“The Hürtgen brought to the fore the basic instincts of life as an infantryman: kill or be killed.”
Sixty years agoon December 16, 1944German military forces launched a massive counteroffensive against the Allies in the Ardennes. It was the largest military campaign of the Western Front in Europe, and Germany’s last effort to achieve a favorable outcome in the war. This anniversary will likely generate attention to the “Battle of the Bulge,” which after the Normandy invasion is one of World War II’s most memorable events in the European Theater. The Ardennes campaign was one of the most critical periods in the war. Yet, just as D-Day tends to obscure the campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Southern France, the enormous significance of the Bulge has tended to obscure events that occurred before and after it. It takes nothing away from the crucial importance of those six snowy, bloody weeks to recall a significant engagement which preceded it. For eighteen days in late November and early December 1944, American and German infantrymen pounded each other in the dense, wet, cold, and tumbling terrain of the Hürtgen Foresta 55 square mile wooded area south of Aachen, north of the Ardenneswhile being brutally pummeled by artillery. American forces gained just a few miles of territory when it was all over at the cost for one regiment of 2,805 casualties, 86 percent of its normal strength.
Hell in Hürtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment, is Robert Sterling Rush’s expert, detailed, and engaging study of one American infantry regiment’s experience in this battle. The 22d Infantry Regiment was one of three regiments in the Fourth Infantry Division, itself one of ten divisions engaged in combined offensive thrusts against Germany’s Rhine River in the fall of 1944. The subject of this study is not the battle itself, but rather how the regiment that fought it performed. Rush first examines the terrain and weather; unit structure of both the 22d and opposing German forces; and the training and general background of American and German soldiers. Then he presents a detailed battle narrative that follows the rifle companies in each of the regiment’s three battalions through each day’s events. Rush also describesas well as evidence allowsthe disposition of the German units opposing with the 22d. Finally, Rush analyzes the regiment’s operational effectiveness, unit cohesion, and morale and offers some considerably interesting and surprising conclusions about infantry combat.
Rush brings his own expertise into this study. He was command sergeant major of first battalion, 22d Infantry between 1988 and 1991, and has written extensively on military history, unit performance, and organization. He is also the author of the “how-to” books Enlisted Soldier's Guide and NCO’s Guide, indispensable volumes in today’s army. Thus, his overview of the regiment’s training and organization is written for an audience familiar with military unit designations and symbols. But it is not beyond the grasp of the lay reader, who can learn much by careful study of the “Table of Organization and Equipment” (the hierarchical, flow-chart diagram for military units) for an American infantry regiment and a German one. Rush uses these charts to point out some critical differences between the forces. For example, the “primary group” levelthe infantry squadof the American army consisted of twelve men, including two NCOs. The German squad consisted of only 9 soldiers, with one NCO. In the German squad, moreover, four soldiers crewed one light machine gun, while the other five carried rifles. However, the American squad featured eight men with rifles (three others crewed the Browning Automatic Rifle, and one other man was the sniper). In an example of the kind of insight only an infantry veteran can provide, Rush observes that the firepower and flexibility of the German squad was therefore considerably less than the American, even more so if it lost any of its machine gun crew.
Rush’s narrative is both tactically precise and riveting. A social history perspective pervades the battalion-by-battalion sequence of action. Rush makes extensive use of primary material, including official unit reports, soldiers’ memoirs and interviews, and unit publications such as the 22d’s newsletter, Double Deucer. Using these materials, Rush ably describes the “extreme physical ordeal” of infantry combat in the forest. Describing conditions during daytime on the battle’s first day, Rush writes: “Visibility at eye level was limited to about ten yards” (p. 137). Later, “[a]fter three days of attack and almost constant artillery bombardment, exhaustion and fatigue were the constant companions of the soldier” (p. 159). One learns that infantry combat consisted not so much of soldiers shooting at each other, but rather soldiers trying to avoid injury or death from deadly artillery and mortar fire, which both sides threw at each other in abundance.
