To the German people, the broad, majestic Rhine River, stretching from Switzerland northward for seven hundred miles, had always been the symbol of their national heritage and strength. In Richard Wagner’s operas, the Nibelungen Ring, made from the gold guarded by Rhine maidens deep in the river’s waters, gave its possessor power over the entire world.
Not since the time of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806 had an invading army managed to cross the Rhine, because it could be turned into a vast defensive moat simply by blowing up its bridges. Now, in early March 1945, with Allied armies driving steadily toward the heart of the Fatherland, preparations were made to transform the Rhine into an impregnable barrier.
As the last German troops and panzers retreated behind the Rhine, Adolf Hitler issued strict orders for all of the bridges to be blown on the approach of enemy forces. Then, if the Allies tried to force an amphibious crossing, the Führer was convinced that they would be repulsed in a bloody disaster.
On March 8, Hitler received shocking news in his bunker below the Reich Chancellery in bomb-battered Berlin. General Alfred Jodl, his trusted confidant, informed him that the Americans had seized intact the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, and troops and tanks were pouring across the Rhine.
Hitler flew into one of his most violent tirades of the war. Red-faced and trembling with fury, he shouted that he had been the victim of “cowards and traitors.” The supreme leader demanded scapegoats, so he sent for SS Major General Rudolf Hübner, a staunch Nazi.
Hübner arrived at the Berlin bunker and was told to form a Flying Special Tribunal West, which would be empowered to conduct on-the-spot courts-martial and immediate execution of sentences.
Two days later, General Hübner launched trials in a large farmhouse thirty miles east of the Rhine. Seated on a rickety divan, the three SS colonels on the panel listened impassively as Wehrmacht legal officers presented the “evidence” against the “cowards and traitors” who had “permitted” the Americans to get across the Rhine.
Hübner, presumably a spectator, played his role to the hilt, shouting at each defendant that he was a miserable coward and deserved to be shot. The trial of each of six officers lasted less than ten minutes.
Major Hans Schiller explained that the one thousand combat troops he had been promised to protect the Ludendorff had never arrived. So he had only thirty-six elderly and infirm security guards to thwart the strong American force. Schiller was dragged outside and shot.
Twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant Karl Peters, who had been in charge of four antitank guns, was found guilty of high treason for leaving one of his weapons on the west side of the Rhine when American tanks were nipping at his heels. He was shot.
Major Hans Ströbel and Major August Kraft told the court that they had not blown the Ludendorff because the one thousand tons of explosives promised by a higher headquarters failed to appear. That “excuse” was unacceptable, Hübner yelled. A firing squad riddled the two highly decorated majors.
While loyal German officers were being shot at Remagen because of bungling at high levels, Hitler demanded that the bridge be destroyed before more Americans and tanks could cross the Rhine. Obsolete Stuka dive bombers and revolutionary new jets attacked the bridge and were greeted by a torrent of antiaircraft fire. They failed to score direct hits.
At the same time, the Karl howitzer, an enormous 540-millimeter weapon, lobbed shells weighing more than two tons each from a distance of twenty miles. After firing several rounds and missing, the howitzer needed repairs and was put out of action.
The Führer’s Vergeltungswaffen (vengeance weapons), huge supersonic rockets that had been pounding London and the Belgian port of Antwerp for eight months, were turned against the Ludendorff. Eleven of the rockets were fired from bases in the Netherlands. All missed the target by considerable distances.
In desperation, Hitler ordered frogmen to blow up the span. By now, the Americans had built a bridgehead on the east bank of the Rhine nine miles deep and fifteen miles long. So to even reach the Ludendorff, the frogmen would have to swim for perhaps eight miles behind American lines. Moreover, the Rhine temperature would be near freezing, causing the frogmen to get cramps and perhaps drown. It would take a near miracle for the mission to succeed.
An hour after darkness descended on March 17, nine days after the first squad of American infantrymen had dashed across the Ludendorff, eleven furtive figures, burdened with heavy loads of explosives, stole along the banks of the Rhine and into the rapid current ten miles north of the bridge. Lieutenant Hans Schreiber, leader of the frogmen, had been a champion swimmer while in a Berlin University; he and each of his men wore skin-tight rubber suits, rubber foot fins, and carried an apparatus to breathe underwater.
After superhuman effort in battling the strong current and the frigid river temperature for three hours, the frogmen had negotiated nearly five miles behind enemy lines. Suddenly, when two miles from the bridge, the nearly exhausted swimmers were virtually blinded by powerful searchlights that played over the water from both banks of the Rhine. A torrent of machine-gun and rifle fire peppered the helpless Germans. Several of them were hit by bullets and disappeared below the surface. Those who survived struggled to reach the bank and were captured—including the crestfallen Lieutenant Schreiber, who had been fully aware that Adolf Hitler had sent him and his men on a suicide mission.