The Allied armies fighting in northern Europe had many rivers to cross, but none more significant than the Rhine, a defensive trench of sorts protecting Germany’s industrial powerhouse, the Ruhr Valley.
- I first saw that famous and formidable river on a March night in 1945. The leaves of a few trees on its near bank, barely visible as shadows, cautioned where land met river. The violent booming and reverberations of massed artillery fire drowned the sound of water moving. Between the natural screen of night and smoke from shell bursts that intentionally obscured the west bank from the enemy on the opposite shore, I could see little. I was a first lieutenant. In 10 days I would be 22 years old–if I survived crossing that river.
- I had outlived several campaigns in northern Europe as a field artillery forward observer with the 30th Infantry Division, which had been in the fight since shortly after D-Day. (See “View from the Hill,” July/August 2013.) My job was to march, live, and fight with the infantry, protect them from the enemy, and aid them in securing their objectives. A forward observer didn’t do this with a rifle or a machine gun, but with artillery. I have been asked what weapon I carried. Well, I had a Colt .45 pistol and a battalion of 12–sometimes more–105mm howitzers, each of which typically shot 33-pound high-explosive shells. Because forward observers needed to be at the leading edge of the fighting, our casualty rate was very high; I had already been wounded twice in 1944.
The Ruhr Valley, a bulwark of the Reich’s military might, stretched some 60 miles southeast of Wesel, a small city near the border with the Netherlands. The Ruhr had produced more than half Germany’s coal and steel before the war and was home to manyindustries, including the Krupp conglomerate, which manufactured steel, tanks, munitions, and armaments–among them, the deadly “88” artillery piece. The Allies knew well what the Ruhr Valley industries meant to the German war effort. But the Ruhr would not fall to bombing alone. Allied armies had to cross the Rhine, seize the Ruhr, and sever the valley from Nazi control. Since before D-Day, considerable planning had gone into this task.
Americans first crossed the Rhine some 100 miles south of the Ruhr, at Remagen, on March 7, 1945. (See “A Bridge in Time,” page 31.) Aided by a battlefield conspiracy of luck and German ineptitude, they dashed across the Ludendorff Bridge and established a modest beachhead on the far side before stiffened enemy resistance slowed the advance. With their hands full, forces at the Remagen bridgehead could not be diverted to make a wide swing to the north to encircle the Ruhr.
Under these circumstances, any armchair strategist with a good map could see that the way to cut off the Ruhr was an all-out drive focused on Wesel. This suited Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, commander of the 21st Army Group and an advocate of the “set piece” approch to battle that concentrated overwhelming force on a small sector. Montgomery assembled an assault force of almost a million and a quarter men, thousands of artillery pieces, huge stores of bridging equipment, and boats and supplies of every nature, a preparation bearing a similarity in scope to the advance work for D-Day. His 21st Army Group consisted of the British Second Army and the First Canadian Army, but for the Rhine crossing it would also include the U.S. Ninth Army and the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps, although only after some wrangling and considerable posturing over who would be commanding U.S forces.
The battle plan called for British and Canadian troops to cross the Rhine north of Wesel.
American forces would cross and invade a sector south of Wesel. Airborne troops would drop north and east of Wesel, essentially attacking the enemy in the rear.
The Ninth Army assault was called Operation Flashpoint. South of Wesel, the Lippe River and the Lippe-Seiten Canal intersected the Rhine and formed the northern boundary of the Ninth Army’s sector. At this juncture the Rhine’s riverbed, uncoiling from an east-west path, takes a south-north course for about three miles. On either side, broad, gently sloping sandy beaches channel the river, about 1,100 feet wide at that point: ideal for a cross-river attack and an easy landing.
Preparations for Operation Flashpoint began in early March. The engineers readied immense quantities of bridging material. The U.S. Navy–yes, the navy, which had the boats and men trained to operate them–unloaded an assortment of vessels: LCVPs (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel; better known as Higgins boats), LCMs (Landing Craft, Mechanized), 14-man assault boats–even small tug boats and seven-man storm boats.
- The Ninth Army’s thousands of tons of supplies included 2,070 artillery pieces. Of those, 13 battalions–roughly 200 guns–came under the direction of the 30th Infantry Division, more than double the number of artillery pieces we had been assigned since Normandy.
- As Ninth Army troops honed their river-crossing skills, all insignia came off. Men disfigured or covered over unit designations on vehicles. Troop movements and locations were concealed as much as possible. Other soldiers in other locations assumed our identities. Since the Ninth Army staked success on an attack along a narrow front, the Germans had to be kept in the dark about the crossing site. While the preparations for the attack could not be entirely concealed, the assault point could be. Engineers constructing roads to the vicinity built roads elsewhere, too. If a reconnaissance patrol went out near the site, additional patrols went out along the length of the Ninth Army’s river frontage.
A major component of the attack was the artillery fire plan. Normally, limited artillery bombardment preceded infantry attacks to soften up the enemy. The fire plan for Operation Flashpoint meant to obliterate the enemy.
- As a forward observer I got a glimpse of the plan at 30th Infantry Division Artillery Headquarters. Never before had I seen such premeditated carnage. Sketched in detail on a representation of terrain east of the river, the timetable specified a full hour of relentless shelling to precede the infantry’s cross-river attack, set for 2 a.m., March 24. The drawing listed each artillery unit and, minutely, its zone of fire and the number of rounds to direct at an initial target area. After gunners had fired the initial rounds, the plan minimally increased the range, indicated the number of rounds to fire at the new range, and so on, for one hour–a rolling barrage meant to chew up extensive enemy terrain. By the time Allied infantry stood ready to cross, the artillery would have shifted to deeper targets.
Around 1 a.m. on March 24, the 13 battalions directed by the 30th Division began firing the first of some 20,000 high-explosive shells at our target area. That’s roughly one round every half a minute for each artillery piece, an incredible rate of sustained fire. Even on that cool night, gun crews were hot and sweaty, delirious with exhaustion by the time the hour ended and they could slow their rate of fire.
With thousands of shells screaming overhead, what was it like crossing a damp open plain under a mist-shrouded moon?
I later learned that General Dwight D. Eisenhower had watched our progress from a church tower, along with Ninth Army commander Lieutenant General William Hood Simpson. But their perspective would have been very different. Likewise with Winston Churchill, whom General Simpson had to coax off a railroad bridge at the Rhine when enemy artillery rounds threatened. The British prime minister “wanted to go messing about on the Rhine crossings and we had some difficulty in keeping him back,” Field Marshal Alan Brooke, who accompanied Churchill, noted in his diary. “The look on Winston’s face was just like that of a small boy being called away from his sand castles on the beach by his nurse!”
No sweaty delirium enveloped the infantry and its few attached artillery forward observers–myself included–as we proceeded solemnly toward the beach, only a clammy sense of apprehension. Two thousand guns firing: the drumbeat of an apocalypse. The roar and boom came from all directions, violent, hugely threatening, as if a gigantic eruption was ripping the earth open. Twenty thousand shells tearing the planet apart. The British and Canadian forces had assembled more than 3,400 artillery and related guns, and those weapons, farther from us than our own artillery, were banging away, too. A fearsome sound battered us on the empty plain we marched across–a sound such as we had never heard before and wished never to hear again.
I sensed my bladder trying to empty, but kept control: there wasn’t time for that, nor was this the place. The thunder of volley upon volley drove us to an uncertain future. For half a mile, we marched in darkness to the beach.
The planners had timed all aspects of the attack with precision: the stockpiling of supplies, the artillery barrage, the airborne drops, even our trudge to the river. Before wetting our feet in the Rhine, four 2nd Battalion riflemen, my radio operator, and I came to where the navy had stacked storm boats in a pile like cordwood. The six of us shouldered one. I thought it looked like a narrow dinghy, something like a racing shell, with none of the attributes of a seaworthy vessel.
Unlike most other attacks across the Rhine that day, the 30th Division committed all three of its infantry regiments in a simultaneous surge, leaving no troops in reserve. The 119th Regiment was on the left flank near where the river begins its three-mile south-north course. Upstream the 117th was at the center. The 120th, the regiment my artillery battalion supported, was to cover the right flank. There, I walked in file with the procession of riflemen down to the sodden beach as the night closed about us with concussive force. We were the first wave of the 120th.
The 2nd Battalion was to hit the beach across the river, where it resumed its east-west path. The mighty Rhine was calm. No wind raised waves on its surface. I could not see the far bank. We dumped our craft into the water, bow pointing toward the opposite shore. Distrustful of our slender craft’s stability, we stepped aboard and carefully seated ourselves.
