The raid on the bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal were magnificent, however, the 6th Airborne Division’s war did not end there. Far from it, they were to be thrown into one of the bloodiest, and most decisive battles of the Second World War.The Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (‘Watch on the Rhine’), was the last German offensive campaign on the Western Front during the Second World War. A mixture of clever tactics, utmost secrecy and Allied complacency, led to the German’s launching an attack that took the Allied commanders by complete surprise.
As a result of this totally unexpected German offensive, the 6th Airborne Division were mobilised from Britain, where they had been planning to spend Christmas, and sent to the Ardennes forest, the border between France and Belgium.
The German Army’s goal was to push through the Belgian forest known as the Ardennes, before retaking the port of Antwerp and all of its facilities. From here, the Germans would push north, towards the sea, in an attempt to cut off the Allied armies from a potential evacuation, similar to that seen back in 1940.
With German Panzers leading the attack on the 16th December 1944, within a week they had captured St Vith and cut off all supply routes to Bastogne. As a result, an Allied counter-offensive was required to push the Germans back, and the 6th Airborne Division were to hold the line between Dinant and Namur before the offensive begun.
The 5th Parachute Brigade, under the command of the 6th Airborne Division, was instructed to attack the small village of Bure, with the assistance of British Sherman tanks. Beginning on 3rd January, the men taking part had to deal with some of the worst weather conditions of the war, coupled with little to no sleep, and, as a consequence, heavy casualties were sustained.
For three days, heavy German attacks, the vast majority of which included tanks, were constantly repelled, until, with the assistance of C Company, Oxford & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, as well as additional tanks, the whole village was captured by the Allies.
With recent American success in the Ardennes as well, the Allies continued a huge counter-offensive on the Germans, leading to an eventual success at the end of January, 1945. The 6th Airborne Division were consequently withdrawn back to England, to enjoy a belated Christmas at home but, also, to prepare for Operation Varsity, the Allied crossing of the Rhine, into Germany.
Over 20,000 lives were lost on all sides during the Ardennes offensive, with over one thousand losses to British numbers.