First Allied Crossing of the Rhine

First Allied Crossing of the Rhine

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Despite a partial news blackout, reporters are able to deliver some information about the U.S. Army's successful crossing of the Rhine on March 7, 1945, though it is not yet known whether the Allies have captured the Ludendorff Bridge from the Germans.

Landing the Troops . . . Across the Rhine

These craft were 36-foot LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle, personnel) or 50-foot LCMs (landing craft, mechanized)—boats that had brought U.S. troops ashore at Normandy. Now, far from the ocean or English Channel, they were on their way to the Rhine River, the physical and symbolic barrier to the German heartland—broad, swift, and hemmed in by high bluffs for much of its rush from alpine headwaters to the North Sea.

The U.S. Navy’s involvement in breaching this mighty obstruction demonstrated the adaptability of U.S. forces, the possibilities of interservice cooperation, and foresight in putting these large and specialized craft in the right places far from the sea, at the right time, to facilitate the final thrust that brought victory over Germany.

Arrival on the Continent

During the late summer of 1944, as U.S. troops raced across France, Twelfth Army Group commander Lieutenant General Omar Bradley began to contemplate how his forces would cross the Rhine. It was assumed that retreating German troops would destroy the river’s bridges, and Army boats might not be able to safely navigate the Rhine’s swift current. Bradley turned to the Navy, which soon organized Task Group 122.5, under the command of Commander William Whiteside. Three of the group’s task units would be assigned to U.S. armies to facilitate the crossing. 1

Task Unit 122.5.1 (Unit 1) was activated on 4 October 1944 in Dartmouth, England, under the command of Lieutenant Wilton Wenker. In addition to LCVPs, Wenker commanded a mobile repair, or E-9, unit and a “housekeeping group” of assorted personnel such as cooks, radiomen, drivers, barber, and pharmacist’s mate: in total 11 officers and 153 enlisted men. Unit 2, commanded by Lieutenant Commander William Leide, and Unit 3, under Lieutenant Commander Willard W. Ayers (until 3 December, when he was seriously injured in an automobile accident and replaced by Lieutenant Commander Willard T. Patrick), were similar.

Unit 1 crossed the English Channel on 14 October and was trucked from Le Havre to Andenne, Belgium, a town on the Meuse River. Assigned to the First Army, it worked to develop “suitable methods of transporting and launching the boats under conditions similar to those expected on the Rhine River.” 2 Unit 2, attached to the Third Army, crossed on 10 November and headed for Toul, France, 50 miles south of Metz on the Moselle River, while Unit 3, assigned to the Ninth Army, landed in France on 9 November and ended up in Grand Lanaye, five miles from Maastricht, Netherlands, on the Maas (lower Meuse) River.

Initially there was a sense of urgency, as a Rhine operation seemed imminent. But as the Allied advance outran its supplies and the weather deteriorated, it became clear that the Navy’s services would not be immediately required. The boat units thus settled into their bases for what proved to be a long and frustrating winter spent in training and performing a variety of other activities.

Unit 1 dispatched three-man teams to teach the Army’s 1120th Engineer Combat Group basic seamanship skills such as knot tying, splicing, and small-boat handling. The engineer battalions were the Army’s major resource for river crossings, operating assault boats, and constructing bridges. Their boats—wooden craft generally with a capacity of 16 men and a crew of 3 and rubber boats that could ferry 12 men—could only accommodate infantry and were powered by paddles or 22-hp outboard engines. The Army considered a water span of several hundred yards an interminable crossing.

The 16 December German offensive into Belgium and Luxembourg that became known as the Battle of the Bulge disrupted the instruction. Enemy tanks drove to within 11 miles of Unit 1’s base, forcing the American bluejackets to evacuate “as a safety measure.” 3

Another source of frustration were false alarms. Unit 1 was put on alert for a move to the Roer River on 6 February—an alert that lasted until 28 February before it was canceled. Unit 3 was on standby for a Roer operation from 21 November to 21 December. Then there was the tedium of make-work. The sailors of Unit 2 painted 15,000 road signs and loaded barbed wire on flatcars. As Lieutenant Commander Leide euphemistically noted, “although it could not be classed as naval work, it was an outlet for the energies of the personnel and did much to develop petty officers.” 4

Unit 3, quartered in Grand Lanaye (population 500), had the closest contact with the civilian population. Lieutenant Commander Patrick reported that “The people of Lanaye were most helpful and offered rooms for the men and officers in their homes while the mayor turned over the city Hall.” 5 A French-speaking sailor played Santa Claus at Christmas and distributed candy to the children. Saturday-night dances became a regular event, with girls brought in from Maastricht because “Lanaye itself could not muster enough dancing partners for the men. . . . In all cases the girls, both Dutch and Belgian, were strictly chaperoned. This was a national custom, not a Navy request.” In fact, relationships became too close. Patrick reported that the local inhabitants had begun pestering the Americans for all types of favors, including transporting ill villagers and “hauling fodder from distant fields.” 6

During the winter, the Navy decided to reinforce the units with LCMs. Although these boats were harder to transport overland, they could carry a medium tank—an important capability in the early stages of a crossing. Fifty-four LCMs sailed from England to Antwerp under their own power and thence down the Albert Canal. The six LCMs designated for Unit 1 arrived much battered from their long voyage and encounters with river ice, and several required new engines or other repairs.

Assorted Duties near Remagen

With the approach of spring the waiting finally ended. On 7 March, nearly four months after its arrival on the continent, Unit 1 received orders to move 16 LCVPs into Germany this followed the 9th Armored Division’s lucky capture of the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, the last span standing on the Rhine River.

In his report, Lieutenant Wenker noted that the large flatbed trailers that carried the 36-foot-long and 11-foot-wide LCVPs “encountered considerable difficulty” navigating the dark and narrow secondary roads to their destination. 7 A trailer got stuck on a sharp turn at Bleisheim, 35 road miles northwest of Remagen, delaying the unit more than an hour. South of Weilerswist the column found the route impassable and had to backtrack. Churned by the mass of troops and vehicles funneling to the bridgehead, the roads were in execrable shape. A trailer got stuck in mud, and a truck rolled over trying to negotiate a shell crater. A wrecker easily righted the truck, but four large, heavy-duty tow trucks were needed to yank the trailer from the muck. Over the final few miles the column crawled forward barely averaging a mile an hour. At one point a wrecker had to be hitched to each truck to drag it through a muddy patch. One trailer slipped into a shell hole and took 36 hours to extract.

At 0830 on 11 March Wenker’s unit finally began launching boats. This occurred at Kripp, a mile south of Remagen, and by 1350 five LCVPs were afloat after being dropped into the water “like so many eggs.” 8 By that time the Army had been pushing troops across the Rhine for several days—8,000 men crossed in the first 24 hours—and engineers were struggling to complete a pontoon bridge and a treadway bridge to supplement the damaged Ludendorff span. The LCVPs were rushed into action to help the engineers without giving their coxswains a chance to test the river’s swift and tricky currents.

