8 Miles Over The Rhine

It wasn’t until early 1945 that the airfield really came into its own. An operation that had been planned for many months, much bigger than the Normandy landings or Arnhem was about to get under way. Operation Varsity, the code name for crossing the Rhine (the last natural barrier to Germany) was to be the biggest and most successful airborne operation of the Second World War.

Until now, Birch had been quiet in combat terms, but Varsity would send a buzz around the camp and generate excitement so far unseen. At last the airfield could do the job it was built for.

March 24th 1945, the date was set. British 6th Airborne and US 17th Airborne Divisions, together with land forces would penetrate deep into Germany. The main objective was to capture road and rail bridges around the Wesel area, close to the Dutch border and then march forward into the heart of Germany’s Industrial Ruhr area.

Number 38 and 46 Group RAF and 9th US Troop Carrier Command would convey the airborne forces to the area from eleven airfields in East Anglia. British troops would fly from Matching, Woodbridge, Earls Colne, Shepherds Grove, Great Dunmow, Gosfield, Rivenhall and Birch.

Three groups from the 52nd Wing 9th US TCC would fly from Wethersfield (316 Grp), Chipping Ongar (61 Grp) and Boreham (315 Grp). US 17th airborne divisions would fly from France and the two aerial armadas would meet over Belgium to form one huge force. Three RAF transport squadrons from 46 Group would fly from Birch. Numbers 233, 48 and 437 (RCAF) carrying personnel from the 1st RUR’s (Royal Ulster Rifles) and 2nd Ox and Bucks (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire) light infantry brigades. Number 437Sqn was one of only three transport squadrons contributed by the Royal Canadian Airforce (RCAF) during the war.

Before this massive operation was launched, a rehearsal for ‘Varsity’ took place. On the 14th March 1945 exercise ‘Vulture’ got under way. Two groups of sixty Dakotas each towed a glider from RAF Down Ampney. Tasked with flying very big formations, this successful practice gave an insight into what would take place in just a few days time. The three transport squadrons who would fly from Birch used C47 Dakotas as tug aircraft, with each one towing a Mark 2 Horsa glider, totalling 120 aircraft. The complete operation required up to 2000 glider pilots, but at the time only 700 were available. Resources had been depleted with several less than successful large-scale airborne operations in the previous few months. To resolve this, 1500 power pilots were transferred into the Glider Pilot Regiment and given a very condensed instruction course.

Log Book Preparing For Operation Varsity
Log Book Page Sqd Ldr Austin March 1945

On the 20th March 1945 with only four days to go, RAF Pilot David Annand who was Wing Commander of Training and Accidents at HQ46 Transport Group, Hatch End Ox, flew Sqd Ldr Austin (Navigation Officer) into Birch Airfield. This was part of a round trip from Hendon, which also included stopping off at Gosfield to make final preparations for the ensuing mission. The next day, 21st March, Dakotas of the 437 and 233 Sqd arrived from their home base at Blakehill Farm (Gloucestershire). Over the next two days, crews were briefed continuously. Important lessons had been learnt from mistakes made at Arnhem and the Normandy landings, so steps were taken to ensure personnel were fully informed for any eventuality. Security was tightened, the camps and airfield being completely sealed off, letting no one in or out. Lights out was at 21.00 hrs, but sleep was a long time coming. There was mixed emotions about the following day, excitement, anticipation and fear all played a hand.

As dawn broke on the morning of the 24th March, the camp was brought to reveille very early. Twelve Dakotas from 48 Sqd had only just flown in from their home base at Down Ampney and also some men from the infantry brigades were still arriving at the airfield. After a full cooked breakfast a final briefing took place. The 2nd Ox and Bucks had to drop in the area close to the Hamminkeln railway station (landing zone ‘0’) and capture two vital bridges that spanned the river Issel, one road and one rail. The 1st RUR’s were to land on landing zone ‘U’ and capture a road bridge over the river Issel that was on the main road from Hamminkeln to Brunen and take out German defence positions along the way.

“We arrived at Birch airfield at approx 05.15 hours on the morning of Saturday 24th March 1945. The Horsa gliders were lined up ready for take off on our arrival. We took off shortly after 06.00 hours on a bright cold morning. The aircraft contained 25 Platoon of letter ‘D’ Company. This platoon was one of six that had carried out the raid on ‘Pegasus Bridge’ during the airborne assault in Normandy during the night of 5/6th June 1944.

We had only been airborne a few seconds when the tow rope broke and we did an emergency landing back at Birch. We were quickly towed back to the runway by a tractor, fitted with a new tow rope and were airborne again by 06.20 hours. The two pilots were RAF types who had been seconded into flying gliders. A set course was flown to Hastings near Folkestone Kent, across the sea to a point between Calais and Boulogne, then over the battlefields of Waterloo. From there we flew a new course that took us directly to our landing zone, some eight miles over the Rhine. As we crossed over the Rhine at an altitude of some 5000 feet, the river appeared in our vision as a narrow twisting silvery ribbon. The Horsa cast off from its tug aircraft about two miles over the enemy side of the river. A dense wall of fog and haze was drifting across the landing area from the direction of Wesel. One of the pilots shouted out that the LZ was obscured by the haze and smoke. Anti-Aircraft fire began to intensify as we rapidly lost altitude. We plunged into the smoke and haze. Most of the passengers in the Horsa sat silently in their seats, waiting for the certain impact of the crash landing that would shortly occur. The glider hit the ground at approx 90mph losing the wheels on impact. Pieces of wings were torn off as we progressed through a series of ditches and hedges. We came to a halt and swiftly removed ourselves from the battered wreckage. I shook hands with the two pilots, who apologised for the bad landing. I remarked in my opinion it was a very good landing, apart from a few cuts and bruises we were all alive. Gliders were crashing all around us. Two were destroyed within yards of our forming up position with a total loss of life. Several more were in flames with no signs of life or movement of personnel within them.

The platoon then began to move off toward the company RV point where we were to form up before any move against enemy forces in our area. We were very fortunate in the fact that an American parachute regiment had been wrongly dropped on our LZ and had taken out most of the enemy troops. Dead German and US troops lay around our area. We were Reserve Company in this operation and were not required for any immediate operation. Our role was to plug any gaps after the initial assault was over.

We had landed at approx 10.30 hours. From a force of just over 600 men, we suffered some 105 killed and approx 240 wounded in the terrible landing. This left a very depleted force to carry out the main attack. In spite of this, all our objectives were taken by noon that day”

(Harry Clark – 2nd Ox and Bucks)

By mid afternoon all units had reported their assigned objectives were complete. Road and rail bridges had been taken, land had been seized and thousands of prisoners captured. Operation Varsity was judged a complete success although at a price. Both airborne forces suffered many casualties, more than two thousand between them. The British airborne division had 347 men killed and 731 wounded. The US 17th Airborne division had 393 men killed and 834 wounded. Two days later on March 26th, glider salvage began. Of the hundreds that were used, only 24 British gliders were recovered, these were repaired and brought back to England. All other gliders were dismantled and put into storage for use as spares as and when required. It wasn’t known at the time that these spares would never be used. Six weeks later on May 8th 1945 the war in Europe was over.

Number 437Sqd RCAF eventually disbanded on 15th June 1946 at Odiham Hants. Number 233 Sqd continued to fly troop transports  until the 31st January 1964 when they ceased operations at Khormaksar Aden. Number 48 Sqd flew Hercules operationally as recently as 1976 when they disbanded at Lyneham Wiltshire on the 9th January.