Operation Varsity

This was the Allied airborne crossing of the Rhine river in conjunction with ‘Plunder’, the assault crossing of this river between Rees and Emmerich by Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army and Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army (24 March 1945).

By March 1945 the forces of the Western Allied armies had advanced into western Germany and reached the left bank of the Rhine river, which constituted a formidable natural obstacle to any continued advance. However, the crossing of this river would provide the Allies with uninterrupted access the North German Plain and ultimately provide for an advance on Berlin and other major cities in the northern part of Germany.

In accordance with the ‘broad-front’ strategy ordained General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, it was decided to attempt crossing of the Rhine in several locations. As part of this overall objective, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, commanding the Allied 21st Army Group, devised the ‘Plunder’ plan for his army group to cross the Rhine river, and this was authorised by Eisenhower. ‘Plunder’ envisaged that Dempsey’s 2nd Army and Simpson’s 9th Army would cross the Rhine at Rees, at Wesel and in an area to the south of the Lippe Canal.

To ensure that the operation achieved success, Montgomery demanded that the ‘Varsity’ airborne component be incorporated into the plan as a support for the ‘Plunder’ amphibious crossing of the Rhine. Three airborne divisions were initially chosen to take part in ‘Varsity’, these being Major General E. L. Bols’s British 6th Airborne Division, Major General Eldridge G. Chapman’s US 13th Airborne Division and Major General William M. Miley’s US 17th Airborne Division, all of which were assigned to Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s US XVIII Airborne Corps of Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton’s Allied 1st Airborne Army. The 6th Airborne Division was a veteran of ‘Overlord’. The 17th Airborne Division had been activated only during April 1943 and reached the UK in August 1944, too late for involvement in ‘Overlord’. The division had also been absent from ‘Market’, and the only action it had seen was during the Ardennes campaign. It was therefore inexperienced, and had not taken part in a combat drop. The 13th Airborne Division had been activated in August 1943 and sent to France in 1945, but had not seen action, although one of its components, the 517th Parachute Infantry, had been in combat in Italy, the south of France and the Ardennes.

‘Varsity’ was planned with these three airborne divisions in mind, with all three of the formations to be dropped behind German lines in support of the 21st Army Group as the latter undertook its amphibious assaults across the Rhine. During the earliest stages of planning, however, it became clear that the 13th Airborne Division could not be used as they were insufficient transport aircraft in the theatre for more than two airborne divisions. The plan was therefore altered to use only the 6th and 17th Airborne Divisions. These divisions would be dropped behind German front line, in the area round Wesel, to disrupt the defences of within Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe ‘H’ and so speed the advance of the 2nd Army toward Wesel.

To achieve their tasks, the two airborne divisions would be dropped near Hamminkeln, and were tasked with a number of objectives: the seizure of the Diesfordterwald, a forest that overlooked the Rhine river and contained a road linking several towns together; the seizure of several bridges over a smaller waterway, the Issel river, to facilitate the advance; and the capture of Hamminkeln. Once these objectives had been achieved, the airborne formations would consolidate their positions and await the arrival of the Allied ground forces, defending the territory captured against the German forces known to be in the area.

‘Varsity’ would be the largest single-drop airborne operation conducted during World War II and, more significantly, would also go against previous airborne warfare thinking inasmuch as the airborne troops would drop after the initial amphibious landings to minimise the risk faced by the airborne troops after the experiences of ‘Market’. Moreover, and again unlike their experience in ‘Market’, the airborne forces would be dropped only a short distance behind German lines to increase the likelihood that Allied ground forces would link with them within a short period. This avoided risking the same type of disaster which had befallen Major General R. E. Urquhart’s British 1st Airborne Division when it had been isolated and practically annihilated by German infantry and armour at Arnhem. It was also decided by Brereton that the two airborne divisions in ‘Varsity’ would be dropped simultaneously in a single lift rather than being dropped several hours apart as in ‘Market’. Supply drops for the airborne forces would also be made as soon as possible to ensure adequate supplies were available to the airborne troops as they fought.

By the early spring of 1945, the German divisions on the Western Front were declining rapidly in terms not only of their numbers but also of their combat capability. By the night of 23 March, Montgomery had the equivalent of more than 30 divisions under his command, while the Germans facing the 21st Army Group could field only some 10 divisions, all weakened from the constant fighting to which they had been subjected, and bereft of rest, rehabilitation, refreshment with new personnel, and reinforcement.

The airborne forces totalled some 16,870 men (9,650 US and 7,220 British), and expected to face no more than 8,000 Germans. The best German formation the Allied airborne troops would encounter was General Günther Blumentritt’s 1st Fallschirmarmee, although even this formation had been weakened from the losses it had sustained in earlier fighting, particularly in the Reichswald during February. The 1st Fallschirmarmee had three corps along the river, in the form of Generalleutnant Eugen Meindl’s II Fallschirmkorps in the north, General Erich Straube’s LXXXVI Corps in the centre, and General Erich Abraham’s LXIII Corps in the south. The boundary between the II Fallschirmkorps and LXXXVI Corps extended through the proposed landing zones for the Allied airborne divisions, meaning that the leading formation of each corps would face the airborne assault: totalling some 8,000 men, these formations were Generalleutnant Wolfgang Erdmann’s 7th Fallschirmjägerdivision and Oberst Siegfried Kossack’s 84th Division which, after their retreat to the Rhine, were both under-strength with no more than 4,000 men each; the 84th Division was supported by only some 50 pieces of medium artillery.

