The First U.S. Army

In crossing the German border, the First US Army had added another justification for its numerical name to that already earned in establishing the first American foothold in Normandy. After the landings, the First Army had forged the gap through which the more flamboyant Third Army had poured from the beachhead. Not to be outdone, the First Army also had taken up the pursuit, with less fanfare than its sister army, perhaps, but with equally concrete results. In less than a month and a half the First Army had driven from St. Lô to Paris, thence northward to Mons, thence eastward to the German border, a distance of approximately 750 miles. (See Map I.) This it had accomplished against the bulk of the German forces, including German armor, still opposing an American army in northern France.

At the beginning of September the First Army numbered 256,351 officers and men. It had 3 corps made up of 5 infantry divisions, 3 armored divisions, and 3 mechanized cavalry groups. The 8 combat divisions were almost at full strength: 109,517 officers and men. Also a part of the army were 9 separate tank battalions (7 medium, 2 light), 12 tank destroyer battalions, 31 antiaircraft battalions (including automatic weapons and gun battalions), 3 field artillery observation battalions, 46 separate field artillery battalions, 3 chemical (mortar) battalions, and a number of engineer, signal, quartermaster, and other service units.1

Though the First Army's strength in medium tanks was a theoretical 1,010, only some 85 percent was actually on hand. Many of even these were badly in need of maintenance following the rapid dash across France and Belgium. The 3d Armored Division, for example, reported on 18 September that of an authorized medium tank strength of 232, only 70 to 75 were in condition for front-line duty.2

The commander of the First Army was a calm, dependable, painstaking tactician, Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges. After the manner of his predecessor in command of the First Army, General Bradley, General Hodges was a "soldier's soldier," a title to which no other American army commander and few corps commanders in action in Europe at the time could lay more just claim. No other was more sincere and sympathetic toward his troops and none except Hodges and one corps commander had risen from the ranks.3 Though General Hodges had sought a commission at West Point, he had flunked


out in geometry during his first year. A man of determination, as he was to demonstrate often during the fall of 1944, he had enlisted in the Army as an infantry private and had gained his commission only a year later than his former classmates at the Military Academy. He served in the expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico and was one of a small fraternity of top American commanders in World War II who had seen combat before at a line company level, in the Meuse-Argonne campaign of World War I.

Upon completion of a stint of occupation duty after World War I, General Hodges had served the usual tours of troop duty in the United States and attended the Army schools. During additional service in the Philippines his path crossed that of the future Supreme Commander in Europe. Later he served successively as assistant commandant and commandant of The Infantry School. In 1941 General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, who had first been impressed with Hodges while he himself was assistant commandant of The Infantry School, brought Hodges to Washington as Chief of Infantry. His performance as an administrator already proved, General Hodges showed his ability as a field commander while directing the Third Army during the 1943 Louisiana maneuvers.

In early 1944 General Hodges had left for England to become deputy commander of General Bradley's First Army and to direct the training and co-ordination of the various corps and divisions readying for D-Day. It was a foregone conclusion that Hodges would take over when Bradley moved upstairs. On 1 August he had become commanding general of the First Army.

Photo: General Hodges


General Hodges was fifty-seven years old at the start of the Siegfried Line Campaign. Tall, erect, his moustache closely clipped, he was an impressive-looking soldier. Averse to tumult and glitter, he preferred restrained behavior to publicity-provoking eccentricities. Discipline, General Hodges maintained, could be achieved without shouting.

A close friend of the Third Army's General Patton, Hodges shared Patton's enthusiasm for what machines and big guns could do for his infantrymen. The First Army almost always had more medium tanks than did the Third Army, despite the myth that the Third was "top-heavy with armor." That Hodges knew how to use tanks had been demonstrated amply during the pursuit. He was also alert to what artillery could do. General Hodges worked no more closely with nor


Photo: Thirteen Commanders of the Western Front photographed in Belgium, 10 October 1944. Front row, left to right: General Patton, General Bradley, General Eisenhower, General Hodges, Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson. Second row: Maj. Gen. William B. Kean, Maj. Gen. Charles E. Corlett, Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, Maj. Gen. Leonard P. Gerow, Maj. Gen. Elwood R. Quesada. Third row: Maj. Gen. Leven C. Allen, Brig. Gen. Charles C. Hart, Brig. Gen. Truman C. Thorson.

