Allied eastward campaign to reach and cross the Rhine River. Actually a series of offensives-Operations VERITABLE, GRENADE, LUMBERJACK, and UNDERTONE-the Rhineland Offensive was designed to drive the German army from the area north of the Mosel River in preparation for the main Allied invasion of Germany by Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery’s 21st Army Group in the north, across the Rhine north of the Ruhr. The supreme Allied commander in the west, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, also wanted to occupy the Rhineland (the area of Germany west of the Rhine River) south of the Mosel River in order to protect Montgomery’s right flank and to provide territory for a secondary invasion of Germany through the Kassel-Frankfurt corridor.
Eisenhower had pledged to Montgomery that his forces would make the primary thrust to the Rhine, and he left Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s Ninth Army under Montgomery’s command. He also allowed Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr.’s Third Army to continue its drive toward the city of Trier and the Saar River basin. Ordering elements of Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s First Army to seize the Roer River dams in support of Montgomery’s northern thrust, he also let Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley make an additional strike northeast from Saint Vith toward the Rhine. This latter attack began on 28 January, but the troops bogged down when confronted with poor weather and stiff German resistance.
Montgomery’s attack in the north, Operation VERITABLE, began on 8 February. Infantry and tanks of the Canadian I and II Corps, reinforced by the British XXX Corps, assaulted the German West Wall (known to the Allies as the Siegfried Line)-entrenchments in and around the Reichswald State Forest. Despite the attackers’ greater numbers and air superiority, stubborn German resistance and poor weather slowed the advance. When the Germans breached the Roer River dams before the Allies could seize them, the flooding of that river postponed Operation GRENADE, a supporting attack by the U. S. Ninth Army, and allowed the Germans to concentrate their reserves against the British and Canadians.
However, having committed almost all their reserves against VERITABLE, the Germans could not hold back the Americans as the First and Third Armies involved in Operation LUMBERJACK began to penetrate the West Wall defenses. Patton, ignoring orders to halt his offensive, sent Major General Manton Eddy’s XII Corps toward Bitburg and Major General Troy H. Middleton’s VIII Corps on to the Prum River. Steadily advancing through a heavily fortified German belt, the weary troops reached both objectives by the end of February. The U. S. First Army north of Patton likewise pressed the defenders ever closer to the Rhine. Launching Operation GRENADE on 23 February, after the Roer River flooding had receded, the U. S. Ninth Army broke through the thinned defenses and advanced toward the Rhine. Operation UNDERTONE was the final stage of clearing the Rhineland, with the goal of removing German forces from the Saar and Palatinate. Mounted by Lieutenant General Alexander M. Patch’s Seventh Army, it began on 13 March. Adolf Hitler’s stubborn refusal to permit his armies to retreat or even maneuver contributed greatly to the subsequent German debacle. Standing in place, the German defenders were destroyed in detail or cut off and forced to surrender. Only a relative handful escaped east across the river. By 24 March, German forces had been forced back across the Rhine.
The U. S. First Army secured the biggest prize of the campaign. No American commander had really expected to capture an intact Rhine bridge, but on 7 March, a unit from the U. S. 9th Armored Division took advantage of a confusion in the German defense to seize the Ludendorff Railroad Bridge at Remagen. General Hodges reinforced the coup by rushing divisions of his III Corps under Major General John Millikin over the river. The First Army’s bridgehead over the Rhine, reinforced on 22-23 March by Patton’s surprise crossing near Oppenheim and Montgomery’s set-piece crossing on 23 March, wrapped up the campaign.
British and Canadian casualties in these battles approached 16,000 men, and U. S. losses among all the armies engaged were almost twice that number. The collapse of the German defenses west of the Rhine began when pressure was applied at several points simultaneously. Lacking the reserves to meet so many attacks and forbidden by Hitler to fall back, the German armies suffered severely. In the Rhineland Campaign, the Allies took more than 200,000 German prisoners.
Rhine Crossings (7-24 March 1945)
The Rhine River presented the greatest natural obstacle in the path of the advancing Western Allies after their crossing of the English Channel. Ranging in width from 700 to 1,200 feet and at no point fordable, the river was at flood levels in early March 1945-the result of spring rains and melting snow. The Rhine was also in German territory and would be defended at great cost. Allied plans called for Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group to cross the Rhine in the north, while General Omar N. Bradley’s 12th Army Group would cross in the south. The majority of resources were to be assigned to Montgomery, whose forces were then to secure Germany’s industrial heartland of the Ruhr Valley.
The Germans had already blown most of the bridges across the Rhine accessible to the advancing Allies when, on the afternoon of 7 March, lead elements of Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division of Bradley’s army group were able to secure the Ludendorff Railroad Bridge at Remagen. Troops and vehicles were rushed across as combat engineers hurried to construct other bridges. Meanwhile, amphibian trucks and engineer ferries supplemented the bridge.
