Remagen: Bridge to Victory

Remagen: Bridge to Victory

By David T. Zabecki
March 2013 • HistoryNet

American GIs seized a bridge over the Rhine River to “kick in the door” to the Reich, paving the way for the final downfall of Nazi Germany.

Karl Heinz Timmermann was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, June 19, 1922. Just short of 23 years later, he was an infantry officer fighting in the fierce final stages of the military collapse of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s German Reich. But Karl Heinz was not wearing German army Feldgrau. As the commander of Company A, 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, 9th Armored Division, U.S. Army 2d Lieutenant Timmermann was the leader of the assault on the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, and he was the first American officer to fight his way across the Rhine River and into the heart of the land of his birth. Compounding the irony, Timmermann’s father, John H. Timmermann, had been a deserter from the post-World War I U.S. Army of Occupation in Germany, who married a German girl and then managed to slip back into the United States with his young family in January 1924. After four more years as a fugitive from military justice, the elder Timmermann finally received a less than honorable discharge in 1928. His son, Lieutenant Karl Heinz Timmermann, had a big score to settle with the U.S. Army.

LAST BARRIER TO GERMANY

As the Allied armies in early 1945 advanced toward the last major natural obstacle blocking their path into Germany – the Rhine River – the senior commanders and operational planners were not counting on capturing a bridge intact. On March 1, General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group launched Operation Lumberjack, the advance to the Rhine, with Lieutenant General George Patton’s 3d Army on the right and Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges’ 1st Army on the left. After the U.S. forces were closed up along the west bank of the river, they would secure the right flank of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group during Operation Plunder, the Allies’ main Rhine crossing in force scheduled for later that month near Wesel, 90 miles to the north. Once across the river, Montgomery’s forces would exploit the favorable terrain of the north German plain to advance to the Ruhr, Germany’s main coal and industrial region.

Neither Bradley nor Patton, of course, was happy with their designated supporting mission. They continually pressured Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower to allow them to push American troops across the Rhine River at the first opportunity to maintain the initiative and keep the Wehrmacht off balance. If the Americans could manage to take a Rhine bridge still standing, this would greatly strengthen their argument. On several occasions the Allies narrowly missed seizing bridges, but the Germans always managed to blow them at the last minute. Not expecting to take an intact bridge, the Allied forward support depots had stockpiled enough assault boats, landing craft, outboard motors and bridging pontoons for the engineers to build 60 tactical bridges. There was, however, nothing like a standing bridge for making the initial crossing as quickly as possible.

THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN

As Operation Lumberjack kicked off, one of the last remaining intact bridges was at Remagen, some 12 miles upstream from Bonn. However, it was one of the least optimal crossing sites. High bluffs on both banks of the river made the approaches very difficult, and the poor road network on both sides guaranteed slowmoving traffic and bottlenecks. It was hardly a high-speed axis of advance.

Built between 1916 and 1919, the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen rested on two piers in the river that supported a truss arch. The arch span between the piers was 512 feet long, and the anchor arms leading to each bank were 277 feet long, making the entire bridge 1,066 feet in length. The roadbed ran 48 feet above the river’s normal water level. Twin stone towers guarded the bridge at both ends. Just beyond the towers on the eastern bank, the roadbed disappeared into a tunnel called the Dwarf’s Hole, which was bored into a 600-foot rock hill called the Erpeler Ley. The bridge carried two rail lines, but during World War II one of those lines was covered with planking to support truck traffic. By March 1945 the bridge carried mostly German forces retreating east across the river.

As the Wehrmacht reeled back toward the Reich in disarray, the defense of the bridge was disorganized at best. The commander of Army Group B, Field Marshal Walter Model, had ordered reinforcements sent to the area, but by the morning of March 7 there were fewer than 1,000 Volkstrum militiamen in the Remagen sector. Hauptmann Wilhelm Bratge, the commandant at Remagen, had only 36 soldiers under his direct command at the bridge, and he had no authority over most of the Volkstrum troops in the area or over the anti-aircraft flak battery on top of the Erpeler Ley.

In 1938, the Ludendorff Bridge had been fitted with 60 zinc-lined boxes for explosive charges. These were connected by conduit-shielded electrical cables, all leading back to the main firing switch in the Dwarf’s Hole. However, because a bridge near Cologne had been blown prematurely several weeks earlier, Hitler ordered that the explosive charges were to be emplaced only when Allied forces were confirmed to be within five miles of a given bridge.

Adding to the German command and control confusion, an order issued late on March 6 transferred the command responsibility at Remagen to Major Hans Scheller, the adjutant of the sector between Remagen and Schleiden. Bratge did not learn of the transfer of authority until Scheller arrived in Remagen at 11:15 a.m. on March 7. Bratge wanted to blow the bridge as soon as possible, while Scheller wanted to keep it intact until the last minute to give more German troops the chance to escape to the east bank.

