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Page Three

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  The Russians explained that the capture of Berlin was to be a "secondary effort". Yet, prior to April, 1945, the Russians had been marshalling their forces along the east bank of the Oder River, some 33 miles east of Berlin. The number of troops would grow to 1,200,000 personnel, including the tremendous numbers of tanks, over 22,000 artillery pieces, and other related equipment, before they began their assault on April 16, 1945, a month earlier than they had told Eisenhower. Additionally, from the Oder River westward to Berlin, the geography favored the Russians, in that it was dry and flat. At the time the Russians began their assault on Berlin, the Americans, who had reached the Elbe River on April 11th, at Magdeburg, only 50 miles from Berlin, had only 50,000 troops available for the push on Berlin. However, the word not to cross the Elbe River, except for short (five-mile) patrols did not seem to filter down to the American ground forces, or seemed to have been ignored. By April 17, the U.S. 2nd Armored ("Hell On Wheels") Division's 17th Armored Engineered Battalion constructed a bridge across the Elbe River at Magdeburg against increasing German resistance, including the Luftwaffe. The 2nd Armored had covered over 200 miles, from the Rhine River, in only 14 days. The same day, the U.S. 30th (Old Hickory) and 83rd (Thunderbolt) Infantry Divisions also crossed the Elbe River, just 6 miles south of Magdeburg at Barby, again meeting stiffening resistance. The 234th and 295th Engineer Combat Battalions, supported by the 992nd Engineer Treadway Bridge Company, built two bridges used by the two divisions. The Germans tried everything, including frogmen, to destroy the bridges, but were unsuccessful. Due to an inability to get heavy armored equipment across, the 2nd Armored Division's bridgehead at Magdeburg was lost, but Barby held. The 2nd Armored moved to Barby, out of the range of the German artillery, and crossed the Elbe. Just two days later, the divisions received word that there was to be no drive to Berlin and no advance beyond the Elbe. (3) The word was not heeded. On April 25th, patrol elements led by Lieutenant William D. Robertson of the U.S. 273rd Infantry Regiment, 69th Infantry Division, crossed the Elbe River at Torgau and met Russian troops in the first American-Russian linkup. On April 30th, U.S. troops of the 113th Cavalry Group met Russian forces at Zerbst, east of Barby. Additionally, contact was made by the U.S. 121st Infantry regiment, 8th Infantry Division, at Apollensdorf, also on April 30th. Montgomery, dilatory as ever, was making particularly slow progress in his drive to the Baltic. Eisenhower, in an effort to speed him, gave him the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps. A series of meetings on April 22nd and 23rd, between Montgomery and Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgeway, the commander of the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps, helped speed up Montgomery's elaborately planned and defined Elbe River crossings. Eisenhower was concerned that the Russians may take Berlin, and keep right on going through to Denmark. Ridgeway's first contribution was determining which U.S. Army units were available. He chose the crack 82nd Airborne Division, which already had 10 river assault crossings in the European theater. Ridgeway also chose General Bryant Moore's 8th Infantry Division, which had impressed Ridgeway with its' performance in the Ruhr Valley earlier. The battle-tested 7th Armored Division, commanded by General Robert Hasbrouck, which had fought so well with the 82nd Airborne in the "Battle of the Bulge", was also selected for the effort. The veteran British 6th Airborne Division, commanded by General Eric Bols, rounded out the Allied assault forces, and already had been staging near Lauenberg, where Montgomery had been planning to initiate the river crossings. The 15th Scottish Division had attacked north and east across the river on April 29th, meeting light to moderate opposition, and secured a bridgehead about 5 miles wide and 8 miles deep by the end of the day. Ridgeway, also concerned with Montgomery's legendary planning, surveyed an area north of Lauenberg, at Bleckede-Wrestedt. Ridgeway, who personally reconnoitered the west bank, observed that the Germans were willing to resist, but were not organized to defend against a river crossing. What were the remnants of German Army Group Vistula, commanded by General Der Panzertruppen Baron Hasso von Mantuffel, was the only organized defense in this area. The rest of the German defenses were Volksturm. Ridgeway also decided that the river crossings should proceed immediately, before the Germans were able to mount a river defense. Ridgeway's main problem was that the 82nd Airborne Division's engineers were not with the division. Two engineer groups, the veteran 1143rd and the 1130th, were quickly brought up. Each engineer group consisted of at least four engineer battalions. The 1143rd was commanded by General Donald Phelan, and the 1130th by General James Green. Continued  
   
   
   
   
   
   
 

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