In March 1945, villagers in northern France, Belgium, and Germany were treated to the peculiar sight of large boats seemingly floating across late-winter fields. It was not an optical illusion. Columns of 70-foot trailers hauled by brawny two-ton trucks were transporting U.S. Navy landing craft down narrow roads and through small farming villages, demolishing the occasional house or cutting down scores of trees when the fit was too tight.
These craft were 36-foot LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle, personnel) or 50-foot LCMs (landing craft, mechanized)—boats that had brought U.S. troops ashore at Normandy. Now, far from the ocean or English Channel, they were on their way to the Rhine River, the physical and symbolic barrier to the German heartland—broad, swift, and hemmed in by high bluffs for much of its rush from alpine headwaters to the North Sea.
The U.S. Navy’s involvement in breaching this mighty obstruction demonstrated the adaptability of U.S. forces, the possibilities of interservice cooperation, and foresight in putting these large and specialized craft in the right places far from the sea, at the right time, to facilitate the final thrust that brought victory over Germany.
Arrival on the Continent
During the late summer of 1944, as U.S. troops raced across France, Twelfth Army Group commander Lieutenant General Omar Bradley began to contemplate how his forces would cross the Rhine. It was assumed that retreating German troops would destroy the river’s bridges, and Army boats might not be able to safely navigate the Rhine’s swift current. Bradley turned to the Navy, which soon organized Task Group 122.5, under the command of Commander William Whiteside. Three of the group’s task units would be assigned to U.S. armies to facilitate the crossing.1
Task Unit 122.5.1 (Unit 1) was activated on 4 October 1944 in Dartmouth, England, under the command of Lieutenant Wilton Wenker. In addition to LCVPs, Wenker commanded a mobile repair, or E-9, unit and a “housekeeping group” of assorted personnel such as cooks, radiomen, drivers, barber, and pharmacist’s mate: in total 11 officers and 153 enlisted men. Unit 2, commanded by Lieutenant Commander William Leide, and Unit 3, under Lieutenant Commander Willard W. Ayers (until 3 December, when he was seriously injured in an automobile accident and replaced by Lieutenant Commander Willard T. Patrick), were similar.
Unit 1 crossed the English Channel on 14 October and was trucked from Le Havre to Andenne, Belgium, a town on the Meuse River. Assigned to the First Army, it worked to develop “suitable methods of transporting and launching the boats under conditions similar to those expected on the Rhine River.”2 Unit 2, attached to the Third Army, crossed on 10 November and headed for Toul, France, 50 miles south of Metz on the Moselle River, while Unit 3, assigned to the Ninth Army, landed in France on 9 November and ended up in Grand Lanaye, five miles from Maastricht, Netherlands, on the Maas (lower Meuse) River.
Initially there was a sense of urgency, as a Rhine operation seemed imminent. But as the Allied advance outran its supplies and the weather deteriorated, it became clear that the Navy’s services would not be immediately required. The boat units thus settled into their bases for what proved to be a long and frustrating winter spent in training and performing a variety of other activities.
Unit 1 dispatched three-man teams to teach the Army’s 1120th Engineer Combat Group basic seamanship skills such as knot tying, splicing, and small-boat handling. The engineer battalions were the Army’s major resource for river crossings, operating assault boats, and constructing bridges. Their boats—wooden craft generally with a capacity of 16 men and a crew of 3 and rubber boats that could ferry 12 men—could only accommodate infantry and were powered by paddles or 22-hp outboard engines. The Army considered a water span of several hundred yards an interminable crossing.
