. 17th airborne division .
The patch of the 17th Airborne is called “Golden Talon”. It represents a gold-colored talon over a circular black background. The black background symbolizes surprise. The talon symbolizes the fact of grabbing, of holding without ever letting go.
The 17th Airborne Division, nicknamed “Thunder from Heaven”, was established on April 15,1943 at Camp Mackall under the command of General William M. Miley. The units that formed the 17th at the beginning were the 513rd Parachute Infantry Regiment(PIR) and the 193rd and 194th Glider Infantry Regiments.
Once its training completed the division was sent to Camp Forrest in Tennessee to participate in the famous field maneuvers with the 2nd Army Command that took place from January 31, 1944 until March 24, 1944.
On March 10th, 1944, a change in his organization arises, the 517th PIR (which is transformed into Regimental Combat Team with the addition of 139th AEB "C" Co and the 460th PFAB) is removed from him and in that place is placed the 513th PIR. (Formerly connected with the 13th Airborne Division.)
The division remained under the command of XXII Corps during its time at Camp Forrest before being shipped overseas.
The 17th Airborne embarked for its overseas travel on August 17, 1944 in Boston after leaving Camp Miles Standish near Taunton, Massachussetts.
The 17th Airborne remained in England from August 25 through December 23, 1944. The division arrived in Liverpool, England, on August 26, 1944 and took its quarters at Camp Chiseldon, near Swindon, on August 30, 1944. Auxiliary units were also stationed in the surrounding area.
<- General William M. Miley
At the end of August 1944, a US Airborne Corps was formed with the 17th Airborne, the 82nd and the 101st Airborne.
During Operation « MARKET GARDEN», the 17th was still in training in England. It was used as a reserve unit. The 507th PIR was transferred from the 82nd Airborne to the 17th. The men of this regiment were nicknamed “Raff’s ruffians” after the name of their commanding officer, Col. Edson Raff.
Between December 23rd and 25th, elements of the division were sent to France near Rheims.
These elements were stationed at Mourmelon and attached to General Patton’s 3rd Army.
After having been in charge of defending a sector along the Meuse river from Givet to Verdun, the division was sent to Neufchâteau in Belgium on December 25th. From there, it moved by foot through the snow to Morhet on January 3rd, 1945 to relieve the 28th Infantry Division.
Major-General Ridgway, commanding the XVIII Airborne Corps, ordered the 17th Division to move quickly into Belgium.
Its first battle was the “Battle of Dead Man’s Ridge” that took place between January 4 and 9, 1945. During a terrible snow storm, the division fought elements of three Panzer regiments and liberated several small Belgian towns. It entered Flamierge on January 7, 1945. But the Germans launched a counter-attack and forced the 17th to fall back. However, the constant pressure applied by the Americans forced the enemy to retreat behind the Our river. Human casualties reached 555 soldiers killed and almost 1,000 wounded.
On January 18, the division relieved the 11th Armored Division at Houffalize, reducing the salient at Wattermal and at Espeler, both taken on January 26. Relieving the III Corps, the 17th Airborne turned towards Luxemburg, taking the cities of Eschweiler and Clervaux, pushing back the Germans on the other side of the Our river.
Patrols were sent on the other side of the Our river to reconnoiter the defenses of the Siegfried Line. A small bridgehead was even established near Dasburg before the division was relieved by the 6th Armored Division on February 10.
– March 1945
– Operation Varsity
At the beginning of February , the situation on the front allowed to evaluate precisely where and when the 2nd British Army would be ready to force its way across the Rhine. It was determined that the crossing would coincide with an airborne operation of the First Allied Airborne Army of General Louis Brereton. General Matthew Ridgway ordered the 13th and 17th Divisions to join the 6th British Airborne Division.
However, the lack of airplanes prevented the use of the 13th division.
