Beyond the Bulge

‘The failure of the Ardennes offensive meant that the war was over. What followed was only the occupation of Germany, delayed somewhat by a confused and impotent resistance.’

Albert Speer1

ON 30 DECEMBER 1944, Larry Newman stomped through the freezing snow and mud of Bastogne. ‘It was cold as hell,’ he recalled. The journalist had just talked with the Third Army’s commander: he and Patton had become friends. The general had driven into the beleaguered town to decorate Brigadier-General McAuliffe and Lieutenant-Colonel Chappuis, CO of the 502nd Airborne Infantry, with the Distinguished Service Cross for their leadership in the defence of the town. Newman wore a helmet and was dressed in olive-drab combat gear, but he carried no weapons other than those of his trade – a pencil, notepad and portable typewriter.

Newman had followed Patton’s war as a United Press International and International News Service war correspondent ever since the battlefields of North Africa and Sicily. He was in Bastogne to cover the Ardennes campaign, and began by interviewing the general. ‘Patton was calm, cool, collected,’ Newman recalled. ‘It was war to him. What he had been brought up to expect – he had served in World War I, his father graduated from VMI and his grandfather and great uncle had been killed in the Civil War, one in Pickett’s Charge, back in 1863 [at Gettysburg].’

Using his maps and reports, Patton described to Newman how the Germans had penetrated deep into Belgium, tearing open a huge dent in the Allied lines, threatening to break through to the north Belgian plain and seize Antwerp. Several papers had already referred to the salient in the Allied lines, but no one knew exactly what to call it.2 Although the battle was exactly two weeks old, Newman, new on the scene, was about to file his first despatch about it. He needed a new angle. He began to toy with the words Patton had given him on his notepad, etched with his memories of battlegrounds, stories of heroism and sacrifice, flecked with grime and blood from other conflicts.

The phenomenon had been around for as long as military history itself. A precedent had been set already during the First World War when the German front lines had curved in a giant arc around the Belgian city of Ypres throughout 1914–18, leaving an eastwards-facing fist, protruding from the British lines. In that war the Ypres area had been known as ‘The Salient’. Newman wanted something different, less formal, and more … American. ‘I named it the Battle of the Bulge’, he remembered modestly.3

Within a short space of time, Newman’s term had become widely accepted shorthand for the battle. The very next day the US Army’s newspaper, Stars and Stripes, echoed Newman’s UPI report with its own banner headline ‘Retake 1/3 of Bulge’. No papers had named the battle in such bold terms before; for example the Topeka Daily Capital in Kansas had earlier spoken of the ‘Nazi’s Salient Into Belgium’. After Newman’s story, the entire media seized on the new word and turned it against the Germans. By 15 January the Baltimore News-Post proclaimed ‘Germans Flee Bulge’, without having to qualify the headline in any way. Larry Newman had made his enduring contribution to military history.

‘On the seventeenth [of January 1945], I personally congratulated Milliken and Middleton on the successful termination of the Bulge,’ wrote Patton at the time, incorporating Newman’s vocabulary into his memoirs. ‘Although we had not driven the Germans back to the line from which they started, we had on that date begun this final operation.’4 This was the day after the First and Third Armies finally met outside Houffalize and sealed the Bulge. After that the German defeat was, if it had ever been in doubt, certain. ‘Autumn Mist’ thus lasted for exactly a month, from 16 December to 16 January.

Some writers have suggested 25 January, though the US Army’s official historians cite 28 January as the final day, when the last German detachments still fighting inside the Bulge were eliminated.5 ‘Lightning Joe’ Collins in his autobiography took the view that with Hasbrouck’s recapture of St Vith on 23 January, ‘While some fighting, chiefly by the Third Army in the southern shoulder, continued until January 28, the Battle of the Bulge was over’.6 Eisenhower thought it even more abbreviated; in his own 1948 memoir, Crusade in Europe, the campaign peters out after the link-up of the First and Third, Ike concluding, ‘The losses on both sides in the Battle of the Ardennes were considerable. Field commanders estimated in the month ending 16 January …’ Eisenhower’s son, who wrote an account, entitled The Bitter Woods, agreed, stating that on 16 January ‘The Bulge had been closed, although the battle was not considered officially over until twelve days later, when the lines were restored to those held before the morning of 16 December.’7

