Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen

Twenty Arado Ar 234 Bs were produced and delivered by the end of June 1944. The only notable use of the plane in the bomber role was during the Ardennes offensive in winter 1944-45, and the most spectacular operational bombing mission was the repeated attacks by Ar 234 B-2s flown by III/KG 76 on the vital Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen in March 1945. The uninterceptable aircraft, though handicapped by fuel shortage, continued to see scattered front-line action for reconnaissance until Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945.

The crew of a Multiple Gun Motor Carriage M16 relax on stand-by close to the famous bridgeat Remagen. The crew have toned down the appearance of the vehicle with hessian anda board over the tracks. Note the spare ammunition magazines.

Hermann Göring sought volunteers to fly suicide missions into the bridge, a proposal also intercepted by Allied eavesdroppers even before it was rejected as impractical by German commanders. Nearly four hundred Luftwaffe sorties were flown over Remagen, including missions by jet planes and antiquated Stuka dive-bombers; all could just as well have been deliberately suicidal. The marauders soon encountered twenty-five barrage balloons and nearly seven hundred antiaircraft guns—the Army’s densest concentration of World War II—under orders to shoot anything with wings. Each approaching enemy plane was said by one officer to “cost the American taxpayer a million dollars in antiaircraft ammunition,” and gunners would claim more than a hundred aircraft shot down. The intense fire inflicted two hundred friendly casualties on the ground, mostly welts and bruises from the spent .50-caliber slugs that fell like hard rain. On Hitler’s command, V-2 launch sites in Holland also fired eleven rockets at the bridge, the only tactical use of the weapon during the war. None struck home; the single near miss killed three GIs and a barnyard full of livestock several hundred yards from the river.

The Luftwaffe began attacking the Remagen Bridge almost immediately with the first few attacks on March 8. The expectation was that the Stuka would offer the best hope of a pinpoint attack on the bridge, but when all three Stukas were shot down on the first attack mission, it was obvious that another method was needed. German jet strike aircraft seemed a more survivable option since they could outrun Allied fighters and their speed might reduce their vulnerability to the growing anti-aircraft defenses the US Army was deploying around the bridge. At first, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring asked for volunteers to fly a suicide mission against the bridge, diving their aircraft directly into the structure. Although there were volunteers, the idea was quickly squashed by senior officers who pointed out that the bomb’s safeing and arming system would prevent the bomb from detonating in these circumstances.

The second day of Luftwaffe attacks began with an assortment of propeller driven aircraft including the ubiquitous Fw 190 and Bf 109, but also including the heavy “destroyer” fighters such as the Me 410. The first jet attacks began later that day including both the Me 262 and Arado Ar 234. This shows the attack by 8./KG 76, which staged three sorties that day. The Arado Ar 234 was Germany’s first dedicated jet bomber. It had first been deployed in 1944 on a trials basis in the reconnaissance role, but by 1945 the bomber variants were entering service in growing numbers. The first bomber missions by III./KG. 76 were conducted in December 1944 over Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge.

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Although overshadowed by the Me 262 fighter, the Arado was one of the most sophisticated aircraft of its day. It was heavier on take off than the Me 262, so required a rocket-assisted take-off system. The pilot sat in a forward cockpit with excellent forward visibility and a state-of-the-art navigation and bombing system. The usual attack mode was to place the aircraft into a shallow dive at the target, releasing the bomb with the aid of the PV1B periscopic sight tied into the aircraft’s BZA bombing computer. As an alternative to dive bombing when attacking area targets from high altitude, the pilot would put the aircraft under autopilot control and then aim at the target using the Lotfe 7K bombsight, which was integrated with the bombing computer to release the bomb automatically at the right moment, but this was not a popular tactic. A third method was the Egon flight-control system which was based around the aircraft’s FuG 25a IFF (identification-friend-or-foe) transceiver working in conjunction with two ground-based Freya radars and allowed for blind bombing in the event of cloudy conditions.

The jet attacks against Remagen on March 9 proved fruitless, in part due to the intense anti-aircraft fire near the bridge from five US Army anti-aircraft battalions including quad .50-cal. heavy machine guns, 37mm and 40mm automatic cannon, and even 90mm anti-aircraft guns.

