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British Gliders crossing the Rhine, March 1945

British Gliders crossing the Rhine, March 1945



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British Gliders crossing the Rhine, March 1945

According the wartime caption this shows Horsa gliders being towed across the Rhine by Stirling bombers (looking south, with the aircraft flying from west (right) to east (left).


Crossing the Rhine: March 7-31, 1945

THE RHINE was by far the most formidable of the rivers the GIs had to cross. It rises in the Alps and flows generally north to Arnhem, where it makes a sharp turn to the west. It is between 200 and 500 metres wide, swift and turbulent, with great whirlpools and eddies. The Germans on the far bank were disorganized and demoralized but still determined and capable of utilizing the natural advantages the Rhine gave them to defend their country. There were only two or three places from Cologne south that were possible crossing sites. Worse, along that stretch there were no major objectives on the east bank inland for some 50 kilometres, and the hinterland was heavily wooded, undulating, and broken by narrow valleys.

North of Cologne, Montgomery's Twenty-first Army Group had many suitable crossing sites, good terrain for a mobile offensive, and major objectives just across the Rhine in the Ruhr Valley. Beyond the Ruhr, the plain led straight to Berlin. So while Elsenhower's heart was with Bradley, Hodges, and Patton, his mind was with Monty. SHAEF G3 had decided that north was the place for the main crossing. Eisenhower agreed, but warned that "the possibility of failure cannot be overlooked. I am, therefore, making logistic preparations which will enable me to switch my main effort from the north to the south should this be forced upon me."

As MONTGOMERY'S armies were closing to the river, he began to build his supply base for the assault crossing. Altogether he required 250,000 tons of supplies for the British and Canadian forces and the US Ninth Army and 17th Airborne Division. Ninth Army had been part of Twenty-first Army Group since the preceding fall the 17th Airborne Division had arrived in Europe in December.

Montgomery's planning for the Rhine crossing was almost as elaborate as for Overlord. Eighty thousand men, slightly less than half the number of men who went into France on June 6, 1944, would cross the Rhine by boat or transport aeroplane on the first day for Operations Plunder (the crossing by boat) and Varsity (the airborne phase), with an immediate follow-up force of 250,000 and an ultimate force of 1 million.

Montgomery set D-day for March 24. For the two weeks preceding the assault he laid down a massive smoke screen that concealed the buildup-and gave the Germans ample warning about where he was going to cross. The air forces pounded the Germans on the east bank with 50,000 tons of bombs. Monty invited Churchill and other dignitaries to join him to watch the big show.

Beginning February 28, Ninth Army had been pushing east. Company K, 333rd Regiment, received orders to take the village of Hardt, between the Rur and the Rhine. After an all-day march through mud and cold, followed by a few hours' rest, the company formed up an hour before dawn. Everyone was groggy, exhausted and wary, since they knew their flank was open, yet they were pressing on deeper into the German lines.

The company moved out to Hardt, attacked, and got stopped by machine-gun fire and a shower of 88s. Two men were killed. The others hit the ground. Sergeant George Pope's squad got caught in the open.

"We were all pinned down," he remembered. "It was flat as a floor. There wasn't a blade of grass you could hide under. I'm yelling 'Shoot, you sons of bitches!' That was a tough time."

Lieutenant Bill Masters was in the edge of a wood with half of his platoon. The remainder of his men and other platoons were getting pounded out in the open flat field. Masters recalled: "I decided I had to get these guys moving or a lot more were going to get killed." He ran forward, swearing at the men to get them going as he passed them. "I got up as far as a sugar-beet mound that gave some cover, close enough to toss a grenade at the German machine gunner right in front of me. But I couldn't get the grenade out of my pocket-it was stuck." A German tossed a potato masher. "It landed right next to me but didn't explode."

The enemies commenced firing at each other. Both missed. Both ran out of ammunition at precisely the same time. Masters knelt on one knee, reloaded, as did the German. The enemies looked up at the same time and fired simultaneously. Masters put a bullet between the machine gunner's eyes. When Masters took off his helmet to wipe his brow, he found a bullet hole through the top.

Masters ran to the first building on the outskirts of town. "I had this deadend kid from Chicago I'd made my bodyguard. He came in close behind me, and then a number of men pulled up and we went from building to building cleaning out the place and captured a sizable batch of German paratroopers." Lieutenant Paul Leimkuehler gave a more vivid description of Masters's action: "He was leading, running down the main street like a madman, shooting up everything in his way."

The company advanced and by March 7 was in Krefeld, on the banks of the Rhine. By some miracle the men found an undamaged high-rise apartment building in which everything worked-electricity, hot water, flush toilets, telephones. They had their first hot baths in four months. They found cigars and bottles of cognac. Private Bocarski, fluent in German, lit up, sat down in an easy chair, got a befuddled German operator on the phone, and talked his way through to a military headquarters in Berlin. He told the German officer he could expect K Company within the week.

That was not to be. Having reached the river, K Company, along with the rest of Ninth Army, would stay in place until Montgomery had everything ready for Operation Plunder.

ON MARCH 7 Patton's forces were still fighting west of the Rhine, trying to close to the river from Koblenz south to Mainz. The best stretch of river for crossing south of Cologne was in his sector. He was thinking of crossing on the run and hoping he could do it before Montgomery's operation even got started-and before Hodges's First Army. too, if possible.

But his men were exhausted. "Signs of the prolonged strain had begun to appear," one regimental history explained. "Slower reactions in the individual, a marked increase in cases of battle fatigue, and a lower standard of battle efficiency all showed quite clearly that the limit was fast approaching." Company G, 328th Infantry Regiment, was typical. It consisted of veterans whose bone weariness was so deep they were indifferent, plus raw recruits. Still, it had the necessary handful of leaders, as demonstrated by Lieutenant Lee Otts in the second week in March, during Third Army's drive towards the Rhine. Private George Idelson described it in a 1988 letter to Otts: "My last memory of you-and it is a vivid one-is of you standing in a fierce mortar and artillery barrage, totally without protection, calling in enemy coordinates. I know what guts it took to do that. I can still hear those damn things exploding in the trees."

Otts established a platoon CP and started to dig a foxhole. "Mortar shells started falling almost as thick as rain drops," he remembered.

"Instead of covering my head, I, like a fool, propped up on my right elbow with my chin resting on my hand, looking around to see what was going on. All of a sudden something hit me on the left side of my jaw that felt like a blow from Jack Dempsey's right. I stuck my hand up to feel the wound and it felt as though half my face was missing." The company commander came limping over. He had been hit in the foot and intended to turn the company over to Otts, but he took one look at Otts's face and cried, "My God, no, not you too," and limped back to his foxhole.

Otts got up to start walking back to the aid station, when a sniper got him in the shoulder, the bullet exiting from his back without hitting any bone. He was on his way home. For the others the pounding continued. Lieutenant Jack Hargrove recalled: "All day men were cracking mentally and I kept dashing around to them but it didn't help. I had to send approximately fifteen back to the rear, crying. Then two squad leaders cracked, one of them badly."

FIRST Army was moving east all along its front, making ten miles per day, sometimes more. They were taking big bags of prisoners. They were looking forward to getting to the river, where they anticipated good billets in warm, dry cellars and a few days to rest and refit. There was even a chance they could stay longer, as there were no plans for crossing in their sector. First Army was, in essence, SHAEF's reserve. Eisenhower counted on it to give him the flexibility to send a number of divisions either north to reinforce Monty or south to reinforce Patton, depending on developments.

Early on March 7, on First Army's right flank, 9th Armoured Division was sent to close to the west bank of the Rhine. The mission of Combat Command B (CCB) of the 9th, commanded by General William Hoge, was to occupy the west bank town of Remagen, where a great railroad bridge spanned the Rhine. It had been built in World War I and named after General Eric Ludendorff. On the east bank there was an escarpment, the Erpeler Ley. Virtually sheer, rising some 170 metres, it dominated the river valley. The train tracks followed a tunnel through the Erpeler Ley.

As CCB moved towards the Rhine, Lieutenant Harold Larsen flew ahead in a Piper Cub, looking for targets of opportunity. At around 1030 he was approaching Remagen, when he saw the Ludendorff Bridge, its massive superstructure intact, looming out in the fog and mists. Larsen radioed General Hoge, who immediately sent orders to the units nearest Remagen to take the bridge. They were the 27th Armoured Infantry Battalion and the 14th Tank Battalion. Hoge formed them into a task force under Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Engeman, who put Lieutenant Emmet "Jim" Burrows's infantry platoon in the lead. Brushing aside light opposition, Task Force Engeman reached a wood just west of Remagen a little before noon. Burrows emerged from the wood onto a cliff overlooking the Rhine. German soldiers were retreating across the Ludendorff Bridge.

Burrows called back to Lieutenant Karl Timmermann, 22 years old, who had just assumed command of Company A the previous day. A touch of irony: Timmermann had been born in Frankfurt am Main, less than 160 kilometres from Remagen. His father had been in the American occupation forces in 1919, had married a German girl, stayed in the country until 1923, when he returned to his native Nebraska with his wife and son. Timmermann had joined the army in 1940 and earned his bars at officer candidate school at Fort Benning.

Timmermann was told to get into the town with his infantry and tanks. As Timmermann set out, Hoge set off cross-country in a jeep to get to the scene, weighing the prospects of capturing the bridge. He had just received an order to proceed south on the west bank until he linked up with the left flank of Third Army. To go for the bridge he would have to disobey direct orders, risking a court-martial and disgrace.

At 1500 Hoge arrived. Timmermann, meanwhile, had fought through scattered resistance and by 1600 was approaching the bridge. Germans on the east bank were firing machine guns and antiaircraft guns at his company. His battalion commander. Major Murray Deevers, joined Timmermann. "Do you think you can get your company across that bridge?" he asked.

"Well, we can try it, sir," Timmermann replied.

"What if the bridge blows up in my face?" Timmermann asked. Deevers turned and walked away without a word. Timmermann called to his squad leaders, "All right, we're going across."

He could see German engineers working with plungers. A huge explosion sent a volcano of stone and earth erupting from the west end of the bridge. The Germans had detonated a charge that gouged a deep hole in the earthen causeway joining the road and the bridge platform. The crater made it impossible for vehicles to get onto the bridge-but not infantry.

Timmermann turned to a squad leader: "Now, we're going to cross this bridge before-" At that instant there was another deafening roar. The Germans had set off a demolition two thirds of the way across the bridge. Awestruck, the men of A Company watched as the huge structure lifted up, and steel, timbers, dust, and thick black smoke mixed in the air. Many of the men threw themselves on the ground.

Ken Hechler, in The Bridge at Remagen, described what happened next:

"Everybody waited for Timmermann's reaction. 'Thank God, now we won't have to cross that damned thing,' Sergeant Mike Chinchar said fervently, trying to reassure himself.

