Visiting Battlefields: The Huertgen Forest and the Siegfried Line
Posted by Denny Koch on November 7, 2011
Vossenack, Kommerscheidt, Hürtgen, Schmidt – the names of these German villages are better known in the US than in Germany. If you tell your co-workers in Germany that you will spend your next weekend in the Huertgen Forst, they will give you a weird look and ask you: “Where? Where is that?”
The reason why this region and the Battle of Huertgen Forst are almost unknown to the average German citizen is the fact that this battle “didn’t take place”. Actually, when the Americans got over the Siegfried Line and crossed the German border, Hitler was deep into his preparations for the Ardennes offensive. The fact that Allied soldiers had entered the German homeland was a disaster for German propaganda – which was anxious to make the public believe that the Allies were held up in the West, in France and Belgium. So this battle was swept under the carpet and the German public was told that the Allies were stalled somewhere in the West. The locals of the Huertgen Forest were evacuated, so there were no eyewitnesses to the events in the region, and it was prohibited to talk about what happened there.
The Battle in the Huertgen Forest was one of the bloodiest battles in World War II, it was the longest single battle ever fought by US forces and the trench warfare character of this Battle made it known as “the Verdun of WWII”. Veterans of Huertgen Forest stated that this battle was bloodier than the landings at Omaha Beach. Nevertheless, even today many Germans never heard about the Battle of the Huertgen Forest or could locate this region on a map.
The Huertgen Forest (German: Hürtgenwald) is located in the far West of Germany, close to the Belgian border, in the National Park Eifel close to the Belgian National Park Hohes Venn, South of the cities of Aachen and Düren and north of Monschau.
Fortunately, the Hürtgenwald region is very active in commemorating history. Even today, people in Vossenack or Schmidt are still living with the after-effects of the battle: Some areas are still mined because there are almost no maps left showing the position of the minefields. In addition, there were also glass and wood mines used which cannot be detected by metal detectors. You are advised not to leave the signposted routes in the forest, and if you want to build a house, first thing you do is call an explosive disposal team to check the ground. Each year, the remains of about 7 soldiers are discovered in the forests and fields.
The Battle is still present everywhere in the region. In Vossenack is the Hürtgenwald 1944 museum which is maintained by the private “Historical Society Hürtgenwald in 1944 and in peace”. There are many memorials all over the place, for US soldiers as well as for Germans. One memorial is quite special: it is a memorial for a German officer donated by US soldiers.
You can follow the infamous (well sign-posted) “Kall Trail” down into the forest where many remains of the Battle are still visible today. There are two large German war cemeteries in Vossenack and Hürtgen (US soldiers were buried in cemeteries outside Germany, for example in Belgium and the Netherlands, or transferred back home).
The German veteran organization “Windhunde” (former members of the 116th Panzer Division (“Windhunde”) and their families, friends and descendants) is still very active in commemorating the Battle. They set up a large memorial next to the Vossenack cemetery, and they cooperate closely with US veterans. Each year in October there is a Remembrance Walk through the forest by US and German veterans, visitors, and citizens together with many events like an American style BBQ, meetings, and lectures.
We went to the Huertgen Forest in September, on a very sunny day, but when you walk deep down into the forest, you learn very soon that you wouldn’t want to spend an entire winter there. The forests are very steep, the ground consists of solid rocks, and the conifers forest is dense and dark.
As guide books, we used the “Militärgeschichtlicher Reiseführer” by Peter Többicke and the very good “Hürtgenwald 1944/1945 Militärgeschichtlicher Tourenplaner” by Rainer Monnartz. The last book is especially good and highly recommended if you can read German because it offers complete tours with location descriptions, photos, and even GPS coordinates, which proved to be very helpful.
Huertgen Forest then…
The Battles in the Huertgen Forest took place from 14th September 1944 – 10th February 1945. The reason why the US forces entered this almost impassable and rough terrain was that they wanted to push to the Rur river and to secure the Schwammelauel Dam which was located behind the mountains. They also wanted to secure the village of Schmidt in order to capture the city of Monschau, which was a German HQ.
