Maps

The Western Front, 24th March 1945

Operation Varsity-Plunder

Operation Varsity

 

Pictures

A briefing using a model

Officers and NCOs studying aerial photographs

A soldier draws his parachute from stores

Glider tow ropes being prepared

Paratroopers fitting their chutes before take-off

No.2 Platoon, "A" Company, 8th Parachute Battalion, taken shortly before take-off

Believed to be No.5 Platoon, "B" Company, 8th Parachute Battalion, shortly before take-off

A fresh wave of British troops prepares to cross the Rhine at dawn on the 24th March

DD Sherman's making their way towards the Rhine

 

A year before Operation Varsity, the 6th Airborne Division was a very highly trained and motivated formation, but one which lacked experience as very few of its personnel had seen a shot fired in anger. Normandy changed that. On the 6th June 1944, the Division had spearheaded the British invasion effort, achieving all of its objectives and then holding a fragile bridgehead over the River Orne against a week-long series of furious counter-attacks; never losing any ground and always throwing back the enemy with severe losses. They remained here for the next two months, largely patrolling and probing along a static front, before fighting a brilliant thirty-mile advance to the River Risle as part of the break-out. Here, in early September, the tired and much depleted Division was pulled out of the line and returned to England to rest and re-equip.

 

Training resumed, and with a heavy emphasis placed on street-fighting it seemed likely that the Division would return to the Continent for the final act of the War. This return, however, came sooner than anticipated. The German offensive in the Ardennes compelled General Eisenhower to deploy his elite infantry reserve, the 1st Allied Airborne Army, to help shore up the front line. The 6th Airborne Division was rushed to Belgium in late December, where, despite active patrolling, they played only a minimal role in events. The exception came on the 3rd January when they attacked the apex of the Germany advance, and the 13th Parachute Battalion suffered very heavy casualties in the capture and subsequent defence of Bure. The Division remained in Belgium throughout January, holding and patrolling a section of the front, but in February they spent a rather dreary spell doing likewise in Holland. At the end of the month, the Division was withdrawn to England to prepare for the Rhine Crossing.

 

Operation Varsity was to be markedly different from all the other airborne operations that had preceded it. It had always been the form that the troops would land and seize their objectives before the relieving ground forces had made any move, thereby achieving complete surprise, but on the Rhine the landings would not take place until 12 hours after the first ground troops had crossed the river. It was appreciated that the Germans would anticipate an airborne landing, so it was hoped that this seemingly more conventional crossing would encourage them to abandon their rear-most defences, in the area of the drop zones, and counter-attack the bridgeheads, thus allowing the airborne divisions to land in the rear of the main mass of the enemy, cutting-off their escape routes in the process and leaving the ground beyond the Rhine open to swift exploitation by denying its use to rearguards. A further benefit of the delayed drop was that it gave Montgomery the chance to cancel it at the last minute if his armies failed to secure a viable bridgehead; there was to be no repeat of Arnhem, with the airborne troops trapped and surrounded on the opposite side of the Rhine.

 

At Arnhem, the 1st Airborne Division had been landed in three lifts over a period of three days. This piece-meal deployment had proved disastrous, although it had been largely unavoidable due to a shortage of transport aircraft. The Allies had learned their lesson for the Rhine Crossing, as there would be just a single airlift which would land all of the troops involved within an hour. Although the three lifts supporting Operation Market Garden had amounted to the largest airborne operation in history, Varsity, involving 17,300 men, was to be the largest single airlift ever undertaken. The original plan for the Rhine Crossing had envisioned a landing by three airborne divisions, but there were simply not enough aircraft to achieve this in a single lift and so the proposed role of the 82nd Airborne Division was abandoned. Even so there were still insufficient aircraft to transport the complete strength of the 6th and 17th Airborne Divisions in one go, and so, while of all their infantry strength would be deployed, a substantial number of their supporting units would be left behind to link-up with them via the ground route as soon as it was safe for them to cross the river.

 

A further innovation in Varsity was that this was to be the first operation where mass landings would be tactical; i.e. the troops would land almost directly on top of their intended objectives, rather than several miles away as they had done before. The consequences of such a deployment could be disastrous as airborne troops are extremely vulnerable to enemy action whilst they are in the process of landing and forming-up. Yet it was felt that whilst initial casualties could be very heavy, they would prove lighter in the long run than if the troops had landed in safety several miles away, and then marched to attack their objectives, by now guarded by an alert, fully prepared, and well-equipped enemy. Arnhem had highlighted that, regardless of how superior their training may be, lightly armed troops can achieve little when the way is barred by a determined enemy which possesses all of the support weaponry, tanks and an abundance of artillery, that they do not. A tactical landing, taking advantage of the inevitable shock and confusion caused to the enemy as thousands of paratroopers landed all around him, could avoid this. To give them a further edge, the 2nd Army would place a devastating bombardment on these positions in the moments before the drop took place, hopefully leaving the enemy in the vicinity dazed and disorganised as the first troops landed.

