There were three memorable bridges during WWII: 1) Pegasus Bridge, just off the D-Day beaches, which was taken by the first men to land at Normandy. It got its name from the patches worn by the soldiers who took it; 2) The bridge at Arnham, known better as "a bridge too far"; 3) The Bridge at Remagen. The three bridges were featured in the movies The Longest Day; A Bridge too Far; and The Bridge at Remagen.
In war, if you are the attacking force, you want bridges down as they are used to supply the enemies with material. But as you approach these bridges, you want them up so you can use them and they can supply you. For the defenders in retreat, bridges are blown as soon as they are crossed to slow the enemy down and choke their supply lines. Finding a major intact bridge in the heat of modern battle is rare indeed.
That all seems simple enough, but timing is everything. Hitler, ever the paranoid, insisted that bridges be blown… but only with explicit written orders from above. This created a problem, as these two requirements can be in conflict in the fog of war. Blow the bridge too soon, or without orders, and you get shot . Don’t blow the bridge in time, and you get shot. Middle tier officers were keenly aware of this at Remagen.
You may wonder about the title of the book. The actual name of the structure was the Leddendorf Railroad Bridge. To get to it from the west, you travel through the town of Remagen. Upon crossing the bridge, you are in the smaller town of Erpel. The tracks on the east side of the Rhine immediately enter an east-bound tunnel under a large cliff face that overlooks Erpel.
The Americans did not expect to find an intact bridge. Prior to their arrival, they did their level best to destroy the Luddendorf Bridge, and after their arrival, they tried to save it. The Americans were expert at building pontoon bridges, but they had a draw back. They were designed to carry Sherman tanks which had a very narrow wheel base. The Pershing tank had just arrived on scene, but its much wider wheel base could not be easily accommodated. A real bridge would be a godsend.
On paper, the bridge was reasonably well defended. But Germany was scraping the bottom of the barrel and the bridge only had 41 able men to defend it. Hitler youth and old men where there, as well as Eastern "volunteers" (slave laborers). This raised the total to about 500. The local population knew the score. They simply wanted to survive the next month or two. Desertions among the ranks were common.
The bridge had been prepared for demolition. Demolition wires ran down a steel conduit to the various bridge weak spots. Back up fuses were also in place. But no explosives! They had not arrived yet. As alluded to, a different nearby bridge had recently been destroyed too soon, and the man responsible was shot. All of the officers were well aware of the risks to them personally. This was exacerbated by a hopelessly complex and overlapping command structure. In other words, no one knew who was in true authority. When the explosives did arrive, they got 300 kilos instead of 600, and the explosives were industrial grade… considerably weaker than military grade.
When 2nd Lt. Timmermann saw that the bridge was intact, he could hardly believe it. They wasted no time in attacking. As they approached the bridge, a huge explosion created a large crater immediately in front of the west end of the bridge. This was intended as a tank trap. Artillery launched pozit shells at the bridge, and Pershings fired at the east end. "Pozit" was the name given to one of Americans secret weapons: ground proximity radar shells. The shells had a small radar device in them that caused them to explode at a set distance above the ground. These shells were incredibly effective at killing exposed enemies when they were introduced at the Battle of the Bulge. They allowed the Americans to clear the bridge of unsheltered defenders without destroying it.
The Germans knew they had little time. They had quickly prepared the bridge to blow, and they gave the order. The button was pressed and… nothing! A lucky tank shell had cut the conduit. However, the back up fuse was still in place, and through a hail of American fire, the Germans managed to set it off. The bridge disappeared inside the huge dust cloud created by the explosion. When the dust settled, it was still there! The weaker explosives failed to do the job. The Americans wasted no time in crossing the bridge on March 7th, 1945. Timmerman was the first officer was cross the Rhine.
The east end of the bridge was secured. Pershing tanks, with bulldozer blades attached, filled in the west end tank trap, and the Americans poured across. The Germans mounted several counter attacks, but were unable to dislodge the Americans. The German chain of command was all but broken.
Hitler, as always, tried to take personal control. He fired von Rundtstedt, which was not a good idea. He had V2s fired at the bridge, without effect. The German Luftwaffe expended its last trying to destroy the bridge. On March 17, the bridge, battered and beaten, simply collapsed, killing 20 or so combat engineers. The traffic load, constant explosions, demolition damage etc was finally too much for it.
That was when the Germans got busy doing what they were really good at: shooting people. A drumhead court was set up, led by one fanatical NAZI, to find and punish the guilty. Many officers were "tried" in only a few minutes, marched out the door, and shot. Bratge, the German officer who was primarily in charge of the defense of the bridge was sentenced to die too, but the Germans were too busy killing other folks, and he survived the war.
