the war progressed in January 1945, it became obvious that a landing
had to be made across the River Rhine in order to establish a bridgehead.
But where? In March, the Americans captured the Remagen bridge, but
this was deemed inadequate - so OPERATION VARSITY, already planned,
was put into action. We we were not to learn where or when, however,
until nearer the time.
area around the town of Haminkeln was chosen as it was flat and relatively
free from forests. Ten landing zones were planned in which Para Troops
would be dropped, and Gliders would be landed. Learning from the mistake
at Arnhem where everyone landed in the same zone making the troops vulnerable
to shelling, these were positioned in a circle about the countryside
with the town as the centre. Each pilot was given a "pin point"
target to land on, if possible, helped by a series of photographs given
to each crew. Meanwhile, "E" squadron was repositioned to
RAF Burch in Essex - much nearer the drop zone - and there we made our
final preparations for OPERATION VARSITY. We were still not told when
or where it would take place, however! We busied ourselves preparing
the gliders with the individual loads, firing various weapons and riding
around on lightweight motor cycles and driving Jeeps about the place.
My load consisted of a Jeep, a 6 pounder anti tank gun, a gun limber
loaded with ball ammunition, a couple of cases of .303 ammunition, a
lightweight motor cycle an a Staff sergeant and two corporals of the
Ox and Bucks Regiment who were the gun crew.
the gliders had to be positioned on one side of the runway with the
tugs on the other, and with the tow ropes laid out for take off in very
orderly lines. C47 Dakotas could only tow one glider but the Liberator,
being more powerful, took two. Each day more and more troops came in,
mainly Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, Devon Regiment, and
Royal Ulster Rifles.
finally came the day, and we received our final briefing, reveille at
4.30 am breakfast at 5am, and take off at 6am. March 24th was a beautiful
day and when we were at the towing height of 2500 feet you could see
joined up with the glider stream to the South East of London and we
were the lead squadron of the 6th AIRBORNE DIVISION, that had taken
off from eleven airfields, and behind us stretching for many miles were
the hundreds of tugs and gliders that comprised the 6th Air Landing
a sight we must have been! Eleven streams of Liberators, C47s towing
gliders, and C47s carrying paratroops all converging over Hawkinge,
and making for the next turning point South of Brussels where we were
to join up with the American 17th Airborne Division. having taken off
from 12 airfields in France. They were on a parallel track to ours and
about 5miles to the South, heading for the same destination.
Meanwhile, Winston Churchhill, General Eisenhower, General Montgomery,
and General Ridgeway were at Xanten on high ground, so that they could
see the drop over the Rhine. They had a grand stand seat in order to
view the landing which they could easily see, it being such good weather.
was a 4 hour flight to Haminkeln, and as we approached the Rhine we
could see the smoke screen put down to assist the Commandos who crossed
the river during the night.
flak began on the Eastern side, and one could see the RAF Typhoons diving
down on the flak guns and generally clearing the area to help the landing.
Visibility was unlimited at height, but not lower down in the fog and
smoke. The British 21 Division was amassed on the Western bank all ready
to cross when we had established a bridgehead. As we crossed over the
Rhine it was too foggy to see the ground, and the town of Wesel had
been bombed during the night ,and the smoke from the fires and the smoke
screen used by the commandos who had crossed the Rhine during the night
added to the poor visibility.
to my right, a Hamilcar took a hit in the belly and the tank dropped
out, complete with its crew. It was common practise for the tank crew
to man the tank before landing so that they could drive straight out
of the glider and be in action immediately. The Hamilcar was now unbalanced
and would have crashed.
was flying the 12th glider in the stream, and the aircraft about the
fourth along was hit by flak and one wing broke off and came perilously
close to me whilst the rest of the glider plummeted to earth. All around
various aircraft were hit by flak or fighters, and some of the C47s
were in flames. It looked like the safest place to be was on the ground!
The size of the
landing area was about 6 miles long by 4 miles wide and you can imagine
how congested it became throughout the landing. From 10.00hrs to 14.00hrs,
upwards of 3000 aircraft were in that area.
signaller on my tug flashed the release signal and I cast off. It wasn’t
possible to see Haminkeln in the early morning fog but the church spire
was sticking up out of it, and using this landmark I manoeuvred to where
I thought my allocated pin point was.
I turned over the unmade autobahn, now the E36, a feature we were not
to cross, my glider was hit by flak in both flaps which were down and
were in shreds. This made the landing difficult because it wasn’t
possible to reduce speed.
with rifles and machine guns were firing at this sitting target slithering
towards them. To add to the difficulty, the ground was covered in “Rommel’s
Asparagus,” pieces of railway line dug into the ground to deter
an airborne invasion. The Germans had obviously expected us somewhere
in the area. The element of surprise we had when we first arrived quickly
disappeared shortly after landing. It was impossible to avoid these
obstructions, and the starboard undercarriage was knocked off and a
piece of wing went, too.
turned out to be a good thing, with the use once-only air brakes and
the drag from the missing wheel digging into the ground, I quickly came
to a standstill with the nose embedded in a rabbit warren and the glider
twisted over to the right.
I managed to take in the surroundings, I found that we were only about
100 yards from the farmhouse that was my pinpoint! What luck!