"But Timmermann, who had been trying to make out what was left of the bridge through the thick haze, yelled, 'Look-she's still standing.' Most of the smoke and dust had cleared away, and the men followed their commander's gaze. The sight of the bridge still spanning the Rhine brought no cheers. The suicide mission was on again." Timmermann could see German engineers working frantically to try again to blow the bridge. He waved his arm overhead in the "follow me" gesture. Machine-gun fire from one of the bridge towers made him duck. One of A Company's tanks pulled up to the edge of the crater and blasted the tower. The German fire let up.

Timmermann was shouting, "Get going, you guys, get going." He set the example, moving onto the bridge himself. That did it. The lead platoon followed, crouching, running in the direction of the Germans on the far shore. Sergeant Joe DeLisio led the first squad. Sergeants Joe Petrencsik and Alex Drabik led the second. In the face of more machine-gun fire, they dashed forward. "Get going," Timmermann yelled. The men took up the cry. "Get going," they shouted at one another. Engineers were right behind them, searching for demolitions and tearing out electrical wires. The names were Chinchar, Samele, Massie, Wegener, Jensen. They were Italian, Czech, Norwegian, German, Russian-children of European immigrants come back to the old country to liberate it.

On the far side, at the entrance to the tunnel, they could see a German engineer pushing on a plunger. There was nothing for it but to keep going. And nothing happened. Apparently a stray bullet or shell had cut the wire leading to the demolition charges. DeLisio got to the bridge towers, ran up the circular staircase of the one to his right, and on the fourth level found three German machine gunners firing at the bridge.

"Hande hoch!" DeLisio commanded. They gave up he picked up the gun they had been using and hurled it out the firing window. Men on the bridge saw it and were greatly encouraged. Drabik came running at top speed. He passed the towers and got to the east bank. He was the first GI to cross the Rhine. Others were on his heels. They quickly made the German engineers in the tunnel prisoners. Timmermann sent Lieutenant Burrows and his platoon up the Erpeler Ley. Burrows took casualties, but he got to the top, where he saw far too many German men and vehicles spread out before him to even contemplate attacking them. But he had the high ground, and the Americans were over the Rhine.

Sixteen-year-old Private Heinz Schwarz, who came from a village a short distance upstream, was in the tunnel. He heard the order ring out:

"Everybody down! We're blowing the bridge!" He heard the explosion and saw the bridge rise up: "We thought it had been destroyed, and we were saved." But as the smoke cleared, he saw Timmermann and his men coming on. He ran to the entrance to the tunnel. "I knew I had to somehow get myself out through the rear entrance of the tunnel and run home to my mother as fast as I could." He did. Fifteen years later he was a member of the Bundestag, part of the federal legislature of West Germany. At a ceremony on March 7,1960, he met DeLisio, and they swapped stories.

AS THE WORD of Timmermann's toehold spread up the chain of command, each general responded by ordering men on the scene to get over the bridge, for engineers to repair it, for units in the area to change direction and head for Remagen. Bradley was the most enthusiastic of all. He had been fearful of a secondary role in the final campaign, but with Hodges over the river he decided immediately to get First Army fully involved.

Bradley got on the phone to Eisenhower. When he heard the news, Ike was ecstatic. Bradley said he wanted to push everything across he could. "Sure," Ike responded. "Get right on across with everything you've got. It's the best break we've had."

The Germans agreed with Eisenhower and Bradley that the Luden-dorff Bridge was suddenly the most critical strategic spot in Europe. So, like the Americans, they began rushing troops and vehicles to the site. For the Germans it was a hellish march through mud, traffic jams, abandoned vehicles, dead horses, dead men. Piper Cubs would spot them and bring down shelling from American artillery on the west bank.

For the Americans it was a hellish march over the bridge. Captain Roland of the 99th Division crossed on the night of March 7-8, to the "whistle and crash of hostile shells. How exposed and vulnerable I felt on that strip of metal high above the black, swirling waters. Walking forward became extremely difficult. I had the feeling that each projectile was' headed directly at my chest." Colonel William Westmoreland (USMA, 1936), chief of staff of the 9th Armoured, crossed that night lying on his belly on the hood of a jeep, spotting for holes in the planking that covered the railroad tracks. In the morning he set up an antiaircraft battery on top of the Erpeler Ley. He saw his first jet aircraft that day.

Hitler ordered courts-martial for those responsible for failing to blow the bridge. The American crossing at Remagen cost Field Marshal Rundstedt his job as commander in the West Hitler dismissed four other generals and ordered an all out assault to destroy the bridge, including jets-plus V-2s, plus frogmen to place explosives in the pilings, plus constant artillery bombardment. The Americans hurried antiaircraft into the area. One observer of a German air strike recalled that when the planes appeared, "there was so much firing from our guys that the ground shuddered it was awesome. The entire valley around Remagen became cloaked in smoke and dust before the Germans left-only three minutes after they first appeared."

The Americans poured in artillery, depending on Piper Cub FO's (forward observers) to direct the shells to a ripe target. Sergeant Oswald Filla, a panzer commander, recalled, "Whenever we went anywhere around the bridgehead to see what could be done, we had, at most, a half-hour before the first shells arrived."

As the infantry and armour gradually forced the Germans back, hundreds of engineers worked to repair the bridge even as it was getting pounded, while thousands of others laboured to get pontoon bridges across the river. The 291st Engineer Combat Battalion (ECB) worked with grim resolve despite air and artillery assaults. The engineers also built log and net booms upstream to intercept German explosives carried to the bridge by the current.

Major Jack Barnes (USMA, 1938) of the 51st ECB was in charge of building a 25 ton heavy pontoon bridge. His description of how it was done illustrates how good the American engineers had become at this business. Construction began at 1600 hours, March 10, with the building of approach ramps on both shores two kilometres upstream of the bridge. Smoke pots hid the engineers from German snipers, but "enemy artillery fire harassed the bridge site. Several engineers were wounded and six were killed. The Germans even fired several V-2 rockets from launchers in Holland, the only time they ever fired on German soil.

"The bridge was built in parts, with four groups working simultaneously, mostly by feel in the dark. By 0400 the next morning, fourteen 4-boat rafts had been completed and were ready to be assembled together as a bridge. When the rafts were in place they were reinforced with pneumatic floats between the steel pontoons so the bridge could take the weight of 36-ton Sherman tanks."

But as the bridge extended to midstream, the anchors couldn't hold the rafts in place. Barnes continued: "We discovered that the Navy had some LCVPs in the area and we requested their assistance. Ten came to the rescue. They were able to hold the bridge against the current until we could install a one-inch steel cable across the Rhine immediately upstream of the bridge, to which the anchors for each pontoon were attached. The remaining four-boat rafts were connected to the anchor cable, eased into position and connected to the ever-extending bridge until the far shore was reached.

"Finally, at 1900 March 11, twenty-seven hours after starting, the 969foot heavy pontoon bridge was completed. It was the longest floating bridge ever constructed by the Corps of Engineers under fire. Traffic started at 2300, with one vehicle crossing every two minutes."

On March 15 the great structure of the Ludendorff Bridge, pounded unmercifully by first the Americans and then the Germans, sagged abruptly and fell apart with a roar, killing twenty-eight and injuring ninety-three engineers. By then the Americans had six pontoon bridges over the river and nine divisions on the far side. They were in a position to head east, then north, to meet Ninth Army, which would be crossing the Rhine north of Dtisseldorf. When First and Ninth armies met, they would have the German Fifteenth Army encircled.

Remagen was one of the great victories in the US Army's history. All that General Marshall had worked for and hoped for in creating this citizen army, happened. The credit goes to the men-Timmermann, DeLisio, Drabik, through to Hoge, Bradley, and Ike-and to the system the army had developed, which bound these men together into a team that featured initiative at the bottom and a cold-blooded determination and competency at the top.

UP NORTH Montgomery's preparations continued. Down south Patton's Third Army cleared the Saarland and the Palatinate. On the night of March 22-23, his 5th Division began to cross the river at Oppenheim, south of Mainz. The Germans were unprepared. Well before dawn the whole of the 5th and a part of the 90th Division were across.

At dawn German artillery began to fire, and the Luftwaffe sent twelve planes to bomb and strafe. The Americans pushed east anyway. By the afternoon the whole of the 90th Division was on the far side, along with the 4th Armoured. Patton called Bradley: "Brad, don't tell anyone, but I'm across."

"Well, I'll be.damned-you mean across the Rhine?"

"Sure am. I sneaked a division over last night."

The following day Patton walked across a pontoon bridge built by his engineers. He stopped in the middle. While every GI in the immediate area who had a camera took his picture, he urinated into the Rhine. As he buttoned up, Patton said, "I've waited a long time to do that."

THAT NIGHT Montgomery put his operation in motion. More than 2,000 American guns opened fire at 0100, March 24. For an hour more than a thousand shells a minute ranged across the Rhine. Meanwhile, 1406 B-17s unloaded on Luftwaffe bases just east of the river. At 0200 assault boats pushed off. Things went so well that before daylight the 79th and 30th divisions were fully across the river, at a cost of only thirty-one casualties.

At airfields in Britain, France, and Belgium, the paratroopers and gliderborne troops from the British 6th and the American 17th Airborne divisions began to load up. This was an airborne operation on a scale comparable with D-Day on June 6, 1944, 21,000 British and American airborne troops had gone in, while on March 24, 1945, it was 21,680. There were 1,696 transport planes and 1348 gliders involved (British Horsa and Hamicar gliders, and American Wacos all of them made of canvas and wood). They would be guarded on the way to the drop zone and landing zone (DZ and LZ) by more than 900 fighter escorts, with another 900 providing cover over the DZ. To the east 1,250 P-47s would guard against German movement to the DZ. while 240 B-24s would drop supplies. Counting the B-17s that saturated the DZ with bombs, there were 9,503 Allied planes involved.

A couple of B-17s were loaded with cameramen and assigned to fly around the DZ to take pictures. What concerned them was the flak: the Ruhr Valley and environs, Germany's industrial heartland, was the most heavily defended in the country. The transports and gliders would be coming in low and slow, beginning just after 1000 hours. The tow planes had two gliders each, instead of one as on D-Day, a hazardous undertaking even on an exercise.

The DZ was just north and east of Wesel. It took the air armada two and a half hours to cross the Rhine. Lieutenant Ellis Scripture was the navigator on the lead plane. It was a new experience for him to fly in a B-17 at 500 feet and 120 knots-perilously close to stall-out speed. Still, he recalled, "It was a beautiful spring morning and it was a tremendous thrill for us as we led the C 47s to the middle of the Rhine. The thrill was the climax of the entire war as we poured tens of thousands of troops across the final barrier."

Across the river the German antiaircraft guns sprang to life. The flak and ground fire were the most intense of any airborne operation of the war. One American veteran from the Normandy drop said there "was no comparison," while an experienced British officer said that "this drop made Arnhem look like a Sunday picnic."

