Operation Varsity: Allied Airborne Assault Over the Rhine River

6/12/2006 • Battle of The Bulge, Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt, World War II

When military strategists debate the outcomes of great battles, one of the toughest questions is whether the advantage gained by the victor was worth the cost. The high-level decisions that initiate battles are also under continuous debate. Airborne operations are frequently subjected to this type of analysis. Almost every Allied airborne assault of World War II has been examined and re-examined, and strong cases have been made against several of them. Should airborne troops have been used in Sicily given that they had to fly over friendly forces during hours of darkness? Was Operation Market Garden in Holland truly ‘a bridge too far,’ as Lieutenant General Frederick A.M. Browning called it?

Operation Varsity, the Allied airborne assault over the Rhine River at Wesel, Germany, on March 24, 1945, is one of those military actions whose value has sometimes been questioned. American forces had already crossed the Rhine at two locations when British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery mounted his assault in the north. Some have speculated that the airborne phase of the assault may have been unnecessary for the success of the overall operation. Montgomery has been accused of using the airborne troops to ‘put on a good show’ and to further his own reputation.

Not so, maintained the British commander, and to some extent, history supports his position. At the time of Montgomery’s decisive thrust, Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges’ First Army had already seized the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen and Lt. Gen. George Patton’s Third Army had established a bridgehead near Oppenheim. Montgomery punched yet another hole in the weakening German front, which eventually developed more leaks than Adolf Hitler could plug. The German war machine began to grind to a halt.

For some time before Allied forces reached the Rhine, Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters had been working on a plan called Operation Eclipse. It was a daring plan, including an airborne assault on Berlin itself. Before it could be put into action, however, Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group would have to cross the Rhine in the north, trapping the Germans between his forces and those of Hodges and Patton driving in from the south. With the enemy caught in that vise, Eisenhower figured the time would be ripe for a daring operation like Eclipse, which could probably end the war.

Eisenhower rather reluctantly agreed to Montgomery’s plan for crossing the Rhine, code-named ‘Plunder,’ which would be second in magnitude only to the Normandy invasion. Operation Varsity, the airborne phase of Plunder, would include the British 6th Airborne Division ‘Red Devils,’ commanded by Maj. Gen. Eric L. Bols, and the U.S. 17th Airborne Division ‘Thunder From Heaven,’ commanded by Maj. Gen. William ‘Bud’ Miley, in the largest airborne drop made in a single day — and would establish many other airborne warfare records that remain unchallenged.

Both divisions were part of the XVIII Airborne Corps, commanded by General Matthew B. Ridgway. The 6th Airborne troopers were veterans of the D-Day drop in Normandy, but Varsity would be the 17th Airborne’s first airborne combat assault. The American paratroopers had already distinguished themselves as a battle-tough outfit, however. Before Christmas 1944, the 17th had been rushed to the Continent from its bases in England and had seen heavy combat during the German Ardennes offensive.

Well-known for his insistence on meticulous planning and attacking only with an overwhelming advantage in manpower, Montgomery set the opening round of Plunder for March 23, 1945. His command included 17 infantry divisions, eight armored divisions and the two airborne divisions; 13 of the divisions were American, 12 British and two Canadian. In addition, he had five armored brigades, a British Commando brigade and a Canadian infantry brigade.

In addition to all the problems inherent in a complicated operation such as the Rhine crossing, the Allied commanders were somewhat distracted by the continuous bickering that went on in the American and British high command. Montgomery continued to maintain that he should be in overall command of the Allied forces, and he never missed an opportunity to take a dig at Eisenhower. The British also criticized Patton and his sometimes outrageous behavior, and they felt that Montgomery did not receive the credit he deserved.

The Americans, on the other hand, saw Montgomery as a pompous and overly conservative commander. They believed he sought to enhance his public image and tried to take credit for success even when it was not due him. The conflict raged on, and Eisenhower eventually threatened to resign his command unless Montgomery tempered his remarks. At times, it seemed that only the diplomacy of General George C. Marshall, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s chief of staff, held the Allied forces together.

