Chapter 23: The Assault Crossings of the Rhine
The Remagen bridgehead had made headlines as a spectacular and fortuitous jump across the last major water barrier in the western Reich. Once formed, though, it received only sparse sustenance from SHAEF. General Eisenhower still focused upon the larger preparations of 21 Army Group and Ninth Army north of Remagen to cross the Rhine in an area where terrain favored mutually supporting offensives into the heartland of Germany. Much to the disgust of Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges, First Army commander, the supreme commander kept the nine divisions in the bridgehead on a short leash, tying down weak German forces in the area while the Ninth, Third, and Seventh Armies to the north and south crossed the Rhine.
Ninth Army at Rheinberg
Ninth Army was ready. On 19 February, even before the Roer operation, General Simpson had delegated to Maj. Gen. John B. Anderson, commanding the XVI Corps, the job of planning a Rhine crossing at Rheinberg, some fifteen miles south of Wesel, under the code name FLASHPOINT. Though the operation did not begin as early as General Simpson had hoped, the plans governed Ninth Army’s move across the river in late March. Col. John W. Wheeler, the XVI Corps engineer, had already staged a general planning session on 12 February with the commanders and staffs of the two corps engineer combat groups, the 1153rd and the 1148th. The engineers discovered that they had on hand only 150 storm boats, plywood craft powered by a 55-horsepower motor with a combat load of seven prone infantrymen. Most of the assault force would thus have to move in slower, fifteen-man single assault boats, either paddled across or propelled by 22-horsepower outboard motors. Of the 500 single assault craft rounded up, exactly half had motors. The engineers planned to ferry tanks on rafts of floating Bailey bridge sections. To guarantee the rapid transfer of heavier weapons, vehicles, and supply, they availed themselves of the services of Naval Landing Unit No. 3, which furnished twenty-four LCVPs and twenty-four LCMs. Another hundred LVTs were available to handle special missions, especially to transfer entire beach parties to the far shore. To exploit the assault, the engineer groups would have ready on the west bank one heavy ponton bridge set and three floating tread-ways; twelve Sea Mule tugs would help emplace the bridge components. To counteract German air attacks, the army command attached to the engineers
an automatic antiaircraft weapons battalion for the operation.1
Training for the operation continued until 10 March at two centers on the Meuse River in the Netherlands, where conditions approximated those at the Rhine crossing site. Col. David C. Wallace, commanding the 1153rd Engineer Combat Group, established his school at Echt, about twenty miles south of Liege. Col. Ellsworth I. Davis of the 1148th Engineer Combat Group set up a second training site at Sittard, farther south. The group engineers trained with the troops of two relatively fresh infantry divisions they would support in the assault, the 30th and the 79th Divisions. As part of XIX Corps, the 30th had crossed the Roer against only light resistance and the 79th against none at all. Neither engineer group had any assault experience, though several of the engineer officers had seen action. The commanding officer of the 1104th Engineer Combat Group took up a temporary assignment under the more experienced Col. John W. Wheeler, the XVI Corps engineer. Wheeler also temporarily assumed direct control of the intelligence sections of the two engineer groups in the assault. They remained in positions from which they could constantly reconnoiter the river at Lintfort, six miles southwest of Rheinberg, throughout the period before the attack.2
Colonel Wallace assembled the river-crossing equipment and operators in the training area and organized his 1153rd Group into eight task forces. Task Force Assault, consisting of the 258th Engineer Combat Battalion reinforced by 200 powerboat operators from the 1153rd and Ninth Army, was to furnish and operate all storm and double assault boats for the initial crossings. Task Force Heavy Boats, the 202nd Engineer Combat Battalion reinforced by U.S. Navy Task Unit 122.5.3, was in charge of the LCMs, LCVPs, Sea Mules, and rafts to be used in ferrying operations. Task Force Roads, the 280th Engineer Combat Battalion, was to do road work up to the Rhine. The remaining five were Task Forces M2 Treadway, Heavy Ponton Bridge, Boom (to construct debris and antimine booms), M1 Treadway, and LVT.