Sergeant Valentin Klopsch, in command of a platoon of German engineers in a cow stable about ten kilometres north of Wesel, described the action from his point of view. First there was the air bombardment, then the artillery. "And now, listen," Klopsch said. "Coming from across the Rhine there was a roaring in the air. In waves aircraft were approaching at different heights. And then the paratroopers were jumping, the chutes were opening like mushrooms. It looked like lines of pearls loosening from the planes."

The Luftwaffe gunners went back to work, "but what a superiority of the enemy in weapons, in men, in equipment. The sky was full of paratroopers, and then new waves came in. And always the terrible roaring of the low-flying planes. All around us was turning like a whirl." The Americans attacked Klopsch's cowshed. His platoon fired until out of ammunition, when Klopsch put up a white flag. "And then the Americans approached, chewing gum, hair dressed like Cherokees, but Colts at the belt." He and the surviving members of his platoon were marched to a POW cage on a farm and ordered to sit. Decades later he recalled, "What a wonderful rest after all the bombardments and the terrible barrage."

The C-46s took a pounding from the flak. This was the first time they had been used to carry paratroopers. The plane had a door on each side of the fuselage, which permitted a fast exit for the troopers, but the fuel system was highly vulnerable to enemy fire. Fourteen of the seventy-two C-46s burst into flames as soon as they were hit. Eight others went down the paratroopers got out, but the crews did not.

For the gliders it was terrifying. The sky was full of air bursts machinegun bullets ripped through the canvas. The pilots-all lieutenants, most of them not yet eligible to vote-could not take evasive action. They fixed their eyes on the spot they had chosen to land and tried to block out everything else. Nearly all made crash landings amid heavy small-arms fire.

Private Wallace Thompson, a medic in the paratroopers, was assigned a jeep placed inside a glider, and rode in the jeep's driver's seat behind the pilots of a Waco. Through the flight he kept telling the pilots, Lieutenants John Heffner and Bruce Merryman, that he would much prefer to jump into combat. They ignored his complaints. As they crossed the river, the pilots told Thompson to start his engine so that as they landed, they could release the nose latches and he could drive out.

Over the target, a few metres above the ground, an 88 shell burst just behind Thompson's jeep. The concussion broke the latches of the nose section, which flipped up, throwing the pilots out. The blast cut the ropes that held the jeep, which leaped out of the glider, engine running, flying through the air, Thompson gripping the steering wheel with all his might. He made a perfect four-wheel landing and beat the glider to the ground, thus becoming the first man in history to solo in a jeep.

The glider crashed and tipped, ending rear end up. Lieutenants Merryman and Heffner survived their flying exit but were immediately hit by machine-gun bullets, Heffner in the hand and Merryman in the leg. They crawled into a ditch. Thompson drove over to them.

"What the hell happened?" he demanded, but just then a bullet creased his helmet. He scrambled out of the jeep and into the ditch, saying he'd just taken his last glider ride. Then he treated their wounds and drove Merryman and Heffner to an aid station.

Operation Varsity featured not only a flying jeep, it also provided a unique event in US Army Air Force history. At the aid station, Merryman and Heffner met the crew of a B-24 that had been shot down and successfully crash-landed. When the air force guys started to dash out of their burning plane, the first man was shot, so the rest came out with hands up. The Germans took them to the cellar of a farmhouse, gave them some Cognac, and held them "while the Germans decided who was winning. A little later the Germans realized they were losing and surrendered their weapons and selves to the bomber crew. The Germans were turned over to the airborne." This was perhaps the only time a bomber crew took German infantry prisoners.

Before the end of the day the airborne troops had all their objectives, and over the next couple of days the linkup with the infantry was complete. Twenty-first Army Group was over the Rhine.

BY THE FIRST week of spring 1945, Eisenhower's armies had done what he had been planning for since the beginning of the year_close to the Rhine along its length, with a major crossing north of Dusseldorf-and what he had dared to hope for, additional crossings by First Army in the centre and Third Army to the south. The time for exploitation had arrived. The Allied generals were as one in taking up the phrase Lieutenant Timmermann had used at the Remagen bridge-Get going!

The 90th Division, on Patton's left flank, headed east towards Hanau on the Main River. It crossed in assault boats on the night of March 28. Major John Cochran's battalion ran into a battalion of Hitler Youth officer candidates, teenage Germans who were at a roadblock in a village. As Cochran's men advanced, the German boys let go with their machine gun, killing one American. Cochran put some artillery fire on the roadblock and destroyed it. "One youth, perhaps aged 16, held up his hands," Cochran recalled. "I was very emotional over the loss of a good soldier and I grabbed the kid and took off my cartridge belt.

"I asked him if there were more like him in the town. He gave me a stare and said, 'I'd rather die than tell you anything.' I told him to pray, because he was going to die. I hit him across the face with my thick, heavy belt. I was about to strike him again when I was grabbed from behind by Chaplain Kerns. He said, 'Don't!' Then he took that crying child away. The Chaplain had intervened not only to save a life but to prevent me from committing a murder." From the crossing of the Rhine to the end of the war, every man who died, died needlessly. It was that feeling that almost turned Major Cochran into a murderer.

Hitler and the Nazis had poisoned the minds of the boys Germany was throwing into the battle. Captain F.W. Norris of the 90th Division ran into another roadblock. His company took some casualties, then blasted away, wounding many. "The most seriously wounded was a young SS

sergeant who looked just like one of Hitler's supermen. He had led the attack. He was bleeding copiously and badly needed some plasma." One of Norris's medics started giving him a transfusion. The wounded German, who spoke excellent English, demanded to know if there was any Jewish blood in the plasma. The medic said damned if he knew, in the US people didn't make such a distinction. The German said if he couldn't have a guarantee that there was no Jewish blood he would refuse treatment.

Norris remembered: "In very positive terms I told him I really didn't care whether he lived or not, but if he did not take the plasma he would certainly die. He looked at me calmly and said, 'I would rather die than have any Jewish blood in me.'

BY MARCH 28 First Army had broken out of the Remagen bridgehead. General Rose's 3rd Armoured Division led the way, headed for the linkup with Ninth Army. That day Rose raced ahead, covering 90 miles, the longest gain on any single day of the war for any American unit. By March 31 he was attacking a German tank training centre outside Paderborn. Rose was at the head of a column in his jeep. Turning a corner, his driver ran smack into the rear of a Tiger tank. The German tank commander, about eighteen years old, opened his hatch and levelled his burp gun at Rose, yelling at him to surrender.

Rose, his driver, and his aide got out of the jeep and put their hands up. For some reason the tank commander became extremely agitated and kept hollering while gesturing towards Rose's pistol. Rose lowered his arm to release his web belt and drop his holster to the ground. Apparently the German boy thought he was going to draw his pistol. In a screaming rage he fired his machine pistol straight into Rose's head, killing him instantly. Maurice Rose was the first and only division commander killed in ETO.

In most cases the retreating Germans did not stop to fight. Generally they passed right through the villages, rather than use them as strongpoints. First and Third armies were advancing in mostly rural areas, spending their nights in houses. The GIs would give the inhabitants five minutes or so to clear out. The German families were indignant. The GIs were insistent. As Major Max Lale put it in a March 30 letter home,

"None of us have any sympathy for them."

The rural German homes had creature comforts-electricity, hot water, soft, white toilet paper-such as most people thought existed in 1945 only in America. On his first night in a house Private Joe Burns spent five minutes in a hot shower. Fifty-one years later he declared it to be "the most exquisite five minutes in my life. Never before or since have I had such pure pleasure." Private David Webster recalled washing his liands at the sink and deciding, "This was where we belonged. A small, sociable group, a clean, well-lighted house [behind blackout curtains], a cup of coffee-paradise." Things were looking up, even though there was still a lot of Germany to overrun.


Across the Rhine

On March 23-24, 1945, the Allies launched Operation Plunder, a crossing of the River Rhine by the British Second Army and the U.S. Ninth. The crossings occurred near Rees, Wesel and south of the Lippe River. The operation included an airborne operation involving 16,000 British, Canadian and American airborne troops, the last airborne operation of the war. However, the Rhine had first been crossed more than two weeks earlier when the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen had been captured on March 7 by the U.S. First Army. The U.S. Third Army under General George Patton crossed the Rhine on March 22.
March is Across the Rhine Month here at HWP.

Mar 07, 2015 #2 2015-03-07T18:33

On the 7th March 1945 a small US Army reconnaissance unit came within sight of the Rhine at Remagen, surprised to find the railway bridge across still intact. An assault was swiftly organized.
See more at: http://ww2today.com/7-march-1945-captur . kqF1B.dpuf
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The Battle of Remagen during the Allied invasion of Germany resulted in the unexpected capture of the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine and possibly shortened World War II in Europe.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Remagen
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Winding its way from Switzerland to the North Sea, the Rhine River has historically stood as a natural barrier defending the German heartland that lies beyond it. As the Allied armies approached, Hitler ordered the destruction of all the bridges that spanned the Rhine. By March 7, they all had been, except one - the Ludendorff railroad bridge at the little resort town of Remagen a few miles to the southeast of Cologne.
http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/remagen.htm
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Mar 23, 2015 #3 2015-03-23T22:57

James Byrom was a pacifist by conviction and refused to serve in the combat arms of the military. Yet as a Medic he found himself in one of the most hazardous posts in the army, flying in a glider with the airborne troops that would be landing on the east bank of the Rhine. He seems to have been relatively unperturbed, and much encouraged by the morale boosting briefing that they got before departure. The airborne assault would come on the 24th but the surprise river
crossing was to be undertaken late on the 23rd. Trooper Albert Bellamy
was with the 51st Highland Division and one of the first across the
river.
http://ww2today.com/23-march-1945-opera . -the-rhine
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Beginning on the night of 23 March 1945, Operation Plunder was the crossing of the River Rhine at Rees, Wesel, and south of the Lippe River by the British 2nd Army, under Lieutenant-General Miles Dempsey (Operations Turnscrew, Widgeon, and Torchlight), and the U.S. Ninth Army (Operation Flashpoint), under Lieutenant General William Simpson. XVIII U.S. Airborne Corps, consisting of the British 6th Airborne Division and the U.S. 17th Airborne Division, conducted Operation Varsity, parachute landings on the east bank in support of the operation. All of these formations were part of the 21st Army Group under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. This was part of a coordinated set of Rhine crossings.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Plunder
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The final hurdle of the Rhineland Offensive was the Rhine itself. The
crossing near Wesel (Operation Plunder) was one of several coordinated
Rhine crossings. A million Allied soldiers participated. In support of
the crossing, 14.000 paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines
(Operation Varsity). The operations were a complete success. Hitler’s
days were numbered.


http://liberationroute.com/the-netherla . nd-varsity
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This operation to cross the northern Rhine River launched in the night
of 23 Mar 1945. This airborne operation was the largest of its kind
during the entire war, utilizing 1,625 transports, 1,348 gliders, and
889 escort fighters to deliver over 22,000 airborne infantry into the
contested territory. Another 2,153 fighters supported the ground
operations. Throughout the night of 23 Mar and the next day, 80,000
British and Canadian troops crossed the 20-mile stretch of the river.
http://ww2db.com/battle_spec.php?battle_id=134
--

