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.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.