Oral History -- World War II Rhine River Crossing (1945)
Lieutenant Commander William Leide
Recollections of Lieutenant Commander William Leide, Commanding Officer of U.S. Naval Unit Two, attached to the US Third Army during the crossing of the Rhine River. His unit was responsible for moving Army personnel across the Rhine, and was one of three such Naval units assigned to the three US armies during that operation.
This is Lieutenant Commander William Leide, commanding officer, U.S. Naval Unit Two, which unit was attached to the Third United States Army, commanded by General Patton. The purpose of this unit and its mission was preparation and training for the Rhine assault. Orders for this assignment were received November 6, 1944, after having spent five months in Normandy in the British assault area subsequent to the assault with LCTs [Landing Craft Tanks] on Omaha Beach.
On November 7, accompanied by Lieutenant (j.g.) D.L. Spaulding, who was assigned as my Executive Officer, we were rushed to Dartmouth, England to gather the officers and enlisted men assigned to this new unit. Everything was new and different since no Navy had ever made an assault of this nature so far from the ocean.
Only 72 hours remained in the United Kingdom. An E-9 unit was assigned which was assembling materiel and spare parts from Portland. Communications and coordination was practically impossible. The eight officers and LCVP [Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel] crews ordered to U.S. Naval Unit Two came from eight different LSTs [Landing Ship, Tank]. A staff with a yeoman, cooks, stewards’ mates, and miscellaneous rates, which we laughingly called a housekeeping unit, was also furnished. On November 10, we left the United Kingdom, embarked in an LSD [Dock Landing Ship].
On November 11, we reached Le Havre and set out under our own power for the port where we were to be embarked on heavy pontoon trailers and be taken to our ultimate destination near the headquarters of the Third United States Army.
Upon arriving at Le Havre, France, an ammunition ship struck a mine and our small boats participated in the rescue work. After three days in Le Havre, a U.S. Army Liaison officer, representing the Third U.S. Army, arrived to direct us to our destination which was Toul, France.
On November 15, we reached Toul, France, and tried to get established on land as quickly as possible. We were ducks in a desert. We had come equipped with everything from pyramidal tents to special cots so that we could compete with the Army on land.
This unit became attached to the 1134th Combat Engineers, commanded by Colonel James Fitch. We were shown a bombed out cavalry school called the Adolph Hitler Kaserne. I was impressed with the bombing but the Colonel
said, “Don’t laugh, this is your new home.” No windows, doors, water or lights were available. The name of the Kaserne was the Adolph Hitler Kaserne and one of the sailors immediately renamed it the USS BLOOD AND GUTS.
In less than a week we had a creditable mess organized and intensive training had been begun since the assault itself was scheduled in December. It was bitter cold and rained continuously, in fact all records for the past 100 years were broken.
Day and night maneuvers ensued. The river on which we practiced was the Moselle, and as afar as the Navy craft were concerned the river itself was no obstacle whatsoever, and the coxswains easily proved themselves quite adept at managing the LCVP in a river. The Moselle at this time, as a result of the heavy rains, was in flood and with a very fast current.
On Thanksgiving Day the Moselle River had by then reached proportions that were staggering. The river had risen to a point where the craft themselves were actually on a country road. That afternoon, Thanksgiving afternoon, an alarm was sounded that the Navy craft had broken their moorings. An officer and his entire division had been placed on day and night duty in order to forestall any such events. The river fell rapidly and this officer, Ensign Klein, and his enlisted men, in an endeavor to secure the craft, started them down the river and they eventually got away.
Twenty of the twenty-four craft went over the falls as did Ensign Klein. He did this without a barrel. In fact Ensign Klein as he approached the falls jumped out of his boat but failed to make shore. He was saved by two Frenchmen and by midnight of that night the craft had been retrieved with no damage done except to seven. The river had fallen so fast that seven LCVPs were high and dry in a meadow. It was a strange sight to see cows and goats grazing under the bow of a Navy assault boat.
