Operation Varsity-Plunder

Operation Varsity



The aircraft carrying the 6th Airborne Division over Belgium

A Horsa glider crosses the Rhine

Dakota and Horsa combinations cross the Rhine

A Horsa landing on LZ-P

Americans of the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment on LZ "P"

A Horsa which made a safe landing

British and American airborne troops take cover

Men of the 6th Airlanding Brigade take cover amongst the wreckage of a Horsa glider

The shattered remnants of a crashed Horsa

One of the 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry gliders

Abandoned Horsa gliders lie across one of the 6th Airlanding Brigade's zones

Horsa gliders near Hamminkeln

Horsa and Hamilcar gliders on a landing zone

Medical orderlies attached to the 6th Airlanding Brigade moving off the landing zone

The scene across one of the landing zones in the hours after the 6th Airlanding Brigade arrived

Men of the 6th Airlanding Brigade moving off the landing zone

Men of the 12th Devons, with prisoners in tow, prepare to enter Hamminkeln

Men of the Glider Pilot Regiment escort a column of prisoners through Hamminkeln

Brigadier Hugh Bellamy speaking with Major Eddie Warren in Hamminkeln

An anti-tank gun in Hamminkeln

A wrecked glider in Hamminkeln Station

Two lightly wounded men of the 6th Airlanding Brigade await treatment

A Polsten gun crew prepare to move off the landing zone

A Universal Carrier on one of the landing zones

Men of the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles digging in on the bank of the River Issel


The drops of the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades had set the stage by successfully securing the left flank of the 6th Airborne Division; the main focus of the Operation, however, was the capture of the village of Hamminkeln and the three bridges across the River Issel around it. The acquisition of all of these features was the responsibility of the 6th Airlanding Brigade.


At 10:20, after a peaceful, uneventful flight, the gliders leading their formation, carrying the 2nd Battalion The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, crossed the Rhine and were released from their tug aircraft, of 38 and 46 Groups RAF, at heights of between 2,500 and 4,000 feet. They came under intense anti-aircraft fire almost immediately; the very large and slow-moving craft becoming prime targets for every gun in the vicinity. The first shots came from flak guns of a heavy calibre, which scored hits on several gliders and tugs, but as they drew nearer to the landing zone, the more manoeuvrable light flak and 20mm guns came into action, and these proved to be far more deadly. Casualties were sustained amongst the passengers as gliders were riddled with their fire, some were shot out of the air, spilling their contents of men and vehicles across the zone as the craft disintegrated, others blew up instantly when a lucky round struck explosives or petrol tanks. To make matters worse, the glider pilots suffered from the same visibility problems that had blighted the first moments of the 5th Parachute Brigade's drop; smoke and dust from the earlier artillery bombardment had so obscured surrounding landmarks that many had great difficulty locating the correct landing zone.



The first gliders to land contained the coup-de-main parties of the 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry and 1st Royal Ulster Rifles, whose task was to immediately capture the bridges whilst the remainder of the Brigade landed and organised itself behind them. "B" Company of 2nd Oxford and Bucks were to land on LZ-O1 and capture the road bridge to the north-east of Hamminkeln, but they had suffered very serious casualties before they had even reached the ground. The Horsa carrying No.17 Platoon received a direct hit from a heavy flak gun and broke up at 2,000 feet, scattering men as it plummeted before finally crashing in woodland; all aboard perished. No.18 Platoon's glider lost half of its left wing through flak and, with many controls inoperable and the wounded pilots unable to alter their course without destablising the craft, it overshot the landing zone and similarly crashed into woodland, killing more than half of those inside. Only two gliders, therefore, carrying Company Headquarters and No.19 Platoon, were able to participate in the coup-de-main raid, and, although under considerable enemy fire, both landed safely and on target at 10:24. No.19 Platoon were out of their glider almost immediately, and, quickly brushing aside a lone sandbagged machine-gun which delayed them momentarily, they pushed forward, making such violent and rapid use of their Sten guns and grenades that all opposition quickly evaporated and the bridge was captured.


