Visiting battlefields: The Bridge of Remagen – a field trip
Posted by Denny Koch on July 5, 2010
Andreas and I used a prolonged weekend to visit the Bridge of Remagen which is located in western Germany, about 50 km (=31 miles) south of Cologne in the Federal State of Rhineland-Palatinate. The Bridge across the Rhine river was destroyed in World War II on March 17th, 1945 after 10 days of heavy fighting between German and US troops.
After the destruction, the Ludendorff Bridge was never rebuilt but remained ruined as a memorial. Today, the bridge towers at Remagen (on the left bank of the Rhine) house a famous war museum, telling the story of the Remagen bridge. On the opposite bank, high above the medieval town Erpel, the volcanic basaltic rock “Erpeler Ley” offers a great overview of the Rhine valley, the bridge and the Eifel region. This mountain was called “Flak Hill” by the advancing US forces due to its strategic position and flak emplacements.
We went to Remagen by train. The town was founded by the Romans 2000 years ago (celtic name: Rigomagos, latin: Rigomagus). First, we visited the town and went to the tourist information. Remagen was partly destroyed during the War, so the town consists of the typical ugly mix of medieval townhouses and modern eyesores, mainly built in the 50s, supplemented by modern ambitious and less ambitious buildings.
Nevertheless, there are some places of interest besides the bridge, such as a Roman museum, the infamous POW camp “Golden Mile”, and the Apollinaris Abbey located on an old Roman sanctuary. This church, located on the Apollinaris hill, was unaffected by the war.
After a short stroll through Remagen we went down to the Rhine promenade. The weather was good, mostly sunny, sometimes cloudy but no rain. The remains of the Ludendorff bridge are widely visible because the black towers are quite high. The bridge is a famous tourist feature and quite popular among US and British tourists as well as other foreign and German tourists visiting the Rhine valley.
The museum opens at 10 a.m. It was about this time when we reached the bridge and we were already greeted by a large group of German cyclists, very noisy and uninterested Dutch pupils and some single visitors from abroad. The museum is maintained by honorary volunteers and the entry fee is quite moderate – 1 Euro for students and 3,50 Euro for adults. The main source of revenue is the selling of small pieces of the bridge stones, sealed in resin together with a certificate of authenticity. These pieces are quite popular, especially among US veterans and as a souvenir by US tourists.
In 2003, a completely new exhibition was set up in the old bridge towers and we were surprised how large the museum really was. A loop road leads through the 3 levels of both bridge towers. Each floor deals with a specific topic related to the bridge – the German guards, the US 9th Armored division, German und US newspaper reports during the war concerning the fighting at the Rhine, the construction of the bridge during WW I, the destruction of the bridge, and the enormous prisoner-of-war-camp “The Golden Mile” the US Army had set up in Remagen and Sinzig with drawings, artefacts and photographs from the prisoners.
In addition, the museum presents letters, photos and gifts which it received from US veterans over the past few years. Veteran meetings between US and German veterans or the former prisoners at the Golden Mile are held at the Bridge.
Here are some impressions from the museum:
Besides the exhibits (including some rare stuff such as a V2 fragment), photos, authentic maps and various equipment, the museum contains some multimedia panels where visitors can watch short documentations, some with previously unrevealed recordings or taken from the newsreels, about the bridge, the fightings in the entire Rhine region, or about Remagen during the War, an interview with mayor Peter Kürten who had the idea of creating this museum. The films are available in German and English. As a matter of fact, the entire museum is bilingual, thus allowing the anglophone visitors to benefit from the many interesting exhibits as well.
We spent some hours in the museum (ignoring the noisy and annoying Dutch pupils) before returning to the Rhine promenade. Next, we wanted to take a look at the bridge from the German defender’s position by crossing the Rhine with a ferry and climbing the Erpeler Ley – Flak Hill. A small ferry crosses the Rhine every 30 minutes and we took it to reach Erpel.