Colonel Davis of the 1148th Engineer Combat Group organized his engineer troops differently. His 149th Engineer Combat Battalion was to support one infantry regiment of the 79th Division, controlling and operating assault and storm boats and all types of ferrying equipment. The 187th Engineer Combat Battalion was to provide the same support to the other assault infantry regiment. The 1276th Engineer Combat Battalion was to support the two engineer battalions by launching Bailey rafts, Sea Mules, LCMs, and LCVPs, erecting an M2 treadway bridge, and installing mine booms. One of the most difficult problems was moving the large, cumbersome boats to be used in the ferrying operation over the roads from Echt to the Rhine, especially the LCMs and Sea Mules, which had to be carried on tank transporters. The 202nd Engineer Combat Battalion, responsible for moving forward all the heavy equipment of
both groups, sent a demolition crew and a bulldozer along the eighty-mile route from Echt to Lintfort, the initial assembly area, to widen roads and remove obstacles.3 At Lintfort, all XVI Corps’ assault craft and bridging materials were to be stored in the large railroad yard of a coal mine. The engineers made elaborate preparations to camouflage the equipment with garnished fish nets, chicken wire, and cotton duck blackened with coal dust. At the same time, XIII Corps engineers constructed a dummy depot near Krefeld as part of Operation EXPLOIT, an elaborate scheme designed to trick the Germans into expecting a crossing at Uerdingen, some fifteen miles south of Rheinberg.4
By 20 March both engineer combat groups, having completed a week of training along the Maas, were moving the river-crossing equipment forward to Lintfort. From there to the crossing sites at Rheinberg the two groups had exclusive use of one road, over which the LCMs, LCVPs, DUKWs, and Sea Mules moved at night to conceal them from the Germans.5 By nightfall on 23 March the engineers had reconnoitered their crossing areas, paying particular attention to unloading sites for the heavy craft. The bridging equipment, loaded on vehicles at Lintfort, was ready to go forward as soon as the engineers had breached a twelve- to fifteen-foot winter dike along the riverbank. Camouflaged assault and storm boats were in place behind the dike, their motors warmed for the early morning start by chemical heating pads borrowed from hospital units.6
The 1153rd Engineer Combat Group had made thorough arrangements for an orderly crossing of the 30th Division. There were to be three beaches—Red, White, and Blue—one for each of the division’s infantry regiments, with Red on the left, or north, opposite Buederich; White in the center; and Blue on the right, or south, opposite Rheinberg. The first boats over, guided by machine guns firing tracer ammunition, were to mark the boundaries of their beaches with red, white, or blue aircraft landing lamps. Thereafter the assault elements would show the heavy boats where to land by emplacing ten-foot stakes on which were wired flashlights with a red covering, no covering (white), or a blue covering to designate the beach. Lights were arranged one above the other (two for LCVPs, three for LCMs, four for duplex-drive tanks) or in a design (three forming a triangle for Bailey rafts). The beachmaster wore a white helmet; those of the engineer guides, boat crews, and others were marked with white paint in identifying patterns.
Over the Rhine
The night was clear and the riverbanks almost dry at 0100 on 24 March when the Ninth Army artillery preparation erupted into the sky. An hour later the 30th Division’s first wave of storm boats, each carrying two engineers and seven infantrymen, pushed off. The second wave consisted of storm and double assault boats constructed by bolting together two single craft, stern to stern; the third of LVTs and double
assault boats; and the fourth of LCVPs. Troops of the first wave were able to rig the lights on the far shore three minutes after hitting the beach. (Map 29)
German shells killed one man, wounded three others, and knocked out two Red Beach storm boats, but elsewhere the Americans encountered little or no resistance. The artillery barrage had stunned or daunted the few Germans on the far shore, and the artillery had cut enemy telephone wires, making it impossible for the Germans to call up artillery fire immediately. By 0243 the engineer of the 30th Infantry Division could report that all the assault battalions were across and that resistance had been negligible; by 0600 the bulk of the 30th Division’s three infantry regiments was on the far shore.
Upstream, around a bend in the Rhine, the first wave of the 79th Infantry Division’s two assault regiments started off at 0300 in storm and assault boats. By that time fog and smoke had settled on the water and on both banks of the river. Here the width of the steep banks and swampy areas on the far shore restricted the crossing sites. Some of the assault boats failed to get across. Three swamped because the engineers of the 149th Engineer Combat Battalion had not built bow extensions high enough. But the men swam to shore, and none were lost in the assault crossings. By 0600 at the upstream or southernmost site, the 187th Engineer Combat Battalion had crossed its infantry regiment, and by 0730 the 149th Engineer Combat Battalion had put ashore all men of the second regiment at the northern site. The remaining infantry regiment of the 79th Division ferried across next day, 25 March, the two engineer battalions sharing the work.7
At both the 30th and 79th Infantry Division sites the LVTs were in action early and saw extensive service throughout D-day. The LVTs, victims of the current, tended to drift downstream and could not manage direct crossings to a small, defined bridgehead at the outset of the assault. Later, however, they ferried load after load of tanks, which did not need specially prepared points of debarkation on the far bank. The DUKWs also proved excellent both as ferry craft and as general utility boats during bridge construction. The heavier ferry craft had trouble getting forward over the congested roadnet in the darkness, the LCVPs on flatbed trailers, the LCMs and Sea Mules on tank transporters. At 0130 these cumbersome loads caused a traffic jam that was not cleared until 0300.
In the 30th Infantry Division zone enemy fire hampered construction of hardstandings at the launching sites, and the LCVPs and LCMs could not begin ferrying operations until daybreak. By noon eight LCVPs and nine LCMs were hauling men, weapons, light tanks, and tank destroyers across the Rhine. The landing craft also helped during the construction of the three bridges—M2 treadway, heavy ponton, and Ml treadway. By afternoon several treadway rafts and two Bailey rafts, propelled by powered storm boats, were carrying Sherman tanks across.
