The “Aachen” corridor

Men-of-HQ-Company-1st-Battalion-near-Aachen

16th Infantry Regimen: Troops of HQ Company, 1st Battalion just after crossing into Germany near Aachen on 12 September 1944. They celebrated by breaking out the American flag.

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Gerhard (“Gerd”) Helmuth Detloff Graf von Schwerin (1899-1980) was a German general in charge of the formidable 116th Panzer Division during the Battle of Aachen in October 1944. He attempted to surrender the city to the Americans but failed. He was arrested for treason but was sent to fight in Italy. After the war and a brief incarceration, he served as the chief rearmament officer in the West German government and as a senior advisor on military policy until his death in 1980.

The Aachen corridor was defended by the 7th Army, commanded by Gen Erich Brandenberger. Model derided him as “a typical product of the general staff system” and his traditional style did not earn him the favor of Hitler. Yet Brandenberger had a fine combat record, leading the 8th Panzer Division during the invasion of Russia in 1941 and commanding the 29th Army Corps in Russia for a year before being given command of the 7th Army.

One of Brandenberger’s initial tasks was to restore some measure of order amongst his edgy corps and divisional commanders. The “void” of late August and early September had left many divisional commanders to operate on their own initiative and it was Brandenberger’s task to reestablish iron discipline. A good example of the confused temper of the time was the fate of the highly respected but headstrong commander of the 116th Panzer Division, Gen Lt Graf Gerhard von Schwerin. The young count already had a reputation for being more concerned about the fate of his troops than for instructions from higher headquarters, and during the abortive Panzer counteroffensive around Mortain in the summer, had been relieved for flaunting instructions on the disposition of his division. Following the Falaise debacle, he was reappointed commander, but, during the short-lived defense of Liege, he again frustrated the corps commanders by his independent actions. It was well known among the divisional officers that Schwerin did not want to continue fighting on German soil for fear of the desolation that would ensue. When Schwerin first took command of the Aachen defenses on September 12, he found that Nazi party leaders and police had already abandoned the city and that the civilian population was in chaos; he halted the exodus out of the city, not realizing that it had been Hitler who had ordered it. Hoping that the city would be abandoned rather than defended to the last, he left a message with a city official intended for the US Army asking them “to take care of the unfortunate population in a humane way.” Unfortunately, on September 15 the Nazi party leaders and some police skulked back into the city and discovered the note. They accused Schwerin of defeatism and tried to haul him before a “People’s Court.” Schwerin ignored them and later in the month presented himself to Seventh Army headquarters for a military tribunal. Appreciating Schwerin’s gallantry, Rundstedt proposed reinstating him to divisional command. However, in the paranoid climate around Hitler after the officers’ bomb plot, he was sent for a while to the “doghouse” the OKW officers’ pool-until things cooled off. He later commanded a Panzergrenadier division and a corps in Italy. Brandenberger also relieved Gen Schack of command of 81st Corps on September 20 due to his connection with the Schwerin affair.

The unification of command of these disparate units did not take place until early September, with the reconstitution of the 7th Army. Following the encirclement in the Falaise pocket and the deeper envelopment on the Seine, the German 7th Army ceased to exist and its remnants were attached to the 5th Panzer Army. On September 4, 1944, it was reconstructed under Gen Erich Brandenberger and assigned the task of defending the Westwall in the Maastricht-Aachen-Bitburg sector, with its 81st Corps covering from the Herzogenrath-Dueren area, the 74th Corps from Roetgen to Ormont and the 1st SS-Panzer Corps in the Schnee Eifel from Ormont to the 1st Army boundary near Diekirch. The 81st Corps covered the sector attacked by the US VII and XIX Corps and most of its main combat elements were still withdrawing through Belgium into the second week of September. The 353rd Infantry Division had little more than its headquarter elements, so the 81st Corps used it to man the Westwall defenses in the Aachen area by assigning it the various Luftwaffe and Landesschuetzen battalions. The northern sector facing the US XIX Corps was held by two significantly under strength infantry divisions, the 49th and 275th. The 49th Infantry Division had been trapped in the Mons pocket, and by the time it reached the German frontier it had only about 1,500 men, mostly from the headquarters and support elements. The 275th Infantry Division suffered terribly in Normandy and by August it was described as “practically destroyed.” It was partly rebuilt and by mid September had only one infantry regiment. It had a divisional strength of 5,000 men and a combat strength of about 1,800 men but its field artillery was limited to a single battery of 105mm howitzers.[1]

