On 21 October 1944, US troops occupied the German city of Aachen after 19 days of fighting. Aachen was one of the largest and toughest urban battles fought by US forces in World War Two, and the first city on German soil to be captured by the Allies.
The fall of the city was a turning point for the Allies in the war, and a further blow to the flagging Wehrmacht, which lost 2 divisions and had 8 more badly maimed. The city’s capture provided the Allies with an important morale boost – after many months of slogging through France they were now advancing into the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr Basin, the heart of Hitler’s Reich.
How did the battle unfold, and why was it so significant?
By September 1944, the Anglo-American armies finally reached the German border. After months of making their way through France and its notorious bocage country, this was a relief for their tired soldiers, most of whom were civilians in peacetime.
However, Hitler’s regime was never going to disappear into the history books without a fight, and astonishingly, the war in the west continued for another 8 months. To put this into perspective, the Germans surrendered in World War One long before the Allies had even reached their borders.
After the failure of Operation Market Garden – an ambitious attempt to bypass the Siegfried Line (Germany’s western border defences) by crossing the Lower Rhine River – the Allied advance toward Berlin slowed as supplies dwindled due to the time it took to transport them through France.
These logistial issues gave the Germans time to begin rebuilding their strength, and start reinforcing the Siegfried Line as the Allies advanced, with the number of German tanks increasing from 100 to 500 during September.
Aachen, meanwhile, was set as the target for Courtney Hodges’ US First Army. Hodges believed the ancient and picturesque city would only be held only by a small garrison, which would presumably surrender once isolated.
Indeed the German commander in Aachen, von Schwerin, had planned to surrender the city as American troops encircled it, but when his letter fell into German hands, Hitler had him arrested. His unit was replaced by 3 full divisions of the Waffen-SS, the most elite German fighters.
Although a city of little military value, it was nonetheless of huge strategic importance – both as the first German city threatened by a foreign army during World War Two, but also as an important symbol to the Nazi regime as it was the ancient seat of Charlemagne, founder of the ‘First Reich’, and thus also of immense psychological value to the Germans.
Hitler told his generals that Aachen “must be held at all costs …”. Like the Allies, Hitler knew that the route to the Ruhr led directly through the ‘Aachen Gap’, a relatively flat stretch of terrain with few natural obstacles, with only Aachen standing in the way.
The Germans turn Aachen into a fortress
As part of the Siegfried Line, Aachen was formidably protected by belts of pillboxes, barbed wire, anti-tank obstacles and other impediments. In some places these defences were over 10 miles deep. The narrow streets and layout of the city were also of advantage to the Germans, as they denied access to tanks. As a result, the US plan of action was to surround the city and meet in the middle rather than battle their way through the city’s streets.
On 2 October the attack began with a heavy bombardment and bombing of the city’s defences. Though this had little effect, the battle of Aachen had now begun. During the first days of the assault, the armies attacking from the north were engaged in a fearsome hand-grenade battle as they took pillbox after pillbox, in a flight reminiscent of parts of World War One.
A desperate defence
Once the Americans had taken the outlying town of Übach, their German opponents suddenly launched a major counterattack in a desperate bid to pin their advance back. Despite attempting to cobble together all the air and armoured reserves at their disposal, American tank superiority ensured that the counterattack was decisively rebuffed.
Meanwhile on the south side of the city a simultaneous advance met with equal success. Here the preceding artillery bombardment proved far more effective, and the advance was slightly more straightforward. By 11 October the city was surrounded, and US General Huebner demanded that the city surrender or face devastating bombardment. The garrison categorically refused.
Soon afterwards, the city was bombed and bombarded savagely, with 169 tons of explosives dropped on the beautiful old centre on that day alone. The next 5 days were the toughest yet for the advancing American troops, as the Wehrmacht troops countered repeatedly whilst defending the fortified perimeter of Aachen bravely. As a result, the American armies failed to link up in the centre of the city, and their casualties mounted.
The noose tightens
With most of the American soldiers needed on the perimeter, the task of taking the centre of the city fell to one regiment; the 26th. These troops were aided by a handful of tanks and one howitzer, but were far more experienced than the city’s defenders.
By this stage of the war, most experienced Wehrmacht troops had been killed on the fields of the Eastern Front. The 5,000 soldiers in Aachen were largely inexperienced and poorly trained. Despite this, they took advantage of the maze of old streets to stall the 26th’s advance.
Some used the narrow alleys to ambush the advancing tanks, and often the only way forward for the Americans was to literally blast their way through the city’s buildings at point blank range in order to reach the centre. By 18 October the remaining German resistance was centred around the opulent Quellenhof hotel.
Despite bombarding the hotel at point blank range, the Americans failed to take it, and were actually pushed back some distance by a concerted counter by 300 SS operatives. However, eventually US air and artillery superiority won-through, and after reinforcements began to pour into the city, the last German garrison in the Quellenhof bowed to the inevitable and surrendered on 21 October.
The battle had been fierce and both sides suffered over 5,000 casualties. The Germans’ tenacious defence had significantly disrupted Allied plans for the eastward advance into Germany, yet even so, now the doorway into Germany was open, and the Siegfried Line was pierced.
The battle for Germany would be long and hard – followed next by the Battle of Hürtgen Forest (which the Germans would fight just as tenaciously for) – and begin in earnest in March 1945 when the Allies crossed the Rhine River. But with the fall of Aachen it had begun with a hard-fought victory.