The field order for Operation Varsity did not arrive in the usual way, as a message classified secret on two yards of yellow teleprinter paper. Instead, it was delivered by courier, page after page of orders, assignments, orders of battle, routes, times, etc., etc., in a fancy folder, all stamped "Top Secret."
The order began; "Varsity can be considered the most important combined operation since the invasion of France.... " It also said that the Allied armies in the north will have crossed the Rhine at three points at zero hour minus six hours by amphibious assault. The airborne operations, the 1st Allied Airborne Army, would dispatch 1,593 aircraft towing gliders with troops aboard for release in the landing zone, while paratroops would also be dropped. U.S. Air Forces and the RAF would neutralize defenses, interdict road and rail traffic and provide close support. Eighth Air force bombers would be included.
The operation was set for 24 March, and most of the 1,700 heavy bombers involved would attack about two dozen airfields in northern Germany within range of the Rhine River. Their task was to crater runways at known jet airfields and to prevent the use of enemy jet aircraft in the areas.
Two task groups of 120 Liberators each also would take part, but in an unusual way: first, they would drop not bombs, but canisters of ammunition and other material to resupply the ground troops during the battle; and second, the drop would be made at 400 feet. One task force would drop supplies to the American forces and the other to British forces, who were involved in the massive amphibious and airborne crossing.
Soon, we, that is John Beder's crew, would learn that we would lead a formation of 13 aircraft from the 392nd as part of the task group resupplying the British, and that the assault would take place near the town of Wesel, Germany, northwest of the Ruhr Valley. Our part in Operation Varsity would require that we be able to find our way, at very low altitude, from our base in England across the Channel to the Boulogne area, then across France and Belgium to a drop zone measuring 1,500 by 2,000 yards, just across the Rhine.
We would fly very low to ensure surprise and decrease the already high vulnerability we were stuck with. When we found ourselves a few days after the Stettin mission with a small formation tearing across French farmland on a practice mission at only 50 feet, so low that the altimeter pointer sort of sat on zero, I had to admit, war or not, tough mission or milk run, there was nothing as exhilarating as a legal buzz job.
We blasted across the farmlands, sometimes so low that it appeared we could drop the gear and wheel along some road that ran along with us, then Big John would ease back on the yoke to slide over a row of trees or a set of wires, then drop back down again, skimming across the furrowed sea like 150-knot dolphins. We crossed into Belgium, and came upon a hardworking farmer plowing his field with a pair of draft horses. Big John tried to give him some distance, but the horses reared up and he let them go. Then the farmer furiously picked up a rock or clod of dirt and flung it at us as we cruised by.
Imagine yourself in an upper level of a double-decker bus screaming along at our speed, and that's the kind of navigation job I was faced with. The check points blew by us so fast I was only half-sure I had the right road or rail intersections, bends in small rivers, small towns with church steeples tall enough to make us turn aside. On we raced until we found our target, a town about the size of Wesel, and Big John pulled the Lib up to 400 feet to simulate the drop, then got the formation back around and down on the deck to head for home. The GEE signals appeared to come in okay at low altitude, but I knew better than to depend on a gadget that could easily be jammed or crap out, so I concentrated on navigating by reading the landmarks.
The low-level re-supply mission to Wesel was to be our 24th mission. We had, by now, gotten ourselves into a mind-set where preflight preparations were routine, although performed with that feeling of dread in the back of the mind. This day the feeling of routine was gone and was replaced by something I hadn't felt for a while, the fascination of the moth with the flame. The feeling of dread was still there, but there was excitement, too, that the invasion of Germany itself was about to start and the war could end soon after.
The risks to us, to John Beder's and to other Liberator crews were hard to gauge. Low-level missions flown into enemy-defended areas were not what heavy bombers were designed for. They were slow and not too maneuverable, and much too fragile to withstand accurate ground fire. Also, we were prohibited from using our guns to fire back at enemy ground gunners for fear of hitting our own troops. And if we were hit hard, we didn't have much of a chance if we bailed out.
A mission just like ours was flown in support of the British in Holland the previous September, and although the drop had been made as required, seven Liberators were lost to ground fire in a few minutes. And earlier in the war, when B-26 twin-engine bombers were being introduced, they were practically wiped out at low-level and had to go up to medium altitude. And then, of course, there had been the low-level bloodbath at Ploesti.