Under the auspices of Colonel Fitch every type experiment loading and unloading LCVPs was practiced. Every type gun that would fit an LCVP was loaded and taken off. The LCVP was fitted as litter-bearing craft, fittings permitting the carrying of 14 casualties at one time. We even went so far as to put on a bulldozer weighing nine and a half tons, and although the freeboard was negligible with this tremendous load, the LCVP showed that it could manage this load in a stream. Command cars, jeeps, trailers of every shape and description were loaded on and off our craft in a series of interminable practice experiments. Later this stood us in good stead.
On the tenth of December, we were ordered to Nancy, then the headquarters of the United States Third Army, for a briefing on the actual assault. Places were selected on the Rhine and the assault was to be on a two corps front similar to Omaha Beach. Therefore, my executive officer and I divided the unit into two parts and we practiced alternate assaults with one half of U.S. Naval Unit Two serving as one complete self sufficient unit.
On December 17, a fellow by the name of Von Rundstedt upset all our plans. The United States Third Army left the Saar, evacuated Dillingen and turned
practically northwest to hammer at Von Rundstedt’s flank in the famous Bulge. Our practice sessions ceased. Thought was given to the safety of our boats and instead of practicing assaults we practiced demolition. Thermite grenades were obtained and in the event of a break through it was decided to destroy the boats and attempt to make a get-away ourselves.
There was no transportation available at this time for the credit or for the men.
Separation from the United States Third Army only lengthened our lines of supply. Life aboard the USS BLOOD AND GUTS continued throughout this terrible, bitter winter. The rain turned to snow and ice, the boats were immobilized as the canals and river froze over and we suddenly realized that the LCVP, with a salt-water cooling system, would be no good in a river in mid-winter since the cooling systems could not function in fresh water without freezing and, therefore, immobilizing the craft.
The Engineering Department furnished a solution whereby the salt-water system was disconnected and a ten-foot length of rubber hose draped over the side of the craft. It was not pretty, but it worked.
At this time 15 LCMs arrived to swell our unit. This was early January. We were then about 250 strong in enlisted men and had a total of 18 officers. This included a small Seabee detachment of six enlisted men and one officer whose job was to instruct the Army in the assembly of NL [Navy lightrange] pontoons. The NL pontoons were to be used in carrying pile driving equipment so that permanent bridges could be installed when, as and if the assault took place.
In early March General Patton’s forces broke through northwest of Koblenz and we were alerted. Someone decided that General Patton was not to cross the Rhine at this time so the alert was off. This was not particularly good for our morale. After five months with the Army we were ready for some naval activity. The men had done everything from load barbed wire on railroad trains to paint over 15,000 directional signs.
We had made a reconnaissance of the Rhine River northwest of Koblenz and it was feasible and possible to make a crossing there. We had also made a reconnaissance of the Moselle River and it was not navigable to where it emptied into the Rhine.
On the 18th of March, together with the staff officer representing the Engineers of the Third U.S. Army, a visit was paid to U.S. Naval Unit Number One, which was operating with the United States First Army in the vicinity of the Remagen bridge, which had just been captured intact. Naval Unit Number One was assisting in patrol and maintenance and erection of heavy pontoon, Bailey [modular pontoon] and treadway [inflatable pontoon] bridges.
On this visit we were informed that U.S. Naval Unit Three was to make a full-scale assault with Generals Montgomery and Simpson to the northward. It was quite depressing since we were told that General Patton would not be
permitted to cross the Rhine until later that week. All the naval photographers and reporters, together with the Army Public Relations Officers set sail for U.S. Naval Unit Three.
Upon our return to Third Army headquarters at Luxembourg, I was informed by Brigadier General Conklin, head of the Engineers, that we were alerted. He told me that the Unit was to be loaded and leave the following afternoon through a blazing Germany which had not yet been mopped up. I was informed that the road through which we were to pass would be captured by the following morning.
On the 21st of March we were underway for Worrstadt, which was some 20 miles from Oppenheim, Germany, where the Third U.S. Army was all set for the assault. My Executive Officer and I reached the officers of XII Corps and were informed that a reconnaissance of the Rhine River had yet to be made. Lieutenant (j.g.) Spaulding and I then played cops and robbers on the river front selecting embarkation and debarkation points. We were then briefed and introduced to the Commanding General of the Fifth United States Infantry Division. This famous division was charged with the mission of establishing and securing a bridgehead. Imagine our consternation when we were told that the jump-off time was 2200 the same night. Our boats were still en route.
