Seal of WWII Glider Pilots Association

GERMANY--Rhine Crossing: Operation Varsity

by Hans den Brok

With the failure of operation Market Garden, the Western Allied Army was still facing the Rhine River as a barrier to cross. Planning for another operation started in fall 1944. Advancement toward the Rhine was not that fast, and the German counter attack in the Ardennes postponed the planned operation to cross the Rhine.

Finally, on 24 March 1945, Montgomery’s plan of crossing the Rhine with the aid of Airborne Forces was executed. At the time of the operation, U.S. forces had crossed the Rhine at various places, however, this was the first airborne mission conducted by the Allies into Germany. It took off in the early hours of the 24th of March 1945.

From fields in England U.S. Troop Carrier planes (61st Troop Carrier Group, TCG, from Chiping Ongar; 315th TCG, from Boreham; ad 316th TCG from Wethersfield) took off to drop the British 6th Airborne Division's paratroopers into the Westphalia area of Germany near Hamminkeln. The American airborne forces, 507th and 513th Parachute Infantry Regimental Combat Teams, were the first elements of the 17th Airborne to take–off from various fields in France. This was the first time troopers jumped from the double door C–46 in a combat operation. They were flown by the 313th Troop Carrier Group out of the airfield at Acheit France.

After the paratroop drop the 194th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 17th Airborne took off. Again, there was a first in this operation; glider double tow. This had not been used in combat on the European battlefields until this operation. Major Gordon, the glider officer of the 435th Troop Carrier Group described the start of the operation,

The day started early, and never really ended. At 0700 hours everone was aboard the various aicraft, and at 0730 the first plane was airborne. The entire column was two hours and 18 minutes in length and consisted of 226 C–47s and 72 C–46s carrying parachute troops, while 906 gliders were towed by 610 C–47s. To the left of these formations were 42 C–53s, 752 C–47s, and 420 gliders of the Britsh 6th Airborne Division. And above and around this huge assembly of aircraft were 676 U.S. fighter planes and 213 RAF figter planes flying escort for the “Airborne Carpet.” They were banking and flitting around the long train of aircraft, keeping a constant watch for enemy planes.

It was a sight never before seen. Stretched across the sky as far as one’s eye could see was the largest sky armada ever assembled, then or now. There were literally thousands of aircraft—gliders, C–47s, C–46s, and fighter cover of all sorts— transporting men, equipment, supplies and ammunition.

The gliders on double tow were to land at LANDING ZONE–S The Objective: Orders described the mission of the 17th as being “to seize, clear and secure” the divison area with priority to the high ground just east of Dieresfordt, and the bridges over the Issel River; protect the right (south) flank of Corps; establish contact with First Comando Brigade (British) northeast of Wesel, with the 15th British Division, and with the 6th British Airborne Division. (Gordon)

This was the first time that paratroopers would not be dropped before the gliders making it the first time gliders would land on unsecure Landing Zones. U.S. operations previously secured the landing zones for the gliders. This change made the glider landings perilous. The glider pilots view was obstructed by the smoke screen that the British engineers had laid down to cover the river crossing from the German eye. Now, the pilots could not see the ground until they were almost down. German soldiers were in trenches, farm houses and barns and laid a devastating fire upon the landing gliders. The shear number of gliders landing in a short period in this area tipped the balance and by the end of the day the area of this landing zone was under American control.

Another first in history happened in the general area of LZ-S. Before the operation, a request came from the 17th Airborne Division for some extra manpower. The Glider Officer of the 435th Troop Carrier Group volunteered his group of Glider Pilots to fulfill this job. And thus, after landing, they assembled into the Provisional 435th Glider Infantry Company and headed for their designated area to put up roadblocks. These were facing west, and were there to cover the back of the Glider Infantry lines and to prevent German forces from escaping between the river and the airborne forces. This was an all officer outfit, entirely Air Force that got engaged in a ground battle. A Stars and Stripes reported later gave this the name Battle at Burp Gun Corner.

Further north, gliders of following Serials started landing in LANDING ZONE–N. Although paratroopers had landed in this general area, the scene was almost the same as on LZ-S. From their hidden positions in farms, German forces laid fire upon the gliders who came down through the smoke and landed. It took some time to gain control over the area, but in the end of the day the resistance had stopped.

"Several slugs go through your glider fabric, sounding much like a dull drum beat, but no one is hit. Tensely, your eyes dart about as you look for a landing place, for high-tension wires, and for other gliders. Now you are down to a 100 feet, and out of the corner of your eye you see a transmission tower, but no wires. Just ahead is a pasture with barbed wire fences, and there are two gliders touching down...
Ahead a glider rolls to a stop, disgorging troops on the run. Just past it is a burning glider with smoke and flames billowing into the air. Glancing to your right, you see a small woods and approaching it, two gliders on the ground, but rolling too fast. The first hits the trees, crumpling the nose and stopping abruptly. The big tail lifts up and then drops. The second glider pilot tries desperately to ground loop, but the right wing catches a tree and his glider is drawn into the woods also, with its parts flying all over...
But you are concentrating on the approach and landing, you flare, touch down, put it up on the skids, and quickly come to a stop. You have accomplished your primary mission. But while you were still moving, a rifle slug whined through the glider, and the airborne troops started scrambling out of the doors." (Gordon)

That night, German forces tried to escape the pocket and slip through the Allied lines. A lot of Glider Pilots had brief encounters with the enemy. The following day, evacuation of the glider pilots started. A new operation was planned, although it never materialized. The glider pilots headed back over the Rhine and spent a night at the famous “Rhine Hotel” . From there they headed to an airfield in Holland for a flight back to France.

In just a little bit more then a month, the war in Europe was over.

Richard Redfern

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