In contrast to Remagen, Erpel was never destroyed in the war. It is a very small medieval village with typical half-timbered houses and narrow alleys. Erpel is famous for a gothic church, constructed on the remains of an even older church from the 10th century. We didn’t know much about Erpel when we arrived there, but we were positively surprised by the medieval authenticity.
The Erpeler Ley is about 200 metres high and can be climbed by a small steep path in the woods which is signposted in an exemplary fashion.
Because of the famous overview, the Ley is a popular point of interest for Rhine tourists who can reach the plateau on top of the rock by bus or car as well. We decided to walk in order to experience the battlefield feeling of the German defenders who were entrenched on the hill and in the woods and of the US troops who eventually captured the hill. We climbed for about one hour, meeting only few wanderers in the woods.
The high plateau is marked by a cross on the summit of the mountain with some banks for resting. In addition, there is a small restaurant for hungry and thirsty tourists (especially those arriving by bus ;).
We enjoyed the view from the hilltop over Remagen, the Rhine and even the mountainous Eifel region far in the Southwest.
The overview over the bridge was excellent so we instantly understood why it was chosen as a flak position to protect the railway bridge of Remagen.
The fact that the Germans were heavily scattered in March 1945, many of them on the run and on their way to inner Germany, together with heavy allied air attacks, provided for relatively small resistance. Only a few flak positions, some even operated by Hitler youth, were left when the 9th Armored Division reached the bridge.
The vast area of the former infamous POW camp Golden Mile between Remagen and Sinzig could be estimated from the hilltop as well – 260,000 German prisoners (men as well as women) were held there in April 1945 by US forces. There were no housings, so the prisoners were forced to dig ground holes where they slept in shifts, covered by canvas to protect themselves from the constant downpour. Many of them died in this camp due to the inadequate supply situation and rapidly spreading diseases.
Today, a Peace Chapel housing a Black Madonna reminds of this place. The Golden Mile was officially acknowledged as a memorial in 2002 when the museum was expanded for a section dealing with this aspect of the war. When the chapel was opened in 1987, many former prisoners, some of them so traumatized that they avoided Remagen since the war, came together here. Many US tourists visit the chapel as well.
After enjoying the view, we visited a memorial located on the plateau. It reminds of the zeppelin Hindenburg. Then we went back to Erpel where we had to learn that the ferry captain was having his lunch break. We returned to the village, visited the old church, the baroque town hall and then waited at the Rhine bank for our ferry back to Remagen, watching the ships passing by.
Back in Remagen, we followed the pilgrim path up to the Apollinaris hill which houses a monastry with Dutch monks and nuns today. The pilgrim path leads along a quite modern Way of the Cross and small chapels up to the hilltop.
Here, the huge abbey is located on an old Roman sacred place. More steps lead up to an even higher spot with a huge statue of the Saint Francis. There were some rites going on in the church, so we couldn’t move around and take pictures.
After spending an entire day in Remagen and Erpel, we concluded the day in a small typical German restaurant with local beer and Rhineland cuisine.
The Ludendorff Bridge definitely is worth a trip. The museum is very interesting, the exposition is accurate and the honorary volunteers tend to it carefully and with enthusiasm. I think the idea of selling little pieces of the bridge is great (you don’t have to be afraid that the bridge towers are lost someday; the pieces are taken from the bridge itself which fell into the Rhine in 1945), especially for veterans who fought there.
Some of the exposits are really rare, for example the V2 pieces, the many personal photographs, the original maps, the newspapers and field books, passports and improvised carved objects from the prisoner camp. You can spend some hours climbing the bridge towers, enjoying the view over the Rhine from various windows and reading and studying all the stuff presented in the various rooms.
A ferry trip over the Rhine is great as well and the view from Flak Hill should not be missed if you visit the bridge.
For more information (available in German, English, French, and Dutch), visit the official Remagen bridge website at: www.bruecke-remagen.de.