This is part of our “Letters from War” series documenting the World War II letters of Irvin Schwartz of Pine Grove, PA. The letters were all published in the West Schuylkill Press-Herald between 1943 and 1945.
Inside the Siegfried Line
November 4, 1944
Our own publication, “The Stars and Stripes,” printed daily in Paris, London, and New York, for members of the armed forces, has officially announced that “Major General Clarence Huebner, commanding officer of the First Infantry Division, led the Allied troops in the Battle for Aachen.” In other words, I had seen “enough” of this first large German city to fall to the Allies.
However, the Press-Herald was read right in the midst of the battle – which was some consolation on my part, while we drove the Nazis back, house for house, and block for block.
Taking this ancient “city of kings,” steeped deeply with German history, was slightly different from the fighting encountered in the open. On open fields and even in thickly populated forests, war can bring forth a wide open battle. But the Battle of Aachen wasn’t such. Instead, the battle moved slowly – at times as slow as half a dozen houses per day. War in the open can be considered a clean fight, while war in the city is usually just the opposition.
Long after the bulk of the enemy is driven from a certain portion of the city, remaining snipers are plentiful and eventually can cause a brand new war. And a long time ago we have discovered that sniping has [cost] us more lives than the real battle. Aachen was no exception to the rule.
We hadn’t advanced as far as to the outskirts of the city when we had excellent observation from high ground around, while our artillery shelled the Germans inside. We could see the entire red-roofed “city of kings” from our particular O.P. many days before we even thought of reaching the city limits. But the place was motionless excepting the smoke rising from burning buildings, and when there was no smoke, Aachen seemed very, very peaceful despite the fact that she was facing this great Allied war machine from more sides than one, a machine which was ready to attack at any split second’s notice.
In the meantime our planes strafed and bombed all day long; artillery shelled German position in the city day and night. The doughboys were ready. Finally they moved toward Aachen – a city which could be seen right before us, and the real Battle for Aachen was on.
From here on, until Aachen fell, we fought a war hard to describe on paper. A fight wherein we held all disadvantages with the exception of one. Occasionally taking advantage of a public air raid shelter, a captured pillbox, or even a home or store, as a place for a few hours sleep, and as a substitute for digging a foxhole. But this is the one and only advantage of a city war.
When we did receive the opportunity to settle down for a night, I must say that our squad leader, Staff Sergeant Glenn Peters of Marienville, Penna., usually made a fairly good record for a home not touched too badly by the effects of war. But seldom did we receive a full night’s rest. One particular night shortly after we bedded down, Pvt. Donald Rose from Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and Pvt. George W. White from Trumann, Arkansas, who were standing guard in the front doorway of the house we were in, came to our blacked-out kitchen and said, “We’re moving out.” Then Pvt. Edward Kerns from Cincinnati, Ohio, made the remark, “Where to, next room or next door?” which was at least a half decent statement since there were numerous cases where we entered a building and found Jerries in the kitchen or in the cellar.
Another night when we stayed in a home severely damaged by artillery, our gunner, Cpl. Noah Collier of Norton, Virginia, and I made a thorough search of each and every room in the house before the squad finally moved in. That same night, as Pfc. Ignatius Zokrzewski of Philadelphia and Pfc. William C. Ritchie from Oil City, Penna., were standing guard a Jerry machine gun opened fire only a half block down the street.
The fight was such a drawn out affair that the fifth Pennsylvanian in our anti-tank squad of ten, Pvt. Charles Sebella from Somerset in the Keystone State, was inclined to think that, “When we do finally take this place we might go home.” And Peters, Ritchie, Zokrewski, and I all hoped he would be correct.
The type of warfare encountered in Aachen might be described particularly by the many hours of sleep lost by our driver, Pfc. Albert Keinert of Madison, Wisconsin, who more than once manned the .50 cal. Machine gun on our half-track all night long. It was a war wherein you saw no American without his “steel” [helmet] or his M1 rifle, carbine, tommy gun, .45 cal. Pistol, or a few hand grenades hanging from his belt.
And where our anti-tank gun could cover wide areas out in the open we at no single time could protect more than a single stretch of street in the city. Occasionally an intersection which not too long ago was the busy shopping district of downtown Aachen. “All the advantages of war are definitely against us, men,” as our platoon sergeant, Tech. Sergeant Dorsey McDaniels from Oxford, Mississippi, put it shortly after moving into the outskirts of the city.
Here I lost three of my very best pals and all were old soldiers who faced the Germans’ superiority in North Africa, Tunisia, and Sicily and in addition came all through France and Belgium unscratched. What is more horrible than a veteran as these losing his life by a lone sniper in Aachen’s shopping district? But such was the Battle of Aachen, and day by day the doughboys moved in, taking the houses and stores one by one. Like that, the battle went on for days, with our planes strafing and bombing, and our artillery shelling ahead of our line troops.
Despite our requests over our portable loud speaking systems to the German commanding officer and his men to surrender, the Nazis stubbornly fought on in obedience with Hitler’s order to hold out as long as possible, and to fight to the very last man.
The Luftwaffe parachuted supplies to the encircled enemy nightly but eventually he individual in charge could hold out no longer and he officially surrendered his remaining force, marking the fall of Germany’s “sulphur springs” to the Allies.
Today, as one passes through the city he may see streets virtually blocked with debris of demolished homes. Streets are lined with knocked out German tanks and other vehicles. Factories are bombed out as are a great percentage of homes and stores. Each and every building shows in one way or another the effects of war, although there are people living in Aachen today.
It was the railroad center for supplies and troops to and from the Siegfried Line (Aachen is part of Hitler’s West Wall) and therefore its railroads are at present a mass of wreckage, as are locomotives and railroad cars caught in this big rail center at the time. Electric wires are torn, street lamps laying on the ground, and important bridges knocked out. This is what happened in our Battle for Aachen.
To close, I’ll write –
Irvin R. Schwartz,
P.S. – According to all reports, we shall enjoy turkey on Thanksgiving, as we did a year ago in Old England. But I already know it will be served in our foxhole “dining room” which won’t be so pleasant after all. I hope we may observe Christmas on the surface of the ground. I just asked my pal “Iggie” Zokrzewski for his opinion and he says, “That’s difficult to answer. We may even be back in dear old Penna. By that time.”
Featured Image: American troops fighting in Aachen in October 1944