In the 79th Infantry Division’s area ferrying assumed increasing importance
after enemy fire slowed work on the divisional bridge. The 1276th Engineer Combat Battalion, with the mission of launching the ferry craft, was also responsible for the M2 treadway bridge and the mine booms. The unit was not only overburdened with work but was also unlucky. German phosphorous shells set the battalion command post ablaze at 0230, and a few minutes later enemy mortar fire added to the confusion. No one was hurt, but the unit struggled to move its equipment through the congested area. Tractors had to pull the LCM-laden transporters across the last yards of soft riverbank, but once there the transporters could back into the water and float their cargoes off with the assistance of crawler cranes at the site. By 0700 two LCMs were carrying tanks to the far shore, but German fire hit one and seven more craft remained on the west bank until 1900. The engineers launched the LCVPs more easily, and nine were in operation by noon. The Sea Mules bogged down on their transports short of the bank and got into the river only after the men finished a plank road to the water at noon on 25 March.8
Engineers supporting both the 30th and 79th Infantry Divisions recognized that ferry sites should be located downstream of tactical bridges to avoid the
possibility of ramming, but in several cases the best ferry sites—those not requiring extensive preparation—were located immediately upstream. So they equipped the ferries with two anchors each, to be cast overboard if the power failed, to prevent the ferries from floating downstream with the current.
Another deviation from planning was the timing of bridge construction. Because only a 50 percent reserve of bridge material was available, planners had not intended that bridge construction start before bridgeheads on the far shore had been seized. Firm, substantial bridgeheads would forestall observed enemy fire against bridging operations. But enemy resistance seemed to be so light and smoke so effective for concealment that work on all three 30th Division bridges began by 0630 on 24 March and on the 79th Division bridge at 0800.
However, after the wind changed and the smoke lifted, enemy fire hit the treadway bridges in both zones. Moreover, ferries that swept downstream when anchors failed to hold (or crews neglected to use them) rammed the treadways. Intermittent artillery fire hit the northernmost bridge, the M2 treadway in the White Beach area, several times. Then shortly after the bridge opened to traffic at 1600 a Bailey raft loaded with a Sherman tank crashed into it, causing so much damage that the bridge could not be reopened until 0200 on 25 March. At the M 1 treadway in the Blue Beach area enemy fire interrupted work for an hour in the morning and knocked out 144 feet of the bridge during the afternoon. The bridge opened for traffic at 0830 on 25 March, but a little more than an hour later a Sea Mule drifted against the treadway and buckled it. The M2 tread-way built in the northern part of the 79th Division’s zone was the southernmost of the three treadways. It was hit first by light enemy fire and then at 2330 by three LCMs that broke the bridge about 240 feet from shore; it could not be repaired until noon on D plus 1. By that time heavier artillery fire was falling, which killed the commander of the engineer treadway bridge company, wounded several men, and knocked out seven floats. That evening the XVI Corps engineer, Colonel Wheeler, turned the bridge work over to the 1153rd Engineer Combat Group, whose 208th Engineer Combat Battalion completed the repairs late on the afternoon of D plus 2, 26 March. In the meantime, the 79th Division was able to use the 30th Division’s MI tread.- way. To protect the bridges against debris, floating mines, barges, explosive-filled motorboats, submarines, and underwater swimmers, five booms were to be installed and covered by tanks with canal defense lights, but group engineers could not complete the task primarily because powerboats needed to emplace the booms were not available.
Far to the south (upstream) of the 79th Division’s area, near Homberg, 75th Infantry Division engineers constructed an excellent cable boom in darkness on the morning of D-day. Then a direct artillery hit severed the cable, setting the boom adrift, and enemy strafing eliminated a rebuilt boom next morning. Lacking booms, XVI Corps depended on antitank guns and tank destroyers placed in dikes along the riverfront and on patrol boats equipped with an underwater listening device. The enemy attempted no waterborne or underwater attacks.
The tactical units were satisfied with the crossing. The 30th Infantry Division considered the Rhine “much less of a problem than the swollen, racing Roer had been.”9 Though 1,100 feet wide in the 30th Division’s zone, the Rhine was slow moving and easy to work in. Enemy resistance there and in the 79th Division’s zone was negligible compared with that at Remagen, and the Germans in the XVI Corps’ area may well have been deceived by camouflage and the diversionary operations at Krefeld and Uerdingen. In both division zones assault troops had crossed quickly and with very few casualties. By 0600 the engineers had moved eight infantry battalions of the 30th Division and five of the 79th over the Rhine; by the end of D-day three tank battalions, two field artillery battalions, and two tank-destroyer battalions were also on the far bank. One field artillery battalion managed to cross the treadway at White Beach before the bridge was rammed; the rest of the heavy weapons went across on ferry craft. By nightfall engineers were ferrying one Sherman tank over the Rhine every ten minutes. The crossing had cost XVI Corps 38 men killed, 426 wounded, and 3 missing. Ninth Army considered the operation a complete success.10
Farther south, the two other American field armies in the line jumped the Rhine between 23 and 26 March. The techniques employed in the crossings of Third and Seventh Armies varied. General Patton got six battalions across with a fair degree of surprise by restricting artillery and air bombardment in his assault zones around Oppenheim and the Rhine gorge. Seventh Army, on Patton’s right flank, made comparatively heavier use of artillery in its assault near Worms. Common to all these efforts, however, was extensive engineer preparation beforehand.
