Operation VARSITY: The Last Airborne Deployment of World War II
By Matthew J. Seelinger
In the years prior to World War II, the U.S. Army began to develop the concept of deploying troops from the air. Starting with the formation of the Parachute Test Platoon on 26 June 1940, the Army experimented with and developed airborne doctrine, deploying soldiers by parachute and by glider behind enemy lines in order to seize and hold bridges and other strategic locations until conventional ground forces could link up with them. Due to the difficult nature of their mission, the training for these new soldiers, better known as paratroopers, was rigorous, earning them the status of elite soldiers. Eventually, over the course of World War II, the Army formed five airborne divisions (11th, 13th, 17th, 82d, and 101st) along with several separate parachute infantry regiments and battalions.
The Army’s first foray into airborne warfare came with Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, on 8 November 1942, when the 2d Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry, dropped into Algeria, seizing the Tafarquay Airport near Oran. While this first combat jump proved successful, later operations had mixed results. During the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, elements of the 82d Airborne Division (“All Americans”) were scattered far from their drop zones, and Allied anti-aircraft fire inflicted significant casualties on the 1st and 2d Battalions, 504th Parachute Infantry, when they shot down twenty-three C-47 transport aircraft in one of the worst friendly fire incidents of the war. Two months later, in the opening phase of the Allied invasion of mainland Italy in September 1943, two regiments of the 82d, the 504th and 505th Parachute Infantry, conducted two fairly successful combat drops in support of the Allied landings at Salerno.
While conducted on a much larger scale than previous operations, the Allied airborne assault as part of Operation Overlord on 6 June 1944, again was not as successful as hoped. Carried out at night, paratroopers from both the veteran 82d Airborne Division and the un-blooded 101st Airborne Division (“Screaming Eagles”), along with the British 6th Airborne Division, were scattered far and wide over the Norman countryside. Fighting in small groups, the American and British paratroopers did much to sow confusion among the German forces and seized several key objectives, but paid a heavy price in dead and wounded.
In Southern France, the 1st Airborne Task Force, a provisional division of the Seventh Army consisting of several parachute and glider units, made a night air assault on 15 August 1944 in support of the Allied amphibious landings (Operation Anvil). Low cloud cover however, caused many paratroopers to be dropped far from their intended landing zones, but as in Normandy, they significantly confused the German forces defending the region.
In Operation Market-Garden, a larger operation than D-Day and conducted during daylight hours, the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions, under the operational control of the First Allied Airborne Army, performed well, seizing their objectives in Holland and holding them until relieved by the British XXX Corps. Again, however, both divisions suffered heavy casualties, and the operation eventually fell short of its objectives when Allied forces could not reach the British 1st Airborne Division trapped in Arnhem along the Rhine River.
While winter weather prevented any further combat jumps in 1944, American paratroopers accorded themselves in conventional roles during the surprise German offensive through the Ardennes in December 1944, in what became better known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 101st Airborne Division earned a Presidential Unit Citation for its stubborn defense of Bastogne, Belgium, and forever etched itself in Army lore. The 82d Airborne Division played an important role in holding the northern shoulder of the Bulge, while the inexperienced 17th Airborne Division was rushed to the front from England and took part in the Allied counteroffensive.
The Army also conducted airborne operations in the Pacific Theater, but on a much smaller scale. The 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment, a separate airborne unit not assigned to a division, was employed during the New Guinea campaign to help the American Sixth Army bypass Japanese strong points. On 16 February 1945, the 503d parachuted onto the fortress island of Corregidor and helped recapture the site where the last American forces in the Philippines surrendered to the Japanese nearly three years before. Another airborne unit, the 11th Airborne Division, fought in the New Guinea, Leyte, and Luzon campaigns. While the division’s 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment conducted two parachute assaults, including one to liberate prisoners at the Japanese internment camp at Los Banos on 23 February 1945, the 11th Airborne fought largely as a conventional infantry division.