The 16 December German offensive into Belgium and Luxembourg that became known as the Battle of the Bulge disrupted the instruction. Enemy tanks drove to within 11 miles of Unit 1’s base, forcing the American bluejackets to evacuate “as a safety measure.”3
Another source of frustration were false alarms. Unit 1 was put on alert for a move to the Roer River on 6 February—an alert that lasted until 28 February before it was canceled. Unit 3 was on standby for a Roer operation from 21 November to 21 December. Then there was the tedium of make-work. The sailors of Unit 2 painted 15,000 road signs and loaded barbed wire on flatcars. As Lieutenant Commander Leide euphemistically noted, “although it could not be classed as naval work, it was an outlet for the energies of the personnel and did much to develop petty officers.”4
Unit 3, quartered in Grand Lanaye (population 500), had the closest contact with the civilian population. Lieutenant Commander Patrick reported that “The people of Lanaye were most helpful and offered rooms for the men and officers in their homes while the mayor turned over the city Hall.”5 A French-speaking sailor played Santa Claus at Christmas and distributed candy to the children. Saturday-night dances became a regular event, with girls brought in from Maastricht because “Lanaye itself could not muster enough dancing partners for the men. . . . In all cases the girls, both Dutch and Belgian, were strictly chaperoned. This was a national custom, not a Navy request.” In fact, relationships became too close. Patrick reported that the local inhabitants had begun pestering the Americans for all types of favors, including transporting ill villagers and “hauling fodder from distant fields.”6
During the winter, the Navy decided to reinforce the units with LCMs. Although these boats were harder to transport overland, they could carry a medium tank—an important capability in the early stages of a crossing. Fifty-four LCMs sailed from England to Antwerp under their own power and thence down the Albert Canal. The six LCMs designated for Unit 1 arrived much battered from their long voyage and encounters with river ice, and several required new engines or other repairs.
Assorted Duties near Remagen
With the approach of spring the waiting finally ended. On 7 March, nearly four months after its arrival on the continent, Unit 1 received orders to move 16 LCVPs into Germany; this followed the 9th Armored Division’s lucky capture of the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, the last span standing on the Rhine River.
In his report, Lieutenant Wenker noted that the large flatbed trailers that carried the 36-foot-long and 11-foot-wide LCVPs “encountered considerable difficulty” navigating the dark and narrow secondary roads to their destination.7 A trailer got stuck on a sharp turn at Bleisheim, 35 road miles northwest of Remagen, delaying the unit more than an hour. South of Weilerswist the column found the route impassable and had to backtrack. Churned by the mass of troops and vehicles funneling to the bridgehead, the roads were in execrable shape. A trailer got stuck in mud, and a truck rolled over trying to negotiate a shell crater. A wrecker easily righted the truck, but four large, heavy-duty tow trucks were needed to yank the trailer from the muck. Over the final few miles the column crawled forward barely averaging a mile an hour. At one point a wrecker had to be hitched to each truck to drag it through a muddy patch. One trailer slipped into a shell hole and took 36 hours to extract.
At 0830 on 11 March Wenker’s unit finally began launching boats. This occurred at Kripp, a mile south of Remagen, and by 1350 five LCVPs were afloat after being dropped into the water “like so many eggs.”8 By that time the Army had been pushing troops across the Rhine for several days—8,000 men crossed in the first 24 hours—and engineers were struggling to complete a pontoon bridge and a treadway bridge to supplement the damaged Ludendorff span. The LCVPs were rushed into action to help the engineers without giving their coxswains a chance to test the river’s swift and tricky currents.
One LCVP lost headway and was swept against the partially completed pontoon bridge. It threatened to undo all the work so far completed, but the engineers loosened the upstream cables allowing the craft to slip free. Meanwhile, the powerful flow was causing a portion of the bridge near the west shore to sag, so three LCVPs were pointed upstream and began pushing the pontoons at full power to keep them in place. They kept to this job for three days.
