On this date in history, March 7, 1945, two U.S. armored divisions achieved momentous victories, hastening the end of World War II in Europe.
The 3rd Armored Division captured Cologne on the Rhine River. My uncle was a tank driver for one of the three forward observers of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion in that division, which was nicknamed Spearhead. But the assault on that German city, as dangerous and destructive as it was, was a mere sideshow to the big show, so to speak. It kept German forces occupied and unable to send support to other German troops a few miles farther south, where an even greater victory occurred.
The 9th Armored Division achieved that victory: the capture of the Ludendorf Bridge spanning the Rhine River at Remagen.
American troops never expected to find that railroad bridge intact. After all, all other bridges over the Rhine had been destroyed, either by American air power or by the Germans themselves in their attempt to slow the American juggernaut. Seeing the bridge still standing, the Americans worked desperately to get enough troops across it to establish a bridgehead before the Germans could destroy it.
The location of German forces on the heights on the eastern bank of the Rhine above the town of Remagen gave them a clear field of sight for ten miles. The German soldiers there had received orders to fight to the last man and to blow up the bridge to prevent American troops from crossing it. They kept the Americans under intense fire while engineers worked feverishly to set explosives to destroy the bridge.
But many of the Germans were convalescents, soldiers who had been wounded and were still recovering. Their commander had requested reinforcements, but none arrived. As they set about wiring the bridge with explosives, however, they realized that the explosives that they had been sent were industrial rather than military explosives. When they detonated them, the resulting explosions did not have the force necessary to topple the structure. Although damaged, the bridge remained intact, thereby allowing the Americans to send across infantrymen. American engineers, including future baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, worked feverishly to strengthen the bridge to allow the passage of heavy armor to support the troops who were already crossing the bridge.
German troops manning machine guns in twin towers on the eastern end of the bridge were killed or captured by American infantrymen. Other German soldiers took refuge in a tunnel behind the towers, but German civilians, including many women and children, were also hiding in the tunnel. When the civilians began suffering casualties, they demanded that the German officers let them surrender. While the officers debated their request, the civilians surrendered without permission, and many of the German soldiers abandoned their weapons and joined them. The officers had no choice but to surrender as well. American troops established the bridgehead and kept the drive to Berlin alive and active.
Ironically, the bridge collapsed under its own weight (perhaps with the help of vibrations from the heavy armored vehicles that roared across it and numerous attempts by the Luftwaffe to destroy it) ten days later, on March 17.
Photos of the cathedral of Cologne, standing high above the ruins of the rest of the city, and the Ludendorf Bridge’s towers at Remagen are among the most iconic images that exist of World War II in Europe. The men who were involved in the capture of both landmarks deserve our gratitude for their sacrifice and service in helping to hasten the end of the war, which came two months later.