Oppenheim, Germany · March 22, 1945

On this date in 1945, one day before the British 21st Army Group under Field Marshal Ber­nard Law 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, Jr., sneaked a divi­sion of his Third U.S. 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 Third U.S. and Seventh Armies and the French First Army, meaning that Mont­gomery could not possibly cross the Rhine “on the run.”)

Two days later, on March 24, 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. (Eisen­hower praised the Third Army in a warm letter of appre­ci­a­tion to Patton on March 23.) 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.

George S. Patton’s Third U.S. Army Crosses the Rhine

Generals Omar Bradley, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George S. PattonCrossing the Rhine, March 1945: U.S. Third Army’s 89th Infantry Division in motorized assault boats

Left: 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 D-Day landings in Normandy, France, 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 now 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. The 60‑year‑old Patton was fatally injured in a road accident in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Southwestern Germany, on December 9, 1945, dying twelve days later.

Right: Keeping a low profile, soldiers of the U.S. Third Army’s 89th Infantry Divi­sion cross the Rhine in motorized assault boats under intense German fire, March 24(?), 1945. Ashore in borrowed and captured trucks, the infantry­men festooned their vehicles with signs proclaiming “Next stop Berlin.”

Crossing the Rhine: Churchill, Montgomery, U.S. commanders on Rhine east bank, March 1945Crossing the Rhine: Patton 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, less than two days after the start of Operation Plunder.

Right: After ordering his engineers to construct a pontoon bridge over the German Rhine and sneaking a divi­sion onto the east bank on the night of March 22, Patton famously relieved him­self from the bridge the next day—and made sure he was photo­graphed doing so. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” he told the crowd. Three weeks earlier Chur­chill had visited the front lines near the thoroughly destroyed town of Jue­lich in what is today’s North Rhine-Westphalia. 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 though not com­men­tary. In the words of Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, the “Old Man” wore a “boyish grin of con­tent­ment” after his bath­room break. Many Allied units, begin­ning per­haps with the first Ame­rican patrol to have crossed on to German soil on Septem­ber 11, 1944, pro­claimed their arrival on enemy territory by symbolically urinating on the ground.

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