By noon on 12 March the treadway and pontoon bridges were completed. An LCVP went upstream to lay an antimine boom. Two other boats worked out of Unkel, three miles downstream from Remagen, evacuating wounded from the far bank while operating under intense artillery fire that occasionally pinned down the crews. Five boats sat idle at Kripp, much to the disgust of Lieutenant Wenker, who complained, “What ferrying was done, if any, was not recorded.” The bridgehead was also under periodic air attack. “The major activity of these boats on the 12th consisted in shooting down an ME109. . . . Observed artillery made this area a virtual shooting gallery.”9 At night, two LCVPs patrolled upriver and discouraged enemy saboteurs by dropping 50-pound TNT depth charges into the water every five minutes—to the tune of seven tons of explosives a night. On the 17th, two German swimmers were found sheltering on the river bank, driven ashore by the concussions and the cold water, which, in American eyes, justified the practice.
The balance of Unit 1 moved up to the river and launched its LCVPs on 14 March. On the 15th the boat crews finally got the opportunity fulfill their primary mission. On that day four LCVPs gathered at Unkel, and loading 36 men to a boat, they ferried 2,200 troops of the 1st Division to the far shore in three hours, taking only seven minutes for a round trip. The Army history conceded that this was “faster and more efficiently than the troops could march across a footbridge.”10 Wenker noted that some of his crews had ferried units of the 1st Division ashore at Normandy.11 On the 16th, LCVPs swiftly ferried 900 troops and eight jeeps across the river.
For Unit 1, however, ferry operations were the exception, and the unit’s great frustration was the feeling it was being underutilized. An observer dispatched from the Navy’s French headquarters noted that at one ferry point “It was irritating to the Navy crews to see queues of waiting vehicles at the approaches to the bridges while their boats lay idle, but the Army apparently felt it unwise to break up the organization of its convoys by separating the lighter vehicles from the heavy and allowing the former to cross in the LCVPs.”12
On 17 March the Ludendorff Bridge finally collapsed and the LCVPs provided another valuable service by diverting floating debris from the wreckage away from the pontoon bridges with grappling hooks, ropes, and poles.
Ferrying Patton’s Troops
The Remagen crossing was a matter of opportunity, not plan. Even after the First Army had nine divisions on the far bank of the Rhine, the Ninth and Third armies were scheduled to make assault crossings in areas where the terrain was more conducive to offensive operations into the heart of Germany.
On 20 March, Third Army headquarters alerted Unit 2, and that afternoon 24 LCVPs departed Toul. Lieutenant Commander Lieder exalted that “The trek across a blazing Germany had begun.”13 This operation was completely improvised, with Third Army commander Lieutenant General George Patton ordering a crossing even before his divisions had reached the Rhine. His idea was to leap the river before the retreating Germans could organize a defense. Lieder noted, “We had not been briefed, and the reconnaissance of the river itself for launching sites and embarkation and debarkation sites [was] not yet completed.”14
Twelve LCVPs arrived near Oppenheim. The unit’s heavy M-20 Le Tourneau crane was delayed by roadblocks, and the unit manhandled its LCVPs into the river with difficulty. Nine were afloat by dawn on the 22nd, while the last three followed shortly. Once on the river, Unit 2 continued to improvise. Frustrated by the fact his craft had no “business,” Lieder and his XO, Lieutenant (junior grade) J. D. Spaulding, “made private deals with infantrymen who were about to paddle across the river.”15
The LCVPs once again proved fast and effective in their intended role. Round trips were made in minutes, and over the next 18 hours eight LCVPs shuttling back and forth carried “from 4,000 to 4,500 troops and from 250 to 300 vehicles” across the Rhine while under enemy fire, without harm to boat or man. Another LCVP powered a raft constructed from pontoons, and two assisted in engineering chores including the construction of a treadway bridge, laying of supporting wire across the river, and boom installation. One LCVP had been damaged upon launch and required repair by the unit’s E-9 section.
Over the following days Unit 2 participated in three more Third Army crossing operations. On 24 March, six LCVPs ferried men of the 87th Division across at Boppard at the rate of 400 troops an hour while under fire from German antiaircraft guns. Six LCMs arrived on the bluff overlooking the embarkation site during the operation, but the Army decided that the slope down to the river was too steep, and so, to Lieder’s frustration, they were held back.