The XII Corps Crossing at Oppenheim
For months the engineers of XII Corps, scheduled to make Patton’s first crossing, had considered Oppenheim a good site. Because the Third Army operation was to be a surprise, a crossing at a town was essential to conceal the movement of the assault boats to the river’s edge. The engineers favored Oppenheim because it straddled one of the main roads to Frankfurt am Main, some twenty miles to the northeast. The bridge carrying the road over the river could not be counted on, but at that spot the Rhine was not more than a thousand feet wide and fairly slow, while its sandy banks were firm enough to support amphibious vehicles. For building rafts and launching LCVPs the protected Oppenheim boat basin on the near bank was ideal.11
As planning progressed it became evident that some 560 assault boats would be available. This made it necessary to expand the plans to include a neighboring town, Nierstein, 1,500 yards downstream. During the assault at 2200 on 22 March, engineers of the 1135th Engineer Combat Group’s 204th Engineer Combat Battalion were to cross two battalions of the 5th Division’s 11th Infantry in column at Nierstein and the third battalion at Oppenheim. As soon as the 11th Infantry had cleared the far bank, the group’s 7th Engineer Combat Battalion was to put across the 5th Division’s 10th Infantry at Oppenheim.12
On the morning of 22 March German planes bombed and strafed Nierstein, but nothing indicated that the enemy expected an immediate crossing there. The only activity the Americans could see on the far bank was a party of soldiers digging mine holes in the dike about fifty yards from the river’s edge. After dark on the twenty-second the 204th Engineer Combat Battalion brought assault boats down to the river’s edge. No artillery barrage was fired, nor did the boats use their motors. Three engineers manned each boat, which carried twelve infantrymen. As silently as possible, the boats paddled across in the blackness. The first boat from Nierstein drew a single burst of machine-gun fire, but the infantry replied with automatic rifles and before the boat unloaded five Germans came down from the dike and surrendered. The first infantry company was ashore in eight minutes, and by 0130 on 23 March all three battalions of the 11th Infantry were over the Rhine with only twenty casualties. Strongest resistance had occurred in the Oppenheim crossing,
during which one engineer was killed.
At 0200 the 7th Engineer Combat Battalion began crossing the 10th Infantry in a column of battalions. Just at daylight, as the last wave was paddling across, shells from a German self-propelled 105-mm. gun hit the water, splashing and swamping some of the boats but causing no casualties. The gun could not be driven off or silenced until the ferries went into operation to carry across heavy weapons. Meanwhile, enemy shelling, bombing, and strafing interfered with the work at the Oppenheim boat basin where the 88th Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalion was constructing four Class 40 rafts. The first raft, pushed downstream to Ferry Site 1 near Nierstein, did not begin operating until 0700, when it carried a bulldozer to the far shore; it was 0830 before lank destroyers could raft across to attack the self-propelled gun. During the night a party of engineers had marked beaches for the landing of DUKWs, LCVPs, and Weasels using blinking white, red, and green lights and setting up vertical panels of corresponding colors for daytime use. Some LCVPs were working by dawn on 23 March, but DUKWs and Weasels did not arrive until the next day.
The 2nd Infantry of the 5th Division crossed to the east bank on rafts and LCVPs next morning, and by midafternoon an attached battalion of the 90th Infantry Division had also crossed. Two of the big rafts could accommodate six jeeps at a time; they operated continuously for two days and nights, one pushed by an LCVP, the other by two powerboats. The rafts continued supply and evacuation operations even after bridges were in, a treadway at 1800 on 23 March and a heavy ponton bridge at 0700 the next morning. The raft operations permitted the 4th Armored Division to employ the treadway as a one-way crossing, and the division used the bridge continuously for twenty-four hours beginning at 0900 on the twenty-fourth.13
In one respect the engineers of the 1135th Engineer Combat Group showed more foresight than had their colleagues in the First and Ninth Army crossings. When the construction of the heavy ponton bridge began, all ferries moved to Ferry Site 2, downstream of all bridges. There, the U.S. Navy was operating LCVPs, and DUKWs began operations on the twenty-fourth. This movement downstream assured that the ferries would not crash into the bridges.