The US forces underestimated the presence of the German forces – they couldn’t know that the Huertgen Forest was a staging area for the Battle of the Bulge planned for December 1944. In addition, the entire wood was mined and crisscrossed by trenches, barbed wire, and fortifications. Because of the rocky and steep terrain, it was almost impossible to cross the forest with tanks or heavy equipment, but the US neglected initial reconnaissance and so the 1st Army got trapped on the rocky and muddy “Kall Trail” deep in the forests with almost useless tanks which had to be abandoned in great numbers. In hindsight, military historians agree that the Huertgen Forest should have been avoided. Charles B. MacDonald, an US historian and former company commander who served in the battle stated that this Battle was “a misconceived and basically fruitless battle”.
Due to the difficult terrain, the American advantage in numbers became irrelevant and a small number of defenders could stall the US advance for months. In addition, the winter 1944 was extremely cold with early snow and heavy mud, and the Americans were completely unprepared to fight in cold weather. They were only supplied with summer equipment and clothing – while the German veterans with their experiences in Russia and places like Stalingrad had become quite accustomed to winter warfare.
When the battle hardened US forces, which were sent in first, had been so reduced that they became combat ineffective, the US command decided not to retreat from the forest. Instead, they sent in inexperienced, green recruits, which led to even more casualties.
The US soldiers were forced to blast tank routes into the rocks which were blocking the small path along the steep slopes. Often enough, tanks lost their tank tracks or slipped down the slope or were even pushed down by soldiers when they became useless. It was quite easy for the highly mobile Germans with Panzerfausts and improvised rocket launchers to spot and attack targets and then to disappear into the woods again, while the Americans had difficulties to spot any targets at all. Due to the high trees, mortar or artillery support was also often unavailable to the US forces because of the danger of tree bursts.
The US 1st Army estimated that they were opposed by roughly 5,000 men, with almost no artillery and no tanks at their disposal, but opposing to the US belief that these Germans were weak and would retreat soon, they successfully stalled the US advance for months. In fact, they faced two full German divisions (275th and 89th), coupled with elements from the 6th Panzer Division when the 28th attacked. In addition, they had no fewer than 15 artillery battalions blanketing the area. Over the course of time, the Germans ended up throwing in 6 divisions into the battle, suffering a total of about 28,000 casualties. Control over towns like Vossenack switched about 28 times between both sides.
While the mountainous dense forest may be a very idyllic sight today, and the area is marked as a climatic health resort, the villages in the Huertgen Forest are not very attractive.
Not much was left of Vossenack, Kommerscheidt or Schmidt after the battle, so all villages had to be cleared of mines and rebuilt from scratch. If you see these villages today, you cannot believe that you are visiting 500 years old towns – they almost exclusively consist of faceless new buildings in typical 50’s style. There are no lively village centers, old buildings, or the typical half-timbered Eifel houses (as for example in picturesque Monschau). The small Hürtgenwald villages appear very contemporary and somewhat cheerless. The fact that we entered Kommerscheidt on a Sunday afternoon, when all streets were deserted didn’t help, so we got the impression of entering a ghost town.
The surrounding National Park Eifel is a beautiful recreation area with old timber work villages, seas, old volcanoes, forests, and mountains. The closest historical towns are Monschau and Nideggen. Especially Monschau is well worth seeing and very popular among tourists from Belgium, France, and The Netherlands, so if you visit the Huertgen Forest, you should also visit Monschau, the Rur dams, and the NS Order Castle Vogelsang.
In the entire region between Aachen and Monschau, you can see the dragon teeth of the Siegfried Line (German: “Westwall”). There is even a 12 km long “Westwall Wanderweg” (“Siegfried Line hiking route”) which leads from Simmerath in the Huertgen Forest to Monschau. Here, you can walk on and along the Siegfried Line, which is a must if you are a battlefield tourist.
The dragon teeth are still intact today, simply because it is too expensive to remove the massive concrete objects. Many are situated in private gardens, front yards or along the road and fields because people simply built around them. You are kindly advised by signs not to enter private backyards and gardens when following the Siegfried Line, but there are enough dragon teeth in the open for everyone to see and touch and climb.
