Xanten, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany • March 23, 1945
In the aftermath of Operation Market Garden, the inventive but failed September 1944 thrust into Adolf Hitler’s Germany, came Operation Plunder, another offensive conceived by British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. It kicked off on this date in 1945 when the first set of 300,000 U.S., British, and Canadian troops crossed the Rhine north of Xanten (the medieval town in North Rhine-Westphalia had been captured by Canadians on March 8) and established bridgeheads near Wesel on the east bank, 90 miles north of the cathedral city of Cologne. Within a week of the start of Operation Plunder, the Allies had taken 30,000 German POWs.
The next day, March 24, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Field Marshals Montgomery and Viscount Alan Brooke sat on folding chairs around an improvised table drinking tea and enjoying lunch on the Rhine bank. Overhead several thousand Allied aircraft (principally C‑47 Skytrain transports and more than 900 Waco CG‑4A gliders) were engaged in the largest airborne operation of the war, Operation Varsity, landing over 17,000 troops and masses of supplies east of the Rhine and capturing bridges and securing towns that could have been used by the enemy to delay the advance of Allied ground forces. The land-based and airborne offensives, Plunder and Varsity, constituted the last great battle in the West.
The German Wehrmacht’s shock troops, Fallschirmjaeger (English, paratroopers), were thrown in against the Allies, but they offered only slight opposition to the advancing Allies, in the end withdrawing northeast toward Hamburg and Bremen. Wesel fell on March 24, the same day Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels confided in his diary that the situation in the West had entered an extraordinarily critical, ostensibly almost deadly, phase. Two days later Gen. George S. Patton’s Third U.S. Army reached Germany’s fifth largest city, Frankfurt am Main, entering the city across the Niederrad bridge in the south. On March 27, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, underscored Goebbels’s worst nightmare, saying in a press interview that the Germans in the West were “a whipped army incapable of throwing in sufficient strength to stop the Allies. . . . The crossing of the Rhine marks the end of one phase of the campaign and the beginning of another.” By the end of the month, the Western Front had moved east of the Rhine and was 200 miles from Berlin, while the Eastern Front (Red Army) was 50 miles from the Nazi capital. The end of the war in Europe was four weeks away.
Operations Plunder and Varsity: Crossing the Rhine River into Germany’s Heartland, March 22–28, 1945
Above: Gen. George Patton’s Third U.S. Army crossed the Rhine River west of Mainz and near Oppenheim just before midnight on March 22, 1945 (third arrow up from bottom east of Rhine). The next day the Third Army made another Rhine River crossing near Worms, Germany (second arrow from bottom), while the British Second Army and Canadian First Army launched their assaults further north across the Rhine north of the Ruhr River (hashed area). By early April seven Allied armies had crossed the Rhine and were ready to advance on the Nazis’ capital, Berlin.
Left: Men of the 15th Scottish Division leave their assault craft after crossing the Rhine River near Xanten, North Rhine-Westphalia, March 24, 1945.
Right: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill looks over the Rhine River from the ruins of the west end of the bridge at Wesel, North Rhine-Westphalia, circa March 25, 1945.
Left: Churchill and American generals on a balcony watch Allied vehicles crossing the Rhine into Germany, March 25, 1945.
Right: Men of the British 5th Dorsetshire Regiment cross the Rhine into Germany in a Buffalo tracked landing vehicle, March 28, 1945.
Royal Air Force Documentary on Operation Varsity, Part 1 of 2. Be Sure to Watch Part 2