THE RHINE was by far the most formidable of the rivers the GIs had to cross. It rises in the Alps and flows generally north to Arnhem, where it makes a sharp turn to the west. It is between 200 and 500 metres wide, swift and turbulent, with great whirlpools and eddies. The Germans on the far bank were disorganized and demoralized but still determined and capable of utilizing the natural advantages the Rhine gave them to defend their country. There were only two or three places from Cologne south that were possible crossing sites. Worse, along that stretch there were no major objectives on the east bank inland for some 50 kilometres, and the hinterland was heavily wooded, undulating, and broken by narrow valleys.
North of Cologne, Montgomery's Twenty-first Army Group had many suitable crossing sites, good terrain for a mobile offensive, and major objectives just across the Rhine in the Ruhr Valley. Beyond the Ruhr, the plain led straight to Berlin. So while Elsenhower's heart was with Bradley, Hodges, and Patton, his mind was with Monty. SHAEF G3 had decided that north was the place for the main crossing. Eisenhower agreed, but warned that "the possibility of failure cannot be overlooked. I am, therefore, making logistic preparations which will enable me to switch my main effort from the north to the south should this be forced upon me."
As MONTGOMERY'S armies were closing to the river, he began to build his supply base for the assault crossing. Altogether he required 250,000 tons of supplies for the British and Canadian forces and the US Ninth Army and 17th Airborne Division. Ninth Army had been part of Twenty-first Army Group since the preceding fall; the 17th Airborne Division had arrived in Europe in December.
Montgomery's planning for the Rhine crossing was almost as elaborate as for Overlord. Eighty thousand men, slightly less than half the number of men who went into France on June 6, 1944, would cross the Rhine by boat or transport aeroplane on the first day for Operations Plunder (the crossing by boat) and Varsity (the airborne phase), with an immediate follow-up force of 250,000 and an ultimate force of 1 million.
Montgomery set D-day for March 24. For the two weeks preceding the assault he laid down a massive smoke screen that concealed the buildup-and gave the Germans ample warning about where he was going to cross. The air forces pounded the Germans on the east bank with 50,000 tons of bombs. Monty invited Churchill and other dignitaries to join him to watch the big show.
Beginning February 28, Ninth Army had been pushing east. Company K, 333rd Regiment, received orders to take the village of Hardt, between the Rur and the Rhine. After an all-day march through mud and cold, followed by a few hours' rest, the company formed up an hour before dawn. Everyone was groggy, exhausted and wary, since they knew their flank was open, yet they were pressing on deeper into the German lines.
The company moved out to Hardt, attacked, and got stopped by machine-gun fire and a shower of 88s. Two men were killed. The others hit the ground. Sergeant George Pope's squad got caught in the open.
"We were all pinned down," he remembered. "It was flat as a floor. There wasn't a blade of grass you could hide under. I'm yelling 'Shoot, you sons of bitches!' That was a tough time."
Lieutenant Bill Masters was in the edge of a wood with half of his platoon. The remainder of his men and other platoons were getting pounded out in the open flat field. Masters recalled: "I decided I had to get these guys moving or a lot more were going to get killed." He ran forward, swearing at the men to get them going as he passed them. "I got up as far as a sugar-beet mound that gave some cover, close enough to toss a grenade at the German machine gunner right in front of me. But I couldn't get the grenade out of my pocket-it was stuck." A German tossed a potato masher. "It landed right next to me but didn't explode."
The enemies commenced firing at each other. Both missed. Both ran out of ammunition at precisely the same time. Masters knelt on one knee, reloaded, as did the German. The enemies looked up at the same time and fired simultaneously. Masters put a bullet between the machine gunner's eyes. When Masters took off his helmet to wipe his brow, he found a bullet hole through the top.
Masters ran to the first building on the outskirts of town. "I had this deadend kid from Chicago I'd made my bodyguard. He came in close behind me, and then a number of men pulled up and we went from building to building cleaning out the place and captured a sizable batch of German paratroopers." Lieutenant Paul Leimkuehler gave a more vivid description of Masters's action: "He was leading, running down the main street like a madman, shooting up everything in his way."