When we came to the Huertgen Forest, our first stop was in Lammersdorf near Simmerath where the “Westwall Wanderweg” begins. There is a small parking lot, just large enough for one car, and a wooden sign showing the direction of the Siegfried Line next to the road. You can’t miss the teeth, though – they are everywhere along the road.
We then followed the route for a while, walking on the concrete bunker constructions of the Westwall which leads through fields and along a small rivulet. The dragon teeth here are overgrown with moss and plants, but you can freely walk between them, which is quite interesting and feels weird because you begin to realize that building them was such a weird project in the first place. If you think about the endless rows of dragon teeth, hundreds of kilometers long, you cannot help but start wondering what an immense effort it must have been to build them.
Vossenack Hürtgenwald 1944 Museum
After returning from our walk along the Siegfried Line, we drove to Vossenack to visit the Hürtgenwald Museum. The museum is maintained by honorary volunteers and only open from March-November and only on Sundays (!) between 11 am – 5 pm, so time your visit well!
When we reached the museum, we were surprised about how lively it was, outside and inside. There were many cars in the parking lot, coming from all over Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and even Great Britain.
The entrance fee is moderate, 4 Euros for an adult (5 Euros if you take a guided tour, but guided tours are only offered occasionally, so we couldn’t join one). There is also a field hospital bunker which can be visited for an additional fee of 3 Euros, but since the entrance to this bunker is in the cellar of a private home, it is only open from time to time (one hour on Saturdays, I guess). The museum also offers guided military tours for schools, groups, or English tours for army personnel from other countries, but these have to be booked in advance, so it is quite difficult to get any official guide in the Hürtgenwald Museum. We explored the museum on our own.
The museum staff was very helpful, though; there was a bearded army retiree who was in charge that Sunday and he explained to us how the museum works and invited us to the annual Remembrance Walk and BBQ next weekend.
In the museum, you can watch a documentation about the Hürtgenwald in a cinema room. We watched for a few minutes and the documentation “You enter Germany – Bloody Huertgen and the Siegfried Line” was very good with lots of original footage, eyewitness reports and detailed information about the backgrounds. Since the documentation was about 90 minutes long, we then decided to buy the DVD (it was sold at the museum entrance, it is in German and English and well worth the money!) and watch it at home. If you can get your hands on a DVD, you should buy it (you can even order it from amazon.de because it is region free).
We then followed the circular route of the Museum which strongly reminded us of the Oorlogsmuseum 1944-45 in Arnhem. The museum displays findings from the area – German and US weapons, ammunition, mines, equipment. You can see uniforms and private possessions of soldiers, documents, and photographs. There are vehicles, tank tracks, parts of shot down aircraft, helmets, wall signs, and all kinds of things from the era.
The history of the battle is depicted on large wall charts with maps, everything is bi-lingual in German and English. There were many visitors from other countries, especially Americans, in the museum and the atmosphere was very open and friendly.
We spent about 2 hours in the museum and then we left to visit the actual battlefield.
Vossenack church and cemetery
We left our car at the museum and walked to the Parish Church St. Jozef in Vossenack. The church was completely destroyed during the battle and re-built after the war in a semi-old fashion. It is a Fatima pilgrim church containing a Madonna consecrated in Fatima and she is supposed to work miracles. Accordingly, the walls around the Madonna, who is located in the church entrance, is full with expressions of thanks by people who were helped by her in times of need. The new church bell was sponsored by the Windhunde panzer division and its chiming is meant to be a “reminder of peace”.
The church was the scenery of heavy fightings during the battles for Vossenack. On several occasion, control over the church was split in half between German and US soldiers, one faction shooting from the hall, the other from the sacristy or bell tower.
Inside the church, there is a huge colorful church window which was donated by the Windhunde division, together with a memorial plate remembering the war. On the church door, there is an inscription remembering the 68,000 Americans and Germans who were killed, wounded, fallen ill, captured, or missing in action during the fightings in and around Vossenack.
Behind the church is the church cemetery. This cemetery contains several war memorials, one directly behind the church commemorating the dead of both World Wars.