However, the young captain and US Army Historian who had witnessed it all, Robert E. Merriam, ended his 1947 account, ‘Still fighting the weather as much as the tough German resistance, the two armies moved forward relentlessly, and by early February the Germans were back to the West Wall, along nearly the entire length of the Ardennes front.’8 At least one military history magazine has discussed the battle being fought between 16 December to 8 February.9

A 90th Infantry Division GI, Corporal Edward A. Bennett, of Company ‘B’, 358th Infantry, is usually reckoned to be the last soldier awarded a Medal of Honor in the Ardennes offensive. When his company was pinned down by machine-gun fire coming from a house in Heckhuscheid, Bennett crawled round the back, killed a German sentry with his trench knife, entered the building and despatched three grenadiers with rifle fire, another three with his .45 pistol and clubbed to death an eighth, allowing the company’s advance to continue. However, Bennett’s act of valour took place in Heckhuscheid, a village in the Bulge battlefield, defended by the 106th Golden Lions on 16–19 December. His deed took place on 1 February 1945, long after the official closure date of the campaign.

Does ascertaining the real end-date of the Ardennes campaign matter? In terms of arriving at a true figure of the American and German dead, then, yes it should. There will be a small number of personnel from both sides who died after the US Army’s closing date of 28 January, whose sacrifices sit outside the official parameters. Apart from the estimated 3,000 Belgian and Luxembourger civilians who perished, hundreds more continued to die from unexploded ordnance in the region, and as late as 1972 a ten-year-old boy fell victim to a wartime hand grenade.10

As importantly, in today’s era, when the term ‘victory’ has become more elusive to define, how should we define victory in the Ardennes in 1945? Military tradition has it that the end of a battle occurs when the enemy is driven back to where he started. Yet local historians have assessed that after 25 January some eighty-three towns in the Ardennes region had yet to be liberated by American forces, the last of which – Leithum in northern Luxembourg and Wahlerscheid in Belgium – fell to the US 90th and 9th Divisions respectively on Thursday, 1 February.11 So perhaps Merriam was closer to the mark in suggesting that the Battle of the Bulge, to use Newman’s handy phrase, ended not on 28 January, but on 1 February, if not later.

At the beginning of 1945, Roosevelt and Churchill had shifted their strategic gaze to the Eastern Front and, as an indication of their shared concern over the Ardennes, the latter had cabled Stalin on 6 January: ‘The battle in the West is very heavy … I shall be grateful to know if you can tell me whether we can count on a major Russian offensive on the Vistula front, or elsewhere, during January … I regard this matter as urgent.’ The two Western leaders were anxious to see if Stalin was willing to take any pressure off the Ardennes with an attack in the east. The Russian leader replied the following day, ‘We are preparing an offensive, but the weather is at present unfavourable. Nevertheless, taking into account the position of our allies on the Western Front, GHQ of the Supreme Command [i.e. Stalin himself] has decided to accelerate the completion of our preparation … You may rest assured that we shall do everything possible to render assistance to the glorious forces of our allies.’12

Whether or not Stalin actually accelerated anything, the Russian New Year offensive opened with intense fury on 12 January, just as OKH Chief Heinz Guderian had warned. In this sense Stalin was a decided beneficiary of the Battle of the Bulge, with many of the Wehrmacht’s best divisions, fresh equipment and most of its armour deployed in the west. Yet there was a sting in the tail for the Western leaders, as there was for anyone negotiating with Stalin. The following month the ‘Argonaut’ Conference took place between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in the unlikely splendour of the Tsar’s former summer residence, later the HQ of Field Marshal von Manstein, the Livadia Palace, at Yalta in the Crimea.

This hugely controversial meeting was held between 4 and 11 February principally to discuss the post-war map of Europe and sparked fierce debate over the future of Poland. Stalin and his team emerged as the clear ‘winners’, due to a very frail Roosevelt and their constant reminders to the Western leaders of how the Soviet Union had rescued America and Britain militarily in their hour of need. Before this last gathering of the wartime ‘Big Three’, Churchill had, alas, overplayed his hand in requesting help, when the Bulge had already been won.13

Panic, meanwhile, gripped those Germans caught in the east, nearest Stalin’s military steamroller. Pushed back, they tried to evacuate as many personnel trapped in East Prussia and occupied Poland as possible. On 30 January 1945, the 25,000-ton Wilhelm Gustloff, a German liner packed with German civilians, officials and military personnel, was sunk by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea while evacuating from Gdynia (Gotenhafen). Due to the sheer terror of falling into Soviet hands, the ship was grossly overloaded, with around 10,600 people on board. Most, including 5,000 children, perished, making it the most tragic loss of life in maritime history. Under similar circumstances, a month later the same Russian submarine sank the liner General von Steuben on 10 February, sending to their deaths another 4,000 people fleeing the Russians.

