A Rhine Bridge at Remagen
Fortuitous events have a way sometimes of altering the most meticulous of plans. That was what happened as the Allied armies neared the Rhine.
In seeking at the end of January to allay British concern about the future course of Allied strategy, the Supreme Commander had assured the British Chiefs of Staff that a Rhine crossing in the north would not have to be delayed until the entire region west of the river was free of Germans.1 Field Marshal Montgomery's 21 Army Group, General Eisenhower reiterated in a letter to senior commanders on 20 February, was to launch a massive thrust across the Rhine north of the Ruhr even as the 6th and 12th Army Groups completed their operations to clear the west bank. Those two army groups were to make secondary thrusts across the Rhine later.2
While designating the area north of the Ruhr and the Frankfurt-Kassel corridor as the two main avenues of advance deep into Germany, Eisenhower left open the choice of specific Rhine crossing sites to his army group commanders. With an eye toward the Frankfurt-Kassel corridor, the 12th Army Group's planning staff in turn noted, in what eventually was to be the First Army's zone, two acceptable crossing sites. Both were at points where the Rhine valley is relatively broad; one in the north, between Cologne and Bonn, the other between Andernach and Koblenz. From either site access would be fairly rapid to the Ruhr-Frankfurt autobahn and thence to the Lahn River valley leading into the Frankfurt-Kassel corridor.
Both had drawbacks, for both led into the wooded hills and sharply compartmented terrain of a region known as the Westerwald; but both avoided the worst of that region. The most objectionable crossing sites of all were in the vicinity of Remagen; there the Westerwald is at its most rugged, the roadnet is severely limited, and the Rhine flows less through a valley than a gorge.3
As the First Army neared the Rhine, General Bradley, the army group commander, like Patton of the Third Army, was looking less toward an immediate Rhine crossing than toward the Third Army's drive south to clear the Saar-Palatinate. The role of Hodges' First Army in the coming operation was to defend the line of the Rhine and mop up pockets of resistance. Hodges also was to be prepared to extend his units to the southernmost of the two acceptable
crossing sites, that between Andernach and Koblenz.4
The Germans at Remagen
With Allied troops approaching the Rhine, the order and efficiency normally associated with things German had become submerged in a maelstrom of confused and contradictory command channels. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the railroad bridge on the southern fringe of Remagen. There a small miscellany of troops was operating under a variety of commands. An army officer, Capt. Willi Bratge, was the so-called combat commander of the entire Remagen area, ostensibly with the power of over-all command but only in event of emergency. Capt. Karl Friesenhahn, an engineer officer, was the technical or bridge commander. An antiaircraft officer, responsible to neither, commanded antiaircraft troops in the vicinity. Men of the Volkssturm were under Nazi party officials. Furthermore--though no one at Remagen yet knew it--another officer, a major, was destined soon to come to the town to supersede Bratge's command.5
This confusion and contradiction was repeated at almost every level of command all along the Rhine front. Much of it was attributable to the fact that prior to March, responsibility for protecting the Rhine bridges had rested entirely with the Wehrkreise (military districts). Troops of the Wehrkreise were responsible not to any army command but to the military arm of the Nazi party, the Waffen-SS, and jealous rivalry between the two services was more the rule than the exception. As the fighting front in early March fell back from Roer to Rhine, responsibility was supposed to pass from Wehrkreis to army group and army, but in practice Wehrkreis commanders jealously held on to their command prerogatives. Furthermore, antiaircraft troops answered neither to army headquarters nor Waffen-SS but instead to the Luftwaffe; and within the Army itself the Field Army (Feldheer) vied for authority with the Replacement Army (Ersatzheer).
To complicate matters further, a number of recent command changes had had an inevitable effect. On 1 February, Wehrkreis VI had relinquished authority for Remagen to Wehrkreis XII. Then, on 1 March, came the shift that took place at the height of Operation GRENADE, exchange of zones between the Fifth Panzer and Fifteenth Armies. A few days later, as German troops fell back from the Roer, General Puechler's LXXIV Corps, gravitating on Bonn, might have been expected to command any bridgehead retained in the vicinity of Bonn and Remagen; but instead, Field Marshal Model at Army Group B set up a separate command, the one under General Botsch, commander of a badly depleted volks grenadier division. Botsch was to be responsible directly to Zangen's Fifteenth Army.
As General Botsch tried to appraise the
situation, he ran head on into the differing views of his two superiors, Zangen and Model, as to the course the Americans presumably would follow--Model with his belief that the main thrust would be made on Bonn, Zangen with the idea that the Americans would exploit the "spout of the funnel" leading to Remagen. To be prepared for either eventuality, Botsch wanted to place his headquarters midway between the two towns, but Model insisted that he locate at or near Bonn. There Botsch ran afoul of Bonn's local defense commander, Generalmajor Richard von Bothmer, who raised questions as to just who was in command at Bonn. Trying to resolve the conflicts, Botsch spent much of the first few days of March driving back and forth between command posts of the Fifteenth Army and Army Group B and between Bonn and Remagen.
Although tiring and frustrating, these peregrinations probably established General Botsch as the one man who understood how the diverse command complex worked. Driving up the Ahr River valley toward the Fifteenth Army's headquarters early on 6 March, Botsch also got a firsthand view of pandemonium in the making as individuals and depleted units retreated pell-mell toward the Rhine. This personal knowledge of how serious matters really were well might have stood the Germans in good stead at Remagen, but General Botsch had no chance to use it.
For it was General Botsch to whom Field Marshal Model turned in the afternoon of 6 March to replace the captured General von Rothkirch in command of the LIII Corps.6 At 1700 Botsch left on the futile assignment of trying to resurrect the LIII Corps without even being accorded time to brief his successor, his erstwhile disputant at Bonn, General von Bothmer. Thus was lost to the Bonn-Remagen defense the one commander who, because of his knowledge of the complicated command setup and the true nature of German reverses west of the Rhine, might have forestalled what was about to happen at Remagen.
When the Fifteenth Army commander, General von Zangen, learned of Botsch's shift, he told General Hitzfeld, commander of the LXVII Corps, to send someone to Remagen to check personally on the situation there. A short while later, at 0100 on 7 March, at the same time Zangen ordered the LXVII Corps to counterattack the spout of the funnel leading to Remagen, he also told Hitzfeld the Remagen bridgehead was then the responsibility of the LXVII Corps.
With the bulk of his troops still thirty-five miles from the Rhine, sorely beset on all sides and under orders to launch a counterattack that on the face of it was impossible, and with American troops no more than ten miles from Remagen, Hitzfeld could do little. Summoning his adjutant, Major Hans Scheller, he told him to take eight men and a radio and proceed to Remagen, there to assume command, assemble as much strength as possible, and establish a small bridgehead. He specifically warned Scheller to check immediately upon arrival as to the technical features of the Remagen railroad bridge and to make sure the bridge was prepared for demolition.
At approximately 0200 (7 March), Major Scheller and his eight men started for Remagen in two vehicles over winding, troop-choked, blacked-out Eifel
roads. In the darkness, Scheller's vehicle quickly became separated from the other, the one that carried the radio. Running low on fuel, Scheller ordered his driver to take a long detour to the south to seek out a supply installation where he might get gasoline. Shortly after 1100 on 7 March Major Scheller, still without a radio, finally reached the Remagen bridge. Sounds of battle already were discernible in the distance.
The Hope for a Bridge
As the crucible neared for the Germans at Bonn and Remagen, probably none of the American troops or their commanders, who on 6 March began to make great strides toward the Rhine, entertained any genuine expectation of seizing a bridge across the river intact. (See Map VIII.) Some units were under formal orders to seize and hold any bridge that still stood, but more as a routine precaution than anything else. Nobody had made any positive plans about what to do should such a windfall occur.
Back in February, as the First Army drive began, some staff officers had toyed with the idea that a Rhine bridge might be taken. So remote appeared the chances nevertheless that they went ahead with a request to Allied air forces to continue to bomb the bridges. Inclement weather rather than plan had provided the bridges respite from air attack during the early days of March.
