'Voyage' was a US offensive by Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s 1st Army and Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army of General Omar N. Bradley’s 12th Army Group, from the Remagen bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Rhine river and the western bank of the Rhine river to the south of Koblenz respectively, toward Frankfurt-am-Main in western Germany (7 March/April 1945).
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander-in-chief of the Western Allies' forces on the Western Front, gave his senior commanders latitude in selecting points for their crossings of the Rhine river. Two areas in which the Rhine river valley is relatively wide were generally seen as optimal. One was between Köln and Bonn in the north, and the other between Andernach and Koblenz in the south: both presented challenges, but each offered the possibility of relatively rapid access to the Autobahn network and into the Lahn river valley connecting to the corridor between Frankfurt and Kassel. The least favoured crossing points were in the area around the railway bridge at Remagen. The upstream confluence of the Ahr river to the south of Remagen added considerable speed and turbulence to the Rhine river, which is 295 yards (270 m) wide at Remagen. It was not planned that the US forces in the Remagen should cross the river as there was only one primary road into Remagen from the west, and that did not parallel the normal Allied logistical axis, and from the logistical point of view, the bridge was badly situated near the southern boundary of the US 1st Army.
The ground on the eastern side of the bridge rose steeply, and farther from the river this steeply sloped terrain and associated gullies provided natural tank traps against advancing armour. The rough Westerwald forest lies on an area rising to a height of between 660 and 1,300 ft (200 and 400 m) about 545 yards (500 m) from the river. The main road network on the eastern side was severely limited, consisting of only a river-bank road and two narrow mountain roads, all of which could easily be blocked by the Germans.
The staff of General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army believed that the Allies would cross the Rhine river in the area of the open terrain of the Rheinbach valley near the Ahr river, and von Zangen himself thought that the Rheinbach valley offered the Allies a natural funnel for military operations. He argued with Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model, commander of Heeresgruppe 'B', that the US forces would have to be stupid not to take advantage of this gap and push their armour toward the Rhine river as they would use this valley 'like water flowing downhill'. Thus von Zangen believed that the Rhine river towns of Sinzig and Remagen were probable targets for Lieutenant Courtney B. Hodges’s 1st Army. von Zangen failed to persuade Model to block the US forces by redeploying two corps from the defences of the 'Westwall' to the Remagen area and its important yet vulnerable Ludendorff railway bridge.
Several command changes in February and early in March complicated the German defence of the Rhine river crossings. Before the US advance, the 22 road and 25 railway bridges across the river had been the responsibility of the various Wehrkreis (military district) regional structures. These organisations reported not to an army command but rather to the Waffen-SS. During February, responsibility for the Ludendorff bridge was transferred from Wehrkreis VI to Wehrkreis XII. Late in February, the retreating German forces had instituted a number of command changes to try to stem the Allied advance, and the responsibility for the bridges was reallocated to the army, although the Wehrkreis officers tried to retain their command authority. The anti-aircraft units around the bridges reported not to the army, the Wehrkreis or the Waffen-SS, but to the Luftwaffe.
On 1 March, during the 'Grenade' operation, General Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzerarmee and von Zangen’s 15th Army exchanged zones and responsibility for the bridges. Generalleutnant Walter Botsch, commanding the LIII Corps, was assigned to defend the area of Bonn and Remagen area. Botsch visited the Rhineland on an inspection, and on 5 March discovered the fact that the Ludendorff bridge was defended by only 36 men, most of them convalescents recovering from injuries, along with a few engineers and anti-aircraft gun crews. Botsch promised Hauptmann Willi Bratge, the combat commander for the bridge, that he would send a battalion of men to help defend the bridge, but his request was turned down. He also requested but was denied labourers, additional explosives, radios and signalling equipment. He was promised a heavy anti-aircraft battalion, but no such unit ever arrived.
By 6 March, Major General John W. Leonard’s US 9th Armored Division was just 8.75 miles (14 km) from the Rhine river. On the same day, Botsch was transferred so swiftly that he had no time to brief his replacement, Generalmajor Richard von Bothmer. The new commander was unable to visit Remagen as his focus was fixed on the defence of Bonn, so he sent a liaison officer to Remagen during the evening of 6 March, but this officer was caught in the rapid US advance and captured when he accidentally entered the US lines. When retreating Germans informed him on the evening of 6 March that US forces were nearing Remagen, Bratge tried to contact Botsch, unaware that he had been reassigned.
Adolf Hitler had issued orders that the 'Siegfried-Linie' ('Westwall') was to be held regardless of cost. The rapid Allied penetration of the border fortifications had disrupted the Germans' communications, command structure and whole defence of the Rhiner river’s western bank. It would have been logical to fall back to the great river’s eastern side and regroup, but Hitler totally refused to consider retreat and irrationally demanded that the army retake the territory it had lost. Units that were threatened with the possibility of being overrun or surrounded could not fall back to a more defensible position. To protect themselves from Hitler’s wrath, a court-martial and a firing squad, commanders falsified reports to cover actual losses and, in order shift the blame to someone else, issued orders that could not realistically be fulfilled. The German troops, thoroughly demoralised and disorganised by the drubbing they had been receiving, could not ever hold the area they currently occupied, much less retake lost ground. As a result, the US forces advanced ever more rapidly towards the Rhine river. An unintended result was that German forces paid still less attention to the Rhine river bridges.
On 6 March, Edwin Graf von Rothkirch und Trach, commanding the LIII Corps with responsibility for the Remagen area, wandered into the US lines and was taken prisoner. In the midst of this confusion, General Otto Hitzfeld, the new commanding officer of the LXVII Corps, was told at 01.00 on 7 March that he was now responsible for defending the Ludendorff bridge, and dispatched his adjutant, Major Hans Scheller, to assume local command at Remagen. Scheller left at 03.00 with an eight-man radio team, but during his 40-mile (65-km) journey had to bypass US armour and ran short of fuel, which forced another detour to find fuel. The radio unit became separated, and Scheller reached Remagen only at 11.15., less than two hours before the Americans. Bratge was initially relieved when Scheller announced he was assuming command, but then learned that Scheller had not brought the battalion of reinforcements that Botsch had promised to send.
During 6 March, Luftwaffe anti-aircraft guns of General Wolfgang Pickert’s III Flakkorps on the 590-ft (180-m) high summit of Erpeler Ley, overlooking the Ludendorff bridge, had been ordered to aid in the defence of Koblenz. The corps' replacement unit was not motorised and was therefore placed on the outskirts of Remagen. As the US forces advanced toward the Rhine river on the night of 6/7 March, 14 men from the anti-aircraft gun crews deserted. Bratge learned about the replacement unit’s presence only on 7 March when he saw what was left of the unit manhandling its guns across the bridge. Aware of the impending US arrival, he angrily ordered the units' Luftwaffe commander to get the weapons moved to the top of Erpeler Ley as quickly as possible, but these were not yet in position at 14.00 as the leading US force arrived.
Bratge had under his command a mere 36 convalescing soldiers, some of whom could not even fire a weapon. The bridge was also defended by an engineer company of 125 men commanded by Hauptmann Karl Friesenhahn, 180 Hitlerjugend, a Luftwaffe anti-aircraft unit of 200 men, 20 men of the 3./Flak Lehrungs Versuchs Abteilung 900 (o) (3rd Anti-Aircraft Training and Testing Division) rocket battery, 120 'Hiwis' (eastern 'volunteers'), and about 500 Volkssturm, giving him a total of some 1,000 troops. Most of these were both poorly trained and ill-equipped.
On 6 March, the last 800 men of troops of Generalmajor Wilhelm Viebig’s 277th Volksgrenadierdivision crossed the bridge from the west, and in the morning of 7 March German engineers laid wooden planking on the bridge to allow vehicles to cross. Bratge attempted to persuade the soldiers crossing the bridge to stay and defend it, but most were leaderless stragglers and their only concern was to cross the river.
German defensive doctrine called for the positioning of the available force’s main strength on the front, leaving smaller part to reinforce rear areas.
