Xanten, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany March 23, 1945

In the aftermath of Operation Market Garden, the inven­tive but failed Septem­ber 1944 thrust into Adolf Hitler’s Germany, came Opera­tion Plun­der, another offen­sive con­ceived by British Field Marshal Bernard Law Mont­gomery. (Oper­a­tion Plunder was the over­all name for Mont­gomery’s 21st Army Group’s crossing the Rhine, but each of of the major ele­ments was known by its own code­name.) Oper­a­tion Plunder kicked off on this date, March 23, 1945, when the first set of 300,000 U.S., British, and Cana­dian troops crossed the Rhine north of Xanten (the medie­val town in North Rhine-Westphalia had been cap­tured by Cana­dians on March 8) and estab­lished bridge­heads near Wesel on the east bank, 90 miles north of the cathedral city of Cologne. Within a week of the start of Operation Plunder, the Allies had taken 30,000 German POWs.

The next day, March 24, Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill and Field Marshals Mont­gomery and Viscount Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, sat on folding chairs around an impro­vised table drinking tea and enjoying lunch on the Rhine bank. Over­head several thou­sand Allied air­craft (princi­pally C‑47 Sky­train trans­ports and 1,348 engine­less gliders), escorted by a covering con­tin­gent of 3,000 fighter planes, were engaged in the largest air­borne opera­tion of the war, Opera­tion Varsity, landing over 17,000 Amer­i­can and British troops and masses of supplies, including artil­lery pieces and vehi­cles, east of the Rhine in a single day. The para­troopers cap­tured bridges, secured towns, and silenced bat­teries and machine-gun nests that could have been used by the enemy to delay the advance of Allied ground forces. Gen. James Gavin of the 82nd Air­borne Divi­sion, who had never before wit­nessed such a large-scale air­borne deploy­ment, described the air show as “an awe­some spec­ta­cle.” The air­borne and land-based offen­sives, Varsity and Plunder, constituted the last great battle in the West.

The German Wehrmacht’s shock troops, Fall­schirm­jaeger (English, para­troopers), were thrown in against the Allies, but they offered only slight oppo­si­tion to the advancing Allies, in the end with­drawing north­east toward Hamburg and Bremen. Wesel, where impor­tant roads and rail lines inter­sected, fell on March 24, the same day Reich Minister of Pro­pa­ganda Joseph Goeb­bels con­fided in his diary that the situ­a­tion in the West had entered an extraor­di­narily criti­cal, osten­sibly almost deadly, phase. Two days later Gen. George S. Patton’s Third U.S. Army reached Germany’s fifth largest city, Frank­furt am Main, entering the city across the Nieder­rad bridge in the south. On March 27, Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, Supreme Com­mander of the Allied Expedi­tionary Force, under­scored Goebbels’s worst night­mare, saying in a press inter­view that the Germans in the West were “a whipped army incap­able of throwing in suffi­cient strength to stop the Allies. . . . The crossing of the Rhine marks the end of one phase of the cam­paign and the beginning of another.” By the end of the month, the West­ern Front had moved east of the Rhine and was 200 miles from Berlin, while the Eastern Front (Red Army) was 50 miles from the Nazi capital. The end of the war in Europe was four weeks away.

Operations Plunder and Varsity: Crossing the Rhine River into Germany’s Heartland, March 22–28, 1945

Operations Plunder and Varsity: Crossing Rhine River into Germany, March 22–28, 1945

Above: Gen. George Patton’s Third U.S. Army crossed the Rhine River west of Mainz and near Oppen­heim just before mid­night on March 22, 1945 (third arrow up from bottom east of Rhine). The next day the Third Army made another Rhine River crossing near Worms, Germany (second arrow from bottom), while the British Second Army and Cana­dian First Army launched their assaults (as part of Opera­tion Plunder) further north across the Rhine north of the Ruhr River (hashed area). By early April seven Allied armies had crossed the Rhine and were ready to advance on the Nazis’ capital, Berlin.

Operations Plunder and Varsity: 15th Scottish Division near Xanten, North Rhine-Westphalia, March 24, 1945Operation Plunder: Churchill at Wesel, North Rhine-Westphalia, March 25, 1945

Left: Men of the 15th Scottish Division leave their assault craft after crossing the Rhine River near Xanten, North Rhine-Westphalia, March 24, 1945.

Right: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (center right in photo) looks over the Rhine River from the ruins of the west end of the bridge at Wesel, North Rhine-West­phalia, March 25, 1945. A watch­ful Gen. William Simp­son, com­mander of the Ninth U.S. Army, shouted a warning to Chur­chill that German snipers were still quite active in the area.

Operations Plunder and Varsity: Churchill, U.S. generals watch vehicles crossing Rhine, March 25, 1945Operations Plunder and Varsity: British 5th Dorsetshire cross Rhine in a tracked landing vehicle, March 28, 1945

Left: Churchill and American generals on a balcony watch Allied vehicles crossing the Rhine into Germany, March 25, 1945.

Right: Men of the British 5th Dorsetshire Regiment cross the Rhine into Germany in a Buffalo tracked landing vehicle, March 28, 1945.

Royal Air Force Documentary on Operation Varsity (Operation Plunder’s Airborne Component), Part 1 of 2. Be Sure to Watch Part 2