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DZ Europe: Operation Varsity – “The Rhine”

…It wasn’t much of a secret. The Allied armies stretched along the Rhine. ON the other side lay Victory, and at places the crossing had been made – the bridge at Remagen and a foothold by Patton. But in the North the main crossing still was to be made. Field Marshal Montgomery was poised on the West bank. At Troop Carrier fields across France men were alerted, airborne troops had moved in and the bustle of preparations could mean only one thing. Once more Troop Carrier was to spearhead a thrust into the enemy’s vitals.

Within one spring week in March, 1945, it suddenly seemed that the war in Europe was mounting to a climax and a breaking point. German’s legendary Rhine barrier had been reached all along the west bank by the Allies and had already been forced by the surprise seizure of the Remagen Bridge. Along the upper reaches of the great river, for weeks, Britain’s Montgomery had been threatening a great offensive and the Germans had advertised their anticipation of airborne drops.

For three days before the opening gun, Marshall Montgomery had stoked a sixty-six-mile smoke screen in hundreds of chemical generators strung along the river. And back at the Troop Carrier bases in France and England, sweating and nervous anticipation rose to unprecedented heights. This was it, the mission to end all missions in Europe! “One more river to cross and I’ll take me and my damn air medals home,” was in every crewman’s mind. In the Orleans compound, 440th men eagerly scanned situation maps day and night as they sensed the excitement in the air. Behind locked doors, Major Young L. Watson’s Intelligence staff sweated over the newly arrived “Top Secret” material. And down on  A-50 crews sweated over the planes, for they, too, realized that this one had to be good.

rick-atkinson-guns-at-last-light-operation-varsity-plunderPlanning for this great Airborne mission had begun as far back as November, 1944, and from that time on all training was focused on the crossing of the Rhine. Step by step, the Command plans blossomed. Photographic evidence of terrain was studied for choice of landing zones for gliders and drop zones for paratroopers. All flak threats with enemy weapons likely to be used were considered. A constant check was kept on the possible German threat from the air. Improvements were devised in methods of dropping parapacks. Gliders received new protection devices. Engineers toiled over air strips in France. Increased vigilance and security precautions were rehearsed and stressed constantly. Anti-aircraft units were assigned to Troop Carrier bases. Throughout the Allied Airborne Army, training tempo was stepped up and up … Check your angle of the job…Rehearse it…Check it again…Rehearse it again. On and on it went. The timing system was rehearsed and modified. Equipment lists were studied and changed…In short, this show was to be the most rehearsed and best planned one in the history of airborne operations.

Finally, by March 16, Troop Carrier planning had crystallized into Field Order No. 5, which outlined the forthcoming operation VARSITY in detail. D-Day would fall on Saturday, March 24, with paratroop drops slated to begin at 1000 hours and the procession of Troop Carrier and glider serials to continue streaming over the target until well beyond noon.

The objective of the great attack was clear enough. The eastern bank defenses of the Rhine were to fall victim to vertical envelopment by paratroops and glider infantry in conjunction with the waterborne assault by ground forces from the west bank.

In cold military terms, the mission of the airborne force in the Emmerich-Wesel area was to assist the advance of the U.S. Ninth Army and the British Second Army by seizing a bridgehead on the east bank of the Rhine between Rees and Bislich. Then the skyborne troops would assist in enlarging the bridgehead to the required size of five to ten miles in width and five miles in depth in order to enable bridging operations to be undertaken relatively unhindered by artillery fire. Following the lift phase, Troop Carrier was committed to its traditional role of resupplying bridgehead troops by air until adequate ground arteries were able to function.

Available for the lift were the Sixth British Airborne Division and the Seventeenth U.S. Airborne Division. Over and above the simple fact that the Rhine was to be crossed hovered the realization that seizure of the Emmerich-Wesel sector would fling open the gate to the industrially precious Ruhr and the heart of the Reich, and would bring the end of the European war within reach.

david_shepherd_painting_test_02On the ground, the Allied armies int he North were scheduled to cross the Rhine in the vicinity of Wesel eight hours before the arrival of the Airborne Army. Here was something new! The doughfoots were to get in the first lick this time. And the U.S. Navy was also to be on the Rhine. Along with the Royal Navy, the U.S. overland fleet had hundreds of vessels in action. For weeks, all kinds of landing craft had been transported overland to hiding places along the Rhine. The offensive would see a steady stream of boats ferrying men, tanks, guns, bulldozers, and gasoline to the east banks in the wake of the initial assault craft.