Meanwhile, Hauptmann Karl Friesenhahn, the engineer officer responsible for the bridge demolition, had requisitioned 1,300 pounds of explosives to set the charges. By 11 a.m., however, he had received only half of what he needed, and even that was a weaker industrial-grade explosive rather than the far more powerful military grade. With reports from Army Group B indicating American advanced elements approaching the western bluffs above Remagen, Friesenhahn grimly set about emplacing the explosives he had on hand.

“GET THAT BRIDGE!”

On the night of March 6, U.S. III Corps commander, Major General John Millikin, and 9th Armored Division commander, Major General John W. Leonard, had been discussing the Ludendorff Bridge. With each general looking at his map as they talked by telephone, Millikin said to Leonard: “Do you see that little black strip of bridge at Remagen? If you happen to get that, your name will go down in glory.” However, neither general knew if the bridge was still standing or how heavily defended it might be if it was still there.

At 8:20 a.m. on March 7, a tank-infantry task force from 9th Armored’s Combat Command B (CCB), led by Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Engeman, started advancing toward the Rhine from the town of Meckenheim, about 10 miles away. Task Force Engeman consisted of 14th Tank Battalion and 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, with Timmermann’s A Company in the lead. Timmermann had taken over the company only the day before, after the previous company commander was wounded.

A Company reached the western outskirts of Remagen about noon. Just before 1 p.m., the lead platoon under 2d Lieutenant Emmet J. Burrows reached the edge of the Rhine gorge. From there, the men could see the bridge still standing as chaotic and disorganized groups of Germans scurried across it. Burrows called forward Timmermann, who immediately reported to Engeman. The task force commander’s first impulse was to call artillery fire down on the bridge to block the retreating Germans. But when the supporting artillery refused to fire the mission because of the proximity of friendly troops, Engeman directed Timmermann to move toward the bridge’s western ramp. A Company moved forward, supported by M-4 Sherman and T-26 Pershing tanks, the latter newly arrived in the European Theater.

When the commander of CCB, Brigadier General William M. Hoge, learned the bridge was still intact, he had a decision to make. If he ordered U.S. troops across the bridge, he might lose up to a battalion of Soldiers if the Germans blew it after the men were on the far side. If the Germans blew it while the Americans were crossing, he might lose a platoon or more. But what if his troops could take the bridge and hold it? Hoge told Engeman, “I want you to get that bridge as soon as possible.”

KICKING IN “THE INNER DOOR”

Timmermann and his supporting tanks approached the bridge while fighting their way through the town and taking 20 mm fire from the nearest tower. Hauptmann Friesenhahn was on the west bank at the time. When he saw the first American tanks about 4 p.m., he detonated a cratering charge that put a huge ditch in the western ramp, blocking the tanks. But as he rushed back across the bridge to the east bank, a near miss from an American tank round knocked him out cold. Fifteen minutes later, Friesenhahn regained his senses and managed to make his way back to the Dwarf’s Hole.

Allied tanks and mortars fired white phosphorous rounds at the German positions on the far bank to obscure the enemy’s observation as the American infantry moved forward. Major Scheller finally gave the order to blow the bridge. Friesenhahn hit the electric firing switch, but nothing happened. He tried twice more and got the same results. The American machine-gun fire raking the bridge was now too intense for a repair team to go out to find and fix the break in the firing circuit. Friesenhahn moved back to the end of the bridge to provide cover for a German non-commissioned officer who volunteered to ignite the backup primer cord system by hand. When the charges finally blew, the bridge shuddered and seemed to lift into the air slightly, but then it settled back down onto its foundations. The Ludendorff Bridge was still standing.

As the smoke began to clear, Lieutenant Timmermann could see through his binoculars that although the blast had destroyed some of the planking over the railroad tracks the bridge was still crossable. With Staff Sergeant Joseph S. Petrencsik and Sergeant Alexander A. Drabik in the lead, Timmermann leapfrogged his men across the span under heavy fire, dodging from girder to girder. American tanks and machine guns on the west bank laid down suppressive fire against the Germans on the east side.

Moving directly behind the lead infantrymen, 1st Lieutenant Hugh B. Mott and Sergeants Eugene Dorland and John A. Reynolds of Company B, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion, raced along while exposed to the heavy German fire, cutting wires and kicking boxes of unexploded demolition charges into the river. Sergeant Drabik was the first American Soldier across the Rhine. At the age of 32, he was the third-oldest man in A Company. As soon as he reached the far bank, a German popped up and pointed his rifle at Drabik’s chest point-blank. Drabik later recalled, “He had me cold, but he didn’t fire.” The German lowered his rifle and surrendered.

