Battle of Aachen, (13 September– 21 October 1944)

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Colonel Wilck and his headquarters group after their surrender.

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Located on the western border of Germany, the city of Aix-la- Chapelle, later Aachen, had been the capital of the Holy Roman Empire; Charlemagne was crowned emperor there in the year 800. Since German dictator Adolf Hitler considered Charlemagne to be the founder of the first German Reich, the city held special status for him. Aachen was the first major German city encountered by U.S. troops, and the five-week-long battle for it gave notice to U.S. forces that the war against the Third Reich was far from over. Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges, commander of the American First Army, had hoped to bypass Aachen from the south, quickly break through the German defenses of the West Wall (Siegfried Line), and reach the Rhine River.

German defenders in Aachen

The Wehrmacht took advantage of the brief respite on the front by pulling the 1st, 2nd and 12th SS Panzer Divisions, as well as the 9th and 116th Panzer Divisions, off the line. In October, the responsibility of the Aachen sector’s frontier’s defense was given to General Friedrich Köchling’s LXXXI Corps, which included the 183rd and 246th Volksgrenadier Divisions, as well as the 12th and 49th Infantry Divisions. These forces, along with the attached 506th Tank Battalion and 108th Tank Brigade, numbered roughly 20,000 men and 11 tanks. Köchling was also promised a reformed 116th Panzer Division and the 3rd Panzergrenadier Division, numbering a total of some 24,000 personnel. The 246th Volksgrenadier Division replaced the 116th Panzer Division in Aachen proper, while the 183rd Volksgrenadier Division and 49th Infantry Division defended the northern approaches and the 12th Infantry Division was positioned in the south. On 7 October, elements of the 1 SS Panzer Division were released to reinforce the defense of Aachen.

Although the reinforcements had made the German defense stronger than it had been since 1 September, LXXXI Corps’ units had also suffered heavily; the 12th Infantry Division lost half its combat strength between 16–23 September. While German infantry divisions generally had a strength of 15,000–17,000 soldiers at the start of World War II, by 1945 this had been reduced to an official (table of organization) size of 12,500 personnel, and by November 1944, the average actual strength of Heer divisions was only 8,761. In light of this, the Volksgrenadier division was created to cope with the manpower shortages which plagued the Wehrmacht during 1944; the average total manpower per division was just over 10,000 men. Although about a quarter of each division’s soldiers were experienced veterans, two-quarters were composed of fresh conscripts and convalescents, while the fourth quarter was made-up of soldiers transferred from the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. Although these divisions oftentimes received the newest small-arms, they were deficient in artillery and motorization, hindering the divisions’ tactical mobility. In the case of LXXXI Corps, the 183rd Volksgrenadier Division had only been activated in September, meaning that the division did not have time to train as a unit; despite this, it was overstrength by 643 personnel. The 246th Volksgrenadier Division was largely in the same state, as many personnel had fewer than ten days of infantry training, and the 49th Infantry Division had been allowed to recuperate its composure and accept fresh reinforcements. LXXXI Corps also commanded the 275th Infantry Division, but this had been pulled off the line after suffering heavy casualties. However, what the Germans lacked in quality they regained through the defensive positions provided to them by the fortifications surrounding Aachen.

American forces

The task of taking Aachen fell on General Charles H. Corlett’s XIX Corps’ 30th Infantry Division and Joseph Collins’ VII Corps’ 1st Infantry Division. General Leland Hobbs’ 30th Infantry Division would be assisted by the 2nd Armored Division, which would exploit the 30th Division’s penetration of the Siegfried Line, while their flanks were protected by the 29th Infantry Division. In the south, 1st Infantry Division was supported by the 9th Infantry Division and the 3rd Armored Division. These divisions had used the brief respite in the fighting during the last two weeks of September to rest and refit, accepting a large number of replacements. For example, over 70% of the 1st Infantry Division’s men by 1 October were replacements, and the last two weeks of September were used to train these men on village fighting and weapons training. The impending offensive’s plan called for both infantry divisions to avoid city fighting in Aachen; instead, the two divisions would link up and encircle the city, allowing a relatively small force to capture it while the bulk of the forces continued pushing east.

