Hürtgen forest and the end of World War II | DW DocumentaryMay 30, 2021
forestin the Eifel region of western Germany... a
forestthat harbors a dark past... with a legacy still visible in isolated places... from a time when it was nicknamed "hell" green". In the final stages of World War II, it was the scene of bloody fighting between American and German forces. The path of the Western Allied advance from Belgium to Germany led directly through the forest surrounding the village of HÃ¼
rtgen. For the local population, the battle remains a key part of their history. I really came into contact with the history of the HÃ¼
rtgenForest when I was riding my bike here as a teenager.
Suddenly I came across ruins among the trees: huge concrete walls. When I asked my parents, they told me they were remnants of WWII bunkers. And once you know what to look for in this landscape of war, you'll also be able to see bomb craters, trenches, and trenches. If you really take the time, you can find many of these WWII relics in the HÃ¼rtgen Forest. For about five months, the forest was the scene of successive and fierce battles between the American and German armies. Although the Americans had more troops and were better equipped, their attempt to drive the Germans out of the woods was a military disaster.
Progress was slow and costly as they got bogged down in the treacherous terrain. It was a nightmare. I don't think there could be a worse hell. It was horrible. It was very cold, and these damn shells hit the top of the tree and fell into thousands of fragments. They could kill anyone. I was in combat there for ten days, at the height of the battle. I was shaking for practically the entire ten days. He knew he could die, of course, and he was terrified. An estimated 25,000 American and German soldiers died in the forest. Surviving Hurtgen Forest was a miracle.
But here I am. I don't know how I survived. The forest was a death trap for US troops. They named it "HÃ¼rtgen Forest" after the small town that was at the heart of the fighting. The Battle of HÃ¼rtgenwald was one of the longest and deadliest battles on German soil in the West. It left many scars, not only on the inhabitants and their descendants, but also on the landscape itself, on the forest and also on the local buildings. For the German troops, the war was already long lost. Even the young soldiers, those who could reflect, did not believe in victory.
You just wanted to survive, to come home safe and sound. Nazi war propaganda, however, portrayed a completely different picture: by then everyone knew that the Allies would win the war. Everything that happened in the HÃ¼rtgenwald meant only a minimal delay of the inevitable. And indirectly it contributed to the continuation of the murders in the concentration and extermination camps and in the prisons and other places, until the last second of the Third Reich. Since D-Day in June 1944, Western Allied troops had been advancing from Normandy through France and Belgium towards Germany... ...in the process of liberating Paris, Brussels and Antwerp from Nazi occupation.
They told us or ordered us to take the land they were on and take it from them, and so we went forward to win the war. We are the ones who are going to win, not them. On September 11, 1944, the first American divisions reached the Belgian-German border near Aachen... ... more than 3 months earlier than expected. A day later, the US 3rd Armored Division crossed into Germany near the town of Roetgen. We cross the town and pass to the other side. So we got into real trouble with the first sight of the Siegfried Line. The Siegfried Line was the defensive wall built to secure Germany's western border.
We saw steel gates along the way and Dragon's Teeth. And that was the first Dragon Tooth we saw. Anti-tank obstacles known as "dragon's teeth" accompanied a line of bunkers that stretched 600 kilometers from the Dutch border to Switzerland. For the Western Allied troops, a formidable obstacle. They had no precise idea of â€‹â€‹what to expect on the Siegfried Line. So the closer they got to the actual territory of the Third Reich, the more insecure they became, because they thought they would still face heavily fortified and heavily manned defensive positions. The allies had been misled by the Nazi propaganda of the years before the war.
This went so far that US military films used excerpts from German propaganda films depicting the Siegfried Line as an insurmountable obstacle. explain to his troops what they were up against. Up to half a million men worked up to 20 hour days to build 22,000 fortified positions on land. We knew that the Germans had built the Siegfried Line and that they hoped that would stop us, but it didn't. Because we broke through the Siegfried Line, we suffered a lot of casualties, but we made it. But we knew that the Siegfried Line was a bad place to go. Psychologically, the Siegfried Line was effective on both sides, but its military value in actual fighting was very limited.
American troops managed to break through the anti-tank barriers near Roetgen. But, on the other hand, they met with stubborn resistance from the German troops who were firmly entrenched, in the bunkers and in the forests. James Cullen was wounded in the fighting near the town of Rott. Ouch (expletive)! they hit me they hit me And it was a tremendous blow. And I looked down and I saw the blood spilling right where my heart was. And I said: God, am I going to die here in a filthy German camp? Because it looked deadly. A few weeks later, Cullen's parents at home received word that his son had been wounded in combat after being hit by shrapnel.