Mar 24, 2015 #4 2015-03-24T23:05

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.
See more at: http://ww2today.com/24-march-1945-opera . F0J7B.dpuf
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Operation Varsity (24 March 1945) was a successful joint American, British and Canadian airborne operation that took place toward the end of World War II. Involving more than 16,000 paratroopers and several thousand aircraft, it was the largest airborne operation in history to be conducted on a single day and in one location. Part of Operation Plunder, the effort by the British 21st Army Group under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to cross the Rhine River and from there enter Northern Germany, Varsity was meant to help the 21st Army Group to secure a foothold across the Rhine River in western Germany by landing two airborne divisions on the eastern bank of the Rhine near the village of Hamminkeln and the town of Wesel.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Varsity
--
Unlike Sicily and Normandy, the airborne drops in support of the Rhine
crossings would commence after the amphibious operations (Operation
Plunder) had begun. Also, to avoid the problems that plagued earlier
operations such as Market-Garden, where British paratroopers and gliders
were deployed in waves over several days, and where soldiers were
forced to march several miles to reach their objectives in Arnhem,
Varsity called for airborne forces to be dropped almost all at once at
landing zones as close as possible to their objectives.
https://armyhistory.org/operation-varsi . ld-war-ii/
--
Operation Varsity, the Allied airborne assault over the Rhine River at Wesel, Germany, on March 24, 1945, is one of those military actions whose value has sometimes been questioned. American forces had already crossed the Rhine at two locations when British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery mounted his assault in the north. Some have speculated that the airborne phase of the assault may have been unnecessary for the success of the overall operation. Montgomery has been accused of using the airborne troops to 'put on a good show' and to further his own reputation. Not so, maintained the British commander, and to some extent, history supports his position.
See more at: http://www.historynet.com/operation-var . 6zTY3.dpuf
--



British Crossing of the Rhine: Operation Plunder

By March 1945 the Allies had advanced up to the River Rhine, the last great defensive barrier against the western armies. The Canadians had fought through the Reichswald whilst the British had assisted in the restoring of the lines in the northern sector of the Ardennes following the Battle of the Bulge. Further to the south Hodge’s US 1st Army was at Koblenz on the Rhine and Patton’s 3rd Army was opposite Mainz. Montgomery, seeing a chance to cross the Rhine in the area of Wesel utilising his 21st Army Group put forward the plan for Operation Plunder. This would incorporate 1st Canadian, 2nd British and 9th US Armies. Crossing the Rhine they could then advance into the German industrial heartland, the Ruhr and on to the North German Plain, which was ideal ground for a rapid armoured advance. Montgomery would also include airborne forces in his plan. Dropping just behind the river crossings to secure towns on the intended route of advance as well as disrupting the German reaction to the crossings and halting reinforcements into the area. Learning lessons from the Market Garden debacle, the airborne troops would expect to link up with the ground forces within 24 hours.

The plan was for the Canadian 1st Army to hold the left flank of the assault whilst also making feint attacks across the river to draw the defenders’ attention from the main assault. The British 2nd Army was to make an assault crossing opposite Rees with the 1st Commando Brigade crossing just north of Wesel itself. The US 9th Army would cross further to the south with the aim of advancing on Munster whilst protecting the right flank. The airborne element would utilise the 17th US and 6th British Airborne Divisions. The 6th, made up of 3rd Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier James Hill, 5th Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier Nigel Poett and 6th Airlanding Brigade commanded by Brigadier Hugh Bellamy would drop around the towns of Hamminkeln and Schnappenberg and the Diersfordter Wald, a forested area east of the Rhine, secure the towns and the surrounding area and await for the arrival of the ground forces. They would also capture several crossings over the smaller Issel river to the east of the Rhine. The 17th, made up of 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel Edson Raff, 513th PIR commanded by Colonel James Coutts and 194th Glider Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel James Pierce would drop just south of the 6th but north of Wesel, again securing areas of the Diersfordter Wald and disrupt any attempts by the enemy to reinforce the battle zone. The plan was also made to include the 13th US Airborne Division but due to a lack of transport aircraft this division was left behind.

Preparations for the crossing commenced on 16 March with the laying of a massive smoke screen to cover the Allied build up and deployment of the supporting artillery, which would total over 5,000 guns. Facing the upcoming assault were elements of the German 86th Corps and 2nd Parachute Corps, with the brunt of the attack been taken by 7th Parachute Division and the 84th Infantry Division. Further to the rear on the east side of the Issel river were the severely depleted but still threatening 116th Panzer Division, with a total of some seventy tanks. The area surrounding Wesel was also thick with anti-aircraft batteries.

During the afternoon of the 23 March 1945 a massive air raid on Wesel was followed by a four hour bombardment from the allied artillery covering the entire 21st Army Group front but concentrating on the town of Wesel. Late that evening the first elements of 2nd Army, the 51st Highland Division made its crossing in amphibious Buffalo vehicles, the crossing taking less than three minutes. The path was laid by an array of searchlights and tracer fire firing from the west to the east bank. Just after midnight the 15th (Scottish) Division would land on the east bank too. The 1st Commando Brigade would do the same landing just north of Wesel. No. 46 (RM) Commando were in the lead and managed to create a bridgehead, despite tough resistance. No. 6 Commando then passed through their positions and began entering the outskirts of the town before they were met by local counter-attacks. The Germans, alerted for days by the smoke screen and the preliminary bombardment were dazed, but soon began to put up a solid defence all along the eastern bank of the Rhine, the 51st Division did not manage to capture the northern town of Rees by the end of the first day, whilst the 15th Division was facing Fallschirmjaeger well emplaced with machine guns and numerous anti-tank ditches.

To the south the Americans were meeting less stubborn resistance but were still taking casualties. The lead unit, 30th Infantry Division managed to gain a strong foothold on the eastern bank whilst the 79th Division did the same to their south.

On the morning of 24 March 1,600 transports, mostly C-47 Dakotas but with some newly arrived C-46 Commando and C-54 transports, began to form up above Belgium. Being towed by these aircraft were a total of 1,300 gliders, made up of Horsa, Waco and the heavy lift Hamilcar. The vast armada stretched for some 200 miles and was heavily protected by fighter aircraft. This was to be the largest airborne drop in military history.

The 3rd Parachute Brigade were the first over their drop zone, DZ ‘A’, and were met with ferocious anit-aircraft fire. The unit did however manage to land as a cohesive unit on the drop zone ten minutes before their H-Hour of 10.00. Once on the ground they held off local counter-attacks and went about clearing their area of the Diersfordter as well as moving on the village of Schnappenberg, which was captured by 14.00.

Closely following the 3rd were the men of 5th Parachute Brigade, landing on DZ ‘B’. Here the men again landed within their designated area but were met with intense artillery fire onto the drop zone. This had to be neutralised before the Brigade could then go about its tasks.

The 6th Airlanding Brigade was separated into companys for its assault. The 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light infantry landed to the north on LZ ‘O’. Their task being to secure the two bridges over the River Issel. The 1st Royal Ulster Rifles landed just south on LZ ‘U’ to secure the main road bridge whilst 12th Battalion of Devonshire Regiment landed LZ ‘P’ tasked with the capture of Hamminkeln. By now the German defenders were fully alerted and the slow moving gliders, along with the towing aircraft were met with heavy flak. This took an extreme toll on the glidermen with many casualties from aircraft crashing or making emergency landings. These same flak cannons were then lowered to the horizontal where they engaged the brigade as they formed up on their respective landing zones. 2 Ox and Bucks captured the two bridges and established footholds on the eastern bank of the Issel. 1 RUR also captured their bridge. 12 Devons took the most casualties on landing but despite this moved on Hamminkeln and took it with the aid of the misdropped men of 513th PIR. As the glidermen dug in to defend their positions local counter-attacks by the Germans, supported by armour were made, these being fought off. However the area around 2 Ox and Bucks positions at the road bridge was severely threatened and they were pushed from the east bank. This was taken with an immediate counter-attack, but when enemy armour approached the bridge it was decided to blow it.

As 24 March came to a close all the tasks given to the men of the various airborne units had been accomplished. The German rear had been thrown into disarray and allowed for the consolidation of the bridgehead over the Rhine by the land forces. The routes taken by any potential counter-attack from the German panzer units stationed further to the rear were held and the town of Hamminkeln had been captured. By midnight of 24 March the 15th Division had made contact with the 6th Airborne and armour was starting to come across the river to further reinforce the bridgehead. By the following day twelve pontoon bridges were laid across the Rhine to aid the stream of Allied forces east of the river. The attack had been costly on the airborne forces, with the 6th Airborne suffering 1,300 casualties and the 17th Airborne suffering a similar amount. However the lessons learned from Market Garden had proved to be fruitful, with an airborne army landing in the enemy’s direct rear area a swift victory could be achieved. The German defences in the west had been cracked and now the road was open for 21st Army Group to exploit the gap and continue on to the Elbe river, swinging south to join with the American counterparts, who had forced various crossings along the southern part of the Rhine. Within six weeks the war in Europe would come to an end.

79 th Armoured Division

By March 1945, Allied forces were staged all along the west bank of the Rhine, prepared for one last, deep thrust into the heart of Germany. The Rhine River crossings, code-named PLUNDER by the British, were deliberately planned, rehearsed and executed, second only in scale to the Normandy landings. Through its training wings the 79th made intense efforts to train and rehearse Buffalo and DD-tank crews, in concert with the units to be supported. Maintenance of equipment was equally a concern, as many of the Sherman DDs had to be refitted with floatation gear that had long ago been discarded, or had fallen into disrepair. SHAEF message traffic from the period indicates that DD-tank maintenance status was also a concern for the U.S. command. Messages relayed between the War Department and the Army Group commanders (through Eisenhower) suggest a serious lack of visibility on not only DD-tank maintenance status, but questions how many of these tanks were still out in the field. It was also noted that repair parts and spares were lacking, and that Americans would have to rely on British holdings to get most of the U.S. DD-tank fleet operational.

These tanks were critical to both forces, especially for the British as their plan was similar to D-Day in that DD-tanks would lead the assault forces. Instead of Crabs and AVREs, Buffaloes would be the key piece of specialized armor provided by the division, as they would ferry waves of assaulting infantry to the far bank. On the night of 23 March, units marshaled and loaded Buffaloes as the assault across the river commenced.

As the assault unfolded, DD-tanks succeeded in crossing in great numbers, though some became bogged down on the muddy eastern embankments. The tank crews were able to accomplish their mission and provide direct fire support to the follow-on infantry force. It was during the night crossing that another “funny” would finally be employed, the CDL tank. The plan called for a CDL-equipped squadron to light the far bank during night operations on 24 and 25 March. The powerful lights would not only assist units as they ferried across the wide river, they would also deter mine and sabotage swimmer threats along the upstream (north) approach. These tanks became favorite targets of German gunners, although only one tank would be lost in action. In the end the CDL squadron successfully accomplished its unique mission, and could finally claim they had contributed to the division’s legacy.

