Chapter 22: The Roer Crossing and the Remagen Bridgehead
The ETOUSA chief engineer, Maj. Gen. Cecil R. Moore, considered the Rhine crossing nearly as important as the D-day Channel crossing. Beginning early in October 1944 he met often with SHAEF engineers from all British and American army group and army command levels and with members of the British and American navies. The planners decided that after the first waves of infantry had crossed in assault boats, larger LCVPs and LCM landing craft under Navy control would ferry tanks, trucks, and supplies and enough troops to build up the bridgehead rapidly. The engineers would then string stout cable from one bank to the other to guide DUKWs, smaller landing craft, and amphibious tanks. Once established on the far bank, engineers would construct the first heavy ponton and steel tread-way bridges.1 But in January 1945 no Allied army yet stood on the Rhine, and the force most likely to reach it still had to cover difficult terrain and cross another river that provided unexpected delays.
Sitting tight through December 1944 and January 1945, Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson’s Ninth Army was already perched on the west bank of the Roer River behind Aachen, holding a salient on the German northern flank. General Simpson was searching for the opportunity to act on plans developed the previous October to sweep from the Roer to the Rhine and past it, if possible. Ninth Army had three corps arrayed on a thirty-mile front on the Roer’s west bank from Dueren in the south to Roermond at the confluence of the Roer and the Meuse. There the Germans still held a bridgehead west of the Roer in the first week of February 1945. On Ninth Army’s right was the XIX Corps with the 30th and 29th Infantry Divisions in the assault and the 83rd Infantry and 2nd Armored Divisions in reserve; in the center was XIII Corps with the 102nd and 84th Infantry Divisions on the line and the 5th Armored in reserve. On the left, occupying a good half of the Army front, was XVI Corps, operational only since 7 February. The corps consisted of the 35th and 79th Infantry Divisions and the 8th Armored Division.
In Operation GRENADE, originally conceived as a thrust due east to envelop
Cologne on the Rhine, American forces were to advance northeast toward Wesel, converging there with a First Canadian Army attack, Operation VERITABLE, to smash the weakened elements of German Army Group H. Set for 10 February 1945, the Ninth Army offensive was to seal the northern border of the Ruhr industrial complex, while the British Second Army, on Ninth Army’s northern flank, struck out northeast across the northern German plain. On the very eve of the attack, the Germans hastily played one last defensive card to forestall the Ninth Army’s expected assault.2
Already the subject of a Ninth Army engineer study in January 1945 was a complex of seven dams on the Roer River and its tributaries. Impounding a flood of 111 million cubic meters of water, the two largest dams, the Urfttalsperre and the Schwammenauel, represented a constant threat to future operations. Air attacks on the Schwammenauel had failed to rupture it, and the German Ardennes offensive had interrupted First Army’s ground attacks through November and December 1944. On 4 February 1945, First Army troops captured the Urft Dam with no difficulty, but as the 309th Infantry, attached to the 9th Infantry Division, First Army, moved in late on the ninth to take the Schwammenauel Dam, the Germans, leaving the face intact, blew out all the dam’s discharge valves. No wall of water sped down the Roer valley; rather, the cumulative flow caused a slow, steady rise in the Roer, and the stream overflowed its banks in the low-lying areas north of Düren. Usually averaging ninety feet in width, the river formed lakes twelve hundred feet across in places and achieved velocities that made military bridging impossible. Based on the observations of engineers posted on the banks and aerial photographs that recorded the slow withdrawal of the waters, Col. Richard U. Nicholas, Ninth Army engineer, finally predicted that operations could proceed on 24 February. The inundation forced the impatient Simpson to delay the assault for the better part of two weeks, time spent making additional preparations and revising plans.
On the supposition that the Germans would not expect a Roer crossing until after 24 February, the day when the dams would probably empty and the river return to normal, General Simpson had decided to achieve surprise by ordering the crossing before daylight on 23 February. Colonel Nicholas advised Simpson that the river by that time would have receded enough to make a crossing possible and that the Roer’s swift current would have subsided somewhat. Preceded by a tremendous 45-minute artillery preparation, the Roer crossings of XIX Corps’ 30th and 29th Divisions and XIII Corps’ 102nd and 84th Divisions (supported respectively by the 1115th, 1104th, 1141st, and 1149th Engineer Combat Groups) began at 0330 on 23 February from Linnich on the north to a point below Jülich on the south.
The Roer Crossings
General Simpson later called the Roer crossings a “rehearsal for the Rhine,”
but actually little of the experience gained at the Roer would prove applicable to the Rhine.3 The rivers were quite different; even in flood, for example, the Roer was narrow. For such a river, engineer doctrine dictated that after the assault boat crossings prefabricated footbridges would be used to move troops to the far bank and infantry support, heavy ponton, treadway, and Bailey bridges quickly thrown across. In the Roer crossings no naval landing craft of the type so important in plans for the Rhine crossings were required.4 LVTs were available from the hundred earmarked for the Rhine crossings, but they were not to be used except in special circumstances, where muddy banks or unexpectedly heavy enemy fire on the far shore were encountered.5
The artillery barrage that began at 0245 on 23 February was the heaviest yet laid down in Europe. The engineers waiting with their assault boats and footbridge material in the fields along the west bank of the Roer or in cellars saw in the pink sky to the rear lightning-
like flashes from the big guns. In the dark sky above they observed long red ribbons of tracer rounds from machine guns, and on the east bank ahead exploding shells illuminated ruined houses or bare tree branches and sodden fields. (Map 28)
On the right, about three miles upstream from Jülich, engineers supporting the 30th Division crossed some combat troops before the barrage lifted. They soon found that they were to suffer more from the swift current than from enemy fire. The rushing waters carried assault boats downstream, capsizing them and breaking cables when the engineers tried to anchor footbridges. At the site where the 82nd Engineer Combat Battalion was trying to get the 120th Infantry across, friendly artillery fire falling on the far bank until 0330 cut a footbridge. Thereafter the current, as strong as seven miles an hour in this sector, aborted six efforts to replace the bridge. Only by transferring the work downstream where the current was slower were the engineers able to build a footbridge at all, and it was not ready for use until 1730. In the meantime, the 234th Engineer Combat Battalion, assigned to the 1115th Group, carried men and supplies over the Roer in ten LVTs that made a total of fifty-four trips beginning at 0330. Other infantrymen of the 120th Infantry crossed via a footbridge the 295th Engineer Combat Battalion put in downstream for the 119th Infantry. The current caused trouble for treadway bridges at both sites. Delays occurred with a treadway the 295th was erecting when boats carrying the cable to the far bank overturned or swamped; the cable was not anchored until 1400. In the 120th Infantry sector upstream, the 82nd Engineer Combat Battalion anchored its first treadway to the piles of a demolished German bridge.
