Crossing the Rhine

Posted on Friday 7th March 2014


Field Marshal Montgomery had been studying the problem of crossing the Rhine, Germany’s last strategic barrier, ever since the failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944. With the Allies having closed up to the river in March 1945, there was to be no single thrust across the great river but a series of attempts to cross, on a broad front, before launching the final offensive from the resulting bridgeheads into the heart of Germany. Codenamed Operation Plunder, crossing the Rhine marked the beginning of the end for Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s troops.
During the first week of March the Allies were chasing the retreating German Armies towards the Rhine and despite Hitler’s order to hold every inch of German soil, thousands of men were forced to retreat and seek safety beyond the Rhine. Engineers had ample time to prepare the bridges along the river for demolition and on several occasions American and British troops saw huge structures collapse in clouds of smoke and dust as they approached. In spite of the chaotic nature of the retreat, it appeared the German engineers were organised; that is until the afternoon of 7 March.
On First Army’s front 9th Armoured Division was pushing towards the Rhine hoping to trap parts of Fifteenth Army as it fell back in disorder between Bonn and Koblenz. On 7 March one of Combat Command B’s armoured task forces, based around 27th Armoured Infantry Battalion and elements of the 14th Tank Battalion, was closing on Remagen and although a huge rail bridge crossed the river in the town, few expected it to be standing by the time American troops arrived.
The rapid retreat had created confusion in the German command and plans to defend Remagen had failed to materialise, leaving only a few dozen men to protect the engineers as they prepared the Ludendorff Bridge for demolition. With no one to stop them, the American Task Force advanced through the town and as Company A’s commander, Lieutenant Karl Timmerman, gave the order to cross the railway bridge, on the opposite bank Hauptmann Friesenhahn threw the switch controlling the primary circuit. Nothing happened. Either shrapnel or sabotage had damaged the wiring but as the GIs prepared to cross, Friesenhahn fired the secondary charges. This time there was an explosion but only half the charges had detonated and although the bridge had been seriously damaged there was still a route across.

crossing the bridge
As the noise of the explosion echoed around the valley, Lieutenant Timmermann called out, ‘as you were, we can’t cross the bridge now because it has just been blown’. Yet as the smoke cleared Company A were astonished to see that the bridge was still standing. The charges had sheared a number of girders supporting the upstream truss above the far pier. They had also destroyed a large section of timber decking, leaving a gaping hole in the floor of the bridge two-thirds the way across the river.
As the clouds of dust cleared Lieutenant Timmermann could see that his men could still cross with care and called out, ‘we'll cross the bridge – order of march 1st Platoon, 3rd Platoon and 2nd Platoon’. He intended to have his only remaining officer, Lieutenant Burrows, cross at the rear of the column. As the company prepared to move out, Colonel Engeman had taken steps to cover their advance with smoke. The tank destroyers and 105mm assault guns attached to his task force were lined up on the hill above Apollinaris Church and began firing white phosphorous shells. 27th Armored Infantry Battalion’s mortar platoon joined in, creating an acrid screen of smoke that drifted across the valley.
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The bridge was still intact.

As 1st Platoon filed up the approach ramp, Sergeant Anthony Samele turned to his platoon leader, Sergeant Michael Chinchar, and gave a few words of encouragement: ‘C'mon, Mike, we’ll just walk it over.’ Chinchar set off half running, half crouching, onto the viaduct followed by Private Art Massie and an officer of the 9th Armored Engineer Battalion, Lieutenant Mott. Samele came close behind and he may have heard Major Deevers’ jest; ‘I'll see you on the other side and we’ll all have chicken dinner.’
As 1st Platoon made their way onto the bridge, 3rd Platoon, led by Sergeant Joe DeLisio, gave covering fire while the Germans on the far bank returned fire. When Sergeant Chinchar reached the first pair of bridge towers he ordered Private Massie to lead some of the platoon onto the bridge. ‘Massie, you leapfrog me up as far as that blown hole.’ Massie’s replied, ‘I don't want to go but I will’. The rest of Chinchar's men entered the towers to make sure they were clear of German soldiers. As the GIs ducked and weaved along the timber walkway, bullets and shells ricocheted of the bridge girders:
Sniper fire rattled around the bridge, along with some 20mm fire from the high ground on the south bank near Remagen, also a few rounds of high velocity fire hit the superstructure of the bridge.
Although the first two towers on the west bank were unoccupied, the matching towers on the opposite bank were obviously manned. Machine guns stationed in the upper storey windows were firing furiously sending streams of bullets over the heads of Timmermann's men as they filed across the centre span. The crackle of fire coming from the enemy-held bank sounded impressive, but Company A suffered no casualties. The Germans in the towers were finding it difficult to find targets through the lattice of bridge girders.
At the same time as Chinchar's men made there way past the hole in the decking above the second pier, Lieutenant Mott and his two assistants had begun to search for the detonation wiring. They hoped to cut it in case the Germans somehow still had the means to blow the bridge. Lieutenant Mott soon found the metal tubing carrying the cable for the primary charges and placed the muzzle of his gun against the pipe. He fired three shots, blasting open the conduit and severing the cable, thus rendering the circuitry useless.