As the western Allies advanced east into Germany in early 1945, they faced a number of obstacles. In addition to stiff German resistance, numerous rivers slowed the Allies’ march. In particular, the Rhine River, with its treacherous currents and steep banks, formed a particularly strong natural defensive barrier for the Wehrmacht. Few if any bridges would remain standing, so Allied forces would have to make amphibious assaults across the river. As Allied leaders began planning for the Rhine crossings, they also examined the possibility of employing airborne forces in a parachute drop on the east bank of the Rhine in support of any amphibious assault. What resulted was Operation Varsity, the 17th Airborne Division’s first combat air assault and the last major airborne operation of World War II. It was also arguably the war’s most successful combat parachute drop. While tactically successful, however, some Allied officers (and later historians) questioned if Varsity was ever necessary, and whether the casualties incurred by the operation were worth what was gained.
Planning for possible Allied airborne assaults across the Rhine actually began shortly before the Battle of Bulge. Eventually, the staff of the First Allied Airborne Army (FAAA), commanded by LTG Lewis H. Brereton, drew up plans for three Allied airborne landings across the Rhine: Operation Varsity, in support of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group’s crossing at Wesel; Operation Choker II, which would support LTG Alexander Patch’s Seventh Army crossings at Worms; and Operation Naples II, part of GEN Omar N. Bradley’s 12th Army Group’s assault across the Rhine at Cologne. In addition to the three drops east of the Rhine River, FAAA planners also generated preliminary plans for an American drop to occupy Berlin (Operation Eclipse) should Nazi Germany suddenly collapse.
By 1 February, FAAA officers began to focus their resources on two airborne operations: Varsity, in support of Montgomery, and Choker II, in support of an American crossing. In fact, Montgomery emphatically insisted on airborne support for his anticipated crossing at Wesel. Naples II and Eclipse were abandoned. LTG Brereton assigned his deputy, MG Richard N. Gale, who also commanded the British 1st Airborne Corps, as the chief planner and commander of the operation. Montgomery and British Second Army commander LTG Miles Dempsey, who would spearhead the amphibious crossing, drew up a plan using three airborne divisions: MG Eric Bol’s British 6th and two American divisions, MG Elbridge G. Chapman’s 13th and MG William (Bud) Miley’s 17th. Preliminary plans for Choker II called for the employment of the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions.
Gale soon lost the confidence of both Montgomery and Dempsey and was replaced by MG Matthew B. Ridgway, commander of the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps, who had much more experience in planning and leading airborne operations. Ridgway, however, was not eager to take on this new task. He had successfully led his corps in conventional operations during the Battle of the Bulge and was hoping to take command of an army if the opportunity arose. Leading an “unconventional” operation, he believed, such as an airborne drop across the Rhine, would only hurt his chances. He requested that he remain with the LTG Courtney Hodge’s First Army until it reached the Rhine, then he would command Choker II. GEN Dwight D. Eisenhower, the overall Allied commander in Western Europe, however, overruled Ridgway and ordered him to command Varsity.
Ridgway did all he could to get out of the assignment but to no avail–Montgomery’s decision was final. On 13 February, MG John Millikin’s III Corps replaced XVIII Airborne Corps. Ridgway and his staff returned to their old corps headquarters in Epernay, France, to continue planning for both Varsity and Choker II. At the same time, the 17th, 82d, and 101st Airborne Divisions were pulled from the line and returned to their former bases near Reims for rest and refitting prior to the jumps over the Rhine.
Unlike Sicily and Normandy, the airborne drops in support of the Rhine crossings would commence after the amphibious operations (Operation Plunder) had begun. Also, to avoid the problems that plagued earlier operations such as Market-Garden, where British paratroopers and gliders were deployed in waves over several days, and where soldiers were forced to march several miles to reach their objectives in Arnhem, Varsity called for airborne forces to be dropped almost all at once at landing zones as close as possible to their objectives. The 17th Airborne Division would land in the southern portion of the drop zones, while the British 6th Airborne would take the northern area. The operation would also take place during daylight hours, which had the disadvantage of exposing the slow flying gliders and transport aircraft to German anti-aircraft fire. Allied planners did consider a night jump to decrease the danger of flak, but that was ruled out due to the threat posed by enemy night fighter planes. A daytime operation also had the advantage of allowing paratroopers and glider-borne personnel to more easily see where they were upon landing, assemble quickly, and locate the enemy.