The company advanced and by March 7 was in Krefeld, on the banks of the Rhine. By some miracle the men found an undamaged high-rise apartment building in which everything worked-electricity, hot water, flush toilets, telephones. They had their first hot baths in four months. They found cigars and bottles of cognac. Private Bocarski, fluent in German, lit up, sat down in an easy chair, got a befuddled German operator on the phone, and talked his way through to a military headquarters in Berlin. He told the German officer he could expect K Company within the week.
That was not to be. Having reached the river, K Company, along with the rest of Ninth Army, would stay in place until Montgomery had everything ready for Operation Plunder.
ON MARCH 7 Patton's forces were still fighting west of the Rhine, trying to close to the river from Koblenz south to Mainz. The best stretch of river for crossing south of Cologne was in his sector. He was thinking of crossing on the run and hoping he could do it before Montgomery's operation even got started-and before Hodges's First Army. too, if possible.
But his men were exhausted. "Signs of the prolonged strain had begun to appear," one regimental history explained. "Slower reactions in the individual, a marked increase in cases of battle fatigue, and a lower standard of battle efficiency all showed quite clearly that the limit was fast approaching." Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, was typical. It consisted of veterans whose bone weariness was so deep they were indifferent, plus raw recruits. Still, it had the necessary handful of leaders, as demonstrated by Lieutenant Lee Otts in the second week in March, during Third Army's drive towards the Rhine. Private George Idelson described it in a 1988 letter to Otts: "My last memory of you-and it is a vivid one-is of you standing in a fierce mortar and artillery barrage, totally without protection, calling in enemy coordinates. I know what guts it took to do that. I can still hear those damn things exploding in the trees."
Otts established a platoon CP and started to dig a foxhole. "Mortar shells started falling almost as thick as rain drops," he remembered.
"Instead of covering my head, I, like a fool, propped up on my right elbow with my chin resting on my hand, looking around to see what was going on. All of a sudden something hit me on the left side of my jaw that felt like a blow from Jack Dempsey's right. I stuck my hand up to feel the wound and it felt as though half my face was missing." The company commander came limping over. He had been hit in the foot and intended to turn the company over to Otts, but he took one look at Otts's face and cried, "My God, no, not you too," and limped back to his foxhole.
Otts got up to start walking back to the aid station, when a sniper got him in the shoulder, the bullet exiting from his back without hitting any bone. He was on his way home. For the others the pounding continued. Lieutenant Jack Hargrove recalled: "All day men were cracking mentally and I kept dashing around to them but it didn't help. I had to send approximately fifteen back to the rear, crying. Then two squad leaders cracked, one of them badly."
FIRST Army was moving east all along its front, making ten miles per day, sometimes more. They were taking big bags of prisoners. They were looking forward to getting to the river, where they anticipated good billets in warm, dry cellars and a few days to rest and refit. There was even a chance they could stay longer, as there were no plans for crossing in their sector. First Army was, in essence, SHAEF's reserve. Eisenhower counted on it to give him the flexibility to send a number of divisions either north to reinforce Monty or south to reinforce Patton, depending on developments.
Early on March 7, on First Army's right flank, 9th Armoured Division was sent to close to the west bank of the Rhine. The mission of Combat Command B (CCB) of the 9th, commanded by General William Hoge, was to occupy the west bank town of Remagen, where a great railroad bridge spanned the Rhine. It had been built in World War I and named after General Eric Ludendorff. On the east bank there was an escarpment, the Erpeler Ley. Virtually sheer, rising some 170 metres, it dominated the river valley. The train tracks followed a tunnel through the Erpeler Ley.
As CCB moved towards the Rhine, Lieutenant Harold Larsen flew ahead in a Piper Cub, looking for targets of opportunity. At around 1030 he was approaching Remagen, when he saw the Ludendorff Bridge, its massive superstructure intact, looming out in the fog and mists. Larsen radioed General Hoge, who immediately sent orders to the units nearest Remagen to take the bridge. They were the 27th Armoured Infantry Battalion and the 14th Tank Battalion. Hoge formed them into a task force under Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Engeman, who put Lieutenant Emmet "Jim" Burrows's infantry platoon in the lead. Brushing aside light opposition, Task Force Engeman reached a wood just west of Remagen a little before noon. Burrows emerged from the wood onto a cliff overlooking the Rhine. German soldiers were retreating across the Ludendorff Bridge.