On the afternoon of 7 March, Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Engemann led Task Force 'Engemann' toward Remagen, a small village of about 5,000 persons. Part of the division’s Combat Command B, the task force comprised C Troop of the 89th Reconnaissance Squadron with M8 light armoured cars and M3 half-tracked vehicles, Company A of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion equipped with M3 half-tracks and commanded by Major Murray Deevers, one platoon of Company B, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion led by Lieutenant Hugh Mott, and three companies of the 14th Tank Battalion. This last comprised Lieutenant Karl H. Timmermann’s Company A, Lieutenant Jack Liedke’s Company B, and Lieutenant William E. McMaster’s Company C. The three tank companies of the 14th Tank Battalion each had three platoons: the 1st Platoon of Company A, led by Lieutenant John Grimball, had five of the new T26E3 Pershing heavy tanks, although only four were operational on 7 March; the other platoons each had five M4A3 Sherman medium tanks; and there was also a command unit of three more Sherman tanks. The task force had been ordered to capture Remagen, and then continue to the south to link with Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army, but had not been given any specific order apropos the Ludendorff bridge.
At 12.56, scouts of 89th Reconnaissance Squadron arrived on a hill on the northern side of Remagen overlooking the village, and were astounded to see that the bridge had not been demolished. This was because the bridge was one of the three which had not yet been blown in advance of the Allied armies' advance. Timmermann and Grimball followed the scouts on the rise to see for themselves and radioed the surprising news to Engemann. Arriving on the rise, Engemann could see retreating German vehicles and forces in Remagen and all heading over the bridge, which was crowded with soldiers, civilians, vehicles and even livestock: earlier attacks by Allied warplanes had destroyed the vessels hitherto used for the ferrying civilians and workers across the river, and all now had to use the bridge.
Bratge was on the western approach to the bridge directing traffic. Timmermann called for proximity-fused artillery fire on the bridge to slow the German retreat, but the local artillery commander refused.
When Major Ben Cothran, the operations officer of Combat Command B, arrived and saw that the bridge was still standing, he radioed Brigadier General William M. Hoge, commander of Combat Command B, who joined the the party on the hill as soon as he could. Engemann was cautiously considering his options when Hoge ordered him to make an immediate advance into the village and seize the bridge as quickly as possible. It was only in the previous night that Timmermann had been promoted to command of Company A, and Engemann ordered him and his company of dismounted infantry into Remagen supported by Company A/14th Tank Battalion. Hoge had no intelligence on the number and size of German forces on the eastern bank, and appreciated that the standing bridge could be a trap. Hoge risked losing men if the Germans allowed US forces to cross before destroying, thereby isolating the US troops on the eastern bank, but the opportunity was too great to be ignored.
At 13.50 Company A of the 27the Armored Infantry Battalion set out for the town, and 30 minutes later Engemann led forward the 17 tanks of Company A, 14th Tank Battalion. The troops and tanks arrived at about the same time and advanced quickly through Remagen against little more than token resistance.
The Germans relied for local defence on Volkssturm, men conscripted close to their homes in the belief that they would defend their towns and villages. German defensive policy did not include plan for the defence of rear areas in depth. There were no anti-tank ditches or mines, barbed wire entanglements or trenches on the route to Remagen. The few defensive obstacles that had been created were too weak to halt tanks, or had been sited in open terrain, and the German roadblocks usually possessed plenty of room for vehicles to pass. The only defence that slowed the US forces was a machine gun above the town square, which two of the Pershing tanks quickly destroyed. Relatively unmolested, the Americans then arrived in strength at the western end of the bridge, and the tanks began covering the bridge and the eastern bank with main armament fire, destroying a locomotive attached to a string of freight wagons on the railway line running parallel to the river.
At about 15.00 US soldiers learned from a captured German soldier that the bridge was scheduled for destruction at 16.00, and Timmermann called for artillery to fire on Erpel with white phosphorus shells to create a smoke screen.
Soon after the US reached the ridge overlooking Remagen, German forces on the western bank near the village were alerted to the approach of US armour and raced back across the bridge. Bratge wanted to blow the bridge as early as possible to avoid its seizure, but had first to get written authorisation from Scheller, who had assumed command only at 11.15. By the time the US troops arrived, most of the Volkssturm elements had disappeared, leaving only the main German force on the eastern side of the river to oppose any US advance. Written permission was required because on 14/15 October 1944, a US bomb had struck the chamber containing the demolition charges on the Mulheim bridge in Köln, destroying the bridge before its planned German demolition. Hitler had been angered by this incident and ordered those 'responsible' to be court-martialled. He also ordered that demolition explosives should not be installed until the very last moment, when the Allies were known to be within 5 miles (8 km) of the bridge. Thus bridges were only to be demolished following an order in writing from the officer in charge, and only as a last resort and at the last possible moment. This order left officers responsible for destroying bridges nervous about the consequences of blowing any bridge too soon or failing to blow it at all.
When Scheller saw how poorly the bridge was defended, he tried to commandeer passing German troops including a vehicle carrying five men and a machine gun, but the driver escaped by gunning his vehicle across the bridge. Scheller decided that the bridge could not be defended and was ready to blow it when Leutnant Karl Peters pleaded for extra time to get his 3./Flak Lehrungs Versuchs Abteilung 900 (o) battery and its new and top-secret Henschel Hs 297 rocket-launcher system across the river. This 'Föhn' weapon could fire 24 high-velocity anti-aircraft rockets with a high-degree of accuracy, and Scheller could not allow his weapons to fall into Allied hands. Scheller appreciated that artillery was in short supply and delayed the blowing of the bridge.
Hauptmann Karl Friesenhahn was the technical or bridge commander and in charge of the demolition charges. Bratge had requested 1,323 lb (600 kg) of military explosives, but by 11.00 on 7 March had received only half of the amount he had requested and, worse, found he had been sent Donarit, a much weaker industrial explosive used in mining. With no other option, he placed all 661 lb (300 kg) on the bridge’s south-eastern pier. As the first elements of the US forces came close to the western approach, at 14.00 he detonated a charge under the stone archway that connected the approach embankment with the bridge, blasting a 29.5-ft (9-m) crater in the road bed, in the hope that this would slow the US tanks and infantry. Scheller and Bratge entered the railway tunnel where the electric switch controlling the detonators was located. Friesenhahn followed them, but before he could get to the tunnel, the concussion from an exploding shell knocked him unconscious. He recovered 15 minutes later and continued toward the tunnel. Bratge called to Friesenhahn to blow up the bridge, but the latter responded that they had to get a written order from Scheller, who was at the other end of the 370-yard (370-m) tunnel, which curved at almost 90° under Erpeler Ley. Bratge ran to find Scheller, got the order in writing, and when he returned to tell Friesenhahn to detonate the charges, Friesenhahn in turn required Bratge to give him the order in writing.
German machine gun crews in the towers guarding the bridge’s western approach fired on the advancing US troops. At 15.20, Friesenhahn made the last connections to the detonator and twisted the handle, but nothing happened. He tried again and all they heard was the sound of US shells hitting the area around them. Both Friesenhahn and Bratge knew the dire consequences to them personally and to the German defensive situation if they failed to destroy the bridge. Friesenhahn decided that the electrical circuit must have been broken by the shelling and sought volunteers to repair it, but machine gun and tank fire persuaded him there was insufficient time. One non-commissioned officer volunteered to leave the tunnel to manually light the primer cord to the explosives attached to the eastern pier, and ran some 90 yards (82 m) through small arms fire, exploding tank shells, smoke and haze to light the primer, and ran back to the tunnel.
At 15.50, 10 minutes before they believed the Germans were scheduled to blow the bridge up, the guns of Company A, 14th Tank Battalion, drove the German defenders from the bridge’s road surface and the stone piers of the bridge. In addition, the tanks engaged the Flak guns on the eastern bank which were opposing the crossing. Timmermann led an small team of men from the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion onto the western end of the bridge despite the risk that the bridge could be destroyed with them on it. Just as the Americans approached, Faust set off the secondary explosives, and both the Germans and the Americans watched what was happening. As the smoke and haze clear from the explosion, both sides were shocked to see that the bridge was still standing. Only the charge on the south-eastern pier, two-thirds of the way across the river, had exploded, but the weak industrial explosive had failed to drop the well-built steel bridge. The explosion had blown large holes in the planking over the railway lines, twisted some of the steel supporting girders, and cut a 29.4-ft )9-m) gap in the truss supporting the bridge’s southern side. Timmermann saw running Germans and assumed they were preparing a second detonation. Men of the first platoon gained control of the two bridge towers on the western bank and captured two German machine gun crews. They then used the towers to provide covering fire for the troops US crossing the bridge.