One concession was granted to the British — a concession that would forever haunt the veterans of the 17th Airborne Division. News of the Rhine crossing would be withheld for almost 24 hours, and the identity of the divisions involved in the operation would be temporarily withheld in Allied press releases. Because of the press blackout, the 17th’s participation in this historic operation would not be remembered by many Americans.

Hitler was not completely unaware of the bickering that was going on in the Allied ranks. He erred, however, in thinking that it was serious enough to eventually cause a split that would give him the chance to grab a last-minute victory. He was playing for time — time to deploy his’super weapons’ such as the V-1 pulse-jet guided bomb and V-2 rocket missile in large numbers and time for dissension in the Allied ranks to bring his foes to the negotiating table. It was not to be.

Operation Plunder was set in motion on the night of March 22, 1945, just as Montgomery had planned, and the land elements began to move toward the Rhine. A giant smoke screen, which hid the Allied movements from enemy observation, blanketed the area for miles and soon hindered those movements. It later caused problems for the airborne troops’ landing as well.

As the grand operation got underway, the airborne troopers were in their marshaling areas, being briefed on their mission. The Americans would take off from 17 airfields in north-central France; the British were slated to leave from 11 airfields in southeastern England. The Douglas C-47 and Curtiss C-46 transport aircraft were poised and ready. The gliders were neatly placed on the runways, awaiting connection to their tugs. All awaited the coded signal to go: ‘Two if by sea.’

All that preparation had not gone unnoticed by the German high command. It would have been difficult to overlook the signs of the pending Allied offensive. Accordingly, the German commanders had moved additional troops and a number of new anti-aircraft units into the area and taken special steps to fortify all potential landing zones. Axis Sally, the ‘Berlin Bitch’ as the GIs called her, even announced in her nightly radio propaganda broadcast that the Germans were expecting the 17th Airborne, and she promised them a hot reception.

The men prepared for battle, cleaning their weapons, sharpening their knives and otherwise readying their equipment for the mission ahead. The chaplains held services, and most everyone attended. Early on the morning of March 24, the signal, ‘Two if by sea,’ was flashed to General Miley’s headquarters, and the airborne operation jumped into high gear. The troopers were served a breakfast of steak and eggs, then were loaded into trucks for the ride to the planes. The troops were quiet and determined — from here on out, it would be very serious business.

The overall mission for the airborne troopers sounded quite simple. They were to seize the bridges over the Issel River and rapidly clear the enemy from the Diersfordter Forest. That would facilitate the ground forces’ river crossing and prevent enemy reinforcements from reaching the beachhead. After the crossing was secure, the ground elements would move forward, and the troopers were to join them in the push into Germany, keeping the Germans on the run.

The 17th Airborne was to land in the southern portion of the XVIII Airborne Corps zone, and the British 6th Airborne was headed for the northern portion. The entire area was only 5 miles deep and 6 miles wide, and a total of nearly 18,000 airborne troops had to be inserted, making the airhead east of the Rhine the most congested airborne assault ever attempted at that time.

Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey, commander of the British Second Army, was in charge of the land element crossing the Rhine by boat. Commandos had already slipped across during the night of March 23 and were engaged near Wesel. Other ground forces would cross the Rhine under cover of darkness early on March 24. The airborne troops would drop a few hours later, after daylight. The supply and administrative units of the 17th Airborne were to cross by LVTs (landing vehicles, tracked) — amphibious personnel carriers the British called ‘Buffaloes’ — once the beachhead was secure.

The 507th Parachute Infantry, commanded by Colonel Edson Raff, led the drop for the 17th Airborne, followed by Colonel James ‘Lou’ Coutts’ 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment and, on their heels, the 194th Glider Infantry Regiment of Colonel James R. Pierce. Each regiment would be accompanied by its supporting artillery and engineer units.

A total of 9,387 men of the 17th Airborne Division were transported in 72 C-46s and 226 C-47s, while 610 C-47s towed 906 Waco CG-4A gliders. The British lift consisted of more than 8,000 men aboard 42 Douglas C-54s and 752 C-47s, with 420 Airspeed Horsa and General Aircraft Hamilcar gliders. In all, the sky train stretched nearly 200 miles and took two hours and 37 minutes to pass any given point. A protective blanket of 676 fighters from the U.S. Ninth Air Force and 213 fighters of the Royal Air Force escorted the armada.