Burrows called back to Lieutenant Karl Timmermann, 22 years old, who had just assumed command of Company A the previous day. A touch of irony: Timmermann had been born in Frankfurt am Main, less than 160 kilometres from Remagen. His father had been in the American occupation forces in 1919, had married a German girl, stayed in the country until 1923, when he returned to his native Nebraska with his wife and son. Timmermann had joined the army in 1940 and earned his bars at officer candidate school at Fort Benning.
Timmermann was told to get into the town with his infantry and tanks. As Timmermann set out, Hoge set off cross-country in a jeep to get to the scene, weighing the prospects of capturing the bridge. He had just received an order to proceed south on the west bank until he linked up with the left flank of Third Army. To go for the bridge he would have to disobey direct orders, risking a court-martial and disgrace.
At 1500 Hoge arrived. Timmermann, meanwhile, had fought through scattered resistance and by 1600 was approaching the bridge. Germans on the east bank were firing machine guns and antiaircraft guns at his company. His battalion commander. Major Murray Deevers, joined Timmermann. "Do you think you can get your company across that bridge?" he asked.
"Well, we can try it, sir," Timmermann replied.
"What if the bridge blows up in my face?" Timmermann asked. Deevers turned and walked away without a word. Timmermann called to his squad leaders, "All right, we're going across."
He could see German engineers working with plungers. A huge explosion sent a volcano of stone and earth erupting from the west end of the bridge. The Germans had detonated a charge that gouged a deep hole in the earthen causeway joining the road and the bridge platform. The crater made it impossible for vehicles to get onto the bridge-but not infantry.
Timmermann turned to a squad leader: "Now, we're going to cross this bridge before-" At that instant there was another deafening roar. The Germans had set off a demolition two thirds of the way across the bridge. Awestruck, the men of A Company watched as the huge structure lifted up, and steel, timbers, dust, and thick black smoke mixed in the air. Many of the men threw themselves on the ground.
Ken Hechler, in The Bridge at Remagen, described what happened next:
"Everybody waited for Timmermann's reaction. 'Thank God, now we won't have to cross that damned thing,' Sergeant Mike Chinchar said fervently, trying to reassure himself.
"But Timmermann, who had been trying to make out what was left of the bridge through the thick haze, yelled, 'Look-she's still standing.' Most of the smoke and dust had cleared away, and the men followed their commander's gaze. The sight of the bridge still spanning the Rhine brought no cheers. The suicide mission was on again." Timmermann could see German engineers working frantically to try again to blow the bridge. He waved his arm overhead in the "follow me" gesture. Machine-gun fire from one of the bridge towers made him duck. One of A Company's tanks pulled up to the edge of the crater and blasted the tower. The German fire let up.
Timmermann was shouting, "Get going, you guys, get going." He set the example, moving onto the bridge himself. That did it. The lead platoon followed, crouching, running in the direction of the Germans on the far shore. Sergeant Joe DeLisio led the first squad. Sergeants Joe Petrencsik and Alex Drabik led the second. In the face of more machine-gun fire, they dashed forward. "Get going," Timmermann yelled. The men took up the cry. "Get going," they shouted at one another. Engineers were right behind them, searching for demolitions and tearing out electrical wires. The names were Chinchar, Samele, Massie, Wegener, Jensen. They were Italian, Czech, Norwegian, German, Russian-children of European immigrants come back to the old country to liberate it.
On the far side, at the entrance to the tunnel, they could see a German engineer pushing on a plunger. There was nothing for it but to keep going. And nothing happened. Apparently a stray bullet or shell had cut the wire leading to the demolition charges. DeLisio got to the bridge towers, ran up the circular staircase of the one to his right, and on the fourth level found three German machine gunners firing at the bridge.
"Hande hoch!" DeLisio commanded. They gave up; he picked up the gun they had been using and hurled it out the firing window. Men on the bridge saw it and were greatly encouraged. Drabik came running at top speed. He passed the towers and got to the east bank. He was the first GI to cross the Rhine. Others were on his heels. They quickly made the German engineers in the tunnel prisoners. Timmermann sent Lieutenant Burrows and his platoon up the Erpeler Ley. Burrows took casualties, but he got to the top, where he saw far too many German men and vehicles spread out before him to even contemplate attacking them. But he had the high ground, and the Americans were over the Rhine.
