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US Army in Czechoslovakia '45: An Operational Overview
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Allen Parfitt Articles
Dalton to Atlanta-Sherman vs. Johnston
A Path Across the Rhine: Remagen
The Battle of Cowpens
Popski's Private Army
The Battle of Pea Ridge
Bicycle Blitzkrieg: Singapore
Battles of Sparta: Mantinea
Battle of Franklin

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Recommended Reading


The Bridge at Remagen: The Amazing Story of March 7, 1945-The Day the Rhine River was Crossed


Remagen 1945

A Path Across the Rhine: The Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, March 1945
A Path Across the Rhine: The Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, March 1945
by Allen Parfitt

In March 1945 as Allied armies advanced into Germany, an ordinary bridge in an unimportant place suddenly became famous. This article will discuss how that happened, and the significance of the Bridge at Remagen.

World leaders are not modest men--or women. To climb to the top of political affairs in any country almost demands an outsized ego. This was particularly true during the Second World War. Franklin Roosevelt was very self-confident. Churchill was famously full of himself. Stalin was an egomaniac who plastered his picture on every wall in the Soviet Union, and his name on half the cities. Mussolini thought he was an incarnation of the ancient Romans, and DeGaulle was noted for his arrogance, even when his sole visible assets were a couple of aides and a big nose. But Adolf Hitler surpassed them all. During his meteoric rise to power, he decided that he was the world's leading expert on everything. There is a funny passage in Putzi Hanfstaengl's memoir where Hitler lectures him on art, indifferent to the fact that Putzi was a professional art dealer. Not so amusing to those who served under him was Hitler's discovery that he was the greatest war-leader of all time. His belief in his military ability was so strong as to be axiomatic. He knew he was always right, and did not trouble to solicit opinions from, say, experienced generals on the scene; he knew from his lair hundreds of miles away exactly what needed to be done. This is a very fortunate circumstance for the world. It must never be forgotten that Hitler, his henchmen, and his allies, bad men every one, came shockingly close to something that usually exists only in James Bond movies and comic books: world domination. The fact that we are singing the Star Spangled Banner and not the Horst Wessel Song before ball games was made possible only by the valor of our armed services, the good judgment of our leaders, a little luck and a long series of egregious military errors Hitler made in the name of his genius.

Of course, by 1945 it had all gone wrong. The Thousand Year Reich was caught like a watermelon in a giant vise between strong and vengeful enemies advancing from the east and the west. It did not occur to Hitler, of course, that any of his orders or decisions had been mistaken. His explanation for the bad military situation was simple: his generals and his soldiers had let him down. It is ironic that, having decided to conquer the world by force of arms, Hitler never had much confidence in his military. Everyone else, especially his enemies, feared and respected the Wehrmacht and its extremely professional generals. Hitler saw them as lazy cowards. One of the characteristics of his military thinking is that he hated, hated, hated, hated, to give up one square meter of territory where German boots had trod. He was convinced that if he could just bribe, cajole, or, better yet, threaten his soldiers sufficiently to hold all the ground they had captured, they could miraculously save the day. He had already lost an army at Stalingrad, another in Tunisia, and a third in France to these principles, but as the war situation grew worse for Nazi Germany, the more stubbornly he clung to every city, field, mountain, and hamlet. And his armies just kept retreating! His already low opinion of his soldiers took another drop on July 20, 1944 when several of his officers, led by Count Claus von Stauffenberg narrowly failed to blow him up with a bomb planted under his conference table. Not surprisingly, Hitler took this very personally, and the stream of no-retreat orders, defend-to-the-last-man orders and general interference with what his soldiers were trying to do rose to a new high.

Hitler loved to look at military situation maps. One of the iconic photographs of the war shows him bent over a huge map wearing his overcoat and military flathat, considering his next stroke of genius as eager aides wait for the word from the Fuhrer. After the failure of the Ardennes offensive at the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1945, his maps did not look so good. His veteran commander in the west, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, wanted to withdraw and consolidate his battered forces behind the Rhine River. Typically, Hitler looked at the map, saw how much territory would have to be given up, and ordained that the Wehrmacht would defend the "Westwall" a collection of fixed defenses on the German border, mostly left over from the beginning of the war as an answer to the Maginot Line. These defenses had a great reputation among the Allies, one overwrought attacker, Lt. Colonel Wallace Cheves, describing them as "strongest net of fortifications ever constructed by the human race". However they had been largely dismantled after the success of the blitzkrieg in 1940, and although they had been refurbished to some extent, the lack of weapons, materials, and time meant that this defensive system, often called the "Seigfried Line", was not that formidable. Hitler forbad the construction of defenses behind the Rhine so that his troops would not be tempted to retreat to them. This policy was not changed until February, and by that time the Westwall was falling apart. Now, at last, Hitler began to think about defending the Rhine. Of course, this could not be done. Military amateurs like Hitler tend to overestimate the defensive possibilities of river lines. We shall call a couple of witnesses. The first is Britain's finest World War II general, Field Marshal Viscount William Slim. Contemplating the forcing of the Irriwady River in Burma against desperate Japanese resistance in his memoirs, he said, "I drew comfort too, at this time from quite another thought. I had, more than once, in two great wars, taken part in the forcing of a river obstacle, and I had on every occasion found it less difficult and less costly than expected. I had also read some military history and, although I cudgeled my brains, I could not bring to mind a single instance when a river had been successfully held against determined assault. As the time grew near for the crossings, I hugged this thought to me. Historically, the odds were in my favor.". The second is Frederick the Great: "You can defend a river that lies behind an army, but it has yet to be shown how a river in front of armies can successfully be held. As many times as you take up a position behind a river to keep the enemy from crossing it, that often you will be duped, because sooner or later the enemy, forced to display cunning, finds a suitable moment for stealing his crossing......If you divide your army to occupy the most likely places for a crossing, you risk being beaten in detail; if your forces are concentrated, the least that can happen to you is a withdrawal in confusion to select another post." Nevertheless, although it was inevitable that the Allies would force the Rhine at some place and time, the place and time of their crossing was significant. If the Wehrmacht could have obtained just a little respite, they might have lengthened the war quite a bit. And even more significantly, Russian armies might have advanced much deeper into Germany than they did. Churchill was desperate to move as far east as possible. Although the Yalta agreements had broadly outlined the shape of postwar Europe, the devil, in the person of Joe Stalin, was in the details, and Churchill could foresee that Britain and America were going to have a tough time rousting the Russians out of any territory they were holding when the rotten edifice of Nazi Germany came crashing down. The sad story of postwar Poland and Czechoslovakia was proof of these apprehensions.

