The 1st Division specialised in amphibious operations

The 1st Division specialised in amphibious operations before and during the Second World War, from our assignment to the Navy for the Carolina landings in the pre-war period to the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Normandy our amphibious capabilities our well known, however in 1945 they took on a new slant, river crossings.  Whilst the fighting around the Ludendorff Bridge was probably the most famous river crossing of the war, the Big Red One took part in two important but less well known crossings, the Roer and Weser.

Following the Ardennes campaign the US army began the race across Germany, to try and stem the allied advance the Germans destroyed bridges, turning the rivers into natural obstacles, wide, deep and fast flowing. The US infantry division contained a Combat Engineer Battalion but this was nowhere near capable of getting a division across a major river, particularly when under German fire from the opposite bank and beyond. Various independent Engineer units (including tread-way bridge companies) were assigned to get the job done, however they could not construct a bridge until the opposite bank was taken.

To take the riverbank, supporting fire from artillery and heavy weapons was poured over the water as infantrymen were loaded into boats, particularly the M1 and M2. The M1 was constructed of wood and treated canvass and had a tapered shape. The slightly larger M2 was more rectangular in appearance and could carry a few more men neither boat had an engine. Both the engineer crew and the infantry loaded into the boat, those nearest the gunnels paddling against the current of the river. The GIs waited for the kick off in as sheltered a position as possible before loading into the boats, racing to the opposite bank and engaging the enemy while the engineers returned to pick up more infantry. The GIs that made it across were wet, tired and often had to cling on to their small piece of real estate until enough troops arrived for a bridgehead to be formed. Once the infantry were across and a had silenced/reduced the incoming fire, the bridging units got to work so that heavier vehicles, supplies and support could cross quickly and continue the advance.

The Roer River:

On February 6th 1945, CT16 relieved CT13 of the 8th division near the towns of Winden and Kleinhau on the banks of the Roer River. Before crossing the river was attempted we suffered casualties due to other units not following procedure. CT13 had mined the area to our front but didn’t prepare the map overlays properly meaning that our patrols often found themselves in minefields unexpectedly. CT508 of the 82nd Airborne failed to follow the correct traffic SOPs the resulting noise brought artillery and screaming meamies into our positions.

The river level raised around 3 feet due to 3 days of heavy rains and the Germans opening the sluice gates further up the river. The Germans held a dam upstream so could potentially blow it at any time.

Several plans were drawn up for a river crossing and patrolling for potential bridging points was a key priority. Eventually a plan was drawn up for 2 companies to cross in boats and hold the opposite bank for a 3rd company to cross via a pontoon bridge. The hubbub crated by the noise of the engineer vehicles getting into position behind the lines caused more shelling, increasing the misery of the wet troops. 2nd Battalion began a training programme to ensure that we would be able to use the boats effectively, however a crossing couldn’t go ahead until the water level dropped and the current slowed to the 4mph maximum for the boats to be used it was running at 12mph. Various patrols were sent across the river, and after a few days the plan was set that the 16th would cross the river, 2 battalions crossing in the 8th division sector.

The Luftwaffe launched a raid on the night of the crossing (24th Feb), unfortunately so did the RAF meaning that our supporting AAA units had to hold their fire, the Germans wreaked havoc destroying 2 of the tread-way bridge sections that we were due to cross on. We managed to cross the river under a heavy smokescreen with other units in the regiment crossing all manner of foot and pontoon bridges provided by the engineers. Once we had crossed we assaulted an enemy strong-point near Stockheim, then onto the village of Kreuzau where we were engaged by enemy armour.

The Weser River:

The Weser was crossed in April 1945 with only light casualties. 3rd Armoured had driven their way to the river, with 1st Division drawing the task of finding a crossing point through extensive reconnaissance. Most of the outfit was set to cross via tread-way bridges but many were swept away by the current, the resulting lack of bridges meant a return to the boats. The bank was only lightly defended by young SS troops who were easily neutralised. The easy crossing was the calm before the storm of the Harz Mountains campaign.


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Keith is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE