The Germans had already blown most of the bridges across the Rhine accessible to the advancing Allies when, on the afternoon of 7 March, lead elements of Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division of Bradley's army group were able to secure the Ludendorff Railroad Bridge at Remagen. Troops and vehicles were rushed across as combat engineers hurried to construct other bridges. Meanwhile, amphibian trucks and engineer ferries supplemented the bridge.
Not to be outdone, Lieutenant General George S. Patton sought to secure a crossing for his Third Army. He planned to make a feint at Mainz and then cross at Oppenheim. The task of making the initial crossing fell to the 5th Infantry Division. The operation began late on the night of 21 March. Thirteen artillery battalions and 7,500 engineers stood by to support the crossing, but to secure surprise, there was no preliminary fire. Two assault companies of the 5th Division, assisted by the 204th Engineer Combat Battalion, crossed the river at Oppenheim without resistance. South of the city, another assault company got across but then met heavy German resistance on the other bank. Not until 12:30 a.m. on 22 March did the Germans begin to fire artillery, and even then, it was only sporadic. Patton's sneak crossing had worked well indeed.
As the bridgehead expanded, ferries, DUKWs amphibious trucks, and landing craft known as LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle or personnel) of the U.S. Navy's Naval Unit 2 ferried men and equipment to the other side. By midafternoon, three infantry regiments and hundreds of support troops were across. By evening, the bridgehead was 5 miles deep. Patton's army made two other assault crossings of the Rhine. Lead elements of the 87th Division crossed in the early morning hours of 25 March at Boppard, and the following morning, the 89th Division crossed at Saint Goar.
Despite the good fortune of the Remagen crossing and Patton's crossing to the south, the Allied plan still called for the northern crossings, code-named Operation plunder, to be the main attack. Montgomery massed nearly 1 million men along the lower Rhine: 21st Army Group units in the crossing included the 9 divisions of the British Second Army and the 12 divisions of the U.S. Ninth Army. The U.S. Navy's Naval Unit 3 supported 21st Army Group and was the largest of three such supporting units for the Rhine crossing. It was reinforced by a Transportation Corps harbor company and elements of the Royal Navy. Defending in this area, the Germans had only 85,000 men and 35 tanks. Operation plunder began late on 23 March, with units of the 21st Army Group getting across the Rhine between Wesel and Emmerich.
To support Operation plunder at Wesel and impede any German reinforcement, the Allies planned a massive airborne assault. Operation varsity, carried out on 24 March, involved 21,692 Allied paratroopers and glidermen of the British 6th Airborne and U.S. 17th Airborne Divisions of Major General Matthew B. Ridgway's XVIII Airborne Corps, with 614 jeeps, 286 artillery pieces and mortars, and hundreds of tons of supplies, ammunition, food, and fuel. A total of 1,696 transports and 1,348 gliders participated. More than 2,000 Allied fighter aircraft provided support, and 240 B-24 bombers were specially rigged to drop supplies and equipment. The drop zones for varsity were east of the Rhine in the Wesel area, close enough to the advancing ground forces to provide for a quick linkup but not deep enough to give any real additional depth to the operation. By the end of 24 March, the airborne forces had secured most of their objectives. The defending German 84th Division was virtually destroyed, with 3,500 Germans taken prisoner. Although varsity was a success, it was a costly one; casualties were higher for the airborne forces in this operation than for the Allied ground units in their crossings.
Meanwhile, the Ninth Army's 90th Infantry Division crossed all three of its regiments near Wallach shortly after midnight on 24 March. The Scottish 15th Division of Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie's British XII Corps got across the river west of Xanten, opposed only by sporadic artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire. Then, at 3:00 a.m. on 24 March, the 79th Division conducted the last amphibious crossing of the river, at points east and southeast of Rheinberg.
The initial assault crossings completed, engineers followed with additional bridging. Allied headquarters had estimated that sustaining military operations across the Rhine would require 540 tons of supplies per day. Allied engineers had, in short order, constructed a variety of foot, vehicle, railway, and pipeline bridges. For generations, the Germans had considered the Rhine as a natural barrier that would protect them from invasion, but superior resources at the points of attack and military engineering gave the Allies access to the German heartland.
Troy D. Morgan and Spencer C. Tucker
Allen, Peter. One More River: The Rhine Crossings of 1945. New York: Scribner's, 1980.; Blair, Clay. Ridgway's Paratroopers: The American Airborne in World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.; Breuer, William B. Storming Hitler's Rhine: The Allied Assault—February–March 1945. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.; MacDonald, Charles B. United States Army in World War II: The European Theater of Operations: The Last Offensive. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, 1973.