In 1916, during the First World War, the incredible demands of the Western Front began to outstrip the ability of the German rail system to supply it. Erich Ludendorff, the de facto warlord of Germany, requested that additional rail links to the west be constructed. Accordingly, in 1916 work was begun on a two track railroad bridge across the Rhine River at Remagen, a modest town between Bonn and Koblentz. In spite of material shortages and labor shortages caused by the war, work went on steadily, and by 1918 the bridge was almost complete. It was a handsome and functional structure, with two heavy stone towers at each end. The bridge was not designed to carry traffic from the existing railway in the area, which wound its leisurely way up the valley of the Ahr River, twisting, bending, and passing through every little hamlet before reaching Aldenahr, some 20 km from the Rhine, then curving south toward the larger valley of the Mosel. It was to be the Rhine crossing of a high speed military railway which would be built straight across the higher slopes of the Ahr Valley, across the Eifel Hills, and west toward the front. When the Bridge was completed and dedicated in 1918, and named after Ludendorff, a great deal of work had also been done on the railroad. Bridges, tunnels, and retaining walls had been constructed, and it remained only to lay the rails. But things had not gone well for the German army, and in November Ludendorff abruptly told the civilians in the government whom he had been ignoring for years that they needed to negotiate a cease fire immediately. With a mixture of patriotism and naiveté' they did so, and the Great War was over. Work stopped immediately on the railway, and was never resumed. Today the work that was done can still be seen, especially above the village of Dernau. Some of the tunnels were used by farmers, some were expanded to create a bunker for the Bonn Government to use as a fallout shelter during the Cold War, and at least one was used during World War Two to construct components for the V-2. But there was neither the need nor the money for the railway in the years immediately after the World War One, and such a railway was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles, which also provided for French occupation of the Rhineland. So the Ludendorff Bridge was a white elephant from its completion, built to serve a cause that was already lost and a rail line that was never constructed. Weary German soldiers tramped across the bridge on their way home, still wondering how they could have lost the war. For several years most of the traffic on the bridge was on the wooden footbridge that paralleled the double rail line. But the Ludendorff Bridge was connected to the Ahr Valley railroad, and as Germany rebuilt and rearmed, and the bridge became a useful rail link across the Rhine, with several trains a day puffing across its tracks. The rail line came from the west, turned north near the town of Sinzig and crossed the 350 meters of the Ludendorff Bridge. There was a rail line running up the east bank of the Rhine that actually passed under the bridge, but in order to connect to this line after crossing the bridge, trains had to pass through a 400 meter tunnel curving through a huge hill towering over the river called the Erpeler Ley. Then the trains could continue north toward Bonn. Because of the way the Rhine curves, the Ludendorff Bridge, which was built to carry east-west traffic, ran almost straight north and south.

Throughout the early and middle years of the Second World War the Ludendorff Bridge was a modest link in the large and efficient German rail system. With typical German thoroughness the bridge had been built with cavities where demolition charges could be placed. But the French filled these cavities with cement, which could not be removed. So new arrangements were made, consisting of zinc-lined boxes connected by electrical cable. Both an engineering unit and a military unit were assigned to the bridge. After D-Day the possibility that there might actually be a need for these units to do something grew, and as the Americans approached the Rhine River in early 1945 this possibility grew to a certainty.