The third Unit 2 crossing occurred on 26 March at Oberwesel. “Although we knew that the infantry assault crossing . . . was to be made early A.M. of Monday, 26 March 1945, no plans were promulgated as to the employment of the 6 remaining LCVP’s and the 6 LCM’s which were in the area and available.” Lieder dashed to Oberwesel to scout launching sites. He got all 12 boats afloat in time to participate and gleefully noted that the LCMs carried “tremendous loads, including heavy cannon.” He credited his unit with ferrying 6,000 men and 1,200 vehicles of the 89th Division in 48 hours.16
Unit 2’s final Rhine operation kicked off on 27 March at Mainz. There it deployed six LCVPs and six LCMs. After just a few crossings German artillery zeroed in on the launching site, killing one officer, destroying the unit’s bulldozer and one of its heavy cranes, damaging several vehicles, and keeping men pinned down for nearly an hour. The unit relocated its embarkation point to a more sheltered location, which limited the boats to only four trips an hour. Nonetheless, over the course of three days Unit 2 ferried 10,000 men and 1,100 vehicles at this point alone.17
The Final Crossings
Unit 3, attached to the Ninth Army, was the last to be activated. Unlike the First and Third army crossings, the Ninth Army, part of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, meticulously planned its operation. One historian has called it “probably history’s most elaborate river crossing operation.”18 Unit 3’s role in this big show was to supplement the 500 Army assault boats—half of which were powered by paddles. It was assigned five “beaches” in two divisional sectors between Wesel and Duisburg.
All of Unit 3’s boats assembled on the night of the 23rd and set out in small convoys for their two launching sites, where Army engineers with bulldozers, road fill, and equipment waited in readiness. Demolition crews and bulldozers cleared the way along their 80-mile route, cutting trees, blasting buildings, and flattening fences to give the tank transporters hauling the LCMs clearance. The boats assigned to the 30th Division’s three beaches arrived on schedule, but traffic jams delayed the boats allocated to the 79th Division by several hours.
As Lieutenant Commander Patrick noted in his report: “No boat can be operated until launched.”19 At the 30th Division site, as one of the two available M-20 cranes boomed the first LCVP out over the water, the cable snapped, dropping the boat 25 feet. Thus, the plan to use two cranes to lift the LCMs directly from trailer to water went out the door.
Instead, the trailers were backed to within 20 feet of the water. The remaining crane lifted the boat’s stern, which was forward on the trailer, and as the truck pulled slowly away, the boat slid off the trailer. Once the LCM was grounded, with its bow facing the water, a bulldozer pushed it to a prepared chute, the end of which dropped sharply into a deep pool. To prevent the bulldozer from accidently following the boat into the river, it was chained to a second bulldozer. Launching nine LCMs in this fashion (along with eight LCVPs using the more conventional crane method) took from 0600 to 1320 on 24 March. The work site was under sporadic shell fire the entire time.
Thus launched, the first LCVPs began operating at dawn, and Patrick estimated that his unit ferried 3,000 infantry and 1,100 vehicles across the 500-yard-wide flow on the first day, each boat completing a round trip in just six minutes. In the 79th Division sector, the late arrival slowed the launching of the LCMs. Because of strong enemy resistance and the immediate need for armored vehicles on the far bank, two of the craft were ferrying tanks by 0700. But a German 88-mm shell disabled one, and it was not until 1900 that the other LCMs began operations. The LCVPs were also delayed and did not carry their first loads until noon.
In addition to these operations, the LCVPs patrolled the river. As in the other landings, the boats also assisted in the construction of treadway and pontoon bridges. Engineers had four pontoon bridges in place by 25 March, but German gunfire and damage caused by drifting boats delayed construction of the treadway bridges.
Because the bridgehead was slow to develop and the British Army required use of American-built bridges, Task Unit 3 found more employment than the units farther south. Ferry operations lasted for three days in some sectors, and even as late as eight days after the initial crossing the Army requested an LCM to power a “rhino” ferry, a series of pontoons fastened together to form a raft capable of transporting heavy equipment.
