Night of 23 March 1945, Company E and C of the 17th Armored Engineer Battalion, part of 2d Armored Division, the constructed treadway rafts to prepare of the crossing of the Rhine River about five kilometers south of Wesel. Bridge construction started at 9:45am and by 4:00pm the first truck crossed the floating Pontoon bridge. Over 1152 feet of M2 treadway and 93 pneumatic floats were used in just six hours and fifteen minute construction project, record setting for the size of the bridge. It took twenty five 2 half tons GMC CCKW trucks to transport the bridge parts to the construction site, part of the Red Ball Express. Three Allied formations made the initial assault: the British XXX and XII Corps and the U.S. XVI Corps. One unit, the British 79th Armoured Division — under Major-General Percy Hobart — had been at the front of the Normandy landings and provided invaluable help in subsequent operations with specially adapted armoured vehicles (referred to as Hobart's Funnies). One "funny" was the "Buffalo" operated by the 4th Royal Tank Regiment under the command of Lt. Col (later Lt. Gen) Alan Jolly, an armed and armored amphibious tracked personnel or cargo transporter able to cross soft and flooded ground. These were the transports for the spearhead infantry.
The first part of Plunder was initiated by the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division, led by the 7th Black Watch at 21:00 on 23 March, near Rees, followed by the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. At 02:00 on 24 March, the 15th (Scottish) Division landed between Wesel and Rees. At first, there was no opposition, but later they ran into determined resistance from machine-gun nests. The British 1st Commando Brigade entered Wesel.
The U.S. 30th Division landed south of Wesel. The local resistance had been broken by artillery and air bombardment. Subsequently, the 79th Division also landed. U.S. casualties were minimal. German resistance to the Scottish landings continued with some effect, and there were armoured counter-attacks. Landings continued, however, including tanks and other heavy equipment. The U.S. forces had a bridge across by the evening of 24 March.
Operation Varsity started at 10:00 on 24 March, to disrupt enemy communications. Despite heavy resistance to the airdrops and afterward, the airborne troops made progress and repelled counterattacks. The hard lessons of Operation Market Garden were applied. In the afternoon, 15th Scottish Division linked up with both airborne divisions.
Fierce German resistance continued around Bienen, north of Rees, where the entire 9th Canadian Brigade was needed to relieve the Black Watch. The bridgehead was firmly established, however, and Allied advantages in numbers and equipment were applied. By 27 March, the bridgehead was wide and deep.
Impact on German forces and command
The Allied operation was opposed by the German 1st Parachute Army, commanded by General Alfred Schlemm, a part of Army Group H. Although this formation was considered to be the most effective German force in the area, it was severely depleted from its previous action in the Reichswald (Battle of the Reichswald). Unable to withstand Allied pressure, the 1st Parachute Army withdrew northeast toward Hamburg and Bremen, leaving a gap between it and the German 15th Army in the Ruhr.
Joseph Goebbels was well aware of Plunder′s potential impact from the beginning. On 24 March, he began his diary entry with, "The situation in the West has entered an extraordinarily critical, ostensibly almost deadly, phase." He went on to note the crossing of the Rhine on a broad front, and foresaw Allied attempts to encircle the Ruhr industrial heartland.
On 27 March, command of the 1st Parachute Army was passed to General Günther Blumentritt, because Schlemm had been wounded. Blumentritt and his superior, Generaloberst (Colonel General) Johannes Blaskowitz, both recognised that the situation was lost. The army′s front was incomplete, there were no reserves, weak artillery, no air support and few tanks. Communications were weak, indeed, one corps was never contacted. The reinforcements were so poor that the generals decided against using them, to avoid needless casualties.
Although Blumentritt had strict orders from Supreme Command to hold and fight, from 1 April, he managed a withdrawal with minimal casualties, eventually withdrawing beyond the Dortmund-Ems Canal to the Teutoburg Forest. Within a week of the start of Plunder, the Allies had taken 30,000 prisoners of war north of the Ruhr.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was present at Field Marshal Montgomery′s headquarters near Venlo on the eve of Plunder (23 March). Subsequently, Churchill and Montgomery watched the Varsity air landings on 24 March.
The next day, 25 March, Churchill and Montgomery visited General Dwight D. Eisenhower′s headquarters. After lunch and a briefing, the party went to a sandbagged house overlooking the Rhine and a quiet, undefended stretch of the German-held riverbank. After Eisenhower′s departure, Churchill, Montgomery, and a party of U.S. commanders and armed guards commandeered a river launch and landed for 30 minutes in enemy territory, without challenge. They next visited the destroyed railway bridge at Wesel, departing when German artillery appeared to target them.
Military rivalries Although the operation was successful, it added to the dislike most U.S. generals had of Montgomery. It also showed the downside of Montgomery′s very careful approach toward major operations. Montgomery had angered the U.S. commanders repeatedly in operations in Sicily, Normandy and after the Battle of the Bulge. His reputation had further suffered from the failure of Operation Market Garden and his inability to open Antwerp to shipping until November 1944.
The Plunder crossings in the third week of March were planned as the primary assault across the Rhine, but at the Malta Conference in early February 1945, Eisenhower added more crossings to the south of the Ruhr. On 7 March, U.S. troops unexpectedly captured the Ludendorff Bridge across the Rhine during the Battle of Remagen. Within the next 10 days six divisions and 25,000 troops established a bridgehead on the eastern side of the Rhine, well in advance of Montgomery's plan. General George S. Patton—a bitter critic of Montgomery—sent his Third Army across the Main river, opposite Oppenheim, to form a bridgehead. News of this was released "at a time calculated to take some of the luster from the news of Montgomery′s crossing."
Patton made the point that Montgomery's preparations were, in his view, unnecessarily cautious and he demonstrated that the Germans could be "bounced", if caught before they had time to prepare defences. While the Allies prepared, XLVII Panzer Corps had rested, re-equipped and absorbed reinforcements in relative safety in the Netherlands. Once needed, they were a fresh formation to oppose the bridgehead. At Bienen and elsewhere, the Anglo-Canadians faced German troops in prepared positions.
The large airborne assault (Operation Varsity) has been criticised as unnecessary and costly in terms of casualties and aircraft lost. Montgomery annoyed Americans by his initial proposal to use U.S. divisions, under his command.
Counter-arguments are that German reserves had been drawn south to seal-off the unexpected American bridgehead Remagen and they would otherwise have been expected to oppose Plunder. The marshy terrain and width of the Rhine at Wesel were serious impediments that required specialised resources. At Remagen, the bridge aided exploitation, and at Oppenheim, Patton was unopposed because the area was isolated from strategic objectives by distance and by the Main river.