Thousands of troops and thousands of aircraft took part in one of the largest-scale operations carried out during the Second World War, 70 years ago today. On March 24, 1945, soldiers and airmen combined to implement Operation Varsity and disrupt German defences to aid the advance of Allied ground forces. Flying Officer Bunny Mason, 91, remembers his role in the mission.
Operation Varsity was planned to support the wider mission of Operation Plunder in the last months of the Second World War.
It aimed to allow airborne troops to cross the Rhine river, clear Diersfordter Forest of enemy fighters, and take several German villages ahead of the arrival of Allied soldiers, marching north.
To achieve this, almost 17,000 troops were air-dropped into the area, during daylight hours. The men were from two airborne divisions, the 6th Airborne Division of the British Army and the 17th Airborne Division of the US Army.
Transport aircraft were accompanied by gliders, creating an airborne armada which stretched more than 200 miles in the sky. These paratroopers were protected by more than 2,000 fighter planes from both the US and Royal Air Forces.
Bunny, a rear gunner on the Stirling Mk 4, said: "We were towing an Airspeed Horsa glider with 25 British airborne troops inside, operating out of RAF Shepherds Grove in Suffolk. We knew it was a big operation but we didn’t realise the scale of it at the time."
The mission was not without risk. Operating in daylight meant the aircraft were an easy target for German anti-aircraft artillery.
Sadly 2,700 men were lost, killed or injured, and hundreds of aircraft were damaged. But, at the time, Operation Varsity was hailed a success.
Allied forces took control of several bridge crossings over the Rhine and were able to build more bridges which were suitable for heavy armour.
Bunny said: "We just took it as we came. We had a job to do and that was that. I am not going to say we were not apprehensive. In all honesty, because we had so much to do, particularly those of us whose job was to look out for enemy aircraft, you did not have time to be scared. But apprehensive? Yes, on a number of occasions."