The Rhine Crossings in the North
Source of weird and romantic legends, the Rhine River has long held a peculiar fascination for the German people, a historic moat guarding them against the traditional enemies to the west. As the German armies in the summer of 1944 fell back from defeat in France, their commanders appealed for authority to withdraw behind that moat, the only hope, they believed, for stopping the Allied armies and recovering from the debacle in France. Yet Hitler said no and continued to say no all through the fall and winter, so that with the coming of spring the military force that might have hoped to defend successfully at the Rhine had ceased to exist, destroyed in the fighting west of the river.
That American armies had already jumped the Rhine before Field Marshal Montgomery was ready for an assault had no effect on General Eisenhower's plan to make the main Allied effort with the 21 Army Group in the north, for the prize at which the main effort was aimed remained to be taken. This was the vast complex, fifty miles wide at its base along the Rhine, sixty miles deep, prewar producer of 65 percent of Germany's crude steel, 56 percent of its coal, the only major source of power left to the Germans after the Russians had overrun Silesia and the Americans the Saar: the Ruhrgebiet, or Ruhr industrial area.
In the planning days that preceded the invasion, the Allies had held that the Ruhr was the vital economic objective whose capture would precipitate German collapse. Since before D-day the Supreme Allied Commander and the senior British commander, Montgomery, had held with single-minded determination to the view that the way to get the Ruhr was to make the main effort in the north.
Long an exponent of the deliberate, set-piece attack, Field Marshal Montgomery had been looking ahead to the crossing of the Rhine since September of the preceding year when a daring coup de main involving three airborne divisions had failed to get the British across a downstream branch of the Rhine in the Netherlands.1 So had the planners at SHAEF and at the First Canadian, Second British, and Ninth U.S. Armies.
Planning conferences, particularly among engineer and ordnance specialists, had begun as early as October 1944.2 By November a broad outline sufficiently detailed for general planning was at hand. A number of engineer units behind the lines were designated to train
and experiment with amphibious equipment and river-crossing techniques. To an engineer group given that mission in the Ninth Army was attached Naval Unit Number 3, largest of three naval contingents supporting U.S. armies, equipped with twenty-four LCVP's and twenty-four LCM's (landing craft, medium). A harbor craft company of the Transportation Corps later was attached to the engineer group to instruct in operating Seamules, 38-foot tugs powered by two 143-hp. engines.3 A contingent of the Royal Navy also equipped with LCVP's and LCM's provided amphibious support for the British.4
When planning resumed early in 1945 after a lapse during the Ardennes counteroffensive, the question of adequate numbers of assault and landing craft and of sufficient bridging equipment came into consideration. Since the plan was that the other two Allied army groups were to cross the Rhine soon after the major effort in the north, there had to be enough for all three. Following a theaterwide survey, including Great Britain, General Eisenhower asked for hurry-up shipments from the United States. Also in January the Supreme Commander called a three-day meeting at SHAEF where river-crossing specialists from all three army groups pooled their knowledge. The SHAEF G-4 meanwhile estimated supply requirements for a Rhine bridgehead at 540 tons per day per division, and Field Marshal Montgomery made plans to forestall a supply bottleneck behind the lines by ordering construction of eight more bridges to supplement existing tactical bridges over the Maas River.5
In late January when the Ninth Army chief of staff, General Moore, attended a planning conference at headquarters of the 21 Army Group, it became apparent that little additional work could be done without at least a preliminary assignment of zones. Both the Second Army and the Ninth Army, for example, had been counting on using bridge sites at Wesel. In a directive issued on 21 January, Field Marshal Montgomery moved to clarify the situation, only to create, in the process, considerable concern among the Ninth Army staff.
The Second Army, Montgomery directed, was to prepare to cross the Rhine at three places, near Rees (twenty-five miles upstream from Arnhem), east of Xanten (another seven miles upstream near Wesel), and in the vicinity of Rheinberg (some ten miles farther upstream at the northwestern corner of the Ruhr). Although an American corps of two infantry divisions was to be attached to the British for the crossing, the Ninth Army was not to participate in the assault. The American army was to be committed only for the exploitation phase.6
The Ninth Army, its historian has noted, was "flabbergasted!"7 That only an American corps, submerged within a British army, was to participate in the great assault was to the Ninth Army staff inconceivable; but aside from that apparent
FIELD MARSHAL MONTGOMERY
affront, what of the supply and evacuation problems arising from employment of American units with the British? What of the mass of assault and bridging equipment already accumulated in the Ninth Army? Why waste in inaction the Ninth Army's formidable strength of twelve divisions? And what of the logistical problems of passing the entire Ninth Army through the British bridgehead?
Fortunately, staffs and commanders of the Second British and Ninth U.S. Armies had through long experience in operating side by side achieved considerable rapport. After several discussions the Ninth Army commander, General Simpson, and his British opposite, General Dempsey, submitted a revised plan calling for fuller American participation. They proposed narrowing the British sector, splitting the area around Xanten between the two armies, and making room for a two-corps assault by the Ninth Army from Xanten to Rheinberg. They proposed further that the assault be extended to the northwest to make room for the First Canadian Army on the left of the British.
Although Montgomery turned down the proposal, he appeared to comprehend the American position. On 4 February he issued new instructions assigning the Rheinberg area to a one-corps assault under the Ninth Army. Acknowledging the Ninth Army's requirements for additional bridge sites near Xanten at Wesel, he registered his intent to transfer Wesel to American use once the bridgehead was secure. Because of floodplains, poor approaches, and high ground commanding likely crossing sites downstream from Rees, he vetoed a Canadian assault but planned to attach a Canadian brigade to the British and subsequently commit additional Canadian forces in the bridgehead at Rees to drive downstream and clear a crossing site for the First Canadian Army. Although this plan was little different from the first one, it assuaged American feelings by giving the Ninth Army control of the participating U.S. corps.8
The Big Build-up
It was a staggering force of more than a million and a quarter men that Montgomery summoned to the assault in his final order issued on 9 March, two days after Remagen and the same day that the last Germans abandoned the west bank
of the Rhine in the 21 Army Group zone. The Second Army had 11 divisions (3 of them armored, 2 airborne) and 6 brigades (including 4 armored and 1 Commando). The Ninth Army also had 11 divisions (3 of them armored). The First Canadian Army had 8 divisions.9
Given a target date of 24 March and the code name PLUNDER, the 21 Army Group's crossing of the Rhine was to rival D-day in Normandy in terms not only of number of troops involved but also in build-up of supplies, transport, and special equipment, in amount of supporting firepower, in complexity of deception plans, and in general elaboration. A sampling of statistics provides a ready index to the immensity of what probably was the most elaborate assault river crossing operation of all time. The British alone marshaled 60,000 tons of ammunition, 30,000 tons of engineer stores, and 28,000 tons of other commodities, all in addition to normal daily requirements. The Ninth Army built up another 138,000 tons of supplies. More than 37,000 British engineers were to participate, and 22,000 American. Including attached Canadian units, the British had 3,411 artillery pieces, antitank and antiaircraft guns, and rocket projectors; the American, 2,070. The Ninth Army alone issued over 800,000 maps.
Both armies made extensive efforts to conceal their build-up, devising elaborate schemes of camouflage, creating dummy installations and equipment, intensifying patrolling and artillery fire in sectors not scheduled for assault, and maintaining a chemical smoke screen for ten days along a 20-mile front. Hardly any detail went unnoticed. To make room for mammoth trucks bringing the big landing craft to the water, bulldozers shoved buildings aside. Railheads were pushed forward, new roads constructed. Civilians for several miles west of the Rhine were evacuated. In the Ninth Army, engineers went so far as to borrow chemical heating pads from hospital units to wrap around outboard motors of assault craft to assure a ready start in the early spring chill.10
Along the 21 Army Group's front, the width of the Rhine varied from 900 to 1,500 feet. In March, the current seldom exceeds five miles per hour and the depth is never less than nine feet, thus meeting conditions for employing both small and medium-size assault and landing craft. Banks of mixed sand and gravel are suitable for launching assault craft, but dikes rising twelve to fifteen feet above the surrounding ground and standing as much as two miles from the main channel of the river pose an engineering obstacle and provide a ready line of defense.
