While RB396 waited for the dawn, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group (which consisted of the 1st Canadian Army, the 2nd British Army, and the 9th U.S. Army) launched their assault on the Rhine at Wessel. Utilising a 66-mile wide smokescreen to hide the preparations, over 5,500 artillery guns opened fire and, with the Commandos leading the way, the Rhine crossing began at 2200 on the 23rd March. Four hours later, the fighting was deep into Wessel and the bridgehead was established. Unlike previous Airborne operations, and with the lessons of Market Garden applied, the paratroopers would be dropped after the ground assault had begun. So at 1000 on the 24th March, the largest single drop Airborne operation began. Over 16,000 soldiers would be dropped from over 1000 transports and 1350 gliders.
174 Squadron were called into action at 0540 to operate their first VCP (Vehicle Control Point) sortie of the day. 174 Squadron would fly 13 operations throughout the day, with RB396 and Plt Off Frank Johnson flying two of them.
RB396’s first operation of the day began at 09:45. As soon as the four aircraft were airborne the VCP controller, code-named ‘Limejuice’, requested urgent close support. Despite their best efforts, they could not get to the target in the requested time. Thankfully, a section from 175 Squadron was able to assist.
With no targets, RB396 and Red Section remained on patrol until they were tasked with an attack on the village of Krudenburg to the east of Wessel. The flak over the target Frank noted as ‘intense’ and all rockets landed in the target area. Frank also notes that on this patrol he saw several Dakotas being shot down. All four aircraft returned to B.100 Goch safely and were quickly refuelled, rearmed and the pilots watered, ready for the next call.
174 Squadron would fly four more operations before, at 14:45, RB396 and Frank Johnson were airborne again. Their flight of four Typhoons was vectored to the battle area where their first target on the ‘Red Grid’ could not be made out in the smoke and mist. The alternate was also obscured so they were tasked with attacking a road the ran south-east from Doetinchem, in the north of the battle, where MET (Mechanised Enemy Transport) were reported as hiding in the trees along the road. An attack was made with no clear results being seen.
Frank’s logbook doesn’t mention this attack as on this flight he saw something that struck him. He noted simply:
“Witnessed paratroops descent. Many chutes were flaming on the descent.”
Operation Varsity was a huge undertaking and was, broadly, a success. Losses were high, both in aircraft and men. Over 2,000 casualties were sustained by 6th Airborne and the US 17th Airborne division. 76 aircraft were also lost, with the Curtis C-46 Commando coming in for direct criticism. Unlike the C-47 Dakota, the C-46 had not been modified with self-sealing fuel tanks or vented wings. When damaged, fuel would either pool in the spaces in the wings or flow towards the fuselage. Many C-46 simply exploded when damaged. Perhaps this is what Frank saw that made him specifically comment on it in his logbook.
RB396 survived this busy and momentous day of operations unscathed. She would only have a week of operational service left.