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National Security: Remagen

Seventy years ago today, soldiers of the U.S. First Army were crossing the Rhine River over the Ludendorff Bridge near the town of Remagen, not far from the city of Bonn. The rail bridge had been captured, damaged but intact, four days before, on March 7, 1945, by advanced elements of the 9th Armored Division. Two years earlier, Allied commanders and planners realized the formidable barrier represented by the Rhine River running primarily to the north from Switzerland to Holland, emptying into the North Sea. Germany had last been invaded across the Rhine during the Napoleonic Wars. For nearly a century and a half, Germany lay protected from the west, behind the Rhine. Next to a seaborne invasion, the most difficult military problem is crossing a major river like the Rhine. Following the Normandy Campaign, British commander Bernard Montgomery hatched a plan to cross the Northern Rhine through Holland. Operation Market Garden in September 1944 was the largest airborne assault in military history. It required the paratroopers to capture five bridges to open the way for a British III Corps armor assault. The last bridge to be captured was the Arnhem Bridge over the Rhine into Belgium. Market Garden failed. The northern most attack at Arnhem was carried out by the British First Airborne Division. They jumped 10 thousand troopers into the assault and escaped with less than two thousand, a virtual wipeout. The operation is best described by British historian Cornelius Ryan’s classic book, A Bridge Too Far which was later made into a movie by the same name. Six months later, eight Allied armies under the command of Dwight Eisenhower were entering Germany and approaching the barrier represented by the Rhine. Systematically, the Germans were destroying the bridges that crossed this thousand foot wide river. It was a tricky affair – if they destroyed a bridge too soon, many of their escaping troops would be stranded on the west bank and easily captured by the attacking American, French, British and Canadian armies. When the lead reconnaissance elements of the 9th Armored reached the hills overlooking Remagen, they discovered that the Ludendorff Railroad Bridge was still intact and German units were using the bridge in their retreat. At this point in the early spring of 1945, the Ludendorff Bridge was the last standing bridge across the Rhine. Realizing the opportunity, the reconnaissance team fought their way into Remagen and to the entrance of the bridge. Repeatedly, German engineers tried to detonate explosives under the bridge but were unsuccessful. The American soldiers dashed across the bridge under heavy fire, led first by Sergeant Alexander Drabik and then Lieutenant Karl Timmermann. The first squads of soldiers to cross routed German resistance and established an American bridgehead on the east side of the river. They would soon be joined by many others. The Ludendorff Bridge stood for another week and a half before collapsing from repeated damage. During that time, six divisions crossed the Rhine, more than a hundred thousand soldiers. The first engineers to cross constructed parallel pontoon bridges to increase the flow of troops. The race to the east toward Berlin was on. In less than two months’ time, American troops met their Russian counterparts coming from the east at Torgau on the Elbe River, crushing what was left of Germany between them. A week earlier, Hitler had committed suicide. On May 7th, German officials signed their unconditional surrender, ending the war in Europe. The “thousand year Reich” was kaput in just twelve years. In four more months, Japan would surrender, ending history’s most catastrophic war. The capture of the bridge at Remagen was not according to plan and surprised Eisenhower’s staff, but they adapted quickly. Accidental providence is part of war. The initiative of individual soldiers took advantage of this change in fortune, shortened the end of the war, and entered the name Remagen into the history of the United States Army. Another footnote to history: last week marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural address. It is one of the greatest speeches in American history. It ended this way: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and among all nations.” A spectator in the audience was the young actor, John Wilkes Booth. In a month’s time, he would become an assassin and change the course of history.

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