In this article I briefly discuss the background to the Battle of Hürtgen Forest and present it as a setting for a Flames of War campaign.
The Hürtgen Forest (Hürtgenwald in German) saw some of the bloodiest and most horrific fighting on the western front in WWII. It comprises a dense coniferous forest of about 150km² to the southeast of Aachen. It is a “seemingly impenetrable mass, a vast, undulating, blackishgreen ocean stretching as far as the eye can see.” . The German villages of Berstein, Hürtgen, Kleinhau, Schmidt and Simmerath, along with several others, lie within the forest boundaries and the area was seen by the Allies as necessary to clear in order to advance towards the Roer and Rhine rivers. The German West Wall (also know as the Siegfried Line), which was a series of fortified defensive positions, ran through the centre of the forest. Initial attempts to move through the forest began in September 1944 and were met with fierce resistance. Many American divisions were chewed up by the ‘Bloody Forest’ as they ran into extremely well organised defences comprising a chain of bunkers, razor wire and mine fields hidden in the dense and dark forest and covered by several inches of pine needles and then later snow.
The Americans had greater numbers, more armour, better mobility and almost total air superiority  than the German defenders, but all of these advantages were negated by the impenetrable forest. The infantry were channelled into MG covered and mortar zeroed fire breaks as moving through the steep gradient forest was impossible at times; the tanks and half-tracks were restricted to the few tracks that existed and quickly became bogged down or fell victim to the Panzerfausts; and the P47s could not spot the enemy through the fog and canopy of trees. All of these elements coupled with the well trained and organised defenders gave the forest a formidable reputation amongst the Allied troops. The early battles did not go well for the Americans .
The strategic importance of the area only became apparent to the Allies after they were already embroiled in this most difficult of fights. Several dams, the largest of which is the Schwammenauel Dam, lay within the forest. The German forces sought to retain control these dams as, if necessary, they could take the extreme measure of opening them. This would flood the area downstream swamping any advancing Allied forces and severely hampering their movement towards the Rhine. The Ardennes Offensive (The Battle of the Bulge) in December 1944 severely delayed the taking of the Hürtgen Forest and it wasn’t until late February of 1945, just prior to the Rhine Crossings that it was under Allied control.
This Flames of War campaign is set on the 5-7 February 1945 just southeast of the village of Bergstein. Operation GRENADE, Montegomery’s 21st Army’s push across the Rhine, was about to kick off and it was imperative that the Schwammenauel Dam was secured in order to prevent the area downstream being flooded.
After dark on the 5th February the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team were tasked with advancing towards the dam from the direction of Bergstein . Almost immediately they found them selves in a bad situation. They were in the middle of an artillery zeroed minefield trying to advance towards an enemy they couldn’t see. The attack was abandoned and the following the morning the Engineers from the 596th began clearing the minefields. They were under almost continuous fire for 36 hours, but somehow managed to clear a path through the minefields. On the 7th February, with diversionary attacks mounted by other American forces in the area the 517th resumed their attack.
The Flames of War campaign I am writing (and will hopefully post soon) represents the difficult conditions (dense forest, no air cover, heavily fortified enemy, minefield, concertina wire, etc.) these men fought under in trying to secure dams in the Hürtgen Forest.
- MacDonald, C., B., The Siegfried Line Campaign, Center of Military History, United States Army, p323, 1990. (Available Online)
- The Battle of Hürtgen Forest, Wikipedia. (Available Online)
- Gavin, J., M., Bloody Huertgen: The Battle The Should Never Have Been Fought, American Heritage, December 1979,
Volume 31/Number 1, pp32-44, 1979. (Available Online)
- Archer, C., L., Paratroopers’ Odyssey – A History of the 517th Parachute Combat Team, Chapter VII: Nightmare and Dawn, 1985. (Available Online)
- Wargaming Hürtgen Forest (Available Online)