British Glider development I


Airspeed Horsa taking off.A British Horsa glider could carry more than twice the number of troops as a Waco.


Hamilcar Glider: Besides airborne troops and tanks these huge gliders had carried 75-mm howitzers, 3-in mortars, bridging material and assault boats.

Prewar Great Britain, like its future ally, the United States, had not considered using transport gliders as military weapons, although the Soviet use of gliders for this purpose had long been reported. As early as July 1934, the London magazine Flight carried a photograph and an account of the GN-4, a five-passenger glider built by the Moscow Glider Works.

On the other hand, the British had developed a rich background of experience with sports gliders in the prewar years. During the early 1920s, soaring had taken hold in England, and a gliding association had been formed by 1929. Three years later, there were enough enthusiasts flying gliders for the association to sponsor a national championship. By 1937, British gliding techniques and glider construction had progressed enough to earn respect in international circles and to draw a group of young German glider enthusiasts to England, ostensibly to obtain instruction from British experts. Actually, it is likely these Hitlerjugend had a better reason for being in England: to collect information on the terrain and on military objectives, especially in southern England. Most of them soon reported for flying training with the Luftwaffe, where this knowledge could prove invaluable in any future conflict.

Whether the British learned anything about German military gliders is not known. In fact, it is not known whether information leaked out of Nazi Germany about the closely kept secret of that country’s military glider program at any time during the 1930s. That such activities could have escaped the observation of the highly efficient British intelligence service is extremely doubtful. Regardless, the British military leadership was apparently unmoved by the potential of the glider as a military weapon. The serious prospect of a possible cross-channel glider invasion by an enemy based on the continent apparently never crossed military minds.

There was understandable complacency, as a result of British history and the belief that the Royal Navy would keep any invasion from British shores. To the British, an invasion of England by sea would be utter madness for an enemy to contemplate. A mood prevailed leading to the conclusion that if fight they must, there would be a drenching bombing from the air in the haphazard style of World War I. Certainly the nation would again show the guts to withstand such an annoyance until victory came again. Nor could they imagine for their islands an invasion such as Hitler later unleashed on Crete. Finally, innovation in the form of a massive glider counterattack, in retaliation against an enemy preparing to attack from France, was not in the style of the British naval-oriented, sea-immersed mind.

Much to his credit, however, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a brief instruction to his chief of staff in June 1940. It called for the creation of a 5,000-man parachute force—with a proportionate glider element—by the spring of 1941. It was a bold demand, considering that remnants of the British Expeditionary Force in France were still being evacuated from Dunkirk. His wish might have been contested by his staff, who were involved in more urgent matters, had he not adamantly signed it “P.M.W.” (Prime Minister’s Wish)—in other words, no arguing! What made the task even more formidable was that the British had to start from scratch in developing their airborne arm, accomplishing in little more than a year what the Germans had taken six years to do.

With traditional British vigor, the airborne program got under way. To their credit, once at the task, they seemed to do better at it than either the Germans or, a bit later, the Americans. This was true of the way the British converted their industrial effort to the task, the manner in which they organized and trained glider pilots, and generally the way they went into combat operations.

Within two days of Churchill’s “wish” having been expressed, the War Office summoned Major J. F. Rock, Royal Engineers, and ordered him to organize the British airborne forces. How he was to do so, how the forces were to be organized, what arms they were to carry, what method was to be used to train them and to transport them to war—those points were not explained. “It was impossible,” Rock recorded in his diary, “to get any information as to policy or task.” Rock was a regular soldier; his acquaintance with aircraft was no more intimate than that of a frequent passenger. He knew nothing of parachutes or gliders beyond what he had read or was soon to read concerning their use by the enemy in the attacks delivered against Holland and Belgium six weeks before.

In short order, Rock, promoted to lieutenant colonel, formed the Central Landing Establishment (CLE) at a private airfield that was soon to be taken over by the RAF. At first, the CLE was conspicuous mainly for an almost total lack of the equipment necessary to train parachute soldiers, glider pilots, and air-landing troops. Information was equally scanty. A damaged parachute and jumping helmet captured from the Germans were the only models available. For aircraft, he had four Whitley Mark II’s, which were seldom simultaneously operational.

The first glider exercise was a modest one. On an autumn day—26 October 1940—two single-seater sailplanes moved slowly behind two Avro 504 tugs. That was the glider exercise. It was the only operational equipment that Rock had to put into the air. Those who witnessed it must have required no little imagination to picture the huge fleets of large gliders which only four years later were seen by the battered and triumphant inhabitants of Britain on the wing for the Netherlands and the Rhine.

On 26 April 1941, six months later, Lieutenant Colonel Rock’s forces staged an exercise for Prime Minister Churchill, although it was again no more than a demonstration. A formation of six Whitley’s dropped their full complement of parachute soldiers and five sailplanes landed in formation. One Hotspur glider was towed past the prime minister. By then it had been realized that to train 5,000 airborne soldiers was a task requiring a great deal of time. Soon after this demonstration, Rock organized a Glider Exercise Unit, and experimenting with it, Rock and Wing Commander P. B. N. Davis gradually developed usable tactics and techniques for gliders. Expansion continued, and the number of glider-training elements increased considerably, until they occupied several bases of the RAF.