Elsewhere, heavy German fire added to the hazards of the current. On the east bank at Jülich, an old Prussian garrison town where XIX Corps’ 29th Infantry Division was to cross, the enemy held commanding positions in the ruins of the town and at an ancient, thick-walled fortress, the Citadel. Near Linnich on the west bank, two XIII Corps infantry divisions, the 102nd and 84th, had to cross on a narrow two-mile front because the area to the north and south was flooded. Crossing at Jülich and Linnich, which the Germans would undoubtedly expect, had obvious disadvantages. But considering the problems the swampy flats elsewhere posed, General Simpson decided that the advantage of paved roads leading into and away from the towns justified the risk.6
The paved roads leading into Jülich from the west determined the location of the first bridges the engineers built. On the right, where the road from Aldenhoven came in, the narrowness of the river and the height of the far bank—offering protection against small-arms fire—dictated a reversal of the usual assault procedure. Rather than crossing in boats, most assault troops of the 175th Infantry were to cross on footbridges built by the 1104th Engineer Combat Group’s 246th Engineer Combat Battalion. At 0430 on 23 February at this site the group’s 247th Engineer Combat Battalion was to start construction of two tactical bridges—one heavy ponton and one treadway. About the same time the 246th, having completed three footbridges, was to
move downstream to build an infantry support bridge at a point where a paved road from Boslar entered the city. This was expected to be the first vehicular bridge into Jülich, although the site lay under the guns of the Citadel. North of Jülich, where the river was wider, no bridges were to be built until the floodwaters subsided. There, where a paved road ran from Boslar to the riverbank and on the other side to the village of Broich, troops of the 115th Infantry were to ferry to the far bank in assault boats and LVTs.7
Half an hour before the opening barrage lifted on 23 February three assault boats filled with divisional engineers of the 121st Engineer Combat Battalion and covering troops of the 175th Infantry got across at the Aldenhoven road site against scattered German machine-gun fire. These troops spread out along the far bank, and at 0330 the 246th Engineer Combat Battalion began work on a footbridge under a smoke screen. Although making it difficult for the engineers to see what they were doing, the smoke protected them from rifle, machine-pistol, and machine-gun fire from the far bank. Again, the greatest problem was the racing current. After some difficulty in anchoring the cable, the engineers completed the first footbridge on schedule at 0424. But a few minutes later an assault boat, swept downstream by the current, rammed into the bridge and buckled it. As day broke, cloudy, damp, and chilly, repairs to this bridge went on simultaneously with the construction of two additional footbridges. The engineers completed one footbridge by 0600; the first troops to use it were two Germans who ran out of a bunker on the far side and surrendered to the engineers. By 0700 all three footbridges were in place, and the infantrymen were dashing across to clean out German strongpoints in houses on the far bank.
Around 0900, small-arms fire ceased to harass the 247th Engineer Combat Battalion which, since 0430, had been constructing the heavy ponton and treadway bridges at the Aldenhoven site. But now German mortar and artillery fire began to fall, with tragic results at the treadway, where seven rounds of heavy artillery fire killed six engineers and wounded eighteen. The fire also destroyed the bridge. Work began on a new bridge twenty-five yards upstream at 1400, but observed artillery fire and the swift current delayed completion until late the following morning. The engineers working on the heavy ponton bridge were luckier and had the span in operation by 1600 on D-day. Before darkness fell on 23 February tanks and bulldozers were clanking across.8
At the Boslar-Jülich site downstream the beach party started out at 0300 in two assault boats. One capsized and the other was caught by the current and thrown on the east bank near a minefield, where several men were injured. These two incidents cost the party more than half its strength. The 246th Engineer Combat Battalion suffered a series of misfortunes when it tried to build an infantry support bridge at the downstream site. The engineers had swept the approach for mines, but their metal mine detectors were ineffective on the plastic Topf mines in the road and on the shoulders. After the Topf mines
destroyed a wrecker, two tractors, and two dump trucks, the engineers spent six hours checking the road by probing. When construction finally began, heavy mortar fire from the Citadel drove off the working crews. Some crew members infiltrated to the bridge from a stadium on the near bank; others were guided by an artillery observation plane that flew overhead, signaling to the men to take cover when the observer saw the muzzle flash of enemy mortars. The mortar fire stopped when the Citadel fell in midafternoon, but when the engineers at last reached the site the swift current made it impossible to stretch anchor cables across the river. Not until 1000 on 24 February were the engineers successful, and it was mid-afternoon before the bridge was open to traffic.9
By that time the current downstream had subsided enough to enable the engineers to build bridges for the 115th Infantry. In spite of trouble with plastic mines on the near bank and the hampering effect of heavy smoke, which blinded and sickened the engineers, by daylight they had most of two infantry battalions across the river in assault boats and LVTs. On the east bank minefields held up the infantry for a time, and although one infantry battalion had little trouble in taking and clearing Broich, heavy fire from houses and bunkers on high ground north of Jülich
held the second from its objective until late in the evening. The third infantry battalion, routing its companies through Broich, reached its first-day objective, a hill northeast of the town. There it made contact with the 102nd Infantry Division on the left.10
Troops of the 102nd Division, which the 1141st Engineer Combat Group supported, crossed the Roer downstream at two sites where there had once been bridges (hence paved roads)—one at Roerdorf (nearest Jülich) and another at Linnich. At Roerdorf two companies of the group’s 1276th Engineer Combat Battalion were to cross the leading waves of the 405th Infantry in assault boats, then emplace an antimine boom and build a treadway for vehicles. Simultaneously with the assault boat crossings a third engineer company was to build two footbridges upstream from the treadway site. Standing by in case the bridges could not be built or were knocked out were some LVTs manned by members of a tank battalion. As the American artillery barrage began, the engineers carried the assault boats and footbridges to the riverbank, a hazardous operation because German artillery had all roads leading to the river well targeted.
The first wave of assault boats, moving off at H-hour on 23 February, received direct hits from enemy fire on the way over; several boats were riddled by shell fragments and sank. The swift current carried many empty boats downstream during the return trip. The engineers dragged some back, but other boats were swept over a dam and capsized. By the time the second wave had reached the far bank, so many of the original twenty assault boats had been lost—most hit by enemy fire—that twenty more were called for. German mortar fire knocked out the second twenty along the road to the launching sites, and these, too, had to be replaced. Of the total of sixty boats ultimately committed only two were still usable when ferrying ended about 0700. By then the engineers had managed to ferry across most of two infantry battalions. An hour later several LVTs arrived on the scene, but they were in such poor shape mechanically that they could not be employed.
The engineers had bad luck with the footbridges from the start. The men carrying them down to the river came under heavy artillery and mortar fire and had to scatter. When the engineers were able to begin working they had to battle the current. One footbridge overturned and could not be rebuilt; the other parted in the middle when its cable lines snapped. The engineers repaired the bridge, only to see it collapse again when a tree fell across it; it was not in operation until 1300. In the meantime, divisional engineers had been able to get an infantry support bridge across, and the troops used this span instead of the footbridges. Work on a treadway began at 0930 at a site immediately upstream from the demolished bridge where the river was narrowest. That site was relatively free from artillery fire because the enemy had not expected a crossing there. Nevertheless, the swift current made anchoring and guying difficult, while marshiness on the far bank caused further delay.