In the Ninth Army, of course, a flurry of hope for a Rhine bridge had developed on the first day of March, inviting the attention of the Supreme Commander himself.7 Yet that hope had proved short-lived; and despite the fact that two attempts came heartbreakingly close to success, the failures appeared to confirm the general opinion that the methodical Germans would see to it that nobody got across the Rhine the easy way.
The possibility still continued to intrigue commanders at every level. When General Hodges visited headquarters of the III Corps on 4 March, for example, he and the corps commander, General Millikin, spoke of the possibility of taking the bridge at Remagen; but with troops of the III Corps still a long way from the Rhine, the discussion was brief. The next day, with the 1st Division advancing on Bonn, the division commander asked General Millikin what to do in case the highway bridge at Bonn could be seized. On 6 March Millikin put the question to the First Army G-3, Brig. Gen. Truman C. Thorson. The bridges, Thorson ruled, should be captured wherever possible.
The G-3 of the III Corps, Colonel Mewshaw, and an assistant had mused over the likelihood of taking the Remagen bridge with paratroops or a picked band of Rangers; but so slight appeared the chance that the discussion never went beyond the operations section. In the directive issued to the 9th Armored Division on 6 March, the order in regard to the bridge at Remagen was to "cut by fire"; the order also restricted artillery fire against the bridge to time and proximity fuze. Early in the evening of 6 March the III Corps also asked the air officer at First Army to refrain from bombing both the Bonn and Remagen bridges.
That same evening, 6 March, General Millikin talked by telephone with the
9th Armored Division commander, General Leonard. Among other things, General Leonard recalled later, Millikin had something like this to say about the railroad bridge at Remagen: "Do you see that little black strip of bridge at Remagen? If you happen to get that, your name will go down in glory."8
Yet despite all deliberation about the bridge on 6 March, this was the same day that Colonel Mewshaw confirmed for the 9th Armored Division G-3 that the division's main effort should be aimed not at the Rhine but at crossings of the Ahr. Furthermore, neither the 9th Armored Division nor that division's Combat Command B, the unit headed toward Remagen, mentioned in its field order taking the bridge at Remagen, although General Leonard did note the possibility orally as a matter of course to the CCB commander.
For all the talk about getting a bridge over the Rhine, the prospect remained little more than a fancy.
Advance to the Rhine
On 6 March, as General Millikin shifted the objectives of his divisions southeastward to conform with the First Army's emphasis on crossings of the Ahr River, the advance of the III Corps picked up momentum. Despite time lost to a determined German delaying force at the road center of Rheinbach, the 9th Armored Division's Combat Command A gained more than ten miles and stopped at midnight less than two miles from the Ahr. CCB reached Stadt Meckenheim, only eight miles from the Rhine. A regiment of the 1st Division on the corps north wing got within four miles of the Rhine northwest of Bonn.
The next morning, 7 March, as troops of the neighboring VII Corps eliminated the last resistance around Cologne, General Hodges transferred responsibility for clearing Bonn to General Collins's corps, but with the responsibility went the means, the 1st Division. At the same time, infantry of the 9th Division continued to close in on Bad Godesberg, and the 9th Armored's CCA jumped the Ahr at Bad Neuenahr, even though the Germans fought doggedly to hold open the Ahr valley highway, the main route of withdrawal for General Hitzfeld's LXVII Corps. Combat Command B meanwhile sent one column southeastward to cross the Ahr near its confluence with the Rhine and another column toward Remagen.
Built around the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion and the 14th Tank Battalion (minus one company), the task force heading for Remagen was under the tank battalion commander, Lt. Col. Leonard Engeman. To lead the column, Colonel Engeman designated an infantry platoon and a tank platoon, the latter equipped with the new, experimental T26 Pershing tank mounting a 90-mm. gun.
Because bulldozers had to clear rubble from the roads leading out of Stadt Meckenheim before the armored vehicles could pass, Task Force Engeman got a fairly late start on 7 March. The column began to move only at 0820, but the Germans apparently gained nothing from the delay. The first opposition--desultory artillery and small arms fire--developed more than three miles from the starting point. Another mile and a half
to the east the column turned south, and just before noon entered a big patch of woods west of Remagen. Here and there little clusters of Germans passed, hands behind their heads, anxious to give themselves up to the first Americans who would take the time to deal with them.
A few minutes before 1300, the leading infantry platoon commander, 2d Lt. Emmet J. Burrows, emerged from the woods on a high bluff overlooking Remagen. Below him, the view of the Rhine gorge, even in the haze of 7 March, was spectacular.
The railroad bridge just outside Remagen, Lieutenant Burrows took in at a glance, still stood.
The Crisis at the Bridge
Down at the bridge, confusion reigned, much as it had all morning. Since soon after daylight, frightened and disorganized groups of German troops had been fleeing across the bridge, bringing with them tales of the strength of American forces pouring down the Ahr valley. The wounded and the stragglers--tired, dispirited men with heads bowed--added stark punctuation to the accounts. Lumbering supply vehicles, horse-drawn artillery, quartermaster and other rear echelon service units created mammoth traffic jams. The jams would have been worse had not a 4-day rush job to lay planks across the railroad tracks at last been finished the night before.
Built in 1916, the railroad bridge at Remagen was named for the World War I hero, Erich Ludendorff. Wide enough for two train tracks, plus footpaths on either side, the bridge had three symmetrical arches resting on four stone piers. The over-all length was 1,069 feet. At each end stood two stone towers, black with grime, giving the bridge a fortress-like appearance. Only a few yards from the east end of the bridge, the railroad tracks entered a tunnel through the black rock of a clifflike hill, the Erpeler Ley.
A year before the start of World War II, the Germans had devised an elaborate demolition scheme for the bridge that included installing an electric fuze connected with explosives by a cable encased in thick steel pipe. Even if the electric fuze failed to work, a primer cord might be lit by hand to set off emergency charges. Later, at the end of 1944, engineers had made plans to blow a big ditch across the Remagen end of the bridge to forestall enemy tanks until the main demolitions could be set off.
Long at his post, the engineer commander at Remagen, Captain Friesenhahn, knew the demolition plan well, but only a few days before 7 March an order had arrived that complicated the task. Because a bridge at Cologne had been destroyed prematurely when an American bomb set off the explosive charges, OKW had ordered that demolitions be put in place only when the fighting front had come within eight kilometers of a bridge; and igniters were not to be attached until "demolition seems to be unavoidable."9 In addition, both the order to prepare the explosives and the demolition order itself were to be issued in writing by the officer bearing tactical responsibility for the area.
Until just before noon, 7 March, the officer bearing tactical responsibility at Remagen was Captain Bratge. In a growing lather of excitement at the hegira of
German units and stragglers, Bratge early in the morning telephoned headquarters of Army Group B to ask for instructions, but he was able to get through only to a duty officer. The officer assured him that Army Group B was not particularly worried about the situation at Remagen; Bonn appeared to be the most threatened point.
For actual defense of Remagen and the bridge, Captain Bratge had only thirty-six men in his own company, plus Friesenhahn's handful of engineers and a smattering of unreliable Volkssturm, the latter technically not even under Bratge's command. The antiaircraft troops that earlier had been set up on the west bank had left in midmorning, joining the retreating hordes crossing the bridge.
General Botsch, Bratge knew, had asked Field Marshal Model at Army Group B for an entire division to defend at Bonn and a reinforced regiment at Remagen. That kind of strength, Model had replied, simply was not available. Although Model had promised some reinforcement, none had arrived. During the evening of 6 March, Bratge had tried to reach General Botsch's headquarters to ask for help, but had been unable to get through. He had no way of knowing that Botsch's headquarters had pulled out to go to Botsch's new command, the LIII Corps. An officer sent from General von Bothmer's headquarters at Bonn to give Bratge this information had wandered into American positions and been captured.
At one point Captain Bratge managed to corral the remnants of a battalion from the 3d Parachute Division and persuaded the officers to set up a defense to the southwest to block an expected American advance from the Ahr valley, but a short while later these troops melted into the fleeing columns and disappeared. When an antiaircraft unit stationed atop the Erpeler Ley withdrew, ostensibly under orders to go to Koblenz, even that strategic observation point was left unmanned.