The 150th Engineer Combat Battalion began bridge work at 0330, but German artillery fire at dawn and strafing and bombing during the morning interrupted the work. American combat troops on the east bank soon silenced the artillery piece, and although the bombing and strafing wounded one man, the air attacks did little damage to the bridge material.14
About the time bridge building began, a detachment of the 1301st Engineer General Service Regiment, experienced in boom construction, started emplacing an antimine floating log boom and an antipersonnel boom made of admiralty netting, both upstream of the bridges. The engineer detachment completed the log boom by 1400 on 23 March. The more troublesome antipersonnel boom was only half completed
by nightfall, but during the night two German frogmen were caught in its meshes. Each carried two disc-shaped magnetic mines, both set to explode at 0600. The Germans said they were two of a party of five frogmen who dropped into the river about eleven kilometers upstream with orders to place mines on either a ferry site or a bridge. They had almost immediately lost contact with the other three, who were never picked up. The two captives were soldiers who had been sentenced to three months’ service in a naval diving school for offenses committed in Russia and in Greece. On this penal service, they revealed, they could not handle explosives and received their mines only when they were actually in the water upstream of Rheinberg. The officers had also told them that they had little chance of returning from the mission.15
The VIII Corps Crossing at the Rhine Gorge
The area selected for the VIII Corps crossings, between Koblenz on the north and Bingen on the south, was the famous Rhine gorge, where the river runs swiftly between rock cliffs. There had lived the river barons, who from their castles on the heights had exacted tribute from passing ships. At a point near St. Goar stands the Lorelei, the huge rock formation from which the golden-haired maiden of Heine’s poem enticed sailors to their deaths on the shoal below. This stretch of the Rhine was the worst possible for an assault crossing. For that very reason Patton had selected it in the belief that “the impossible place is usually the least well defended.”16 He was wrong. Boatmen on the river were at the mercy of those on the heights above. At the 87th Infantry Division’s crossing site near Rhens, a mile or so upstream from Koblenz, fire from machine guns, mortars, flak guns, and artillery emplaced on the rocky cliffs above fell on a 347th Infantry launching site six minutes before H-hour, scheduled for 0001 on 25 March. This caused such disruption that an hour passed before a second try could be made; this time the men succeeded. At another site a few hundred yards downstream, the leading assault boats moved out on time but had scarcely touched down on the east shore when German flares lit up the river. Following boats drew heavy fire. After daylight the attack battalions tried smoke cover, but damp air in the gorge kept it from rising much above the surface of the river. By early afternoon, with resistance continuing, units waiting to cross at Rhens moved upriver four miles to Boppard. The crossing attempts at Rhens had been costly: the 347th Infantry had sustained casualties of 7 killed and 110 wounded. In proportion, its supporting 35th Engineer Combat Battalion had suffered even more, with 9 men killed, 6 missing, and 19 wounded.17
The 1102nd Engineer Combat Group, supporting the 87th Division crossings, had set up headquarters at Boppard. There the assault wave achieved a measure of surprise, pushing out into the river shortly after midnight on 25 March. The 159th Engineer Combat Battalion, after moving the 345th Infantry across the river, considered the crossing “not tough at all, that is, not like we expected it to be.”18 A smoke screen laid down
for the crossing of succeeding waves proved effective. Although artillery and mortar fire continued sporadically during the morning, six LCVPs were in the water transporting infantry, and rafting soon began, the first tank crossing at noon. Enemy fire slowed the work of the 44th Engineer Combat Battalion on a treadway bridge until 0930 on the overcast, rainy morning of 26 March. Shortly before the bridge opened, the men working on it saw evidence of the 89th Infantry Division’s bloody crossing- upstream at St. Goar during the night. An assault boat came hurtling downstream; only one of its four passengers had escaped injury—another was dead and two were wounded.19
The night before the 89th Division’s crossing, scheduled for 0200 on 26 March, the 1107th Engineer Combat Group set up headquarters in a 13th-century castle on a cliff overlooking St. Goar. Three sites had been selected for the assault. Five companies of the division’s 354th Infantry were to be divided between St. Goar and a wooded area downstream, while a battalion of the 353rd Infantry was to cross at Oberwesel, upstream of St. Goar. The 168th Engineer Combat Battalion was to support all assault crossings, the 188th Engineer Combat Battalion to construct rafts and take charge of all ferry equipment, and the 243rd Engineer Combat Battalion to build a treadway bridge at St. Goar.20
The troops expected trouble at St. Goar because the day before the Germans had announced on their radio that the Americans had tried to cross there. The opposition proved even stronger than anticipated. In fading moonlight the first assault boats pulled away from the shadowy western shore at 0200. American artillery was quiet because a surprise operation like that at Oppenheim had been ordered, but the Germans were already shelling from St. Goarshausen across the Rhine. A German 88-mm. gun hit three of the thirty-one boats taken down to the riverbank at St. Goar before they could be launched. One shell killed three motorboat operators, injured six other men of the 168th Engineer Combat. Battalion, and killed the 89th Division’s chemical officer. The rest of the assault boats had gone about a third of the way across the river when heavy enemy fire came down, mostly from 20-mm. antiaircraft guns. Then a shell ignited a gasoline barge anchored in midstream near St. Goar. By the light of the leaping flames the anxious watchers on the near bank saw boats exploding “in a geyser of flying wood and sprawling bodies.”21
Two hours later, at 0400, none of the boats had returned. Group engineers considered it unlikely that many of them had been swept downstream by the swift current, since they had provided some of the boats with motors to tow those that had none. They concluded that all the boats had been lost and that the assault engineers who had been able to get across were fighting alongside the infantry. During the night small-arms fire could be heard from St. Goarshausen; when dawn came U.S. troops could be seen advancing toward the center of town, cleaning it out house
by house. Daylight also revealed shattered assault boats lining the far bank.
