Operation Plunder

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Operation Plunder
Part of the invasion of Germany in World War II
Men of the U.S. 89th Infantry Division cross the Rhine River in assault boats under German fire.
Date 24 March 1945
Location North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
Result Allied victory
 United Kingdom
 United States
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Bernard Montgomery Nazi Germany Johannes Blaskowitz
Operation Varsity was the airborne component of Plunder

Beginning on the night of 23 March 1945, Operation Plunder was the crossing of the River Rhine at Rees, Wesel, and south of the Lippe River by the British Second Army, under Lieutenant-General Miles C. Dempsey (Operations Turnscrew, Widgeon, and Torchlight), and the U.S. Ninth Army (Operation Flashpoint), under Lieutenant General William Simpson. The U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps, consisting of the British 6th Airborne Division and the U.S. 17th Airborne Division, conducted Operation Varsity, parachute landings on the east bank in support of the operation. All of these formations were part of the 21st Army Group under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. This was part of a coordinated set of Rhine crossings.


Preparations (accumulation of supplies, road construction and the transport of 36 Royal Navy landing craft) were hidden by a massive smoke screen from 16 March. The operation commenced on the night of 23 March 1945. It included the Varsity parachute and glider landings near Wesel, and Operation Archway, by the Special Air Service. The landing areas were flooded, deserted farmland rising to woodland.


British Commandos in the outskirts of Wesel.

Four thousand Allied guns fired for four hours during the opening bombardment. British bombers contributed with attacks on Wesel during the day and night of 23 March 1945.

On the night of 23 March, Company E and C of the 17th Armored Engineer Battalion, part of U.S. 2nd Armored Division, constructed treadway rafts to prepare the crossing of the Rhine River about five kilometres south of Wesel. Bridge construction started at 9:45am and by 4:00pm the first truck crossed the floating Pontoon bridge. Over 1,152 ft (351 m) of M2 treadway and 93 pneumatic floats were used in just six hours and fifteen minute construction project, record setting for the size of the bridge. It took twenty-five 2-and-a-half ton GMC CCKW trucks to transport the bridge parts to the construction site, part of the Red Ball Express.[1][2]

Three Allied formations made the initial assault: the British XXX and XII Corps and the U.S. XVI Corps. The British 79th Armoured Division — under Major-General Percy Hobart — had been at the front of the Normandy landings and provided invaluable help in subsequent operations with specially adapted armoured vehicles (known as Hobart's Funnies). One "funny" was the "Buffalo" operated by the 4th Royal Tank Regiment under the command of Lt. Col (later Lt. Gen) Alan Jolly, an armed and armoured amphibious tracked personnel or cargo transporter able to cross soft and flooded ground. These were the transports for the spearhead infantry.

The first part of Plunder was initiated by the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division, led by the 7th Battalion, Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of 154th Brigade at 21:00 on 23 March, near Rees, followed by the 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (also of 154th Brigade). At 02:00 on 24 March, the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division landed between Wesel and Rees. At first, there was no opposition, but later they ran into determined resistance from machine-gun nests. The British 1st Commando Brigade entered Wesel.

The U.S. 30th Infantry Division landed south of Wesel. The local resistance had been broken by artillery and air bombardment. Subsequently, the U.S. 79th Division also landed. American casualties were minimal. German resistance to the Scottish landings continued with some effect, and there were armoured counter-attacks. Landings continued, however, including tanks and other heavy equipment. The U.S. forces had a bridge across by the evening of 24 March.

Operation Varsity started at 10:00 on 24 March, to disrupt enemy communications. Despite heavy resistance to the airdrops and afterward, the airborne troops made progress and repelled counterattacks. The hard lessons of Operation Market Garden were applied. In the afternoon, 15th (Scottish) Division linked up with both airborne divisions.

Fierce German resistance continued around Bienen, north of Rees, where the entire 9th Canadian Brigade was needed to relieve the Black Watch. The bridgehead was firmly established, however, and Allied advantages in numbers and equipment were applied. By 27 March, the bridgehead was 35 mi (56 km) wide and 20 mi (32 km) deep.


Impact on German forces and command

The city of Wesel lies in ruins after Allied bombardment. March 1945.