One LCVP lost headway and was swept against the partially completed pontoon bridge. It threatened to undo all the work so far completed, but the engineers loosened the upstream cables allowing the craft to slip free. Meanwhile, the powerful flow was causing a portion of the bridge near the west shore to sag, so three LCVPs were pointed upstream and began pushing the pontoons at full power to keep them in place. They kept to this job for three days.

By noon on 12 March the treadway and pontoon bridges were completed. An LCVP went upstream to lay an antimine boom. Two other boats worked out of Unkel, three miles downstream from Remagen, evacuating wounded from the far bank while operating under intense artillery fire that occasionally pinned down the crews. Five boats sat idle at Kripp, much to the disgust of Lieutenant Wenker, who complained, “What ferrying was done, if any, was not recorded.” The bridgehead was also under periodic air attack. “The major activity of these boats on the 12th consisted in shooting down an ME109. . . . Observed artillery made this area a virtual shooting gallery.” 9 At night, two LCVPs patrolled upriver and discouraged enemy saboteurs by dropping 50-pound TNT depth charges into the water every five minutes—to the tune of seven tons of explosives a night. On the 17th, two German swimmers were found sheltering on the river bank, driven ashore by the concussions and the cold water, which, in American eyes, justified the practice.

The balance of Unit 1 moved up to the river and launched its LCVPs on 14 March. On the 15th the boat crews finally got the opportunity fulfill their primary mission. On that day four LCVPs gathered at Unkel, and loading 36 men to a boat, they ferried 2,200 troops of the 1st Division to the far shore in three hours, taking only seven minutes for a round trip. The Army history conceded that this was “faster and more efficiently than the troops could march across a footbridge.” 10 Wenker noted that some of his crews had ferried units of the 1st Division ashore at Normandy. 11 On the 16th, LCVPs swiftly ferried 900 troops and eight jeeps across the river.

For Unit 1, however, ferry operations were the exception, and the unit’s great frustration was the feeling it was being underutilized. An observer dispatched from the Navy’s French headquarters noted that at one ferry point “It was irritating to the Navy crews to see queues of waiting vehicles at the approaches to the bridges while their boats lay idle, but the Army apparently felt it unwise to break up the organization of its convoys by separating the lighter vehicles from the heavy and allowing the former to cross in the LCVPs.” 12

On 17 March the Ludendorff Bridge finally collapsed and the LCVPs provided another valuable service by diverting floating debris from the wreckage away from the pontoon bridges with grappling hooks, ropes, and poles.

Ferrying Patton’s Troops

The Remagen crossing was a matter of opportunity, not plan. Even after the First Army had nine divisions on the far bank of the Rhine, the Ninth and Third armies were scheduled to make assault crossings in areas where the terrain was more conducive to offensive operations into the heart of Germany.

On 20 March, Third Army headquarters alerted Unit 2, and that afternoon 24 LCVPs departed Toul. Lieutenant Commander Lieder exalted that “The trek across a blazing Germany had begun.” 13 This operation was completely improvised, with Third Army commander Lieutenant General George Patton ordering a crossing even before his divisions had reached the Rhine. His idea was to leap the river before the retreating Germans could organize a defense. Lieder noted, “We had not been briefed, and the reconnaissance of the river itself for launching sites and embarkation and debarkation sites [was] not yet completed.” 14

Twelve LCVPs arrived near Oppenheim. The unit’s heavy M-20 Le Tourneau crane was delayed by roadblocks, and the unit manhandled its LCVPs into the river with difficulty. Nine were afloat by dawn on the 22nd, while the last three followed shortly. Once on the river, Unit 2 continued to improvise. Frustrated by the fact his craft had no “business,” Lieder and his XO, Lieutenant (junior grade) J. D. Spaulding, “made private deals with infantrymen who were about to paddle across the river.” 15

The LCVPs once again proved fast and effective in their intended role. Round trips were made in minutes, and over the next 18 hours eight LCVPs shuttling back and forth carried “from 4,000 to 4,500 troops and from 250 to 300 vehicles” across the Rhine while under enemy fire, without harm to boat or man. Another LCVP powered a raft constructed from pontoons, and two assisted in engineering chores including the construction of a treadway bridge, laying of supporting wire across the river, and boom installation. One LCVP had been damaged upon launch and required repair by the unit’s E-9 section.

Over the following days Unit 2 participated in three more Third Army crossing operations. On 24 March, six LCVPs ferried men of the 87th Division across at Boppard at the rate of 400 troops an hour while under fire from German antiaircraft guns. Six LCMs arrived on the bluff overlooking the embarkation site during the operation, but the Army decided that the slope down to the river was too steep, and so, to Lieder’s frustration, they were held back.

The third Unit 2 crossing occurred on 26 March at Oberwesel. “Although we knew that the infantry assault crossing . . . was to be made early A.M. of Monday, 26 March 1945, no plans were promulgated as to the employment of the 6 remaining LCVP’s and the 6 LCM’s which were in the area and available.” Lieder dashed to Oberwesel to scout launching sites. He got all 12 boats afloat in time to participate and gleefully noted that the LCMs carried “tremendous loads, including heavy cannon.” He credited his unit with ferrying 6,000 men and 1,200 vehicles of the 89th Division in 48 hours. 16

Unit 2’s final Rhine operation kicked off on 27 March at Mainz. There it deployed six LCVPs and six LCMs. After just a few crossings German artillery zeroed in on the launching site, killing one officer, destroying the unit’s bulldozer and one of its heavy cranes, damaging several vehicles, and keeping men pinned down for nearly an hour. The unit relocated its embarkation point to a more sheltered location, which limited the boats to only four trips an hour. Nonetheless, over the course of three days Unit 2 ferried 10,000 men and 1,100 vehicles at this point alone. 17

The Final Crossings

Unit 3, attached to the Ninth Army, was the last to be activated. Unlike the First and Third army crossings, the Ninth Army, part of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, meticulously planned its operation. One historian has called it “probably history’s most elaborate river crossing operation.” 18 Unit 3’s role in this big show was to supplement the 500 Army assault boats—half of which were powered by paddles. It was assigned five “beaches” in two divisional sectors between Wesel and Duisburg.

All of Unit 3’s boats assembled on the night of the 23rd and set out in small convoys for their two launching sites, where Army engineers with bulldozers, road fill, and equipment waited in readiness. Demolition crews and bulldozers cleared the way along their 80-mile route, cutting trees, blasting buildings, and flattening fences to give the tank transporters hauling the LCMs clearance. The boats assigned to the 30th Division’s three beaches arrived on schedule, but traffic jams delayed the boats allocated to the 79th Division by several hours.

As Lieutenant Commander Patrick noted in his report: “No boat can be operated until launched.” 19 At the 30th Division site, as one of the two available M-20 cranes boomed the first LCVP out over the water, the cable snapped, dropping the boat 25 feet. Thus, the plan to use two cranes to lift the LCMs directly from trailer to water went out the door.

Instead, the trailers were backed to within 20 feet of the water. The remaining crane lifted the boat’s stern, which was forward on the trailer, and as the truck pulled slowly away, the boat slid off the trailer. Once the LCM was grounded, with its bow facing the water, a bulldozer pushed it to a prepared chute, the end of which dropped sharply into a deep pool. To prevent the bulldozer from accidently following the boat into the river, it was chained to a second bulldozer. Launching nine LCMs in this fashion (along with eight LCVPs using the more conventional crane method) took from 0600 to 1320 on 24 March. The work site was under sporadic shell fire the entire time.

