Oppenheim, Germany · March 22, 1945

On this date in 1945, one day before the British 21st Army Group under Field Marshal Ber­nard Mont­gomery was due to launch Opera­tion Plunder, the long-awaited northern offen­sive across the Rhine River at Rees and Wesel in North Rhine-West­phalia, Gen. George S. Patton sneaked a divi­sion of his U.S. Third Army across the Rhine at Oppen­heim, lower on the river and south of Mainz. (Back in Berlin, Adolf Hitler urged the Wehr­macht to attack the Allied bridgehead at Oppen­heim, only to be told that no reserve forces were avail­able to embark on such an oper­a­tion.) For the Allied high com­mand, the all-out assault across the Rhine was hugely im­por­tant because crossing the river, the his­toric boundary of Ger­man power in the west, rang the death knell on the luna­cy and besti­al­ity of Hitler’s Thou­sand Year Reich. Even Hitler’s closest sup­porters like Hein­rich Himm­ler and Joseph Goeb­bels could clearly hear the clanging bell. Though Gen. Patton had the blessing of Twelfth Army Group head Gen. Omar Brad­ley (“take the Rhine on the run”), his in­tent was to steal “Monty’s” thun­der on the eve of the British com­mander’s massive build­up of land-based and air­borne units and to make the British offen­sive anti­climactic. (To be fair to the British 21st Army Group, their Rhine crossings were marshy (Wesel) and twice as wide, with the river carrying a far higher volume of water than the crossings con­signed to the U.S. Third and Seventh Armies and the French First Army, meaning that Mont­gomery could not possibly cross the Rhine “on the run.”) The next day Patton, showing his con­tempt for the enemy, made good on his pledge to “piss in the Rhine in a week,” which he did from a pon­toon bridge in full view of his men and news cameras. To Allied supreme com­mander Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower he wrote: “I have just pissed into the Rhine River. For God’s sake send some gaso­line.” Neither a patient nor defensive-minded com­mander, Patton seems not to have hindered his promo­tion to the tem­porary rank of four-star general in April by acting or remarking as he did. The gaso­line arrived and Patton’s men pressed head­long across south­ern Ger­many and into Czecho­slo­va­kia. Along the way the Third Army liberated some of the most ghastly killing and con­cen­tra­tion camps in the Reich: Ohr­druf (a subcamp of Buchen­wald), Flossenbuerg, Dachau, and Mauthausen-Gusen.

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Crossing the Rhine, March 1945

Bradley, Eisenhower, PattonU.S. Third Army crosses Rhine

Right: U.S. Army Generals Omar Bradley, Dwight D. Eisen­hower, and George S. Patton. Bradley (1893–1981) took part in the build­up to the July 1944 Nor­mandy landings (Opera­tion Over­lord) and was given charge of the U.S. First Army. He engi­neered the Nor­mandy break­out and was made com­mander of the Twelfth Army Group. It controlled the major­ity of Amer­i­can forces on the West­ern Front in 1944 and 1945: the U.S. First Army under Gen. Court­ney H. Hodges, the Third Army under Gen. George S. Patton, the Ninth Army under Gen. William H. Simpson, and the Fifteenth Army under Gen. Leonard T. Gerow. Eisen­hower (1890–1969) was chosen in July 1942 to head Opera­tion Torch, the Allied in­vasion of French North Africa in Novem­ber 1943. In Decem­ber he was appointed Su­preme Com­mander of the Allied Expe­di­tionary Force and planned the July 1944 in­va­sion of Europe (Oper­a­tion Over­lord). After the war Eisen­hower was appointed Military Gover­nor of the U.S. Occupied Zone in Ger­many. Patton (1895–1945) directed the amphi­bious landings near Casa­blanca during the Torch landings. In 1943 he com­manded the U.S. Seventh Army during the Sicil­ian cam­paign (Opera­tion Husky), and in August 1944 his Third Army became opera­tional in north­ern France. Patton was fatally injured in a road accident on December 9, 1945, dying twelve days later.

Left: Keeping a low profile, soldiers of the U.S. Third Army’s 89th Infantry Divi­sion cross the Rhine in assault boats under intense German fire, March 1945.

Churchill, Montgomery, U.S. commanders on Rhine east bank, March 1945Patton relieving himself in Rhine, March 24, 1945

Left: British Prime Minister Win­ston Chur­chill, in the company of Field Marshal Ber­nard Mont­gomery and a party of U.S. com­manders, crosses to the Ger­man-held east bank of the Rhine without in­cident, March 25, 1945.

Right: Patton famously relieved himself in the Rhine on March 24, 1945—and made sure he was photo­graphed doing so. Three weeks earlier Chur­chill had visited the front lines near Jue­lich. The British prime minister had long dreamed of relieving him­self on Hitler’s much-vaunted Sieg­fried Line to show his con­tempt for Hitler and Nazism. Unlike Patton, Churchill for­bade photo­graphs of the occasion.

Endgame for Nazi Germany in West: Patton’s Army Crosses Rhine