From 24-26 March the four Buffalo-equipped regiments tasked with ferrying infantry made over 3800 trips, carrying most of the fighting soldiers of the Highland, 3rd Canadian, 43rd and 15th (Scottish) Divisions across the Rhine. This was accomplished with only thirty-eight casualties and nine destroyed Buffaloes. On 26 March, Prime Minister Churchill and Field Marshal Alan Brooke accompanied Field Marshal Montgomery and General Hobart across the Rhine in a Buffalo. Churchill addressed the men assembled, congratulating the Buffalo crews on a “splendid job of work.” It had been a monumental task, flawlessly executed.

The assault across the Rhine was the largest operation the 79th would conduct following OVERLORD, and certainly the most important too. The instructional wing concept had shown itself worthy of the investment of time, men and materiel. DD-tanks had once again proven their value in an amphibious assault, with much credit due the REME units for getting the tanks back into a mission capable status. The concept for the use of Buffaloes was also found to be sound, and the engineer squadrons that manned them deemed as capable at their employment as they had been the AVRE. Finally, CDL tanks had even provided a significant, although limited, contribution.

The 79th Division’s success during OVERLORD and on these subsequent operations through late 1944 and early 1945 would pique interest elsewhere. AVREs, ARKs and Crocodiles were all used in the Italian campaign beginning around August 1944. Use of ARKs and AVREs would steadily increase as they were found to be effective in supporting the numerous stream and gap crossings being conducted. An armored engineer brigade was organized in theater, consisting of two AVRE regiments, a Crocodile regiment, and a Crab regiment.

The U.S. Army also attempted to establish specialist armor units in northwest Europe. Three such specialist battalions were organized, the intent being an allocation of one battalion per Army. The units’ primary mission was to conduct mine and obstacle clearance, and to provide support to Corps and Divisions on request through the numbered Army staffs. Each battalion was to be outfitted with five tankdozers, eight rolling mine exploders (U.S. variants of the CIRD), three Crabs, and an undetermined number of Snakes. The mine exploders were never favorably received due to maneuverability limitations and a demonstrated inefficiency at the core task, exploding mines. These units saw limited action and were therefore not effective.

A key reason for continued British success in employing specialized armor, and a reason why the Americans continued to struggle, was that a purpose-built unit had maintained the strong thread of training and development begun well prior to the campaign’s commencement. From the beginning British leaders had agreed that the division was a required investment to help ensure success. The U.S. Army followed a much less structured, decentralized approach in its efforts, and as such often struggled to meet the needs of units through rapid, well synchronized combat developments.

The U.S. Army also lacked a leader, or leaders, that possessed the necessary experience, attitude and vision to shepherd these innovations. The strong-willed, yet highly capable Hobart was such an individual, and he built a cadre of like-minded officers that would be equally critical factors in the division’s success. As Montgomery noted in a post-war lecture, Hobart and his “competent advisors” enabled the success of this huge task in that, “It was found that centralization under him was essential in order to achieve flexibility and provide a controlled programme of workshops overhaul, rest and relief.” The strong influence of the 79th Division in the development and use of specialized armor had proven itself worthy of the investment.

The end of hostilities in Germany marked the end of the 79th Armoured Division. The division would disband, with its subunits to be parceled out to other British Army formations in various theaters. The division had acquitted itself well in its brief existence, accomplishing a great deal in terms of equipment, organizational and tactical developments. Units from the division participated in every 21 Army Group operation from Normandy onward, usually in the van of each assault, and had done so with the relatively modest losses of 379 tanks (approximately twenty-five percent of the frontline total) and just under 1500 soldiers killed, wounded or missing (approximately seven percent of the divisional strength at its high point). Perhaps the greatest contribution of the division (other than the myriad of armored vehicles in the inventory) would be in the detailed after-action reports that would serve as the basis for future doctrinal and technical developments.


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Military History Book Review: Crossing the Rhine

The Battle of Arnhem—Operation Market Garden, aka the “Bridge Too Far” fight—is one of the most written-about confrontations of World War II, along with Midway, Normandy, the Battle of Britain and a few other major faceoffs. Part of the reason is that Arnhem was an Allied defeat. It’s hard to come up with many others, beyond the original British Expeditionary Force getting kicked out of France in 1940, the debacle at Kasserine Pass and the Wehrmacht’s successful airborne invasion of Crete. But at Arnhem, British, American and Polish airborne troops tried and failed to seize key Rhine bridges that might have enabled Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to lance straight into Germany and end the war before winter 1944–45.

Montgomery often gets unfairly blamed for Arnhem, likely because he was a thoroughly dislikable gent. “I can outfight that little fart anytime,” George Patton once said, as quoted in Crossing the Rhine, the most recent book to deal with Operation Market Garden. Such quotes are, in fact, one of the most interesting parts of Lloyd Clark’s extensively researched book—not only the words of U.S. generals, but British paratroopers and their officers, men of the Polish parachute brigade and even German soldiers. The narrative flows easily this isn’t one of those battle books requiring constant reference to maps and charts.

Market Garden was an assault by parachutists, as well as airborne units borne by glider—one of the most dangerous troop-insertion methods ever developed and one that, thanks to the advent of helicopters, we’ll never have to see again. Clark provides ample insight into what it must have been like to sit inside a windowless wooden Waco hoping the green pilots knew what they were doing. Often they didn’t, since they’d had exactly zero practice at putting down in the midst of dozens of other gliders on a totally unfamiliar LZ.

Most of Clark’s book details the preparation, landing and fighting involved in Market Garden, but as the title suggests, he also covers the successful invasion of the Rhineland the following March, when U.S., British and Canadian ground and airborne forces accomplished much of what had eluded Montgomery. Clark highlights the various complex command tactics and makes it plain there were no screwups, just a few bad decisions here and there. The RAF and USAAF, for example, refused to fly two “lifts” on the opening day of the assault, leaving too few troops on the ground and eliminating the element of surprise for the second wave on day two. Nor would they drop near the Rhine bridges, for fear of flak —though the Dutch underground had already pinpointed the German gun emplacements, which the Army Air Force could easily have neutralized with its overwhelming fighter-bomber superiority.

Originally published in the UK, Clark’s U.S. editors did a good job of changing Britishisms—aeroplane, defence, lorry, petrol and the like —to American equivalents, though they missed “whilst” for “while.” This precious usage seems to recur every 50th word in the copy and eventually becomes oddly infuriating. Please, Atlantic Monthly Press, do a find-and-replace if there’s to be a second U.S. edition.

Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.


OPERATION VARSITY

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. Comment : This was Operation Varsity, part of Operation Plunder.

By March 1945 the Allies had advanced up to the River Rhine, the last great defensive barrier against the western armies. The Canadians had fought through the Reichswald whilst the British had assisted in the restoring of the lines in the northern sector of the Ardennes following the Battle of the Bulge. Further to the south Hodge’s US 1st Army was at Koblenz on the Rhine and Patton’s 3rd Army was opposite Mainz. Montgomery, seeing a chance to cross the Rhine in the area of Wesel utilising his 21st Army Group put forward the plan for Operation Plunder. This would incorporate 1st Canadian, 2nd British and 9th US Armies. Crossing the Rhine they could then advance into the German industrial heartland, the Ruhr and on to the North German Plain, which was ideal ground for a rapid armoured advance. Montgomery would also include airborne forces in his plan. Dropping just behind the river crossings to secure towns on the intended route of advance as well as disrupting the German reaction to the crossings and halting reinforcements into the area. Learning lessons from the Market Garden debacle, the airborne troops would expect to link up with the ground forces within 24 hours.

The plan was for the Canadian 1st Army to hold the left flank of the assault whilst also making feint attacks across the river to draw the defenders’ attention from the main assault. The British 2nd Army was to make an assault crossing opposite Rees with the 1st Commando Brigade crossing just north of Wesel itself. The US 9th Army would cross further to the south with the aim of advancing on Munster whilst protecting the right flank. The airborne element would utilise the 17th US and 6th British Airborne Divisions. The 6th, made up of 3rd Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier James Hill, 5th Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier Nigel Poett and 6th Airlanding Brigade commanded by Brigadier Hugh Bellamy would drop around the towns of Hamminkeln and Schnappenberg and the Diersfordter Wald, a forested area east of the Rhine, secure the towns and the surrounding area and await for the arrival of the ground forces. They would also capture several crossings over the smaller Issel river to the east of the Rhine. The 17th, made up of 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel Edson Raff, 513th PIR commanded by Colonel James Coutts and 194th Glider Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel James Pierce would drop just south of the 6th but north of Wesel, again securing areas of the Diersfordter Wald and disrupt any attempts by the enemy to reinforce the battle zone. The plan was also made to include the 13th US Airborne Division but due to a lack of transport aircraft this division was left behind.

Preparations for the crossing commenced on 16 March with the laying of a massive smoke screen to cover the Allied build up and deployment of the supporting artillery, which would total over 5,000 guns. Facing the upcoming assault were elements of the German 86th Corps and 2nd Parachute Corps, with the brunt of the attack been taken by 7th Parachute Division and the 84th Infantry Division. Further to the rear on the east side of the Issel river were the severely depleted but still threatening 116th Panzer Division, with a total of some seventy tanks. The area surrounding Wesel was also thick with anti-aircraft batteries.

During the afternoon of the 23 March 1945 a massive air raid on Wesel was followed by a four hour bombardment from the allied artillery covering the entire 21st Army Group front but concentrating on the town of Wesel. Late that evening the first elements of 2nd Army, the 51st Highland Division made its crossing in amphibious Buffalo vehicles, the crossing taking less than three minutes. The path was laid by an array of searchlights and tracer fire firing from the west to the east bank. Just after midnight the 15th (Scottish) Division would land on the east bank too. The 1st Commando Brigade would do the same landing just north of Wesel. No. 46 (RM) Commando were in the lead and managed to create a bridgehead, despite tough resistance. No. 6 Commando then passed through their positions and began entering the outskirts of the town before they were met by local counter-attacks. The Germans, alerted for days by the smoke screen and the preliminary bombardment were dazed, but soon began to put up a solid defence all along the eastern bank of the Rhine, the 51st Division did not manage to capture the northern town of Rees by the end of the first day, whilst the 15th Division was facing Fallschirmjaeger well emplaced with machine guns and numerous anti-tank ditches.

To the south the Americans were meeting less stubborn resistance but were still taking casualties. The lead unit, 30th Infantry Division managed to gain a strong foothold on the eastern bank whilst the 79th Division did the same to their south.

On the morning of 24 March 1,600 transports, mostly C-47 Dakotas but with some newly arrived C-46 Commando and C-54 transports, began to form up above Belgium. Being towed by these aircraft were a total of 1,300 gliders, made up of Horsa, Waco and the heavy lift Hamilcar. The vast armada stretched for some 200 miles and was heavily protected by fighter aircraft. This was to be the largest airborne drop in military history.

