Oral History - World War II Rhine River Crossing (1945)
Vice Admiral Alan G. Kirk, USN
Recollections of Vice Admiral Alan G. Kirk, USN, concerning his experiences as Commander, United States Naval Forces, France, in 1944 and 1945. He tells of the Navy’s part in the Rhine River crossing and of the capture of the Atlantic ports occupied by the German military.
In early September, 1944, the Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, General Eisenhower, and his staff headquarters were established in the western part of Normandy. The Allied Naval Commander in Chief, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, KCB, was also established on the Cotentin Peninsula.
The armies had begun their great sweep across France, the break through at St.- Lô having occurred, the Third Army under General Patton, sweeping south and then to the eastward, had freed Paris late in August. The Allied Naval Forces were still engaged in landing stores and supplies for the armies at the two Mulberries, A and B, the British and the American, and also the port of Cherbourg.
About this time, in early September, the Command, United States Naval Forces, France, was established by order of Commander-in-Chief and CNO, actual date of commissioning being 12 September. At that time the forces assigned consisted of those auxiliary vessels and landing craft which were used in supplying the armies from the English shore, plus some combat types, DEs, PTs, SCs, etc., for guard duty along the coast for protection of the harbor of Cherbourg from possible raids from the German-held Channel Islands and certain small craft operating in the minesweeping businesses.
Command Headquarters were first set up in the Paris area in mid-September. By that time General Eisenhower moved his headquarters from Normandy into Versailles. The Allied Naval Commander in Chief, ANCXF, established his headquarters in Saint Germain. My headquarters were established in a little village called Lucienne not very far from St. Germain. In Paris we had an administrative command and in a little town called Trappe, about 12 to 13 miles away from Paris, was the United States Naval Radio Station, Paris.
The seaports on the northern coast of France, which were under the general control of Rear Admiral Wilkes, commenced with Brest in the West and stretched to the mouth of the Seine. The seaport of Brest was captured by the American VIII Corps in late September and we operated in that area
only such ships that were necessary to support the final capture of the town. From the eastward we had also occupied small ports such as St. Malo, Granville and one or two minor ports.
Cherbourg was the main concern because it was a deep water port in which ships coming across the Atlantic could enter without any problem of shelter, etc. The harbor had been pretty badly mined and pretty badly upset by sunken ships. These wrecks were either raised or towed aside and by early October we were able to take into Cherbourg Harbor between 12 to 15 Liberty ships, plus considerable numbers of LSTs [landing ship, tank; a ship able to land tanks and other large vehicles directly onto an unimproved shore] and lighter craft. The volume of tonnage coming through the harbor of Cherbourg increased to a maximum of around 18,000 tons per day by midwinter.
To the eastward the Utah beach was employed for some time because it was properly sheltered by the Cherbourg Peninsula from the westerly gales. Loading gear was across the open beaches and those operations continued until nearly Christmas. Omaha Beach was closed in the middle of the fall. The British beaches remained open until the first of the year. The port of Caen with a little river serving it, was able to bring in a certain amount of stores all winter long.
Le Havre fell in early September. Its harbor was already badly wrecked by demolitions, by bombing, by sunken ships and by mines. However, the forces stationed these restored the port to operational purposes in very quick order. Mines were swept, channels of the Seine were sounded and buoyed, the wharves and docks were repaired by the Army engineers and we were able to bring in Liberty ships there in early October.
The volume of traffic coming into Le Havre increased and that of Cherbourg correspondingly decreased. The reason for this was that the main rail lines in France, supplying the armies to the eastward, pivoted on Le Havre and the haul was much shorter than the 300-odd miles extra to Cherbourg. Besides, Le Havre being on the east bank of the Seine, the question of bridging was not involved. Therefore, the movement of supplies forward to the armies was much simpler from Le Havre than from Cherbourg.
The port of Rouen, some 50 miles up the river from the sea, was opened at an early date. It, in peacetime, was the largest port for receiving fuel oil, gasoline, etc. and the tanks, fortunately, were not badly damaged. The bridges were down at Rouen but pontoon bridges served in their place and the berthing of ships took place below the bridges. Rouen was staffed with enough American Navy and Coast Guard to supervise the unloading there so that eventually we took about 6,000 tons per day.
In early October the port of Antwerp was also in our hands. This was a British-operated port and the American Navy was represented there only in terms of the liaison port party to assist the Army in placing their ships and unloading. Actually about 40,000 tons a day were received in the port of Antwerp and sent forward to the armies from the excellent rail system
centering there. However, the Germans were able to fire their V-1 and later V-2 bombs at Antwerp in considerable numbers and that port was under constant bombardment from mid-October until almost the end of the war. The anti-aircraft defense was efficient and the port was ringed with anti-aircraft batteries assisted by some fighter aircraft and a large percentage of the German V-1 bombs sailed at the port were shot down before they ever reached the harbor.