The bridge was not open for traffic until 2200.11
At the Linnich site and just to the south the 1141st Engineer Combat Group’s 279th Engineer Combat Battalion was to cross the 102nd Division’s 407th Infantry. There the same hazards prevailed as at the Roerdorf site—rapid current and enemy fire. One treadway was in place at 1800, but low-flying German aircraft bombed it, wrecking all but one of the floats. All traffic during the night of 23-24 February had to be rerouted over the Roerdorf treadway, which for a time was the only vehicular bridge in the XIII Corps area. This bombing raid demonstrated the importance of placing high priority on getting antiaircraft weapons across the river.12
German bombs also fell on the Linnich bridges less than a mile north, where troops of the 84th Infantry Division were crossing the Roer with the support of the 1149th Engineer Combat Group’s 171st Engineer Combat Battalion. In this narrowly restricted area plans differed from those the 30th and 102nd Divisions followed—instead of two engineer battalions crossing two infantry regiments abreast, one engineer battalion was to cross the infantry regiments in succession.13 After getting the first wave—a battalion of the 334th Infantry—over in assault boats, the 171st Engineer Combat Battalion was to build at Linnich three footbridges, an infantry support bridge, and two treadways. Meantime another of the 1149th Group’s battalions, the 292nd, was to build a Class 70 Bailey bridge at an autobahn crossing about four miles north of Linnich near the town of Koerrenzig.14
The 334th Infantry characterized the crossing of its lead battalion as smooth, marred only by a burst of enemy machine-gun fire that killed five men, but attempts to build footbridges for the succeeding battalions were more frustrating here than anywhere else in the entire XIII Corps area. The current immediately tore out the first footbridge, empty assault boats racing down-river from the 102nd Division crossings destroyed the second, and enemy mortar fire broke the cables of the third. Not until 1100 did the infantrymen have a footbridge they could use. In the meantime the 171st Engineer Combat Battalion had suffered a number of casualties from enemy fire.
All 84th Division bridging was delayed. The engineers could not complete an infantry support bridge until 1630, and the treadway bridge was not in until much later. At daylight a pocket of enemy troops that the 334th Infantry had bypassed fired on anyone who went down to the river at the treadway site; work could not even begin until the pocket was cleared around noon on 23 February. The engineers then went ahead without interference and had the bridge almost ready to take traffic at 2000 when enemy aircraft flew over, causing casualties and damaging the far side of the bridge. This was, in the words of the 84th Infantry Division
historian, “perhaps the most critical moment of the first day,” because it meant that no tanks or tank destroyers could get across the river to help the infantry on D-day. Using material intended for the second treadway, the engineers were able to replace the bridge by noon on 24 February. At dusk the same day work started on a heavy ponton bridge at the site originally selected for the second treadway, and the ponton span was operational before dawn of 25 February. Over the heavy ponton and treadway crossed the entire 84th Infantry Division, elements of the 5th Armored and 35th Infantry Divisions, and corps units, including artillery.15
The most ambitious effort in the XIII Corps sector was the construction of a Class 70 Bailey bridge across the Roer at the former autobahn crossing north of Linnich near Koerrenzig. Having repaired and strengthened an existing 120-foot trestle bridge over a creek west of the river to accommodate Class 70 loads, the 292nd Engineer Combat Battalion began work on 25 February to bridge the 220-foot gap over the Roer. This involved placing a pier seventy feet from the near shore and then closing a 150-foot gap with a triple-triple Bailey and the last 70-foot gap with a triple-single. Open to traffic at 0830 on 26
February, this bridge became the main crossing for XIII Corps.16
Once on the far bank, XIII Corps’ troops made such good progress that General Simpson decided not to hold them back to provide a bridgehead for XVI Corps. Instead, he directed XVI Corps to seize its own bridgehead at Hilfarth, about five miles downstream from Koerrenzig. Spearheading this crossing, the 35th Infantry Division moved out in the evening of 25 February. Next morning some elements of the 134th Infantry were crossing the Roer on two footbridges and an infantry support bridge a short distance downstream from Hilfarth, while others were attacking the town. Many infantrymen were wounded in enemy minefields that the Germans covered with small-arms and machine-gun fire. Clearing the town, the troops found that although the highway bridge there was somewhat damaged, it was still usable; by early afternoon the bridge was carrying XVI Corps tanks across the Roer. During the afternoon corps engineers built two treadway bridges to ease traffic problems.17
The Roer crossings had consumed large amounts of bridging equipment and numerous assault boats. This was the price General Simpson had expected to pay for the surprise he achieved by attacking while the river was still swollen, and he considered “one of the essential factors in our success” the quick replacement of boats and bridging materials from engineer parks close to the river.
Initial waves of combat troops had gone across the Roer with small loss of life; the first day’s casualties throughout Ninth Army amounted to 92 killed and 913 wounded. In proportion to the number of men involved the casualties among the engineers, who had been forced to go on working at the bridge sites after the Germans recovered from their surprise, were high. The four engineer groups supporting XIX and XIII Corps during the Roer crossings lost 31 men killed and 226 wounded.18
The Ludendorff Bridge
Though Ninth Army planners had proceeded on the assumption that the Germans would destroy all eight of the Rhine bridges in their area, they also made determined efforts to capture at least one usable span intact. On 2 March German-speaking American troops in captured German tanks failed in an attempt; by the fifth no bridge was left standing. Field Marshal Montgomery vetoed a Ninth Army proposal for a quick assault crossing near Wesel while the Germans were still regrouping across the Rhine. On 6 March he set the date for the 21 Army Group crossing at 24 March. Montgomery could not foresee the good fortune that would befall First Army troops moving south of the Ruhr on Ninth Army’s right.
First Army made good progress on 6 March, with VII Corps entering Cologne and III Corps, farther south, approaching Bonn near the Ahr River, which flows into the Rhine just upstream of
that city. This crossing would block the Ahr River valley, the main escape route of the enemy. Cologne had several bridges, but by the time the city was cleared on the afternoon of 7 March, the Germans had destroyed them all.19
In the III Corps zone was an important highway bridge over the Rhine at Bonn. About twelve miles upstream from Bonn lay a railway bridge at Remagen, built during World War I and named for one of the German heroes of that war, General Erich Ludendorff. On the evening of 6 March, Maj. Gen. John Millikin, the III Corps commander, asked the First Army air officer to forbid bombing of the Bonn and Remagen bridges on the very slim chance that both might be captured intact. Neither had figured seriously in III Corps planning, and the Bonn highway bridge had to be eliminated entirely from the corps’ plans early on 7 March, when First Army transferred responsibility for Bonn to VII Corps. The III Corps all but discounted the Ludendorff Bridge—it had been under Allied air attack since September 1944, and in late December the air forces claimed four direct hits. During January and early February the bridge strikes had intensified, but the Germans had proved adept in making repairs. In mid-February American air reconnaissance reported that the bridge was back in service. Thereafter a cloud cover had protected the span from attack. It seemed inconceivable that the Germans would not destroy the bridge before it could be captured.20
When III Corps’ spearhead, the 9th Armored Division, moved east on 7 March, its main effort was directed toward the Ahr River crossings, Combat Command A to cross at Bad Neuenahr and one column of Combat Command B at the point where the Ahr flows into the Rhine, a little more than a mile upstream from Remagen. Another column of Combat Command B, organized as a task force under Lt. Col. Leonard Engeman, commanding the 14th Tank Battalion, was to turn aside and take the towns of Remagen and Kripp, the latter near the Ahr–Rhine confluence. Orders said nothing about capturing a bridge.21
Led by a platoon from Company A of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, riding on half-tracks, and a platoon of four new T-26 90-mm. tanks from the 14th Tank Battalion, Task Force Engeman left Meckenheim at 0820 on 7 March for Remagen, ten miles away. With it was the 2nd platoon of Company B, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion, under 1st Lt. Hugh Mott.
