James Byrom was a pacifist by conviction and refused to serve in the combat arms of the military. Yet as a Medic he found himself in one of the most hazardous posts in the army, flying in a glider with the airborne troops that would be landing on the east bank of the Rhine. He seems to have been relatively unperturbed, and much encouraged by the morale boosting briefing that they got before departure:
The curtain raiser to what the Staff planners had tactlessly called Operation Varsity Plunder was the Brigadier’s tonic address.
‘No doubt,’ he admitted, ‘you will find some Germans when you reach the ground. But you can take it from me they will be bloody frightened. Just imagine the sensations of those wretched Germans cowering in their slit trenches when – Lo and Behold! – wave after wave of you blood- thirsty gentlemen come cascading down from the skies! What would you do in their place?…’
He paused, while imagination boggled, then pursued more sternly: ‘But let there be no misunderstanding. If anybody does shoot at you, you will ignore him completely. Your job is to hasten to the rendezvous and not to amuse yourself by returning his fire.
And if I find any of you gentlemen going to ground I will come round in person and kick his bottom. If you happen to hear a few stray bullets you needn’t think they are intended for you. That, gentlemen, is a form of egotism!’
The airborne assault would come on the 24th but the surprise river crossing was to be undertaken late on the 23rd. Trooper Albert Bellamy was with the 51st Highland Division and one of the first across the river:
On the afternoon of March 23rd, at 5 p.m., a terrible artillery barrage from numerous guns commenced to pound enemy positions inland. It was the biggest concentration of artillery I have seen over here. The barrage was augmented by several batteries of rockets which went off, hundreds at a time, with a terrifying roar.
The infantry, which incidentally was the 51st Highland Division, boarded the ‘Buffalos’ at 7 p.m., and at 7.15 p.m. we moved off to the starting point which was one and a half miles from the river.
Our troop leader was first and I was in the second craft manning the gun. We reached the river a few minutes to 9 p.m. and at exactly 9 o’clock the first ‘Buffalo’ entered the water and the rest followed. We manoeuvred into formation and headed for the opposition shore, which was just discernible through the mist. Our hearts were anywhere but in the right place, for we did not know what to expect, but the expected onslaught did not materialise, and we touched down at exactly 9.03 p.m. – three minutes which seemed like three years.
We had a very nasty moment when the enemy sent up a brilliant flare and brightly illuminated the whole river, but nothing happened.
The operation was a success and took the enemy completely by surprise.
The flag of the – Battalion was carried in the leading craft and was the first flag to cross the Rhine in the last war; thus history repeated itself. The flag is moth eaten and held together by netting. The colours are brown, red and green and mean ‘Through the mud and the blood to the green fields beyond’.
We waited until the infantry had disembarked on the river bank and then returned to the opposite bank. Owing to the bank being very steep at this side, several futile attempts were made to climb it. Meanwhile the Germans had got our range and there were several near misses by mortar and shell fire.
After a few minutes we then managed to reach the top of the bank and the proceeded to the loading area, where we loaded up with Bren carriers and other necessary equipment. A few shells dropped in the bridgehead but little if any damage was done. We then crossed the Rhine a second time and proceeded, 300 yards inland to the unloading area. Everything had been arranged so carefully and the organisation was marvellous.
On the return trip our craft brought back 20 prisoners – the first to be taken in the operation.
For the next three days we worked a ferry service without either rest or sleep, taking across vital supplies until the first bridge was built. Meanwhile a large ferry was taking across tanks to support the advancing infantry.