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Operation Varsity: The Last Airborne Deployment of WWII

In the early morning hours of March 24, 1945, a massive WWII airborne operation known as Operation Varsity launched with an attempt to deploy 17,000 American and British Airborne troops across the Rhine River. It was the largest single-day airborne operation in history.

C-47 Transport Planes Release Hundreds of Paratroopers during Operation Varsity

In the final months of WWII, Western Allied Forces advanced east into Germany. This meant crossing numerous rivers, many of which no longer had standing bridges. The Rhine River was especially treacherous, with steep banks and swift currents, providing German forces with a natural defensive barrier.

Planning got underway to deploy airborne forces on the east side of the Rhine. The principal mission was to seize and hold the high ground five miles north of Wesel, Germany, and to facilitate the ground action and establish a bridgehead. The soldiers would then hold the territory until the advancing units of the British 21st Army Group joined them, allowing them to advance to northern Germany. Extensive photo reconnaissance identified suitable drop zones. This operation would be part of Operation Plunder and would involve troops from the 17th Airborne Division and the British 6th Airborne Division.  

On the night of March 23rd, British ground troops crossed the Rhine and launched an intense assault near Wesel, securing nine small bridgeheads. At 6:00 a.m. on March 24th, airborne troops were given the green light. A huge armada consisting of more than 1,500 American aircraft and gliders carrying more than 9,000 soldiers, rendezvoused with the British airborne armada of 1,200 aircraft and gliders carrying 8,000 soldiers. They met in the skies near Brussels, Belgium, and formed a column two-and-a-half hours long. To draw away enemy fighters during the operation, the 15th Air Force consisting of 150 heavy bombers flew one of its longest missions and bombed Berlin.

Glider Troops After Landing Near Wesel, Germany

Paratroopers filed out over the drop site while gliders cut loose over the landing area. Concealed flak positions, sniper and mortar fire caused casualties. After landing, the soldiers fought off German attempts to infiltrate their defensive positions. In the process, they captured German prisoners.

Stuart Stryker served in the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division. During Operation Varsity, he parachuted to a landing near Wesel. When his company attacked a strongly defended building, another platoon became pinned down by intense fire. Stryker voluntarily ran to the head of the unit calling for soldiers to follow him. He charged the German position and was killed just 25 yards from the building. His attack provided a diversion that allowed other soldiers to take the position, where they captured over 200 soldiers and freed three American airmen held as prisoners. Stryker was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. In 2002, the US Army named its new armored fighting vehicle “Stryker” in his honor.

Operation Varsity was deemed a success and soldiers captured bridges, strongholds, and secured towns allowing troops to advance to northern Germany. British and American casualties were lower than military experts anticipated but still numbered more than 2,000. The two divisions also captured 3,500 German prisoners. To learn more about Operation Varsity, search Fold3 today!

100 Comments

  1. My Father, Capt. Forrest L. Denny MD, was a physician in the 107th Medical Evac Unit the went into Germany to provide medical care.

  2. The Steinway & Sons piano factory in New York made parts for gliders because they had the ability to saw and glue up wings as well as the machinery , space and skilled work force. Piano production pretty much stopped during WWII as other companies made things for the war effort including radio equipment. Steinway was allowed to build a model of piano for use in the field by the Chaplains service, USO and hospital re-hab centers. There is a link to this often forgotten piece of history. If anyone is interested in the link I will post it

    BTW gliders where used in the Normandy invasion but problems with off target releases killed many paratroopers.

    • We would be interested to receive the link please Jim Kelly

    • For an example of where gliders were very successful in the Normandy invasion, see the coup-de-main operation to capture Pegasus Bridge, the leading glider finished just 47 yards from the target. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pegasus_Bridge. Stephen Ambrose of Band of Brothers fame has written a book about it.

    • I’d love to receive the link. I played a Steinway grand for many, many years – and feel such a link to the company that built them. Thanks.

    • Steinway also built caskets during the war . The piano they built was known as the Veteran Vertical typically painted O.D. or navy blue and was shipped in a special container that could be air dropped via parachute and not be damaged .

  3. Say a prayer for these men who are.respondable for the freedom we have today. They should not be forgotten for what they have done and a lot have lost their lives for our freedom.

  4. Dad, a member of the 81st squadron, 436th group piloted in this assault. The success resulted from what was learned in Neptune and Market Garden.
    The assault took little over 2 1/2 hours, I believe.
    Previously missions took place in very early hours and with less coordination.
    Ref Green Light, authored by one of their own radio operators.
    I only learned of their participation after his death at age 81. Special thank you to all who served, thanks Dad!