THIRTEEN COMMANDERS OF THE WESTERN FRONT photographed in Belgium, 10 October 1944. Front row, left to right: General Patton, General Bradley, General Eisenhower, General Hodges, Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson. Second row: Maj. Gen. William B. Kean, Maj. Gen. Charles E. Corlett, Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, Maj. Gen. Leonard P. Gerow, Maj. Gen. Elwood R. Quesada. Third row: Maj. Gen. Leven C. Allen, Brig. Gen. Charles C. Hart, Brig. Gen. Truman C. Thorson.

depended more on the advice of any man on his staff than his chief of artillery, Brig. Gen. Charles E. Hart.4

The First Army headquarters under General Hodges was vitally concerned with precision and detailed planning. "When you did a situation report for the Third Army," said a former corps G-3, "you showed the positions of the regiments. When you did one for the First Army, you had to show platoons."5 The army's concern for detail was clearly reflected in the presence within the office of the Assistant G-3 for Plans and Operations alone of sixteen liaison officers


equipped with jeep and radio.6 "A good army headquarters," General Hodges' G-3 believed, "is always right on top of the corps and divisions, else you cannot carry out the orders and wishes of the commander."7

The staff which General Hodges inherited from General Bradley was basically intact at the start of September. Possibly reflecting the primary interest of both Bradley and Hodges, it was strong in infantry officers.

The chief of staff was a specialist in the role, a forty-seven-year-old infantryman, Maj. Gen. William B. Kean. General Bradley had brought General Kean along from earlier service as chief of staff of an infantry division to fill the same role, first with the II Corps in Tunisia and Sicily, and later with the First Army. Kean became "very close" to General Hodges as adviser and confidant and "a leading light" in the First Army headquarters. "It was Kean," one of his associates recalled, "who would crack the whip. We called him 'Old Sam Bly.'"8 Both the G-2, Col. Benjamin A. Dickson, and the G-3, Brig. Gen. Truman C. Thorson, also were infantrymen.9

Like almost all American units in action at this stage, the corps and divisions under the First Army's command were thoroughly seasoned. Two of the 3 corps and 6 of the 8 divisions would provide the nucleus of the First Army through almost all of the Siegfried Line Campaign.

Weakest numerically of the three corps was the XIX Corps under Maj. Gen. Charles H. Corlett, an infantryman who had gained combat experience earlier in World War II as a commander of the 7th Division in the Pacific. Under General Corlett the XIX Corps had become operational on 14 June. The corps had helped pave the way for the breakout of the original beachhead, fend off the enemy's desperate counterattack at Mortain, and close both the Argentan-Falaise and Mons pockets. On 11 September the XIX Corps had but two divisions—the 30th Infantry and 2d Armored, plus the 113th Cavalry Group and supporting troops. Unfortunately, General Corlett was not physically at his best during the summer and fall of 1944.

The VII Corps, which had assaulted UTAH Beach on D-Day and captured Cherbourg, was under Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins. Collins was an infantryman who had gained battle experience and a nickname—Lightning Joe—as an infantry division commander on Guadalcanal and New Georgia. Like the Third Army's General Patton, Collins was a dynamic, driving personality whose opinions often exerted more than the normal influence at the next higher level of command. At the time of the drive into Germany, the major units of the VII Corps were the 4th Cavalry Group, the 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions, and the 3d Armored Division.

Completing the triangle of corps was the V Corps under Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow. Like the other corps commanders, General Gerow was a veteran infantryman. He had spent the early days of the war with the War Plans Division of the War Department General Staff and as commander of an infantry division in the United States. Two of the more notable accomplishments of the V Corps were the D-Day landing on OMAHA


Beach and the liberation of Paris. On 11 September the corps controlled the 102d Cavalry Group, the 4th and 28th Infantry Divisions, and the 5th Armored Division.

Though almost all the infantry and armored divisions of the First Army were at or near full strength in mid-September, the army faced a handicap both at the start and all the way through the Siegfried Line Campaign in a lack of a reserve combat force. On occasion, a separate infantry battalion or a combat command of armor occupying a secondary defensive line would be called a reserve, but no one could accept these designations as other than nominal.

It could be said that the First Army had a fourth corps in an old ally, the IX Tactical Air Command, a component of the Ninth Air Force. Commanded by Maj. Gen. Elwood R. (Pete) Quesada, the IX TAC was the oldest unit of its kind in the theater and long ago had established with the First Army "an indissoluble operational partnership."10 When General Hodges' headquarters settled down for the fall campaign in the Belgian town of Spa, General Quesada moved in next door. Air officers attended First Army briefings, and vice versa. For all the difficulties of weather that were to plague the airmen during the Siegfried Line Campaign, ground commanders were to continue to pay tribute to the close and effective co-operation they received from the IX TAC.11

Like divisions attached to ground corps and armies, the fighter-bomber groups assigned to tactical air commands often varied. On occasion, the IX TAG controlled as many as eighteen groups, but usually the number averaged about six.12 A group normally had three squadrons of twenty-five planes each, P-38's (Lightnings), P-47's (Thunderbolts), or P-51's (Mustangs), except in the case of night fighter groups, which had P-61's (Black Widows).

