The Western Front, 24th March 1945

Operation Varsity-Plunder



British Buffalo's preparing to cross the Rhine

A Buffalo carrying British infantry across the Rhine

British Buffalo's crossing the Rhine

A British Buffalo arrives on the Eastern bank of the Rhine

Troops of the 15th Scottish Division land on the East bank of the Rhine

A wrecked Bren Carrier after running over a landmine

Commandos manning Vickers machine-guns in the ruins of Wesel

Men of No.6 Commando in Wesel

A No.6 Commando patrol in Wesel

The first Bailey Bridge across the Rhine nears completion

Traffic begins to flow across a Bailey Bridge

The shattered remains of Wesel


At 17:00 on the 23rd March, 1,300 guns of the 21st Army Group unleashed a terrific bombardment of the east bank of the Rhine. The bombardment, continuing for four hours, was the largest undertaken by the Royal Artillery during the War.


The first phase of the crossing, Operation Turnscrew, was a diversion. At 20:30, ten miles to the north of where the main attack was to take place, the assault elements of the 51st (Highland) Division and 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade, cloaked in darkness, emerged from their hiding places and began to advance on the Rhine in their Buffalo landing vehicles, with amphibious tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry in close support. Stunned by the British guns, little resistance was encountered by the 153rd and 154th Infantry Brigades as they came ashore and began to establish a bridgehead. The defenders, however, consisting of the 6th and 7th Fallschirmjäger Divisions and the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, were amongst the very best troops remaining in the German arsenal, and opposition intensified as the Highlanders attempted to push inland. Although the operation was a mere diversion for the main effort, the fighting in this sector was certainly the most difficult and fiercely contested of all the crossings that night. A series of attacks and counter-attacks resulted in heavy casualties, including the Divisional Commander killed, and progress was slow in the face of this very spirited resistance. The Highlanders were unable to secure the town of Rees, their main objective, for a further 36 hours, whilst it was four days before the Canadians managed to overcome the enemy in Emmerich.


In the second phase of the assault, the 1st Commando Brigade, who had fought alongside the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy as the 1st Special Service Brigade, crossed the Rhine at 22:00 opposite the town of Wesel. Their task was to capture this strongly-fortified and pivotal communications centre, which dominated the main crossing points, and so plug the gap between the 2nd British and 9th US Armies. Through skill and daring, landing on an unlikely muddy flood plain, their crossing largely escaped the notice of the Germans, and, meeting only light opposition, No.46 Commando had secured a bridgehead in just 15 minutes. The whole Brigade arrived behind them and made ready to enter Wesel immediately after the RAF had bombed it. The Army had requested that 300 tons of high explosive be dropped on the town, but, after their fashion, the RAF decided to send over 201 bombers instead to deposit no less than 1,100 tons. Taking advantage of their shattering bombardment, No.6 Commando advanced into Wesel and, repeating a trick that they had used to excellent effect in Normandy, laid tape as went for those behind to follow, so that the whole Brigade could smuggle themselves intact into the town. By 02:00, the Commandos were in possession of a series of strategically important positions, which they defended throughout the next day in the face of constant and determined counter-attacks. The most difficult period came in the three hours that the Royal Artillery were under orders to give their complete attention to supporting the airborne landings, during which time the 1st Commando Brigade received no assistance and, using small arms only, they had to cope as well as they could to break-up the enemy attacks until, at 13:30, artillery support became available to do it more thoroughly.


At 02:00, the 15th (Scottish) Division, landed on the east bank for the main thrust, but they were confronted by nothing like the serious opposition met by their fellow Scots further to the North. After a brisk action, the 44th (Lowland) Brigade achieved its objectives around the bridgehead and began to push inland, meeting sporadic opposition in places but nothing to cause them considerable concern. Matters were more serious for the 227th (Highland) Brigade on their right, who crossed the Rhine in the wrong place and suffered numerous casualties as they tried to secure the bridgehead, before heading inland and meeting several strongly-held positions manned by German paratroopers. Nevertheless, such opposition was quickly overcome and the Scots began the advance that would come to the relief of the 6th Airborne Division after they had landed.


At the same time, further south, the 30th and 79th Divisions of the 9th US Army also crossed the Rhine, largely to achieve nothing more than the protection of the British flank, but their very presence considerably widened the assault area and so further dispersed what few resources the Germans had at their disposal to meet it. Their crossings were not so passionately contested, however, and so they were able to make good progress against what little opposition was met, suffering just 31 fatalities between them on the first day.


Bridging operations began almost immediately, with British and American engineers working feverishly to erect pontoons across the Rhine to keep the momentum of the battle in their favour. Despite constant interference in some areas from shelling and snipers, no fewer than twelve bridges had been constructed after just 48 hours. Prior to this time, the crossings were maintained through rafting and ferry operations, but these had proved sufficient for Field Marshal Montgomery to be satisfied that a firm bridgehead had been achieved. As the light grew after dawn on the 24th March, the focus drifted from what was happening on the ground to what was about to be unleashed from the sky.