Operation Varsity

24 March 1945

With the end of the participation of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions in repelling the German counter-attack in the Ardennes between December 1944 and January 1945, the airborne forces under the command of First Allied Airborne Army would not participate in another airborne operation until March. By March 1945, the Allied armies had advanced into Germany and had reached the River Rhine. The Rhine was a formidable natural obstacle to the Allied advance, but if breached would allow the Allies to access the North German Plain and ultimately advance on Berlin and other major cities in Northern Germany. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commanding the British 21st Army Group devised a plan to allow the forces under his command to breach the Rhine, which he entitled Operation Plunder. Plunder envisioned the British Second Army, under Lieutenant-General Sir Miles Dempsey and the U.S. Ninth Army under Lieutenant General William Simpson crossing the Rhine at Rees, Wesel, and an area south of the Lippe Canal. To ensure that the operation was a success, Montgomery insisted that an airborne component was inserted into the plans for the operation to support the amphibious assaults that would take place, which was code-named Operation Varsity. Three airborne divisions were initially chosen to take part in Varsity: the British 6th Airborne Division, the US 13th Airborne Division and the US 17th Airborne Division, all of which were assigned to US XVIII Airborne Corps (Click here to see how allied airborne units were organized). One of these airborne formations, the British 6th Airborne Division, was a veteran division; it had taken part in Operation Overlord and the assault on Normandy. However, the 17th Airborne Division had only been activated in April 1943 and had arrived in Britain in August 1944, too late to participate in Operation Overlord. The Division had also been absent from Operation Market-Garden, and the only action it had seen was during the Ardennes campaign; it was therefore an inexperienced formation which had never taken part in a combat drop. The 13th Airborne Division had been activated in August 1943 and was sent to France in 1945 but the formation itself had never seen action, although one of its Regiments, the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment had seen action in Italy, Southern France, as well as in the Ardennes.

The planning for Operation Varsity initially involved all three airborne divisions, all of which were to be dropped behind German lines in support of 21st Army Group as it conducted its amphibious assaults to breach the Rhine. However, during the earliest stages of planning Varsity, it became apparent that the 13th Airborne Division would be unable to participate in the operation, as there were only enough combat transport aircraft in the area to effectively transport two divisions. The plan for the operation was therefore altered to accommodate the two remaining airborne divisions, the British 6th Airborne and the US 17th Airborne Division. The two airborne divisions would be dropped behind German lines, with their objective to land around Wesel and disrupt enemy defences in order to aid the advance of the British Second Army towards Wesel. To achieve this, both divisions would be dropped near the town of Hamminkeln, and were tasked with a number of objectives: they were to seize the Diersfordter Wald, a forest that overlooked the Rhine and had a road linking several towns together; several bridges over a smaller waterway, the River IJssel, were to be seized to facilitate the advance; and the town of Hamminkeln was to be captured. Operation Varsity would be the largest single-drop airborne operation conducted during the conflict; more significantly, it would also go against previous airborne strategy by having the airborne troops drop after the initial amphibious landings, in order to minimize risks to the airborne troops after the experiences of Operation Market-Garden. Unlike Market-Garden, the airborne forces would only be dropped a relatively short distance behind German lines, thereby ensuring that reinforcements would be able to link up with them within a short period. This avoided risking the same type of disaster that had befallen the British 1st Airborne Division when it had been isolated and practically annihilated by German infantry and armour at Arnhem. It was also decided by General Brereton that the two airborne divisions would be dropped simultaneously in a single "lift", instead of being dropped several hours apart. Supply drops for the airborne forces would also be made as soon as possible to ensure adequate supplies were available to the airborne troops as they fought.

The airborne forces made several mistakes, most notably when pilot error caused paratroopers from the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment, a regiment in the US 17th Airborne Division, to miss their drop zone and land on a British drop zone instead. However, the operation was a success, with both divisions capturing Rhine bridges and securing towns that could have been used by Germany to delay the advance of the British ground forces. The two divisions incurred more than 2,000 casualties, but captured about 3,000 German soldiers. The operation was the last large-scale Allied airborne operation of the war.