As the progress of the armies increased and we were approaching, first the line of the Moselle and second, the Rhine, it became necessary to consider how to get equipment across the Rhine rapidly. We knew that many of the bridges would be down and that transport across would be very difficult in the ordinary pontoon craft supplied to the Army. The armies, therefore, asked the Navy if we could supply them with LCVPs and LCMs [landing craft, mechanized]. This was agreed to and in mid-November three detachments of LCVPs were assigned to each of the 9th, 1st and 3rd Armies. The 9th Army being nearest the sea on the left flank, the 1st Army being in the center, and the 3rd Army being to the southward in the upper reaches of the Rhine.
This Task Unit, 122.5, was placed under the command of Commander Whiteside, who was attached to General Bradley’s headquarters, 12th Army Group.
The LCVPs were transported overland from Le Havre by Tank Recovery Units and were passed to various staging areas behind each of the three armies. Their voyage overland was very picturesque because of their height and size and length and they had to be routed special ways supervised by MPs, the road cleared throughout. The tunnels, bridges, sharp corners were a matter of concern and when the boats were finally deployed in their staging areas, they were separated along the front of the Rhine from about the area of Luxembourg down to Strasbourg.
When the Germans made their big advance in mid-December and January, these boat units were in some jeopardy but fortunately the advance of the Germans was checked by the armies and when they were eventually thrown back, the boat units moved up to their staging areas for deployment across the Rhine.
LCVPs are not large enough to carry the M-4 tank, therefore, it was suggested that LCMs be employed. We brought over about 45 to 50 LCMs, staging them behind each of the three armies and supplied crews and operating personnel. The LCMs made the voyage on their own power from English ports to Antwerp then down parts of the Albert Canal and finally by road transport to their areas behind the Rhine.
On the 8th of March the 1st United States Army made its onslaught on the Remagen Bridge. This was captured by the 4th Armored Division in a wild rush. The bridge, however, was rather badly damaged and it was obvious it wouldn’t stand heavy traffic for many days. Therefore, the unit
of small boats, Navy-manned, was promptly put in the water on the Rhine and began the ferrying of supplies, tanks, troops, anti-tank artillery, etc., across the Rhine.
The 9th Army opened its offensive about mid-March and down in that area near Wesel the Navy’s boats supported the army assault on the second and third days of the attack. The river here is wider, the current is slower, the problems of navigation were not very different. There was some enemy opposition, some shelling of the rear positions where the boats were held in readiness before launching. However, this attack moved forward very promptly and in a few days the river, the far shore, was clear and the river was crossed readily by our boats. At one time an LCM had the privilege of taking the British Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, General Eisenhower the Supreme Commander, Field Marshal Montgomery and General Simpson of the 9th Army, in a historic crossing of the Rhine, of which various photographs were published.
On the 3rd Army front, General Patton crossed in a number of places. The river above Mainz is swift, the currents are very strong, there is a rocky foreshore and the going was pretty tough. Below Mainz, this is towards the sea, in the direction of Cologne, in that area, in the Lorelei rocks in the gorges of the Rhine, the current is again swift. Crossing by the 3rd Army was on a wide front, about 30 to 50 miles. The American LCVPs and LCMs backed up this crossing in smaller detachments than in the 1st and 9th Army fronts. However, they were able, in this particular 3rd Army sector, to move something in the order of 300 Mark IV tanks across the Rhine in the first two days of the broad assault.
In addition to carrying troops and equipment, tanks, the LCVPs were particularly helpful in assisting the Army engineers in building their pontoon bridges. As the current of the Rhine in these upper reaches is between three to five knots velocity, the pontoons had to be held against this current so that the bridge could be completed in sections. These little boats, therefore, were running 24 hours a day, bresting the sections of the bridge up against the current for a number of days. Besides, the LCVPs had to be employed as outpost or picket vessels above the bridges against sabotage swimmers, against floating mines, against logs, and every form of debris which might carry away the bridge.
The Germans were using their air pretty vigorously in certain areas particularly in the Remagen Bridge area and the anti-aircraft defenses were heavy. The volume of fire when a German air attack came along was terrific. We had no casualties from this source, however, and the boats contributed their share with their own batteries from time to time.
About the middle of April, when the advance of the American armies deep into Germany had taken place, it became evident that the employment of these landing craft along the river Rhine, manned by the Navy, was not a profitable employment for this number of men. The Army engineers, there-
fore, proposed to take over a number of the boats, man them themselves, and operate them as necessary. This was agreed to and the Naval units were withdrawn, returned to England and eventually sent home.
The assistance rendered the armies by our LCVPs and LCMs in the Rhine crossing was very considerable. The Army expressed warm appreciation for what was done and we were very glad to see the Navy assist in a rather unique operation of war.
During the winter while the operations in the east were taking place, the French were very much concerned about the presence of Germans in the pockets on the west coast of France. The Germans were holding the mouth of the river Gironde, which is the main entrance to the big seaport of Bordeaux. They were also in La Rochelle and LaPélisse, likewise in St.-Nazaire at the mouth of the river Loire and also at Loyale.
