The Roer River Dams
While American troops were approaching the Roer in late November and early December, concern was mounting in command circles about the obstacle that remained before sizable forces might cross the river with reasonable safety. This obstacle was the neglected objective - the dams on the upper reaches of the Roer which the Germans might employ to produce flood waters to isolate any force that had crossed the Roer.
Perhaps the explanation for the sins of ommission that made the sobriquet "neglected objective" applicable to the dams lay in the great expectations that had accompanied start of the November offensive. Perhaps the American command anticipated a rapid advance which might produce capture of the dams in the natural course of events. Or perhaps delay in launching a ground attack against the dams could be attributed to a hope that the dams might be breached from the air and the threat of controlled flooding thereby eliminated. If bombs could break the Urft Dam, upstream from the massive, earthen Schwammenauel Dam, the water level in the Schwammenauel reservoir might be raised to a point near the crest of the earthen dam, whereupon bombs might dig deep enough into the earth to get a small flow of water moving across the top of the dam. Erosion would do the rest.
The chief proponent of the scheme to bomb the Roer River Dams was the ground commander most directly concerned with eliminating the dams, General Hodges. At least as early as 18 November, the First Army commander began studying the dams with an eye toward air bombardment and on 22 November urged General Bradley to support the plan. When the G-3 for Air at 12th Army Group passed the request to SHAEF, the air officers at Eisenhower's headquarters allotted the project to the Royal Air Force, which specialized in the kind of low-level, precision bombing that would be required. The successful RAF attack on the Moehne Dam in the Ruhr in 1943, for example, came readily to mind. Yet apparently after consulting with the RAF, SHAEF air officers the next day, 23 November, reported the proposal impracticable. On the other hand, the air officers agreed that if the 12th Army Group considered breaching the dams "of paramount importance," SHAEF Air would "reconsider the matter."
A week later, on 30 November, General Hodges learned with immense satisfaction that the RAF had finally consented to try to blow the dams, but his hopes that this would solve the problem were dashed during the next few days by unfavorable weather. On 30 November and the first two days of December, planned attacks against the dams had to be canceled because of the weather, while on 3 December 190 aircraft made the flight over the dams but failed to attack, presumably because of poor visibility. The next day 200 aircraft flew over the target, but only 25 Lancasters and 3 Mosquitos actually attacked. Damage to the dams was discouragingly negligible. Another attack on 5 December was canceled because of poor visibility.
On 5 December SHAEF took another look at the question of breaching the dams from the air. The commander of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur T. Harris, objected to the project on the theory that irreplaceable personnel were being wasted in an effort foredoomed to failure. Yet so impressed by now with the importance of the target was the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, that he ordered the attacks to be pushed over all objections.
Three days later, on 8 December, 205 aircraft dropped 797 tons of bombs on the Urft and Schwammenauel Dams and on the regulating dam between the two, the Paulushof. Though two hits were registered on the Urft and 18 on the Schwammenauel, neither dam was broken. Yet for all the frustration and negligible results involved thus far, the First Army commander, General Hodges, remained firm in his belief that the dams could be broken from the air. A thousand bombers a day, Hodges believed, "should be sent over until the dam is broken."
After another three-day wait occasioned by the weather, 230 Lancasters again attacked the dams. Of these, 178 concentrated against the Urft with 1,065 tons of bombs; but results again were discouraging. The bombs cut the top of the dam at the south end, allowing some water to spill through, but not enough. Although the RAF consented to two more tries, on 13 and 14 December, weather again forced cancellation. The air effort had failed.
Even while the air program continued, General Hodges, for all his insistence that the dams could be breached from the air, was making plans for a ground attack. Early in December he directed General Gerow's V Corps to seize the dams. General Gerow issued his field order for the attack on 7 December. The target date was 13 December 1944.
In planning the corps maneuver, General Gerow decided to eschew the possibility of three concentric attacks at first in favor of a double envelopment by two divisions. The depleted condition of the 8th Division in the north, which might have formed a third prong, and the fact that the fighting for the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge had drawn enemy strength to the north no doubt influenced this decision.
The north wing of the envelopment was to be formed by the 78th Division. Attacking through the Monschau Corridor, the 78th first was to clear the pillbox- and village-studded plateau which marks the start of the corridor, then to continue northeast along the Strauch-Schmidt highway through extremities of the Huertgen Forest to Schmidt. From Schmidt the 78th Division might come upon the Roer River Dams from the north.