  5. My father-in-law, Edgar Theus, was a glider pilot during this mission. He flew into France that day – Like so many WWII airmen and soldiers, he didn’t talk a lot about his experiences – or they had little stories that distracted you from the life-and-death events that were happening around them. He used to joke that when he “crash-landed” his glider, he was pitched forward and the guidance stick hit him between the legs. He would joke that he had received $29.00 a month ever since then for the loss of one testicle. He did mention the use of those “clickers” or cricket noise makers that US troops used to try to locate each other in the dark – how frightening it must have been to be in the midst of this. Thank God for the efforts of these brave soldiers and airmen!

  6. Do you have information about Operation Torch – Navy Battle in WWII. I think it involved France. My father was a pilot and flew the Douglas Dauntless and trained young pilots.

    • Operation Torch was the American invasion of Vichy held NW Africa in 1942. It was our first amphibious assault in the European theatre.

  7. Sorry the Steinway piano was known as the Victory Vertical and not the Veteran Vertical, my mistake.

  8. Party weight my father was in the 325gir 82nd ab. Never spoke about anything can’t confirm his location at those times . He passed away after 20 years in the air force 1985, before hardly knowing his army service.

  9. I would be interested in receiving this also. My dad was in Italy during WWII. He didn’t talk about it very much.

  10. Good read: “The Battling Buzzards” by Gerald Astor. Story about the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team 1943-1945. Hits to close to home.

  11. In memory of my dad Fred Wilcock who dropped with the 6th Airborne division, 13th Battalion, A company.

  12. Great article, very interesting.

    I would love to hear from anyone who has successfully traced a member of DEMS from the 2nd World War.

    I do not seem to be able to trace my grandfather at all, even with his army number and a loose knowledge of the ships he was on.

    Any leads would be gratefully received. Thanks

  13. I have a question more than a comment. Reading this article made me remember a story my father-in-law Jerry Rubright told me. He was in the Korean War in the Army. He told of riding gliders into Papua New Guinea where his unit cleared and repaired an airstrip. I don’t know the particulars as Pap is now deceased. I would appreciate any information about this.

  14. My dad, William A. “Billy” King was a glider pilot who was towed to Operation Varsity.

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  16. My father dropped bombs from a B-24 on Munich at the very end of the war. His planes flew up over the Alps from Italy where they were based. He said the British planes flew over the Channel to Munich and both British and Americans bombed it.

  17. My father was in WWll and in the Battle of the Bulge. He never talked of it. I do have some letters he sent to my grandmother. He wrote how cold he was in one of them. They didn’t tell much about what was going on. He was in a hospital in England for schrapnel wounds. There was an article in the local news paper about him helping blow up a bridge. I would give anything to know more about his service, but most all of the records were burned in a fire in U.S. bureau of records back in the 70’s.

  18. RIP DADDY, Merchant Marines at 16, Oiler on a ship, Okinawa & the Philippines, saw horrors unspeakable, then came home, turned 18 & went into the USMC – SEMPER FI, KOREA, L.Cpl. Expert Rifleman, Photographer, Quantico Photo Lab – RIP to our 2 on the Viet Nam Wall, Kennedy and Plunkett and our 2 at the USS Arizona – the Murdock brothers. PLUS our other over 1,000 military Veterans, Granddaddy Plunkett -WW1 who fought the Germans on their soil, Daddy’s older brother Joe. C. Plunkett, Jr., 1Lt. U.S. Army, lost his best friend and over 1/2 his btn. at Normandy, Omaha and Italy; 56 who served in WWII, 14 of those served their entire tours in Europe during the war; a 19 year old co-pilot shot down with his crew over Germany, imprisoned at the infamous Stalag Luft 3 made famous by the movie “The Great Escape” plus my mother’s cousin Gloria, a Rosey the Riveter Supv.; also our 25 Plunketts who fought suffered and some died in the Amer. Rev. War here in VA plus our over 160 from 9 yes NINE states who fought, suffered – many from disease – and many imprisoned in the UN-Civil War and we provided provender to the troops. Also thanks to my 1st husband who served in the Viet Nam war as a Photo Journalist. 6 Uncles who served in the WWII in all theaters. RIP to all of them and those still with us. Salute! Note: I also served as a Volunteer in the Civil Air Patrol ’77- ’79.