Remagen, Germany March 7, 1945

By March 1945 the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) was reeling from hor­ren­dous person­nel and equip­ment losses incurred during the Battle of the Bulge (Decem­ber 16, 1944, to Janu­ary 25, 1945) in the Ardennes Forest, which lay mostly in Belgium and Luxem­bourg. The mili­tary momen­tum now clearly favored the Western Allies as addi­tional thrusts by Gen. Omar Brad­ley’s U.S. 12th Army Group and Field Marshal Sir Ber­nard Law Mont­gom­ery’s 21st Army Group in Janu­ary and Febru­ary proved, nudging the Western Front east­ward toward the Rhine River, Germany’s natural barrier to inva­sion from the west. Broad and swiftly flowing, the blue-green Rhine was a for­mi­da­ble obstacle to hostile armies, and the few bridges that crossed it were choke points that restricted the size and speed of invaders. The Wehr­macht, on the defen­sive and cap­i­tal­izing on knowing the lay of the land, began demol­ishing the Rhine bridges as their armies retreated east across the Rhine to the imagined safety of the fatherland.

German Army Group B commander Field Marshal Walter Model wagered that the main Allied thrust east across the Rhine would be against Bonn, 15 miles north of the small town of Remagen and where the Rhine Valley terrain was open to an armored advance. Thus, Model left Remagen and its Rhine crossing, the Luden­dorff Rail­road Bridge, which abutted a 600‑ft-high cliff and nearly quarter-mile-long tunnel at its eastern end, in the hands of a motley set of defenders: 100 regu­lar infantry­men and another 140 con­va­les­cent so­ldiers, the bridge’s prin­cipal defenders; a few, mostly middle-age engi­neers; some Russian “volun­teers” who had been cap­tured on the Eastern Front; and the local Volks­sturm mili­tia, members of which consisted of teens and older men consid­ered unfit for regu­lar combat duties. The engi­neer unit was tasked with preparing the Rhine bridges for demo­li­tion and oper­a­ting ferries to help evac­u­ate troops from the west bank of the Rhine to the east.

In the foggy morning hours on this date, March 7, 1945, leading ele­ments of the U.S. First Army, III Corps, 9th Armored Divi­sion reached a hill­top clearing over­looking the Rhine bridge at Remagen. To the soldiers’ amaze­ment they could see a long gray line of German troops and vehicles moving across wood planking on the Luden­dorff Rail Bridge, the only still-usable bridge over the Rhine within imme­di­ate Amer­i­can reach. By 3 p.m. the Amer­i­cans had swept most of the enemy from the town and were making their way to the bridge, where they could see Germans making haste to deto­nate explo­sives to destroy the bridge. Indeed, a demo­li­tion charge on the western approach ramp to the bridge was set off, creating a large crater that pre­vented tanks from crossing the bridge, and second demo­li­tion charge two-thirds of the way across the bridge’s 1,200‑ft-span sent wood planks and metal flying but did not col­lapse the bridge. Ele­ments of an armored infan­try bat­tal­ion, the 27th, arrived to force the enemy from the eastern end. Two 9th Armored Engi­neer Bat­tal­ions also swung into action. Three gutsy combat engi­neers dashed onto the bridge, dodging intense auto­matic weapons fire, to cut the demo­li­tion wires, preventing the Germans from touching off explosive charges planted on the crossbeams underneath.

While this was going on a private led a small group of U.S. infantry­men across the bridge to the east side; they were followed by 120 more men. The bridge’s defenders and German civil­ians who huddled in the Erpeler Ley rail­road tunnel surren­dered. The anti­air­craft battery above the tunnel was silenced. The Luden­dorff Bridge, the town of Remagen, and the approach to the Ruhr District in Germany’s indus­trial heart­land were now in Amer­i­can hands. Two months later, on May 7, 1945, the German High Com­mand grudgingly accepted the inev­i­ta­ble defeat of Nazi Germany by signing the “Act of Mili­tary Surren­der” docu­ment at Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower’s Supreme Allied Head­quarters in Reims, France, bringing the European phase of World War II to an end.

