January 19, 2024

1945. Three Accounts of the Allied Crossing of the Rhine

War Correspondents Describe the Crossing of the Rhine
"C-47 transport planes release hundreds of paratroops and their supplies over the Rees-Wesel area to the east of the Rhine," March 24, 1945 (source)
Bill Downs recounted these events in two separate broadcasts on March 24 and March 25.

From Newsweek, April 2, 1945, pp. 28-29:

Fighting Fronts: The Shattered Rhine and the Shattered Armies

Three Newsweek correspondents covered the crossing of the Rhine: Al Newman with the British Second Army; John Terrell with the 30th Division of the American Ninth Army; and Bill Downs of Newsweek and CBS, who flew with the fighters escorting the airborne troops. Here are their stories. 

Newman: Monty's Assault Ran Through a Barrage

It is 10 o'clock at night in the ancient Rhine town of Xanten, but in the towerless, battered church there is no clock to strike the hour. Tiny pinpricks of light and phosphorescent buttons mark a tortuous path through the ruined city. Long white fingers of light pointing horizontally eastward from the belt of searchlights 5 miles back of the Rhine zebra-stripe the heavens. This artificial moonlight augments a three-quarter moon in a cloudless sky. It is a soft spring night.

Since 6 p.m. a tremendous bombardment has thundered, blasted, and flashed in the flat country behind Xanten. In the marshaling areas around this town, where nearly 2,000 years ago Roman legionnaires stood guard against frequent raids across the river by barbarous German tribes, the Scots are now collecting for an assault in the other direction. In other sections, Buffaloes and Ducks await the word, for it is the night of March 23—an historic night for the Empire forces as well as for the American Ninth Army to the south.

Hell in a Dream World: By midnight the whole countryside reeks of cordite, which mingles with a slight ground fog. The increasing traffic through Xanten has so stirred up the fine, powdery dust of rubble that I move in a dream world of ghastly white moonlight fog, peopled with Roman ghosts and wraithlike Scotsmen possessing burrs rough enough to sharpen a knife on and flat tin helmets with gardens of camouflage rags atop them. Finally when sanity seems to totter, the bombardment slackens at 12:30.

Though the Commandos crossed north of Wesel at 10 p.m., H Hour for us and for the Highlanders opposite Rees is 2 a.m. At 1:30 there's no incoming fire. Intense light-caliber covering fire abruptly begins. Streams of red tracers chase each other overhead and the din is positively inhuman as the heavy stuff comes awake again.

The deserted moonlit road from there to the river bloods over redly with the reflection of each tracer. The Scotties have done well by it despite the fact that it is not the main avenue of assault, for they've equipped its shoulders with foxholes every 15 yards and the fields beside it with slit trenches every 50. Progress through this hell of flickering death, replete with sound effects, crashes, whispers, screams, yowls, and whines, is a jack-in-the-box proposition, for now somewhere in the pandemonium is the sharp roar of a big incoming shell.

Two hundred yards ahead lies the river bank and it begins to take a real pounding from the Germans. The Nazi 105s star out the white flash of their deadly shrapnel pattern as they land one after another. Then they start to walk back toward your correspondent, and the earth of the slit trench feels cool and moist.

Fortunately the shells are just 200 yards too far south, for the line of gigantic dim shapes at that distance on my left as I face the river marks the final assembly of infantry-laden Buffaloes. At precisely 2 a.m. they growl forward and the modern Scots go into battle with squealing iron treads replacing skirling bagpipes.

At 2:10, four squat shapes appear on the water front where the Buffaloes are crawling down the shallow bank and then four brilliant searchlights mounted on tanks blaze out over the water. Through their glare one cannot see the waterborne amphibians and neither presumably can the Boche. They also serve as guide lines on the confusing river and illuminate the far bank for assault. The searchlights draw more fire but inaccurate fire—most of it around my slit trench. One shell crashes less than 25 yards away, and an iron rain patters into the surrounding earth. The shelling is so close that no scream but rather an instinctive sense warns one of the projectile a second before it hits. For 30 minutes it is a definite pindown during which only fools would leave cover. Yet through it all and for the balance of the night the line of crawling, snorting behemoths 200 yards to the left keeps moving to the water like a thirsty herd.

Terrell: The Toughest and Gentlest Go First

H Hour was 2 a.m., March 24.