The 3rd Parachute Brigade were the first over their drop zone, DZ ‘A’, and were met with ferocious anit-aircraft fire. The unit did however manage to land as a cohesive unit on the drop zone ten minutes before their H-Hour of 10.00. Once on the ground they held off local counter-attacks and went about clearing their area of the Diersfordter as well as moving on the village of Schnappenberg, which was captured by 14.00.

Closely following the 3rd were the men of 5th Parachute Brigade, landing on DZ ‘B’. Here the men again landed within their designated area but were met with intense artillery fire onto the drop zone. This had to be neutralised before the Brigade could then go about its tasks.

The 6th Airlanding Brigade was separated into companys for its assault. The 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light infantry landed to the north on LZ ‘O’. Their task being to secure the two bridges over the River Issel. The 1st Royal Ulster Rifles landed just south on LZ ‘U’ to secure the main road bridge whilst 12th Battalion of Devonshire Regiment landed LZ ‘P’ tasked with the capture of Hamminkeln. By now the German defenders were fully alerted and the slow moving gliders, along with the towing aircraft were met with heavy flak. This took an extreme toll on the glidermen with many casualties from aircraft crashing or making emergency landings. These same flak cannons were then lowered to the horizontal where they engaged the brigade as they formed up on their respective landing zones. 2 Ox and Bucks captured the two bridges and established footholds on the eastern bank of the Issel. 1 RUR also captured their bridge. 12 Devons took the most casualties on landing but despite this moved on Hamminkeln and took it with the aid of the misdropped men of 513th PIR. As the glidermen dug in to defend their positions local counter-attacks by the Germans, supported by armour were made, these being fought off. However the area around 2 Ox and Bucks positions at the road bridge was severely threatened and they were pushed from the east bank. This was taken with an immediate counter-attack, but when enemy armour approached the bridge it was decided to blow it.

First of the American units to drop was the 507th PIR. They were to drop on DZ ‘W’ but due to a thick haze low to the ground half of the regiment landed further north of the town of Diersfordt. Nevertheless the men made their way to the rest of the regiment, engaging any enemy they saw on their way, again all the regiments tanks were fulfilled by the early afternoon.

Next to drop were the 517th PIR. En route to the drop their aircraft hit a particularly bad belt of flak, taking a huge toll on the transports, especially the C-46 Commando aircraft. The C-47s with which the paras were familiar with had been fitted with self-sealing fuel tanks, however the C-46s did not have this facility and were very susceptible to explode due to the high volume of flak. General Matthew Ridgway would later forbid the use of the type in future operations. To add to the drama the ground haze caused the 507th to be misdropped on the 6th Airlanding Brigades area. Typically of paratroopers they dealt with the problem quickly and adapted their plans accordingly. They joined forces with their British counterparts and aided in the capture of Hamminkeln.

West of the 507th the 194th GIR came down on LZ ‘S’. Again the gliders and transports took heavy casualties, the glidermen actually landing amongst an artillery emplacement engaging targets on the western bank of the Rhine. This was duly silenced by the glidermen.

As 24 March came to a close all the tasks given to the men of the various airborne units had been accomplished. The German rear had been thrown into disarray and allowed for the consolidation of the bridgehead over the Rhine by the land forces. The routes taken by any potential counter-attack from the German panzer units stationed further to the rear were held and the town of Hamminkeln had been captured. By midnight of 24 March the 15th Division had made contact with the 6th Airborne and armour was starting to come across the river to further reinforce the bridgehead. By the following day twelve pontoon bridges were laid across the Rhine to aid the stream of Allied forces east of the river. The attack had been costly on the airborne forces, with the 6th Airborne suffering 1,300 casualties and the 17th Airborne suffering a similar amount. However the lessons learned from Market Garden had proved to be fruitful, with an airborne army landing in the enemy’s direct rear area a swift victory could be achieved. The German defences in the west had been cracked and now the road was open for 21st Army Group to exploit the gap and continue on to the Elbe river, swinging south to join with the American counterparts, who had forced various crossings along the southern part of the Rhine. Within six weeks the war in Europe would come to an end.


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The Canadian troops fanned out towards Holland, the British towards the German ports in the north and the Americans to the Ruhr Valley.

At this point, Prime Minister Winston Churchill reportedly told US General Dwight Eisenhower: 'My dear general, the German is whipped. We have got him. He is all through.'

One photo shows British amphibious landing crafts - known as Buffaloes - transporting infantrymen through the flood waters of German destroyed dykes.

The ground operation involved Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's 21st Army Group which launched the massive artillery, amphibious and airborne assault. The Allied forces successfully crossed the Rhine into Germany (pictured is a British Cromwell tank advancing through the rubble in the German town of Udem)

The daring operation proved successful and paved the way for the Allies to advance on Berlin. Pictured are British infantrymen in trenches along the Maas River's west bank in late November

A tank is carried across the Rhine River on March 12 by a pontoon ferry. The operation depended on the ingenuity of military engineers as much as the bravery of individual soldiers, because a fast crossing was necessary in order to minimise casualties

Royal Army Medical Corps personnel and infantry soldiers take cover in a shallow trench. Soon the Allies would move further into Germany as the Russians took Berlin

This candid photo shows Field Marshal Montgomery (left) and other senior figures looking at maps on the bonnet of his staff car. Also pictured is General Brian Horrocks (next to Montgomery)

RAF Air Marshal Arthur Coningham sits in a Rhineland farmyard watching Allied bombers fly past to attack the German defences

Another shows troops running across duck-board bridges in the heat of battle.

A soldier can be seen carrying a gun waiting for German defenders to emerge from sunken positions after tossing a hand grenade into one of them.

And 15th Scottish Division troops are shown advancing past dead Germans on a wooden path.

A candid photo shows Field Marshal Montgomery and other senior figures looking at maps on the bonnet of his staff car.

There is also a powerful image of a British infantryman pulling down a Nazi flag with a bayonet.

The devastation of the war is apparent in photos of the rubble of German towns, and captured German POWs despairingly sit down with their hands on their heads.

One photo is of US First Army Lieutenant Karl Timmermann, the first American soldier to cross the important Ludendorff Railway Bridge.

US combat engineers cross a swollen northern Rhineland stream after retreating Nazis destroyed tanks to try and delay the Allied advance

Gliders towed in formation towards their landing zone during Operation Varsity. This involved the transportation of 16,000 paratroopers who were dropped into Germany before the main Allied force

British infantrymen climb aboard a 79th Armoured Division an allied tank as they fought to cross the River Rhine. The need to transport heavy machinery over the river posed a huge challenge to military engineers

Major-General Matthew Ridgway (left), the XVIII Airborne Corps commander and Field Marshall Montgomery decorate Brigadier James Hill for bravery

A US Navy Jeep-carrying landing craft motors past the fallen Ludendorff Railroad Bridge at Remagen on its River Rhine patrol following the successful crossing

A section of the 15th Scottish Division's 6th King's Own Scottish Borderers advance past dead Nazi soldiers on the east side of the Rhine

He was actually born in Germany before moving to Nebraska, and his German uncles reportedly fought against him in the Wehrmacht.

The photos are from the wartime archives of the United States Army Military History Institute (USAHMI) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Maryland.

Historian Jon Diamond, 65, from Pennsylvania in the US, said: 'The Rhine was an expansive and historic defensive water barrier, a centuries-old marker of German sovereignty.

'The last successful crossing of this barrier during wartime had been in the Napoleonic era.

'These superb historic images recount the campaign to reach and cross the Rhine in March 1945.

'We ponder upon viewing them about the heroic sacrifice made to maintain freedom over tyranny, lest we forget.'

A pair of US M24 Chafee light tanks disembark onto the east bank of the River Rhine after being carried over the water in landing craft

A British Horsa glider at an East Anglia airfield early on March 24 as it takes off for a flight to Germany to support the Allied offensive

The Ludendorff Railroad Bridge spanned the Rhine River from Remagen to the eastern side of the river before it was blown up by the retreating Germans

Truckloads of pontoon boats lined up on military trucks for transport during the Allied drive across the River Rhine and into Germany

The final push to defeat Adolf Hitler: How D-Day began the chain of events that led to the end of WWII

Waged across every inhabited continent, the Second World War was the most costly conflict in history, claiming the lives of around 57 million people.

By 1944, the tide was turning against the Nazis, particularly after the successful D-Day landings of June that year.

Following Germany's defeat during the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945, the surviving troops limped back to the Rhine to defend the frontier. They were eventually dislodged by a major Allied attack involving a million men.

This is a timetable of the main events:

January 22: British and American troops land at Anzio.

June 4: Rome falls to the Allies.

June 6: D-Day invasion begins on the beaches of Normandy in the famous Operation Overlord.

June 13: First V-1 bombs land on London.

July 20: Bomb plot against Hitler narrowly fails.

August 15: Allies invade the South of France.

August 20: Battle of Normandy ends with the closing of the Falaise Pocket. Advance to the River Seine begins.

August 25: Paris is liberated.

September 3: Brussels is liberated.

September 17-26: Operation Market Garden, the "Bridge Too Far" airborne mission to cross the Rhine at Arnhem, fails with the loss of around 18,000 Allies.

October 5: British forces land in Greece.

December 16: German offensive in the Ardennes region launches Battle of the Bulge.

January 17: Russian forces capture Warsaw.

January 27: Auschwitz concentration camp is liberated by Russian troops and the full horrors of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust slowly emerge.

January 28: The final shots are fired in the Battle of the Bulge, giving victory to the Allies, but at a heavy cost in men and equipment.

February 13: RAF launches carpet bombing raid on Dresden, followed by three further raids by US Air Force.

March 23 to 24: A million Allied troops cross the Rhine during Operation Plunder.

April 12: US President Franklin Roosevelt dies.

April 30: With Soviet troops marching on the Reich Chancellory in the heart of Berlin, Hitler commits suicide in his Berlin Fuhrerbunker - shooting himself in the head as he bites on a cyanide pill.

May 1: Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife kill themselves.

May 2: German forces in Italy surrender.

May 4: Montgomery receives surrender of German forces in Holland, north-west Germany and Denmark on the Luneberg Heath.

May 8: Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) as Admiral Karl Donitz, appointed President by Hitler before his death, unconditionally surrenders.

May 9: Nazi Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signs unconditional surrender to Red Army in Berlin.

August 6: "Little Boy" atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima by US B-29 bomber Enola Gay.

August 9: "Fat Man" atomic bomb is dropped on Nagasaki.

August 14: Emperor Hirohito announces unconditional surrender of Japan and papers are signed on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

August 15: Victory over Japan Day (VJ Day), or VP Day (Victory in the Pacific) is celebrated.


