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Feature   Know Your Military

Last Major Allied Operations in Europe Launched 75 Years Ago

March 23, 2020 | BY David Vergun , DOD News
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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.

Troops move down a dirt road away from an airplane.
Glider Landing
A U.S. glider from the 194th Glider Infantry Regiment lands at Wesel, Germany, on March 24, 1945, as troops deplane and move out.
Photo By: U.S. Army
VIRIN: 450324-O-ZZ999-002

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.

Troops in boats hunker down.
Rhine River Assault
U.S. soldiers cross the Rhine River in Germany in assault vessels on March 23, 1945, at St. Goar, Germany. They are hunkered down because the Germans are firing on them.
Photo By: U.S. Army
VIRIN: 450323-O-ZZ999-001Y
Planes drop paratroopers.
Paratrooper Drop
Army Air Force C-47s cross the Rhine River in Germany sometime between March 24 and March 31, 1945. They released hundreds of paratroopers and their supplies near the towns of Rees and Wesel to the east of the Rhine.
Photo By: U.S. Army Signal Corps
VIRIN: 450328-O-ZZ999-001Y

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.

Airplanes sit on a runway.
Operation Varsity
Army Air Force Douglas C-47 Skytrain transports and Waco CG-4A gliders line up for Operation Varsity, March 24, 1945.
Photo By: U.S. Army Air Force
VIRIN: 450324-O-ZZ999-001X

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.

A tank moves down a dirt road.
Achilles Tank
A British Achilles tank destroyer on the east bank of Germany’s Rhine River links up with British airborne forces who deplaned from their Airspeed Horsa gliders on March 24, 1945.
Photo By: U.S. Army
VIRIN: 450324-O-ZZ999-003

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.