Sixteen-year-old Private Heinz Schwarz, who came from a village a short distance upstream, was in the tunnel. He heard the order ring out:
"Everybody down! We're blowing the bridge!" He heard the explosion and saw the bridge rise up: "We thought it had been destroyed, and we were saved." But as the smoke cleared, he saw Timmermann and his men coming on. He ran to the entrance to the tunnel. "I knew I had to somehow get myself out through the rear entrance of the tunnel and run home to my mother as fast as I could." He did. Fifteen years later he was a member of the Bundestag, part of the federal legislature of West Germany. At a ceremony on March 7,1960, he met DeLisio, and they swapped stories.
AS THE WORD of Timmermann's toehold spread up the chain of command, each general responded by ordering men on the scene to get over the bridge, for engineers to repair it, for units in the area to change direction and head for Remagen. Bradley was the most enthusiastic of all. He had been fearful of a secondary role in the final campaign, but with Hodges over the river he decided immediately to get First Army fully involved.
Bradley got on the phone to Eisenhower. When he heard the news, Ike was ecstatic. Bradley said he wanted to push everything across he could. "Sure," Ike responded. "Get right on across with everything you've got. It's the best break we've had."
The Germans agreed with Eisenhower and Bradley that the Luden-dorff Bridge was suddenly the most critical strategic spot in Europe. So, like the Americans, they began rushing troops and vehicles to the site. For the Germans it was a hellish march through mud, traffic jams, abandoned vehicles, dead horses, dead men. Piper Cubs would spot them and bring down shelling from American artillery on the west bank.
For the Americans it was a hellish march over the bridge. Captain Roland of the 99th Division crossed on the night of March 7-8, to the "whistle and crash of hostile shells. How exposed and vulnerable I felt on that strip of metal high above the black, swirling waters. Walking forward became extremely difficult. I had the feeling that each projectile was' headed directly at my chest." Colonel William Westmoreland (USMA, 1936), chief of staff of the 9th Armoured, crossed that night lying on his belly on the hood of a jeep, spotting for holes in the planking that covered the railroad tracks. In the morning he set up an antiaircraft battery on top of the Erpeler Ley. He saw his first jet aircraft that day.
Hitler ordered courts-martial for those responsible for failing to blow the bridge. The American crossing at Remagen cost Field Marshal Rundstedt his job as commander in the West; Hitler dismissed four other generals and ordered an all out assault to destroy the bridge, including jets-plus V-2s, plus frogmen to place explosives in the pilings, plus constant artillery bombardment. The Americans hurried antiaircraft into the area. One observer of a German air strike recalled that when the planes appeared, "there was so much firing from our guys that the ground shuddered; it was awesome. The entire valley around Remagen became cloaked in smoke and dust before the Germans left-only three minutes after they first appeared."
The Americans poured in artillery, depending on Piper Cub FO's (forward observers) to direct the shells to a ripe target. Sergeant Oswald Filla, a panzer commander, recalled, "Whenever we went anywhere around the bridgehead to see what could be done, we had, at most, a half-hour before the first shells arrived."
As the infantry and armour gradually forced the Germans back, hundreds of engineers worked to repair the bridge even as it was getting pounded, while thousands of others laboured to get pontoon bridges across the river. The 291st Engineer Combat Battalion (ECB) worked with grim resolve despite air and artillery assaults. The engineers also built log and net booms upstream to intercept German explosives carried to the bridge by the current.
Major Jack Barnes (USMA, 1938) of the 51st ECB was in charge of building a 25 ton heavy pontoon bridge. His description of how it was done illustrates how good the American engineers had become at this business. Construction began at 1600 hours, March 10, with the building of approach ramps on both shores two kilometres upstream of the bridge. Smoke pots hid the engineers from German snipers, but "enemy artillery fire harassed the bridge site. Several engineers were wounded and six were killed. The Germans even fired several V-2 rockets from launchers in Holland, the only time they ever fired on German soil.
"The bridge was built in parts, with four groups working simultaneously, mostly by feel in the dark. By 0400 the next morning, fourteen 4-boat rafts had been completed and were ready to be assembled together as a bridge. When the rafts were in place they were reinforced with pneumatic floats between the steel pontoons so the bridge could take the weight of 36-ton Sherman tanks."