Hermann Göring had long been out of Hitler’s favor for the continuing collapse of the Luftwaffe, and he attempted to re-enter the Führer’s good graces by promising that the Luftwaffe would destroy the bridge. The special squadrons for bridge destruction using the Mistel composite aircraft had already been committed to attack the bridges in the east being used by the Red Army, and bomber units using the Fritz-X guided bomb and Hs. 293 missile were inactive because of the lack of fuel and combat losses in 1944. The Luftwaffe in the west was too weak to launch massed attacks on account of the dominating presence of Allied fighters, but the 14th Fliegerdivision under Oberst von Heinemann attempted to stage numerous small-scale attacks with whatever fighters and fighter-bombers could be scraped together. An initial attack was conducted around 1645hrs on March 8 by three Stukas and an Fw 190- all were shot down by the half-tracks of the 482nd AAA Automatic Weapons Battalion, making it clear that dive-bombing was no solution. The only aircraft with a reasonable chance of surviving the Allied air cover were the new jets so Göring ordered the formation of Gefechtsverband Kowalewski, which combined about 30 Me 262A-2a jet fighter-bombers from II./KG 51 and about 40 Ar 234B jet bombers from Obst. Lt. Robert Kowalewski’s III./KG 76 into a special combined jet strike force.

On 8 March, early next morning the Reichsmarschall called KG 51 operations room to request volunteers to sacrifice their lives by diving bomb-carrying Me 262 s into the bridge. Two pilots stepped forward but were dissuaded by their squadron commanders at the last moment. Between 13 March and 20 April, I./KG 51 used the Autobahn between Leipheim and Neu-Ulm as its operational base. Since the delivery unit of the Kuno assembly works (a factory hidden in woods near Burgau ), and a similar plant near Leipheim aerodrome were nearby, this offered some limited opportunity for engine overhauls. At least two operations were flown from Giebelstadt against armour heading for Mainz, one of these against the important railway bridge at Bad Munster am Stein on 18 March 1945. These few operations fell well short of doing anything to change the situation or stop the Allied advance.

By March 9, there were five US anti-aircraft battalions protecting the bridge, running the gamut from quad .50-cal. machine guns up to 90mm guns. The attacks early in the day included the usual Bf 109 and FW 190 fighters, but also included improvised attacks by Me 410 heavy fighters. The first jet attacks on the bridge began on March 9 and included several Me 262 attacks, as well as three sorties by Ar 234s. One each of the jet types was lost to flak that day, and US units claimed 13 of the 17 German aircraft making attacks. The third day, cloud cover protected the bridge in the morning, but in the afternoon, some 47 attacks were made with the antiaircraft guns claiming a further 28 aircraft.

On the 10th the 359th escorted B-17s sent to bomb the marshalling yards at Hagen and Schwerte. Lt Col McKee led `A’ group and Capt Cox `B’ group, their meeting point with the `Forts’ being over the Dutch town of Egmond at 1210 hrs. There was solid cloud cover over the targets, and the bombs had to be dropped by radar. During the mission the 370th searched for jets reported over Koblenz, but found nothing. Escort was maintained until south-east of Koblenz, when a message came through ordering the group to an area east of the Remagen bridgehead. A second call directed the 359th specifically to the Ludendorff bridge at Remagen to search for Fw 190s and Ar 234 jet bombers attacking the span.

Unfortunately the American anti-aircraft gunners at the bridge were not told about the approaching Mustangs, and the 359th came under intense friendly fire, as well as fire from a German 20 mm flak gun situated on a nearby hillside. At 1525 hrs two Mustangs from the 368th, flown by Lts George H Blackburn (in P-51D-15 44-15067) and James W McCormack (flying P-51D-20 44-63740) were both hit by the German guns at 1000 ft. McCormack died when his P-51 crashed soon after being hit, and Blackburn perished when his fighter crashed into a wood near Windhagen, two-and-a-half miles away.

Capt Wetmore’s Mustang was also hit, but by the American gunners. A fire started in the right wing of his machine, but this soon died out and the ace flew to St Trond, in Belgium, and bellied in with fuel starvation problems and a jammed canopy. The latter had failed to jettison when it became snagged on a camera installed behind the armour plate aft of the pilot’s head. The drill was to crank the canopy back past the point where the cross-brace would catch on the camera before jettisoning it. Wetmore evidently failed to follow this procedure! He returned to base on the 12th.

