March 7, 1945 - The Bridge at Remagen
Updated: Jun 3, 2021
March 7, 1945 - the last days of World War II. Allied scouts looking for a crossing site over the Rhine River crest a hill and are shocked to see an intact bridge spanning the great river - the only remaining intact bridge across the Rhine. Immediately, the Bridge at Remagen has become the most important piece of real estate in Europe, and the race has begun.
The war in Europe was in its final stages. After the German defeat in the Battle of the Bulge, Allied forces had steadily ground away at German positions along the western German border. The German forces were conscripting old men and young boys, using obsolete weaponry and fighting desperately, and the woods, towns and hills of the German borderlands were churned up by the Allies' overwhelming air power, artillery, tanks and infantry. Even though the Third Reich was clearly doomed, they were holding out to the last, and it took the Allies January and February of 1945 to finally make their way to the Rhine River.
Most of Germany, including the critical industrial district of the Ruhr, lay past the Rhine. The enormous river was fordable nowhere; it formed a considerable obstacle that would take long-term planning, overwhelming firepower, and a crossing by infantry in assault boats to get past. As the Germans withdrew across the Rhine, they made sure to destroy every bridge behind them, preventing an easy Allied crossing.
The Allies had given up hope that they would ever find a bridge intact. General Eisenhower instead aimed to destroy as many German forces as possible west of the Rhine, and identify a good crossing point that offered the best chance of success with the fewest casualties. The Rhine was long and wide enough that this would be a major issue, and there was a sinking feeling that another D-Day would be in effect in order to get across the Rhine.
British General Montgomery in the north near the Netherlands was planning a deliberate set-piece attack to cross the Rhine, including a huge airborne assault by British and American units. Winston Churchill would even be on the scene to witness the epic attack. As General Bradley's American forces to the south of Montgomery captured Cologne on March 6, they watched the Germans explode the Hohenzollern Bridge in their faces. Bradley's forces fanned out along the Rhine, looking for a spot where he could mount his own crossing.
On March 7, 1945, a combined tank-infantry-scout task force of the 9th Armored Division approached the small German town of Remagen, south of Cologne. Led by Lieutenant Colonel Engemann of the 14th Tank Battalion, the force advanced quickly. Yesterday the German general responsible for defending Remagen had accidentally gotten himself captured and revealed that they had not yet destroyed the bridge, but Engemann figured it had been destroyed by now. At 12:56 that day, some of his scouts reported back amazing news: the bridge, against all odds, was still standing, and the Germans were still retreating across it.
This was a situation where minutes counted. Engemann reported back to headquarters that the bridge was standing, and within minutes Brigadier General William Hoge was on the scene, having come at truly unsafe speeds. Engemann hesitated - the bridge was almost certainly wired to explode - but Hoge ordered him to attack immediately. They would risk losing the men, but the opportunity of capturing the Bridge at Remagen intact was too great to pass up.
Company A of 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, supported by Engemann's Sherman and Pershing tanks, gathered to assault. Lieutenant Timmermann, was asked if he could take the bridge. "Well, we can try it, sir," he replied, then asked, "What if the bridge blows up in my face?" His commander looked at him, patted his shoulder, and said nothing. The race was on.
At 1:50, the tanks and infantry began fighting their way into the town, pushing past local militias and the remnants of German units. At 2:00, they heard a low explosion and saw dust rising from the direction of the bridge, causing them to push onward.
At 3:00, they had reached the western end of the bridge. The tanks covered the eastern end and began laying down fire on the hills overlooking the other side. Timmermann's soldiers soon brought in a German engineer, who confirmed that the bridge was scheduled to blow by 4:00. They had one hour.
The German bridge commander on the eastern side, Captain Friesenhahn, had control of the explosives wired on the Ludendorff Bridge. He had only half the explosives he had requested, and these were weaker mining explosives rather than the military-grade he needed. The main explosives had already been wired to a detonator placed in a railroad tunnel on the eastern side, but Hitler's orders stated that the bridge could not be blown without written permission from the ranking officer, Major Scheller, who couldn't be found. Friesenhahn did what he could, and ordered a smaller explosive placed in the center of the bridge. The explosion at 2:00 had been this jury-rigged attempt; it blew a 30-foot crater in the road bed of the bridge in the hope that this would slow the Americans down.
Major Scheller had only assumed command that day, and when he saw the American forces approaching Remagen, he raced back to the bridge, narrowly avoiding the fire from American tanks on the western shore. When Friesenhahn finally had permission to detonate the bridge, he raced to get to the detonator when he saw Lieutenant Timmermann's troops appear with their tanks. A tank shell knocked him unconscious just before he entered the train tunnel. This was happening at 3:00 just as Timmermann interrogated the German prisoner. Would the Americans take the bridge before Friesenhahn could send it to the bottom?
To the west, Lieutenant Timmermann's American troops sprinted for the bridge, realizing that every minute counted. To the east, Friesenhahn recovered his senses, got to his feet, and made his way groggily to the detonator. At 3:20 he twisted the handle and - nothing. The electrical circuit had been hit by American tank fire and the detonator was useless.