Timmermann deployed half of his men to the southern side, where German machine gun fire from the stone tower on the far end was most intense to provide covering fire. He ordered the other half of his men to remove the demolition charges from the western half of the bridge. Sergeant Michael Chinchar led an infantry platoon down the catwalk on the left-hand side of the bridge, dodging from one bridge pillar to the next. Timmermann was now, and somewhat unexpectedly, joined by a three-man detachment from the 9th Armored Engineer Battalion led by Lieutenant Hugh Mott, accompanied by Sergeant Eugene Dorland and Sergeant John Reynolds, who climbed under the bridge and began cutting the wires leading to the remaining demolition charges.
Once on the bridge, the US infantrymen came under fire from snipers on a partially submerged boat on the eastern bank and 7.92-mm (0.312-in) MG42 machine gun fire from the bridge’s eastern towers, as well as from houses in Erpel. A 14th Tank Battalion Sherman tank destroyed the boat, and all of the tanks shelled the opposite side of the river with the infantry covering the bridge and eastern side with machine gun fire, enabling ground troops to get on the bridge. The tanks successfully provided fire support to the infantry and suppressed fire from the German positions. The US troops dodged German machine gun and small arms fire on top of and under the bridge, moving from bridge girder to girder, cutting demolition wires and tossing explosive charges into the river. As they crossed the bridge, the US forces found that the catwalk near the eastern pier on the upstream side of the bridge was gone.
Traffic was still moving across the bridge, and on the eastern bank locomotives puffed, awaiting orders to pull out.
A squad of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion secured the eastern side of the bridge by running through the settling dust and smoke, and reached the eastern bank in less than 15 minutes.
Bratge tried to organise a counterattack, but the fire of the US tanks stopped him. Bratge looked for Scheller, but the latter had already escaped out of the far end of the tunnel. Inside the tunnel, Bratge tried to gather all available men and organise an escape toward Osberg, from which they could counterattack, but was surprised to find the Americans had already gained control of both tunnel entrances. The Americans fired machine guns and threw hand grenades into the tunnel, killing a boy and wounding several civilians, who begged Bratge to tell the Americans to stop firing, and then on their own fashioned a white flag and surrendered. The remaining sappers and convalescing troops followed them out, and Friesenhahn and Bratge were the last two captured within the tunnel.
Mott and his two sergeants found about 350 lb (160 kg) of unexploded charges on top of one of the piers, and discovered that one of the steel pipes containing the wires connecting to the main charge had been severed, possibly by artillery fire. Combat engineers also found a 510-lb (230-kg) TNT charge had not exploded when its blasting cap failed. The Americans later undertook an intensive search for additional demolitions and found another 1,400 lb (640 kg) in wells inside the piers.
Major General John Millikin, commanding officer of III Corps, had previously ordered Leonard to direct Combat Command A to move to the south on the western bank of the Rhine river, across the Ahr river, and link with the 3rd Army. Hoge did not have orders to cross or capture the bridge, but he decided to disobey his orders and reroute those forces across the bridge to reinforce the bridgehead instead. With some forces already on the bridge, Hoge received new orders to stop what he was doing and move his unit southward to Koblenz. Hoge waited for a platoon to reach the far bank, hoping the bridge would stand, and then called Leonard to tell him that the bridge had been captured. If his gamble had failed, Hoge would have been at risk of court-martial.
Colonel Harry Johnson, Leonard’s chief-of-staff, passed this information up the chain of command to Colonel James H. Phillips, the III Corps' chief-of-staff at about 17.00. Milliken ordered that the 47th Infantry be loaded into trucks and dispatched to Remagen as soon as possible. Millikin attached the 7th Armored Division to the III Corps so it could relieve the 9th Division, which was already crossing the Rhine river, and also ordered the 2nd Division to relieve the 78th Division so it too could cross the Rhine river and defend the bridgehead. Hodges confirmed Millikin’s decision to continue the enlargement of the bridgehead. Hodges relayed the news to the headquarters of Bradley’s 12th Army Group at 20.15. Colonel Harold R. Bull, an assistant chief-of-staff at SHAEF headquarters, was at Bradley’s headquarters when they learned that the bridge had been taken, and was sceptical of any plans to exploit the Remagen crossing, and told Bradley 'You’re not going anywhere down there at Remagen. You’ve got a bridge, but it’s in the wrong place. It just doesn’t fit in with the plan.' Bradley replied 'What the hell do you want us to do, pull back and blow it up?'
Bradley contacted Eisenhower at his forward headquarters in Reims in France, where Eisenhower was dining with several airborne commanders, and the Allied supreme commander told his guests, 'That was Brad. He’s got a bridge across the Rhine. And he apologized for it, said it was badly located at Remagen.' Eisenhower told Bradley to redirect five divisions to Remagen since they were no longer Köln, which had already surrendered. Eisenhower then tactfully called Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, commander-in-chief of the 21st Army Group, to relay the news, which affected Montgomery’s 'Plunder' operation.
Orders now reached Hoge to seize the bridge, and by dusk the combat engineers had partially filled the crater in the approach ramp with a tank dozer and then, after the fall of night, began hasty repairs of the bridge. Until 00.00 on 7/8 March, the eastern bank was secured by only about 120 men of Company A, 27th Armored Infantry Battalion and 1st Platoon, Company B, 9th Armored Infantry Battalion. If the Germans had launched an effective counterattack against this small force, they might have prevented the US forces from establishing the bridgehead.
After the bridge’s capture, engineers and technical staff of the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion and specialised welders and steel workers of 1058th Bridge Construction and Repair Group immediately started work to repair battle damage, fill holes in the deck, and reinforce the bridge. At 04.30 on 8 March, the 1/310th Infantry pf the 78th Division crossed the Ludendorff bridge, followed in the next two days by the rest of the division. The 78th Division was joined by the 79th and 99th Division.
The commander of the 7th Armored Division, Major General Robert W. Hasbrouck, was ordered to implement an immediate movement of a combat command, reinforced by an infantry battalion, to an area near Remagen where it would relieve the 60th Infantry of the 9th Division. The 310th Infantry of the 78th Division was the first unit to follow the 9th Armored Division across the Rhine. To ensure effective command, Milliken decided initially to attach all units as they crossed the river to there 9th Armored Division’s Combat Command B, and Hoge was soon in effective command of all or a portion of the 9th, 27th and the 78th Divisions.
The III Corps had previously attached a treadway bridge company to the 9th Armored Division’s column, but the division needed greater bridge-building capability, and in the course of the next two days the 1st Army collected three heavy pontoon battalions, in the form of the 51st and 291st Engineer Combat Battalions, two treadway companies, and one DUKW amphibious truck company, and assigned these to the III Corps with the task of building two tactical bridges across the Rhine river. The two small roads leading into Remagen from the west and south were soon choked by the arrival of hundreds of amphibious trucks, bridging equipment, anti-aircraft batteries, tanks, supply vehicles, trucks with trailers, and thousands of the troops who had been diverted to take advantage of the unexpected bridgehead. The 9th Military Police Company of the 9th Division was in charge of the flow of men and matériel across the bridge, and created a rigid traffic control and holding pattern.
At the time of the bridge’s seizure, US engineers were not certain that the bridge could support the weight of tanks, but were awarder that there were only about 120 troops on the eastern side and these needed immediate reinforcement. At about 00.00 on 7/8 March, the engineers opened the bridge to the passage of armour. At 12.15 am on 8 March, two platoons of nine Sherman tanks from Company A, 14th Tank Battalion, gingerly crept across the bridge in close formation, and on reaching the eastern bank moved into blocking positions to secure the bridgehead. Immediately behind the Shermans, an M10 tank destroyer of the 656th Tank Destroyer Battalion fell part way into the hole in the bridge decking. After initial consideration of pushing the tank destroyer into the river, the engineers decided that this might further damage the bridge, and then jacked up the tank so that at 05.30 got a tank from the eastern side to come back and pull the tank destroyer across the hole.
While the bridge was blocked to vehicles, the remaining men of Combat Command B crossed on foot. The eastern side of the bridge and Erpel was secured overnight by the nine Sherman tanks and the troops of Combat Command B. Even so, the US toehold on the eastern bank was tenuous as the Germans still maintained control of the heights overlooking the bridge and the area around the slim bridgehead.
