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The word “Rhine” comes from the Celtic renos, for “raging flow,” and the river lives up to the  name. From its source in the Swiss Alps the Rhine flows and sometimes rages 765 miles north through six countries, debouching into the North Sea. Poets and lyricists have immortalized the river, and for centuries industry has cherished the waterway as a vital artery of transport. But the Rhine’s main significance has been military. The Romans saw the great river—it averages 600 yards across—as the border between the Germanic tribes to the east and the Gauls in the west. Napoleon Bonaparte, trying to extend France’s influence in the early 19th century, had to contend with the Rhine as a barrier to his aims. Ten came Adolf Hitler, who in 1940 poured troops across the Rhine en route to conquering France and the Low Countries. Nearly five years later, German forces were homeward bound, retreating east after their failed December 1944 surge in the Ardennes. Once troops in field gray crossed back, Wehrmacht engineers demolished the bridges spanning the Rhine.

Most of them, anyway.

One bridge, at Remagen—a rail span heavy enough to accommodate tanks, big guns, and fully loaded trucks—remained in place long enough for Allied troops and machines to cross, tipping the balance even further in a fight gone far wrong for the Germans.

From the top deck of the train between Bonn and Remagen I could watch the Rhine 300 yards east, parallel to the railbed. It exuded power and importance to 21st century industry; a succession of long, low-slung barges laden with giant containers churned through the water.

I marveled that the Germans failed to destroy the bridge at Remagen before it could contribute to their downfall. They knew the Americans were headed their way. On March 6, 1945, the U.S. 9th Armored Division had smashed a hole nine miles deep through the German Fifteenth Army line in the Bonn-Remagen sector. The next day, March 7, U.S. Army Lieutenant Karl H. Timmermann was leading A Company of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, the reconnaissance patrol for the 14th Tank Battalion’s advance on Remagen. The unit had encountered desultory resistance early that morning but by 11 a.m. the scouts were driving through the dark pine forest sloping down from the western plateau that overlooks the Rhine. Ahead, where the pines petered out, the track curved right. Reaching the forest’s edge the Americans braked and stared: below stood the church of St. Apollinaris—in German, Apollinariskirche—and beyond that Remagen and, spanning the Rhine, a bridge. The bridge was intact.

Today, Remagen is a charming small town. Tough only 15 miles south of Bonn—the capital of the former West Germany—Remagen feels many miles from urban hustle and bustle. Stepping of the train I curbed the impulse to head straight to the river and walked north, away from town and up the hill to the Apollinariskirche. You should, too. Let the Rhine and the fine church, consecrated in 1857, wait a bit while you find the parish garden, from which, in the context of March 1945, the perspective is of far greater interest.

Even from St. Apollinaris I could understand what a breathtaking sight must have greeted Lieutenant Timmermann and his men. I could see the bridge’s characteristic dark stone towers in pairs on either bank, their half-moon gun ports overlooking the river where the tracks crossed until March 17, 1945. Only the twisted steel bones of a small section remain; in 1976 workers removed what was left of the main structure. As I finally made my way on foot from church to bridge I reread my notes on the expanse that linked the towers long enough for the Allies to hurdle the Rhine for 10 days.

Work began on the Ludendorf Railway Bridge in 1916 at the behest of Field Marshal Count Alfred von Schliefen, who wanted to be able to transport German soldiers east or west as rapidly as possible to meet threats from France or Russia. By 1918 the bridge was completed, a magnificent structure 1,066 feet in length with a central arch of 513 feet, and named for General Erich Ludendorf, another of its advocates. At midstream two stone piers anchored the span. each incorporated a chamber where explosives could be packed for use in dire straits. On the eastern shore the two railway lines entered a 1,300-foot tunnel bored through the 600-foot cliff known to locals as the Erpeler Ley, a term echoed in the name of the nearby town of Erpel.

At riverside these days it’s hard to believe that 70 years ago Remagen was the scene of bitter, desperate struggle. houses wear an attractive array of soft pastel colors. Overlooking the waterfront are half a dozen cafés, restaurants, and ice-cream parlors. I walked the river path to the Peace Museum located in the twin towers on the west bank.

The museum, which opened in 1980, is excellent. Without moralizing about or glamorizing events that long-ago day in March, the facility’s hundreds of exhibits inform and educate in ways appealing to all ages and all nationalities. Displays include photographs of Remagen in the early 1900s, when well-heeled Germans visited to take in the fresh air, and photos of the Bridge Defense Company early in the war, when its soldiers must have thanked their lucky stars for such a soft posting. Their unit comprised just 36 men, augmented by a force of 120 engineers, under Captain Karl Friesenhahn.

Friesenhahn, who later surrendered to the Americans, was one of the company’s few officers to survive the war. he tried to blow the bridge on March 7, 1945, using those cubbies full of explosives, but the wiring was faulty. Corporal Anton Faust then volunteered to run under fire down 85 yards of tracks to light the primer cord, only to have the bridge lift off its pillars and settle back, mostly intact. Adolf Hitler, incandescent with rage at his troops’ failure to blow the Ludendorf Bridge, had four Bridge Defense Company officers executed. One was Lieu tenant Karl Heinz Peters, and among the museum’s most poignant holdings is Peters’s pencil case, donated by his driver, who persuaded Peters not to fire on the bridge with an antiaircraft gun for fear of killing civilians sheltering in houses nearby.

At the top of the tower I looked through one of the gun ports. I could see clearly the corresponding towers on the east bank and the entrance to the Erpeler Ley tunnel, during the war a haven for civilians seeking shelter from Allied bombs but now sealed and unused except during the summer, when it serves as a movie theater screening a documentary about the bridge’s capture.

Curiosity piqued, I boarded a ferry for the east bank. From dock to dock the voyage took two minutes and 45 seconds—just enough time to stare at the empty space where once there spread a bridge and try to imagine the courage, fear, and bloody-minded determination of American soldiers that spring day as they stepped tentatively onto the ties.

At the east towers, which are boarded up and derelict, I tried to put myself in the place of Captain Friesenhahn as terrified civilians cowered in the tunnel entrance and American shells exploded all around. What must Friesenhahn have thought when he completed the electrical circuit and nothing happened? What must have gone through the mind of Corporal Faust, back from his mad dash and watching the huge span levitate momentarily, then remain in place?

What bravery.

Unfortunately for Faust and Friesenhahn, March 7, 1945, was a day for many brave men. Men like Karl Timmermann and his fellow Americans Sergeant Joseph DeLisio, who climbed the steps in the east tower to silence a machine gun, and Sergeant Alex Drabik, credited with being the first American across the bridge and thus the first Allied soldier into Germany in World War II. “It wasn’t a historical moment for me,” Drabik said later. “I was too busy running. I didn’t think about the bridge blowing or anything. I just wanted to get to the other side.” For the next 10 days, tanks and trucks and men streamed across the bridge, always under German attack with artillery, bombs, and rockets. On St. Patrick’s Day, the combined effect finally dropped the bridge. By that time American engineers had spanned the Rhine with two temporary bridges.

Later, on the Rhine’s west bank, I had supper. From the terrace I could see the east towers, and in my mind’s eye Alex Drabik sprinting and Faust reaching to ignite the emergency primer cord.

Truly, a day for brave men.


Originally published in the February 2015 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.