The principal units facing the US VII Corps were the 116th Panzer Division, centered around Aachen, and the 9th Panzer Division in the Stolberg corridor. The 116th Panzer Division was the best-equipped unit in this sector, but, when it took control of the defense of Aachen in mid-September, it had a combat strength of about 1,600 men, with its Panzergrenadier battalions about half-strength and only three PzKpfw IV tanks, two Panther tanks, and two StuG III assault guns. Reinforcements in the third week of September reestablished its combat strength in infantry, but it was down to only about 2,000 liters (500 gallons) of fuel, leaving it immobilized. The 9th Panzer Division was still withdrawing through Belgium and was a mere skeleton. Its armored strength had been reduced to eight operational Panther tanks, and six StuG III assault guns; its two Panzergrenadier regiments were down to about three companies. The division was so weak that the 7th Army reinforced it with the remnants of Panzer Brigade 105, which had lost most of its Panzergrenadiers and was down to five Panther tanks and three assault guns. After the surviving battlegroup withdrew across the frontier, the division was rebuilt with a hodgepodge of territorial and Luftwaffe units in its sector.

Recognizing the weakness of the units assigned to the 81st Corps, the 7th Army attempted to reinforce the Aachen sector as soon as resources became available, and three divisions were assigned in mid-September. The first to arrive was the 12th Infantry Division, which had been reconstituted in East Prussia in the late summer after heavy combat on the Russian Front.

Its arrival in the Aachen sector starting on September 14 was a major morale boost for the locale civilian population, as the division was fully equipped with young, new soldiers. The two other divisions were the 183rd and 246th Volksgrenadier divisions (VGD). The 183rd VGD arrived in the sector on September 22 and was assigned to take over the Geilenkirchen sector from the 275th Infantry Division, which was then shifted to cover a gap on the corps’ southern wing in the Huertgen forest. The 183rd VGD was moved from Bohemia starting on September 23. Its arrival permitted the 116th Panzer Division to be gradually pulled out of the line for refitting and to serve as the corps reserve.

7th Army: General der Panzertruppe Erich Brandenberger

81st Corps: Generalleutnant Friederich-August Schack

49th Infantry Division: Generalleutnant Siegfried Macholz

275th Infantry Division: Generalleutnant Hans Schmidt

116th Panzer Division: Generalleutnant Graf Gerhard von Schwerin

9th Panzer Division: Generalmajor Gerhard Muller

353rd Infantry Division: Generalleutnant Paul Mahlmann

Reinforcements after September 14

12th Infantry Division: Colonel Gerhard Engel

183rd Volksgrenadier Division: Generalleutnant Wolfgang Lange

[1] The Wehrmacht defined combat strength as the number of frontline combat troops; it did not include non-combat elements, so, for example, a full-strength infantry division with 14,800 men had a combat strength of 3,800.

THE FIRST BATTLE OF AACHEN

The first US troops to reach German soil were a reconnaissance patrol of the 5th Armored Division, which crossed the River Our near Stalzemburg on the German-Luxembourg border on September 11, 1944. Although the V Corps made several other penetrations, on September 17 Gen Gerow halted any further attacks in this sector, realizing that his forces were too limited to conduct any deep penetration of the defenses in the wooded, mountainous terrain of the Eifel. After a few brief days of fighting, the Ardennes-Eifel front turned quiet, and would remain so for three months until the start of the German Ardennes offensive in this area on December 16.

Collins’ VII Corps was moving on a 35-mile-wide front towards the Aachen corridor and began battalion-sized reconnaissance probes against the Scharnhorst Line of the Westwall on September 12. Aachen had been Charlemagne’s capital and the imperial city of the kings of Germania from 936 to 1531; as a result Hitler was adamant that the city be defended. On September 16, Hitler issued a Fuehrer directive. There was no room for strategic maneuver now that the enemy had reached German soil: every man was to “stand fast or die at his post.” To facilitate the defense, Hitler ordered the civilians evacuated and by mid September, the population had fallen from 165,000 to about 20,000. The German 81st Corps assumed that the main US objective would be the city, and so assigned the defense to its best unit, the 116th Panzer Division, which began arriving on September 12.