The 1/310th Infantry crossed the bridge at 05.00, turned to the south and immediately ran into a strong German force which prevented further advance and left the Germans in position on the heights overlooking the bridgehead. Although the bridge was not well sited, as there was only a poor poor road network around it, by the evening of 8 March more than 8,000 men had crossed the bridge and the Americans had expanded their bridgehead to a depth of 1 mile (1.6 km) and width of 2 miles (3.2 km). On the morning of 9 March, the first ferry was ready for movement of men and vehicles across the river. During the days which followed, the US Army deployed anti-aircraft artillery of every description for the protection of the bridgehead. On the afternoon of 7 March, Captain Carlton G. Denton, in command of Battery D, squeezed his 482nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion to the head of Combat Command B: the battery had arrived in the bridgehead at 03.00 on 8 March. The III Corps called on all of battalion-sized automatic weapons units of each of its division, and Colonel James Madison, commander of the III Corps' 16th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Group, dispatched two batteries. Thus by 06.00 on 9 March there were five US anti-aircraft battalions available to cover the Remagen area: each battalion had four batteries of M3 half-tracks, each of them carrying one M45 weapon system of four 0.5-in (12.7-mm) heavy machine guns. During the day, the 109th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Gun Battalion was positioned on the western bank and the 634th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion occupied the eastern side. By noon, these had their radars and directors sited.
Fighters of the US Army Air Forces' 404th Fighter-Bomber Group and 359th Fighter Group maintained a strong defensive umbrella over the bridge to prevent German air attacks. The fighters also conducted numerous raids on German vehicles, armour, railway lines and marshalling yards in the area of Remagen, destroying trains, transports, tanks, supply trucks and reinforcements making for the bridgehead. On 14 March, they destroyed 21 aircraft, mostly single-engined Junkers Ju 87D 'Stuka' dive-bombers and twin-engined Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers, and damaged 21 more. On 15 March, they destroyed 256 motor transports and damaged 35 tanks and 12 other armoured vehicles.
On the evening of 9 March, the US bridgehead was strengthened by the arrival of the 309th Infantry, the remainder of the 310th Infantry, and the 60th Infantry. On 10 March, the 311th Infantry attacked to the north in the direction of Bad Honnef, while the 309th Infantry advanced to the north-west, encountering very strong resistance near Bruchhausen. The 47th Infantry moved to the east and encountered significant resistance, forcing a slight withdrawal, but assisted by the 310th Infantry, it again moved forward. To the south-east, the 60th Infantry advanced, and in the south, Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division moved forward to the south of Linz. The US forces encountered heavy resistance in places, and came under fire from small arms, self-propelled weapons, mortars and artillery. The balance of the 9th Division crossed the Rhine river during the evening of 10 March.
When the Ludendorff bridge was captured, Scheller tried but failed to contact his superiors by radio and telephone, so he set off on a bicycle, which was the only available means of transport, to report in person. He reached the headquarters of General Otto Hitzfeld’s LXVII Corps at about 00.00 on 7/8 March. Bratge, Friesenhahn and the other Germans inside the tunnel were captured by US troops who had climbed over to the far side of Erpeler Ley. As a result of their inability to communicate with other of their forces, the Germans in the immediate area were left to counterattack with whatever local forces they could gather. There were no reserves readily available, and most of the essential combat units in the area were still on the river’s western bank and seeking way to gain the eastern bank.
For most of the first day Model, commanding Heeresgruppe 'B', remained wholly unaware of the fact that the bridge had been captured. Like most of the German leadership in the area, he was on the move, in his case trying to save portions of Generalleutnant Hermann Flörke’s LXVI Corps and Hitzfeld’s LXVII Corps, which had been driven back against the Rhine river’s western bank, from Major General Hugh J. Gaffey’s 4th Armored Division above Andernach. On the night of 7/8 March, Model finally learned that the Allies had crossed the bridge and put General Joachim von Kortzfleisch, commander of Wehrkreis III, in command until von Zangen could extricate his [e[15th Army from the western bank of the Rhine. von Kortzfleisch managed to patch together a force of about 100 Luftwaffe anti-aircraft, Hitler Jugend, Volkssturm and police units, which attacked unsuccessfully through the night.
On the morning on 8 March, Major Herbert Strobel, in charge of the German engineers, received conflicting orders. Generalleutnant Richard Wirtz ordered him to continue ferrying operations to rescue German troops isolated on the western bank. Generalleutnant Kurt Freiherr von Berg, commander of the Division 'von Berg' ordered him to gather every man he could find and counterattack. Strobel opted for the latter and assembled his engineers, including those manning ferries, to attack in an attempt to demolish the bridge. Wirtz countermanded him and ordered the ferries back into operation. Strobel managed to assemble about 100 engineers and attacked early that morning. Some of the engineers carrying explosives reached the bridge but were immediately captured.
Nonetheless, the Germans were determined to destroy and thus trap the American units on the eastern bank. von Rothkirch und Trach, commanding officer of the LIII Corps, had been captured on 6 March, and on the following day his superior, General Hans Felber, commander of the 7th Army, appointed Generalmajor Fritz Bayerlein in his place. Bayerlein had led the Panzer-Lehr Division, which included in its number some of the best instructors from from Germany’s tank schools and had developed a reputation as the one of the most capable German armoured divisions, and himself possessed a reputation for promptness and efficiency. Model gave Bayerlein 24 hours to develop a plan, and gave Bayerlein command of Generalleutnant Wend von Wietersheim’s 11th Panzerdivision with 4,000 men, 25 tanks and 18 pieces of artillery, Oberst Helmut Zoolenk op’s 9th Panzerdivision (some 600 men, 15 tanks, and 12 pieces of artillery), the 106th Panzerbrigade (five tanks), and one regiment of the Panzer-Lehr Division. This last was a mere a shadow of its former self, and had only about 300 men and 15 tanks. However, the 11th Panzerdivision was 60 miles (95 km) to the north in Düsseldorf, fuel shortage made the movement of forces difficult, and the route to Remagen was jammed with traffic and subject to attack by AUS warplanes.
Bayerlein wished to wait for all of the units to arrive and only then to attack in force, but Model would not countenance this and reiterated that he was to counterattack immediately with whatever units he had on hand. On 9 March, the 67th Infanterieregiment tried to halt the US advance, but its attacks were too weak and piecemeal to generate success, and even after the 11th Panzerdivision arrived, its armoured units broke down frequently, making an effective defence still more difficult.
On the basis of 'Ultra' intelligence, the III Corps' intelligence officer believed that the Germans were assembling a large force to wipe out the bridgehead, but unrealised by the Allies, the units that the Germans ordered to push the Americans back were impressive only on paper. None of the sizeable German units defending the bridgehead were cohesive and many were severely understrength after their trials during the 'Wacht am Rhein' operation: in the 10/13 March period, the German forces comprised mostly the remnants of 11 divisions. Reinforcements included Generalmajor Wilhelm Söth’s 3rd Panzerdivision and about 200 men of Generalleutnant Theodor Tolsdorff’s 340th Volksgrenadierdivision, but these latter were largely untrained and comprised mostly inexperienced replacements garnered from the various Wehrkreis units up and down the Rhine river.
A telling illustration of the difficulty faced by the German armour’s movements to the front is the fact that it took 10 days to bring the first five Panzerjäger Tiger Ausf. B (Jagdtiger) heavy tank destroyers of the 2nd Kompanie of the 512th schwere Panzerjägerabteilung to reach the front as a result of communication breakdowns and the threat posed by fighter-bombers. The 1st Kompanie of the same battalion lost four Jagdtiger tank destroyers in rearguard actions and three to mechanical breakdowns. When they finally engaged the US armour in the area round Herborn, the Jagdtigers began to attack US tanks at long range and claimed to have destroyed 30 US tanks, but nonetheless made no significant tactical advantage.
Bayerlein could not muster the forces at his notional disposal into an effective counterattack. The Panzer-Lehr Division was comprised three replacement units, but their resources were much greater on paper than in reality: for example, the 653rd schwere Panzerjägerabteilung should have been able to deploy about 25 Jagdpanther tank destroyers, but could seldom get more than one-third of these into the field at any one time. Along with the 9th Panzerdivision and 11th Panzerdivision, they were tasked with stopping the Allies, but even so Model held back the 11th Panzerdivision on 10 March when the Panzer-Lehr Division did not arrive. When the 9th Panzerdivision and 11th Panzerdivision finally attacked the US 311th Infantry at Bad Honnef, some 4 miles (6.4 km) downstream of Remagen on 11 March, they were ineffective and consumed dwindling supplies of fuel to no useful effect.