At 1115, Bratge looked up from the unit orders he was checking at the bridge to see a red-eyed major approaching. His name, the major said, was Hans Scheller. General Hitzfeld of the LXVII Corps, he continued, had sent him to take command at Remagen.
Once Captain Bratge had assured himself that the major was, in fact, from the LXVII Corps and that his orders were legitimate, he was pleased to relinquish command. Together the two officers went to check with the engineers on progress of the demolitions. Although reports began to arrive that Americans had reached the bluffs overlooking Remagen, Scheller was reluctant to order the bridge destroyed. An artillery captain, arriving at the bridge, had insisted that his battalion and its guns were following to cross the bridge, and Major Scheller felt keenly that combat units should not be penalized by having the bridge blown in their faces, particularly when they were bringing with them precious items such as artillery pieces.
On the hill above Remagen, Lieutenant Burrows's excitement at discovering the bridge intact had brought his company commander, 1st Lt. Karl H. Timmerman, hurrying to the vantage point at the edge of the woods. Timmerman in turn called for the task force commander, Colonel Engeman.
The task force commander's first reaction
LIEUTENANT TIMMERMAN, first officer to cross the Remagen Bridge.
was much like that of Burrows and Timmerman, awe and surprise tempered by a sharp desire to get artillery time fire on the bridge immediately to hamper the German retreat. Supporting artillery nevertheless declined to fire, citing reports, actually erroneous, that friendly troops already were too close to the bridge.
As Colonel Engeman directed Lieutenant Timmerman to start his infantry company moving cross-country into Remagen with the platoon of Pershing tanks to follow down the winding little road from the bluff, CCB's operations officer, Maj. Ben Cothran, arrived on the scene. Like the others before him, he got a tingling shock of excitement as he emerged from the woods and saw the Rhine below him, the Remagen bridge still standing.
"My God!" Cothran exclaimed. "I've got to get the Old Man."10
He was referring to Brig. Gen. William M. Hoge, the CCB commander. In keeping with the theory that the other column of the combat command heading for the Ahr was making the main effort, Hoge had followed closely behind that thrust. In response to Cothran's radio report, he tore cross-country to the scene.
He might lose a battalion, General Hoge mused, if his men crossed the bridge before the Germans blew it. If they destroyed it while his men were in the act of crossing, he probably would lose a platoon. On the other hand . . . .
Turning to Colonel Engeman, Hoge said, "I want you to get to that bridge as soon as possible."
A short while later, at 1515, a message arrived from CCB's other column, which earlier had found a bridge across the Ahr River at Sinzig and had fought its way across. In Sinzig the men had discovered a civilian who insisted that the Germans at Remagen intended to blow the Ludendorff railroad bridge precisely at 1600. Although the Germans in fact had no specific time schedule, the civilian's report nevertheless spurred General Hoge to urge Task Force Engeman to greater speed in seizing the bridge at Remagen.
Having fought through the town of Remagen against an occasional die-hard German defender, Lieutenant Timmerman, his infantrymen, and the supporting platoon of tanks neared the bridge around 1600. As they approached, dodging occasional small arms and 20-mm.
fire from the towers, a volcano of rocks, dirt, and noise erupted. Captain Friesenhahn on his own initiative, when he saw the Americans appear, had exploded the charge designed to prevent tanks from reaching the bridge. Timmerman and his men could see the Germans on the other side of the river scurrying to and fro, apparently getting ready to blow the bridge itself.
Major Scheller and Captain Bratge had already crossed the bridge to the railroad tunnel. Friesenhahn hurried to join them to get the order to destroy the bridge, but concussion from a tank shell knocked him to the floor of the bridge, unconscious. Fifteen precious minutes passed before he came to his senses. Still dazed, he resumed his trek toward the tunnel.
In the railroad tunnel, pandemonium. Terrified civilians cowering against the walls, children wailing. Reluctant Volkssturm awaiting only a chance to surrender. Clusters of apprehensive soldiers, some foreign workers, even some animals. White phosphorus shells from the American tanks across the river creating a heavy, eye-stinging smoke screen. Some soldiers caught outside the tunnel screaming as the phosphorus burned into their flesh.
As Captain Bratge rushed outside to survey the situation, he came upon Captain Friesenhahn and yelled at him to get the order from Major Scheller to blow the bridge. When Scheller gave his approval, Bratge insisted on waiting while a lieutenant wrote down the exact timing and wording of the order. Going outside again, he shouted to Friesenhahn to blow the bridge. True to his instructions from OKW, Friesenhahn insisted at first on having the order in writing, then relented in the interest of time.
Warning the civilians and soldiers to take cover, Captain Friesenhahn turned the key designed to activate the electric circuit and set off the explosives. Nothing happened. He turned it again. Still nothing happened. He turned it a third time. Again, no response.
Realizing that the circuit probably was broken, Friesenhahn sought a repair team to move onto the bridge; but as machine gun and tank fire riddled the ground, he saw that not enough time remained to do the job that way. He called for a volunteer to go onto the bridge and ignite the primer cord by hand. When a sergeant responded, Friesenhahn himself went with him as far as the edge of the bridge and there waited anxiously while the sergeant, crouching to avoid shells and bullets, dashed onto the bridge.
After what seemed an eternity, the sergeant started back toward the east bank at a run. Seemingly endless moments passed. Had the sergeant failed? Would the primer cord ignite the charge?
At last, a sudden booming roar. Timbers flew wildly into the air. The bridge lifted as if to rise from its foundations.
Cowering against the explosion, Friesenhahn breathed a sigh of relief. The job was done.
Yet when he looked up again, the bridge was still there.
Lieutenant Timmerman had barely finished the order to his men of Company A, 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, to storm across the railroad bridge when the explosion came. Some men flung themselves to the ground for protection. Others watched in awe as the
SERGEANT DRABIK, first American across the Rhine.
big span lifted and a giant cloud of dust and thick black smoke rose. Moments later, like Friesenhahn and the Germans on the east bank, they saw in incredible surprise that the bridge still stood.
As the smoke and dust cleared, Timmerman could discern that even though the explosion had torn big holes in the planking over the railroad tracks, the footpaths on either side were intact. Signaling his platoon leaders, he again ordered attack.
Bobbing and weaving, dashing from the cover of one metal girder to another, the men made their way onto the bridge. Machine gun fire from the towers near the east bank spattered among them, but return fire from the riflemen themselves and from the big tanks on the Remagen side kept the German fire down. With a few well-placed rounds, the Pershings silenced German riflemen firing from a half-submerged barge in the river.
Close behind the first riflemen went two sergeants and a lieutenant from the engineer detachment operating with Task Force Engeman. Working swiftly, the engineers cut every wire they could find that might possibly lead to additional demolitions. They shot apart heavy cables with their carbines.
Nearing the far end, several men digressed to clean out the machine gunners from the towers, while others continued to the east bank. The first man to set foot beyond the Rhine was an assistant squad leader, Sgt. Alex Drabik. (Map 3) Others were only moments behind, including the first officer to cross, the Company A commander, Lieutenant Timmerman.
As Timmerman's men spread out on the east bank and one platoon began the onerous task of climbing the precipitous Erpeler Ley, Major Scheller in the railroad tunnel tried time after time to contact his higher headquarters to report that the bridge still stood. Failing that, he mounted a bicycle and rode off to report in person. As American troops appeared at both ends of the tunnel, Captain Bratge and the other Germans inside, including the engineer officer, Captain Friesenhahn, surrendered.
Reaction to the Coup
Hardly had the first of Timmerman's men crossed the Rhine when Colonel Engeman radioed the news to the CCB commander, General Hoge. Because Hoge in the meantime had received word to divert as much strength as possible from Remagen to reinforce the
The Remagen Bridgehead
7-24 March 1945
bridgehead over the Ahr River at Sinzig, he would be acting contrary to an order still in effect if, instead, he reinforced the Rhine crossing. He hesitated only momentarily. Send the rest of the armored infantry battalion across immediately, he told Engeman; then he drove to his own command post for a meeting with his division commander, General Leonard.