Not to be outdone, Lieutenant General George S. Patton sought to secure a crossing for his Third Army. He planned to make a feint at Mainz and then cross at Oppenheim. The task of making the initial crossing fell to the 5th Infantry Division. The operation began late on the night of 21 March. Thirteen artillery battalions and 7,500 engineers stood by to support the crossing, but to secure surprise, there was no preliminary fire. Two assault companies of the 5th Division, assisted by the 204th Engineer Combat Battalion, crossed the river at Oppenheim without resistance. South of the city, another assault company got across but then met heavy German resistance on the other bank. Not until 12:30 A. M. on 22 March did the Germans begin to fire artillery, and even then, it was only sporadic. Patton’s sneak crossing had worked well indeed.
As the bridgehead expanded, ferries, DUKWs amphibious trucks, and landing craft known as LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle or personnel) of the U. S. Navy’s Naval Unit 2 ferried men and equipment to the other side. By midafternoon, three infantry regiments and hundreds of support troops were across. By evening, the bridgehead was 5 miles deep. Patton’s army made two other assault crossings of the Rhine. Lead elements of the 87th Division crossed in the early morning hours of 25 March at Boppard, and the following morning, the 89th Division crossed at Saint Goar.
Despite the good fortune of the Remagen crossing and Patton’s crossing to the south, the Allied plan still called for the northern crossings, code-named Operation PLUNDER, to be the main attack. Montgomery massed nearly 1 million men along the lower Rhine: 21st Army Group units in the crossing included the 9 divisions of the British Second Army and the 12 divisions of the U. S. Ninth Army. The U. S. Navy’s Naval Unit 3 supported 21st Army Group and was the largest of three such supporting units for the Rhine crossing. It was reinforced by a Transportation Corps harbor company and elements of the Royal Navy. Defending in this area, the Germans had only 85,000 men and 35 tanks. Operation PLUNDER began late on 23 March, with units of the 21st Army Group getting across the Rhine between Wesel and Emmerich.
To support Operation PLUNDER at Wesel and impede any German reinforcement, the Allies planned a massive airborne assault. Operation VARSITY, carried out on 24 March, involved 21,692 Allied paratroopers and glidermen of the British 6th Airborne and U. S. 17th Airborne Divisions of Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps, with 614 jeeps, 286 artillery pieces and mortars, and hundreds of tons of supplies, ammunition, food, and fuel. A total of 1,696 transports and 1,348 gliders participated. More than 2,000 Allied fighter aircraft provided support, and 240 B-24 bombers were specially rigged to drop supplies and equipment. The drop zones for VARSITY were east of the Rhine in the Wesel area, close enough to the advancing ground forces to provide for a quick linkup but not deep enough to give any real additional depth to the operation. By the end of 24 March, the airborne forces had secured most of their objectives. The defending German 84th Division was virtually destroyed, with 3,500 Germans taken prisoner. Although VARSITY was a success, it was a costly one; casualties were higher for the airborne forces in this operation than for the Allied ground units in their crossings.
Meanwhile, the Ninth Army’s 90th Infantry Division crossed all three of its regiments near Wallach shortly after midnight on 24 March. The Scottish 15th Division of Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie’s British XII Corps got across the river west of Xanten, opposed only by sporadic artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire. Then, at 3:00 A. M. on 24 March, the 79th Division conducted the last amphibious crossing of the river, at points east and southeast of Rheinberg.
The initial assault crossings completed, engineers followed with additional bridging. Allied headquarters had estimated that sustaining military operations across the Rhine would require 540 tons of supplies per day. Allied engineers had, in short order, constructed a variety of foot, vehicle, railway, and pipeline bridges. For generations, the Germans had considered the Rhine as a natural barrier that would protect them from invasion, but superior resources at the points of attack and military engineering gave the Allies access to the German heartland.
References MacDonald, Charles. The Siegfried Line Campaign. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1963. —. The Last Offensive. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1973. McKee, Alexander. The Race for the Rhine Bridges, 1940, 1944, 1945. New York: Stein and Day, 1971. Weigley, Russell. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. Whitaker, W. Denis, and Shelagh Whitaker. Rhineland: The Battle to End the War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Allen, Peter. One More River: The Rhine Crossings of 1945. New York: Scribner’s, 1980. Blair, Clay. Ridgway’s Paratroopers: The American Airborne in World War II. Garden City, NY: Dial Press, 1985. Breuer, William B. Storming Hitler’s Rhine: The Allied Assault-February- March 1945. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. MacDonald, Charles B. United States Army in World War II: The European Theater of Operations-The Last Offensive. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1973.