After successfully exploiting captured functioning German phone systems during the Battle of Mannheim, on March 29, 1945, the 44th Infantry Division approached it's next objective of Heidelberg. Brig. Gen. William Beiderlinden, the commander of the 44th Artillery, received permission from the division's commander, Maj. Gen. William F. Dean, to gain a surrender of the city through the use of phone lines and negotiation and save the city from destruction.
American author Mark Twain proclaimed Heidelberg to be the perfect city. Not too big and not too small, Twain frequently stayed in Heidelberg and his name graces a several local landmarks. Beiderlinden, who had studied the play "Alt Heidelberg" (also known as "The Student Prince") in his high school German class, was familiar with the city, its famous university, and thought that it should be saved, if at all possible. Beiderlinden was fluent in the German language. About 5,000 wounded German soldiers were in Heidelberg and its suburbs. Additionally, a German anti-aircraft battery had set up in Bismarck Platz. When told to relocate, the commander stated that he was out of gasoline and therefore could not move. The German hospital commander, Col. Niessen, supplied the unit with very scarce fuel. The unit moved out but not before American aerial reconnaissance had spotted it.
Telephone negotiations continued and a small party of six Germans, under a white flag, crossed the Neckar River in a white ambulance, to meet in Dossenheim and complete the surrender terms. The Americans stated that they would cross the Neckar at a precise hour. If opposed, they would destroy the city. A German threat to blow the two remaining bridges across the Neckar was carried out while the negotiations were underway. The earlier execution of German officers for their failure to destroy the Lundendorf Bridge served as a grim reminder of the potential consequence for disobedience. At the conclusion of the hour-long talks, the German negotiating party was driven past the assembled tanks and artillery pieces of the 63rd Infantry Division, which had been called forward during the night to replace the 44th I.D.
As the German negotiating party moved back toward the river, stray shells landed and several of them were wounded including the driver, Sgt. Grimm. After the war, Grimm opened a tobacco shop on Bismarck Platz. Because the bridges were out, the German negotiators approached the fishermen and ferry boat captains on the north side, but no one was willing to take them back to the city. Finally, a 16-year-old girl, Anni Tham and two of her young friends, volunteered to row their small boats across at 3:30 a.m. They battled a strong current as artillery shells lit up the sky. Reaching the Heidelberg side, Col. Niessen searched for a working phone line and then contacted the remaining military personnel to inform them that the Americans would be crossing the river at daylight on March 30, and resistance was futile. The Germans complied. Later that afternoon, tanks of the 10th Armored Division entered the city and by April 1, Easter Sunday, the city was completely in American hands.
Heidelberg was the one large German city to escape the war virtually unscathed. The negotiations of Beiderlinden and the German hospital commander, Col. Niessen, assured the survival of the city. Critical to this success was Beiderlinden's knowledge of the German language and his familiarity with the city. Both factors played important roles in this entire episode. And we cannot forget the bravery of three young Germans, who rowed across the Neckar River three times in the middle of the night, at great risk.
Source Dr. James Saunders United States Army Europe, Lecture Heidelberg Capture
Heidelberg Castle and Neckar River