Requests for air support usually were forwarded from the air support officers at division through the air support officer and G-3 Air Section at corps to the G-3 Air at army for transmission to the IX TAC. The air headquarters ruled on the feasibility of the mission and assigned the proper number of aircraft to it. Since air targets could not always be anticipated, most divisions came to prefer a system of "armed reconnaissance flights" in which a group was assigned to the division or corps for the day and checked in by radio directly with the appropriate air support officer. Thus the planes could be called in as soon as a target appeared without the delay involved in forwarding a request through channels.13

Available also for direct support of the ground troops were the eleven groups of medium bombers of the IX Bombardment Division (Maj. Gen. Samuel E. Anderson), another component of the Ninth Air Force. Each of these groups normally employed thirty-six planes, either B-26's (Marauders) or A-20's (Havocs), which


bombed from altitudes of 10,000 to 12,000 feet.14 Though the mediums sometimes made valuable contributions to direct support, they were used for the purpose somewhat infrequently, both because it was hard to find targets large enough to be easily spotted yet small enough to assure a good concentration of bombs and because the request for medium support had to be approved by the 12th Army Group G-3 Air Section and took from forty-eight to seventy-two hours to come through.15

Weapons and Equipment

The weapons and equipment with which the American soldier was to fight the Siegfried Line Campaign might have needed repair and in some cases replacement after the ravages of Normandy and the pursuit, but in general the soldier's armament and equipment were the envy of his adversary. Indeed, the theory which German officers and soldiers were to perpetuate to explain their defeat in World War II, in much the same way they blamed lack of perseverance on the home front for the outcome of World War I, was the superiority of American and Allied matériel.16

It is axiomatic that the American soldier in World War II was the best-paid and best-fed soldier of any army up to that time. He clearly was among the best clothed as well, even though controversy would rage later about the adequacy of his winter clothing.17 In the matter of armament also American research and production had done exceedingly well by him. On the other hand, his adversary likewise possessed, qualitatively, at least, an impressive arsenal.

The basic shoulder weapon in the U.S. Army during the Siegfried Line Campaign was the .30-caliber M1 (Garand) rifle, a semiautomatic piece much admired by its users. Though the Germans possessed a few similar models, their basic individual piece was a 7.92-mm. (Mauser) bolt-action rifle not greatly different from the U.S. M1903. Two favorite weapons of the American soldier were outgrowths of World War I, the .30-caliber Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and the .30-caliber Browning machine gun in both light (air-cooled) and heavy (water-cooled) models. The most effective close-range antitank weapons were, on the German side, a one-shot, shaped-charge piece called a panzerfaust, and, on the American side, a 2.36-inch rocket launcher, the bazooka. The most widely used artillery pieces of both combatants were light and medium howitzers, German and American models of which were roughly comparable in caliber and performance.18


Photo: Captured Panzerfaust


German artillery doctrine and organization for the control and delivery of fire differed materially from the American only in that the German organic divisional artillery was less well equipped for communication. The excellent American facilities of communication down to battery level, and the effective operation of the American fire direction centers on many occasions permitted more accurate fire and greater concentration in a shorter time. But the shortcomings of the enemy in the matter of effective concentrations during this campaign were largely attributable to the effects of war—loss of air observation, shortages of ammunition and equipment, damage done to the artillery system, high casualties among skilled artillerists, and the disruption of smooth teamwork—rather than to deficiencies of doctrine and organization.19

Both sides had the same excellent 1/25,000 metric scale maps of the area, reproduced from those originally made by the French Army, showing roads, railroads, contour lines, towns, and forests. To offset superior knowledge of the terrain that the Germans enjoyed, the Americans, controlling the air, had the advantage of aerial photographs, and they could use their artillery spotter planes while the


Germans could not. The simple little monoplane that the Americans used for artillery observation appeared, in relation to contemporary fighters and bombers, to be an example of retarded development, a throwback to the aircraft of World War I. It was the L-4 (in some cases, L-5), variously called a Piper Cub, cub, liaison plane, grasshopper, or observation plane. Though its most significant role was as the eyes of the field artillery, it performed various other tasks, such as courier and liaison service, visual and photographic observation, emergency supply, and emergency evacuation of wounded. Not only the artilleryman but the infantryman and armored soldier as well swore by it, while the Germans swore at it. The very presence of one of the little planes aloft often silenced the German artillery. American air superiority permitted their consistent use, and also gave the Americans the benefit of air photographs made almost daily behind the German lines from the faster planes of the Army Air Forces. The photographs were made available to American artillerymen to identify pillboxes and other defensive installations of the enemy.20