The land on both sides of the Rhine is low and flat, creased by numerous creeks, canals, and drainage ditches. Running on an east-west course and emptying into the Rhine just south of Wesel, the Lippe River and the generally parallel Lippe-Seiten Canal split the zone that Montgomery had chosen for the assault. The river would serve along part of its course as a boundary between American and British forces. One to four miles beyond the Rhine runs the Ruhr-Wesel-Arnhem
rail line, along the most of its length built on fill, with highways passing through culverts underneath. In the sector assigned the Ninth Army, the railroad becomes two lines, not quite a mile apart. Like the dikes, the railroads might serve a defender well, as might numerous towns, hamlets, settlements, and scattered buildings dotting the landscape. This is not the urban complex that is the Ruhr a few miles away--indeed, extensive fields and hundreds of patches of deciduous woods ranging from small woodlots to forests four to seven miles across provide a rural atmosphere--but the man-made structures are sufficient to afford a determined defender many a solid strongpoint. In winter and at the beginning of spring it was a drab, dull landscape, a study in shades of grey in which the technicolor of exploding shells looked out of place.
Extending eleven miles south from the Lippe River, the Ninth Army's assault zone contained good roads leading east and northeast only on either flank, but that of the British afforded a spider web of highways leading northwest, north, and northeast. The concentration of roads made readily apparent why the Second Army's attack constituted Field Marshal Montgomery's main effort. While the Ninth Army with its assault corps blocked to the southeast to seal off the Ruhr, the British were to expand the center of the bridgehead and prepare for a deep strike northeastward across the north German plain. Once crossing sites were available downstream from Rees, the Canadians were to drive swiftly northward to trap any German forces remaining in the Netherlands. The Ninth Army was to send a corps through the British sector, taking advantage of the roadnet there to get into position for a thrust eastward to come in behind the Ruhr from the north. The Ninth Army was to move once Montgomery deemed the bridgehead secure enough for bridges at Wesel and for a main road north of the Lippe to be turned over permanently to the Ninth Army.11
As of 9 March, when Montgomery issued his basic order, plans for using the two airborne divisions that were attached to the Second Army and headquarters of the XVIII Airborne Corps that controlled them still were indefinite. Montgomery directed only that they make an airborne attack in support of the Second Army's assault, that they be called on to conduct independent operations for no longer than ten days, and that as soon as possible one of the airborne divisions--British--was to pass to control of the Second Army, the other--American--to the Ninth Army.12
Despite the vagueness, Allied commanders had long planned to augment the major crossing of the Rhine with an airborne attack designed to eliminate enemy artillery and to block movement against the bridgehead. The Supreme Commander himself had expressed personal interest in it. Since August of the preceding year planning had proceeded off and on, and in February the First Allied Airborne Army (General Brereton) had published a broad outline plan. Called Operation VARSITY, the plan involved participation by three airborne divisions, but when a survey revealed insufficient airport facilities and transport aircraft for such a force, it was scaled down to a two-division effort. It
was to be made by the XVIII Airborne Corps under General Ridgway, employing the British 6th Airborne Division and the U.S. 17th.13
The job of transporting the airborne troops went to the U.S. IX Troop Carrier Command (Maj. Gen. Paul L. Williams), with the 38 and 46 Groups of the Royal Air Force attached, all old hands at that sort of task. The Royal Air Force 2d Tactical Air Force (Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham) was to provide air cover, escort, and tactical support.
As with the ground assault, preparation for the airborne attack involved a prodigious amount of planning and work. While detailed planning proceeded, hundreds of construction engineers and civilian workers began expanding runways of Continental airfields that normally accommodated only tactical aircraft. Having seen no combat since the Normandy invasion, the British 6th Airborne Division was at full strength, while the U.S. 17th Airborne Division had fought hard in the Ardennes and required intensive training to integrate individual replacements. A new table of organization and equipment for airborne divisions, which the U.S. War Department had ordered to go into effect on 1 March, complicated the task. Since the new table allowed only one glider infantry regiment, the division had to inactivate one regiment and absorb the men from it in other units. Converting the glider field artillery battalions from two firing batteries to three left the division short one battalion, for which a replacement was to arrive only ten days before the target date.
Men of the 17th Airborne Division also had to learn to operate two previously untried weapons--the 57-mm. and 75-mm. recoilless rifles. Only recently brought to the European theater by ordnance specialists from Washington, a hundred of the rifles were distributed among the four U.S. airborne divisions in the theater. Not only in lack of recoil were the weapons revolutionary but also in weight. The 57-mm. rifle weighed only 45 pounds and could be fired from the shoulder. The 75-mm. rifle weighed 114 pounds (as compared to 3,400 pounds for the standard 75-mm. gun and carriage) and was fired from a machine gun tripod. In the 17th Airborne Division, the 57-mm. rifles were distributed directly to the parachute battalions, with special crews trained to man them, while the 75-mm. pieces went to the antitank battalion.14
Even a hasty glance at a map of the 21 Army Group's zone would reveal that the focus for any major attempt to cross the
Rhine would be the city of Wesel (population, 24,000) with its roads and rail network. Thus the assignment given to the XVIII Airborne Corps was logical: to seize high ground crowned by the Diersfordter Forst northwest of Wesel, thereby denying the enemy dominant observation on both the Wesel and Xanten crossing sites and blocking major highways leading both north and northwest from Wesel.
The objective was concentrated, admirably suited to capture and retention by two airborne divisions. At the same time, it was little over a mile from the projected Rhine crossing sites. Although the distance augured well for early linkup with the ground forces, it also dictated that if the airborne troops dropped before or coincident with the ground assault, which was normal practice, the ground troops would have to forgo all but the shallowest artillery support. Further, the ground troops needed to begin their attack in darkness, whereas experience had shown daylight best for an airborne attack.
The Second British Army commander, General Dempsey, suggested the solution. The paratroopers and glidermen were to delay their assault until British infantry had gained a footing beyond the river. It seemed a simple solution, but nobody had ever done it that way before.
Interdiction From the Air
Not as an integral part of Operation PLUNDER but as a general preliminary to assault across the Rhine, Allied air forces since mid-February had been conducting a heavy bombing program called "Interdiction of Northwest Germany."15 The object was to seal off the Ruhr from the rest of Germany by destroying rail bridges and viaducts and attacking canal traffic along a broad arc extending from Bremen near the North Sea south and southwest around the periphery of the Ruhr to the Rhine south of the industrial region. West of this line attacks were directed at communications centers, rail yards, industry, and similar targets.
From mid-February to 21 March Allied air forces concentrated on this task whenever any planes could be spared from other operations. Against the transportation system within the Ruhr alone, Allied bombardiers directed 31,635 tons of bombs. Heavy and medium bombers made 1,792 sorties against 17 rail bridges and viaducts along the arc encompassing the Ruhr. By 21 March, according to aerial reports, 10 of the bridges were destroyed and 5 others too damaged to use. After completing the job of helping the Canadian First Army and the U.S. Ninth Army to reach the Rhine, fighters and fighter-bombers of the British 2d Tactical Air Force and the U.S. XXIX Tactical Air Command (General Nugent) joined the Ruhr campaign. Most of the 7,311 sorties flown by these pilots between 11 and 21 March were directed against the rail and road systems of the Ruhr.
In the last three days before the 21 Army Group's assault, the heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force concentrated on enemy airfields and barracks, with particular attention to fields known to harbor jet aircraft. The heavies flew 3,859 sorties. During the same period 2,000 medium bombers of the U.S. 9th Bombardment Division hit communications centers, rail yards, and flak positions. Heavies of the Royal Air Force
Bomber Command carried out a similar program, while the Allied tactical aircraft hit a variety of targets--airfields, flak positions, and troop concentrations. The total air effort during those three days, which the airmen called "processing of the terrain," amounted to some 11,000 sorties. For such a restricted area and against targets that already had been blasted from time to time over at least the preceding three years, the blow was devastating.