The crossing at the wooded area downstream from St. Goar was also bloody; there too German 20-mm. antiaircraft guns and heavy machine guns played a leading role. Most of the 89th Division’s casualties-29 killed, 146 missing, and 102 wounded—were men of the 354th Infantry. At Oberwesel, although the Germans used a castle on an island in mid-river as a strongpoint, firing from slits in the walls, the crossing went well. During the morning DUKWs went into service. In contrast to the forty-five minutes required for assault boats to get to the far bank and return, the engineer-manned DUKWs carried eighteen infantrymen and made the round trip in five minutes.22 With reinforcements and help from artillery and self-propelled guns brought up to the near bank, by noon enemy fire was almost eliminated at Oberwesel, which then became the main crossing site. In the afternoon six LCVPs and six LCMs ferried enough troops and equipment over to clear St. Goarshausen by early evening.23
Raft construction began at St. Goar at 1800. Work on a treadway bridge started there at 1930, but the swift current
washed out anchors. A cable had to be strung across the river, and the tread-way was not completed until early on the morning of 28 March. In the meantime, two 89th Division task forces crossed the Rhine on the 87th Division’s bridge at Boppard.24
General Patton could have used the bridges at Boppard and Oppenheim to send Third Army’s XX Corps across the Rhine. Instead he chose to make an assault crossing at Mainz, between Boppard and Oppenheim, on 28 March, probably because he considered Mainz, centrally located and with a good road and rail net, the best place for permanent rail and highway bridges.
The XX Corps Crossing at Mainz
At Mainz the Rhine is almost 2,000 feet wide—one of its widest points. Directly opposite the city, which lies on the west bank of the Rhine, the narrower and slower Main River empties into the Rhine from the east. Parallel to the Main’s north bank an excellent road ran to Frankfurt am Main and beyond, into the heart of Germany. Elements of the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions, having broken out of the Oppenheim bridgehead, tried to cross the Main near Frankfurt between 25 and 27 March. At three places railway bridges were found still standing, but the only one that would take tanks was at Aschaffenburg, fifteen miles up the Main from Frankfurt. Demolitions had so weakened the other two bridges that only foot soldiers could get across; heavy shelling from Frankfurt prevented engineers from repairing the bridges.
Although the width of the Rhine at Mainz would place a heavy strain on XX Corps’ bridging equipment, the city had a number of advantages as a crossing site: the banks were flat, the enemy lacked high ground for observation, and buildings extending to the water’s edge would protect the attackers from small-arms fire and shell splinters as they embarked in the assault boats. As at Oppenheim, boat basins with slips were available to provide concealment for launching naval craft.
The XX Corps decided on two assault crossings, both of which the 80th Infantry Division was to undertake. The division’s 317th Infantry was to cross the Rhine at Mainz, where engineers were to build a treadway bridge; the 319th Infantry, using the Oppenheim bridge over the Rhine, was to cross the
Main from Bischofsheim to Hochheim, three miles upstream from Mainz. At Hochheim, where the Main was less than 700 feet wide—a favorable circumstance in view of an increasing shortage of bridging material—engineers were to build a second treadway, allowing more tanks to cross to reinforce the XII Corps’ armor.
In the early hours of 28 March the 1139th Engineer Combat Group’s 135th Engineer Combat Battalion paddled the first assault wave over the Rhine at Mainz. From an island in midriver and from the far bank came small-arms and machine-gun fire and some 20-mm. antiaircraft shells. The second wave, crossing in LCVPs and LCMs, encountered heavier shelling. During the assault crossing 10 men were killed, 18 wounded, and some 55 reported missing. Small-arms fire falling on the bridge site delayed a start on the tread-way. Because there was no reserve bridging material, the 160th Engineer Combat Battalion, which had the treadway project, was reluctant to run the risk of losing what equipment it had. But on orders from the XX Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Walton H. Walker, the engineers began work at 0900.
At the Main River site there was little or no opposition to the assault crossings, which the 1139th Group’s 179th Engineer Combat Battalion supported. By 0900 the 206th Engineer Combat Battalion’s heavy rafts were ferrying tanks to help clear the far bank, and at 1855 the battalion completed a 624-foot bridge. Next day around noon, the Mainz bridge over the Rhine was ready for traffic. The XX Corps engineers were especially proud because they believed the 1,896-foot span to be the longest tactical bridge built under combat conditions in the European theater.25
The Seventh Army Crossings
About fifteen miles south of Oppenheim lay Worms, where the Seventh Army was to cross the Rhine. The fact that operations there and at the Oppenheim bridgehead would be mutually supporting outweighed the disadvantages of the terrain at Worms. On the far bank, some eight miles east of the Rhine, the hills of the Odenwald rose sharply. On those heights the Germans could make a stand and contain the bridgehead—if they had men and weapons to do so. Enemy strength was difficult to estimate, but Seventh Army intelligence indicated that the Germans had not more than fifty men per river-front kilometer and no large guns permanently emplaced east of the Rhine.26
Early Seventh Army plans and preparations, begun in September 1944, had envisioned a Rhine crossing about twenty miles upstream from Worms and south of Mannheim. For that reason a good deal of the engineer planning concerned the possibility that the Germans might open power dams upstream from Basel to create flood waves that could wash out tactical bridges as far north as Mannheim, leaving American assault troops stranded on the far shore. To provide warning of approaching floods so that floating bridges could be safeguarded, the ETOUSA chief engineer established a flood protection service in his office; engineers at the headquarters of the various armies set up similar
organizations. To collect planning data, 6th Army Group engineers experimented with hydraulic models of the dams between Basel and Lake Constance.27 This effort decreased in importance when 6th Army Group learned that the Swiss were prepared to protect the dams along their border with Germany. Moreover, Seventh Army changed its crossing site to Worms, north of Mannheim.