Thus launched, the first LCVPs began operating at dawn, and Patrick estimated that his unit ferried 3,000 infantry and 1,100 vehicles across the 500-yard-wide flow on the first day, each boat completing a round trip in just six minutes. In the 79th Division sector, the late arrival slowed the launching of the LCMs. Because of strong enemy resistance and the immediate need for armored vehicles on the far bank, two of the craft were ferrying tanks by 0700. But a German 88-mm shell disabled one, and it was not until 1900 that the other LCMs began operations. The LCVPs were also delayed and did not carry their first loads until noon.

In addition to these operations, the LCVPs patrolled the river. As in the other landings, the boats also assisted in the construction of treadway and pontoon bridges. Engineers had four pontoon bridges in place by 25 March, but German gunfire and damage caused by drifting boats delayed construction of the treadway bridges.

Because the bridgehead was slow to develop and the British Army required use of American-built bridges, Task Unit 3 found more employment than the units farther south. Ferry operations lasted for three days in some sectors, and even as late as eight days after the initial crossing the Army requested an LCM to power a “rhino” ferry, a series of pontoons fastened together to form a raft capable of transporting heavy equipment.

It should be noted that in February the Royal Navy had formed an inland amphibious unit consisting of 45 LCVPs and a like number of LCMs to assist the British Army’s crossing of the Rhine just north of the Ninth Army’s. However, the boats were used strictly as tugs and as “a mobile, waterborne element of the Royal Engineers and Royal Army Service Corps.” 20 They did not carry troops across the river.

Concluding Thoughts

The landing craft of the Navy amphibious task units demonstrated they were far superior to Army assault boats in their ability to transport troops across a broad and swift water barrier. Depending on the loading and landing sites, four LCVPs could ferry a battalion, including vehicles, every hour. The boats had relatively high speeds and powerful engines and were manned by skilled sailors, making them invaluable for the many chores associated with river operations, which, beyond ferry service, included bridge construction, boom and wire laying, patrol operations, tug service, and debris removal.

However, they also had their liabilities. The boats and heavy cranes required to launch them were difficult to transport overland, and even with special preparation their movements could be excruciatingly slow. The task units’ reports indicate that every launching was an adventure, but fortunately the Navy crews proved inventive. If a crane was delayed or damaged, they always figured out a way to float their boats.

Another problem was the integration of Navy units into U.S. Army operations. There was friction even in matters as simple as uniforms: Unit 3’s Lieutenant Commander Patrick reported that “All personnel, officers and men, were clothed in army uniform in accordance with army instructions. The question of payment for these clothes frequently arose, particularly for officers.” He noted with satisfaction that the Army ended up footing the bill. 21 The plan had been to pair each task unit with an engineer battalion. With two of the units this liaison was temporary. In the case of Unit 2 its engineer battalion was switched out just before the Rhine crossing. As a result, the Army did not have a clear idea of the naval unit’s capabilities and how to best use it. Fortunately, the commander was aggressive in finding work for his boats.

But these bumps were minor issues. Although exact counts were never kept, the Navy boat units directly ferried more than 26,000 troops and 4,000 vehicles to the east bank of the Rhine and brought back thousands of prisoners and wounded. They helped build, maintain, and protect the temporary bridges constructed by Army engineers. The U.S. Navy boat units proved on the Rhine that when it came to crossing an expanse of water, expertise and specialized tools made a difference—especially when combined with a can-do spirit.

1. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. 11, The Invasion of France and Germany (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1957), 317–18. A fourth task unit, 122.5.4, would be held in reserve at Le Havre.

2. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Action Reports TU 122.5.1, “Operations, Report of,” 5 April 1945, 2.

Crossing the Rhine at Remagen

The US Army's surprise capture of the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine River at Remagen, Germany, broke open Germany's defenses in the west.

The Rhine is no ordinary river. About 766 miles in length, with an average width of about 1,300 feet, the generally north-flowing waterway also is exceptionally swift and deep. Since the days of the Roman Empire it has served as central Germany’s traditional defense against invasion from the west. That remained the case in the first months of 1945. Although Hitler’s Reich hovered on the verge of total collapse, with its cities in ruins from Allied bombing raids and Soviet forces crashing in from the east, Germany’s defenses along the Rhine River still held strong. Although American, British and French forces had occupied most of Germany west of the Rhine, they remained unable to cross the river into the Ruhr industrial center. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deemed the river totally unfordable, even at low water and the Germans had either destroyed or were prepared to destroy every significant bridge.

Allied planners recognized that they would most likely have to undertake an amphibious crossing of the Rhine in order to penetrate deeply into German territory. That seemed to necessitate focusing on somewhere north of Bonn, where the river entered relatively open and therefore more tank-friendly terrain. Only slight consideration was given to Remagen, about fifteen miles south of Bonn, where the Ludendorff Bridge remained standing but the terrain at and east of the river was discouragingly rough. Named after General Erich Ludendorff, Germany’s military leader during the latter half of World War I, the railroad bridge had been built—primarily by Russian prisoners of war—from 1916-1919 and had a span of 1,200 feet. Given that high ridges pierced by a railroad tunnel lay east of the bridge, it seemed an unlikely target for the Americans. Still, German engineers had rigged it with explosives, removing them for a time to avoid their detonation during an Allied bombing raid, and then replacing them as the Americans approached. The infantry units guarding the bridge were weak.

At Remagen, the German Fifteenth Army squared off against the American First Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges. On March 3, 1945, Hodges directed his III Corps, with Maj. Gen. John Leonard’s 9th Armored Division acting as spearhead, to drive down the valley leading toward Remagen from the west. German resistance was weak and disorganized. On March 6, remnants of the Fifteenth Army retreated across the bridge as the Germans prepared to set off their explosive charges and demolish it ahead of the Americans. Men and vehicles of Brig. Gen. William Hoge’s Combat Command B approached the bridge, hoping but hardly expecting that they could seize the bridge intact.

Just as the morning fog lifted on March 7, however, Lt. Col. Leonard Engeman, heading a task force of the 9th Armored Division’s 14th Tank Battalion and 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, was stunned to look through his binoculars and see the bridge still intact, with German vehicles still rumbling across it. Engeman dispatched Lt. Karl Timmermann with advance forces, including some new M26 Pershing tanks, to seize the bridge. He ordered: “Go down into the town. Get through it as quickly as possible and reach the bridge. The tanks will lead. The infantry will follow on foot. Their half-tracks will bring up the rear. Let’s make it snappy.” Timmermann, who had been born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1921, obeyed but German resistance in the outskirts of the town made the advance excruciatingly slow. The local German commander had plenty of time to blow the bridge, but still refused in order to let more of his troops escape across it to the east.

Lt. Timmermann’s men approached the bridge at 3:15 p.m. with an increasing sense of urgency. German engineers blew a charge near the west span, damaging it and making it temporarily impassable for tanks. Timmermann nevertheless rushed the bridge with his infantry. The Germans tried to blow the central span, but the charges failed to detonate. Finally another charge blew and the bridge seemed to rise in the air—before settling back down on its original structure. In their haste, the German engineers had placed a detonator improperly—and those Russian prisoners of war had built the bridge too well!