Even as Hodges’ First and Patton’s Third were busy clearing the area of the Bulge, further north Montgomery launched Operation Blackcock on 14 January along the German–Dutch border. Named after the Scottish black male grouse, the concept was to remove General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s German Fifteenth Army from the eastern banks of the Maas (still the Meuse in various tongues) and out of their bridgehead south-west of the Roer. Miles Dempsey’s XII Corps advanced into the so-called Roer Triangle, formed by the Dutch towns of Roermond and Sittard and Heinsberg in Germany, and over twelve days pushed Zangen’s forces back further into Germany.

The Fifteenth had been slated for the Ardennes operation, but been forbidden on Hitler’s orders from participating; now it was on the receiving end of Allied military activity, regardless. Had it been committed, Zangen’s formation would surely have been shredded already in Herbstnebel,and it is difficult to see what other German forces could have been summoned to resist Blackcock. In the event, the British 7th Armoured, 43rd (Wessex) and 52nd (Lowland) Divisions and 1st Commando Brigade had completed the operation by 26 January, killing or capturing 2,500 Germans in conditions that mirrored those of the Ardennes, eighty miles to the south.

By this time, Hodges’ US First Army, which had been under Montgomery’s control since 19 December, reverted to Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group on 17 January, although Simpson’s Ninth stayed, for the time being, with Monty. This left Montgomery free to dust off his original plans to reach and cross the northern stretches of the Rhine, as his American colleagues attempted the same further south. In order to clear the western banks in preparation for an assault crossing of the great river, Crerar’s First Canadian Army, supported by Horrocks’ British XXX Corps, launched Operation Veritable on 8 February. This was designed to start from the area of Groesbeek, south of Nijmegen, which had been in Allied hands since the Market Garden operation of September 1944. Veritable was to break through the Reichswald, a densely wooded area sandwiched between the Meuse and Rhine rivers, some forty miles north of the Roer Triangle.

Apart from a thick tangle of undergrowth – no forestry had been undertaken since 1939 – the huge German state woodland was dominated by artillery, sewn with obstacles and booby traps, and was extremely muddy, which made progress almost as tough and miserable as it had been in the Hürtgen Forest. Veritable had been planned originally for early January, when the ground would have been frozen, thus offering better going for the Allies. There was also a hope that the northern end of the Siegfried Line was less well prepared than elsewhere, offering perhaps a chance to outflank defenders, but the Ardennes campaign delayed Monty’s plan by at least a month. By the time of Veritable the terrain had thawed and become a quagmire with the consistency of treacle, and the Germans were fully alert, aware of what was about to happen.

Having studied and walked part of the Veritable operation with a British military staff ride in early December 2000, I can confirm that at that time of year conditions in the Reichswald – as in all the forests of the region – are awful. In 1945 snow covered the Wehrmacht’s mines sewn the previous autumn. In 2000, armed with period combat maps on which the German positions were fully annotated, I encountered a hard forest floor which immediately gave way when I applied my whole body weight. Within seconds I was up to my knees in freezing mud, and would have sunk further had I been carrying a full battle load. Fortunately I had friends on hand to haul me out and strong, hot coffee to revive me, but in 1945 the Canadians, with supporting British troops, were also under direct threat from machine guns and indirect fire from mortars, never mind artillery shells, which burst among the tree tops, raining down red-hot needles of shrapnel everywhere.

Decades later, the undergrowth still contained the contours of anti-tank ditches, coils of rusty barbed wire which threatened nasty wounds, an unexploded mortar bomb and, deeper into the woods, one former German gun position yielded a couple of shellcases poking out of the loam. Nearby in an old foxhole was a battered mess tin of the pattern supplied to British or Canadian troops. Made of aluminium, its date of manufacture was clearly visible – 1944. Alongside was a decaying GI-issued pocket heater known as the M-42 Coleman stove after the company headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, which produced millions for US military use from 1942. The forerunner of most modern camping stoves, this one no doubt had been traded by a GI and subsequently abandoned or lost by its new owner. It made the point as graphically as my adventure with the mud that soldiers needed hot food and drinks to keep going in those wintry conditions.