The seven divisions constituting the 1st Fallschirmarmee were also short of manpower, weapons and ammunition, and although all the farms and villages of the area had been well prepared for defensive purposes, the Germans lacked all but the most limited of mobile reserves, which meant that the defence had little capability to concentrate its available strength against the Allied airhead after the assault had begun. The mobile reserve available to the 1st Fallschirmarmee was about 150 armoured fighting vehicles, most of them on the strength of General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzerkorps. Allied intelligence believed that of the corps’ two divisions, Generalmajor Siegfried von Waldenburg’s 116th Panzerdivision had up to 70 tanks and Generalleutnant Eberhard Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision some 15 tanks and between 20 and 30 assault guns. Intelligence also pointed to the possibility of a heavy anti-tank battalion being stationed in the area.

The German forces possessed a large number of anti-aircraft guns, however, and on 17 March Allied intelligence estimated that the Germans had 153 light and 103 heavy anti-aircraft guns, a number which was drastically revised upward only a week later to 712 light and 114 heavy anti-aircraft guns.

The situation of the German defenders, and their ability to develop an effective counter to any assault, was rendered still more difficult by the Allies, who had begun a major air attack one week before the start of ‘Varsity’. The air attack involved more than 10,000 Allied sorties, and the aircraft concentrated primarily on Germany’s airfields and transportation systems. The defence was also hampered by the fact that it lacked reliable intelligence as to where the assault was to be undertaken: although the German forces along the Rhine had been alerted as to the general possibility of an Allied airborne attack, it was only when British engineers began to set up smoke generators opposite Emmerich and began laying a smokescreen some 60 miles (100 km) long that the Germans appreciated the basic area in which the assault would be made.

‘Plunder’ started at 21.00 on the evening of 23 March, and by the early hours of the morning of 24 March Allied ground units had secured a number of landing points on the eastern bank of the Rhine.

In the first few hours of 24 March, the transport aircraft carrying the two airborne divisions took off from air bases in England and France to rendezvous over Brussels before turning to the north-east for the drop zones just to the east of the Rhine river. The transport of this substantial force was undertaken by Major General Paul L. Williams’s US IX Troop Carrier Command, and involved 1,696 powered aircraft and 1,348 gliders. The 6th Airborne Division departed from 11 airfields in south-eastern England, and the 17th Airborne Division was lifted from a complex of 17 airfields inside the rectangle bounded by Orléans, Evreux, Amiens and Reims in France.

The transport fleet was escorted by 889 fighters, and the powerful German Flak defences (in the event totalling 710 light and 115 heavy guns) were so effectively neutralised by Allied aircraft and artillery so that only 53 powered aircraft (most of them highly vulnerable Curtiss C-46 Commando transports) and 40 gliders were lost. The Allied air armada stretched more than 200 miles (320 km) in the sky and took 2 hours and 37 minutes to pass any given point, and was protected by some 2,153 Allied fighters of Lieutenant General Hoyt S. Vandenberg’s US 9th AAF and Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s British 2nd Tactical Air Force.

At 10.00 on 24 March British and US airborne troops started to land on German soil, some 13 hours after the start of the Allied ground assault. The first British airborne unit to land was Brigadier S. J. L. Hill’s 3rd Parachute Brigade, which dropped nine minutes earlier than scheduled. The brigade was successfully dropped onto Drop Zone A, although it faced significant amounts of small arms and 20-mm anti-aircraft fire. The brigade suffered a number of casualties as it engaged the German forces in the Diesfordterwald, but by 11.00 the drop zone was almost totally clear of German forces and all of the brigade’s battalions had formed up. The key town of Schnappenberg was captured by the 9/Parachute in conjunction with the Canadian 1st Parachute Battalion, which had lost its commanding officer to German small arms fire only moments after he had landed. Despite taking casualties, the brigade cleared the area of German forces, and by 13.45 Hill could report that his brigade had secured all of its objectives.

The next British airborne unit to land was Brigadier J. H. N. Poett’s 5th Parachute Brigade. This brigade was designated to land on DZ B and achieved this, although not as accurately as the 3rd Parachute Brigade as a result of poor visibility around the drop zone, which also made it more difficult for the brigade’s paratroopers to rally on the ground. The drop zone came under heavy fire from nearby German troops, and was subjected to artillery and mortar fire which inflicted casualties in the battalion rendezvous areas. However, the 7/Parachute soon cleared the drop zone of German troops, many of whom were holding farms and houses, and the 12 and 13/Parachute rapidly secured the rest of the brigade’s objectives. The brigade was then ordered to move due east and clear an area near Schnappenberg, as well as engaging German forces who were gathered west of the farmhouse which had been taken as the headquarters for the 6th Airborne Division. By 15.30 Poett had reported that his brigade had secured all of its objectives and linked with other British airborne units.

