James Hill (British Army Officer) - Second World War - Rhine

Rhine

On 24 March 1945 Operation Varsity began, an airborne operation to aid in the establishment of a bridgehead on the east bank of the River Rhine which involved 6th Airborne Division and the American 17th Airborne Division. Varsity was the airborne component of Operation Plunder, in which the British Second Army, under Lieutenant-General Sir Miles Dempsey, and the U.S. Ninth Army, under Lieutenant General William Simpson, crossed the Rhine at Rees, Wesel, and an area south of the Lippe Canal. Both divisions would be dropped near the town of Hamminkeln, and were tasked with a number of objectives: they were to seize the Diersfordter Wald, a forest that overlooked the Rhine, including a road linking several towns together; several bridges over a smaller waterway, the River Issel, were to be seized to facilitate the advance; and the town of Hamminkeln was to be captured. 6th Airborne Division was specifically tasked with securing the northern portion of the airborne bridgehead, including Hamminkeln, a section of high ground to the east of Bergen, and several bridges over the River Issel. Hill's 3rd Parachute Brigade was to drop at the north-eastern corner of the Diersfordterwald forest and clear the western portion of the forest. It would then seize a hill known as the Schneppenberg, secure a road junction near Bergen and eventually link up with 5th Parachute Brigade.

3rd Parachute Brigade dropped nine minutes later than planned, but otherwise landed accurately on drop zone 'A'. Hill landed near to the Diersfordterwald forest, which was occupied by German soldiers "who are switched-on people," killing a number of paratroopers whose parachutes became tangled up in the trees. His brigade headquarters was positioned by a copse which was supposed to have been immediately cleared, but when he arrived it was still occupied by German troops; Hill immediately ordered a company commander from 8th Parachute Battalion to clear the copse. The officer did so, but was killed in the process. Hill then moved his headquarters to the copse, but was then nearly killed by an approaching glider which barely managed to pull up in time, landing in the trees above him; upon investigation, Hill discovered that it contained his batman and personal Jeep, which took some time to lower down safely. The brigade suffered a number of casualties as it engaged the German forces in the Diersfordter Wald, but by 11:00 hours the drop zone was all but completely clear of enemy forces and all battalions of the brigade had formed up. The key town of Schnappenberg was captured by the 9th Parachute Battalion in conjunction with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, the latter unit having lost its commanding officer to German small-arms fire only moments after he had landed. Despite taking casualties the brigade cleared the area of German forces, and by 13:45 Hill could report that the brigade had secured all of its objectives.

With Varsity a success, 6th Airborne Division was ordered by General Matthew B. Ridgway, commander of US XVIII Airborne Corps, to advance eastwards. It was supported by the 6th Guards Tank Brigade, and many of the airborne troops used unconventional transport during the advance, including captured German staff cars, prams and even horses. Hill requisitioned a motorcycle for his batman and travelled alongside 3rd Parachute Brigade as it advanced; at one point his batman stopped the motorcycle and relieved a captured German colonel of his binoculars before driving off again. Hill disapproved of battlefield looting and admonished his batman, although eventually relented by stating "If you can get me a pair, you can keep them!" At midnight, 27/28 March the division came under the control of 8th British Corps and became part of the general Allied advance through Germany towards the Baltic Sea, with 3rd Parachute Brigade as the division's leading unit. German resistance continued to be heavy, but the division managed to advance at a rapid pace despite this, with 3rd Parachute Brigade at one point advancing fifteen miles in twenty-four hours, with eighteen of those being spent in combat. By early April the division reached the River Weser, with 3rd Parachute Brigade approaching it near the town of Minden, accompanied by armoured support; as it did so, the brigade found itself moving parallel to several German tanks, with Hill sitting on the rear of one of the British tanks. Both sides opened fire, but did little damage, the two German tanks managing to outpace the brigade.

The brigade continued its fast pace of advance, with Hill continuing to ride pillion on his motorcycle, and by 23 April it had reached the River Elbe, having advanced 103 miles in fourteen days; the division had captured more than 19,000 prisoners during this period. After crossing the Elbe, the division once again came under the command of US XVIII Airborne Corps, with General Ridgway informing Major General Bols that it was vital the division reach the port of Wismar before the approaching Russian Army did, to ensure that Denmark was not occupied by the USSR. Although 5th Parachute Brigade was ordered to lead the division's advance, Hill was determined to reach Wismar first; after an extremely rapid advance he succeeded, with troops from 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion being the first to enter Wismar, beating an advancing Russian tank column by only a few miles. A few days later, on 7 May 1945, Germany surrendered and the war in Europe came to an end. Hill was awarded a second bar to his DSO for his command of 3rd Parachute Brigade during its advance from the Rhine to the Elbe, as well as the American Silver Star.

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