Maps

Operation Varsity-Plunder

Operation Varsity

 

Pictures

Men of the 6th Guards Tank Brigade watch the Airborne landings

Men of the 15th (Scottish) Division take cover after coming under fire

Men of the 15th (Scottish) Division advancing on the 24th March

The 6th Airborne Division's sea tail moving up

A self-propelled gun of the 2nd Army enters the 6th Airborne's area

An armoured car of the 15th Scottish Division arrives in the 6th Airborne area

 

After the drama of a full-scale airborne landing, further enlivened by the noise and chaos of a disorganised series of battles as the troops, not yet formed-up, fought whatever isolated enemy outposts they happened to be closest to, the situation across the 6th Airborne Division's area became curiously quiet after these first turbulent hours. The 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades, who had been dropped to prevent counter-attacks driving into the heart of the divisional area, were little troubled as the afternoon wore on, and barely at all in the evening. The most serious threat was a counter-attack during the night on "C" Company of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, but this was quickly dismissed. Indeed, so quiet was it in the 12th Battalion's area that Lieutenant-Colonel Darling felt able to openly tour his positions on horseback.

 

Although the fighting had also died down in the 6th Airlanding Brigade area, the situation remained tense. It was clear that a large number of enemy forces, backed by armoured vehicles, were gathering in the woodland around Ringenberg, on the east bank of the River Issel, opposite the 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. At the request of the 6th Airborne Division, the Royal Artillery and RAF rocket-firing Typhoons repeatedly bombarded Ringenberg throughout the afternoon of the 24th March and during the following day. Despite these persistent attempts to persuade them otherwise, the Germans in this area would not be discouraged and continually threatened a counter-attack on the bridges.

 

The 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, with all of its companies reporting their numbers at half-strength or less, were troubled by the enemy throughout the remainder of the 24th March. "C" Company, after coming under fire from a light flak position, sent out a small patrol to deal with it, knocking-out the gun, killing two Germans and taking a further two prisoner, at the cost of one officer wounded. "B" Company observed an enemy company occupying some buildings near their positions, but as they were fully committed to the defence of the bridgehead, neither they nor the remainder of the Battalion possessed near enough strength to make an attempt to dislodge them.

 

Emboldened by such inaction, enemy patrols spent the remainder of the day and the early hours of the 25th March edging ever closer to the fringes of the 6th Airlanding Brigade, probing their lines and searching for any advantageous position that could help carry a counter-attack on the bridges. In the midst of this activity, a report reached Brigade Headquarters that a group of enemy, who had apparently been cut-off by the airborne landings and were now attempting to leave the area under the cover of darkness, had been spotted moving about in their rear. "A" Company of the 12th Devons sent out a patrol to intercept them, causing some casualties to them and taking 60 prisoners.

 

More artillery fire was brought down on the Ringenberg area when sounds of armoured vehicles were heard in that direction, yet still the Germans appeared insistent on their claims to the bridges. In view of their heavy losses, a considerable amount of reshuffling had to be done within the 6th Airlanding Brigade to brace themselves against the inevitable storm. With "B" Company of the 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry still guarding the road bridge, "A" Company were moved up behind them to provide a counter-attack if required, whilst the 7th Parachute Battalion was warned to take over Hamminkeln should it be necessary for the 12th Devons, in their entirety, to support the Oxford and Bucks or else put in an attack themselves.

 

At around midnight, "B" Company, by far the weakest element in the 2nd Oxford and Bucks, were attacked on the road bridge by a force of 30 infantry supported by armoured vehicles. The Battalion's 6-pounder anti-tank guns fired upon the latter but failed to make much impression on their heavy armour. One of "B" Company's positions on the eastern bank of the Issel was overrun, but a counter-attack pushed the enemy back and the ground was retaken. Pressure continued to mount, however, so much so that Lieutenant-Colonel Darrell-Brown sought permission from Brigadier Bellamy, which he granted, to destroy the bridge if it seemed likely to fall. At 02:15, the Germans attacked again, and, at 02:40, as it seemed highly unlikely that either the anti-tank guns or "B" Company could deny them the bridge, it was blown as the leading tank appeared to be upon it.

