The prolonged and ferocious WWII Battle of Hürtgen Forest rolled on for nearly 12 weeks near the Belgian-German border from September 19, 1944. It was November 14 when an unlucky G.I. stepped into a minefield among the trees. Severely injured, his screams were clearly audible to a nearby unit of German soldiers led by Lieutenant Friedrich Lengfeld. The question was, who would come to this stricken man’s aid?
It was on June 6, 1944 that D-Day – the massive counter-invasion of Western Europe – had started from the shores of Britain. Since then the Allied armies had fought their way across France and Belgium against stiff and at times fanatical opposition. Their sights were set firmly on overwhelming and crushing Nazi Germany.
By September 1944, the Allied push against the Nazis was losing some of its momentum. The reasons were twofold. Firstly, German resistance naturally hardened as the fighting encroached on the Fatherland itself. Secondly, Allied supply lines were becoming longer, causing inevitable logistical problems.
The aim of the Allies in the Hürtgen Forest engagement was to clear an area that was being used by the Nazis as a base for their resistance. The Allies were anxious to push on to the River Rhine. Once this was reached and crossed, Allied forces would be able to proceed into the heart of Germany. But the defensive positions at Hürtgen were a serious obstacle.
From the point of view of the Nazis, commanded by Field Marshal Walter Model, it was crucial to hold the Hürtgen Forest in order to prevent the Allied advance into Germany. The stage was now set for a massive set piece battle, one which would outlast any other single engagement fought by the U.S. Army.
In fact, it was U.S. troops who bore the brunt of this particular engagement from the Allied side. And although they enjoyed numerical superiority over their opponents, the Americans were hampered by the terrain. The battleground was covered in dense forest, natural cover which lent the defending Germans a great advantage.
The geography of the battlefield, plus the poor weather, made it difficult for the Americans to make good use of their air superiority. Furthermore, a lack of transport routes made it difficult to deploy tanks and to move supplies. And even when tanks could join the battle, the dense woodland made it easy for the Germans to ambush them with their effective anti-tank panzerfausts.
And the thick forest meant that quite small numbers of German troops could hold up superior U.S. forces. To make matters worse, as the American troops were killed or wounded, they had to be replaced by soldiers with no combat experience. In contrast, the Nazi soldiers were battle-hardened.
The first phase of the battle started on September 14, 1944 with an attack by units from the U.S. Army’s 9th Infantry Division. This initial offensive achieved mixed results. Some regiments easily reached their objectives while others met determined German resistance and were forced into retreat. This was to be a pattern repeated throughout this bitter battle.
A vivid demonstration of the difficulties faced by the Americans is represented by the story of the 9th Division’s 39th Regiment. By October 16, after 11 days of intense combat, the regiment had gained less than two miles at the expense of around 4,500 casualties. And the unit had fought itself to a halt.
But more American troops were hurled into the battle and bitter fighting continued through November. That brings us back to that unlucky G.I. who had walked into a minefield on November 12. The Germans called the minefield the Wilde Sau, Wild Sow in English, and it formed part of their defensive line.
The American soldier, whose name is unknown, was severely wounded by the mine that morning. All he could do was to cry out for help. Soldiers from a German unit, the 275th Infantry Division’s 2nd Company could clearly hear the wounded American’s pitiful pleas for help.
The Germans assumed that Americans would soon come to help their wounded comrade. The 2nd Company commanding officer, Lieutenant Friedrich Lengfeld, ordered his men not to fire on any medics who came to the aid of the wounded man.
Not a great deal is known about this German officer Lengfeld, although we can certainly surmise that his order not to fire on medics showed that he was a humane man. He was born in September 1921, so on that November day when the G.I. lay in the minefield, he was 23 years old. It seems that he had previously distinguished himself in action on the Russian front.
But despite Lengfeld’s order to allow American medics to get to the wounded man unhindered, no one came to help him. The Germans could only assume that none of his comrades were near enough to be able to hear his increasingly desperate cries for help.
By 10:30 in the evening, the American had been lying in agony for hours. Lengfeld decided that it was time to act. Calling on his unit’s medics, he formed a makeshift patrol to go to the aid of the wounded soldier.
And being the kind of man he was, Lengfeld didn’t just order his medics into the minefield, he led them into it himself. At first, the mines were anti-tank devices, relatively easy to spot. But then the Germans were among much better concealed anti-personnel mines. Lengfeld stepped on one.
Fragments from the exploding mine punched two holes in his back. It was clear that he was gravely wounded. His men carried him to the company’s casualty station. But he was too severely wounded to survive and he died that evening.
American soldiers recognized that this German officer had attempted to save the life of one of their buddies at the expense of his own. In 1994, the 22nd Infantry Regiment Society erected a monument at the Hürtgen war cemetery where Lieutenant Lengfeld is buried.
As far as anyone knows, no other monument to the memory of an enemy soldier from his American counterparts exists anywhere else. The stone’s inscription, carved in English and German, reads in part, “No man hath greater love than he who layeth down his life for his enemy.” As for the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, it ended in a defensive victory for the Germans. But it was only a temporary respite before the fall of the Nazi regime in 1945.