Rescue at Remagen
(Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the Spring 2004 edition of the American Airborne Association’s Airborne Quarterly, pilot, Gerald "Bud" Berry of the 439th Troop carrier Group sent more information on this mission after the article was submitted. Bud piloted the C-47 that towed the first glider, piloted by Howard cloud. In researching the mission Bud Berry contacted Flight Nurse Suella Bernard Delp for her recollections of the mission and they differ in a couple of aspects from those provided by Howard Cloud. I include this and other material provided by Bud Berry in the interest of a more complete account of this historic mission. The differing personal recollections of the mission, underscores, the difficulty of gathering the facts of an event nearly sixty years after it occurred. There is another account of the mission in Gerard Devlin’s book, Silent Wings, yet based on the documents provided by Howard Cloud and Gerald Berry it appears that Devlin’s account is largely inaccurate. Included here are previously unpublished photos of the mission from the collection of Howard Cloud, and an excellent photo of Berry pulling a glider pick-up at Normandy from Bud Berry’s collection.)
The book, Bridge at Remagen, by former Army historian Ken Hechler is one of the most dramatic accounts of battle in WWII. The Ludendorff Bridge, the last intact bridge across the Rhine River into Germany was the scene of an epic struggle between American forces that captured it and German forces bent on its destruction. Though the bridge was captured intact, shell damaged and overloaded it collapsed on March 17, 1945 killing 28 American soldiers who were attempting to reinforce its structure. With the collapse of the bridge traffic to the other side of the Rhine was restricted to just a few pontoon bridges that had been constructed close by. The area, on the eastern side of the Rhine River was an important first foothold for the final drive into the heartland of Germany. It was known as the Remagen Bridgehead. On March 22, 1945 as the Allies readied for OPERATION VARSITY, their massive airborne assault into Germany, one more drama unfolded at the bridgehead, the rescue at Remagen.
Major Howard H. Cloud was "old" Army, having enlisted in the National Guard in 1937. By March 1945 Cloud was an experienced hand who had seen his share of combat. In September 1940 Howard Cloud was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant and called to active duty. When a call for volunteers for the new glider pilot program went out in 1942 Cloud signed up and upon completion of his training was assigned to the 440th TCG (Troop Carrier Group) when the group formed in mid 1943. Cloud participated in the Normandy Invasion and quickly rose in the ranks to fly the lead glider for the 440th in the Invasion of Southern France, OPERATION DRAGOON. In September 1944 Cloud again led the 440th glider assault in the spearhead into Holland, OPERATION MARKET GARDEN. Cloud was wounded in action in Holland, his glider hit by a round from a deadly German 88-mm. gun and he was evacuated to Fulbeck, England. After recovering from his wounds now Major, Cloud was re-assigned to 9th TCC (Troop Carrier Command) Headquarters as Command Glider Pilot for the European Theater.
The collapse of the Ludendorf Bridge on March 17, 1945 immediately put a strain on the flow of traffic to and from the battlefield as the few pontoon bridges thrown up at the bridgehead were hard pressed to handle the traffic of Bradley’s 1st Army. Soon the critically wounded were piling up at the bridgehead as medical evacuations slowed. The most severely wounded required immediate medical attention at larger hospitals in the rear areas in France. Even under good conditions, evacuation by field ambulances to these hospitals could take nearly four hours and there were no landing strips in the area that could accommodate evacuation by C-47. As the situation worsened the 1st Army looked to 9th TCC for a solution.
Pick-ups of gliders from the battlefield by the "snatch" method had been in practice and used by troop carrier units in the European Theater since Normandy when the technique was employed to recover serviceable gliders where C-47s could not land. A ground crew set up a pick-up station for the glider and a low flying C-47 specially equipped with the pick-up unit would swoop in low trailing an arm with a hook. The hook was connected to a steel cable that passed through the arm and wound around a drum inside the pick-up mechanism mounted in the aircraft. Pay out of the cable was controlled by a multiple disc brake in the drum unit. As the hook connected with a glider tow loop suspended from the pick-up station, shock to the glider was controlled through the pick-up mechanism brake and the glider became airborne as the cable played out.
At 9th TCC headquarters chief surgeon Lieutenant Colonel Robert Burquist was aware that pick-up of the wounded by this technique had already been demonstrated in the China, Burma, India Theater. Recognizing the technique was tailor made for the deteriorating situation at Remagen, he ordered two gliders to be converted for ambulance service. There was some difficulty getting the special C-47s needed for the unusual mission. ETO (European Theater of Operations), troop carrier groups had a normal compliment of two "snatch" equipped C-47s per group. Most of these specially fitted C-47′s were slated for regular paratroop operations as 9th TCC scrambled to gather every available C-47 in theater to drop paratroopers in the largest airborne assault of the war, OPERATION VARSITY. Two of the planes were finally detailed for Burquist’s mission, one from the 439th TCG and another from the 441st TCG.
Interior view of one of the Remagen CG-4A glider ambulances. Photo courtesy of Howard Cloud.