The command structure of the German troops defending the Ludendorff Bridge was extremely complex and chaotic. It is perhaps easiest to look at it from both ends. At the top, under von Rundstedt, was Field Marshal Walter Model. Model was an experienced soldier and a Nazi loyalist. Hitler liked him. He had a lot on his hands. Not only was he trying to hold back a flood of Allied troops with various outnumbered and worn out units, but he was also trying in implement Hitler's counterproductive, unrealistic and sometimes contradictory orders. Model realized that the defense of the Rhine was starting soon, but he was not that worried about Remagen. The river runs swiftly there, the terrain is fairly rugged, and there was no very obvious target of attack on the east side. He was much more concerned about Bonn and Cologne to the north. At the bottom of the command chain were two officers. The first was Captain Karl Friesenhahn. He was commanding the company of engineers at the bridge. Friesenhahn was a combat veteran, over fifty, and had originally been given this job in 1943 as a safe rear-area sinecure. He and his men would be responsible for the demolition of the bridge, if necessary. Captain Willi Bratge was a younger man, also a combat veteran, and was in charge of the convalescent company which was supposed to defend the bridge. His problems were compounded by the fact that as soon as his men began to learn what to do, they got better and were posted to the front. By March 1945 he had only about 35 soldiers. Between these three officers was a welter of overlapping and confused commands. When Bratge received a codeword on February 26,1945 he opened his sealed orders, and found to his dismay that he was placed under the command of the 5th Panzer Army. Unfortunately, the 5th Panzer Army was long gone, having been transferred elsewhere, but his orders had not been updated. However, Model was not Hitler's chief military fixer for nothing. Seeing that organizing the defenses of the Rhine was necessary he appointed an able and experienced general named Walter Botsch to command the area between Bonn and Remagen. Botsch moved energetically to put the area's defenses in order. He requested troops for both Bonn and Remagen, put some of the feared 88 mm dual purpose guns in place near Bonn, and talked to both Bratge and Friesenhahn. He too was more worried about Bonn than Remagen. Botsch received reinforcements for Bonn, but Model, desperately short of men, had none to spare for Remagen. Although he could not say so in so many words, his attitude was simple: blow the bridge and forget the place.

He could not say so because of another of Hitler's weird commands. The Allies were bombing the Rhine bridges to try to interdict military traffic escaping to the east bank. There had been some talk of trying to capture a bridge, but no one thought it could be done. A lucky hit on a bridge near Cologne ignited the demolition charge and destroyed the bridge. Hitler still had fantasies of conducting offensive operations west of the Rhine, and was angry about the destruction of the bridge. So he ordered that the charges should not be laid until the very last moment, although the circuits could be in place, and that bridges should be demolished only as a last resort and at the last possible moment. These orders were coupled with the usual threats.

In contrast the American chain of command of the forces approaching the Ludendorff Bridge was simple and orderly. At the top was General Dwight Eisenhower. He also had his share of problems. It was quite clear that the war was won, but there were a lot of questions about how to finish the war with a minimum of destruction and bloodshed. And although Eisenhower resolutely kept his eye on the main task of finishing off the Nazis, he was certainly aware that he was making decisions which might affect the post war world. His best-known subordinate was Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Montgomery commanded the British Army in Europe and, in his usual modest way, was urging Eisenhower to let him win the war all by himself with a dramatic dash across Holland and northern Germany to Berlin. But the Market-Garden debacle had alerted Eisenhower to the defensive possibilities of Dutch polders, and his other main subordinate, General Omar Bradley, wanted a strong advance much further south. One way in which Eisenhower agreed with Model was that nothing was contemplated around Remagen. The 9th Armored Division which was advancing in that area would capture the town, watch the bridge go up, then get a little rest before reinforcing the advance either to the north or south.

On March 7, 1945 the advance of the 9th Armored was led by 2nd Lieutenant Karl Timmerman. Timmerman's mother was a German war bride from World War One and he spoke German. He had never met General Eisenhower, just as Bratge and Friesenhahn had never met Model. The difference was that there was a direct line of command between Timmerman and Eisenhower. As the surprising events of March 7 unfolded, the superior American command structure was very helpful in allowing them to exploit the situation. That morning Timmerman was about ten miles west of Remagen. He was under orders from Colonel Leonard Engeman, commanding a column of the 9th Armored Division, to move rapidly toward the Rhine against what was hoped would be weak resistance. His force would consist of what every army was using for jobs like this by 1945: a mixed force of infantry and tanks. The Germans had pioneered the use of combined modern arms, and all the other successful armies had copied them. As expected, Timmerman's spearhead moved quickly ahead. Here and there they met resistance, but a flanking movement and some shelling by the tanks was enough to flush out prisoners or send the Germans into retreat. By one o'clock the Americans had advanced into the outskirts of Remagen. Coming around the corner they saw a surprising sight. The Ludendorff Bridge was still standing!

Captain Bratge had his hands full that day. The bridge had been planked over to facilitate vehicle traffic. Trains could still pass, and nine trains full of wounded crossed over to the eastern side. A steady stream of flotsam and jetsam of the once-mighty Wehrmacht appeared, desperate to cross. For a while a company of military policemen directed traffic, but then they were ordered elsewhere, so Bratge had to go out to direct traffic himself. He sent his tiny command to take up positions west of Remagen so they could give him some warning of when the Americans might arrive. He also tried to contact General Botsch to find out what the situation was, and if reinforcements were really coming. He was horrified to discover that General Botsch had been abruptly reassigned. The commander of the LII Corps had wandered into American hands, and this beleaguered Corps was desperately in need of an experienced leader. Model sent Botsch. So who was in command in his place? General von Bothmer, who was in Bonn. But there was no time for Botsch to brief von Bothmer, who had his hands full trying to organize the defense of the Bonn area, so around one o'clock in the morning of March 7 someone at Fifteenth Army headquarters sent a telephone message attaching the Remagen bridgehead to the LXVII Corps. General Hitzfeld, commanding the LXVII Corps was 65 kilometers northwest of Remagen. He was in a mess too, trying to find his scattered Corps, which was under heavy attack, arrange a retreat, and fend off insistent orders that he was supposed to "attack to recover lost positions." Orders like this, which more and more showed a total disconnect from reality, kept emanating from Fuhrer Headquarters. Hitzfeld knew nothing about Remagen, and could spare only one thing for its defense. He sent an experienced officer, Major Hans Scheller, with orders to take command at Remagen and do whatever was necessary. The only force he could spare for Scheller was an eight-man radio unit. He hoped that Scheller would be able to find troops from the scattered units trying to retreat across the bridge. Scheller left LXVII HQ around two in the morning. He arrived in Remagen around eleven, having had a difficult trip during which he became permanently separated from his radio unit.