But as the bridge extended to midstream, the anchors couldn't hold the rafts in place. Barnes continued: "We discovered that the Navy had some LCVPs in the area and we requested their assistance. Ten came to the rescue. They were able to hold the bridge against the current until we could install a one-inch steel cable across the Rhine immediately upstream of the bridge, to which the anchors for each pontoon were attached. The remaining four-boat rafts were connected to the anchor cable, eased into position and connected to the ever-extending bridge until the far shore was reached.
"Finally, at 1900 March 11, twenty-seven hours after starting, the 969foot heavy pontoon bridge was completed. It was the longest floating bridge ever constructed by the Corps of Engineers under fire. Traffic started at 2300, with one vehicle crossing every two minutes."
On March 15 the great structure of the Ludendorff Bridge, pounded unmercifully by first the Americans and then the Germans, sagged abruptly and fell apart with a roar, killing twenty-eight and injuring ninety-three engineers. By then the Americans had six pontoon bridges over the river and nine divisions on the far side. They were in a position to head east, then north, to meet Ninth Army, which would be crossing the Rhine north of Dtisseldorf. When First and Ninth armies met, they would have the German Fifteenth Army encircled.
Remagen was one of the great victories in the US Army's history. All that General Marshall had worked for and hoped for in creating this citizen army, happened. The credit goes to the men-Timmermann, DeLisio, Drabik, through to Hoge, Bradley, and Ike-and to the system the army had developed, which bound these men together into a team that featured initiative at the bottom and a cold-blooded determination and competency at the top.
UP NORTH Montgomery's preparations continued. Down south Patton's Third Army cleared the Saarland and the Palatinate. On the night of March 22-23, his 5th Division began to cross the river at Oppenheim, south of Mainz. The Germans were unprepared. Well before dawn the whole of the 5th and a part of the 90th Division were across.
At dawn German artillery began to fire, and the Luftwaffe sent twelve planes to bomb and strafe. The Americans pushed east anyway. By the afternoon the whole of the 90th Division was on the far side, along with the 4th Armoured. Patton called Bradley: "Brad, don't tell anyone, but I'm across."
"Well, I'll be.damned-you mean across the Rhine?"
"Sure am. I sneaked a division over last night."
The following day Patton walked across a pontoon bridge built by his engineers. He stopped in the middle. While every GI in the immediate area who had a camera took his picture, he urinated into the Rhine. As he buttoned up, Patton said, "I've waited a long time to do that."
THAT NIGHT Montgomery put his operation in motion. More than 2,000 American guns opened fire at 0100, March 24. For an hour more than a thousand shells a minute ranged across the Rhine. Meanwhile, 1406 B-17s unloaded on Luftwaffe bases just east of the river. At 0200 assault boats pushed off. Things went so well that before daylight the 79th and 30th divisions were fully across the river, at a cost of only thirty-one casualties.
At airfields in Britain, France, and Belgium, the paratroopers and gliderborne troops from the British 6th and the American 17th Airborne divisions began to load up. This was an airborne operation on a scale comparable with D-Day; on June 6, 1944, 21,000 British and American airborne troops had gone in, while on March 24, 1945, it was 21,680. There were 1,696 transport planes and 1348 gliders involved (British Horsa and Hamicar gliders, and American Wacos; all of them made of canvas and wood). They would be guarded on the way to the drop zone and landing zone (DZ and LZ) by more than 900 fighter escorts, with another 900 providing cover over the DZ. To the east 1,250 P-47s would guard against German movement to the DZ. while 240 B-24s would drop supplies. Counting the B-17s that saturated the DZ with bombs, there were 9,503 Allied planes involved.
A couple of B-17s were loaded with cameramen and assigned to fly around the DZ to take pictures. What concerned them was the flak: the Ruhr Valley and environs, Germany's industrial heartland, was the most heavily defended in the country. The transports and gliders would be coming in low and slow, beginning just after 1000 hours. The tow planes had two gliders each, instead of one as on D-Day, a hazardous undertaking even on an exercise.
