During the final hours of the 23rd March 1945, the 2nd British and the 9th US Armies, under the command of Field Marshal Montgomery, began an assault crossing of the River Rhine; the last barrier separating them from Germany. The Americans met negligible opposition, but several parts of the British sector were fiercely contested. Nevertheless a foothold was quickly secured on the eastern bank, and all units were advancing inland by dawn on the 24th March.
The ground a few miles to the front of the 2nd Army was dominated by the Diersfordterwald woodland with the River Issel beyond it, and it was expected that German rearguards would occupy these in an attempt to sap the Allied momentum. To prevent this from happening, the British 6th and the American 17th Airborne Divisions were ordered to land in the rear of the main mass of the enemy forces confronting the Allies, secure key areas of terrain around the woodland and capture a series of bridges across the River Issel. There had been larger airborne operations before, but Operation Varsity, involving 17,300 men, was to be the largest single airlift in history.
Though initially silenced by a severe British artillery bombardment, the German flak guns recovered as the airborne armada approached and eventually brought withering fire to bear on the vulnerable streams of aircraft and gliders. The 3rd Parachute Brigade dropped on DZ-A at 09:51. The 8th Parachute Battalion attacked enemy positions around the zone to secure it from interference, whilst the 1st Canadian and 9th Parachute Battalions landed behind them, capturing a number of buildings and crossroad junctions in the vicinity, thus securing the left flank of the 2nd Army as it advanced to their aid.
Further to the north, amidst heavy anti-aircraft fire, the 5th Parachute Brigade landed on DZ-B to perform a similar function. The 12th and 13th Parachute Battalions, despite some initial confusion as a consequence of the smoke and dust still prevalent from the 2nd Army's bombardment, secured their allotted crossroads without much ado. The 7th Battalion, meanwhile, had set up a defensive screen in front of them to absorb the full weight of the initial counter-attacks until the rest of the Brigade was firmly established around its objectives. With this achieved, despite heavy losses, the Battalion was withdrawn into reserve.
The 6th Airlanding Brigade then landed around the village of Hamminkeln, to capture the surrounding area and three bridges across the River Issel. Their large and slow gliders were perfect targets for the anti-aircraft guns, and these extracted a terrible toll; some gliders were shot out of the air, scattering their contents of men and vehicles across the zone below, others were riddled with fire from small arms and light flak. Once on the ground, the scene was one of utter chaos as men emerged from their gliders and went into action against whatever enemy positions happened to be nearest. After two hours of confused fighting, the Brigade found itself in control of the area and with all of the bridges captured intact. Their losses, the overwhelming majority of which had been suffered during the landing, were dreadful. Each of the battalions, approximately 800-strong, had lost in the region of 100 men killed, with as many wounded and as many again missing.
The positions of the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades were largely unchallenged after the first turbulent hours, but several counter-attacks were made against the bridges held by the 6th Airlanding Brigade in the early hours of the 25th March. The first of these, directed against the road bridge held by a severely depleted "B" Company of the 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, was in such danger of success that the bridge was destroyed to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. The attack switched to "C" Company at the railway bridge and the other road bridge held by the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles, but both of these were beaten off.
By the end of the day, the 2nd Army was arriving in strength in the 6th Airborne Division's area, and their hold on the bridges became much more secure. Operation Varsity had been a success but it had cost the Division dear; 1,397 casualties had been sustained, of which 347 were dead, 731 wounded and 319 missing. The 17th Airborne Division, to the south, achieved their objectives but had also suffered comparable losses.
On the 26th March, the 6th Airlanding Brigade crossed the River Issel and began the advance into Germany. On the following day, the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades moved through them, and, in this leap-frogging fashion, the Division continued its eastward progress. Opposition was frequently encountered, but the Wehrmacht in a severe state of decline and incapable of assembling a unified front against the Allied drive. Typically, the resistance encountered amounted to just a company or two of infantry supported by the occasional heavy weapon. Some of these ad-hoc units fought with determination, but they could only delay the advance for a few hours before being brushed aside and taken prisoner in their hundreds. Consequently the Allies made increasingly rapid progress across Germany. The 6th Airborne Division captured Lembeck on the 28th March, crossed the River Ems on the following day and had a firm footing on the east bank of the Dortmund-Ems Canal by the 1st April. Osnabruck fell on the 3rd April, Minden was captured on the following day and the Division then began to cross the River Weser. The final bound was made by the 5th Parachute Brigade when they reached the River Leine via the bridges at Bordenau and Neustadt. After this time the Division was overtaken by the 15th (Scottish) Division, allowing the airborne troops time to rest and re-equip as they followed after them, mopping up any pockets of resistance that they had left behind.
After a few actions in support of the Scots, the 6th Airborne Division crossed the River Elbe on the 30th April, and on the 2nd May drove at great pace for Wismar on the Baltic coast, which they were ordered to capture before the advancing Russians, who might have pressed beyond it to "liberate" Denmark. The 3rd Parachute Brigade entered Wismar during the afternoon and made contact with the Russians a few hours later. The War in Europe was over.
For a more detailed account of the activities of the 6th Airborne Division, see In-Depth.