Hitler's Nighmare: Operation Varsity was the Allies’ Biggest—and Last—Airborne Operation of World War II

December 29, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IINazi GermanyAirborneAlliesU.S. Allies

Hitler's Nighmare: Operation Varsity was the Allies’ Biggest—and Last—Airborne Operation of World War II

It was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.

The jerk of the canopy opening was a reassuring sensation. Not so reassuring was the storm of small arms and artillery fire that roared up from the ground. The troopers from the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), 17th U.S. Airborne Division, had already been shaken around in their aircraft by the buffeting of antiaircraft shells.

Along with their fellow troopers and airborne colleagues from the British 6th Airborne Division, they had trained hard for this moment and they were ready to do their job: to seize, clear, and secure German-held positions east of the Rhine. It was Saturday, March 24, 1945, and Operation Varsity, the largest single lift in history, was under way.

The Airborne Component of Operation Plunder

Varsity was the parachute and glider component of a larger operation known as Plunder, designed to breach the Rhine at Wesel and complement two earlier American crossings of Germany’s major waterway.

The two divisions had only been out of the line for two months, having suffered heavy casualties in the brutal and bitter conditions of the Belgian Ardennes. They were, respectively, part of Maj. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway’s 18th U.S. Airborne Corps and Maj. Gen. Richard S. Gale’s 1st British Airborne Corps, together forming the First Allied Airborne Army.

The 6th had entered the Ardennes as a veteran outfit, having fought throughout the Normandy Campaign under Gale, its founding CO. An experienced paratrooper, Gale had previously commanded the 1st Parachute Brigade during the Normandy invasion.

The division would fly to Germany in its original format of two parachute brigades, each of three battalions, and a glider-borne airlanding brigade, again comprising three battalions. Support was provided through artillery, medical, signal, and engineer units. Maj. Gen. Eric Bols would be Gale’s successor.

For the 17th, the Ardennes had been its baptism of fire. Its CO, Maj. Gen. William “Bud” Miley, like his British counterpart, was an experienced paratroop commander who had followed the traditional route of Army service. In 1940, he was given command of the 501st Parachute Battalion, thus becoming the first American officer to command a designated airborne unit. After time with his battalion in Panama, he returned to the States in 1942 to take charge of 503rd PIR.

Three months later he was promoted to command the 1st Parachute Brigade. He served for a short time as assistant commander of the 82nd Airborne Division before taking command of the 17th. Following the losses in the Ardennes, particularly in the 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment, which was all but reduced to nothing, Miley instigated a new table of organization and equipment.

Consequently, the division would field three combat teams (two parachute and one glider) with support for the 6th. The other parachute regiment was the 507th PIR which, until the Ardennes, was the only unit of the 17th to have previously seen action.

The 9th U.S. Troop Carrier Command (TCC) provided paratroop transport for both divisions and gliders for the 17th. On September 1, 1944, it was reassigned to the U.S. Strategic Air Force, for administration control, and the First Allied Airborne Army for operational control.

The Royal Air Force’s 38 and 46 Groups were part of that organization’s Transport Command. Ordinarily, they carried the 6th’s paratroopers and towed the airlanding gliders, but for this operation, the latter role would be the task of the 9th TCC.

The Glider Pilot Regiment (GPR) would provide transport for the Airlanding Brigade. Its members were all volunteers from the many regiments and corps throughout the British Army, and they had been trained to fly and to fight. The regiment’s greatest loss to date had been in Holland during Operation Market-Garden. Time was not available to train new pilots, so RAF pilots were drafted in.

Objective: Wesel

Ridgway was given operational command. He met General Miles Dempsey, C-in-C British Second Army, on February 14 and was given a broad outline of the overall plan; Gale was appointed his deputy.

Careful study of the photographic reconnaissance of the area showed that suitable drop zones and landing zones were available adjacent to the immediate objectives. In an attempt to disperse the enemy’s attention and fire, 10 zones were chosen, seven for the 6th and three for the 17th.