The array of German firepower facing all aspects of the operation, including the glider landings, the paratroop drop and our resupply mission, was somewhat daunting: 375 single-engine fighters, 260 twinengine fighters, 40 jet fighters available and serviceable, and another 675 fighters which could be employed if they were repositioned to the area in time. The number of flak guns, both light and heavy, was called "considerable.... and additional guns are arriving daily."
But the order continued; "Probably our greatest danger will come from small-arms fire from enemy troops, although there is little doubt that the majority of these will be otherwise engaged at the time." When I heard this I crossed my fingers and looked skyward for a moment, because there were 47,000 German troops directly involved with another 60,000 possible replacements.
Despite all these horrifying numbers, this certainly was not a suicide mission. The attacks on the airfields and the cratering of the runways was expected to greatly reduce possible fighter activity. There would also be a massive amount of flak suppression activity by our fighter-bombers just before the arrival of the gliders and our arrival 15 minutes later.
As for the enemy troops with their rifles and vehicle-mounted machine guns, if the ground troops who had made the amphibious assault and the 40,000 Allied airborne and paratroopers did their part of the job, there would be a large enough pocket on the German side of the Rhine to permit us to make the drop and turn while remaining within Allied-held territory. This seemed to be the key to our survival in the relatively small part we had to play in this great battle.
Now how is a man supposed to think about all this without slipping around the bend? A general can plan ahead and make chess-like moves as the battle progresses but the crew dogs and the soldier on the ground must deal with the immediate threat to himself and his mission. It didn't do much good to strap yourself into your seat and start thinking, well, if such and such thing happens, I'll do this or that. You had to be ready for anything and take it as it came.
And as for how the generals thought about risk; I'm glad I didn't know of some remarks that had been made by Lt. Gen. Ira Eaker, a former Eighth Air Force commander. While discussing the reluctance of ground commanders to make an attack on Cassino in Italy for fear of high casualty rates, he said, partly in understanding their hesitation, that "a ground commander who gets the same casualties that we in the Air Forces take as a matter of course might be criticized and might be called a butcher."
We took off at 9:30 a.m., climbed to 3,000 feet to form up, which took a whole hour, then let down to 1,000 feet and headed out. Our point of departure was near Folkstone, and we got a good view of Dover's white cliffs as we headed across the Channel. As we approached landfall on the French side, the leaders up ahead turned left and flew directly over Boulogne, about 8 miles south of our course. To have a large formation of Liberators pass overhead at 1,000 feet must have been quite a sight to the citizens of that city, but I thought, hell, we can show off some other time.
We were still heading southwest when we left Boulogne and held that course until we reached a point 20 miles southwest of Lille and then altered course due east. I noted that we had gotten 9 minutes late, which was not worrisome, since it made us less likely to interfere with the glider landings. If we had gotten early, we would need to kill time somehow before going into the drop zone.
The whole world certainly looked different on this mission. Big John was keeping a 1,000-foot reading on the pressure altimeter as the ground rose up to meet us south of Brussels. The terrain was not flat like the countryside we had practiced over, and we were clearing it by 500 or 600 feet. The navigation was a lot easier than I had anticipated, because the GEE box was working well, and I was never in doubt as to our position and our progress. I felt confident enough so that if the other formations took off on a weird heading, I would tell Big John to wave goodbye to them and take off on our own.
The flight-level wind was surprisingly high, at about 25 knots gusting into us from the east, and I wondered what problems it would pose for the glider pilots and paratroops. We reached the final turning point about 15 miles southeast of Brussels and headed northeast on a 60-degree heading with 90 miles to go.
I was free to move around as we had no need to use oxygen, so I went into the nose section to get a better view of the terrain. The tempo picked up as we slowly let down and the ground sped by more quickly. The gunners in the rear were getting ready to dump the bundles of supplies, which were rigged with parachutes and would be dropped through a hatch in the floor of the waist section. The biggest load, however, was hung on shackles in the bomb bay and would be toggled out by Jack Murray. The whole drop totaled 2 1/2 tons in each airplane. The sooner we got the stuff out, the sooner we could turn out of there, and we expected the whole drop to be made very quickly.