Furthermore, the plan called for the airborne troops to land within range of Allied artillery support on the west bank of the Rhine, and the areas around the landing zones would be hit by heavy bombers prior to the drop. In addition, hundreds of Allied fighter-bombers would provide close-air support to the troops once they were on the ground, and a formation of B-24 Liberator bombers would make a high-speed, low-level supply drop within hours of the landings.
Ridgway remained concerned about a repeat of Market-Garden, when unexpectedly heavy German resistance delayed XXX Corps’ advance and forced the airborne forces to hold their objectives for longer than planned. Dempsey promised Ridgway that the link-up with Second Army would occur quickly, with two divisions reaching the airborne forces in no more than forty-eight hours. Ridgway, however, remained somewhat leery of Dempsey’s promise. Ridgway had blamed much of Market-Garden’s failure on Dempsey’s lack of aggressiveness in pushing British ground forces forward.
Planning for Varsity went on into March, with a number of changes being made before the operation’s plans were finalized. Montgomery set the date for 24 March. Because the Allied airlift capability was limited, the assault would employ two airborne divisions rather than the original three. While the 17th Airborne had not made a combat jump to date, it did have combat experience, having taken part in the effort to drive the Germans out of the Ardennes. As a result, the 13th Airborne Division was dropped from the operation and would never see combat as a division, although some of its personnel were employed as replacements.
Ridgway decided that he and XVIII Corps headquarters would cross the Rhine by landing craft after the airborne drops, which caused COL Edson Raff, commander of the 507th Parachute Infantry, to unfairly comment that Ridgway was not “a real paratrooper that would jump with his men.” In fact, the decision was a sound one. Instead of placing himself in harm’s way on a chaotic battlefield with poor communications at best, Ridgway could maintain clear communication with both British and American forces and better maintain operational control. Furthermore, unbeknownst to most outside of Ridgway’s staff, he was suffering from acute back pain that was only alleviated by a doctor’s injection of Novocain directly into his back muscles.
The two remaining divisions would be dropped east of Wesel in an area between the town and the Issel River, where they would seize the Diersfordterwald, the town of Hamminkeln, and several bridges over the Issel. They would also prevent the Germans from rushing reinforcements to counter the amphibious landings.
On 7 March, Montgomery’s massive Rhine crossing was unexpectedly upstaged when elements of the U.S. 9th Armored Division, part of the First Army’s III Corps, seized the Ludendorff Bridge, the last intact bridge spanning the Rhine, at Remagen. In addition to suddenly changing the course of the war in the West, and relegating the northern Rhine crossings to somewhat of a sideshow, the Remagen bridgehead eliminated the need for airborne support for Bradley’s 12th Army Group. As a result, Allied planners cancelled Choker II and Naples II, as well as Operation Arena, an even more ambitious plan that called for an airborne drop of several divisions 100 miles east of the Rhine, followed by an airlift of several conventional infantry divisions.
The American division for Varsity, the 17th Airborne, was commanded by MG William M. (Bud) Miley, a veteran airborne officer who had previously served as assistant division commander of the 82d Airborne when Ridgway commanded the division. Unlike the British 6th Airborne, the 17th had yet to make a combat jump, although it had seen heavy combat during the Battle of the Bulge.
After a reorganization of all American airborne divisions in early 1945, the 17th consisted of three regiments (two parachute and one glider infantry), four field artillery battalions, and various combat support units. Under the airborne division reorganization, each regiment was permanently assigned a field artillery battalion, forming a combat team. The 507th Parachute Infantry, which had taken part in the drop into Normandy on D-Day while assigned to the 82d Airborne, was commanded by COL Edson Raff. On the other hand, the 513th Parachute Infantry, commanded by COL James W. Coutts, and the 194th Glider Infantry, commanded by COL James R. Pierce, had yet to make a combat airborne assault.
The soldiers of the 17th Airborne would employ a number of new weapons. As an improvement over the largely ineffective shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket launcher, better known as the bazooka, the 17th’s paratroopers and glider infantry were equipped with a new shoulder-fired 57mm recoilless rifle, as well as a more powerful, tripod-mounted 75mm recoilless rifle. While they still carried plenty of bazookas in combat, the relatively lightly armed airborne soldiers now had weapons that could more effectively deal with German armor.