The column moved out in a cold drizzle. The men, having pushed from the Roer toward the Rhine with little rest since 28 February, were groggy from lack of sleep. The engineers were particularly weary. On the march they had built treadway bridges over three rivers, one under heavy German artillery fire. The bridging work was more difficult because the T-26 tanks had wider treads than the M-4 Shermans. The new M2 treadway bridge could accommodate the T –26s but was not satisfactory for other vehicles, notably trucks. The engineers had found a number of bridges standing, but had
to search carefully for explosives and to remove mines and roadblocks along the roads.22
After leaving Meckenheim the column made good time, meeting little resistance. At 1300 the leading infantry platoon commander was standing on a bluff at Apollinarisberg, overlooking Remagen and the 700-foot-wide Rhine rushing through a gorge. About a mile upstream the Ludendorff Bridge was still standing and the infantry officers could see it plainly through field glasses. It was a steel-arch bridge a little more than a thousand feet long and wide enough to carry two railroad tracks. Two castle-like stone towers with windows guarded each end. Beyond the towers on the far side the two railroad tracks entered a tunnel cut into a rock cliff. By the morning of 7 March the last train had gone over. One of the tracks on the bridge the Germans had covered with planking; over it streamed a procession of soldiers, trucks, horse-drawn wagons and guns, civilians, and cattle.
Colonel Engeman sent infantrymen down the hill to take Remagen and ordered the leader of the 90-mm. tank platoon “to barrel down the hill and go
through and cover the bridge with tank fire, and if anybody attempted to repair or demolish the bridge to liquidate them.”23 The Combat Command B commander, Brig. Gen. William M. Hoge, came forward. Although Hoge had no specific orders to take the bridge. he had an informal understanding with the commanding general of the 9th Armored Division that if the bridge was intact it should be seized. When he arrived on the scene, Hoge had to weigh the chance that the Germans would blow the bridge while Americans were on it or trap part of his forces by letting some units get across before blowing the bridge.
At 1515 a courier arrived from Combat Command B’s other column, south of Remagen at Sinzig, with information from a German civilian that the Ludendorff Bridge was to be blown at 1600. The story later proved fictitious, but the prospect of forty-five minutes’ grace made up General Hoge’s mind. He immediately ordered Colonel Engeman to emplace tanks and machine guns on the Remagen approach to the bridge, to fire smoke and white phosphorus, to bring up engineers to pull firing wires and fuses, and to make a dash across the span.24
Engeman’s tankers were already at the bridge. His messenger found the young engineer platoon leader, Lieutenant Mott, at a hotel near the river and passed on Hoge’s orders to rip out demolitions and to find out whether the bridge would support tanks. Mott took along two of his sergeants, Eugene Dorland and John A. Reynolds. As they neared the bridge the three were shocked by a tremendous explosion that blew a thirty-foot crater into the Remagen approach. This, for the time being at least, would deny the bridge to any vehicles, including tanks.
Mott and his men jumped down into the crater for protection against a second blast, but when they saw the commander of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion talking to 1st Lt. Karl Timmerman, commanding the leading infantry company and pointing toward the bridge, the engineers climbed out and went forward to join the infantrymen. Just as they did so there came a second explosion, this time about two-thirds of the way across the bridge. The structure groaned and seemed to raise itself ponderously; timbers flew and a huge cloud of dust and smoke ascended. But when the smoke cleared the men saw that the bridge was still standing. Obviously the few German defenders moving about on the far side had set off only one charge in a vain attempt to drop the span. Mott decided that his main job would be to locate and cut the wires to other charges before the Germans could detonate them. The three engineers ran out on the bridge just as Timmerman and his lead scouts were beginning to cross.
Machine-gun fire came from the far towers and from a barge on the river, but with the help of covering fire from the tanks on the Remagen side the infantrymen made their way cautiously along a catwalk around the hole in the bridge. The engineers searched for demolition charges and wires. Finding four thirty-pound packages of explosives tied to I-beams under the decking,
they climbed down and cut the wires, sending the packages splashing into the Rhine.25 Climbing back onto the bridge, Sergeant Dorland blasted a heavy cable apart with his carbine. The engineers apparently did not locate the wiring fuse that would have set off all the charges—the Germans had enclosed it in a thick pipe laid underneath the tracks to protect it from American shells. As soon as the infantry had cleared the towers on the far side, Dorland found the box that housed the master switch and shot out the heavy wires leading from it. A few minutes later the three engineers came upon a large explosive charge of from 500 to 600 pounds correctly wired and prepared for detonation but with its fuse cap blown.
Fuse damage was one possible solution to the mystery that continued to puzzle historians, American and German, for years: why the main charge that would have dropped the bridge had failed to explode when, at 1530 after Americans were seen approaching from Remagen, the German engineer at the bridge, Capt. Karl Friesenhahn, turned the key to set it off. One explanation for the failure was sabotage, either by a German soldier or a foreign worker, but this theory could not be substantiated and Captain Friesenhahn and the German commandant at the bridge, Capt. Willi Bratge, dismissed it as impossible because the mechanism was carefully guarded at all times. Most German officers and historians believed that the wires were severed by a lucky hit from an American tank gun. Jacob Klebach of Remagen, a sergeant-major working with the German engineers on the bridge that day, offered another explanation. Interviewed twenty years later, Klebach said, “The truth is that the concussion damage of all the months before just made it a toss-up whether the fuses would function when needed.”26
Calling up the rest of his platoon to help remove the demolitions, Lieutenant Mott reported to Colonel Engeman that he could have the bridge ready to take tanks in two hours if he could obtain enough timber to repair the damaged planking. While Engeman was trying to find the timber, the armor, at Mott’s request, brought up a tank-dozer to fill the crater at the Remagen end of the bridge.27 Fear of a German counterattack spurred efforts to get tanks across. Lumber for the planking was difficult to locate, but General Hoge rounded up enough, instructing his S-4 and civil affairs officials to “tear down houses in Remagen if necessary.”28
By 2000 that evening the news of the capture of the Ludendorff Bridge had traveled from combat command through division, corps, army, and army group to General Eisenhower at SHAEF. Maj. Gen. Harold R. Bull, Eisenhower’s G-3, could not see the value of the bridge. The terrain on the other side was miserable and, he told General Bradley, “You’re not going anywhere down there at Remagen”; nor did the effort fit into plans to cross farther north.29 But Bull’s opinion was the exception. Commanders
from Eisenhower down were elated and enthusiastically approved reinforcements. Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges that same evening relieved III Corps of its mission to drive south across the Ahr and approved exploiting the Rhine crossing. General Millikin made plans to motorize the reserve elements of his 9th and 78th Infantry Divisions and rush them to Remagen.