The Allied operation was opposed by the German 1st Parachute Army, commanded by General Alfred Schlemm, a part of Army Group H. Although this formation was considered to be the most effective German force in the area, it was severely depleted from its previous action in the Reichswald (Battle of the Reichswald). Unable to withstand Allied pressure, the 1st Parachute Army withdrew northeast toward Hamburg and Bremen, leaving a gap between it and the German 15th Army in the Ruhr.

Joseph Goebbels was well aware of Plunder′s potential impact from the beginning. On 24 March, he began his diary entry with, "The situation in the West has entered an extraordinarily critical, ostensibly almost deadly, phase." He went on to note the crossing of the Rhine on a broad front, and foresaw Allied attempts to encircle the Ruhr industrial heartland.

On 27 March, command of the 1st Parachute Army was passed to General Günther Blumentritt, because Schlemm had been wounded. Blumentritt and his superior, Generaloberst ("Colonel General") Johannes Blaskowitz, both recognised that the situation was lost. The army′s front was incomplete, there were no reserves, weak artillery, no air support and few tanks. Communications were weak, indeed, one corps was never contacted. The reinforcements were so poor that the generals decided against using them, to avoid needless casualties.

Although Blumentritt had strict orders from Supreme Command to hold and fight, from 1 April, he managed a withdrawal with minimal casualties, eventually withdrawing beyond the Dortmund-Ems Canal to the Teutoburg Forest. Within a week of the start of Plunder, the Allies had taken 30,000 prisoners of war north of the Ruhr.

Winston Churchill

File:Churchill on the east bank of the Rhine.jpg
Churchill, Brooke, and Montgomery on the German-held east bank of the Rhine. 25 March 1945.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was present at Field Marshal Montgomery′s headquarters near Venlo on the eve of Plunder (23 March). Subsequently, Churchill and Montgomery watched the Varsity air landings on 24 March.

The next day, 25 March, Churchill and Montgomery visited General Dwight D. Eisenhower′s headquarters. After lunch and a briefing, the party went to a sandbagged house overlooking the Rhine and a quiet, undefended stretch of the German-held riverbank. After Eisenhower′s departure, Churchill, Montgomery, and a party of U.S. commanders and armed guards commandeered a river launch and landed for 30 minutes in enemy territory, without challenge. They next visited the destroyed railway bridge at Wesel, departing when German artillery appeared to target them.

Military rivalries

The Plunder crossings in the third week of March were planned as the primary assault across the Rhine, but at the Malta Conference in early February 1945, it was decided to add another crossing to the south of the Ruhr. The additional crossing was intended to draw off any concentration of forces in opposition to Plunder.

On 7 March, U.S. troops unexpectedly captured the Ludendorff Bridge across the Rhine during the Battle of Remagen. Within the next 10 days six divisions and 25,000 troops established a bridgehead on the eastern side of the Rhine.

On 22 March, General George S. Patton sent his Third Army across the Rhine, opposite Oppenheim, to form another bridgehead. His superior, General Bradley, released news of this crossing to the press "at a time calculated to take some of the lustr from the news of Montgomery′s crossing."[3] Bradley later remembered that Patton had strongly urged the announcement saying "I want the world to know that Third Army made it before Monty starts across".[4]

These may have gone some way in mitigating the embarrassment and humiliation suffered due to the debacle of the Battle of the Bulge, where forewarned of an impending German attack, the defenders did nothing and then had to rely on Montgomery - who because of this was then forced to postpone the impending Operation Veritable* - taking command and organising and leading a proper and ultimately successful defence.

*Veritable, which under the name Valediction had been planned for late December 1944-early January 1945, was postponed due to the need to hurriedly redeploy British and Canadian forces intended for Valediction to other areas to counter the German Ardennes offensive and prevent German forces crossing the River Meuse. Valediction - by then re-titled Veritable - was then hampered when it did finally commence in February 1945 by the thaw which was by that time starting to set in, which lost the Allies' the advantage of operating over hard, frozen ground as originally planned, instead the ground was soft and turned easily to thick mud greatly reducing the mobility of armoured and other vehicles.


  1. They Remember War
  2. 2nd Armored WW2 facesbeyondthegraves.com
  3. MacDonald, Charles B (1973), "Chapter XIII The Rhine Crossings in the South", The Last offensive, United States Army in World War II European Theater of Operations, Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, p. 273, retrieved 9 February 2011<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Saunders, Tim (2006). Operation Plunder. Battleground Europe. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword. p. 15. ISBN 1-84415-221-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


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