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Hitler failed to destroy the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen

Posted in Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Monday, 29 October 2012

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This edited article about World War 2 originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 774 published on 13th November 1975.

Ike on D Day, piture, image, illustration

The D-Dy landings which enabled the Allies to liberate France and invade Germany, by Grahan Coton

In a railway tunnel on the bank of the Rhine, a Wehrmacht engineer officer crouched with his hand on the plunger of a detonating machine. Spanning the great river nearby could be seen the gaunt steel structure of Remagen’s Ludendorff Bridge.

It was mid-afternoon on March 7th, 1945. In a few moments the officer’s hand would descend, and an electric current would pass to the elaborate system of explosive charges designed to demolish the bridge.

The swift advances of the American forces in south-west Germany had caught the Germans off-balance. Many of their units covering the approaches to the Rhine were cut off. Hasty orders were given for the destruction of bridges in the path of the Americans.

At last the moment came. The German officer pressed the plunger – and nothing happened. Quickly he reset the detonator, and tried again. Once more without result.

Why the long-prepared charges failed to explode is still a mystery; and the events that followed are among the strangest of the Second World War.

The Ludendorff Bridge, named after a famous German general, had been built during the First World War to carry a railway across the river. It comprised a central steel arch of 513 feet (156 m), flanked by two trusses 278 feet (85 m) in length. On each bank stood a pair of stone towers, the tops of which could be used as observation posts.

Built for military purposes, the structure included a rare feature. In each of the stone piers was a hollow cavity which could be packed with explosives for easy demolition.

Between the wars, the hastily built bridge was found unsuitable for any other than pedestrian traffic. Under Hitler’s government, its military importance was again appreciated, and a new, more extensive demolition system was devised. An electrical detonating circuit was installed, and regularly tested.

Finally a powerful emergency charge was placed in position, to be fired by hand if the main system failed.

By March, 1945, the Allies were pressing hard on the western front. Hitler, furious at the continuing retreat of his forces, insisted that bridge demolition should only be carried out at the last possible moment, and on written orders from the High Command.

Minutes before the German officer’s unsuccessful attempt to fire the charges, the electrical circuit had been checked and apparently found in order.

There was now only one course left – to fire the emergency charge. A sergeant volunteered to go on to the bridge and do this. But here again something went wrong. The charge was not powerful enough. At the critical point the main structure sagged a few inches, but still hung precariously in position.

Another extraordinary fact is that the advancing Americans came within sight of the bridge before the attempt to destroy it, and might well have captured it intact. But they feared a trap, suspecting that the Germans were waiting to blow up the bridge with American troops on it.

Reports from civilians seemed to confirm this suspicion. While the Americans hesitated, the unsuccessful explosion occurred.

Seeing the bridge still standing, though damaged, the Americans decided that here was a totally unexpected chance to cross the great river barrier. First an exploratory crossing by a few platoons of infantry was attempted. But fire from the towers on the east bank was intense, and after a brave hand-to-hand struggle the remnant who reached the far side were taken prisoner.

After further savage encounters, a foothold was at last secured on the German side, and the bridge was in American hands. So enraged was Hitler by the news that, on his orders, five innocent officers were court-martialled and shot.

The Americans patched up the bridge sufficiently to allow the passage of tanks and other transport. Within a few days four divisions had crossed.

The Nazis could not match the American concentration, but they tried everything possible in their effort to check the build-up. They dive-bombed the bridge, making the first operational use of jet aircraft, and Hitler even directed that V2 rockets should be aimed at it. German troops meanwhile counter-attacked fiercely on the ground.

All these efforts failed. But, just ten days after the Germans’ failure to blow it up, the overworked Ludendorff Bridge collapsed, killing 28 American engineers.

By this time other bridges had been thrown across, and German resistance was doomed to failure.

Two theories have been advanced as to why the demolition plan failed. The first is that a Polish captive worker sabotaged the detonation system, and the second is that a random shot from an American tank damaged it. Neither explanation is generally accepted, and the matter remains a mystery.

It had been almost by accident that the Americans captured the bridge, but its seizure certainly helped to hasten the defeat of Germany in the West.

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