Ernst-Dieter Bernhard, a pilot in Germany's air force, or Luftwaffe, flies one of the deadliest fighter planes of World War II, the Messerschmitt Bf 109. In May of 1945, he is commissioned to destroy the last bridge left standing over the Rhine River. The Battle of Remagen would soon become one of the turning points of World War II, allowing the Allies to advance towards Berlin. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- Bf 109
KATE SNOW, reporting:
Allied forces led by the United States and Great Britain have broken through most Nazi defenses in Europe. The Allies advance rapidly toward Berlin to destroy Adolph Hitler’s military and put an end to World War II.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: The full horror of war returns to Germany.
SNOW: Lieutenant Ernst-Dieter Bernhard is a fighter pilot in the Luftwaffe, Germany's Air Force.
ERNST-DIETER BERNHARD (Pilot, German Air Force): Our optimism was already long gone. It very quickly became clear that we wouldn’t be able to stay the course much longer.
SNOW: In a last ditch effort to turn the tide, Germany destroys its own bridges over the Rhine River. This creates a 700-mile-long natural barrier that brings U.S. ground troops and supply convoys to a standstill. American forces are able to locate and capture the last bridge left standing, the Ludendorf Bridge in the town of Remagen.
BERNHARD: The Bridge at Remagen hadn’t been blown up. Something misfired there somehow.
SNOW: Hitler orders the bridge at Remagen to be destroyed at all costs. German forces throw every bit of weaponry in their arsenal at it, including deadly fighter planes. One of these aircraft assigned to attack the bridge is the Messerschmitt Bf 109, which Bernhard pilots on his daring mission over the Rhine.
BERNHARD: We all had a bomb strapped under the bird, and were supposed to fly there to destroy the bridge.
SNOW: Bernhard’s bird, the Bf 109, is the pride of the Luftwaffe. Since its introduction in 1937, it has fought in nearly every major German engagement of the war, from the invasion of Poland, to the Battle of Britain, to the assault on Russia.
Dr. REBECCA GRANT (Military Aviation Expert): The Bf 109 was designed to be different from the start. It was a truly modern airplane.
SNOW: Designed with a sleek, lightweight, all-metal structure, the Bf 109 can slice through the air at high speeds. And it boasts an enormous amount of fire power. In addition to its wing-mounted guns, it has a 20 millimeter cannon built right through the center of the engine and propeller shaft.
Dr. GRANT: The Bf 109 was really a force to be reckoned with. In German hands it shot down more aircraft than any other fighter of World War II.
SNOW: One of the Bf 109’s most modern features is its body, or fuselage. Many airplanes at the time are built around a steel or wood frame for support, but the Bf 109 uses what is called a monocoque structure.
Dr. GRANT: The monocoque design meant that the weight and stress was carried by the shape, not by an internal frame.
SNOW: A monocoque structure works like an egg, with the load of the structure carried by its exterior shell. By eliminating the need for interior support, the Bf 109 is lighter, faster and more stable in the air. But like an egg, the monocoque, structure is more fragile and anti-aircraft fire can easily puncture it, leaving Bernhard vulnerable during his mission atRemagen’s bridge.
BERNHARD: That’s simply the drawback when you have to fly low-altitude attacks with the 109 or such aircraft, which don’t have any armor plating.
SNOW: Because of this intense artillery barrage from the Americans, Bernhardis unable to fly close enough to the bridge to score a direct hit.
BERNHARD: I thought it was a suicide mission to fly there. We did, but I don’t think it did much more than damage the water.
SNOW: Days later, Bernhard encounters an even closer call, when faced with an onslaught of American fighter planes.
BERNHARD: They really got me. The plane started burning right away, and well, I ejected much too early. Then I hung over the Rhine. I got lucky, came down 20 meters up the bank.
SNOW: Bernhard survives the parachute jump from his plane, and lands back behind German lines. His mission fails, but he is grateful to make it out alive.
BERNHARD: Yes, I won’t forget that. I’d been hit, but I was still in one piece.
SNOW: The Allies' defense of the bridge at Remagen proves to be a huge success. American commanders claim it as a crucial step during their final push towards Berlin, and ultimately, victory in Europe.
The tanks, artillery, ships and trucks churned out by the arsenal of democracy would be useful only if brave men could be found to take them into harm’s way. In this respect, the United States proved to be exceptionally fruitful.
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