Varsity also introduced a new aircraft, the C-46 Commando, for deploying airborne troops. The C-46 could carry twice as many paratroopers as the C-47 Dakota (thirty-six, an entire platoon, versus eighteen). Furthermore, the C-46 was faster and had doors on either side of the cabin, allowing troops to exit the aircraft quickly. One drawback for Varsity planners was that only 75 C-46s would be available, and most soldiers would still be carried by the older, slower C-47s. Coutts’ 513th Parachute Infantry was assigned to the new aircraft. In the weeks before the operation, the soldiers of the 513th made a number of practice jumps from C-46s to familiarize themselves with the new aircraft. Despite its advantages, the C-46 would prove to have a fatal flaw that only became apparent during the actual combat drop, with tragic consequences.
After being withdrawn from the front lines in February 1945, the 17th Airborne Division was bivouacked at a dozen airfields around Paris. The relatively short distance to the landing zones in Germany allowed transport planes to double tow two Waco CG-4A gliders bearing soldiers and equipment and eliminated the need for additional flights. While waiting for D-Day for Varsity, still planned for 24 March, the soldiers of the 17th rigorously trained and readied equipment and weapons for their upcoming mission. As the date for the operation approached, chaplains held services for the men and many soldiers attended.
On the night of 23 March, elements of Dempsey’s Second Army began crossing the Rhine under the cover of darkness. The bulk of the amphibious forces, including elements of the American XVI Corps, part of LTG William Simpson’s Ninth Army, would also cross in the dark before sunrise on the morning of the 24th. Massive amounts of Allied artillery, along with a huge smoke screen, also supported the crossings. Shortly after the Rhine crossings commenced, Second Army’s headquarters flashed the message, “Two if by sea,” to the airborne forces, setting Operation Varsity into motion. The soldiers of the 17th Airborne were served a hearty breakfast of steak and eggs before being loaded into trucks and taken to the aircraft and gliders which would transport them to Germany.
The first planes carrying the 17th Airborne took off shortly after 0700, with the last getting aloft just before 0900. The airborne lift included a total of 9,387 paratroopers and glider-borne soldiers, carried aboard 72 C-46s, 836 C-47s, and 906 CG-4A gliders. This, combined with the British airborne armada of nearly 800 aircraft and 420 gliders, carrying over 8,000 soldiers, stretched nearly 200 miles and took thirty-seven minutes to pass a given point. The two formations rendezvoused in the skies near Brussels, Belgium, before proceeding to the drop zones 100 miles away. In addition, nearly 1,000 Allied fighters escorted the transports. For those watching below, including GEN Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, it was an impressive display of Allied might. MG James M. Gavin, commander of the 82d Airborne Division, who had never witnessed a major airborne operation from the ground, called it “an awesome spectacle.”
The first aircraft carrying the 17th Airborne reached the target area at 0953, slightly ahead of schedule. While the weather was sunny and bright, the drop zones were obscured by haze caused by the massive smoke screen covering the river crossings and Allied artillery. As a result, the first troops from the 1st Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry, which included COL Raff, the regimental commander, landed nearly two miles away from their planned drop zone. Raff gathered a group of paratroopers together, while MAJ Paul Smith, the battalion commander, organized another, and both set out to take their objectives and to eliminate enemy positions firing on the landing zones.
As Smith’s force took out some German anti-aircraft positions, Raff’s group eliminated several machine guns and rooted out some dug in infantry. As Raff’s men worked their way south to the regimental objective, the town of Diersfordter, they spotted a battery of 150mm guns firing from a clearing in some nearby woods. Raff’s men quickly eliminated the battery, killing fifty-five Germans and capturing over 300.