The View From the East Bank
Already mortally wounded in the late winter fighting west of the Rhine, stabbed anew at Remagen, the Germans dutifully went about preparing to defend the lower reaches of the river against a major attack that was but a question of time and specific location. This "shadow of an army," one German army group chief of staff called it; morale of the troops varying "from suspicion to callous resignation," an officer corps that "lacked confidence and wondered just what were the demands of duty"; this army, he said, "could only pretend to resist."16
Given not quite two weeks' respite following the last withdrawal of troops to the east bank, German commanders deployed their surviving formations in accord with their estimate that the main Allied attack would hit between Emmerich and Dinslaken (the latter seven miles southeast of Wesel). The commander of Army Group H, General Blaskowitz, thus gave this sector to the stronger of his two weak forces, General Schlemm's First Parachute Army, while assigning the sector downstream from Emmerich to the Twenty-fifth Army (General der Infanterie Guenther Blumentritt). Blaskowitz and other German commanders also anticipated an airborne operation in conjunction with the river crossing, expecting that it would be launched ten miles or so northeast of Wesel to facilitate exploitation of the Allied bridgehead in that direction.17
Field Marshal Montgomery's intelligence staff estimated total German strength, including Volkssturm troops, opposite the entire 22-mile zone of assault at approximately 85,000, or some 35,000 less than the strength of the one American corps involved in the assault. Yet even that figure probably was high. The First Parachute Army, whose positions were basically contiguous to the zone of assault, had three corps, two of which had three makeshift divisions each and the third, two divisional formations. The strongest of the three, the II Parachute Corps, located opposite the British near Rees, had only about 12,000 men, less than the normal strength of an Allied division. The parachute army's only reserve was a replacement training division. Army Group H's reserve was the XLVII Panzer Corps, which had remnants of a panzer grenadier division and a panzer division; between them, the two divisions had only 35 tanks. In all the army group there were no more than 200 tanks and assault guns.18
On the plus side, Army Group H still
contained a reasonable complement of artillery, including a volks artillery corps and a volks werfer brigade to support the army group reserve. Firepower was increased by withdrawing almost all mobile antiaircraft units from the Netherlands and using them to supplement the fixed batteries in the vicinity of Wesel with an eye toward possible Allied airborne attack. (Allied commanders reckoned the Germans had 81 heavy and 252 light antiaircraft pieces in this sector.) Although all fortifications were of the hasty field variety, during the fortnight after the withdrawal behind the Rhine the Germans had prepared a fairly solid forward line along the river and the railroad that parallels the river, though there was little time for creating positions in depth. The new Commander in Chief West, Field Marshal Kesselring, reviewed and approved the defensive measures on 14 March.19
Despite the approval, Kesselring could have entertained no genuine optimism that his forces could hold successfully, for he had no reserves to send to Army Group H's assistance. Such optimism as there was received a sharp blow a week later, on 21 March, as Allied aircraft stepped up their bombardment. On that date, a bomb demolished a building housing headquarters of the First Parachute Army. The commander, General Schlemm, was seriously wounded. Although Schlemm would remain on the scene until General Blumentritt could be released from the Twenty-fifth Army to assume command on the 28th, he ran a high fever and was in no condition to exert real influence on the battle.20
"Two if by sea"
To the British and Americans it was clear that the Germans knew the assault was coming soon. Even if the spectacular smoke screen maintained on the west bank actually concealed all the preparations, which it did not, the very presence of the screen would indicate impending assault. On 20 March the Army Group H commander, General Blaskowitz, ordered "an increased state of alert."21
Nervousness betrayed German concern to the waiting assault force. As the target date of 24 March neared, harrassing artillery fire from the east bank increased markedly; patrol after patrol probed the west bank in quest of information, as often as not ending up in Allied prison camps. Taking advantage of periods when Allied aircraft were absent, German planes individually or in small groups strafed the Allied concentrations of men and equipment, though without appreciable effect. Some German pilots concentrated on knocking American artillery observation planes from the skies and succeeded in destroying eight.22 Almost every Allied patrol that sought to cross the river triggered nervous German fire.
By midafternoon of 23 March, all on the Allied side was ready. In deference to the projected airborne assault, there remained only a last-minute consultation with the weather prophets before Field Marshal Montgomery at 1530 made the decision that set the vast machine the 21 Army Group had become into motion.
Rhine Crossings in the North
24-28 March 1945
To hundreds of waiting units went the code words, "Two if by sea," which meant the British were coming.
Around 1800 on the same day, normal British harassing artillery fires against German positions near Rees began to build in intensity. By 2100 the shelling had reached a crescendo as assault waves of a division of the Second British Army's 30 Corps (Lt. Gen. Brian G. Horrocks) entered the river southeast of Rees. (Map XI.) In less than seven minutes the British assault craft touched down on the far bank against no more than sporadic opposition. Paratroopers of the II Parachute Corps (General der Fallschirmtruppen Eugen Meindl) were on hand, but the artillery had kept them down. In a matter of a few hours a column of British infantry had reached the outskirts of Rees.
While recognizing that this probably was not the main assault, the German army group commander, General Blaskowitz, directed the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division from his reserve to counterattack at Rees in hope of throwing back the first group before the main assault could begin.23 Since the British attack was designed primarily to draw German attention away from the Wesel sector, the German reaction demonstrated that the first phase of the Rhine crossing was a success.
An hour after the first troops began to cross, a British Commando brigade paddled stealthily across the river at a point about two miles west of Wesel. The commandos had little trouble touching down, then moving quietly overland toward the city. Halting less than a mile outside, they waited while some 200 planes of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command pounded their objective for fifteen minutes with more than a thousand tons of bombs. When the commandos moved in after midnight, the city was a mound of rubble, though German defenders were still much in evidence. Here stood a conglomerate force, the Wesel Division, organized around a nucleus of antiaircraft artillery units. The tenacity of the resistance belied the division's heterogeneity and loose organization. It would be well into the day of 24 March before the commandos could deem Wesel secure and dawn the next day before all resistance collapsed. Among the German casualties was the division commander, Generalmajor Friedrich Deutsch, killed in the fighting.
At 0100 (24 March) a mammoth artillery preparation for the main assault had begun. A division of the British 12 Corps (Lt. Gen. Sir Neil M. Ritchie) prepared to cross the river an hour later northwest of Xanten. A division of the U.S. Ninth Army was to make a simultaneous assault across the Rhine north of Rheinberg, to be followed an hour later by another division east and southeast of Rheinberg.
To General Anderson's XVI Corps, a fledgling among American corps with combat experience only in the drive from the Roer to the Rhine, fell the assignment of directing the Ninth Army's assault crossing, called Operation FLASHPOINT. The two divisions selected to
make the crossing were, on the other hand, veterans of combat in the European theater since the preceding June--the 30th and 79th Divisions. Backing them up were the 8th Armored and the 35th and 75th Divisions. The Ninth Army in addition still contained the XIII and XIX Corps with a total of six divisions. The army commander, General Simpson, directed the XIII Corps to continue to defend along the Rhine south of the crossing sites while the XIX Corps assembled for early commitment in the bridgehead.
With five divisions, Anderson's XVI Corps already was considerably larger than a normal corps and was beefed up further with supporting units. In addition to regular XVI Corps artillery (Brig. Gen. Charles C. Brown), attached in general support were the 34th Field Artillery Brigade (Brig. Gen. John F. Uncles) with 13 battalions of medium, heavy, and superheavy pieces and the XIX Corps artillery headquarters (Brig. Gen. George D. Shea) with 11 battalions. Also attached were a tank destroyer group with 6 battalions, 6 separate tank battalions, 3 engineer combat groups, 2 antiaircraft artillery groups, a smoke generator battalion, a chemical (4.2-inch mortar) battalion, and a host of smaller units, including the assigned naval contingent. These raised the strength of the corps to 120,000 men, more an army than a corps, supported by an impressive 54 field artillery battalions. Artillery units of the XIII Corps and of one infantry division of that corps were to participate in the preparation fires and to answer calls for supporting fire as needed.24
The Ninth Army's usual ally in the sky, General Nugent's XXIX Tactical Air Command, joined other Allied air units in the pre-D-day interdiction program and was to expend part of its effort on 24 March in support of the big airborne attack, Operation VARSITY. Yet enough planes were left over to provide armed reconnaissance in support of the Ninth Army and to assign a fighter-bomber group to work directly with each of the two assault infantry divisions.
East of the Rhine, German defense of the approximately eight miles of front destined for assault by the XVI Corps was split between two corps of the First Parachute Army. The LXXXVI Corps under General der Infanterie Erich Straube had a primary task of holding Wesel but was also responsible for the sector from the Lippe River to a point on the Rhine southwest of Dinslaken. The 180th Division of this corps would face the American 30th Division and part of the 79th. The parachute army's weakest command, the LXIII Corps, under General der Infanterie Erich Abraham, bore responsibility for the remaining two miles plus additional frontage as far south as the army group boundary in line with the Ruhr River south of Duisburg. The northernmost unit of Abraham's corps, a makeshift formation called the Hamburg Division, would face part of the 79th Division, while the 2d Parachute Division held the southern portion of the corps zone.25
A three-quarter moon dimly lit the landscape and a providential west wind was blowing the long-maintained smoke screen toward the enemy as engineers and infantrymen began to move storm and assault boats to the river's edge soon after midnight on 24 March. Accompanied by General Simpson, the Supreme Commander himself mingled and talked with the troops. The men were, General Eisenhower wrote later, "remarkably eager to finish the job."26
At 0100 as General Eisenhower and General Simpson moved to an observation post in a church tower, the 2,070 artillery pieces supporting the XVI Corps opened fire in a thunderstorm of sound. The earth trembled as one deafening explosion after another merged into a constant, ear-pounding cacophony. Every minute for sixty minutes, more than a thousand shells ranging in weight from 25 to 325 pounds crashed to earth beyond the Rhine. During the hour-long preparation, the artillerymen fired a total of 65,261 rounds.27 At the same time 1,500 heavy bombers were attacking a dozen airfields within range of the crossing sites. Against the backdrop of violence, infantrymen and engineers took their places in storm and double assault boats, while other engineers hoisted big pontons close to the water to begin their job of building bridges the moment the west bank was free of the first assault waves.
