Operation Varsity: Glider attack across the Rhine

Operation VARSITY. Handley Page Halifaxes and Short Stirlings tow Airspeed Horsa gliders over the French countryside shortly after crossing the English Channel, en route to the landing zones east of the River Rhine.

Operation VARSITY. Handley Page Halifaxes and Short Stirlings tow Airspeed Horsa gliders over the French countryside shortly after crossing the English Channel, en route to the landing zones east of the River Rhine.

Operation VARSITY. Douglas Dakotas of No. 46 Group fly in formation over Wavre, Belgium, heading for the dropping zones east of the River Rhine. Above them, Dakotas towing Airspeed Horsas fly a divergent course towards their objectives.

Operation VARSITY. Douglas Dakotas of No. 46 Group fly in formation over Wavre, Belgium, heading for the dropping zones east of the River Rhine. Above them, Dakotas towing Airspeed Horsas fly a divergent course towards their objectives.

Crossing the Rhine 24 -31 March 1945: C-47 transport planes release hundreds of paratroops and their supplies over the Rees-Wesel area to the east of the Rhine. This was the greatest airborne operation of the war. Some 40,000 paratroops were dropped by 1,500 troop-carrying planes and gliders.

Crossing the Rhine 24 -31 March 1945: C-47 transport planes release hundreds of paratroops and their supplies over the Rees-Wesel area to the east of the Rhine. This was the greatest airborne operation of the war. Some 40,000 paratroops were dropped by 1,500 troop-carrying planes and gliders.

Operation Plunder, the amphibious assault across the Rhine, was already underway. Operation Varsity, the largest airborne assault of the war now followed. The plan was to seize vital territory in the Wesel area, east of the Rhine in preparation for the main thrust of the Allied forces deep into Germany. The German forces were already diverted by the fortuitous seizure of the bridge at Remagan by US forces, and the establishment of a strong bridgehead in that area.

5.5-inch guns firing in support of the Rhine crossing, 24 March 1945.

5.5-inch guns firing in support of the Rhine crossing, 24 March 1945.

Walls of houses of Wesel still stand, as do the churches, but a great part of the town was destroyed when the German commander forced the Allied troops to fight their way street by street through the ruins.  Germany, 1945.

Walls of houses of Wesel still stand, as do the churches, but a great part of the town was destroyed when the German commander forced the Allied troops to fight their way street by street through the ruins. Germany, 1945.

Denis Edwards was with D Company, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He was not only a veteran of Normandy but had participated in the very first attack of D-Day, the assault on ‘Pegasus Bridge’. Now they were doing it all over again:

The airfield of departure for our battalion was at Birch, in Essex, from where the take-off began at 0630 hours. About sixty aircraft, gliders and tugs, were queued for take-off.

A strange event occurred at this time. One of the corporals who had been with us in the Normandy campaign had by this time been promoted to sergeant of his Platoon. While waiting to enplane he had a premonition that the aircraft was fated and doomed. He ran off, only to be later detained, tried, stripped of his rank and sentenced to military detention.

He might well have received a more severe sentence than a few months’ detention had it not been for the fact that his premonition was justified. The glider in which he would have travelled took a direct hit and was destroyed with no survivors.

Regrettably, the Germans knew only too well that we were on our way and they were ready and waiting. Following the British glider-borne landings in Normandy and Arnhem in 1944 the Germans had certainly realized that the most effective way to deal with the British troop-carrying Horsa, and the equally large and flimsy Hamilcar gliders was to hit them with incendiary bullets.

Perhaps even tracer bullets were sufficient to set these large and slow gliders aflame long before they reached the ground. Bullets zipped through one side of the flimsy plywood fuselage and out of the other as we approached our landing zone, and as we came in to land part of one wing, an aileron, and the tail section were shot to pieces by shellfire.

Listening to the bullets ripping through woodwork around us was none too pleasant, but amazingly none of us was hit by them. Even more miraculously, unlike most of our comrades in other gliders and those paratroops who jumped, we suffered no casualties at all during the actual landing.

The gliders had to land in open ground and the well-positioned German forces equipped with their tanks, artillery, mortars, heavy, medium and light machine guns, accompanied by well-positioned snipers, picked us off at will as we sought what little cover was available. The casualty figures testify to the advantage enjoyed by the defenders as we delivered our cargoes of thirty men at a time, gift-wrapped in plywood Horsas.

My own twenty-six-man platoon was relatively lucky and every one of us got clear of our glider and reached the station yard where we took refuge from the murderous German fire. The yard covered a considerable area, part of it being stacked with neat piles of timber, each approximately the size of a two—storey house.

Unfortunately it turned out that the Germans were using these stacks of timber to cover their approach as they advanced towards us. We spent the first few hours playing hide-and-seek among the wood-piles, dodging the German Mk IV tanks which trundled up and down the rows of stacked timber seeking us out.

We were not equipped to deal with German heavy tanks. Indeed, the anti-tank guns that we did possess, six-pounders which could dispose of even a Tiger at close range, were almost certainly still within the Hamilcar gliders used to transport our heavier equipment. The concentration of enemy fire over the landing zones would have made it virtually impossible for such weapons to be removed. Most men were just thankful if they were able to crawl away from their gliders and find some sort of shelter from the incoming German fire.

If German tanks dared to roam about in daylight they were quickly neutralized by RAF Tempest and Typhoon rocket-firing aircraft. The Luftwaffe was virtually out of action by this time, out of fuel if not quite out of aircraft, and these Allied aerial tank destroyers were unopposed. They could afford to loiter close by until called in whenever tanks posed a threat.

It was a very one- sided match and in the open and in daylight the tank stood little chance. When moving about in close cover, however, such as the timber yard at Hamminkeln, or with smoke cover, or at night or in semi-darkness, then the German tanks became a problem — quite terrifying and lethally dangerous to lightly equipped infantry.

After our nerve-racking game of hide and seek with the German tanks, we were finally forced to vacate the yard. We withdrew to D Company s arranged rendezvous point on the other side of the glider landing zone. We then moved up to take over the river bridge, defending it against repeated enemy attacks and probes with tanks and infantry.

It was some time later — I am unsure of the exact time for reasons that will become clear, but probably in the late afternoon or evening — that my section was sheltering below a high railway or river embankment when the enemy began a powerful bombardment of the area. A lot of heavy stuff was crashing in all around the place and, without well-dug trenches such as we had in Normandy, it was impossible to find anywhere that offered good protection.

There were several of us crouched in the lee of the embankment when apparently a large shell exploded on the top of the bank just above my head, killing many of those in the immediate area, as well as some others who were further away. I neither remember the shellburst nor anything more for a period of thirty-six hours or so.

See Denis Edwards: Devils Own Luck: Pegasus Bridge to the Baltic 1944-45

A Sherman ARV (armoured recovery vehicle) and other specialised armour moving up to cross the Rhine, 24 March 1945.

A Sherman ARV (armoured recovery vehicle) and other specialised armour moving up to cross the Rhine, 24 March 1945.

German prisoners under guard during the Rhine crossing, 24 March 1945.

German prisoners under guard during the Rhine crossing, 24 March 1945.

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