Sergeant Alexander A. Drabik was given credit as the first American to cross the bridge to the east bank of the Rhine. There was hard fighting to follow, however, as the Americans cleared the railroad tunnel—which the Germans might also have blown—and secured the ridge overlooking the crossing. And although the Americans were able to make some quick repairs to the damaged bridge, allowing troops and vehicles to cross, it lasted only ten days longer before collapsing under pressures of traffic and German air attack before collapsing for good on March 17. The unexpected prize at Remagen forced the Allies to shift their strategy for invading central Germany, and more time would pass before they broke out from their new bridgehead. The crossing of the Rhine at Remagen, however, marked a decisive moment heralding the impending collapse of Germany.

The crossing of the Rhine: Operation Plunder and Operation Varsity

The final hurdle of the Rhineland Offensive was the Rhine itself. The crossing near Wesel (Operation Plunder) was one of several coordinated Rhine crossings. A million Allied soldiers participated. In support of the crossing, 14.000 paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines (Operation Varsity). The operations were a complete success. Hitler’s days were numbered.

The final stage of the Rhineland Offensive was the crossing of the fabled river itself. It was clear to everyone that the Rhine was the last major natural obstacle to the Allied advance into Germany. The crossing of the Rhine between Rees and Wesel (Operation Plunder) was part of several coordinated Rhine crossings. The actions started late on 23 March 1945. It was an operation of large numbers. A million soldiers from three countries participated. The Allies gathered over 4.000 pieces of artillery on the West bank of the river while over 250.000 tons of supplies were amassed near the front. The preparations were obscured from German view by the largest smoke screen ever laid.

In support of the Rhine crossing, Operation Varsity, the largest airborne operation performed in a single day, took place. 14.000 paratroopers were dropped east of the Rhine behind enemy lines to deepen the Allied bridgehead and to knock out German artillery targeting the Rhine. Operation Plunder went like clockwork. German resistance was completely broken by the artillery barrage and in the first two hours of the operation the Allies lost only 31 men. Some of the casualties of the Operations Varsity and Plunder are buried at the Reichswald Forest Cemetery.

After the establishment of the first bridgeheads it took engineers of the 9th U.S. Army just nine hours to bridge the river. Winston Churchill was present at the headquarters of Field Marshall Montgomery to witness the start of the final stage of the war in Germany. With the Allies crossing the Rhine, the days of the Third Reich were numbered.

Feldmaresciallo Montgomery incontra il generale Crerar. Questi uomini erano le menti dietro ad Operation Plunder.

Un paracadutista americano caduto durante Operation Varsity.

Alianti atterrati in un pratp durante Operation Varsity.

Alianti atterrati in un pratp durante Operation Varsity.

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First Allied Crossing of the Rhine - HISTORY

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Crossing the Rhine

M22 Locust



Two invasions of France in mid-1944, Operation Overlord in Normandy and Operation Dragoon in southern France, succeeded in moving multiple American and Allied armies to the border of Germany. Attack momentum was delayed in late 1944 by serious logistical issues and by the setback in the Netherlands and fierce German resistance in the Huertgen and Ardennes Forests. But by January 1945, the Western Allies had overwhelmingly superior ground and air forces looming all along the western borders of Germany. The problem was, how to get them over the Rhine, so that they could crush the last German resistance in the ETO and end the war.

By late January 1945, U.S forces, with their British, Canadian, and French allies, had regained the territory lost in December’s Battle of the Bulge and resumed their drive eastward to defeat Hitler’s Third Reich. Only one major obstacle stood in the path of their advance: the Rhine River, whose many bridges had been blown apart by retreating German armies. That forced the Allies to make an amphibious assault into the teeth of German river defenses. This strategic crossing of the Rhine river – also known as Operation Plunder, started on March 23rd, 1945.

When Allied forces reached the Rhine in early March 1945 they found just about every span across the river already destroyed. The one exception of some very important bridges that survived demolition from the Germans such as was a only partly destroyed bridge at Remagen, which was captured in a rush assault. Eisenhower decided that several simultaneous crossings over the 20 mile long battle front would have the greatest chance of success. His plan was to cross the Rhine, then drive into the Ruhr Valley to encircle a large part of the German Army and effectively end German resistance in the west. So began the massive mobilization and movement of engineers, soldiers, equipment and supplies across one of the most important river crossings of WWII.

Four thousand Allied guns fired for four hours during the opening bombardment. British bombers contributed with attacks on Wesel during the day and night of 23 March 1945 – Preparing for this monumental crossing into the heart of Germany.

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For the World War II Allies, Crossing Germany's Rhine River Was Hell

January 1945—with World War II in its sixth year—found the Allied armies going on the offensive after the Battle of the Bulge, but they were still west of the Rhine and six weeks behind schedule in their advance toward Germany.

Closing to the Rhine was not easy. Although U.S. and French units of Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers’ Sixth Army Group had reached the western bank around Strasbourg in late 1944, the river proved too difficult to cross. Even if an assault could have been mounted, the Allied forces would have been too far away from the heart of Germany to pose any meaningful threat. The key to eventual victory lay in the central and northern Rhineland, but three factors delayed an advance: the failure of Operation Market Garden, the British-American airborne invasion of Holland, the onset of an extremely wet autumn and harsh winter, and the unexpectedly rapid recovery of the German Army in the wake of recent Allied advances.

A coordinated Allied campaign proved difficult to achieve. General Omar N. Bradley’s U.S. 12th Army Group was licking its wounds after the almost disastrous Ardennes counteroffensive, and it was clear to Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, commander of the British 21st Army Group, that the Americans would not be ready to undertake a major offensive for some time. Despite its vast reserve of manpower, unlike the critically depleted British Army, the U.S. Army had become seriously deficient of infantry replacements. Monty made the first move.

Meanwhile, on January 12, the Soviet Army launched a long-awaited, massive offensive from Warsaw toward the River Oder—and Berlin. This was just in time, thought Montgomery and General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander. By the end of the month, the Russians were only 50 miles from the German capital. While the Americans were recovering, it devolved on the 21st Army Group, still supported by Lt. Gen. William H. “Texas Bill” Simpson’s U.S. Ninth Army, to take over the battle as soon as winter loosened its grip.

Monty and Ike agreed that the next stage should be to break through the Germans’ formidable Siegfried Line and close up to the left bank of the Rhine. The main objective was the historic city of Wesel, on the opposite side of the great river in flat country just north of the Ruhr Valley. It was here that Montgomery had originally sought to seize a bridgehead in September 1944, and common sense still favored it. Accordingly, two well-knit, almost copybook offensives were planned for February 8, 1945: Operation Veritable on the left flank and Operation Grenade on the right, adjacent to the boundary with Bradley’s 12th Army Group.

Monty announced that the 21st Army Group’s task was to “destroy all enemy in the area west of the Rhine from the present forward positions south of Nijmegen (Holland) as far south as the general line Julich-Dusseldorf, as a preliminary to crossing the Rhine and engaging the enemy in mobile war to the north of the Ruhr.” Three armies would be involved in the offensives: the Canadian First, the British Second, and the U.S. Ninth.