The soldiers’ misery was palpable as Rush portrays combat as effectively as any popular work of military history. Particularly because of the indirect-fire weapons, the forest “was an infantryman’s worst nightmare” (p. 19). The most chilling “bottom-up” views come from soldiers themselves and are worth quoting at length. One German soldier, on the eighth day of fighting, wrote in his diary: “‘While the shells explode in front of my foxhole I am writing this. Everybody wishes to be out of this hell. The corporal is missing since last night and we think that he is a PW [prisoner of war]. We all envy him. Today is the fifth day we didn’t get anything hot to eat’” (p. 196). American soldier George Morgan observed that, in the forest, “‘You can’t get protection. You can’t see, You can’t get fields of fire. The trees are slashed like a scythe by artillery. Everything is tangled. You can scarcely walk. Everybody is cold and wet, and the mixture of cold rain and sleet keeps falling’” (p. 281). Rush offers a broader perspective:
The soldiers of the [22d] regiment had been in the forest for twelve days. Their miserable existence consisted of dripping rain through the trees, endless mud, staying in wet clothes, never getting warm, no hot food, not enough sleep, and laying awake at night shivering, wrapped in raincoats in foxholes filled with cold water. Then again, other men were trying to kill them. … Eyes were sunk deep into the skull and red from lack of sleep. … Uniforms were cakes with layers of mud and woolen overcoats were double their normal weight from the soaking of rain and dampness. (pp. 229-30)It was “eighteen days of unmitigated hell in the ‘death factory’ of the Hürtgen Forest” (p. 1), and Rush brings the experience into as much life as any chronicler of small-unit combat.
But this work is not about just how an infantry regiment behaved in battle, but rather how it functioned in battle. Behavior is captured in the gripping combat narrative, the movement of battalions and squads across the landscape. Functionality, ormore properly in this contexteffectiveness, is the ability of the regiment to continue combat operations. It depended upon three crucial factors. First, whether enough replacements could be brought into the line units as casualties mounted. Second, whether the regiment’s subordinate units retained cohesion. And third, whether the troops would continue to fight (i.e., morale). Success or failure of each factorreplacement, cohesion, and moraledirectly effects the outcome of the next. A poor replacement system breaks up units, rendering them combat ineffective. Units kept at full strength on paper but lacking cohesion on the ground suffer declining morale, diminishing their combat capability. And units unwilling to fight have already lost.
Rush compares replacement policy, cohesion, and morale on both sides and determines that the American military was better in all respects. The German replacement system was “dysfunctional” (p. 62). The German high command often took entire divisions out of service when their numbers fell too low. Many captured Germans didn’t know which unit they were in. Rush describes the various types of German unitsthe fortress battalions, panzer regiments, construction units, and so onwith as much precision as the disarray at work within the German army allows, meaning it was difficult to follow. The American army, on the other hand, did not take divisions off the books. Instead, it fed new soldiers into existing divisions and often returned the recovered wounded into to the same regiments and battalions where they had previously served. Rush’s discussion of the two replacement systems is instructive for students of military logistics and theater operations and strengthens his analysis of unit effectiveness.
In the popular imagination, unit cohesion exists because a company-sized or smaller “band of brothers” has committed to fight with and for each other to the last man. But Rush argues that another type of cohesioncharacterized by the situationis more operative in warfare than this popularly expected kind. In the Hürtgen Forest, at least, rifle company and squad level cohesion were impossible due to the large number of casualties in these elements. Rush observes that 91.7 percent of men in the regiment’s nine rifle companies (as distinct from other elements such as the headquarters company, service company, and medical company) who began the battle were casualties at its end. This means that the combat power of the regiment was sustained not by men who knew each from basic training and continually served together, but by the new replacements who were continually injected into depleted units and who lacked any emotional or historical bond with veteran soldiers. Rather than becoming new members of the brotherhood, however, replacements were often considered liabilities to the health and safety of the unit.