Among the several accompanying veterans, Captain Ian C. Hammerton of the 22nd Dragoons was awarded a Military Cross for his command of a troop of five Sherman flail (demining) tanks. Although very effective and capable of detonating anti-personnel mines and booby traps (‘which went off like firecrackers’), and Teller (anti-tank) mines buried up to six inches underground, Hammerton recalled his tanks were ‘useless in thick forests. They broke their tracks on the numerous felled trees,’ he remembered, and were more vulnerable to sinking into the muddy floor of the Reichswald – as I had done – than to German fire. Flail tanks (which incorporated a rotating drum of chains, forward of the vehicle, which beat the ground to detonate mines) were used by the British, but much less so by the US Army.

Operation Veritable was the northern part of a pincer movement, with Operation Grenade, its southern jaw, designed to be launched simultaneously. The actors in this latter drama were Simpson’s US Ninth Army, but the Germans, meanwhile, had released the waters retained by the Roer dams and floods prevented any military activity until the levels subsided, forcing Simpson to attack late, on 23 February. Nevertheless the speed with which he attained his objectives illustrated the exhausted nature of the Wehrmacht, its energy spent earlier in the Bulge. Simpson’s GIs soon made up for lost time, erecting over a dozen bridges across the Roer, south of Heinsberg, with sixteen battalions on the far bank by nightfall of the first day. This was exactly the kind of operation Brandenberger’s German Seventh Army had been trying to achieve two months earlier, but were hampered by the lack of air cover or bridging units.

Before Veritable was complete the Allied air forces left their mark on German soil in a way that has never been forgotten. Dresden, medieval capital of Saxony, was attacked by four air raids between 13 and 15 February, when 1,250 RAF and USAAF bombers dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosives and incendiaries on the city. The resultant firestorm destroyed over 1,600 acres of urban landscape and killed around 25,000 civilians. Other raids followed, but subsequent commentators have noted that the city, about the size of Manchester, England, had at the time been the largest remaining unbombed city left in Germany. ‘The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front … and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do,’ observed a contemporary RAF briefing document.14

Unbeknownst to the Allied airmen, below in the city were many US prisoners of war, captured in the Ardennes, on work details; among them was PFC Kurt Vonnegut from the 423rd Infantry Regiment of the Golden Lions Division, taken captive on the Schnee Eifel during 19 December. His experience of being locked in a concrete abattoir during the raids and of retrieving the remains of German civilian victims afterwards gave rise to his surreal 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse Five. Endlessly discussed in college classes the world over, Vonnegut’s literary offering ensures that Dresden will always remain a disturbing footnote to the Allies’ prosecution of the war.

Even though it was obvious that the Canadians, British, French and Americans would shortly reach the west bank of the Rhine, Hitler insisted that his troops fight their corner in a series of pointless delaying actions rather than bolster the defences east of the Rhine. Veritable took two weeks to emerge from the Reichswald, just as Simpson was launching Grenade, whereupon the northern offensive was renewed as Operation Blockbuster and finally linked up with the US Ninth Army near Geldern on 4 March. The day before, the town of Krefeld, a port lying on the west bank of the Rhine and north-west of Düsseldorf, had fallen to the US 84th (Railsplitters) Division, part of Simpson’s Ninth Army. Order needed to be restored to the town’s 200,000 inhabitants quickly, so the only GI in Divisional Intelligence who spoke German (the rest knew French) was promoted to become Administrator of Krefeld, in charge of everything from gas, water, power and transportation to garbage and hunting war criminals. The fact that he was a mere private mattered not; within eight days he had rebuilt Krefeld’s civilian government: the name of this multi-talented individual was Henry A. Kissinger.15

Eisenhower and Montgomery acknowledged the Rhineland as ‘some of the fiercest fighting of the whole war’, as they approached Germany’s traditional western barrier, where those Fallschirmjäger left from the Bulge and elsewhere ‘fought with a fanaticism un-excelled at any time in the war’, thought Captain Hammerton, who had served at the front since D-Day. Fighting continued as the Germans retained a bridgehead at Wesel to evacuate men and as much equipment as possible, but on 10 March the German withdrawal ended and the last bridges over the northern Rhine were destroyed. The three-month 1945 battles for the Rhineland, incorporating Blackcock, Veritable, Grenade and Blockbuster, had cost the Germans dear; their total losses may have been as high as 400,000 men, of whom 280,000 were prisoners.