General Leonard's first reaction to the news was mock concern against Hoge's upset of the plans. "But let's push it," he added, "and then put it up to Corps."11
At 1630 the 9th Armored Division chief of staff telephoned the command post of the III Corps.
"Hot damn!" cried a little sergeant as he transferred the call to the chief of staff and threw down the telephone. "We got a bridge over the Rhine and we're crossing over!"12
Although the corps commander, General Millikin, was away from the command post, his chief of staff, Col. James H. Phillips, believed he knew how his commander would react. Even before trying to contact Millikin, he told the 9th Armored Division to exploit the crossing.
When Phillips relayed the news to headquarters of the First Army, General Hodges ordered engineers and boats to Remagen even before calling General Bradley at 12th Army Group for approval.
"Hot dog, Courtney"--General Bradley later recalled his own reaction--"This will bust him wide open . . . . Shove everything you can across it."13
General Eisenhower's reaction was much the same. Only the planners appeared to question in any degree the advisability of exploiting the coup. The SHAEF G-3, General Bull, who happened to be at Bradley's headquarters when the news arrived, remarked that a crossing at Remagen led no place and that a diversion of strength to Remagen would interfere with General Eisenhower's plan to make the main effort north of the Ruhr.14 Yet Bradley would have none of it, and Eisenhower confirmed that view.
"Well, Brad," Eisenhower said, "we expected to have . . . [four] divisions tied up around Cologne and now those are free. Go ahead and shove over at least five divisions instantly, and anything else that is necessary to make certain of our hold."15
Confirmed approval to exploit the crossing reached the III Corps at 1845 on 7 March, and an hour and a half later General Hodges relieved the corps of the assignment of driving south across the Ahr. General Millikin in the meantime had been making plans to motorize the reserve regiments of his two infantry divisions and rush them to the bridge. Engineers, artillery, antiaircraft--units of all types stirred in the early darkness and headed for Remagen. All roads leading
toward the little Rhine town soon were thick with traffic. Before midnight three heavy caliber artillery battalions already were in position to fire in support of the little band of infantrymen east of the Rhine.
At the bridge, the handful of engineers from Task Force Engeman worked unceasingly to repair the damage the demolition had done to the flooring of the bridge. Although considerable work remained, the engineers shortly before midnight signaled that tanks might try to cross.
Nine Sherman tanks of the 14th Tank Battalion crossed without incident, but the first tank destroyer to try it foundered in an unrepaired hole in the planking. The vehicle appeared to teeter precariously over the swirling waters far below, but for almost five hours every effort either to right the destroyer or to dump it into the river failed. At 0530 (8 March) the vehicle was at last removed.
In the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion's minuscule bridgehead, the infantrymen and their limited tank support spent a troubled night fighting off platoon-size counterattacks along their undermanned perimeter and expecting the Germans at any moment to strike in force. At dawn, when the disabled tank destroyer was removed from the bridge, the arrival of a battalion of the 78th Division's 310th Infantry relieved the pressure. As the first vestiges of daylight appeared, a battalion of the 9th Division's 47th Infantry also crossed into the bridgehead.
In the twenty-four hours following seizure of the bridge, almost 8,000 men crossed the Rhine, including two armored infantry battalions, a tank battalion, a tank destroyer company, and a platoon of armored engineers of the 9th Armored Division; a regiment and two additional battalions of the 78th Division; a regiment and one additional battalion of the 9th Division; and one and a half batteries of antiaircraft artillery.
During that twenty-four hours and into the next day, 9 March, General Eisenhower's initial jubilation over capture of the Ludendorff Bridge cooled under the impact of admonitions from his staff. Committed to a main effort north of the Ruhr with the 21 Army Group, he actually had few reserves to spare for Remagen. Late on 9 March his G-3, General Bull, informed General Bradley that while the Supreme Commander wanted the brideghead held firmly and developed for an early advance southeastward, he did not want it enlarged to a size greater than five divisions could defend. Bradley in turn told General Hodges to limit advances to a thousand yards a day, just enough to keep the enemy off balance and prevent him from mining extensively around the periphery. Once the troops reached the autobahn, seven miles beyond the Rhine, they were to hold in place until General Eisenhower ordered expansion. Thus, almost from the start, the forces in the Remagen bridgehead were to operate under wraps that would not be removed for more than a fortnight.
On the German Side
Like the Americans, the Germans had no plan ready to cope with the situation at Remagen. Indeed, the fact that the U.S. Ninth Army had made no immediate move to jump the Rhine had lulled many German commanders into the belief
that the Allies would pause to mop up and regroup before trying to cross; and that had engendered a measure of apathy in regard to the possibility of losing a bridge.
Nor did the Germans have any reserves close at hand to throw quickly against the little Remagen bridgehead. Most combat units near Remagen were still on the west bank, struggling to escape American pincers and get back somehow across the Rhine. Most of the service troops in the Remagen area were busy ferrying the depleted combat forces.
As the news about the Ludendorff Bridge spread slowly through a disorganized German command, officers near Remagen assembled about a hundred engineers and antiaircraft troops and fought through the night of the 7th, but to little avail. One group of Germans did reach the bridge itself with explosives in hand, but men of the 78th Division captured them before they could do any damage.
Because of the fluid tactical situation, many higher German commanders were on the move during the night of 7 March and failed for hours to learn about loss of the bridge. Field Marshal von Rundstedt's headquarters got the word earlier than most through a chance conversation between the operations officer and local commanders. Nobody could find the Army Group B commander, Field Marshal Model, in whose sector the debacle had occurred. Model himself was at "the front," his headquarters on the move.
When OB WEST finally did establish contact with Army Group B, Model still was away. So preoccupied was the army group staff with trying to save divisions of the LXVI and LXVII Corps, threatened with entrapment by the 4th Armored Division's sweep to the Rhine above Andernach, that the headquarters at first reacted apathetically. When Model returned during the morning of 8 March, he ordered the 11th Panzer Division, which by that time was preparing to recross the Rhine at Bonn to make the projected counterattack southwest toward Rheinbach, to sweep the Americans into the river and blow the Ludendorff Bridge.
The 11th Panzer Division had about 4,000 men, 25 tanks, and 18 artillery pieces, a force that well might have struck a telling blow had it been available soon after the first Americans crossed the Rhine. Yet the panzer division, assembled near Duesseldorf, had somehow to obtain gasoline for its vehicles and thread a way along roads already jammed with traffic and under attack from Allied planes. Not until two days later, 10 March, were even the first contingents of the division to get into action against the bridgehead.16 Field Marshal Model meanwhile designated a single commander to co-ordinate all counteraction at Remagen, General Bayerlein, erstwhile commander of Corps Bayerlein, who had fallen back before the drive of the VII Corps on Cologne. Bayerlein on 9 March took command of a heterogeneous collection of service troops opposite Remagen with the promise of the incoming 11th Panzer Division, some 300 men and 15 tanks masquerading under the name of the once-great Panzer Lehr Division, another 600 men and 15 tanks under the seemingly imperishable 9th Panzer Division, and a company-size remnant of the 106th Panzer Brigade with 5 tanks. Once all troops
arrived, including relatively strong artillery units, Bayerlein was to have approximately 10,000 men grouped under the headquarters staff of the LIII Corps.
When Model visited Bayerlein's new headquarters on 9 March, Bayerlein outlined a plan to attack at dusk on 10 March against the center of the bridgehead, then roll up the flanks. The main component was to be the Kampfgruppe of the Panzer Lehr Division; but when the bulk of that force failed to arrive on time, Model vetoed the entire plan.17 Model's first concern was to draw some kind of cordon around the bridgehead, but in the process he let pass the possibility of counterattacking before the Americans became too strong to be evicted. As American attacks continued, the incoming 11th Panzer Division also became drawn into the defensive cordon and could launch only small, localized counterattacks.