The 2d and 3d Battalions of the 507th, commanded by LTC Charles Timmes and LTC Allen Taylor, respectively, along with LTC Edward S. Branigan’s 464th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, landed on their assigned drop zones, assembled quickly, and set out to seize Diersfordter and the castle that dominated the area. Two German tanks emerged from the castle grounds, but both were quickly knocked out, one by a well-placed shot from a 57mm recoilless rifle, the first successful use of the weapon in combat. By 1500, resistance in the castle ended after Company G cleared the structure room by room. The troopers collected over 300 prisoners, including a number of senior officers from the German LXXXVI Corps and 84th Infantry Division.
In one instance, a stick of paratroopers from the 507th’s Company G came under fire from German riflemen and a machine gun shortly after hitting the ground. As the troopers struggled to get out of their harnesses, PVT George J. Peters charged the enemy machine gun position alone. Despite being hit and knocked down twice, he continued his one-man assault and eliminated the gun with grenades. Peters died shortly after from his wounds and was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor.
Within a couple of hours, the 507th had taken most of its objectives, taking 1,000 prisoners, destroying five tanks, and capturing or destroying several batteries of artillery. Compared to other units in the 17th Airborne Division, the 507th Combat Team’s casualties had been light–about 150 killed and wounded. Shortly after Raff set up his regimental command post, MG Miley established the divisional headquarters in the nearby village of Fluren to await the eventual arrival of Ridgway and the XVIII Airborne Corps staff.
Unlike the 507th’s drop, which faced relatively light anti-aircraft fire, the planes carrying the 513th Parachute Infantry ran into an intense flak barrage as they approached the drop zones. Many enemy gun positions survived the Allied aerial and artillery bombardment and now turned their attention to the low-flying transport planes and descending paratroopers overhead.
Almost immediately, the C-46’s fatal flaw became apparent. The planes lacked self-sealing fuel tanks; if a fuel tank was punctured, high octane aviation gas would stream along the wings towards the fuselage. All it took was a single spark to turn each plane into a flying inferno. German 20mm incendiary rounds proved extremely lethal and set several damaged aircraft ablaze. Ridgway later reported that the heaviest losses during Varsity came during the first thirty minutes of the 513th’s drop. Nineteen of the seventy-two C-46s were lost, with fourteen going down in flames, some with paratroopers on board. Another thirty-eight were severely damaged. Many soldiers wounded during the flight to the drop zones chose to jump and take their chances rather than remain in the dangerously flawed aircraft. After Varsity, Ridgway issued orders prohibiting the use of C-46s in future airborne operations.
The C-46 carrying the 513th’s commander, COL Coutts, was hit by long-range anti-aircraft fire and was ablaze as it crossed the Rhine. Coutt’s stick managed to hook up one wounded soldier and shove him out of the plane before the rest followed.
Upon hitting the ground, Coutts and his men came under intense small arms fire. Many more were hit on the way down. Hundreds of British paratroopers scrambled about, and British gliders soon began landing all around. Coutts first believed that the British had landed in the wrong zone, but soon realized that his regiment had been dropped in the British sector about a mile and a half from Hamminkeln.
After assembling under heavy fire, the battalions of the 513th fought their way south towards their assigned objectives, destroying two tanks, a self-propelled gun, and two batteries of 88mm guns. One battalion reached the Issel River, the easternmost of the first day’s objectives. The 507th, however, in being dropped in the wrong area, had already seized many of the 513th’s objectives by the time they reached their intended drop zones.
As the 513th’s Company E advanced south, it came under heavy fire from some buildings. Machine guns immediately pinned down one platoon. With complete disregard for his own safety, PFC Stuart S. Stryker rose and led a charge towards the enemy. Stryker was cut down by enemy fire, but his actions rallied others in the company, and shortly thereafter, they overran the German position, taking over 200 German prisoners and freeing three American airmen who had been shot down and captured. Stryker was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions, the second trooper from the 17th Airborne to earn the Medal of Honor during Varsity.
The 513th’s supporting artillery, the 466th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, commanded by LTC Ken Booth, landed on the correct drop zone southeast of Hamminkeln, but enemy fire there was more intense than that faced by the infantry. German fire took a heavy toll among the battalion’s officers, and many artillerymen were forced to fight as infantry while others assembled their 75mm pack howitzers and gathered ammunition and equipment. Despite the intense fire, the artillerymen assembled several of their guns within a half hour and were soon firing at German targets. By 1200, the 466th had captured ten German 76mm guns and were providing artillery support for the 513th Parachute Infantry.
