When the time came for launching the main assault across the Rhine, the Allied armies under my command had been built up to a total strength on the Continent of nearly 4,000,000 men. The difficult manpower situation with which we had been confronted during the Ardennes Battle had been remedied and we were once more at full strength, with every unit demonstrating an unbelievably high morale and battle effectiveness.
In the 6th Army Group sector the French divisions had been reformed and strengthened, while the passing of winter facilitated the reemployment of the colonial troops for whom active operations had been impracticable during the very severe weather. To the American armies had been added fresh divisions from the United States; and to 21 Army Group had come British and Canadian reinforcements from the Mediterranean Theater. The Combined Chiefs of Staff decided, at their Malta Conference at the end of January, that the situation on the Italian Front was such as to permit the transfer of up to five divisions from the Eighth Army to the Western Front. The move of three divisions was to commence forthwith, and two more were to follow as soon as the situation in Greece allowed. In addition, a corresponding proportion of the Twelfth Air Force was to be transferred with the ground forces. The complicated process of moving the units to France and northward across the lines of communication of the Southern and Central Groups of Armies (called Operation GOLDFLAKE) was carried out efficiently and smoothly, and the security precautions taken were completely successful in concealing from the Germans what was afoot. By the time the 21 Army Group offensive across the Rhine came to be launched, these latest units to arrive were ready to play their part in it.
The enemy now found himself in an unenviable position. He had, as we had hoped, and attempted to compel, elected to stand and fight west of the Rhine, and the results had been disastrous to him. Beaten in the open field and behind his frontier fortifications, he was now in no condition to hold fast in the defensive line to which he had been compelled to retreat. His powers of resistance had been reduced by increasing shortages of weapons, ammunition, and oil which resulted from our attacks against his war economy. His losses in battle had been crippling, and these inevitably caused a deterioration in the morale of all but his elite units. The SS and the armored divisions were for the most part made up of fanatical Nazis whose faith in the cause they served could be shaken by little less than annihilation; yet the time was soon to come when even their commanders, realizing the fruitlessness of further struggle, would surrender their units rather than see their men slaughtered to no purpose. In the ordinary infantry divisions, spirits were again as low as when they had fled eastward from France to gain the shelter of the Siegfried Line in the preceding autumn. Moreover, as his losses grew, the enemy was forced more and more to entrust his defense to the ragged army of the local Volkssturm who might, in some cases, fight courageously enough in the protection of their homes, but as field units were at times as much a liability as an asset.
Such were the troops now ranged along the Rhine to bar our crossing. The front was too long for them, shrunken as their numbers were since January. While the Allies had gained the economically defensible line behind which to concentrate in safety for the overwhelming thrusts about to be launched in the selected sectors, the enemy, lacking the reconnaissance to obtain definite information as to our intentions, could only spread his forces as far as they would go and wait for the blow to fall.
Under these conditions the success of our operations appeared certain, a conviction which I felt was undoubtedly shared by the German General Staff. Continuance of the struggle was now merely evidence of Hitler's fanaticism. The enemy's northern sector, where our chief weight was to be brought to bear, had been weakened by his movement of forces southward to meet the threat which had already developed from the Remagen bridgehead. Even had the situation there been such as to allow the enemy to disengage and return his forces to the north (which was far from being the case), his lack of mobility was too greatly reduced to enable them to arrive in time to meet us while our foothold on the east bank north of the Ruhr was still precarious.
The plan of campaign for crossing the Rhine and
[ map of thrusts across the Rhine ]
In the execution of this plan, the seizure of the Remagen bridgehead was a factor of great significance. Apart from the effect its existence had already produced upon the German defenses, it afforded us a base from which we might the more rapidly accomplish the aim of encircling the Ruhr. Moreover, its existence forced the Germans to man an east-west line along the Sieg River, because of the immediate threat imposed upon the industries of the Ruhr. The forces now gathered within the bridgehead could maintain a pressure to the north, squeezing the Ruhr frontally while enveloping it on the eastern flank, and at the same time strike southeast to Frankfurt. In the latter area the crossing of our forces over the Mainz sector of the river would thus be assisted, and our general build-up for the southern attack would be accomplished rapidly. Consequently we were able to launch a southern supporting offensive in strength on a much earlier date than we had originally expected to be feasible; and this, in turn, had an important effect in determining the future Allied strategy within the interior of Germany.
