We ran down the middle of the bridge, shouting as we went. I didn’t stop because I knew that if I kept moving they couldn’t hit me. My men were in squad column and not one of them was hit. We took cover in some bomb craters. Then we just sat and waited for others to come. That’s the way it was.
Having broken through the Siegfried line the Allies were now making unexpectedly swift advances into Germany as the defences crumbled. They knew however that a major barrier awaited them. The Rhine river is the natural defensive feature on Germany’s borders. It was here that Hitler was planning to make his last stand – every bridge was to be blown up and the eastern bank defended in depth. And it was to cross the Rhine that the Allies were preparing an amphibious and airborne assault second only to the Normandy invasion.
On the 7th March 1945 a small US Army reconnaissance unit came within sight of the Rhine at Remagen, surprised to find the railway bridge across still intact. An assault was swiftly organised. Everett Holles, an NBC Radio war correspondent spoke to those who made the attack:
On beyond the four towers of the Apollinariskirche that glistened in a light drizzle of rain they saw Remagen’s 400-yard-long, three-span bridge across the Rhine. The bridge ran to the village of Erpel on the east bank and across it lay two railroad tracks. Other American forces had come up against the same sort of thing before, but always, as they came to the Rhine crossings, the bridges went up in great explosions before their eyes, set off by German demolition engineers.
Traffic was still moving across the Ludendorf 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. A German gun was knocked out, some German soldiers killed. Then the Yanks, crouching low against machine gun fire coming from the bridge towers, ran out onto the bridge. Just as they stepped on the span, an explosion occurred three-quarters of the way down the bridge. The Germans were setting off demolition charges, and the men thought surely their chance was gone. But no, only slight damage was done. They raced on.
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 machine gun 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 – the kinda guy I’d like to know.’
Soon the bridge was swarming with Americans, while Mitchell, joined now by other engineers, cut and jerked out wires leading to dynamite charges. Gingerly they detached detonators and lifted boxes of explosives from the piers.
Later, from prisoners, the Americans learned that the Germans planned to blow up the span at precisely four o’clock. But the German officer assigned the demolition job was drunk when the American tanks reached Remagen. This officer, a lieutenant, had gone into the town of Eprel as the Yanks approached and spread the word boastfully that ‘the bridge goes up at four o’clock this afternoon’.
German soldiers and civilians, gathering from miles around, were sitting in ‘grandstand’ seats at every vantage point on the east bank, waiting for the spectacular event to come off, when Burrows’ patrol ran onto the bridge – ten minutes before the hour fixed for its destruction. The German lieutenant signaled the plunger down. Two small explosions occurred, but the bridge only shuddered and remained standing. Several of the fuses had been faulty.
1st Army commander Omar Bradley was soon informed, he responded:
Hot dog . . .this will bust ’em wide open. Shove everything you can across!
Soon the bridge was soon the subject of sustained German attempts to blow it up, with Hitler ordering V2 rockets to be fired at as well as bombing and heavy artillery. The US Army brought up the largest single concentration of Anti-Aircraft batteries to successfully defend the bridge over the next 10 days, before it finally collapsed. By this time five divisions had got across the bridge and the bridgehead they established disrupted the German plans for the whole defence of the Rhine.