Saturday, January 21, 2023

Books: "The Last Hill" On A Ranger Battalion's Heroism In World War II


The Last Hill: The Epic Story of A Ranger Battalion and the Battle That Defined WWII

By Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

St. Martin's Press; hardcover, 416 pages; $29.99

Bob Drury and Tom Clavin are renowned historians who are the #1 New York Times bestselling authors of The Heart of Everything, That Is, Lucky 666, Halsey's Typhoon, Last Men OutThe Last Stand of Fox Company, which won the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation's General Wallace M. Greene Jr. Award; Valley Forge (click here for our review from 2019), and, most recently, Blood and Treasure.

Drury and Clavin's new epic work, The Last Hill, examines the exploits of one of the only American Special Operation units fighting in the European Theater during World War II, the 2nd Ranger Battalion. This unit has largely been forgotten, which is remarkable because it was part of a significant historical event that should have recognized as a towering achievement.

This untold story has taken Drury and Clavin many years to research and write, and they bring their subject's rich sweep to life in their engaging narrative style. They availed themselves of contemporaneous journals, military diaries, After-Action reports, and archival interviews. 

The 2nd Ranger Battalion was known as "Rudder's Rangers" after their commanding officer, Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder. It was the most honed and experienced quick-strike attack force under Dwight D. Eisenhower's campaign, and in December 1944, it was tasked with spearheading the American Army's drive into Germany, finally taking the war into Hitler's homeland. 

Lt. Col. Rudder was assigned the near-suicidal objective of taking and holding Hill 400, an imposing, 1,320-foot conical rise, which was the gateway a desperate Nazi Germany needed to hold to protect its very survival. 

The battle-hardened battalion did not know that a combined Wehrmacht force of elite Fallschirmjager paratroopers and top-of-the-line Volksgrenadiers, whose numbers vastly exceeded the Rangers, has received the same exact orders. The battle between the two determined foes was one of the bloodiest and most costly of the war.

American regiments from several divisions had previously been pushed back by the tenacious defenders atop the heights of Hill 400, behind which Hitler and his generals were assembling the massive army and machines poised to smash through the encircling Allies in what would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Where earlier attacks failed, Gen. Eisenhower now needed his Rangers to come out victorious. The Last Hill provides a moment-by-moment reconstruction of the Rangers' decisive assault on the tallest, most strategic position deep in Germany's Hurtgen Forest. The bloody, two-day firefight that followed pitted the battalion against elite German units who were determined to defend "Hill 400" to the death. Survivors of the 2nd Ranger Battalion would later come to call it "our longest day."

Drury and Clavin write of what the Rangers faced in this excerpt: "Omaha Beach. Pointe du Hoc. Fortress Brest. Crucibles all. None had prepared the men of the United States Army's 2nd Ranger Battalion for the Hurtgen Forest. It was as if they were walking into the imaginations of the Brothers Grimm. With more bloodshed.

The roughly sixty-sqaure-mile patch of densely timbered hills and gorges straddling the Belgian-German frontier screened the southern rim of the ancient fortress of Aachen, the first German city to fall to the the Allies in the Second World War. It was at Aachen, more than a millennium earlier, that the emperor Charlemagne had established his seat of power, and his bones were interred there. Had the ghost of the king of the Franks miraculously arisen to greet the American Rangers on the morning of November 14, 1944, he would not have recognized the cheerless slagscape of bombed-out collieries, smashed smokestacks, and blackened railheads that now surrounded the capital city he had known as Aix-la-Chapelle. He would, however, have been quite at home among the pristine Hurtgen conifers whose one-hundred-foot canopy cast the forest floor in shimmering blue shadow, a perpetual twilight even at high noon. 

The sodden ground beneath the towering trees was nearly devoid of underbrush, and as the Rangers slogged through ankle-deep mud along a man-made firebreak, they stooped to pass beneath low-hanging pine boughs that lent the woodland a claustrophobic ambience. One trooper, noting the loamy tang rising from the forest floor, likened it to walking into a vast green cave. The utter absence of wildlife, even birdsong, compounded the eerinees. 'Everywhere the forest scowled,' the generally sober U.S. Army's official history records in a jarring flight of anthropomorphism. 'Wet, cold, and seemingly impenetrable.'...

The raw conditions not only cut to the bone but, as the Rangers knew well, the low cloud cover would continue to prevent Allied aircraft from leaving their tarmacs in liberated Belgium. Over the past thirty days, the number of Army Air Forces and RAF sorties providing close air support to American infantry and armor advancing against the dug-in Germans had fallen by a third. In the coming weeks those prospects appeared even more bleak.

The autumn murk, however, could not obscure the bloody detritus of months of forest fighting - the scattered rucksacks and bullet-riddled helmets; the smashed hulks of burned-out Sherman tanks and jeeps; the blackened corpses of American boys fused together for eternity by direct artillery hits. Near the rotting remains of a German supply horse - one of hundreds of thousands killed that autumn - a Ranger rifleman absentmindedly kicked at a lone American combat boot by the side of the footpath. A foot fell out; the putrescent strips of flesh and muscle still clinging to the bone were thick with maggots. Farther on, dead GIs, bloated and turning gray, were stacked along the trail in haphazard rows, waiting to be tagged and bagged. To the Rangers they appeared to have been speared by medieval pikeman, their bodies punctured and shredded when razor-sharp wooden shards sheared from the treetops by air-burst shells rained death on the forest floor. At first a light patter, then a heavy downpour."

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