Now we were coming up to the Initial Point, with the Maas River flashing by, with 10 miles to the Rhine, and then 5 more to the drop zone. Big John was getting us down on the deck and we wondered again, as we shot forward, whether the drop zone would be in our hands or theirs. The Rhine was coming up fast when suddenly someone yelled and a flight of Royal Air Force Typhoon fighters came dead at us and then scattered in all directions, barely missing us. They had been on close support and were heading back. The Rhine flashed by and we came into the fantastic panorama of a big battle in progress, with first-row seats suspended a hundred feet above the battleground, heading for the main action at 160 knots. Gliders were everywhere on the ground, some intact, some broken. There were tow planes splattered here and there, still burning. We passed flaming farm buildings on our left, their roofs blown off and columns of bluish smoke rising from them into the haze. There were troops all over the place, some crouching down, some scurrying around.
"Here's the drop zone!" I yelled, about the same time Jack did and Big John pulled the Liberator up and slowed her down to 150 knots, the drop speed. The bomb bay load went out cleanly and the gunners were scrambling to get their bundles out, and then they were all gone and we had done our job. As the parachute-borne canister went down I looked forward, to the east, and could see great flashes pretty close by, and columns of smoke rising through the haze left by the smoke-screen of the early morning amphibious crossing.
Big John made his turn and got the formation around to the right and got back down, and we realized with a shock that we were now directly over the battle line, on the German side, and we could see the enemy up very close for the first time, firing at us and moving around. We came up on a selfpropelled gun, a monstrous thing marked with a black cross, its barrel swiveling around, tracking us. As we passed overhead, there was a big thump as it fired too late and missed us."E for Easy is going down!! " came a shout from the back end, but I couldn't see it from where I was. There were calls of distress as Liberators were being hit behind us, big-caliber bullets smashing through the thin aluminum into fuel tanks, engines, hydraulic lines, living bone and flesh. The scene on the ground was very confused, with firing everywhere and tracers flying around, and tanks moving off to our left in the haze and smoke. The noise of our engines seemed amplified, the noise bouncing off the ground just beneath us as we raced on, holding our breath, hearts pumping a mile a minute.
But suddenly again, we were flying over our own, over the broken gliders and spilled parachutes, the pockmarked ground, all shrouded in the smoke of war. British paratroops stood around in small groups, unpacking their gear, looking up and waving as we passed, ignoring a small group of German prisoners being marched off somewhere. Big John got a little altitude and we could see the Rhine again, no longer a formidable barrier to be assaulted and, for this mission at least, the boundary of the promised land where we could sit back and see if we were still in one piece.
I clambered back up to the flight deck and stood between Big John and Sam for a while, all three of us talking at the same time about the Germans and the crashed airplanes and gliders, feeling a relief so profound that it drained us, and then we were silent, back at 1,000 feet indicated, bumping along the countryside like a school of tired whales.
"Twenty airplanes? Twenty goddamn airplanes?" some disbelieving, rising voice said at breakfast two days later, as we read the write-up of our mission in Stars and Stripes. That was the initial report of the toll. Fourteen Liberators out of 240 had gone down in the target area, in all the different ways a mortally-wounded bomber can finish its life - and the lives of the crew dogs within. The rest comprised a trail of wrecked airplanes and wounded crewmen at emergency airfields on the route home. We had been directly over the enemy, or within range of his guns, for a matter of a few minutes, and that was the price we paid.
E for Easy, piloted by J.R. Hummel, flying on the wing of the slot man directly behind us, had been hit hard by large-caliber ground fire and peeled off and away, then dipped down and made a sliding, tearing crash landing in some open ground in the midst of the enemy. Two of the crew had actually bailed out at the low altitude in the few seconds they had; one made it and the other, the navigator, didn't.
As Hummel's crew crawled out of the wrecked Liberator, some of the Germans opened fire and a gunner, Sgt. Milchak, was killed instantly. The survivors were rounded up by the Wehrmacht troops, who interrogated them and then treated their wounds and injuries. Four hours later, the Germans themselves had to surrender and the Yanks were liberated. Two other aircraft flying alongside Hummel had to quit the formation due to damage and wounded crew members and landed on the Continent.
The toll on the gliders and the tow planes also was high, as they had to make their releases in the face of the same intense enemy ground fire. Some of the glider troops, dazed by the shock of the hard landing, were slaughtered before they could get out and move forward. And of course there were the paratroops, who started getting killed before they ever hit the ground. They landed right on top of the enemy, who fought back fiercely and then surrendered when they saw that there was no hope.
