Operation Varsity: The British and Canadian Airborne Crossing of the Rhine

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Before Christmas , the 17th had been rushed to the Continent from its bases in England and had seen heavy combat during the German Ardennes offensive. Well-known for his insistence on meticulous planning and attacking only with an overwhelming advantage in manpower, Montgomery set the opening round of Plunder for March 23, His command included 17 infantry divisions, eight armored divisions and the two airborne divisions; 13 of the divisions were American, 12 British and two Canadian. In addition, he had five armored brigades, a British Commando brigade and a Canadian infantry brigade.

In addition to all the problems inherent in a complicated operation such as the Rhine crossing, the Allied commanders were somewhat distracted by the continuous bickering that went on in the American and British high command. Montgomery continued to maintain that he should be in overall command of the Allied forces, and he never missed an opportunity to take a dig at Eisenhower. The British also criticized Patton and his sometimes outrageous behavior, and they felt that Montgomery did not receive the credit he deserved.

The Americans, on the other hand, saw Montgomery as a pompous and overly conservative commander. They believed he sought to enhance his public image and tried to take credit for success even when it was not due him. The conflict raged on, and Eisenhower eventually threatened to resign his command unless Montgomery tempered his remarks. At times, it seemed that only the diplomacy of General George C. Marshall, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's chief of staff, held the Allied forces together. One concession was granted to the British -- a concession that would forever haunt the veterans of the 17th Airborne Division.

News of the Rhine crossing would be withheld for almost 24 hours, and the identity of the divisions involved in the operation would be temporarily withheld in Allied press releases. Because of the press blackout, the 17th's participation in this historic operation would not be remembered by many Americans.

Hitler was not completely unaware of the bickering that was going on in the Allied ranks. He erred, however, in thinking that it was serious enough to eventually cause a split that would give him the chance to grab a last-minute victory.

Operation Varsity: Allied Airborne Assault Over the Rhine River

He was playing for time -- time to deploy his "super weapons" such as the V-1 pulse-jet guided bomb and V-2 rocket missile in large numbers and time for dissension in the Allied ranks to bring his foes to the negotiating table. It was not to be. Operation Plunder was set in motion on the night of March 22, , just as Montgomery had planned, and the land elements began to move toward the Rhine. A giant smoke screen, which hid the Allied movements from enemy observation, blanketed the area for miles and soon hindered those movements. It later caused problems for the airborne troops' landing as well.

As the grand operation got underway, the airborne troopers were in their marshaling areas, being briefed on their mission. The Americans would take off from 17 airfields in north-central France; the British were slated to leave from 11 airfields in southeastern England. The Douglas C and Curtiss C transport aircraft were poised and ready. The gliders were neatly placed on the runways, awaiting connection to their tugs.

All awaited the coded signal to go: "Two if by sea.

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It would have been difficult to overlook the signs of the pending Allied offensive. Accordingly, the German commanders had moved additional troops and a number of new anti-aircraft units into the area and taken special steps to fortify all potential landing zones. Axis Sally, the "Berlin Bitch" as the GIs called her, even announced in her nightly radio propaganda broadcast that the Germans were expecting the 17th Airborne, and she promised them a hot reception.

The men prepared for battle, cleaning their weapons, sharpening their knives and otherwise readying their equipment for the mission ahead. The chaplains held services, and most everyone attended. Early on the morning of March 24, the signal, "Two if by sea," was flashed to General Miley's headquarters, and the airborne operation jumped into high gear. The troopers were served a breakfast of steak and eggs, then were loaded into trucks for the ride to the planes. The troops were quiet and determined -- from here on out, it would be very serious business.

The overall mission for the airborne troopers sounded quite simple. They were to seize the bridges over the Issel River and rapidly clear the enemy from the Diersfordter Forest.

Amphibious Tanks of the British 2nd Army Cross the Rhine River 1945

That would facilitate the ground forces' river crossing and prevent enemy reinforcements from reaching the beachhead. After the crossing was secure, the ground elements would move forward, and the troopers were to join them in the push into Germany, keeping the Germans on the run. The entire area was only 5 miles deep and 6 miles wide, and a total of nearly 18, airborne troops had to be inserted, making the airhead east of the Rhine the most congested airborne assault ever attempted at that time.

Commandos had already slipped across during the night of March 23 and were engaged near Wesel. Other ground forces would cross the Rhine under cover of darkness early on March The airborne troops would drop a few hours later, after daylight. The supply and administrative units of the 17th Airborne were to cross by LVTs landing vehicles, tracked -- amphibious personnel carriers the British called "Buffaloes" -- once the beachhead was secure.

Each regiment would be accompanied by its supporting artillery and engineer units. In all, the sky train stretched nearly miles and took two hours and 37 minutes to pass any given point. A protective blanket of fighters from the U.

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The first planes carrying soldiers of the 17th Airborne took off at a. While the troop planes circled overhead, the gliders and their tows lifted off. Inside the troop planes and in the gliders the men settled down for the flight to the drop areas. The British and American flights met up near Brussels, Belgium. From there on it was a straight, mile run to the drop areas, four to six miles east of the Rhine.

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As the aircraft neared the Rhine River, the men saw troops below crossing in assault boats and a buildup of men and supplies waiting to cross. As the planes came into view, the Allied artillery bombardment of the German positions on the east side was halted as a precaution -- but German anti-aircraft fire soon opened up on the airborne convoy.

Black shell bursts dotted the sky, and red tracer bullets arced up, reaching for the planes.

The troopers watched with horror as first one then another troop plane nosed over and headed down. Paratroopers and glider troops alike were anxious to get on the ground, where they felt they had a fighting chance.

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  • The new double-door Cs, used for the first time to drop paratroopers in combat, did not have self-sealing fuel tanks. When the tanks were hit, the gasoline burst into flames that ran back along the fuselage. As the planes began to burn, the pilots bravely fought to hold them level as they continued to search for their drop zones and tried to give the paratroopers an opportunity to get clear of the aircraft. Colonel Raff and some of his paratroopers were dropped two miles northeast of their drop zone. Raff rounded up his troops and led them off on the double toward their objectives.

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    The remainder of the regiment, plus Edward S. Branigan's th Field Artillery Battalion, landed almost directly on their assigned targets. The troopers moved swiftly, and all of their objectives were secured within about an hour. Kenneth L.

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    In addition to their concern about the anti-aircraft fire, the troopers were also worried about the new quick-release chutes that they were using for the first time in combat. What if the shock of the opening chute caused them to accidentally hit the quick release? The chutes had a safety pin to prevent this from happening, but the troopers worried anyway.

    When Coutts' plane was hit and caught fire, a trooper who had been badly wounded during the flight was hooked up and pushed out in the hope that he would survive the jump. Then Coutts and the other troopers bailed out. Later, Coutts learned that the pilot and crew had also managed to parachute to safety before the plane exploded. Shortly after landing, Company E of the th Parachute Infantry launched an attack along a railway toward a building later determined to have been a German command post.

    Private First Class Stuart S. Stryker's platoon made a frontal assault but was pinned down after advancing only 50 yards. Stryker, armed with only a carbine and shouting to his fellow troopers to follow him, charged the German position. Inspired by his bravery, Stryker's comrades joined him.