Various crossings of the Rhine followed rapidly and inevitably. To a certain extent, ever since the formation of SHAEF Eisenhower had anticipated two massive battles for his Allied forces. First was the invasion of France, followed by a crossing of the Rhine. No one had anticipated the events would be separated by as much as nine months. As Montgomery established his men along the west bank of the Rhine, he put the finishing touches to Operation Plunder, his plan to propel the Twenty-First Army Group across the river and into northern Germany. Bradley, meanwhile – still smarting from criticism of his handling of the Ardennes – prepared to execute his own scheme to cross and advance beyond the Rhine: Operation Lumberjack, starting on 1 March.

Far bolder in concept, Bradley’s concept was for his armies to forge across the Rhine and seize the industrial towns along the river, surrounding the large number of Germans known to be defending the industrial heartland of the Ruhr – the remnants of Field Marshal Model’s Army Group ‘B’. To Bradley’s mind, this presented an alternative strategy which would seize territory and immobilise most of the remaining Wehrmacht forces in the west, in contrast to Monty’s plan of thrusting deep into north-eastern Germany. Despite Eisenhower’s warnings that Berlin was not an objective of the Western Allies, Bradley and Monty may still have interpreted what had become a personal rivalry in terms of an American-British race towards the German capital. In the event, Lumberjack became a starting pistol which saw US VII Corps reach the banks of the Rhine opposite Cologne on 5 March, while, to the south, US III Corps advanced to Bonn and Remagen.

The Allies anticipated a huge setpiece river crossing, but an unforeseen opportunity arrived when the defenders failed to destroy the Ludendorff railway bridge at Remagen. The crossing, as its name implied, dated back to 1916, and was built to enhance the flow of personnel and logistics to the Western Front, a role it also fulfilled during the Ardennes offensive, with one track planked over to allow vehicular traffic. By early March it remained the last intact bridge across the Rhine, necessary because of the 75,000 troops from Zangen’s Fifteenth and Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Armies who were defending the western banks. Hitler ordered that the bridge be readied for demolition but blown at the last possible moment. Such an action is a complicated military manoeuvre known as a ‘reserve demolition’, whereby destruction is achieved when the opponent is approaching, or on, the object concerned, usually a crossing. Blown too early, friendly troops can be left on the wrong side; destroyed too late and the opposing force might have a chance to rush across.

Such was the case at 3.40 p.m. on 7 March, when, seeing American troops on the Ludendorff bridge, Hauptmann Bratge, the engineer officer with the defenders, detonated the explosive charges attached to the structure. There was a tremendous explosion as witnesses saw the bridge physically lift into the air before smoke and dust obscured the site. When the air cleared, the Ludendorff bridge remained standing, much to the Germans’ consternation: the explosives supplied had not been powerful enough to destroy it. Minutes afterwards, GIs of the US 9th Armored Division – whom we met in the Ardennes – led by Lieutenant Karl H. Timmermann, had fought their way across the still-smoking bridge. Despite efforts to contest the area, the structure had fallen into the hands of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, and the defence surrendered at 5.15 p.m. Within twenty-four hours most of the 9th Armored had been rushed across with other formations following. The initiative to try and storm the Ludendorff came from Timmermann’s superior, Brigadier-General William Hoge, leading Combat Command ‘B’, whom we met defending St Vith, with Bruce C. Clarke of the 4th Armored Division.

The first of Timmermann’s men across the bridge – and thus the first Allied soldier to reach the eastern bank of the Rhine – was Sergeant Alexander A. Drabik. His background and that of his company commander, Timmermann, neatly illustrated the chaotic story of some European migrants to America, for Drabik’s parents had been born in Poland, and Timmermann, raised in Nebraska, was the son of a US soldier of German ancestry on post-war occupation duty, and his German war bride. Both GIs had been wounded in the defence of St Vith, but since returned to duty. Some of Timmermann’s colleagues had been captured by Peiper’s Kampfgruppe and executed at Malmedy. Three months later, these two former Europeans were able to turn the tables on their tormentors in spectacular fashion at Remagen, which brought both men Distinguished Service Crosses. Eisenhower called their act ‘worth its weight in gold … one of those bright opportunities of war which, when quickly and firmly grasped, produce incalculable effects on future operations’.16

Meanwhile, persuaded he was surrounded by traitors, a vengeful Hitler ordered loyal Nazis to court-martial the local German commanders at Remagen; five were condemned to death. The Wehrmacht engineer responsible for blowing the bridge, Bratge, escaped because he was a prisoner in American hands, but the area’s defenders, Majors Scheller, Kraft and Strobel, and Leutnant Peters, were executed for no more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1967 a legal review exonerated the officers.17Although the bridge is now gone – weakened by the failed detonation and subsequent German bombing to destroy it, including raids by V-2 rockets, it collapsed into the river exactly ten days later, killing or wounding 121 US engineers in the vicinity; a very good museum at the site tells the drama of its capture and subsequent demise.