The most important and most impressive memorial is the crucifixion group in the central part of the cemetery. It is quite expressive and shows Jesus on a large crucifix who extends one arm to the desperate people below (two of them being Mary and John the Baptist). The inscription plate says: ““MEMORIAL FOR PEACE 8.5.1945 – 8.5.1985 – Remember the Dead – they’re asking for peace“. It was created by the Franciscan monk Laurentius Englisch and funded with donations.
Down the Kall trail
Following the descriptions in our guide-book, we left the cemetery through a gate at the far end. After crossing some faceless village streets, we left Vossenack and reached a small path winding through fields of corn and cow pastures. Our guidebook hinted us at a small way cross with a base perforated by bullet holes. Watch out for it, it can be easily missed!
Vossenack is located on the back of a woodless hill, surrounded by pastures and fields. From the fields, you could see the dense, dark forest below which fills the steep valleys between Vossenack, Kommerscheidt, and Schmidt. On the opposing hill, separated by a deep valley filled with dense forest, you can see the village of Kommerscheidt (Schmidt isn’t visible from Vossenack). After passing some more cows, a signpost showed us the way to the forest entrance and to the Kall Trail.
The Kall Trail (it was named by the US soldiers) is a small, steep, rocky path leading down to the small river Kall deep below in the valley. Then, after crossing the Kall, the path winds up another hill, equally steep, equally rocky, up to the village Kommerscheidt.
Beginning in November 1944, the 112th US Infantry Regiment used this trail to press on towards Schmidt, but they neglected recon and so they missed the fact that the initially broad and comfortable way at the forest entrance soon changed into a small, steep path which was almost impassable for heavy equipment and tanks (it is even difficult to walk down there on foot). The US soldiers were stalled on the path and only with greatest efforts, they managed to move at least some tanks and equipment down into the valley and across the Kall river. For the Germans, these efforts could be easily disturbed with small ambushes and constant hit-and-run attacks.
The path soon became so narrow that engineers had to blast away massive rocks which blocked the way down. The blasted-off blocks of rocks are still visible between the trees below the path today.
In addition, the path was very muddy and it became impossible for the tanks to turn around on their axle, so driving along a curve was highly dangerous. Driving forwards and backwards in order to maneuver around a curve led to the destruction of armor tracks. In the end, many broken tanks were simply pushed down the steep slope to the left of the Kall trail, where they ended as wrecks.
Walking down the path is difficult and exhausting even today, in sunny, dry weather and without enemy fire, and the path is so steep and narrow that we had difficulties to imagine how tanks were moved downwards at all – in the winter, in the mud (and later snow) and with rocks blocking the way. Walking down the original path was very illuminating indeed and is highly recommended because you will get a quite lively impression of the difficulties the Americans faced in 1944. Watch out, though – the rocky path is quite difficult to walk and you need good shoes with a good grip if you plan to follow the Kall Trail.
If you are handicapped, there is also an “easy way” down to the Kall river today, a paved road from Vossenack which leads to a popular tourist attraction next to the river Kall, the Mengener Mühle (Mengener Mill) where you can eat and drink, but fortunately, the original Kall trail is still intact and in original shape as it was in 1944.
Halfway down the trail, our guide-book brought a point of interest to our attention which could be easily missed: a foxhole, several meters up the steep slope to the right of the trail. We climbed up the slope and discovered the hole which was hidden among trees. A small wooden remembrance cross – the same type of crosses we saw everywhere across Arnhem – was left next to the place. This foxhole was originally hidden under a tarp and heavy logs which protected it from the air bursts. It served as an US field hospital where wounded from both sides were treated. Sometimes, German and US medics worked side by side. This aid station was left alone by the German Army during the battle after they had checked out that the US medics were unarmed.
Following the Kall Trail down, we crossed the new paved road several times where wanderers, mostly families with buggies, were on their way to the Mengener Mühle. From time to time, we met other battlefield tourists from several countries, which could easily be recognized by the Hürtgenwald books or maps they held in their hands.
