Crossing the Rhine
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
As the Allied forces gathered on the west banks of the Rhine River, it was no longer a matter of surprise. The German troops knew that the Allied forces were only taking a short time to gather up strength before the invasion into Germany would commence. George Patton's US 5th Division crossed the Rhine River during the night of 22 Mar 1945, establishing a six-mile deep bridgehead after capturing 19,000 demoralized German troops. Patton, who actually did not have the orders to cross the river, did so under an extremely low profile: quietly, his troops crossed the river in boats without artillery barrage nor aerial bombardment. His commanding general Omar Bradley, who issued the order for him not to cross to avoid interfering with Bernard Montgomery's operations, did not know of the crossing until the next morning. Bradley did not announce this crossing until the night of 23 Mar; Patton had wished the Americans to announce that they had crossed the Rhine River before the British. This was the first crossing of the Rhine River by boat by an invading army since Napoleon Bonaparte. Within three days Patton's troops were rapidly approaching Frankfurt, Germany, capturing bridges in tact as the German defenses began to fall apart.
Dwight Eisenhower expected the German troops, some elite including soldiers of the First Paratroop Army, would be prepared for such an invasion in the northern Ruhr area. The crossing would be difficult with German mortar and artillery guns already trained at river crossings. However, such a strong resistance was not encountered as elements of the 21st Army Group and Ninth Army crossed the river in the north in the Ruhr River region. The crossing was led by a heavy artillery shelling and supplemented by an airborne operation (Operation Varsity) by the American 17th Airborne Division and the British 6th Airborne Division. This paratrooper operation was not a typical one where troops were dropped a distance behind enemy lines before the operation to disrupt communications; this time, Bernard Montgomery chose to drop the paratroopers immediately behind the enemy lines after the conventional infantry had already crossed the Rhine River under the cover of darkness. After suffering significant casualties from heavy anti-aircraft fire, the airborne infantry landed and participated in direct combat during daylight to attack the German defenders from both sides. This operation to cross the northern Rhine River launched in the night of 23 Mar 1945. This airborne operation was the largest of its kind during the entire war, utilizing 1,625 transports, 1,348 gliders, and 889 escort fighters to deliver over 22,000 airborne infantry into the contested territory. Another 2,153 fighters supported the ground operations. Throughout the night of 23 Mar and the next day, 80,000 British and Canadian troops crossed the 20-mile stretch of the river.
To Eisenhower's surprise, the crossing of the Rhine River north of the Ruhr was not met with fierce resistance, and he attributed it to the beginning of the destruction of German morale. "My dear General", Winston Churchill said to the American general as they met the next morning, "the German is whipped. We've got him. He is all through."
Additional Contribution by Alan Chanter
The river on XXX Corps' front was 500 yards across and defended on its eastern bank by the German 8th Parachute Division, in and around the town of Rees. This had elements of the 6th and 7th Parachute Divisions on their flanks and, to their rear in reserve, the 15th and 116th Panzer Divisions. Under extremely tough and experienced Parachute and Panzer officers and NCOs new replacements (many dedicated Nazis) had been moulded into a formidable fighting force. Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks of XXX Corps commented later that, although they heard stories of German soldiers surrendering in their thousands at other places, the German troops encountered in XXX Corps' area were extremely fanatical in defence of their homeland.
To cross the Rhine presented the Royal Engineer with many highly technical problems, but experiments and preparations for just such a task had been carried out on the River Ouse, near Goole, since 1943, and orders for specialised equipment needed had been placed with the Ministry of Supply in good time. For the crossing 8,000 Royal Engineers came under command of the C.E. XXX Corps. Some 22,000 tons of assault bridging had to be brought forward, including 25,000 wooden pontoons, 2,000 assault boats, 650 Storm boats, 120 River tugs, 80 miles of balloon cable and 260 miles of steel wire rope.
To assist the Engineer the RAF's No.159 Wing was approached to furnish some of the men who operated the balloons to handle the winches that were to be used to haul the ferries and rafts across. To their credit, the RAF despatched fifty specialist within twelve hours and promised that a further 300 volunteers good be made available if required. In addition, the Royal Navy provided a team to construct an anti-mine boom upriver to prevent the Germans from floating demolitions down to destroy the bridges after they had been constructed.
All this, plus the assembly of vast amounts of troops, assault boats, Buffaloes, guns etc. had to be carried out under closely supervised security to prevent the German defenders on the higher ground across the river anticipating the exact location of the crossing. The comparatively light casualty rate experienced by the first troops across (153rd and 154th Brigades of 51st Highland Division) clearly demonstrated how thorough the preparations had been made.
Brian Horrocks, Corps Commander (Magnum Books, 1977)
On 24 Mar, Churchill crossed the Rhine River in an LCM (landing craft, mechanized), setting foot on the eastern bank of the river, symbolizing the crossing of the top British political leader over the traditional border of Germany that no foreign army had crossed in 140 years. He later went as far as the railway bridge at Wesel by Montgomery's staff car, a bridge that was still under enemy fire. This adventurous expedition, however, was later criticized by Eisenhower as far too daring, and noted that had Eisenhower been there he would never have permitted Churchill to cross the river at that time, just as Eisenhower had fought to stop Churchill from observing the Normandy landings in France.