On 13 March, Bayerlein planned to attack the US troops near Bruchhausen using three battalions totalling some 1,500 men against five US battalions in reserve with about 3,000 men.
On 8 March Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s chief of operations, informed Hitler that the Allies had captured the Ludendorff bridge intact. Hitler was extremely angry, and demanded that the bridge be destroyed at any cost. Over the next 10 days, the German high command tried nearly every weapon at its disposal to destroy the bridge. In an indication of the Germans' dire military straits, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring initially sought Luftwaffe volunteers from among the pilots of the jet-powered Messerschmitt Me 262A for suicide missions against the bridge, but the type’s bomb sight prevented the Me 262’s use in this way. To supplement the propeller-driven aircraft, Göring formed Oberstleutnant Robert Kowaleski’s Gefechtsverband 'Kowalewski', which included about 40 jet-powered Arado Ar 234B-2 bombers of the III/Kampfgeschwader 76. The bombers were escorted by about 30 Me 262A-2a fighter-bombers of the II/Kampfgeschwader 51 led by Oberstleutnant Hansgeorg Bätcher, a former commanding officer of the III/76, on their 7 March mission. This was the first time the Ar 234 had been used to attack a tactical target.When fully loaded with external bombs, the Ar 234 was able to reach a speed of 410 mph (660 km/h) or more, which was faster than almost all Allied aircraft except the latest Hawker Tempest V, and so fast that the US anti-aircraft units had trouble tracking them. In six days, the III/KG 76 flew nine missions against the bridges. While extremely fast for their time, the Ar 234 was not accurate in its bombing capability, and had no success with the standard 2,205-lb (1000-kg) bomb. The Germans lost seven jet-powered aircraft, including two shot down by Allied aircraft.
Oberst Lothar Heinemann’s 14th Fliegerdivision attacked the bridge with a variety of propeller-driven aircraft, including Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter-bombers, and even the obsolete Ju 87D dive-bomber. This last type was able to approach the bridge at higher altitude and dive at a very steep angle, and while accurate, the Ju 87 was slow. The Eifel hills around the river, rising to a height of some 1,510 ft (460 m), required the pilots to either dive on the bridge from higher altitude, avoiding the hills, or to fly at low altitude from up or down river. The heavy US anti-aircraft defences required the German pilots to take violent evasive action, reducing their accuracy. On 8 March, 10 Ju 87 aircraft of the Nachtschlachtgruppe 1 (Night Attack Group 1) attempted an attack but lost six of their number.
At 16.44 on the same day, eight Ju 87 dive-bombers and one Bf 109 fighter made a low-level attack straight up the river, and the US 482nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion shot down eight of the aircraft. Some 30 minutes later, eight more Ju 87 aircraft attacked, this time straight along the river at 2,950 ft (900 m), without evasive action, and the anti-aircraft fire of the 90-mm 3.54-in) guns of 413th AA Artillery Battalion brought down all of the aircraft. The intense and highly concentrated anti-aircraft fire repeatedly prevented the Germans from knocking out the bridge.
On 9 March the Germans sent 17 aircraft to attack the bridge, but their bombs missed, and the US forces reported that they had probably downed 13 of the aircraft. The aircraft also attacked the large numbers of vehicles and troops crowding the roads around the bridge, and here achieved some success. The Luftwaffe also made use of Major Adolf von Henier’s KG 200, a special-purpose unit which, among other tasks, was experienced in the operation of jet-powered aircraft and captured Allied machines. On 9 and 10 March, nine Fw 190G-1 fighter-bombers of the 11/KG 200 were dispatched from Twente to Frankfurt in order to operate against the bridge by night. They duly attacked, but scored no hits.
The Americans estimated that in the period between 7 and 17 March they shot down 109 warplanes, and probably destroyed 36 more, out of a total of 367 committed by the Germans.
Between 7 and 14 March, while under attack by 11 weakened German divisions, the five US divisions of the V and VII Corps took 11,200 German prisoners, and lost only 863 men of their own.
On 14 March Hitler ordered SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Hans Kammler, head of the German guided missile effort, to attack the bridge with V-2 ballistic missiles. The German general staff was astounded by the fact that Hitler had ordered the use of the inaccurate weapon on German soil, where the detonations of their warheads would probably kill German citizens and troops. On 17 March, the Batterie SS Abteilung 500 at Hellendoorn in the Netherlands, about 125 miles (200 km) to the north, fired 11 V-2 at the bridge in the weapon’s first, and indeed only, use against a tactical target and the sole occasion it was launched on a German target. The inaccurate missiles landed as far away as Köln, 40 miles (65 km) to the north. One missile struck the town of Oedingen, destroying a number of buildings, killing three US soldiers and a number of German residents, and wounding many others. One missile struck the command post of the 284th Combat Engineers in Remagen at 12.20, missing the bridge by about 890 ft (270 m), and those present stated that the impact and detonation felt like an earthquake. The blast damaged or destroyed buildings within a radius of 330 yards (300 m), killing three soldiers and wounding 30 more.
In another effort to destroy the bridge, the Germans floated a barge down the river carrying explosives, but US troops captured this. The Germans also floated mines down the river, but these too were intercepted by a series of log and net booms built upstream of the bridge by the 164th Engineer Combat Battalion. Hitler also summoned one of his favourite special operations commanders, SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, who arranged on 17 March to despatch a special naval demolitions squad using Italian underwater breathing apparatus to plant mines. Before the frogmen could set out, they learned that the bridge had collapsed, and Skorzeny ordered the seven SS frogmen instead to attack the pontoon bridge between Kripp and Linz. despite the very low temperature of the water. The US had by then advanced so far up the Rhine river that the swimmers had to enter the river 11 miles (17 km) upstream of Remagen, from where they floated downstream using empty oil drums for support. The frogmen was discovered by men of the 738th Tank Battalion using the top-secret, 13-million candlepower M3 Lee tank-mounted Canal Defence Light. This latter was a tank-mounted armoured searchlight, now being used for the first time in combat. Two of the German frogmen died of hypothermia, two were killed, and the other three were captured.
Of all the weapons used by the Germans in their efforts to destroy bridge, only artillery did much damage. The Germans had more than 100 pieces of artillery in the area around the bridge, including 50 105-mm (4.13-in) light howitzers, 50 150-mm (5.91-in) heavy howitzers and 12 210-mm (8.27-in) heavy howitzers. Targeting the bridge’s eastern approach was complicated by the steep slopes of Erpeler Ley close to the eastern shore, but the German artillery was able with little difficulty to hit the main and auxiliary bridges and the western bank and approaches. A German forward artillery observer had infiltrated Remagen, his services enhancing the artillery’s accuracy. On 8/9 March, the the artillery hit the bridge 24 times, and on 9 March struck an ammunition truck on the bridge, leaving a 15-ft (4.6-m) hole in the deck and rendering the bridge impassable for several hours. At 12.00 on 10 March, the artillery hit a petrol truck. For the next two days, the Americans diverted all petrol and ammunition convoys to ferries. The artillery fire killed troops, destroyed many buildings in Remagen and large numbers of vehicles, and rendered the task of the combat engineers very dangerous.
On 11 March, the Germans diverted Karl-Batterie 628, a two-gun section operating the 137-tonne Karl Haubitze 600-mm (23.62-in) super-heavy mortar toward Remagen. The weapon could fire a 4,780-lb (2170-kg) shell, but after arrival on 20 March was used with a lighter 2,760-lb (1250-kg) shell over a range of just more than 9,145 yards (10000 m), but after only 14 rounds, which missed all of the bridges and only damaged a handful of random houses, the weapon had to be removed for repairs.The Karl-Batterie 428 was also ordered toward Remagen on 11 March, but was then diverted to the 1st Army’s sector.
Bayerlein’s ground offensive was completely ineffective, and as a result the unhappy Model transferred all of the LIII Corps' armour to General Carl Püchler’s LXXIV Corps.
Early in 1945, Eisenhower had given Montgomery’s 21st Army Group the task of being the first Allied formation to cross the Rhine river with the object of the Ruhr industrial heartland so vital to the German war economy. Montgomery meticulously planned his 'Plunder' operation through February and into the early days of March with a start date of 23 March. Mindful of Montgomery’s plans, Eisenhower ordered Bradley to secure the Remagen bridgehead but to limit its expansion to an area that could be held by five divisions. On 9 March Bradley instructed Hodges to attack from the current Remagen bridgehead to a maximum width of 25 miles (40 km) and a depth of 10 miles (16 km). Bradley also told Hodges to limit the 1st Army’s advance to 1,000 yards (910 m) per day with the goal of limiting the US advance while preventing the German forces from consolidating their positions. The 9th Armored Division had captured a bridge and established a bridgehead with less than one battalion of men, and now it and the rest of the 1st Army were instructed to hold once they reached the Autobahn linking the Ruhr region and Frankfurt-asm-Main about 6.8 miles (11 km) from the bridge.