The plan of Operation PLUNDER, the great assault across the Rhine north of the Ruhr which was to constitute our main effort, involved the use of three Allied armies. Under the command of Field Marshal Montgomery, the US Ninth Army on the right and the British Second Army on the left were to attack over the river between Rheinberg and Rees. They were to capture the communications center of Wesel and then to expand their initial lodgement area on the east bank southward to a distance sufficient to secure the roads through Wesel from enemy ground action, northward to enable the river to be bridged at Emmerich, and eastward and northeastward to secure a firm bridgehead of adequate size from which further offensive operations could be developed. The Ninth Army's assault was to be launched south of Wesel, with its
To assist the advance of the Second Army, the First Allied Airborne Army was to drop XVIII Airborne Corps (comprising the US 17th and British 6 Airborne Divisions) north and northwest of Wesel to seize the key terrain in that area. This airborne operation (known as VARSITY) was, unlike those previously conducted by the Allies, timed to follow the commencement of the ground assault, it being hoped thereby to achieve an additional element of surprise.
The Canadian Army, on the left flank, was to take no active part in the assault, but was to hold firmly the line of the Rhine and Maas from Emmerich westward to the sea, to insure the absolute security of the existing bridgehead over the Rhine at Nijmegen, and to guard the Scheldt Estuary, the port of Antwerp being now practically the only place where effective enemy interference behind our lines could be achieved. Following the successful establishment of the Second Army bridgehead, the Canadian 2 Corps was to be passed over the Rhine at Rees by the Second Army and to operate to secure Emmerich, where the Canadian Army would then be responsible for the construction of another bridge.
It will be seen from the nature of these operations that the cutting of communications from the Ruhr was a matter of the first importance in facilitating the establishment of a bridgehead on the east bank of the Rhine north of the industrial area. I shall deal in due course with the progress of the land forces in accomplishing its encirclement and reduction, but it must here be noted that already, when the attack was launched over the river in the north, the Allied air forces had achieved the practical denial to the enemy of the Ruhr resources and at the same time had isolated the battle area from the rest of Germany.
The plan of the air forces' Ruhr isolation program was that, prior to the establishment of the 21 Army Group bridgehead, the northwestern area of Germany should be cut off from the central and southern regions by the drawing of a line of interdiction running in a rough curve southward from Bremen to the Rhine at Coblenz. In principle, it was a repetition of the air plan for the original invasion. Along this line were 18 vital railroad bridges and viaducts, the destruction of which would, it was estimated, cut every main rail route from the Ruhr to the remainder of the country. Three of the lines, running through the targets at Bielefeld, Altenbeken, and Armsberg, carried about half of the total traffic between them and were thus of particular importance.
Some of the bridges had earlier received incidental damage, but the main interdiction program began on 21 February. During the next month, 40 major blows were struck by heavy and medium bombers, apart from many fighter-bomber attacks designed to cut the bridge approaches and hamper the Germans' frantic efforts to carry out repairs. In the course of the attacks the RAF used, for the first time, its 22,000-pound monster bombs, with devastating results. The operations proved singularly successful: by 24 March, 10 of the bridges had been destroyed, two seriously damaged, and two more were damaged, though possibly passable. The aim in view, that of interrupting the enemy's all-important traffic out of the Ruhr and at the same time preventing the large-scale movement of supplies from central and southern Germany to the armies in the threatened area on the lower Rhine, was fully realized, and the results were immediately evident when our ground forces set foot on the east bank.
The German communications network running west of the interdiction line toward the Rhine was also heavily attacked from the air during the weeks preceding the assault across the river. A very important operation comprised blows delivered by Bomber Command on 11 and 12 March. On the 11th a record was established for the load of bombs dropped on a single target in one raid when 1,079 heavy bombers rained some 5,000 tons on the Essen rail center. The record was surpassed on the 12th when 1,108 heavies dropped 5,487 tons on Dortmund. These communications attacks were energetically supported by fighters and fighter-bombers of the RAF Second Tactical Air Force and the US XXIX Tactical Air Command. The resulting chaos was such as to prove far beyond the powers of the Reichsbahn repair organization to remedy, despite its immense efforts to keep the lines open.
Mention should be made here of the excellent work performed, in preparation for the ground assault, by the Allied photographic reconnaissance aircraft. Now, as throughout the campaign in Europe, their work provided the armies with extremely full and accurate intelligence
As 23-24 March approached, the target date for Operation PLUNDER, the strategic and tactical air force attacks upon the communications in the battle area were intensified. In addition, during the 72 hours preceding the assault, a number of attacks were made upon enemy barracks and camps in the vicinity of the planned bridgehead. Defenses which the Germans were observed to be constructing around the towns and villages, with a view to turning them into strongpoints, were also bombed and strafed. Individual targets of particular importance were allotted to the pilots of rocket-firing Typhoons especially experienced in the technique of pinpoint attacks. Among the buildings destroyed in these operations was one believed to house the headquarters of the German Twenty-fifth Army. Apart from the casualties inflicted in such attacks, it cannot be doubted that they produced a serious moral effect upon the enemy, who, after enduring three days of unremitting hell from the air, was in no condition to meet the frontal assault when it was launched.