The Air Force had a big role to play, too, a number of roles. Big Eight Air Force bombers were to pound the enemy days in advance of the opening gun…smash their jet plane airfields, hammer at flak installations, wreck their rear communication lines. Prowling fighters would maintain a defensive screen east of the landing area. And fifteen minutes after all airborne forces were on the ground a fleet of Liberators would drop supplies to the embattled sky warriors. RAF Fighter Command would escort Troop Carrier columns coming out of the United Kingdom, and Ninth Air Force would take care of those starting from French bases. Over the target area, the Second Tactical Air Force would take over the main job of air protection.

The terse, clipped phrases of Field Order No. 5 pointed to the threefold, historic task of Major General Paul L. Williams’ IX Troop Carrier Command: to lift parachute and glider troops and equipment of the U.S. Seventeenth Airborne Division; to support the Thirty-eighth and Forty-sixth RAF Groups by carrying part of the paratroops and equipment of the Sixth British Airborne Division; and to resupply the Seventeenth by air.

1945MarchOpVarsityInside the War Room of Group Headquarters, Colonel Krebs, his Staff and Intelligence officers, weeded out the 440th job from the complicated maze of the mammoth plan. The task of the veteran 440th Troop Carrier Group in Operation VARSITY was to tow ninety gliders filled with a IX Troop Carrier Command Control Unit, a Reconnaissance Platoon of the 17th Airborne Division, together with their equipment. The CG-4A gliders were to be landed in a rectangular area designated LZ “N,” the most northerly of the two landing zones selected for the Seventeenth Airborne and lying about four miles north northwest of the city of Wesel along the northwest side of a heavily wooded area. The zone was characterized by a checkerboard arrangement of fields and meadows interspersed with patches of woodland and farmhouses. Prominent landmarks were the double-tracked Wesel-Emmerich rail line and the sing track Wesel-Bocholt line, as well as the enemy’s secondary defense, the Issel Canal, and the main power line through the area, strung on 100-foot pylons. The tow as to be made directly from the home base, Airstrip A-50 at Bricy, near Orleans, France. Simple enough – on paper.

Then, the carefully rehearsed Group security plan swung into operation. A restriction was slapped on. Special passes were given to all outstanding vehicles. Warning signs appeared all over the compound and quarters… “Home Alive in ’45, Don’t Talk!” … “Enemy Ears Are Listening!” … “What You See and Heart Here, Leave Here,” … On D minus 2 Day the ball was passed to the Squadron Staffs and throughout the day preliminary briefings were held. Questions and answers flew thick and fast inside the guarded briefing rooms… “Those orange pins represent flak positions, but they expect to clean out most of them before Saturday” (laughter) … “No, we make a flat right turn”…”You’re damn right the pattern will be crowded”…”Dont’ forget to wear GI shoes.” No one was overlooked. Everybody got his instructions. Finally, on D minus 1, at ten o’clock in the morning, a mass briefing of power and glider pilots was conducted at the Royal Theatre by the Group Staff.

In the late afternoon of March 23 aircraft and gliders were marshaled on the runway of A-50. The line-up for the following morning was as follows: The 440th tow comprised two serials (A-16 and A-17) of the entire Troop Carrier plan, each serial containing forty-five towplanes and forty-five gliders. For the first serial (A-16), twenty-two planes of the 95th Squadron, twenty-two planes of the 97th Squadron, and one plane of the 96th Squadron assigned to Group headquarters for the lead ship in the 440th formation, were ready to go. In the second serial (A-17), there were twenty-one planes of the 96th Squadron, one of the 95th, and twenty-three of the 98th. The forty-five gliders in Serial A-16 were assigned to transport the Reconnaissance Platoon, the Control Unit, and elements of the 139th Engineering battalion. The equal number of gliders in Serial A-17 were to carry the 517th Signal Company as well as elements of the 139th Engineers. Gliders were loaded with a total of 193,433 pounds of equipment. Five hundred and thirty-two airborne troops were to board the craft. At the controls of the lead ship would be Lt. Col. Cannon with Colonel Krebs as co-pilot. The second serial would be led by Lt. Col. Johnson, 96th Commanding Officer, with Captain Roberson as his co-pilot.

In the velvety darkness before dawn, fresh winds blew across dozens of airfields in France and England. By the thousands, sleepy-eyed, yawning warriors climbed into their big-pocketed jump suits and pulled on high combat boots. It was another fateful morning of: “Well, here we go again! May your dog tags never part!” This time they were going beyond the Rhine.