At 2130 the LCVPs reached Worrstadt at which time a series of changes in plans were made. Instead of 12 LCVPs to be used for the assault, it was decided to use only eight. The remaining eight LCVPs were to go to the XX Corps and the balance of the last eight to the VIII Corps. Obviously the plans had changed from a two-corps front to a three-corps front.
Undaunted and undismayed the U.S. Navy decided to out-Patton Patton. Therefore, wherever the Infantry would go and whatever the problem, we would meet the challenge. The highways were cleared at 0001, so that we could go to our launching site. En route to our launching site at midnight the 22nd of March a Staff Officer from the Third U.S. Army arrived and notified us that 12 LCVPs would be required by the Fifth Infantry Division for this crossing. An Officer courier was dispatched to get four more boats 25 miles to our rear.
Some difficulty was encountered in launching the boats since the Le Tourneau cranes [a brand of crane] originally in the first convoy, had been slowed down by the German road blocks. These had not been cleared in accordance with existing plans. It must be noted that any convoy of this nature carrying boats and with the Le Tourneau cranes should be accompanied by an expert demolition unit which can blow obstacles such as road blocks, trees, and even houses out of the way. If this is not done a risk is run of upsetting assault plans. However, four boats were launched successfully using lighter cranes borrowed from a neighboring combat engineer unit.
Far shore was established at five minutes after one a.m. with Lieutenant (j.g.) Szalach as the far shore control officer. Ensign Miller was the near shore control officer and further down stream, Ensign Carter took his
post. Lieutenant (j.g.) Spaulding, my Executive Officer, crossed the river and directed these operations.
At 0500 the Le Tourneau crane arrived and launching was quite rapid. As soon as the preponderance of the boats were launched and dawn was breaking we were heavily shelled by enemy artillery. The shelling was inaccurate and did no damage.
The launching of the boats was not a signal for intense activity. Coordination with the Army was poor. In fact my Executive Officer and I had to solicit business from the infantry Joes who were still paddling across the river. By 0700 a full-scale business was underway, proper contacts had been made with traffic control officers and an endless stream of infantrymen and light combat division vehicles was crossing the river.
The turn-around was speedier than anticipated. Crews were reduced by one-half and a German Hotel requisitioned so the men could be housed. A six-hour on, six-hour off watch was instituted, but the officers stayed on continuously.
With the advent of daylight we were subjected to more artillery fire which again was very inaccurate. The vaunted German accuracy with the 88mm. was not in evidence. We were strafed four times during the day and casualties were light. The Germans were merely indulging in nuisance raids and accomplishing nothing as far as slowing down of traffic was concerned.
Three of the LCVPs were employed in the building of bridges, laying of nets and booms, and one of them pushed what is known as a heavy pontoon ferry bringing across 70 tank destroyers and tanks in less than 30 hours. The number of infantry crossed in 48 hours was in excess of 15,000 men. This does not take cognizance of the tremendous loads of prisoners, and wounded which the craft were bringing from the far shore.
At 1700 that evening I was notified that the VIII Corps was to make an assault using our other 12 LCVPs. We were notified that the 15 LCMs left at Toul, France were en route, their destination unknown. This again changed the plans since we had anticipated making a crossing with XX Corps, a crossing with VIII Corps had not been contemplated and was not in our plan.
Lieutenant (j.g.) Spaulding and I set out by command car for Simmern, Germany, the headquarters of the VIII Corps, Third United States Army. As we left German planes were overhead and we did a quick abandon ship. I tried to dig a fox hole in asphalt with my bare hands, but was highly unsuccessful, so was the strafing. We reached Simmern at 2230 the same night. The Corps Colonel, named Keller, advised us that the assault would not take place that night. We were grateful. After 72 hours on our feet we were completely out. The following morning we were briefed and told that the assault would be on a two infantry division front, with one taking place at Boppard between two tremendou cliffs, headed up by the 87th infantry division and the next would be at St.Goar in the vicinity of the famed Lorelei (rock) with the 89th Division, again another change.
