Operation Plunder

Plunder began on the evening of 23 March with the assault elements of the British Second Army massed against three main crossing sites: Rees in the north, Xanten in the center, and Wesel in the south. The two 9th Army divisions tasked for the assault concentrated in the Rheinberg area south of Wesel. At the northern crossing site, elements of XXX Corps began the assault (Operations Turnscrew) about 21:00, attempting to distract the Germans from the main crossings at Xanten in the center and Rheinberg to the south. The initial assault waves crossed the river quickly, meeting only light opposition. Meanwhile, Operation Widgeon began as 2 mi (3.2 km) north of Wesel a 2nd Army 1st Commando Brigade slipped across the river and waited within a mile of the city while it was demolished by one thousand tons of bombs delivered by RAF Bomber Command. Entering in the night, the commandos secured the city late on the morning of 24 March, although scattered resistance continued until dawn on the 25th. The Second Army's 12th Corps and the 9th Army's XVI Corps began the main effort about 02:00 on 24 March, following a massive artillery and air bombardment.[18] For the American crossing, the 9th Army commander—General Simpson—had chosen the veteran 30th and 79th Infantry Divisions of the XVI Corps. The 30th was to cross between Wesel and Rheinberg while the 79th assaulted south of Rheinberg. In reserve were the XVI Corps? 8th Armored Division, and 35th and 75th Infantry Divisions, as well as the 9th Army's XIII and XIX Corps, each with three divisions. Simpson planned to commit the XIX Corps as soon as possible after the bridgehead had been secured, using the XIII Corps to hold the Rhine south of the crossing sites.[18] After an hour of extremely intense artillery preparation, which General Eisenhower himself viewed from the front, the 30th Infantry Division began its assault. The artillery fire had been so effective and so perfectly timed that the assault battalions merely motored their storm boats across the river and claimed the east bank against almost no resistance. As subsequent waves of troops crossed, units fanned out to take the first villages beyond the river to only the weakest of opposition. An hour later, at 03:00, the 79th Infantry Division began its crossing upriver, achieving much the same results. As heavier equipment was ferried across the Rhine, both divisions began pushing east, penetrating 3–6 mi (4.8–9.7 km) into the German defensive line that day.[19] Douglas C-47 transport aircraft drop hundreds of paratroopers on 24 March as part of Operation Varsity. To the north, the British crossings had also gone well, with the ground and airborne troops linking up by nightfall. By then, the paratroopers had taken a l their first day's objectives in addition to 3,500 prisoners.[19] To the south, the discovery of a defensive gap in front of the 30th Infantry Division fostered the hope that a full-scale breakout would be possible on 25 March. When limited objective attacks provoked little response on the morning of the 25th, the division commander—Maj. Gen. Leland S. Hobbs—formed two mobile task forces to make deeper thrusts with an eye toward punching through the defense altogether and breaking deep into the German rear. Unfortunately, Hobbs had not fully taken into account the nearly nonexistent road network in front of the XVI Corps bridgehead. Faced with trying to make rapid advances through dense forest on rutted dirt roads and muddy trails, which could be strongly defended by a few determined soldiers and well placed roadblocks, the task forces advanced only about 2 mi (3.2 km) on the 25th. The next day they gained some more ground, and one even seized its objective, having slogged a total of 6 mi (9.7 km), but the limited progress forced Hobbs to abandon the hope for a quick breakout.[19] In addition to the poor roads, the 30th Division's breakout attempts were also hampered by the German 116th Panzer Division. The only potent unit left for commitment against the Allied Rhine crossings in the north, the 116th began moving south from the Dutch-German border on 25 March against what the Germans considered their most dangerous threat, the U.S. 9th Army. The enemy armored unit began making its presence felt almost immediately, and by the end of 26 March the combination of the panzer division and the rough terrain had conspired to sharply limit the 30th Division's forward progress. With the 79th Infantry Division meeting fierce resistance to the south, General Simpson's only recourse was to commit some of his forces waiting on the west bank of the Rhine. Late on 26 March, the 8th Armored Division began moving into the bridgehead.[19] Although the armored division bolstered his offensive capacity within the bridgehead, Simpson was more interested in sending the XIX Corps across the Wesel bridges, as Montgomery had agreed, and using the better roads north of the Lippe to outflank the enemy in front of the 30th Division. Unfortunately, because of pressure from the Germans in the northern part of the 2nd Army bridgehead, the British were having trouble completing their bridges at Xanten and were therefore bringing most of their traffic across the river at Wesel. With Montgomery allowing use of the Wesel bridges to the 9th Army for only five out of every 24 hours, and with the road network north of the Lippe under 2nd Army control, General Simpson was unable to commit or maneuver sufficient forces to make a rapid flanking drive.[20]