As for the Commander in Chief West, Field Marshal von Rundstedt, the loss of the Remagen bridge was the excuse Hitler needed to relieve the old soldier of his command. Already upset by Rundstedt's failure to hold west of the Rhine, Hitler on 8 March summoned from Italy Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, longtime Commander in Chief South (OB SUED). The next day Hitler told Kesselring to take charge in the west. In the process he emphasized that the Remagen bridgehead had to be wiped out in order to gain time for refitting and reorganizing the exhausted German units behind the moat of the Rhine. Kesselring left Berlin for his unenviable
FIELD MARSHAL KESSELRING
assignment the night of 9 March, the relief to be effective the next day.18
Build-up and Command Problems
The First Army commander, General Hodges, had made various organizational shifts to enable the III Corps to exploit the Rhine crossing. During the night of 7 March, he attached a second armored division, the 7th, to Millikin's corps, along with an antiaircraft battalion, an engineer treadway bridge company, and an amphibious truck company. He also relieved the 78th Division of its offensive mission with the V Corps south of the Ahr River and ordered the division to join its reserve regiment at Remagen.
Finding troops to send to Remagen was easier than expected because resistance west of the Rhine collapsed so rapidly. A final surge by the Third Army's late-running 11th Armored Division to reach the Rhine at Brohl on 8 March took all semblance of organization out of the defense south of the Ahr, and the next day the 2d Division of the V Corps swept to the Rhine to link with the armor. On those two days and the next, resistance was so indifferent that the corps artillery could find no targets. It was much the same in the sector of the VII Corps, where on 9 March the 1st Division eliminated the last defenders from the university city of Bonn, there to discover the Rhine bridge destroyed. The German commander in Bonn, General von Bothmer, escaped to the east bank of the Rhine, only to be called before a court-martial that stripped him of his rank, whereupon Bothmer shot himself.19
For all the speed of the American thrusts, thousands of Germans made their way across the Rhine, mostly on ferries in small river craft. In terms of prisoners taken the pincers movement south of the Ahr was disappointing--the V Corps, for example, in its drive to the Rhine, captured just over 5,000 Germans, while the VII Corps between the Erft and the Rhine had been taking over 13,000.20 Yet those Germans who escaped did so in disarray, unit integrity in most cases gone; and behind them they left small mountains of equipment, ammunition, weapons, and vehicles. While most ranking commanders got across the Rhine, two--Generalleutnant Richard Schimpf, commander of the 3d Parachute Division, and Generalmajor Ludwig Heilmann, commander of the 5th Parachute Division--failed to make it. Both were captured, as was General Rothkirch earlier.
At Remagen and on the roads leading to the town, congestion was a serious problem. The ancient wall-encircled town of Zuelpich and bomb-devastated Euskirchen particularly were bottlenecks, but the worst difficulty was at the Ludendorff Bridge itself. Although moderately heavy German artillery fire fell almost constantly around the bridge, it failed to halt traffic for any period longer than a quarter-hour. The slow pace imposed on vehicles by the condition of the bridge and by congestion on the east bank still served to back up traffic for several miles outside Remagen.
Almost from the start, the First Army's General Hodges was dissatisfied with the way his corps commander, General Millikin, handled the problems both at the bridge and in the bridgehead. Hodges and some members of his staff complained long and vocally that control was poor on both sides of the river and that accurate information on troop dispositions beyond the Rhine was lacking. Even after the order passed down from General Eisenhower on 9 March to limit advances within the bridgehead, Hodges continued to chafe at what he considered slow, uninspired attacks that failed to push far enough east to relieve the bridge site of observed artillery fire.
General Millikin on 9 March placed the commander of the 9th Armored Division, General Leonard, in specific control of all activity in the vicinity of the bridge and put all troops east of the
LUDENDORFF RAILROAD BRIDGE AT REMAGEN
river under the 9th Infantry Division commander, General Craig; but Hodges continued to complain. Unaccustomed to working with Millikin, whose III Corps in months past had served under the Third Army, Hodges and his staff made no attempt "to hide the fact that everybody here wishes the bridgehead command had fallen to General Collins."21
Millikin's problems, on the other hand, were myriad. Although he himself was frequently at the bridge, getting accurate, timely information from the east bank was a frustrating chore. In the first days of an impromptu operation of this sort, there were bound to be shortages of matériel and of specialized troops. One of these was in Signal Corps units. So frequently did vehicles and artillery cut telephone lines laid across the railroad bridge and so often did debris and a swift current break wires strung in the river that telephone communications with the east bank were out about as much as they were in. Neither liaison officers, who often were
delayed in threading their way back across the congested bridge, nor radio communications could solve the problem entirely.
Committing incoming infantry units on the far bank was a piecemeal proposition, geared both to when units arrived and to where the most pressing need existed at the time. Not even the various components of all regiments were able to stay together, and splitting the parts of divisions was the rule. This heightened problems of control that haste, improvisation, and the sharply compartmented terrain had already made bad enough.
To General Millikin, the way to overcome his problems was not to make bold thrusts here and there but to expand the entire periphery of the bridgehead systematically. On 8 March he ordered a controlled advance to three successive phase lines: the first--two and a half miles north and south of the Ludendorff Bridge and about two miles deep--designed to free the bridge site from small arms fire; the second designed to eliminate observed artillery fire; and the third--extending as far north as Bonn, as far south as Andernach, and east well beyond the autobahn--designed to free the bridge site of all shelling.22
As night fell on 10 March, the 78th Division's 311th Infantry had advanced beyond the first phase line and taken Honnef, almost five miles north of the bridge. Progress was marked too in the south, where the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion captured a village beyond the town of Linz, not quite three miles southeast of the bridge.
In the high wooded hills east of the bridge progress was slower. There the 9th Division's 60th Infantry had been able to go less than a mile from the river. German tenacity there could be explained in part by the rugged terrain but owed much also to relatively strong artillery support. Since artillery units had retreated across the Rhine ahead of the infantry and tanks, a number of them had reached the east bank in fair shape, particularly those a little farther north where advance of the VII Corps had shoved them across the Rhine before the III Corps came up to the river at Remagen. A volks artillery corps from the north was committed early to the fighting east of Remagen, and other artillery units were on the way. Soon the Germans would be employing against the bridgehead some fifty 105-mm. barrels, another fifty 150-mm. howitzers, and close to a dozen 210-mm. pieces. The shortage of ammunition rather than guns was the more serious problem.23
Although the extent of progress belied it, General Millikin intended the eastward and southeastward thrusts to be his main effort, in keeping with the theory--advanced by both Bradley and Eisenhower--that the troops in the bridgehead could best serve the over-all scheme by driving toward the Lahn River valley and the Frankfurt-Kassel corridor. At the same time, Millikin reasoned, such thrusts would also more quickly eliminate German observation on the bridge. General Hodges for his part wanted the III Corps first to push northward
in order to clear crossing sites for General Collins's VII Corps. Yet he failed to make this clear to Millikin until the fourth day, 11 March, when for the first time he crossed the Rhine into the bridgehead. Even then he issued no specific order, although he did make several allusions to the north and strongly suggested that the main effort be made in that direction.24
The suggestion was enough for Millikin. He promptly put emphasis behind the 78th Division's thrust by narrowing the division's sector and shifting the bulk of the 9th Division to the northeast. On the following day, 12 March, with the arrival of most of the 99th Infantry Division in the bridgehead to take over the southern and southeastern portions of the periphery, he ordered all units shifted back to their parent divisions; but by that time, the chance for a really spectacular drive northward had passed.