Spandau machine gun was firing at us from somewhere along the railway
embankment and until it was silenced it made the removal of the load
difficult. As the Horsa was on its right side, we had to remove the
tail to get the Jeep and ammunition limber, plus the Anti-Tank Gun,
out of the fuselage of the glider.
was facilitated by undoing the twenty or so quick release bolts that
held the tail on and manhandling it out of the way. We piled everything
into the Jeep and made off to the farmhouse where we were met by the
occupants surrendering to us. There were two or three Volksturm troops
with rifles, two women, and three little girls hanging on to the women
and they seemed to be terrified of us. The farmhouse was a typical German
one with the farm animals in one part and the family in the other, and
all under the same roof.
were issued with cards which said on one side ‘Do as you are told
and no harm will come to you’, and on the other side the same
thing in German. We gave them these cards, and put them in the cellar
with some food and milk then locked the door so they could not get out.
positioned the anti-tank cannon so that it was covering the road from
Haminkeln, and then dug a line of fox-holes from it in a small orchard.
It then became relatively quiet and it seemed as though everyone had
stopped for lunch, only the odd shot here and there, when suddenly a
German tank appeared about 1000 yards away and coming towards us.
took 3 armour-piercing shells to get a hit - and behind the tank were
the foot soldiers who quickly dispersed. Later on, a half track vehicle
was destroyed coming out of Haminkeln. These incidents increased our
morale enormously and for the glider pilots it seemed Plan 2 was due.
was part of our briefing, and the pilots having secured the pinpoint
and delivered their loads successfully, were to go to the Haminkeln
railway station and guard prisoners and only fight as soldiers if necessary
to do so. This was to preserve them for future operations. So four of
us got on board the Jeep and we set off. The station where Major Jackson,
our squadron C.O., had his headquarters was only a mile away and we
had only gone about 200 yards when we came under machine gun fire. This
was heavy enough to make us turn back and we reached the farmhouse without
a casualty. Plan 2 would have to wait a while...
in the afternoon, a young Lieutenant was killed who had wandered into
our position from a glider that crashed nearby. He was with about four
soldiers who had survived the crash. The remaining hours of day light
went without an incident.
the men in the fox holes would fire at the enemy who could be seen briefly
- but about 1000 yards away - making it difficult to know the result.
Then it got dark, and the firing began again with a vengeance!
to the East of us, one could hear the sound of tanks manoeuvring. It
lasted about an hour then stopped, and we breathed a sigh of relief.
We didn’t have the necessary PIAT [Personal Infantry Anti-Tank]
weapons to stop them. But the Germans didn’t know that!
decision was then made to stay with the men, because to attempt to go
to the railway station was too dangerous. There were about 25 of us,
a mixture of Para-Troops, glider pilots and Ox and Bucks Light Infantry.
seemed to be a lot of activity at a farmhouse that was just visible
about a mile away, so Staff Sergeant Rolfe decided to call on the radio
for artillery still on the west bank of the Rhine to shell it.
called for very accurate co-ordinates to be given, and within 5 minutes
the shelling began, and lasted until the farmhouse was demolished. Then,
just before midnight , S.Sgt. Rolfe decided that we would all stand
to in the foxholes. He must have had a premonition that something was
going to happen and it did!
must have been around 03.00hrs when the mortars began and the first
thing to be hit was the farmhouse. It quickly caught fire, and the cows
began bellowing and the pigs squealing, and that noise, added to the
explosions of the mortars, was deafening.
looked out of my fox hole and could see the Germans running about, firing
then retreating into the darkness. We were now illuminated by the fire,
and the Germans were beyond the footlights, so to speak, running about
and blowing whistles.
only way of knowing where they were was by the flashes of their guns.
I could hear our Bren gunners firing away into the darkness, and then
an experienced army glider crew got out of their fox holes and ran off
round the back of the farm house! An RAF pilot, Sgt. Pritchard, on seeing
this also got out of his hole - but as he did so, a mortar or possibly
a grenade landed near him and mortally injured his back.
This was enough
for me and I gathered my weapons and ran towards the anti-tank gun to
be near the others, and I got down near its left wheel and next to S.Sgt.
Rolfe. Neither of us had a foxhole and we just lay there.
moving slowly, two soldiers appeared - but it wasn’t possible
to tell if they were the enemy at a distance. Then they stopped, and
one crouched down with the other bending over, so I shouted to S.Sgt.
Rolfe for confirmation and he said “They’re Germans, shoot
them!” It is difficult to come to terms with the thought that
you are about to kill someone, and I fired a full magazine of Sten 9mm,
then another to make sure. A total of 64 rounds for two men!
Then it was all
over. Our position was over-run by the Germans, and I found myself looking
at the toe caps of a pair of Jack Boots worn by a young Panzer Grenadier.
I got to my feet and he asked me if I had any chocolate? He was completely
indifferent to the two bodies nearby that I had shot.
There were probably
about 30 Panzer Grenadiers who attacked us and they left their dead
where they were, along with ours. Those of us who were left were marched
off into captivity.
two Corporals were badly wounded, one had most of his foot blown off
and the other had shrapnel wounds in both legs. Neither could walk,
so we carried them on rifles held by two men each. To make matters worse,
we came into a farm yard, and laying there was a German Leutnant who
had been hit in the back and the hole was as big as a fist.
was obvious he wasn’t going to make it, but they produced a 7
foot ladder that we used as a stretcher and six of us carried him for
about two miles on it. All the time he was in agony, and it wasn’t
possible to avoid bumping the improvised stretcher whenever we changed
we arrived at the river Issel we had to make an improvised bridge with
logs that were just long enough to reach the far side, and by sitting
alternately we passed the stretcher across our knees but this involved
being in the water as the logs bent under the weight. We carried on
walking West with our captors until the officer on the stretcher died.
We left him there beside the path and carried on.