Never forget Operation Varsity

John Smith as a young pilot
John Smith as a young pilot
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By Bob Hind

What is slowly being forgotten about is a day a few weeks before Hitler and his Nazi army were defeated.

Gunner Bill Page as a young soldier

Gunner Bill Page as a young soldier

In a column some 200 miles in length, hundreds upon hundreds of aircraft and gliders flew across the English Channel on Operation Varsity, designed to pierce the last great physical barrier to Hitler’s hordes, the mighty River Rhine.

Mention any airborne operation and most will think of Pegasus Bridge on the early hours of D-Day or the parachute drop at Arnhem.

Mention the Rhine crossing and most people would give a blank look.

The greatest airborne operation in history – the largest in the war, conducted in a single day, in broad daylight and in a concentrated drop – is all but forgotten except for a dwindling band of paratroopers and glider-borne troops.

It is said that if an observer stood in one place looking up, the 200 mile sky-train would have taken three hours to fly over.

Conceived by Field Marshall Montgomery, the plan was to drop two airborne divisions by parachute and glider near the village of Hamminkelm and the town of Wessel.

The British 6th and the American 17th Airborne Divisions – 1,348 British and American gliders and more than 1,589 paratroops – dropped into an area of 24 square miles.

It was supposed to have taken the Germans by complete surprise but an announcement on March 22 on Berlin radio announced: ‘An enemy airborne landing on an unexpected scale to establish a bridgehead east of the Rhine must be expected.’

On March 24 the coded message ‘two if by sea’ was sent to all units and the operation began.

For two Portsmouth men – Bill Page of Buckland Street, Portsea and John Ernest Smith, born at Prince Regent Street, Portsea – it was at a time when they thought they might have seen the end of their fighting.

Before the war, John Smith was a baker with the Co-op and a member of the Air Training Corp. It was his wish to be a pilot and after training in Canada Bill passed his flying test and received his wings aged 21.

On returning to England he volunteered for duties as a glider pilot for Operation Varsity.

His glider was loaded with a bulldozer and other supplies. Because the equipment was loaded behind the pilot and crew, they were in a dangerous position. If they crashed, the load would slide forward and crush them.

This is exactly what did happen when John’s glider crashed. Luckily they all survived but were taken prisoner almost immediately.

They were not taken to a POW camp, as the allied advance was so fast the German soldiers gave in before they were taken behind enemy lines. John said the soldiers were half starved but they still shared their black bread with them.

Once he was repatriated and home again in Portsmouth, John went back to his bakers round in Southsea and was very popular with his customers.

He returned to the crash site, and although built over he knew the exact location as it was lined up with a windmill and church steeple.

Bill Page was 20 years old at the time and as there was a shortage of glider transport, Bill’s battery 210 was to amalgamate with 211 and 212. He was to fly stores consisting of nine tons of petrol or ammunition. Bill suspected it would be a one way ticket.

On that fine sunny morning the men ate a fine breakfast of steak and eggs. ‘The condemned men ate a hearty breakfast,’ Bill recalled.

The flight to the Rhine passed without incident until they came to the landing zone, which was shrouded in smoke. Congestion over the drop zone meant the glider was released at 2,500 feet – unheard of in such drops.

With a sky filled with paratroopers and with the long flight to the landing zone, the Germans firing upwards could not miss.

In Bill’s group there were 48 gliders landing every three minutes and they were called flying coffins for a very good reason.

On the final approach at 10.51am there was a terrific bang. Sergeant Gower who was in charge called out ‘Bill, I’ve been hit’ and fell forward dead.

The panniers on board caught fire and the famous red beret was used to quell the fire. The glider emerged from the smoke at 200 feet and crashed far from the landing zone.

What survivors there were were quickly captured. Bill spent the remaining few weeks of the war in Stalag X1B Fallingbostel until liberated by the 9th Division on April 14.

Despite mistakes that were made, the operation was hailed as a success. But the true cost was appalling.

On March 24, the 6th Airborne Division had 1,400 killed, wounded or missing out of 7,200 personnel. Of the 78 gliders, 22 were lost.

After the war Bill married and settled in the then-new estate of Leigh Park, Havant. Whenever anyone mentioned airborne operations to him he vehemently answered with ‘We were all forgotten. All the time, forgotten.’

Sadly Bill passed away in March 2011 but his daughter arranged the cremation on the anniversary of Operation Varsity.

On the day of the funeral his daughter opened up The News to see a report on the battle of Arnhem and she is sure she heard Bill whisper ‘There we are, forgotten again.’

I must thank both families of these men, both now passed on, for telling me of their brave adventures.