An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

NEWS | Nov. 2, 2022

Into The Hürtgen: The 28th ID in World War II’s Battle of Hürtgen Forest

By Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Heft

The “Green Hell” of the Hürtgen Forest during World War II is forever enshrined in the memory of the 28th Division as one of the most terrible and brutal actions in its history.

After fighting through the hedgerows of France following D-Day, piercing the fortified defenses of the Siegfried Line and just weeks after triumphantly marching through Paris after its liberation, the division crossed from France onto German soil for the first time in September 1944. The lessons of these campaigns had steeled the men of the "Iron Division" but at a high cost.

In late September, the division was moved into corps reserve in Belgium, and commander Maj. Gen. Norman Cota began the process of rest and recovery, rebuilding the units ranks with replacements and preparing for the next fight.

Their next mission would come in November. Farther down the Siegfried line lay a heavy forest occupied by German forces and cut by a river known as the Kall. For the American advance to continue, this German position had to be pierced and the opposite high ground seized, but attacks by the American 9th Infantry Division had stalled there.

The 28th Division was the only element of the corps in reserve, and in late October, it was brought forward and ordered into action again.

The 28th Division began its assault on Nov. 2, 1944, following multiple weather delays (a problem that would plague the entire action) and a massive artillery barrage. The division’s infantry regiments made their assaults toward three separate objectives: the 109th Infantry toward the town of Hürtgen, the 110th Infantry toward the Simonskall, and the division's main effort, the 112th Infantry toward the German strongholds of Vossenack and Schmidt.

Initially, these attacks went well. Elements of the 112th took Vossenack in a combined arms operation with the 707th Tank Battalion, and supporting battalions crossed the Kall River and entered Schmidt. A defensive line was established across the division front as over 300 German prisoners filtered back through U.S. lines.

As fighting continued, the Keystone soldiers began to deal with the brutal terrain of the Hürtgen Forest.

"The thick green firs were tall and majestic … the snow-topped branches shut out the sky like a roof," William Meller, a squad leader in the 110th Infantry, recalled in his book “Bloody Roads to Germany.” “This is the German Eiffel, which has defeated armies from the beginning of history … this ground has been fertilized through time with the blood of soldiers.”

German forces blunted the soldiers' advance from behind the trees and ridges of the forest. Pre-positioned minefields slowed the advance of ground troops, and terrain restricted the use of armor. What had been assumed to be a demoralized retreating German force was actually three understrength divisions.

German counterattacks began almost immediately, and the Hürtgen forest devolved into a brutal small unit struggle pierced by heavy artillery barrages.

Robert Smith, a medic with the 112th outside of Vossenack, wrote in his book “Medic!” that “positions changed hour by hour and day by day. What was an American line soon became a German line and vice versa. At night troops from both sides would infiltrate enemy positions so that by morning no one was quite sure who was surrounding whom."

While the men of the Keystone Division fought valiantly, the terrain and conditions in the Hürtgen limited their effectiveness. German advances pushed back 28th Division lines, eventually forcing a withdrawal of all troops back across the Kall River.

Supply lines and medical evacuation centered around the single Kall River trail, which ran through the center of the 28th's positions. This trail was sighted and heavily shelled by German artillery, limiting resupply and evacuation efforts.

“The Germans had us pinned down with their small arm and machine gun fire, but the worst part was the constant fire from mortars and artillery with the devastating tree bursts that chewed up the men and I suppose kept the battalion off guard and not able to fight our way out,” Tom Meyers, a veteran of the 110th Infantry, recalled in his book “G.I. Tom Myers.”

The 28th Division held on to their sector as best they could, with fresh replacements filtering up into the line to stem tremendous losses. From Nov. 2 to Nov. 19, the Keystone Division fought to hold their line and make limited advances in the “Green Hell.” This brief period would cost the unit heavily: 248 officers and 5,452 enlisted men became casualties, and in some units, entire chains of command were wiped out.

While the battle in the Hürtgen Forest was a tactical defeat for Allied forces, the action of the 28th Division denied the German Army terrain they had “been ordered to retake at all costs.” The division took 1,100 prisoners, inflicted 4,000 enemy casualties and destroyed 50 enemy armored vehicles.

The unit history would recall that this action was the most brutal the Keystone Division ever faced, and for years to come, the Hürtgen would be synonymous with hell for those who fought there.

“To sum it up, we were fighting the cold, the wet under foot, the snow, the tops of the trees, the 88’s (with their shrapnel), and let us not forget the Germans. These were the worst conditions I ever had to fight under,” Pvt. Robert Bradicich, a replacement to the 110th who arrived during the fighting in November, remembered in his memoir “World War II as I Lived It.”

(Editor’s note: Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Heft is a former platoon sergeant with 1st Battalion, 111th Infantry Regiment, 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He is currently the non-commissioned officer in charge of the Army National Guard Leader Development Program in Arlington, Va.)