C47sInbound-300x214At 2000 hours on March 23 Field Marshal Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group had launched a tremendous artillery barrage against the sector just east of the Rhine with intense fire sweeping through landing zones and drop zones. At 2100 hours the barrage lifted and under cover of darkness British Commandos opened the assault against Wesel. At 2200 the British VII Corps attacked. At 2330 the British XXX Corps joined the battle. Four and a half hours later, before dawn, General Simpson’s U.S. Ninth Army attacked south of the Lippe Canal. It had begun. the drive for Germany’s throat was on!

By dawn, nine small bridgeheads had been torn out of German hands across the Rhine in the Emmerich-Wesel area, and the stage was now set for the aerial armada of Troop Carrier to descend in a vertical flanking movement against the enemy’s east bank fortifications as the main Allied forces engaged him frontally.

Weather was on the side of the Allies as D-Day dawned bright and clear, with a ten-mile wind sweeping the airfields. The takeoffs began, and a Troop Carrier force of almost 3,000 planes and gliders lifted two heavily-armed and heavily-equipped Airborne divisions in a 420-mile-long javelin aimed squarely at the Ruhr defenses. If the planes had been strung out in a single file they could have stretched in unbroken line from Paris to Berlin!

The Seventeenth Airborne Division rode into battle from airdromes in the Paris area aboard 1,800 C-47 and C-46 aircraft and CG-4A gliders in both dual and single tows. The British Sixth Airborne Division jumped off from England with the entire paratroop lift made by 240 C-47s. To join the Yank glider assault, RAF threw in 381 Horsas and forty-eight giant Hamilcars, singly towed by C-47s Sterlings, and Halifaxes. The two great serial task forces converged at a point south of Brussels, while Allied fighters buzzed about protectively. Our aerial might was everywhere in evidence. The fighter screen was thrown around the target area, while others swooped east of the Rhine to isolate the battle sector.

At 0953 hours the first Pathfinder serial appeared over the target. It was the first link in a Troop Carrier chain over four drop zones and six landing zones that included seven American and six British parachute serials and thirty glider serials divided equally between the two members of the Allied team. Altogether the procession across the target would continue for three hours and twelve minutes. The last plane would wheel homeward at 1304 hours.

The drop had begun. German flak opened up, colored equipment parachutes dotted th ground, a white parachute was hung up in a tree, a big Hamilcar glider lay on its back, broken and burning. Fighter pilots saw concealed flak positions open up on the fat transports; one ship exploded in the air, others tumbled and burned. The fighters, in rocket-firing P-47 Thunderbolts, curses and went in on the deck, taking desperate chances to silence the enemy ack-ack.

Back at A-50 the 440th propellers whirled impatiently, while the gilders waited submissively in neat rows on both sides of the long, concrete runway. Pilots sniffed nervously at the cross-wind coming from the left as they climbed into their flak vests. That might cause trouble. Throughout the dawn hours trucks had snarled their way up from Orleans through the still sleeping town of Bricy, carrying the yawning crews. Now all were ready. It was time. But they didn’t like the way that cross-wind swept across the battered airfield.

At 0831, the lead tug, with Lt. Col. Cannon and Colonel Krebs at the controls, started down the runway with the first glider in tow, piloted by Major Wilson. One after another, at twenty-second intervals, the tow planes moved into line, gently taughtened the rope, then poured on the power and roared down the runway into the sky. The drift from the wind was evident at once. Crews still on the ground swore softly as they waited their turn. The take-offs continued with stop-watch accuracy. At 0848, Lt. Col. Johnson’s second serial took off. In thirty-eight minutes, all aircraft and gliders were airborne.

Men on the ground heaved a concerted sigh of relief as they watched the skytrain come back over the field to form in groups of four, echeloned to the right. And just as they had resigned themselves to the seating-out stage, one of the planes dropped out, released its gilder over the field, and landed shortly afterwards. It was No. 642. An engine was cutting out. Hurriedly, the business of getting a spare ship into action began, for there was still time to catch the formation. Some minutes later, with the formation already out of sight, another abort winged back over the field. No. 731 had developed a runaway propeller that refused control. Another spare was called on as the Commanding Officer of the 139th Engineers, Lt. Col. Johnson, raged and fumed with impatience and worry, for he had been aboard the abortive glider. The second spare got into the sky about a half hour behind the Group formation with the uncomfortable prospect of a solo flight ahead of them.

