The First British Bridge Across The Rhine

Fellow sappers – This is for you.

To compliment my own personal story and the 60th anniversary of the end of WW2 read the official report at the time by the Chief Royal Engineer 8th Corps of how my colleagues hastened the end by bridging the Rhine.

“The planning stages for the Rhine crossing really started at the crossing of the Meuse on the German border. For the whole winter we had been facing the Germans on the opposite banks of the river, and plans for the frontal assault across it had been worked out in the greatest detail for a number of altenative sites. All recces were carried out on the ground, Sapper officers becoming quite expert in moving about on night recces, camouflaged in snow suits.

Eventually, however, a frontal assault was not carried out across the Meuse on our front owing to the rapid advance of an American Armoured Combat Group coming up from the south.on the opposite bank., and capturing Venlo. At a few hours’ notice the 100 (Royal Monmouth) Field Coy built a floating bridge across the Meuse at Venlo on March 1st 1945. This bridge went well.

Before leaving the Meuse I must record how impressed I was with the efficiency and drive of the American Armoured Combat Group that captured Venlo. The armoured element of this particular Combat Group consisted of a coloured tank battalion. Their motto appeared to be “drive and shoot” and they certainly put the fear of God into the Boche that night in Venlo, driving and shooting tracer all over the town. I crossed the Meuse in the early hours of March 1st, with the bridge recce party, and made my way on foot (luckily we landed to one side of an enemyminefield) to contact the Commander of this U.S Combat group, where I had an excellent breakfast preceeded by a cognac and was present at his “O” Group immediately afterwards.

They had advanced 30 km up the east bank of the Meuse the day before, stopping at nothing , including anti-tank ditches, and captured Venlo during the night. The Commander had received no information of the progress of our drive from the north , and I gave him the latest information as I knew it; he then gave orders accordingly , with regard as to axis of advance, order of march and objectives to be reached up to 15 miles beyond Venlo, all of which were in fact captured by his Combat Group on that day.

Having successfully crossed the Meuse and started tackling rout clearances in Venlo, we took up positions in Germany and learnt that our next big task was to be the building of a floating bridge across the Rhine. It would be , apart from the Remagen bridgehead , the first bridge across and speed was essential. No dates,of course, could be forecast at that time, but it was obvious that there would be two to three weeks to prepare, as the enemy was fighting bitterly all the way back to the river. Soon detailed plans of the crossing were out and the bridge site fixed .Air photos, all available data and history of the river’s behaviour were collected and carefully studied, and a tentative plan drawn up.

RECCES

Our infantry reached the river and took up positions some way back, patrolling the bank at night. Recces were only allowed by night and nothing was to be done that might attract the enemy’s attention to that particular site. We had several good daytime” looks” at the river from Artillery OPs,and an officer was attached to the infantry coy holding the village at Wardt, some two miles from the river. He went out on two night patrols with the infantry , having a general look at the site and checking on a number of points. An enormous stroke of luck came when fog one morning entirely hid the near bank from enemy observation , The recce officer was able to walk almost unhindered , covering the entire site and approaches. No recces of the far bank were done, but from air photos and daytime observation a reasonable picture was built up.

PLANNING

The information gathered was very complete and enabled me to make a detailed plan of the whole operation. A scale model of the entire site and marshalling area was constructed . I briefed Coy Commanders, giving them their tasks in detail, and held several conferences to thrash out any points about which they had doubts. Later the scale model was loaned to Coy. Commanders , who briefed their officers and N.C.O.s with its help. All agreed that the model was good value.

TRAINING

The whole formation built two training bridges over the Meuse, duplicating as far as possible the conditions expected over the Rhine. Early on it was evident that the bottleneck would be anchor casting in the fast Rhine current. As a result of this training period , we evolved a good method for casting anchors, which consisted of establishing a captive ferry on baloon cable just upstream of the line on which the anchors would be cast. The ferry, one floating bay F.B.E ,powered with two propulsion units,carried anchors to the correct position, where they were cast. Cables,fixed beforehand to the anchors,were walked along the bridge while the ferry went out, and attached to the rafts as they came in to bridge. On account of the swift current Bailey Pontoon anchors had to be used instesd of F.B.E anchors, which we found had dragged on the Meuse.

ORGANIZATION

For the operation the formation was put under command 11 A.G.R.E who gave approval for all moves forward, and orders for the commencement of work. Within the formation the organization was as given in Appendix 1 and this worked most successfully on the operation. All bridge equipment,track stores, and other materials required for the construction of the bridge were held in a R.E concentration area some miles back. Three days before the operation everything was on wheels in this area, where it was then sorted into pre-arranged vehicle columns, each column being approximately 60 vehicles numbered serially in the order in which they would be off-loaded at the bridge site. This marshalling was carried out under the supervision of an officer from the formation.,who remained until all columns had left for the forward marshalling area. The call forward to the marshalling area was controlled by the A.G.R.E on demand from the C.R.E at the bridge control point. Personnel vehicles were handled ,as for stores and equipment , from an area within the main R.E concentration area. The careful pre-loading and assembly of the 167 bridging vehicles and specially loaded 3 tonners required for the operation ,paid a very good dividend. The bridge equipment was demanded several days in advance.It was allotted and brought into my Corps Field Park Coy. bridging dump. There a Field Coy was given the task of unloading , checking ,repairing, cleaning up and reloading all the equipment. This proved of great value as much equipment was damaged and needed repair. The pre-arranged loading of vehicles carrying stores other than standard bridge equipment involved much careful work. Anchor cables were well soaked and tensioned between lorries , carefully measured and marked according to the order they would be required in bridge, and put on the same lorry as the Bailey anchors with which they would be used. All this is rather contrary to the normal doctrine.of supply and moving forward of bridge equipment, but in the writer’s opinion it is the only possible way of dealing with a large bridging operation, where nothing in the matter of the state of the equipment can be left to chance, and almost a “private army” of bridge equipment and specially loaded vehicles had to be assembled for the operation.