Important in the aerial preparation for Operation PLUNDER were the Allied attacks upon the enemy air force bases in northwest Germany. As earlier stated, the chief threat which the enemy could exercise against our air power lay in his jet aircraft. The Allied production of these machines lagged behind that of our opponents, and in the air it was difficult to counter their attacks. We therefore decided that the best insurance against their possible interference with our Rhine-crossing operations was to employ our heavy bombers to render the enemy's jet airfields unusable. A number of fields possessing the extra-long runways necessary to enable jet planes to take off were located within range of the battle area, and reconnaissance revealed that the Germans were concentrating their machines on them. These fields were accordingly subjected to severe blows from 21 March onward, while the fuel dumps and auxiliary installations were attacked at the same time. The consequence was that the enemy lost a large number of planes on the ground, and the runways were cratered and rendered temporarily unusable. Before repairs could be effected our ground forces were across the Rhine. On 24 March the Allied air forces flew some 8,000 aircraft and 1,300 glider sorties while sighting fewer than 100 enemy planes in the air.
In all these preparatory operations, as on 24 March itself, our air forces were favored with excellent weather conditions, clear skies, and perfect visibility permitting visual bombing and greatly assisting the tactical forces in picking out their targets for pinpoint attacks.
Apart from the airborne landing operations, which I shall consider below, the airforce blows reached their peak on 24 March. Prior to the arrival of the transport planes and gliders, the Ninth Air Force and the Second Tactical Air Force planes attacked the enemy flak positions, with the result that interference with the airborne elements from this source was considerably reduced. Also, in immediate cooperation with the armies, medium bombers attacked 18 towns which were either strong points or communication centers. Gun and mortar sites and the enemy forward positions generally were relentlessly strafed and bombed, while armed reconnaissance was maintained against the German supply lines. The whole weight of the Eighth Air Force bombers, apart from one division of Liberators used for airborne resupply, was employed in the attacks upon the jet airfields.
Two major diversionary air operations were also conducted during the day. One hundred and fifty bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force, with five groups of fighters, flew 1,500 miles from their Italian bases to Berlin and back, while other forces from Italy were raiding airfields in the south. Over Berlin itself fighters of the Eighth Air Force provided cover. This raid successfully fulfilled its object of drawing enemy fighters away from the Rhine battle area. The second diversion was carried out by RAF Bomber Command, which attacked the rail center of Sterkrade as well as oil targets in the Ruhr. In all, during the 4 days, 21-24 March, American and British air forces, based in Britain, western Europe and Italy, flew over 42,000 sorties against Germany.
The task of the armies assaulting across the Rhine represented the largest and most difficult amphibious operation undertaken since the landings on the coast of Normandy. The width of the Rhine and the nature of its currents indeed were such that, without the operations already mentioned which were to reduce enemy resistance on the far bank to a minimum, the success of the crossing might well have been a matter of doubt. The variations in the river level also presented unusually difficult problems for, apart from the seasonal fluctuations, there was a danger of artificial floods being created by the enemy's ability to demolish the dams located
It was therefore necessary to treat the assault as an amphibious operation in the fullest sense, involving naval as well as military forces, since the equipment available to the engineer elements of the armies was alone insufficient to cope with the task. Months previously, exhaustive experiments had been carried out on rivers in Britain giving bank and current conditions similar to those of the Rhine in order to determine what ferry craft were most suitable and what loads they could carry. The LCM and LCV(P) craft were chosen for the purpose and these were transported to the Rhine, partly by waterway and partly overland on special trailers built to stand the great strains involved in transit across roads ravaged by war. The immense difficulty of this feat may be judged from the fact that the craft measured as much as 45 feet in length and were 14 feet wide. British and American naval forces were built up to operate the ferry service, and valuable experience was gained when some of the craft were used in the Remagen area early in March. The fact that an LCM could take such loads as a Sherman tank or 60 men, and an LCV(P), a bulldozer or 35 men, may serve to indicate their value in the initial stages of our main assault in the north.
The offensive was heralded, at 2000 hours on 23 March, with a great artillery barrage of an hour's duration, directed against the east bank of the Rhine and extending through the zone where the airborne forces were to be dropped and landed on the next day. At 2100 hours, as soon as the barrage lifted, the British 1 Commando Brigade commenced the assault on Wesel. This town had been so heavily and accurately bombed by Bomber Command that it was captured with only 36 casualties. During the night the main attacks went in. In the Second Army zone, 15 Division led the 12 Corps assault north of Xanten, and 51 Division crossed in the 30 Corps sector astride Rees. South of the Lippe Canal, 30th and 79th Divisions launched the Ninth Army assault under the command of XVI Corps.