All three regiments of the 30th Division participated in the assault--the 119th Infantry on the left, just southeast of the village of Buederich, near the confluence of the Lippe with the Rhine; the 117th Infantry in the center at the village of Wallach; and the 120th Infantry two miles to the southeast near a big bend in the river just northeast of Rheinberg. Each regiment used one battalion in the assault. Each assault battalion was organized into four waves with two-minute intervals between waves. Each battalion had 54 storm boats (7 men and a crew of 2) powered by 55-hp. motors and 30 double assault boats (14 men and a crew of 3) driven by 22-hp. motors. Machine guns firing tracer bullets guided the first wave, while colored aircraft landing lights would show the way for those who followed.
As the men awaited the signal to push into the stream, occasional German mortar fire fell, though with little effect. Only after the boats raced out onto the water and disappeared in swirls of gray smoke did any German shells find a target. They knocked out two of the 119th Infantry's storm boats, killing one man and wounding three. That was all.
In a matter of minutes, the bottoms of the boats in the first wave were scraping on the far bank, the men leaping from the craft and running toward the big dike. Only at one point, where men of Company G, 120th Infantry, landed a few hundred yards from their planned crossing site, was there fire from dug-in Germans on the dike, and Company G quickly silenced that without loss. Everywhere else the Germans were mute. Although the artillery had scored few hits on the dike, the German defenders were blinded by the smoke and thoroughly cowed by the shelling.
"There was no real fight to it," noted 1st Lt. Whitney O. Refvem, commander
of the 117th Infantry's Company B. "The artillery had done the job for us."28 The artillery was timed perfectly, the lieutenant observed, lifting only moments before the assault boats reached the east bank. Two rounds of white phosphorus served as the signal that the artillery was passing on to more distant targets.
Nor was there appreciable opposition to the crossing of succeeding waves, which normally could have been expected to attract heavier shelling. The answer again was to be found in the mammoth artillery preparation, which had silenced at least some German guns and apparently had cut all telephone wires; since few forward observers had radios, they had no way to call for fire. Daylight was at hand before the first German shelling in appreciable amounts struck the crossing sites.
There could be no question from the first that the 30th Division had staged a strikingly successful crossing of the sprawling Rhine. Within two hours of the jump-off, the first line of settlements east of the river was in hand, all three regiments had at least two battalions across, and a platoon of DD tanks had arrived to help the center regiment. In the assault crossing total casualties among all three regiments were even less than for the one regiment that had made the Third Army's surprise crossing twenty-eight hours earlier at Oppenheim.
The British had crossed with similar ease near Xanten and had quickly pushed a thousand yards beyond the Rhine. It remained for the 79th Division to execute the last amphibious phase of the big assault, to cross the Rhine at 0300 at points east and southeast of Rheinberg.
It was because of the southeastward curvature of the Rhine that the 79th Division's attack came an hour later than that of the 30th Division, thus affording men of the 30th a chance to overcome the handicap and also avoiding the risk of exposed inner flanks for both divisions.29 For the Germans opposite the 79th Division, it meant two hours of artillery punishment instead of one.
The 79th Division commander, General Wyche, chose to make his crossing with two regiments side-by-side, each regiment using one battalion in the assault. Unlike the 30th Division, which used only storm boats for the first wave, reserving the slower assault boats for subsequent crossings, the assault units of the 79th Division mixed the two. They overcame the difference in speed by giving the assault boats a head start.30
Although the hour's delay afforded the 79th Division additional artillery preparation, it also added an element of confusion, for by 0300 the west wind had decreased, allowing nature's fog and man's smoke to cling closely to the water and to both banks of the river. Except for a smattering of small arms fire, the Germans opposed the crossing no more effectively than they had that of the 30th Division; but the difficulty of holding course in the fog and smoke scattered and intermingled the units on the east bank. The men in some boats lost direction altogether and returned to the west bank. Thinking they had landed on the enemy
side of the river, men in one boat raced ashore in a skirmish line, only to meet other Americans coming down to the water to load.
Yet in the absence of serious enemy reaction, the confusion was short-lived. Within forty-five minutes both assault battalions had assembled and begun their drives to the east. Like the men of the 30th Division, those of the 79th attributed much of their easy success to the artillery preparation. The fire lifted only after the first boats were three-fourths of the way across the river. Prisoners said "they had never encountered anything like it, and it completely stunned, scared, and shook them."31
Well before daylight, two battalions were ashore in each regimental sector, and again there could be no question of the extent of the success. For both divisions of the XVI Corps, detailed planning, rehearsal on sand tables and on rear area rivers, careful attention to deception, and intimate co-ordination with a powerful artillery arm had produced remarkable results. Together the two divisions had crossed one of the most imposing water obstacles in western Europe at a cost of thirty-one casualties.
The Drive to the Railroads
Success continued to crown the attack as the men drove eastward. Even before the second battalion of the 79th Division's 315th Infantry had begun to cross the river, the leading battalion swept past the first railroad to the outskirts of Dinslaken, a city of 25,000 almost two miles from the crossing site. The leading battalion of the 313th Infantry, on the south, also reached the first rail line quickly, then swung southeast to build up a flank defense along a canal that leads eastward from a man-made inlet forming the harbor of the Rhine town of Walsum.
Seldom did the Germans offer more than perfunctory defense. One explanation was that the 79th Division had struck on the seam between the 180th Division and the Hamburg Division, which was also the boundary between Straube's LXXXVI Corps and Abraham's LXIII Corps. Another was the limited number of trained men available to the Germans. Still another, obviously, was the weight of the Allied artillery bombardment. In those cases where the Germans did stand to fight, the American regiments brought to bear a weapon they had borrowed from their enemy--the Panzerfaust. Both regiments had equipped their assault battalions with 200 of these one-shot German antitank rockets. The blast effect of the weapons against buildings more often than not convinced even die-hard occupants to surrender.
So irresolute and spotty was resistance in front of the 79th Division that not once during the day of 24 March did the division call on the fighter-bomber group that was assigned in support. Nor was the weight of armor--often crucial in a bridgehead battle--necessary; the fact that medium tanks and tank destroyers did not arrive in the bridgehead until midafternoon mattered little. By nightfall the 79th Division held a bridgehead more than three miles wide and deep, securely anchored on canal lines on both north and south, embracing Dinslaken, and in the north extending well beyond the second railroad. The division
reserve, the 314th Infantry, was on hand, along with supporting tank and tank destroyer battalions. More than 700 prisoners were on their way to the rear, and American casualties were few. The 313th Infantry, for example, lost 1 man killed and 11 wounded.32
For the 30th Division, striking into the center of the enemy's 180th Division, most gains were harder to come by, but they came nevertheless. The 119th Infantry, on the north, ran into its first real trouble in midmorning at a highway underpass at the first railroad. It took the help of light tanks, ferried across the Rhine in LCM's, to force a way past. The 117th Infantry had similar trouble at another underpass farther to the south, where an antitank piece blocked efforts to fill a crater that barred the road; supporting artillery eventually eliminated the German gun. By the end of the day both regiments had passed beyond the second railroad, while a two-company task force had cleared troublesome antiaircraft pieces from a spit of land north of the Lippe-Seiten Canal and had reached the Lippe River across from Wesel.
In the zone of the third regiment, the 120th Infantry, on the south, the most exciting development occurred. There, when the 3d Battalion under Maj. Chris McCullough soon after midday took the village of Moellen, astride the first railroad, patrols ranging eastward reported they found almost no Germans. Although the battalion already was considerably ahead of the rest of the regiment, the regimental commander, Col. Branner P. Purdue, determined to attempt a deep probe past the second railroad into open farm country beyond. By midafternoon a company of medium tanks, brought across the Rhine on Bailey rafts, and a platoon of tank destroyers, transported to the east bank by LCM's, were on their way to join the battalion.
