In the waning days of World War II in Europe, U.S., Canadian and British forces faced a formidable obstacle on their march toward Berlin: the Rhine River.
Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, decided the river would be crossed in several places by nearly 17,000 Allied forces under his command. This plan became known as Operation Plunder.
An important component of the campaign was the planned insertion of the United States’ 17th Airborne Division and the United Kingdom’s 6th Airborne Division across the Rhine on the east side and behind enemy lines. This sub-operation was named Operation Varsity.
Since two divisions were involved in Operation Varsity, this would become the single largest airborne operation of World War II.
Fortunately for the Allies, German forces had been considerably weakened in strength and number by the date planned for the operations. The number of German forces was about one-third that of the Allies on this particular front.
Operation Plunder kicked off at 9 p.m. March 23, 1945. By the early morning of the next day, Allied forces had made several crossings of the Rhine.
Allied forces successfully crossed the Rhine using floating pontoon bridges that were trucked to the area. Other troops crossed in landing crafts.
About 30,000 Germans were taken prisoner within the first week of Operation Plunder.
Although not part of Operation Plunder, Army Gen. George S. Patton, got his U.S. Third Army across the Rhine at Nierstein, Germany, on March 22. Also, on March 7, the Army’s 9th Armored Division captured a bridge across the Rhine at Remagen, Germany, that the Germans had failed to destroy.
The airborne phase of Operation Varsity started March 24. Most of the aircraft took off from bases in England and France.
The airborne assault consisted of a mixture of soldiers who would parachute in and others who would arrive in 420 gliders.
The airborne Operation Varsity was also considered a success. Eisenhower called it ”the most successful airborne operation carried out to date.”
The operation was the last, large-scale Allied airborne operation of World War II.