BLOODY AACHEN; by Charles Whiting; Stein and Day (1976); ISBN: 0-8128-2090-3
“Bloody Aachen,” is the account, by former war correspondent Charles Whiting, of the US First Army’s six week long campaign to capture the ancient German city of Aachen. It is a story of enormous sacrifice on the part of the soldiers on both sides as the symbolically-important Catholic city was fought over yard by yard, house by house, and street by street. The city’s capitulation would finally come on 21 October 1944, with the formal surrender by the last commandant of Aachen, Colonel Gerhard Wilck. The Aachen campaign would be characterized by bloody fighting, terrible casualties, and miserable weather. Aachen would be the first major German city to be captured by the Allied armies advancing on the Third Reich from the west, but its capture would, in many ways, be a pyrrhic victory for its American conquerors.
After the German defeat in Normandy and the rapid Allied breakout and pursuit of the shattered remnants of Germany’s Army Group B across France during the summer and fall of 1944, the commanders of the rapidly-advancing Allied armies had good reason for optimism. It really seemed as if one or two more offensive blows would be sufficient to break through the Siegfried Line and sweep east all the way to Berlin. British Field Marshall Montgomery was so confident that he even bet American General Omar Bradley a five pound note that the war would be over by Christmas, 1944. But events would prove Montgomery’s optimism misplaced, and, instead, the allies would face some of their bloodiest and most difficult fighting just when allied generals had hoped that the war would be winding down.
On the evening of 11 September 1944, a five-man American patrol waded across the River Our. This temporary river crossing, near the German village of Stolzemburg, was the first incursion by enemy troops onto German territory during wartime since the Napoleonic Wars. This initial reconnaissance by soldiers from the American 5th Armored Division was the tentative first step in General Courtney Hodges’ campaign to pierce the West Wall and fight his way into Germany at the head of the half million men of the US First Army. In his path lay Aachen, ancient symbol of German Nationalism, and the site of 32 coronations of different German kings and emperors. Now Hodges hoped that Aachen, largely abandoned by its civilian population, would be only a minor obstacle in his army’s drive towards the more important German industrial city of Cologne, some fifty miles to the east. He would be tragically wrong. The weeks gained for Hitler and the Third Reich during the bloody Allied sieges of Aachen and Metz, and the bitter fighting in the Hürtgen Forest, would be time used to prepare for Hitler’s last great gamble of the war: Operation “Wacht am Rhein.” This final major German attack in the west — the Ardennes Offensive — would cost an additional 80,000 American casualties and would prolong the war by six or seven months.
At one hundred and ninety-one pages, this is not a particularly long book; in fact, it is easily readable in a single afternoon. The author, as might be expected, also includes the requisite photos of many of the people and the different parts of the city mentioned in his narrative. Whiting’s research sources, unfortunately, seem to have been left to the reader’s imagination; there are no footnotes. In addition, detailed maps of the Aachen battlefield are few and far between. Thus, purely from a military history perspective, it would be virtually impossible to accurately set out the detailed chronology and unit positions of both sides during this six-week battle, if one were relying only on the text and the book’s few basic maps. Moreover, “Bloody Aachen” seems to have curious gaps in the account of the operations of the American 1st Division. This is a little odd because, in the historical battle, it was the “Big Red One” that actually carried the burden of the house-to-house fighting preceding the final capture of the city.
Still, the author manages to tell an interesting and considerably more detailed story than is typically offered by the more wide-ranging military histories of the western front that cover the period 1944-1945. So, despite the odd gaps in his narrative, Whiting has to be given credit for at least taking on this subject in the first place. In fact, so far as I know, this is still the only book written on the siege of Aachen by anyone, anywhere. On a more positive note, “Bloody Aachen” is not noticeably distorted by the biased recollections of the different officers and men who actually fought on the ground: a problem that can surface when descriptions of specific actions depend exclusively on the spoken and written memoirs of a few key participants. Moreover, Whiting usually does an adequate job of weaving the personal stories of the individual combatants together with the important strategic events that were unfolding largely outside of these individuals’ narrow views of the battlefield.
Finally, “Bloody Aachen” is readily accessible to the casual reader and is not just intended for the devotee of military history. So while the book is not comparable to some of the far more detailed histories of other battles during the Second World War, it none the less offers an easy to read account of a significant major battle which has been totally ignored by other writers on World War II. For this reason, if for no other, I recommend “Bloody Aachen” for anyone with more than a passing interest in combat operations during this period on the Western Front.
Posted by JCB III at 4:10 PM
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