One rifle company was loading on the tanks to start the drive when, without warning, a heavy concentration of artillery fire began to fall. The men scrambled for cover, then realized in consternation that the fire had come from the west. It was "friendly" fire. A quick check revealed no error on the part of artillery units supporting the 30th Division. The fault lay with the neighboring 79th whose troops had spotted the 3d Battalion's assembly and thought it a German force preparing to counterattack.
The 30th Division commander, General Hobbs, was quick on the telephone to his counterpart in the 79th Division, General Wyche. Since the interdivision boundary was a readily recognizable canal line, Hobbs could see no excuse for the error. He needed no artillery assistance, he said caustically. "We have battalions to spare to fire into anything in our zone."33
The fire fortunately caused only minor casualties. Quickly re-forming, Major McCullough's battalion and his attached tanks and tank destroyers soon found the patrol reports were accurate. The column swept swiftly eastward, picking up forty docile Germans on the way, and halted for the night in open country a mile beyond the Dinslaken-Wesel highway. Although this position was only
three miles beyond the easternmost curve of the Rhine and generally on line with advance contingents of the 79th Division, it was well forward of other units of the 30th Division and six miles beyond the Rhine as it ran through the division's sector. McCullough's battalion thus had reached the limit of effective direct support artillery fire.
Although thus forced to halt, Major McCullough and his superiors were convinced they had achieved a breakthrough of the German positions. A 105-mm. artillery battalion, General Hobbs promised, would be on hand to support a swift advance the next day.
As a result of ingenious advance preparations by supporting engineers and of a continuing smoke screen that hampered German observation, a treadway bridge was opened to traffic at 1600. The bridge later was damaged when a Bailey raft loaded with a tank crashed into it, but not before the 118th Field Artillery Battalion had crossed. The bridge was back in service soon after midnight.
This bridge and the quick advance of Major McCullough's battalion made the 30th Division's position as night fell on the first day even more promising than that of the 79th Division. In the latter's sector, artillery fire and airbursts from big antiaircraft pieces delayed bridge construction and, though resistance was light, no indication of a clear breakthrough had developed. The 30th Division had taken 1,500 prisoners, more than double the number taken by the 79th.
Troops of the 30th Division were fighting at the first railroad and those of the 79th were clearing Dinslaken when shortly before 1000 on 24 March the steady drone of hundreds of aircraft motors began to emerge from the west. For two hours and thirty-two minutes the deep, throbbing hum of the motors was to continue. Since no pathfinder planes came in advance, even the first glimpse of planes gave the impression of the coming of a vast air armada. The great train was composed of 889 escorting fighters, 1,696 transport planes, and 1,348 gliders, bringing to the battlefield 21,680 paratroopers and glidermen, followed closely by 240 four-engine Liberator bombers of the U.S. Eighth Air Force dropping 582 tons of supplies.34 Another 2,153 fighter aircraft either maintained a protective umbrella over the target area or ranged far over Germany in quest of any German plane that might seek to interfere. None did. In addition, 2,596 heavy bombers (660 of them from the Fifteenth Air Force in Italy) and 821 medium bombers attacked airfields, bridges, marshaling areas, and other targets throughout Germany.
The men of the U.S. 17th Airborne Division (General Miley) had risen from twelve airfields north and south of Paris, those of the British 6th Airborne Division from airfields in England. In an intricately timed maneuver, they had rendezvoused near Brussels. Tails of both divisions, including 2,005 motor vehicles belonging to the American unit, had earlier headed for the target area by land. In anticipation of early linkup of airborne and ground troops, the commander, General Ridgway, and staff of the XVIII Airborne Corps did not participate in the airborne assault but were already in position on the west bank of the Rhine. The commander of the First Allied Airborne Army, General Brereton, also took up post on the west bank. The Supreme Commander and British Prime Minister Churchill, the latter in company with the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, watched the airborne attack from vantage points on separate hills.35
There was much to see even before the aerial train approached. Executing the climax to operations begun three days earlier, medium bombers and fighter-bombers of the Ninth Air Force and British Second Tactical Air Force, for half an hour preceding arrival of the first transports, rained fragmentation bombs on antiaircraft batteries in the vicinity of the drop and landing zones.36
AMERICAN PARATROOPER CAUGHT IN A TREE
At the same time, artillery of the British Second Army pounded antiaircraft gun positions short of a predesignated bomb line.
The sky was clear and bright in midmorning of 24 March, but a ground haze aggravated by drifting smoke from the screen along the Rhine lowered visibility close to the ground. Slightly ahead of schedule, the first flight of transport planes appeared over the target area at 0953. Carrying a battalion of the 507th Parachute Infantry, the planes missed the designated drop zone, a spot of cleared land just northwest of Wesel on the southern skirt of the Diersfordter Forst, the closest planned drop zone to the Rhine. The paratroopers came to earth instead a mile and three-quarters to the
northwest on the other side of the wood in a field near the town of Diersfordt.37
Because this flight arrived close behind the air and artillery antiflak program, it received little antiaircraft fire, but the drop pattern was widely dispersed nonetheless. The paratroopers coalesced into two relatively equal groups, one under the regimental commander, Col. Edson D. Raff, the other under the battalion commander, Maj. Paul F. Smith.
While Major Smith's group was destroying several antiaircraft positions, Colonel Raff's men disposed of a nest of machine guns and dug-in infantry and began to work southward through the forest toward the assigned regimental objective, relatively high ground along the fringe of the wood near Diersfordt. Spotting a battery of five 150-mm. artillery pieces firing from a clearing, Raff and his force detoured to eliminate it. They captured both the German artillerymen and the guns and spiked the guns with thermite grenades. By the time Raff's paratroopers reached the vicinity of Diersfordt, they had killed about 55 Germans, wounded 40, and captured 300, including a colonel.
The other two battalions of the 507th Parachute Infantry had in the meantime landed successfully on the assigned drop zone. As one of these, the 3d, got ready to attack Diersfordt and a castle that dominates it, two German tanks emerged from the castle and headed down a narrow forest road toward the waiting paratroopers. An aptly placed antitank grenade induced the crew of the lead tank to surrender, whereupon a tank hunter team armed with a 57-mm. recoilless rifle set the second afire with a direct hit, the first instance of successful combat use of the new weapon.
Resistance in Diersfordt, it soon developed, meant the castle. While two companies laid down a base of fire from the edge of the forest against turrets and upper windows, Company G entered and began to clean out the castle, room by room. Two hours later, at 1500, those Germans who remained capitulated. Among the 300 prisoners were several senior officers of General Straube's LXXXVI Corps and of the 84th Infantry Division.
By nightfall the 507th Parachute Infantry had consolidated along the woods line near Diersfordt and patrols had established contact with the 1st Commando Brigade in Wesel. Ten 75-mm. pack howitzers of the 464th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion were tied in to the position.
Second of the 17th Airborne Division's regiments to drop, the 513th Parachute Infantry incurred intense antiaircraft fire from an enemy no longer deterred by the Allied bombardment. All three battalions of the regiment landed more than a mile from their assigned drop zones inside the sector of the 6th Airborne Division north of Wesel near the town of Hamminkeln. Heavy small arms fire followed the paratroopers to the ground. After a short but sharp fire fight, they were able to assemble by battalions and fight their way southward to their assigned
GLIDER TROOPS AFTER LANDING NEAR WESEL
zones. In the process the paratroopers destroyed two German tanks, a self-propelled gun, and two batteries of 88's. While one battalion dug in on the landing zone, another cleared the woods north of Diersfordt and a third moved to the little Issel River, which marked the eastern extremity of the planned D-day objective line.38
Although the 513th's supporting artillery, the 466th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, landed on the correct drop zone southwest of Hamminkeln, enemy fire there was even heavier than that encountered by the infantry. A number of key men, including all the officers of one battery, were killed or wounded on the drop zone. The artillerymen nevertheless managed to assemble some
of their howitzers within half an hour, enabling them to place direct fire on the Germans and gradually to eliminate the opposition. By noon they had captured ten German 76-mm. pieces and were in position to provide supporting fire for the 513th Parachute Infantry.
It remained for the glider echelons, including service elements of the division, to better the record for accuracy in landing. At least 90 percent of the gliders descended on the proper landing zones north and northeast of Wesel in an eastward-oriented angle formed by the Issel River and the Issel Canal. Although German fire was in some cases intense, destroying some of the gliders even after they had landed safely, men of the 194th Glider Infantry within two hours of landing had swept to the river and the canal and most of the howitzers of the division's two glider field artillery battalions were in position to support them. One of the infantry battalions knocked out two German tanks en route to its objective along the river, then accounted for two more in repulsing small counterattacks after the men had dug in.