Indications that the going might become more difficult developed as early as 11 March, when contingents of the 11th Panzer Division counterattacked at Honnef, temporarily regaining the town.25 On the same day a second volks artillery corps reached the front. On 13 March, as remnants of the 340th Volks Grenadier Division arrived, the German commander, General Bayerlein, put them into the line east of Honnef. Later in the day the 130th Infantry Regiment, a well-equipped and comparatively fresh separate unit of 2,000 men, arrived from the Netherlands. Although Bayerlein wanted to counterattack immediately with the 130th Infantry reinforced by tanks, Field Marshal Model ordered that the regiment be used to bring the 340th Volks Grenadier Division back to reasonable strength. Thus, the 130th too went into the defensive line.26
Unlike Bayerlein, Model believed that no decisive counterattack could be launched until sufficient infantry reinforcement arrived to release the armored units from the line. In this he was supported by General von Zangen, under whose Fifteenth Army Bayerlein's forces opposing the bridgehead operated. Yet in disagreement with Zangen, Model insisted that the strongest line be built in the north to thwart what he remained convinced would be the Americans' major thrust. At a meeting on 11 March with Model and the new Commander in Chief West, Field Marshal Kesselring, Zangen protested this line of thought. Field Marshal Kesselring for his part apparently sanctioned it, for Model's view prevailed.27
With disapproval of the plan to use the 130th Infantry offensively, General Bayerlein saw his last hope for an effective counterattack pass. To Bayerlein, there was no chance of assembling sufficient forces to drive the Americans into the Rhine once they had gained additional time to reinforce their bridgehead.28 On the other hand, Model's decision did serve to slow operations in the sector where the American commander, General Millikin, now planned, temporarily, his main effort. Thus General Hodges' dissatisfaction with Millikin's
handling of the bridgehead fight continued.
At the bridge site, concentrated efforts were made from the start toward supplementing the Ludendorff railroad bridge. One of the first units to arrive for the purpose was Naval Unit No. 1, a U.S. Navy force with twenty-four LCVP's (landing craft, vehicle and personnel) that had been attached to the First Army for some months in anticipation of the Rhine crossings.29 Also quick to arrive was an engineer unit of the III Corps, the 86th Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalion, with orders to operate three ferries, one well north of the Ludendorff Bridge, one close to the bridge at Remagen, and the third well south of the bridge. As assembled by the engineers, the rafts were made of five pontons covered with wooden flooring. Used as free ferries propelled by 22-hp. outboard motors, the craft began to operate as early as the morning of 9 March. The ferries and LCVP's were augmented on 14 March by dukws (2½-ton amphibious trucks) of the 819th Amphibious Truck Company.30
Survey teams of the 1111th and 1159th Engineer Combat Groups, scheduled to build tactical bridges across the Rhine, reached Remagen during the morning of 8 March. Because of road priorities granted at first to infantry units and engineers who were to operate ferries, the bridging units themselves began to move to the river only during the night of 9 March. Construction of the first bridge, a treadway from Remagen to Erpel, began early on 10 March.
Although jammed roads leading to Remagen continued to hamper bridge construction, the most serious delays derived from German artillery fire and air attacks. During 8 and 9 March, the Germans maintained an average rate of one shell every two minutes in the vicinity of the bridge sites, but by 10 March, their fire had fallen off to four or five rounds per hour.31 Artillery fire during the course of construction of the Remagen treadway bridge destroyed four cranes, two Brockway trucks, two air compressors, three dump trucks, and thirty-two floats. The treadway, nevertheless, was opened for limited traffic at 0700, 11 March, and for full use in late afternoon. A heavy ponton upstream at Linz was opened at midnight on the 11th. On the 13th engineers closed the Ludendorff Bridge in order to repair damage caused by Captain Friesenhahn's emergency demolition.
Unlike the artillery fire, German air attacks were more annoying than destructive. A strong cordon of defenses around the bridge manned by the 16th Antiaircraft Artillery Group, antiaircraft battalions borrowed from the divisions of the III Corps, and additional units transferred from the V Corps sharply interfered with German accuracy. On 12 March, at the height of air attacks against the bridge, sixteen 90-mm. gun batteries were emplaced on the west bank of the Rhine and twenty-five batteries of automatic antiaircraft weapons were almost equally divided between the two banks,
probably the most intensive tactical grouping of antiaircraft weapons in the European theater during the course of the war.32
The Luftwaffe first struck at the railroad bridge on the morning after Lieutenant Timmerman and his intrepid little band had crossed. Although low overcast interfered with flight, the Germans made ten sweeps with a total of ten planes, most of them Stuka dive bombers. None inflicted any damage on the bridge, and antiaircraft units claimed eight destroyed.33
Exhortation to the Luftwaffe to strike and strike again was one of the few immediate steps Field Marshal Kesselring could take toward eliminating the Ludendorff Bridge after he assumed command in the west on 10 March. He conferred that day with senior Luftwaffe commanders, urging them to knock out the bridge and any auxiliary bridges the Americans might construct.
From 8 through 16 March, the Luftwaffe tried. The German planes struck at the railroad bridge, at the ferries, and at the tactical bridges, but with no success. Whenever the weather allowed, American planes flying cover over the bridgehead interfered; even when the German pilots got through the fighter screen, they ran into a dense curtain of antiaircraft fire. When they tried a stratagem of sending slow bombers in the lead to draw the antiaircraft fire, then following with speedy jet fighters, the Americans countered by withholding part of their fire until the jets appeared. American antiaircraft units estimated that during the nine days they destroyed 109 planes and probably eliminated 36 others out of a total of 367 that attacked.
By three other means the Germans tried to destroy the railroad bridge. Soon after losing the bridge, they brought up a tank-mounted 540-mm. piece called the Karl Howitzer. The weapon itself weighed 132 tons and fired a projectile of 4,400 pounds, but after only a few rounds that did no damage except to random houses, the weapon had to be evacuated for repairs. From 12 through 17 March a rocket unit with weapons emplaced in the Netherlands fired eleven supersonic V-2's in the direction of the bridge, the first and only tactical use of either of the so-called German V-weapons (Vergeltungswaffen, for vengeance) during World War II. One rocket hit a house 300 yards east of the bridge, killing three American soldiers and wounding fifteen. That was the only damage. Three landed in the river not far from the bridge, five others west of the bridge, and one near Cologne; one was never located.34
The night of 16 March, the Germans tried a third method--seven underwater swimmers in special rubber suits and carrying packages of plastic explosive compound--but from the first the Americans had anticipated such a gambit. During the first few days of the bridgehead, before nets could be strung across the river, they dropped demolition charges to discourage enemy swimmers
and stationed riflemen at intervals along the railroad bridge to fire at suspicious objects. Later, with nets in place, they stationed tanks equipped with searchlights along the river.
When the German swimmers first tried to reach the bridge, American artillery fire discouraged them from entering the water. On the next night, the 17th, they moved not against the railroad bridge but against tactical ponton bridges, only to be spotted by the American searchlights. Blinded by the lights, the seven Germans, one by one, surrendered.
While these events occurred along the Rhine, gains in the bridgehead continued to be steady but unspectacular, and General Hodges remained displeased with General Millikin's conduct of the battle. On 15 March Hodges discussed with the 12th Army Group commander, General Bradley, the possibility of relieving Millikin. "Mind you," Hodges remarked, "I have only the greatest admiration and respect for the GIs doing the fighting out there, but I think they have had bad leadership in this bridgehead battle."35 Bradley left Hodges' headquarters agreeing to look for a replacement for the III Corps commander.
Two days later General Van Fleet, former commander of the 90th Division, arrived at Hodges' headquarters to take Millikin's place. Shortly before 1500, Hodges telephoned Millikin.
"I have some bad news for you," Hodges said, then went on to inform him of his relief.
The III Corps commander waited until Hodges had finished.
"Sir," he said finally, "I have some bad
GENERAL VAN FLEET. (Photograph taken in 1951.)
news for you too. The railroad bridge has just collapsed."36
The End of the Bridge
It happened during a period of relative quiet. No German planes were around, and German artillery was silent. About 200 American engineers with their equipment were working on the bridge.
The first indication that anything was wrong was a sharp report like the crack of a rifle. Then another. The deck of the bridge began to tremble. The entire deck vibrated and swayed. Dust rose from the planking. It was every man for himself.
With a grinding roar of tearing steel, the Ludendorff railroad bridge slipped, sagged, and with a convulsive twist plunged into the Rhine. Of those working on the bridge at the time, 93 were injured, 28 killed.