An olive drab-garbed seaman took charge of the outboard motor. He grabbed the lanyard and pulled. Nothing. I was clinging to the gunwale on the port side and so had a view upstream, through the murky night. The explosions from our artillery blanketed almost all other sounds, and I could hear nothing close by. Not many yards upstream, by the river’s edge, a thin column of black water rose: an enemy shell. The Germans were no dummies; they knew an attack was coming. When Allied shelling began moving inland, it signaled that we were about to leave our side of the river. So the Germans fired back, zeroing in on our beach.
The sailor yanked the lanyard again. Again nothing. More spouts at river’s edge. By this time the current had angled our skiff s bow downstream. A few more moments and we would be stranded on the beach. I took a deep breath and waited. For a third time the seaman pulled the lanyard. The engine coughed into life and, in a wide swinging arc, we headed into the river. Minutes later we landed on the opposite bank, safer there than on the shore the Germans were targeting. Somewhere back on the other side, someone was readying my jeep, which my radioman and I used when we weren’t walking with the infantry, for the same voyage.
The rest of the night’s work is history. The artillery had substantially curtailed any fight the Germans might have made. The troops to which I was attached moved swiftly in the dark. Resistance was slight: only the occasional rifleman. By morning we were a considerable distance from shore, stopped at a farmhouse serving as an infantry company command post. The men were taking a breather. Until the unit was ready to resume the attack, one of the riflemen and I decided to take a look around.
A short walk brought us into a copse near the house, small trees, brush, not much to see. As we strolled along, we came upon a German soldier. He was kneeling behind a wooden post nibbling on a cookie as if he had been waiting for us. The rifleman leveled his rifle. The German willingly surrendered, handing over his gun–but not the cookie–and returned with us to the command post.
Soon, a battalion of brand new, fresh-from-the-box light tanks rolled up. The battalion’s organizational chart included one tank specifically designated for an artillery observer (nowadays, the army use vision supporting devices, such as high-quality rangefinders, laser binocular to enhance range of artillery observation). I would do. One of the men took me on a quick tour of the tank. It was like all the others, a rolling hulk of steel.
I’ve often been a skeptic, particularly of planners who have not actually surveyed the territory or come into close contact with the circumstance for which they are planning. So I climbed into the tank and gave its insides a once-over. A tight cramped little box it was, with no easy way to get a broad view of events going on around it: not really a place for an artillery observer. Besides, it took little imagination to visualize the tank as an incinerator–with me and my radio operator inside. I declined the offer, instead finding my driver and jeep; visibility from a jeep was fair and bailing out was easy.
The battalion commander showed me his military objective, just as his commanding officer had shown it to him. It was very simple: a small-scale map of Germany with a big arrow slashed across it in black marker. The butt of the arrow denoted where we were, the business end aimed at the heart of Berlin. I nodded. The battalion commander gave a signal, and the battalion started its engines. Off we went, a tank destroyer or two in the lead, next a couple of unblemished tanks, then my crew and I in our jeep, followed by the rest of the tank battalion.
Before long the battalion took a wrong turn and got lost, and then stuck, on the only narrow street through the middle of a small village. The planners had not counted on that. Nor had the battalion had much practice at turning around an entire column of tanks on a street one tank wide. After much backing and turning, shouting, fuming, and cursing, the tanks headed in the right direction.
Within hours I, too, changed direction when I received a more promising, but also more dangerous, assignment–back with the infantry on the attack. The tanks and I parted company. I never learned how far that battalion got in its mission.
But the Rhine crossing was an unqualified success. The 30th Division and the other troops had done their job well. In a gush of enthusiasm the next day, March 25, Churchill told Eisenhower, “My dear General, the German is whipped. We’ve got him. He’s all through.” The prime minister spoke the truth, but six more weeks would pass before the war in Europe ended. Six more weeks until the Germans surrendered, until they finally quit. Some fought on to the nihilistic end.
My division never reached Berlin–the target of the arrow on the map I had seen. Eisenhower stopped us before then, and on April 18 the 30th shut down its attack, at Magdeburg on the Elbe River. After the Rhine we had fought on with vigor and perhaps enthusiasm–not enthusiasm for the war, but for its ending. We looked forward to that moment and to being alive for it. No one wanted the ironic distinction of being the last soldier killed before the curtain came down on those many tragic years of destruction, devastation, and death.