Operation Flashpoint

'Flashpoint' was a US operation by Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army within the 'Plunder' offensive of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group (24/28 March 1945).

Designed as the right flank of the Allied drive to secure a northern bridgehead over the Rhine river, in which the left-hand elements were 'Turnscrew', 'Widgeon' and 'Torchlight' by Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army, 'Flashpoint' was entrusted to Major General John B. Anderson’s XVI Corps, which was tasked with pushing Major General Leland S. Hobbs’s 30th Division across the river between Wesel and Mollen in the northern sector of the corps' front, and Major General Ira T. Wyche’s 79th Division across the river between Mollen and Walsum in the southern half of the corps' front.

In addition to the XVI Corps, Simpson’s 9th Army also included Major General Alvan C. Gillem’s XIII Corps and Major General Raymond S. MacLain’s XIX Corps with a total of six divisions between them. Simpson ordered the XIII Corps to remain on the defensive along the Rhine river to the south of the crossing sites selected for the XVI Corps, while the XIX Corps assembled for early commitment in the bridgehead.

With five divisions, the XVI Corps was somewhat larger than a normal corps, and was further strengthened with supporting units. In addition to its organic artillery under Brigadier General Charles C. Brown, the corps had been supplemented by Brigadier General John F. Uncles’s 34th Field Artillery Brigade with 13 battalions of medium, heavy and superheavy pieces of artillery, and the XIX Corps' artillery headquarters, under Brigadier General George D. Shea, with 11 battalions of artillery. Also attached were a tank destroyer group with six battalions, six separate tank battalions, three engineer combat groups, two anti-aircraft artillery groups, one smoke-generator battalion, one battalion with 4.2-in (107-mm) heavy mortars, and many other smaller units, including a naval contingent for the assault crossing. The XVI Corps therefore amounted to some 120,000 men, making it more an army than a corps, supported by 54 battalions of field artillery. Artillery units of the XIII Corps, as well as one of that corps' infantry divisions, were to participate in the preparatory fire and to answer calls for supporting fire as needed.

The 9th Army’s normal air support was Brigadier General Richard E. Nugent’s XXIX Tactical Air Command. This joined other Allied air units in the interdiction programme before the assault crossing of the Rhine river, and was to expend part of its effort on 24 March in support of the 'Varsity' airborne assault. Even so, the XXIX Tactical Air command had sufficient aircraft for the provision of armed reconnaissance in support of the 9th Army and to assign a fighter-bomber group to work directly with each of the two infantry divisions which were to deliver the assault.

On the eastern side of the Rhine river, the German defence of the length of about 8 miles (13 km) of front scheduled for assault by the XVI Corps was divided between two corps of General Alfred Schlemm’s 1st Fallschirmarmee within Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe 'H'. General Erich Straube’s LXXXVI Corps had the primary task of holding Wesel, but was also responsible for the sector between the Lippe river to a point on the Rhine river to the south-west of Dinslaken, and here Generalmajor Bernhard Klosterkemper’s 180th Division would face the 30th Division and part of the 79th Division. The 1st Fallschirmarmee's weakest component was General Erich Abraham’s LXIII Corps, which had the task of holding the remaining 2 miles (3.2 km) as well as additional frontage as far to the south as the army group boundary in line with the Ruhr river to the south of Duisburg. The northernmost unit of Abraham’s corps, Generalleutnant Walter Steinmüller’s makeshift Division 'Hamburg', would face part of the 79th Division, while the southern portion of the corps' front was held by Generalleutnant Walter Lackner’s 2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision.

A three-quarter moon lit the landscape and a west wind blew a sustained smoke screen toward the Germans as the US engineers and infantrymen began to move their assault craft and boats to the water’s edge soon after 24.00 on 24/25 March. At 01.00 the 2,070 pieces of artillery available for the support of the XVI Corps opened fire. Every minute for one hour more than 1,000 projectiles ranging in weight from 25 to 325 lb (11.3 to 147.4 kg) landed on the German-held side of the Rhine river. During this hour-long preparation, the artillery fired a total of 65,261 rounds. At the same time 1,500 heavy bombers were attacking a dozen airfields within range of the crossing sites.

Even as this huge blow on the Germans was being delivered, the US engineers and infantry boarded their assault craft and boats, and other engineers moved large pontoons close to the water in preparation for the construction of bridges the moment the western bank was free of the first assault waves.

