Kesternich is a small village just inside the German border from Belgium. It was the site of two major battles during World War II. These battles are tied to the Siegfried Line Campaign, Battle of the Huertgen Forest, Battle of the Bulge, and Roer Dam Assault at the outset of Operation Lumberjack.
A period map of Kesternich used by the 78th Infantry DivisionKesternich is a small village, which in 1944–45 consisted of about 112 houses constructed in a method of timber frame and stucco construction called Fachwerk-Häuser. Poised on a spur ridge, the landform inside the village along the main east-west road is relatively flat. The land falls off sharply to the north into a gorge known as the Weidenbachtal, and to the south into a gorge named the Tiefenbachtal. To the east, at the end of the village, the terrain steps down quickly into the Roer (Rur) river gorge. Surrounding the village along the ridge was a series of small field plots divided by the traditional hedgerow of the region. The houses were not tightly packed, but were surrounded by small yards containing many out buildings and sheds. The yards were often separated by another form of traditional tall dense hedge that is used as a windbreak. Defenders inside the village commanded excellent fields of fire.
The First Battle for KesternichEdit
The First Battle for Kesternich took place from December 14 to 16, 1944. This battle pitted the 2nd Battalion of the 309th Infantry Regiment and the 2nd Battalion of the 310th Infantry Regiment of the 78th Infantry Division against units from the 272nd Volksgrenadier Division, including elements of the 326th Volksgrenadier Division. This attack was part of a greater attack by the First Army's V Corps in an effort to capture the Roer (Rur) River Dams that included the 78th Infantry Division as well as the 2nd Infantry Division to the south. The attack by the 78th Division interrupted Hitler's plans for the north (right) shoulder of the Bulge (Battle of the Ardennes). While it may be questionable that the Germans had enough strength to push the attack west of Simmerath and Kesternich, all plans were off as the American attack hit the German lines on December 13. As a result, the northern pivot-point of the German offensive was pushed from Simmerath to south of Monschau.
The 78th Division's Recon Company and its 311th RCT (Infantry Regiment Combat Team) had been attached to the 8th Infantry Division just to the north. For their offensive operations, they had their 309th Infantry and 310th RCT as well as the 709th Tank Battalion and 893rd Tank Destroyer Battalion. Since the key objective of Kesternich was considered a tougher assignment, the 2nd Battalion of the 310th was attached to the 309th, giving it four battalions. This left the 310th with two battalions for their blocking assignment at Rollesbroich. A storm the night before operations left 12 inches of snow on the ground. Temperatures were below freezing. A typical Hohes Venn fog permeated over the landscape making visibility difficult until mid-day.
The attack by the 309th Infantry Regiment was a surprise to the Germans defending the vaulted Siegfried Line and the American's quickly took Bickerath, Paustenbach, Witzerath, and Simmerath. In taking Simmerath, the Americans finally cut the Monschau-Düren highway and severed the Monschau Corridor. They reached the first few houses at Kesternich as darkness fell on the 13th. However, the 2nd Battalion of the 309th was unable to retain their small purchase and withdrew. The 310th was held at bay, unable to penetrate past the entrance to Rollesbroich. The advance had gone well on the first day and optimism for operations on the next day ran high.
The 309th resumed the attack on the morning of the 14th with disastrous results when the Germans pounded all attempted advances with machine gun fire, indirect fire from mortars, and direct fire from armored assault vehicles (Hetzer and SdKfz 7). The murderous fire on the 309th was relieved somewhat when the 2nd Battalion of the 310th Infantry moved on Kesternich after noon the same day. The tenacity of the German defense obstructed this attack and it stalled as darkness fell. Results at Rollesbroich were much better for the Americans as the 310th was able to fully enter the village, capture the pillboxes guarding the village, and began to consolidate their positions.
Soon after fighting resumed on the 15th, the 2nd Battalion of the 310th Infantry entered Kesternich in force at about noon to capture the village. Fighting past a bunker position, into, and straight through the village sapped the strength of the companies. They did not hold it long. Problems with communication, artillery fire control, and lack of cooperation with the attached tank and TD command plagued the defense by the under strength unit.
The German plans for the Bulge (Battle of the Bulge) were threatened by the loss of Kesternich. General Eugene König's 272nd Volksgrenadier Division had begun planning a counterattack the day before. Since they had been assembling for their participation in the Bulge, not all of his strength was available. What force he had in the area was put off balance by the American attack. The I battalion of the 753rd Regiment of the 326th Volksgrenadier Division, also in stages of assembly to the south in front of Höfen and Monschau, was loaned to König for the attack. His own 272nd Panzer Jäger Battalion provided the assault vehicles, and his II Battalion of the 982nd provided a second supporting wing for the attack.
