In the closing weeks of World War II allied armies were rapidly pushing east trying to get across the Rhine River and have a chance to get to Berlin before the Soviets. The problem was that stubborn Germans fighting desperately kept blowing up the bridges across the river just as advance elements of the American army arrived. That all changed at the small German village of Remagen when a brave young American army officer and his sergeant led a squad of soldiers across a bridge and made history. It was like something right out of Hollywood.
In fact, Hollywood did make it to the Bridge at Remagen in the 1969 war movie starring George Segal, Robert Vaughn, and Ben Gazzara. In a mostly accurate depiction of the battle, George Segal (the young Army lieutenant) and Ben Gazzara (the ubiquitous sergeant with a cigar in his mouth) portrayed the incredible bravery of the actual men who captured the bridge in a hectic and close run battle.
The Ludendorff Bridge crossing the Rhine was built in World War I to transport German supplies to France. At the end of World War II it was being used by remnants of the German army to retreat back across the Rhine into Germany.
When elements of the U.S. Army reached the heights above the village of Remagen and saw the bridge still standing they couldn’t believe their eyes. They were given orders to capture the bridge and that order rolled down to 2nd Lieutenant Karl Timmerman (who, ironically had been born in Germany only about 100 Km south of the bridge). Timmerman and Sergeant Alexander Drabik, a former butcher from Ohio, led a squad through town and rushed the bridge.
As the squad began fighting on the bridge, the Germans tried blowing the bridge but deteriorating explosives and broken wires kept the full charge from going off. The explosion made a lot of noise and dust but failed to bring down the bridge. The startled squad picked themselves up and rushed across the bridge, dodging behind girders and exchanging fire with machine gunners on the eastern side of the river who were trying to stop them. As they fought across the bridge, members of the squad were frantically ripping out remaining explosives and the demolition wiring as bullets whined overhead. Eventually they made it to the other side and Sgt. Drabik became the first allied soldier to cross the Rhine.
The Americans quickly pushed reinforcements across the Rhine and established a strong bridgehead on the eastern side of the Rhine. The Germans tried desperately to destroy the bridge and trap the Americans but were unsuccessful. The Americans expanded rapidly by building additional pontoon bridges and soon the entire U.S. Army was streaming into Germany.
A few weeks after the crossing, the Ludendorff Bridge collapsed all on its own and fell into the Rhine River, killing two dozen soldiers. But before the bridge collapsed, more than 250,000 soldiers and hundreds of tanks had crossed and soon broke into central Germany, speeding the end of the war.
The bridge was never rebuilt and today all that remains are the distinctive towers on either side of the Rhine River.
On the western side of the river in the remains of the bridge towers is a museum of the battle.
Zimmerman and Drabik were both awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions in capturing the Bridge at Remagen.
The movie, Bridge at Remagen, was actually filmed in Czechoslovakia and fake towers were built on a bridge to simulate the Ludendorff Bridge. While filming in 1968, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and the cast ended up fleeing to safety in the west in taxi cabs.
Travel safe. Have fun.