He was off active duty for two months. With American troops advancing much faster than expected, supply lines were stretched, which in particular meant fuel shortages for the tanks. The advance was halted just behind the German border. That gave the German forces time to rebuild their defense lines. Until then, the Wehrmacht had only stationed isolated units in the Northern Eifel. Meanwhile, preparations for the "Volkssturm" were underway: old men and children, the "home guard" for the last defense of Germany. In a televised address, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels called for the determination of his compatriots. As usual, Goebbels was lying, of course.
He claimed that the enemy was not yet on German soil, although they were, and tried to mobilize the remaining forces. It must be said that the German population was very happy to agree to that. They were tired of the war and wanted it to end. But they were also terrified of what the Allies would do to them if they came. The Americans wanted to push further into Germany and finally see the war end. Their goal was to reach the Rhine and then the industrial Ruhr region. But ahead of them stretched a dense forest, nearly 10 km wide, blocking their path: the HÃ¼rtgenwald.
In the local towns, the war had been all too present for several months, especially due to Allied air raids on cities such as Aachen. Civilians sought refuge in bomb shelters. There were constant air raid alerts, and one day we came out of the bunker and six buildings had caught fire overnight. Cattle were screaming, pigs were screaming, people were screaming. It was horrible. In September 1944, the villages were evacuated as the invading troops and the front line drew ever closer. One morning our parents said: We have to go. Artillery shells fell everywhere. We were the last ones left in Harscheidt.
My parents said: This is too much, we are going to leave too. Rather than encircle the forest to the north, the American commanders decided to push east right through the middle, where they expected the German defenses to be weak. But they completely misjudged the terrain, with disastrous consequences. A first push in October 1944 ended after only 3 km. It's not that forests are foreign to Americans. It is always very troublesome for an army to fight in wooded terrain. Tanks cannot go through forests and large trees. First you have to make paths through them. The ground was also littered with land mines, and the Americans came across a chain of bunkers in the woods.
This was where the Germans had entrenched themselves. The Americans managed to destroy some of the bunkers... But after ten days, the losses on both sides were so great that the fighting subsided for a while. Shortly thereafter, American forces further north made a decisive breakthrough, taking Aachen on October 21 after fierce fighting. It was the first German city to fall into Allied hands. But this was of little help to the American soldiers in the nearby HÃ¼rtgenwald. When the autumn rains began, the weather worsened from one day to the next. The American troops were literally bogged down. Plans for a second breakthrough had to be repeatedly delayed.
As one soldier later put it: Anyone who says they know where he had been in the woods is lying... On November 2, the Americans attacked the village of Vossenack, from there they took the villages of Kommerscheidt and Schmidt across the valley of call. . But once again they underestimated the difficult terrain. Some of the hills they had to cross were 150 m high. When you reach the top of a hill, you immediately experience the phenomenon of looking at the landscape, from one plateau to another. But you have no idea how deep and steep the valleys in between are. The US 28th Infantry Division reached the town of Schmidt relatively quickly.
But then their supply lines were disrupted. If you look at Vossenack and Schmidt, with the valley in the middle, the only link between them is a trail that winds its way into the valley and then back up the other side. The Americans thought that this path would be easy enough to drive and walk, and that they would be able to move troops, vehicles, heavy weapons, and other necessary supplies along it. All. But that was nonsense. The remains of the tank tracks are a stark reminder that the battle for Vossenack and Schmidt ended in disaster for the Americans.
The invaders withdrew in panic, only to be cut off by German units in the valley. Tanks crashed down the slopes and many soldiers collapsed from exhaustion. The battle in the Valley of Kall, which the Americans later referred to as the Valley of Death, claimed countless lives on both sides. A few days after the defeat, General Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived at HÃ¼rtgenwald to meet his troops on the ground and assess the situation. Neither the Supreme Allied Commander nor his officers expected so many casualties. The mood was down. The fall of 1944 remained unusually wet and cold, the terrain becoming more impassable by the day.
The Americans' hopes for a quick victory were fading. They had already spent two months in the HÃ¼rtgenwald, the forest they hoped to cross in a few days. In mid-November 1944, the Americans launched a third offensive. This time they tried to advance by going further north, passing through the villages of Kleinhau and GroÃŸhau, and then heading east. A 22-year-old Italian-American from Pennsylvania came to HÃ¼rtgenwald. In his youth he had hoped to become a photographer. We were there, he would say, a month. A month at war is a long time. The German artillery was on... it just never stopped.
They really bombed us. The days followed the same pattern. It started with heavy artillery fire from the Americans... Then tanks were deployed, Sherman tanks, which advanced on a wide front. And then, of course, you could hear shells and machine guns. That was the actual moment you realized that there were other people nearby who were shooting at you. Paul Verbeek was sent to the HÃ¼rtgenwald with other young recruits in mid-December to lay anti-tank mines. The US forces were constantly being reinforced with more men, more vehicles and equipment. But they were not prepared for the extreme weather conditions in the Eifel.
