The Rhine is no ordinary river. About 766 miles in length, with an average width of about 1,300 feet, the generally north-flowing waterway also is exceptionally swift and deep. Since the days of the Roman Empire it has served as central Germany’s traditional defense against invasion from the west. That remained the case in the first months of 1945. Although Hitler’s Reich hovered on the verge of total collapse, with its cities in ruins from Allied bombing raids and Soviet forces crashing in from the east, Germany’s defenses along the Rhine River still held strong. Although American, British and French forces had occupied most of Germany west of the Rhine, they remained unable to cross the river into the Ruhr industrial center. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deemed the river totally unfordable, even at low water; and the Germans had either destroyed or were prepared to destroy every significant bridge.
Allied planners recognized that they would most likely have to undertake an amphibious crossing of the Rhine in order to penetrate deeply into German territory. That seemed to necessitate focusing on somewhere north of Bonn, where the river entered relatively open and therefore more tank-friendly terrain. Only slight consideration was given to Remagen, about fifteen miles south of Bonn, where the Ludendorff Bridge remained standing but the terrain at and east of the river was discouragingly rough. Named after General Erich Ludendorff, Germany’s military leader during the latter half of World War I, the railroad bridge had been built—primarily by Russian prisoners of war—from 1916-1919 and had a span of 1,200 feet. Given that high ridges pierced by a railroad tunnel lay east of the bridge, it seemed an unlikely target for the Americans. Still, German engineers had rigged it with explosives, removing them for a time to avoid their detonation during an Allied bombing raid, and then replacing them as the Americans approached. The infantry units guarding the bridge were weak.
At Remagen, the German Fifteenth Army squared off against the American First Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges. On March 3, 1945, Hodges directed his III Corps, with Maj. Gen. John Leonard’s 9th Armored Division acting as spearhead, to drive down the valley leading toward Remagen from the west. German resistance was weak and disorganized. On March 6, remnants of the Fifteenth Army retreated across the bridge as the Germans prepared to set off their explosive charges and demolish it ahead of the Americans. Men and vehicles of Brig. Gen. William Hoge’s Combat Command B approached the bridge, hoping but hardly expecting that they could seize the bridge intact.
Just as the morning fog lifted on March 7, however, Lt. Col. Leonard Engeman, heading a task force of the 9th Armored Division’s 14th Tank Battalion and 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, was stunned to look through his binoculars and see the bridge still intact, with German vehicles still rumbling across it. Engeman dispatched Lt. Karl Timmermann with advance forces, including some new M26 Pershing tanks, to seize the bridge. He ordered: “Go down into the town. Get through it as quickly as possible and reach the bridge. The tanks will lead. The infantry will follow on foot. Their half-tracks will bring up the rear. Let’s make it snappy.” Timmermann, who had been born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1921, obeyed; but German resistance in the outskirts of the town made the advance excruciatingly slow. The local German commander had plenty of time to blow the bridge, but still refused in order to let more of his troops escape across it to the east.
Lt. Timmermann’s men approached the bridge at 3:15 p.m. with an increasing sense of urgency. German engineers blew a charge near the west span, damaging it and making it temporarily impassable for tanks. Timmermann nevertheless rushed the bridge with his infantry. The Germans tried to blow the central span, but the charges failed to detonate. Finally another charge blew and the bridge seemed to rise in the air—before settling back down on its original structure. In their haste, the German engineers had placed a detonator improperly—and those Russian prisoners of war had built the bridge too well!
Sergeant Alexander A. Drabik was given credit as the first American to cross the bridge to the east bank of the Rhine. There was hard fighting to follow, however, as the Americans cleared the railroad tunnel—which the Germans might also have blown—and secured the ridge overlooking the crossing. And although the Americans were able to make some quick repairs to the damaged bridge, allowing troops and vehicles to cross, it lasted only ten days longer before collapsing under pressures of traffic and German air attack before collapsing for good on March 17. The unexpected prize at Remagen forced the Allies to shift their strategy for invading central Germany, and more time would pass before they broke out from their new bridgehead. The crossing of the Rhine at Remagen, however, marked a decisive moment heralding the impending collapse of Germany.
Ed Lengel, PhD
Edward G. Lengel is the former Senior Director of Programs for the National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.