In March of 1945, the collapse of Nazi Germany was imminent. American and British bombers were laying waste to nearly every German city. The German army was reaching its breaking point: Western armies were pushing from the west and in the south, they were driving the German’s inexorably back from Italy. Meanwhile, the Soviets were pushing from the east having reached Poland.
With the end approaching, the Nazi government pulled the very old and young into civilian militia units, the Volkssturm, to augment Wehrmacht units, but their military value was dubious at best. The end was a matter of time.
In the west, the last, and greatest obstacle was a natural one, the Rhine river. Since the days of the Roman Empire, the Rhine had been a formidable natural obstacle keeping invading armies out of Germany. The Roman legions first built a settlement there in the first century A.D.
During World War I, Russian POWs built a railroad bridge over the Rhine, the Ludendorff Bridge. And the tiny town of Remagen, where the bridge was located, would become famous as the U.S. Army would push thousands of troops across the only span standing over the river.
By the end of WWII, about 5,400 people lived in Remagen. The Nazis were well aware of the value of the bridges and had ordered them all destroyed before Allied troops could seize them and push their armies across.
Remagen and the region around it were not of high importance to the Allies. British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had once again convinced the high command to fully commit to a complete set-piece crossing with airborne troops and an enormous river maneuver. Another reason why the Allies weren’t looking at Remagen as a prime crossing point was the narrow roads leading in and out of the town and the high cliffs on the east side where defenders could easily command the area with guns and artillery.
Remagen lay in the area of the 1st and the 3rd Armies (U.S.) that were supposed to conduct “aggressive defense” west of the Rhine until after Montgomery’s forces had crossed. That would change quickly.
Just before 1:00 p.m. on March 7, a reconnaissance unit reached the high ground overlooking the river and was shocked to find the Ludendorff Bridge still standing. Company A of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion (AIB), commanded by Lt. Karl Timmerman, was right behind the recon unit. Timmerman could see the bridge packed with retreating troops, vehicles, and civilians trying to get to the eastern side.
Just then lead elements of Combat Command A of the 9th Armored Division arrived. The Americans were worried that it could be a trap but capturing a bridge over the Rhine was too enticing to pass up.
Major Murray Deevers, the commander of the 27th AIB asked Timmermann, “Do you think you can get your company across the bridge?” Timmermann replied, “Well, we can try it, sir.” Deevers answered, “Go ahead.” “What if the bridge blows up in my face?” Timmermann asked. He got a blank expression in return.
Timmerman’s troops and the armor from the 9th Armored easily swept aside the Volkssturm unit in town. The only machinegun positions that were supposed to hold up the infantry were easily taken out by the new M-26 Pershing tanks. The tanks spread out on the west bank and began laying devastating fire on the east bank, taking out a locomotive approaching the bridge.
A German POW told Timmerman that the bridge was to be destroyed at 4:00 p.m., just an hour away. Timmerman immediately called for artillery fire on the eastern side of the bridge. The Germans, seeing the armor, blew a huge crater at the foot of the bridge, that would prevent the armor from crossing.
The German commander of the bridge, Captain Willi Bratge, had asked for 1,300 pounds of military explosives to blow the bridge if the need arose. On the morning of March 7, only 600 pounds had arrived. Worse, they weren’t high-grade military explosives but “Donarit,” an ammonium nitrate civilian explosive used in mining that was much weaker.
When the Germans attempted to blow the bridge, nothing happened. Bratge believed that tank or artillery fire had destroyed the circuit. A corporal volunteered to manually light the explosives, which he managed to do under intense American small arms, tank, and artillery fire. Sensing it was now or never, Timmerman led a small squad across the bridge.
Just as they got on the bridge, the explosives detonated. But as the smoke cleared, both sides were shocked to see the bridge still standing. The weaker explosives had only blown away one supporting pier and a lot of the planking. Timmerman and his men rushed across the bridge under intense sniper and machinegun fire. Sherman tanks knocked out the machineguns and the Americans charged across, worrying the Germans would attempt another explosion to bring down the bridge.
Watching all of these events unfold was CBS radio war correspondent Everett Holles, who later wrote a book on the battle. An excerpt of it described what happened next:
“Traffic was still moving across the Ludendorff Bridge. On the other side, locomotives puffed, awaiting orders to pull out.
Lt. Col. Leonard Engemann of Minneapolis, in command of a reconnaissance party, was determined to save this bridge if it was at all possible. So, at 3:50 o’clock, a platoon led by Lieut. Emmett Burrows of New York City sped down the slope to the bridge entrance.
There was a flurry of shooting as the Germans, taken completely by surprise, scurried about trying to organize a defense.
Sgt. Alexander A. Drabik, a tall, lanky former butcher from Holland, Ohio, was the first American across the Rhine, the first invader to reach its east bank since the time of Napoleon. But he wanted all the honors passed on to a young lieutenant of the engineers, John W. Mitchell of Pittsburgh.
‘While we were running across the bridge — and, man, it may have been only 250 yards but it seemed like 250 miles to us — I spotted this lieutenant, standing out there completely exposed to the machinegun fire that was pretty heavy by this time. He was cutting wires and kicking the German demolition charges off the bridge with his feet! Boy, that took plenty of guts. He’s the one who saved the bridge and made the whole thing possible.'”
Soon, American troops jammed the bridge trying to get a bridgehead across the river. Timmerman was the first American officer across. A German counterattack was beaten back with supporting fire from tanks and artillery.
Inside the tunnel on the east side, Captain Bratge realized that another counterattack was out of the question as the Americans had already reached the bridge’s entrance. Grenades and rifle fire had killed one boy and wounded several civilians in the tunnel. Bratge fashioned a white flag and surrendered.
Lt. John Mott and a platoon of engineers found 350 pounds of unexploded explosives and disarmed them. Other engineers found another 510 pounds of explosive whose blasting caps had failed.
While 1st Army’s commander LTG Courtney Hodges and his superior General Omar Bradley, commander of the 12th Army Group were ecstatic, General Eisenhower’s staff was not. General Harold “Pinky” Bull, Eisenhower’s G-3, was skeptical of any plans to use the Remagen crossing, and he tried to rain on Bradley’s bit of great news.
“You’re not going anywhere down there at Remagen. You’ve got a bridge, but it’s in the wrong place. It just doesn’t fit in with the plan.” Bradley replied, “What the hell do you want us to do, pull back and blow it up?”
Eisenhower, however, disagreed and ordered Bradley to push five divisions across the bridgehead and to expand their hold on the east bank of the Rhine. He then had to break the news to Montgomery that his big operation was now to be the second major crossing of the Rhine. Montgomery’s Operation Plunder would eventually be the third crossing. About 36 hours before he began his crossing, General Patton’s 3rd Army was already across the Rhine.
Engineers set about trying to repair the bridge as the Americans pushed everything they could across the Rhine also constructing pontoon bridges. That gave them their precious bridgehead across the Rhine. Ten days later, the Ludendorff Bridge, weakened by the explosives, German air raids, and the heavy tank traffic that went across, collapsed on its own.
Timmerman and many others were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their valor on that day in March 1945. Timmerman went to Korea when that war broke out but died of cancer in 1951. He was only 29 years old.