The determined counterattack consisting of at least 500 Volksgrenadiers began mid-afternoon and continued until the early morning hours of 16 December. At first, the Americans held firm, driving off the frontal attack by the 753 Volksgrenadier Regiment. In a classic envelopment maneuver, the 982 Volksgrenadier Regiment infiltrated behind the companies of the 310th Infantry inside the village to cut them off from their rear. Those GIs sealed in Kesternich faced German Armored Assault Vehicles with no means to combat them. Outnumbered, with little ammunition, no means of combating armored vehicles, and cut-off from their rear area, the fate of the Americans inside the village was sealed. As darkness fell, the attack by the 753 gained momentum advancing steadily on the isolated companies. Once the battalion commander was captured resistance to the resolute Germans waned. Nearly all GIs inside the village were driven out or captured as POWs in house to house fighting.
After the attack, over one-hundred and fifty German soldiers lay dead in and around Kesternich. While the American casualties were not nearly as great, they lost 300 GIs as prisoners – virtually the entire fighting strength of the 2nd Battalion of the 310th Infantry. In the end, the fight for the village was described by one GI with the simple statement, "Kesternich was very bloody." The attached troops of the 326th Volksgrenadier Division were returned to their division for participation in the Battle of the Bulge. With the knowledge that they didn't have the strength to hold the ground they gained, the German force retreated to the east side of the village by early light the next day. Only a token force at the bunker near the entrance to the village remained to guard their conquest.
On the 16th, a counterattack by Americans sent to re-take the village and reach any survivors was met head on with a German counterattack. The Americans had the advantage on the Germans in this engagement, but neither was able to re-take the village and both armies fell back to their respective outskirts of the village. Small back and forth probing actions by both sides were seen in the following days, but the fight for the village was over. It was a bloody baptism of fire for the green American Division. During the seven days of fighting for the village between 13 and 19 December, the 78th Infantry Division lost approximately 1,515 dead, wounded, missing and injured, according to the division's records. German losses in dead and captured, as confirmed by the 78th Infantry Division, were approximately 770, not counting wounded or missing.
The Second Battle for KesternichEdit
The Second Battle for Kesternich took place from January 30, 1945 to February 1, 1945. In the battle, the American 311th Infantry Regiment against the 272 Volksgrenadier Division. This time the offensive was conducted under Simpson's Ninth Army. Over the succeeding weeks the 272 Volksgrenadiers had infiltrated and created strong points throughout the village. While this battle was no less a struggle than the earlier battle, the entrenched Germans inside the village could not stave off the unrelenting American attack and the village of Kesternich fell to American hands.
The 78th Division's plan of operations was quite ambitious. All three RCTs were to be engaged with support from the 5th Armored Division's CCA. To the south, the 310th was assigned the objectives of Am Gericht, Konzen, and Imgenbroich. To the north, the 309th was to hold in place as the initial operations kicked off, later they would be called on to sweep up the Monschau Corridor taking Strauch, Steckenborn, Hechelscheid, Woffelsbach, Silberscheidt, Kommerscheidt, and Harscheidt on their way to their final objective of Schmidt and the Schwammenauel Dam. The 311th RCT was given the center assignment, assisting the 5th Armored CCA with their objective at Eicherscheid as well as taking their own objectives of Huppenbroich and Kesternich. The 2nd Battalion of the 311th was given the key assignment at Kesternich.
The high ridge at Kesternich dictated that the town could not be enveloped in an attack from the west. As with the earlier attack, operations had to go straight down the center of the village. The Germans were prepared to block that route. As the GIs jumped off in the darkness, a slight snow shower helped to conceal their movement. Still, the Americans did not achieve surprise and as they met the initial German defenses mid-way into the village, they were assailed by automatic weapons fire and panzerfaust fire directed into the trees to create tree bursts.
Tank support proved problematic. Once again, timid tank support seemed the order of the day. This time, it was the first time the attached 796th Tank Battalion had seen action. The infantry went into combat without knowledge that their armor support had not been blooded. One platoon leader later remarked that timid tank support was worse than none at all. Squad leaders in highly exposed positions on the back of tanks became a common sight as they attempted to guide the armor forward into firing positions.