In the matter of tanks the Americans possessed no such advantage. Their standard tank, the M4 Sherman, a 33-ton medium, was relatively obsolescent. Although a few Shermans equipped with a high-velocity 76-mm. gun in place of the usual short-barreled 75 were to become available during the Siegfried Line Campaign, most medium tanks still mounted the 75. They plainly were outgunned, not only by the enemy's heaviest tank, the 63-ton Mark VI (Tiger), but also by the 50-ton Mark V (Panther).21 The Tiger, the Panther, and the medium Mark IV all had thicker armor than the Sherman. Equipped with wider tracks than the Sherman, the enemy tanks likewise possessed greater flotation and thus on occasion might vitiate a superiority in mobility which U.S. tanks possessed when on firm ground. The only advantages left to the Sherman were superiority in numbers, comparatively easy maintenance, and greater flexibility and rapidity of fire as a result of a gyrostabilizer and power traverse.22

Some equalization in the matter of tank and antitank gunnery was to be provided in November when a considerable number of U.S. self-propelled tank destroyer battalions were to receive new vehicles. In place of the M10 destroyer with its 3-inch gun, the units were to receive M36 vehicles mounting a high-velocity 90-mm. piece. Though the 90-mm. had long been a standard antiaircraft weapon, its presence on the actual firing line was in the nature of an innovation.

Other than tanks, the German weapons which would most impress the American soldier in the campaign were the burp gun, the Nebelwerfer, and the 88. Two of these—the burp gun and the 88—he had met before and had long since accorded a ubiquitousness neither deserved. The burp gun—so-called because of a distinctive emetic b-r-r-r-r-p sound attributable to a higher cyclic rate of fire than


Photo: Captured Nebelwerfer


American automatic weapons—was an individual piece, a machine pistol, similar to the U.S. Thompson submachine gun. Because the standard German machine gun made a similar emetic sound, it seemed to the American soldier that burp guns were all over the place. The 88—an 88-mm., high-velocity, dual-purpose antiaircraft and antitank piece—had been accorded the respect of the American soldier since North Africa. A standard field piece in the German army and the standard weapon of the Mark VI Tiger tank, the 88 was nevertheless not nearly so plentiful as reports from the American side would indicate. A shell from almost any high-velocity German weapon the American attributed to the 88.

The Nebelwerfer was a newer weapon, one which had seen some service in Normandy but which came into general use only at the start of the Siegfried Line campaign as the Germans called upon it to supplement their depleted artillery. It was a multiple-barrel, 150-mm. mortar, mounted on wheels and fired electrically. The screeching sound of its projectiles in flight earned for it the nickname, Screaming Meemie. The U.S. equivalent, a 4.5-inch rocket launcher, was not used widely until later in the war.

The Terrain and the West Wall

In less than a fortnight the forces in the north—the First Army and the 21 Army Group—had driven the enemy almost entirely from two countries: the kingdom of Belgium, approximately the size of the state of Maryland, and the grand duchy of Luxembourg, somewhat smaller than Rhode Island. In the process they had jumped a number of major obstacles, like the Escaut and Meuse Rivers and the Belgian and Luxembourgian Ardennes; but the path ahead was far from smooth.

The strategic goal of the forces in the north, the Ruhr industrial area, lay about seventy-five miles away. Germany's most important concentrated mining and industrial region, the Ruhr had grown up east of the Rhine largely after 1870. It embraces major cities like Essen, Dortmund, and Duesseldorf. An elliptical-shaped basin, it measures some fifty miles at its base along the Rhine and about seventy miles in depth.

The terrain next to be encountered on the march to the Ruhr can be divided into four geographical sectors: (1) Opposite the left wing of the 21 Army Group, the Dutch islands and the Dutch littoral, most of it land reclaimed from the sea and at


this stage studded with fortifications denying seaward access to the prize of Antwerp. (2) In front of the 21 Army Group's right wing, the flatlands of the Netherlands, crisscrossed by waterways, including three major rivers, the Maas (Dutch equivalent of the Meuse), the Waal (a downstream branch of the Rhine), and the Neder Rijn (Lower Rhine). (3) Facing the left wing of the First U.S. Army, the Aachen Gap, guarded by the sentinel city of Aachen but affording access to an open plain leading all the way to the Rhine. (4) Opposite the right wing of the First Army, the Eifel, forested highlands whose division from the Ardennes is political rather than geographical.

Of the four sectors, the Dutch islands and the Dutch littoral, for all their importance to the use of Antwerp, offered little toward an advance on the Ruhr. Despite some major obstacles, the other three regions had greater possibilities.

The waterways of the Netherlands, like those which earlier had prompted Allied planners to rule out the plain of Flanders as a major route, might forestall a normal military advance; but the British already had proved in Flanders that in pursuit warfare waterways may not be a serious deterrent. As with Flanders, the rewards of success were tempting. The great Dutch ports of Amsterdam and Rotterdam might fall, the West Wall might be outflanked, the Rhine left behind, and the British positioned for envelopment of the Ruhr from the north via the North German Plain. On the other hand, defense of the east-west waterways was facilitated by a shortage of major roads and railroads leading north and northeast.