After a while, we were down at the deepest part of the Kall valley, several hundred meters below our starting point. Next to the river, we could see the Mengener Mühle, which had changed ownership during the war several times. It had served as a German and US HQ, field hospital, and supply station. We didn’t visit the Mühle, but continued to follow the Kall Trail to the famous bridge.
The Kall stone bridge was built by US forces who needed this bridge to move their tanks over the small river. The original bridge was destroyed during the war and rebuilt after the war.
In November 2004, a memorial was placed on the massive bridge railing: “A Time for Healing”, together with an information board in English and German. The information board describes the historical events which took place on this bridge from November 7 to 12 in 1944. Here, German regimental doctor Captain Dr. Stüttgen managed to negotiate an inofficial ceasefire with the US forces to treat all wounded from both sides at the bridge. During the armistice, German paramedics took care of all German and US wounded soldiers on and around the bridge.
After the war, Dr. Stüttgen was honored by the Governor of Pennsylvania. A painting of the event called “A Time for Healing” can be seen in the Museum of the National Guard. A copy of the painting is in the Vossenack museum.
Up the Kall trail
After crossing the Kall bridge, we followed the Kall trail up the next hill which leads to the village of Kommerscheidt. The way is as steep and rocky as the way down and quite exhausting.
Half way up is another point of interest: US armor tracks, melted into the road. In this place, three trapped US tanks were destroyed by the Germans. The German soldiers were very happy when they discovered that the tanks were full of supplies: field rations, chocolate, cigarettes, cookies, and meat cans. One soldier, a young company runner who became friends with his US counterparts after the war, remembered that they discovered a tin with unknown stuff inside… which tasted quite good. After the war he learned that this were crunched peanuts and when he met the US soldiers on a veteran meeting for the first time, the tank commander brought him a box of peanuts as a present – something he never forgot.
On top of the hill, near the village Kommerscheidt and next to a mountain shelter, is an overlook with a small bank, perfect for taking a break. Here, you have a perfect view over the Kall valley and the dense forests between the treeless hills.
At the entrance to the village Kommerscheidt is the grave of US Staff Sergeant Lemuel H Herbert. The grave is decorated with a cross and a photo, but it is empty today because Herbert’s body was transferred to the US after the war. Still, the grave is well-kept and serves as a memorial today.
We entered the village of Kommerscheidt and were somewhat underwhelmed. This isn’t Kommerscheidt’s fault, of course, the village is about 600 years old, but it was the site of a heavy tank battle and almost nothing was left from the original village. Today, it is another faceless, 50’s style village without a city center or anything of interest – besides large single-family homes. We came to the conclusion that building a house in the Hürtgenwald must be quite cheap because all houses are somewhat oversized and built in weird villa or mediterranean styles, together with large properties and gardens. Since the area is still mined and you have to check for explosives before building a house, the Hürtgen Forest appears to be a popular living place or satellite suburb for commuters or young families without much income who work in the cities of Aachen, Düren or Nideggen, where property is much more expensive.
Unfortunately, we were under the wrong impression that the tour we had picked from our guide-book was a circular tour – in Kommerscheidt, we discovered that our tour ended with a description of the tank battle. So we realized that we were trapped in Kommerscheidt – our car was still in the parking lot in Vossenack, which was located on the next hill. We had a direct LOS to the village, but – historically accurate – we were separated from our destination by a valley filled with dense forest and a steep Kall trail…
We decided to check for a bus back to Vossenack, but the first problem was that there were no natives anywhere… the streets were deserted, apart from another couple with a Hürtgenwald guide-book, who looked as lost as we did. We walked up the main street and discovered a young girl who stared as us with surprised eyes. When we asked here for the next bus stop, she was quite confused and stammered something about her school bus. We then discovered the bus stop in front of the only (closed) pub in Kommerscheidt and had to learn that there are two busses a day, destination Schmidt, and the last bus left hours ago.
There was only one choice left: We had to walk back the entire Kall Trail to Vossenack, down to the river and up the rocky, steep slope to Vossenack…
Vossenack War Cemetery
It was 5 pm when we reached the parking lot and the museum (which was closed by then). It was too late to visit the Ochsenkopf, another valley filled with dense forest, and to visit the memorials and bunkers which are located there. We decided to visit at least the two war cemeteries before dusk.
