"The battle for the bridge is legendary"

Karl Busch


Karl Busch was enlisted as a helper at the anti-aircraft cannon at the Ludendorff-Bridge, which connected Remagen and Erpel. – During the surrender March 1945 the Erpel native was placed in the spotlight of world history.

Storming GIs, fighting German soldiers, hundreds of casualties. Whenever Karl Busch watches the Hollywood movie classic "The Bridge of Remagen" he has to smile: "It is a myth that a big battle took place at the bridge." Yet this myth has big staying power. The fact is that there was only a small number of deaths during the capture of the bridge on March 7, 1945. Diplomacy and not bullets decided the outcome. Karl Busch was 15 years at the time and key translator during the dramatic capitulation talks.

To this day two black towers remind us of the bridge that once connected Remagen and Erpel. It was here where the 15 year-old helper was placed in the spotlight of war history in 1945 for several hours.

It was by chance and because of his knowledge of the English language that the then high-school student became one of the main characters during these proceedings. It was due to several lucky circumstances and Busch's bravery that the occupation of the bridge took place without major casualties.

His live was influenced by the bridge near his home town Erpel from early on. The Busch family, who had been building contractors for generations, brought the bridge to life. "My father and grand father built the two towers on the Erpel side of the bridge" Busch remembers. Today he works as an engineer in St. Augustin. The bridge was commissioned in 1918 as part of the supply line for the west front during WW-I.

While the bridge was of no big importance between the wars it made its way into the "aim" of allied bombers in 1939 explains Busch. Just a little while later fate brought Busch and the bridge back together. He was drafted early in 1944 as an air force helper and received his post at the anti-aircraft cannon on one of the towers in August. Even so he could not prevent the bombings on Remagen and Erpel between December 28, 1944, and January 2, 1945. While the bridge remained mostly intact, almost half of the two villages was destroyed. The next one was a ground attack. In the spring of 1945 the intact bridge is of major importance for the advancing American troops.

The bridge is intact!

Busch knows about alternative plans as well: "Before crossing the river Rhine the whole right side was supposed to be leveled with bombs between Neuwied and Bonn-Beuel". For this the Americans anticipated thousands of casualties. It was quite a positive surprise for the advancing GIs when they heard from the reconnaissance aircraft about the sighting of the intact bridge of Remagen in the morning of March 7, 1945.

While the US troops change direction towards the river Rhine the Germans set up the blasting of the bridge.

Busch experienced the blasting while standing at the entrance of the 383 m long railroad tunnel, which connects the bridge tracks through the mountain, the "Erpeler Ley", with the tracks on the right side of the river. The bridge was lifted up a bit and fell back into its bearings. Busch assumes that too little explosives were the cause for the unsuccessful blasting.

By 1600 hours a small US combat unit was able to cross the bridge despite heavy artillery fire and secured both exits of the tunnel.

On March 7 the American troops capture the Ludendorff-Bridge and establish their first bridgehead on the right side of the river Rhine

The tunnel exit at the "concrete bridge" on the other side of the "Erpeler Ley" was the main location for the next hour and a half. The GIs took their posts outside the tunnel exit and, according to Busch, randomly shot into the tunnel. This was a highly dangerous situation, because there were not only the about 300 soldiers and civilians in the tunnel, with Busch's mother among them. "There were 4 train freight cars in the tunnel loaded with ammunition and aircraft fuel. A single hit would have cause a devastating explosion" says Busch.

One of Erpel's residents Willi Felten, one of Busch's acquaintances, tried to defuse the situation. He was killed by a shot in the stomach and is the only casualty Busch is aware of. Because of his good English skills a woman asks Busch to "go outside and bring Willi back in". Although Busch had no combatant training and could be shot right away he complied.

"Stop firing!"

While leaving the tunnel Busch remembers a war movie with René Deltgen. Continuously shouting "Stop firing!" he runs out of the tunnel. He was able to establish contact with the US troop leader Carl Timmerman. To Busch's surprise the talks quickly turn into capitulation negotiations. "When the 15 Americans heard that they were facing about 200 German soldier they became very nervous" Karl Busch remembers.

Observer: A GI watches the still intact bridge from the top of the "Erpeler Ley". On March 7, 1945, an aircraft pilot spotted the bridge while US troops were advancing towards the river Rhine

Despite "nerve-racking seconds" Busch defused the situation: Most of the people in the tunnel were civilians and "war-weary soldiers" he tells the GIs. They in turn tell him to get a German officer to them.

Back in the tunnel the German officers refuse to meet with the GIs. "They don't speak English" he explains.

Nobody thought about resistance during this situation. Finally, after several visits between the lines a German army captain walks over to the nervously waiting GIs with Busch on his side as the translator.

After the withdraw from the tunnel was negotiated Busch received a surprising compliment. "Well done" said Timmerman in perfect German. "He had German parents and wanted to test me" thinks Busch, who made it through the negotiations with "lots of fear". Not only avoid these negotiations many casualties, but the US troops were able to transport many troops and supplies across the river and according to Busch "able to end the war much quicker that way".

This point of view is supported by another main figure. General Dwight D. Eisenhower saw the capture of the bridge as "totally unanticipated. The final defeat of the enemy was within reach". Attacks by German SEALs and the German air force had been unsuccessful. "Pieces of V1 and V2 guided missiles were all over the place in Erpel".

"Never a hero"

However, on March 17 the bridge could no longer avoid its destiny. While US troops were trying to repair it, the bridge collapsed. Dozens of GIs were pulled to their death. A late effect of the blasting assumes Busch. "During the blasting attempt on March 7 the bridge was lifted out of its bearings. Bearings that guaranteed its flexibility". Even if only a few ruins remind the world of the iron giant, Busch cannot let go of the bridge to this day.

The bridge museum has been a focal point for US veterans for a long time. For the 40-year anniversary of the capture officials discovered Karl Busch as "the man of the hour". But Busch dismisses the honor: "I never thought of me as a hero. There were more important issues. Back then I took a cow's leg from the supply wagon for my family".

Source: General-Anzeiger Bonn March 1999, Text/Photo/Repros: Axel Vogel

The bridge collapsed on March 17, after German blasting attempts days before caused heavy damage. Many US soldiers died in the collapse