The Ninth Army Crosses the Roer
In February 1945, in the wake of Germany’s unsuccessful offensive in the Ardennes Forest known as the Battle of the Bulge, the Allied armies in northwest Europe launched their final, broad-front offensive to the heart of Germany. One of the key components of this plan was the Ninth Army’s attack across the Roer River, codenamed “Operation Grenade.”
Between October 1944 and mid-December 1944, elements of the Ninth Army and other Allied forces had slugged it out with German forces along the German West Wall, also known as the Siegfried Line, which extended over 600 kilometers in length, between 13 and 32 kilometers in depth, and hosted more than 18,000 tunnels, tank traps, and bunkers. The terrain along the Siegfried Line, moreover, was relatively flat and dotted with small villages that furnished their defenders with “mutually supporting fortifications,” according to military historian Russell Weigley.
David R. Higgins in his book The Roer River Battles, described the hellish struggle that American infantrymen waged to reach the west bank of the Roer. Once there, however, Allied armies took up defensive positions while dealing with the German surprise offensive in the Ardennes. After the “Bulge” was eliminated in some of the heaviest and costliest fighting in northwest Europe during the war, Allied armies went back on the offensive.
Initially planned for Feb. 10, the Roer crossing was moved to the 23rd because the German defenders used their control of the Roer Dams to flood the river and inundate the valley. Charles B. MacDonald, author of The Last Offensive (1973), one of a series of excellent volumes on the U.S. Army’s operations in the European theater in World War II, wrote that in some places where the Roer was normally 25-30 yards wide, “it spread into a lake more than a mile wide.”
Prior to the attack, the Ninth Army, under the command of Gen. William Simpson, was strengthened to 10 divisions comprising 303,243 men, supported by 375 planes of the XXIX Tactical Air Command, more than 2,000 artillery pieces, and nearly 1,400 tanks. Power, not surprise, was the goal of the broad front strategy.
Gen. Simpson launched Operation Grenade in the early morning hours of Feb. 23, 1945, with a thunderous bombardment of 2,000 guns against enemy-held positions on the east bank of the Roer. Charles MacDonald wrote that the artillery barrage “thundered Armageddon, illuminating the night.” One infantryman of the 29th Division described it as “a great destructive bludgeon which was hammering all life and resistance out of ... the east bank.” It was the largest concentration of U.S. artillery fire to-date in the war.
The immediate object of Grenade was to cross the Roer at Linnich, Julich, and Dueren along a 17-mile front. After 3 a.m., U.S. infantrymen began crossing the still swollen river in small assault boats. Then army engineers started building footbridges and vehicular bridges, but ran into difficulties due to swift currents and enemy fire. Eventually, more and more soldiers crossed the Roer and established footholds on the east bank of the river. By nightfall, most of the objectives of the first day were obtained.
Crossing the Roer, wrote MacDonald, “had proven expensive in terms of bridging equipment and assault craft [but] had been relatively economical in what mattered most — men’s lives.” The Ninth Army suffered a little over 1,000 casualties, including 92 dead, in crossing the Roer. The next objective was the Rhine, which the Americans reached two weeks later.
Gen. Omar Bradley later called the Ninth Army’s attack across the Roer and subsequent move toward the Rhine “one of the most perfectly executed of the war.” The attack, he continued, “cleared thirty-four miles from the Roer to the Rhine ... capturing some 30,000 German troops.” The success of Operation Grenade and other Allied offensives in the west combined with the Russian juggernaut in the east, meant that the end of the war in Europe was in sight.