It should be noted that in February the Royal Navy had formed an inland amphibious unit consisting of 45 LCVPs and a like number of LCMs to assist the British Army’s crossing of the Rhine just north of the Ninth Army’s. However, the boats were used strictly as tugs and as “a mobile, waterborne element of the Royal Engineers and Royal Army Service Corps.”20 They did not carry troops across the river.
The landing craft of the Navy amphibious task units demonstrated they were far superior to Army assault boats in their ability to transport troops across a broad and swift water barrier. Depending on the loading and landing sites, four LCVPs could ferry a battalion, including vehicles, every hour. The boats had relatively high speeds and powerful engines and were manned by skilled sailors, making them invaluable for the many chores associated with river operations, which, beyond ferry service, included bridge construction, boom and wire laying, patrol operations, tug service, and debris removal.
However, they also had their liabilities. The boats and heavy cranes required to launch them were difficult to transport overland, and even with special preparation their movements could be excruciatingly slow. The task units’ reports indicate that every launching was an adventure, but fortunately the Navy crews proved inventive. If a crane was delayed or damaged, they always figured out a way to float their boats.
Another problem was the integration of Navy units into U.S. Army operations. There was friction even in matters as simple as uniforms: Unit 3’s Lieutenant Commander Patrick reported that “All personnel, officers and men, were clothed in army uniform in accordance with army instructions. The question of payment for these clothes frequently arose, particularly for officers.” He noted with satisfaction that the Army ended up footing the bill.21 The plan had been to pair each task unit with an engineer battalion. With two of the units this liaison was temporary. In the case of Unit 2 its engineer battalion was switched out just before the Rhine crossing. As a result, the Army did not have a clear idea of the naval unit’s capabilities and how to best use it. Fortunately, the commander was aggressive in finding work for his boats.
But these bumps were minor issues. Although exact counts were never kept, the Navy boat units directly ferried more than 26,000 troops and 4,000 vehicles to the east bank of the Rhine and brought back thousands of prisoners and wounded. They helped build, maintain, and protect the temporary bridges constructed by Army engineers. The U.S. Navy boat units proved on the Rhine that when it came to crossing an expanse of water, expertise and specialized tools made a difference—especially when combined with a can-do spirit.
1. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. 11, The Invasion of France and Germany (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1957), 317–18. A fourth task unit, 122.5.4, would be held in reserve at Le Havre.
2. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Action Reports TU 122.5.1, “Operations, Report of,” 5 April 1945, 2.
4. Action Report, TU 122.5.2, 6 April 1945, RG 38, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), College Park, MD, 2.
5. Action Report, TU 122.5.3, “Battle Report,” Enc. D, 11 April 1945, RG 38, NARA, 2.
6. Ibid., 4.
7. Action Report, TU 122.5.1, “Operations, Report of,” RG 38, NARA, 3.
8. Ibid., 4.
9. Ibid., 5.
10. Alfred Beck et. al., The Corps of Engineers: The War against Germany (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1985), 506.
11. LT Wilton Wenker and LT (j.g.) F. M. Eby, World War II Oral Histories, Interviews and Statements, RG 38, NARA.
12. Action Report, Commander U.S. Naval Forces, France, Report on Rhine River Crossings by U.S. Navy, informal notes on, 29 April 1945, RG 38, NARA, 5.
13. Action Report, TU 122.5.2, RG 38, NARA, 2.
15. Ibid., 3.
16. Ibid., 6.
17. Ibid., 8.
18. Charles B. MacDonald, The Mighty Endeavor: American Armed Forces in the European Theater in World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 446.
19. Action Report, TU 122.5.2, RG 38, NARA, 6.
20. Stephen Roskill, War at Sea, vol. 3, pt. 2, The Offensive (reprint, Nashville, TN: Battery Press, 1994), 272.
21. Action Report, TU 122.5.3, Enc. D, RG 38, NARA, 1.