Six LCVPs were to be used in each of these assaults and LCMs if they arrived, and they did. At this point, my first differences with the Army began. We had found out from practice and in the Oppenheim assault that the craft must be launched in the hours of darkness or the rain of artillery that you will bring down on you and your surrounding shipmates will endanger the whole value of the naval craft. Unfortunately the terrain at Boppard and St.Goar was very mountainous, was tortuous roads, dangerous bends, naturally not adapted to the carrying of assault boats overland. As far as I was concerned it was a calculated risk, we had experienced personnel driving the vehicles furnished by the Army, reconnaissance had been made of the road, the craft could go through, therefore, the decision should have been to bring the boats to the water and launch them immediately after the infantry crossed in their assault boats which they paddled.
I was overruled but I was not in accord with the decision.
Our six LCVPs were launched the morning of the 24th and immediately did a full-scale business which exceeded the fondest expectations. The value of the craft proved themselves in the first 48 hours. However, it was decided that it was too dangerous to bring the LCMs down these mountain passes and once more I was overruled and the LCMs stayed on the hillside helping nobody.
This experience did not help up the following night, since the 89th infantry made the assault at St.Goar and the only help they had was ten DUKWs [an amphibious version of the 2.5 ton General Motors cargo truck] furnished by the Army and the casualties were terrific.
Incidentally at Boppard aside from the inaccurate 88 mm. fire directed when the boats were first launched, minor small arms fire and midnight mortar attacks casualties continued low.
By the afternoon of the 26th, when the St.Goar bridgehead was not very successful the orders were given to bring the Navy craft to the water with our LCMs. Before two a.m., we were going to town. We transported an entire infantry division and all their attendant vehicles in less than 48 hours. The results were spectacular but men and officers had been killed unnecessarily because the naval craft were not employed on schedule. We had learned a lesson, but no one would make the decision to bring the craft in early.
The evening of the 27th of March, scuttlebutt reached us that the decision had been for the XX Corps to make an assault in the vicinity of Mainz, Germany. My Executive Officer and I were totally unfamiliar with the roads, but again reported to Colonel Keller of the VIII Corps who confirmed this fact: The craft to be used were to be taken from the Oppenheim area and supplemented with six LCMs so that XX Corps could be carried across.
This time we prevailed to have the naval boats in the water before dawn. This actually saved the bridgehead. Sniping and small arms fire was terrific from the outset. Zero hour was 0100 the morning of the 28th. Lieutenant (j.g.) Spaulding and I reached Mainz, Germany one hour before H-hour and were completely unsuccessful in finding craft. Staying on the river banks was too dangerous and we were accomplishing nothing. We dug in with two MPs [military police] and waited
until dawn. At dawn the craft were found.
At 0420 artillery fire was quite heavy but had not located the launching site. Coxswain Johnny Farah volunteered to take his boat to the river in order to draw enemy fire. He was quite successful. He then returned to the lagoon and took the first boat of infantrymen across. An island in the middle of the Rhine, which was heavily fortified, had not been neutralized by the infantry units assigned this task. Small-arms fire was quite heavy. Although some 600 infantrymen had reached the far shore the bridgehead was not established. In three hours the naval craft transported more than 3,500 men. The spectacular work of the naval craft was again evidence.
At roughly 0700 German artillery fire came down heavily while Lieutenant (j.g.) Spaulding and I were on the far shore. This error in not finding the launching sight at once probably saved our lives. This time the German artillery was very accurate. They scored a direct hit on our bulldozer, demolished several of our trucks and Lieutenant (j.g.) Vincent Avallone was killed. Minor shrapnel wounds were incurred by others.
The work of this section of the unit continued unabated in the regular pattern-six hours on, six hours off, three days of no respite and then practically nothing to do. Bridge maintenance, assisting in the building of bridges, pushing of pontoon ferries, laying nets, patrol, launching of depth charges to force suicide swimmers to the surface, was the familiar pattern engaged in by U.S. Naval Unit Two after all the assaults.
We all felt that a good job had been done. Perhaps by merely reading General George S. Patton Jr.’s Letter of Commendation that will sum up in the words of a real fighting man the value of the U.S. Navy in making the first assault breaching the Rhine River since the time of Napoleon.
“THE HEADQUARTERS THIRD UNITED STATES ARMY
Office of the Commanding General
23 April 1945
“To: Commanding Officer, U.S. Naval Unit Number Two.