Breakthrough at Remagen: First Allied Crossing of the Rhine

Damaged Ludendorff Bridge, March 1945Ludendorff Bridge under repair, March 17, 1945

Left: The Germans had wired the Ludendorff Rail­road Bridge at Remagen with about 2,800 kilo­grams (6,200 lb) of demo­li­tion charges. Most of the charges (2,000 kilo­grams of explo­sives) were placed on the two stone piers in the river that carried the load of the 1,200‑ft bridge span. Two charges of 300 kilo­grams (660 lb) each were attached to the girders con­necting the bridge to the piers. The charges were attached to an electric-igni­tion fuse sys­tem and con­nected by elec­tri­cal cables running through pipes to a con­trol cir­cuit located in the entrance to the tun­nel under Erpeler Ley, the 600‑ft-tall rock that over­looks the Rhine River valley oppo­site Remagen. When the Germans tried to blow up the bridge, only a por­tion of the explo­sives deto­nated. Damage was thus limited to the east­ern pedes­trian cat­walk and a 30‑ft (9.1m) sec­tion of the main truss supporting the northern side of the bridge, as shown in this photo.

Right: The U.S. Eighth Air Force had repeatedly tried destroying the 26-year-old Luden­dorff Bridge to disrupt German efforts to rein­force their troops in the west: on Octo­ber 9, Decem­ber 28–31, 1944, and multi­ple times in Janu­ary, Febru­ary, and on March 5, 1945, two days before the bridge’s capture. Prior to capture, it was a case of the Germans quickly repairing damage to the bridge and aerial mis­sion failure on the part of the Eighth Air Force. In this photo taken four hours before the bridge col­lapsed with­out warning on the after­noon of March 17, combat engi­neers are busy repairing steel supports beneath the road surface. Shortly after the bridge was seized, the Germans lobbed artil­lery and 540mm mortar shells, sent air­craft (including the new Me 262 fighter jet and the new Arado Ar 234 jet bomber, which carried 1,000 kg [2,200 lb] bombs), and even fired 11 or so V‑2 rockets to demolish the bridge, to no avail, although the V‑2s came dangerously close to hitting it.

47th Infantry Regiment en route to Ludendorff Bridge, March 8, 1945Temporary pontoon bridge and destroyed Ludendorff Bridge, March 1945

Left: In the 10 days before its collapse, over 25,000 troops from five U.S. divi­sions, like these shown here from the 9th Armored Divi­sion’s 47th Infan­try Reg­iment, together with thou­sands of vehi­cles and tons of supplies had crossed the Luden­dorff Bridge and three newly built tac­ti­cal bridges above and below this ancient, Roman-built resort town on the fabled Rhine. In the ser­en­dip­i­tous Battle of Remagen (March 7–25, 1945) Bradley’s 12th Army Group had managed to create a well-estab­lished bridge­head almost 25 miles long, extending from Bonn 15 miles north of Remagen almost to Koblenz 20 miles to the south, and just over 6 to 9 miles deep. The area U.S. forces streamed into was virtually undefended because German Field Marshal Model mis­cal­cu­lated, thinking the moun­tainous coun­try east of Remagen would dis­suade the enemy from crossing there. Iron­i­cally, the Remagen bridge­head became, in the words of Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, “a springboard for the final offensive to come.”

Right: The twisted steel ruins of the Ludendorff Rail­road Bridge as a back­drop, a U.S. Army truck crosses the Rhine River on a tem­po­rary pon­toon bridge. By March 20 sol­diers from an engin­eer com­bat bat­talion and a light pon­toon com­pany had replaced the pon­toon bridge with a floating Bailey Bridge to help carry cri­ti­cal traffic to the Rhine’s east bank. A two-way Bailey Bridge on barges was built across the Rhine down­stream at Bonn. Addi­tional tacti­cal bridges were built on the Rhine north and south of Remagen. Aug­menting cross-river traffic were LCVPs (Landing Craft Vehicle, Person­nel), six-wheel-drive amphib­ious DUKWs, and ferries. These mea­sures took up the bur­den of moving Allied sol­diers and equip­ment across the Rhine into the German heartland.

Ludendorff Bridge accident scene, March 17, 1945aLudendorff Bridge accident scene, March 17, 1945b

Above: Rescuers and medics wait for the casualties after the col­lapse of the Luden­dorff Bridge into the Rhine on March 17, 1945. Seven soldiers were killed in the acci­dent, 23 went missing in the swift-flowing, icy water, and three later died from injuries; 63 others were injured. About 200 engi­neers and welders were working on the span when it fell. The center por­tion of bridge suddenly tipped into the Rhine, and the two end sections keeled off their stone piers. In the photo on the right an injured combat engineer is maneuvered through twisted wreckage and placed on a litter for transport to a hospital.

Contemporary Footage of Rhine River Crossings (Skip first 3:40 minutes for Ludendorff Bridge Collapse and Battle of Remagen)