On Saturday the 7th of April around 21:00, 46 four engined bomber aircraft took off from three secret military airfields in the south east of England. This started Operation Amherst in earnest. One aircraft ran into technical trouble and took off one night later as number 47. All aircraft, of the type "Short Stirling" had been "scraped together" with difficulties and departed from the following airfields: Dunmow (16), Shepherdsgrove (16) and Rivenhall (15). The logbooks of the flight crews varied between many and few flying hours in wartime.
The skill of the paras was comparable. On the one side there were a number of old war hands with a lot of battle experience gathered in the countries of North Africa, or at smaller operations in France (like "Dickens", "Derry", "Jockworth", "Moses", Abel", "Harrods" , "Sam West" etc. etc.). On the other side there were many for whom Operation Amherst was their second or third mission. And lastly there were a number of young rookies with very few or even no jumping or battle experience.
During the flight the Stirlings followed the procedures and used their board weapons over the sea. Because of the allied air superiority the chances for an interception by the enemy were limited. Between 23:45 and 01:30 the aircraft dropped their sticks over the 19 defined dropping zones. Including the four men strong Jedburgh team which had to carry out special orders, a total of 702 men. The TroisiŤme RCP / 3rd SAS landed west of the railroad line Groningen-Assen-Hoogeveen (and in the extension thereof in southerly direction) and the DeuxiŤme RCP / 4th SAS, east of the railroad. After a few hours all aircraft returned safely on their bases.
During their "largage" [dropping], the circumstances for the paras were unfavorable as had been foreseen. The following factors were to be blamed for that: the visibility, the jumping level and the radar operation. All that had been predicted, turned out to be reality: over the operational theatre there was a low cloud base which caused the paras not to jump from their usual level of 250 m. [approx. 820ft] but were dropped from 600 m. [approx. 2000ft], over thick clouds. Therefore they were suspended in the air for a longer period of time and the sticks were spread over a larger area because of the wind speed of 25 km/h. [approx. 15 M/hr.] and landed hard.
Apart from that there was heavy fog which made it difficult for the men to retrieve each other quickly. By far, most of the sticks succeeded nevertheless to regroup within the hour; some others did not achieve that. They lost some hours before being complete again; four sticks even never were completely back together.
In spite of these unfortunate circumstances the number of accidents was limited: Two men drowned, one was hit in the air by a container, which prevented his chute from deploying and nine others broke their bones, or got eye wounds by "falling through a tree". For the correct operation of the radar systems of the British airplanes on the one side and the coordination with the Canadian radar vehicles on the other side, it was required that these vehicles were stopped during the dropping of the parachutists.
Because this condition could not always be met, the assessment of the exact dropping point was rather imprecise in some cases, so a number of sticks did not land in the planned landing zones. Of the 46 groups 17 landed within the planned areas, 16 within a reasonable distance (5 to 8 km), while 12 sticks landed on a greater distance (8 to 15 km). One stick landed in a liberated area. In a number of cases the paras appeared to have "fallen off the map" and had to contact farmers during the night to try to find the road in order to orientate themselves. Thanks to the presence in every stick of an "Alsacien" (a French soldier who came from the Alsace and who spoke also German) this usually did not create any language problems although the population of the provinces of Drenthe and Friesland usually was stupefied to be addressed in German by men in an unknown uniform.
Next to the sticks 219 containers with weapons, ammunition and rations were dropped including 30 each for the resistance. Also as a distraction 150 dummies were dropped (called "mannequins" = puppets, by the French). These were small chutes with boxes attached that imitated gunfire and which were activated with a delaying system. The enemy were to believe that fighting was going on at these spots and to send troops unnecessarily to that area.
The fighting developed quickly after the landings in the province of Drenthe and a part of south east Friesland. Some sticks were unfortunately landing on a German convoy, after which their regrouping became rather impossible. Other sticks successfully set up ambushes, mainly in the northern woods of Drenthe. And of course the paratroopers started commando actions often successful, others less fortunate.
