At 1805 hrs on September 11th 1944, a patrol led by Staff Sergeant Warner Holzinger of the United States 5th Armored Division crossed into Germany near the village of Stolzemburg, a few miles northeast of Vianden, Luxembourg. For the first time since 1814 an armed enemy soldier had set foot on German soil in wartime.
This marked the beginning of breaching the Siegfried line by Allied forces and the subsequent seizure of the first major German city, Aachen.
The Siegfried Line
Construction started in 1938 and was intended as a defensive line which could be operated by second-rate troops. That way, Nazi Germany’s best forces were available for the attack on Poland, France and the low countries. Initially, Aachen was not included in the fortifications as it faces neutral Belgium and the Netherlands. Later, the West Wall (the allies called it Siegfried Line) was extended to face Belgium and the Netherlands as well. The fortifications near Aachen, being a traditional invasion route, was made up of two defensive sectors. The first sector, called the Scharnhorst line, was location about one kilometer behind the German border, the second sector, located west of Aachen, was called the Schill Line. The defenses consisted of small bunkers, anti tank ditches and dragon’s teeth. It was build in such a way that every road was covered by machine gun nests.
Breaching the Siegfried Line
Hitler ordered an evacuation of the city by mid September reducing the population of Aachen from 165.000 to 20.000. The Germans assumed Aachen to be the primary objective and ordered it’s best unit in for it’s defense (the 116th Panzer Division). In reality, the US primary objective was to reach to Roer river through the Stollberg Corridor. On September 13th 1944, elements of the 3rd Armored Division set out for the river. The US 1st Infantry Division pushed through bunkers in the Aachen Forest reaching the outskirts of the city at the Schill line. After infantry reinforcements had caught with up the armor, the 3rd Armored Division pushed through the Schill line on September 15th.
While this was happening, the US 3rd Infantry Division moved into the Hurtgen Forest near Schevenhutte but their advance soon grinded to a halt as they encountered the well placed bunkers. The determined defense by the regular infantry was a complete contrast to the local defense troops they encountered earlier.
The presence of the US 1st Infantry Division and the constant shelling of the city of Aachen still convinced the Germans that Aachen was the objective. As a result, the 116th Panzer Division stayed in the defense of Aachen. German reinforcements arrived on September 17th causing the US advance to a standstill. Being outnumbered and over overextended, US commanders ordered to consolidate positions. The US advance had been halted. Both sides were severely weakened, not being able to go on the offensive. Commanders hoped the 3rd Infantry Division was able to push out of the Hurtgen Forest. With the rest of the front stalemated, the Germans redirected artillery to the Hurtgen forest. The 3rd ID advance was thereafter halted near Hurtgen-Kleinhau.
The West Wall
The US 30th Infantry Division had pulled through the south of the Netherlands and had arrived at the Siegfried line near Rimburg (Read the full article here) To be able to reinforce the 3rd Armored Division, US commanders realized they needed a quick way to take out bunkers. Units of the 30th Infantry Division were trained in special ‘Bunker Busting’ techniques. The 30th Infantry Division set out for the defensive positions around Rimburg-Palenberg on October 2nd and soon encountered the Wurm river, which proved not as challenging as feared. The bunkers were quickly taken out by the Bunker Busters and Palenberg and Marienberg were captured by the end of the day. Other elements of the 30th Infantry Division were stalled near the medieval Rimburg castle. Reinforcement were called in. By the end of October 4th, the 2nd Armored Division blasted it’s way through and the 30th Infantry Division advanced up to Alsdorf. In less than a week, US Forces punched a considerable hole in the Westwall north of Aachen and was close linking up with the 2nd Armored Division and the US 1st Infantry Division, somewhere north of Stolberg.
On October 8th, the 30th Infantry Division attacked from the east while the 1st Infantry Division attacked from the west, trying the close the gap encircling Aachen. The Germans shifted reinforcements to the gap and the US advance halted. The Germans counterattacked but were repulsed, causing heavy casualties on both sides. The 30th Infantry Division held out until October 12th. That day, the weather cleared allowing US air power to intervene. Reinforced by elements of the US 29th Infantry Division, a push was made straight through Wurselen. The attack was slow going since the town was heavily reinforced by Panzers. The town was pummeled with mortar, artillery and air bombardments, sometimes so close, the infantry huddled in their foxholes while shells landed nearly on top of them. On October 15th at dawn, the Germans retreated. On October 16th, near 16:15 hrs, elements of the 30th Infantry Division linked up with the US 1st Infantry Division near Ravels Hill. Aachen was surrounded.
Capture of Aachen
Aachen in itself was of no strategic importance but was symbolic. The city had been Charlemagne’s capital and the imperial city of the kings of Germania from 936 to 1531.
On October 10th, a delegation had been sent into the city with a surrender ultimatum which was refused. The assault on Aachen was executed by the 26th Infantry Regiment of the US 1st Infantry Division and began on October 11th with artillery and air attacks. Engineers attempted to demolish buildings near the outskirts by filling trolley cars with captured explosives and then rolling them into the city. They had little effect. The infantry assault began on the morning of October 13 pushing into the city and capturing large parts of the city. The SS-battalion ‘Rink’ counterattack on October 15th but was repulsed. After a two day lull, US attacks continued attacking the Divisional Headquarters in Hotel Quellenhof but were not able to break the German defenders. The US 26th IR was reinforced by elements of the 3rd Armored Division. The 3rd Armored attacked Lousberg from the west while the 26th attacked through Salvatorberg from the east, both units meeting around noon on October 19th. The defenders surrendered officially at 12:05 hrs on October 21st 1944. About 1600 German troops surrendered at the end, bringing the total number of German prisoners of war to 3473 out of the original garrison of about 5,000. In addition, US troops evacuated about 6000 civilians during the course of the fighting, and a further 1000 after the surrender.
Aachen was the first major German city to be captured by the allies. This paved the way for an offensive to the river Rhein, Germany’s last line of defense. This would include an offensive through the Hurtgen Forest….
Panzerwerk Katzenkopf Museum
The “Katzenkopf” (1937 – 1939) was the second largest and northernmost positioned fort of its kind and is today the one still visible of the entire-line. In its preserved interior parts it hosts the “Westwallmuseum” with an interesting collection of World War II weapons and photos. Although this article describes the siege of Aachen, this museum was part of the Siegfried line. More information here
Siegfried Line Museum Gerstfeldhöhe
The Siegfried Line Museum at Pirmasens (German: Westwallmuseum Pirmasens) is a museum in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate that is housed in a former subterranean fortification on the edge of the village of Niedersimten in southwest Palatinate (region). More information here