I have often visited this stretch of the Rhine, and enjoyed the company of a former Bundeswehr colonel, Hans-Joachim Krug, commissioned into the Wehrmacht in 1944, who lives in Linz, opposite Remagen on the east bank. His father was a resourceful and distinguished Wehrmacht colonel who had commanded a bunker behind a British beach on D-Day. Krug junior has built his delightful retirement home amidst some of the former gun positions overlooking the river and knows the story of the bridge in intimate detail. ‘It’s all about leadership,’ he mused one day to me when discussing Timmermann, surrounded by military history books and hunting trophies. ‘The junior leader can still make a difference in a big war. You call such a man “the strategic corporal”. It is good that individuals can still make a difference.’18 He is right. Soldiers need to know they can influence events by their determination and professionalism.

Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt has threaded his way through our story several times as Oberbefehlshaber West, but, following the loss of the Ludendorff railway bridge, the Führer was looking for scapegoats. On 9 March Hitler phoned Rundstedt from Berlin to reveal he had assigned Albert Kesselring, formerly supreme commander in Italy, to replace him. This was little more than shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic, but Rundstedt was probably happy enough to hang up his field marshal’s baton after a military career of fifty-two years. There was a final audience with Hitler on 11 March, whereupon he turned his back on the ‘Bohemian Corporal’ whom he loathed so much and retreated to a sanatorium in Bad Tölz, becoming a prisoner of the 36th Texas Division on 1 May. Generalfeldmarschall ‘Smiling Albert’ Kesselring inherited three army groups (‘H’ under Blaskowitz in the north, in the centre and the most numerous was Model’s ‘B’, and to the south, SS-Gruppenführer Paul Hausser’s Army Group ‘G’), all three amounting to no more than twenty-six divisions. At the same time there were an estimated 214 German divisions fighting the Russians, though many were divisions in name only.

Perhaps the US Army was the appropriate force to deal with the spontaneous gift of a bridge across the Rhine. On 19 March, Patton, who had been fighting through the Palatinate, received a directive from Bradley to take the water barrier ‘on the run’. His Third Army obliged on the night of 22 March, crossing by hasty assault south of Mainz at Oppenheim, just before midnight; Patton had just beaten his old sparring partner Monty across the great river. On 24 March, Patton recorded how he drove to the Rhine and went across the pontoon bridge just completed by the 540th Combat Engineers, in the middle ‘stopping to spit in the river’.

This was an expression of his unbridled joy at finally crossing the iconic waterway, but what he meant (and was corrected in later editions of his posthumous memoirs) was that the Third Army commander halted to take a piss in the fast-flowing waters, a much-photographed event. Ever the dramatist, when Patton reached the far side ‘[I]deliberately stubbed my toe and fell, picking up a handful of German soil in emulation of Scipio Africanus and William the Conqueror, who both stumbled and both made a joke of it, saying, “I see in my hands the soil of Africa”, or “… the soil of England”. I saw in my hands the soil of Germany.’19 Opposition had been light and within twenty-four hours the entire US 5th Division had crossed. The following day, Patton’s men made another Rhine crossing near Worms.

Montgomery preferred his setpiece, carefully rehearsed attacks and was personally far less inclined to be flexible. His Twenty-First Army Group, including the Canadian First, British Second and US Ninth Armies, began its offensive nearly two weeks after the Remagen drama, with Operation Plunder. This was his assault crossing of the Rhine at Rees and Wesel, where the river was twice as wide and holding a far higher volume of water than at Remagen. Plunder began at 9.00 p.m. on 23 March, and soon had over 16,000 British and American troops across in bridgeheads on the eastern bank. The troops used landing craft, US-manufactured Buffalos (also known as Alligators), DD tanks and other amphibious craft.20

