On 21 October 1944, US troops occupied the German city of Aachen after a nineteen day urban battle – the longest city fight of the war for the western Allies. The fall of the city was a further blow to the flagging Wehrmacht, which lost two divisions and had eight more badly maimed. However the main impact of capturing the city was moral, as all the many months slogging through France seemed justified now the Allies were marching into the heart of Hitler’s Reich.
By September 1944 the Anglo-American armies had finally reached the German border. After months of slogging through France and its notorious bocage country this must have been a blessed 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 eight months. To put this into perspective, the Germans surrendered in World War One long before the Allies had even reached their borders.
Despite heavy casualties taken in France the German armies defending their border defences – the Siegfried line – were reinforced as the Allies advanced. The number of German tanks went from 100 to 500 during the month of September. Aachen, meanwhile, was set as the target for Courtney Hodges’ US First Army.
A city of little military value, it was nonetheless of huge strategic importance; as the first German city threatened by a foreign army, and the ancient seat of Charlemagne’s Empire – known to the Nazis as the First Reich.
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 used to the advantage of 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 slog 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 slog which was at times reminiscent of the worst 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 the 11th 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 explosive dropped on the beautiful old centre on that day alone. The next five days were the toughest yet for the advancing American troops, as the Wehrmacht troops countered repeatedly whilst defending the fortified perimeter of Aachen manfully. 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 experienced most Wehrmacht troops were dead on the fields of the eastern front, and the 5000 soldiers in Aachen were largely inexperienced and poorly trained. Despite this, their commitment could not be faulted and 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 made itself felt, 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 took suffered over 5000 casualties, but now the doorway into Germany was open, and the Siegfried Line was pierced. The battle for Germany would be long and hard, but with the fall of Aachen it had begun with a hard-fought victory.