Operation Varsity

Two American paratroopers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their courageous actions during Operation Varsity – the largest one-day airborne operation in history.

Early in the morning on March 24, 1945, two airborne divisions, one American and one British, flew over the Rhine River. This was the first airborne mission ever conducted into Germany. The Rhine was the final barrier keeping Allied forces from the heart of Germany.

17th Airborne Division Patch

More than 16,000 paratroopers and several hundred aircraft were involved in Operation Varsity. The attack was launched in support of Operation Plunder, which planned to have Allied forces crossing the Rhine River in several places. The mission of the 17th Airborne was “to seize, clear and secure the division area with priority to the high ground east of Diersfordt and the bridges over the Issel River, protect the right flank of the Corps, establish contact with the British 1st Commando Brigade, and the British 6th Airborne Division.” The Germans knew the 17th was coming. Axis Sally, the German propaganda broadcaster, had been announcing over the radio “We know you are coming 17th Airborne Division, you will not need parachutes, you can walk down on the flak.”

Despite German preparations, and the promised flak, Operation Varsity was the first, and only, combat jump for the 17th Airborne Division and it was a resounding success. The division routed the Germans from every position where they encountered enemy forces. After capturing their objectives, the paratroopers fought off fierce German counterattacks. Over 1,070 members of the 17th Airborne and the 6th British Airborne Divisions were killed and thousands more wounded on March 24, 1945. Operation Varsity was the single largest airdrop during the war, but also produced the worst day for casualties as well. This successful operation was the last major airborne paratroop drop of the war.

 

George J. Peters

Rank at Time of Action: Private

Service: US Army

Birthday: 1924

Birthplace: Cranston, Rhode Island

Unit: 507th Parachute Infantry, 17th Airborne Division

Date of Action: March 24, 1945

Awarded Medal of Honor: February 8, 1946

Medal of Honor Citation: Pvt. Peters, a platoon radio operator with Company G, made a descent into Germany near Fluren, east of the Rhine. With 10 others, he landed in a field about 75 yards from a German machinegun supported by riflemen, and was immediately pinned down by heavy, direct fire. The position of the small unit seemed hopeless with men struggling to free themselves of their parachutes in a hail of bullets that cut them off from their nearby equipment bundles, when Pvt. Peters stood up without orders and began a l-man charge against the hostile emplacement armed only with a rifle and grenades. His single-handed assault immediately drew the enemy fire away from his comrades. He had run halfway to his objective, pitting rifle fire against that of the machinegun, when he was struck and knocked to the ground by a burst. Heroically, he regained his feet and struggled onward. Once more he was torn by bullets, and this time he was unable to rise. With gallant devotion to his self-imposed mission, he crawled directly into the fire that had mortally wounded him until close enough to hurl grenades which knocked out the machinegun, killed 2 of its operators, and drove protecting riflemen from their positions into the safety of a woods. By his intrepidity and supreme sacrifice, Pvt. Peters saved the lives of many of his fellow soldiers and made it possible for them to reach their equipment, organize, and seize their first objective.

 

Stuart S. Stryker

Rank at Time of Action: Private First Class

Service: US Army

Birthday: October 30, 1924

Birthplace: Portland, Oregon

Unit: 513th Parachute Infantry, 17th Airborne Division

Date of Action: March 24, 1945

Awarded Medal of Honor: December 11, 1945

Medal of Honor Citation: He was a platoon runner, when the unit assembled near Wesel, Germany after a descent east of the Rhine. Attacking along a railroad, Company E reached a point about 250 yards from a large building used as an enemy headquarters and manned by a powerful force of Germans with rifles, machineguns, and 4 field pieces. One platoon made a frontal assault but was pinned down by intense fire from the house after advancing only 50 yards. So badly stricken that it could not return the raking fire, the platoon was at the mercy of German machine gunners when Pfc. Stryker voluntarily left a place of comparative safety, and, armed with a carbine, ran to the head of the unit. In full view of the enemy and under constant fire, he exhorted the men to get to their feet and follow him. Inspired by his fearlessness, they rushed after him in a desperate charge through an increased hail of bullets. Twenty-five yards from the objective the heroic soldier was killed by the enemy fusillades. His gallant and wholly voluntary action in the face of overwhelming firepower, however, so encouraged his comrades and diverted the enemy’s attention that other elements of the company were able to surround the house, capturing more than 200 hostile soldiers and much equipment, besides freeing 3 members of an American bomber crew held prisoner there. The intrepidity and unhesitating self-sacrifice of Pfc. Stryker were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service.

Douglas Dakotas of No. 46 Group fly in formation over Wavre, Belgium, heading for the dropping zones east of the River Rhine.

 

Gliders from Operation Varsity on the German landscape

 

Operation Varsity Run In Diagram