It is difficult, from the quiet of the author's library, to visualize and convey the confusion and tension at the bridge in the late morning of March 7, 1945. Captain Bratge was glad to see Major Scheller, and was trying to put him in the picture as remnants of the German army continued to seek safety on the east bank. An artillery officer was pleading with them to delay the destruction of the bridge until his unit, somewhere to the west, appeared and crossed. A young lieutenant named Karl Peters was trying to get his experimental antiaircraft rocket unit to safety. He was under orders to save the unit if at all possible, but under no circumstances to let the rockets fall into enemy hands. Meanwhile Major Friesenhahn was making the final preparations for demolition. The main charges were in place, and he was testing the electrical circuits frequently, but he was waiting for delivery of the emergency charge, which could be set off with a primer cord which would need to be lit by hand. When the truck roared up with the explosives, Friesenhahn was unhappy to discover that instead of the 600 kg of military explosives, he had only 300 kg of weaker industrial explosives. But obviously that was all he was going to get, so he gave his men orders to put it in place, 150 kg on either side of the bridge. At first Scheller was hoping to organize a defense on the west bank. Bratge was doubtful. Scheller stopped a vehicle with several men and ordered them to remain on the west side. When he turned to Bratge to tell him "That's how it's done" the vehicle went roaring across the bridge and disappeared into the tunnel. That convinced Scheller that there was no chance of defending the bridge. He and Bratge crossed to the eastern side.

Meanwhile Timmerman and his men were advancing into Remagen from the northwest. The tanks that were accompanying him were commanded by Lieutenant John Grimball. They were the new Pershing tanks, rather than the ubiquitous Shermans. The Pershings had a 90mm main gun, and were a match for the German Panthers and Tigers, which the Sherman was not. But the Pershings were also a little wide for some of the country bridges the unit had been using, and had not seen a lot of action. Colonel Engeman had looked at his map that morning and correctly decided that this would be a good time for the Pershings to advance. As the Americans entered Remagen they spotted some German soldiers moving across their front. This was Bratge's tiny convalescent unit. It turned out that they were not very well placed, and were quickly outflanked and dispersed. Their commander, Sergeant Gerhard Rothe, a local man, was shot twice through the legs, but bravely crawled back toward the bridge. Friesenhahn had been worried about the bridge being rushed by armor, so he had planted a demolition charge on the western approach. He detonated this charge about two o'clock, blowing a big hole in the track and preventing the approach of any vehicle. Good thing! The Pershings were coming! One of their shells hit the bridge, and falling debris knocked Friesenhahn down and out as he crossed, but after lying there for a few minutes he regained consciousness, continued to the eastern side and entered the tunnel. A few minutes later Sergeant Rothe crawled across, the last German soldier to do so.

Timmerman and Grimball were not in any great hurry as they moved through Remagen and headed toward the bridge. There was no serious German opposition, and they were just waiting for the bridge to go up with a roar. But they were about to get prodded. General William Hoge, commander of the 9th Armored Division, had arrived on the scene. He also knew that the Germans were about to blow the bridge, but it was standing, and if there was even a tiny chance that it could be captured, he wanted to make the effort. He began pushing Colonel Engeman, and Engeman began pushing his subordinates. By three o'clock both the infantrymen and the tanks had reached the bridge, and the Pershings began shelling the bridge and the area on the far bank between the north end of the bridge and the tunnel. Timmerman and his men were reluctant to venture out on the bridge since it might be blown up under them. But Hoge was determined to give it a try. He sent two officers down to give the necessary orders. He also told Engineer Lieutenant Hugh Mott to send a couple of his men out on the bridge with the infantrymen to disable the demolition circuits and charges. Although the tanks could not get on the bridge because of the hole Friesenhahn had blown in the approaches, they were ordered to keep up heavy supporting fire.

When Friesenhahn reached the north side of the bridge and entered the tunnel, he told Bratge that the bridge should to be blown immediately. Bratge peeked out of the tunnel, and saw the line of tanks firing high explosive and phosphorus shells in his direction. He knew Friesenhahn was right. But Scheller had taken command, and had to give the order. Such was the apprehension created by Hitler's draconian but contradictory orders about bridge destruction that everyone concerned was worried about documenting his part in the decision. So Bratge took another officer with him, and received a formal order from Scheller to conduct the demolition. This order was issued at 3:20, and not a moment too soon. Friesenhahn wound the key that would activate the electrical circuits and set off the charges placed all along the bridge. The circuit had been tested repeatedly, right up to the attempted demolition. But when he tried to activate it, nothing happened! Frantically he tried again. Still nothing! Now his only hope was to set off the emergency charge that had just arrived that morning. Someone would have to go out, braving the 90mm shells from the American tanks, and light the primer cord. Corporal Anton Faust agreed to go, and after a perilous trip under fire, he succeeded in lighting the cord. A few seconds later the emergency charge exploded, to the relief of the men at both ends of the bridge, the Germans because they had succeeded in carrying out the demolition, the Americans because they would not need to venture out onto the dangerous bridge. But their relief was short lived: the Ludendorff Bridge seemed to lift itself off its piers, hang for an instant, then settle back in place, damaged, but intact!

