Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Aachen, Battle of (13 September–21 October 1944)

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.

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.

Terry Shoptaugh and Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
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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