Death From Above: How Operation Varsity Brought Paratroopers Down on Nazi Germany

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April 16, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IINazi GermanyAirborneAlliesU.S. Allies

Death From Above: How Operation Varsity Brought Paratroopers Down on Nazi Germany

The end of the Reich was nigh.

The Ox & Bucks were near Hamminkeln railway station. In the 10 minutes it took to land, the battalion lost half its strength. For several hours some of the survivors played a game of cat and mouse with German Mk. IV tanks, which used stacks of timber as cover. Private battles erupted across the compound and railroad tracks. But, despite all, the battalion’s objectives were taken within the hour, and the companies dug in.

In the Royal Ulster Rifles’ (RUR) sector, both the CO and the adjutant had their gliders break up around them. The adjutant, Captain Robert Rigby, took command and coordinated the neutralizing of enemy strongpoints before organizing a march to the station and level crossing, which were the RUR’s objectives.

Flying Artillery and Armor

In addition to the support from artillery on the west bank of the Rhine, each division was also supported by its own artillery units.

For the U.S. 17th, the 464th and 466th Parachute Field Artillery Battalions supported the 507th PIR and 513th PIR; their 75mm pack howitzers were dropped in parapacks. For the 464th, three of its 12 guns were damaged, but by noon 10 guns were in action. The 466th was dropped on the correct zone and therefore left without infantry support. Before setting up their guns, its members took on an infantry role as they worked to suppress the concentrated fire that swept their zone.

Luck, however, was on the unit’s side as T/Sgt. Joseph Flanagan landed beside a German 20mm gun. He captured it and its crew, and the gun was later used to destroy stronger emplacements. Yet, American losses were significant; all the battery officers were either killed or wounded. Through sheer grit and determination, the 466th continued to ready its guns and began firing.

The 194th GIR was supported by the 681st Glider Field Artillery Battalion; its gunners were under steady fire as they left their gliders and were forced to set up and fire using the glider wings as cover. By 4 pm, 10 howitzers were blazing away, and the battalion continued to give solid support through the rest of the day.

The 680th Glider Field Artillery Battalion had a general support task and was to answer any specific calls from the 513th’s 3rd Battalion. Its gunners also came under fire, and ammunition and guns were lost as transport gliders were hit and set on fire. During the day, the battalion captured three batteries and took 150 prisoners. For its actions it received a Distinguished Unit Citation.

The 155th Antiaircraft Battalion had four batteries, two in support of the parachute regiments, one in an antitank role, and one under control of the 194th. Members of Battery C made good use of their 75mm recoilless rifle.

In the British 6th Airborne, the airlanding battalions had their own antitank guns as part of their support companies, and these were used in varying degrees throughout the day. In addition, the division had the 53rd (Worcestershire Yeomanry) Airlanding Light Regiment RA (Royal Artillery) and the 2nd Airlanding Anti-Tank Regiment. Both units had mixed days, losing men and guns in the landing—a horrifying example of the fury into which the units traveled.

For the second and last time in the war, light tanks were taken directly to the battlefield. Eight of the mighty Hamilcar gliders carried an American M-22 Locust tank and its crew. Seven of the relatively light (eight tons) tanks, purpose-built for airlanding operations, arrived on German soil, and four reached the rendezvous point with a single tank firing in support of the 12th Parachute Battalion. The four occupied a section of high ground in the Devons’ sector and gave support during the rest of the day.

Treating the Wounded of Operation Varsity

For medics on both sides, there was much work to be done.

The 17th’s 139th Airborne Engineer Battalion’s medical personnel were carried in two gliders, one of which landed right beside a defended house. The glider was carrying a medical officer, a medic staff sergeant, a jeep and its driver, and much of the battalion’s medical supplies. The 40 German occupants of the house brought concentrated fire to bear on the glider. A direct mortar hit destroyed the supplies and the jeep and killed the driver; the other two men managed to escape the burning wreckage. With limited equipment, the battalion surgeon had an aid station up and running in no time.

As the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion settled into its defensive positions, one of its medics, Corporal George Topham, was watching the attempts of two members of 224th Parachute Field Ambulance help a wounded man on the drop zone. Under intense fire, the medics made a dash for the casualty but were both killed.

Without hesitation, Topham raced out to the man. Enemy fire continued to sweep the zone, and Topham was shot through the nose. Yet, even in severe pain, he continued to give first aid. He then hoisted the man on his shoulders and carried him to cover. Topham refused treatment and went back into the zone to help more wounded. He also refused to be evacuated and, such was his determination, he was allowed to continue on duty.

Sometime later, as he was returning to his company, Topham came across the mortar platoon’s Bren carrier, which was burning fiercely. The platoon, under Lieutenant G. Lynch, had landed to the north of the LZ and it was during its attempt to reach battalion HQ that its Bren carrier had suffered a direct hit.

Enemy mortar fire was landing in the area, the carrier’s own mortar ammunition was exploding from the vehicle, and an officer was not allowing anyone to approach. Topham didn’t agree and ran to the carrier. In turn, he carried the three occupants to safety. For his gallantry throughout the day, Corporal Topham was awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military medal.

Despite all the damaged gliders, plenty of stretchers had arrived intact. Private Lenton, attached to the 8th Parachute Battalion, said he would go and get some. His section commander, Staff Sergeant Walsby, said he’d never make it back alive. Undeterred, Lenton and his mate, Private Downey, ran to the gliders. Not only did they make it there and back alive, but they also rescued some wounded men who had been left in the open. For this action, Downey was mentioned in dispatches and Lenton received the Military Medal.

Sometimes adversaries helped to aid wounded enemy soldiers. Captain David Tibbs, having landed safely, made his way to the house he had selected as his field dressing station. Settling into his work, he was surprised by the arrival of a tall, distinguished-looking German officer and several men. The officer saluted Tibbs, wished him a “good morning” and said, “Why have you been so long? We have been up all night waiting for you!” He worked alongside Tibbs for a while, but since there were few German casualties coming in, soon left.

American Corporal Bill Tom arrived in the Wesel zone by jeep. Tom had started his military career as a rifleman in the 194th GIR. By various twists he became a medic-at-large in the Ardennes. When the 17th returned to France, Bill remained with the 9th U.S. Army. On March 24, he had to care for a wounded German soldier who was shot in the head. The man was injured beyond the care of the field medics and was about to be moved to a larger aid station.

Before that could happen, he died and Bill Tom was ordered to move his body to the morgue tent. It was now midnight, and no flashlights were permitted. With the help of a private, Tom carried the body to the area where the morgue tent was located, but in pain from the man’s weight he lost count of the tents (he needed number eight).

He finally saw the one he thought was the morgue tent. Entering, he stepped on something hard and round and fell down. The German was thrown off the stretcher, landing heavily and making a grunt. Tom and the private took off like a shot. The tent was, in fact, the kitchen supply tent and the following morning Tom received a real chewing out from the cook sergeant for scaring his cooks half to death by finding a body on their potatoes.

The planned resupply drop arrived on schedule at 1 pm; 240 Consolidated B-24 Liberators from the Eighth Air Force’s 2nd Air Division each carried 2½ tons, which had been packed into 20 bundles, distributed in three locations: 12 in the bomb racks, five in and around the ball turret (the turret itself had been removed), and three by the emergency escape hatch in the tail. The vast majority of bundles were fitted with parachutes. The planes came in at 100 feet, half to DZ B (6th) and half to DZ W (17th). As with the transports, many did not escape German fire and headed for home with flames streaming from their engines.

“Advance to Dorsten. This is a Pursuit.”