With ample time to develop their defense, the Volksgrenadiers had emplaced machine gun positions in houses and in the rubble behind mine fields and wire. Each of these strong points became an exercise in and of itself in order to advance. It took actions like those of squad leader Jonah Edward Kelley, who singlehandedly destroyed several machine-gun emplacements, to push the attack. Again, the village became Bloody Kesternich. At the end of the first day, the battalion had only advanced a couple of hundred yards into the rubble.
The quagmire continued the second day. Bitter house-to-house and rubble pile to rubble pile was the order of the day. Eye-to-eye contact was more common than not. The advance made about as much gain as during the first day. However, this left the German defenders with a mere toehold on the village's eastern side.
On the third day, the 2nd battalion of the 311th wrestled the village from the grasp of the defenders by mid-day. The Americans now held the key position along the Kesternich ridge. In the first week of December, they had captured the Brandenburg-Bergstein ridge. They now held the two ridgelines on either side of the Schmidt ridge. This opened the way for the 309th RCT in conjunction with portions of the 310th RCT to push down that ridgeline to capture the Schwammenauel Dam.
At this point, on February 2, 1945, the 78th Division was returned to the command of the First Army and V Corps. Progress wasn't as speedy as desired by the commanders, and through a series of directives from General Huebner, Commander of V Corps, the 78th Division reorganized their attack. In the end, these adjustments proved to add difficulty to the operation. In actuality, the meddling probably delayed the capture of the Schwammenauel by an additional day.
While Kesternich is one of the lesser known battles of the Hürtgen Campaign and seldom considered in discussions surrounding the North Shoulder of the Bulge, it without a doubt contributed greatly to the American successes in both efforts.
- Jonah Edward Kelley - Awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his service at Kesternich.
- Lt Col Richard W. Keyes; CO of 2nd BN/311th earned Distinguished Service Cross 30 Jan 1945 at Kesternich.
- 1/Lt Andrew G. Nufer Jr; 3rd Platoon leader, Co. F/2nd BN/311th earned Distinguished Service Cross 30 Jan 1945 at Kesternich.
- Staff Sergeant Lynn Q. Ingersoll, 309th Infantry, Company "E" earned Combat Infantry Badge & Purple Heart, December 13, 1944 in First Battle of Kesternich.
|This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. Please help to improve this article by introducing more precise citations. (October 2012)|
- Kemman, Lawrence H. LTC, "Operations of the 2nd Battalion, 309th Infantry, the 2nd Battalion, 310th Infantry, 78th Infantry Division, in the Attack on Kesternich, Germany, 14-15 December 1944" (Rhineland Campaign)
- Barner, Captain John H., “Advanced Infantry Officers Course 1949-1950, Operations of the2d Battalion, 311th Infantry (78th Infantry Division) in the Attack on Kesternich, Germany, 30 January – 1 February 1945 (Rhineland Campaign). (Personal Experience of a Company Commander, Cannon Company Which Supported This Action).”
- Gunkel, Otto, translation by Merle Hill, “New setup of the 272 VGD at Doberitz – Action in the Eifel.” (Unpublished memoir, December 1986)
- Reineke, Johann, “Defense in Kesternich, Autumn and Winter 1944 – Excerpts from a War Diary.” (Unpublished memoir. Bremerhaven, 1954) and Loehrer, Norbert and Petrzik, Marlis, Katharina and Schattenberg, Horst, ed., translated by Tom MacKnight, Castriniacum, Kasternich, Kesternich, “OSS HEMET”. (Kesternich, Germany, The Association for the Local History of Kesternich, 1996)
- Schmidt, Gunther, “The 272 Volksgrenadier Division In Action In The Eifel 1944/45,” translation by Ron van Rijt, The Flash, January 2000, The 78th (Lighting) Division Veterans Association, Pittsburgh, PA.
- Miller, Edward G., A Dark and Bloody Ground: The Hürtgen Forest and the Roer River Dams, 1944 - 1945. (College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press, 1995)
- Miller, Edward G., Nothing Less Than Full Victory. (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute Press, 2007)
- Miller, Edward G., “Desperate Hours at Kesternich,” World War II, Volume II, Number 4, November 1996, Cowles Enthusiast Media, History Group, Leesburg, Va.
- McDonald, Charles B., The Siegfried Line Campaign. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1984.
- Nash, Douglas E., Victory Was Beyond Their Grasp: With the 272nd Volks-Grenadier Division from the Hurtgen Forest to the Heart of the Reich. Bedford, PA: Aberjona Press, 2008)