On the night of 10/11 March, the 394th Infantry of Major General Walter E. Lauer’s 99th Division was tasked to relieve Major General Louis A. Craig’s 9th Division on the eastern bank of the Rhine river after it had taken Linz-am-Rhein. The division was catted by truck convoy from Meckenheim, 13.5 miles (21.8 km) to the north-west, into Remagen along roads jammed with hundreds of jeeps, trucks, ambulances and armoured vehicles. Driving on both sides of the carriageway, the trucks crawled past tanks burning on the roadside and bodies everywhere. Trucks struck by artillery fire were merely pushed to the side with the dead still inside them. As the sun went down, the 394th Infantry emerged from the woods on the ridge overlooking the town and could see that the bridge was being shelled by artillery. The men walked the last 5 miles (8 km), and as they moved through Remagen, the streets were illuminated by burning buildings and vehicles, and German shells landed on the western bank of the Rhine river at the rate of one every 30 seconds during the night.
The 99th Division was the first complete division to cross the Rhine river, and when its regiments had crossed, they were returned to control of their commanding general. The division then pushed through to the Wied river and crossed it on 23 March, advancing to the east on the Autobahn linking Köln and Frankfurt-am-Main to Giessen.
Once the Ludendorff bridge had been seized, the Americans needed more bridges in case the structurally weakened Ludendorff bridge collapsed, and also to speed the crossing of more man and armour across the Rhine river for there consolidation and then the expansion of the bridgehead. At 15.00 on 8 March, US engineers began to build their first bridge, and to procure the necessary bridge-building supplies, the 1st Army’s 1111th Engineer Combat Group sent a man into Antwerp, where the supplies were despatched by train to the front. He surreptitiously marked all of the bridge materials, including those destined for the 3rd Army, for delivery to the 1st Army at Remagen.
While the bridges were being readied and built, use was made of a large fleet of riverine craft. Within the next few days, the 819th Amphibian Truck Company arrived with DUKW amphibious trucks: these were used to carry ammunition, petrol and rations across the river. The 86th Engineer Heavy Pontoon Battalion and the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion were assigned the task of building three pontoon ferries. The US Naval Unit 1 brought up 24 LCVP landing craft, which proved to be very useful as they could each carry 32 men across the river in seven minutes, faster than they could walk across the bridge. All of these constantly shuttled across the river, delivering men, vehicles and equipment to one side and then ferrying wounded to the other.
The Germans targeted the pontoon bridges as soon as the US troops began to construct them: directed by forward artillery observers positioned on the steep hills overlooking the river, the Germans steadily shelled the engineers, soldiers and vehicles on the bridges and the roads leading to them.
At 10.30 on 9 March Lieutenant Colonel David E. Pergrin’s 291st Engineer Combat Battalion began work on a Class 40 M2 steel treadway bridge about 440 yards (400 m) downriver of the bridge. The battalion was supported by the 988th and 998th Engineer Treadway Bridge Companies, and despite the fact that the crews and the bridges were repeatedly struck by artillery fire, suffering several direct hits that destroyed equipment and killed and wounded troops, work on he bridges was slowed rather than stopped. During one barrage, 17 engineers were killed or wounded and 19 pontoon floats were destroyed. On 10 March, a direct hit killed the executive officer of the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion and injured 19 others. On the same day, the Luftwaffe attacked the bridge for 6 hours 30 minutes. US anti-aircraft gunners claimed credit for shooting down about 28 of the 47 aircraft. When the engineers finished the 1,032-ft (315-m) heavy-duty bridge 32 hours later. at 05.10 on 11 March, it was the first Allied bridge across the Rhine river. A radio-equipped German forward artillery observer was captured in Remagen, and the rate of the German artillery fire decreased markedly over the next day.
Lieutenant Colonel Harvey Fraser’s 51st Engineer Combat Battalion built a 969-ft (295-m) Class 40 25 Ton reinforced heavy pontoon bridge 2 miles (3.2 km) upstream of the Ludendorff bridge between Kripp and Linz. Aided by the 181st and 552nd Engineer Heavy Pontoon Battalions, the 51st Engineer Combat Battalion started work at 16.00 on 10 March even before the eastern back had not yet been captured. German warplanes bombed and strafed the bridges as they were being constructed, killing three men and injuring two others. On 11 March, the 9th Armored Infantry Battalion captured Linz, and at 19.00 on 27 hours the engineers completed the second bridge, which was opened to traffic at 23.00 on the same night. The bridge was reinforced on the following day to carry heavier traffic. Once the second tactical bridge had been opened, the treadway and pontoon bridges were used for eastbound and westbound traffic respectively. Tracked vehicles were limited to a speed of 5 mph (8 km/h) and wheeled vehicles to 15 mph (24 km/h). One vehicle crossed every two minutes, and within seven days some 2,500 vehicles had used it to reach the eastern bank.
After the treadway and pontoon bridges had been opened to traffic, on 12 March the engineers closed the Ludendorff bridge for repairs. The bridge’s steel framework was more resistant to artillery and bombs and allowed it to carry heavier loads, sun as the M26 Pershing heavy tank, which made it worth the repair. By 14 March, the Americans had 16 gun batteries and 33 automatic weapon batteries, totalling 672 anti-aircraft weapons, deployed round the bridgehead: this was the largest concentration of anti-aircraft weapons during World War II. On 15 March, engineers saw that the Ludendorff bridge had sagged about 6 to 12 in (15 to 30 cm) and decided that extensive work would be needed to ready it for further use. Meanwhile, the pontoon ferries, DUKWs and LCVPs continued to supplement the two tactical bridges, and by 23 March, the LCVPs had carried 13,800 troops and 406 vehicles.
From the day of the Ludendorff bridge’s seizure to the middle of March, Milliken, the commander of the III Corps, had not visited the eastern bank of the Rhine river. Hodges and some of his staff had complained about the poor control of the US forces on both sides of the river and the lack of information on troop dispositions. Hodges also complained later that Milliken on several occasions disobeyed orders, these including a directive to drive his forces to the north along the eastern bank and open a crossing for Major General J. Lawton Collins’s VII Corps. Hodges also said that Millikin had failed to attach enough infantry support to the 9th Armored Division. Thus Hodges relieved Milliken on 17 March, 10 days after the bridge’s capture, and promoted Major General James Van Fleet to the command.
After months of air attacks, artillery hits, near misses and attempted demolition, the Ludendorff bridge collapsed about 15.00 on 17 March. By this time, more than 25,000 troops and thousands of vehicles of five divisions had crossed the bridge and the other two newly built tactical bridges to create a bridgehead between 6.1 and 9.3 miles (10 to 15 km) deep, and almost 25 miles (40 km) wide between Bonn in the north almost to Koblenz in the south. Engineers working on the bridge first heard a long bang, typical of steel snapping, and then the shrieking of broken metal as the bridge’s central portion suddenly collapsed into the Rhine river and the two end sections slumped off their piers. About 200 engineers and welders were working on the span when it fell. Seven men were killed, 23 were reported missing, and three died later from their injuries; 63 other men were injured.
Three hours after the bridge’s collapse, the 1st Army ordered the 148th Engineer Combat Battalion to build a Class 40 floating Bailey bridge at Remagen to help carry critical traffic across the Rhine river. A floating Bailey bridge typically replaced a treadway or pontoon bridges and required substantially more time to build. The battalion had expected to start building their bridge on 25 March, after the start of 'Plunder', but had been train ing for weeks and all of the materials were on hand. The 148th Engineer Combat Battalion was allocated extra help from Company C of the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion, and 60 men of the 501st Light Pontoon Company. At 17.30 on 18 March, Work began on the replacement of the heavy pontoon bridge downstream from the Ludendorff bridge, and the new 1,2580ft (383-m) structure was finished at 07.15 on 20 March, one day earlier than ordered.