The DZ was just north and east of Wesel. It took the air armada two and a half hours to cross the Rhine. Lieutenant Ellis Scripture was the navigator on the lead plane. It was a new experience for him to fly in a B-17 at 500 feet and 120 knots-perilously close to stall-out speed. Still, he recalled, "It was a beautiful spring morning and it was a tremendous thrill for us as we led the C 47s to the middle of the Rhine. The thrill was the climax of the entire war as we poured tens of thousands of troops across the final barrier."
Across the river the German antiaircraft guns sprang to life. The flak and ground fire were the most intense of any airborne operation of the war. One American veteran from the Normandy drop said there "was no comparison," while an experienced British officer said that "this drop made Arnhem look like a Sunday picnic."
Sergeant Valentin Klopsch, in command of a platoon of German engineers in a cow stable about ten kilometres north of Wesel, described the action from his point of view. First there was the air bombardment, then the artillery. "And now, listen," Klopsch said. "Coming from across the Rhine there was a roaring in the air. In waves aircraft were approaching at different heights. And then the paratroopers were jumping, the chutes were opening like mushrooms. It looked like lines of pearls loosening from the planes."
The Luftwaffe gunners went back to work, "but what a superiority of the enemy in weapons, in men, in equipment. The sky was full of paratroopers, and then new waves came in. And always the terrible roaring of the low-flying planes. All around us was turning like a whirl." The Americans attacked Klopsch's cowshed. His platoon fired until out of ammunition, when Klopsch put up a white flag. "And then the Americans approached, chewing gum, hair dressed like Cherokees, but Colts at the belt." He and the surviving members of his platoon were marched to a POW cage on a farm and ordered to sit. Decades later he recalled, "What a wonderful rest after all the bombardments and the terrible barrage."
The C-46s took a pounding from the flak. This was the first time they had been used to carry paratroopers. The plane had a door on each side of the fuselage, which permitted a fast exit for the troopers, but the fuel system was highly vulnerable to enemy fire. Fourteen of the seventy-two C-46s burst into flames as soon as they were hit. Eight others went down; the paratroopers got out, but the crews did not.
For the gliders it was terrifying. The sky was full of air bursts; machinegun bullets ripped through the canvas. The pilots-all lieutenants, most of them not yet eligible to vote-could not take evasive action. They fixed their eyes on the spot they had chosen to land and tried to block out everything else. Nearly all made crash landings amid heavy small-arms fire.
Private Wallace Thompson, a medic in the paratroopers, was assigned a jeep placed inside a glider, and rode in the jeep's driver's seat behind the pilots of a Waco. Through the flight he kept telling the pilots, Lieutenants John Heffner and Bruce Merryman, that he would much prefer to jump into combat. They ignored his complaints. As they crossed the river, the pilots told Thompson to start his engine so that as they landed, they could release the nose latches and he could drive out.
Over the target, a few metres above the ground, an 88 shell burst just behind Thompson's jeep. The concussion broke the latches of the nose section, which flipped up, throwing the pilots out. The blast cut the ropes that held the jeep, which leaped out of the glider, engine running, flying through the air, Thompson gripping the steering wheel with all his might. He made a perfect four-wheel landing and beat the glider to the ground, thus becoming the first man in history to solo in a jeep.
The glider crashed and tipped, ending rear end up. Lieutenants Merryman and Heffner survived their flying exit but were immediately hit by machine-gun bullets, Heffner in the hand and Merryman in the leg. They crawled into a ditch. Thompson drove over to them.
"What the hell happened?" he demanded, but just then a bullet creased his helmet. He scrambled out of the jeep and into the ditch, saying he'd just taken his last glider ride. Then he treated their wounds and drove Merryman and Heffner to an aid station.
Operation Varsity featured not only a flying jeep, it also provided a unique event in US Army Air Force history. At the aid station, Merryman and Heffner met the crew of a B-24 that had been shot down and successfully crash-landed. When the air force guys started to dash out of their burning plane, the first man was shot, so the rest came out with hands up. The Germans took them to the cellar of a farmhouse, gave them some Cognac, and held them "while the Germans decided who was winning. A little later the Germans realized they were losing and surrendered their weapons and selves to the bomber crew. The Germans were turned over to the airborne." This was perhaps the only time a bomber crew took German infantry prisoners.
Before the end of the day the airborne troops had all their objectives, and over the next couple of days the linkup with the infantry was complete. Twenty-first Army Group was over the Rhine.