Why did the demolition fail? Some of the causes will never be known, others are easy to identify.

1. The emergency charge was too weak. Not only was it half the size Friesenhahn ordered, but it was a weaker form of industrial explosive. It was later discovered that only half of the emergency charge, 150 kg, exploded; the blasting cap was not properly placed in the other half.

2. The failure of the primary electrical circuit. Why did this happen? No one knows. There were stories afterward about sabotage, both by German soldiers and ostworkers who were present in the tunnel. But the circuit ran through a solid pipe, and was tested frequently, almost up to the time it failed. It seems much more likely that a chance hit from one of the tanks firing at the bridge broke the pipe and the circuit.

3. The Germans waited much too long to blow the bridge. Concern over retreating units, the fact that Friesenhahn was at the wrong end of bridge, Hitler's bridge orders all meant that the Germans waited too long to set off the charges. The bridge should probably have been blown shortly after noon, while both ends were safely in German hands, and there was plenty of time to deal with any problems.

4. The rapid advance of the Americans to the bridge. The speed at which American soldiers and tanks arrived was a surprise to the Germans. Timmerman, Grimball and their men must receive credit for this, as well as General Hoge and Colonel Engeman.

5. The strange and confused command structure of the Germans at the bridge. Major Scheller had good intentions, and all the Germans seem to have tried to cooperate, but the Major did not arrive until four hours before the failed demolition, and had not had time to grasp the situation. By contrast the Americans benefited greatly from their simple and workable command.

Of course, the failure of the demolition was just the beginning of the story of the Ludendorff Bridge and the crossing of the Rhine. The bridge was still standing, but it had to be captured. When Lieutenant Timmerman saw that the bridge was still standing, he led his men out onto the planks, all of them still wondering if they might still get blown up. They came under fire from a machine gun in one of the north towers, and another one located on a stranded barge near the bridge. Grimball's tanks took both guns under fire, and managed to silence the one on the barge. At the same time two engineers began working their way along the side of the bridge, cutting demolition wires and throwing explosive into the river. The main obstacle to capturing both ends of the bridge was the machine gun in one of the north towers. Sergeant Leonard DeLisle rushed the tower, climbed the stairs, captured the Germans inside and threw the machine gun out the window.

Inside the tunnel the Germans were in complete consternation. There were quite a few miscellaneous German soldiers from various commands, but Captain Bratge was unable to rally them to try and push the Americans back off the bridge. And of course, given the resources that Colonel Engeman had at his disposal, it's hard to see how the bridge could have been held from the north side with the German troops available, even had they been willing to fight. Major Scheller saw that the situation was hopeless, and made a brave and correct military decision. He realized that it was imperative that German command be notified that the bridge had been taken, and since he had no means of communication available, he grabbed a bicycle and went off to tell someone. As it turned out he paid for this decision with his life. He would have been much better off to have stayed in the tunnel and surrendered, which is what Bratge and Friesenhahn did. Given the mass of frightened and helpless soldiers and civilians in the tunnel, they had no other choice.

An infantryman named Alex Drabek was the first American across the bridge, followed by the rest of Timmerman's squad, then Timmerman himself. At this point the "bridgehead" consisted of just these few men. At the north end of the bridge. Colonel Engeman had called up a tank with a bulldozer blade to fill in the crater caused by the Friesenhahn's first demolition charge so that armor could cross, and he kept pushing men across the bridge to widen the American toehold. Timmerman sent a squad up the Erpeler Ley, which took some casualties before capturing the AA guns and gunners at the top. He also sent men to the north along the Rhine to take control of the other end of the tunnel. The Germans in the tunnel made a few half-hearted efforts to break out, then surrendered a little after five. In spite of the work of the tank dozer and the efforts of American engineers, who were swarming over the damaged bridge, it was not until around midnight that the first armored vehicles were able to cross. Nine Sherman tanks went over to the north shore, then a tank destroyer fell through the damaged flooring and couldn't be moved, blocking the bridge. It was not until around dawn the next day that the vehicle was dislodged and traffic could flow.

The capture of the Ludendorff Bridge on March 7 created problems for both the Americans and the Germans. The American problem was that no offensive action beyond the Rhine was contemplated in the Remagen area. Some officers at Allied headquarters were openly sorry that the bridge had been captured, but one of Eisenhower's strengths as a commander was that he was very pragmatic. An opportunity had presented itself--he was ready to take advantage. He ordered that the bridgehead be strengthened and exploited, even though he wasn't quite clear how it would fit into the overall plan. Soon American soldiers and tanks were streaming across the battered bridge. Antiaircraft guns were positioned to defend it.