To the southeast, the Aachen Gap is a historic gateway into Germany dating from early Christendom. It was a major east-west route during the height of the Roman Empire when the old Roman highway ran slightly north of Aachen on a line Brussels-Maastricht-Cologne. Birthplace and reputed burial place of the Emperor Charlemagne and capital of the Carolingian Empire, Aachen had a prewar population of 165,710. Its military value lies in the roads that spread out from the city in all directions. In 1944 the city had an added military significance as a key to the second most heavily fortified portion of the West Wall.

The only troops in the Aachen region still to cross the major obstacle of the Meuse River were the divisions of the XIX Corps, which were approaching the city of Maastricht in the province of Limburg, which the Americans called "the Dutch Panhandle." At the border of Germany, the XIX Corps would have to cross a minor stream, the Wurm River, which German engineers had exploited as an antitank barrier for the West Wall. But once past the Wurm, the terrain is open plain studded by mining and farming villages and broken only by the lines of the Roer and Erft Rivers. Weakest of the First Army's three corps and the only one forced to undergo a handicap because of the gasoline drought, the XIX Corps was the unit most directly oriented along the route of the old Roman highway north of Aachen, the route which represents the most literal interpretation of the term Aachen Gap.

South of the XIX Corps, the VII Corps was headed directly for Aachen and for a narrow corridor of rolling hills between Aachen and the northern reaches of the Eifel. For convenience this corridor may be called, after an industrial town within it, the Stolberg Corridor. It leads onto


the Roer plain near the town of Dueren (population: 45,441), nineteen miles east of Aachen. The fringe of the Eifel is clothed in a dense jungle of pines, a major obstacle that could seriously canalize an advance along this route. Communications through the forest are virtually nonexistent. Within the forest a few miles to the south lie two dams of importance in control of the waters of the Roer River, the Schwammenauel and the Urft.

Some of the hardest fighting of the Siegfried Line Campaign was to occur in the region toward which the XIX and VII Corps were heading. It is a fan-shaped sector with a radius of twenty-two miles based on the city of Aachen. The span is the contour of the Roer River, winding northeast, north, and northwest from headwaters near Monschau to a confluence with the Wurm River near Heinsberg.

Southeast of the VII Corps zone lay the heartland of the Eifel, heavily forested terrain, sharply compartmentalized by numerous streams draining into the Moselle, the Meuse, and the Rhine. and traversed by a limited road and rail net. This was the region where the first patrols had crossed the German border. Not including the forested fringes between Aachen and Monschau, the Eifel extends some seventy air-line miles from Monschau to the vicinity of Trier. It is divided into two sectors: the High Eifel, generally along the border, and the Volcanic Eifel, farther east where the ground begins to slope downward toward the Rhine. One of the most prominent features within the High Eifel is a ridge—2,286 feet high, running along the border a few miles east of St. Vith, Belgium—the Schnee Eifel. Entrance to the Eifel from Belgium and Luxembourg is blocked by the escarpment of the Schnee Eifel, by a continuous river line formed by the Our, Sauer, and Moselle Rivers, and by a high, marshy, windswept moor near Monschau called the Hohe Venn. Yet for all the difficulties of the terrain, German armies had turned the Eifel and the adjacent Ardennes to military advantage in both 1914 and 1940 and were to utilize it again in December 1944.

During the late summer of 1944 Allied vision had stretched across the obstacles of terrain to gaze upon the Rhine; but few eyes could ignore a man-made obstacle which denied ready access to the river. This was the fortified belt extending along the western borders of Germany from the vicinity of Kleve on the Dutch frontier to Lorrach near Basle on the Swiss border. Americans knew it as the Siegfried Line. The nation that built it called it the West Wall.23

Construction of a West Wall first had begun in 1936 after Hitler had sent German troops back into a demilitarized Rhineland. It was originally to have been a short stretch of fortifications along the


Saar River, opposite the French Maginot Line. Unlike the French position, it was to be no thin line of gros ouvrages—elaborate, self-contained forts—but a band of many small, mutually supporting pillboxes.

Work on the West Wall had begun in earnest in May 1938, after Czechoslovakia had taken a somewhat defiant attitude toward German indications of aggression. The task went to Dr. Fritz Todt, an able engineer who had supervised construction of the nation's superhighways, the Reichsautobahnen. By the end of September 1938 more than 500,000 men were working on the West Wall. Approximately a third of Germany's total annual production of cement went into the works. The new West Wall was to extend from a point north of Aachen all along the border south and southeast to the Rhine, thence along the German bank of the Rhine to the Swiss border. More than 3,000 concrete pillboxes, bunkers, and observation posts were constructed.

