Try as they might, the exhausted troops of the U.S. First Army could not understand what purpose was being served by their presence in this god-forsaken forest. For almost 2 months, the men had endured horrendous conditions as they desperately fought to push the Wehrmacht out of the dense foliage – to no avail. Initially taken by surprise, the German forces had regrouped quickly, offering fierce resistance from well-entrenched defensive positions. As well as the tenacious enemy soldier, the Americans had to deal with terrain that was hardly conducive to attacking operations; narrow paths, fire breaks and undulating hills made ambushes a terrifying regularity.
It seemed obvious to the bruised and battered frontline infantry that their commanders had seriously underestimated the combat readiness of their opponents. After the breakout at Normandy, the encirclement of the Falaise Pocket, and the great swan across France in pursuit of retreating remnants, it must have appeared to even the most cautious brass that Germany’s will to fight had completely collapsed. Not a bit of it, on this evidence.
At battalion and regiment level, officers quietly confided in each other that the battle plan made no tactical or strategic sense. The dense Hürtgen Forest completely negated the immense superiority of Allied airpower and artillery, as well as making armoured thrusts essentially impossible. Why not avoid the area entirely, circumnavigating it to the south and thereby breaking out into open valley – where those military advantages could be pressed home to the maximum extent? Instead, they were forced to watch the men under their command become pinned down and suffer casualty after casualty.
On the 2nd of November began a desperate attempt to break the bloody impasse. The 28th Division attacked in three directions simultaneously, but their opponents had been expecting such an assault and had prepared formidable defences. After an advance of just 300 yards, the vanguard units of the 109th Infantry Regiment found themselves stranded in a minefield dubbed the ‘Wilde Sau‘ (Wild Sow) by the engineers who had laid it. Following 2 days of intense mortar fire, incessant artillery strikes and inexorable counter-attacks, the Americans had scarcely managed to push forward a mile. After that, the situation did not get much better.
The battered and bloody 109th passed the baton to the 4th U.S. Infantry Division’s 12th Regiment, but before these replacements were able to get their bearings they too were on the end of heavy fire. At Midday on the 10th of November, the Germans began a half-hour long artillery barrage, signalling their latest attempt to force the Allied forces from the forest. The fortunes of the opposing sides see-sawed wildly over the next 48 hours, with the strategically-vital ‘Försterhaus’ (Forestry House) changing hands several times.
Enter Friedrich Lengfeld. Commander of the 275th Infantry Division’s 2nd Company throughout the battle, it was here that he took actions that will go down in history for their humanity, compassion, and selflessness. His frontline troops reported hearing cries for help in the direction of the Wilde Sau, and it was apparent that the source was at least one wounded American. Without hesitation, Lengfeld gave the order to refrain from firing on any U.S. infantry who might attempt a rescue, in the hope that this would enable the stricken soldier to get the medical assistance he so clearly needed.
Alas, no aid was forthcoming. Nonetheless, Lengfeld refused to let the matter lie and, as the anguished calls from no man’s land continued, he assembled a rescue squad composed of his own paramedics. Apparently without a thought for his own safety, he led the ad hoc unit through their own minefield in an attempt to save the life of an enemy; a man they had been trying to kill not 12 hours earlier. As the group closed on the badly-wounded American, Lengfeld attempted to cross over to his side of the street…and set off an S-Mine.
‘Fortune favours the brave’, the famous saying goes. It did not favour Lengfeld, whose bravery was by now surely unquestionable. Though he survived the initial detonation, the shrapnel tore through his body and left him with multiple internal injuries. Despite the valiant efforts of his men, themselves nursing wounds caused by the explosion, who rushed to a field hospital as fast as they could carry him, Friedrich Lengfeld was pronounced dead on arrival.
While he now rests in Düren-Rölsdorf cemetary, in 1994 the Veterans Association of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division’s 22nd Regiment erected a monument in Lengfeld’s honour at the Hürtgen Forest war graves. Unfortunately, nothing is known about the American soldier who lay crippled and calling for help; to this day, his fate is uncertain.
The inscription on the memorial to Friedrich Lengfeld is a quote from the Gospel of St. John:
“No man hath greater love than he who layeth down his life for his enemy.”
Solidarity, brothers & sisters…✝