 

The Germans were resolved to deny the British a bridgehead over the River Issel, and so they switched their attention to "C" Company of the 2nd Oxford and Bucks at the railway bridge. A strong attack was made at 04:45, and seemed as if it would succeed when one of "C" Company's platoons was overrun and a 6-pounder gun captured. In desperation, the Royal Artillery brought down a barrage on the bridge area, and then "A" Company, sitting in reserve, launched a counter-attack. Their sudden appearance forced the enemy to withdraw, leaving the bridge in the hands of the Ox and Bucks.

 

Quite determined to make a success of their attacks, the Germans now swung their forces further south and to the bridge held by the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles. Two Panther tanks supported by infantry attempted to rush the bridge at 07:30, but their charge was brought to an abrupt halt when one of the tanks was knocked-out by a 6-pounder gun, and the other was damaged by a nearby 17-pounder.

 

The coming of dawn of the 25th March did little to quell the hive of activity around Ringenberg. Tanks were again spotted there, and so the RAF and the 2nd Army's artillery renewed their efforts to suppress them. At intervals throughout the day, these strikes were maintained, and they inflicted some damage; the Typhoons destroyed several tanks, but another, well-protected and excellently sited, continued to be a thorn in the side of the Oxford and Bucks all day.

 

It was not merely tanks that were an annoyance. Small parties of Germans on the "British" side of the River Issel continually probed the northern flank of the 2nd Oxford and Bucks, occupying some buildings and setting others ablaze. Frequent attempts, supported by the 12th Devons, were made to dislodge them from this area; "D" Company made several forays during the 25th March to force the enemy to withdraw, yet small pockets continued to cling on throughout the remainder of the day. "A" Company also attacked the buildings in this area at 20:40, but they were repulsed.

 

Relief, however, was at hand. Various units in the 6th Airborne Division had sent out patrols and made contact with the leading elements of the 2nd Army on the first day of Operation Varsity, but a much more solid connection was established on the 25th March. The vanguard of the 15th (Scottish) Division entered the 3rd Parachute Brigade's area during the morning, and their 6th King's Own Scottish Borderers relieved the very isolated platoon of the 7th Parachute Battalion that had so skilfully occupied the "Fortnum" road junction between the two parachute brigades. The 6th Guards Tank Brigade, who were to support both the 6th and 17th Airborne Divisions, very quickly put their spearheads across the Rhine, and the tanks of the 3rd Battalion The Scots Guards soon entered the 3rd Parachute Brigade's area. Later in the day, a squadron of the 44th Royal Tank Regiment reached the 6th Airlanding Brigade to give them much-needed armoured support, and a battery of M10 self-propelled guns arrived in the vicinity of LZ-P; one of their troops being sent to the bridges to make the Brigade's hold on them much more secure. Even a part of the 6th Airborne Division's sea tail arrived from across the Rhine on this day, bringing with them vehicles and fresh supplies.

 

Despite the loss of one of the bridges, the 6th Airborne Division had achieved all of its objectives, but its casualties had been horrendous. The XVIII US Airborne Corps had dropped 17,370 men into battle on the 24th March, but by the end of this day the 9,650 men of the 17th Airborne Division had suffered some 1,300 casualties, whilst the 7,720 men of the 6th Airborne had lost 1,397; of whom 347 were dead, 731 wounded and 319 missing. Between them, the two Divisions had accomplished much, but these were severe losses.

 

During the night of the 24th March, Lieutenant-General Ridgway and Major-General Miley, commanding XVIII US Airborne Corps and 17th Airborne Division respectively, visited Major-General Bols at his headquarters. With the crossings over the Rhine consolidated, Ridgway informed Bols that the 6th Airborne Division was to remain in its present positions on the 26th March, except for the 6th Airlanding Brigade, who would cross the River Issel and lead the advance out of the bridgehead and into Germany.