If “band of brothers” cohesion existed at all it resided in the surviving NCOs and officers whose continued presence was one of the most critical indicators of combat effectiveness. Thus, Rush sees a combination of both types of cohesion as operating in the 22d’s experience, and perceives both to be critical. If the situation was such that “there were veterans available for the replacements to coalesce around,” writes Rush, “the regiment moved forward. The loss of these small-unit leaders arguably dealt a more deadly blow to the regiment’s ability to attack than did the loss of every rifle company and battalion commander” (p. 285).
Finally, why did cold and hungry soldiers, mired in thick wet woods, slugging it out for only yards per day, continue to fight? Rush’s study probes why the Americans won and the Germans lost this battle (“won” in the sense that the Americans achieved their tactical objectives and “lost” in that the Germans failed to hold key villages and road crossings in the forest), and why men fight or don’t more generally. The outcome was certainly not a function of firepower. The Germans had as much or more of it than the Americans. In terms of manpower, the German units were probably smaller than American units (interesting tables on Officers by Duty positions in the U.S. and German armies show that there were more officers per U.S. unit than in corresponding German units), but the Germans were defending rather than attacking, thus mitigating the imbalance. In the long-run, American resources in men and materiel were certain to overwhelm the German war machine (a problem which Field Marshal Erwin Rommel observed in North Africa as early as 1942), but this does not help explain small-unit outcomes at a tactical level such as Hürtgen.
Rush’s illuminates the problem of why they fought by arguing that “the theses generally invoked to explain endurance in combat are flawed” (p. 13). He contradicts the totality of the “ego and honor” explanation put forward by S.L.A. Marshall, who was deputy historian of the European theater. Such notions “soon gave way to the realities of combat” (p. 313) wherein, as noted above, rifle squads, platoons, and companies were continually decimated by the horrendous combat. American G.I.s were fighting not for abstract causes or feelings, but for a variety of more complex and often self-serving reasons. Primarily, they had no other choicethe penalty for desertion was too high, and besides, combat soldiers in the line were often more exposed to artillery and mortar fire on their journey to the rear. But the men did feel a keen fellowship with their “foxhole buddies,” were well-trained for combat, and had pride in the regiment and division. These factors sustained them in the fight until they were wounded, killed, captured, or the battle ended. Ultimately, the best direction for American soldiers was forward into heart of Germany. They faster they got there the faster they could go home (n.b.: after VE Day, the vast majority of men who had earned enough points to go home chose to do so rather than stay with their divisions for redeployment to the Pacific Theater). Rush makes the connection among all of these factors by describing how self-interest (survival) combined with elements of unit cohesion (the presence, or not, of veteran squad, platoon, and company leaders) to instill motivation into units and drive them forward.
On the other hand, all but the youngest and most politicized German soldiers knew they would lose the war. But the penalty for desertion was death for the deserter and ruination for his family back home. Ultimately, writes Rush, it was “apparent that organized terror from above kept many [German] soldiers in the line, not an identification with their primary group [the squad], love of cause, or respect for their officers” (p. 327). This kind of analysis and comparison underpins the combat narrative so effectively that, during the battle, the situation of the Germans becomes somewhat pitiable.
Hell in Hürtgen Forest is fundamentally an academic study of military unit effectiveness. The author elaborates a thesis about combat effectiveness and tests it using the case study of one infantry regiment’s battle experience. It is the kind of book that rising NCOs and officers should study during their professional development time. And military historians ought to consider it as an excellent model of how to combine the battle narrative’s cinematic thrill (and tragedy) with analytical depth.
Rush has studied the experience of one American combat regiment in an increasingly distant war. But he successfully argues that the analysis is universally informative on understanding the behavior and effectiveness of units in combat. Since American army and Marine infantry units are still seizing and occupying enemy territory, and are still plagued by enemy mortar fire, the lessons that Robert Rush extracts from the hell that was the Hürtgen Forest remain considerably relevant.