The Rhine Crossing: Army, Part 47

The decision to destroy the German army west of the Rhine and then cross the river in a major operation north of the Ruhr River had been made in December 1944 before the Ardennes offensive. The Rhine crossing, code-named Operation Plunder, was to be the major Allied effort to end the war by striking in a “single thrust” for Berlin. At the Malta Conference in early February 1945 the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, revised this conception of the invasion of Germany with a plan that allowed for a second major Rhine crossing south of the Ruhr.

The British leaders, especially Field Marshal K.G. Alanbrooke who was in close contact with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, protested that there was insufficient strength for two major operations. Since the British, especially Montgomery, were also still pressing for a single ground commander, it is possible to sympathize with the growing impatience of American battlefield commanders who could not understand why so much deference was paid to British views when they were able to supply less than one-quarter of the troops involved in the battle.

The Americans believed Montgomery had set up the northern crossing to give the glory of taking Berlin to the British Army. This skeptical view of Montgomery’s motives was greatly reinforced when it was learned that he wanted to use U.S. divisions for the crossing, but under the command of British 2nd Army. Lieutenant-General Bill Simpson, the commander of 9th U.S. Army, and his corps commanders were flabbergasted by this proposal and even Montgomery realized he had gone too far. Instead, one U.S. corps of two divisions, operating under 9th U.S. Army’s control, was to assault the river on D-Day. Despite this concession, 2nd Army was still to have control of the bridgehead until it was judged secure.

On March 7, while the battle for the Wesel Pocket raged, troops of the 1st U.S. Army seized the Rhine bridge at Remagen and quickly established a substantial bridgehead on the east bank of the river. Since Montgomery did not plan to cross the Rhine until late March, the success of 1st U.S. Army presented the Allied command with a major dilemma. Both the army commander, Gen. Courtney Hodges, and his superior, Omar Bradley, were reasonably confident that a breakout from Remagen could be staged whenever permission was granted. Eisenhower, perhaps fearing an even more serious row with the British, ignored intelligence estimates of German weakness and ordered Hodges to limit the bridgehead and use it as a device to draw German reserves away from the north.

1st U.S. Army was certainly successful in this role because by March 23–the day of Operation Plunder–the Germans had moved most of their reserves opposite the Remagen bridgehead and had even attempted a counterattack. The next day, with the northern Rhine crossing safely launched, 1st U.S. Army was unleashed. In a matter of a few hours it had brushed aside the German defenders and was racing forward into Germany with three armoured divisions in the lead. General George S. Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army also crossed the Rhine before March 24, but this was a deliberate demonstration of Patton’s contempt for Montgomery’s elaborate preparations. The Americans announced that the Rhine could be crossed at any point without the aid of preliminary bombardment–never mind with airborne divisions–and they released the news that they had done so “at a time calculated to take some of the lustre from the news of Montgomery’s crossing.” All of this, no doubt, sounds somewhat childish, but the image of feuding generals should not be allowed to obscure the fact that Hodges was right and that Eisenhower’s decision to force his American armies to pause for two weeks so that Montgomery could complete preparations for a complex set-piece attack was a stiff price to pay for maintaining unity in coalition warfare. It was a price that he would not be willing to pay again in dealing with the British commanders.

Montgomery’s plan for the Rhine called for a series of widely separated assault crossings of the river. First into battle was 51 Highland Division, which had been strengthened by the addition of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade. The Buffaloes once again proved their value and, with 150 available, Major-General Tom Rennie was able to lift four assault battalions and a bridgehead was quickly established. There were few casualties, but Rennie, who always worked well forward, was fatally wounded. 15 Scottish Div. and 1 Commando Bde. were equally successful in the British sector and 9th U.S. Army reported that its assault divisions, the 30th and 29th, got across with “minor casualties of 16 or 17 men killed per division.”

Despite the evidence of minor German resistance, the airborne part of the crossing, Operation Varsity, was not cancelled and the vast armada of aircraft appeared over the Rhine at 10 a.m. on the 24th. The paratroops of 6th British Airborne and 17th U.S. Airborne made their drop without undue casualties, but by 10:30 a.m., when the gliders of the air landing brigades were coming in, the German flak gunners had recovered and a terrible toll was exacted. On the ground the airborne troops were soon engulfed in the most difficult and costly part of the operation. Casualties were horrendous the 6th Airborne lost 1,400 out of a landed strength of 7,220 and a quarter of the glider pilots were casualties. The paratroops of 17th Airborne were widely scattered and two-thirds of the gliders were hit by flak. Out of a force of 9,650 men, 1,300 were casualties. A daring resupply mission, flown at low level by United States Army Air Force Liberators, dropped 600 tonnes of supplies to sustain the division, but at a cost of 16 bombers shot down.

The 6th British Airborne included 1st Cdn. Parachute Battalion, which was dropped on the British front between Wesel and Rees. It was part of 3rd Parachute Bde. assigned to clear Diersfordt Woods. During the course of the battle, which cost the battalion 43 casualties, a medical orderly, Corporal F.G. Topham, earned the Victoria Cross. The citation reads in part: “Corporal Topham went forward through intense fire to replace the orderlies who had been killed before his eyes. As he worked on the wounded, he was himself shot through the nose. In spite of severe bleeding and intense pain, he never faltered in his task. Having completed immediate first aid he carried the wounded men steadily and slowly back through continuous fire….”

One of the fatal casualties was the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel J.A. Nicklin his brigadier, James Hill, paid this tribute to Nicklin and his men: “I thought you would not mind my writing to you directly to tell you what a very wonderful show the battalion has put up since our operations over the Rhine on March 24th last. They really put up a most tremendous performance on D-Day and as a result of their tremendous dash and enthusiasm they overcame their objectives, which were very sticky ones, with considerable ease, killing a very large number of Germans and capturing many others. Unfortunately, the price was high in that they lost their colonel, Jeff Nicklin, who was one of the best fellows that I have met, and was the ideal man to command that battalion as he fairly used to bang their heads together and they used to like it and accept it. He is and will be a tremendous loss to the battalion and of course to me. I only hope that the people back in Canada appreciate the really wonderful job of work he had done in producing his battalion at the starting line in such outstanding form.”

While the airborne troops regrouped and completed their assignments, Gen. Alfred Schlemm, who commanded Hitler’s First Parachute Army, deployed his reserves. The 47 Panzer Corps, composed of 116 Panzer Div. and 15 Panzer Grenadier Div. had taken advantage of the two-week pause in Allied operations to move north into Holland. Here, safe from Allied air forces that were reluctant to bomb Dutch villages, they rested, re-equipped and absorbed reinforcements. Their determination to defend Germany was now stronger than ever. Schlemm waited until noon on the 24th to commit his reserves. He sent 116 Panzer south to slow the American advance and committed 15 Panzer Grenadier to the defence of the northern sector. Since 51 Highland Div. was already engaged in a furious battle with two parachute divisions, expanding the bridgehead to the north and east was now bound to prove slow and costly. 9th Cdn. Bde., originally slated to lead the advance to Emmerich, joined the 154th Highland Bde. in close combat with a powerful enemy.

Historian Lee Windsor, who led our 2002 battlefield tour through the area, has closely studied the events of late March 1945 using both archival and interview sources. A PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick and a specialist on the Italian campaign, Windsor became interested in the Rhine crossing after meeting Justice D.M. Dickson who commanded D Company of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Justice Dickson related the story of the battle for Bienen and recent efforts to erect a plaque commemorating the Canadian and German soldiers who were killed-in-action in the village on March 25, 1945.

Windsor argues that whatever the situation was elsewhere on the Rhine front, at Speldrop and Bienen the Canadians faced a well-entrenched enemy that equalled or outnumbered the Canadian and Scottish troops advancing towards them. When the Highland Light Infantry of Canada was ordered to clear Speldrop, it was warned that two platoons of a highland division Black Watch battalion were still holding out in the village resisting large-scale counterattacks.

Lt.-Col. P.W. Strickland could count on medium artillery to neutralize known enemy positions beyond the village. He could also count on the field artillery to keep heads down while his men crossed 1,000 metres of flat open ground. However, the village itself would have to be cleared house by house. Strickland decided to use just one company in the initial attack, seizing the northwest corner of Speldrop and trying to identify the Black Watch positions. Strickland, like other experienced battalion commanders, was convinced it was better to stage attacks across open country with fewer men, reducing the casualties sustained from both friendly and enemy fire. If one company󈞼 officers and men–could get onto a position and establish a firm base, the rest of the battalion could advance in stages with additional covering fire. This approach worked at Speldrop even though all three platoon commanders were hit. Sergeant Cornelius Reidel inspired a fixed-bayonet charge on enemy positions in an orchard and then led his men to the objective. The rest of the company joined Reidel, who turned over a number of prisoners and three 75-mm guns.

Getting to the edge of the village was one thing, clearing it was quite another. The enemy had moved a troop of assault guns into Speldrop to support the paratroopers so Major J.C. King called for battalion six-pounders and Wasp flamethrowers rather than more infantry. The Highland Light Infantry of Canada used this close support to storm the German position and secure the northern edge of the village. King’s Distinguished Service Order and Reidel’s Military Medal were two of seven gallantry medals awarded to the HLI in the first two days of combat.

While the HLI fought to clear Speldrop, the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders–the Glens–and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders–the North Novas–bypassed the village moving north towards Bienen where another highland division battalion, the 7th Argylls, was waiting for relief. The Argylls had seized a group of farm buildings 300 metres from the village but could go no further. Lt.-Col. Don Forbes took one look at the terrain and decided to be cautious. He sent Maj. Don Learment’s A Company forward to Argyll Farm to secure the start line for an attack on the village. Learment, who had led the North Nova vanguard on June 7, was captured and then escaped from his German captors, took his men single-file along the side of a dike to Argyll Farm. Unfortunately, the 15th Panzer Grenadier Div. had arrived to block the advance and when the North Novas attacked the village of Bienen, they had to fight for every house, losing 114 men, including 43 killed. The initial advance had been supported by heavy artillery fire, including a liberal use of smoke, but the companies were brought under heavy enemy fire before the barrage started and the advance took place under conditions of growing confusion. Brigadier J.M. Rockingham ordered a withdrawal and directed the battalion to “start from scratch and do the attack over again, using the two remaining companies.”

The second North Nova attack managed to secure the southern half of the village. This was not Rockingham at his best for he had seriously underestimated the extent of German strength. That night, after a 3rd Anti-tank Regiment battery of self-propelled Valentine 17-pounders had beaten off an armoured counterattack, the HLI advanced through the North Novas to complete the capture of the village. For a full account of the battle of Bienen, please see Lee A. Windsor’s article Too Close For The Guns in the spring 2003 issue of the Canadian Military History journal. For a free introductory copy, write to Terry Copp, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON, N2L 3C5, e-mail [email protected] or check the Web site www.canadianmilitaryhistory.com.

The battles fought by Scottish and Canadian troops in the Rhine crossing were as difficult and costly as any in the experience of the two veteran divisions. The decision to stop and organize a set-piece attack instead of bouncing the Rhine allowed Montgomery time to build up resources so that his armies could race to Berlin once the bridgehead battle was won. This reasoned though debatable command decision placed an enormous burden on the infantry and airborne battalions used to attack an enemy that had ample time to create and camouflage strong defensive positions.