The opening of the west coast ports of France was very important to the French people because it afforded a means of supplying food, fuel, other essential materials for the French civil population. In addition there were certain things, available to the French in the land areas behind these ports, which were also necessary. For example, the town of Bayonne in the southwest of France is the principal port of export for pit props. Pit props are pine tree trunks which are shipped to the coal mines of northern France to hold up the roof of the mine while the miners get out the coal. Demands for coal were very extensive not only for the civil population but also for our own armies. We were using heavy rail transportation moving supplies forward and coal was necessary. Therefore, props [were] necessary and, therefore, it was necessary to open the port of Bayonne.
In addition to the ports the Germans held in these pockets, they had also sunk ships in the various rivers making a barrage or block. The principal ones were in the river Loire, the river Gironde and the river Adour, which is the river that goes to the port of Bayonne. Before Christmas we, the American Navy, supplied on loan certain salvage equipment to the French forces engaged in trying to lift or move these block ships in order that the vessels could pass from the sea. The beginning was the port of Bayonne in order to get out the pit props and success was achieved by the French operators under American supervision so that by mid-March small vessels could enter the harbor.
To free the port of Bordeaux, an operation was directed by the Supreme Commander, placed under the command of a French General Delamine [possibly French General Edgard de Larminat?]. The 6th Army Group under General Devers was in general supervision of the operation of the land side. A French Naval squadron was formed under Rear Admiral Rűe, the French Navy, and Commander Naval Forces, France was charged with the supervision of his planes and in execution of the operation. Originally scheduled to take place in mid-December, the assault had to be postponed because of the German advance in the Ardennes and finally took place on the
15th of April.
The French troops invested the forts at Royan from the land side. The French Navy bombarded from the sea, not only the port of Royan but also opposite or southern arm of the river, Pointe de Grave and the American First Tactical Air Force, Provisional, assisted by giving heavy air support. Some 1,200 bombers were used on the first day of the assault; dropping Napa bombs they speedily subdued the ring of forts outside the town of Royan. In addition the French armies stormed the positions and in two days the Germans were driven out to the westward. They surrendered on the third day some 6,000 German prisoners.
The opening of the port of Bordeaux, therefore, was successful in three or four days’ operation without any serious loss. No Naval vessels were damaged and the fire from the sea had been very helpful in supporting the Army advance.
The Ile D'Olèron, which is to the north of Royan and Bordeaux, is so situated that batteries placed on it could command the main ship channel leading in from the sea. It was, therefore, necessary to reduce this island in order that minesweeping could take place and merchant ships enter from the main ship channel. These operations began two weeks later, on the 29th of April, with an amphibious assault using American LCVPs loaned to the French Navy and employing the troops of General DeLamina [possibly De Larminat?]. Artillery preparation was intense. Bombardment from the sea occurred under the command of Admiral Rűe, the air support was less numerous than the previous occasion and that was satisfactory.
The island was taken in two days and the Germans driven out. By early May, therefore, the port of Bordeaux, the third largest in France, was clear, provided the mines could be swept from the river and the sunken ships raised. This was completed by mid-August and the port has since been serving the people.
The remaining German pockets in the north were never assaulted. They were invested [o]n the land side, the movements Germans considerably circumscribed by investing forces but no assaults were made either by air or from the sea. However, in early May when the German collapse occurred, it was obvious that these ports would surrender and it was necessary, therefore, to prepare plans for taking over the equipment, Naval and military, in these harbors. American Naval officers assisted the French Navy in their task and the American Army officers with the French Army. The ports surrendered between the 8th and 10th of May and the large, considerable supplies and some submarine pens in La Rochelle, LaPélisse, St.-Nazaire were surrendered intact. A number of small German minesweeping craft were acquired and they were speedily put to use in clearing the mines from the harbor.
The mining on the west coast of France was very extensive not only by the Germans but also by the Allied Air Forces. Mines dropped from air cannot be accurately located and, therefore, the sweeping of mines is very extensive when an air-dropped field has to be cleared. The port of Royan was pretty badly damaged by various Allied air attacks but no demolition by the Germans on departure. So the end of May found the west coast of France entirely clear of Germans, all ports surrendered intact. The north of France ports were also cleared and when fighting stopped in Europe, the French then, except for clearing of mines and sunken ships, had all their ports available to them for use.
By mid-May it became evident that redeployment plans for the Army would not require so many French ports as had been used to supply the Armies with stores. Our forces, therefore, were gradually withdrawn from the various French ports and the operation returned to the French Navy. We closed the port of Rouen from American supervision on the 1st of June. Preparations were made to close the port of Cherbourg from American control on the 1st of July. Le Havre remained the principal port. At Antwerp supervision continued in liaison with the British. So that when on the 3rd of June the task force Command[,] Naval Forces[,] France, was dissolved there remained small liaison parties in Paris, a few supervisory Naval officers in Cherbourg and the operation in the port of Le Havre.
It might be noted that the ports of southern France were never under that command and they always remained part of the 8th Fleet and the Northwest African Sea Frontier.
Source: The original document is located in the “Interview and Statement Transcripts” collection of the Operational Archives Branch. A photocopy is located in the Navy Department Library.