The danger of low-altitude attacks led to attempts by the Ar 234 bombers to use the advanced Egon blind-bombing system from high altitude on March 12, but this was no more successful. This was the heaviest single day of air attacks involving some 91 aircraft of which the US AA units claimed 26 destroyed and eight damaged. Jet strikes against the bridge peaked on March 13 with 19 Ar 234 sorties out of the 90 sorties flown by the Luftwaffe that day; US AA units claimed 26 shot down and nine damaged. It was also the worst day of the campaign for the Me 262 fighter-bombers, losing five aircraft to flak and Allied fighters. The scale of Luftwaffe attacks dropped dramatically in the next few days because of the losses. By March 13, the anti-aircraft defense reached its peak, with 16 AA gun batteries and 33 automatic weapons batteries for a total of 672 AA weapons around the bridge. Remagen witnessed the densest concentration of US Army anti-aircraft fire anywhere during the war and it accomplished its mission. No German aircraft managed to hit the bridge in the ten days of attacks.

Luftwaffe repeatedly attack the Ludendorff Bridge with Me-262s, though German records indicate that due to bad weather no 262s flew on March 14. Eleven Ar-234s attacked the pontoon bridges south of the Ludendorff span that day, however, and two of four losses were attributed to P-38s.

When the German fighter force did decide to return to the skies on the 14th, Eighth Air Force fighters further reduced its inventory – 17 enemy aircraft fell during the day, four of them jets. One of the latter was credited to 13.333-kill ace Capt Don Bryan, who used his combat experience to the utmost in order to outwit the German pilot.

On March 14, Bryan flew a mission over the Rhine River in the P-51 Worra Bird 3. The plane was Lieutenant George A. Middleton’s, but Bryan, as flight leader, had the option of selecting the best aircraft available. Worra Bird 3 it was. In the air, he spotted a Blitz piloted by Captain Hans Hirschberger, who was making his combat debut. Hirschberger was a member of Kampfgeschwader 76 (KG 76), a Luftwaffe bomber outfit equipped with Ar 234s. Hirschberger was in the area as part of the German air effort to bust the Ludendorff Bridge and slow the flow of Allied forces into Germany.

Bryan kept his eyes on Hirschberger’s Blitz. He watched it pull off the bridge and maneuver into a tight turn to evade a formation of P-47s. The maneuver compromised the jet’s strongest asset: superior speed. Bryan positioned himself so his adversary would have to fly toward him. It was a maneuver he had carefully considered and rehearsed.

When he was ready, Bryan dived at the Blitz and fired a burst from his Mustang’s .50-caliber M2 Browning machine guns. He saw hits sparkling against the Blitz’s right engine housing. It wasn’t immediately obvious whether he’d disabled the engine, but now the jet was moving at a slower speed. Bryan was able to stay behind it, readjust his aim, and then open up again. “I don’t know what the hell was on his mind,” Bryan said of Hirschberger, “but he should have gotten out of that airplane while he was high enough. I think he was afraid I would shoot at him in his parachute, which I would never do.” Having waited too long to jettison the roof hatch, Hirschberger went down with his plane.

In his encounter report, Bryan wrote, “I hit him with the first burst and knocked his right jet out. He made a shallow turn to the right and started very mild evasive maneuvers. There was no jet wash or prop wash or anything [I needed to avoid], so I squirted him. The [Blitz] was emitting much white smoke. I do not believe the [Blitz] caught fire. I finished firing [and] he rolled over on his back and dived straight into the ground and exploded. Just before hitting the ground, the pilot jettisoned his canopy, but did not get out.”

Three days after Bryan’s triumph, the bridge soon to be known as the Bridge at Remagen collapsed. But by then enough Americans had reached the eastern bank of the Rhine to hold their ground. Reinforcements continued to pour over pontoon bridges. Nazi Germany’s final collapse was just weeks away.

Through March 17, the US Army estimated that the Luftwaffe had conducted about 400 sorties against the bridge of which 140 aircraft were claimed to have been shot down and 59 probably destroyed. Gefechtsverband Kowalewski had lost 18 jet aircraft in combat plus several more damaged aircraft crashing on landing, a total of about a third its original strength.

JG 53 was transferred closer to the middle Rhine sector, where US troops had unexpectedly seized a bridge across the river at Remagen. But after several days of costly missions in this area, the Gruppen returned to the Stuttgart region. So absolute was Allied air superiority by this stage that Oberstleutnant Helmut Bennemann’s pilots could now only operate during the hours of dawn and dusk. And still they were being forced to retreat.

