Operation PLUNDER (Rhine River Crossing Operations)

Buffalo crossing the Rhine during PLUNDER, laden with British civilian and military leaders.

By March 1945, Allied forces were staged all along the west bank of the Rhine, prepared for one last, deep thrust into the heart of Germany. The Rhine River crossings, code-named PLUNDER by the British, were deliberately planned, rehearsed and executed, second only in scale to the Normandy landings. Through its training wings the 79th made intense efforts to train and rehearse Buffalo and DD-tank crews, in concert with the units to be supported. Maintenance of equipment was equally a concern, as many of the Sherman DDs had to be refitted with floatation gear that had long ago been discarded, or had fallen into disrepair. SHAEF message traffic from the period indicates that DD-tank maintenance status was also a concern for the U.S. command. Messages relayed between the War Department and the Army Group commanders (through Eisenhower) suggest a serious lack of visibility on not only DD-tank maintenance status, but questions how many of these tanks were still out in the field. It was also noted that repair parts and spares were lacking, and that Americans would have to rely on British holdings to get most of the U.S. DD-tank fleet operational.

These tanks were critical to both forces, especially for the British as their plan was similar to D-Day in that DD-tanks would lead the assault forces. Instead of Crabs and AVREs, Buffaloes would be the key piece of specialized armor provided by the division, as they would ferry waves of assaulting infantry to the far bank. On the night of 23 March, units marshaled and loaded Buffaloes as the assault across the river commenced.

As the assault unfolded, DD-tanks succeeded in crossing in great numbers, though some became bogged down on the muddy eastern embankments. The tank crews were able to accomplish their mission and provide direct fire support to the follow-on infantry force. It was during the night crossing that another “funny” would finally be employed, the CDL tank. The plan called for a CDL-equipped squadron to light the far bank during night operations on 24 and 25 March. The powerful lights would not only assist units as they ferried across the wide river, they would also deter mine and sabotage swimmer threats along the upstream (north) approach. These tanks became favorite targets of German gunners, although only one tank would be lost in action. In the end the CDL squadron successfully accomplished its unique mission, and could finally claim they had contributed to the division’s legacy.

From 24-26 March the four Buffalo-equipped regiments tasked with ferrying infantry made over 3800 trips, carrying most of the fighting soldiers of the Highland, 3rd Canadian, 43rd and 15th (Scottish) Divisions across the Rhine. This was accomplished with only thirty-eight casualties and nine destroyed Buffaloes. On 26 March, Prime Minister Churchill and Field Marshal Alan Brooke accompanied Field Marshal Montgomery and General Hobart across the Rhine in a Buffalo. Churchill addressed the men assembled, congratulating the Buffalo crews on a “splendid job of work.” It had been a monumental task, flawlessly executed.

The assault across the Rhine was the largest operation the 79th would conduct following OVERLORD, and certainly the most important too. The instructional wing concept had shown itself worthy of the investment of time, men and materiel. DD-tanks had once again proven their value in an amphibious assault, with much credit due the REME units for getting the tanks back into a mission capable status. The concept for the use of Buffaloes was also found to be sound, and the engineer squadrons that manned them deemed as capable at their employment as they had been the AVRE. Finally, CDL tanks had even provided a significant, although limited, contribution.

The 79th Division’s success during OVERLORD and on these subsequent operations through late 1944 and early 1945 would pique interest elsewhere. AVREs, ARKs and Crocodiles were all used in the Italian campaign beginning around August 1944. Use of ARKs and AVREs would steadily increase as they were found to be effective in supporting the numerous stream and gap crossings being conducted. An armored engineer brigade was organized in theater, consisting of two AVRE regiments, a Crocodile regiment, and a Crab regiment.

The U.S. Army also attempted to establish specialist armor units in northwest Europe. Three such specialist battalions were organized, the intent being an allocation of one battalion per Army. The units’ primary mission was to conduct mine and obstacle clearance, and to provide support to Corps and Divisions on request through the numbered Army staffs. Each battalion was to be outfitted with five tankdozers, eight rolling mine exploders (U.S. variants of the CIRD), three Crabs, and an undetermined number of Snakes. The mine exploders were never favorably received due to maneuverability limitations and a demonstrated inefficiency at the core task, exploding mines. These units saw limited action and were therefore not effective.

A key reason for continued British success in employing specialized armor, and a reason why the Americans continued to struggle, was that a purpose-built unit had maintained the strong thread of training and development begun well prior to the campaign’s commencement. From the beginning British leaders had agreed that the division was a required investment to help ensure success. The U.S. Army followed a much less structured, decentralized approach in its efforts, and as such often struggled to meet the needs of units through rapid, well synchronized combat developments.

The U.S. Army also lacked a leader, or leaders, that possessed the necessary experience, attitude and vision to shepherd these innovations. The strong-willed, yet highly capable Hobart was such an individual, and he built a cadre of like-minded officers that would be equally critical factors in the division’s success. As Montgomery noted in a post-war lecture, Hobart and his “competent advisors” enabled the success of this huge task in that, “It was found that centralization under him was essential in order to achieve flexibility and provide a controlled programme of workshops overhaul, rest and relief.” The strong influence of the 79th Division in the development and use of specialized armor had proven itself worthy of the investment.

The end of hostilities in Germany marked the end of the 79th Armoured Division. The division would disband, with its subunits to be parceled out to other British Army formations in various theaters. The division had acquitted itself well in its brief existence, accomplishing a great deal in terms of equipment, organizational and tactical developments. Units from the division participated in every 21 Army Group operation from Normandy onward, usually in the van of each assault, and had done so with the relatively modest losses of 379 tanks (approximately twenty-five percent of the frontline total) and just under 1500 soldiers killed, wounded or missing (approximately seven percent of the divisional strength at its high point). Perhaps the greatest contribution of the division (other than the myriad of armored vehicles in the inventory) would be in the detailed after action reports that would serve as the basis for future doctrinal and technical developments.

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