Exploring History

The Forgotten Battle: Crossing the Rhine, March 1945

Posted on: March 26, 2020

In March 1945 the allies crossed the River Rhine and began their final assault on Germany. It was the last major barrier to the allies’ advance from the West, and was both a physical and psychological line. To the allies it had to be crossed, and to the Germans it had to be held. For both sides it would mark the end game on the western front.

Yet despite being a major assault in terms of manpower and equipment, and a complete success, it is not as well known as D-Day, Arnhem or the Battle of the Bulge. Perhaps to historians by 1945 there was an inevitability to the German defeat and also it was not actually a single battle but a series of separate advances.

For the British, including the Guards tank brigades, the emphasis was on Operation Plunder which started 23rd March. This was the crossing of the river around Wesel using amphibious tracked landing craft, Bailey bridges, and paratroop landings. It involved 1000s of American troops too but the Americans had already crossed the Rhine 2 weeks earlier having captured a bridge at Remagen. This event became the focus of historical attention and was the subject of the only Hollywood film on the period.

Field Marshall Montgomery had learned lessons from his hastily planned and ultimately unsuccessful attack on Arnhem in September 1944. He reverted to his usual approach: meticulous planning and building up of overwhelming forces. The artillery and air bombardment for Plunder was so heavy and effective that the German defences were quickly breached. The parachute drops went to plan and accomplished their aims quickly. The 1000s of vehicles and boats available allowed the allies to cross the river and move through countryside flooded by the Germans to hinder the allies. Once bridges were in place for their heavy tanks the 5th Guards Brigade crossed on the 30th and began an advance that was at times rapid and at others held up by last ditch defence.

Perhaps the Rhine proved to be more of a symbolic barrier than a physical defence line, but its crossing is important. It demonstrated that the allies were at the peak of their performance and the Germans were at their weakest.