Saturday, March 22, 2014

Guest Blog: "Stay Alive in 1945"

I am very excited to introduce you to today's guest blogger, my "baby" brother, John. He is an amateur World War II historian, who is writing an epic book about the war.  He took time out from his research and busy life to contribute a blog describing General Patton's Third Army assault crossing of the Rhine River, which began during the night of 22-23 March 1945, 69 years ago.

“Stay Alive in ‘45!” Such went a popular refrain for American troops toward the end of WWII.  No one wanted to get hurt at this late stage of war.  But although Germany neared collapse there was yet much hard fighting to come, especially to get across the Rhine River—a natural defensive barrier that still separated the Allied armies from the heart of Germany.

British Field Marshal Montgomery had been methodically preparing an assault crossing by his 2nd British Army, but American Lieutenant-General George S. Patton, Jr. desperately wanted to beat the Brits across.  Patton ordered Major-General S. LeRoy Irwin’s 5th US Infantry Division to cross the Rhine at Oppenheim the night of 22 March, 1945, the night before the British operation was set to begin.

Some 500 boats and special bridging equipment were hurriedly brought forth for the rather impromptu American assault crossing of the Rhine.  Under bright moonlight the first boats paddled across two hours before midnight, some in the face of enemy machine gun fire from the opposite bank.  Despite the dangers, the Americans made it across to successfully establish a bridgehead on the eastern side of the river.  By early the next morning the entire 5th Division was across.  Having expected the Americans to cross further downstream the Germans were caught somewhat flat-footed by the surprise crossing at Oppenheim.  Their only effective riposte was to throw in a series of air raids by Luftwaffe fighter-bombers to harass the American bridgehead throughout the day of 23 March.

5th Infantry Division reinforcements cross the Rhine River in an LCVP

The following day Patton himself crossed the Rhine at Oppenheim in the footsteps of 5th Division.  In a scene deliberately reminiscent of William the Conqueror’s face-first tumble upon stepping out of a boat onto English soil, Patton feigned a stumble as he reached the eastern bank.  Scooping up a handful of dirt, he said, “Thus, William the Conqueror.”  Thus, 5th Division’s assault crossing of the Rhine:  timed to upstage the British and concluded with a throwback gesture to the Norman conquest of England.

My father-in-law served in the 5th Infantry Division under General Irwin and participated in the historic assault crossing of the Rhine River...a story for tomorrow.

Allen, Peter.  One More River, the Rhine Crossings of 1945.  Pages 229 – 232.
MacDonald, Charles B.  United States Army in World War II, The European Theater of Operations, The Last Offensive.  Pages 266 – 273.
Toland, John.  The Last 100 Days Pages 255 – 281.

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