The 40th and 540th Engineer Combat Groups, both amphibious veterans, were available to put Seventh Army’s XV Corps across the Rhine on a nine-mile front extending north and south from Worms. Training had begun in September 1944, when Seventh Army’s rapid advance inland through southern France made a November or December Rhine crossing appear likely. During those months the Rhine current is swift, usually from eight to ten miles per hour. Accordingly, the Seventh Army engineer, Brig. Gen. Garrison H. Davidson, felt that hand-paddled assault boats would be out of the question. He would need the services of boat operators who had trained at sites on the Rhine and Doubs rivers to pilot motor-driven boats. To prepare for a swift-current crossing the engineers also experimented with stringing cable to help DUKWs take artillery across promptly and with anchoring ponton bridges.28
In the event, much of the time spent preparing for a swift-current crossing was wasted. By the 26 March crossing date, the current was only three or four miles per hour, slow enough to use paddle-powered assault boats. In the sector north of Worms, where XV Corps’ 45th Infantry Division supported by the 40th Engineer Combat Group crossed the river, using powered boats actually proved detrimental because motor noise alerted the enemy. In addition, the engineers found that DUKWs and duplex-drive tanks could cross without the aid of cables.29
Around midnight on 25 March a four-man patrol of the 180th Infantry, 45th Division, paddled across the Rhine in a rubber boat to reconnoiter the east bank. The patrol saw some German soldiers but was not fired upon and, after searching fruitlessly for gun emplacements and mines, returned safely to the near bank in time to take part in the assault crossing at 0230.30 The heavy storm and assault boats, brought to the riverbank on carts borrowed from the Chemical Warfare Service, were launched on schedule from stone-paved revetments. Mist rising from the river hid the moon. To achieve surprise the attackers used neither smoke nor any preliminary artillery barrage. However, after the Germans heard the roar of the motors, small-arms, 20-mm. antiaircraft, and mortar fire hit the boats as they reached the far bank. This fire was heaviest in the 180th Infantry’s sector, where 60 percent of the boats were damaged; the 179th Infantry lost only 10 percent of its boats. All fourteen of the duplex-drive tanks in the assault went across safely. With the help of the tanks and of artillery ferried over
in DUKWs or on infantry support rafts, the infantry overran the Germans and made good progress on the ground. During the crossing the 2831st Engineer Combat Battalion, piloting the storm and assault boats, suffered eighteen casualties; the 2830th Battalion, which operated rafts and ferries, sustained none.31
Just south of Worms, the 3rd Division made two feints across the Rhine below Mannheim on the evening of 25 March which alerted the enemy. When the 540th Engineer Combat Group’s 2832nd and 2833rd Engineer Combat Battalions began moving toward their assembly areas at 2000 hours—the former to support the 7th Infantry on the south, the latter the 30th Infantry—they came under German artillery and mortar fire. This fire continued while the engineers pulled the storm and assault boats over the steep, revetted banks and into place for the crossing. In the 7th Infantry zone flames from a barn set on fire by a German incendiary shell lit up the crossing area, silhouetting the men and boats.32
At 0152 friendly artillery began a massive barrage that continued until H-hour, 0230. Four minutes before the barrage lifted, 7th Infantry boats began moving across the river, and by 0340 both assault infantry battalions were over. In the 30th Infantry’s zone, where opposition was lighter, the two assault battalions were across by 0330. The artillery barrage, as well as the use of smoke, kept the loss rate of storm boats to only 10 percent. Ten of fourteen duplex-drive tanks reached the far shore. About H plus 2 the first DUKW crossed the river safely without cables. The engineers also found that cables were not necessary for the rafts, which by 0700 were ferrying tanks and vehicles across the Rhine. Nevertheless, since the ferrying operations lay upstream from where floating bridges were being built, the engineers strung cables and used them to keep ferries from being swept downstream to crash into the bridges.
The engineers who were to build a mine barrier and patrol the river to protect the bridges from floating mines, frogmen, and other menaces reached their assembly area, farthest upstream of all, at 0300. The fire from German antiaircraft guns, ranging in caliber from 8-mm. to 128-mm. and emplaced on an island in the Rhine, drove the engineers off. Heavy fire from the island, a fortress that had apparently escaped the notice of Seventh Army planners, continued throughout much of D-day, harassing the 7th Infantry’s crossing site and holding up the barrier work. It was late afternoon when a battalion of the 15th Infantry assaulted the island from the east bank of the Rhine and silenced the guns. On D plus 1 the engineers erected the mine barrier, and the river patrol went into operation with searchlights, artillery, and DUKWs mounting quad-50 machine guns. The patrol sank a number of barges that might have destroyed the downstream bridges.