The first planes carrying soldiers of the 17th Airborne took off at 7:17 a.m., and the last lifted off at 8:58. While the troop planes circled overhead, the gliders and their tows lifted off. Inside the troop planes and in the gliders the men settled down for the flight to the drop areas. The British and American flights met up near Brussels, Belgium. From there on it was a straight, 100-mile run to the drop areas, four to six miles east of the Rhine.

As the aircraft neared the Rhine River, the men saw troops below crossing in assault boats and a buildup of men and supplies waiting to cross. As the planes came into view, the Allied artillery bombardment of the German positions on the east side was halted as a precaution — but German anti-aircraft fire soon opened up on the airborne convoy.

Black shell bursts dotted the sky, and red tracer bullets arced up, reaching for the planes. The troopers watched with horror as first one then another troop plane nosed over and headed down. Paratroopers and glider troops alike were anxious to get on the ground, where they felt they had a fighting chance.

The new double-door C-46s, used for the first time to drop paratroopers in combat, did not have self-sealing fuel tanks. When the tanks were hit, the gasoline burst into flames that ran back along the fuselage. As the planes began to burn, the pilots bravely fought to hold them level as they continued to search for their drop zones and tried to give the paratroopers an opportunity to get clear of the aircraft.

Colonel Raff and some 500 of his paratroopers were dropped two miles northeast of their drop zone. Raff rounded up his troops and led them off on the double toward their objectives. The remainder of the regiment, plus Edward S. Branigan’s 464th Field Artillery Battalion, landed almost directly on their assigned targets. The troopers moved swiftly, and all of their objectives were secured within about an hour.

Seventy-two of the new C-46s carried Colonel Coutts’ 513th Parachute Infantry and its attached 466th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Kenneth L. Booth. In addition to their concern about the anti-aircraft fire, the troopers were also worried about the new quick-release chutes that they were using for the first time in combat. What if the shock of the opening chute caused them to accidentally hit the quick release? The chutes had a safety pin to prevent this from happening, but the troopers worried anyway.

When Coutts’ plane was hit and caught fire, a trooper who had been badly wounded during the flight was hooked up and pushed out in the hope that he would survive the jump. Then Coutts and the other troopers bailed out. Later, Coutts learned that the pilot and crew had also managed to parachute to safety before the plane exploded.

Shortly after landing, Company E of the 513th Parachute Infantry launched an attack along a railway toward a building later determined to have been a German command post. Private First Class Stuart S. Stryker’s platoon made a frontal assault but was pinned down after advancing only 50 yards. Stryker, armed with only a carbine and shouting to his fellow troopers to follow him, charged the German position. Inspired by his bravery, Stryker’s comrades joined him. They charged head-on into a hail of bullets and took the position. Only some 25 yards from the objective, Stryker was killed, but his initiative saved his platoon. For his bravery, Stryker was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Private George J. Peters of G Company, 507th Parachute Infantry, was the only other man to receive the Medal of Honor for actions that day. Peters single-handedly charged and wiped out a German machine-gun nest that threatened his squad. Private Robert ‘Lendy’ McDonald, a trooper in A Company, 513th Parachute Infantry, had a close call while still airborne. As he was next to last in his stick, his assigned seat was near the crew compartment. Once the plane took off, he sat in the vacant navigator’s seat of the new C-46. The plastic observation bubble afforded him an excellent view of the vast air armada all around him.

As soon as the troopers had responded to the command, ‘Stand up and hook up!’ the sharp crack of German anti-aircraft fire filled the air. A loud ripping noise filled the plane, and McDonald and the troopers around him were covered in a shower of plastic. Looking back into the navigator’s compartment, McDonald saw a jagged hole in the metal seat where he had been sitting, and the observation bubble was gone except for a few jagged pieces. Evidently, a German round had come straight up through the plane, failed to explode, and exited through the bubble.

McDonald did not have time to reflect on his good fortune, however, because the plane was on fire. Peering through the doors, he could see nothing but flames. But on the command to jump, the troopers began to pour out the doors, plunging through the fire. McDonald sucked in a deep breath, closed his eyes and followed them out. In a fiery split second, he was free of the doomed plane.