The 6th Airborne would be required to land on the northern edge of the Schnepfenberg, a high feature topped by the Diersfordter Wald, opposite the point at which British XII Corps would cross the Rhine on the outskirts of the village of Hamminkeln and beside two road bridges across the Issel Canal. The parachute brigades would take care of the first area. The Airlanding Brigade (12th Devonshire Regiment) would secure Hamminkeln and capture two road bridges and one railway bridge. In a repeat of the initial landing in Normandy, Company B of the 2nd Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and Company D of the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles would execute a coup de main landing on the bridges.

The town of Wesel and its environs were the main objectives of the 17th. The parachute regiments were to drop to the south and east of the Schnepfenberg while the gliderborne elements were to land to the north of Wesel. Tasks included seizing a bridge over the Issel, which ran along the eastern edge of the landing area. While not a particularly wide river, the Issel’s steep banks were a natural tank trap. The 194th was also to protect the right flank of the landing, and establish contact with the British 1st Commando Brigade, which was expected by then to have captured and secured Wesel.

Tactical Glider Landings

The 513th and artillery forward observers would jump from the two-door Curtiss C-46 Commando aircraft, and its glider troops would be in double-towed gliders. This technique had been tried the previous year, unsuccessfully, in Burma.

For the first time, glider troops would be landing in unsecured zones. For this reason the gliders were to execute tactical landings to confuse the defenders about the direction from which the main attack would come and to enable troops to land as close as possible to their objectives.

This latter innovation had, like several other factors of the operation, been influenced by the contents of a captured German document, which had come into the Allies’ possession in December 1944. This was an appreciation of the mistakes made in Operation Market (the airborne phase of Market-Garden).

The document found fault with the Allies’ failure to put down the maximum force possible on September 17; slowness in building up forces, following the first lift; keeping to the same route in resupply missions and a concern to overprotect the immediate drop zone area rather than put pressure on German forces. This latter failure allowed the Germans to concentrate troops and organize rapid counterattacks.

Following their findings, the Germans put into place measures that would seek out areas most likely to be chosen for large-scale airborne landings. Antiaircraft and mortar defenses would be concentrated on these areas. Air raid precautions would be improved, and new mobile patrols, trained for antiairborne defense and capable of mobilization at 20 minutes’ notice, would be created.

In all the reorganization, the 194th Glider Infantry Regiment was still short one company. Following a request from Miley, Captain Charles O. Gordon, glider operations officer with the 435th Troop Carrier Group (TCG), made an immediate decision that his pilots could handle this assignment based on his knowledge of their previous combat experience and the use of various weapons. They received two weeks’ infantry training from the 194th.

As mentioned earlier, the GPR suffered grievously during Operation Market-Garden. With the ensuing airborne operation leaving too little time to train new pilots from scratch, the decision was made to bring in RAF pilots. For some of these, their posting to the GPR is remembered and regarded as more by foul means than fair. Be that as it may, they all played an important role in the GPR at that time.

“Axis Sally Knows We Are Coming”

Following the push to the Rhine, the Allies were faced with the remains of the German First Parachute Army, the 84th Infantry Division and its supporting armor, and the 47th Panzer Corps with the 116th Panzer and 15th Panzergrenadier Divisions. On March 10, the German forces crossed the Rhine using a heavy rainstorm as cover and blew the last bridge behind them. At this time, the Allies estimated that the Germans had lost some 40,000 killed and over 50,000 captured.

The panzer divisions had also been badly mauled by the intense assault of the combined Allied presence. Estimates of the number of enemy troops occupying the crossing and invasion area vary: 7,500-12,000 with 100-150 armored fighting vehicles and their crews available in support. More significantly, and proving that the Germans expected an airborne landing, approximately 800 antiaircraft guns were noted in the week running up to the operation.

In overall command was Generaloberst Alfred Schlemm, CO of First Parachute Army. Using what time he had, Schlemm ensured that defensive works were constructed to secure or cover all areas that could be used for waterborne or airborne landings, height advantage, or speeding movement through and beyond the defensive zone. Farmhouses and suitable farm buildings were also turned into strongpoints.