THE OPERATION

At zero hour (02,00 hours in our sector), with a small party from H.Q R.E I went forward to the site and established contact with “crossing control” to follow events and report back to 11 A.G.R E until they should they give the order to start. The drive up through Xanten was most interesting. The intense din from our barrage, accompanied by illuminated tracer and houses on both sides of main route through Xanten well and truly ablaze from enemy fire , made an impression I shall never forget. The marshalling area was signed and laid out , and phones connected up as the assault was going in. On our site the assaulting infantry were held up by strong machine gun positions dug into the flood bank, and for a long time they could make no progress inland. During the hours of darkness we walked the foreshore and building sites , and I fixed the exact position for the start of the bridge. An hour before first light advance parties arrived and started work. There was mortaring, 20mm fire and unaimed small arms fire from the enemy. With the coming of light , machine guns and 20mm canon fire made work difficult. Our neighbours on the left, building close support rafts, had to pull out suffering casualties, and we were ordered to cease work for the time being., In the meantime the main body was arriving and the equipment and stores were coming into our bridging and marshalling area, where they were parked on a pre-arranged plan in fields behind the floodbank. Enemy guns began to shell the marshalling area fairly consistently, and we had to have a wider dispersal of vehicles than had been allowed for in the original plan. Forward of the floodbank the site was unhealthy, being completely overlooked by the far bank, where our infantry had not been able to get on. After a discussion with C.E 12 Corps, I sent a recce party on the possibility of bridging some miles upstream, where the far bank had been cleared of the enemy. Bad approaches on both banks ruled out this new site. By 10.30 hours our infantry coming up on the far bank had pinched out the machine gun positions , and work started once more. With the cessation of aimed M.G and small arms fire , work went forward rapidly , though a trifle slowed by mortaring and shelling which continued until the afternoon. The first bridging vehicles arrived on site at 11.00 hours , at which time I crossed the river in a Buffalo with a recce party, and fixed the position at the end of the bridge and exits up to the floodbank on the far side. The anchor party got their cable across by Storm boat , quite a feat ,and established the anchor casting ferry. Soon the bridge was going steadily forward , raft building just keeping pace nicely with forming of bridge and anchor casting. In the meantime the approach on the near bank and the exit on the far bank , totalling nearly a mile of Somerfeld Track on Chespale over grass fields, was going smoothly. All traffic during building was run over the fields clear of the final alignment of the approach. Track stores for the far bank were ferried over in D.U.K.W s and Buffaloes, which were placed under our command for that purpose. A Buffalo ferry service for the infantry was being operated upstream of our bridging site and twice Buffaloes , out of control , broke the anchor cable , which had to be promptly renewed. Later I managed to get this ferry service moved downstream of the bridging site. Hundreds of Gliders and Dakotas , flying in low for the Airborn drop , made a most heartening sight during the morning. Work went on according to plan, and the bridge was open to traffic 23.30 hours , twelve and a half hours after the first bridging vehicles had arrived on site. The conpleted bridge was 1500 feet long. Once we had really got started the enemy opposition was negligible. there being no enemy air attck at all.. This gave us a false sense of security, which cost us dearly in subsequent bridging operations in.the campaign, particularly on the Weser and Elbe where we had a respect for the enemy’s low-level air attacks.

Appendix 1
H.Q.R.E All recces and planning. staffing and running marshalling area and bridge control. Controlling movement of bridging vehicles to the off loading points.

100 Royal Monmouth Field Coy
Building trestle bays on both banks.
Building floating bays and warping them to the head of the bridge where they were handed over to 224 Field Coy . Temporary approaches to raft building sites .

224 Field Coy
Casting anchors. Taking over rafts at head of bridge, Connecting up the
formed bridge and fixing cables. Fixing landline anchorages. Operating ferry to far bank.

101 Royal Monmouth Field Coy
All approaches and exits on both banks. Ferrying across track stores to far bank (using D.U.K.Ws) Providing an “Anti -Floater” patrol to secure any out of control Buffalo or other heavy floating objects from damaging the bridge. Last but not least our Coy !!

508 Field Park Coy
Signing the routes up and down for personnel and bridging equipment, Providing personnel rescue service on the water. Maintaining “Evinrudes” and prepulsion units. Fixing all signs on the bridge itself, including vehicle spacing signs. Lighting the bridge at night if necessary.

POSTSCRIPT
Appreciation of other arms of Engineer work:

The following letter addressed to me was received from Lt Gen Sir Miles Dempsey ,Commandinding 2nd Army , and was greatly appreciated by all ranks of 8th Corps Troops Royal Engineers.

__________________________________

To 8 Corps Tps Engineers HQ Second Army

29 March 1945

Dear ———–

The battle has been won and out leading troops are now , five days after the crossing breaking out from the bridgehead.. I want you to realise how much of this success is due to the work which you and those under your command have carried out. The crossing and bridging of the Rhine could not be described as an easy operation. It was, however, essential to success that the build up on the other side of armour. artillery, vehicles and stores should proceed quickly. Thank to the skill and energy with which you carried out the tasks allotted to you this was achieved, and I would be glad if you would tell all ranks how much I appreciate their splendid work.

Yours Sincerely,

M C Dempsey

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