For example, the Commander of the 4th Battalion, Major Puech-Samson landed together with his battalion staff in a forested area near Witteveen, 7km southeast of Westerbork. He decided to instruct two sticks, that had landed close by, to attack the German command post in that village. Upon indications of the resistance and with the cooperation of the secret agent Willem van der Veer, that took place on Sunday 8 April around 13:30. The command post was put (temporarily) out of action. A number of German officers and troops were killed. The commander General Major Karl BŲttger got seriously wounded. The French lost three men during this attack.
More northerly (in Gasselte) four sticks attacked successfully the NSKK command post (NSKK = Nationalsozialistisches Kraftfahrer Korps, which was a transport unit of the German Army often manned with Dutch volunteers). Here 18 Germans, amongst whom two officers, were captured and transmitted to the surrounding woods, and some got wounded. A French para lost his life. In the evening the Germans returned from Borger to Gasselte and locked the whole of the male population inside the church, this because of suspected help to the French troops. The occupying forces consequently started preparations to shoot all hostages. Fortunately this "almost drama" ended well. Sixteen civilians were imprisoned in Assen and liberated by the Canadians on 13 April.
The applied Jetburgh team, landing at Hooghalen, was unfortunate to soon lose two men. Major Harcourt was made prisoner (and liberated on 30 April from the POW camp WesermŁnde) and Captain Bestebreurtje broke his ankle at the landing. Captain Ruysch-van-Duchteren however made contact with the resistance. He succeeded through his Radio-Operator Sergeant Somers to generate a weapon drop in the area.
In Smilde a stick succeeded to capture the Veenhoopsbrug [bridge] across the Drentse Hoofdvaart [= main channel] undamaged, which was important for the Canadians. This, after members of the local resistance, in this case father and son Voortman, succeeded up to two times to remove the demolition charges under the bridge. It meant that the Canadians could advance quickly northwards. Also the Stokersverlaatbrug [bridge] in Appelscha across the Opsterlandse Compagnonsvaart [= a canal] remained undamaged in the hands of some sticks which had landed by accident in that area.
In a number of locations in south eastern Drenthe the French parachutists received support from the Belgian armored jeeps and their wounded were brought back behind their own lines with these jeeps. A Polish reconnaissance unit, especially composed to rescue a number of French paratroopers from their perilous positions, was supporting the French successfully, amongst others in Westerbork.
The small airfield Steenwijk (at Havelte) which had to be captured undamaged was reconnoitered by a stick. It appeared to be useless. Some large craters indicated that it had been bombed recently by the USAAF.
On various places other German installations were attacked like in Orvelte (the flax works and the bridge) and Oranje ( the potato flour factory). In two perilous situations the paras asked for air support and re-provisioning. These were successfully provided by Typhoons of the 84th Group RAF.
In other areas however, like some kilometers northwest of Assen, some sticks suffered heavy losses in the open terrain and near a large garrison, some up to 50% of their total strength counting 11 deaths and 19 prisoners of whom 12 wounded. It concerned sticks 1,3,5 and 7 of the 1st Company of the 3rd Battalion. During one of their actions a group was betrayed by two Dutchmen which cost six paras their lives in and near a barn in Zeijerveld.
In a number of other occasions the resistance was supportive which led sometimes to reprisals. The Germans executed by summary conviction in total 33 persons as retaliation on the basis of suspected collaboration with the French paras: 21 in Spier at the Wijsterseweg (municipality of Hoogeveen), ten in Diever and two in Schoonoord. At Westerbork a 34th Dutch victim fell, a farmer on his way home was deadly wounded by a nervous German sentry.
The losses on the French side totaled 34 men (5 officers, 7 warrant officers and 21 corporals/soldiers). 32 of them were killed in Drenthe and 1 in Friesland (Haulerwijk). In total the Germans executed 7 paras and during the landing two drowned, both in the immediate vicinity of Assen. Next to that the parachutists counted 60 seriously wounded (including those that suffered from broken bones) and 69 were carried off to POW camp WesermŁnde. They were liberated on 30 April by the British units.
According to allied sources a little less than 300 men were killed on the German side. Several dozen were wounded and 187 were taken prisoner. Of those, only in Friesland 47 men in the immediate environment of Appelscha. In total some thirty German vehicles were eliminated.