The 513th jumped into the British 6th Airborne’s drop zone instead of its own. The troopers quickly assembled, cleared the British area of Germans and proceeded to their own objectives. By 2 p.m., only two hours after they had landed, Coutts was able to report to General Miley that the regiment’s objectives were secured.

As they approached their landing zones, the glider tug planes had no choice but to fly a straight course. The glider pilots were already struggling to maintain control of their flimsy craft; if the tug pilots took evasive action to avoid the deadly groundfire, their two glider tows might crash into each other. If they increased their speed, the gliders could break up or become uncontrollable. This was the first time the double tows had been used in a combat operation.

To make matters worse, the last glider group was forced to climb to around 2,500 feet due to a stackup of traffic over its landing zone. The gliders released at that altitude established a new height record for combat release. But the glider pilots knew that it would take longer for them to reach the ground, giving the Germans longer to shoot at the fat, slow targets.

The smoke screen, several miles long by the time the airborne troops arrived, had been meant to cover only the river crossing, but it had also drifted over the drop zones and landing zones. The paratroopers had to jump through the white haze, not knowing what obstacles awaited them below. The glider pilots also dived into the void, knowing they could crash into other gliders, trees or obstacles that would smash their light craft to pieces. Some paratroopers did land in the trees, and some gliders did collide with obstacles, but most of the airborne troops came out of the smoke at 200 to 300 feet and managed to land safely.

Private Robert Vannatter of Headquarters, 1st Battalion, 513th Parachute Infantry, was one of the troopers unable to avoid landing in the trees. Amid the smoke and din of battle, Vannatter plummeted through the branches of two tall trees near the edge of a wooded area. As the unlucky trooper took stock of his situation, suspended some 20 feet above ground, he was horrified to see a lone German soldier kneeling on the ground only about 30 feet away. Apparently the noise of battle had masked the sound of his landing, and the German was unaware of his presence.

As Vannatter considered what to do, the chute suddenly slipped through the branches, dropping him to only five feet off the ground. The sound alerted the German, who whirled around in surprise. Vannatter leveled his carbine at the man and ordered him to drop his weapon and raise his hands. The German obeyed, but then Vannatter realized he had failed to insert a magazine into his carbine. Not only did he have to load his weapon before the German realized it was empty, he also had to find a way to get out of his chute and onto the ground.

Vannatter managed to free himself with the help of his prisoner, then delivered the German to a prisoner-of-war collection point. By the end of the day, the 513th had taken more than 1,100 prisoners and the division had captured nearly 3,000. Handling such a large number of prisoners became a major logistical problem for the Allies.

Glider pilots say a combat landing is more like a controlled crash, which is just what the 194th Glider Infantry, the 680th and 681st Glider Field Artillery battalions, the 139th Airborne Engineer Battalion and the 155th Airborne Anti-Aircraft Battalion experienced as they began to land around noon. The landing zones were crisscrossed with ditches and barbed-wire fences that proved disastrous for the gliders as they came in from every direction. Wings were torn off as the gliders hit trees or smashed into each other. Some overturned in clouds of dust and broke in half, debris flying in all directions. It was a dangerous place to be even without the threat of enemy fire. Amazingly, after a crash the dazed troopers were usually able to climb out of the wreckage, dust themselves off and go off in search of their assembly areas.

Those troopers that came under direct fire in the landing zone scrambled into ditches and sat tight until other troopers could clear the enemy pockets. Some artillery and engineer units landed directly on German gun positions and had to function as infantry to clear the areas before they could move to their assembly points. Operation Varsity marked the first time that gliders had landed in zones not already cleared by paratroopers.

Private Vitautas Thomas of Headquarters, 1st Battalion, 194th Glider Infantry, was especially nervous as his glider banked hard and came in for a rough landing. His brother, a member of another unit in the 17th Airborne, had been killed in action during the Battle of the Bulge. Vitautas wondered if his own time had come.