Another tactical bridge was built by the 254th Engineer Combat Battalion on 22 March at a point 5.6 miles (9 km) upstream at Honningen with the aid of the 990th, 988th and 998th Treadway Bridge Companies and Detachment 1 of the 508th Engineer Light Pontoon Company. The new bridge was 1,370 ft (420 m) long, and thus the longest tactical bridge built in the 1st Army’s zone. US engineers built additional tactical bridges later in March at Bad Godesberg, Rolandseck, Rheinberg, Worms, Bonn, Wallach, Oppenheim, Mainz and other locations, and also built a two-way Bailey bridge on barges across the Rhine at Bonn.
When the US forces took the Ludendorff bridge, the Germans had been taken by complete surprise and had therefore been wholly unprepared to raise any significant defence. The bridge’s seizure also created an additional burden on the German defences and increased their confusion. The Germans had been expecting a major Allied build-up along the Rhine river before a thrust was made across the river, and the breakthrough at Remagen meant that the beleaguered German forces lost a much-needed chance to regroup in the region to the east of the Rhine river. By the time the bridge collapsed 10 days later, more than 25,000 Allied troops had crossed the Ludendorff bridge and three tactical bridges, and by the US bridgehead included a 6.8-mile (11-km) stretch of the Autobahn linking the Ruhr and Frankfurt-am-Main.
The Battle of Remagen had cost the Americans some 900 casualties and more than 30 tanks, while the Germans had lost an unknown number of men killed and wounded, and 19,000 men taken prisoner.
Although it was still planned that the Allies' next main effort would be that of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group in the north, where the army group of more than one million men faced Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s seriously weakened Heeresgruppe 'H' of just 85,000 men and 35 tanks, though the actual numbers were probably smaller, Eisenhower now came to believe that the momentum of the US forces in the south should not be wasted by having them merely hold the line at the Rhine river or make only limited diversionary attacks beyond it: in this sector the Americans faced Model’s Heeresgruppe 'B', which comprised 27 seriously weakened divisions in Generaloberst Josef Harpe’s 5th Panzerarmee (with only insignificant armoured strength), General Hans Felber’s 7th Army and von Zangen’s 15th Army, but many of its formations had been sent south to help contain the Remagen bridgehead, which eased the other crossings during 'Plunder' late in March. By the end of March Eisenhower was thus inclining toward the decision to give a more important role to his southern forces. On 19 March, therefore, Eisenhower ordered nine divisions of the 1st Army already across the river to be prepared to break out of the Remagen bridgehead any time after 22 March and move to link with Patton’s 3rd Army after it too had crossed the Rhine river. It was on this same day, in response to the 3rd Army’s magnificent performance in the Saar-Palatinate region and in order to have another strong force on the eastern bank of the Rhine to protect the southern flank of the 1st Army, Bradley authorised Patton to make an assault crossing of the Rhine river at the earliest possible moment.
This is what Patton had hoped, for he felt that if a force of sufficient strength could be thrown across the river and make a major advance, Eisenhower might transfer responsibility for the main drive through Germany from the 21st Army Group in the north to the 12th Army Group farther to the south. On 21 March Patton ordered Major General Manton S. Eddy’s (from a time late in March Major General S. LeRoy Irwin’s) XII Corps to prepare for an assault over the Rhine river on the following night, one day before the 21st Army Group’s 'Plunder' crossing. While this was certainly short notice, it did not catch the XII Corps completely unaware. As soon as Patton had received his orders of 19 March, he had started to organise the movement of assault boats, bridging equipment and other supplies forward from depots in Lorraine, where they had been stockpiled since the autumn of 1944 in the expectation of just such an opportunity.
The location of the assault was critical. Patton knew that the most obvious place was at Mainz or a point just to the north of this city. The choice was obvious because the Main river, flowing northward 30 miles (48 km) to the east of and parallel with the Rhine river, turns west and empties into the Rhine river at Mainz, so any advance in the area to the south of the city would involve the crossing of two rivers rather than just one. Patton also realised, however, that the Germans were aware of this difficulty and would expect his attack in the area to the north of Mainz. So he decided to feint at Mainz while making his real effort at Nierstein and Oppenheim, some 9 to 10 miles (14.5 to 16 km) to the south of the city. Following the XII Corps' primary assault, Major General Troy H. Middleton’s VIII Corps would execute supporting crossings at Boppard and St Goar, some 25 to 30 miles (40 to 48 km) to the north-west of Mainz.
The terrain in the area of Nierstein and Oppenheim was conducive to the provision of excellent artillery support, with high ground on the western bank overlooking relatively flat land to the east. However, the same flat eastern bank meant that the bridgehead would have to be reinforced and enlarged both rapidly and powerfully to extend beyond the river as there was no high ground on which to establish any kind of bridgehead defence. The importance of obtaining a deep bridgehead with great speed was increased by the fact that the first access to a good road network was more than 6 miles (10 km) farther to the east at the town of Grossgerau.
On 22 March, under a full moon, elements of the XII Corps' 5th Division, under the command of Major General Stafford Le R. Irwin, launched the 3rd Army’s Rhine river crossing. Patton was determined to get the 3rd Army across the river before the 21st Army Group had achieved its own crossings. Thus at 22.00 on 22 March, the night before the start of 'Plunder', Patton sent the 11th Infantry of Major General Stafford LeR. Irwin’s 5th Division quietly across the Rhine at Nierstein in DUKWs, landing craft and a tank ferry. By a time late in the afternoon of 23 March, engineers had completed a 40-ton treadway bridge, and the 3rd Army quickly established a bridgehead 6 miles (9.7 km) deep, and captured 19,000 German soldiers. At Nierstein the assault troops had encountered no resistance, but farther upstream at Oppenheim the crossing had not proceed so easily. The boats of the first wave were halfway across the river when the Germans began pouring machine gun fire into them. An intense exchange of fire lasted for about 30 minutes as assault boats kept pushing across the river and those men who had already made it across mounted attacks against the scattered defensive strongpoints. Finally the Germans surrendered, and by 24.00 US units moved out laterally to consolidate the crossing sites and to attack the first villages beyond the river. German resistance was sporadic everywhere, and the hastily mounted counterattacks invariably lost their momentum quickly, causing few casualties. The Germans lacked both the manpower and the heavy equipment to make a more determined defence.
By the middle of the afternoon of 23 March all three regiments of the 5th Division were in the bridgehead, and an attached regiment of Major General Lowell W. Rooks’s (later Major General Herbert L. Earnest’s) 90th Division was crossing. Tanks and tank destroyers had been ferried across all morning, and by evening a personnel bridge was open to traffic. By 24.00, infantry units had pushed the boundary of the bridgehead more than 5 miles (8 km) to the east, ensuring the unqualified success of this assault crossing of the Rhine river.
Two more 3rd Army crossings, both by the VIII Corps, quickly followed. In the early morning hours of 25 March elements of Major General Frank L. Culin’s 87th Division crossed the Rhine river to the north at Boppard, and about one day later elements of Major General Thomas D. Finley’s 89th Division crossed at a point 8 miles (13 km) to the south of Boppard at St Goar. Although the German defence at the sites of these two crossings was more determined than that that offered to the XII Corps, the difficulties of the Boppard and St Goar crossings were compounded more by terrain than by German resistance. The VIII Corps' crossing sites were located along the Rhine river gorge, where the river has carved a deep chasm between two mountain ranges, creating precipitous canyon with walls more than 300 ft (90 m) high on each side. In addition, the river flows quickly and with unpredictable currents along this part of its course. Still, despite the terrain and the fire of German machine guns and anti-aircraft cannon, the men of the VIII Corps managed to gain control of the eastern bank’s heights, and by dark on 26 March, with German resistance crumbling all along the Rhine river, were preparing to continue the drive on the morning of the next day.
Farther to the north, on 25 March the 1st Army erupted from its Remagen bridgehead and smashed General Carl Püchler’s LXXIV Corps of Generaloberst Josef Harpe’s 5th Panzerarmee within Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe 'B' in the area of Breitscheid. Hodges immediately unleashed Major General Maurice Rose’s (later Brigadier General Doyle O. Hickey’s) 3rd Armored Division, Major General Robert W. Hasbrouck’s 7th Armored Division and Major General John W. Leonard’s 9th Armored Division, which pushed forward to Giessen and Marburg, 53 and 66 miles (85 and 105 km) respectively from the Rhine river at Neuwied, by 28 March.