Drabik was followed closely by Timmermann and Petrencsik. Within an hour the Americans had 120 troops across the river. Timmermann sent one of his platoons up the Erpeler Ley to take out the flak battery on the crest. He sent another force wide around the hill to attack the Dwarf’s Hole tunnel from the far side. Major Scheller, meanwhile, had tried to report the loss of the bridge to his higher headquarters but could not get through. He finally got on a bicycle and raced off to report in person. When Timmermann at last had troops on both ends of the tunnel, the Germans inside, including Bratge and Friesenhahn, surrendered.

The 9th Armored Division had kicked in “the inner door to Germany.” But the division’s coup de main caught both sides by surprise.

EXPANDING THE TOEHOLD

Focused on supporting Montgomery’s deliberate crossing scheduled to start March 23, Eisenhower at first only authorized five U.S. divisions to cross the bridge, with the objective of reaching the Frankfurt-Düsseldorf Autobahn seven miles to the east. Receiving the confirmation to exploit at 6:45 p.m. on March 7, Millikin started pushing all his III Corps assets toward the river line.

Engineers brought up bulldozers to fill the crater in the bridge’s western ramp. By 10 p.m., three rifle companies were on the far shore; within two more hours, three heavy artillery battalions were emplaced on the near shore to provide fire support. Other engineers in Remagen tore timber from the town’s houses to repair the holes in the roadway.

As the infantrymen on the far bank were consolidating their positions, 1st Lieutenants John Grimball and Charles W. Miller of Company A, 14th Tank Battalion, led the first nine Sherman tanks across the bridge. Negotiating the treacherous span in the dark, the tank drivers had to follow a thin line of white engineer tape barely visible from their hatches. A few inches off course and the tanks would plunge into the dark, deep waters of the Rhine. The Shermans made it, but the right track of the tenth armored vehicle in the column, a tank destroyer, skidded off the roadway and wound up tottering on the edge of one of the holes in the bridge deck. It hung there for the rest of the night, blocking all vehicle traffic until it was finally winched out of the way just before dawn.

As engineers worked feverishly to reinforce the weakened bridge and patch the holes in the deck, other engineers began putting floating bridges into the river a little farther downstream – a tactical task made much easier by the fact that friendly forces had a foothold on the opposite bank. Upstream, the engineers also put in protective booms and a wire mesh net to protect the bridge and prevent German combat swimmers from reaching the pilings. Searchlights swept the water at night, GIs fired on everything that moved on the water’s surface, and upstream boat patrols dropped concussion charges into the river at five-minute intervals. Sometime during the early days of the crossing operation, the engineers put up a sign at the western end of the bridge proclaiming: “Cross the Rhine with dry feet courtesy of 9th Armd Division.”

GERMAN REACTION

The Germans reacted spasmodically. On the evening of March 7, they were only able to mount a weak counterattack of about 100 engineers and flak gunners. On the morning of March 8, Model ordered 11th Panzer Division to counterattack from its assembly areas near Düsseldorf. But with only 4,000 troops, 25 tanks, 18 artillery pieces and almost no gas left, the division’s lead elements took two days to reach the Remagen sector.

Meanwhile, every German artillery gun within range opened up on the bridge, delivering a sustained fire of one round every two minutes. Three shells hit the bridge on March 9, further weakening the span and tearing more holes in the deck. By March 10, the artillery fire had slackened to four or five rounds an hour.

Hermann Göring also threw what was left of the Luftwaffe at the bridge. Between March 8 and 16, German pilots flew more than 400 sorties, using both obsolescent Stuka dive-bombers and the newest Arado Ar 234 jet bombers. But as the Allies secured the crossing site with 25 barrage balloons and some 700 anti-aircraft guns, the air attacks became suicidal. American anti-aircraft units claimed 109 German aircraft shot down. Finally, between March 12 and 17, the Germans fired 11 V-2 missiles at the bridge from launch sites 120 miles away in Holland – the only tactical use of V-weapons during the war. The nearest strike hit a house 270 meters from the bridge, killing three GIs and wounding another 15.

In a typical rage of fury, Hitler fired (for the last time) Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt as commander of German Army Western Front forces (OB-West) on March 10 and replaced him with Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. Hitler also ordered Generalleutnant Rudolf Hübner to convene a three-man drumhead court-martial to punish those directly responsible for the disaster. Four officers were tried, convicted and executed all on the same day. Major Scheller, engineer officers Major Herbert Strobel and Major August Kraft, and flak artillery Leutnant Karl Heinz Peters were shot in the back of the neck and buried in shallow graves. The letters they were allowed to write to their families before being shot were then burned. Their families also were stripped of their military pensions, but the German government restored them after the war. Hauptmann Bratge and Hauptmann Friesenhahn were tried in absentia. Bratge was convicted and condemned, while Friesenhahn was acquitted. Both, however, were by then safely in an Allied prisoner of war pen.

