In January 1942, the War Office formed the 1st Airborne Division and appointed General Browning its commander. The division consisted of an airlanding brigade that would be transported and landed in combat by gliders or aircraft, a parachute brigade and a number of divisional support units. According to this type of organization and the requirement for military operations visualized by the War Office, it became obvious that more than half of Browning’s division would go into combat in gliders.
Concurrently with the formation of the division, the War Office also ordered the formation of a glider pilot regiment in the army. By this step and doctrinal policies developed through their training and combat operations, the British took off on a path widely at variance with that of the Germans or the Americans.
The division and the Glider Pilot Regiment were billeted on Salisbury Plain near the Netheravon Aerodrome, with the Glider Pilot Regiment being stationed at Shrewton. The 38th RAF Wing, which was to support the 1st Airborne Division and tow its elements in gliders, was also stationed at Netheravon. This concentration of elements, all to be involved in airborne operations, enabled them to collaborate effectively.
Not only the airborne division but also the Glider Pilot Regiment introduced a new concept of war for which many agencies engaged in the war effort were not prepared, especially when it came to providing new and lighter equipment, different uniform items and helmets of a new design.
When Colonel Rock went to a flight training school with forty army officers and other ranks in order to learn the business of flying gliders, Major George Chatterton, D.S.O., got the task of raising the regiment, a task he found to be no easy matter. Fortunately, there were a large number of enthusiastic volunteers, but what they were to be trained to do beyond flying a glider had not been fully determined.
Chatterton made it his goal that glider pilots should reach the high standard as soldiers that he required of them as pilots. Not only must they be able to fly with the utmost skill and resolution, they must also be equally at home manning a Bren gun after landing, driving a jeep, or firing a rifle, an antitank gun or a mortar. Out of the many thousands of volunteers interviewed for the purpose of choosing glider pilots, very few were accepted. From these, many were unable to pass the stiff flight tests on their way through pilot training and dropped from the chosen ranks. It was only a select band who were judged worthy to follow this arduous and gallant calling.
In the end, Britain had quality pilots and a workable organization in her Glider Pilot Regiment such as American airborne commanders wanted but never got. The wisdom of the British, compared to the shortsightedness and disorganization of the Americans, was to come into stark relief in the test of combat.
Colonel Rock was killed in a flying accident late in 1942 and Chatterton, promoted to lieutenant colonel, took acting command of the Glider Pilot Regiment. Chatterton then began to put his stamp on the organization, constantly insisting upon loyalty and discipline.
Soon the 1st Airborne Division was ordered to North Africa to prepare for the invasion of Sicily. Several hundred glider pilots from the regiment accompanied the division, thus splitting the regiment. Pilots went to Africa with training incomplete and no night-flying experience, although it was the opinion of many that when they made the flight from Africa to Sicily to begin the Allied invasion, it would be a night operation. Few had experienced formation flying over long distances, especially over water.
Situations had evolved over which Chatterton had no control. He felt that glider pilots had been superbly trained by the RAF but that, except for brief periods, they were out of touch once the RAF had finished training them. Chatterton objected to the fact that many of his glider pilots had not been around an airfield for months. “After all, a horseman must live with and in the atmosphere of horses. Is it not the same for pilots? Whatever their employment or the type of aircraft they fly, they must live with and around aircraft,” he said.
While he wanted closer association with the RAF, at the same time he shied away from the camaraderie and relaxed outlook of the air force. He felt that such an environment was special to their needs and good for them, but not especially good for the Glider Pilot Regiment, which was a formation of the British Army. Since glider pilots would have to fight as infantry once gliders were landed, he felt they had to have the high and unique standard of infantry discipline for which there was no substitute on the battlefield, where “once committed, there is no going back.” He thus sought a compromise.