The British 6th Airborne Division encountered similar difficulty with flak and enemy ground fire but also moved swiftly to seize D-day objectives. By 1300 the town of Hamminkeln was in British hands along with several bridges over the Issel River east and northeast of the town.
Operation VARSITY, the airborne phase of the big Rhine assault, was an impressive success. All airborne troops were on the ground by 1230, along with 109 tons of ammunition, 695 vehicles, and 113 artillery pieces; and in a matter of hours, both Americans and British had seized all objectives assigned for the first day. In the process they had virtually eliminated the artillery and service elements of the enemy's 84th Infantry Division. Except for a surrounded pocket north of Diersfordt made up mainly of remnants of the 1053d Infantry, the enemy division had ceased to function as a tactical organization.39 The 17th Airborne Division claimed 2,000 prisoners, the 6th Airborne Division, another 1,500.
Linkup with British ground troops was firm by nightfall, and as early as midafternoon the XVIII Airborne Corps commander, General Ridgway, joined the 17th Airborne Division commander, General Miley, beyond the Rhine. By late afternoon supplies were moving across the Rhine in dukws in such volume as to eliminate the need for additional supply by air.
Yet for all the success of Operation VARSITY, the question remained whether under the prevailing circumstances an airborne attack had been necessary or was even justified. It unquestionably aided British ground troops, but at a cost to the 17th Airborne Division alone during the first day's operations of 159 men killed, 522 wounded, and 840 missing (though 600 of the missing subsequently turned up to fight again). The IX Troop Carrier Command alone lost 41 killed, 153 wounded, 163 missing.40 The airborne assault also cost over 50 gliders and 44 transport aircraft destroyed, 332
damaged. In the low-level supply mission flown directly after the assault by 240 Liberators of the Eighth Air Force, 15 aircraft were lost.41
In view of the weak condition of German units east of the Rhine and the particular vulnerability of airborne troops in and immediately following the descent, some overbearing need for the special capability of airborne divisions would be required to justify their use. Although the objectives assigned the divisions were legitimate, they were objectives that ground troops alone under existing circumstances should have been able to take without undue difficulty and probably with considerably fewer casualties. Participation by paratroopers and glidermen gave appreciably no more depth to the bridgehead at Wesel than that achieved by infantrymen of the 30th Division. Nor did the airborne attack speed bridge construction (as the XVIII Airborne Corps commander subsequently claimed),42 for not until 0915 the next day, 25 March, did engineers start work on bridges at Wesel. A treadway bridge had been opened to traffic behind the 30th Division seventeen hours before that.
At the End of D-Day
As night fell on 24 March, only on the extreme left of the forces involved in the 21 Army Group's Rhine crossing was there concern for Allied success. There, near Rees, twelve British and Canadian battalions supported by thirty DD tanks had crossed the river. Contingents of the 7th Parachute Division of General Meindl's II Parachute Corps still held onto high ground commanding the crossing sites, thereby preventing bridge construction and hindering all reinforcement. German paratroopers also clung tenaciously to a town northwest of Rees, cutting off and surrounding small groups of British troops that had gotten into the buildings. It would be well into the morning of the 25th before a relief force of Canadian infantry could set the situation right.
Despite this tenacity, the condition of the II Parachute Corps at nightfall on 24 March actually was precarious. The collapse of the 84th Division of the neighboring LXXXVI Corps under the impact of the Allied airborne attack exposed the left flank of the corps. When the counterattack by the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division failed to shake the British around Rees, General Meindl would have no choice but to pull back the paratroopers forming his left wing along the Rhine and face them to the east. The German situation at Rees, Meindl concluded, was "hopeless."43
The Germans thus faced likely disaster at three points: Rees, Wesel, and south of the Lippe River where the U.S. XVI Corps was close to a clean breakthrough. All that was available to ward off all three threats was the XLVII Panzer Corps with its lone remaining unit, the 116th Panzer Division. Although the Army Group H commander, General Blaskowitz, earlier had considered using the panzer corps to oppose any Allied airborne attack, he believed now that the greatest danger, despite the psychoogical
impact of the airborne assault, was posed by the Americans south of the Lippe. Already, early in the day, in a local measure the commander of the LXIII Corps, General Abraham, had ordered his 2d Parachute Division on his south wing, untouched by the American crossings, to move against the U.S. 79th Division. At 1400, Blaskowitz released the XLVII Panzer Corps from army group reserve and ordered the commander, General von Luettwitz, to send the 116th Panzer Division south of the Lippe to halt the U.S. 30th Division.44
Located near the Dutch-German border, the 116th Panzer Division would have to make a long, circuitous march to avoid the area of Allied airborne landings. This meant that additional fuel would have to be found before the division could depart; it meant also, in view of Allied fighter-bombers, a move by night. To General Luettwitz it was apparent that the main body of the panzer division could get started only after nightfall the next day, 25 March. Would this be in time to stop a breakout from the American bridgehead?
The Try for a Breakout
On 25 March the idea of breakout was strong in the mind of the 30th Division commander, General Hobbs. Delaying the morning's attack to allow the last of his divisional artillery to take position east of the Rhine, Hobbs at 0900 sent two regiments two miles to the east to seize high ground marked by an incomplete section of autobahn. When little opposition developed except dispirited remnants of the 180th Infantry Division, he ordered both regiments to form mobile task forces built around an attached tank destroyer battalion and two tank battalions and strike for deep objectives. A task force from the 117th Infantry on the left was to drive nine miles to Dorsten, a road and rail center on the south bank of the Lippe-Seiten Canal; another from the 120th Infantry was to seize Kirchhellen, six miles to the east on a main highway leading from Dorsten into the Ruhr.
Although General Hobbs had in mind sharp, rapid thrusts designed to shake loose from the opposition and break into the clear, he was reckoning without the problems of terrain and limited roadnet the two task forces would encounter. For approximately five miles the attacking columns would have to pass through dense stretches of woods crossed only by narrow dirt roads and trails. In that kind of country a few strategically placed roadblocks manned by a handful of resolute defenders could impose telling delays.
Slowed by the inevitable problems of assembling diverse units, the first of the task forces, that of the 120th Infantry, began to attack only at 1600. Almost from the outset the tankers and infantrymen had to fight for every little gain. The Germans suffered--they lost four half-tracks armed with multiple-barrel 20-mm. antiaircraft guns, two 75-mm. guns, three 105-mm. pieces, and several motor vehicles, including an ammunition truck that caught fire and set a patch of the forest ablaze--but they imposed the delay they wanted. Night was falling when interrogation of prisoners revealed the story: the task force was no longer fighting Volkssturm nor even disconsolate survivors of the 180th Division; the prisoners were from the 60th Panzer
Grenadier Regiment, 116th Panzer Division.
The 117th Infantry's task force, delayed when trucks hauling the infantry bogged down on trails churned to mud by tank treads, had not even reached its line of departure when word came of the portentous prisoner identifications. The news was not to be taken lightly, for men of the 30th Division had learned respect for the 116th Panzer Division long ago in the hedgerows of Normandy. Not until well after dark did the division commander, General Hobbs, decide to proceed with the attack; and the objective he assigned for the night was designed merely to bring the second task force abreast of the positions gained by the first. When the men dug in shortly after midnight, they were still seven miles short of Dorsten, those of the other task force still more than four miles from Kirchhellen. Furthermore, before daylight another battalion of the 117th Infantry, providing flank protection for the task forces by attacking the town of Huenxe on the Lippe-Seiten Canal, brought in a new batch of prisoners. These, it turned out, were from the panzer division's second grenadier regiment.
Although the evidence pointed to impending commitment of the entire 116th Panzer Division, General Hobbs determined to try again for his breakout before the enemy armor could make its full weight felt. Since the mission of the 79th Division was to wheel south and southeast to the Rhein-Herne Canal to block toward the Ruhr industrial area, all hope of early breakout rested with the 30th Division. Merely to accomplish the relatively limited flank protection mission was causing the 79th some difficulty; during the day, arrival of reinforcements from the 2d Parachute Division, albeit a depleted force, had introduced a touch of serious combat. Although a regiment of the 35th Division (General Baade) had entered the line during the day between the 79th and 30th Divisions, presaging arrival of the rest of the division the next day, the 35th Division too was scheduled to peel off to the southeast to block toward the Ruhr.
