The course of war is sometimes dictated not by strategy, the technical skill of soldiers or even the quality of equipment, but by luck – and knowing how to exploit a small stroke of good fortune.
As a German retreat from the Rhineland became increasingly likely, the Nazi high command issued orders to lay explosive charges on the bridges across the Rhine. If it proved impossible to hold the west bank, the German troops and vehicles should be evacuated and the charges detonated.
When General Hodges’ US First Army approached the Rhine on 7 March 1945, they expected to find all the bridges blown. But the defenders of the Ludendorff rail bridge at Remagen were surprised by the approach of the first American patrols; their bridge, situated between Koblenz and Bonn, was not on any strategic route of conquest. German soldiers scrambled to detonate the charges, which caused only partial damage to the bridge, which was subsequently seized. An Allied bridgehead was quickly established on the east bank. One bridge was not enough to win the war, but it was a prize to boost morale and discourage the Germans, who discussed flying kamikaze missions into the bridge and even targeted it with V2 rockets. The bridge eventually fell of its own accord ten days later, but not before the Allies had erected temporary bridges beside it. Their forces were now building on the east side of the river, although Eisenhower chose to wait for further bridgeheads to be established before pushing forwards into central Germany.
On the night of 22–23 March, US General Patton’s Third Army reached the Rhine at Oppenheim, south of Mainz, and crossed it using boats and later a floating bridge. The next day, British Field Marshal Montgomery breached the Rhine in an elaborate “invasion within an invasion”, Operation Plunder. One million ground troops stormed across the river, supported by 14,000 paratroopers who landed on the opposite shore.
The US Seventh Army crossed the river on the night of 24–25 March near Worms. The Free French Army, delayed by the Colmar Pocket, made the crossing at sites between Mannheim and Karlsruhe between 31 March and 2 April.
Every river on the liberation route was both a line of defence for the retreating German army and an obstacle for the Allied advance. Strategy demanded careful planning as to whether a bridge should be preserved or demolished, and when. A key bridge blown up at the right time could prolong a battle by days or even weeks – as the Germans expertly demonstrated in Italy and in the battle for the Rhineland. A priority for the liberators was taking bridges intact before they could be destroyed, but this was seldom possible. If Allied ground forces couldn’t reach a bridge quickly enough to save it, they were forced to cross the river by boat under heavy fire. Only when they had established control of the opposite bank could engineers begin to build a makeshift military bridge capable of carrying tanks and other vehicles across. Failing to destroy a bridge was a costly mistake, for which the Germans paid the price at Remagen.
NSDOK (Cologne National Socialism Documentation Centre)
From 1935 to 1945, the EL-DE House functioned as the headquarters of the Cologne Gestapo. Many victims of the German secret police were held in its basements – with up to 25 people sharing one cell – and executions were carried out in the courtyard. The last Gestapo officers fled when American troops entered the city. Cologne, which straddles the Rhine, was officially taken on 6 March 1945 by the US First Army, the day before they crossed the Rhine at Remagen.
The documentation centre was founded in 1979 and serves both as a memorial to the victims of the Nazi regime and as a research centre documenting Cologne’s history during the Nazi era.
Although the Ludendorff railway bridge spanning the Rhine at Remagen collapsed in 1945, two of its towers remain intact. Today, they contain a museum recalling the bridge’s history and its role in the Liberation through photos, newspaper clippings, a video documentary and a selection of other artefacts.
Between December 1944 and March 1945, the Dortmund State Police, a branch of the Gestapo, arrested thirty known members of the Resistance in the region. They were imprisoned, along with around two hundred others (including non-German forced labourers and prisoners of war) before being taken to sites south of Dortmund, including Bittermark Forest, where they were ordered to stand in bomb craters and shot. The last mass execution was carried out on 12 April 1945, the day before a division of the US Ninth Army – who had crossed the Rhine with Montgomery in Operation Plunder – arrived in Dortmund.
The Bittermark Memorial is a stark bunker-like slab, with haunting relief images depicting the condemned.
The majority of the 3330 people buried in this cemetery are airmen whose graves were brought in from Düsseldorf, Krefeld, Mönchengladbach, Essen, Aachen and Dortmund. Four hundred and fifty are from Cologne alone. Men from other branches of the armed forces interred here mostly lost their lives during the battle of the Rhineland, or in the advance from the Rhine to the Elbe. There are also nine war graves of other nationalities, most of them Polish.
Top image: View over the Rhine to Oppenheim © Shutterstock