The Ludendorff Bridge did not look very solid, and it was imperative for the Americans to push sizable forces across the Rhine to reinforce the bridgehead as soon as possible. Orders went out immediately to nearby engineering units to construct floating bridges across the Rhine that could carry traffic to the other shore. Early on March 9th the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion began constructing a treadway bridge north of the Ludendorff Bridge. An M2 steel treadway bridge consisted of pontoons perpendicular to the current, saddles on top of the pontoons, and 12 foot sections of treadway bolted to the saddles. The sections were fabricated on the spot, hauled out to the end of the bridge, then connected by large steel pins. The 291st had lots of experience with treadway bridges, but this was something else. The Rhine would require 80 or 90 sections of bridge, not including wastage. Constructing the sections, wrestling them out to the end of the bridge, then pounding in the pins was brutal work. And it would have to be done under fire. An the same day the 51st Engineers arrived to start building a heavy pontoon bridge south of the Ludendorff site. This bridge could carry a heavier load than the treadway, but would take correspondingly longer to build. In addition, the 51st was delayed in starting by the fact that their destination on the east shore, the town of Linz, was still held by the Germans!

On the German side the realization of what had happened came more slowly. The first officers to learn that the bridge was still standing were two engineer majors, August Kraft and Herbert Strobel. They agreed that Strobel would lead an immediate counterattack. Before he did so he did a very intelligent thing: he called for a truck with a ton of explosives. Gaining control of the north end of the bridge would not be enough; the bridge had to come down. The big problem was that Kraft and Strobel had very few troops available. About a hundred engineers and some flak troops headed for Erpel and launched an attack in the early hours of March 8. It was a scary night for the Americans, who were not very numerous on the north side, and were still trying to dislodge that pesky tank destroyer so that more reinforcements could come across. They had no way of knowing how many Germans were attacking them, but they were fortunate that Strobel's men were too few to accomplish their mission. About a hundred were captured, and Strobel returned to his headquarters to report failure. It isn't recorded what happened to the truck full of explosives.

Model heard about the bridge sometime during the night, and ordered the 11th Panzer Division to move to the Remagen area and attack the bridgehead. However, the 11th Panzer was in the Dusseldorf area, and lacked fuel. It took time to round up the necessary fuel and get the panzers moving in the right direction. Closer to the bridgehead Major Strobel's superior, General von Berg, was trying to organize engineer troops in the area to launch another attack on the bridgehead. But many of these engineers were engaged in ferrying German soldiers trapped on the west bank of the Rhine to safety, and their commander, General Wirtz, could not see the point of abandoning these operations, which were preserving desperately needed soldiers for the Wehrmacht, in order to use these specialist engineers as cannon fodder. He countermanded von Berg's orders. Confusion resulted. Finally Model ruled in favor of Wirtz, hoping that the 11th Panzer would eventually save the day.

We last saw Major Scheller riding out of the back end of the railroad tunnel like some German Paul Revere shouting "The Americans are Coming!" But finding someone to tell his story to on the dark roads of the Rhineland was not easy. Somewhere along the way he was commandeered by a higher-ranking officer to man a roadblock. Eventually he ran into General Joachim von Kortzfleisch five miles north of Erpel. Kortzfleisch knew all about the problem at the Remagen Bridge--Model's headquarters had placed him in charge of the operations against the bridgehead. He sent Scheller back to LXVII Headquarters. However, that headquarters had moved several times, and it was March 10 before Scheller finally found them.

When Adolf Hitler heard that the bridge at Remagen had not been blown and the Americans were pouring across the Rhine, he went berserk. He gave three very characteristic orders. First, the bridge must be destroyed by any means possible. Second, there must be a court martial for those responsible. Third, he relieved his commander in the west, Field Marshal von Rundstedt. In von Rundstedt's place he ordered his commander in Italy, "Smiling Al" Kesselring to Berlin. Kesselring was another in the seeming endless procession of very competent leaders thrown up by the Nazi war machine. Indeed, the motto of the German military in World War II might be, "Never did men fight so bravely and so well for such a miserable cause and for such an ungrateful leader." Kesselring had brilliantly stalled the Allied advance in Italy for more than a year, in spite of a serious lack of resources. But as good as Kesselring was, it was going to take him some time to figure out the situation in the west, and he was going to be seriously handicapped by the growing weakness of the troops under his command, and by Hitler's nonsensical orders.

There are a lot of ways to destroy a bridge. The Germans tried them all. And eventually, they were successful, although it didn't do them any good. The first and most desirable way was to launch a counteroffensive, drive in the American bridgehead into the Rhine, and blow the bridge up. There was little chance that this could succeed. The confused German command structure, the lack of fuel, the fact that thousands of German troops were still on the wrong side of the Rhine, with orders to stay there until they died, all meant that the attacks on the bridgehead were weak and spasmodic. In fact, even though Eisenhower was still mulling over how much of an effort he could really afford to make in the Remagen area, American forces were crossing the bridge so quickly that they were able to expand the bridgehead by about a thousand meters a day, aiming for the Frankfurt-Cologne autobahn.

The Luftwaffe had been battered to desperation by this point in the war, but there were still planes that could fly, and they were ordered to attempt to knock down the bridge. But a bridge is a difficult target for aircraft, and the Americans quickly brought in more and more antiaircraft batteries, as well as covering the bridge with RAF fighter aircraft operating out of Holland. The German's tried Stukas, which had the pinpoint dive-bombing capability to take out such a small and difficult target, but the slow moving Ju 87's were unable to penetrate the defenses, and several were shot down. Then the Luftwaffe turned to jet aircraft, and sent both Me 262's in a light bomber role, and Ar 234's. These aircraft had the speed to press home their attacks, but lacked the precision to score fatal hits.

