During the closing stages of World War 2 in Europe the U.S. First Army launched Operation Lumberjack. Designed to reach the west bank of the Rhine River, US troops quickly advanced on the German cities of Cologne, Bonn, and Remagen. Aware that the Rhine posed the last major geographic obstacle to Allied troops during the invasion of Germany, Hitler ordered the bridges over the river destroyed. On the morning of March 7, 1945, the 9th Armored Division of the U.S. First Army reached the heights overlooking the town of Remagen Looking down at the Rhine, they were stunned to find that the Ludendorff Bridge was still standing. This film documents the events surrounding the capture of the Ludendorff Bridge giving the U.S. forces the first bridgehead on the Rhine.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND / CONTEXT
The Battle of Remagen during the Allied invasion of Germany resulted in the unexpected capture of the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine and possibly shortened World War 2 in Europe. After capturing the Siegfried Line, the 9th Armored Division of the US First Army had advanced unexpectedly quickly towards the Rhine River. They were very surprised to see that the railroad bridge was still standing. The Germans had wired the bridge with about 2,800 kilograms (6,200 lb) of demolition charges. When they tried to blow it up, only a portion of the explosives detonated. US forces captured the bridge and rapidly expanded their first bridgehead across the Rhine, two weeks before Operation Plunder. The GIs’ actions prevented the Germans from regrouping east of the Rhine and consolidating their positions.
The battle for control of the bridge caused both the American and German forces to employ new weapons and tactics in combat for the first time. Over the next 10 days, the Germans used virtually every weapon at their disposal to try to destroy the bridge. This included infantry and armor, howitzers, mortars, floating mines, mined boats, a railroad gun, and a giant 540mm super-heavy mortar. To protect the bridge against aircraft, the Americans positioned the largest concentration of anti-aircraft weapons during World War 2 leading to “the greatest antiaircraft artillery battles in American history.” The German Luftwaffe attacked the bridge with as many aircraft as it could muster. The Americans claimed to have shot down nearly 30% of the aircraft dispatched against them. The German air offensive failed.
On 17 March, German dictator Adolf Hitler ordered Schutzstaffel (SS) General Hans Kammler to fire V2 rockets to destroy the bridge. This marked the first time the missiles had been used against a strategic objective and the only time they were fired on a German target. The 11 missiles launched killed six Americans and a number of German citizens in nearby towns, but failed to damage the bridge. When the Germans sent a squad of seven naval demolition swimmers wearing Italian underwater breathing apparatus, the Americans were ready. For the first time in combat, they deployed the extremely bright Canal Defense Lights which successfully detected the frogmen in the dark, and they were all eliminated or captured.
The sudden capture of a bridge across the Rhine was front page news in American newspapers. The unexpected availability of a bridgehead on the eastern side of the Rhine more than two weeks in advance of the planned crossing allowed Allied high commander Dwight Eisenhower to alter his plans to end the war. The Allies were able to rapidly transport five divisions across the Rhine into the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. The bridge had endured months of aircraft bombing, direct artillery hits, near misses, and deliberate demolition attempts. It finally collapsed at 3:00 PM on 17 March. But by then U.S. Army combat engineers had finished building a tactical steel tread way bridge and a heavy duty pontoon bridge followed by a Bailey bridge across the Rhine. Over 25,000 troops crossed into Germany before the Americans broke out of the bridgehead on 25 March 1945. This was 18 days after the bridge had been captured. German and American military authorities agreed that capturing the bridge shortened the war. The Ludendorff Bridge was not rebuilt following World War 2.