Operation Plunder showed that two forces could use completely different tactics to work towards the same aim, and, in their own way, both succeed. It was unquestionably an Allied victory, as by March 1945 the German soldiers were worn out, demoralised, and had few resources left to challenge the determined invaders. Still, they had been ordered by Hitler to fight to the last, so crossing the Rhine was never going to be a walkover for the Allies – and that’s without considering the obstacle formed by the river itself! It was fast, lined with many cliffs and high hills, and almost 500 metres wide in places, making it a formidable barrier to cross. Already, hopes of circumventing the gnarly Siegfried Line and ending the war swiftly had been dashed with the failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944.
That being the case, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery felt that the crossing of the Rhine would only be achievable through careful planning and a precise co-ordination of forces. He formulated a strategy whereby the US, Canadian and British forces would work together to secure two solid bridgeheads on the river, with the aim of splitting up the German defenders, then hopefully circling and taking the industrial Ruhr Valley. The 21st Army Group, led by ‘Monty’, was to cross first between Emmerich and Düsseldorf, while General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army was to support the main thrust by crossing next between Cologne and Koblenz. Meanwhile, a second US force, the 6th Army Group, was to cross much further south, at Mannheim, helping to drive the German soldiers up towards the other two. The whole operation would be supported by the largest airborne operation ever seen, to hit Wesel and support the British thrust.
Montgomery meticulously ensured that, once his bridgehead was forged, there would be adequate resources and men available to hold it. According to the Reader’s Digest’s ‘The World at Arms’, this meant amassing 59,000 British and US engineers and 250,000 tonnes of material and supplies. By 23rd of March, the day the operation was due to begin, he had also gathered together 250,000 troops. There was a massive air strike on Wesel by Lancasters and Mosquitos that evening, and every German outpost on the bank was bombed. British Commandoes crossed the river first near Wesel, in amphibious vehicles, then there was another air strike, under cover of which the 15th and 51st Scottish Divisions crossed. Everyone had made it over by 9.45am, 24th March 1945, and there was little opposition. At 10am the airborne troops were flown in to back up the soldiers. While this was a good idea in theory, Montgomery had underestimated the ferocity of the German anti-aircraft defences. The paratroopers of the British 6th and US 17th Airborne Divisions found themselves caught in a deadly hail of bullets, and got decidedly the worst of the battle. Still, the survivors met up with the ground troops, and by the next day the bank was firmly in Allied control, with Germans being driven out as Churchill looked on.
This crossing, on the whole deftly managed, was a massive coup for Montgomery, who knew the devastating psychological effect it would have on the German forces, now cut off from a valuable supply route. However, it would have made an even bigger impact if the American forces hadn’t beaten him to it! The US First Army, part of Bradley’s 12th Army Group, had first reached the Rhine, near Cologne, on 7th March. Of course, it had been assumed that the bridge would be down – the German army was under strict orders to demolish all bridges over the Rhine if the Allies got within 12 miles of their position - and that the US Army was ready to wait until the British had achieved their aim before trying to cross. However, the first man to look over the gorge at Remagen, to his absolute amazement, that the Ludendorff Bridge was standing intact. Consequently, the men made a headlong dash over the bridge, pursued the whole way by shellfire from guns on the riverbank and machine gun fire from two towers, not to mention the odd explosion as the frantic Germans attempted to blow the bridge (they succeeded in damaging it, but it held firm). They emerged, panting, as the first Allies to make the crossing to the east bank of the Rhine – two weeks ahead of Montgomery’s painstakingly designed timetable.
Bradley was absolutely elated, and proudly reported his achievement to his somewhat exasperated commanders. ‘The World at Arms’ quotes one of Eisenhower’s senior aides as saying, “Sure, you’ve got a bridge, Brad, but it’s in the wrong place. It just doesn’t fit the plan.” It certainly didn’t. Montgomery’s forces weren’t in place near Wesel until the 10th of March, and even then the great commander refused to make a move ahead of schedule, until all his men and supplies were exactly where they needed to be. Patton’s US Third Army, meanwhile, the southern force due to drive the German forces out of the Saarland, was still busy fighting its way to the river. Nobody was ready to back him up, and Bradley’s army would have been dangerously exposed if it had struck further east of the Rhine at that time. However, he’d taken the initiative when it was given, and there he was. “What in the hell do you want us to do, pull back and blow it up?” he rather petulantly exclaimed. In the end, his army was ordered to sit tight and secure the bridgehead until the others were in place.
Such impetuosity could reap incredible rewards in battle. Sometimes, as in Operation Cobra, acting quickly when a weakness was spotted allowed Bradley’s forces to make massive, game-changing advances. However, there was something to be said for Montgomery’s careful planning. There was little point in breaking a line when you hadn’t the troops or resources to back up the push, and Bradley had perhaps acted a little hastily. Then again, it could be argued that the Airborne support was one step too far in Montgomery’s plan, and, since the infantry and tanks were getting along fine securing the bridgehead as it was, were not really needed. If the Airborne Divisions had not been sent into the area, many paratroopers’ lives would have been saved. Perhaps the perfect strategy lay somewhere between Bradley’s gutsy, headlong approach and Montgomery’s more calculated caution. In this operation, though, both achieved their own successes, and both unquestionably helped to advance the Allied position, thereby hastening the end of World War Two.