps.

On October 15, Corley’s 3/26 advanced through the Farwick Park and put the Quellenhof Hotel under siege with a 155-MM howitzer. On that same day, the 3.Panzer-Division launched its attack against the 1-ID in the vicinity of Verlautenheide. Though completely uncoordinated, the SS Battalion Rink also launched a localized counter-attack in the Farwick Park, driving back the 3/26.

With two major fights going on, Gen Huebner deemed the attack by the 3.Panzer-Division to be of the greatest threat, and ordered Lt Col Corley’s offensive within Aachen to cease until the threat to the encirclement could be defeated. Gen Huebner had pulled his 116-IR (29-ID att. to 30-ID)(Col Joe Dawson), into the encirclement from the south to bolster the weakened 18-IR. Despite this reinforcement and the use of massive artillery barrages by the Americans, the regiments of the 3.Panzer-Division overran two companies of the 16-IR and one company of the 18-IR, puncturing the inter-regimental boundary between them. Just then, bombers and fighters came to the 1-ID’s rescue, defeating the 3.Panzer-Division’s attack.

The German attack continued on October 16, but the Americans held their positions, even against point-blank tank fire. On that day, using tank destroyers and artillery fires, the 3.Panzer’s attack was finally defeated, and the 1-ID remained in control of the Ravels Hill and the Verlautenheide area.

In the 30-ID’s sector, fighting was at a standstill. Hobbs had failed to take Wurselen despite receiving reinforcements from XIX Corps on October 13 in the form of a tank battalion from the 2-AD and a regiment from the 29-ID.

The 30-ID finally captured Wurselen on October 16 with a two pronged assault to the south, driving the 116.Panzer-Division from the field in final defeat. At 1615, October 16, a patrol from the 30-ID linked up with the 1-ID’s outpost on the Ravels Hill. The encirclement of Aachen was complete.

Gen Collins, VII Corps commander, had finally grown impatient with the drawn-out siege of Aachen. During the lull in the fighting within Aachen, he reinforced the 26-IR (1-ID) with two tank battalions and an armored infantry battalion.

He ordered Huebner to resume the assault of Aachen no later than October 18.

For Col Wilck and his men of the 246.Volksgrenadier-Division, the encirclement of Aachen sealed their fate. Even as von Rundstedt ordered Wilck to hold the city even if he were to be buried in its ruins, he withdrew the decimated I.SS-Panzer-Corps units back from Aachen. Wilck moved his headquarters from the Quellenhof Hotel to an air raid bunker at the north end of the Lousberg heights (Rutscherstrasse). He hunkered down and waited for the American assault to commence.

On October 18, Huebner began his final offensive to take Aachen. They immediately took the Quellenhof, only to find that Wilck had moved. Even with crumbling German resistance, the deliberate securing of the city took several days.

On October 20, the Americans had located Wilck’s new headquarters and were tightening the ring around it. Corley once again pulled up his 155-MM howitzer to pummel the air raid bunker.

After being bombarded during the night of October 20, Wilck finally surrendered at 1205 on October 21 1944.

The American victory at Aachen was a costly one. The 30-ID incurred some 3000 casualties during their encircling attack from the north. The 26-IR (1-ID), the force that assaulted the city, had a combined total of 498 casualties. The fight had used up every reserve of both the 30 and 1-IDs.

Though the actual siege of the city had taken only 10 days, the operations to encircle Aachen had taken six weeks.

On the German side, the vaunted I.SS-Panzer-Corps had lost 50 percent of its combat power and retreated from Aachen in defeat. The LXXXI Corps was decimated, having completely lost the 246.Volksgrenadier-Division in the surrender of Aachen. The city of Aachen itself lay in ruins, with 80 percent of the buildings in rubble.
The long term implications of the battle for Aachen are mixed. By capturing Aachen, the 1-A had accomplished one of its intermediate objectives to crossing the Rhine River and capturing the Ruhr industrial area. No doubt, the loss of Aachen was a psychological blow to the Germans and must have infuriated Hitler.

The securing of Aachen also allowed Gen Bradley (CG XII AG) to insert a new Army, the 9-A (Lt Gen William Simpson), into his lines, thus affording more combat power to the 12-AG. However, considering the amount of time and resources that the siege of Aachen consumed, the battle must be considered a strategic victory for the Germans because it gave Hitler the time he needed to build his forces for the Ardennes counter-offensive in December 1944.

The real value in studying the battle of Aachen is the lessons that the battle teaches to our Army today. As the world becomes more and more urbanized, the likelihood that American forces will be required to conduct Mounted Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) in future conflicts is extremely high. Many of the tactics, techniques, and procedures used during the assault on Aachen still remain relevant today.
The most important lesson to learn from the battle of Aachen is the importance of combined arms operations in urban warfare. As Lt Col Daniels’ 2/26 showed us, conducting urban fighting requires all the BOS elements. His use of artillery forward of the assault teams to clear the streets, his use of tanks and tank destroyers in direct fire mode to suppress strong points, and his use of infantry and engineers to clear buildings are all relevant TTPs in modern-day urban warfare, and are even part of our doctrine. Daniels also used command and control methods equally useful today in order to prevent bypassing enemy resistance and fratricide by establishing checkpoints at street intersections.

Gen Hobbs demonstrated the importance of intelligence in urban warfare during the attack by the 30-ID to seize the northern part of Wurselen; because his determined patrolling had revealed many of the locations of the enemy’s positions, his forces were able to focus their efforts to take them out.

Other major lessons emerge from German mistakes, especially by Koechling. He committed his reinforcements (mainly the I.SS-Panzer-Corps) piecemeal, rather than waiting to consolidate the arriving units and staging a major counter-offensive. This is a counter-example of the principle of mass. The American forces only did a slightly better job of applying mass when committing their reinforcements. Where the Americans had the distinct advantage was not necessarily the ability to mass units but the ability to mass fires. Artillery and air power must also be massed, and the Americans constantly made up for their weaknesses on the ground with overwhelming firepower.

An excellent example of this was the use of air power to defeat the counter-attacks of the 108.Panzer-Brigade in Bardenberg, aimed at enveloping Col Purdue’s 120-IR (30-ID) on October 11.
A third major lesson is the importance of command and control and tactical patience. The 26-IR’s assault on Aachen was very slow and deliberate.

Often, when in the offense, forces rush to reach their objectives, but in urban warfare, slow is better. Every pocket of resistance must be eliminated and every strong point neutralized. Tedious tasks like welding man-hole covers shut and coordinating with adjacent units at every street corner are time-consuming, but are critical to force protection in urban combat. Combined arms operations, decisive massing of fires, inventive command and control techniques, and tactical patience are principles equally applicable to the modern day urban battlefield as to the battlefield of Aachen. There are many more lessons to be learned from the history of urban combat, not just at the Battle of Aachen, but other cities as well, and many more when considering battles in other countries. Even more importantly, studying the history of urban combat teaches military professionals an appreciation for the bravery and determination needed to fight under these conditions, as displayed by the soldiers of the 30 and 1st Infantry Divisions.

For all purposes :
European Center of Military History
Gunter ‘Doc Snafu’ Gillot
rue des Thiers 8
Francorchamps 4970
Belgium
Email : gunter [at] eucmh.be





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(NB : Published for Good – July 2019)

 

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