As much because of propaganda as anything else the West Wall came to be considered impregnable. It contributed to Hitler's success in bluffing France and England at Munich. In 1939, when Hitler's designs on Danzig strained German-Polish relations, Hitler ordered a film of the West Wall to be shown in all German cinemas to bolster home-front conviction that Germany was inviolate from the west.

Although some additional work was done on the West Wall between 1938 and 1940, Germany's quick victory in France and the need to shift the defenses of the Third Reich to the Atlantic and the Channel brought construction to a virtual halt. Not until 2o August 1944, when Hitler issued an eleventh-hour decree for a levy of "people's" labor, was any new effort made to strengthen the line.

When the first American patrols probed the border, Allied intelligence on the West Wall was sketchy. Most reports on it dated back to 1940. Because four years of neglect had given the works a realistic camouflage, aerial reconnaissance failed to pick up many of the positions.

The West Wall's value as a fortress had been vastly exaggerated by Hitler's propagandists, particularly as it stood in September 1944, after four years of neglect. In 1944 it was something of a Potemkin village. Dr. Todt and the German Army had never intended the line to halt an attack, merely to delay it until counterattacks by mobile reserves could eliminate any penetration. In early fall of 1944 no strong reserves existed.

In 1939-40 any threatened sector of the line was to have been manned by an infantry division for every five miles of front. Adequate artillery had been available. Although few of the pillboxes could accommodate guns of larger caliber than the 37-mm. antitank gun, this piece was standard and effective against the armor of the period. In 1944 the situation was different. The most glaring deficiency was lack of troops either to man the line or to counterattack effectively. Artillery was severely limited. Even the 75-mm. antitank gun, which could be mounted in a few of the pillboxes, was basically inadequate to cope with the new, heavier armor. The smaller works could not accommodate the standard 1942 model machine gun because embrasures had been constructed for the 1934 model. Expecting to find a strong defensive position in being, the troops falling back on the West Wall from France and Belgium saw only a five-year old derelict. There were


Photo: Construction of Pillboxes Siegfried Line


Photo:  Typical Pillbox. Above (left) exterior, showing door with firing embrasure. Interior of firing embrasure at right. Below (left) bunk area, and (right) ventilation device.

TYPICAL PILLBOX. Above (left) exterior, showing door with firing embrasure. Interior of firing embrasure at right. Below (left) bunk area, and (right) ventilation device.

Photo: Typical Pillbox. Above (left) exterior, showing door with firing embrasure. Interior of firing embrasure at right. Below (left) bunk area, and (right) ventilation device.


no mines, no barbed wire, few communications lines, and few fortress weapons. Field fortifications had been begun only at the last minute by well-intentioned but un-co-ordinated civilians. The West Wall in September 1944 was formidable primarily on the basis of an old, unearned reputation.

The strongest portion of the line was the segment constructed in 1936 along the Saar River between the Moselle and the Rhine. Lying mainly in the zone of the Third U.S. Army, this portion would be spared until December because of the fighting in Lorraine. The next strongest portion was a double band of defenses protecting the Aachen Gap. Here the First U.S. Army already had reached the very gates.

The extreme northern segment of the West Wall—from Geilenkirchen, about fifteen miles north of Aachen, to Kleve—consisted only of a thin, single belt of scattered pillboxes backing up natural obstacles. South of Geilenkirchen, the pillboxes began to appear in a definite pattern of clusters on a forward line backed up by occasional clusters a few hundred yards to the rear. At a point about halfway between Geilenkirchen and Aachen, the density of the pillboxes increased markedly and the line split into two bands about five miles apart. Aachen lay between the two. Though two bands still were in evidence in the forest south and southeast of Aachen, the pillboxes were in less density. At a point near the northern end of the Schnee Eifel, the two bands merged, to continue all the way south to Trier as a single line with pillboxes in medium to heavy density. The greatest concentration in the Eifel was near the southern end of the Schnee Eifel where the terrain is relatively open.

In many places the West Wall depended for passive antitank protection upon natural obstacles like rivers, lakes, railroad cuts and fills, sharp defiles, and forest. In other places, the German engineers had constructed chains of "dragon's teeth," curious objects that looked like canted headstones in a strange cemetery. In some cases the dragon's teeth were no more than heavy posts or steel beams embedded in the ground, but usually they were pyramid-shaped reinforced concrete projections. There were five rows of projections, poured monolithic with a concrete foundation and increasing in height from two and a half feet in front to almost five feet in rear. The concrete foundation, which extended two and a half feet above the ground on the approach side, formed an additional obstacle.

Roads leading through the dragon's teeth were denied usually by a double set of obstacles, one a gate and another three rows of steel beams embedded diagonally in a concrete foundation. The gate consisted of two 12-inch H-beams welded together and hinged at one end to a reinforced concrete pillar. The beams could be swung into place horizontally and bolted to another concrete pillar on the opposite side of the road. The second obstacle consisted of three rows of 12-inch H-beams offset like theater seats. Embedded in the concrete foundation at an angle of about 45 degrees, the beams were attached at their base by a flange connection which hooked over an iron rod in the bottom of the recess. Though this and other obstacles conceivably could be removed or demolished by an attacking force, it presumably would prove difficult under fire from nearby pillboxes.