Fire from the German guns on the island also delayed construction of the nearest floating bridge, a treadway south of Worms. The 163rd Engineer Combat Battalion began work at 0600 on D-day but did not complete the
treadway until 1850. The first usable bridge was a heavy ponton span at Worms, about two hundred feet downstream from the site of the Ernst Ludwig highway bridge, which the Germans had demolished. In just over nine hours the 85th Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalion built the l,047-foot ponton; open to traffic at 1512 on D-day, it was named the Alexander Patch Bridge for the Seventh Army commander. Although the handsome stone tower of the Ernst Ludwig Bridge, still standing on the far bank, harbored enemy snipers, ruins of the span provided good anchorage for the bridge builders. The Alexander Patch Bridge carried 3,040 vehicles eastward during its first twenty-four hours of operation.33 Because of its early completion and excellent location, Seventh Army preferred the Alexander Patch Bridge to a ponton bridge the 1553rd Engineer Heavy Penton Battalion erected downstream near Rheinduerkheim in the 45th Division’s sector. As a result, that bridge operated at only half its capacity.34
On 29 March, General Davidson, the Seventh Army engineer, instructed the 85th Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalion to build a bridge to take tanks and vehicles over the Rhine to Mannheim. With the help of aerial photographs a recon-
naissance party found a suitable site at Ludwigshafen, on the west bank opposite Mannheim. Eight bulldozers worked six hours clearing rubble from the streets and preparing the site, and the 1553rd Engineer Heavy Ponton Battalion brought pontons down from the Worms area on its trailers. Construction started at daylight on 30 March. The bridge opened to light traffic at 1500, but tanks and heavy vehicles had to wait until 1900 because of a delay in obtaining two-inch decking. The engineers dubbed the span the Gar Davidson Bridge to honor the Seventh Army engineer.35
The Rhine Crossings in Retrospect
No two assault crossings of the Rhine during March 1945 were exactly alike. Conditions ranged from the haste and improvisation of First Army’s Remagen bridge crossing to the long, careful planning involved in Ninth Army’s crossing near Rheinberg. Moreover, Ninth Army’s massive artillery preparation, which eliminated surprise and necessitated fast assault boats and speedy rafting of heavy weapons, contrasted sharply with Third Army’s dispensing with preliminary bombardment and achieving surprise with a night crossing in paddle boats.
Engineer planning had allowed for diversity. Working during the fall of 1944 before the Battle of the Ardennes, planners had assumed a winter crossing and made provisions for bad weather and excessive flooding. Such conditions did not arise. Crossings were also easier than expected because the Germans did not seriously try to destroy bridges with mines, midget submarines, or boats laden with explosives.36
Looking back, corps and army engineers saw no reason to revise engineer doctrine. Rather, a study of the Rhine operations provided several examples of the folly of deviating from doctrine. Perhaps the most outstanding instance was disregard of the rule that all heavy boats and rafts should operate downstream of bridges, even if launching and landing sites downstream were inferior to those upstream. For example, at Wallach the 1153rd Engineer Combat Group’s achievement in installing a treadway bridge by 1600 on D-day was nullified when a Bailey raft crashed into the bridge, knocking it out for more than seven hours.
Almost all of the standard stream-crossing equipment provided for the Rhine crossing—assault and storm boats, utility powerboats, outboard motors, rafts, and bridging material—had already been used, most of it successfully. The principal criticisms were that the infantry support rafts tended to swamp in the Rhine’s swift current and that utility boats were not powerful enough to serve efficiently as general work boats for building bridges, emplacing heavy boom material, or towing heavy rafts.
The engineers also obtained material from sources other than standard engineer stocks. Two of the most important types of equipment, LCVPs and LCMs, the U.S. Navy furnished to First, Ninth, and Third Armies. The engineers generally considered the LCVPs invaluable. They ferried troops at a rapid rate, faster than the men could walk over footbridges, and returned the
wounded quickly. The LCVPs also performed excellent service as patrol boats and even acted as work boats and tugboats, although they did not have enough power to handle the heavy reinforced rafts required for ferrying tanks. Opinions on the value of LCMs varied. Ninth Army engineers felt that the craft did not contribute enough to the crossings to warrant the effort involved in transporting and launching it. On the other hand, the Third Army engineer found LCMs extremely useful, citing an instance during which six LCVPs and six LCMs crossed an entire division with all its vehicles and equipment in forty-eight hours.
Other special nonengineer equipment employed during the Rhine crossings included DUKWs, LVTs, and Sea Mules. In all crossings except at Remagen (where DUKWs were subjected to an excessively long land haul) they performed valuable service, not only in carrying shore parties and artillery to the far bank but also in working around bridges and dropping bridge anchors. LVTs were well liked, especially LVT4s, which could load jeeps through drop doors. Although a good work boat, the Sea Mule was bulky to transport, hard to handle in a rapid current, and susceptible to damage in shallow water because of exposed propellers and rudders. For these reasons, most engineers thought it should be replaced in river crossings by a new and more powerful engineer power utility boat.37
In sustaining surprise during the Rhine crossings, dummy bridging of wood and burlap played an important part. So convincing from the air were Ninth Army’s decoy preparations near Uerdingen that on the night of D plus 2 German planes strafed the area. During the Seventh Army crossings engineers threw two dummy bridges across the Rhine upstream and downstream of real bridges. Made of wooden frames resting on steel drums, the spans seemed so real even at ground level that guards had to be stationed at their approaches to prevent crowds of refugees from using the dummies to flee over the Rhine.38