The Bridge at Remagen

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Crucial WWII Battle Had WVA Connections

Read - "I was the Gunner in the Tank crossing the Bridge at Remagen"
   West Virginia WWII Veteran, Clemon Knapp

Interview with:  Ken Hechler, WWII Historian
                 
 author of " The Bridge at Remagen"

Interviewed by:  Betty Lewis, www.appalachiacoal.com
July 14, 2001     2:30 pm
Nicholas County Schools Central Board Office
 
Summersville, West Virginia
 

       In the spring of 1945 the American and British armies had flattened out the   bulge with which the German attackers had penetrated the American lines in their counter attack through the Ardennes.       

       Starting in December 16, 1944, as the Allied Forces approached the Rhine River, Adolph Hitler ordered all the bridges blown up to prevent a crossing of this wide river.  

        The 9th Armored Division, which had been ordered not to cross the Rhine River but to turn south along the west bank in order to join up with General Patton's Third  Army, found a bridge still standing at the little town of Remagen halfway between Cologne and Koblenz.  The defending Germans had left this bridge open in order to retreat some of their tanks and big guns to save them from being captured by the Americans.

         On the afternoon of March 7, 1945 a small group of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 9th Armored Division emerged from the woods, and from the top of a high hill overlooking the Rhine River they observed the bridge still standing, with the Germans retreating across the bridge.     The bridge was known as the Ludendorff Bridge after Germany's WWI general.  It had been built during WWI.  When the French occupied this section of Germany after WWI, they filled the demolition chambers underneath the bridge with cement, making it very difficult to destroy the bridge.  The German defenders set up a demolition plan which involved a circuit which could be activated from a tunnel on the east side of the bridge.  The bridge was originally designed as  a railroad bridge, but it was planked over to allow for vehicular traffic.   

         When the head of Combat Command B, General William Hoge, observed that the bridge was still standing, he ordered the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion to go down the hill and attack the town of Remagen prior to possibly crossing the bridge before it was blown up.  At the same time, the 14th Tank Battalion of the 9th Armored Division was ordered to proceed to the west side of the bridge after helping to clean out the defenders in the town of Remagen.  General Hoge was actually violating his orders, which were to turn south to join up with General Patton's third Army.

          Lt. Karl Timmermann led the first troops across the bridge.  Just before they set foot on the bridge, the Germans blew a 30' crater in the approach to prevent tanks from crossing.  A  young soldier from Rupert, West Virginia, Clemon Knapp, had a tank with a blade in front of it which he called "tank dozer."   Under fire, he brought the "tank dozer" forward to fill in the 30' crater. 

Meanwhile, Lt. Hugh Mott and his two sergeants, Eugene Dorland and John
Reynolds, climbed underneath the bridge to cut the wires to the German
demolitions.

          The Germans had excellent observations of the bridge from the top of a 600' cliff known as the Erpeler Ley.   In the German Army, anti-aircraft
personnel were under the command of  the Air Force, while the major defense of the bridge was under the Infantry Commander, named, Captain Willi Bratze. 

The Air  Force decided to replace the unit on top of the Erpeler Ley on March 6, the day before the Americans attack.  Captain Bratge ordered the anti-aircraft unit to hurry to the top of the cliff, but the replacement unit refused to take orders from the German Infantry Commander and thus deprived the German defenders of an excellent observation post on top of the Erpeler Ley. 

          Just as Lt. Timmermann and his infantry men started to cross the bridge, there was a tremendous explosion as the Germans attempted to destroy the bridge.  Both the Americans and Germans later testified that the bridge seemed to lift up from its foundations and then settle back shakily.  While it was still shaking, Lt. Timmermann and his men made their precarious way across.  Lt. Timmermann of West Point, Nebraska, was the first officer to reach the east coast of the Rhine River and Alex Drabik of Toldeo, Ohio, was the first enlisted man to set foot on the east side of the Rhine.

         Adolph Hitler was infuriated by the successful capture of the Ludendorff  Bridge. He was certain it had fallen into American hands because of  German treason.  He sent an execution squad to single out five German officers for immediate execution. Four of the five were immediately shot to death and the fifth man, Captain Bratge, escaped  execution only because the Americans had captured him.

       I returned to Germany after the war and located Captain Bratge, who
was teaching mathematics in a small school  near the Russian border.  He agreed to come back to Remagen, and we spent a full week together as he reviewed, step-by-step, both the German defenses and the sequence of events of May 7, 1945, without which I would not have been able to get a complete story.

         Hitler ordered an all-out attack on the Americans who had crossed the
bridge.  He sent in jet planes for the first time in the war, and they tried  in vain to bomb and destroy the bridge.  A group of underwater swimmers armed with explosives tried to destroy the bridge, but they were picked up by very powerful searchlights before they reached their objective. Werner Von Braun, who later became the architect of the American moonlanding, at that time was working for the Nazis and had developed a very  powerful guided missile called the V2 which was fired from Holland in an attempt to destroy the bridge.  Eleven V-2z landed near the bridge, shaking it like an earthquake.     

         The 51st and 291st Engineer Battalions immediately began to build 
pontoon and treadway bridges on both sides of the weakened railroad bridge.
 
This was very fortunate, because on March 17, 1945, the seriously damaged
Ludendorff Bridge collapsed into the Rhine River, killing twenty-eight engineers who had been trying to strengthen the bridge.     

         The surprise crossing of the Ludendorff Bridge probably saved 5000
American lives that otherwise would have been lost by an assault crossing of the river.  In addition, the capture of the bridge helped shorten the war by enabling the Americans to encircle and trap 300,000 Germans east of the Rhine, thereby, causing the war to end earlier on May 8, 1945.   

       The capture of the bridge was also a landmark in American initiative and courage in taking advantage of a sudden opportunity which had not been planned.

      I was about ten miles away from the bridge when these electrifying
events occurred.  Since I was an Army Combat Historian charged with capturing and recording the most important front line events in the war, I immediately went to Remagen to interview all those who were involved.  The first troops  crossing the bridge were brought back in reserve just about the time we captured a wine cellar, which gave a wonderful opportunity to fill a number of notebooks with on-the-scene comments.  I later returned to Germany to interview all the German participants in the action.     

    When I first completed the story of "The Bridge at Remagen," it was rejected by five publishers as unsaleable.  But in 1957 paperback publisher Ballantine Books decided to publish the book, and it sold 600,000 copies. Hollywood became interested and made a full-length motion picture from the book, starring Robert Vaughan, George Segal, Ben Gazzara and E. G. Marshall.  I was the technical advisor for the movie, which was released in 1969.

        Because of the heavy river traffic of coal barges, tourist boats and other ships, the Germans did not allow us to make the move at Remagen. 

The producer, David Wolper found a similar bridge near Prague, Czechoslovakia at the small town of Davle on the Vltava River.  At the cost of $250,000, the movie company, United Artists, blasted a tunnel on the east side of the river.  Filming started on June 6, 1968, and the East German press accused us of being CIA agents with our tanks who were supporting the Dubcek regime in Prague, which was more liberal than Moscow wanted it to be.

        On August 21, 1968, the filming was rudely halted by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.  Produces Wolfer recruited a fleet of taxicabs and the film crew escaped to Vienna, Austria.  Filming was then resumed near Hamburg, Germany and near the Pope's summer house, Castelgondolfo, Italy.

end of interview.

My original connection with Dr. Hechler was in the area of West Virginia coalmining issues.  He invited me to Cabin Creek, WV to participate and view the filming of a documentary on Appalachian culture.  Soon, our conversations led to his other talents and that led to this great oral history.