All three regiments of the 30th Division were used in the assault phase of 'Flashpoint': the 119th Infantry was on the left just to the south-east of the village of Büderich close to the confluence of the Lippe river with the Rhine river; the 117th Infantry was in the centre at the village of Wallach; and the 120th Infantry was on the right some 2 miles (3.2 km) to the south-east near a large bend in the river just to the north-east of Rheinberg. Each of the three regiments used one of its battalions in the assault. Each assault battalion was organised as four waves with a two-minute interval between waves. Every battalion had 54 faster storm boats each carrying seven men as well as its crew of two, and 30 slower double assault boats each carrying 14 men as well as its crew of three. Tracer rounds fired by machine guns guided the first wave, and coloured aircraft landing lights were used as beacons for the following waves.

As the men awaited the signal to push out into the river, only an occasional German mortar bomb fell, so it was only after the boats had moved out onto the river, under cover of grey smoke, that the German projectiles found their first targets: two of the 119th Infantry’s storm boats were hit, one man being killed and three others wounded. The boats headed for the eastern bank of the Rhine river as quickly as they could, and in only a few minutes the first boats ran on the eastern bank and their passengers ran toward the big dike edging the river. Only at one point, where men of Company G of the 120th Infantry landed a few hundred yards from their planned crossing site, was there German fire, which the Americans silenced swiftly and without loss to themselves. Although the artillery had scored few hits on the dike, the German defenders were blinded by the smoke and thoroughly cowed by the shelling.

There was no greater German opposition to the arrival of the following assault waves, which normally could have been expected to attract heavier shelling. The artillery preparation had silenced at least some German guns and seemingly severed all telephone wires and, as only a few forward observers had radio equipment, they had no way to call for fire. Dawn arrived before the first German shelling in appreciable amounts struck the crossing sites. There could be no question from the first that the 30th Division had achieved a notably successful Rhine crossing operation.

Within two hours the advancing US forces had reached the first built-up areas on the eastern side of the Rhine river, all three assault regiments had at least two battalions across the river, and a platoon of Sherman DD amphibious tanks had arrived to help the regiment in the centre.

In the assault crossing total casualties among all three regiments were even less than those of the single regiment which had made the 'Banknote' (ii) surprise crossing of Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army some 28 hours earlier at Oppenheim.

The British had crossed with similar ease near Xanten in 'Plunder' and had quickly pushed 1,000 yards (915 m) beyond the Rhine.

It remained for the 79th Division to execute the last amphibious phase of the assault, to cross the Rhine river at 03.00 at points to the east and south-east of Rheinberg. It was because of the south-eastward curve of the Rhine river that the 79th Division’s attack was delivered one hour later than that of the 30th Division, thus avoiding the risk of exposed inner flanks for both divisions. For the Germans opposite the 79th Division, however, it meant two hours of artillery punishment instead of one. The 79th Division’s commander chose to make the crossing in his formation’s sector with two regiments side-by-side, each regiment using one battalion in the assault. Unlike the 30th Division, which used only storm boats for the first wave, reserving the slower assault boats for subsequent crossings, the assault units of the 79th Division mixed the two types, overcoming the two types' difference in speed by sending the slower assault boats off slightly ahead of the faster storm boats.

Although the hour’s delay provided the 79th Division with more artillery preparation, it also added some confusion as, by 03.00, the west wind had decreased and the combination of natural fog and man-made smoke then clung to the surface of the water and to both of the river’s banks.

Except for sporadic small arms fire, the German opposition to the 79th Division was no more effective than that to the 30th Division; but the difficulty of holding course in the fog and smoke scattered and intermingled the units on the eastern bank. The men in some boats lost direction altogether and returned western bank. Yet in the absence of any major German reaction, the confusion was short-lived. Within 45 minutes both assault battalions had assembled and begun to move out to the east. Like the men of the 30th Division, those of the 79th Division felt that much of the assault crossing’s success was attributable to the artillery preparation, which lifted its fire only after the first boats were three-quarters of the way across the river.

Well before the advent of dawn, two battalions were ashore in each regimental sector, and again there could be no question of the extent of the success. The two divisions had crossed one of the most imposing water obstacles in western Europe at a cost of just 31 casualties.

By the end of 24 March the XVI Corps had crossed the Rhine in five places, the 30th and 79th Divisions then securing a consolidated bridgehead between Wesel and Dinslaken so that the army’s back-up formations (Major General John M. Devine’s 8th Armored Division, Major General Paul W. Baade’s 35th Division and Major General Ray E. Porter’s 75th Division) could move up for the exploitation, which reached Dorsten by 28 March.