BY THE FIRST week of spring 1945, Eisenhower's armies had done what he had been planning for since the beginning of the year_close to the Rhine along its length, with a major crossing north of Dusseldorf-and what he had dared to hope for, additional crossings by First Army in the centre and Third Army to the south. The time for exploitation had arrived. The Allied generals were as one in taking up the phrase Lieutenant Timmermann had used at the Remagen bridge-Get going!
The 90th Division, on Patton's left flank, headed east towards Hanau on the Main River. It crossed in assault boats on the night of March 28. Major John Cochran's battalion ran into a battalion of Hitler Youth officer candidates, teenage Germans who were at a roadblock in a village. As Cochran's men advanced, the German boys let go with their machine gun, killing one American. Cochran put some artillery fire on the roadblock and destroyed it. "One youth, perhaps aged 16, held up his hands," Cochran recalled. "I was very emotional over the loss of a good soldier and I grabbed the kid and took off my cartridge belt.
"I asked him if there were more like him in the town. He gave me a stare and said, 'I'd rather die than tell you anything.' I told him to pray, because he was going to die. I hit him across the face with my thick, heavy belt. I was about to strike him again when I was grabbed from behind by Chaplain Kerns. He said, 'Don't!' Then he took that crying child away. The Chaplain had intervened not only to save a life but to prevent me from committing a murder." From the crossing of the Rhine to the end of the war, every man who died, died needlessly. It was that feeling that almost turned Major Cochran into a murderer.
Hitler and the Nazis had poisoned the minds of the boys Germany was throwing into the battle. Captain F.W. Norris of the 90th Division ran into another roadblock. His company took some casualties, then blasted away, wounding many. "The most seriously wounded was a young SS
sergeant who looked just like one of Hitler's supermen. He had led the attack. He was bleeding copiously and badly needed some plasma." One of Norris's medics started giving him a transfusion. The wounded German, who spoke excellent English, demanded to know if there was any Jewish blood in the plasma. The medic said damned if he knew, in the US people didn't make such a distinction. The German said if he couldn't have a guarantee that there was no Jewish blood he would refuse treatment.
Norris remembered: "In very positive terms I told him I really didn't care whether he lived or not, but if he did not take the plasma he would certainly die. He looked at me calmly and said, 'I would rather die than have any Jewish blood in me.'
"So he died."
BY MARCH 28 First Army had broken out of the Remagen bridgehead. General Rose's 3rd Armoured Division led the way, headed for the linkup with Ninth Army. That day Rose raced ahead, covering 90 miles, the longest gain on any single day of the war for any American unit. By March 31 he was attacking a German tank training centre outside Paderborn. Rose was at the head of a column in his jeep. Turning a corner, his driver ran smack into the rear of a Tiger tank. The German tank commander, about eighteen years old, opened his hatch and levelled his burp gun at Rose, yelling at him to surrender.
Rose, his driver, and his aide got out of the jeep and put their hands up. For some reason the tank commander became extremely agitated and kept hollering while gesturing towards Rose's pistol. Rose lowered his arm to release his web belt and drop his holster to the ground. Apparently the German boy thought he was going to draw his pistol. In a screaming rage he fired his machine pistol straight into Rose's head, killing him instantly. Maurice Rose was the first and only division commander killed in ETO.
In most cases the retreating Germans did not stop to fight. Generally they passed right through the villages, rather than use them as strongpoints. First and Third armies were advancing in mostly rural areas, spending their nights in houses. The GIs would give the inhabitants five minutes or so to clear out. The German families were indignant. The GIs were insistent. As Major Max Lale put it in a March 30 letter home,
"None of us have any sympathy for them."
The rural German homes had creature comforts-electricity, hot water, soft, white toilet paper-such as most people thought existed in 1945 only in America. On his first night in a house Private Joe Burns spent five minutes in a hot shower. Fifty-one years later he declared it to be "the most exquisite five minutes in my life. Never before or since have I had such pure pleasure." Private David Webster recalled washing his liands at the sink and deciding, "This was where we belonged. A small, sociable group, a clean, well-lighted house [behind blackout curtains], a cup of coffee-paradise." Things were looking up, even though there was still a lot of Germany to overrun.