The bridge at Remagen materially hastened the outcome of the war. As a consequence of it falling into American hands, 300,000 Germans were captured in the Ruhr valley. Timmermann and many other received the Distinguished Service Cross, the highest award the army could give and second only to the Medal of Honor. Unit citations were also awarded.
The book lacks an index, which is a pity. The writing is clear, precise, and unbiased. These stories are really about men in battle: the bonds between them, the way decisions were made, the heroic deeds performed by individuals, and, of course, the loss of young men to enemy action.
If you have seen the movie The Longest Day, and remember it, then you aware of part of the story of Pegasus Bridge. It was a critical bridge assigned to the British to capture.
A word about names: The hero and leader of the Company is John Howard, played by Richard Todd in the movie. The attacking British crew included a chap named Todd Sweeny (his parents had a sense of humor), and another whose last name was Sweeny. Both were called Todd. And another fellow was named Pine Coffin!
The D-Day targets for Howard and his men were actually two bridges. The Orne River and the Caen Canal run parallel to each other at this point, flowing roughly north to south, with the D Day beaches to the east. Benouville Bridge crossed the canal to the west. The Ranville Bridge crossed the Orne river to the east. There were about 500 meters apart. The aim was to land three gliders next to each bridge (six in total), take them intact, and hold until relived. It was to be the first action of D-Day starting at midnight on the morning of the 6th of June. The bridges were almost certainly wired for demolition. These bridges would be critical in getting men and material off the beaches and inland,
Howard's glider hit the dirt only 50 meters from the Benouville bridge. The first soldiers to touch D-Day dirt were actually the glider pilots. They were both pitched through the glider windows and knocked unconscious. The other gliders also landed successfully, but a little further away. The first soldier to fire a round on D-Day was Howard himself. The whole company was known as D Company. They each sported a patch displaying Bellerophon astride Pegasus, the winged horse. The Benouville Bridge was renamed after the war to Pegasus Bridge and Howard had a street named after him in Benouville.
The German garrison was run by von Luck of the 21st Panzer Division. It consisted, in part, of soldiers who were essentially slave soldiers: Poles and Russians and such, poorly trained, ill-disciplined, and disinclined to get shot at. The bridge was indeed wired, but the explosives had not been put in place. The soldiers on guard that night were caught napping. Both bridges were taken in fairly short order.
Then the soldiers had to wait, both for paratrooper reinforcements to arrive, and for the inevitable counter attack by the Germans. The big fear was of the tanks stationed in nearby Caen. A counter attack did come and was repelled. But the main tanks never came because Hitler was famously snoozing and no one had the guts to wake him. Von Luck could not act without Hitler's OK.
The airborne troopers did arrive… late and under-manned. Many troopers got lost in the surrounding woods. It was the sound of combat that actually lead them to their target.
As per the movie, Lord Lovet came off the British beaches and headed straight for the bridges to relieve Howard, and they did so in style, with bagpipes playing.
The rest, as they say is history. Caen was a stubborn target. The allies struggled on the beaches for much longer than planned. The town of Benouville was the first to be liberated. The owners of a local inn were the first to greet their liberators. They hosted get-togethers for the vets for decades after the battle.
This book was based on interviews with the people who were there. It is a fairly quick and enjoyable read. Some good guys were killed, but for the most part, the story is one of valor, dedication and victory.
The following paragraph was written prior to my reading the book. I have not changed it subsequent to reading it.
I could not wait to get my hands on this book. It attempts to shed light on one of the most profound of questions: Why are we so smart? In other words, how does our brain perform its minor miracles… how does intelligence work? How do we think? How can we glance at a just hit baseball, turn away from it and start running, and then turn back to it to catch the ball right where we thought it would be? How does the brain manage a hurricane of sensory inputs and not go nuts. That is the easy stuff. How can we write a sentence like this… that is a bit trickier. I wonder about illusions like the Necker cube and how it flits back and forth between two possible interpretations. We shall see…
This book comes with three sections. The first discusses our brain and a new framework for understanding it. The second describes machine intelligence and where it might go. And the third speaks about the very long range future of the human race. The first section is the best. The third borders on science fiction.
The author has been doing brain research for many years, He started the Palm computing company. In trying to understand the brain, he and his fellow researchers write software simulations on how they think the brain actually functions. As a result, many of the analogies and metaphors used are familiar to me as a programmer. I too have spent much pondering some of the questions they deal with, albeit without the requisite understanding of current brain research need to confirm or deny my musings.