The glider carrying Thomas, his five fellow squad members and their jeep loaded with ammunition made a typical crash landing. Smashing through a barbed-wire fence, the glider hurdled a large ditch and plowed into an embankment. The men inside were thrown around, and the jeep broke partially free from its lashings and jammed against the side of the glider fuselage. Thomas lost his helmet and rifle in the crash. Under intense machine-gun fire from a nearby building, the glider troopers scrambled out and dived into a ditch. The German gun raked the glider, and the men held their breath, fearing that the ammunition on the plane would explode at any minute.

Later, when things had quieted down a bit, Thomas decided to crawl back to the glider to get his rifle and helmet. He swallowed hard when he found that a German round had passed through his helmet, leaving two gaping holes. Thankful that his head had not been in the helmet, he inched forward to recover his rifle. Just as he reached it, a sniper put a bullet into one of the jeep tires right beside his head. The noise of that tire deflating was enough for Thomas. He scrambled back to the ditch, and there he stayed until other troopers had cleared the building.

Things were just as chaotic in the British sector. Brigadier C.K. Bourne’s 6th Air Landing Brigade arrived at its landing zone with only one mishap. A light tank in one of the huge Hamilcars broke free from its lashings en route and fell through the floor. Tank, glider and all personnel on board went down like a rock.

The large Horsa and Hamilcar gliders were towed singly, but their size necessitated a longer landing run, making landings even more perilous. The 440 British gliders came in from 2,500 feet, dropping through the smoke and into heavy fire. The British 6th Airborne came under heavy fire as the troopers began to land. With their heavy loads and long landing runs, the British gliders quite often plowed into other gliders, trees or buildings before their pilots could brake to stop. Although 416 made it into the landing zone and delivered their loads safely, the other 24 crashed, raked by enemy fire. The Royal Ulster Rifles and the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry brigades spilled out and quickly gained control of their areas. Meanwhile, enemy mortars and grazing fire continued to claim heavy casualties.

A number of 1st Canadian Parachute Brigade troopers landed in the trees. Their commanding officer, Lt. Col. J.S. Nicklin, came down right on top of a German strongpoint. As he dangled helplessly from his chute, the Germans riddled him with automatic weapons fire. Angered by the death of their commanding officer, the Canadians stormed the woods, their designated objective, and in less than two hours killed or captured all the defending Germans. The number of prisoners taken soon outnumbered the Canadians.

Although there seemed to be some confusion among the landing troops, there was total confusion among the defending Germans. Their plan of defense seemed to have been to defeat the airborne forces while they were still in the air. Once a sizable number of troops had been delivered, the defenders quickly lost their will to resist.

Before dark, the 17th Airborne made contact with the British 1st Commando Brigade in Wesel, and the 6th Airborne linked up with the British 15th Division in Hamminkeln, six miles east of the Rhine. The airhead was secure, as was the beachhead over the Rhine, and troops and supplies were moving briskly inland. The crossing had been an overwhelming success; the enemy was on the run back into Germany.

With the success of Operation Varsity, the northern route into the industrial heart of Germany was now wide open. The cost, however, had been high. The 6th Airborne had suffered 590 killed and another 710 wounded or missing. Several hundred of the missing later turned up to rejoin their units, however. The 17th Airborne had 430 killed, with 834 wounded and 81 missing. Casualties among the glider pilots and the troop plane pilots and crews included 91 killed, 280 wounded and 414 missing in action. Eighty planes were shot down, and only 172 of the 1,305 gliders that landed in Germany were later deemed salvageable.

A total of 1,111 Allied soldiers had been killed during the day’s fighting. In comparison, the 101st Airborne Division had lost 182 killed and the 82nd Airborne 158 on D-Day. Operation Varsity, March 24, 1945, was the worst single day for Allied airborne troops.

As the Allied forces drove into Germany, the situation rapidly began to change, and several carefully planned airborne operations were scrubbed. A planned airdrop of the 13th Airborne Division near Worms, Germany, was canceled. Finally, Operation Eclipse, the planned airborne assault on Berlin that had necessitated Montgomery’s Rhine crossing, was also canceled, allowing the Soviets the honor and cost of being first into the German capital.

This article was written by Bart Hagerman and originally appeared in the February 1998 issue of World War II.

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