Oppenheim, Germany March 22, 1945

On this date in 1945, one day before the mixed British-Canadian 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 sneaked 5th Divi­sion soldiers of his Third U.S. Army across the Rhine at Oppen­heim, lower on the river and south of Mainz. To Patton’s surprise and relief, the invaders were not opposed by enemy forces. Back in his under­ground com­mand post in Berlin, Adolf Hitler urged the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) 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, with more than a million troops, 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. Once back on terra firma, in emu­la­tion of William the Conqueror, his favor­ite histor­i­cal figure, Patton reached down and claimed a hand­ful of soil. Later in the day he sent a dispatch to Allied Supreme Com­mander Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower: “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, Austria, and into Czecho­slo­va­kia. Along the way the Third Army captured 300,000 enemy soldiers (this by the end of March) and 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, March 1945

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 Nor­mandy landings (D-Day) and was given charge of the First U.S. 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 First U.S. 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 Nazi-occupied Western 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 Seventh U.S. 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 Third U.S. 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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