The book focuses on the neocortex. All mammals have them, but ours is the largest. Stretched out flat, it is about the size of a large tea towel, and only a few millimeters thick. Under a microscope, the neocortex looks the same everywhere. This implies a lot. The neocortex does many things ("sees" vision, interprets sounds, "feels" our bodies, composes sonnets etc), but it does them all with the same architecture of neurons. Or, in other words, it contains a single construct that is used over and over to solve every problem. Another basic premise introduced by the book is "movement". Almost all our understanding involves "moving" (i.e.: moving your eyes allows vision to construct a three dimensional model of our environment; moving a finger can tell us if the ball we are holding is a cue ball or a golf ball; and moving our attention from one view of the world to another allows us to test hypotheses). Another premise is "prediction", the idea being that predicting what will happen next is critical to thinking and surviving. The unit, used everywhere in the neocortex, is the Cortical Column. A column is about a millimeter square, and 2.5 millimeters deep, all the way through the neocortex. There are about 150,000 cortical columns, stacked side by side, in your neocortex. Knowledge is stored in the connections between neurons. Pattern matching is a big part of our thinking processes.
The big discoveries of his work are: The neocortex learns a predictive model of the world; predictions occur via potentials inside neurons; and that the secret of the cortical column is Reference Frames. Reference Frames (RFs) are like maps. The brain creates them, and expands on them all of the time. RFs are attached to objects and ideas. If you pick up a cricket ball for the first time, you will immediately create a new RF attached to it, and you will start to populate that RF with information about cricket balls. That RF will include connections to other RFs. Some RFs are temporary, like what you had for breakfast 3 days ago, and others are elaborate, such as the RF that represents your home's interior. This makes perfect sense to me as a programmer. An RF is the brain's basic thinking unit. RFs are associated with cortical columns. One column can contain many RFs.
All knowledge is stored relative to RFs. RFs are used to model everything. Inherent in the models is the idea of movement and location. Thinking is a form of movement through RFs. Recursion, a common feature of software, is inherent in RFs. Recursion is the idea of self-similarity. A twig is very similar to a branch which contains many twigs. A branch which contains many twigs, is very similar to a tree limb. A tree limb, which has many branches, is very similar to a tree. That is recursion. It is a classic way of breaking a problem down into smaller pieces.
To twist an old philosophical question/answer: What is our brain? It is a collection of RFs that contain other RFs. What are RFs made of? It is RFs all the way down.
Neurons get information from other neurons. As these connections are made, a neuron's electrical potential grows until a threshold is reached and it fires. The author describes neuron potentials as a kind of voting system.
What if you have two RFs that are quite different, but both equally explain the picture you are looking at (i.e.: the vote is a tie), like the Necker Cube? You can only see the cube using one RF or the other. We can switch back and forth at will. But we cannot see it as both at the same time.
I found this portion of the book very exciting to read, especially as a software developer. It is the sort of thing I would have loved to work on, but when I left school we were still talking about sorting algorithms, and a meg of memory cost 10 million adjusted dollars.
The second section of the book is about machine intelligence. I will not say too much about this. The major conclusions are these: We have a primitive old part of our brain. It handles things like breathing and walking, and is the source of our basic drives: hunger, sex etc. There is no reason to create a old brain in order to create an intelligent computer. It will be possible, perhaps in near future (30 years?), to create a self-aware, intelligent machine. Self-awareness, it is argued, is just our perception of our attentions over time. Scientists like Hawking feared the intelligent machine. Jeff Hawkins argues that we have little to fear since these machines would lack our more primitive drives. In other words, an intelligent machine would not care about its own survival, at least not like we do. Skynet is unlikely, and we can build in safeties as we go along.
The idea of uploading a human intelligence into a computer is largely dismissed. Our brains are built around a body and the old brain. It is not clear that a human intelligence could function without them. In other words, they might be able to upload your intelligence, but you probably would not like the result. If it can be done without destroying the original brain, interesting questions arise, like who is the real you?
The idea of linking a human brain to a computer is considerably more likely to come to fruition. This is a very active area of research.
The final section discusses the much bigger question of humanities ultimate future. We cannot last forever as a species. What will we, and what can we, leave behind? Hawkin's answer is "Our knowledge". This section is very speculative, but I think the basic premise is correct… namely we are (or were) what we know. If we want to last forever, we should find away to make out knowledge last forever. (Here, "forever" means for a very long time, like billions of years… not literally forever.)
This is the most insightful popular book on the human brain written to date. We are our brains. It is helpful to know how it (i.e.: you) works. I cannot recommend it enough. It is very thought provoking. In fact, I think I whipped up a few dozen new RFs just now, scribbling about it. The book has a forward by Richard Dawkins that is just as effusive. Most of my thoughts (see the preamble paragraph above) were addressed.
While not mentioned in the book, it seems to me that the idea of RFs is at the core of humor. The best jokes lead you towards one RF, only to provide a new piece of data (we call this the punch line) that snaps you to another RF in a surprising, unpredicted, and hopefully amusing, way.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.