The sector chosen for the assault was close to Wesel, north of the Ruhr region. The operation was to start on March 24, 1945. It was the last airborne operation of the Second World War. The main task was carried out by the 17th Airborne with the 507th PIR in the lead, jumping near the Diersfordter forest, 5 km north-west of Wesel. The operation would be conducted in broad daylight in order to ensure a better success in regrouping the men as in Operation MARKET GARDEN.
On March 24, 1945, the weather was almost perfect. On an airfield in France, 14,000 men of the 6th British Airborne Division and the 17th Airborne Division were assembled and climbed on board 667 C-47 and C-46 transport aircraft and 1,340 gliders (Horsa, Hamilcar and Waco). The huge number of aircraft filled up the whole horizon, requiring 2 hours to pass over any fixed spot on the ground. It was also the first time in Europe that two gliders were towed by a single airplane at the same time. The men jumped behind enemy lines, in Wesphalie, close to Wesel east of the Rhine. The assault was scheduled at 10:00 am on March 24, 1945.
The mission was to take over strategic points in order to facilitate the advance of motorized units. The operation resembled Operation “MARKET GARDEN” except that the mistakes from the latter were not repeated: the paratroopers and the gliders would land as close as possible to their targets to ensure a total success. In addition the targets were not as spread out as in MARKET GARDEN.
Operation VARSITY was the first airborne operation over the Rhine into Germany itself. Enemy forces were estimated at 85,000 men and 300 anti-aircraft guns (Flak) positioned along the Rhine’s eastern bank.
The Germans had most certainly learned about the threat of the attack and consequently had positioned anti-aircraft batteries around the drop-zones which resulted in many casualties for the Allies. In order to minimize losses and to ensure faster regrouping, General Miley ordered the jump altitude to be reduced to 400 feet.
A first wave of 181 C-47 dropped 2,479 paratroopers of the 507th PIR and 464th PFAB. Most of the men landed more than 4 km northwest of their DZ (DZ = Drop Zone). But some of them landed exactly on DZ-W. Led by the impetuous Colonel Raff, they captured their main targets in 3 ½ hours, even taking a German position with bayonets.
The other parachutist regiment, the 513th PIR, led by Colonel James L. Coutts, was supposed to land on DZ-X. This regiment was carried by C-46s. The C-46 was larger than the C-47 but was more vulnerable to AA fire due to the bad location of its fuel tanks and the total lack of armor. Several C-46s burst into flames while passing over the AA batteries. Despite of this, Coutts led his men towards the Germans, destroying several 88 guns and marking the landing zone of the British airborne forces.
The gliders took off at 7:34 a.m. While flying over Germany, they were hit by AA fire. Upon landing, over 50% of the gliders were damaged. Among the 908 gliders used in the operation, only 148 could be refurbished. The men of 194th PIR had taken their targets in a few hours. The glider pilots escorted the 2,456 German prisoners.
On the 25th, the Division secured bridges over the Issel as well pockets of resistance along that river. Then, it moved east to capture Haltern on March 29 and Munster on April 2nd.
The 17th Division took part in the battle for the “Ruhr pocket” by relieving the 79th Infantry Division. It crossed the Rhine-Herne canal on April 6 and established a bridgehead before attacking Essen.
This city would fall on April 10. The attack would continue, capturing the industrial cities of Milheim and Duisburg.
On April 24, the division was relieved by the XXII Corps.
Operation VARSITY was a total success. The division accomplished its mission almost exactly as planned, with relatively light losses despite the enemy forces present.
The 17th served as an occupation force until June 15, 1945. It was then sent to France and in September 1945, it returned back to the United Stated to be dissolved.
As a summary, the 17th Airborne fought for 45 days, resulting in 6,130 casualties including 1,226 KIA (Killed In Action). The average casualty rate of 136 men per day is almost twice the rate suffered by all the other airborne divisions that were engaged in longer periods. Four men of this division were awarded the Medal of Honor, all posthumously. It was more than any other US airborne division.