These Boat Units Helped the Allies Cross the Rhine and Defeat Hitler

These Boat Units Helped the Allies Cross the Rhine and Defeat Hitler

Although combat troops usually get all the attention, the U.S. Army’s crossings of the Rhine River in March 1945 would not have been possible without the heroic efforts of the unheralded U.S. Navy and Coast Guard boatmen.

Key Point: The American Ninth Army’s crossing the Rhine River on March 7, 1945, in the early days of the Battle of Remagen is a well-known chapter of military history. At least one book and one Hollywood movie, along with numerous magazine articles and websites, have detailed the subject. But the story of the boat units that took American soldiers across Germany’s last natural barrier has rarely been told—until now.

On March 22, 1945, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.’s U.S. Third Army made a surprise hasty crossing of the German Rhine River in the vicinity of Oppenheim at the village of Nierstein. The assault was conducted without prior artillery or air preparation and without any formal plan. It was made in moonlit waters “on the run” by the fast-moving divisions of Maj. Gen. Manton S. Eddy’s XII Corps.

The lead unit across was Company K, 5th Infantry Division, 11th Infantry Regiment, Third Battalion. Immediately after that division’s successful passage, 90th Infantry Division troops swept across the river, followed by the tanks of the 4th Armored Division.

The crossing was another of Patton’s successful exploitations of the crumbling German homeland defenses. And it was made with great assistance from the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard.

The Story of the LCVP

Among the naval participants was Seaman First Class Richard Michael Birkler, U.S. Naval Reserve. Birkler served as the coxswain of a Landing Craft, Mechanized, or LCM, which was popularly known as a “Mike” boat. It was one of the creations of Andrew Jackson Higgins, who had conceived and built the famous “Higgins boat” landing craft officially known as the Landing Craft, Vehicle Personnel (LCVP). Along with the LCVP, the LCM was built by the thousands and was employed globally in World War II.

The Mike boat, an all-metal vessel that displaced 30 tons, was developed to carry a single armored fighting vehicle the size of a Sherman tank. Some times called a “tank lighter,” it had twin diesel engines that made it quite maneuverable and therefore required a skilled coxswain such as Birkler to “drive” it. The craft’s 130-mile range also meant that it could sail across the English Channel on its own.

The LCM’s little brother was the LCVP.  It had a longer history than the LCM, having evolved from the initial Higgins boat called the Landing Craft, Personnel (LCP).  The LCP was a flat-bottomed vessel, 36 feet long, made of plywood, and it had a bow in the shape of spoon, which allowed it to swim up on a gradually sloping beach. This characteristic, along with the shallow draft and flat bottom, was exploited in the development of the LCVP, which could carry 36 men and a crew of three. The LCVP’s 36-foot length and 10-foot width also allowed it to carry a two-and-a-half-ton truck or two quarter-ton jeeps after a bow ramp was added, which allowed the vehicles to drive off the vessel.   

Both the LCM and LCVP were participants in the Rhine River crossing. They were “driven” by U.S. Navy sailors and Coast Guardsmen, many of whom had served on such boats in the June 1944 invasion of Normandy. The crews were members of the Navy’s Task Force 122.5, which was composed of five subordinate task units initially equipped with the LCVP. When it was realized that craft capable of carrying armored fighting vehicles would be required, LCMs were added to the task units.

Each unit had a complement of boat crews and a maintenance detachment. One unit each was assigned to the First, Third, and Ninth U.S. Armies as task units (TU) and designated as TU 122.5.1, TU 122.5.2, and TU 122.5.3, respectively. 

The commanders of these task units were U.S. Naval Reserve officers, Lieutenant Wilton Wenker, Lt. Cmdr. William Leide, and Lt. Cmdr. Willard T. Patrick. A fourth task unit (TU 122.5.4) was organized under Reserve Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas Reilly and stationed at the French port of Le Havre where it could serve as a backup to the three forward-deployed TUs. (The fifth TU was assembled in the British Isles and did not deploy to the Continent.)

Each unit was composed of 24 “boats” (as they were called in the Navy), 13 officers (most of very junior grades), and 205 men, either U.S. Navy or U.S. Coast Guard. Task Group 122.5, to which the boats were assigned, was commanded by U.S. Navy Commander William J. Whiteside. Because of the decentralized nature of the various river-crossing operations, he exercised limited command and control over the task units.