The collapse of the bridge could be attributed to no one specific factor but rather to a combination of things, some even antedating the emergency demolition. As far back as 1940 Allied planes had launched sporadic attacks against the bridge, and in late 1944 had damaged it to such an extent that it was unserviceable for fifteen days. Then came the heavy planking to convert the bridge for vehicles; the assault by the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion's Company A and the fire of the big Pershing tanks that accompanied it; Friesenhahn's emergency demolition; the drumbeat of hundreds of infantry feet; the heavy tread of tanks and other vehicles; the pounding of German artillery; the vibrations from German bombs, from American antiaircraft pieces and big 8-inch howitzers emplaced nearby, from the near misses of the V-2's; and then the weight of heavy engineer equipment as the Americans tried to repair the bridge. All had to be borne by the downstream truss alone after Friesenhahn's demolition so damaged the upstream truss that it was useless. In the end, it was too much for one weakened truss.37
More speculative is the explanation of why the German demolitions failed, in the first place, to destroy the Ludendorff Bridge. Sabotage, for example, either by a German soldier or a foreign laborer, hardly could be ruled out.38 Since the electric circuit designed to set off the main demolitions had been tested shortly before it was to be used and was in order, something happened to the circuit shortly before Friesenhahn turned the key. Most Germans familiar with the events believed that a lucky hit from an American shell--probably fired by a tank--severed the main cable leading to the demolitions. The Americans themselves conducted no immediate post-mortem, and once the bridge had fallen into the Rhine, the evidence was gone.
Whether the reason could be ascertained or not, Hitler at the time was determined to find scapegoats to pay for the debacle. He convened a special 3-man military tribunal that acted with little regard for legal niceties.39 The tribunal condemned to death two majors who had commanded engineer troops in the vicinity of the bridge, Herbert Strobel and August Kraft; a lieutenant of Flakartillerie, Karl Heinz Peters; the major sent by General Hitzfeld of the LXVII Corps to assume tactical command at the bridge, Hans Scheller; and the previous tactical commander, Captain Bratge. The engineer in charge of demolitions, Captain Friesenhahn, who had been captured by the Americans, was acquitted in absentia. Because Bratge too was an American prisoner, he survived. The other four died before firing squads.
Expansion of the Bridgehead
The loss of the Ludendorff Bridge had no effect on operations in the Remagen bridgehead. The bridge had been closed
THE RHINE AT THE REMAGEN BRIDGE SITE. (Photograph taken in 1948.)
for repairs since 13 March, and the forces in the bridgehead already were accustomed to working without it. General Hodges nevertheless quickly authorized construction of a floating Bailey bridge about a mile downstream from Remagen. In a remarkable engineering feat, the Bailey bridge was completed in just under forty-eight hours and opened for traffic on 20 March.40
One reason for a new bridge was the presence of a new force in the Remagen bridgehead. Beginning early on 15 March, the 1st Division of General Collins's VII Corps had crossed the Rhine over the III Corps bridges and on ferries, and at noon the next day, Collins assumed responsibility for the northern portion of the bridgehead. In the process, Collins's corps absorbed the 78th Division.
The specific role the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, intended the Remagen bridgehead to play in future operations meanwhile had been made clear on 13 March. The bridgehead,
Eisenhower directed, was to be used to draw enemy units from the Ruhr area opposite the 21 Army Group and from the 6th Army Group's Rhine crossing sites in the south. Although an exploitation eventually might be made in the direction of Frankfurt, a minimum of ten First Army divisions had to be reserved for the time being as a possible "follow-up force" for the 21 Army Group, still designated to make the Allied main effort.41
From this restriction, it was obvious that Eisenhower had no wish to see the bridgehead expanded appreciably. General Bradley in turn told the First Army to advance no farther than a line approximately twenty-five miles wide at the base along the Rhine and ten miles deep, in effect, a slight expansion of the third phase line that the III Corps commander, General Millikin, earlier had imposed.42
The First Army's General Hodges disagreed, though to no avail. Like almost everybody at First Army headquarters, Hodges was piqued about the elaborate preparations Field Marshal Montgomery was making for his 21 Army Group's crossing of the Rhine and the emphasis General Eisenhower continued to place on that crossing when, in Hodges' view, a breakout from the Remagen bridgehead could have been staged at will. With evident amusement he listened to the story--probably apocryphal--of how the 21 Army Group on 7 March had asked Supreme Headquarters to stage a diversion before Montgomery jumped the Rhine and how, five minutes later, SHAEF passed the word that the First Army had already staged a diversion; the First Army had crossed the Rhine.43
While advances in the Remagen bridgehead continued to average only about a thousand yards a day, Hodges was convinced this was less a reflection of German strength than of timidity in American attacks. By 17 March the German order of battle opposite the bridgehead sounded impressive on paper--in addition to those units early committed, the Germans had brought in contingents of the 26th, 62d, 272d, 277th, and 326th Volks Grenadier Divisions; the 3d and 5th Parachute Divisions; and the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division--but in no case were these real divisions. All were battalion-size Kampfgruppen or else had been fleshed out to something more than regimental strength with inexperienced replacements culled from various Wehrkreise up and down the Rhine.44 In most cases the Americans characterized the resistance as "moderate to light." Although the German defense appeared to be "orderly," the more serious problem was difficult terrain.45
By 16 March, when troops of the 78th Division made the first cut of the Ruhr-Frankfurt autobahn northeast of Honnef, expansion of the bridgehead had proceeded to the point where artillery no longer was able to support the attacks properly from the west bank of the Rhine. As artillery units began to cross the river, engineers supporting the VII Corps began construction of three more tactical bridges to care for the increased logistical burden. Keyed to the northward advance of the infantry east of the
Rhine, the first of the bridges was completed late on 17 March, another on 19 March, and a third, located at the southern fringe of Bonn, on 21 March. Screened by smoke from chemical generators, the engineers incurred only one casualty during the course of construction.46
Of all the American attacks, those to the north and northeast by the 1st and 78th Divisions continued to bother the German army group commander most. More than ever convinced that the Americans intended to make their main effort northward toward the Ruhr, Field Marshal Model recognized that a strong counterattack had to be staged soon or the Americans would breach the natural defensive line in the north, the Sieg River, which enters the Rhine just downstream from Bonn, and then be ready for exploitation.
On 19 March Model began to strip all armored units from the eastern and southern portions of the line to assemble them in the north for counterattack. In the process, he introduced the LXXIV Corps to command the northern sector, then ordered the commander, General Puechler, to exchange places with the tank expert, General Bayerlein of the LIII Corps, thereby reversing the two corps headquarters. As finally constituted, the ring around the Remagen bridgehead involved the LIII Corps under Bayerlein in the north, the LXXIV Corps under Peuchler in the center, and the LXVII Corps under General Hitzfeld in the south.47
Unfortunately for Model's plan, the Americans afforded no pause in their attacks. Once relieved from the line, the depleted German armored units had to be committed piecemeal again to try to block the continuing thrusts. Although this produced occasional intense combat, particularly at towns or villages blocking main highways, nowhere was it sufficient to stall or throw back the infantry of the two American divisions. Operating with only normal tank and tank destroyer attachments, the 78th Division on 21 March gained the Sieg River, the northern limit of the bridgehead as authorized by General Bradley. At that point the corps commander, General Collins, attached to the 78th Division a combat command of the 3d Armored Division to attack east along the south bank of the Sieg. By 22 March the divisions of the VII Corps had reached the final bridgehead line, both at the Sieg River and along the west bank of the little Hanf Creek that empties into the Sieg just over nine miles east of the Rhine.
The 9th and 99th Divisions of the III Corps, commanded now by General Van Fleet, profited from the shift of German armor to the north. On 18 March the 9th Division at last cut the autobahn, while patrols from the 99th Division reached the meandering Wied River almost due east of Remagen. Other contingents of the 99th Division drove swiftly southward close along the Rhine almost to a point opposite Andernach. By 20 March the III Corps had reached the prescribed bridgehead line.