Prior to crossing the Rhine, the Allied forces were already bombing German airfields to reduce the capability for the Luftwaffe to interfere with the plans. The bombing started on 21 Mar, and by 24 Mar the German air force were no longer able to put up much of a resistance against its Allied counterpart; 8,000 sorties were launched between 21 Mar and 24 Mar, and Allied airmen reported only about 100 enemy aircrafts sighted. By the end of 24 Mar 1945, the German airfields were so damaged that the Luftwaffe practically ceased to exist on this front. On the same day, 150 bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force flew from Italy to bomb the German capital of Berlin nearly unopposed from the air, meanwhile British Royal Air Force bombers attacked rail and oil targets in the Ruhr region.
Between Frankfort and the Ruhr River, the American First Army had breached the Rhine River barrier earlier in the month near Remagen. On 26 Mar 1945, these troops marched southward toward Patton's troops. Major General Clarence Huebner's V Corps made rapid advances with relative ease. Frankfort was captured by Allied troops on 29 Mar.
Further to the south, General Patch's Seventh Army crossed the Rhine River on the same day the Remagen contingent marched forward. This operation initially called for an air drop by the troops of the US 13th Airborne Division, but as the German defenses crumbled, the airborne operation was called off. The troops of the French First Army crossed the Rhine River near Philippsburg, Germany on 1 Apr.
With the German defenses along the Rhine River falling apart, the industrial region of Ruhr was enveloped, depriving Germany's war manufacturing capabilities. Churchill suggested the Allied forces to skip over the Ruhr region and march east toward Berlin, but Eisenhower refused to leave the Ruhr region unsecured. He believed that it would leave too long of a left flank vulnerable to German counter offensives.
Dwight Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe
Anthony Read and David Fisher, The Fall of Berlin
Crossing the Rhine Timeline
|19 Mar 1945||George Patton received permission from his superiors to take the US 3rd Army across the Rhine River.|
|22 Mar 1945||The US 3rd Army crossed the Rhine River west of Mainz and near Oppenheim just before midnight; the Americans had beaten the British in crossing the river. Opposition was negligible and within 24 hours the entire US 5th Division had crossed the river.|
|23 Mar 1945||As US Third Army made another Rhine River crossing near Worms, Germany, British Second Army and Canadian First Army launched their assaults across the Rhine River north of the Ruhr River. In Berlin, Adolf Hitler wanted to counterattack at the Allied bridgehead at Oppenheim, but he was told that no reserve forces were available to embark on such an operation.|
|24 Mar 1945||Operation Plunder landed over 16,000 British and American troops across the Rhine River region, allowing link ups with advancing British 21st Army Group's 4 bridgeheads. Meanwhile, US Third Army captured Ludwigshafen and Speyer, Germany.|
|25 Mar 1945||US First Army finally broke out of Remagen bridgehead in Germany. 140 kilometers to the north, British Second Army captured Wesel, Germany.|
|26 Mar 1945||In Germany, US Third Army captured Darmstadt and reached Main, allowing the linking up with US Seventh Army near Worms. On the banks of the Rhine River the British Royal Corps of Engineers completed the construction of a Class 9 bridge "Waterloo Bridge" at 0100 hours and a Class 15 bridge "Lambeth Bridge" at 0830 hours. Meanwhile the construction of an even larger Class 40 bridge "London Bridge" continued and was completed by midnight.|
|27 Mar 1945||A German counter attack from Frankfurt, Germany towards Küstrin barely got out of the city. Meanwhile, US Third Army captured Aschaffenburg, Germany, 40 kilometers to the southeast.|
|28 Mar 1945||In Germany, US 1st Army captured Marburg and US 3rd Army captured Limburg am Lahn. Meanwhile, British 2nd Army began an offensive towards the Elbe River. British sappers built another Rhine bridge, "Blackfriars", by noon. Behind the lines, Dwight Eisenhower transferred US 9th Army from Bernard Montgomery's army group to Omar Bradley's army group as Anglo-American objective shifted toward southern Germany and Czechoslovakia.|
|29 Mar 1945||In Germany, US Third Army captured Frankfurt and Wiesbaden and US Seventh Army captured Mannheim. British sappers built another Rhine bridge, "Westminster".|
|30 Mar 1945||US First Army attacked Paderborn, Germany. Beyond the German front lines, US aircraft harassed retreating German columns, destroying 246 trucks and 241 railway wagons.|
|31 Mar 1945||As the troops of the French First Army crossed the Rhine River near Speyer, Germany, they became the first French troops to attack across the river since Napoleon Bonaparte. Meanwhile, US Third Army reached Siegen, Germany.|
|1 Apr 1945||US First Army captured Paderborn and Hamm, Germany.|
|13 Apr 1945||Troops of the US Ninth Army finished clearing the Duisberg Pocket in Germany.|
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Captain Henry P. Jim Crowe, Guadalcanal, 13 Jan 1943