. Please accept for yourself and pass on to the officers and men of your command the sincere appreciation and admiration of all the elements of The Third U.S. Army for the superior work accomplished by your unit in Third Army assault crossings of the Rhine River.
. During the period from 19 March to31 March, 1945, U.S. Naval Unit Number Two assisted in four assault crossings of the Rhine river by Third Army. The first crossing was made on 22 March, 1945 by the XII Corps at
Oppenheim, where craft of Naval Unit Number Two in the first 72-hour period transported over 15,000 troops and over 1200 vehicles. The second crossing by the VIII Corps at Boppard was made 24 March 1945, and here during the first 24-hour period Naval Unit Number Two transported approximately 5000 men and 200 vehicles. The third crossing was made at Oberwesel on 26 March, 1945, with very nearly an entire division with its supporting vehicles was crossed in 48 hours. The fourth crossing made by the XX Corps was made at Mainz on 28 March 1945, and here in the first three hours, Naval Unit Number Two transported 3,500 men to the far shore in spite of intensive artillery fire. Each and every officer and man of U.S. Naval Unit Number Two is hereby commended for the superior manner in which his task was performed.
Signed G.S. Patton, Jr.,
|General, U.S. Army,|
There were three U.S. Naval Units in the field on the Rhine. These units were completely detached and had no connection whatsoever as to command from the United States Navy.
Unit Number One headed by Lieutenant Wenker with Lieutenant (j.g.) E[l]by as Executive Officer operated with the first United States Army in the vicinity of the Remagen bridge.
Unit Number Three headed by Lieutenant Commander Patrick with Lieutenant (j.g.) Kennedy as Executive Officer operated with the Ninth United States Army in the vicinity of Wesel.
The Three United States Naval Units for the purposes of command were usually attached to a Combat Engineer Group. However, the U.S. Naval Unit operated in the field as a self-sufficient unit drawing supplies and rations and living similar to any other Army field unit. The Combat Engineer group was merely the “daddy” of the U.S. Navy Unit and transmitted orders from higher headquarters for the purposes of establishing a chain of command. The Engineer group then received its orders from the Chief Engineer of whatever Army was issuing the orders thus having a regular Army command pattern which was followed by the United States Naval units.
The method of transporting the LCVP was the 40-foot flat bed in carrying the craft from the port of Le Havre, France, to the Army designated. This was standard for all three naval units. However, in the field the LCVPs were transported on heavy pontoon buggies since this piece of equipment was part of the organization equipment with which combat engineer groups are supplied. The standard practice of transporting the LCM was by means of an M-25 tank retriever.
It is interesting to note that the actual launching of the LCMs was easier than launching its smaller brother the LCVPs. The LCM could be launched by backing it into the water on the trailer, starting up the engines and pulling off with its own power, whereas the LCVPs had to be lifted by crane and dropped in the water.
It was characteristic of all the U.S. Naval units attached to the various armies to be in O.Ds. [olive drab uniforms], carrying a weapon at all times, and with helmet. Distinguishing Navy insignia were worn by the officers.
One of the outstanding features of the Rhine River Assault crossings with U.S. Third Army was the complete absence of any artillery preparation from the American side. It is a Patton characteristic to employ surprise and speed. In this instance, as in prior times he was eminently successful. At Oppenheim, at Boppard, at St. Goar and finally at Mainz, where the three corps, the XII, the VIII and XX Corps made the assault crossing, there was no preliminary artillery barrage. The crack infantry divisions, carrying the burden of the original bridgeheads paddled across noiselessly in what is known as an Engineer assault boat. It is typical Patton pattern to employ this method.
The VIII Corps employed smoke extensively. The smoke was to cover the movements of the infantry and supporting vehicles across the river in addition to hiding the exact location of the first bridge. The establishing of a bridge is of primary importance to any Army breaching a river, since by means of a bridge the tank destroyers and heavy tanks can get across in sufficient, uninterrupted quantity to lay low the enemy. The employment of smoke not only was used to cover the actual bridge sites but was employed upstream and downstream to confuse the enemy so that they would not know exactly where to lay down their artillery barrages.
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.