As both corps neared the planned line, General Hodges at the First Army's headquarters fretted at the restrictions still binding his troops. Watching with admiration far-reaching drives west of
the Rhine by the Third Army, Hodges was convinced the end for Germany was near. "The war is over, I tell you," he kept repeating to his colleagues; "the war is over."48
The next day, 19 March, as pleasant but unfounded rumors swept the First Army of an impending armistice, Hodges flew, at the 12th Army Group commander's behest, to meet General Bradley in Luxembourg City. During the morning, Hodges learned, Bradley had conferred with General Eisenhower. In anticipation of an early attack by Montgomery's 21 Army Group to cross the Rhine, Hodges was authorized to send a maximum of nine divisions into the Remagen bridgehead. From 23 March on, he was to be prepared to break out to the southeast, the main objective to be Limburg and the Lahn River valley and linkup with Third Army troops once Patton's forces crossed the Rhine.49
The wraps thus were about to be removed from the First Army, though the final unveiling was predicated on Montgomery's crossing the Rhine. The date for the First Army's big push later would be set for 25 March.
In preparation for the attack, Hodges on the 21st sent General Huebner's V Corps into the bridgehead to take over the southern periphery from the 99th Division. When the attack date came, nine divisions, including three armored divisions, would be ready for the exploitation.
It remained for the Germans to write a final, futile postscript to the Remagen bridgehead fighting. On 24 March, still imbued with the idea that the Americans were aiming directly for the Ruhr, Field Marshal Model managed to assemble the bulk of the German armor for his long-delayed counterattack under the direction of General Bayerlein. Yet when the Germans struck the divisions of the VII Corps, their efforts were poorly co-ordinated and far too weak for the job. It was, in effect, not one counterattack but several small ones that brought intense fighting at various points but, in the end, gained nothing. The Germans merely frittered away irreplaceable troops that would be needed desperately the next day elsewhere along the periphery of the Remagen bridgehead and already were needed at other points on the elongated Rhine front, where on 23 March portentous events had begun to occur.
The capture of the Ludendorff railroad bridge and its subsequent exploitation was one of those coups de théâtre that sometimes happen in warfare and never fail to capture the imagination. Just how much it speeded the end of the war is another question. The bridgehead dealt a serious blow to German morale that may well have been partly responsible for lackluster resistance at other points, and it served as a magnet to draw a measure of fighting strength from other sites. On the other hand, the German Army clearly would have been beaten without it, perhaps just as quickly.50 From 7 through 24 March, the Remagen bridgehead fighting cost the III Corps approximately 5,500 casualties, including almost 700 killed and 600 missing. The VII Corps, from 16 through 24 March, incurred not quite 1,900 casualties, including 163 killed and 240
missing. In the same time span, the Germans lost more than 11,700 men as prisoners alone.
When the First Army attacked again on 25 March, a new war of movement even more spectacular than that displayed in the drive to the Rhine was to open. A precursor of what it would be like was to be seen in a drive already underway by the Third Army into the Saar-Palatinate.
Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (10) * Next Chapter (12)
1. See above, ch. I; Pogue, The Supreme Command, pp. 413-14.
2. Ltr, Eisenhower to AGp CG's, 20 Feb 45; SCAF 180, 201500 Jan 45. Both in SHAEF SGS Post-OVERLORD Planning file, 381, III.
3. 12th AGp Opns Plan, 23 Feb 45; Rhineland Opns Plan (draft), 27 Feb 45.
4. 12th AGp Outline Opn UNDERTONE, 7 Mar 45.
5. The German story is primarily from a study by Ken Hechler, Seizure of the Remagen Bridge, based on postwar German manuscripts and contemporary German records and prepared in OCMH to complement this volume. A U.S. Army historian in Europe during World War II, Mr. Hechler subsequently wrote a comprehensive and authoritative account of the Remagen action, The Bridge at Remagen (New York: Ballantine Books, 1957). The published work includes considerable material developed by Mr. Hechler through postwar interviews in the United States and Germany, and has also been used extensively in the preparation of the first half of this chapter.
6. See above, ch. X.
8. Combat interview with General Leonard, see also interview with General Millikin and his comments on the draft MS of this volume.
9. A translation of this order appears as Annex to 99th Div G-2 Periodic Rpt, 7 Mar 45.
10. Direct quotations in this section are from Hechler, The Bridge at Remagen.
11. Hechler, The Bridge at Remagen, p. 155.
12. Ibid., p. viii.
13. Bradley, A Soldier's Story, p. 510.
14. Ibid. For General Bull's view of this event, see John Toland, The Last 100 Days (New York: Random House, 1966), pp. 214-15.
15. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1948), p. 380; Capt, Harry C. Butcher, USNR, My Three Years with Eisenhower (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946), p. 768. Bradley, A Soldier's Story, page 514, says four divisions.
16. MS # B-590, 11th Panzer Division, 6-21 March (Generalleutnant Wend von Wietersheim).
17. MSS # A-970, Remagen Bridgehead--LIII Corps (Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein) and # B-590 (Wietersheim).
18. Kesselring's personal account of his stewardship may be found in his memoirs, A Soldier's Record (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1954), pp. 283ff.
19. MS # C-020 (Schramm).
20. V Corps Operations in the ETO, p, 401; VII Corps AAR, Mar 45.
21. Sylvan Diary, entry of 9 Mar 45; see also telephone messages in III Corps G-3 Jnl file, 8-9 Mar 45.
22. III Corps Opnl Dir 10, 8 Mar 45; General Millikin's comments on the draft MS of this volume.
23. MS # B-547 (Generalleutnant Eduard Metz).
24. Combat interview with Col. Phillips, CofS III Corps; Sylvan Diary, entry of 11 Mar 45; Gen Millikin's comments on the draft MS of this volume.
25. MSS # A-970 (Bayerlein) and # B-590 (Wietersheim).
26. See criticisms in MS # B-829 (General der Infanterie Gustav von Zangen).
27. MSS # B-829 (Zangen) and # B-101 (General der Infanterie Otto Hitzfeld).
28. MS # A-970 (Bayerlein).
29. LCVP's could carry thirty-six soldiers with full combat equipment, vehicles up to the size of ¾-ton ambulances or trucks, or four tons of cargo. See Samuel Eliot Morison, The Invasion of France and Germany (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1957), pp. 317-23.
30. For the engineer story, see AAR's of the engineer units, III Corps Engineer War Diary, and combat interviews with engineer officers.
31. Sylvan Diary, entries of 8-10 Mar 45; III Corps AAR, Mar 45.
32. A convenient summary of the antiaircraft defense may be found in 16th AAA Gp AAR, Antiaircraft Artillery Defense of Rhine Bridges, 17 Mar 45.
33. III Corps AAR, Mar 45.
34. SHAEF Air Defense Division, Summary of Casualties and Damage from V-Weapon Attack, Report for the Week Ending 19 March 1945; British War Office, The German Long-Range Rocket Programme, 1930-1945, MIA4/14, 30 Oct 45, copy in OCMH; Royce I. Thompson, Military Impact of the German V-Weapons, MS in OCMH.
35. Sylvan Diary, entry of 15 Mar 45.
36. Ibid., entry of 17 Mar 45.
37. Combat interview with Lt. Col. Clayton A. Rust, CO 276th Engineer Combat Bn.
38. Hechler, in The Bridge at Remagen, pages 212-20, analyzes the various speculations in detail.
39. Ibid., pp. 192-212.
40. III Corps Engineer War Diary, 120600 Mar 45.
41. SCAF 232, SHAEF to Bradley, 13 Mar 45, in 12th AGp Military Objectives, 371.3, vol. VI. Quote is from Bradley, A Soldier's Story, p. 517.
42. 12th AGp Ltr of Instrs No. 17, 13 Mar 45.
43. Sylvan Diary, entry of 15 Mar 45, and passim.
44. III Corps and VII Corps AAR's Mar 45, and pertinent German MSS.
45. III Corps AAR, Mar 45.
46. VII Corps Engineer Office, Rhine Crossings of VII Corps; VII Corps AAR, Mar 45.
47. MSS # A-970 (Bayerlein); # B-829 (Zangen); # B-101 (Hitzfeld).
48. Sylvan Diary, entry of 18 Mar 45.
49. Ibid., entries of 19-20 Mar 45.
50. For a German view, see Wagener, MS # A-965.