Pillboxes in general were 20 to 30 feet in width, 40 to 50 feet in depth, and 20 to 25 feet in height. At least half of the pillbox was underground. The walls and roofs were 3 to 8 feet thick, of concrete reinforced by wire mesh and small steel rods and at times by heavy steel beams. Each pillbox had living quarters for its normal complement, usually about seven men per firing embrasure. Few had more than two firing embrasures, one specifically sited to cover the entrance. Although fields of fire were limited, generally not exceeding an arc of 50 degrees, pillboxes were mutually supporting.

Bunkers usually were designed to house local reserves and command posts and had no firing embrasures except small rifle ports to cover the entrance. Bunkers used as observation posts usually were topped by a steel cupola.

Most pillboxes and bunkers had several rooms, one or more for troop quarters and one or more either for ammunition storage or for firing. All were gas proof and equipped with hand-operated ventilation devices. Only a few installations had escape hatches. Heat might come from a small fireplace equipped with a tin chimney, both of which might be closed off by a heavy steel door. Each entrance usually had a double set of case-hardened steel doors separated by a gas proof vestibule. Bunks were of the type found on troop ships, oblong metal frames covered with rope netting and suspended in tiers from the ceiling. Sanitary facilities were rarely provided. Though both electric and telephone wires had been installed underground, it is doubtful that these were functioning well in September 1944. Some installations were camouflaged to resemble houses and barns. Except in the sparse sector north of Geilenkirchen, pillbox density averaged approximately ten per mile. Most pillboxes were on forward slopes, usually 200 to 400 yards behind the antitank obstacles.

Without question, these fortifications added to the defensive potentiality of the terrain along the German border; but their disrepair and the caliber of the defending troops had vitiated much of the line's formidability. It could in no sense be considered impregnable. Nevertheless, as American troops were to discover, steel and concrete can lend backbone to a defense, even if the fortifications are outmoded and even if the defenders are old men and cripples.

The climate in the region of the West Wall is characterized during autumn and winter by long periods of light rain and snow. Although less rain falls then than during summer, there are more days of precipitation likely to curtail air activity and maintain saturation of the fine textured soils found in the region. Even in winter temperatures are usually above freezing except during seven to eight days a month when snow covers the ground.24

These were the climatic conditions which Allied planners might expect. In reality, the fall and winter of 1944 were to produce weather of near record severity. Rainfall was to be far above average, and snow and freezing temperatures were to come early and stay for long periods. It wasn't very good weather for fighting a motorized, mechanized war or, as cold, rain-soaked infantrymen would attest, for fighting a foxhole war.


A Pause at the Border

On 11 September the seemingly vagrant path which the Allied armies had followed through North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, and Belgium at last was heading for its destination. The First Army was preparing to invade Germany.

The First Army's greatest concentration lay well to the north of the center of the army zone near Liège. Here General Collins had kept the three divisions of his VII Corps close to his left boundary in a relatively compact formation covering about fifteen miles. The 1st Division was astride the main Liège-Aachen highway less than ten miles from Aachen. (Map III) The 3d Armored Division had captured the city of Eupen in the borderland ceded to Belgium after World War I. The 9th Division was moving into assembly areas near Verviers, a textile and communications center about halfway between Liège and the German frontier. The 4th Cavalry Group, perhaps spurred by the nature of its objective, had occupied the beer-producing town of Malmédy. The cavalry was responsible for screening a twenty-five mile gap extending southward to the boundary with the V Corps.

General Gerow had tried to keep the main force of his V Corps near his northern boundary in order to be as close as possible to the main concentration of the VII Corps. The 4th Division was in assembly areas near St. Vith, about six miles from the German border. (Map II) The 28th Division was assembling in the northern tip of Luxembourg, its easternmost disposition not over four miles from Germany. To cover a front of approximately thirty miles from the infantry divisions south to the boundary with the Third Army, the 5th Armored Division was assembling on three sides of the city of Luxembourg.

On the First Army's north wing, General Corlett's XIX Corps still had some twenty to thirty miles to go before reaching the German border. The XIX Corps still had to cross the Meuse River and clear the Dutch Panhandle around Maastricht. The 2d Armored Division was on the left, near the boundary with the 21 Army Group; the 30th Division and the 113th Cavalry Group were on the right. (See Map I, below.)