The 6th Airborne Division’s third unit was Brigadier R. H. Bellamy’s 6th Airlanding Brigade, which was tasked with landing in company-sized groups and capturing several objectives, including Hamminkeln. The brigade’s gliders came down on Landing Zones P, O, U and R under considerable anti-aircraft fire, the landing being made even more difficult by quantities of haze and smoke. This meant that a number of glider pilots were unable to identify their landing areas and lost their bearings, resulting in a number of gliders landing in the wrong areas or crashing. But most of the gliders survived, allowing the brigade’s battalions to secure three bridges over the Issel river that were their primary objectives, as well as Hamminkeln with the aid of the 513th Parachute Infantry, which had been dropped by mistake near this town. The brigade secured all of its objectives shortly after capturing Hamminkeln.

The 17th Airborne Division landed to the south of the 6th Airborne Division. Colonel Edson D. Raff’s 507th Parachute Infantry was the division’s leading assault unit, and the whole of the regiment was to be dropped on DZ W, a clearing 2 miles (3.2 km) to the north of Wesel, landing close to the eastern bank of the Rhine river between Bislich and Wesel. Ground haze confused the pilots of the transport aircraft carrying the regiment, which was therefore dropped in halves. Raff and approximately 690 of his men landed to the north-west of the drop zone near Diersfordt, and the rest of the regiment was dropped into DZ W. Raff rallied his separated paratroopers and led them to DZ W, engaging a battery of German artillery en route, killing or capturing the artillery crews, before reuniting with the rest of his regiment. By 14.00 the 507th Parachute Infantry had secured all of its objectives and cleared the area around Diersfordt, having engaged numerous German troops and also knocked out a German tank.

Colonel James W. Coutts’s 513th Parachute Infantry was the second US airborne unit to land. On their way to the drop zone, the transport aircraft containing the regiment had the misfortune to pass through a belt of German anti-aircraft guns, losing 22 of the C-46 transport aircraft and suffering damage to another 38. Just as with the 507th Parachute Infantry, the 513th Parachute Infantry suffered the effects of piloting errors resulting from ground haze, and missed its designated DZ X to the north-east of Fluren and came down on one of the landing zones designated for the 6th Airlanding Brigade. But the US paratroopers swiftly rallied and aided the British gliderborne troops who were landing simultaneously, eliminating several German artillery batteries covering the area. Once the German troops in the area had been overcome, a combined force of US and British airborne troops stormed Hamminkeln and secured that town. By 14.00 Coutts had reported to divisional headquarters that his regiment had secured all of its objectives, in the process destroying two German tanks and two complete regiments of artillery during their assault.

The third component of the 17th Airborne Division was Colonel James R. Pierce’s 194th Glider Infantry, which landed accurately on LZ S to the north of Wesel after its gliders and their towing aircraft had taken heavy casualties: 12 C-47 transports were lost to anti-aircraft fire, and a further 140 machines were damaged by the same fire. The regiment landed in the middle of a number of German artillery batteries engaging the Allied ground forces crossing the Rhine river, so many of the gliders were taken under direct fire by the German artillery. However, these artillery batteries were taken by the gliderborne troops, and the regiment was soon able to report that its objectives had been secured, the Americans having destroyed 42 pieces of artillery, 10 tanks, two mobile Flakwagen vehicles and five self-propelled guns.

In overall terms ‘Varsity’ was thus a very successful large-scale airborne operation. All of the objectives with which the airborne troops had been tasked had been captured and held, usually within only a few hours of the operation’s beginning. The bridges over the Issel river had been captured, although one later had to be destroyed to prevent its recapture in a German counterattack. The Diesfordterwald had been cleared of German troops, and the roads through which the Germans might have routed reinforcements against the advance had been cut by airborne troops. Finally, Hamminkeln, the town that dominated the area and through which any advance would be made, had been secured.

By the fall of night on 24 March, Major General C. M. Barber’s British 15th Division had linked with elements of the 6th Airborne Division, and by 24.00 the first light bridge had been established across the Rhine. By 27 March 12 bridges suitable for heavy armour had been installed over the Rhine and on this waterway’s eastern bank the Allies had 14 divisions, which had penetrated up to 10 miles (16 km).

The casualties of both Allied airborne formations were quite heavy, although somewhat lighter than had been expected. By the fall of night on 24 March, the 6th Airborne Division had lost 347 men killed and 731 wounded out of the 7,220 landed in the operation, but the division had also taken some 1,500 prisoners. The 17th Airborne Division suffered a similar casualty rate, reporting 400 men killed and 522 wounded out of the 9,650 personnel who took part in the operation, while the division had also taken some 2,000 prisoners. In the period 24/29 March the 17th Airborne Division suffered 1,346 casualties.

The air forces involved in the operation lost 56 transport aircraft on 24 March, and 16 bombers of Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle’s US 8th AAF were also shot down during the day as they made supply drops.