The Western Front, 24th March 1945

Operation Varsity-Plunder

Operation Varsity



Men of the 8th Parachute Battalion preparing equipment beside their aircraft

Men of the 3rd Parachute Brigade at Chipping Ongar before take-off

Men fitting parachutes shortly before take-off

Hamilcar gliders with Halifax tugs before take-off

Troops moving to board their Horsa gliders

A group of airborne troops in the moments before boarding their Hamilcar glider

A view from the cockpit of a Horsa on its way to the Rhine

A Horsa glider on its way to the Rhine, as seen from the rear turret of the towing Stirling

Halifax and Horsa combinations pass over the French coast


On the 19th and 20th March 1945, the participating units of the 6th Airborne Division had left their numerous bases around Southern England and proceeded towards their transit camps, to which they were confined until the launch of Operation Varsity. Despite a few administrative difficulties, these camps functioned as well as could be expected when suddenly occupied for a brief period by thousands of strangers, but there were a few glaring oversights which affected the 6th Airlanding Brigade above all. Chadacre, housing Brigade Headquarters and the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles, was overcrowded, lacked sanitary facilities and entertainments, and was so badly administered that a significant number of airborne personnel, who should have been in a briefing or resting, had to provide guard duties to seal their own camp.


It was also clear that some transit camps had been thoughtlessly allocated. The 12th Devons found facilities at Gosfield Airfield to be quite inadequate for their purposes on every level, yet they did not take-off from here, as parts of the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles and 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry were scheduled to do, instead they had to travel a considerable distance to three other airfields. All three battalions, therefore, had to rise and leave their camps hours before what should have been necessary on the 24th March. This was a significant problem because it was understood that the period spent preparing for an operation could be exhausting, and it was recommended that troops should have a full week in their transit camps with four days set aside for briefing. Instead, the 6th Airborne Division had to compress the move, briefings, and even the loading of their aircraft into just three days, and the men were already tired.


On the 24th March 1945, elements of the 6th Airborne Division began to rise as early as 02:00 for their breakfast, before climbing aboard the lorries that would take them to their allotted airfields; of which there were many. Divisional Headquarters and a part of the 12th Devons headed to Rivenhall. The remainder of the Devons went to Dunmow and Matching, with elements of the 53rd Airlanding Light Regiment, 2nd Airlanding Anti-Tank Regiment and 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment joining them at the former. The remainder of these latter units took off from Woodbridge, alongside the heavy Hamilcar gliders of the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades. 6th Airlanding Brigade Headquarters made its way to Earls Colne, whilst the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles and 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry each sent a half of their formations to Birch and Gosfield. The Horsa gliders carrying vehicles and equipment for the Parachute Brigades left from Shepherds Grove, whilst the main body of the 3rd Brigade, including Headquarters, the 8th and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalions made their way to Chipping Ongar. The 9th Battalion, with the detachments of the 3rd Parachute Squadron and 224th Field Ambulance in tow, went to Wethersfield. 5th Parachute Brigade Headquarters and the 13th Battalion were also to take-off from here, whilst the remainder of the Brigade; the 7th and 12th Battalions with elements of the 591st Parachute Squadron and 225th Field Ambulance, were assigned Boreham.


By dawn, all the men were waiting beside their allotted aircraft. They had visited these 24 hours earlier, when, to ensure that all would go smoothly on the day, they had arrived to draw parachutes, load the aircraft and the gliders so that all would be ready for them when they arrived.


The first aircraft became airborne at 06:15, and no doubt had to circle for a considerable time as the slow process of taking-off and forming-up began. In all there were 683 aircraft carrying the 6th Airborne Division into battle; 243 C-47's of the US 52nd Troop Carrier Wing with the parachutists, and 440 Dakotas, Stirlings and Halifaxes of the RAF's 38 and 46 Groups towing the Horsa and Hamilcar gliders. The weather was perfect, with no mist to hamper proceedings and visibility gradually increasing to 12 miles. The flight to the Continent proved to be most peaceful and without much incident, other than the usual loss of the occasional glider through broken tow ropes.


Over Wavre, in Belgium, the armada more than doubled in size when it met the stream carrying the 17th Airborne Division, who had taken off from airfields around Paris. In all, the XVIII Airborne Corps on this day had 1,572 transport aircraft in the air with over 900 of them towing gliders. Escorted by 889 fighters, this stupefying spectacle, the largest single airborne lift in history, made its way towards Germany with the two Divisions flying side by side in parallel formation.


The serene nature of their flight contrasted sharply with the scene unfolding on the ground ahead of them. The guns of the 2nd British Army unleashed a tremendous barrage on the German positions around the area where the 6th Airborne Division was about to land, assisted by the fighter-bombers of the 2nd Tactical Air Force who proceeded to bomb, strafe and fire rockets at any enemy flak positions that could be located. It was known that the Germans had significantly increased their anti-aircraft defences in the area prior to the operation, and it was of critical importance to the airborne troops that as many of these be neutralised as possible. The heaviest barrage, solely directed at flak suppression, occurred during the half-hour before the landings began, with eleven field, eleven medium and several heavy regiments of artillery dedicated to this purpose. It was hoped that this terrific bombardment would either wipe away the defenders, or leave them so struck dumb that they would be incapable of reacting effectively, at least initially, to the airborne troops who were by now moments away from landing all around them.