Though the general location of the First Army was the result of the high-level decisions of 23 August, the specific orientation of the three corps had emerged from a meeting between General Eisenhower and his top commanders on 2 September at Chartres. Indeed, it was the tentative directive emerging from this meeting, plus amplifications on 4 and 14 September, that was to govern First Army operations through the remainder of the month and into October.25

Meeting at Chartres with Bradley, Hodges, and Patton, Eisenhower had directed that two corps of the First Army drive northeast alongside the British to help secure the Ruhr industrial area. The remaining corps was to be prepared to accept a handicap while accumulating enough gasoline and other supplies to permit a drive eastward in conjunction with the Third Army. It was at this meeting that General Eisenhower granted approval for the Third Army to resume its attack.


As finally determined by General Bradley, the First Army was to get over the Rhine at Koblenz, Bonn, and Cologne, while the Third Army was to cross at Mainz and Mannheim.26 Within the First Army, the V Corps was to drive toward Koblenz, the VII Corps toward Bonn, and the XIX Corps toward Cologne.

General Hodges, in turn, had ordered what might appear at first glance to have been a contradiction of General Eisenhower's assignment of priority to the two corps alongside the British. Instead of the V Corps on the right wing, the corps which he had halted for want of gasoline was the XIX Corps on the left wing, closest to the British. In reality, General Hodges had made the alteration in order to utilize the modicum of gasoline available at the moment to close a yawning gap that had developed between the First and Third Armies and to get at least two corps across the Meuse River, the only logical defensive line to be crossed in this sector short of the West Wall. He apparently had chosen the V and VII Corps because they had been closest to the Meuse.27 General Hodges' reaction later in the month after the V Corps had entered the West Wall would demonstrate his basic obedience to the assignment of priority.28 Having crossed the Meuse, General Hodges on 11 September faced the second big step in the drive to the Rhine. Before him lay the prospect of two of his corps assaulting the vaunted West Wall. Gasoline suddenly dropped from the highest position of priority in the supply picture in favor of ammunition. Facing a heavily fortified line, General Hodges could not ignore the possibility that a period of intense fighting might ensue. Though the First Army had received a thousand tons of ammunition on 11 September, time would be required to move it forward from the railhead. Not until 15 September, the logistics experts estimated, would sufficient stocks of ammunition be available for five days of intensive fighting.29

Loath to upset the impetus of his victorious troops, General Hodges nevertheless deemed it imperative to order a pause of at least two days. He attempted to bridge the period by directing extensive reconnaissance and development of enemy strength and dispositions. Both the V and VII Corps then were to launch co-ordinated attacks not earlier than the morning of 14 September.

The VII Corps commander, General Collins, chafed under even this much delay. In the afternoon of 11 September, General Collins asked permission to make a reconnaissance in force the next day to advance as far as possible through the border defenses. If progress proved "easy," he wanted to make a limited penetration beyond the West Wall before pausing for supplies.

General Hodges was torn by a dilemma of time versus power. A hastily mounted attack might quickly bog down, yet every day of delay would aid the enemy's efforts to man the West Wall. Making his decision on the side of speed, General Hodges approved Collins' request. He also authorized General Gerow to make a similar reconnaissance in force with the V Corps. Should the maneuvers encounter solid opposition and fail to achieve quick


penetrations, General Hodges directed, the corps were to hold in place to await supplies before launching major attacks.30

General Hodges obviously based these eleventh-hour authorizations on a hope that resistance still would be disorganized and spotty. The assault formation alone would indicate that pursuit still was the order of the day. Here were two corps, widely separated and without support on either flank. To the south, the closest concentration of the Third Army was more than eighty miles away from the main concentration of the V Corps. To the northeast, the First Army's XIX Corps had gained sufficient gasoline on 11 September to resume the northeastward drive, but it would be several days before the XIX Corps would be in a position to protect the exposed left flank of the VII Corps.

The first thrust toward the West Wall and the Rhine thus devolved upon the V and VII Corps, both widely extended, virtually devoid of hope for early reinforcement, and dangerously short of supplies. Still there was reason to believe that the reconnaissance in force might succeed. Though resistance against both corps had been stiffening perceptibly as the troops neared the border, it was not strong, enough to disperse the heady optimism of the period. Hardly anyone believed that the West Wall would be surrendered without a fight, yet the troops available to defend it probably would be too few and too disorganized to make much of a stand. The V Corps estimated that on its immediate front the enemy had only 6,000 troops. Not a single German unit of divisional size, the V Corps G-2 noted, had been encountered for at least a week. The VII Corps expected to encounter only about 7,700 Germans.31

The over-all First Army view was that the Germans would defend the West Wall "for reasons of prestige," but that they hardly could hope to hold for long. Even the increased resistance becoming manifest at the moment in Lorraine and the Netherlands, the First Army took to be a good omen. Since the enemy had concentrated elsewhere, he had nothing left for defending either the Eifel region or the Aachen Gap.32


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Last updated 26 September 2006