I. The News Comes to West Point, Nebraska
March 7, 1945, was a busy evening at the Goldenrod Cafe in the wealthy little farm town of West Point, 75 miles northwest of Omaha, Nebraska. The school kids were just starting to pile into the booths along the edge of the walls for their evening round of milk shakes, and to take a couple of turns to the rhythm of the giant, rainbow-lighted jukebox. Above the chirp and chatter came the insistent ring of the telephone.
To Bill Schafer, the pudgy, bald-headed proprietor of the Goldenrod Cafe, the telephone was a nuisance. It always rang when he was busiest. His cooks and waitresses were constantly interrupting their work to take calls. The biggest annoyance was the long-distance call, which took so much time to get through from Omaha during wartime, and usually resulted in elaborate efforts to shush the gayer customers at the Goldenrod. So when Schafer shuffled to the phone on the evening of March 7, 1945, he was in bad humor when the operator said with authority: "Long distance for Mrs. Mary Timmermann, Omaha calling."
Schafer grunted uncomfortably: "Timmy, get this phone again. Make it short. You got lots of customers."
An ample, middle-aged lady wearily placed a wet rag on the edge of a table and plodded across to the phone. She was a little afraid of telephones, because her broken English was hard to understand and she had some difficulty figuring out what the other person was saying. She was also afraid because her two oldest sons were fighting in Germany, her pretty daughter was in the WAC, and her youngest son was threatening to run away from home to join the Army before he was old enough. A long-distance call could mean trouble.
Mrs. Timmermann, a German war bride from the first World War, had several brothers fighting in the German army in the second war. She was sick of war, sick of her back-breaking 11 a.m. to-midnight job at the Goldenrod, and jumpy and nervous about the safety of her sons and brothers who might be firing at each other at this very moment. She jabbered incoherently when a stern voice on the other end of the phone demanded: "Are you Mrs. Mary Timmermann, the mother of Second Lieutenant Karl H. Timmermann?"
The voice kept boring in, disregarding Mrs. Timmermann's frantic mixture of German and English.
Mrs. Timmermann feared the worst. She left the receiver dangling and jounced over to get Bill Schafer. "Bill, help me, it's something about Karl, I don't know what."
Schafer was not very sympathetic. He took the phone. The determined voice said:
"This is the Omaha World-Herald calling. Would you tell Mrs. Timmermann that her son, Second Lieutenant Karl H. Timmermann has just crossed the Remagen bridge, and he was the first officer over the bridge?"
Schafer, who had grown up along the Rhine, knew where the Remagen bridge was. He could guess that this was something pretty important, or else Omaha wouldn't be calling. But he wished that the voice wouldn't keep booming away as though Karl Timmermann had captured Adolf Hitler single-handed.
"Here, you take the phone, Timmy," said Schafer impatiently. "Karl is all right. He just crossed the Remagen bridge, that's all. Now talk to the man."
Mrs. Timmermann was still scared, and trembling. The voice kept saying: "Your son Karl has just crossed the Remagen bridge. You know what it means?"
"I know what it means to me: Is he hurt?"
"No, he's not hurt. But listen to this: Karl Timmermann was the first officer of an invading army to cross the Rhine River since Napoleon."
"Napoleon I don't care about. How is my Karl?"
The conversation was inconclusive. The World-Herald collected a few basic facts from Bill Schafer and Mrs. Schafer and then settled down to write a story about the heroism of Karl Timmermann.
Many telephones rang all over the country on the evening of March 7, 1945, as the word spread to families that there were many heroes at Remagen bridge.
For to the bridge at Remagen had come Americans from many parts of the land--a corporal named W. E. Richard from Decota, West Virginia, a shy, gangling butcher named Drabik from Toledo, a hard-driving general named Hoge from Lexington, Mo., a methodical engineer named Mott from Nashville, a sleepy-eyed tanker named Goodson from Pendleton, Indiana. . . . These along with Timmermann and many others equally courageous had brought off one of the war's most electrifying feats.
The big events of a war are confused things in the making. And after they are made, the passage of time tends to blur the original hazy outline of events into something unrecognizable. The story of the Remagen bridge has many versions. An infantryman may tell it one way, an engineer another, a tanker still another. The general commanding a huge army has a different view of it from the enlisted man in the ranks. The real story has honors enough for all--including many who never lived to see the light of day on March 7, 1945. And it begins long before that date, long before a few combat soldiers on their way to a town called Remagen unexpectedly caught sight of a lone bridge still spanning the waters of the Rhine.
