70 years later: How American GIs seized first German city in WWII

Seventy years ago, American GIs of the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division seized Aachen, the first major city of Nazi Germany to fall to the Allies.

The street-by-street battle became the costliest the 1st Division would fight and was a clear harbinger that Adolf Hitler's “Thousand Year Reich” was doomed. With the 1st Infantry Division was the 745th Tank Battalion, a unit raised in the Chicago area and organized at Camp Grant near Rockford. Men from Rockford and Chicago and dozens of northern Illinois communities were there.

Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle) was important to the Nazis because it was the presumed birthplace of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, monarch of the First Reich. It had been the German seat of power for 600 years, a place where 42 emperors, kings and queens had been crowned. More than any place in Germany, Aachen captured Nazi mysticism about the superior Teutonic race.

The Allies were having a successful summer since D-Day on June 6, 1944. After several weeks caught in the hedgerows of Normandy, they had liberated Paris and swept across northern France and Belgium in hot pursuit of a fleeing enemy.

They had gambled in September on a massive parachute assault to seize bridges in the Netherlands and across the lower Rhine River into Germany, but Operation Market Garden failed. Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower thereafter dictated a “broad front” strategy by which all the Allied armies would approach the German frontier together.

The 1st Infantry Division, assigned to the U.S. VII Corps, 1st Army, had been part of the pursuit across France and Belgium. As the division approached the German frontier in late September, VII Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Joseph Collins hoped to bypass Aachen entirely.

Instead, he wanted to rush into and through the German fortifications surrounding Aachen, parts of the vaunted West Wall or Siegfried line, before the Germans could occupy them.

It was not to be.

The advancing Allied armies rolled further and further away from the beaches of Normandy, where most Allied supplies were still entering France — the Allies had not yet seized a major port. The Allies could move only as far and fast as carefully husbanded supplies would allow.

In mid-September, the 3rd Armor Division, VII Corps, made a fitful attempt to breach the Siegfried line near Aachen, but encountered stiff resistance and counterattack from newly reconstituted German units.

Aachen sat in a shallow depression just east of the nexus of borders between Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. It was bordered on the west, north and east by two spurs of the Siegfried line, a dense system of concrete pillboxes and anti-tank obstacles strengthened by miles of barbed wire and minefields.

The city had a prewar population of some 160,000, but, heeding Hitler's order to evacuate, most had fled. Only about 20,000 civilians remained with the German garrison — some 12,000 soldiers organized around the 246th Infantry Division and commanded by Col. Gerhard Wilck.

Hitler himself ordered the garrison to hold at all costs. Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt added, “to the last man … allow yourself to be buried under its ruins.”

The U.S. 1st Army intended to bypass Aachen on the north and south and then attack east of it in a pair of pincers that would close behind the city. They then would demand its surrender. The northern pincer was the 30th Infantry Division, and the southern was the 1st Infantry Division. The 1st Division also was given the task of seizing and clearing the city.

As the fall weather shifted to rainy and cold, the 30th Division launched its attack on Oct. 1 and the 1st Division attacked a week later.

The 1st Division fight included three main parts: holding its current ground southeast of Aachen and facing Germany to ward off any German counterattack; attacking north to reach the 30th Division and seal off the city; and actually entering and clearing the city. These tasks fell respectively to the Division's 16th, 18th and 26th Infantry Regiments.

The battles of isolation by the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments were hard fought. The 16th Infantry came under brutal German artillery fire and many probes daily, and major counterattacks on Oct. 14 and 16 that nearly broke through. But they held.

Capt. Joe Dawson, commander of Company G and among the heroes of Omaha beach, finally suffered exhaustion under the accumulated stress. The 18th Infantry Regiment fought across an industrial wasteland of slag heaps and low hills studded with pillboxes, the outer works of the West Wall.

On the grimly named Crucifix Hill, Capt. Robert “Bobbie” Brown would earn the Medal of Honor for ignoring wounds and personally destroying enemy pillboxes as an example to his fellow soldiers in Company C.

Nearby, on Oct. 17, Sgt. Edgar G. “Eddie” Ireland's Sherman tank, “Betty,” had destroyed two German tanks when return fire disabled his tank. The tank commander ordered the crew to abandon the tank and run for cover, but in their haste, they left the radio behind and intact.

Ireland volunteered to go back. He smashed the radio to render it useless but came under German attack before he could leave. He knew what to do: “As soon as you spot the enemy, you let them have it.”

Alone, Ireland aimed the 75 mm gun and fired, reloaded, aimed and fired, again and again. He knocked out three armored vehicles and then engaged enemy infantry with the .30 caliber machine gun until it ran out of ammunition.

Ireland fired the 75 mm main gun once more, exited the tank through the escape hatch in the bottom, and ran to rejoin his crew. For this action, the Chicagoan received one of the three Silver Stars he would earn in the war.