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The damaged decking reduced traffic across the bridge to single file.

As Timmermann's men made their way towards the far bank some wondered if the Germans had machine guns waiting in railway tunnel ahead. If they had opened fire at the last minute, Company A would be decimated. Major Deevers later commented how he ‘was worried more than anything else about guns in that tunnel’.
As Sergeant DeLisio’s platoon made their way past the hole in the decking, anyone who cared to look down would have seen the swirling waters of the Rhine ten metres below. Firing as they ran, 1st Platoon began to get ever closer to the towers on the far bank. Despite the fact that just about every German unit in the vicinity was firing everything they had at the bridge, so far only one man had been slightly wounded:
A small amount of artillery was coming in [maybe it was mortar fire], along with sniper fire, and some anti-aircraft fire, from the south side along the high ground on the near bank.
At last Sergeant DeLisio reached the foot of the right hand tower and smashed his way through the door. The office beyond was empty. As he climbed the spiral staircase, gun at the ready, he could hear the sound of automatic fire coming from above. Moments later the gunfire stopped and as DeLisio burst into the next room he was confronted by three German soldiers huddled over their weapon. A couple of warning shots encouraged the gun crew to put their hands up. Motioning the crew away from the weapon he tipped it out of the window. He asked as best he could about any others in the tower. They assured him that they were the only men in the building, however, DeLisio decided to check out the top floor. Sending his captives ahead of him up the stairs he followed close behind. On the next floor he discovered a further two Germans, an officer and his orderly. A warning shot encouraged their surrender.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Chinchar led two men into the left hand tower. Here they captured a solitary German who had been manning a machine gun at an upper storey window. After tossing the weapon to the ground below, Chinchar shouted down to his men, giving them the all clear.
While the lead men had been tackling the towers others continued to run across towards the east bank:
Sergeant Alex Drabik came up and barrelled across the bridge to win the honour of being the first man across, although no one was thinking of that at the time. Just as he got across, Sgt Drabik stumbled and fell and lost his helmet, which Brigadier General William C Hoge later picked up.
As US troops poured across the river, the German High Command struggled to recover from shock, sending reinforcements to try to eliminate the tiny bridgehead. Hitler was furious and reacted with typical vengeance, sacking Feldmarschall Gerd von Runstedt and several other senior officers connected with the fiasco. He also approved the execution of four junior officers; a fifth officer held by the Americans was condemned to death in his absence. As the Germans looked for scapegoats, First US Army took steps to expand its bridgehead, sending every available man towards Remagen while engineers built pontoon bridges to relieve the bottleneck; the race to expand the hold on the east bank of the Rhine was on.
Von Rundstedt’s replacement, Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, set about trying to contain the Americans in the Westerwald, a series of wooded hills and ravines east of Remagen, while the Luftwaffe tried in vain to destroy the bridges. One reserve deployed against the Remagen bridgehead was the 11th Panzer Division, a significant move in more ways than one. The Panzer Division would have been ideally placed to counter-attack 21 Army Group’s planned bridgehead at Wesel; the capture of the bridge at Remagen had indirectly increased Montgomery’s future chances of securing a bridgehead in the north.
After the Germans had bombed, shelled and finally fired V2 rockets at Remagen, the Ludendorff Bridge toppled into the Rhine on 17 March. The collapse was not a direct result of enemy action but the culmination of heavy traffic, engineering works and near misses had seriously weakened the damaged structure. The loss of the bridge made little difference. Several pontoon bridges had been built and they were more than capable
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The view across the Rhine on 17 March 1945, the day the bridge collapsed.

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Field Marshall Montgomery.

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Lieutenant Karl Timmermann.

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Historic message covering the crossing of the bridge.

'We have a bridge intact across river at Check Point 15 Shall I continue to hold this bridgehead in view of new message south we have one company across.'

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Sergeant Alex Drabnik - the first man across the Rhine.
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Feldmarschall Gerd von Runstedt was sacked.

Further Reading


The Rhine Crossing
(Paperback)
ISBN: 9781844152322

by Andrew Rawson
Only £12.99

By Spring 1945, with the Russians closing fast on Berlin from the East, the US and British Armies of Patton and Montgomery were faced with one major hurdle, the Rhine. Heavily defended by the Nazis, this obstacle would only be crossed by a massive operation requiring meticulous planning and bold execution.The resulting operation involving 29 divisions was outstandingly successful. This book follows the river crossings by 30th and 79th US Divisions, codenamed Operation FLASHPOINT and the airdrop by 17th US Airborne Division (VARSITY). While covering quite different sectors, this book…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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