Hell in the Forest: The 22d Infantry Regiment in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest
By Robert S. Rush
On 16 November 1944, the 4th Infantry Division attacked into the Hurtgen Forest as one of the ten divisions participating in Operation Queen, a combined offensive by the First and Ninth U.S. Armies to seize the Rhine River crossings into Germany.
As one of the infantry regiments of the 4th Division, the 22d Infantry spent 18 days in November and early December 1944 in the Hurtgen Forest. In a battle many believed mattered little in the big picture, the 22d suffered 2,773 casualties, or 85% of its normal complement of 3,257 soldiers, to take one village and 6,000 yards of forest. Each rifle company went into action averaging 162 soldiers. Seven days later the rifle companies averaged 87. Even this number required 42% replacements. By the end of the battle, losses of the rifle companies reached an estimated 151% of their original strength.
Although the 22d Infantry suffered these very heavy casualties, the U.S. Army’s practice of replacing casualties while units were still in combat kept the unit from ever falling below 75% strength. Total replacements amounted to 1,988 soldiers. GEN Rudolf-Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorf, chief of staff for the German Seventh Army, called the fighting in the Hurtgen worse than anything he had seen on the Russian Front, and compared it in intensity to the battles of attrition conducted during the last two years of World War I.
The terrain and weather negated the impact of American superiority in aviation and armor and made the battle an infantryman’s fight from beginning to end. Although massive amounts of artillery fire assisted the forward movement of the regiment, the infantry still had to take the ground. The entire region was crossed by a series of ridges running north to south. The area was thickly wooded with great hardwood and fir trees standing 75 to 100 feet tall. The bodies of the firs hugged close to the ground and interlocked with their neighbors, making it appear as if the forest were a sea of green, which the mid-day sun seldom broke through, leaving an eerie twilight effect. This combination of terrain and vegetation forced wheeled vehicles and tanks onto the few trails and firebreaks running through the woods. Almost nothing is worse for an infantryman’s morale than to be wet and cold and to know he has little chance of drying out. Throughout November, temperatures in the Hurtgen remained near freezing, with a seemingly never-ending mixture of snow, sleet and rain.
The 22d was neither poorly trained nor led. LTG J. Lawton Collins, the VII Corps Commander and later the Army Chief of Staff, considered the 22d one of the premier infantry regiments in the European Theater of Operations. It had been formed in 1940 and at the time of the Hurtgen battle, most of its officers at the company level and above had been with the regiment since 1942. By all accounts, the regiment’s commander, COL Charles T. Lanham, and his battalion commanders, were effective leaders. Officers at the platoon level were primarily Officer Candidate School graduates who had joined the unit after it had landed at Utah Beach. Many of the enlisted soldiers, especially the NCOs, had been with the unit during its training in the United States and Britain.
The attack began at 1245 hours on 16 November. Although the 22d made good gains during the first day, it fell short of its initial objectives. Then, as one soldier stated, “all hell broke loose.” During the next two days, every battalion commander was killed or wounded as were many of the small unit leaders. Gains were measured in yards as German artillery pounded the advancing Americans. Mines blocked the muddy roads and the injured had to be hand-carried 1,500 yards back to the Regimental aid station. Tanks and other vehicles could not get forward to help the infantry. German counterattacks supported by armor limited the advance. Some companies were down to 50 effectives and the 2d Battalion in the south was particularly hard hit. The attack paused again the next day to clear the rear areas of German infiltrators and to put in a bridge across a stream so that supplies could be moved forward to the beleaguered units. In the early morning of 22 November, the 3d Battalion executed a left hook around the German defenses and advanced about 500 yards, cutting the road leading into the village of Grosshau. In the south, the 2d Battalion was hit by two counterattacks, one tank supported. The American tanks could not get through the thick woods and it was up to the infantry to defeat the attack, but with heavy casualties. The open southern flank was so serious that one company from the 1st Battalion and an ad hoc organization of 100 replacements were sent to hold the line there. The 23rd and 24th were days of comparable rest, while the regiment refitted and reorganized while waiting for the 12th Infantry to secure the southern flank. Turkey sandwiches and “luke cold coffee” went forward to the rifle companies of Thanksgiving Day, the 24th. This was the only hot meal to be served to the soldiers of the line during the 18-day battle.
The 22d Infantry, heavily reinforced by armor, artillery and engineers, launched its attack to seize Grosshau on 25 November. The 3d Battalion again executed a left hook and found its initial move to the forest edge north of Grosshau easy. It then took three hours for the tanks to make their way through the woods and come on line with the infantry. By that time, the Germans were waiting. Six tanks were destroyed in a matter of minutes and the infantry was driven back into the trees by a massive artillery barrage. The 2d Battalion also made it to the edge of the woods south of Grosshau, but not before sustaining heavy casualties. Nine battalions of artillery, ranging from 105mm to 240mm howitzers, then fired against the village, but to little effect against the German soldiers safely ensconced in the cellars. More leaders in the 22d fell on this day than on any other day of battle. The following day was quiet except for one company committed to close the gap between the 2d and 3d Battalions. After gaining its objective it was thrown back by a German tank supported attack boiling out of Grosshau.
