By the beginning of March 1945 the Western Allies, advancing on a broad front, were closing up on the River Rhine, the last great natural barrier between them and Germany’s heartland. Up until that point, the Germans had destroyed all the River’s bridges the Americans came across. Yet on March 7, at the small German town of Remagen, the American 9th Armored Division came across an intact bridge over the Rhine, the Ludendorff bridge. They needed to capture it to ensure the Rhine crossing by Armored Units, something that had only been possible in dribs and drabs using small infantry patrols and rafts. In turn, the Germans realised the bridge’s strategic importance and went all out to try and destroy the Ludendorff bridge.
On March 7 the VII Corps of the US First Army had reached the Rhine at Cologne. But the Germans had destroyed all the bridges across the river. About 72 kilometres to the south lay the town of Remagen, overlooking the Ludendorff railway bridge spanning the Rhine.
At 12:56 PM that day, the men of A Company, 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, reached the top of a gorge on the Rhine’s west bank to find themselves staring down an intact bridge over the river. The men were somewhat surprised. Until then, the Germans had blown up all bridges they came across. The unit, commanded by 22-year-old Lieutenant Karl Timmermann, travelled in the half-track military vehicle, accompanied by four Pershing M-26 tanks.
They were part of Task Force Engeman, named after Lieutenant-Colonel Leonard Engeman. The task force was part of Brigadier-General William Hogue’s Combat Command B of 9th Armored Division. Its orders were to capture the town of Remagen before turning south to link up with other units of their division.
Once they arrived at Remagen, Timmermann and his men saw the Germans’ exodus’ remnants, often with horse-drawn carriages and battered vehicles rolling over the bridge in a disorganised manner. Timmermann radioed Engeman, and informed him it appeared the Ludendorff Bridge was intact. Engeman, in turn, quickly made his way to the bridge. The men did quick reconnaissance, and Engeman decided he didn’t want to risk a drive down the narrow, steep-sided road running below the vantage point into town. It was the ideal setting for an ambush, and Germans were still roaming on their side of the river. Instead, Timmermann’s company was ordered to move down a wooded track to clear Remagen’s outskirts. After this, the four Pershings, under the command of Lieutenant John Grimball, would join them.
Before too long three platoons were skirmishing through the streets of Remagen, moving from building-to-building, dispersing a German patrol and capturing the railway station in town. By 2:20 PM Grimball’s tanks joined, slowly rolling down the town-path by the river. Here they began to lay down suppressive fire across the bridge to prevent any sudden enemy movement. Although the Allied troops could see Germans on the east bank, the Germans managed to shelter themselves off in the tunnel into which the rail line ran at the basalt cliff base.
40-odd minutes later, Timmermann and his number 3 Platoon, under Sergeant Joseph Delisio’s command, arrived at the town’s cemetery, close to the two granite towers at the western end of the Ludendorff Bridge. So far, the Americans had encountered barely any resistance. Meanwhile, on the German side, Remagen’s defence had not really been a priority of Field Marshal Walther Model. He was the German Army Group B commander and was looking to the north and south of Remagen for American assault crossings of the Rhine.
So when the Americans tried to take over the bridge without damaging it too much, they only faced weak and relatively uncoordinated resistance. A squad of engineers, 60 members of the Volkssturm, and some Luftwaffe anti-aircraft gunners operating a battery of 20mm flak guns which started firing at the Americans. To be fair, they were far from an intimidating bunch. The Germans fell under Major Willi Brage’s command, who higher-ups authorised to start preparing the bridge’s demolition. However, the bridge master, a local man, could only gather around 590kg of low-grade industrial explosive. Still, he attached the explosives to the girders of the bridge’s central span.
The commander of the engineer squad, Captain Karl Friesenhahn, also used some of the scarcely available explosives. He booby-trapped the approach ramp to the bridge on the west bank. He had built the ramp earlier to enable vehicles to drive up on the bridge and cross on the wooden planks laid over the rails. If the bridge wasn’t blown up, it would make crossing the bridge much easier for the Americans.
Battle for the bridge
Accompanying Bratge was Hans Scheller, the representative of Major-General Hitzfeld, the senior officer responsible for the Ludendorff Bridge. Hitzfeld had ordered Scheller to keep the bridge open for as long as possible, so the troops under his command had an escape route. Now, while Scheller agonised about blowing the bridge up, the American tanks began nosing down the town path. Twenty minutes later, Engeman realised this was the time to strike. He issued a precise command to seize the Ludendorff Bridge.
Timmermann and his men now faced the daunting prospect of taking an objective which at any moment might explode beneath their feet. Within two minutes, their nervous deliberations were interrupted by a heavy explosion as Friesenhahn detonated the approach ramp’s charges. When the smoke cleared, the bridge was still standing, albeit a bit damaged. The explosives didn’t manage to destroy the bridge. Timmermann immediately ordered his company to seize the bridge.
Soldiers scrambled through the craters to the bridge when there was a second explosion. The Ludendorff Bridge now flew in the air and settled again. The main charges too had been blown up, but part of the electrical firing mechanism had failed. The American tanks on the west bank continued their firing while Task Force Engeman positioned their assault guns and launched a barrage of fire against the Americans. One of Friesenhahn’s engineers, Sergeant Faust, ran through the firing from both sides to ignite the fuse in the manual firing box on the bridge.
Managing to light the fuse, Faust only returned to the tunnel’s shelter when the charges went off. Huge chunks of debris crashed into the Rhine, but still, after the smoke cleared, the bridge stood tall. Although the central span was twisted at this point and there was a gaping hole in the flooring.
Under heavy fire by the Germans, the Americans now zig-zagged their way across the bridge. The machine-guns in the eastern tower were quickly silenced, and the first Allied soldier set foot on the east bank of the Rhine. It was Sergeant Alex Drabik, Squad leader in No.3 platoon. Considering he ran near 400 meters over the bridge, taking fire from the Germans, while the charges under the bridge could blow up at any minute, this was quite the feat. For his bravery, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
By 4 PM about 75 American troops had passed safely across the bridge, taking their first surrendering German prisoners. Behind the soldiers, Allied engineers were cutting cables and hurling undetonated charges into the Rhine. There was still an explosion hazard, and the bridge was vital to the transport of armoured divisions.
As the bridgehead at Remagen expanded, the Germans threw some desperate counter-attacks to destroy the bridge. All of them failed. Over a week after the Allies had secured the bridge, the Luftwaffe was still trying to bomb it, together with the three tactical bridges the US engineers erected alongside it. They even sent V-2 guided long-range missiles. All of these missed their targets but did kill German civilians living in the vicinity of the bridge. Ten days after the bridge was secured, on March 17, the Ludendorff bridge finally toppled into the Rhine. Not without casualties though, 28 Allied troops died during the collapse. In terms of logistics, the destruction wasn’t too worrying. The Americans already established a bridgehead and two emergency bridges, ensuring Germany’s penetration by Allied armoured units.
The German defenders of the bridge were charged in absentia. Friesenhahn was acquitted and Bratge was sentenced to death. The crossing of the Rhine by the Americans had done a lot of good for the Allied troops invading Germany and was a crucial blow, albeit one of many, to the German morale.