Operation Varsity

Today provides me with an occasion for a short post in a very irregular series marking the momentous events that unfolded seventy years ago.

At 1000 hours on 24th March 1945, nine battalions of the 6th British Airborne Division together with six from 17th US Airborne Division began landing on the German (east) side of the River Rhine, near Wesel. This was the last mass parachute and glider assault of the Second World War, and was designed to pierce the final great physical barrier to a ground advance into Nazi Germany. It was codenamed Operation Varsity.


The airborne troops were given the task of seizing and holding high ground overlooking a stretch of the Rhine which was to be crossed by elements of the British 21st Army Group, which included the British Second Army. The airborneassault involved 540 aircraft towing 1300 gliders into heavy anti-aircraft fire, so casualties during the first phase of the operation were heavy. However, within six hours of the commencement of the operation, all objectives were taken and the airborne troops subsequently linked up with ground forces who had crossed the river in assault boats in what was known as Operation Plunder.

This was all a part of a coordinated series of airborne and amphibious attacks by British, Canadian and American forces that began overnight on 23rd March 1945 and went on during the morning of 24th March 1945. The Applied troops, crossing the River Rhine in large numbers and beginning a rapid advance into Germany. By 27 March, they had established a bridgehead 35 miles (56 km) wide and 20 miles (32 km) deep.

Following the link-up with the ground troops, the 6th Airborne led  a 300 mile advance through Germany, marching approximately 11 miles per day until they managed to capture enough enemy transport. Second Army reached the Weser on 4 April, the Elbe on 19 April, the shore of the Baltic Sea at Lübeck on 2 May. On 3 May, Hamburg capitulated. By 7 May the Soviet Army had met up with the British forces at the Baltic port of Wismar.

I mention this because one of the troops that crossed the Rhine the British Second Army that day was a new recruit, a young man by the name of Richard Shaw, my mother’s brother. He took part in the subsequent advance through Germany and spent most of the year after the end of the Second World War stationed in Hamburg. He died just a few years ago, after a fall in his home, at the age of 85.

Lest we forget.


10 Responses to “Operation Varsity”

  1. Michael Kenyon Says:

    Relations in wartime:

    My grandfather served in the army and was shot in the head by a German after the war was officially over! He had that bullet in his head until the day he died.

    My great uncle on my mother’s side was evacuated from Dunkirk clothed only in a tablecloth.

    Tough men, tough times, neither had a beard.

    • telescoper Says:

      Beards were not (and are not) allowed in the British army. Uncle Richard would probably have been too young at the time anyway, as he can only have been about 18.

      He hated the army, by the way, and hated his time in Hamburg especially. It was a desperate place in 45/46, ruined and lawless.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “Beards were not (and are not) allowed in the British army.”

        Something to do with gas masks?

        I read somewhere that, in the Navy IIRC, neither moustaches nor (partial) beards (which would include the Bengt-Gustafsson-style seaman’s beard) are allowed, but full sets are OK.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        ” It was a desperate place in 45/46, ruined and lawless.”

        Like Dresden, it was also a target of the so-called strategic bombing, a euphemism for “kill as many civilians as possible”. Fortunately, Hamburg (and most of Germany) recovered well after the war, thanks in part to the Marshall Plan.

        I remember once visiting the Baltic port of Lübeck, not far from Hamburg, with my parents, who were visiting from the States. My father noticed a plaque on the wall of an originally mediaeval church, which I translated, saying that it had been rebuilt after having been almost completely destroyed in the war. “Why would anyone bomb a church?” he asked, genuinely surprised (even though at 17 he had joined the Marines and fought for Chiang Kai-shek). I had to explain that war is hell, especially for civilians.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        As I recall the Navy used to permit full set but this changed a few years ago; not compatible with antiflash gear during battle stations I think.

        My father was just too young for active service in WW2 but was in the army occupying part of northern Germany, not too far from Hamburg, for three years soon after.

      • telescoper Says:

        Beards and facial hair are covered by Paragraph 3818 of Royal Navy regulations, Chapter 38:

        d. Beards and moustaches.
        The Commanding Officer will permit all Naval Service (except RM) male personnel to request to wear full set beards. RM male personnel may wear moustaches at their option. Beards and moustaches shall be kept neatly trimmed especially, in the case of beards, at the lower neck and cheekbones.

        e. When the safety of an individual might be jeopardised by his beard or moustache, such as in the wearing of oxygen or gas masks, it shall be modified in such a fashion as to accommodate the type of equipment to be worn.

        f. Beards or moustaches shall be shaved off if the conditions of Para 3818 sub para e cannot be met.

        RM refers to the Royal Marines, who follow the British Army in not allowing beards. Special regulations also pertain to members of the Sikh faith servving in the Royal Navy.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “The Commanding Officer will permit all Naval Service (except RM) male personnel to request to wear full set beards.”

        Do I detect a whiff of discrimination here? 🙂

      • telescoper Says:

        Note that the Commanding Officer should permit personnel to request to wear a beard, but there is no requirement that the Commanding Officer should give consent to this.

        I think the “full set” requirement is simply a matter of tradition, just as it becamwe traditional for pilots in the RAF to wear moustaches.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “full set beards”

        Why the emphasis on full sets? Why not the Bengt-Gustafsson beard? Why not sideburns? Why not a goatee?

        Also, it should, of course, be a “full-set beards”. One can have a full, set beard which is not a full-set beard. 🙂

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    For the horror of what Europe was like after the war, read Keith Ward’s telling book Savage Continent. Country by country it looks at the postwar bloodletting.

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