Commanding the Canadian force was the distinguished, 57-year-old General Henry D.G. “Harry” Crerar, a World War I artillery veteran and a man of cool judgment and cold nerves. The “ration strength” of his First Army exceeded 470,000 men, and no Canadian had ever led such a large force. The British Second Army was led by the skilled, unassuming Lt. Gen. Sir Miles “Bimbo” Dempsey, a 48-year-old World War I veteran of the Western Front and Iraq who later acquitted himself well in the Dunkirk evacuation, the Western Desert, Sicily, Italy, and Normandy. Tall, bald, Texas-born General Simpson, commanding 300,000 men of the U.S. Ninth Army, had served in the Philippine Insurrection, the 1916 Mexico punitive expedition, and on the Western Front in 1918. Eisenhower said of the 56-year-old officer, “If Simpson ever made a mistake as an Army commander, it never came to my attention.”

With 11 divisions and nine independent brigades, the Canadian Army would clear the way in February 1945 up to the town of Xanten the Ninth Army, with 10 divisions in three corps, would cross the Roer River and move northward to Dusseldorf (Operation Grenade), and the four divisions of the Second Army would attack in the center.

Although he was in customary high spirits about the operation, Montgomery knew that it would be no cakewalk. “I visited the Veritable area today,” he warned Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, on February 6. “The ground is very wet, and roads and tracks are breaking up, and these factors are likely to make progress somewhat slow after the operation is launched.” Besides expected opposition from at least 10 well-entrenched Wehrmacht divisions, the Allied troops would have to face minefields, flooded rivers and terrain, a lack of roads, appalling weather, and tough going in the gloomy, tangled Reichswald and Hochwald forests.

Montgomery won final approval for the great dual assault on the Rhine on February 1, and the preparations were hastily finalized under tight security. Strict blackout regulations were enforced, and a cover story was concocted to convince the enemy that the offensive would be in a northerly direction to liberate Holland, rather than an eastern thrust into Germany. Daytime gatherings of troops were forbidden unless under cover large concentrations of vehicles, weapons, and ammunition were camouflaged or concealed in farmyards, barns, and haystacks, and rubber dummies of tanks and artillery pieces were positioned along an imaginary battle line where they might attract the attention of enemy patrols. Logistical feats were accomplished speedily as thousands of men, vehicles, and equipment were transported to the forward assembly lines.

The British and Canadian soldiers worked around the clock. Sappers built and improved 100 miles of road using 20,000 tons of stones, 20,000 logs, and 30,000 pickets, and 446 freight trains hauled 250,000 tons of equipment and supplies to the railheads. It was estimated that the ammunition alone—all types, stacked side by side and five feet high—would line the road for 30 miles. Engineers constructed five bridges across the River Maas, using 1,880 tons of equipment. The biggest was a 1,280-foot-long British-designed Bailey bridge. Outside Nijmegen, an airfield was laid in five days for British and Canadian rocket-firing Hawker Typhoons, which would support the offensive.

Meanwhile, a formidable array of armor and specialized vehicles was assembled. It included Churchill, Cromwell, Centaur, Comet, Valentine, and Sherman heavy and medium tanks Bren gun carriers, jeeps, half-tracks, and armored cars amphibious Weasel, Buffalo, and DUKW cargo and personnel carriers and 11 regiments of “Hobart’s Funnies,” Churchills and Shermans fitted with antimine flails, flamethrowers, and bridging equipment. Invented by Maj. Gen. Sir Percy Hobart, these had proved invaluable in the Normandy invasion and the clearing of the flooded Scheldt Estuary by Crerar’s army.

Under the command of the Canadian First Army, the Veritable offensive was to be spearheaded by the seasoned British XXX Corps led by 49-year-old Lt. Gen. Sir Brian G. Horrocks. He returned from leave in England to plunge into preparations for the largest operation he had ever undertaken. A much-wounded veteran of Ypres, Siberia, El Alamein, Tunisia, Normandy, and Belgium, the tall, lithe Horrocks—nicknamed “Jorrocks” by his mentor, Montgomery—was a charismatic officer who led from the front and was regarded as one of the finest corps commanders of the war.

Horrocks regarded Monty’s overall plan for the offensive as “simplicity itself.” The XXX Corps was to attack in a southerly direction from the Nijmegen area with its right on the River Maas and its left on the Rhine. “Forty-eight hours later,” said Horrocks, “our old friends, General Simpson’s U.S. Ninth Army, were to cross the River Roer and advance north to meet us. The German forces would thus be caught in a vise and be faced with the alternatives, either to fight it out west of the Rhine or to withdraw over the Rhine and then be prepared to launch counterattacks when we ourselves subsequently attempted to cross…. In theory, this looked like a comparatively simple operation, but all battles have their problems, and in this case the initial assault would have to smash through a bottleneck well suited to defense and consisting in part of the famous Siegfried Line.”

Horrocks decided to use the maximum force possible and open Operation Veritable with five divisions, from right to left, in line: the 51st Highland, 53rd Welsh, 15th Scottish, and the 2nd and 3rd Canadian, followed by the 43rd Wessex and Maj. Gen. Sir Alan Adair’s proud Guards Armored Division. On the morning of February 4, Horrocks briefed his commanders in the packed cinema in the southern Dutch town of Tilburg. Clad in brown corduroy trousers and a battlefield jacket, the unpretentious general drew a warm response as he crisply outlined the offensive, radiated confidence, and moved from group to group with a friendly and humorous word. Like Montgomery, he made a practice of keeping all ranks informed about operations.

The Rhine Crossing: Army, Part 47

The decision to destroy the German army west of the Rhine and then cross the river in a major operation north of the Ruhr River had been made in December 1944 before the Ardennes offensive. The Rhine crossing, code-named Operation Plunder, was to be the major Allied effort to end the war by striking in a “single thrust” for Berlin. At the Malta Conference in early February 1945 the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, revised this conception of the invasion of Germany with a plan that allowed for a second major Rhine crossing south of the Ruhr.

The British leaders, especially Field Marshal K.G. Alanbrooke who was in close contact with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, protested that there was insufficient strength for two major operations. Since the British, especially Montgomery, were also still pressing for a single ground commander, it is possible to sympathize with the growing impatience of American battlefield commanders who could not understand why so much deference was paid to British views when they were able to supply less than one-quarter of the troops involved in the battle.

The Americans believed Montgomery had set up the northern crossing to give the glory of taking Berlin to the British Army. This skeptical view of Montgomery’s motives was greatly reinforced when it was learned that he wanted to use U.S. divisions for the crossing, but under the command of British 2nd Army. Lieutenant-General Bill Simpson, the commander of 9th U.S. Army, and his corps commanders were flabbergasted by this proposal and even Montgomery realized he had gone too far. Instead, one U.S. corps of two divisions, operating under 9th U.S. Army’s control, was to assault the river on D-Day. Despite this concession, 2nd Army was still to have control of the bridgehead until it was judged secure.