The 346-mile flight to the target, later reported as “uneventful,” had begun. It was seventy-five miles north northwest to the Wing Departure point, “Slate,” near Pontoise, France. Then eighty-two miles northeast to the next checkpoint, “Jasper,” a spot near St. Quentin, France. Then straight on for another eighty miles to the Command Departure Point, “Marfak,” where astonished inhabitants of Wavre, Belgium, had a choice ground view of the entire Troop Carrier train flying 1,500 feet above them. On they ploughed, battling the wind drift. Descending to an altitude of 1,000 feet, the 440th drove on twenty-seven more miles to “Vega,” thirty-tow miles to “Kingston,” and thirty-three miles more to “Yalta,” lying twelve miles from the banks of the Rhine and seventeen miles from the target. Down went the ships to 700 feet, the prescribed altitude for the release. Nerves tightened as the yellow smoke and yellow panel appeared on the ground, signalling the alert just before the river appeared. Thick smoke of battle was now everywhere. The 440th plunged into the conflict at its raging height.

It was late in the airborne attack. Most of the glidermen and all of the paratroopers were already on the ground, at grips with the enemy. “The smoke and haze were so thick, I hardly knew I was over the Rhine,” said one pilot. But Landing Zone “N” was still clear of combat. At 1155 hours, our first plane released its glider over the LZ, and Major Wilson began his perilous 270-degree descent to the left, while the Commanding Officer’s tug made its flat 180-degree turn to the right to head for the rope drop area on the west side of the Rhine. Then came the withering hail of enemy flak which damaged fourteen of our planes and destroyed two. Heeding the order for no evasive action, every one of the ninety ships released its glider over the target area. But narrow escapes were plentiful.

The 95th Squadron got through with ships piloted by Major Budd and Lieutenant Davey severely shot up. In the 97th Lieutenant Sharkey returned with holes in his cabin large enough for one to crawl through. By then, farmhouses and dugouts in the LZ were alive with bursts of light flak and small-arms fire.

The second serial met it head on and was hit much harder. The hazy sky swarmed with escaping tug planes, grim-jawed pilots maneuvering feverishly to get out without hitting the feared Issel Canal line, eyes of crew chiefs darted everywhere searching for signs of critical damage to their planes. A 20-mm. shell smacked into the nose of the lead 96th ship, and Lt. Col. Johnson lead the serial back across the Rhine, fighting a fire in his cockpit. With the pilot stamping away at the fire, co-pilot Captain Roberson brought the ship into the emergency field at Eindhoven, Holland.

Lieutenant Prudhomme, also of the 96th, was forced to drop out of formation after both gasoline tanks had been hit. Trailing gas, he had to put in at B-90 airdrome.

The 98th Squadron, trailing the second serial, was hit the hardest, with two aircraft losses. Lieutenant Walters, his plane afire after being hit by three successive bursts of flak, found himself fighting for altitude in the dangerously crowded aircraft pattern. The “Bail Out!” order was given. As the crew parachuted to safety, they saw their ship blaze up in mid-air.

A crashed B-17 in a similar manner to the C-47 crash.
A crashed B-17 in a similar manner to the C-47 crash.

Back over the Rhine plane number 774, piloted by Lieutenant Decou, was in serious trouble. The right engine was on fire, and a radio message from another ship told the pilot that his tanks were on fire. Lieutenant Decou ordered the crew to jump. “When I got to the door,” related Co-Pilot Eastman, “the crew chief and radio operator were struggling with the door, which had jammed at the lower right hinge. After trying unsuccessfully to release it, the crew chief and I pushed against it as hard as we could to allow the radio operator to squeeze out the restricted opening. I then did the same for the crew chief, and finally squeezed through myself. It took me at least fifteen seconds to get through the opening. The pilot had stayed in the cockpit all this time, keeping the ship steady.”

Too low to jump himself, with one engine dead, Lieutenant Decou elected to ride the stricken plane into a ploughed-up field, “Along the field’s north edge,” said the lieutenant, ” was a highway which had heavy military traffic on it. Wishing to avoid piling up the ship across the highway, and also to avoid a large herd of sheep on the north of the field, I dragged the right wing through some posts on the south edge of the field which caused a ground loop to the right, and the ship came to a halt about two-thirds of the way across the field…I immediately removed the top escape hatch and went out over the nose, not knowing when the ship would blow up, having fully expected it to on first impact. Captain Thompson then buzzed the field and I waved an ‘OK’ to him.”