Failure at Arnhem: Why Crossing the Line took Months of Preparation

Preparations for an assault over the Rhine began well before the first successful crossing from the German town of Remagen on March 7, 1945. Had the British succeeded in crossing the river in early September 1944 at Arnhem in the Netherlands, the U.S. Navy may never have had to provide assistance in the Rhine River effort. 

The failure to defeat the Germans defending the bridge over the river at Arnhem, therefore, helped precipitate the employment of LCVPs and LCMs in the crossing by the British and the American First, Third, and Ninth Armies in March 1945.

In anticipation of the destruction of all bridges over the Rhine River, and recognizing that the river with its great width and swiftly flowing current posed a major obstacle to its crossing in early October 1944, Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley’s engineers went to the commander of U.S. Navy forces in Europe, Admiral Harold Stark, to inquire about possible Navy assistance. 

The result was the decision to deploy LCVPs and LCMs with their ability to operate the best in the Rhine’s challenging eight-knot current. Planning conferences began that same month.

In the early autumn of 1944, there was a stalemate across the entire battlefront in northwestern Europe after the failure of Operation Market Garden with little prospect of an immediate drive to cross the Rhine. This gave the Navy the opportunity to step in and join with Army engineers in training for deliberate river crossings using both Army and Navy assets. By November 1944, Army and Navy planners reached a general outline for the Rhine crossings. 

Certain Army engineer units positioned in the rear areas took up the task of training and experimenting with not only their own equipment but with the employment of Navy boats. For the Navy, training began with the shipping of the LCVPs on British ships to the French port of Le Havre, where the boats of TU 122.5.4 remained as the command reserve. The LCVPs to support the three U.S. armies were placed on trucks with trailers and dispatched to selected engineer locations on rivers in Belgium and France where required pre-crossing training could be conducted.

The first LCVP boat unit to reach the European continent was Wenker’s TU 122.5.1. It arrived in Belgium on October 18 and was attached to the 1120th Combat Engineer Group of First Army’s VII Corps. Within a week, six of the boats were moved from the group’s location at Andenne on the Meuse River in Belgium to a training site with the 298th Engineer Combat Battalion at the village of Cheratte. The site offered a river purportedly similar to the Rhine River. One week later, another site was opened at Liege with the 297th Engineer Combat Battalion.

Just moving the boats to the various rear areas turned out to be a training exercise as routes to accommodate the loaded vehicles had to be carefully selected. Buildings sometimes had to be demolished in rubble-filled villages and towns to allow passage of the oversized vehicles. 

When the LCMs sailed across the English Channel in January 1945, they were loaded on tank-retriever trailers that, along with the tractors, were 77 feet long and weighed 70 tons. Through careful handling, the boats reached their destinations safely and the lessons learned in transporting the vessels over land were put to good use later when they were required on short notice to be taken to launching sites on the Rhine.

On-site training for Wenker’s Task Unit 122.5.1 resumed at Andenne after experimentation with different LCVP launching methods was brought to a successful conclusion at Cheratte. Because the Army engineers were to control the boat operations, half a week’s training was with Army engineers. The boats worked on assisting the engineers in the building of various bridges, prototypes for those that might be built over the Rhine. 

The remaining week was spent in conducting Navy training and maintenance of the boats. The training was intermittent but intensive, as First Army’s plans changed, first with a possible crossing of the Roer River, which was cancelled, and then the German Ardennes offensive (the Battle of the Bulge) in December. In the latter case, the Germans came within 11 miles of Andenne, and it became necessary to move the crews and boats farther back into Belgium to Waremme to avoid their capture or destruction.

Leide’s Task Unit 122.5.2’s experience for the cross-river assault is demonstrative of the preparation activities conducted by the boat units. The unit was attached to the U.S. Army’s 1134th Combat Engineer Group located in the vicinity of Toul, France, on the Moselle River for training and experimentation purposes. It was billeted in a former cavalry barracks that had been occupied by the German Army and  was close to the river where the launching and retrieving of the boats could be practiced.