The most practical way of attacking the bridge was with artillery. The Germans had over a hundred guns in the area, 105 mm howitzers, 150 mm guns and howitzers, and even the superheavy "Karl" 540 mm mortar. The Karl was not good for much, but the artillery hit the bridge and its approaches numerous times, and made the passage across the Rhine quite hazardous. The falling shells also harassed the 51st and 291st Engineers who were putting the floating bridges across the river. The German artillerymen were helped by an artillery observers, one of whom apparently managed to find a vantage point in Remagen. The biggest problem for the German artillery was the bulk of the Erpeler Ley, which concealed the bridge from the east. As the Americans consolidated and expanded the bridgehead the observers were captured or driven back, the artillery itself had to retreat, and artillery fire became less effective.

Having done the sensible things Hitler then turned to the bizarre. He put in a call to the famous special operations expert Otto Skorzeny. Skorzeny had been training navy frogmen in Vienna. He was doubtful whether they could destroy the bridge, and it took them a week to get to the Rhineland, but on March 16 they bravely plunged into the freezing river and attempted to make their way down river to attach explosives. They failed in part because of the difficult conditions and in part because the Allies were using "Canal Defense Lights"--obsolete Grant tanks equipped with powerful searchlights. These strange code-named beasts were so secret that they were kept in the rear--just as well, since turning on a bright light in the middle of a night battle guarantees a short life--and it could well be that their employment at Remagen was their only operational success.

Hitler's next thought was even stranger. He ordered that V2 rockets be fired at the bridge. The V2 was a technological marvel, developed by a team of engineers under Walter Dornberger and Werner von Braun, but it was not in any way accurate, and a more unsuitable weapon for attacking a small target could not be imagined. Eleven V2's in all were launched from Holland. Amazingly, one of the them landed only 300 meters from the bridge, destroying a house and killing 3 American soldiers. There was no visible damage to the bridge. The other ten landed at scattered points around the countryside and in the town of Remagen.

At 1900 hours on March 10th, after thirty hours of continuous work, the 291st completed their treadway bridge. At the time it was the longest tactical bridge ever built. Elements of the 99th division immediately started across. The 51st completed their heavy pontoon bridge late on the 11th.. Work was started on a floating Bailey bridge further north. With two floating bridges available, engineers decided to close the Ludendorff bridge for desperately needed repairs.

It was too late. Around three o'clock in the afternoon on March 17th, ten days after it had been captured, the Ludendorff Bridge collapsed into the Rhine. Weakened by demolition charges, hit repeatedly by artillery and maybe a few bombs, subjected to the vibration of men and tanks crossing ceaselessly, the bridge finally gave up. 28 American engineers were killed and 63 were wounded when it fell. The military effect of the collapse of the bridge was nil. The Americans had a firm hold on the east side of the Rhine, two floating bridges were in place, and troops could be ferried over. When Captain Charles MacDonald crossed the Rhine near Sinzig on March 22 his men crossed in landing craft. The floating Bailey Bridge was ready for service on March 20.

Hitler was extremely unhappy about the Remagen bridgehead. He did not, of course, leave any record of his own, but Joseph Goebbels kept a diary and his thoughts, which tended to mirror Hitler's very closely, kept going back to Remagen. From March 7th until April 9th, when the diary breaks off abruptly, Goebbels mentioned Remagen no less than 35 times. Some of his comments contain a strange mixture of concern and optimism: "The Remagen bridgehead causes the Fuhrer much anxiety. On the other hand he is of the opinion that it offers us certain advantages. Had the Americans not found a weak spot enabling them to cross the Rhine they probably would have swung forthwith against the Moselle....Nevertheless it must be assumed that the failure to blow the Remagen Bridge may well be due to sabotage, or at least serious negligence. The Fuhrer has ordered an inquiry and will impose a death sentence on anyone found guilty. The Fuhrer considers the bridgehead a definite thorn in the flesh of the Americans. He has now ringed the bridgehead with heavy weapons whose job it is to inflict the greatest possible casualties to American forces concentrated in the bridgehead. It may well be, therefore, that the bridgehead will not be all joy for the Americans." If this seems absurd, it should be noted that many of the 1945 entries in Dr. Goebbels' diary contain desperate attempts to find a silver lining in the dark, dark clouds hanging over the Third Reich. A more typical entry: "In the evening comes the news that is has still not been possible to eliminate the Remagen bridgehead. On the contrary the Americans have reinforced it and are trying to extend it. The result is a very unpleasant situation for us....However we must succeed, for if the Americans continue to hold out on the right bank of the Rhine they have a base for a further advance and from the small beginning of a bridgehead such as we now see, a running sore will develop--as so often before--the poison from which will soon spread to the Reich's vitals." Grim, poetic, perceptive.

