On this day in 1945, Allied forces determine that “organized resistance has now ceased” in western Germany. Just one day earlier, Allied forces had conducted World War II’s largest single-day airborne drop, a mission codenamed “Operation Varsity.”
The drop might not have been needed but for the Rhine River, a huge natural obstacle protecting Nazi Germany from Allied forces to the west.
How could the Allies get across the river and deal a final blow to the Nazis?
British and American generals wrestled with the problem, at first thinking they would undertake a massive river crossing. In the end, though, they settled on something more unorthodox.
Ground forces on the west side of the river would begin an artillery attack on the night of March 23-24. Thousands of British and American paratroopers would be flown over the river and dropped on its eastern side, but not until after sunrise. Disassembled howitzers and other supplies would be dropped, too. Once on land, these soldiers were to seize high ground and keep German artillery busy while more Allied forces crossed the Rhine.
It was the first airdrop into enemy territory. The soldiers didn’t know what to expect. Angry citizenry? Poison gas? Booby traps?
Some paratroopers wondered if their lavish breakfast on the 24th was meant to be a last meal. Fresh eggs and steak?! What a luxury. “I was thinking this might be my last one so I ate all that I could,” one medic later said.
As the paratroopers ate, the Royal and U.S. Army Air Forces were already at work, bombing enemy airfields and communication centers. Meanwhile, other bombers pounded Berlin or attacked oil fields. The attacks would hamper German communications, but they would also draw enemy fighter planes away from the area where paratroopers would jump.
“The Allies intended their air raids to overwhelm the German defense system,” historian James Fenelon explains. “By striking everywhere at once they planned to stretch the system to the breaking point, rendering it mute.”
Finally, the airborne mission began, with aircraft leaving from multiple locations. One briefing officer told his pilots to prepare for “the most important mission you will have flown. . . . it rivals the landings of June 6 . . . .” Meanwhile, those who left from an airfield in France had the words of Colonel Edson Raff ringing in their ears: “Give the goddamned bastards hell, men!”
Ultimately, more than 16,000 paratroopers, carried by thousands of aircraft and gliders, did just that.
The planes began taking anti-aircraft fire as they approached Germany, but the first paratroopers were in position to jump at 9:48 a.m. “I’ll admit that when we stood up in the plane I was damned frightened,” a sergeant later said, “and when the bell rang for exit I was scared, but when we jumped and I heard the flak, I was terrified. I saw two of my buddies get hit while in the air. I’ll always remember how they slumped in their chutes . . . .”
A combat photographer later recounted how his life flashed before his eyes in those moments: “It was like a movie where the projection machine has gone crazy, and I saw and felt everything I ever ate, ever did.”
Most of our soldiers landed safely. Some got hung up in trees. Too many didn’t make it. One lucky sergeant landed near a German soldier who ran toward him, hugged him, and promptly surrendered.
In the hours that followed, our boys fought. They cleared houses. They captured prisoners. They established a bridgehead for an even deeper drive into Germany.
No one could know it yet, but these efforts would pay off. Final victory against Nazi Germany was mere weeks away.
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Alan J. Levine, From the Normandy Beaches to the Baltic Sea: The Northwest Europe Campaign, 1944-1945 (2000)
James M. Fenelon, Four Hours of Fury: The Untold Story of World War II's Largest Airborne Invasion and the Final Push into Nazi Germany (2019)
James M. Fenelon, Operation Varsity: A Bet Lost, the Battle Won (HistoryNet.com; March 24, 2020)
John L. Frisbee, Valor: Operation Varsity (Air Force Mag; March 1, 1996) (reprinted HERE)
Operation Varsity (National Medal of Honor Museum)
Operation Varsity (U.S. Army Airborne & Special Operations Museum website)