II. How We Planned to Cross the Rhine
The town of Remagen is on the Rhine River midway between Cologne and Koblenz. It is an old Roman town, with a population of about 5,000. Tourists come to Remagen to stroll the riverbank, climb the grape-covered hillsides, and join in throaty songfests at the local cafes. But as a place from which to launch an attack across the Rhine, Remagen offers enormous difficulties.
One glance at a map would explain to any military man why Remagen is a terrible place to try a river crossing. The roads from the west are narrow. Even if troops succeed in crossing, mountains, forests, streams and ditches confront them--all conspiring against an attack--and poor secondary roads and rugged terrain unsuitable for tanks stretch eastward for a dozen miles, as far as the Bonn-Limburg autobahn.
The current at Remagen is swift and turbulent. The Ahr River, which swells to an angry torrent in the springtime, flows into the Rhine about one mile above the town. Between this junction and the town, the Rhine takes a sharp bend through a gorge and picks up speed through Remagen, where it is about seven hundred feet wide.
Directly opposite Remagen on the east bank looms a six-hundred-foot cliff of basalt whose sheer face is black against the sky, called the "Erpeler Ley." From the top of the cliff, or from the rude trails that lead to the summit, the observer has a commanding view of the countryside on both sides of the river and for ten miles in either direction.
North of Remagen rise the famous Siebengebirge ("Seven Mountains"), including the Drachenfels--where Siegfried slew the dragon. To the east and south are other heights. The rugged Westerwald area to the east, back from the Rhine, is peppered by thick, wooded areas and forbidding slopes and gullies which make natural tank traps. Several defunct volcanoes are prominent across the Rhine. This terrain not only is difficult for an attacker, but also provides excellent observation and protection for a defender.
At Remagen was a double-track railroad bridge, a little over 1,000 feet long, built at the end of World War I and named Ludendorff Bridge after Germany's wartime commander. The railroad, after crossing from the west, passed through a twelve-hundred-foot tunnel in the Erpeler Ley, and continued along the east bank toward the Ruhr. The bridge was important because it linked the Ruhr and the Ahr valley with the Eifel and Moselle regions. The townspeople resented it because it destroyed the beautiful view up the Rhine, but they were proud of its contribution to the war.
At the time of the Normandy landings, neither the American nor the German planners dreamed of a Rhine crossing at Remagen. The inch-by-inch fighting in the hedgerows during June and July was bloody and frustrating. But August of 1944 was a glorious month for the American Army in France, a month of sweeping movement through open country, with tanks in the lead, and the American military planners began to think seriously about how to cross the Rhine.
In August the unit that would be first to cross the Rhine--the 9th Armored Division--boarded the Queen Mary at New York and set out on a stormy voyage to Europe. Specifically, the hour was 7:45 a.m., the date was August 20, 1944, and it was the ship's seventeenth eastbound crossing. Second Lieutenant Karl Timmermann and his buddies had spent twelve days at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, boning up on ship-boarding techniques, taking physical examinations and making out last wills and testaments. They all had received passes for a last fling in New York. Timmermann stayed sober. He wrote to his wife at West Point, Nebraska, that he was planning to see a good movie, "Woodrow Wilson." It did not inspire him to make the world safe for democracy, but it gave some strength to his spirit and to his mental outlook toward the future.
Timmermann, an infantry platoon leader in Company A of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, hated the ocean. He liked little streams like the Elkhorn River back at West Point, which were ideal for swimming and fishing. He dreaded the ocean crossing.
The trip was longer and rougher than usual. While the ship zigzagged toward Scotland, big plans were being made and exciting developments occurred in France that were to influence the combat role of the voyagers. One day after the 9th Armored steamed out of New York harbor, a company of General Patton's foot soldiers in the 79th Division made a quiet and dramatic crossing of the Seine River. The night was rainy and all who were present testify it was the darkest night they had ever experienced. They found a wobbly footbridge alongside a dam across the Seine. Not a shot was fired. One nervous soldier lost his helmet, but there were no casualties.
Then came the liberation of Paris, that tumultuous and continuous celebration which seemed to go on all day and night for weeks. The flowers and the champagne and the kisses flowed on without interruption. And in the Allied ranks, optimism reigned supreme. From Paris, the tankers and their truck-borne infantry comrades were streaking toward the Siegfried Line and the Rhine.
Now the chief barrier to advance seemed to lie in the rear, for a critical shortage developed in supplies--especially gasoline. To be sure, the supplies were at Cherbourg and near the beaches, but when truck transport to the front took five days it became apparent that careful rationing was necessary. General Patton's tanks stormed ruthlessly forward without too much opposition until they were choked up short without gasoline. Rigid priorities were imposed, but they alone could not solve the basic problem of an overall shortage.