"C" Company of the 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, charged with capturing the railway bridge just 200 yards to the north of the road bridge, landed on LZ-O2 at the same time. Despite coming under similarly heavy fire as they made their final approach, they did not suffer the same misfortunes as "B" Company and all the gliders made a successful landing, albeit not in the concentrated formation that had been hoped for. "C" Company went about their business very quickly and soon overcame the token garrison around the bridge and captured it intact. To ensure that both bridges remained that way, the attached engineers of No.1 Troop, 591st Parachute Squadron, crawled over the superstructures, removing demolition charges and cutting any wires that they could find. With this done, they later placed their own explosives around the bridges to blow them in case a determined enemy counter-attack threatened to take them back.


Further south, "D" Company of the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles, following on a minute behind the coup-de-main parties of the 2nd Oxford and Bucks, landed on LZ-U1. The glider carrying Major Dyball and his Headquarters came to an abrupt halt 150 yards from their bridge; the impact was such that it threw those in the front of the craft through the canopy screen. A machine-gun quickly opened-up on the glider from very close range before the men could get out, but despite this most perilous position, the occupants were extremely lucky to escape with just one man, the wireless operator, killed, and three wounded. Those of the remainder, who were unhurt by the crash, took refuge in the gouge marks that the glider's wing had fortuitously cut into the earth as it came to rest. A Bren quickly came into life and put the enemy gun out of action, only for another to commence firing immediately after. Having lost communications when his wireless operator was killed, Major Dyball had no idea where the remainder of his Company was, and so, under cover of the Bren's fire, he ran to a nearby wood where he encountered a pair of glider pilots, two men of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry and a few Engineers. These obligingly provided covering fire to enable Dyball's Headquarters group to cross into the woods, which they then proceeded to clear, capturing a group of Germans in the process. Dyball was preparing to attack the enemy in the houses around the bridge when No.21 Platoon made a very timely appearance and began to clear them with great Úlan. Once this area was secure, Dyball crossed the now abandoned bridge and found that his No.22 Platoon, despite the loss of their commander and a few other casualties, were in possession of the buildings to the north. The bridge, therefore, was firmly in the hands of the Ulsters, although a most worrying situation soon developed when five self-propelled guns were seen to be approaching, but these beat a hasty retreat when the leading vehicle was hit, though not disabled, by a PIAT bomb. During the action to capture the bridge, the Ulsters had killed approximately 20 Germans and taken a further 50 prisoner.


"A" Company of the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles landed next on LZ-U2, a short distance to the south-east of the bridge; their task was to capture the buildings around the road and railway crossing, in expectation of a counter-attack on the bridge. Only two of the Company's gliders reached U2, but, other than coming under fire from a 20mm gun, they encountered no particular opposition in the area. When they reached the crossing they discovered that a platoon of the 12th Devons, having landed somewhat wayward, had already secured it and taken 50 prisoners, all of whom had been waiting patiently in a barn to give themselves up. Taking the Devons under his wing, Lieutenant Laird placed the three platoons in defensive positions around the area, but the anticipated counter-attack did not develop. Three self-propelled guns, however, later raced eastwards through their positions; "A" Company had no anti-tank guns with them, but a PIAT was fired at one of the vehicles, hitting it but not knocking it out. Clearly intent on escaping the airborne landings as fast as possible and reach a position of safety, the vehicles pressed on and did not pause to reply.



After the coup-de-main parties had landed, the remainder of the 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry and 1st Royal Ulster Rifles arrived on the main zones, and, once again, all the anti-aircraft guns in the vicinity concentrated their fire on this fresh wave of gliders. The Germans fully recognised the vulnerability of the craft, particularly when they had landed and come to rest, the men inside being utterly at the mercy of nearby machine-guns in the crucial seconds that it took for them to get out and to comparative safety. Some were lucky and emerged unscathed, others were cut down before they had a chance to defend themselves. The scene across LZ-O in the first hour was one of utter chaos, as small groups of survivors, plunged immediately in action, attempted to win control of the zone by attacking whatever enemy positions were to hand.


To add to the confusion, three enemy tanks with accompanying motorcyclists drove across the zone at this time, shooting on the move at the wrecked gliders, causing further misery to the casualties still inside them. These were SS troops of Kampfgruppe Karst, whose pre-planned role in the event of an airborne landing was to race amongst the enemy and cause as much damage to them as possible whilst they were at their most vulnerable. These particular raiders, however, became a victim of the very confusion of which they had intended to take advantage, for they ran straight into one of the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles anti-tank guns which promptly knocked-out one of the tanks. Small groups of armoured vehicles made similar attacks around the Hamminkeln area during the first hours. Although they made a considerable nuisance of themselves, they nevertheless achieved little, chiefly because airborne troops are very aggressive by nature, and they eagerly took on the German armour with whatever weapons were available, by and large causing them damage and thwarting their efforts.