After spending the night on the west bank of the river in the Ninth Army area I met, next day, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, who was accompanied by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Brooke. We toured the west bank of the river to witness the ferrying of troops and supplies and to visit troops, all of whom reflected the highest state of enthusiasm and morale. Both the Prime Minister and Field Marshal Brooke, who expressed themselves as extraordinarily delighted with the complete success of our operations of the past 45 days, made a brief visit that afternoon to the east bank.
The initial crossings, thanks to the weight of the preparatory artillery fire and bombing, were generally effected against only slight opposition, and firm footholds were obtained on the far bank of the river. On 24 March, while the ferrying of further troops proceeded steadily, the Allied bridgeheads were expanded and contact was made with the airborne forces flown in during the morning, Wesel was successfully cleared, and in most sectors the enemy's confusion and disorganization were reflected in the uncoordinated resistance offered. Only at Rees did the defenders hold out stubbornly and bring heavy and accurate fire to bear upon the bridging sites.
The airborne landings in the Wesel area, coordinated by the First Allied Airborne Army, commenced just before 1000 hours and continued until 1300 hours. The 6th Airborne Division was flown from bases in East Anglia in 669 planes and 429 gliders of the RAF 38 and 46 Groups and the US IX Troop Carrier Command, while the 17th Airborne Division was brought from the Paris area in 903 planes and 897 gliders of the IX Troop Carrier Command. Fighter escorts on the approach flights were provided by the 213 RAF Fighter Command and by 676 Ninth Air Force planes. Nine hundred aircraft of the British Second Tactical Air Force provided cover over the target area, while 1,253 fighters of the Eighth Air Force established a screen east of the Rhine. As a result of this protection, coupled with the measures taken against enemy airfields, not one transport was molested by hostile aircraft. Some losses were sustained from AA fire over the target, but the total of 46 planes destroyed (3.98 percent of those employed) was remarkably low considering the fact that, to insure accuracy of dropping and landing, no evasive action was taken. I witnessed as much of this operation as could be seen from observation posts west of the river and was struck by the courage of transport pilots flying relatively slow aircraft steadily along their allotted routes in spite of heavy flak barrages.
The two divisions established contact with each other during the afternoon and with the 15th Division by nightfall. Their positions were rapidly consolidated, and on the 25th, the 6th Airborne Division commenced a swift advance eastward with the 15th Division, while
Operation VARSITY was the most successful airborne operation carried out to date, and its brilliant results reflected the great strides made in this aspect of warfare since the landings of D-day, 9 months earlier. Much of this was due to the coordination secured by the units of the First Allied Airborne Army. The glider landings and parachute drops had been carried out with accuracy, while the supplies dropped shortly after the main landings were virtually 100 percent recovered. The timing of the attack had achieved the element of surprise which had been planned, and the rapidity with which the forces reformed and established their positions after landing also resulted in the casualties being extremely low. As may be seen from the composition of the forces involved, VARSITY was an Allied operation in the fullest sense, and the victory won represented yet another triumph in the annals of Anglo-American cooperation in the common fight.
From 25 March onward the success of our assault north of the Ruhr was assured. Rees was reduced on that day and the Allied bridgeheads were quickly expanded. Enemy resistance was stiffest on the flanks, but during the following week XVI Corps of the Ninth Army, on the right, began to press south into the Ruhr, while on the left Emmerich was cleared by Canadian 2 Corps by 30 March. The Allied troops continued to pour across the Rhine, and, with the airborne units coming under command of the Second and Ninth Armies, the main thrusts eastward to encircle the Ruhr and strike into the heart of Germany began. The great operation of forcing the lower Rhine had proved successful to the fullest extent of my desire.
Meanwhile, in the sector of the Central Group of Armies, operations were proceeding equally well. There, as has been stated earlier, the main object was to establish a firm lodgement area in the Frankfurt region from which an advance in strength could be made toward Kassel. This lodgement area was to extend from the Neckar River in the south to the Sieg River in the north, and eastward as far as Eberbach, Hanau, Giessen, and Siegen. To create this base for our future operations, the First Army was to undertake an offensive south from the Remagen bridgehead, while the Third Army and the Seventh Army crossed the Rhine mainly between Mainz and Mannheim. This direction of movement from the Remagen bridgehead had been decided upon promptly after the securing of that foothold. It completely surprised the German High Command.
