WWII glider pilot recalls most fatal day in airborne history

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
The morning of March 24, 1945, found U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Lou Brough flying a glider over the Rhine River straight through enemy lines as part of the largest single-day airborne operation in history.

Operation Varsity, although successful, put nearly 4,000 aircraft and 14,000 Allied troops in an area occupied by 85,000 German troops and turned the invasion into the most fatal day in airborne history.

"There was a shortage of glider pilots, so they took me off my C-47 (Skytrain) the day before the operation started and gave me three hours of training," said the 94-year-old retired captain. "The actual glider pilots were on standby for an operation that would kick off if we failed."

The formation Brough was a part of took nearly two and a half hours to cross the sky, comprising 1,702 troop transport planes, 1,326 gliders and nearly 900 fighter planes escorting them. The goal was to cross the Rhine River and secure an area with German reserves and artillery, as well as secure valuable land and bridges.

Brough's specific goal was to transport three paratroopers from the 17th Airborne Division, and a jeep, safely behind the German defense lines.

The way he was to get them there: in a glider. A glider's tubular frame was made of steel and covered in canvas, the flooring and wings plywood. The powerless aircraft were towed behind C-47s and released over the landing zone; pilots had one chance to land it. Troops who rode in them didn't wear parachutes.

Brough had flown aircraft since before he could drive, so the amateur glider pilot was skilled enough to successfully land his new aircraft in a field outside of Wesel, but he couldn't control what happened next.

"We landed near a German command post so we started receiving enemy fire right as we exited the aircraft," he said. "One of the paratroopers got sniped through the helmet and dropped immediately. Then, my co-pilot got shot once in the shoulder and then again as he tried to change locations."

Moments later, a sniper's bullet struck the young lieutenant's arm and traveled from his elbow to forearm, causing nerve damage but not stopping him. He applied a tourniquet to himself and secured his arm in a sling before moving on to help his co-pilot.

"He was too internally injured so they called someone over to pray with him," said Brough. "We were in a hospital tent with bullets flying all around. He died in my arms."

For the next several days, he spent time behind enemy lines being treated by a mobile Army surgical hospital. During the operation, the Allied forces had taken almost 3,000 German prisoners of war.

Once an ambulance was available, Brough was transported to a large hospital in Everoux, France, where he underwent a new surgery from a neurosurgeon that allowed for successful regeneration of nerves in his arm.

"For the procedure to work, the treatment had to begin within seven days, and I had just passed the fifth day since I was shot," said Brough. "It took us about six months to figure out if it really worked, but it ended up taking."

He spent a year in a military hospital recovering, earning a Purple Heart for his injuries and later retiring from the Air Force.

Over the years, he has spent a lot of time doing research about the other two men who served with him in the 17th Airborne Division and were also lucky enough to not be one of the 1,100 fatalities on the initial day of the operation. One of the paratroopers died the next year in a jeep accident; the other became a dentist in Pennsylvania.

The sacrifices made by the thousands of Service members who were wounded or killed during Operation Varsity is an important piece of history. Because of that, Brough shares his story with anyone who wants to know more about the most fatal day in airborne history, an operation that has remained unmatched.