Sunday, January 1, 2012

The battle of Hürtgen Forest, North Rhine-Westphalia - Germany

A dense forest - Hürtgenwald, Germany
On September 11th 1944 the Allied forces cross the German border for the first time north of Trier and a day later have their first encounter with the "West Wall" (Siegfriedline) defenceline south of the German city of Aachen. Their rapid advance has slowly come to a halt, as supply lines have stretched too long and the demand for fuel can not be maintained. The pressure on the retreating German Army is lessening by the mile and opportunities rise for them to get organized and regroup or maybe even plan a counter attack. And what's worse, on their Reichs territory, they have the advantage.

From mid September 1944 until the 9th Februari 1945, the U.S. Army fought it's longest single battle ever recorded, also it's longest battle on German soil, over an area of 50 square miles, now known as the battle of Hürtgen Forest. As a preliminary offensive for Operation Queen and with the main goal called "objective Schmidt", the Americans had to try to secure the Ruhr river and it's dams, and prevent the Germans from releasing the water and flooding the Rur valley. Such an event could stall an Allied advance and kill the troops downstream. In order to reach their objective they had to fight their way through the dense pine forest of the North Rhineland. According to field commanders General Omar Bradley, Major General J. Lawton Collins and General Courtney Hicks Hodges, it was the only way. The village of Schmidt was of key importance, because of it's strategic location and elevation, overlooking the Schwammenauel dam in the Rur river, still controlled by the Germans.

The Hürtgen Forest is a terrain well known by it's defender. The Germans prepared it for battle years before the actual battle, during the construction of the West Wall building bunkers and trenches and anti-tank obstacles. And with the enemy drawing near, now reinforced it further with minefields and barbed wire. The rainy autumn and early winter snow of that year provided an even better cover.  The results were horrific. The battle took on the form of a trench war like we know from WWI. Fighting would rage on to win a few hundered yards resulting in many casualties, only to be lost again the day after. In the end, a total of around 60.000 American and German soldiers lost their lives during this battle.

Finding place of U.S. soldier Robert Cahow (april 2001) - Ochsenkopf, Hürtgenwald, Germany

Trenches and manholes can still be seen everywhere - Ochsenkopf, Hürtgenwald, Germany

A trenchline running across the forest floor - Ochsenkopf, Hürtgenwald, Germany

Concrete remains of the roof of bunker 111- Ochsenkopf, Hürtgenwald, Germany

An air ventilation shaft - Ochsenkopf, Hürtgenwald, Germany

Remains of large bunker 111 - Ochsenkopf, Hürtgenwald, Germany

Bunker 107 was camouflaged with green color paint - Ochsenkopf, Hürtgenwald, Germany

Parts of the MG stand compartiment of the bunker - Ochsenkopf, Hürtgenwald, Germany

Easy to overlook bunker 105 - Ochsenkopf, Hürtgenwald, Germany

Bunker 105 guarding the forest - Ochsenkopf, Hürtgenwald, Germany

Off the beaten track, climbing a hill - Hürtgenwald, Germany

Destruction from the inside - Hürtgenwald, Germany

Bunker nr. 132 - Simmerath, Hürtgen Forest, Germany

"Avoid making smokesigns during the day", inside bunker nr.132 - Simmerath, Hürtgen Forest, Germany

An MG stand in bunker nr. 132 - Simmerath, Hürtgen Forest, Germany

Coming up to bunker nr. 131 - Simmerath, Hürtgen Forest, Germany

The same welcome at bunker nr. 135 - Simmerath, Hürtgen Forest, Germany


Bunker nr. 135 - Simmerath, Hürtgen Forest, Germany

Bunker nr. 139/140 almost disappeared in the forest growth - Simmerath, Hürtgen Forest, Germany

Nowadays the battle of Hürtgen Forest is more widely known but for a long time, the story of this battle used to be a painful chapter in the Allied WWII history and was therefor not very famed by historians. It is often said that the events of the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle at Arnhem overshadowed the battle of Hürtgen Forest.

Visit
Until the late 1950s it was very dangerous to enter the Huertgen forest, not to say foolish. Debris of the war was lying around everywhere causing fires and explosions. During the hot summers of 1947 and 1948 forestfires raged through the woods and devastated the area even more. As dangerous as these fires may be, it was even more dangerous to put them out, due to exploding ammunition and landmines everywhere. POWs of the German Army "volunteered" to work in bomb squad teams or "Ammunition Search and Removal Teams" to clear the forest of mines, grenades and other live ammunition in the years after the war and to retrieve the fallen from to forest and give them a proper burial. A dangerous job which claimed more than a hundred lives after the war. About a hunderd of these victims have been buried at Ehrenfriedhof Hürtgen and around thirty at Ehrenfriedhof Vossenack.

Even today, in some parts, the forest is still dangerous. Visitors are urged not to go off the beaten track and even then people still find empty shells or other silent witnesses of the war. The ones that do bravely wonder off the tracks (thanks for telling me afterwards Panz..), in some cases, still find live ammunition or other military stuff on the forest floor.

An information sign at Ochsenkopf near Raffelsbrand
We started our hike at Ochsenkopf near the village of Raffelsbrand.  There is a parking space there on the side of the road where the Mittelweg crosses the Dürener Strasse (L160). It has an information sign displaying a route which passes the memorials and bunkers in this area.  It actually follows the Mittelweg (Ochsenkopf-Weg) to the west. You can see trenchelines, manholes and some ruines of bunkers.This is also where you can visit the finding place of Robert Cahow and his memorial.

Then we drove a little further down the L160 across the Kallbrücke (Kall bridge) towards the small village of Deffertsfeld and parked the car on a dirt road to the right at the edge of the forest. From here we started our way downhill to the south-east into the valley, crossed the Kall river and started climbing uphill again. We used an iPad to navigate us (yes, because a paper map doesn't show you the blue dot!) to a dirt road uphill and found bunker nr. 128/129, 132, 131 and 135. These bunkers are in a much better state then the ones at Ochsenkopf. Especially nr. 132 is in an almost perfect shape and seems to have escaped the attention of the demolition crews. The path passing this bunker ("Historisches wanderweg") also will lead you to the others if you follow it south, south-east.
I'm not sure, but if you park at Wanderparkplatz Buhlert which can be reached either from the village of Simonskall or from the L246 main road, it seems this path starts from here.

A guided historical tour with beer and Schlager music
When we got to bunker nr 132, exhausted of climbing the steep hill, smelling like ogers, we found we weren't alone. There was a group there, apparently a guided tour. A german man (Kunibert Wirtz?) was giving them a detailed story about the bunker (thanks to him we got to know the location of the emergency exit). He was driving the group around in a trailer behind a tractor. From the trailer came German Schlager music and the table in the middle was filled with beers. So if you don't want to wear yourself out, there's an alternative..

We also met some people with metal detectors. Be advised though; metal detectors are forbidden in Hürtgenwald and if you are caught with them you can expect a heavy fine.

Related posts
Photo album
Hürtgenwald, Germany

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