Among the 466th were two VIP observers from the States: BG Ridgley M. Gaither, commandant of the Parachute School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and BG Josiah T. Dalbey, commander of the Airborne Training Center at Camp Mackall, North Carolina. Dalbey personally led a successful attack on a battery of 20mm anti-aircraft guns that was pouring a deadly fire on the Americans.
By approximately 1530, the 513th Combat Team had reached all of its objectives, taking over 1,500 Germans prisoner in the process. Compared with the 507th, however, the 513th suffered far heavier casualties. For their actions in Varsity, the 513th Parachute Infantry and the 466th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion earned a Presidential Unit Citation.
The first American glider troops (COL Pierce’s 194th Glider Infantry Regiment and LTC Joseph W. Keating’s 681st Glider Field Artillery Battalion in double towed gliders) begin arriving at around 1030, with most reaching the correct landing zones despite the haze and heavy ground fire. German flak took a heavy toll on the 295 tow aircraft–twelve were shot down, another fourteen were forced to make crash landings, and 126 suffered heavy damage. Six CG-4A gliders were shot down, and most of the incoming craft were damaged on their final landing approach. German automatic weapons and rifle fire raked many of the gliders once they were on the ground. Unlike previous air assaults, Varsity marked the first time gliders came down in landing zones not already secured by paratroopers. Eighteen glider pilots were killed and another eighty were wounded or injured in crashes.
The second wave of American glider troops (LTC Paul F. Oswald’s 680th Glider Field Artillery Battalion, recently re-equipped with short-barreled 105mm howitzers, and various support elements) transported in single tow gliders, arrived around 1200. Anti-aircraft fire had subsided considerably, but it still took a toll–three C-47s and one glider were shot down and dozens of each were damaged. Fourteen glider pilots were killed and another twenty-six were wounded or injured.
The air supply operation followed within minutes of the last glider landing. Again, German anti-aircraft fire took a heavy toll on the 240 low flying B-24s, shooting down fifteen and badly damaging 104. The drops to the American forces were scattered and only fifty percent of the air dropped bundles were recovered. Further aerial supply drops were cancelled, partly because of the heavy aircraft losses, but also because the Allied amphibious forces were making good progress.
By 1200, most of the 194th Glider Infantry and its attached 681st Glider Field Artillery Battalion had assembled under heavy fire amid the wreckage of dozens of gliders. By 1400, the 194th Combat Team, eager to prove that glider troops were on par with the vaunted paratroopers, had accomplished most of its assigned missions. While suffering heavy casualties, the 194th took 1,150 prisoners, eliminated fifty artillery pieces, and destroyed ten tanks. Several tanks were knocked out by anti-tank teams carrying bazookas. PVT Robert Weber destroyed one tank from several hundred yards away when he miraculously dropped a bazooka round into the open hatch of the approaching panzer.
One new innovation employed by the 194th was to train the 875 glider pilots and co-pilots in rudimentary battlefield tactics in the weeks before Varsity, organize them into a provisional battalion of four companies, and assign them specific infantry missions. In previous operations, some pilots had guarded prisoners and command posts after landing their gliders, but most had nothing to do and often “got in the way.” The pilots were enthusiastic about their new mission and accorded themselves well. On the night of 24 March, one company of pilots repulsed a German counterattack on the 194th’s perimeter.
The 17th’s “divisional” artillery, LTC Oswald’s 680th Glider Field Artillery Battalion, also accorded itself well. Upon landing, while some gunners fought as infantry to clear Germans firing on the landing zone, the rest assembled nine 105mm howitzers and gathered ammunition and equipment from the smashed gliders. By the end of the day, the 680th had captured 150 Germans and two batteries of enemy artillery, and provided artillery support for the 17th Airborne, earning the battalion a Presidential Unit Citation. The 680th’s losses, however, were heavy–nineteen killed and fifty-six wounded.
