Crossing the Rhine: Breaking into Nazi Germany 1944 and 1945—The Greatest Airborne Battles in History
By Lloyd Clark. 416 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008. $25.
Inserting forces behind the lines by air was a radical new idea for Britain and America in the Second World War, one that promised to deliver a decisive blow to the enemy. “The 101st…has no history,” declared Brig. Gen. Bill Lee, first commander of the Screaming Eagles, “but it has a rendezvous with destiny… [it] will crush its enemies by falling on them like a thunderbolt from the skies.” On both sides of the Atlantic, volunteers flocked to join the new elite. In Britain, the glamour of the airborne forces was embodied by Maj. Gen. Frederick “Boy” Browning, the handsome and dapper guardsman who commanded the 1st British Airborne Division, enjoyed excellent political connections, and was married to novelist Daphne du Maurier.
At the sharp end, of course, the picture looked very different. The concept was untested, and lots of people thought you had to be half-crazy to volunteer. The airborne divisions certainly attracted their share of oddballs. “Among those [volunteers] who came,” recalls one participant in Lloyd Clark’s testimony-rich book, “nearly half had no documents, a large number could be labelled lame, halt or blind, a good few were hardened criminals in the military and sometimes civil sense…. Unto us was left the task of sorting the sheep from the goats….”
Those who survived to take part in operations found that rather than falling on the enemy like a thunderbolt, they often arrived covered in vomit, relieved to be alive, and burdened with equipment from which they struggled to free themselves. It was even worse for those in the glider airborne forces. Their slow-flying plywood planes were universally known as “flak bait,” and if they got so far as landing would often break apart, killing or wounding a goodly proportion of those inside. And all this was before the fighting on the ground had even begun.
Although early operations in the Mediterranean revealed unexpected risks and weaknesses, three airborne divisions played a significant and vital part in Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944. So in September 1944, when Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander of the British 21st Army Group, was casting about for a way to secure the lower Rhine—and his own place in the history books—he seized on Operation Market Garden, a plan to capture the bridge at Arnhem using airborne landings.
It’s an often-told story, and after rehearsing the familiar arguments for and against the ill-fated operation, and adding a detailed chronicle of events brought to vivid life by many personal testimonies, Clark concludes that despite the undoubted risks involved, it was probably worthwhile. Not least because, he argues, the lessons learned at Arnhem helped guarantee the success of the second of the two operations he is concerned with: Operation Plunder Varsity.
Lesser-known but vital, Plunder Varsity saw Montgomery triumphantly get his forces across the Rhine in late March 1945, when two airborne divisions—one British, one American— helped secure a vital bridgehead near Wesel in the largest combined amphibious and airborne operation since D-Day.
Market Garden and Plunder Varsity were radically different. Where Market Garden had dropped widely dispersed forces in several “lifts” up to 60 miles behind enemy lines and well ahead of Allied forces, Plunder Varsity saw a far more cautious approach, with the two divisions inserted side-by-side just a couple of miles from the enemy in a single lift, and after ground forces had crossed the river. There was also far greater heed paid to intelligence about the enemy and its ability to react swiftly to airborne operations. “Our priority,” said Gen. Matthew Ridgway, commander of U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps, to which the divisions belonged, “is to protect the developing ground-force lodgement on the east bank of the Rhine”—a far less ambitious goal than that given to the airborne forces in Market Garden.
Clark tells his story for the general reader—lightly, but with authority. Given that he justifies Arnhem by the lessons that were learned for Plunder Varsity, it would have been helpful to know in greater detail how certain decisions were reached, and by whom. As it is, however, he paints a compelling picture of what the operations were like from the perspective of the men who fought in them—and makes it chillingly clear that airborne operations were more complex and precarious than many first imagined.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.