Col. F. Russel Lyons, the III Corps engineer, followed plans First Army had already worked out for a Rhine crossing in its area, based on topographical and terrain studies. Engineers were to erect a treadway bridge downstream from the Ludendorff Bridge and a ponton bridge upstream. While they were being built, ferries were to carry men, supplies, and vehicles to the far bank and bring back the wounded. Nets and booms would have to be emplaced upstream to protect the bridges from underwater attack by small submarines and frogmen carrying explosives. (In September the Germans had used specially trained and equipped swimmers in an attempt to blow up the Nijmegen bridge in the British area)30 Since these preparations required resources III Corps did not have, First Army turned over to the corps’ operational control the units and equipment needed. Two First Army engineer combat groups that had been supporting the 9th and 78th Infantry Divisions were to be employed, the 1111th to build the treadway and landing sites for three ferries, the 1159th to construct the ponton bridge and operate the ferries, using DUKWs and Navy LCVPs. The 164th Engineer Combat Battalion was to emplace the nets and booms to protect the Ludendorff Bridge from underwater attack.31
While these engineers stood alert during the rainy night of 7 March, 9th Armored Division engineers on the scene were working on the approaches and the planking to get tanks across the bridge. All afternoon infantry had been moving across, walking very fast or running to escape sniper fire, movement which slowed the engineers’ work. Although the crater at the approach was filled in by dusk, not until 2200 was Mott able to tell Engeman that the bridge was ready to take tanks. The engineers had laid down white guide tapes to enable the tanks to bypass dangerous places. In the blackness shortly after midnight nine Shermans started across, their passage over the planking “accompanied by an ominous and nerve-wracking creaking.” They got across safely, but when a tank destroyer, following them at a slightly faster pace, came to the point at which the Germans had blown their charge, its right tread fell into the hole. For the rest of the night the engineers worked to jack up the tank destroyer, which was blocking the passage of all vehicles, but they were not successful until 0530.32
Among the nearly 8,000 men who crossed the bridge in the first twenty-four hours after its capture was the remainder of the 9th Armored Engineer Battalion’s Company B. During the early hours of 8 March Company C
relieved Company B on the bridge. After making an intensive search for German demolitions, which turned up 1,400 pounds in wells of the piers, the men of Company C assumed the job of repair and traffic control just as enemy bombers and artillery began to hit the bridge. The Luftwaffe was relatively ineffective, but the artillery did considerable damage. Company C estimated that during the forty-eight hours it worked on the bridge, the Germans scored at least twenty-four direct hits. At times, when panic-stricken drivers abandoned their vehicles, the engineers drove the vehicles off the bridge, and when first-aid men refused to set foot on the bridge the engineers acted as medics.
Late on the afternoon of the ninth, shells from heavy artillery tore a fifteen-foot hole in the decking and set fire to an ammunition truck on the far bank, blocking all traffic. Amid exploding ammunition, an engineer of Company B in an armored bulldozer safely pushed the blazing truck off the road. But when squads of Company C tried to repair the hole in the decking, two officers and nine enlisted men were wounded by a shell exploding in the superstructure near them. Then the engineers spread out in two-man teams, repairing the hole by laying steel treadways over planks. On the morning of the tenth the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion, one of the III Corps units sent to Remagen, relieved Company C. Before leaving, Company C put up a sign: “Cross the Rhine With Dry Feet, Courtesy of the 9th Armored Division.”33
The III Corps’ engineer units arrived late because of traffic jams on narrow winding roads, the blackout in which they had to feel their way forward, and enemy shellfire near Remagen. Thus, the 86th Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalion, which was to operate ferries while tactical bridges were being built, did not arrive until around 0330 on 9 March. Under intermittent shelling, the weary men immediately began to construct the first raft at the site selected for the crossing, downstream from the Ludendorff Bridge. The engineers lowered five boats into the water and lay balk and planking over them. Before noon next morning three five-boat rafts had been built, and the approaches at Remagen and at Erpel on the east bank were ready. At 1100 on 9 March in a cold wind and lashing rain, without waiting for a cable to be emplaced, the first ferry chugged across the Rhine, propelled by two outboard motors and two powerboats—a 22-horsepower motor fastened to each of the end engineer boats and a powerboat lashed to the second and fourth. Headed upstream at a 45-degree angle because of the swift current, the ferry took less than eight minutes to reach the far shore.34
The Remagen-Erpel ferry, the only one in operation on 9 and 10 March, became a vital factor in support of the bridgehead across the river. At noon on the tenth a gasoline truck on the Ludendorff Bridge had been hit and set afire; all ammunition and gasoline
convoys were ordered ferried across for two days. The second ferry was constructed upstream of the Ludendorff Bridge, from Kripp to Linz, but enemy opposition near Linz caused delays and the ferry did not begin operation until late on the afternoon of 11 March. Work on the third ferry (downstream of the treadway), from Unkelbach to Unkel, was so slowed by very accurate (probably observed) artillery fire that it could not be finished in time to be of much use. By noon on 12 March the treadway and ponton bridges had been completed. Then the need for the rafts diminished, although that day and the next the ferries made a further important contribution to the far shore bridgehead when they crossed four heavy Pershing tanks to Erpel and thirty-one Shermans to Linz.35
From the beginning, plans for a Rhine crossing had included LCM, LCVP, and DUKW ferry operations (the DUKWs to carry ammunition, gasoline, and rations). Early during the Remagen operation the Transportation Corps’ 819th Amphibian Truck Company, which had distinguished itself at OMAHA on D-day, came forward and was attached to the 1159th Engineer Combat Group. The company’s DUKWs were late getting into operation because it was hard to find a suitable site to launch the trucks. Then, when they began ferrying at a site near Kripp, the DUKWs had to travel some twelve miles to the rear to pick up their loads because First Army disapproved of setting up dumps for them closer to the river. Men on the scene generally believed that a river crossing under conditions like those at Remagen, involving a long land haul and short water haul, was uneconomical for DUKWs.36
No LCMs came forward because First Army considered that capture of the bridge rendered them unnecessary, but LCVPs were needed to ferry troops and evacuate the wounded. The LCVPs arrived in the Remagen area at midnight on 10 March, sent forward in flatbed trailers together with cranes for launching them. They proved highly useful—each craft could ferry thirty-six soldiers faster and more efficiently than the troops could march across a footbridge. This speed was demonstrated on 15 March, when four LCVPs transported a regimental combat team of VII Corps’ 1st Division across the Rhine at a site not far downstream from the Ludendorff Bridge and leading to Unkel on the far shore. A round trip required not more than seven minutes, enabling the LCVPs to put ashore 2,200 infantrymen in three hours. The immediate job of the first boats that arrived, however, was to aid in the construction of the heavy ponton bridge.37
The Treadway and Ponton Bridges
On 9 March under cold, rainy, and overcast skies, two engineer units that had distinguished themselves during
the Battle of the Ardennes in the Malmédy—Trois Ponts area began arriving at Remagen, the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion under Lt. Col. David E. Pergrin to work on a treadway bridge from Remagen to Erpel and the 51st Engineer Combat Battalion under Lt. Col. Harvey R. Fraser to build a heavy ponton bridge upstream, from Kripp to Linz. Arriving before dawn, the 291st had to wait until 0830 for the 998th Treadway Bridge Company to bring up bridging equipment. This company, the only unit available, had been working with First French Army. By 1030 Colonel Pergrin had a platoon clearing the approach on the near bank.
