- Historic Sites
Profile Of A Soldier: Matthew B. Ridgway
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
The 82nd returned to the Midlands in England in July, where it received a hero’s welcome from the English. Ridgway, following the events in France through that summer, regretted that so much time had been devoted at command conferences to alternative plans in case of failure, while almost none had been spent on what courses to follow to exploit unexpected successes. “We were as unprepared to capitalize on the unexpected breakout at St. Lô,” he says, “as the Austrians and Germans had been at Caporetto in the fall of 1917.”
In August he turned over the Sand to General James M. Gavin and took command of the XVIII Airborne Corps. At one time or another during the remainder of the war in Europe twenty-two divisions were under his corps’ command. In September, Gavin’s 8znd and Taylor’s ioist were lent to the British for fifty-eight days in the line, in the airdrop around Eindhoven-Nijmegen. This, Operation Market Garden, was Montgomery’s ill-fated attempt to trap a German army in Holland, with its back to the sea. Ridgway flew, drove, and walked (without command responsibility) to visit the command posts of his two American divisions. When he found he could walk a mile and a half up a road that an advance element of British armor was unwilling to try, he concluded that stronger leadership from the top command could have brought British ground forces into contact with the ist British Airborne Division, which had been dropped beyond the Rhine. He is pleased that, with the popularity of Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far , the world now recognizes the outstanding performance of the two American airborne divisions in Market Garden and no longer thinks of it as solely a British operation.
Eisenhower released the XVIII Corps from theater reserve on December 18, and Ridgway commanded it through the six weeks of the Battle of the Bulge. On Sunday, March 11, he, Gavin, and Taylor flew to Rheims for a conference with Eisenhower at SHAEF forward headquarters. (“They all looked superbly fit and keen in every way,” Captain Harry C. Butcher wrote in his diary that night.) During dinner Eisenhower took a telephone call from Omar Bradley, who informed him that one of Courtney Hodges’ units had captured an intact bridge across the Rhine, at the town of Remagen.
Ridgway participated in the last major airdrop of the war thirteen days later, when an American and a British division under his command were put down across the Rhine at Wesel in support of the xn Corps of the British Army. He crossed the river in an Alligator, an amphibious tracked vehicle, and in a fire fight with a German patrol that night received a nonincapacitating wound from a grenade splinter that he still carries in his right shoulder. In April he led four divisions in an eight-day drive that cleaned out the Ruhr pocket. When he was two miles from Field Marshal Walther von Model’s headquarters, he sent one of his aides, Captain Frank Brandstetter, with a flag of truce to say that in order to save lives he would accept the Germans’ surrender. The aide came back with a German staff officer who conveyed Model’s refusal on the ground of personal honor. Ridgway wrote a second letter, in which he invoked the name of Robert E. Lee, who was a man of honor and had surrendered his armies eighty years ago that month (“I remembered the date from a lecture I had heard by Douglas Freeman”). Model sent back another refusal, this time by his chief of staff, Colonel Fritz Schultz-Madler, who had advised Model to surrender and who accepted Ridgway’s invitation to become a prisoner of war. Model had publicly criticized Field Marshal von Paulus for surrendering at Stalingrad; now he chose to walk into the forest near D’fcsseldorf and shoot himself. Ridgway offered the field marshal’s handsome MercedesBenz staff car to General Bradley, who politely declined it. The front moved forward, and Ridgway never knew who ended up with the car.
In the last weeks of the war in Europe he led four divisions—three American and one British—in support of the British Second Army’s drive to the Baltic to cut off the Danish peninsula and save it from Soviet occupation. In less than one week his corps moved by truck and jeep nearly three hundred miles, from the Ruhr to the Elbe, across that river on a pontoon bridge, and sixty miles eastward to meet the Russians. In setting up a thirty-mile buffer zone with the Russians he found them at the first meeting to be somewhat stubborn and suspicious, though they made no real difficulties. General Andrei Smirnov, his opposite number, a corps commander and a hero of the Soviet Union, he found to be much more agreeable on a second meeting, and with him he achieved a cautious but pleasant relationship. (Almost a year later Ridgway was on his way from Caserta, his headquarters as commander of the Mediterranean Theater, to a new post in London as representative of General Eisenhower, the army chief of staff, to the Military Staff Committee of the United Nations. Going by way of Berlin, he decided to call on General Smirnov, who was then Russian military commander in the city, and found him an entirely different person: stiff, unreceptive, cold as ice. Twenty-eight years later, in the fall of 1973, Ridgway received a telephone call at his Pittsburgh home from a c;-a officer in Washington. General Smirnov, the officer said, had visited the American embassy in Moscow and wished to send his warm greetings and best wishes for good health to General Ridgway. Did General Ridgway wish to answer the communication? He responded with cordial wishes for General Smirnov’s good health and happiness in his retirement. “I would be happy to meet him again,” he says today.)