The legendary Rhine Valley is today a fascinating operations area for hundreds of American sailors. These mariners, serving more than 300 miles from the nearest salt water, are members of the United States Navy’s most unusual flotillas — the Rhine River Patrol
Primarily a tactical arm, the patrol is responsible for the security of the United States Zone of Germany along the Rhine and for water communications of United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces. Its mission is to control river traffic from Lauterbourg in the south to Lorch, about 100 miles north. Lauterbourg, the upstream terminus, lies at the border of the French Zone and at the head of the Black Forest. Lorch, deep in the heart of the castle country downstream, is close to the famed Rock of Lorelei and 35 miles from Coblenz, headquarters of American occupation forces after World War I.
The Rhine is one of the world’s busiest inland waterways. It is estimated that about 88,000,000 tons of cargo will move up and down the river during the year, placing its tonnage well above that of the Mississippi. The biggest single item of commerce is coal from the Ruhr Valley. Some 28,000,000 tons will be shipped this year.
It is the job of the patrol to check all commercial vessels and log them as to type and nationality. Over 8,000 were recorded in 1952. At the same time, the patrol notes and reports changes in currents, channels and river depths. Our sailors have learned that there are no short cuts to mastering river navigation. High water from the snowy Alps frequently causes trouble. The swift, changing currents gouge and alter the underwater topography, leaving new channels which must be designated on navigation charts.
Shorelines are troublesome too. They have been lined with paving stones placed thereby the Germans to protect the land from washing away in the high water. To avoid damage, landing craft must be handled carefully when loading or unloading.
Besides controlling commercial traffic along the American sector of the Rhine, the patrol protects bridges and other structures, provides supplementary ferry service, carries on salvage operations and fire control support. During United States-Allied field exercises, the patrol ferries ground troops and material across the Rhine, maintains floating guards at bridges, and occasionally carries out simulated demolitions as part of its training duties. The Rhine is not a new sphere for the Navy. During World War II assault and landing vessels with navy crews were hauled overland from Channel ports on the Atlantic and launched from the west bank of the Rhine. After the war the Navy withdrew and did not return until 1948. In December of that year the Rhine River Patrol was established.
Today the patrol has three operating sections. Headquarters and Unit “S” are at Schierstein, a harbor community close to Wiesbaden. The second, Unit “M”, is based at Sandhofen, near Mannheim. The third, Unit “K” is at Karlsruhe near the southern terminus.
Several types of craft are used. Newest and fastest are the 80-foot, twin-screw speedsters called PR’s, (Patrol, River). By degrees these are replacing the old German torpedo-retriever boats (torpedo-fangboot) which the patrol has been using. With a top speed of 27 knots, the new silvergray craft were built in German shipyards to United States Navy specifications. Plans called for an underside exhaust and no stack, but the German builders were more than skeptical. “They were amazed,” one of our Navy men recalls. “They didn’t think it could be done because they had never done it before. But we told them that in America. vessels with underside exhausts and no stacks are common. We finally got the boats without the stacks.”
Workhorses of the patrol are the LCU’s (Landing Craft, Utility), formerly British craft, which are used chiefly for ferrying operations. They can transport five heavy tanks or 250 tons of cargo. During 7th Army field exercises the LCUs ferry vehicles and troops across the river.
Two other types of smaller ferrying craft are in use. The LCM (Landing Craft, Medium) can carry one medium tank or about 30 tons. Slightly larger than the LCMs are the LCM-RR (Rhine River), which were constructed in Germany under American Navy direction. Built to meet the peculiar requirements of the Rhine River shoreline, the LCM-RRs can carry one heavy tank or 60 tons of cargo.
Ferrying operations keep the patrol busy. During Army and Air Force training exercises, the major loads are bulldozers, trucks, bridge-building equipment, and supplies. Alled vehicles, too, are accommodated. In one recent operation the patrol shuttled a large number of French Army tanks and trucks across the waterway.
Special ferrying tasks are handled by an awkward looking craft known as the Siebel Ferry. Built by the Germans (in WWII) to carry tanks on the Mediterranean and on Italian rivers, they are self-propelled rafts with parallel pontoons, planked decks and retractable loading ramps on two sides.
Crews vary according to the type of patrol vessel. The fast PRs have an all-American Navy crew of five, commanded by a boatswain’s mate first class. Each LCU carries a 16 to 22-man mixed American Navy and German crew. The Germans are members of the Labor Service Organization and many of them once served in the German Navy. Each unit of the patrol includes a contingent of these Germans qualified in marine skills.
During the Netherlands floods of February, 1953, the patrol earned the gratitude of the stricken Dutch. Like other United States military services in Germany, the patrol did its share to relieve suffering in the flooded areas. Two PRs and two LCUs helped with the rescue of persons and livestock. For almost a month the four boats aided the Hollanders in supply and reconstruction work.
Duty with the Rhine Patrol involves continuing travel through some of the finest tourist attractions in Europe. The picturesque Rhine Gorge, with its hillside vineyards, crumbling castles and gingerbread villages, has a thousand legends. One of them tells of the siren of the Rock of the Lorelei who sings of the natural beauty around her while combing her golden hair. It is no wonder that an enraptured Rhine skipper might look up too long and let his barge shoal up on a hidden reef. The gorge is the kingdom of the grape and in many languages Rhyne rhymes with wine, Rhin with vin and Rhein with Wein.
Above the vineyards, the cragged castles still bettle down on the rococo towns and the river as they did in the days when their robber-baron owners levied tribute from passing vessels. Some of these freebooters built their “Tollhouses” right in the middle of the Rhine. The Mouse Tower, built on a quartz rock near Bingen Lock, was one of these hold-up points. Later legend tells of the fate of a cruel-hearted tyrant in the tenth century who tried to solve a famine by burning the poor in a barn. According to the legend, he was pursued into the tower by thousands of indignant mice and devoured alive.
To make their “seafaring” life more unusual, the crews of the Rhine River Patrol are armed with carbines, carry full field packs on occasion and take their turn rustling up meals when their vessel is on a lengthy river patrol. The duty is not all hurricane decks, navigation and channel soundings either. The men receive considerable land training and their 42-man drill team, one of the finest in the European Command, represented the Navy at the Armed Forces Day observance at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. Many consider the Rhine River Patrol choice duty and there is always a waiting list of applicants. It may lack some of the glamor of the high seas, but it has many attractions.