The men had just started to cut away the bank when an enemy artillery shell hit the site, injuring seven. There were no more direct hits that day, and by dusk the engineers had extended the treadway 200 feet, with good prospects of reaching the far shore next morning. Then, shortly after midnight, German tanks on high ground at the east end of the bridge began to rake the bridging with direct fire. They knocked out two cranes and twenty-six rafts assembled with treadway and caused a five-hour delay. Work resumed although enemy shelling continued, intensifying just after noon on 10 March, when the treadway began receiving a round of heavy artillery every five minutes. At 1230 a direct hit at the west end damaged fifteen rafts. The treadway held them in place, enabling the engineers to finish the bridge. Reaching the far shore at 1710 the engineers could claim to have built the first tactical bridge over the ‘Rhine and, at 1,032 feet, the longest yet constructed in Europe. But repairs to the rafts delayed the opening of the bridge to traffic until 0700 on 11 March. That morning the 988th Engineer Treadway Bridge Company replaced the 998th, which had run out of equipment. The building of the tread-way bridge had been costly, with one man killed and twenty-four wounded during construction.
By the time the bridge was finished, German artillery fire was letting up. A German artillery observer with a radio had been captured in Remagen, a heavy concentration of U.S. artillery had laid down a smoke screen, and the advance of the combat forces on the far shore was pushing the German guns back. During its first two days of operation, the eastbound traffic count for the treadway was 3,105 vehicles. At noon on 13 March the bridge began carrying a heavy volume of westbound traffic as eastbound traffic transferred to the ponton bridge located upstream.38
Building the heavy ponton bridge from Kripp to Linz had to be postponed until the enemy was cleared from a high hill across the river. When the order to begin construction came at 1600 on 10 March, the executive officer of the 51st Engineer Combat Battalion, Maj. Robert B. Yates (who had distinguished himself at Trois Ponts during the Bulge), had everything ready, including six smoke pots on a 3/4-ton truck. Despite the smoke screen, six rounds of heavy artillery, variously described as 170-mm. and 88-mm., immediately hit the near shore and bridge site, but did no damage. The equipment for the bridge, which the
181st and 552nd Heavy Ponton Battalions provided, consisted of fourteen four-boat rafts and seventy-five feet of trestle, reinforced by pneumatic rubber floats between each raft. The 51st used a total of sixty boats and fifty-seven rubber floats. Next day, 11 March, with the current at the site swift and the river rising, the engineers had such trouble maneuvering the parts into position with powerboats that they called for LCVPs. Slipping crossways in the current, one of the LCVPs on the upstream side rammed into a section of the bridge and might have swept it into the tread-way if three LCVPs downstream had not held the section in place until the engineers could safely anchor it to a barge on the far shore.
While this work was going on, German planes came over, bombing and strafing in pairs. At the far shore abutment three men were killed, two were seriously wounded, and several suffered light wounds from bomb fragments. An hour before midnight on 11 March the bridge was open for traffic and next day was reinforced to carry 24-ton loads, but possibly because it was easy to spot from the air, the ponton bridge continued to come under attack from German bombers and strafers. On 13 March five waves flew over; one in midafternoon killed Maj. William F. Tompkins, Jr., commanding officer of the 552nd Heavy Ponton Battalion, for whom the bridge was named. When the weather cleared on 14 March the Germans
stepped up air attacks. A river barge on the far shore near the anchor barge received a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb that killed two of its engineer guards; on the bridge itself five men were wounded by shell and bomb fragments. This marked the end of the low-level, daylight attempts to destroy the Remagen bridges from the air. With clearing weather American fighters could rise to meet the enemy, and by 14 March a heavy concentration of American antiaircraft guns on both banks of the river rendered daylight attacks too costly to the dwindling Luftwaffe.39
Collapse of the Ludendorff Bridge
On 12 March, after the treadway and ponton bridges were in operation, the engineers closed the Ludendorff Bridge for repairs. The fixed span was considered worth repairing because artillery could not knock it out as readily as the tactical bridges—an ordinary shell would not damage its structure but only rip the flooring. Moreover, the tactical bridges could not as easily carry heavy loads such as the new Pershing tanks!40
The Germans had certainly tried to knock out the Ludendorff. On the night of 10 March, just as the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion had begun construction of a 140-foot double-double Bailey at the near shore to make possible two-way traffic, a direct enemy artillery hit killed Maj. James E. Foley, the battalion executive officer, and wounded nineteen men. On the days following, enemy shells continued to fall as the 276th worked on the approaches, completing them under cover of darkness on 12 March. A team from the 1058th Port Construction and Repair Group undertook the heavy steel work on the bridge.41
In the meantime, preparations were under way to protect the bridge from waterborne or underwater attack. Five hundred yards upstream the engineers were to string a net across the river to catch floating mines, boats loaded with explosives, torpedoes launched from one-man submarines, and frogmen. The next barrier to be emplaced was an impact boom 600 yards from the bridge, the third a log boom at 900 yards. Responsibility for installing these devices went to the 164th Engineer Combat Battalion, a First Army unit that reported directly to the corps engineer. The 164th arrived on the evening of 8 March and started work next morning, but it soon became evident that the construction site, on the far shore at the river’s edge, was in the direct line of enemy artillery fire. That afternoon enemy shells killed three men and wounded two, and on the afternoon of 10 March four men were killed when German artillery hit a truck; three others were wounded. The intensity of enemy artillery fire as well as the lack of powerboats delayed the placement of floats. Nevertheless, at 2200
on 11 March the impact boom’s anchorage of angle iron and railroad bumpers was in place, as were four sections of the boom.
