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Monday, March 06, 2006

The Ludendorff Bridge Captured, 1945

Today in 1945, US soldiers from the 9th Armored Division crossed the Rhine River by capturing the Ludendorff Bridge, one of only two bridges that had not been destroyed by German troops during their retreat across western Europe. The capture of this one bridge probably shortened the war and saved both Allied and German lives.

The Ludendorff Bridge owed its existence to another war. In 1916, German Generals (including Erich Ludendorff, for whom the bridge is named) asked the government to build a bridge across the Rhine to help facilitate the transportation of troops to the Western Front. Karl Wiener designed the impressive structure, but it did not change the course of the war. With Germany defeated, the nation was occupied by Allied forces. The newly-formed US Third Army guarded four bridges across the Rhine during that time, including the Ludendorff bridge. Little did those soldiers know that, 27 years later, another generation of Americans would have to fight for the very same bridge.

Knowing that the Ninth Armored Division was closing fast on the bridge, the Germans tried several times to demolish it. They were unsuccessful. Lt. Karl Timmermann was the first man over the bridge. Despite the bridge now being firmly in Allied hands, the Germans were not ready to give up on it so easily. The Luftwaffe was ordered to destroy the bridge at all costs. The Germans sent their best fighter-bombers to do the job---the new ME-262 jets. They were faster than the British Tempests which opposed them, so the RAF pilots flew against the fighters head-on. The chances of actually shooting down a plane in this manner were slim, but the tactic did help to break up formations of 262s, causing them to miss their target.

In the first 24 hours after its capture, over 8,000 men crossed the Ludendorff Bridge. The German Army’s failure to destroy the bridge enraged Adolf Hitler, who ordered the court-martial of five officers responsible for the demolition. Four of them were quickly executed; the fifth only escaped the same fate because he was captured by the Americans and was out of reach of Hitler’s henchmen.

The bridge, weakened by nearby explosions, botched demolition jobs and heavy foot and mechanized traffic, collapsed ten days after its capture. 28 Americans were killed.

Today, there is no bridge across the Rhine where the Ludendorff once stood.

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