By 1411 hours, the last 440th plane had returned to the home base at Bricy. In the entire operation, but one C-47 pilot, Lieutenant Raftery of the 97th, received slight wounds in the arm.

Return of the glider pilots on Tuesday, March 27, revealed that they had had it much rougher on the ground. In all, five of them were killed and six wounded, largely by enemy shellfire. One glider, loaded with demolitions, exploded in mid-air when hit, killing all aboard.

Gliders were widely dispersed on landing, and assembly of the Airborne was initially by squad and two squad groups. Immediate contact was made with the enemy, but the tough Airborne Engineers set about their task, the clearing and defending of the zone from armored attack from the north. Every house, patch of woods and haystack had been fortified by the Germans, and for hours the invaders were under heavy fire.

One of the two gliders carrying the Battalion medical personnel landed immediately adjacent to a German house sheltering forty German soldiers. Withering small-arms fire and a direct mortar fire hit greeted them. The medical officer and non-com escaped unhurt, but their driver was killed and burned with the glider. With equipment from the other glider, the battalion surgeon set up an aid station and immediately began treating casualties.

By 1730 hours, the battalion had taken all of its objectives and had consolidated its position. During the day, eighty-three Germans were killed or wounded and 315 captured, along with an entire battery of 105-mm. artillery.

The 440th glider pilots holed up in their assembly point in the woods guarding prisoners, and , the next morning assisted in marching them back to the Thine where they were turned over the MP’s. Evacuation was made by “ducks” to the west bank of the Rhine, where the glider pilots were picked up at airdrome B-68 and brought to Bricy in C-47s on the evening of D plus, 2, March 26.

By late afternoon of March 24 both the British and American divisions had made contact with British troops working overland from the river; by six p.m. the skytroopers had taken all their assigned objectives, including several intact bridges over the Issel, regarded as the Nazis’ next main line of resistance after the Rhine. Before midnight, the airborne men had captured 4,000 Germans behind their own front lines.

GLIDER_TROOPS_AFTER_LANDING_NEAR_WESEL_(Operation_Varsity)In the entire IX Troop Carrier Command operation, 1,147 effective sorties had successfully dropped 8,731 parachutists and 684,217 pounds of supplies, while the 885 effective glider sorties disgorged 4,810 troops together with 2,024,047 pounds of equipment and supplies. Ninety-seven per cent of equipment and supplied loaded for VARSITY had hit paydirt on schedule.

By the second day it was clear that the airborne attack had come off beautifully, and that it could stand almost as a textbook model of sound airborne doctrine: jump for the open spots and clip the enemy from the side; jump in real strength, not in penny packets for the enemy to chew up one by one; jump close enough to the main attacking ground force so that contact can be made before the airborne group is worn down.

To General Williams fell the high acclaim of General Brereton, commander of the First Allied Airborne Army, who stated on March 29:

EOS - CCT #1“It is my desire to congratulate and to commend the officers and men of all ranks of IX Troop Carrier Command for their fine performance in connection with the airborne operations of 24 March 1945:

“The pilots and co-pilots of many aircraft displayed great courage in their determination to continue to their assigned DZ’s and LZ’s in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire, exceeding anything previously encountered by our units in this theatre.

“The Commanding General, 6th Airborne Division, was most emphatic in his praise of the precision which characterized the drop of his Division. The Commanding General of the 17th Airborne Division has written me, expressing unbounded admiration for the skill, courage and devotion to duty of all crew members of our aircraft and gliders.

“Many individual cases have been cited where damaged and burning aircraft continued to their assigned ares in spite of the fact that the crews well understood that continuing on course destroyed any probably chance of survival for themselves.

“The conduct of glider pilots, in general, is beyond written words of commendation. Not only did they deliver a magnificent and well-coordinated landing which in many cases was in the midst of hostile positions, but were immediately engaged with the Airborne associates in the hottest kind of hand-to-hand fighting. In one instance, a glider pilot serial immediately organized for all-around defense and withstood heavy counter-attacks with the weapons at their disposal, putting one enemy tank out of action in this engagement. The discipline and combat efficiency of these glider pilots has called forth the highest praise of Division and Regimental officers.

“The extremely low number of abortive aircraft and the speed with which abortives were re-dispatched indicates superior performance by all ground echelons. This devotion to duty is worth of the highest praise.

“The courage and devotion to duty of all IX Troop Carrier Command personnel is worthy of the very highest standards of our armed forces.”

[SOURCE: DZ Europe: The Story of the 440 Troop Carrier Group]