Then orders came to protect the heavy ponton bridge newly installed at Kripp. Work at the new site began next day, 12 March, but was hampered by nightly air raids, which two days later killed three and wounded two engineers. The difficulty of towing over water the heavy material required to erect and anchor the protective booms also slowed progress, for powerboats and LCVPs—both of which had been adequate in constructing floating bridges—had insufficient power. The most satisfactory work boats were 38-foot Army tugboats known as Sea Mules. With a detachment of the 329th Harbor Craft Company (TC) to operate them, the tugs came forward on flatbed trailers on the evening of 14 March.42
For further protection against waterborne attacks, guards with rifles stood on the Ludendorff Bridge with orders to shoot at suspicious objects. Tanks of the 738th Tank Battalion with brilliant searchlights called canal defense lights took positions on the banks to illuminate the river, the first use of such tanks during the war. Three LCVPs were launched upstream of the antimine boom at noon on 14 March. They patrolled the river every night, dropping fifty-pound depth charges at five-minute intervals, with good effect. Two German swimmers found lying exhausted on the far bank a few days later said they had been stunned by the depth charges, as well as numbed by the cold water.43
On 16 March the Germans began their strongest effort yet to bring down the Ludendorff Bridge. That morning shells larger than 88-mm. came over, and on 17 March several rounds of giant projectiles from a tank-mounted piece called the Karl howitzer landed in Remagen. On the same morning a German rocket unit in the Netherlands fired eleven V-2s at the bridge—the only tactical use of V-weapons during the war. About 1220 one rocket hit a building in Remagen serving as command post for Company B of the 284th Engineer Combat Battalion (a unit the 1159th Engineer Combat Group had brought up for road work west of the Rhine), killing three men and seriously injuring thirty-one, among them the company commander.44 Another rocket hit a house east of the bridge, killing three American soldiers and wounding fifteen. The rest of the rockets landed harmlessly in the river or open country.45
Soon the rocket barrage and the shelling ended. All was quiet on the clear, windless spring day. Capt. Francis E. Goodwin, S-4 of the 1159th Engineer Combat Group, walked out onto the bridge from the Remagen side around 1400 and found the engineers of the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion and
the 1058th Engineer Port Construction and Repair Group making good progress.46 The 276th was finishing the deck repair. The Germans had placed decking only on the upstream half of the bridge; the engineers were decking the downstream half, as well as repairing damage from the enemy shells that had fallen almost every day.47 The new flooring was complete except for a gap at the Remagen approach and another where the Germans had attempted to blow the bridge. Goodwin passed a squad loading pieces of lumber on a truck. At the point where the Germans had tried to blow the bridge he found Maj. William S. Carr and the 1058th Port Construction and Repair Group with a crane and steel cable. They were preparing to repair the most critical spot, the bottom chord on the upstream arch truss, which the German demolition charge of 7 March had broken. Carr said he expected to have the repairs completed next day. Captain Goodwin crossed to the east bank of the Rhine. It was then about 1445.
A few minutes before 1500 Li Col. Clayton A. Rust, commanding the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion, was walking over the bridge on his way to inspect the new approach on the far side, accompanied by his executive officer. When he was about halfway across, he heard a sharp crack like the report of a rifle. It was a rivethead shearing. He saw a vertical hanger ahead of him breaking loose and then heard another sharp report behind him. The whole deck trembled, dust rose, and he knew the bridge was collapsing. Turning around, he ran toward Remagen as fast as he could, but found himself running uphill because the far side of the bridge was falling. The next moment he was in the water.
At 1500 Captain Goodwin was riding a motorcycle around the east abutment of the bridge on his way to cross back over the treadway, when a sound he could not identify made him look up. To his horror he saw that the arch of the Ludendorff Bridge had crumbled. The east abutment was falling. The assistant S-3 of the 1058th Port Construction Repair Group, 1st Lt. F. E. Csendes, was in the tunnel on the far side, where he had gone with a sergeant to pick up some clamps, when he heard someone yell. He looked out and saw the center span of the bridge twisting counterclockwise and buckling; then it fell into the river and the adjacent spans with it.
Captain Goodwin raced his motorcycle over the treadway and told the men on the west bank to pick up the survivors and protect the treadway from heavy bridge iron and timbers that might float downstream. From Remagen he sent ambulances to the scene, then continued to the forward command post of the 1159th Engineer Combat Group at Kripp, arriving there at 1512. After instructing the sergeant in charge to round up all the medical aid available, he rode back across the ponton bridge to the east bank and sent
powerboats downstream for rescue work.48
Colonel Rust and his companion were pulled out of the river at the treadway bridge, both shaken but not badly hurt. Few of the men working on the bridge at the time were as lucky. Six members of the 276th Engineer Battalion were killed in the collapse of the bridge, 11 were missing (presumably drowned), and 60 were injured, 3 so severely that they died. The commander of the 1058th Port Construction and Repair Group, Major Carr, was killed; seven of his men were missing and six injured.49
The main reason for the collapse of the Ludendorff Bridge, most engineers believed, was the break in the bottom chord of the upstream truss from the German demolition charge of 7 March. This forced the downstream truss to carry the whole load and subjected the entire bridge to a twisting action. The strain on the truss was increased by the weight of the timber decking American engineers had added to the flooring, by continuous bridge traffic between 7 and 12 March, and by engineer repairs between 12 and 17 March—hammering, welding, and moving heavy cranes and trucks.
The immediate cause of the collapse was thought to be vibration from artillery fire. The enemy fired very heavy artillery shells beginning on 15 March and culminating on 17 March with the Karl howitzer and the V-2 rockets. Some of the shells actually hit the bridge. Perhaps even more damaging vibration came from American artillery fire. Only 2,000 yards from the bridge an 8-inch howitzer battalion had fired more than a thousand rounds in the previous five days, and just before the bridge fell a battalion of giant 8-inch guns and another of 240-mm. howitzers were firing constantly.50
The III Corps Bailey Bridge
At 1800 on 17 March, only three hours after the collapse of the Ludendorff Bridge, the commanding officer of the 148th Engineer Combat Battalion, Lt. Col. William J. Irby, received orders from First Army to build a Class 40 floating Bailey bridge at Remagen. The floating Bailey was regarded as a “semi-tactical” bridge, normally used to replace treadway bridges and requiring considerably more time to construct than either treadways or pontons. The battalion was one of three operating a Bailey bridge park at Weilerswist about ten miles west of Bonn, under the 1110th Engineer Combat Group, First Army’s Bailey bridge and mine boom experts.
Colonel Irby lost no time. Ordering his men to begin loading the bridging equipment on about one hundred trucks, most of them borrowed from quartermaster units, he sent two of his officers to reconnoiter for a site and instructed his company commanders to move their men to the Remagen area and to meet him at this advance command post at Remagen at 0200 on 18 March. Then he hurried to group headquarters, where he was told that he would have the help of Company C, 291st Engineer Combat Battalion, and sixty men of the 501st Light Ponton Company.
Irby had not expected orders to build a Bailey bridge over the Rhine so soon, and his planning had focused on a 25 March target date. Nevertheless his men were ready, having practiced on the Meuse near Liege for months. Most important, the equipment was ready, neatly laid out along the roadnet at Weilerswist in the order in which it would be used, landing bay equipment in one stack, floating Baileys in another.