In fact, the main objective of the VII Corps was to push up the Stolberg corridor with the aim of reaching the River Roer. The Combat Command B (CCB) of the 3rd Armored Division began moving forward at dawn on September 13, gradually battering its way up the Stolberg corridor. Closest to the city, the 16th Infantry stalled along the Westwall in the Aachen municipal forest. The penetrations accelerated over the next few days. The 1st Infantry Division pushed through the bunkers in the Aachen municipal forest, with two of its regiments reaching the southern outskirts of the city, while the 16th Infantry furthest east reached Ellendorf at the edge of the Schill Line. CCA of the 3rd Armored Division had the most dramatic gains, pushing all the way to the southern edge of Eilendorf to await infantry reinforcements. CCB of the 3rd Armored Division pushed northward out of the Monschau forest advancing with one task force into Kornelimunster and the other to the outskirts of Vicht. German resistance varied considerably; some of the Landesschiitz territorial defense battalions evaporated on contact, while small rearguards from regular army units fought tenaciously. On September 15, both combat commands of the 3rd Armored Division penetrated into the Schill Line, with CCA coming under determined fire from StuG III assault guns holding the high ground near Geisberg, while the CCB’s lead task force was stopped by tank fire from Hill 238 west of Gressenich. The 9th Panzer Division claimed the destruction of 42 US tanks that day – an exaggeration, but also a clear indication of the intensity of the fighting.

With the attack up the Stolberg corridor proceeding well, the 9th Infantry Division began a methodical advance into the Hurtgen forest on the right flank of the 3rd Armored Division, moving through both the Scharnhorst and Schill lines as far north as Schevenhuette. The attempt to clear the Huertgen forest gradually ground to a halt after encountering 32 elements of the 89th Infantry Division in bunkers of the Schill Line. Even though the German defenders were outnumbered, the we11placed bunkers considerably amplified their combat effectiveness. The determined defense by the regular infantry was a complete contrast to earlier fighting against the initial Scharnhorst Line where local territorial defense units were not so resolute.

By now Gen Schack of the 81st Corps realized that the main US goal was to push through the Stolberg corridor, but the presence of the 1st Infantry Division on the doorstep of Aachen and the constant American shelling of the city suggested that the capture of the city was also an American objective. As a result, he kept Schwerin’s 116th Panzer Division defending the city instead of attacking the flank of the American assault. The momentum of the battle shifted on September 17 following the arrival of the 12th VGD. This fresh, full-strength division had been allotted by Hitler to ensure the defense of Aachen, and was commanded by one of Hitler’s former military adjutants, Col Engel. Although Schack attempted to keep it intact for a decisive action, he was forced to commit it piecemeal, and an initial Fusilier Regiment 27 counterattack was beaten back with heavy losses. The arrival of these critical reinforcements permitted counterattacks all along the American lines, including determined attacks against the US 9th Infantry Division near Schevenhuette by Grenadier Regiment (GR) 48. With his own troops overextended and short of ammunition, Collins ordered his troops to consolidate their positions on the evening of September 17, except for the 9th Infantry Division still fighting in the Huertgen. Skirmishes continued over the next few days with little movement as both sides tried to wrest control of key geographic features, such as the hills around Stolberg, and the towns of Verlautenheide and Schevenhuette. The Wehrmacht succeeded in halting the advance, but at a heavy cost in infantry. The newly arrived 12th VGD dropped in combat strength from 3,800 to 1,900 riflemen, and the 9th Panzer Division and its attachments lost over a thousand men, equivalent to about two-thirds of their combat strength compared to a week earlier.

Collins hoped that the 9th Infantry Division could push southeast out of the Huertgen forest and seize the towns in the clearing on the road to Duren. With the fighting along the Stolberg corridor stalemated, the continuing US advance in the woods attracted the attention of the Seventh Army commander, Gen Brandenberger, who scraped up a few assault guns to reinforce the patchwork 353rd Infantry Division holding these towns. Both sides were badly overextended and exhausted, and small advantages could have a disproportionate effect. After repeated attempts, the 9th Infantry Division’s push east through the wooded hills was halted short of the Huertgen-Kleinhau clearings, ending the first attempt to clear the Huertgen forest.

While most of the fighting by the US First Army had been concentrated in the VII Corps sector, Corlett’s XIX Corps had taken advantage of the weak German defenses in the southern Netherlands to push up to the Westwall. In spite of the severe fuel shortages, the 2nd Armored Division pushed beyond the Albert Canal to Geilenkirchen, while on its right flank the 30th Division pushed towards Rimburg, an advance of some 15 to 33 miles in ten days. Nevertheless, German resistance was continuing to harden, and the XIX Corps was unable to intervene in the fighting around Aachen as a result.

With the launch of Operation Market Garden further north in the Netherlands by the 21st Army Group on September 17, US operations against the Westwall came to a halt for the rest of September. Low on supplies, out of fuel, overextended by the vagaries of the summer advance, and now facing a much more vigorous defense, it was time to recuperate and take stock. On September 22, Gen Hodges made this official, with instructions to shut down the remaining offensive operations in the VII Corps and XIX Corps sectors. During the final week of September, the US forces in the Aachen sector reorganized with the arrival of the Ninth Army. The new army was wedged between the British 21st Army Group to the north in the Netherlands, and the US First Army around Aachen.

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