Although American forces were able to replenish their casualties in a matter of weeks, they did not go through sufficient tactical training; as a result, many junior officers were oftentimes short on tactical and leadership abilities. Some tankers were shipped to Europe without having driven a car before, and some tank commanders were forced to teach how to load and fire their tank guns in the field prior to missions. The American replacement system, which focused on quantity over quality, ensured that the majority of the replacements which reached the front line were not properly trained for combat. It was not unusual for half of a unit’s replacements to become casualties on the first days of combat. The tremendous frontline losses also demanded more troops to be fed into the fighting; for instance, a freshly-reinforced battalion of the US 28th Infantry Division also participated in direct assaults against Aachen to buttress the depleted US 1st Infantry Division during the final stages of the battle 18-21 October 1944.

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These forces were supported by the Ninth Air Force, which had pin-pointed 75% of the pillboxes along the frontlines and planned an opening bombardment including 360 bombers and 72 fighters; fresh aircraft would be used for a second aerial wave, which included the use of napalm.[62] The German Luftwaffe lacked a presence during the battle, and German defenders on the ground had insufficient anti-aircraft batteries to defend themselves from the opening bombardment.[63]

In September 1944, Lieutenant General Gerhard von Schwerin’s understrength 116th Panzer Division defended Aachen. Schwerin entered the city on 12 September and quickly concluded that Aachen was lost. He halted the evacuation of the city so that the population might be cared for by the Americans. Only local defense forces prevented occupation of the city on the morning of 13 September. Unaware of this fact, the commander of U.S. VII Corps, Major General J. Lawton Collins, elected to continue his attack on the Siegfried Line. Late on 15 September, however, troops of Major General Clarence R. Huebner’s 1st Infantry Division began to surround Aachen from the south and southeast.

Hitler ordered the city evacuated, but Schwerin refused that order and was relieved of command. Up to 145,000 of the population of 160,000 fled the city. Meanwhile, the pause in Allied operations along the Siegfried Line during Operation MARKET-GARDEN allowed the Wehrmacht the chance to reinforce its West Wall defenses. By the end of September with the collapse of MARKET-GARDEN, operations around Aachen resumed.

From 7 to 20 October, elements of the U.S. VII and XIX Corps strengthened their hold around the city, now defended by the I Panzer Korps of the 116th Panzer Division, 3rd Panzergrenadier Division, and 246th Volksgrenadier Division under Colonel Gerhard Wilck.

On 8 October, U.S. forces began their attack on Aachen. On 10 October, Huebner sent a message into the city, threatening to destroy Aachen if the Germans did not surrender. When this demand was rejected, 300 P-38s and P-47s of the Ninth Tactical Air Force dropped 62 tons of bombs on Aachen on 10 October. U.S. artillery also pounded the city.

On 12 October, Wilck assumed command of some 5,000 German defenders in Aachen. The German troops, supported by assault guns and tanks (mostly Mark IVs), held their positions tenaciously. Also on 12 October, the U.S. fighter-bombers returned and dropped another 69 tons of bombs, and U.S. artillery fired 5,000 rounds.

On 13 October, troops of the 26th Infantry Regiment assaulted the city proper. The fighting was bitter, with the U.S. infantry accompanied by tanks and self-propelled artillery to knock out German armor and reduce strong points. Fighting was house-to-house. Infantry blasted holes in the outer walls of buildings with bazookas and then cleared resistance room by room with small arms and hand grenades. Many Schutzstaffel (SS) troops died at their posts rather than surrender. When German troops west of Aachen tried to relieve the siege in hastily organized counterattacks, American artillery beat them back. Aachen was now completely surrounded, and gradually the German defensive position shrank to a small section of the western part of the city. Wilck’s efforts to break out of the city on 18 and 19 October failed, and he surrendered Aachen on 21 October.

The Allied rebuff in Operation MARKET-GARDEN and German resistance at Aachen prevented a quick Allied crossing of the Rhine and bought Hitler time to strengthen his West Wall defenses, but the costs were heavy. U.S. forces took some 12,000 German prisoners, and thousands more Germans were killed. Several hundred civilians also died. U.S. losses of 3,700 men (3,200 from the 30th Infantry Division and 500 from the 1st Infantry Division) were also high, particularly among experienced riflemen. Remarkably, amidst all the ruin and destruction, Aachen’s magnificent medieval cathedral survived.

References MacDonald, Charles. The Siegfried Line Campaign. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1963. Whiting, Charles. Bloody Aachen. New York: Stein and Day, 1976.

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