Work began at 0730 on 18 March at the site where the heavy ponton ferry had operated from Remagen to Erpel (downstream from the treadway bridge). While the company from the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion prepared approach roads to connect with the existing roadnet, the 148th Battalion built the bridge. Here, as with the treadway and ponton bridges, the swift river current made it difficult to tow components into position. Repaired civilian Rhine tugboats were too slow and clumsy, but three U.S. Navy LCVPs proved excellent. The rushing waters of the Rhine also complicated anchorage, but the engineers solved this problem by dropping five 1,500-pound anchors
upstream and sinking two rock-filled barges to which cables were attached.
Artillery fire occasionally landed near the bridge but did no damage. Men worked around the clock; the coxswain of one of the LCVPs, for example, remained at the wheel for twenty-nine hours without a halt. By 0715 on 20 March the 1,258-foot floating Bailey was ready to take traffic—twenty-four hours earlier than First Army had expected.51
VII Corps, First Army, and V Corps Crossings
By 16 March VII Corps’ 1st and 78th Infantry Divisions (the latter transferred from III Corps on 16 March) had crossed the Rhine on the III Corps’ bridges and ferries at Remagen and were driving north and northeast to seize the line of the Sieg River, which entered the Rhine from the east near Bonn. The time had come to build tactical bridges in the VII Corps area, and equipment was available for two steel treadways and one heavy ponton.
During site selection the roadnet on the opposite bank was an important consideration but not the only one. The best of four good roads leading to the Cologne-Frankfurt autobahn lay opposite Bonn, but sites there had to await the clearing of the area by the 78th Division, headed north along the Rhine. Therefore, the first tactical bridges were to be constructed in the southern part of VII Corps’ zone. Not far downstream from the site of III Corps’ floating Bailey, the 1120th Engineer Combat Group was to build an M2 steel treadway at Rolandseck, and about five miles farther downstream at Koenigswinter the same group was to build a heavy ponton bridge. At the southern fringe of Bonn the 1106th Engineer Combat Group was to construct an M2 treadway. Corps engineer units were to build bridges and operate ferries, using heavy ponton rafts and all LCVPs not required as powerboats or guard boats.52
Special security precautions were taken as a result of the enemy harassment that bridge builders in the Remagen area had suffered. To cover both banks at each site the 80th Chemical Smoke Generating Company provided smoke, thickened as necessary by boat-mounted smoke generators. First Army engineers built protective booms, and two Navy LCVPs patrolled the river during darkness. At each site, corps artillery furnished a battery of 155-mm. howitzers, two forward observers, and an artillery liaison plane. Corps antiaircraft artillery, in addition to providing 90-mm. antiaircraft protection, turned searchlights on clouds to provide artificial moonlight at night.
In building the bridge at Rolandseck, the 297th Engineer Combat Battalion had the help of a company from the 294th Engineer Combat Battalion and two treadway bridge companies, the 988th and 990th. Work on the west bank began at 1930 on 16 March at a spot where a civilian ferry had operated. During the night the battalion S–3,
Maj. Matthew J. Sweeney, was wounded by artillery fire and had to be evacuated. On the east bank heavy traffic and the slow pace of blackout driving delayed the arrival of bridge equipment, and construction did not start until 0745 on 17 March. That afternoon floating debris from the Ludendorff Bridge halted work at Rolandseck for more than an hour. All these factors slowed construction time to 23½ hours.53
Work on the ponton bridge at Koenigswinter, which the 294th Engineer Combat Battalion built with the help of the 181st, 86th, and 552nd Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalions, began at 2210 on 18 March and was completed in less than seventeen hours. The treadway at Bonn, which the 237th Engineer Combat Battalion built with the help of a company each from the 238th Engineer Combat Battalion, the 23rd Armored Engineer Battalion, and the 990th Engineer Treadway Bridge Company, went even more rapidly. At 1,340 feet the longest bridge yet built across the Rhine, it was completed in record time. For one thing, construction started in daylight. Also, the men of the 237th had a powerful incentive. The VII Corps commander, Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, who urgently needed the bridge near Bonn, offered to buy beer for every man working on it if the total construction time did not exceed ten hours. Work began at 0615 on 21 March and the first vehicle crossed at 1625—ten hours and ten minutes later. That was good enough for General Collins. The following day he hosted a party in a hall at Bonn to celebrate with the engineers the completion of the “Beer Bridge.”54
The VII Corps operated three heavy ponton ferries, one upstream of the Rolandseck bridge, another downstream of the Koenigswinter bridge, and a third at Bonn. These ferries carried not only vehicles that convoy jams at the bridges had delayed but also Pershing tanks, each ferried on a Navy LCVP-propelled, six-ponton raft. First Army had long planned for at least a semi-fixed bridge that could accommodate heavy tanks. Accordingly, on 25 March the engineers began work at Bad Godesberg, about five miles upstream from Bonn, on a bridge designed for two-way Class 40 or one-way Class 70 traffic. Vehicles began crossing this bridge on 5 April.55
At a conference with First and Third Army commanders at Luxembourg on 19 March, General Omar N. Bradley told General Hodges, First Army commander, to be prepared by 23 March to break out of his bridgehead, drive southeast, and link up with Third Army in the Lahn River valley. The objective was a corridor running from Frankfurt (across the Rhine from Mainz, about 100 miles upstream from Remagen) to Kassel, about 160 miles to the northeast. Patton was told to “take the Rhine on the run.”56
Hodges ordered his V Corps, the southernmost unit which shared a boundary with Third Army, to cross the Rhine. Early on 21 March the corps commander, Maj. Gen. Clarence R. Huebner, sent elements of his 2nd and
69th Infantry Divisions across the river on III Corps bridges and ferries. By the evening of 22 March, V Corps had a bridge of its own. Using the only bridge equipment available, the corps engineers constructed a Class 40 M2 steel treadway about ten miles upstream from the III Corps bridges. Victor Bridge was 1,372 feet long, designated “the longest tactical bridge in the world” by the men of the 254th Engineer Combat Battalion, who built it with the help of the 994th and 998th Engineer Treadway Bridge Companies and, as the sign beside the bridge proclaimed, “U.S. Navy”—a detachment from the Navy’s LCVP Unit No. 1.
Work began on both banks at 0800 on 22 March. The engineers used no smoke screen, nor was artillery support deemed necessary. The principal protective effort was directed against water attack, to which, farthest upstream, the Victor Bridge was especially vulnerable. Infantry and cavalry patrolled the banks; the engineers emplaced three protective booms, using a locally procured steam tug; and at night tanks threw the beams of their canal defense lights over the rushing waters to seek out enemy swimmers and floating mines. Though the booms were not ready immediately, the bridge was finished in twelve hours and was opened to traffic at 2000 on 22 March. The V Corps used the bridge entirely for vehicles and crossed the infantry in LCVPs.57
In the meantime, far to the north and south of the V Corps crossing site, the Ninth, Third, and Seventh Armies were in position for their own assault crossings of the Rhine.