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Battle of the Huertgen Forest

During the Battle of the Huertgen Forest, Major General Norman D. Cota was tasked with being the commander of the 28th Infantry Division. As the commander of this division he now was responsible for the lives of more than 15,000 men. “The division’s performance had been considered unsatisfactory by its parent headquarters, XIX Corps, and Cota, with his reputation of strict discipline and leading from the front, had been brought in to correct the leadership challenges present within the division”. Prior to the Battle of the Huertgen Forest assignment, Cota had become somewhat of a legend for his bravery and leadership on Omaha Beach and earned the reputation as a ‘fighting general’. His reputation would take a major fall when his division was destroyed during the Battle of the Huertgen Forest. The reasons for the American loss at the Battle of the Huertgen Forest can be mostly attributed to the failure to follow the nine principles of war – specifically the principle of “mass”, which states that combat power should be concentrated at the decisive place and time to achieve military superiority. Failure at certain war fighting functions also attributed to the disaster that occurred at the Battle of the Huertgen Forest – mainly the functions of command and control, sustainment (logistics), intelligence (reconnaissance), and fires (artillery support). The Battle of the Huertgen Forest began on September 12, 1944 when the 3rd Armored Division entered the village of Rott. About a month later on October 18, General Hodges was informed that his First Army would begin an offensive in the Huertgen Forest mission with an objective to capture the town of Schmidt. Hodges’ plan was for the “28th to capture Vossenack and the tree line facing the village of Huertgen. Gerow directed that an entire regiment would assault Huertgen to the north; a second regiment would attack and capture Schmidt in the center and a third regiment attack south towards Rafflesbrand”. Cota strongly disagreed with this plan and believed it “violated many of the nine principles of war, most especially objective and mass”. With different regiments attacking separate locations, the plan failed to agree with the principle of mass. Cota’s concern would prove to be legitimate as American forces would later fail to retain control over the town of Schmidt. Cota made three vital mistakes that would prove to negatively impact his division’s success during the Battle of the Huertgen Forest. The first was that “neither he nor his staff directed subordinate units to conduct patrolling into the Huertgen Forest”. This first mistake showed failure at the war fighting function of intelligence, as American troops were basically blind going into the battle without much information of German positioning in the forest. The second mistake was that “Cota had approved the extremely narrow Kall trail to serve as the division’s main supply route”. War fighting functions of both sustainment and intelligence were violated with this mistake – “Aerial reconnaissance could not confirm the trails condition due to the dense forest covering it but ground patrols would have provided much valuable information, both about the enemy and the trail”. Cota’s third mistake was his decision not to use armor to support his infantry. This mistake went against the war fighting function of fires by not using supporting artillery to aid his infantry in battle. It was originally thought that the tanks would not be able to navigate through the dense forest but they later realized that tanks could operate in many areas and could provide valuable support to the infantry. The Americans had lost the Battle of the Huertgen Forest, failing to capture Schmidt, and Cota’s 28th Division was relieved. The major reasons that the 28th was unsuccessful included: the Kall trail was inadequate as the main supply route (sustainment function failure); enemy resistance was much stronger than expected (intelligence function failure); and they failed to suppress or destroy the Germans and didn’t use artillery fire well (fires function failure). Command and control was also poor during the battle, General Cota’s “efforts to command and control the division had not been anywhere near what he would have liked it to have been. With his three regiments attacking in three different directions, communication had been poor at best”. By spending most of the battle at his command post Cota was unable to evaluate what was taking place on the battlefield and was therefore unable to influence the events that were taking place. This was the reason Cota was believed to have lost control of his division and eventually lost control of the battle. Despite being blamed for much of these failures during the Battle of the Huertgen Forest, Cota was in a poor position, leading a division with a nearly impossible mission. Cota did not agree with the original plan of the battle and informed his superiors that it went against the principle of mass. Unfortunately, Major General Cota will most likely be remembered for botching the Battle of the Huertgen Forest rather than as the ‘Fighting General’ during the Normandy invasion.

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