Chatterton had major obstacles to overcome to sell his point, however. In the months after the regiment was first organized, it had been handled rather haphazardly, and there were many in the higher echelons who had their own ideas as to how they wanted the regiment to work. Some of the brigadiers commanding airborne forces would have liked to have the glider pilots serving under their direct control in all matters. Chatterton felt the regiment and its men must be completely independent of any command except his, and he determined he would not bend on this point. He got his way after taking on the single-handed struggle to convince the RAF and the War Office of the logic of his viewpoint. Soon orders made Chatterton commander of the Glider Pilot Regiment. It then started to take on more of an RAF character.
Battalions became squadrons; companies became flights. A flight had 4 officers and 40 other ranks, all glider pilots. Among them, they carried four pistols, two submachine guns, two light machine guns and thirty-two rifles. An expansible organization, his squadron could have as many as five flights. When concentrated after landing, its 200 men, backed by their arsenal of weapons, could add up to an infantry battalion in combat power. The regiment became unique as a fighting force not only in the British Army but also in history. While the new elements of the regiment might work with and support the operations of the RAF groups with which they were to fly, they would at all times remain independent.
At the same time that the War Ministry was organizing glider forces, the RAF had to decide which aircraft could do the job of towing, choosing from among the Hector, Master, Albemarle, Halifax, Stirling or Dakota airframes. For a long time, Hectors and Masters towed the lighter Hotspur, but they were quite unable to deal with the larger Horsa. In June 1942, the RAF decided to use the Albemarle, a fairly fast medium bomber, as a troop carrier or a glider tug. They carried out considerable experimental work using this aircraft for towing, at a time when nothing else was suitable or available. During the operations over Sicily, they did use Albemarles, but these were succeeded in other operations by Dakotas, Halifaxes and Stirlings.
During early training, the Albemarle and glider pilots had to learn to fly in combination in an unremitting effort to learn the demanding flight skills needed for combat operations. Through weary months of training, they learned that the tug and the glider must be not only a physical, but a mental and moral combination. In other words, only the closest feeling of comradeship between the aircraft crew and the glider pilots could achieve the high standard of efficiency required.
That this lesson took some time to learn was due not so much to the pilots themselves, but to the fact that for many months they were located at fields some distance apart. By the autumn of 1942, hundreds of glider pilots had been trained and awaited action in army camps on Salisbury Plain. An adequate supply of gliders and tugs was not available, however, to keep them in training, and the pilots’ skills grew stale. Moreover, they were having no contact with the crews of the tugs. Colonel Chatterton remedied the situation by gradually obtaining quarters for the glider pilots at the main airfield, but this took time to achieve.
Meanwhile, glider pilots gradually built up their flying hours. Soon Hamilcars carried tankers and their tanks on familiarization flights. One led to an extraordinary crash. The Hamilcar touched down at between 90 and 100 miles an hour at one of the fields. It careened wildly across the airfield, demolished two Nissen huts, and stopped in the wreckage. Colonel Chatterton rushed to the site. He found that the tank had shot forward right through the glider and the buildings and had come to rest, unscathed, 50 yards farther on. Rushing towards it, Chatterton met the tank driver crawling out. The driver uttered some coolly casual remarks, considering the fact that he had just been zipping along at 80 miles an hour, a speed unsurpassed by any tank in history.
On 19 November 1942, the British initiated their glider operations with “Freshman,” a mission to destroy the Norsk Hydro Plant at Vermork, eighty miles inland and sixty miles from Oslo. This was a heavy water plant reportedly connected with German research on the atomic bomb. Two Halifaxes, each towing a Horsa, took off from Skiffen in Scotland. Each glider carried fifteen sappers (army engineers)—all volunteers—with Lieutenant G. M. Methuen in command. Two of the pilots, Staff Sergeant M. F. C. Strathdee and Sergeant P. Doig, came from the Glider Pilot Regiment. The other glider pilots were Australian: Pilot Officer Davies and Sergeant Fraser, RAAF. Squadron Leader Wilkinson of the RAF piloted the first tow plane and was accompanied by Group Captain Cooper. A Canadian, Flight Lieutenant Parkinson, piloted the second aircraft.
