The Battle of Remagen during the Allied invasion of Germany resulted in the unexpected capture of the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine and possibly shortened World War II in Europe. After capturing the Siegfried Line, the 9th Armored Division of the U.S. First Army had advanced unexpectedly quickly towards the Rhine. They were very surprised to see one of the last bridges across the Rhine still standing. The Germans had wired the bridge with about 2,800 kilograms (6,200 lb) of demolition charges.
When they tried to blow it up, only a portion of the explosives detonated. U.S. forces captured the bridge and rapidly expanded their first bridgehead across the Rhine, two weeks before Operation Plunder. The GIs' actions prevented the Germans from regrouping east of the Rhine and consolidating their positions.
The battle for control of the bridge caused both the American and German forces to employ new weapons and tactics in combat for the first time. Over the next 10 days, the Germans used virtually every weapon at their disposal to try to destroy the bridge. This included infantry and armor, howitzers, mortars, floating mines, mined boats, a railroad gun, and a giant 540mm super-heavy mortar. To protect the bridge against aircraft, the Americans positioned the largest concentration of anti-aircraft weapons during World War II leading to "the greatest antiaircraft artillery battles in American history." The Americans counted 367 different German Luftwaffe aircraft attacking the bridge over the next 10 days. The Americans claimed to have shot down nearly 30% of the aircraft dispatched against them. The German air offensive failed.
On 14 March, German Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler ordered Schutzstaffel (SS) General Hans Kammler to fire V2 rockets to destroy the bridge. This marked the first time the missiles had been used against a tactical objective and the only time they were fired on a German target. The 11 missiles launched killed six Americans and a number of German citizens in nearby towns, but failed to damage the bridge. When the Germans sent a squad of seven naval demolition swimmers wearing Italian underwater breathing apparatus, the Americans were ready. For the first time in combat, they had deployed the top-secret Canal Defence Lights which successfully detected the frogmen in the dark, and they were all killed or captured.
The sudden capture of a bridge across the Rhine was front page news in American newspapers. The unexpected availability of a bridgehead on the eastern side of the Rhine more than two weeks in advance of the planned crossing allowed Allied high commander Dwight Eisenhower to alter his plans to end the war.
The Allies were able to rapidly transport five divisions across the Rhine into the Ruhr, Germany's industrial heartland. The bridge had endured months of aircraft bombing, direct artillery hits, near misses, and deliberate demolition attempts. It finally collapsed at 3:00 PM on 17 March. Twenty-eight American Engineers were killed and 63 were wounded. But by then U.S. Army combat engineers had finished building a tactical steel treadway bridge and a heavy duty pontoon bridge followed by a Bailey bridge across the Rhine. Over 25,000 troops crossed into Germany before the Americans broke out of the bridgehead on 25 March 1945. This was 18 days after the bridge had been captured. German and American military authorities agreed that capturing the bridge shortened the war. The Ludendorff Bridge was not rebuilt following World War II.
Prior to the EventsEdit
Crossing the Roer River had held the Allies up for four months. Crossing the Rhine in a single day undoubtedly shortened the war in Europe.
Eisenhower described capturing the bridge as "one of those rare and fleeting opportunities which occasionally arise in war and which, if grasped, have incalculable effects on determining future success.":160 Later on, he commented, "We were across the Rhine, on a permanent bridge; the traditional defensive barrier to the heart of Germany was pierced. The final defeat of the enemy, which we had long calculated would be accomplished in the spring and summer campaigning of 1945, was suddenly now, in our minds, just around the corner." General George C. Marshall commented, "The bridgehead provided a serious threat to the heart of Germany, a diversion of incalculable value. It became a springboard for the final offensive to come."
Various sources credit the capture of the Ludendorff Bridge with shortening the war in Europe by weeks to months and reducing the number of casualties that the Allies might otherwise have incurred. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hal Boyle wrote that capturing the bridge had "saved the American nation 5,000 dead and 10,000 wounded. War correspondent Wes Gallagher of the Associated Press exulted that the event had shortened the war by months. Historian and author Ken Hechler concluded that "the capture of the Ludendorff Bridge materially hastened the ending of the war.
John Thompson, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, said seizing the bridge shortened the war against Germany by "several weeks. Another author credited the operation with shortening the war in Europe by approximately six months. Col. F. Russel Lyons, the III Corps engineer, said after the war that the Allies' ability to use the bridge saved the Allies two months and 35,000 casualties.