The 30th Division on the third day, 26 March, made some impressive gains, despite continuing problems with narrow, muddy forest trails and despite an enemy bearing no resemblance to the one who first had opposed the Rhine crossing. One battalion of the 119th Infantry reached Gahlen, another canal town midway between Huenxe and Dorsten, but there became so involved in a fight that a second battalion had to come to its aid. The 117th Infantry reached open ground just over three and and a half miles from Dorsten but had trouble holding the position because of fire from tanks in a nearby town and woodlot and from 128-mm. antiaircraft guns emplaced in concrete near an airfield.
The 120th Infantry had the roughest going of all at first, but in the end crowned the day with a strikingly successful maneuver. Continuing through the woods toward Kirchhellen, the regiment's 2d Battalion first had to disperse a counterattack by a company of the 116th Panzer Division's grenadiers supported by five tanks. From that point it was a slow, yard-by-yard advance until just before nightfall when the men reached the edge of the woods to look down on the airfield from which antiaircraft guns were harassing the neighboring 117th Infantry. Waiting for darkness,
the regimental commander, Colonel Purdue, committed a fresh battalion. As soon as preliminary artillery fire began to fall the assault companies rushed forward, vacating the foxholes at the line of departure, while the reserve company remained well back of the line. When the enemy's counterbarrage began, it fell on empty foxholes. The assault companies dashed downhill to clear the airfield in less than an hour. Not a man was lost.
These were impressive gains, but they were not breakout. By nightfall of 26 March the enemy's 116th Panzer Division had clearly thwarted immediate breakout and, though incapable of decisive counterattack, was strong enough to hold an attacker to limited gains. Only a small advance guard of the panzer division had been on hand to cause trouble for the 120th Infantry the night of 25 March, but the bulk of the division's infantry and some tanks had arrived by daylight of the 26th. The remainder of the division entered the line that evening, whereupon responsibility for the sector south of the Lippe passed to the XLVII Panzer Corps. With the responsibility came a second divisional unit, the 190th Infantry Division, rushed from the Netherlands to take up positions south of the panzer division. It was a makeshift division equipped with little heavy fire support, including only one artillery battalion and few antitank weapons.45
Faced with this situation, the 30th Division's General Hobbs would have been content with more leisurely attacks that would afford his tired infantry battalions a chance to rest, but pressure for breakout had begun to build from the Ninth Army commander, General Simpson. Behind the lines, Simpson held not only two more divisions belonging to General Anderson's XVI Corps but also the entire XIX Corps and, potentially, the XIII Corps, with no place to commit them. Late on the 26th General Anderson ordered the 8th Armored Division to move through Hobbs's infantry in search of the maneuver room the Ninth Army needed.46
How To Bring the Ninth Army's Power To Bear
The inability of the 30th Division to break into the open was but one aspect of the problem facing the Ninth Army, the decision to commit the 8th Armored Division but one possibility for solving it. The core of the problem lay in the way operations had developed in the British bridgehead and its effect on use of bridges at Wesel and on maneuver room to be made available to the Ninth Army north of the Lippe River and canal complex.
Pressed back to the north and the northwest, the paratroopers of Meindl's II Parachute Corps, reinforced by the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, sharply restricted British and Canadian gains and by their opposition also slowed bridge construction near Xanten and Rees. In the British sector, by nightfall of 26 March, only the XVIII Airborne Corps, driving eastward along the north bank of the Lippe, had made progress comparable to that of the American troops to the south.
Lacking adequate bridges downstream,
the British transferred the bulk of their cross-river traffic to Wesel, where a treadway bridge and a 25-ton ponton bridge had been completed by Ninth Army engineers and where a floating Bailey bridge was nearing completion. Although the Ninth Army had running rights on these bridges for five out of each twenty-four hours, the time was insufficient for a major build-up; and once beyond the Rhine at Wesel, there was no place to go. Under Field Marshal Montgomery's plan of operations, the XVIII Airborne Corps was to sideslip to the north to make room for the Ninth Army's XIX Corps, but because of lack of progress by British units to the northeast, the airborne troops could not yet make the shift.
To the Ninth Army's General Simpson it was frustrating to have to fight doggedly forward in frontal attacks against opposition that could be dealt with summarily if only he could bring additional power to bear. Ninth Army engineers had by this time put in enough bridges--one 25-ton ponton and three treadway bridges were carrying traffic and two floating Bailey bridges were almost finished--to support considerably larger forces than the three infantry divisions already in the XVI Corps bridgehead, but so constricted was the bridgehead--eleven miles wide and nowhere more than thirteen miles deep--that to commit even the 8th Armored Division was to invite congestion. Nor was there any possibility for maneuver unless the armored division could achieve a really deep penetration.
The makeshift solution General Simpson proposed, as revealed to his assembled corps commanders during the afternoon of 27 March, was to take the risk of overcrowding and concentrate the XIX Corps in the bridgehead. Once bridges could be built over the Lippe the XIX Corps was to cross, thereby bypassing the bottleneck of Wesel, and launch a drive alongside the XVIII Airborne Corps to cut in behind those Germans holding up the 30th Division.
Attending the meeting at Simpson's request, the XVIII Airborne Corps commander, General Ridgway, promptly discouraged the plan. While acknowledging that to avoid Wesel would be helpful, Ridgway still doubted that the crowded roads north of the Lippe could yet support any contingent of the Ninth Army. He held out hope nevertheless that if the XVIII Airborne Corps continued to advance at its current pace for about two more days, there then might be room for some portion of the Ninth Army.
In the end, General Simpson deferred a decision while couching an appeal in strong terms to the Second British Army commander, General Dempsey, and to Field Marshal Montgomery for exclusive use at the earliest possible date of the Wesel bridges and the main highway leading east out of Wesel along the north bank of the Lippe. If he could have these facilities, Simpson said, he could utilize both the XIX Corps and the XIII Corps.47
That commitment of the 8th Armored Division (General Devine) in quest of a breakthrough south of the Lippe was no solution to Simpson's problem was demonstrated early on 28 March. Although the fatigued infantrymen of the 30th Division had fought through the night of the 26th and the day of the 27th to open
a route for the armor, they failed to do more than dent the positions of the enemy's 116th Panzer Division. Dense forest and poor roads, when combined with determined resistance from German tanks and antiaircraft guns, prevented the armor from gaining more than three miles. When the fighting died down with the coming of night on 28 March, the Germans still held Dorsten. Prospects of a breakout faded.
It was a different story north of the Lippe. There, in fulfillment of the promise foreseen by General Ridgway, paratroopers of the 17th Airborne Division's 513th Parachute Infantry in midafternoon of 28 March mounted Churchill tanks of the British 6th Guards Armoured Brigade.48 With scarcely a pause, they raced seventeen miles beyond Dorsten. As the commander of the enemy's XLVII Panzer Corps, General Luettwitz, was quick to note, the spectacular advance outflanked the positions of his corps, including those of the 116th Panzer Division.49
On this same date, 28 March, Field Marshal Montgomery issued a new directive to govern operations across the north German plain to the Elbe River, deep inside Germany. In the process, he spelled out a new policy for use of the Rhine bridges at Wesel and provided an expanding corridor for employment of portions of the Ninth Army north of the Lippe River. Beginning early on the morning of 30 March, the routes leading east from Wesel were to pass to the Ninth Army, thus enabling General Simpson to begin moving forces north of the Lippe even before gaining full control of the Wesel bridges. Those bridges were to pass to the Ninth Army early the next morning, 31 March, though with running rights to the British for five hours out of each twenty-four.
Operation PLUNDER was over. Four Allied armies were across the last great barrier to the heartland of Germany and had either begun to exploit or were poised to begin the last deep thrusts. Only the First Canadian Army on the north flank and the First French Army on the south had yet to establish their own bridgeheads. The Canadians already were building up through the British bridgehead, and the French were preparing to cross in their own right before the month of March was out.
Whether at this stage of the war elaborate preparation and support on the scale marshaled by the 21 Army Group was necessary or even justified for forcing the Rhine would forever remain conjecture. The entire production might have been avoided, for example, had Montgomery allowed Simpson's Ninth Army to jump the Rhine in a surprise assault back in the first week of March. Yet in the jubilation of the success that accompanied Operation PLUNDER, few but the most carping critics would continue to belabor the point.
"My dear General," Prime Minister Churchill had said to the Supreme Commander as he watched Allied power unleashed against the Rhine on 24 March,
"the German is whipped. We've got him. He is all through."50
To a man and to a nation that almost five long years before had known the nadir of Dunkerque, the pyrotechnics of 23 and 24 March were sweet and just and good and right.
Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (13) * Next Chapter (15)
1. For background on Operation MARKET-GARDEN, see MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign.
2. For Ninth Army planning, see Conquer: The Story of Ninth Army, pp. 199-242; for British planning, Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, Normandy to the Baltic (Germany: Printing and Stationery Service, British Army of the Rhine, 1946), pp. 247-54; and for Canadian, Stacey, The Victory Campaign, pp. 527-34.
