This Month in Parachute History
Operation Varsity, March 24, 1945
Seventy Five years ago, on March 24, 1945, the First Allied Airborne Army’s assault, code named “Operation Varsity”, was launched on the east bank of the Rhine in northern Germany. By March 1945, the Allied armies had advanced into Germany and had reached the Rhine, a formidable natural obstacle to the Allied advance. Breaching this obstacle would allow the Allies to advance into northern Germany and on to Berlin. Operation Varsity was held in support of “Operation Plunder”, the amphibious assault by the 21st Army Group that crossed the river on March 23. Operation Varsity consisted of dropping two divisions from U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps (the British 6th Airborne Division and the U.S. 17th Airborne Division) to capture key territory and to generally disrupt German defenses to aid the advance of Allied ground forces.
The airlift consisted of 541 transport aircraft containing airborne troops, and a further 1,050 troop-carriers towing 1,350 troop filled gliders (about 900 of which were WACO CG-4A gliders*). In the early hours of March 24, the planes took off from airbases in England and France and began to rendezvous over Brussels, before turning northeast for the Rhine dropping zones. The mass of aircraft stretched more than 200 miles in the and was protected by over 200 fighters from the U.S. Ninth Air Force and the Royal Air Force. At 10 am the troops began landing in the drop zones, just thirteen hours after the Allied ground assault began. The combination of the two divisions in one lift made this the largest single day airborne drop in history.
By the end of the day the first bridge was built across the Rhine, and within days there were twelve bridges suitable for heavy armor, and the Allies were advancing further into Germany. The speed with which the two airborne divisions landed their troops had a significant effect on the successful outcome of the operation. The casualties for the airborne units were quite heavy, although lighter than had been expected. By nightfall of 24 March, the two divisions had suffered around 2700 killed or wounded out of 16,870 personnel who took part in the operation. About 3,500 German POW’s were taken. Aircraft losses were also high, especially with the gliders. But by diverting German attention away from Operation Plunder, Operation Varsity had helped protect the troops creating a bridgehead across the Rhine, and facilitated the breach of the Rhine, and speeding up the Allied advancement.
For more extensive reading, check these interesting links:
*The last link shown is a fascinating look at the glider pilots in an article written by Christopher Warner, whose great uncle was a glider pilot in Operation Varsity, flying a WACO CG4A. (He mistakenly refers to WACO as being in Troy, Indiana, instead of Ohio, but it is still a great article. Historic WACO Field and Airplane Museum is Site #11 on the Aviation Trail: www.wacoairmuseum.org)