General Albert Kesselring described the battle as the "Crime of Remagen. It broke the front along the Rhine." Hermann Göring said that the capture of the bridge "made a long defense impossible." Major General Carl Wagener, Chief of staff to Field Marshall Walter Model, said that capturing the bridge signaled the end of the war for the Germans:
Adolf Hitler was incensed by the loss of the bridge. He summoned the "fanatical and reliable Nazi" Generalleutnant Rudolf Hübner from the Eastern Front and personally appointed him Commander of Fliegendes Sonder-Standgericht West ("Flying Special Court-Martial West"). He directed him to court-martial and execute the officers who failed to destroy the bridge. Hübner was accompanied by Lt. Colonel Anton Ernst Berger and Lt. Colonel Paul Penth. None of them had legal experience and they traveled to Army Group B headquarters with two military police who acted as the execution squad. On 11 March, in violation of German military rules of justice, Hübner was both prosecutor and judge. Col. Richter Janert, Army Group B's legal officer, offered Hübner a copy of the German military code of justice, but Hübner waved it aside, insisting that the only authority he needed was Hitler's. Hübner tried Captain Bratge in absentia, since he had been captured by the Americans. Hübner sentenced Bratge to death for delaying the order to blow the bridge, but since Bratge was a prisoner of war, the sentence could not be carried out.
Hübner then tried Maj. Scheller and after him Lt. Karl Heinz Peters. Scheller had only arrived at 11:15 AM, two hours before the Americans attacked the bridge. Peters was a passerby trying to get his experimental anti-aircraft system back across the Rhine. But the outcome of the trial was predetermined. Scheller was convicted of failing to blow the bridge up and Peters of allowing his secret anti-aircraft weapon to fall into American hands. The men were executed the next day with a shot to the back of the neck in Rimbac and buried where they fell in shallow graves.
On the day Scheller and Peters were sentenced, Maj. Herbert Strobel and Maj. August Kraft were summoned to Field Marshal Model's office in Oberirsen, unaware of the charges pending against them. Kraft and his commanding officer Strobel were in charge of the combat engineers in the Koblenz-Remagen sector covering 60 kilometres (37 mi) of the Rhine. Kraft, commander of III Landes Pi Battalion, had laid the charges on the Remagen bridge. Kraft was 40 kilometers (25 mi) away at the time the bridge was captured. Strobel had ordered Kraft to counterattack which had completely failed. On 17 March Hübner conducted a 20-minute trial for the two men at 11:00 AM.
He quickly found them guilty and sentenced them to be executed immediately. The two men were given about 45 minutes to write to their families before they were escorted to a wooded site and executed at 1:00 PM with a bullet to the back of the head. The executioners emptied their pockets, tore up the family letters, covered their bodies with a few shovel-fulls of dirt, and left them where they fell. A sixth officer, 12th Regiment Engineer Commander Capt. Friesenhahn, had been captured but not convicted, as he was found by the court to have done everything within his power to destroy the bridge.
Hitler was reported to have stripped Field Marshal von Rundstedt of his rank and reduced him to a private soldier, and disciplined four other generals. Generalmajor Richard von Bothmer, commander of Bonn and Remagen, was prosecuted because he gave Bonn up without a fight. He was demoted to private and sentenced to five years in prison. His wife was already dead and his son had been killed in the war. Bothmer grabbed a pistol belonging to a court official and committed suicide in the courtroom on 10 March.
Hitler replaced him with Field Marshal Albert Kesselring from the Italian Front. Kesselring rebuked the troops for their costly failure. "We have suffered unnecessary losses and our present military situation has become nearly catastrophic."
Kesselring and Model sent out a special dispatch on 18 March to every unit in the German military describing the executions.
Miracle of RemegenEdit
When the news of the bridge's capture was announced in the United States Senate, the leadership suspended its rule against hand clapping.
The House of Representatives took a timeout from their regular business to celebrate the good news. The Associated Press published a report on 8 March that stated, "The swift, sensational crossing was the biggest military triumph since the Normandy landings, and was a battle feat without parallel since Napoleon's conquering legions crossed the Rhine early in the last century." Time magazine called it a "moment in history."
General Dwight D. Eisenhower described the First Army's success: "The whole Allied force is delighted to cheer the First Army whose speed and boldness have won the race to establish the first bridgehead over the Rhine. Please tell all ranks how proud I am of them." He later praised the actions of the individual soldiers who captured it.
Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Walter B. Smith, said the capture of Ludendorff Bridge was "worth its weight in gold. General Omar N. Bradley praised the capture of the bridge. It was "... a bold advance, characterized by a willingness to chance great risks for great rewards".
In 1954, Captain Friesenhahn, who as an engineer was in charge of the explosives on the bridge, commented about the soldiers who were awarded medals for capturing the bridge. "They deserved them—and then some. They saw us trying to blow that bridge and by all odds it should have blown up while they were crossing it. In my mind they were the greatest heroes in the whole war.