Monty’s preparations were extensive: for the crossing, 8,000 Royal Engineers deployed with 22,000 tons of assault bridging, including 25,000 wooden pontoons, 2,650 assault boats of varying types, 120 river tugs, 80 miles of balloon cable and 260 miles of steel wire rope. Number 159 Wing of the RAF deployed balloon barrage personnel to operate winches that hauled ferries and rafts; even the Royal Navy provided teams to construct anti-mine booms to prevent floating mines from destroying Monty’s pontoon bridges. The comparatively light casualty rate experienced by the 153rd and 154th Brigades of 51st Highland Division, the first troops across, supported by Staffordshire Yeomanry swimming Shermans, may have justified the field marshal’s caution, but German strength and morale had largely evaporated already.21

In addition, the largest Special Forces deployment of the war was mounted by the British Special Air Service (SAS) in Operation Archway. This consisted of two reinforced SAS squadrons, 300 personnel mounted in seventy-five armed jeeps and trucks, who slid across the Rhine on 25 March. Their mission was deep reconnaissance of the German rear, seeking out centres of resistance; one group stumbled on the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and their remit widened to hunting down war criminals.

There are several interesting parallels between the planned river crossings of the opening phase of Herbstnebel and Montgomery’s later crossings of the Rhine, as executed in Operation Plunder. Both were assault river crossings against an opponent in prepared defensive positions, launched under conditions of surprise. Both employed Special Forces units operating behind the lines, though in the case of Archway the SAS wore their own uniforms. Though Hitler’s obsessions with operational security preserved the secret but compromised any meaningful training or build-up of logistics and reserves, Monty managed the opposite. His forces trained extensively and were well-resourced. One may draw the inevitable conclusion that Hitler in December 1944, with weather on his side and a complacent opponent, could have risked trading some of his secrecy for training, giving his armies more of a fighting chance than they had.

Plunder was complemented early the following morning by Operation Varsity, which saw the US 17th and British 6th Airborne Divisions – both veterans of the Bulge – dropped simultaneously from a single aerial lift, unlike deployments in Normandy and Arnhem which constituted several waves, hours or even days apart. The huge airborne effort consisted of 1,696 transport planes – mainly C-47 Dakotas and C-46 Curtiss Commandos, towing 1,348 gliders, protected by 1,000 escorting fighters – a total of no fewer that 4,000 aircraft. In addition, 120 Liberators overflew the area dropping supplies shortly after the landings.

Churchill insisted on being present (on the small knoll where he stationed himself with Brooke, the CIGS) and watched the aerial armada, which stretched for more than 200 miles and took over two and a half hours to pass. It inspired those attacking and demoralised the German defenders, as it was designed to do. Altogether, in the four days of Plunder and Varsity, Montgomery suffered 7,000 casualties including 1,000 dead – not far removed from the losses of D-Day; tragic figures so close to the end of the war, but far less than he had any right to expect.

It also conveyed a message to the Russian liaison officers attached to the various Allied headquarters. The sight was even more impressive than Normandy (where the weather obscured the aerial armada); it was a fantastic display of Anglo-Canadian-American raw military muscle, never since as numerous as it was then, and staged – reading between the lines – simply because the Allies could. (I witnessed something similar during the closing days of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, when there were many attempts to deploy hitherto uncommitted forces or introduce new weapons, not necessarily because they were needed but because of a general sense that the war-fighting phase of the invasion was about to end.)

Later that evening, Churchill recorded how Montgomery controlled his battle, via his liaison officers, just as he had done in the Ardennes.

At 8.00 p.m., we repaired to the map wagon … for nearly two hours a succession of young officers, of about the rank of major, presented themselves. Each had come back from a different sector of the front. They were the direct personal representatives of the Commander-in-Chief, and could go anywhere and see anything and ask any questions they liked of any commander, whether at divisional headquarters or with the forward troops. As in turn they made their reports and were searchingly questioned by their chief the whole story of the day’s battle was unfolded. This gave Monty a complete account of what had happened by highly competent men whom he knew well and whose eyes he trusted.22

Churchill’s account is not only illuminating about Montgomery’s style of command, but full of wistfulness; these were exactly the kind of duties he had performed as a very junior officer in 1897 on the North West Frontier (of modern Pakistan), a year later at Omdurman and subsequently in the Boer War. The whiff of cordite was part of the British Prime Minister’s very being, and, having been banned from witnessing D-Day from a warship, he had fought hard to be present for the Rhine crossing.

