Operation Varsity was the last Allied airborne raid of World War 2 targeting the east bank of the Rhine River. Troops from the US, the UK and Canada took part in the operation and it is worth noting that it was the largest number of paratroopers, on the same day and at the same place, in history.
Operation Plunder and the crossing of the Rhine
Operation Varsity was part of the larger Operation Plunder which aimed to cross the Rhine River in its northern part and then allow Allied troops to enter northern Germany.
The purpose of Operation Varsity was to drop paratroopers behind German defense lines with the mission of disorganizing the defending Germans and cutting off reinforcements so that Allied forces could cross the Rhine and eventually join the paratroopers.
German troops in the area
Having now reached March 1945, the situation of the German troops on the Western Front was quite bad. Numerically, it is estimated that Montgomery had under his command 30 divisions while against him were 10 German divisions, quite weakened by the constant fighting.
On the defense against Operation Varsity the Germans had deployed the 84th Infantry Division and the 7th Parachute Division. The total strength of the two German divisions was estimated at about 8,000 men, perhaps even less, while the number of guns, anti-aircraft and armored vehicles was also limited. Finally, these forces were hit hard by the Allied Air Force a week before the start of the operation by continuous bombing.
Initially, the plan was to use three divisions (British: 6th, US: 13th and 17th) behind the German lines but due to a limited number of transports the force was reduced, leaving the 13th out of the plan. The total strength of the paratroopers was just under 17,000 men. Thus, the 2 divisions would undertake the execution of the operation, with the area of action being the city of Wessel and its surroundings, which was located directly on the east bank of the Rhine.
1,588 C-47s, 76 C-46s and more than 1,320 gliders were needed to transport the troops. This huge formation was 322 kilometers long and escorted by 2,153 fighter aircraft. Thus, it became the largest force of paratroopers to operate simultaneously in the same place in history.
The drop zones were placed near the village of Hamminkeln, less than 10 kilometers from the city. The objective of the operation was to clear the forest in the area, which could have German gun emplacements which could hit the forces that would attempt to cross the river, capture a number of bridges as well as capture the village of Hamminkeln. After these objectives were completed, the troops would defend the area and await the advance of the British 2nd Army.
It should be mentioned that this planning was done based on the lessons learned from Operation Market Garden, during which the Allied forces suffered huge losses. So it was decided that the drop zones should not be too far from the front line to make it easier for the ground forces to reach the paratroopers.
The execution of the operation
The two divisions were split into two drop zones, with the 17th taking over the one in the south and the 6th taking over the one in the north. The first troops (507th Regiment) of the 17th missed the drop zone and eventually landed in the British area of responsibility in the north due to the weather conditions and especially the fog on the ground, despite the fact that the mission was carried out by day and not by night as usual.
So about 690 of the paratroopers landed near the town of Diersfordt and moved south to join up with the rest of the 17th. On the way they managed to neutralize a German artillery.
The same happened to the 513th Regiment which landed at the same time as the British in the British landing zone and fought along with the British troops to capture the village of Haminkeln.
The 17th’s third regiment, the 194th, was the only one to land in its assigned drop zone and despite heavy casualties managed to clear the area of German artillery and tank elements operating in it.
The British on the other hand, with the 8th Battalion of the 3rd Brigade were the first to lnad, inside their assigned drop zone. Within about an hour, they had managed to secure their drop zone and 2 hours later they also secured the neighboring forest.
The 5th Brigade followed shortly after, tasked with securing the areas to the east, mainly farms, in the Schermbeck area as well as engaging the German forces near the 6th Division headquarters.
Finally, the 6th Brigade landed near the village of Hamminkeln and with its force divided into companies, undertook the mission to occupy the village, in which American troops also contributed, as well as 3 bridges.
In the end, the Operation Varsity was a success. The missions assigned to the paratroopers were completed. By the evening of the following day forces crossing the Rhine reached the paratroopers of the 6th Division while 3 days later, 14 Allied divisions crossed to the east bank.
Total losses for the Allies are estimated at around 2,700 men, 1,400 for the 6th Division and 1,300 for the 17th Division respectively. At the same time, 56-72 aircraft were lost.
This number of losses has led many to consider the operation not so successful, on the other hand, many, including Eisenhower, called it the most successful air raid of the second World War.