Every time they got stuck in the woods, they dug in. But the trenches offered little protection against German artillery and the cold winter. It rained at some point, or the snow melted, and the trench was always full of water. I was lucky to have this camera with me. And if you look at my photos: I have hundreds and hundreds of officer photos. I didn't take them because I liked them, I took them to make them happy, to give me freedom to take more photos, you know. I fooled them all, used them like little children. Both the Germans and the Americans spent most nights in their trenches in the woods, poorly protected from the cold and damp with makeshift waterproof canvas shelters.
I transformed the nature around me into a dark room. I asked three of my best friends to let me use the metal part of the helmet and they became the trays for my darkroom at night. I mixed my chemicals, theMost of the soldiers were asleep, I was working because the dark room was only night, the earth was the dark room, you see. Tony Vaccaro took hundreds of photos in the HÃ¼rtgenwald, although he waited more than 50 years before publishing a selection of them. All he wanted to take was take pictures, pictures, pictures. And that is why I am here today, otherwise they would have killed me a long time ago.
Some of the fiercest fighting took place in a valley west of Kleinhau, in the heart of the forest. In mid-November, author Ernest Hemingway witnessed the bloody battles that took place there. In his novel Across the River and into the Trees, based on his experiences, he wrote: "It was a place where it was extremely difficult for a man to stay alive, even if all he did was stay there." In December, Tony Vaccaro also photographed his teammates getting ready for the holiday season. Gift packages of canned food arrived from home for the long-deceased soldiers. They began to give this food from those soldiers to the local people, to the Germans.
On December 16, 1944, a hundred miles further south in the Ardennes, the Germans launched one last surprise offensive. Once again the Allies found themselves in dire straits in this equally wooded region, and had to bring in reinforcements at short notice to stop the German advance, many from the HÃ¼rtgenwald. Even during the Battle of the Bulge there was fighting here, but both the Wehrmacht and the Allies were so busy with the offensive further south that there was a period of two or three weeks without any major fighting. Then the war returned to HÃ¼rtgenwald. Over the course of January 1945, the Americans managed to advance in the face of weakening German resistance.
Defeat in the Ardennes counter-offensive had cost the defenders their last reserves. I especially remember the first time I saw the Americans as prisoners of war, I was amazed at how well fed they were. And they were neat and clean, including their uniforms, while we were a dirty, lice-ridden rabble. Once the Americans reached the Rur, not to be confused with the more famous and similar-sounding valley further north, their path to the Rhine and Cologne was finally clear. The Germans attempted to blow up the dams to flood the valley and stop the American advance. But now the end of the war seemed to be fast approaching.
In February 1945, US troops liberated Soviet prisoners of war and forced laborers at the Arnoldsweiler concentration camp near DÃ¼ren. Many were also held in inhumane conditions in a second camp near HÃ¼rtgenwald. Subsequently, more than 2,000 inmates were buried at the Soviet War Cemetery at Simmerath. Most of them had died of starvation and mistreatment. Most of the HÃ¼rtgenwald towns and villages were barely recognizable after the fighting. Allied troops pressed on, and within a few weeks, they had conquered the Rhineland and the industrial Ruhr valley while advancing on Berlin. The evacuated residents now hoped they could return to their villages.
When the Americans passed by, one of them asked us where we were from. We said we were from Schmidt. He said that he had fought there and that we should not go back there because the whole place was in ruins and the town had been mined. But we said, "We're going home." The fighting in the HÃ¼rtgen Forest was over. But the war had left a trail of destruction: a devastated landscape whose scars are still clearly visible today. First, the US soldiers cleared the mines that were buried everywhere. German prisoners of war were also forced to help them.
But they were only able to remove a small number of the deadly devices. Over and over again we would hear this big bang, and another person would fly through the air. Many people lost their lives. A little girl had been playing with a hand grenade. She thought she had perfume inside. The hand grenades had rings on them, and when you threw them, you had to throw them quickly. The girl's hand flew out. A very central aspect of the post-war experiences. of the people who lived in the Eifel was that they actually had to rebuild their lives on a former battlefield.
Children died because they played with ammunition. It was dangerous to plow and cultivate the fields. It took decades to clear the most severely affected park. ts of the forest of ammunition, rubble and the dead that had been left there. The forest would take decades to recover. At the same time, nearby towns had been destroyed by air raids. In September 1945 August Scholl returned home from the war. After being discharged, another guy and I arrived in DÃ¼ren on a freight train from Bonn at the beginning of September. We looked at each other and I said: "Martin, is it really DÃ¼ren?" "Sure," he said, "there's the signpost!" It was a little crooked, but it said "DÃ¼ren".
