Oral History - World War II Rhine River Crossing (1945)
Lieutenant Wilton Wenker, USN
Recollections of US Navy Lieutenant Wilton Wenker, Commanding Officer of LCVP [Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel] Unit No. One, and Lieutenant Elby, his Executive Officer, concerning the crossing of the Rhine River in 1945.
I received my orders as Commanding Officer of this unit on October 4th, in Cherbourg, France. At that time the unit was being assembled in Dartmouth, England. LCVP Unit No. 1 originally was to be the only naval unit to support the Army in the Rhine crossing, however a short time afterwards four other units, similar units, were assembled for the same purpose.
Unit No. 2 was to support the 3rd Army, under General Patton, and Unit No. 3 was to support the 9th Army. Unit No. 4 was considered a reserve unit and was stationed in Le Havre. Unit No. 5 was assembled and based in England and that unit was to support the 7th Army. Unit 1 moved up into Belgium and arrived there on October 18th.
We were immediately attached to 1120th group of 7th Corps, 1st Army. The boats were brought up to this area on 40-foot
flat bed trailers and dumped on the little secondary road completely covered with camouflage, painted olive drab for security reasons.
Within a week six of the boats were taken down to Cheratte, Belgium, to open up a training site along with 298th Battalion, Combat Engineers. The purpose of this training was to find a successful method, or methods, of launching the craft in the river similar to the Rhine. One week later a second training site was opened at Liege, Belgium with the 297th Battalion, Combat Engineers.
The Cheratte base was moved back to Andenne after the experiments for launching had been worked out and three successful methods had been decided upon. The training site at Andenne was used as a combined training site. Half of the week was used for this combined operation, the boats were used to assist the engineers in the construction of various bridges across the Meuse River. The balance of the week was used for regular small boat training for the Navy.
This training program went on for six weeks and was stopped only because of the November offensive that the 1st Army was going ahead with. It was thought at this time that our boats would be used on the Roer River because of the flooding by the two dams upstream,
however this offensive did not go forward and after 10 more days another training program was started.
The unit was then moved up to Aachen, Germany and six of the boats were returned to Andenne to continue this training program. The unit remained in Aachen until the Ardennes breakthrough and General Collins of the 7th Corps released our unit to be taken back 100 miles out of the danger area. The personnel and craft had to be moved hurriedly and were taken to Waremme, Belgium. The six boats crews under Lieutenant E[l]by, the Executive Officer at Andenne were at this time in a very dangerous position. There were no vehicles to move the craft or personnel until December 26th.
The position was very dangerous because the enemy had reached a point 11 miles from Andenne and without any means of evacuating Lieutenant E[l]by decided to take the personnel across the river and destroy the boats so that they would not fall into the hands of the enemy if they did reach the Meuse river.
The period of waiting for orders from the Army to move up was spent in one training program after another. This training, however did pay off on D-day. This unit moved up to the Rhine, that is 16 of
the 24 craft were moved to the Rhine on the 8th of March when we were called by the 1st Army, however, at that point we had a change of command. We were placed under the 3rd Corps. 10 of the boats were put in the water on the 11th of March and were immediately assigned to assisting the 552nd Engineers in the construction of a heavy pontoon bridge at Quip, Germany. This bridge was 1,200 feet long, and was under continuous observed artillery fire, and was located two miles upstream of the Ludendorf Bridge. Three of our craft were used to hold the bridge in place because the standard anchors used by the engineer battalions and companies of the Army were not heavy enough to hold itself against the current.
The current at this particular point was exceptionally strong. It was on a bend of the river approaching the eastern shore that the current increased. As we approached downstream the craft were used in the construction of six more bridges by the Army. Correction, I should have said as the beachhead was extended on the far shore downstream, we assisted the engineers in putting in six more bridges.