On March 7, while the battle for the Wesel Pocket raged, troops of the 1st U.S. Army seized the Rhine bridge at Remagen and quickly established a substantial bridgehead on the east bank of the river. Since Montgomery did not plan to cross the Rhine until late March, the success of 1st U.S. Army presented the Allied command with a major dilemma. Both the army commander, Gen. Courtney Hodges, and his superior, Omar Bradley, were reasonably confident that a breakout from Remagen could be staged whenever permission was granted. Eisenhower, perhaps fearing an even more serious row with the British, ignored intelligence estimates of German weakness and ordered Hodges to limit the bridgehead and use it as a device to draw German reserves away from the north.

1st U.S. Army was certainly successful in this role because by March 23–the day of Operation Plunder–the Germans had moved most of their reserves opposite the Remagen bridgehead and had even attempted a counterattack. The next day, with the northern Rhine crossing safely launched, 1st U.S. Army was unleashed. In a matter of a few hours it had brushed aside the German defenders and was racing forward into Germany with three armoured divisions in the lead. General George S. Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army also crossed the Rhine before March 24, but this was a deliberate demonstration of Patton’s contempt for Montgomery’s elaborate preparations. The Americans announced that the Rhine could be crossed at any point without the aid of preliminary bombardment–never mind with airborne divisions–and they released the news that they had done so “at a time calculated to take some of the lustre from the news of Montgomery’s crossing.” All of this, no doubt, sounds somewhat childish, but the image of feuding generals should not be allowed to obscure the fact that Hodges was right and that Eisenhower’s decision to force his American armies to pause for two weeks so that Montgomery could complete preparations for a complex set-piece attack was a stiff price to pay for maintaining unity in coalition warfare. It was a price that he would not be willing to pay again in dealing with the British commanders.

Montgomery’s plan for the Rhine called for a series of widely separated assault crossings of the river. First into battle was 51 Highland Division, which had been strengthened by the addition of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade. The Buffaloes once again proved their value and, with 150 available, Major-General Tom Rennie was able to lift four assault battalions and a bridgehead was quickly established. There were few casualties, but Rennie, who always worked well forward, was fatally wounded. 15 Scottish Div. and 1 Commando Bde. were equally successful in the British sector and 9th U.S. Army reported that its assault divisions, the 30th and 29th, got across with “minor casualties of 16 or 17 men killed per division.”

Despite the evidence of minor German resistance, the airborne part of the crossing, Operation Varsity, was not cancelled and the vast armada of aircraft appeared over the Rhine at 10 a.m. on the 24th. The paratroops of 6th British Airborne and 17th U.S. Airborne made their drop without undue casualties, but by 10:30 a.m., when the gliders of the air landing brigades were coming in, the German flak gunners had recovered and a terrible toll was exacted. On the ground the airborne troops were soon engulfed in the most difficult and costly part of the operation. Casualties were horrendous the 6th Airborne lost 1,400 out of a landed strength of 7,220 and a quarter of the glider pilots were casualties. The paratroops of 17th Airborne were widely scattered and two-thirds of the gliders were hit by flak. Out of a force of 9,650 men, 1,300 were casualties. A daring resupply mission, flown at low level by United States Army Air Force Liberators, dropped 600 tonnes of supplies to sustain the division, but at a cost of 16 bombers shot down.

The 6th British Airborne included 1st Cdn. Parachute Battalion, which was dropped on the British front between Wesel and Rees. It was part of 3rd Parachute Bde. assigned to clear Diersfordt Woods. During the course of the battle, which cost the battalion 43 casualties, a medical orderly, Corporal F.G. Topham, earned the Victoria Cross. The citation reads in part: “Corporal Topham went forward through intense fire to replace the orderlies who had been killed before his eyes. As he worked on the wounded, he was himself shot through the nose. In spite of severe bleeding and intense pain, he never faltered in his task. Having completed immediate first aid he carried the wounded men steadily and slowly back through continuous fire….”

One of the fatal casualties was the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel J.A. Nicklin his brigadier, James Hill, paid this tribute to Nicklin and his men: “I thought you would not mind my writing to you directly to tell you what a very wonderful show the battalion has put up since our operations over the Rhine on March 24th last. They really put up a most tremendous performance on D-Day and as a result of their tremendous dash and enthusiasm they overcame their objectives, which were very sticky ones, with considerable ease, killing a very large number of Germans and capturing many others. Unfortunately, the price was high in that they lost their colonel, Jeff Nicklin, who was one of the best fellows that I have met, and was the ideal man to command that battalion as he fairly used to bang their heads together and they used to like it and accept it. He is and will be a tremendous loss to the battalion and of course to me. I only hope that the people back in Canada appreciate the really wonderful job of work he had done in producing his battalion at the starting line in such outstanding form.”

While the airborne troops regrouped and completed their assignments, Gen. Alfred Schlemm, who commanded Hitler’s First Parachute Army, deployed his reserves. The 47 Panzer Corps, composed of 116 Panzer Div. and 15 Panzer Grenadier Div. had taken advantage of the two-week pause in Allied operations to move north into Holland. Here, safe from Allied air forces that were reluctant to bomb Dutch villages, they rested, re-equipped and absorbed reinforcements. Their determination to defend Germany was now stronger than ever. Schlemm waited until noon on the 24th to commit his reserves. He sent 116 Panzer south to slow the American advance and committed 15 Panzer Grenadier to the defence of the northern sector. Since 51 Highland Div. was already engaged in a furious battle with two parachute divisions, expanding the bridgehead to the north and east was now bound to prove slow and costly. 9th Cdn. Bde., originally slated to lead the advance to Emmerich, joined the 154th Highland Bde. in close combat with a powerful enemy.

Historian Lee Windsor, who led our 2002 battlefield tour through the area, has closely studied the events of late March 1945 using both archival and interview sources. A PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick and a specialist on the Italian campaign, Windsor became interested in the Rhine crossing after meeting Justice D.M. Dickson who commanded D Company of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Justice Dickson related the story of the battle for Bienen and recent efforts to erect a plaque commemorating the Canadian and German soldiers who were killed-in-action in the village on March 25, 1945.

Windsor argues that whatever the situation was elsewhere on the Rhine front, at Speldrop and Bienen the Canadians faced a well-entrenched enemy that equalled or outnumbered the Canadian and Scottish troops advancing towards them. When the Highland Light Infantry of Canada was ordered to clear Speldrop, it was warned that two platoons of a highland division Black Watch battalion were still holding out in the village resisting large-scale counterattacks.

Lt.-Col. P.W. Strickland could count on medium artillery to neutralize known enemy positions beyond the village. He could also count on the field artillery to keep heads down while his men crossed 1,000 metres of flat open ground. However, the village itself would have to be cleared house by house. Strickland decided to use just one company in the initial attack, seizing the northwest corner of Speldrop and trying to identify the Black Watch positions. Strickland, like other experienced battalion commanders, was convinced it was better to stage attacks across open country with fewer men, reducing the casualties sustained from both friendly and enemy fire. If one company󈞼 officers and men–could get onto a position and establish a firm base, the rest of the battalion could advance in stages with additional covering fire. This approach worked at Speldrop even though all three platoon commanders were hit. Sergeant Cornelius Reidel inspired a fixed-bayonet charge on enemy positions in an orchard and then led his men to the objective. The rest of the company joined Reidel, who turned over a number of prisoners and three 75-mm guns.