In the execution of these plans we were again greatly aided by the results of the dash and daring with which the operations west of the Rhine had been carried out. The sweep which General Patton had conducted across the lower Moselle and up the west bank of the Rhine, together with the heavy blows of the Seventh Army and the continued aggressiveness in the First Army bridgehead, had so utterly disorganized the enemy and so largely destroyed his forces in the region that, although he had managed to blow the last bridges as the escaping remnants struggled across, he was in no condition to defend the east bank. General Patton, as before mentioned, seized the opportunity thus offered, and on the night of 22-23 March, as our main, carefully prepared crossing in the north was poised for its massive blow, the 5th Division of XII Crops crossed the Rhine in the neighborhood of Oppenheim, south of Mainz. The bridgehead gained grew swiftly, and by the evening of 24 March it was 9 miles long and 6 miles deep, while 19,000 prisoners were taken in 24 hours. The remainder of XII Corps crossed the river, seized Darmstadt on the 25th, and swept on to capture intact the Main bridges at Aschaffenburg.
While this success was being exploited, the First Army steadily expanded the Remagen bridgehead with advances by V, III, and VII Corps. The enemy's efforts against the northern flank continued to prove fruitless, and by 26 March he was compelled to withdraw over the Sieg River. On the same day the resistance on the southern flank of this bridgehead, which had previously been light, collapsed completely. In a rapid thrust by V Corps to the southeast, Limbourg was overrun and the advance continued toward the Main River. At the same time, the Third Army was clearing this river from Frankfurt to the Rhine.
These sweeping advances completed the demoralization of the enemy forces in the sector. Taking advantage of this, VIII Corps of the Third Army established new bridgeheads over the Rhine at Boppard and north of Brauback on 25 March. The Rhine here flows between hills which fall sharply to the banks of the river, presenting country more difficult for a crossing operation than any which can be well imagined. Despite the advantages thus offered to the defense, the enemy's resistance, though initially heavy, was shortlived. On the following day two more crossings at St Goarshausen and Oberwesel were effected with equal success by VIII Corps. The forces thus put across the
The success of the UNDERTONE operations west of the Rhine had equally favored the Seventh Army in its river crossings. Plans had been prepared for an airborne operation in this zone, by the US 13th Airborne Division, to assist the frontal assault, but the weakness of the enemy following his defeat in the Saar rendered it unnecessary. I intended that this situation should be so exploited as to enable the Seventh Army to take over the sector south of the Main, and its first bridgeheads were accordingly established near Worms on 26 March. Once again, initially heavy opposition on the east bank dwindled in the face of Allied superiority, and the four small footholds gained by XV Corps were swiftly consolidated into a firm lodgement area extending southward to the Neckar, a link-up with the Third Army being effected south of Darmstadt on the 27th. On 28 March the Neckar was crossed, and on the following day Mannheim surrendered. The advances from this bridgehead also into Germany had begun.
Finally, on 1 April, the French II Corps established a bridgehead for the French Army at Philippsburg, and there built up a base on the east bank from which subsequently to strike southeast toward Stuttgart and to clear the right bank of the Rhine as far as the Swiss border.
Thus the Rhine barrier, the greatest natural obstacle with which the Allied armies had been faced since the landings in France, had been breached all along the line, and the cost to our forces had been fantastically small. The enemy had committed the same error as in Normandy, and with the same fatal results. His characteristic refusal to admit tactical defeat had proved his undoing. Instead of carrying out a planned withdrawal to the strong defensive positions afforded by the great river, which his inferiority in men and equipment indicated as the logical course, he had chosen to stand and fight a hopeless battle in front of the Rhine. The result was that he was then too weak, when the withdrawal was eventually forced upon him, to hold the line which nature had offered to him. Spread out along the vast front, his broken and depleted forces could not hope to withstand the overwhelming weight hurled against them in the concentrated Allied assaults. Moreover, once we had gained a bridgehead his lack of mobility rendered him incapable of rushing reinforcements to the threatened area, and. the breach once made could never be closed. The élan of the Allied armies had sealed Germany's fate in the operations which had preceded the crossing of the Rhine, and now they were pouring over the river to surge with the same victorious impetus to the innermost parts of the country.
Von Rundstedt had failed in Normandy and had been removed from his command as the penalty. Later he had been reinstated to conduct the ill-fated offensive in the Ardennes where, in 1940, he had achieved his most spectacular success in the invasion of France. Now, with the Allies over the Rhine, he was again dismissed; and with him went the last hopes of Germany's survival. Kesselring was brought from Italy to assume the forlorn task of holding together the beaten armies of the west in the last month of their existence.