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With World War II fading from the first-hand consciousness of America, the list of primary events widely remembered are reducing to smaller and smaller numbers (Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and Hiroshima are probably the top three). The latest WWII movies, such as "Saving Private Ryan," attempt to show the grim realism of combat at that time as a way of keeping the history alive, but "Ryan" was still fictional. A number of the truly important lessons learned from the War were found in other battles that are little mentioned (if at all) in schoolchildren's history books. That is a shame, in a way, because the real lessons that have greater application to the modern world are among the lesser-known battles. These are stories that likely wouldn't make it on a screenplay or past a Hollywood boardroom. But, they need to be remembered.
The Hürtgen Forest region in southwest Nordrhein-Westfalen was the first territory of Germany captured by the Allies in the fall of 1944. Having broken out of Normandy, the Americans, British, and their coalition allies pursued the Germans across France and Belgium in the late summer and early fall, reaching the border in September. It was a time of unbridled optimism, belief that the war was soon to conclude and the troops could be home by Christmas.
Then almost suddenly, the Allies were stopped. A town was taken, then lost the next day. Intelligence was poor. Mistakes were made. The Germans, now defending their home turf, weren't so interested in retreating anymore. The unbridled optimism turned to pessimism, and to some extent panic. By mid-fall, the stalled and depleted Allies were left vulnerable to the German counterattack that would come, launching the Battle of the Bulge that would consume the winter and cost many lives before the Allies could fully regroup and resume its final march on Berlin.
Many of the components of the modern US military can be traced back to correcting the systemic problems brought to the surface by the events in the Hürtgen Forest. One example was logistics, where the modern US military reigns utterly supreme. The emphasis on logistics came from the time when supply lines were overstretched as the Allies reached this region, and they ran out of fuel.
The map shown at the top of the page shows how this travelogue is divided into chapters. There is a sequence to this travelogue, the recommended order of reading is based on going backwards by the rainbow. Begin here with the page marked in purple, with an introductory piece below on the region as it appears now, represented by the typical Hürtgen area town of Zweifall. Then follow the Allies as they initial enter Germany past the defenses of the Siegfried Line (blue), later taking the town of Rimburg and the city of Aachen (green). Later follow the slow advances and painful reverses along the Weisser Weh, the Eifelkreuz, Silberscheidt, and other key battles in the Forest (orange). Finally, follow the battle from Vossenack in the east along the Kall Trail (red), a forbidding route across the Kall River valley that culminated in a futile attempt to take the city of Schmidt. The travelogues combine military history with points of interest to casual tourists to the region.
Our visit to the Hürtgen included over a dozen towns along the borders of Germany with Belgium and the Netherlands, and most were similar to each other. We stayed in Zweifall, which has large hotel and convention facilities catering to tour groups the venture in the region. Its architecture and forested surroundings were representative of the region, so we offer this mini-travelogue as an introduction.
Zweifall sits at the base of a very steep and densely forested valley. The valley floor was windy and narrow, allowing room for a main street and a secondary street along a former tributary. The rest of the town scaled the hills, and the small roads rose at typically a seven degree angle, sharp by any standards.
Lumber was the traditional industry in the region. Zweifall's lumberyard at the junction of the two main roads, and several other towns shared lumberyards. Trees were certainly plentiful, the most common being the straight form of pine that grew fast and tall.
The architecture was more Dutch-influenced than German. Buildings tended to be brown brick, squarish, with simple white window frames and little decoration. In the summer time, these homes and offices would be spruced up with red, pink, and white flowers in flowerboxes. The churches (see third photo) were mostly cookie-cutter in variety, a simple building with a plain square steeple only slightly higher than the hall. These buildings may have been traditional in form, but they were not old -- most of them appeared to have been rebuilt within only the past couple decades. Occasionally, we passed by a specimen that truly did date to the War, and they stood out.
We did not detect that the region had its own cuisine, per se. The menus carried standard German workmen's fare, but none that we saw offered "regional specialties". Given that most of the tourists coming to the region concentrate on the big city of Aachen and bypass this area, it is not surprising that the town would not seek to advertise itself.
Most of these towns have a road or two that scale the full height of the town, and Zweifall was no exception. The tops of the hills tended to be open and covered with farmland or ranches. The one in Zweifall reached a monastery that appeared brand new, or at most twenty years old. It was common to find crucifixes erected on the tops of hills or attached to rock jutties facing the town. This travelogue will show two such examples.
Trip taken 14-17 December 2004 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2005 Tom Galvin