At Himmler’s urging, Hitler ordered that the bridgehead area be wiped out using V-2 missiles regardless of civilian losses. Himmler dispatched SS-Abteilung 500, a recently formed missile battalion, to attack the bridgehead. The battalion was armed with an improved version of the V-2 missile with a special radio guidance upgrade, and launched 11 missiles during March 11-17 from bases in the Netherlands without scoring any hits. One missile came within a mile of the bridge, striking inside Remagen; aside from one other hit within the town, the rest of the missiles exploded harmlessly in the river or open countryside. Another special weapon to appear was the Karl 540mm super-heavy mortar. Karl-Batterie 638 with two of these massive weapons was sent to the Remagen area where some 14 rounds were fired starting on March 16; these did not hit the bridge but caused considerable damage within the town of Remagen itself.

Repairs on the Ludendorff continued for nine days even as tactical bridges carried most of the traffic across the Rhine. Between air raids and enemy shellings, two hundred welders, riggers, ironworkers, and carpenters swarmed over the structure, patching chords, stringers, and holes in the deck. Measurements showed the Ludy settling a bit on the upstream side, to the south, but engineers believed the structure had been stabilized.

It had not. Just before three P.M. on Saturday, March 17, a rivet sheared away with a sharp pop! Others followed, as if musketry swept the girders. A vertical hanger snapped. Dust billowed from the quaking deck. Timbers splintered and the squeal of steel on steel echoed against the Erpeler Ley. “Men on the deck dropped their tools and started to run,” an engineer colonel later testified. Many found themselves sprinting uphill as the center span twisted counterclockwise and buckled. Then the entire bridge seemed to fold in on itself, “gracefully, like an old slow-motion movie,” before pitching into the Rhine with a white splash.

Of those who rode the Ludy down, twenty-eight died and another sixty-three were injured. A major’s body found atop the east pier was recognizable only by his oak-leaf rank insignia; others vanished into the Rhine forever. Scaffolding and deck timbers threatened to ram through the treadways downstream until engineers with axes and poles pushed the debris away while boatmen fished survivors from the river. Precisely why the bridge collapsed would remain uncertain. Weakened by earlier Allied bombing and the botched demolition, the span had since been assaulted by hard winds, heavy traffic, welding, incessant hammering, V-2s, artillery, and the vibration of a thousand shells fired from an Army 8-inch howitzer battery less than a mile away. “Most of us,” an engineer told his diary, “are glad the damned thing is gone.”

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Me 262 at Remagen

Goring called for volunteers from I./KG 51 at Hopsten to undertake self-sacrificial ramming operations against the great Ludendorff railway bridge at Remagen – a vital crossing point over the Rhine that the Americans had now reached and crossed. On 9 March, as Bonn and Bad Godesberg were captured by the US First Army, and other Allied forces continued to expand their bridgehead beyond the town, three Ar 234s from III./KG 76 attacked the bridge with 250 kg bombs, but without success. In response to Goring’s call, two pilots from KG 51 came forward, but the suicide sortie was never flown.

Eight aircraft from Gefechtsverband Kowalewski made an attack on the Remagen Bridge on the 12th, seven aircraft bombing it and the other machine targeting transport columns. A second attack on the bridge was flown later by eight more aircraft from III./KG 76 and I./KG 51. No jets were lost, but no success was recorded either.

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Taking off from Rheine on 13 March, four Me 262s from II./KG 51 made an attack between 0905 hrs and 1002 hrs at an altitude of 5000 m on river crossings in the bridgehead area. The jets were each equipped with two AB 250 containers filled with SD 10 anti-personnel bombs. A formation of ten P-47s was encountered, but it was to be a fruitless engagement for both sides. Due to the presence of the US fighters, the effects of bombing were not observed. Two jets were lost on the return flight to Rheine, one making an emergency landing near Lüdinghausen due to a shortage of fuel. The other pilot bailed out when an engine unit failed, his aircraft crashing at Neuenkirchen, southwest of Rheine.

On the 18th operations resumed when, between 1138 hrs and 1238 hrs, three Me 262s of II./KG 51 mounted a high-level attack through clouds against the Remagen bridgehead from 6000 m using Egon control. Six 250 kg containers of SD 10 fragmentation bombs were dropped, but the effects were not observed. There was no contact with enemy aircraft.

The Germans improvised a system conceptually similar to Oboe, code named Egon, for bombing on the Eastern Front on a limited scale. It used two modified Freyas to play the roles of Cat and Mouse; these two Freya Egon sets were located about 93 miles (150 km) apart and the aircraft carried a two-channel IFF to respond to them. Voice radio directed the bombers. Despite the considerable effort the Germans put into other electronic navigation systems, they never took this concept further

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