Hell in Hürtgen Forest

The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment

Robert Sterling Rush

Some of the most brutally intense infantry combat in World War II occurred within Germany's Hürtgen Forest. Focusing on the bitterly fought battle between the American 22d Infantry Regiment and elements of the German LXXIV Korps around Grosshau, Rush chronicles small-unit combat at its most extreme and shows why, despite enormous losses, the Americans persevered in the Hürtgenwald "meat grinder," a battle similar to two punch-drunk fighters staggering to survive the round.

On 16 November 1944, the 22d Infantry entered the Hürtgen Forest as part of the U.S. Army’s drive to cross the Roer River. During the next eighteen days, the 22d suffered more than 2,800 casualties—or about 86 percent of its normal strength of about 3,250 officers and men. After three days of fighting, the regiment had lost all three battalion commanders. After seven days, rifle company strengths stood at 50 percent and by battle's end each had suffered nearly 140 percent casualties.

“A heartbreaking, day-by-day account—beautifully written—of the small unit action in the forest.”

Army History

“Rush successfully marries combat analysis with social history to provide a new assessment of the American infantry units that battled the Wehrmacht from the beaches of Normandy to the Elbe River. In an exhibition of brilliantly imaginative and thorough research, he examines the training, leadership, tactics, and replacement policies that permitted American infantry regiments to remain cohesive enough to keep gaining ground despite personnel losses that totaled sixty-four percent by the war’s end. Cutting edge scholarship on the U.S. Army’s war in the ETO.”

Journal of American History
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Despite these horrendous losses, the 22d Regiment survived and fought on, due in part to army personnel policies that ensured that unit strengths remained high even during extreme combat. Previously wounded soldiers returned to their units and new replacements, "green" to battle, arrived to follow the remaining battle-hardened cadre. The attack halted only when no veterans remained to follow.

The German units in the Hürtgenwald suffered the same horrendous attrition, with one telling difference. German replacement policy detracted from rather than enhanced German combat effectiveness. Organizations had high paper strength but low manpower, and commanders consolidated decimated units time after time until these ever-dwindling bands of soldiers disappeared forever: killed, wounded, captured, or surrendered. The performance of American and German forces during this harrowing eighteen days of combat was largely a product of their respective backgrounds, training, and organization. This pre-battle aspect, not normally seen in combat history, helps explain why the Americans were successful and the Germans were not.

Rush&8217;s work underscores both the horrors of combat and the resiliency of American organizations. While honoring the sacrifice and triumph of the common soldier, it also compels us to reexamine our views on the requisites for victory on the battlefield.

About the Author

Robert Sterling Rush, Command Sergeant Major (ret.), served in the U.S. Army at every organizational level from squad through army and as a historian at the U.S. Center of Military History. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University and is the author of The Soldier's Guide: 5th Edition and The NCO Guide: 6th Edition, as well as articles in journals such as Armed Forces and Society and Military Review.

Additional Titles in the Modern War Studies Series