Operation Varsity Act of Remembrance at Marks Hall

Published: Sunday 26th March 2017

Operation Varsity Act of Remembrance at Marks Hall

Over 70 veterans, families, staff and members of the local community gathered at the Memorial Site at Marks Hall Gardens and Arboretum to commemorate the 72nd Anniversary of Operation Varsity on Friday 24th March 2017. 

The service was led by Reverend Chris Davey of Coggeshall Parish.  Many representatives from the Parachute Regiment Association and the Glider Pilot Regiment Society gathered to pay their respects and to lay tributes.  Guests included Marks Hall Patrons, George Courtauld OBE and Peter Wilkin alongside Trustees Graeme Fraser Steele and Meriel Barclay.  The younger generation were represented by pupils from Soaring High Montessori Primary School and Honywood Community Science School alongside many other members of the local community.

Operation Varsity was the largest single lift of airborne forces ever undertaken. The Operation was a daring collaboration between British and American Airborne Divisions that played a vital role in the final assault on Germany. 

Between 0600 hours and 0750 hours on 24th March 1945, a force of 440 gliders of the Glider Pilot Regiment, towed by 440 tug aircraft of the Royal Air Force, took off from airfields across East Anglia, including Earls Colne.  Their load included troops of the 6th Airlanding Brigade; Jeeps; Locust tanks; bulldozers and anti-tank guns with ammunition.  Their contribution towards the invasion of Germany was to capture and hold the town of Hamminkeln, along with 3 vital bridges over the River Issel.

Due to the concentrated anti-aircraft defences and the drift of smoke screen laid to cover the land offensive nearby, many of the gliders failed to reach their allocated landing zones.  Of the 402 gliders that reached the battle area, 37 were destroyed by fire; only 88 remained undamaged. 102 glider pilots were killed and a further 102 were wounded. Many of the tug aircraft from 38 and 46 Group Royal Air Force were shot down, or damaged.  43 aircrew were killed and 153 were wounded.

General Manager at Marks Hall, Rebecca Lee noted “It is very important to the staff and Trustees to mark this occasion.  The memorial site at Marks Hall is a special place and we know that many friends and family look forward to coming here to pay their respects and to remember.  We are especially delighted to welcome the younger generation along to this event, to pay their respects to among many, the brave Glider pilots who took off from the airfield at Earls Colne.”

Marks Hall was the headquarters of the RAF’s 296 and 297 Squadrons, which were based at nearby Earls Colne Airfield.  In remembrance the Marks Hall Estate created a memorial site within the Arboretum, which includes an obelisk and 1/10 scale replica of the runway layout of the old airfield.  This provides a fitting focal point for the service, a poignant occasion for the survivors and their families and friends.