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Operation Widgeon - 'Never in the history of human warfare have so many guns supported so few men'

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Battle Prep


The sun blazed down on the seemingly placid waters of the ever-present smoke-screen Lieutenant-General Ritchie, the Rhine on the morning of Friday, March 23. Just behind the Commander of 8 Corps, was speaking to a huddled group of men that was our Commando. He told us that we were going to cross the Rhine that night.


I think,' he said, although my knowledge of military history is a little rusty, that you will be the first British troops ever to have crossed this river. Not even Marlborough

attempted it.'


Brigadier Mills-Roberts also addressed us that morning. His words were full of fire and zeal, and whipped us all into a frenzy of enthusiasm for the assault. He repeated the plan, he numbered the guns, the mortars, and other supporting weapons that were to support us. He told us where, when and how and the R.A.F. would be helping us, and what the Airborne troops would do on the following day. He had all the intricate details of 'Widgeon' to his finger-tips, and

never once had to consult any notes.


Finally, amidst cheers, he said: '... Never in the history of human warfare have so many guns supported so few men. tonight, cut hell out of them!' When you go in


We were supposed to rest for the remainder of the day: but most of us just couldn't now. All we could do was wait patiently, talk about the operation, check our weapons and

ammunition. We were too excited to eat....


At seven o'clock that night, three hours before H Hour, the whole of our Brigade was formed up on the western bank of the Rhine. Everyone lay about in scattered groups, their faces blackened, green berets on their heads we never wore tin helmets and laden with assault equipment.


During those last hours before we went over rum and biscuits were served out, together with the mail, which we all tried very hard to read in the darkness, by the light of carefully concealed candles and hurricane lamps.


Meanwhile, the Buffaloes began to arrive on the road leading towards the river.


British Buffalo's (or LVT - Landing Vehicle Tracked) preparing to cross the Rhine.

At eight o'clock the Gunners opened up their softening programme on Grav Insel.


Within the space of seconds the air was filled with the angry rumble of heavy guns, the thunderous roar of nearby 25-pounder Regiments, the pop- popping of hundreds of mortars, and the insistent chatter of Vickers machine-guns.


This is one of a collection of pictures that show the landing from Buffaloes of the 1st Battalion Cheshire Regiment, who landed on the afternoon of 24th March 1945, in support of No.1 S.S Commando Brigade at Wesel. The bridge seen in background is the smashed railway bridge at Wesel. © IWM BU 2335

A few hundred yards in front of us the slim ribbon that was the Rhine became almost hidden with the reddish bursts of thousands of shells, each of which left thick, weaving clouds of smoke. Away to the right, around Wesel, it seemed as if thousands of candles had been lighted and suspended like so many fairy lights over the town as orange coloured tracer shells from light anti-aircraft guns curved in a series of graceful parabola towards their targets. The dull night sky gleamed strangely with a ruddy glow as fires were started.


Whilst all this was going on, a B.B.C. commentator-who shall be nameless-was wandering around the Buffaloes, talking to our men and asking them various questions, microphone in hand. From one young North Country Marine to whom he put the rather ridiculous question,


'Do you think you'll be first across?' the answer came pat enough: 'Not if I can bloody well help it, mate.'


After that, the B.B.C. man completely disappeared.


In Weser


We advanced in single fle along both sides of a main street running north, which we hoped would bring us to our final positions. There were a lot of supposedly dead Germans lying about here, and just as Colonel Gray (Temporary Major (Acting Temporary Lieutenant-Colonel) Gray had commanded No.45 RM Cdo since his Commanding Officer was wounded on D Day) and his headquarters party neared the corner of the street to turn north for the wire factory-our final position-a dead German (we later identifed him as belonging to the S.S.) suddenly rose to his feet and fired a Panzerfaust at point blank range.


The result of this sudden onslaught was that two of the headquarters men were killed, Colonel Gray wounded in the arm, and nearly everyone in the immediate vicinity knocked off their feet by the force of the explosion.


Feeling very angry we emptied a magazine of tommy gun bullets into the German soldier, and into every subsequent corpse we saw lying around. That S.S. man had taught us a very bitter lesson.


At the Wire Factory (45 CDO's Objective)


There was no more fighting that night. We reached the wire factory at approximately two o'clock in the morning and found, to our great surprise, that it wasn't a wire factory at all, but one engaged solely in the manufacture of lavatory pans. As soon as we got inside the factory we set to work feverishly to barricade it as much as possible. Machinery, timber, doors, benches, coils of wire-all were used in an effort to prepare rough defensive positions, blocking windows and the like until they were mere loopholes. Elsewhere in the Brigade very much the same sort of thing was going on.


Counter Attack


leading back into the town. They were heading or the factory. Everyone in the Troop waited for them to come closer, their weapons at the ready.