 

The essential task of the XVIII US Airborne Corps was to seize the Diersfordterwald, a wooded ridge which overlooked the crossing places. The 6th and 17th Airborne Divisions were to land either side of this and deny its use to the enemy, thereby enabling the relieving ground forces to make swift progress beyond the Rhine. The 6th Airborne Division was detailed to land on five zones, all about the northern fringes of the wood.

 

The 3rd Parachute Brigade were to land first, on DZ-A, near the village of Bergen on the north-western edge of the Diersfordterwald, two miles from where the remainder of the Division were to land. Their objective was to cut the road leading into the woodland, thereby securing both the rear of the 6th Airborne Division and the northern flank of the 2nd Army from attack. The 8th Battalion would arrive first and begin to secure the zone against enemy interference whilst the 1st Canadian and the 9th Battalions landed behind them. The Canadians were to move to the south of the zone to capture several buildings overlooking a road junction and then more generally along the road itself. The 9th Battalion would then move through them and further south to the Schneppenberg and Ellersche Heide areas of high ground either side of the road. To assist the Brigade in these tasks, a troop of the 3rd Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery and a troop of engineers of the 3rd Parachute Squadron were attached, along with the 224th Parachute Field Ambulance, and elements of Divisional Workshops and the Provost Company. The Brigade's drop would be momentarily preceded by two detachments of pathfinders of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company. In contrast to their usual role, landing up to half an hour in advance of the arrival of the main force to set up beacons, lights and smoke signals, their task was to visually identify the zone from the air and indicate its position to those following immediately behind by jumping.

 

The 5th Parachute Brigade would drop next on DZ-B, to the north-west of the main Divisional position. The 13th and then the 12th Battalions would drop first, their tasks being to seize a number of road junctions and other features in the area, thereby blocking any counter-attacks on the main Divisional area from the north. In contrast to the 3rd Parachute Brigade, where the battalion assigned to secure the drop zone against immediate opposition would arrive first, the 7th Battalion, given this same task, were to be the last to jump, and it was their responsibility to bear the full weight of the anticipated counter-attacks until the 12th and 13th Battalions had captured and firmly established themselves around their objectives. Accompanying the Brigade was the 4th Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery, the 225th Parachute Field Ambulance, and No.2 Troop of the 591st Parachute Squadron.

 

The third wave would bring in the 6th Airlanding Brigade, each of whose battalions were assigned a separate landing zone around the village of Hamminkeln. The 2nd Battalion The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were to land on LZ-O, to the north of the village, where their main tasks were to capture and hold two bridges across the River Issel. A further two bridges were to be similarly taken by the 1st Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles, landing next on LZ-U to the south. The 12th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment would arrive last on LZ-R, to the south-west of Hamminkeln, charged with cutting-off the escape routes from the village before moving in to capture it. Attached to the Brigade for the operation was the remainder of the 3rd Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery, two sections of No.1 Troop of the 591st Parachute Squadron, and the 195th Airlanding Field Ambulance with one of its sections embedded in each battalion. In contrast to previous airborne operations, where gliders had, more or less, landed haphazardly across their zones, it was intended that they should arrive in close company groups directly on top of their objectives, thereby enabling them to go into action and with some effect almost immediately after landing.

 

Finally, on LZ-P, lying further to the west of Hamminkeln against the northern edge of the Diersfordterwald, would come the various supporting Divisional Units. Due to a shortage of aircraft, the entire Division could not be flown in on a single lift, and so those units whose role was of a more secondary nature were instead waiting on the western bank of the Rhine to cross via the ground route as soon as they were able to do so. To disguise the coming airborne operation, all of these men were ordered to hide their red berets from view by wearing them inside out until the airborne armada had flown overhead. The principle units that would land on LZ-P were Divisional Headquarters, Divisional Signals, a detachment of the 716th Light Composite Company, all 24 guns of the 53rd Airlanding Light Regiment, and eight Locust tanks and the 4.2" Mortar Troop of the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment.

 

Forward Observation Officers were scattered throughout the Division, enabling them to call upon, in something of a novelty for airborne operations, immediate and substantial artillery support from the 2nd Army. No less than three field regiments were ready to give direct support to the 3rd Parachute Brigade alone, whilst the remainder of the Division, beyond the range of these, had its own Light Regiment under command, together with two medium regiments and a battery of American heavies.

 

With this enormous assistance, it was hoped that the airborne troops would have little difficulty in holding their positions until their relieving forces arrived. As the closest elements of the 6th Airborne Division were just four miles from the Rhine, it was expected that the vanguard of the 15th (Scottish) Division would make contact with them on the first day before arriving in force on the 25th March. The whole of the 6th Guards Tank Brigade was placed under the command of the XVIII US Airborne Corps for the Operation, and they were to cross the river and come to their assistance at the earliest opportunity. The 3rd Battalion The Scots Guards were to link-up with the 6th Airborne Division and they hoped to get one of their squadrons to them during the second day, whilst the 4th Grenadier and the 4th Coldstream Guards would similarly be at the disposal of the Americans.

 

As soon as the Rhine bridgehead was properly secured and the Allies were in a position to contemplate an advance beyond the River Issel, the 6th Airborne Division, with the whole of the 6th Guards Tank Brigade under their command, would form one of the spearheads leading the advance into Germany.