Although Churchill had been quite definite about the number of paratroopers he wanted in the force, he was vague about what the War Office was to do with glider forces. It is possible that the development and production of gliders—and the recruiting and organization of glider pilots and airborne forces—would have been relatively neglected had not circumstances dictated otherwise. Gliders came into their own somewhat by default. Although Churchill had directed the equipping of a 5,000-man parachute force, it was discovered that due to lack of aircraft, only 800 men could be lifted for a parachute mission. Looking around for a solution, planners turned their attention to the glider as a means of increasing the number of soldiers that could be airlifted, while minimizing the drain on the already heavily committed powered aircraft available to the nation. They saw that gliders could fill the void. Gliders would supplement the meager number of powered aircraft available to the airborne establishment and help to get the 5,000 men “off the ground” as per the prime minister’s wishes. This led to the production of the eight-passenger Hotspur, the thirty-passenger Horsa and the Hamilcar, a first-rate competitor to the Gigant. They also developed the fifteen-seat Hengist as insurance against the Horsa not proving satisfactory.

The size of the first glider to come off the production line was to a great extent dictated by a number of the exigencies of the time. The British had no transport aircraft in military or commercial use in large numbers that could be converted to tow gliders, such as the Germans had in the Ju 52. For the time being, glider-towing aircraft were going to have to be bombers, then in short supply, or old biplane fighters, of which the Hart was one. The largest glider it could tow, according to calculations, was about an eight-seater with a wing span of somewhere between 50 to 60 feet.

The Air Ministry dispensed with the usual design and development procedures and other red tape and, in June 1940, it ordered the eight-place Hotspur glider into production, even though the glider had not yet left the drawing board at General Aircraft—so keen was the need. General Aircraft miraculously delivered Britain’s first glider four months later.

The Hotspur proved ideal for the circumstances. Being made of wood, Hotspurs could be built in furniture factories, and their manufacture would not create an added burden on the aircraft industry, which was heavily committed to war production. Its most important asset was that it could be quickly mass-produced and was immediately ready to fly into combat.

The Hotspur I, first to come off the line, looked much like an oversized sailplane. It had a streamlined fuselage and a tapered sixty-two-foot wing. Pilots sat in tandem, and troops squeezed in behind.

General Aircraft constructed several other models of the Hotspur.

The Hotspur II had a shorter wingspan and a larger fuselage than the first model. The Hotspur III served widely as a trainer. General Aircraft also built a twin Hotspur, in an attempt to speed up the availability of a glider that could carry at least fifteen troops. For the “Twin,” engineers joined two Hotspurs by means of a special center wing section, the pilot and co-pilot flying the aircraft from the port fuselage. Because of its unpopularity with pilots, however, the RAF did not order quantity production.

Ideal for training, Hotspurs I and II were not large enough to transport the heavy equipment that airborne forces would need to enable them to hit hard once landed. In time, the idea of using the Hotspur for operations was discarded as the Horsa began to make its appearance. No Hotspurs were ever used in combat.

The former Airspeed Aviation Company designed and built the Horsa at its Portsmouth Works. Typical of the whole aircraft industry, Airspeed was involved in other RAF projects and was pressed by its unending demands for bombers and fighters. Production of the sorely needed Horsas dragged, and it was not until well into 1942 that the first glider came off the production line.

This aircraft was the ugly duckling of the war, with its excellent flight characteristics disguised by an ungainly appearance. Of all-wood construction, it had a high unibraced eighty-eight-foot wing, jettisonable wheels and a central landing skid. It was sixty-eight feet long, and it stood almost twenty feet high at the top of the large fin. Loaded, it weighed more than seven tons, carrying almost its own weight in troops or cargo. Its interior has been described as not unlike a section of the London Underground in miniature. Homely as it was, it admittedly impressed with its stern, determined dignity.

It was not until 27 March 1942 that the British were able to test-fly the tank-carrying Hamilcar. Seeing this glider for the first time, Colonel Frederick Dent, the American officer in charge of glider production in the United States, remarked, “It was the biggest hunk of airplane I have ever seen put together.” Tip to tip, its wing measured 110 feet. By the time several Hamilcars had been produced, the British had also turned out a light fast tank called the Tetrarch, designed to fit snugly into the Hamilcar. A sophisticated aircraft, it was far ahead of its day.

Now that the British had their Tetrarch and Hamilcar, the need for a powerful towing aircraft arose, reminiscent of the German experience with the Gigant. Fully loaded, the Hamilcar weighed more than sixteen tons, even more than a fully loaded Whitley bomber, the best available tow plane at the time.

The Halifax Mark III, a yeoman craft with new four-bladed propellers and the most powerful engines in service, first towed the Hamilcar. Later, the still more powerful Halifax Mark V took over the towing task, but even then, it was a great strain for the machine to tow the British giant, for in wing span and wing area the Hamilcar overwhelmed the Halifax.

By November 1941, the initial period of experimentation and the training of Britain’s first airborne forces had been completed and a fine base laid for its forthcoming expansion. In that month, Major General F. A. M. Browning, C.B.E., D.S.O., M.C., was appointed General Officer Commanding Airborne Forces and provided with a skeleton staff. From that time on, despite a multitude of difficulties and disappointments, there was no looking back. Airborne forces were now an integral part of the British Army. They wore a maroon-colored beret, soon to become famous, and shoulder patches depicting Bellerophon astride winged Pegasus.

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