Ironically, Montgomery’s plans for a rapid thrust to Berlin were frustrated when Eisenhower decided to advance through the centre of Germany to meet the Soviet armies at the Elbe River. British protests were to no avail. Berlin, already under attack from the east, was well within the Soviet zone of occupation and Eisenhower had no intention of sacrificing men for such an objective.


Divisions – Airborne and Miscellaneous

In essence, prior to the Second World War, the United Kingdom had no airborne forces. WAVELL had witnessed a Soviet airborne exercise prior to the war, and was impressed but nothing happened on his return.

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» War Establishment The Airborne Division

The main driver for the creation of British Airborne Forces seems to lie with the Minister of Defence, Winston CHURCHILL. After the withdrawal of the B.E.F. from France, he was aware that our capacity to wage warfare on the ground against the enemy was extremely limited, and would remain so for a long time ahead. Airborne and commando forces were one means of achieving this. He raised this matter with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 22 June 1940, suggesting a corps of at least five-thousand parachute troops. One of the main inhibitors was the Royal Air Force, which simply did not have any suitable aircraft from which parachute troops could be dropped in any significant numbers.

R.A.F. Ringway at Manchester was established in 1940 as a joint Army and Royal Air Force base where the new form of warfare could be developed and trained. This base became known as the ‘Central Landing School’ under Group Captain L. G. HARVEY. A glider section was also established under Major J. ROCK. The first parachute descent occurred on the 13 July 1940. The first parachute unit was entitled ‘No 2 Commando’ on the 21 November 1940, the parachute and glider squadrons became Wings of No. 11 Special Air Service Battalion (not to be confused with the Special Air Service Regiment formed in the Middle East in August 1941).

One of the early key leaders was ‘Eric’ DOWN, of whom I have written a biography. See:
www.britishmilitaryhistory.co.uk

He took over command of 11 S.A.S. and made it a first class outfit. In September 1941, the Parachute Regiment came into being and the 1 Parachute Brigade was formed. From here, the 1 Airborne Division was raised, with effect from 1 November 1941, with Major General F. R. M. BROWNING assuming command on the 4 November to be followed later by the 6 Airborne Division.

The first operation that 11 S.A.S. undertook was Operation ‘Colossus’, a successful raid on an aqueduct at Tragino in Italy. Next was Operation ‘Biting’, a commando style raid on a radar site near Bruneval in France. Led by Major FROST, later of Arnhem fame, this raid was an outstanding success. Sadly, the third raid, Operation ‘Freshman’ in Norway was a disaster.

The 1 Parachute Brigade fought in Tunisia, suffering heavy casualties. There were some drops, but generally the brigade fought as ground troops. Elements of the 1 Parachute Brigade and 1 Airlanding Brigade fought in the Sicily campaign. The 1 Airborne Division landed at Taranto (where H.M.S. Abdiel hit a mine and sank taking with her a large number of men of the 6 Battalion).

The first full scale airborne operation mounted by British forces was D-Day, where 6Airborne Division landed on the left flank of I Corps. The division was retained in ground operations for some weeks afterwards. The next airborne battle was Operation ‘Market Garden’, about which much has been written. The concept was that of an airborne carpet to capture the bridges over the River Rhine (several people claim credit for it) as the pace of the advance slowed down. The First Allied Airborne Army was sat in the U.K., impatient and keen to get involved. Several operations had been devised and then cancelled, leading to much frustration amongst the highly trained troops. ‘Boy’ BROWNING was keen to have his I Airborne Corps play a major role in the defeat of Germany.

The outcome of Operation ‘Market Garden’ is well known and has been much analysed. Suffice to say the 1 Airborne Division was effectively destroyed as an operational formation and was never fully reconstituted. The bridgehead over the Nederijn (lower River Rhine) was withdrawn, with a period of relative stalemate resulting until the clearance of the Reichswald.

The 6 Airborne Division and an American Airborne Division participated in Operation ‘Varsity’, the crossing of the River Rhine in March 1945. Unlike ‘Market Garden’, this operation was planned meticulously. Although there was some fierce fighting, by this time in early 1945, the German Army was defeated with the Allies enjoying overwhelming military superiority.

For most of the Second World War, the 2 Parachute Brigade served as an independent formation, playing a significant role in the Greek Civil War of late 1944 and early 1945.

With the end of the war in Europe, the 1 Airborne Division was sent to Norway to oversee the removal of German forces. Tthe 6 Airborne Division became the U.K. Strategic Reserve formation and as such it was deployed to Palestine in 1946. The 5 Parachute Brigade was detached to move to India, then serving in the Netherland East Indies in 1946.

By 1950, British Airborne forces were reduced to one Regular Army brigade, supported by a Territorial Army airborne division.

Not to forget India and Burma, the deployment of Special Force and its maintenance by air supply can be seen as the largest airborne operation mounted by the British, albeit with significant U.S. support. An airborne division was formed in India Command, but it was not operational by the time of the end of hostilities with Japan. The 50 Indian Parachute Brigade fought a vital battle at Sangshak, worthy of the same recognition as Arnhem but often overlooked.

One of the early problems was the U.K. simply did not have a suitable aircraft from which to carry and drop parachute troops. The arrival of the Dakota airplane in numbers from the U.S. meant that such an aircraft became available. The British developed the use of gliders in airborne operations, both in North West Europe and Burma. All three divisions had one airlanding brigade on their establishment.

The other key element was air superiority and air supremacy. Without at least the former and preferably the latter, no significant airborne operation is viable. It was not until 1944 that the Allies had begun to achieve this situation in North West Europe and Burma, thus allowing large scale operations such as the deployment of Special Force and D-Day landings.


Battle

Map of the planned drop zones for Operation Varsity

Operation Plunder began at 9 pm on the evening of 23 March, and by the early hours of the morning of 24 March Allied ground units had secured a number of crossings on the eastern bank of the Rhine. In the first few hours of the day, the transport aircraft carrying the two airborne divisions that formed Operation Varsity began to take off from airbases in England and France and began to rendezvous over Brussels, before turning northeast for the Rhine dropping zones. The airlift consisted of 541 transport aircraft containing airborne troops, and a further 1,050 troop-carriers towing 1,350 gliders. The 17th Airborne Division consisted of 9,387 personnel, who were transported in 836 C-47 Skytrain transports, 72 C-46 Commando transports, and more than 900 Waco CG-4A gliders. The 6th Airborne Division consisted of 7,220 personnel transported by 42 Douglas C-54 and 752 C-47 Dakota transport aircraft, as well as 420 Airspeed Horsa and General Aircraft Hamilcar gliders. This immense armada stretched more than 200 miles (322 km) in the sky and took 2 hours and 37 minutes to pass any given point, and was protected by some 2,153 Allied fighters from the U.S. Ninth Air Force and the Royal Air Force. The combination of the two divisions in one lift made this the largest single day airborne drop in history. At 10 am British and American airborne troops belonging to the 6th Airborne Division and 17th Airborne Division began landing on German soil, some 13 hours after the Allied ground assault began.

6th Airborne Division

British paratroopers in Hamminkeln, 25 March 1945.

The first British airborne unit to land was the 8th (Midlands) Parachute Battalion 3rd Parachute Brigade, commanded by Brigadier James Hill. The brigade actually dropped nine minutes earlier than scheduled, but successfully landed in drop zone A, while facing significant small-arms and 20 mm anti-aircraft fire. The brigade suffered a number of casualties as it engaged the German forces in the Diersfordter Wald, but by 11:00 hours the drop zone was all but completely clear of enemy forces and all battalions of the brigade had formed up. The key place of Schnappenberg was captured by the 9th Parachute Battalion in conjunction with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, the latter unit having lost its commanding officer to German small-arms fire only moments after he had landed. Despite taking casualties the brigade cleared the area of German forces, and by 13:45 Brigadier Hill could report that the brigade had secured all of its objectives. Canadian medical orderly Corporal Frederick George Topham was awarded the Victoria Cross for his efforts to recover casualties and take them for treatment, despite his own wounds, and great personal danger.

The next British airborne unit to land was the 5th Parachute Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Nigel Poett. The brigade was designated to land on drop zone B and achieved this, although not as accurately as 3rd Parachute Brigade due to poor visibility around the drop zone, which also made it more difficult for paratroopers of the brigade to rally. The drop zone came under heavy fire from German troops stationed nearby, and was subjected to shellfire and mortaring which inflicted casualties in the battalion rendezvous areas. However, 7th Parachute Battalion soon cleared the DZ of German troops, many of whom were situated in farms and houses, and the 12th Parachute Battalion and 13th Parachute Battalion rapidly secured the rest of the brigade’s objectives. The brigade was then ordered to move due east and clear an area near Schnappenberg, as well as to engage German forces gathered to the west of the farmhouse where the 6th Airborne Division Headquarters was established. By 15:30 Brigadier Poett reported that the brigade had secured all of its objectives and linked up with other British airborne units.

The third airborne unit that formed a part of the 6th Airborne Division was the 6th Air landing Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Hugh Bellamy. The brigade was tasked with landing in company-sized groups and capturing several objectives, including the town of Hamminkeln. The gliders containing the airborne troops of the brigade landed in landing zones P, O, U and R under considerable antiaircraft fire, the landing being made even more difficult due to the presence of a great deal of haze and smoke. This resulted in a number of glider pilots being unable to identify their landing areas and losing their bearings a number of gliders landed in the wrong areas or crashed. However, the majority of the gliders survived, allowing the battalions of the brigade to secure intact the three bridges over the River Issel that they had been tasked with capturing, as well as the village of Hamminkeln with the aid of the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which had been dropped by mistake nearby. The brigade secured all of its objectives shortly after capturing Hamminkeln.

17th Airborne Division

The 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, under the command of Colonel Edson Raff, was the lead assault formation for the 17th Airborne Division, and was consequently the first US airborne unit to land as part of Operation Varsity. The entire regiment was meant to be dropped in drop zone W, a clearing 2 miles (3 km) north of Wesel however, excessive ground haze confused the pilots of the transport aircraft carrying the regiment, and as such when the regiment dropped it split into two halves. Colonel Raff and approximately 690 of his paratroopers landed northwest of the drop zone near the town of Diersfordt, with the rest of the regiment successfully landing in drop zone W. The colonel rallied his separated paratroopers and led them to drop zone W, engaging a battery of German artillery en route, killing or capturing the artillery crews before reuniting with the rest of the regiment. By 2 pm, the 507th had secured all of its objectives and cleared the area around Diersfordt, having engaged numerous German troops and also destroying a German tank. The actions of the regiment during the initial landing also gained the division its second Medal of Honor, when Private George J. Peters posthumously received the award after charging a German machine gun nest and eliminating it with rifle fire and grenades, allowing his fellow paratroopers to gather their equipment and capture the regiment’s first objective.


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