To the surprise of all, the crossings had not been greatly contested by General Alfred Schlemm’s First Parachute Army, perhaps reflecting the state of German morale. ‘My dear General’, Churchill is said to have observed to Eisenhower when the pair conferred on the morning of 25 March, ‘the German is whipped. We’ve got him. He is all through.’ The moment Ike departed, Churchill crossed the Rhine with Monty in a landing craft. His setting foot on the eastern bank of the river symbolised the arrival of Britain’s senior politician across the traditional border of Germany – an obstacle no hostile army since Napoleon’s had managed to traverse in war.

There was a second symbolic act Churchill felt obliged to perform, conveniently overlooked in his memoirs but attested to by those present. When he had reached the Rhine’s eastern bank, Churchill, like Patton the day before, also urinated into the waters, an act that seems to have been pretty universal from the lowest private to general or prime minister (excepting, so far as we know, Montgomery). Later in the day the Prime Minister started to clamber across the tangled railway bridge at Wesel under German artillery enemy fire. Churchill, aged seventy, greatly enjoyed the thrill of being under fire again, but for Eisenhower this adventure was too daring. The latter noted that had he been present he would never have permitted Churchill to cross the river, just as he had banned Churchill from the D-Day beaches.23

Meanwhile, further south at Remagen, the US 9th Armored Division and other units had been striving to break out of the bridgehead they had forged earlier in the month. Four panzer formations were sent there by a furious Hitler and led by the erstwhile commander of Panzer Lehr in the Ardennes, Fritz Bayerlein. By this time, the Lehr numbered a pathetic 300 men and fifteen tanks; it was accompanied by the 9th Panzer Division of 600 men and fifteen tanks, 106th Panzer Brigade with just five panzers, while the most numerous was the 11th Panzer Division with 4,000 men, twenty-five tanks and eighteen artillery pieces. They had managed to bottle up the intrepid GIs at Remagen, but had no gasoline to counter-attack.24 On 25 March the US forces finally broke out of Remagen, just as the Dempsey’s British Second Army subdued all resistance at Wesel, eighty miles north. Events moved on at a huge pace, and on the following day Patton’s Third Army captured Darmstadt and Main, allowing a link-up with General Alexander M. Patch’s US Seventh Army, who had also crossed the Rhine near Worms.

The following evening witnessed an extraordinary attempt to infiltrate an American armoured column fifty miles behind German lines, and to reach and liberate US Army captives incarcerated in a prison camp. The purpose was to free Patton’s son-in-law, Lieutenant-Colonel John K. Waters, being held near Hammelburg. Patton personally assigned the mission, which is said to have inspired the equally bizarre 1970 movie Kelly’s Heroes (starring Clint Eastwood and Telly Savalas), to Lieutenant-Colonel Creighton Abrams’ Combat Command ‘B’ of the 4th Armored Division, whom we last met at Bastogne. Led by Captain Abraham Baum, the task force of 300 men and fifty-seven tanks, jeeps and half-tracks reached the camp, but were surrounded on the return journey; most were captured and very few returned unwounded. A furious Eisenhower reprimanded Patton and the failed raid was thereafter shrouded in secrecy. The mission nevertheless reveals much about Patton’s sheer boldness as well as his humanity.

A final humiliation for Germany was the arrival on 31 March of Général Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s US-equipped French First Army, who had landed in Provence during August 1944 as part of Operation Dragoon, and fought their way through France, liberating the country as they went. Operation Undertone was General Jacob Devers’ Sixth Army Group (comprising the US Seventh and French First Armies) plan to occupy Germany up to the west bank of the Rhine, largely fought against Hausser’s Army Group ‘G’ and the southern equivalent of Bradley’s Operation Lumberjack. Assisted by Patton’s Third Army on their left who outflanked the German defenders, Undertone reached the area of Karlsruhe within ten days; then, on the last day of March, de Tassigny’s Frenchmen crossed the Rhine near Speyer, the first to do so since Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

For all but the most fanatic of Nazis, the Reich’s main effort now became to hold the Russians in the east for as long as possible in order to get as many soldiers and civilians to the west. Since the opening of the New Year’s Russian offensive on 12 January, the Red Army had advanced almost unchecked through eastern Poland and up to the German border itself. By 28 March, Dempsey’s British Second Army had begun their offensive eastwards towards the River Elbe, as Simpson’s Ninth, which had remained under British command since the battle of the Bulge, moved on as the upper arm of the Ruhr encirclement.

It was immediately obvious to all outside the Führerbunker in Berlin that the end was near, though for how much longer the fighting would last no one could tell.

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