The Vossenack War Cemetery is located outside Vossenack on the strategically important “Hill 470”. This hill was the scenery of heavy fightings and changed ownership several times during the war. There is a lookout next to the road where you have a great view over Vossenack and, if weather permits, you can see as far as the area around Cologne.
The cemetery contains the remains of 2347 Germans. 100 of them are members of bomb disposal teams who died after the war when defusing mines and explosives.
This cemetery has a very special history. German Captain Julius Erasmus went to the Huertgen Forest after the war, after he had lost his entire family in the Battle for Aachen, and was shocked by the bodies of dead soldiers lying around everywhere in the woods. It preyed on his mind, so he began to identify and bury them by himself, searching the burning woods and active minefields for bodies and burying them near the forest edge. When he had buried 120 dead soldiers, the village of Vossenack allowed him to use the village cemetery.
In the end, Julius Erasmus (who soon went by the name “Totengräber von Vossenack” = “Grave-Digger of Vossenack”) had buried 1569 dead soldiers on his own. He wrote down the names and dates of the dead, drew maps of their burial places and marked all graves with simple wooden crosses.
In 1949, the war cemetery Vossenack was built on Hill 270 and all dead German soldiers were transferred there. The administration of Vossenack offered Erasmus a house in the town, but he preferred to remain in his small wooden hut in the forest, close to the cemetery. He died in 1971. A memorial at the cemetery entrance commemorates his work.
Many soldiers in this cemetery were never identified, so the inscription on their gravestones is simply “Unknown soldier”.
In front of the cemetery is a parking lot. From there, we first went to the “Windhunde Memorial” next to the cemetery. The 116th Windhunde Panzer Division installed a monument with the inscription “Tote Soldaten sind niemals allein, denn immer werden treue Kameraden bei ihnen sein” (“Dead soldiers are never alone because their comrades will always be with them“). Information boards next to the memorial tell the story of the 116th Division with photos and text (which is, unfortunately, written in German only).
The graves on the Vossenack war cemetery are marked with simple stone plates on the grounds. Two soldiers share a grave and a stone. The most prominent person buried on this cemetery is Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model who committed suicide in April 1945 (still convinced of the superiority of National Socialism).
The atmosphere on the cemetery was quite peaceful but somewhat grim, due to the heavy black basaltic stones which were used for the crosses and for the central memorial.
Hürtgen War Cemetery
We then drove to the War Cemetery near the village of Hürtgen. It was built on the largest minefield in the entire Hürtgen region, named “Wilde Sau” (wild sow). The cemetery contains the remains of 3001 dead, among them 2925 German soldiers, 35 civilians, 27 Russians, 13 Polish, and 1 Belgian. 560 dead are still unidentified.
The shell limestone gravestones on this cemetery are quite remarkable: They are built as so-called “comrade-gravestones”, consisting of two adjoined crosses each.
At the entrance is a memorial for German Lt. Friedrich Lengfeld, sponsored by veterans of the US 4th Inf. Division in 1994. On November 12, 1944 Lt. Lengfeld tried to rescue an American soldier who was laying wounded in the Wilde Sau minefield and was crying for help. In his attempt to rescue the American soldier, Lengfeld was also severely wounded and died shortly after.
The cemetery is not as symmetric as other cemeteries, but is built inside an idyllic little forest with curved rows of crosses. When we left the cemetery, it was getting dark already.
There is still much to discover in the Huertgen Forest, for example bunkers, the village Schmidt, and the Ochsenkopf valley where several US and German memorials are placed deep inside the forest. So one day, we will certainly visit the Huertgen Forest again!
Visiting this battlefield was very interesting and the battle is still very present everywhere in the forests and villages. You have to plan your trip carefully, though, if you want to visit the Vossenack museum which is only open on Sundays from Spring to Autumn, and you need a good guide-book and maps if you want to find all hidden places and memorials (or a local guide, which is even better!).
With some preparation, a trip to the Huertgen Forest will be a very impressive and vivid experience!