Despite all of these difficulties, the 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry had managed to secure all of their objectives by 11:00, but their casualties, the overwhelming majority of which had been suffered during the first ten minutes of the landing, had been horrendous. The Battalion could initially account for just 226 of its men; by the end of the day 103 had been reported killed, with another hundred wounded and as many missing due to gliders overshooting the landing zone.


The experiences of the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles on LZ-U were very similar. Having lost their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Carson, to injury when his glider broke apart on landing, the Ulsters found themselves under heavy fire from all directions, but principally from a force of some 150 Germans who had occupied the buildings in the area that was the Battalion rendezvous. Having landed 80 yards from this position in a badly damaged glider, Captain Rigby, the Adjutant, identified it as the main source of trouble and proceeded to gather what men he could to deal with it. Very quickly he found three platoons of "C" Company, one of which had lost a third of its men in a burning Horsa, and another of "B" Company, who already had 17 prisoners in their charge. Rigby decided to order a small group to fire on the buildings and keep their defenders occupied whilst he led the remainder around the right flank from where he would attack. As he was making these arrangements, however, he spotted Lieutenant O'Hara with one of "B" Company's platoons in the process of carrying out the same manoeuvre. Hastily improvising, Rigby put down a smokescreen with his mortars and led an attack on the buildings perpendicular to O'Hara's line of advance. Caught between these two perils, the initially fierce and costly German resistance, as was repeated many times during the day, soon evaporated once it became clear that a determined attack was to be made upon them, and many were quick to surrender. Others continued to resist, however, and a considerable number of them were killed as the Ulsters cleared the buildings with grenades and Sten guns. After about 20 minutes, the situation had calmed down somewhat, and Rigby allowed "B" and "C" Companies to move off towards their planned objectives, leaving a small force of glider pilots in charge of 100 prisoners. The 1st Royal Ulster Rifles took all of their objectives, but it had cost them 259 dead, wounded and missing.



At 10:40, the 12th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment, comprising the final wave of the 6th Airlanding Brigade, arrived on LZ-R, enveloping Hamminkeln in the process, with the objective of cutting-off all escape routes from the village before moving in to capture it. The German anti-aircraft batteries were still very much in action at this time, but the Devons landed to find that they had one reason to be thankful for the pandemonium that had resulted from this opposition and the poor visibility; almost all of the US 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment had been dropped on LZ-R by mistake, and, although it had cost them very dear, they had already dealt with much of the initial resistance across the zone by the time the Devons arrived. Indeed the whole of the 6th Airlanding Brigade were most grateful for the assistance that they gave in clearing the enemy out of this area; due to the enormous casualties suffered by the glider troops during the landing, their position would have been a very good deal more dangerous if the Americans had not been there to help.


Resistance, nevertheless, remained considerable for some hours. As had occurred on the other landing zones, the Devons were forced into action as soon as they had left their gliders, with small groups of men fighting private battles against isolated pockets of Germans scattered in the buildings all around the zone. After an hour of this confused, if not chaotic skirmishing, the Battalion began to take shape and was able to consider its objectives. Their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Gleadell, happened across a platoon of "D" Company and managed to infiltrate them into the northern outskirts of Hamminkeln. With wireless communications with Battalion Headquarters and "B" Company established, it became clear that the village was now isolated, and so Gleadell ordered his men to advance into it. The garrison consisted of a mixed bag of paratroopers, flak gunners, Luftwaffe personnel and Volksturm (Home Guard). Despite considerable difficulty in making progress from building to building as shots rang out at them, the Devons nevertheless dealt with this opposition in a quick and efficient manner; haste being vital as an early counter-attack was anticipated. By 13:00, less than an hour and a half after the attack began, Hamminkeln was declared safe, and the 12th Devons had taken approximately 500 prisoners. Their casualties, although severe, were not so terrible as the remainder of the Brigade; still, 80 had been killed, 30 wounded and a further 30 missing.