In the first week of December 1944, the Allies made one of their deepest penetrations into the Third Reich at Bergstein, Germany. Looming behind the town of Bergstein was one of the most important hills in the Hürtgen Forest, the scene of one of the U.S. Army’s longest and most costly battles in Europe. On a clear day, one could see from Hill 400, as the Allies called it, into one of Germany’s greatest secrets of the war — the preparations for the Battle of the Bulge.
The Germans wanted to retain control of Hill 400 at all costs.
The Americans sent nearly an entire tank regiment to seize Bergstein and Hill 400. The Germans viciously counterattacked, nearly destroying the unit.
Hand-to-hand fighting raged in Bergstein. The scene resembled a miniature Stalingrad: The fighting was house-to-house, and dozens of Sherman tanks were destroyed by German grenadiers and anti-tank guns.
After two days of intense fighting, the GIs in Bergstein barely hung on. One remembered: “Had daylight arrived 15 minutes later, we would never have been able to hold Bergstein.”
That’s when the men of the Second Ranger Battalion received orders to reinforce the town and seize Hill 400.
The Rangers’ arrival immediately changed the course of the operation. One GI recalled that several Ranger officers appeared near the German hamlet. “They asked for the enemy positions and the road to take. They said that they were ready to go.”
The officers then turned to the other Rangers in their group and said, “Let’s go, men.”
“We heard the tommy guns click,” the GI remembered. “Without saying a word, the Rangers moved out. Our morale went up in a hurry.”
The Rangers passed by dozens of burning or burned-out Sherman tanks. Gored in its attempt to take Bergstein and Hill 400, the doomed regiment had been reduced to the equivalent of a company. “It was a haunting feeling,” recalled one Ranger. “We saw hulks of destroyed American tanks . . . The sight of GIs whose bodies were charred and blackened in the tanks . . . the smell of blood.”
Armed only with their tommy guns and assorted small arms, the men of the Second Ranger Battalion embarked on a suicide mission, just as they had on Pointe du Hoc, and waged a frontal assault to clear the town of Bergstein and capture the hill.
After the daring bayonet charge across the ice-covered field, which took the lives of many Rangers, small groups of men from Dog and Fox Companies seized the hill, taking out scores of German positions along the way.
Within an hour, the Germans counterattacked with hundreds of troops, outnumbering the Rangers many times over.
The hill shook as 18 battalions of German artillery initially allocated for the Battle of the Bulge plastered 400. Len Lomell recalled the scene: “The artillery fell like rain. Have you ever been in a torrential rainstorm? Now picture yourself trying to hide from those raindrops. Instead of rain, it’s falling shrapnel, deadly shrapnel rain.”
The shells kept coming down as if they were “belt-fed” — like machine-gun fire. With only a couple dozen men, the Rangers held off hundreds of enemy troops. Moving their tiny forces from one position on the hill to another, they stopped each German counterattack.
Sergeant Edward Secor from D Company single-handedly halted one attack. As hundreds of elite German paratroopers rushed his foxhole, his Browning automatic rifle was hit by a bullet, rendering it useless. In a scene reminiscent of Where Eagles Dare, Secor picked up two MP-40 machine pistols from dead German soldiers whose bodies lay only feet in front of his foxhole, and madly charged into the oncoming counterattack. “With a captured machine pistol under each arm, he stood up to turn twin streams of demoralizing fire on the close-in enemy.”