All during this first week the enemy tried, unsuccessfully,
to knock out the bridges erected by bombing. Our boys were under considerable fire at that time and in a very dangerous position while in their boats since the ack ack [anti-aircraft gun] was lined up bumper to bumper for three and one-half miles on both sides of the river and when a jerry plane dove for the bridge, found that the ack, ack, people would be shooting at each other across the river. Several people were lost for this reason. However, one of our crews was successful in shooting down an enemy ME [Messerschmitt-a type of German plane]109 with the new 50 caliber machine guns that were installed in the craft. The new mount was devised and installed by Lieutenant White, Engineering Officer of Unit 1. This installation was recommended for all VP’s [fixed wing patrol squadrons ?] and drawings were sent to the Bureau of Ordnance.
The enemy sent over quite a few of the new jet propelled 262s as well as the 109s. We were covered for almost the entire period of action by U.S. aircraft, mostly P-38s. One particular instance a 109 shot down two p-38s and a p-38 shot him down and all three pilots were in the air at the same time, parachuting to the ground.
The 1st Army was determined to hold these bridges at any cost and assembled the greatest concentration of ack, ack, that this war has ever seen. One day, it is reported that they shot down 180 planes out
Besides the assistance given to the engineers and the construction of their bridges the craft were used to evacuate casualties and to carry personnel across. We took the personnel of the 1st and the 2nd, and the 69th Divisions across the river.
It is interesting to note at this time that some of the crews, boat crews, of this unit had taken members of the 1st Division in at Normandy.
The 69th Division was taken in at the south end of the bridgehead within a mile of the front line. This practice was established to keep the, or to get the infantrymen as close to their fighting positions as possible, which also put us under artillery fire and at times under small arms fire.
Narrative continued by Lieutenant (jg) F.M. E[l]by, USNR, Exec. Officer.
This is Lieutenant Elby, the Executive Officer of LCVP Unit No. 1. To continue the narrative of Lieutenant Wenker, I would like to add a few interesting comments on the operation.
At the upstream end of the bridgehead our unit ran a patrol during the day and also at night. On the night patrol we had one boat
whose sole purpose was to drop depth charges at intervals of about two minutes. These depth charges were to combat swimmers who attempted to come downstream and make reconnaissance and try to destroy the bridges which had been built by the 1st Army. We were successful in two times, of bringing the swimmers to the surface and forcing them ashore so the Army could take them into their custody.
When the Ludendorf Bridge finally collapsed after serving its purpose for five or six days the boats which were downstream of this bridge were used to collect debris and divert it away from the other bridges that were being constructed below the Ludendorf Bridge. This operation saved at least one of the bridges from being carried away or seriously damaged.
At one point in the operation one of the heavy pontoon bridges started to be carried away by the swift current. This was due to the fact the anchors were not heavy or strong enough to hold the bridge. Three of our boats went out to the bridge, putting their bow against the bridge and going at full speed, they were able to hold the bridge in place for 18 hours until heavier anchors were secured and in
that way saved the bridge from probable destruction.
One of the coxswains of an LCVP, U.L. Batten did a very outstanding piece of work during the construction of the first floating Bail[e]y bridge to be put across the Rhine River. Originally the Army had a river tug to float the sections into place, however, due to the current they weren’t able to maneuver the sections satisfactorily so one of our boats were sent to assist the engineers in the construction of this bridge. The Coxswain, U.L. Batten, stayed at his wheel for 29 hours and refused to be relieved. He stayed on the job continuously until the bridge was completed. Later the colonel in charge of the combat engineers who were constructing the bridge sent a letter to our headquarters and talked to the commanding officer saying that the bridge would never have been able to have been put across without the fine performance of the coxswain.
Our unit stayed on the Rhine River as part of the Army for one and one-half months. It is interesting to note that we helped on the construction of all the bridges and also helped to dismantle all but three of the bridges.
In our opinion the biggest job that LCVP Unit 1 did was to
support the Army in the construction of their bridges and to maintain the river patrol.
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.