The one Medal of Honor awarded to a member of the 22d during World War II occurred the following day when another company attacked close to the breach. PFC Marcario Garcia, while acting as a squad leader, single-handedly knocked out two machine guns that were holding up the attack. Another company rushed to assist the assaulting company in holding the ground gained. At the end of the day, combined strength of both units stood at 70 soldiers, or less than two full-strength platoons. By 27 November, more than half of the regiment’s soldiers had fallen; almost as many replacements (1,640) had arrived as there were soldiers in the rifle companies at full strength.
On the morning of the 29th, the 3d Battalion attacked north and then east around the German defenses in Grosshau, cutting the road leading from the village to the town of Gey, located on the Roer plain. During the 3d Battalion’s advance, COL Lanham received orders to take Grosshau by direct assault. Only the company that had been holding the line between the 2d and 3d Battalions was in position to make the attack. It was rapidly pinned down with heavy casualties and remained in that predicament for three hours until an American tank force from the south appeared to take some of the pressure off the infantry. The fight for Grosshau continued house to house into the night and was finally declared secure just before midnight.
There was no pause after Grosshau, although there was now a break in the woods and soldiers could see the sunlight. The 22d continued its push to the edge of the forest overlooking the Roer plain. Because of the regiment’s weakened state, the 46th Armored Infantry Battalion was attached to seize a line of departure for the 5th Armored Division south of the 2d Battalion. But it and the 2nd Battalion met extremely heavy fire when they advanced across the open fields. Both made it to the far woodline, but had to pull back because there were not enough men to hold the line.
On 1 December, the two battalions again attacked under a horrific artillery barrage. The 46th, after making some gains, was forced back to its line of departure. The 2d Battalion was hit by a counterattack and the reserve company was rushed forward to stabilize the line. The fighting strength of the 2d Battalion was down to 124 soldiers in its three rifle companies, or just about two-thirds of a full-strength company. COL Lanham organized a last-ditch regimental reserve composed of headquarters, service, and anti-tank soldiers, which totaled about 100 men.
Before the regiment could continue the attack the following day, the 3d Battalion was hit by a German counterattack from Gey and had one of its companies overrun and enemy soldiers penetrate up to the command posts of the 1st and 3d Battalions. Rather than withdraw, Lanham committed his reserve and told his units to “hold on and fight.” The German penetration was shortly wiped out by infantry and tanks. The line was restored. Because of its heavy losses, MG Raymond O. Barton, the 4th Division commander, requested that the 22d be relieved “because the had attacked until there was no attack left in them.” The next day, the 330th Infantry, 83d Infantry Division, began relieving the 22d on the line. Just prior to the relief, one of 1st Battalion’s companies was hit by another German attack. It was partially overrun, but the headquarters elements of the three rifle companies, as well as soldiers from the heavy weapons company, closed the breach. Later during the day the German Luftwaffe sortied and about 30 German aircraft bombed and strafed the area, but with few American casualties. The 22d pulled out of the forest on 3 December and headed for Luxembourg. Its battle in the Hurtgen Forest was over.
The 22d Infantry entered the Hurtgen Forest expecting a low-cost success. Instead, the regiment fought its way through the woods virtually unsupported in a battle of attrition against three German divisions and elements of two others. Although the 22d suffered more casualties than any other unit in the Hurtgen, it lost no ground that was not immediately recovered. The last days of the battle saw fresh German battalions breaking through decimated companies of the 22d, only to be cut off, killed or captured by other equally understrength companies rushed into the battle. During the battle, the 22d captured 764 Germans. There is no existing casualty figures for German units, outside of those captured. However, it must be assumed that Herman casualties were at least as high, if not higher, than those of the 22d. German companies suffered the same fate as the 22d’s, but they lacked the ability to regenerate and were burned in the flame of Hurtgen.
The regiment kept fighting as long as it contained soldiers who had trained together in the United States or who had significant previous combat experience with the regiment. These veterans provided a pool of competent soldiers to replace the junior officers and NCOs when they either became casualties or were promoted during the battle. As long as there were veterans around whom the replacements could coalesce, the regiment moved forward. The loss of these small unit leaders quite possibly dealt a more deadly blow to the regiment’s ability to attack than did the loss of the commanders of every rifle company and battalion. The backbone of the regiment was the soldiers, officers and enlisted, who had trained together in the United States.
The above article was drawn from Paschendale with Treebursts: A History and Analysis of the 22d Infantry Regiment During the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, 16 November through 3 December 1944, by Robert S. Rush.