The little-studied and nearly forgotten last airborne operation of World War II, Operation Varsity, eventuated along the Rhine River on March 24, 1945. The participants had no way of knowing it, but they were six weeks from V-E Day and the end of the War in Europe. That end happened for many reasons, in part because the Western Allies forced the Rhine in March. (But had the Allies been held or thrown back, the Germans still would have lost, because the Red Army was coming from the East in any event).
Both sides came to the Rhine fight with Operation Market-Garden in Holland and Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (called “The Battle of the Bulge” by the Americans in its path) in the Ardennes fresh in mind. One was an Allied fight, one a German, but both were ambitious offensives that fell far short of their goals. The American division that would be tabbed for Operation Varsity, the 17th Airborne, had come in at the end of the Bulge to hold the cleared salient to Bastogne open, and to push the Germans back. They knew what fighting against German armored counterattacks would be like. The Germans holding their side of the river knew that the Allies had as many as four paratroop and glider divisions opposite them, and they knew just how weakened their units were by the endless meatgrinder of combat (one division was down to 4,000 men, counting walking wounded; that was about what the 17th was short after the Ardennes casualties, but the American unit got replacements).
One thing everybody knew: paratroops were overmatched by tanks. The Germans expected the Allies to land by night and planned to crush them by tanks at first light. The paratroops knew they needed to kill tanks. The problem was: it takes a hard hit by a heavy shot to kill a tank, and things that fired hard-hitting heavy shots tended to be bulky and heavy — not something you could jump out of a C-46 or C-47 with.
In the Ardennes, along Dead Man’s Ridge northwest of Bastogne, a paratroop sergeant named Isidore Jachman had engaged a German tank formation with the only organic AT weapon the airborne infantryman had, the 2.36″ (~60mm) Rocket Launcher (aka Bazooka).
Jachman engaged two tanks, killing one and forcing a German retreat, but enemy fire killed Jachman, who became, posthumously, 17th’s only Medal of Honor recipient prior to Varsity. His citation:
For heroism January 04, 1945 at Flamierge, Belgium. When his company was pinned down by enemy artillery, mortar, and small arms fire, two hostile tanks attacked the unit, inflicting heavy casualties. Staff Sergeant Jachman, seeing the desperate plight of his comrades, left his place of cover and with total disregard for his own safety dashed across open ground through a hail of fire and seizing a bazooka from a fallen comrade advanced on the tanks, which concentrated their fire on him. Firing the weapon alone, he damaged one and forced both to retire. Staff Sergeant Jachman’s heroic action, in which he suffered fatal wounds, disrupted the entire enemy attack.
57mm and halftrack prime movers.
The AT armament of the paratroops would be carried by gliders. By 1945, the inadequate 37mm gun (called by the British the two-pounder) was retired and the standard gliderborne airborne-unit AT gun was the 57mm, a good weapon for 1941 but hopeless against 1945 main battle tanks; the British users called it the six-pounder. (British and American guns had different carriages but the same tube).
In other American units, the prime mover for the 57mm AT was a half-track or a 1 1/2 ton Dodge 6×6 truck. The glider units had to make do with jeeps as prime movers. Carrying a sufficient ammo supply was a problem, and the gun and the jeep each needed their own Waco or Horsa glider.
An American AT gunner in another unit remembers this weapon:
My platoon was three 57mm Anti-Tank guns. A squad of 10 men for each gun. This gun was a reworked British “6 pounder”, so called because it fired a 6-pound projectile. Our version had good ballistics. A muzzle velocity of about 3000 fpm. It would penetrate 2 inches of armor plate and ricochet with killing velocity about 50 times. It sure didn’t look very impressive. The gunner had to kneel or sit to look though the sight.
A British 6 pounder (57mm) showing the crew’s kneeling position.
His crew got a lucky hit on a Panther that let them barrage the tank and drive the crew out of it.
We had gotten our kill! That hole in their defense had to be covered by adjoining Panthers. Later a Bazooka team got another one. … At least we were no longer kidded about our “Little Pea Shooter”. Most didn’t consider the 57mm much of a weapon.
The 57 had definite limits when engaging modern tanks. But it was far more accurate and longer-ranged than the bazooka!
British forces had another option. Two batteries that airlanded on Varsity had three troops each with 6-pounders and one with 17-pounders. The 17-pounder was a high velocity 76.2mm weapon. This was, much more than its 6-pounder sibling, an effective AT weapon, but it was a lot bigger — by the time it, and its crew and prime mover were all lined up, it was a 17 thousand pound logistical nut to crack. They could only deliver these by the gigantic General Aircraft Hamilcar glider. And glider delivery was always risky. Two Glider Pilot Regiment Sergeants, Peter Young and Neville Shaw had one of these heavy guns in a Hamilcar that didn’t get off its departure runway. Young:
Our load was a 15-hundredweight truck and a 17-pounder antitank gun, with a crew of eight soldiers, 70 rounds of ammunition, and spare petrol. The total weight was around 17,800 pounds.
We have the distinction of completing the shortest flight. On take off, the Halifax [tow plane] got into a tangle in the slipstream of the aircraft in front and cast me off. There was no choice but to put down in the overshoot. There was a spare loaded glider, but it was decided not to use this.1
Shoulder patch of the now-forgotten 17th
In the American forces, there was no formal anti-tank organization, unlike the British unit’s. Instead, the 17th’s 155th Anti-Aircraft Battalion picked up anti-tank duty, and the weapons to go with it. (This may have been because of the weakness of the Luftwaffe by March 1945). Oddly enough, the unit had a mix of British 6-pounders and American 57mm, but since the tubes and ammo were the same, the mixture had no practical effect.
But a new wonder weapon came to the battalion less than two weeks before showtime: the 75mm Recoilless Rifle.
Exactly two of these newfangled gadgets replaced six-pounders, one in each of two batteries. One of the crewmen, Corporal Eugene Howard, remembers:
It looked a lot like a fancy bazooka. It had a 7 foot long rifle barrel mounted on a yoke, with a pin on the bottom of the yoke to fit onto a .50-caliber machine gun tripod. The rifle weighed about 175 pounds and the tripod weighed about 65 pounds.
The gun was fitted with a new electronic sighting device that made it more accurate than the sight on the 57 mm [recoilless rifle]. In one respect it was like a bazooka: when the gun fired, a blaze of hot gases came out the rear of the gun with an equal force to the projectile coming out the muzzle. It had an effective range of about 1,500 yards.
The jeep was modified to carry the gun. The tripod mount was secured to the floor of the back section of the Jeep. A cradle for the barrel was welded to the front bumper of the jeep. One of the advantages of the gun was that it could be fired from the jeep. It could even be fired with the Jeep moving. Since we did not have to pull the 57-millimeter we would get a jeep trailer to haul ammunition. This meant we could haul more ammunition than we could for the 57-millimeter.2
Howard found the 75mm recoilless rifle worked well. The first time they were called on to use it, they killed a “self-propelled 88” (probably actually a 75mm StuG-III). Then they got the jeep into defilade, and began running the 75 against German vehicles, troops, and even an OP in a church steeple.
But that’s another story. What Howard and his gunner Pete found out was that the 75mm was an effective tank buster, within its limits, and they set a trend in paratroop AT weapons that lasted until the missile age. (Indeed, Russian and Chinese factories still produce much improved, larger caliber lightweight recoilless rifles).
- Wright, p. 68.
- Wright, p. 9.
Wright, Stephen L. The Last Drop: Operation Varsity, March 24-25, 1945. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.