By March 1945 the Allies were closing in around Germany, but the 400-yard-wide Rhine River remained a significant natural obstacle to their progress. Although Americans had crossed the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, the main Allied thrust would be led by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery farther north, near Wesel. James Fenelon’s new book, Four Hours of Fury, relates the firsthand experiences of the U.S. 17th Airborne Division during Operation Varsity, the subsequent combat jump during which 17,000 troops were inserted by parachute and glider on the far banks of the Rhine. Fenelon is himself a veteran and a graduate of the U.S. Army’s Airborne, Jumpmaster and Pathfinder schools. His hands-on experience, diligent research and interviews with veterans combine in a gripping, action-packed narrative of one of the most dangerous yet overlooked operations of the war.
Describe your military service.
I enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve right out of high school. I eventually did go to the University of Texas, but I first wanted to serve my country. So I enlisted and ended up going to Airborne School at Fort Benning in 1988. That was really when I first learned about Operation Varsity.
In high school I had learned about D-Day, and on my own about Market Garden—but I had never heard of the jump across the Rhine. It always just stuck with me. After I got out of the service, I started doing research on my own and going to veterans’ reunions, where I met the actual guys who had participated in the operation.
What encouraged you to write about Operation Varsity?
I have to thank my wife for that. I was complaining one night about not being able to find what I was looking for. All these other books had been written about D-Day and Market Garden—as well they should, not to take anything from those operations. She just looked at me and said, “Why don’t you just write the book that you’re trying to find?”
‘Gliders did have their disadvantages. It was a one-way trip, and as an engineless aircraft it had to land on the terrain available. Not very many of them were recoverable after the landing’
Most histories focus on parachute infantry. What are the advantages and disadvantages of glider infantry operations?
The advantage of gliders was similar to UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters doing air assault operations today. You could bring in heavier equipment, such as jeeps and artillery pieces, which you really couldn’t airdrop at the time. They did drop artillery pieces but had to first disassemble them into several pieces. The Waco CG-4 glider could bring them in intact. It also had the advantage of landing squads of troops in the same place in fighting order. Glider infantry had to know all of their tie-down knots and other things that are similar to the sling-load operations that go on today with air assault.
Gliders did have their disadvantages. It was a one-way trip, and as an engineless aircraft it had to land on the terrain available. Not very many of them were recoverable after the landing. Also, the guys were a little disgruntled—they weren’t volunteers, they were assigned to ride into combat in a glider, and they didn’t get parachutes. Initially they didn’t even get flight or jump pay; that was only addressed later in the war.
Gliders had been used in Normandy and Market Garden. Had the technology adapted or improved as a result?
The basic model itself didn’t change, but what did change were some of the safety features. Before Varsity they were trying to scramble and install modifications to the cockpit to protect the pilots. They added a “Corey skid,” which looks like a giant wooden water ski, on the bottom of the glider’s nose. It was designed to help keep up the nose when landing and deal with smaller obstacles like wire fences. Then they had this other big contraption called a Griswold nose that they bolted to the front of the Waco. It was basically a big metal cage designed to bulldoze through anything, trees and whatnot, that would have otherwise ripped into the cockpit.
What accounts for the large numbers of aircraft downed and heavy casualties incurred during Varsity?
That April, the last full month of the war in Europe, Americans suffered as many casualties as they had in June 1944—a little under 11,000 killed in action. As the Germans fell back into Germany, their supply lines got shorter and logistics became easier.
In the case of Varsity, the Germans knew the Allies were coming and had a pretty good idea, based on Montgomery’s previous tactics, he would use airborne troops. So they started stripping antiaircraft weapons from other areas and bringing them to where they suspected the drop would occur. The Allies even intercepted Enigma transmissions telling German crews to sleep at their guns and expect the airborne operation at any time.
From a paratrooper’s perspective, was it foolish of Montgomery to order men to jump in daylight directly atop German forces?
It’s an interesting debate. I think if the paratroopers had had their way, they would have preferred to do it at night. Major General William M. Miley, commander of the 17th Airborne Division, wanted to go at night. Major General Matthew Ridgway, commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps at the time, advocated a daylight drop. Even though the Allies enjoyed air supremacy during the day, there was still a lot of concern about Luftwaffe night fighters, and if they got into these lumbering transport armadas, they would wreak havoc.
I also think there was a bit of a psychological game there, as they changed the traditional sequence and dropped the airborne troops after the initial assault on the Rhine started—an attempt to confuse the Germans into thinking maybe they wouldn’t use airborne troops.
Given the Americans had already crossed the Rhine at Remagen, were the airdrops effective, or would a strictly ground operation have sufficed?
The crossing at Remagen was in terrain not conducive to the breakout and encirclement of the Ruhr Valley. Even before they landed in Normandy, the Allies had a broad-stroke plan as to how they were going to enter Germany and finish the war. Part of that plan relied on crossing an area where Montgomery did, because it allowed them to cut off the industrial capability of the Reich.
When the Americans got across at Remagen, it did help Montgomery’s operation, because the Germans had to send reinforcements there to try to stop them. So while Varsity ended up being beneficial to the Rhine crossing, it wasn’t intended to replace it.
In what ways have airborne operations changed since those early drops?
The fundamentals haven’t changed. They’re still using the same 250-foot towers at Fort Benning for jump school that they used during the war. I think the biggest changes were in the aircraft and the accuracy of the drops. Nighttime navigation in a C-47 was extremely difficult, and whenever the Allies tried it, in Italy and in Normandy, it was a borderline disaster. Compare that technology to today—we have GPS and can bring those guys from anywhere in the world and drop them on top of a tennis court if we need to. MH