The 17th Airborne Division

“Thunder From Heaven”

(a very brief history)

The 17th Airborne Division was activated in April, 1943 at Camp Mackall, North Carolina and trained there and in Camp Forrest, Tennessee before going overseas in August 1944. It was undergoing futher intensive airborne training, when at the news of the German breakthrough in the Battle of the Bulge, units of the 17th ABD were rushed into the Rheims area in France by air in spectacular night transport landings. They went into the line on Christmas Day 1944 to relieve the badly battered 11th Armoured Division. General Patton, who had just taken command on the sector, believed that the Germans, once stopped at Bastogne, were in full retreat. Under appalling conditions of snow and fog with poor recon, no air cover and inadequate artillery. , Patton ordered the 17th to attack. Hitler on the other hand, furious at the failure to take Bastogne, command two German panzer armies in the north to regroup and attack again. The 17th was among the American Divisions that ran head-on into the superior force. After some initial progress, it received mauling with severe losses. Lightly armed paratroopers and glider men, at time in waist deep snow, were fighting German tanks.

When Major General Miley, the division commander indicated that he was taking 40% casualties in some of his battalions (a subsequent historian’s estimate put the losses at 1000 a day). Patton discounted the report, convinced that he was dealing with a defeated enemy. Later, however, in his diary he stated: “They ran right into the flank of the German attack”. Had this not happened things could have been critical. As it was, we stopped the attack in its tracks. History will claim that perfect timing was a stroke of genius but I had no idea that the German were attacking”. At times using bayonets, the 17th went on to drive the Germans back to their own border.

General Miley led the 17th ABD in a daring daylight jump over the Rhine river into the Ruhr heartland of Germany itself, in “Operation Varsity” on March 24, 1945. in a go-for-broke action they and the 6th British ABD, with a combined force of 17000 men, were dropped in just over two hours in a area containing 85000 Germans troops. The ermans knew they were coming. So heavy was the flak they encountered, that an observer (General Gavin) flying above the armada counted 23 aircraft going down at one time. One regiment (513th PIR) was flown in a new, larger C-46s, which with their exposed fuel lines turned out to be fire prone death traps.

Earlier, in the planning for Varstity, it became evident that there would not be enough transport planes to tow the required glider elements consisting of 906 WACO’s with men, jeeps, artillery and other equipment. A decision was then made to have 578 of these heavily-laden gliders pulled two per plane in a V formation. The result was dded carnage, as gliders crashed on take-off or tow lines fouled during the flight, ripping of wings. Coming so close to the end of the war, little publicity was ever given that operation or its casualties. The worst single day in airborne history was not at Normandy or Arnhem, but at Wesel (Rhine drop) on March 24, 1945, where 1070 members of the 17th ABD and the 6th British ABD were killed and thousands more wounded. Despite the costs, Varsity achieved all its objectives, assisting in the final conquest of Germany.

By the time WWII in Europe was over, the 17th ABD had suffered 6292 killed and wounded, almost double the daily combat average of any American airborne division. It also had the most recipient (4) of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Sadly what was left of the heroic 17th ABD at the end was largely transferred to other airborne units. The division was deactivated on September 15, 1945, at camp Miles Standish, Massachusetts.

Unit Roster

Div Headquarters

Div Artillery

Div Recon

193rd GIR

194th GIR

507th PIR

513th PIR

550th Abn Inf Bn

464th PFA Bn

466th PFA Bn

680th GFA Bn

681st GFA Bn

139th Abn Engr Bn

155th AAA Bn

224th Abn Med Co

411th Abn QM Co

517th Abn Sig Co

17th Pcht Maint Co

Military Police Band