Getting to the edge of the village was one thing, clearing it was quite another. The enemy had moved a troop of assault guns into Speldrop to support the paratroopers so Major J.C. King called for battalion six-pounders and Wasp flamethrowers rather than more infantry. The Highland Light Infantry of Canada used this close support to storm the German position and secure the northern edge of the village. King’s Distinguished Service Order and Reidel’s Military Medal were two of seven gallantry medals awarded to the HLI in the first two days of combat.

While the HLI fought to clear Speldrop, the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders–the Glens–and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders–the North Novas–bypassed the village moving north towards Bienen where another highland division battalion, the 7th Argylls, was waiting for relief. The Argylls had seized a group of farm buildings 300 metres from the village but could go no further. Lt.-Col. Don Forbes took one look at the terrain and decided to be cautious. He sent Maj. Don Learment’s A Company forward to Argyll Farm to secure the start line for an attack on the village. Learment, who had led the North Nova vanguard on June 7, was captured and then escaped from his German captors, took his men single-file along the side of a dike to Argyll Farm. Unfortunately, the 15th Panzer Grenadier Div. had arrived to block the advance and when the North Novas attacked the village of Bienen, they had to fight for every house, losing 114 men, including 43 killed. The initial advance had been supported by heavy artillery fire, including a liberal use of smoke, but the companies were brought under heavy enemy fire before the barrage started and the advance took place under conditions of growing confusion. Brigadier J.M. Rockingham ordered a withdrawal and directed the battalion to “start from scratch and do the attack over again, using the two remaining companies.”

The second North Nova attack managed to secure the southern half of the village. This was not Rockingham at his best for he had seriously underestimated the extent of German strength. That night, after a 3rd Anti-tank Regiment battery of self-propelled Valentine 17-pounders had beaten off an armoured counterattack, the HLI advanced through the North Novas to complete the capture of the village. For a full account of the battle of Bienen, please see Lee A. Windsor’s article Too Close For The Guns in the spring 2003 issue of the Canadian Military History journal. For a free introductory copy, write to Terry Copp, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON, N2L 3C5, e-mail [email protected] or check the Web site

The battles fought by Scottish and Canadian troops in the Rhine crossing were as difficult and costly as any in the experience of the two veteran divisions. The decision to stop and organize a set-piece attack instead of bouncing the Rhine allowed Montgomery time to build up resources so that his armies could race to Berlin once the bridgehead battle was won. This reasoned though debatable command decision placed an enormous burden on the infantry and airborne battalions used to attack an enemy that had ample time to create and camouflage strong defensive positions.

Ironically, Montgomery’s plans for a rapid thrust to Berlin were frustrated when Eisenhower decided to advance through the centre of Germany to meet the Soviet armies at the Elbe River. British protests were to no avail. Berlin, already under attack from the east, was well within the Soviet zone of occupation and Eisenhower had no intention of sacrificing men for such an objective.

The US Third Army carried out four river assaults in late March. The 5th Infantry Division undertook the first on March 22, 1945, crossing the Rhine at Oppenheim, south of Mainz. They crossed without the usual artillery preparation, a maneuver that caught German troops by surprise. Within 48 hours, four US divisions had crossed the Rhine at Oppenheim and positioned themselves to advance into Germany. Third Army troops soon also successfully assaulted the Rhine at three other locations: Boppard, St. Goar, and south of the city of Mainz. Two divisions of the US Seventh Army crossed the Rhine near the city of Worms on March 26, 1945. All of these operations were vital in facilitating the encirclement of the Ruhr and the conquest of Germany.

The planned Rhine crossing near Wesel, on the northern part of the Rhine, was the largest amphibious and airborne operation mounted since D-Day. Late on March 23, two British and two US divisions (from the US Ninth Army) began to cross the river near Wesel. Two airborne divisions, one British and one American, landed on the east bank of the Rhine on the following day to buttress the river assault.

By the end of March, all four US armies fighting in western Europe were east of the Rhine. While the First and Ninth Armies followed through to encircle the Ruhr, the Third and Seventh Armies moved east into central and southern Germany. Both operations would end with the surrender of Germany on May 7, 1945.

Operation Plunder: How the Allies Finally Crossed the Rhine in 1945

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery meticulously planned the 21st Army Group crossing of the mighty Rhine.

Here's What You Need to Know: Watching the offensive go forward, Churchill repeated to Eisenhower, “My dear general, the German is whipped. We have got him. He is all through.”

“I am busy getting ready for the next battle,” Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery wrote his son David in early March 1945. This was just weeks before the start of Operation Plunder, which involved the allies finally crossing the Rhine into German territory. “The Rhine is some river,” Montgomery said in his letter, “but we shall get over it.”

The Rhine was more than a river. It was a sacred waterway to the Germans, the source of most of their legends and myths. And at this stage in the war, crossing the Rhine was the last barrier between the advancing Allied armies and the conquest of Germany. If the Germans could hold their beloved river, they might be able to stand off the Allies.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander in Europe, had chosen to advance on Germany on a broad front, but the main axis of advance would be in the north, to pinch off and surround the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. The primary advance of Operation Plunder was to be led by Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, which consisted of the 1st Canadian Army, the 2nd British Army, and the 9th U.S. Army, by now all veterans of hard campaigns.

Monty’s original plan called for the British 2nd Army to launch the main assault at three places: Rees, 25 miles upstream from Arnhem near Xanten, seven miles upstream and close to Wesel and at Rheinberg, 16 miles farther upstream at the northwest corner of the Ruhr. The U.S. 9th Army commander, Lt. Gen. William Simpson, and the 1st Canadian Army’s boss, General Harry Crerar, both objected.

After some back and forth between the three commanders and staffs, Montgomery agreed to include the 9th Army in the initial assault as well as the 9th Canadian Brigade, veterans of Normandy. The 9th Army took over the Rheinberg crossing.

What made Crossing the Rhine the Greatest Assault River Crossing of All Time

Montgomery’s preparations for the attack across the Rhine, code-named Operation Plunder, were described as elephantine. With 1.2 million men under his command, Montgomery was launching the greatest assault river crossing of all time.

The Rhine was 400 yards wide at the Wesel crossing point, and to defeat the river and the heavy German fortifications, the 2nd Army alone collected 60,000 tons of ammunition, 30,000 tons of engineer stores, and 28,000 tons of above normal daily requirements. The 9th Army stockpiled 138,000 tons for the crossings. More than 37,000 British and 22,000 American engineers would participate in the assault, along with 5,500 artillery pieces, antitank and antiaircraft guns, and rocket projectors.

Preparations were elaborate. Montgomery would leave little to chance. The invading armies were elaborately camouflaged. A world record 66-mile-long smoke screen along the western side of the Rhine concealed preparations. Dummy installations were created to fool German intelligence. Coordinated patrols and artillery fire added to the deception measures. Civilians were evacuated from their homes for several miles west of the Rhine. Railheads were pushed forward, and new roads were built. The 9th Army would issue more than 800,000 maps.