The small force faced many difficulties. The worst of them was the fact that the Halifax crews had little experience in towing gliders. The Halifaxes were modified for the mission, but their performance was marginal for the job they had to accomplish. The cooling system was inadequate to keep the engines from overheating, as they worked harder than normal while towing gliders. No one was certain that the straining engines could pull the load the 400 miles across the North Sea. The flight over water almost all the way called for pinpoint navigation, so that the two combinations could cross the Norwegian shore almost on target. Plans dictated that once Methuen’s men had destroyed the “heavy water” and the plant, he then had to lead his men through snow-covered mountains to Sweden. The Norwegian underground stood ready with guides for the long and arduous trek.
At 2341 hours, monitors at Skiffen got a faint voice by radio, believed to be Parkinson’s, asking for a course to bring him back to Skiffen. The monitors worked frantically trying to plot his location. By intersection of radio beams, they located Parkinson over the North Sea. Fourteen minutes later, monitors heard a voice grimly stating: “Glider released in sea.” But could it be? A quick calculation on a signal received from Wilkinson showed him to be above the mountains in southern Norway. The mission was in trouble—that much was certain.
The full story did not become known until some years after the war.
Trouble plagued the mission from the start. Weather was thick, although meteorologists promised a clear sky and a moon over the target. Before take-off, one tug’s wingtip light and both towrope telephones failed. Because the use of radio was frowned upon, a simple code of light signals had to be improvised. By the time they had accommodated to these faults, darkness had fallen. What was worse, a night take-off with full load had not been practiced before. Given the “option to postpone the operation until the next day,” the pilots chose to take off at night and get on with the job. By 1750 hours, Wilkinson’s combination had taken wing into a darkening sky; twenty minutes later, the second followed. Wilkinson chose to fly high, picking his way through broken cloud and reaching Norway at 10,000 feet altitude. Then, just as he needed his Rebecca radio beam system to tie into the Norwegian agents’ Eureka system to direct the airplane to the target, he found the Rebecca did not work. Cooper, doing the navigation, could only rely on maps, but a heavy layer of snow disguised all landmarks.
Wilkinson passed over what might have been the release point. Lacking clear identification, however, he made another circle to find the target. The Norwegian agents in the landing zone had heard the aircraft flying almost directly over them on its first attempt, but they could make no contact since the Rebecca radio beam had failed. By then, he had been flying for five and a half hours and still had 400 miles to go to get back to Skiffen. He flew into thick cloud about 40 miles northwest of Rjukan and could not climb out of it. By this time, there was barely sufficient petrol to get the tug and glider home. Ice began forming on the aircraft and, worse still, on the tow rope. Both tug and glider lost height rapidly. They sank into unbroken cloud and, somewhere in the void above Stavanger, the rope parted. Staff Sergeant Strathee started a descent in zero visibility. Dense cloud turned into swirling snow. It was at this point that the wireless operator had sent out his signal. The aircraft, unable to do any more, just succeeded in returning before its fuel ran out. The glider crash-landed at Fylesdalen, on top of the snow-covered mountains overlooking Lysefjord, killing Methuen, Strathee, Doig and five others and injuring four more severely.
Meanwhile, Parkinson flew low above the sea, trying to keep beneath the clouds until just short of the Norwegian coast. He hoped to encounter the promised clear weather there. Parkinson crossed the coast near Egersund and was heading towards Rjukan when his plane hit a mountain beyond Helleland. Somehow, the tow rope snapped as the plane crashed, but the glider, with little chance for maneuver left, made a heavy landing close by, killing three. German personnel soon captured all survivors. The Gestapo then took over. They poisoned the four injured in the first glider crash while they were in a hospital recovering. On Hitler’s standing orders, the Gestapo then shot the nineteen uninjured men as saboteurs.
Was this grim tragedy to prove an omen for British glider combat experiences of the future? This was soon to be tested on the barren soil of Sicily.