And then we looked through the old town, it was a big pile of rubble. Not a single building could be seen standing, and what was really depressing was this eerie silence. He continued on foot to his hometown of GroÃŸhau. It had been almost completely destroyed during the fighting. The locals resorted to rummaging through the wrecked American tanks. The Americans had left a lot of canned food. Corned beef was one of the main meats. There were also soups and other types of meat, but these cans of corned beef were big enough to make a huge pot of soup for a large family.
So temporarily they helped us to have more or less enough to eat. In the first summer after the war, much of the forest that had survived the fighting would suddenly catch fire. During the fighting, the Americans had used phosphorus in their ammunition, which ignited very easily in the heat. The locals repeatedly found the bodies of dead soldiers in the forest. Some I buried myself. And I don't need to explain what the half-rotten dead are like. You have to take a deep breath, mentally too, when you do something like that. The area's first war cemetery was built in Vossenack several years after the war.
Many of the dead were recovered by former German army captain Julius Erasmus, who spent the rest of his life searching the forest for fallen soldiers. Vossenack War Cemetery became the final resting place for some 2,300 dead soldiers and a gathering place for veterans and relatives of the fallen Germans. Another war cemetery was set up a few kilometers away in neighboring HÃ¼rtgen in 1952. About 3,000 soldiers are buried there, many of them in unmarked graves. Since the Americans did not want the soldiers to be buried in Germany, the former enemy, many were buried in the Netherlands, Luxembourg or Belgium, at the Henri-Chapelle military cemetery, for example.
It wasn't until four decades after the battle that the first groups of American veterans returned to the HÃ¼rtgenwald, the place where they had fought as young men. You can understand why it became the murky, as they call it, HÃ¼rtgen forest. The whole battle itself, as the man said this morning, was pointless, foolish, but the fact is that it was done to suit the whims of a few senior officers who thought it had to be done. Well, I didn't enjoy it at the time. I don't mind being here right now because none of you are wearing a uniform.
So it's okay as far as that goes. But it was quite difficult. Commemorative events sometimes brought together American and German veterans: former enemies. The battle also left its legacy in the forest itself. Over the ensuing years, bomb disposal experts have frequently been called in to remove bombs, hand grenades and other munitions. The dangers here will continue to affect future generations of people in the region. Even now, 75 years after the battle, the war is still raging on the HÃ¼rtgen forest floor. This is an area that has obviously not been recorded, like so many areas in the HÃ¼rtgenwald.
Here you could still dig up a grenade by scratching the top layer of soil. Sometimes these things don't look like ammunition at all. For example, there's a German grenade that looks like a cigar, it's about the same size. But if it goes out, you're gone. In the first decades after the war, hundreds of tons of explosive devices were found in the forest each year. This 1984 video shows the result of a search that lasted two weeks. You have to imagine that here, at noon on a single day, in a single attack, the Americans fired some 12,000 grenades. 12,000, not 1,200.
Given the typical assumption that 15% of this is waste, then we have to assume that there are about 1500 wastes in an area of â€‹â€‹3.5 to 4 hectares. For several years now, researchers have been studying the HÃ¼rtgenwald using the latest scientific methods. They have been able to reconstruct the course of the battle in places where it was not possible before. When you walk through the woods here, you find signs of the battle at every turn. In all the open spaces, however, the old battlefield has been completely cleared. In other words, we always see half of the battlefield. And we can see that here.
We are standing on what appears to be a completely level green field, with nothing to indicate that we are on an ancient battlefield. But in fact, we are in the middle of a highly fortified section of the second line of defense of the Germans. Many locals have kept the memory of the battle alive. In addition to the German dead, thousands of Americans who had been sent to Europe to put an end to Nazi terror perished here. Although this is not clear everywhere. Take the memorial stones of American or German soldiers, for example. The way they are treated on equal terms is quite questionable.
It should be clear that the Americans were fighting for something very different than the German soldiers. But you will find them scattered across the landscape without any comment. The forest is still frequented by people looking for relics of the battle. Even today, the area is a popular site for war enthusiasts. But many locals are upset by these groups of individuals in American uniforms, who repeatedly re-enact scenes from the battle. It's like repeating the war. Some people even dig new trenches here. So that they don't leave this memorial landscape as it was. Of course they don't shoot each other with live ammunition, but people still find it fascinating.
I have a critical view, because there were many deaths here. Whether it's funny or not is beside the point. Today, there are now signs for walkers and hikers in various places, which tell the story of the battle of the HÃ¼rtgen Forest. They also remind us of its importance to the advance of the Western Allies through Germany. But the HÃ¼rtgenwald will probably never be a normal forest again. Certainly not now, some 75 years after the battle. I came back to Hurtgen Forest about ten years ago. I cried like a baby because I suddenly remembered my best friends who were killed in the Hurtgen Forest.
It was ugly, ugly for humanity to have wars. The problem that humanity creates is that it believes it is Italian, German, Spanish. We are all human in this beautiful paradise that is our land. Handsome!
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