Above all, Montgomery would not be hurried. Even though two American Rhine crossings preceded his main effort, Montgomery rightly observed that the Germans would fight hard for their sacred river, and his troops needed heavy training for the attack. Major John Graham, who commanded an infantry company in the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, noted that many British troops were raw recruits, drawn from training establishments by the shortage of manpower.

“Our men were not sufficiently well trained at this stage in the campaign to be able to exploit against the professional German soldier in a hasty impromptu crossing,” he said. “We couldn’t overcome the shortage of leaders. By that time in the war the experienced corporals and sergeants had disappeared, been killed, and we were left with people who were really privates who had been promoted. (It still seems absurd that I was 21 and a major). I think it would have been a pretty unwise commander who launched them into battle without the most thorough preparations.”

Germany’s Defenses

The Germans were also preparing. The only strategy Adolf Hitler had on the Western Front since the failure of the Ardennes offensive of December 1944 was to hold the line, and to do so he brought in Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert “Smiling Al” Kesselring to take over the front.

Kesselring, despite his Luftwaffe background, had made a name for himself commanding the German defenses in Italy, which had exacted a massive price while withdrawing slowly up the boot.

On March 11, Kesselring met with the top subordinates who would defend against Monty’s assault, Colonel General Johannes Blaskowitz, who commanded Army Group H, and General Alfred Schlemm, the tough paratrooper who commanded 1st Parachute Army near Wesel.

Despite taking heavy losses on the eastern bank of the Rhine, Schlemm assured his superiors that 1st Parachute Army was ready to hold the Rhine. He reported, “First Parachute Army succeeded in withdrawing all of its supply elements in orderly fashion, saving almost all its artillery and withdrawing enough troops so that a new defensive front [can] be built up on the east bank.” Schlemm guessed correctly that the focal points of an Allied attack across the Rhine would be at Emmerich and Rees and that there would be an airborne assault as well.

To defend against these threats, Schlemm strengthened his antiaircraft defenses near Wesel, with 814 heavy and light guns and mobile anti-airborne forces covering all the likely drop zones. Gunners had to sleep fully clothed at their posts.

Mixed Units of Veterans and Militia

Schlemm disposed his limited forces carefully. General Erich Straube’s 86th Corps defended Wesel. On Straube’s right was the 2nd Parachute Corps consisting of the 6th, 7th, and 8th Parachute Divisions, some 10,000 to 12,000 fighting men, who prided themselves on the elitism of being paratroopers, even if none were jump trained. The area south of Wesel was guarded by Schlemm’s weakest corps, the 63rd, under General Erich Abraham. Schlemm’s reserve was the 47th Panzer Corps, under Lt. Gen. Freiherr Heinrich von Leuttwitz, with the 116th Panzer Division and 15th Panzergrenadier Division in reserve. The two divisions had outstanding records but only 35 tanks between them.

Behind that, Schlemm had two more reserve formations—one was Volkssturm, the People’s Militia, made up of men over the age of 60 and boys under the age of 16. Trained hurriedly on Panzerfaust antitank weapons, Schlemm had 3,500 of these questionable troops at hand.

The second formation was even more questionable. Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda machine and Henrich Himmler’s Gestapo had created a resistance movement in the style of the French Underground, if not in their numbers. So far their most notable accomplishment had been to kill the pro-Allied mayor of Aachen, Franz Oppenhoff. They were tasked with sabotage missions, which included stringing cable across German roads to decapitate drivers of Allied jeeps advancing as they often did with the windshields down. In theory they were a considerable threat to the Allied advance, but as matters developed they would fizzle.

“My Orders are Categorical. Hang on!”

The overall picture for the Germans was bleak. They were short of everything. The Allied air forces dominated the skies. Morale was poor. To bolster it, the Germans tried a variety of measures—handing out medals galore, giving out autographed pictures of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, and warnings that failure to resist would lead to a Soviet victory, which would follow with all of Germany being hauled off to Siberia as slave labor.

If that did not work, Hitler and his minions always had the favorite tool of dictators—the death penalty. Capital punishment was prescribed for a variety of offenses: failing to blow a bridge on time, being related to a deserter, withdrawing without orders, or failing to fight to the end. On February 12, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed an order warning that any officer who “aids a subordinate to leave the combat zone unlawfully, by carelessly issuing him a pass or other leave papers, citing a simulated reason, is to be considered a saboteur and will suffer death.”

Blaskowitz doled out death to stragglers: “As from midday 10 March, all soldiers in all branches of the Wehrmacht who may be encountered away from their units on roads or in villages, in supply columns or among groups of civilian refugees, or in dressing-stations when not wounded, and who announce that they are stragglers looking for their units, will be summarily tried and shot.”

Himmler topped them all on April 12 with a decree that read, “Towns, which are usually important communications centers, must be defended at any price. The battle commanders appointed for each town are personally held responsible for compliance with this order. Neglect of this duty on the part of the battle commander, or the attempt on the part of any civil servant to induce such neglect, is punishable by death.”

The crossing of the Rhine: Operation Plunder and Operation Varsity

The final hurdle of the Rhineland Offensive was the Rhine itself. The crossing near Wesel (Operation Plunder) was one of several coordinated Rhine crossings. A million Allied soldiers participated. In support of the crossing, 14.000 paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines (Operation Varsity). The operations were a complete success. Hitler’s days were numbered.

The final stage of the Rhineland Offensive was the crossing of the fabled river itself. It was clear to everyone that the Rhine was the last major natural obstacle to the Allied advance into Germany. The crossing of the Rhine between Rees and Wesel (Operation Plunder) was part of several coordinated Rhine crossings. The actions started late on 23 March 1945. It was an operation of large numbers. A million soldiers from three countries participated. The Allies gathered over 4.000 pieces of artillery on the West bank of the river while over 250.000 tons of supplies were amassed near the front. The preparations were obscured from German view by the largest smoke screen ever laid.

In support of the Rhine crossing, Operation Varsity, the largest airborne operation performed in a single day, took place. 14.000 paratroopers were dropped east of the Rhine behind enemy lines to deepen the Allied bridgehead and to knock out German artillery targeting the Rhine. Operation Plunder went like clockwork. German resistance was completely broken by the artillery barrage and in the first two hours of the operation the Allies lost only 31 men. Some of the casualties of the Operations Varsity and Plunder are buried at the Reichswald Forest Cemetery.

After the establishment of the first bridgeheads it took engineers of the 9th U.S. Army just nine hours to bridge the river. Winston Churchill was present at the headquarters of Field Marshall Montgomery to witness the start of the final stage of the war in Germany. With the Allies crossing the Rhine, the days of the Third Reich were numbered.

Landed gliders in a field during Operation Varsity. © National Liberation Museum 1944-1945

A deceased American paratrooper hangs from a tree during Operation Varsity. © Beeldbank WO 2 – NIOD

Field Marshall Montgomery meets up with general Crerar. These men were the brains behind Operation Plunder. © Beeldbank WO 2 – Oorlogs- en verzetscentrum Groningen

Field Marshall Montgomery meets up with general Crerar. These men were the brains behind Operation Plunder. © Beeldbank WO 2 – Oorlogs- en verzetscentrum Groningen

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