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Operation Varsity' The Rhine Crossing

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posted on 2024-06-05, 19:00 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

This is an account of two young Scots from the Lowlands, who came together in training as RAF glider pilots. One (Flying Officer H P Grinham) did his training in Manitoba, Canada travelling there aboard the Queen Elizabeth. The other (Flight Sgt Finlay MacRae) did his training in Florida, USA. Having trained as pilots, on their return to the UK, instead of flying Spitfires, they were both 'volunteered' together training on Horsa Gliders and were subsequently seconded to RAF Great Dunmow, Essex as part of 'G' Squadron (620 Squadron) in preparation for 'Operation Varsity' The Rhine Crossing. It is important to note that these gliders had NO ENGINES. They were not expected to return. They were reliant on their skills as pilots and also that of the the Tug Pilots to get them to their destination. Once released, they were expected to navigate their gliders to specific locations along with hundreds of other gliders. It was unfortunate that the Germans had troops and a Panzer Division in waiting and they sustained constant and catastrophic flak with gliders and crew exploding and crashing all around them. Once on the ground, the pilots were expected to join in with the ground forces and make their way to any fighting unit. In the absolute chaos of landing, they were fortunate to successfully make it to the ground, along with their cargo and troops. My father was wounded and was immediately captured and along with other prisoners of war, enclosed in a barn all assuming they would be shot. However, fortunately he was quickly liberated by advancing American troops. Sgt MacRae was also captured but was then forced on a long march with other POWs, eventually ending up in a POW camp Stalag 11B. His personal account is attached.

Operation Varsity was the biggest and most successful airborne operation ever. Its purpose was to land 14,000 men of the British 6th and American 17th Airborne Divisions on the German held East bank of the River Rhine, on an area five to ten miles wide and five miles deep. The task was to suppress German artillery and small arms fire, which would have opposed 21st Army Group's crossing of the river, which was a quarter of a mile wide at that point. Each glider was given the task of landing right on top of its specific objective. 392 Horsa gliders and 14 Hamilcar gliders were used in this operation. Many of the Horsa gliders were flown by Royal Air Force pilots attached to the Army's Glider Pilot Regiment. The Glider Pilot Regiment suffered 90% casualties at the battle of Arnhem and 1,500 RAF pilots were drafted into the Regiment for the Rhine Crossing. Many of these were very experienced pilots from rank of Sergeant pilot to Squadron Leader. Army pilots were selected from very tough and skillful soldiers before being trained as pilots by the Royal Air Force. The RAF pilots drafted into the Regiment had to be turned into tough fighting soldiers very quickly. This must have been a very unpleasant experience for them but they learned extremely quickly. The immediate prospect of crossing bayonets with a Nazi Panzer grenadier 'most wonderfully concentrates the mind.'

For the last 20 years or so, it has become my sole purpose to get my father's story on whatever forum I can. Their bravery must not be forgotten. Also for all those 20 plus years, I wondered who Sgt MacRae (Second Pilot) in my father's log book was. Without any initials to hone down the search, it seemed impossible to find any clue as to his whereabouts. Attached at 22 is my account of how I eventually tracked him down 74 years after that day, and made contact with his daughter.

Both Flying Officer Grinham and Flight Sergeant MacRae have unfortunately now passed away. However their story of two incredibly brave young Scots should be remembered.

History

Item list and details

1. Photo of Flying Officer Grinham age 21. 2. Photo of Fg Off Grinham and Flt Sgt MacRae (1st and 2nd Pilots). 3. Assigned Officer accommodation at RAF Great Dunmow. 4. Log Book Fg Off Grinham. 5. Page of log book detailing 24 Mar 45, day of Op. 6. Pilot Log Book Endoresements. 7. Certificate of Qualification as First Pilot for Fg Off Grinham. 8. Glider Pilot Proficiency Certificate. 9-11. An Airman's Prayer book. 12. Peagasus badge of British Airborne Troops WWII. 13. Pilot sunglasses, cap badge, medals. 14-17. Silk map sewn into aircrew uniforms. 18. Service Record Sqn Ldr H P Grinham MBE. 19. Op Varsity First hand accounts. 20. Account of Op Varsity. 21. Germany 1945 by Flt Sgt MacRae. 22. The search for Sgt MacRae by Rowena Smith. 23. First aid bandage.

Person the story/items relate to

Flying Officer Henry Perry Grinham RAF (First Pilot) and Flight Sergeant Finlay M MacRae RAF (Second Pilot)

Person who shared the story/items

Rowena Smith

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor

Flying Officer Grinham was my father.

Type of submission

Shared online via the Their Finest Hour project website.

Record ID

106773