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15 October 2014
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World War II: The River Elbe Crossing

by Jenni Waugh

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Contributed by 
Jenni Waugh
People in story: 
Ronald John Truscott
Location of story: 
River Elbe, Germany
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 October 2005

In Europe, in August 1945, the Allied Armies had pushed the German Army to the east bank of the river Elbe. It was apparent to all, that Germany was losing the war. Germany sued for peace but on their terms. The Allied Commanders were having none of it and demanded unconditional surrender, as was decided by the heads of the the Governments of Great Britain and America. A meeting was held between the warring participants and a temporary cease fire was initiated.

At about that time the British forces had reached the west bank of the river Elbe, in Germany. This lull in hostilities gave both sides of the conflict time to rest and regroup. The Germans were proving obdurate and, therefore, the Allied High Command gave the orders to resume hostilities. Due to the circumstances that prevailed the Elbe river crossing was one of the most difficult river crossings we had experienced, due mainly to the German resistance, the fact that we were fighting on German soil and the easing of constant pressure and the lack of the surprise element.

The Germans were waiting for us. They were defending their Fatherland. And make no mistake the Germans were good fighting soldiers. It was decided that the river would be crossed regardless. In order to do so, stormboats were lowered into the water, at 4am whilst it was still dark. Each stormboat was embarked with 16 infantrymen, engines switched on and piloted across the flowing river current in order for the men to gain a foothold on the far bank and secure the ground.

The boats were fired upon but as it was still dark and the boats travelled at such a speed, with some dodging and weaving very few of the men were injured. I had a boat that could idle at low speed and I located myself in the centre of the river in order for me to control the flow of the boats and to pick up casualties which I did. The Allied infantry men managed to secure a bridgehead on the far bank and proceeded to get a foothold inland so that the enemy small arms fire ceased, which was a relief to us all, particularly the sappers who had to stay on the river to complete their work. Constant exposure to enemy action can take its toil on exhausted soldiers, however there was a job to be done and the men got stuck in.

Apart from ferrying the assault forces across the river, the sappers had to ferry the injured back, eventually to be taken to the first-aid post. Although the small arms fire by now had ceased the Germans rained mortar shells on the river crossing. As the banks of the river was made of shingle the mortar shells falling threw up shingle pieces which was just a deadly as the shrapnel from the bombs.

As the day wore on, more groun2d was secured on the east side I of the river Elbe, so the mortar attacks then ceased. By mid morning quite a number of troops had crossed and we sappers were preparing to build a bridge over the river. It was estimated that with a thousand foot wide river it would take us about fifteen hours to complete. As we were taking a break the Germans shelled our crossing.

Once again we took shelter as best one could. My favourite place was in the river regardless of how wet I got. The shelling eventually ceased and we started to erect the bridge. A Bailey bridge is a sectional bridge and is easy to assemble. Very heavy sections that had to be manhandled. The day wore on and we took a well earned lunch-break and while we were eating our compo rations as they were called, the Germans dived bombed the crossing point. Each German Stuka aeroplane carried one bomb, each bomb had a siren attached, to add terror to the destruction it caused.

Eventually the dive bombing ceased and we completed the erection of the bridge including the floating sections, each safely anchored. On a more personal note, whilst we were stormboating the infantry men across the river I met their Major in passing. He actually thanked me for the efficiency of the sapper operation of getting his men over the river. Under the severe conditions that prevailed I appreciated his remark and passed it on to my men.

I next saw him being carried to the first-aid tent, he had been wounded. I felt so sorry for him that I rushed to help carry his stretcher. He rebuked me by saying that I was better employed controlling the crossing than helping him. There is a moral there but for the life of me I do not know what it is.

The river Elbe crossing had all the elements of warfare parcelled into one short but dangerous episode. From arms fire to mortar attacks to shelling and eventually dive bombing. Nevertheless, the Allied armies pushed into German territory. I suppose it was the last desperate attempt by the Germans to avoid defeat. Great credit must be given to those such as the Royal Engineers who had to continue to carry out their duties at a location where critical events were taking place. It was one of the last great battles of the war. A springboard for the liberation of the enslaved people of Europe.

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Message 1 - World War II: The River Elbe Crossing

Posted on: 19 October 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Mr Truscott

I am sorry, but the historical background setting, which you give to your otherwise very interesting account of the crossing of the Elbe, is completely wrong.

You state that "In Europe, in August 1945, the Allied Armies had pushed the German Army to the east bank of the river Elbe. ... Germany sued for peace but on their terms. The Allied Commanders were having none of it and demanded unconditional surrender, as was decided by the heads of the the Governments of Great Britain and America. A meeting was held between the warring participants and a temporary cease fire was initiated."

First, the war ended in Europe on 8 May 1945; the Germans capitulated on 7 May and 8 May was declared VE Day. Secondly, Germany never at any time sued for peace on any terms. Germany obstinately, and beyond all reason, battled on to the bitter end after all hope was lost. Thirdly, unconditional surrender was the agreed policy of all three major allies, not just Britain and America. There was no question of Germany surrendering to the west and to continue fighting in the east. Lastly, a meeting between the warring sides was never arranged and no temporary cease fire was ever implemented. In Hitler's eyes, even at the very last hour, this would have been regarded as treason punishable by summary execution. As late as April 1945, Hitler had Himmler stripped of all offices and condemned to death in absentia on the mere report that he had put out tentative peace feelers.

As for the River Elbe that was the agreed boundary between the Allies and the Soviets. It was chosen specifically because it is easily distinguishable both on the ground and from the air. Torgau, on the River Elbe, is the spot where Americans of the 1st US Army met Russians of the 5th Guard on 25 April 1945. Some American troops did throw a bridgehead over the Elbe shortly before that, but they were immediately ordered to pull back so as not to clash in any way with the rapidly advancing Red Army.

The only exception to the ban on crossing the Elbe in Germany was in the very extreme north were the British were allowed to advance to Lübeck on the Baltic. Montgomery ordered the assault crossing of the Elbe to be made on the night of 28/29 April and it was crossed on the 29th, just below Lauenburg.

According to the official history "At two o'clock in the morning, on completion of strong artillery bombardment, one brigade of the 15th (Scottish) Division and a Commando brigade assaulted across the river in Buffaloes and stormboats, supported by D.D. tanks. Two brigades followed up, rafts were built, ferries were established and the Royal Engineers began building bridges, the first opened that night. Close support had been given throughout these operations by the tactical air forces and 14 enemy aircraft were destroyed when weather conditions enabled the Luftwaffe to break cloud and attack during brief periods" ('Victory in the West', Volume 2, page 327). These were undoubtedly the Stukas you refer to. They were obsolete by then, but the Germans were throwing in everything they had left.

Kind regards,

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