Hitler had not forgotten about finding some scapegoats for the disaster. He had just the man for the job. He summoned Major General Rudolf Hubner from the eastern front, where he was commanding a division, to hold court-martials. Hubner had a good combat record and, more important, was a fanatical and reliable Nazi. It seems incredible that in this time of military crisis a general would be pulled from a combat unit to conduct a court-martial, but Hitler talked to Hubner in person and gave him his orders. Hitler was not a stupid man. In spite of the shrill orders streaming from the Fuhrerbunker, he knew the jig was up. Since it was all the fault of the military, it no doubt gave him some pleasure to think that a few of those cowardly scum would be shot by his order. When Hubner arrived at Model's headquarters they could see he was Big Trouble. Hubner was there to shoot some people, and he didn't much care who. Not wanting his staff or his generals to get shot, Model looked around for scapegoats. One was right to hand--the unfortunate Major Scheller. Lieutenant Peters was another. Majors Kraft and Strobel were two more. The trials were a travesty in which Hubner berated the defendants and did not allow them to defend themselves. The other two members of the panel, a couple of lieutenant colonels, largely kept their mouths shut and voted with Hubner. All four men were sentenced to death. So was Captain Bratge, who was in American hands. Strangely, Captain Friesenhahn, who was also an American prisoner, was acquitted, apparently due to Major Kraft, who realized that he was doomed and tried to take the responsibility from his subordinate. It must be emphasized that all four of these men had done their best under difficult circumstances and were murdered by the very regime they were trying to defend. As well as Hitler and Hubner, Model must share in the responsibility for their deaths. Albert Speer recalled "In the Wehrmacht communiqué' of March 18, 1945 I read of the execution of the four officers charged with not having blown up the Rhine bridge in time. Model had just told me that they were completely innocent." This quote is of interest not only because of Model's reported comment, but because of the impression that Speer, an insider's insider, received of the proceedings. Kraft and Strobel were not anywhere near the bridge on March 7, and Peters was just a passer-by who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After the radio announcement of the executions, Major Scheller's wife received a brusque note from the Wehrmacht informing her that her husband had been executed for failure to do his duty. She did not take this well, and soon after the fall of Nazi Germany she began campaigning to have her late husband's name officially cleared. In the chaos of postwar Germany it was difficult to get anyone interested in the record of an obscure dead officer, but she was persistent, and in 1967 she succeeded in having his name and reputation officially rehabilitated.

Operation Voyage, the breakout from the Remagen bridgehead began on March 26th. It was designed as a supplement to the main thrust, Montgomery's Operation Plunder. By this time the bridgehead had grown almost forty kilometers long, extending from Bonn in the north almost to Koblentz in the south, and was ten to fifteen kilometers deep. Although Voyage didn't begin with nearly the fanfare or expectations of Plunder, it was even more successful. The German 15th Army collapsed, and by April 1 over 20,000 prisoners had been taken, and encirclement of the Ruhr was complete. Hitler issued more no-retreat, fight or die orders to the almost 400,000 troops trapped in the Ruhr pocket, but on April 15 all under and overage troops were simply discharged to go home, and the rest surrendered in droves. On April 21, Model walked into the woods and shot himself. On April 30, only 54 days after the capture of the Ludendorff bridge, Adolf Hitler also shot himself in the Fuhrerbunker in Berlin, ringing down the curtain on the Third Reich.

What was the significance of the capture of the Bridge at Remagen? Again, we'll call a couple of witnesses. First, Field Marshal Kesselring: "The gravest danger lay in the fact that Remagen required an increasing flow of reinforcements and supplies fed to C in C West, magnetically attracting everything right and left. This made the regrouping, resting and refurbishing of the other Army Groups more difficult, if not impracticable....the fate of the whole Rhine front hung on our wiping out or containing the bridgehead." Second, George Marshall, United States Army Chief of Staff: "The prompt seizure and exploitation of the crossing demonstrated American initiative and adaptability as its best....The bridgehead provided a serious threat to the heart of Germany, a diversion of incalculable value. It became a springboard for the final offensive."

Lieutenant Timmerman and his men deserved the medals they received for their daring rush across the bridge, especially since they were thinking every moment they might be blown sky high. A great deal of credit also must go to American engineers from the 9th Armored Engineer Battalion, the 51st, 276th, and 291st Engineer Battalions, and the 1058th Bridge Construction and Repair Group. Starting with the two engineers who followed Timmerman's platoon, engineers were constantly at work around the bridge site, shoring up the tottering Ludendorff Bridge, and constructing the parallel bridges that carried traffic when the Ludendorff Bridge fell. All this was done under fire, and the engineers had the casualties to prove it. Also notable was the work of Military Police Platoon of the 9th Infantry Division which kept traffic moving at the bridge while under fire, and they earned a well deserved Presidential Unit Citation. On the other side, while it is possible in retrospect to suggest ways in which the defense and demolition of the Ludendorff Bridge could have been better handled, if Adolf Hitler had wanted to see who was responsible for the loss of the bridge, he only needed to look in the mirror. The Ludendorff Bridge was never rebuilt.

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Show Footnotes and Sources


Special thanks to my German friends

Gerd Julino
Doris Reinfrank
Dieter Valnion


for making my Big Day in Remagen possible, and for showing me the traces of the Railroad That Never Was.
* * *

Copyright © 2007 Allen Parfitt.

Written by Allen Parfitt. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Allen Parfitt at:
aparfitt@comcast.net.

About the author:
Allen Parfitt is a retired teacher.  He has had a life-long interest in military affairs.  He lives near Kalamazoo, Michigan with his wife and four cats.  He is continually adding to his library of books on military history.

Published online: 05/18/2007.   Updated on 08/11/2007.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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