At 1458, patrols from the British 1st Commando Brigade marching out of Wesel reached elements of the 17th Airborne, marking the first juncture of airborne and amphibious units in Plunder/Varsity. This was also the fastest link-up of ground and airborne forces in the war–about five hours.
By the early afternoon, Ridgway crossed the Rhine in an amphibious tracked vehicle and reached Miley’s headquarters at 1526. Miley explained to Ridgway that the operation had been going well, that he was in radio contact with all units, and that all combat teams were fighting as cohesive units and had reached almost all of their objectives, save for the bridges over the Issel River and Issel Canal (they would be taken later in the day).
Ridgway radioed the news to the XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters still in Xanthen on the western side of the Rhine before setting out in a three jeep convoy to visit the rest of the 17th Airborne and British 6th Airborne Division. At around midnight, Ridgway’s party ran into a German patrol and a sharp firefight ensued. Ridgway emptied his weapon and was reloading when a German grenade exploded under his jeep. A fragment lodged in Ridgway’s shoulder, resulting in a painful but relatively minor wound. He received a Purple Heart but ignored a doctor’s advice to have the fragment removed and carried it with him for the rest of his life.
In the days following 24 March, XVIII Airborne Corps consolidated and expanded its sector and prepared for the drive east into the heart of Hitler’s Reich. The corps would soon be attached to the U.S. Ninth Army and Bradley’s 12th Army Group, and take part in the encirclement of the Ruhr, one of the last major operations in western Germany before V-E Day on 8 May 1945.
While tactically successful, many U.S. Army officers at the time, and later, historians studying Varsity, questioned whether the operation should have ever been conducted. While performing spectacularly in its first combat airborne assault, the 17th Airborne Division alone lost 159 killed, 522 wounded, and 840 missing (many of whom would later turn up in the following days and fight again). IX Troop Carrier Command lost another 41 killed, 153 wounded, and 163 missing. Fifty gliders and forty-four transport aircraft were destroyed, another 332 transport planes were damaged, and only a few of the gliders were salvageable. British losses among the 6th Airborne Division were even heavier, especially in the number of killed.
In his wartime memoir, A Soldier’s Story, GEN Bradley contended that the Germans had diverted the bulk of their forces east of the Rhine to the Remagen bridgehead, leaving weak forces around Wesel. He added that if Montgomery had crossed the Rhine on the run as Hodges and Patton did, or had allowed Simpson to do so with his Ninth Army, Varsity would never have been necessary, and that the operation was typical Montgomery overkill. Other officers had even harsher words, claiming that Montgomery used airborne forces to simply “put on a good show” and to further to his own standing as a military genius.
In The Last Offensive, the U.S. Army’s official account of Operation Varsity and the final drive into Germany, Charles B. MacDonald, a veteran infantry officer who had served with the 23d Infantry, 2d Infantry Division, in Europe in World War II, stated that with the weak condition of German units east of the Rhine, “some overbearing need for the special capability of airborne divisions would be required to justify their use, ” and that the specific need never existed. MacDonald also contended that while the objectives were important, he believed that ground forces could have taken them without difficulty, and in all likelihood, with fewer casualties. As evidence, he pointed out that the amphibious crossings faced very little resistance; the two American divisions in the river assault, the 30th and 79th Infantry Divisions, lost a total of forty-one killed, 450 wounded, and seven missing. James A. Huston, in his book, Out of the Blue: U.S. Army Airborne Operations in World War II, agreed with MacDonald, adding that “had the same resources been employed on the ground, it is conceivable that the advance to the east may have been more rapid than it was.” On the other hand, FAAA commander LTG Brereton described Varsity as “a tremendous success,” and Ridgway would claim in his after action report that Varsity was the decisive factor in Montgomery’s Rhine crossing.
At the end of 24 March 1945, MG Miley was justifiably proud of his 17th Airborne Division. In its first combat drop, the division conducted a spectacular operation and achieved its objectives quickly despite the chaos inherent in a massive airborne assault. Whether or not Operation Varsity was actually necessary will be continue to be debated, but that in no way diminishes the courage and resourcefulness demonstrated by the soldiers who proudly served in the 17th Airborne Division, and in the process, wrote another chapter in the history of the U.S. Army and the American airborne forces.