Essex’s untold role in WWII’s Operation Varsity
PUBLISHED: 11:07 07 May 2020
Essex airfields played a vital role in the Allies’ ultimate victory during World War II, but here Stephen L Wright reveals the rarely told tale of Operation Varsity and the Glider Pilot Regiment
As March 1945 dawned, the remnants of the German forces which had received a sustained mauling from their Allied opponents found themselves with their backs to the Rhine.
A heavy rainstorm on March 10 gave them the cover they needed to cross to the other bank, blowing the bridge behind them.
Allied plans for an operation to land in the heart of Germany had been mooted in the previous November with an execution date for January. The Ardennes Offensive had put this on hold. Now, the time was ripe.
Analysis showed that there were enough open spaces for Drop Zones and Landing Zones. The code name for the operation was Varsity and the British 6th and the US 17th Airborne Divisions, refitted and reinforced after the Ardennes Campaign, were assigned.
Travelling from France, the 17th would take and hold the environs of the town of Wesel while the 6th would do the same for the Schnepfenberg, a high feature, topped by the Diersfordter Wald and the outskirts of the village of Hamminkeln.
In Essex, airfields at Chipping Ongar, Boreham and Wethersfield became home to 6th Airborne’s paratroop units. They would be carried by aircraft of the US 9th Troop Carrier Command.
Meanwhile the squadrons of the Glider Pilot Regiment (GPR), with their Horsa gliders, moved onto airfields at Birch, Earls Colne, Gosfield, Great Dunmow, Matching and Rivenhall.
The GPR comprised of soldiers who had volunteered for this unique unit and had successfully passed a rigorous selection process.
In September 1944 the GPR took great losses in the battle for Arnhem. With no time to train soldiers, RAF pilots were brought in. Together with their Army colleagues they would fly gliders loaded with 6th Airborne’s vehicles, guns and tanks and the men of the Airlanding Brigade.
March 24 dawned bright and the Essex airfields were hives of activity. At Birch, Sergeant Pilots Stan Jarvis and Peter Geddes RAF, piloting a Horsa, found their first roll down the runway abruptly halted when the towrope broke.
Hooked up again, the combination was now a good way behind the rest of the aircraft.
Jarvis recalled: ‘When we reached our release point flak was coming in thick and fast and some of the gliders went down in flames; others broke up in mid-air, which was a quite horrifying spectacle.
Upon being advised by Alex Blyth [his tug pilot] that we were over our Landing Zone, I had no alternative but to release the glider and we slowly descended.
At that point we could not see the ground at all as we were technically in cloud – but it was smoke – and we were trying to avoid other aircraft flying in our direction.
A tremendous explosion occurred on the starboard side and about four feet of the wing tip was blown off, together with most of the aileron.
‘By this time the visibility was becoming clearer and I could see the railway lines and our objective, Hamminkeln station, but gunfire was becoming more accurate.
I pulled out of the dive at about 50 feet, then descended to almost ground level. We flew low over three fields, hitting post and wire fencing, which we were not aware existed, before I put the glider down.
Fortunately, very little further damage was done until we slewed sideways close to the railway fence, when the tail-unit was shot away.
‘Miraculously, none of the airborne troops was injured, for which I was very relieved. One of the lads in the back commented, “When we left Birch, we asked you to land as close as possible to the station but if you had been any closer, we would have been in the booking office!”
‘I replied that it was compliments of the RAF and we had a little laugh in the seriousness of war.’
D-Day veteran Lt Ellie ‘Dixie’ Dean and his Vickers Gun platoon had taken off from Wethersfield. Dean had a bad landing and dislocated his shoulder.
This was seen to by Medical Orderly Pte Bert Roe, a Conscientious Objector who had been awarded the Military Medal in Normandy.
Now Dean was with one of his guns: ‘A Hamilcar glider came diving straight for the crew and they had to get out of the way PDQ. The glider caught the gun, knocked it over and then smashed into a large wooden farm building.’
Several men ran to the building to see what assistance they could give. They needn’t have worried.
‘Even before the roof tiles had stopped falling an engine could be heard running, and then a Bren carrier drove out as if nothing untoward had happened. The two glider pilots were unharmed and they disappeared with the [Bren] carrier to their own rendezvous.’
Within a couple of hours, all objectives had been taken, secured and held on to tenaciously. It seemed like forever to the airborne troops but was in fact only a matter of hours before the ground troops linked up with them.
Skirmishes occurred up and down the front through the night but the Germans were already preparing to withdraw deeper into the Fatherland.
Operation Varsity still holds the record as the largest single-lift airborne operation with some 3,000 aircraft – gliders, tugs and paratroop transports – taking to the skies over Eastern England and France.
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For further information about the Glider Pilot Regiment Society, please visit gliderpilotregiment.org.uk