All of us on Big John's crew had a tough time digesting all of this. We had come through without a scratch, perhaps because the German gunners aiming at us didn't lead us enough and hit people behind us instead. The expectation that most of us had before the mission that the drop zone would be completely in Allied hands had not panned out. A low bluff we had passed over on the way out was expected to full of Brits, but the Germans had not been dislodged. Well, everything else had been right on; the timing, the right drop area and altitude, the track in and out. And the drop itself couldn't have been much better, with the percentage in the drop zone up in the high 90s. And we hadn't seen one enemy fighter. But Jesus - 20 airplanes?
Myron Keilman, Command Pilot, 579th Squadron and Howard Ebersole, Deputy Lead Pilot, 578th Squadron remembered this mission vividly and their reports follow:
This was one of our last missions and the war in Europe was over a month later. It was a very important mission. The First Army was to cross the River Rhine and go on to Berlin. They were going across during the night with small boats and probably a lot of them swam. That's the only way they had to get over - no bridges.
Our airplanes were loaded with all these bundles, parabundles; food, ammunitions and medicines. Some airplanes carried a Quartermaster Corps sergeant to help throw the supply bundles out.
We saw all the windmills, the farmers out there plowing their fields, etc. As we got closer to the Rhine, there were all the gliders, C-47s, C-46s, all crashed. We wondered what was going on. We got to our IP, and as soon as we crossed the Rhine we pulled up to 1,000 feet, which would slow us down and give the parachutes attached to the bundles a chance to open into the drop zone.
We made our drops right on time and on schedule, then we did a 180degree turn to get out of there. The whole valley was smoked up terribly with smoke screens to keep the Germans from observing what was going on.
As we turned outbound, the formation behind turned a little too far out, and they ran into German guns. They were that close to the Rhine. As I was turning to our westerly heading, here all these other B-24s were charging in. We were actually just brushing wing tips with them. It was really scary, of course, and it didn't take us long to put on the power and climb out of there. Luckily, we didn't lose any with that problem.
It was our 13th mission, but whenever we counted mission 13, it was 12B. At the briefing that morning they said, "Well, you guys are going in over Wesel and there'll be flares to mark the drop zone. You will stay at low altitude so you won't be picked up by the radar. You will hit the drop zone as soon as you pull up and get rid of your ammunition, blankets and all those good things that are going to get dropped. Do the 180-turn and you will only be over enemy territory for 5 or 10 minutes."
After the briefing there was a lot of relief, in my crew at least, because we'd been to some places that start with a "B," but the worst ones started with "M" and "K." We'd been to Magdeburg twice, Kiel, Berlin, Wilhelmshaven, etc. It may have been late in the war, but there was still a lot of flak. Those missions involved flying for hours and hours over enemy territory. And then to be told "only 10 minutes over enemy territory" really was, as the British say, "a piece of cake."
Phil Rose was my leader that day. He was 20 years old and it was his 35th and last mission of his tour. He was getting his "jollies" at this lowaltitude thing.
I'm sure there was some youthful exuberance, because a couple of times I warned our lead pilot, Lt. Rose, "Phil!! .... Wires!!" We lowered down and went under those high-tension wires with our big B-24s, and that's no bull! We did that two or three times. I also remember raising up a little to miss the coal stacks as we went across France and Belgium.
As we went over Wesel, I can remember, still etched in my mind, looking down at this town of nothing but bricks and rubble, a crashed C47 "Goony Bird" at angle and a glider at a similar angle, both burning. Lots of scenes like that. The gliders were strewn around the field that we dropped over. The Germans had counterattacked, we looked out and could see little bright flashes all over the place, and they just hammered the heck out of our ships. I think our crew chiefs and their boys had a lot of sheet-metal work to do.
We lost Lt. Hummel, but he was behind us and if somebody's behind, you don't know until afterwards. But ahead of us I watched a B-24 from the 44th Bomb Group go in at an angle, a wing hit, and the ship cartwheeled.
When Lt. Col. Keilman turned, for some reason Phil Rose turned 180 the other way and we climbed to 1,500 feet or so for our trip home. It was an exciting mission for a few minutes.