The next day, Oct. 18, a German counterattack against the 18th Infantry at Ravels Hill was seriously delayed in another action that would yield a Medal of Honor. Sgt. Max Thompson, Company K, while evacuating wounded from his own position, saw the enemy overrun an adjacent U.S. platoon.

Alone, he personally employed a machine-gun, automatic rifle, bazooka and hand grenades to pin the enemy down until reinforcements arrived to stabilize the front.

The division's main effort fell to the 26th Infantry Regiment commanded by Col. John Seitz. As Aachen was being encircled, division commander Maj. Gen. Clarence Huebner demanded its surrender within 24 hours on Oct. 10. With no response, heavy Allied air and artillery attacks rocked the city from Oct. 11 to 13.

Meanwhile, the 3rd Battalion, 26th Infantry, advanced on the right through the factories on the northeastern side of Aachen. The 2nd Battalion advanced on the left, through the main business district. Each rifle platoon of the two battalions had a tank or tank destroyer attached to it, and each battalion also had a self-propelled, 155 mm howitzer to be used in direct support of the troops. This force was actually smaller than the remaining roughly 5,000 German defenders.

The two battalion commanders — Lt. Col. Derrill Daniels of the 2nd Battalion and Lt. Col. John Corley of the 3rd Battalion — prepared thoroughly. They drew a system of checkpoints over the entire city and insisted that their units advance point by point to the next phase line and not proceed further until all units were aligned.

Because the GIs were advancing east to west, roughly, they avoided some of the west-facing city defenses. Tanks and tank destroyers systematically shelled each floor in each building of a block, slightly ahead of the infantry, to force enemy defenders to the basements and create holes for the infantry to enter.

GIs advanced often from one basement to another, liberally using hand grenades and flame throwers, and avoiding exposure in the streets. Every cellar and every room of every building had to be searched. Speed was less important than thoroughness — for eight days the battalions advanced about 400 meters per day.

The troops soon learned to bulldoze rubble over manhole covers to prevent enemy infiltration through the sewer lines. On the right sector, the 3rd Battalion moved from the dense factory district onto the entirely different terrain of Farwick Park, a large hill shaped into a recreational park with gardens and featuring several major buildings, including the Quellenhof Hotel, which served as the German headquarters. These were reduced by use of the attached, self-propelled heavy artillery pieces.

There were German counterattacks from inside and outside the city. U.S. troops evacuated civilians daily to the rear and away from the fighting. German soldiers and civilians sought shelter in massive and fetid air raid shelters and had to be coaxed or forced to surrender.

Cold, heavy rain and persistent sniper fire added to the miseries. German shellfire often caused the walls of battle-damaged buildings to collapse on advancing troops. Reinforcements from the VII Corps arrived to control the city cleared thus far and allow the 26th Regiment to continue its attack, past the ancient and ruined cathedral and into the railroad yards on the west side of the city.

Meanwhile, the German headquarters had withdrawn onto the Lousberg, a hill just north of the city, where they were trapped in an air raid shelter by the 3rd Battalion. While sending his superiors defiant claims of resistance to the death, Col. Wilck asked two American prisoners to approach the U.S. lines with a white flag to discuss surrender.

At 12:05 p.m. Oct. 21, 1944, Brig. Gen. George A. Taylor, hero of Omaha beach, accepted Wilck's surrender of the city Aachen, the first German city to fall to the Allies.

The cost to the 1st Division and its 745th Tank Battalion was great — some 3,000 casualties in all, including 498 just in the two battalions of the 26th Infantry. This was in exchange for the destruction of three German divisions and the capture of some 11,000 prisoners in the campaign.

Worsening weather, scant supplies and the loss of experienced leaders drove the rate of accidents, injuries, illness and wounds higher than at any time since the division left England. There would be little respite; by November, the Division would be in the bloody Hurtgen Forest; by December, desperately clinging to a farm and crossroads on the northern shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge.

Before all that, though, on Oct. 29, an event equally symbolic to the ancient city's ruination occurred on its outskirts.

Chaplain Capt. Sydney M. Lefkowitz and his 22-year-old assistant, a former infantryman, Pfc. Max Fuchs, gathered with several hundred weary GIs under gray, drizzling skies. There, amid the angry thud of distant artillery, they conducted the first Jewish religious service by Allied forces broadcast from the soil of Nazi Germany.

The somber but hopeful tones of the brief service were carried by NBC Radio throughout the United States and then to Germany, a sure sign that the Third Reich was in its death throes.

A M-4 Sherman tank of the 745th Tank Battalion supports infantry of the 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, in the streets of Aachen in October 1944. Courtesy of First Division Museum
Col. Gerhard Wilck, commander of the German Aachen garrison, moments after surrendering the city to the 1st infantry Division on Oct. 21, 1944. Courtesy of First Division Museum
The ruins of Aachen, Germany, in October 1944. Courtesy of First Division Museum
Pfc. Max Fuchs, third from left, and Chaplain Capt. Sydney Lefkowitz conduct the first Jewish service to be broadcast from Nazi Germany. Courtesy of American Jewish Committee
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