BRIDGEHEAD

Meanwhile, 8,000 GIs had managed to get across the river by the evening of March 8, establishing a bridgehead two miles wide and a mile deep. (See Remagen Bridgehead map, p. 39.) By the morning of March 9, the Americans had the first ferry in operation, and by 5 p.m. on March 11, the first floating bridge was carrying traffic. By March 12, U.S. 9th, 78th and 99th infantry divisions had followed the units of 9th Armored’s CCB across the river, expanding the bridgehead to a depth of four miles and a width of 14 miles.

With two tactical floating bridges in the water, the engineers closed the Ludendorff Bridge for repairs March 13. Just before 3 p.m. on March 17, as some 200 welders, carpenters and other engineers swarmed over the bridge, they heard a large crack, followed immediately by another. Then the bridge deck began to vibrate and sway. As the engineers started running for their lives,the Ludendorff Bridge slowly twisted, buckled and finally fell into the Rhine.Twenty-three GIs were killed and another 93 were injured in the wreck. The precise cause of the collapse was never determined,but most likely it was a consequence of the punishment the bridge had taken over the 10 days since its capture.

The loss of the Ludendorff Bridge at this stage had little practical effect on Allied operations. When the railroad bridge fell, the crossing traffic had already been directed to the ferries and the tactical bridges. On the night of March 17, seven German combat swimmers slipped into the Rhine under orders to destroy the tactical bridges with plastic explosives. Frustrated by the nets in the river, blinded by searchlights from the shore and overcome by sheer exhaustion, all seven were captured.

Within a week of seizing the railroad bridge, the Americans had eight tactical bridges across the Rhine. Elements of Major General J. Lawton Collins’U.S.VII Corps began crossing March 15 and quickly assumed control of the northern half of the bridgehead. The 78th Infantry Division cut the Frankfurt Autobahn March 16, and three days later Eisenhower authorized 1st Army to operate nine divisions on the east bank of the bridgehead. Although Model was convinced the Americans intended to exploit northward to the Ruhr, Hodges actually had orders to be prepared to break out to the southeast on or about March 23 to link up with Patton’s 3d Army, which started crossing the Rhine that day.When the German counterattack finally came March 24, it was poorly coordinated and understrength. Despite some intense local fighting, the counterattack was easily beaten back by VII Corps.

Between March 7 and 24, American forces suffered 7,400 casualties in the fight for the Remagen bridgehead, including 863 men killed. There is no accurate count of German casualties, but the enemy lost 11,700 as prisoners alone. Ironically, the U.S. corps commander who took the Ludendorff Bridge lost his command in the process. Dissatisfied throughout the battle with Millikin’s management of the bridgehead operations, 1st Army commander Hodges relieved the III Corps commander on the same day the bridge collapsed into the river. Major General James A. Van Fleet assumed command of the corps later that day.

Eight GIs received the Distinguished Service Cross for their roles in forcing the Rhine: Lieutenant Timmermann and Sergeants Drabik and Petrencsik from 27th Armored Infantry Battalion; Lieutenant Mott and Sergeants Dorland and Reynolds of 9th Armored Engineer Battalion; and Lieutenants Grimball and Miller from 14th Tank Battalion.

SCORE SETTLED

Alexander Drabik, as the first American Soldier across the Rhine, is the man whose name is most remembered today in connection with the Ludendorff Bridge. Drabik died in 1993 in a traffic accident while on his way to a reunion of his old outfit.

Timmermann was discharged from the Army in December 1945. Two years later he re-enlisted as a technical sergeant, and within a year he regained his officer’s commission. Assigned to 7th Infantry Division in the Korean War, Timmermann landed at the Inchon invasion in September 1950 and participated in the fight to take Suwon Airfield. But when he later went on sick call to get treatment for a nagging pain he had been experiencing, he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor. Timmermann died at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver on October 21, 1951. He is buried at the National Cemetery at Fort Logan, Colo. – the same post where his father’s tarnished military career had begun in 1919. Although 1st Lieutenant Karl Heinz Timmermann lived only 29 years, he more than settled his family’s score with the U.S. Army.

 

 David T. Zabecki, PhD, is a retired Major General of the United States Army, Weider History Group Senior Historian, and Editor Emeritus of “Vietnam” magazine. His books include “On the German Art of War: Truppenführung – German Army Manual for Unit Command in World War II” with co-editor Bruce Condell (Stackpole, 2008), and the two-volume “Chief of Staff: The Principal Officers Behind History’s Great Commanders” (Naval Institute Press, 2008).

Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Armchair General.

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