3. The Seamules could be disassembled into four sections for transport overland. LCM's were 50-foot tank lighters, able to carry one medium tank, sixty men, or comparable cargo. For a description of LCVP's see above, Chapter XI.
4. Stacey, The Victory Campaign, p. 535.
5. 21 AGp, Planning Dir for Opn PLUNDER, 17 Feb 45, 12th AGp file, 37.13, V; Min, conf held at SHAEF to discuss problems connected with the crossing of the Rhine, SHAEF file, 370-47, I.
6. M-548, Opnl Dir, 21 AGp, 21 Jan 45, SHAEF SGS file, 381, III.
7. Conquer:The Story of Ninth Army, p. 209.
8. Ibid., p. 210; Stacey, The Victory Campaign, pp. 529-31.
9. The 21 Army Group in mid-March contained 1,703 Dutch, 5,982 Czechs, 6,696 Belgians, 14,915 Poles, 182,136 Canadians, 328,919 Americans, and 744,361 British, for a total strength of 1,284,712.
10. Conquer: The Story of Ninth Army, pp. 199-245; Montgomery, Normandy to the Baltic, pp. 248-55; Stacey, The Victory Campaign, p. 533.
11. 21 AGp, M-579, 9 Mar 45, Orders for the Battle of the Rhine, SHAEF SGS file, 381--PLUNDER, I.
13. Unless otherwise noted, material on airborne planning is from Lewis H, Brereton, The Brereton Diaries (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1946), Part VI; Matthew B. Ridgway, Summary of Ground Forces Participation in Operation VARSITY, 25 April 1945, XVIII Corps Operation VARSITY Report; First Allied Airborne Army, Operation VARSITY, 19 May 1945; "Mission Accomplished," A Summary of Military Operations of the XVIII Corps (Airborne) in the European Theatre of Operations, 1944-1945, published in Schwerin, Germany (no date) by the XVIII Corps (Airborne); Operation VARSITY, the Historical Report of the 17th Airborne Division; and other official records of the First Allied Airborne Army and the XVIII Airborne Corps. See also Historical Division Research Studies Institute, Air University, USAF Historical Study No. 97, Dr. John C. Warren, Airborne Operations in World War II, European Theater, published at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, September 1956.
14. For technical data on recoilless rifles, see TM 9-314; for development, see Green, Thomson, and Roots, The Ordnance Department: Planning Munitions for War, pp. 330-31.
15. Craven and Cate, AAF III, 771-73.
16. MS # A-965 (Wagener).
17. MSS # B-414, Army Group H (OB NORDWEST), 10 March-9 May 1945 (Col. Rolf Geyer, G-3, AGp H and later of OB NORDWEST); # B-593, The Battles of Army Group B on the Rhine up to Its Dissolution, 22 March-17 April 1945 (Generalmajor Karl Wagener).
18. MSS # B-414 (Geyer) # B-198, XLVII Panzer Corps, 8 March-16 April 1945 (General der Panzertruppen Heinrich von Luettwitz).
19. MS # B-414 (Geyer).
20. Ibid.; MS # B-674 (General der Infanterie Guenther Blumentritt); Stacey, The Victory Campaign, p. 535n.
21. MS # B-414 (Geyer).
22. Conquer: The Story of Ninth Army, pp. 235-36.
23. German material is from MSS # B-414 (Geyer) and # B-198 (Luettwitz). Unless otherwise noted, the account of British and Canadian operations is from Montgomery, Normandy to the Baltic, Stacey, The Victory Campaign; and Headquarters, British Army of the Rhine, Battlefield Tour, Operation PLUNDER.
24. Unless otherwise noted, the Ninth Army's story is from official records of the XVI Corps and its divisions, from extensive combat interviews, and from three unofficial unit histories: Hewitt, Workhorse of the Western Front; History of the XVI Corps; and Conquer: The Story of the Ninth Army.
25. MS # B-414 (Geyer); XVI Corps intelligence reports.
26. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 389; History of the XVI Corps, p. 40.
27. In the next four hours, they doubled this figure for a total of 131,450 rounds. See Conquer: The Story of the Ninth Army, p. 243.
28. Combat interview with Lieutenant Refvem.
29. Combat interview with General Wyche, CG 79th Division.
30. In addition to the usual records and combat interviews, the 79th Division prepared a special report, Rhine Crossing by the 79th Infantry Division.
31. Combat interview with Lt. Col. Norman King, Asst G-2, XVI Corps,
32. No total figure is available for the 315th Infantry, though losses were considerably higher, since one battalion incurred 38 casualties and another 30.
33. Telecon, Hobbs to Wyche, 30th Div G-3 Jnl file, 23-25 Mar 45.
34. Statistics from Report by the Supreme Commander to the Combined Chiefs of Staff on the Operations in Europe of the Allied Expeditionary Force, 6 June 1944 to 8 May 1945 (Washington, 1946) (hereafter cited as Eisenhower, Report), p. 100, and John C. Warren, Airborne Operations in World War II, European Theater, pp. 228-29. The total number of troops, aircraft, and gliders exceeded the total for the first day in Operation MARKET (about 20,000 troops, 1,545 transport planes, and 478 gliders), though additional troops landing after D-day made MARKET the larger operation. Unless otherwise noted, the account of VARSITY is based on the two sources cited and on the following: First Allied Airborne Army, Operation VARSITY; 17th Airborne Division, Operation VARSITY; journals and other official records of the division; XVIII Airborne Corps, Operation VARSITY; and two combat interviews with officers of the division. The unit history of the XVIII Airborne Corps, "Mission Accomplished," is sketchy.
35. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 390; Winston S. Churchill, "The Second World War," vol. VI, Triumph and Tragedy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953), p. 413. The next day, D plus 1, Churchill, Brooke, Montgomery, and Generals Simpson and Anderson made a round trip across the Rhine in an LCM in the sector of the XVI Corps.
36. Craven and Cate, AAF III, 774.
37. A stick of paratroopers landing together in a field came under sharp fire from German riflemen and a machine gunner even as the paratroopers struggled to free themselves from their harnesses. One man, Pvt. George J. Peters, charged the machine gun, seventy-five yards away. Halfway to the gun, German fire knocked him down, but he struggled to his feet to continue the charge. Knocked down again, he crawled close enough to the gun to eliminate it with hand grenades before dying from his wounds. Private Peters was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
38. As Company E was advancing, Germans in a complex of buildings opened fire with automatic weapons, rifles, and four field pieces. The lead platoon was pinned to the ground until a runner, Pfc. Stuart S. Stryker, rose in full view of the enemy, rallied the men, and led a charge on the buildings. German fire cut Stryker down as he neared the buildings, but the others went on to overrun the position. They captured more than 200 Germans and rescued three captive American airmen. Private Stryker was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
39. Intelligence Sum for period 241800 to 242359, XVIII Airborne Corps, and Sitrep 4, 24 Mar 45, XVIII Airborne Corps.
40. Figures are from 17th Airborne Division History, 15 April 1943-16 September 1945, and Warren, Airborne Operations in World War II, p. 229. First-day losses of the two U.S. infantry divisions that crossed the Rhine on 24 March by amphibious assault were 41 killed, 450 wounded, 7 missing. See Conquer: The Story of the Ninth Army, p. 247.
41. Statistics on glider and aircraft losses vary slightly. See Eisenhower, Report, p. 100; Montgomery, Normandy to the Baltic, p. 257; Brereton, The Brereton Diaries, pp. 406-07; and Warren, Airborne Operations in World War II, pp. 228-29.
42. XVIII Airborne Corps, Operation VARSITY.
43. MS # B-674 (Meindl); MS # B-198 (Leuttwitz); Stacey, The Victory Campaign, pp. 537-38.
44. MS # B-198 (Luettwitz); 79th Division combat interviews.
45. MS # B-198 (Luettwitz).
46. 30th Div G-3 Jnl file, 26-28 Mar 45.
47. The account of the meeting is from Conquer: The Story of the Ninth Army, pp. 260-61.
48. Culminating a series of gallant acts, T. Sgt. Clinton M. Hedrick, 194th Glider Infantry, entered a castle at Lembeck, seven miles north of Dorsten, on 28 March to accept surrender of the German garrison. The Germans instead opened fire with a self-propelled gun. Mortally wounded, Sergeant Hedrick rained such a fire on the Germans that his colleagues were able to escape. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
49. MS # B-198 (Luettwitz).
50. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 390.