The Western Front, 24th March 1945

Operation Varsity-Plunder



Field Marshal Montgomery with General Simpson

Field Marshal Montgomery with Generals Dempsey and Crerar

A member of the Hitler Youth receives instruction in the use of the Panzerfaust

British artillery supporting the Rhine Crossing

British Buffalo's preparing to cross the Rhine


With the situation in the Ardennes brought to a satisfactory conclusion, almost all of the Allied armies, over a front of 250 miles, began their push to the Rhine in February 1945. In the centre, General Bradley's 12th Army Group made good progress beyond the Siegfried Line, but struggled to secure a footing over the River Sauer, suffering heavily under fierce resistance and a current which consistently frustrated their attempts to cross and wrecked their pontoon bridges. General Patton's 3rd Army, having the furthest to travel, made great strides in the South against a more fragmented enemy, giving their commander a golden opportunity to show his flare for the pursuit.


The 21st Army Group, with the 9th US Army under command, began their advance out of the Nijmegen bridgehead on the 8th February. The going was most difficult, as the Germans not only offered determined opposition from a series of well-fortified posts, but they also frequently flooded the surrounding terrain to make it hard for any attack to make purchase through manoeuvre. It was a thoroughly miserable business for the British, yet progress towards the Rhine was made. Elsewhere on their front, the task of clearing the Reichswald Forest proved to be even worse. The nature of the ground dictated that an advance could only be made on a narrow axis, and this ground, which was quite impassable to tanks, was defended in-depth by German paratroopers, who resisted with skill and tenacity. It took the British a month to clear the Forest, during which time they suffered heavy losses in the most grim fighting that they had known since Normandy.


On the 10th March, the leading elements of General Dempsey's 2nd Army arrived on the Western bank of the Rhine. No attempt was made to bridge it directly, as perhaps ought to have been done whilst the enemy were still disorganised by their retreat, instead they remained here for two weeks to build up their strength for an elaborate assault crossing by both themselves and the 9th US Army. It was to be the last great set-piece operation carried out by the Western Allies in Europe, and Montgomery was determined to put on a show.


For ten days, a smokescreen was maintained along the Rhine to conceal their preparations from the enemy. Were it not for this cover, any German observer on the east bank would have had much to report. The 2nd Army brought forward 118,000 tons of supplies to support their crossing, and the 9th US Army, on their right flank, had a further 138,000. Amongst this was 30,000 tons of bridging equipment and 60,000 tons of ammunition to support a bombardment by no fewer than 1,300 guns of the Royal Artillery; the largest undertaken by the British Army during the War. Both armies also had 59,000 engineers on hand to orchestrate the crossings and begin the construction of pontoon bridges once the assault formations had gone in.


All this to support Operation Plunder; a crossing over a front of 20 miles by four divisions; the American 30th and 79th Infantry Divisions, and the British 15th (Scottish) and 51st (Highland) Divisions. These were just the assault elements. Behind them many more infantry and armoured divisions were ready to begin moving within hours to press the advance deep into Germany. It was a truly overwhelming force for a mere river crossing, rivalling even the Normandy landings for its scale and complexity.


No observer would have been aware of it, but a further two divisions had also been committed to the assault; the American 17th and the British 6th Airborne Divisions. These formations, attached to Lieutenant-General Ridgway's XVIII US Airborne Corps, were ordered to support the crossings by dropping to the east of the Rhine. The codename for their attack was Operation Varsity.