East of the Seine, the problem boiled down to who was going to push with the main effort--the British in the north, or the Americans in the south. Field Marshal Montgomery stressed the advantages of an advance through Holland which would open the way for a thrust across the north German plains directly to Berlin and victory. It was an intriguing prospect. Opening the vital port of Antwerp would ease the problem of supplies, and crushing the Ruhr, on which the enemy war machine depended, might bring about a German collapse.
General Omar Bradley, commanding an army group that included the First Army and General Patton's Third Army, had other ideas. He wanted to head for the Saar and the Rhine near Frankfurt. This route led directly through central Germany and would rob Germany of a coal-rich area.
As the debate between Montgomery and Bradley raged during August, nobody mentioned a town named Remagen on the Rhine. Montgomery wanted to left-hook far north of it, and Bradley to right-hook deep to the south. On the large-scale maps they were poring over, Remagen looked small and insignificant.
Late in August, General Eisenhower decided tentatively in favor of Montgomery's plan to make the main effort along the Channel coast. At the same time, he allowed Bradley's troops to close up to the Rhine and link up with General Devers' forces coming from the south. Only when the supply situation was well in hand would they launch the final push toward Berlin. The Eisenhower plan called for the first crossing of the Rhine to be made by Montgomery north of the Ruhr.
The American armies were still on the move August 27, when the Queen Mary docked in Scotland. There it was cold and clammy. "I put on my wool underwear today to keep my legs warm. They look like trapeze pants," Karl Timmermann wrote home. "I ate my three regular meals today; breakfast was the only one that came up." The top American planners had no special role in mind for Timmermann's comrades. They weren't due in France until early in October, and by then the war might be over for all practical purposes.
To follow up Montgomery's crossing of the Rhine, Bradley prepared his First Army to attack and cross the Rhine in the vicinity of Koblenz, Bonn and Cologne. This plan he unfurled in a field order dated September 10. Events quickly demonstrated that the planned crossing of the Rhine was premature. September proved to be a month of shattered dreams. Gasoline ran out. The tanks sputtered and ground to a halt. The Germans, after a long and harrowing retreat across France, suddenly found their second wind when they began fighting in defense of their homeland. The Siegfried Line and fortified cities like Metz were stubbornly held, and Field Marshal Model, a dedicated, fanatical improviser, injected a new fighting spirit into the tired German troops. On September 17, Montgomery made a brilliant gamble to cross the Rhine with daring paratroop drops at Arnhem and Nijmegen. But the German panzers closed in on them and methodically killed an appalling percentage of them. At the end of September, the Rhine seemed much farther away. President Roosevelt wrote to Winston Churchill that he had bicycled over most of the terrain "in the old days" and therefore was less optimistic than some of his field commanders about the ease of crossing the Rhine.
The 9th Armored spent most of September in England, training in tactical problems. The division was reequipped with new tanks and other vehicles and its equipment was in good shape. Then on September 28 it embarked at Weymouth on the south coast in an LST (landing ship, tank) for the English Channel crossing. Once again the infantrymen and tankers who were to figure in the first crossing of the Rhine were buffeted by seasickness.
France and Belgium were colder and rainier than England. There were bivouacs on damp ground, road marches and rain-swept trips by truck, then more chilly bivouacs, and finally, at the end of October, the green troops went into the line near Luxembourg. They didn't feel much like heroes, in the gooey mud and under the barren trees. Three days after going into the front lines for the first time, Karl Timmermann wrote back to Nebraska: "You know, military uniforms are pretty and smart, but really all they stand for are heartache, destruction and death, because a soldier is an instrument of war."
October and November were months of slow, painful and bloody progress through the treacherous HŸrtgen Forest, and no spectacular gains were scored along the Allied front. In mid-October, First Army took Aachen. Then started a renewal of the debate between Montgomery and Bradley over where the next main thrust would be aimed in a November offensive. Bradley stressed the advantages of a two-pronged attack which would encircle the Ruhr, while Montgomery still felt that a single hammer blow north of the Ruhr was the most direct path to victory. Now General Eisenhower was more sympathetic toward General Bradley's plan than in August. This meant that Bradley's armies would attack both north and south of the Ardennes, drive on to the Rhine and seize crossings if they had the momentum. Montgomery was to push from Nijmegen between the Rhine and the Maas. Once again, the little town of Remagen was overlooked.
Excerpted from The Bridge at Remagen by Ken Hechler. Copyright © 2005 by Ken Hechler. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.