The Germans obviously thought that, wherever the they were certainly not in the lavatory-pan factory. They chatted amongst themselves quite unsuspectingly as they came towards the men of Easy Troop, all of whom were now on aim, awaiting the order to open fire.


A few minutes later the Germans passed within a few feet of Easy Troop: but the latter still held their fire. Then, as the last German presented his back to them, the Troop opened up. Thirty seconds later there were twelve corpses in the road.


So far this had been our only brush with the enemy. It was not until about nine o'clock that they put in their first organised counter-attack; and when it came it seemed to be a most half-hearted affair, consisting of a few ragged waves of infantry, supported by cumbersome Mark IV tanks and self-propelled guns. The infantry were easily beaten off, and for some unknown reason the tanks did not attempt to come too close. Had they done so, of course, they would have caused untold damage, for our defensive positions were far from perfect, and we had nothing more than PLATs and a Panzerfaust or two with which to defend ourselves against armour.


Panzerfaust 60 (lit. "armor fist" or "tank fist", plural: Panzerfäuste) was a cheap, single shot, recoilless German anti-tank weapon of World War II. It consisted of a small, disposable preloaded launch tube firing a high explosive anti-tank warhead, and was operated by a single soldier. The Panzerfaust was in service from 1942 until the end of the war.

There were, in fact, only two real attempts by German tanks to dislodge us. The first was when a solitary Mark IV, braver than its fellows, started to rumble ominously down the main road towards us. It got to within one hundred and fifty yards of the factory, then became indecisive. Major Beadle, meanwhile, had mustered every available PIAT and Panzerfaust, and these were on aim, waiting to fire.


Suddenly the tank stopped altogether, its engines coughing and arguing, then turned round, heading back the way it came. Discretion being the better part of valour, Pasy Troop let it go.


About half an hour later the time was now just after ten o'clock a second Mark IV approached to within 250 yards of the factory, and commenced to pump shells into it.


Panzer Mk IV

As it was out of PIAT range and our artillery had been forbidden to open fire owing to the fact that the Airborne landings were imminent, there was really nothing to be done about it: so we just lay quietly under what cover we could, enduring a most unpleasant bombardment of 75-millimetre shells, until the German crew in the Mark IV finally tired of their party games, and withdrew.

Whilst all this had been going on, a fighting Troop of 46 Commando, who were in a builder's yard on the far side of the road opposite us, had been conducting a small war of their own against scattered parties of Germans who were scurrying about isolated buildings in a small village three hundred yards to the east of the town. They had been sniping at them throughout the morning with devastating accuracy, and there was no doubt at all that this largely contributed to the enemy's failure to mount any really large scale attack. Every time they brought up an SP gun, or their infantry formed up in the village buildings for a possible advance, they were fired upon. 46 Commando inflicted a lot of casualties in this manner.

German soldiers in a ruined factory, Germany, 1945. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J28810 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Elsewhere the Brigade had been holding their own quite successfully. Both 3 and 6 Commandos had been sniping throughout the morning as well, whilst Brigade headquarters had succeeded in killing a German general (Deutsche by name), who wanted to shoot matters out from the cellar in which he was hiding, together with his staff. The latter surrendered after their leader had been despatched by a Commando sergeant-major armed with a tommy-gun.

German prisoners captured by the Commandos seen in a bomb crater. © IWM BU 2333


Operation Varisty


At eleven o'clock that morning, dead on time, the Airborne troops came in. The sunny sky was filled with the drone of hundreds of aircraft, which we couldn't see at first, but which were eventually identified as hosts of Liberators and Dakotas, flying in from the north in rigid formation, about a mile east of Wesel.


It was a wonderful sight: we could not help cheering, despite the fact that, somewhere well out of our range, the Germans were putting up an intense barrage of ack-ack fire.


C-47 transport aircraft drop hundreds of paratroopers as part of Operation Varsity

Nevertheless, those planes never wavered for a single instant in their course. On and on they came, until they were right over the target. The gliders calmly banked to find their landing zones, whilst amidst the tiny puffs of ack-ack fire in the distance, we could see thousands of white patches twisting and swaying in the sky, each patch a man, and no bigger than a thimble from where we were.


Horsa Glider (landing?) image source unknown

These were the men we had been waiting for-the men of the British Sixth Airborne Division and the American Eighteenth Airborne Corps. [1]


"E" Troop of the 45th Royal Marine Commandos attached to the 1st Commando Brigade, resting in Drevenack after the assault on Wesel. A member of the troop with a captured Panzerfaust © IWM A 27926

Operation Varsity (24 March 1945) involving more than 16,000 paratroopers and several thousand aircraft, it was the largest airborne operation in history to be conducted on a single day and in one location


[1] Extracts from - Commando Men - The Story of a Royal Marine Commando in World War Two by Brian Samain (Pen & Sword Military Classics)

[2] Image and text from Pintrest


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