On the same day the VIII Corps, on the left of the 3rd Army, completed the mopping-up of Frankfurt-am-Main and made contact with the right wing of the 1st Army near Wiesbaden, so trapping sizeable German forces against the right bank of the Rhine rivers between the Lahn and Main rivers. Still more tellingly, though, Major General Hugh J. Gaffey’s 4th Armored Division, Major General Robert W. Grow’s 6th Armored Division and Brigadier General Charles S. Kilburn’s 11th Armored Division, advancing to the east ahead of the 3rd Army’s XII and XX Corps, swept forward from the valley of the Main river into the valley of the Fulda river as they headed for Kassel.
By 24 March, the 1st Army had sent three corps, six infantry divisions and three armoured divisions across the Rhine river against Heeresgruppe 'B''s strength of about 325,000 men.
In overall terms, the Allied break-outs ended any hope the Germans had possessed to reassert control of the area lying to the east of Remagen. After taking Limburg, the 9th Armored Division’s Combat Command B advanced 67 miles (108 km) in one day during the drive to the north, and Combat Command A advanced 68 miles (110 km) in 11 hours. On 29 March, all four US armies were across the Rhine river.
On 28 March, as these events unfolded, Eisenhower announced his decision to adjust his plans governing the future course of the offensive. Once the Ruhr had been surrounded by the 21st Army Group, in the form of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army and Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army, he wanted the 9th Army transferred from the 21st Army Group to the 12th Army Group. After the reduction of the Ruhr Pocket, containing the bulk of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe 'B', the main thrust to the east would be made by the 12th Army Group in the centre rather than by the 21st Army Group in the north as originally planned. The 21st and 6th Army Groups were to secure the northern and southern flanks of the 12th Army Group. Furthermore, the main objective of the Allied drive from the west was no longer to be Berlin but Leipzig on the Mulde river, where a juncture with the Soviet forces would split the remaining German forces in two. Once this had been achieved, the 21st Army Group would take Lübeck and Wismar on the Baltic Sea, cutting off the Germans remaining in the Jutland peninsula of Denmark, while the 6th Army Group and 3rd Army drove to the south-east into Austria.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the British Chiefs-of-Staff strongly opposed the new plan. Despite the fact that the Soviet forces were already close to Berlin, they argued that the city was still a political if not military objective of paramount importance. Supported by the US Joint Chiefs-of-Staff, Eisenhower disagreed. His overriding objective was the swiftest military victory possible. Should the US political leadership direct him to take Berlin, or if a situation arose in which it became militarily advisable to seize the German capital, Eisenhower would do so; otherwise he would pursue those objectives which would end the war soonest. In addition, since Berlin and the rest of Germany had already been divided into occupation zones by representatives of the Allied governments at the 'Argonaut' conference at Yalta, Eisenhower saw no political advantage in a race for Berlin. Any ground the Western Allies gained in the future Soviet zone would merely be handed over to the Soviets after the war. In the end the campaign proceeded as Eisenhower had planned it.
As this high-level argument was fought, the remaining Allied forces to the north, south, and east of the Ruhr had been adjusting their lines in preparation for the final advance through Germany. Under the new concept, the 12th Army Group would make the main effort, with the 1st Army in the centre heading to the east for about 130 miles (210 km) toward the city of Leipzig and the Elbe river. To the north, Major General Raymond S. McClain’s XIX Corps and Major General Alvan C. Gillem’s XIII Corps of the 9th Army would also drive for the Elbe river, toward Magdeburg, about 65 miles (105 km) to the north of Leipzig, although Simpson hoped that he would be permitted to drive all the way to Berlin. To the south, the 3rd Army was to drive to the east to Chemnitz, about 40 miles (64 km) to the south-east of Leipzig, but well short of the Elbe river, before turning to the south-east and thus into Austria. At the same time the 6th Army Group was to move south through Bavaria and the Schwarzwald into Austria and the Alps, ending the threat of any Nazi last-ditch stand there.
On 4 April, as it paused to allow the rest of the 12th Army Group to come into alignment with it, the 3rd Army made a ghastly discovery. When the 4th Armored Division and elements of the 89th Division captured the small town of Ohrdurf, a few miles to the south of Gotha, they found the first concentration camp to be taken by the Western Allies. The pause of 4 April in the advance of the 3rd Army advance made it possible for the other armies of the 12th Army Group to reach the Leine river, about 50 miles (80 km) to the east of Paderborn. Thus all three armies of the 12th Army Group were in a fairly even north/south line, enabling them to advance abreast of each other to the Elbe river. By 9 April, both the 9th Army and the 1st Army had seized bridgeheads over the Leine river, prompting Bradley to order an unrestricted advance to the east.
On the morning of 10 April, the 12th Army Group’s drive to the Elbe river began. Although this river was the official eastward objective, many US commanders still had their eyes on Berlin. By the evening of 11 April, elements of Major General Isaac D. White’s 2nd Armored Division of the 9th Army, seemingly intent on demonstrating the ease with which its army could take that coveted prize, had dashed 73 miles (117 km) to reach the Elbe river at a point to the south-east of Magdeburg, just 50 miles (80 km) short of the German capital. On 12 April other elements of the 9th Army also reached the Elbe river, and by the next day were on the opposite bank waiting, they hoped, for permission to drive to Berlin.
But two days later, on 15 April, these hopes had to be abandoned. Eisenhower sent Bradley his final word on the matter: the 9th Army was to halt. Simpson subsequently turned the attention of his troops to mopping up pockets of local resistance.
In the centre of the 12th Army Group, the 1st Army faced somewhat stiffer opposition, though this hardly slowed its progress. As its forces approached Leipzig, about 60 miles (97 km) to the south of Magdeburg and 15 miles (24 km) short of the Mulde river, the 1st Army encountered one of the few remaining centres of organised resistance. Here the Germans turned a thick defence belt of anti-aircraft guns against the US ground forces with devastating effect. Through a combination of flanking movements and night attacks, the 1st Army was nonetheless able to destroy or bypass the guns, moving finally into Leipzig, which formally surrendered on the morning of 20 April. By the end of the day the units which had taken Leipzig joined the rest of the 1st Army on the Mulde river, where it had been ordered to halt.
On the 12th Army Group’s southern flank, meanwhile, the 3rd Army had advanced apace, moving 30 miles (48 km) to the east and taking Erfurt and Weimar, and then, by 12 April, another 30 miles (48 km) to Jena.
On that day Eisenhower instructed Patton to halt his 3rd Army on line of the Mulde river, about 10 miles (16 km) short of its original objective, Chemnitz. The change resulted from an agreement between the US and Soviet military leadership based on the need to establish a readily identifiable geographical line to avoid accidental clashes between the converging Allied forces. But, as the 3rd Army began pulling up to the Mulde on 13 April, Eddy’s XII Corps, the 3rd Army’s most southerly formation, continued moving to the south-east, alongside the northern flank of the 6th Army Group, to clear southern Germany and move into Austria. After taking Coburg, about 50 miles (80 km) to the south of Erfurt, on 11 April, the XII Corps captured Bayreuth, 35 miles (56 km) farther to the south-east, on 14 April.
As was the case throughout the campaign, the German capability for effective combat was sporadic and unpredictable during the drive to the Elbe/Mulde river line. Some areas were stoutly defended while in others the Germans surrendered after little more than token resistance. By sending armoured spearheads around hotly contested areas, isolating them for reduction by subsequent waves of infantry, the US forces successfully maintained their momentum to the east. A German hold-out force of 70,000 troops in the Harz mountains, some 40 miles (64 km) to the north of Erfurt, was neutralised in this way, as were the towns of Erfurt, Jena and Leipzig.
Every formation and unit along the Elbe/Mulde river line was anxious to be the first to meet the Soviet forces. By the last week of April it was well known that the Soviets were close, and dozens of US patrols were probing beyond the eastern bank of the Mulde river in the hope of establishing contact with them. It was an element of Major General Clarence L. Huebner’s V Corps of the 1st Army which made the first contact: at 11.30 on 25 April a small patrol of Major General Emile F. Reinhardt’s 69th Division met a lone Soviet cavalryman in the village of Leckwitz. Several other patrols of the 69th Division had similar encounters later in the same day, and on 26 April Reinhardt met General Major Vladimir V. Rusakov, the commander of the 58th Guards Division, at Torgau in the first official link-up ceremony.
Thus, after a nearly flawless thrust through the middle of Germany, the 12th Army Group had succeeded in splitting the German forces in the west.