East Anglia: Veterans gather for annual commemoration of Second World War’s Operation Varsity
PUBLISHED: 18:06 24 March 2014 | UPDATED: 18:06 24 March 2014
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Veterans joined serving soldiers in a service marking the anniversary of the largest airborne operation of the Second World War.
Operation Varsity saw 40,000 British and American troops land by glider and parachute in March 1945 to successfully secure a bridge across the River Rhine, opening the way for the final advance into Germany.
Many gliders involved in the operation flew off from the Earls Colne Airfield towed by Halifax transport planes.
The RAF squadrons’ headquarters at nearby Marks Hall, now an arboretum, was the site of today’s 69th anniversary service.
Operation Varsity saw 98 pilots killed and 77 wounded from the Glider Pilot Regiment, disbanded in 1957, while of the 416 British gliders involved in the mission just 88 were undamaged.
The annual commemoration is organised by 4 Regiment Army Air Corps based at Wattisham, in Suffolk, and the unit’s 664 Squadron is currently flying Apache attack helicopters on operations in Afghanistan.
This year’s service saw a parade along with music from the Band of The Parachute Regiment and a flypast by two Apaches.
Major Simon de Labillière, the regiment’s acting commanding officer, said: “It is both a privilege and an honour for the regiment to serve as the custodians of the memory of Operation Varsity.
“It is particularly significant for us to be here today to honour past operational achievements while one of our squadrons is deployed in Afghanistan.
“The wartime achievements of the Glider Pilot Regiment are astounding, given they were flying gliders made of wood and had only crude instrumentation to assist in their flight and navigation.
“It is important our soldiers have the opportunity to mix with veterans and learn about their experiences, which help to create the sense of identity, history and purpose which is behind our current achievements on operations.”
David Brook, chairman of the East Anglian branch of the Glider Pilot Regimental Association, suffered shrapnel wounds when the glider he piloted was hit after it landed near a German artillery position.
Mr Brook, 91, said: “The importance of this service is to honour our colleagues who didn’t come back and to keep alive the memory of a very successful operation.
“The experience of war is not something you can really describe, or want to, and what is important to me is to remember the faces of the friends I served with.
“Many of them died on Operation Varsity and as the years go by the number of surviving veterans gets fewer.”