Ten hours earlier I reached the extreme left flank of the Ninth Army, taking refuge in a partially wrecked building on the river bank. Artillery batteries both up and down the river were firing spasmodically. The late afternoon sun was brilliant. The river was 1,700 feet of wide blue water, the banks green with spring grass and flowers. Occasionally, as if aggravated by our constant shelling, a Jerry threw some 88s back. Cattle grazed placidly on a dike as shells from both sides swished above them. Suddenly there was a loud crack and a cow vanished in thin air.

My place of observation was formerly a high-class country inn with a beautiful river terrace. It was named, of all things, The Watch on the Rhine. I found prewar pictures of the place in what was left of the bar, showing couples dining in the sunset and dancing under the stars while excursion boats passed.

Just Before the Battle: As dusk settled over the river and the tree-fringed fields reaching away on either bank, our artillery fire began to increase. The moon was bright, and a peculiar, bluish light outlined the great trees along the lane leading into the inn and etched in sharp relief the shattered gables of the main building and stables. No man would be invisible on the river this night.

I had been lying on the floor in the first floor room while Nazi shells landed in the dooryard, but when they stopped I went into an immense, cavernous cellar opening out toward the dairy barn. The cellar had suddenly been filled with assault troops and more were filing in from the shadow of the hedgerow. Their cigarettes burned holes in the pitch-blackness of the cellar. These were the first American assault wave.

These men believed this was the last big push of the war. Most of them were under 25. They wore life preservers and carried rations, a heavy load of ammunition, grenades, a rifle, wire cutters, and long knives. They were both the toughest and the gentlest men I ever met. As the minutes ticked off their voices became even quieter, but the language more and more vicious and filthy. Oaths and foul names were snarled in the darkness.

Suspecting our location, a Nazi tank destroyer gun had opened up on us. A shell struck behind my parked jeep, dropping two men with minor wounds. The artillery roar was incessant. Tanks now began moving into position along the river bank. Assault troops had brought up both storm and assault boats to a jump-off place just behind a 10-foot dike along the west bank of the river. Now they began to drag them out.

The men took up the boats and moved off silently toward the river, looking like gigantic, shadowy centipedes carved out of moonlight. They vanished into the bluish mist and more came to take their places, then went silently off like dark ghosts into the frightful, roaring night.

'We Have Landed': There is no way to describe the noise of the artillery barrage which opened at 1 o'clock. The earth shook and the sky roared and belched.

At H Hour minus three minutes I crawled to the edge of the building beside a walkie-talkie. Then suddenly a voice came out. It was a first lieutenant in the first storm boat. They had started across. Just a few seconds less than five minutes later a voice came again saying: "We have landed and are organizing."

No longer was the Rhine a barrier.

Downs: Some Paratroops Walked to Death on Flak

It was the kind of spring day when most of the guys would have liked to do some plowing, or play tennis, or go fishing. A German wren sat in a German tree and sang the same song you could here in the States. Overhead there seemed to be more planes than there were wrens in all the world.

Capt. Tommy de Graffenreid, from Memphis, said: "OK, come on." We drove to a specially fitted two-place Thunderbolt, where I was lucky enough to ride pick-a-back with the 373rd Fighter Bomber Squadron, which was assigned to form the aerial spearhead for the biggest and best bridgehead we had yet established across the Rhine.

When we got over the bridgehead we went down to a thousand feet. On the west bank of the Rhine there was yellow smoke—this to guide the airborne army due in a few minutes.

We dropped down to within a few hundred feet and flew down the Rhine. In the water below were scores of barges. Some special seagoing tanks could be seen making their way catercornered across the Rhine against the current. Occasionally there was the puff of an enemy artillery shell.

The Geese Fly East: Then we saw them—hundreds of planes flying like a flock of geese trying a new formation. The men dropped from only 600 feet, but it seemed an eternity that they were in the air.

The Germans were waiting. Light and heavy flak began bursting among these hundreds of parachutes. Big black smudges nudged and buffeted the parachutes. Light flak burst with a whitish intensity all around. De Graffenreid said: "It's so thick you could walk on it."

That's exactly what the first waves of paratroopers did—walk on it. Casualties must have been heavy.

The parachutes continued to come. We saw two men whose parachutes got tangled. Tommy muttered to himself over the intercom: "Break it up, break it up, please break it up." But they never got untangled, and fell to the ground with what appeared to be the gentleness of leaves. But even from there we could tell they were dead.

Any German flak man who had hunted ducks must have been struck with the similarity of the shooting in this airborne operation to that in some Bavarian duck blind.

Yet the men of the troop carrier command flew in without deviation from their formations.