Undeterred, the German started sending his troops onto the bridge to blow the explosives manually at the same time as Timmermann's infantrymen started fighting their way across.
With the Germans racing to blow the bridge, and the Americans racing to stop them, the fighting became desperate. As the Americans advanced down the west side of the bridge, one of the Germans was able to blow some of the charges. The great bridge heaved, large holes erupted in the floor, and some of the supporting girders snapped - but to everyone's shock, the bridge did not collapse. The poor quality and low quantity of the German explosives had failed.
Timmermann's men did not give the Germans a second chance. Three engineers attached to his force climbed under the bridge and began cutting the demolition wires, as the Americans advanced under fire from machine guns and snipers mounted on a boat. The boat was soon drilled with cannon fire from a Sherman. As the Americans cut the wires, with Timmermann himself wielding a set of cutters, and tossed the charges into the river, they knew that at any second the Germans could detonate the rest. Sergeant Drabik of Ohio was literally kicking the charges off the girders with his feet as he ran past, firing his rifle from the hip.
When Sergeant Drabik, in the lead, set foot on the ground east of the river, he was the first soldier to succeed in an assault crossing of the Rhine since the days of Napoleon. The Rhine had been crossed in assaults by Caesar, by the barbarians invading the Roman Empire, by the Sun King Louis XVI, by Napoleon, and now by a force of desperate American G.I.s far from home.
Timmermann's troops destroyed the final demolition switch box, captured Captain Friesenhahn, and stripped the last bombs off of the Ludendorff Bridge. Against all odds, and with many close calls, the Allies had an intact bridge over the Rhine. Had they known it, they also owed something to the Poles. A number of Polish workers had been enslaved and forced to work in the German factory that made blasting caps - and had sabotaged as many as possible. When the Americans later examined the explosives taken from the bridge, they discovered that some 500 pounds of TNT had not exploded due to a sabotaged blasting cap.
Within hours, the holes in the bridge had been patched by engineers, and tanks, troops, and vehicles of all kinds were pouring across the Rhine. Hitler flew into a rage when he was informed of the capture and demanded counterattacks to retake and destroy the bridge at all costs. The Allies knew they were coming. As German planes were diverted from every other front to try and destroy the bridge, American anti-aircraft units were amassed in Remagen, five battalions' worth. Air cover from P-51 Mustangs knocked German Stukas out of the sky and helped the bridgehead remain intact.
The Germans tried many desperate expedients to destroy the bridge besides air power. Luftwaffe pilots tried to launch 9-11 style suicide attacks against the bridge, but American planes and AA guns knocked them away. Every bomb managed to miss the bridge, with the AA fire so intense that the air around the planes grew pink. Hitler ordered V-2 rockets fired at the bridge, but they were far too inaccurate to come close to hitting their target; they did cause the Americans around the bridge a great deal of stress. The Germans floated mines down the river, floated a barge down the river, floated divers armed with explosives down the river. The Germans literally got the biggest artillery pieces they could find to blast away at the bridge to no avail.
Even if they had destroyed the bridge, it wouldn't matter. American engineers were already building parallel pontoon bridges downstream from Remagen to reinforce the bridgehead as an added security in case the Ludendorff Bridge collapsed. By March 11, two additional bridges had been built, and the cat was out of the bag. The Rhine had been crossed. The United States had three divisions across into the heartland of Germany, and more would follow.
After all that, on March 17, the Bridge at Remagen collapsed from the stress and the fighting of March 7, killing 33 men. 25,000 troops and thousands of vehicles had crossed it in those ten days, and many more had crossed the two local bridges. The Allies had their foothold across the Rhine, and it was all downhill from here.
The Bridge at Remagen was one of the greatest Allied successes of the late war. The Germans were caught completely by surprise - they expected a long buildup before an American crossing, which would buy them time to reorganize and prepare. They lost this with the capture of the bridge, and the Allies were across in force. By March 19, nine divisions of Bradley's First Army were racing deep into Germany. It is estimated that the sudden capture of the bridge shortened the war by approximately six months and saved the lives of thousands of men. One officer estimated 35,000 casualties prevented by the sudden capture of the Bridge, which prevented a bloody and difficult assault crossing of the Rhine.
Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, Walter Bedell Smith, said that the Ludendorff Bridge was "worth its weight in gold." Lieutenant Timmermann and Sergeant Drabik both earned the Distinguished Service Cross for their day at Remagen; Captain Friesenhahn, who survived the war, told interviewers that they had earned it.
And they say the actions of one men, or a few men, can't change anything.
Book Recommendation: Go for Ken Hechler, The Bridge at Remagen: The Amazing Story of March 7, 1945, the Day the Rhine River Was Crossed (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1998). For the war in Western Europe in general, see the always excellent Rick Atkinson's The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (New York: Henry Holt, 2013).