Eras Journal – Adams, B.: Review of “Hell in Hertgen Forest”
Robert Sterling Rush, Hell in Hürtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment.
University Press of Kansas, Kansas, 2001
Isbn 0 7006 1128 2
When I picked up Hell in Hürtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment by Robert Sterling Rush, I expected the usual discussion of World War II strategic and operational objectives in Germany and how the U.S. Army commanders led their forces to achieve the same. The only difference would be that the battle in Hürtgen Forest, located south of the city of Aachen near the German-Belgian border, was a lesser known battle preceding the main event, commonly referred to as the ‘Battle of the Bulge’. Instead I found myself all the way at the bottom of the chain of command, at the level where soldiers in squads and platoons carry out the orders to hold a defensive line or attack the enemy. For most of its readers, Hell in Hürtgen will be the closest they will ever be to combat.
Organised in three distinct parts, Hell in Hürtgen lets the reader relive the battle that nearly destroyed the 22d Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. The first part introduces the battlefield, an organisational history of the 22d Regiment, as well as units in the opposing German LXXIV Korps. The author carries this pattern of first treating the American and then the German side throughout the whole book.
At the heart of the book is the day-by-day account of the gruelling fight of the 22d Infantry against elements of the German LXXIV Korps based almost exclusively on primary sources. When I began reading this section, I tried to remember the names of the soldiers as they appeared, but soon gave up when large numbers of them were killed or wounded and replaced with new names. Then it occurred to me that the infantryman in Hürtgen Forest must have felt the same way about his comrades. As his old buddies left, were killed, wounded or injured, he had to start again with a new set of faces, until either he or they were also casualties. In this situation, the small group of surviving veterans, regardless of rank, became the nucleus around which the replacements could coalesce. They, the battle-wise survivors, became what held the units together.
The same kind of initial confusion was true for locations. Even though the book provides maps of the terrain and tracks each company’s advance, I quickly became disoriented. Again, the soldiers in the 22d must have encountered the same problems finding their way around the dark, densely grown forest; Rush describes several instances of units becoming misdirected in the forest and of how soldiers became lost between the rear and frontlines.
For the German side, which for lack of surviving primary sources is treated in less detail, the reader gains insight into the growing problems the Wehrmacht encountered in replacing killed and wounded soldiers. As Rush shows, the German solution of absorption and consolidation of exhausted units into newly arriving ones decreased combat effectiveness because the new formations were a conglomeration of groups of soldiers unable to identify with their new unit, commanded by officers who neither knew them nor the terrain of the battlefield.
In his analysis, Rush further develops his own theory about small unit cohesion and disproves the long standing, often repeated and therefore presumed true, assertions about the superiority of the German infantry and the ineffectiveness of the American replacement system. Retracing the battle in Hürtgen Forest for both the 22d and the German units on a day-by-day basis, the author demonstrates that the American system of keeping units in the line while replacements filled the ranks as soon as possible prevented the loss of combat effectiveness that plagued the German units. Rush based his analysis on extensive research of primary sources such as interviews with American and German infantrymen, ‘after-action’ reports and, the often ignored, ‘morning’ reports. Rush, a self described “…retired Command Sergeant Major with a Ph.D.,” enriches his narrative with insights from his own experience as an infantryman who served part of his career with the 22d Infantry.