England, circa 17 September 1944. Shows the launch of Operation Market. Troops of the British 1st Airborne Division boarding Horsa gliders for the airborne assault on Arnhem, Netherlands. The gliders have grafitti chalked on the fuselage. Close up shots of the grafitti. Halifax glider tugs with engine running lined up on the airfield. Glider troops chalking slogan on the aircraft’s fuselage. The troops pose for the camera. Troops board the glider. Scene change to night time pan of the airfield. Short Stirling of 295 Squadron towing Horsa gliders and then taking off (night and then daylight shots). Halifax glider tugs take off towing Hamilcar gliders. Halifax tugs towing Horsa gliders take off. Scene change to take off shot from the rear of the tow aircraft. Scene change to shots from a glider’s cockpit of the take off. Mid air shots of Short Stirlings of No. 620 Squadron RAF. Long shot of gliders in towed flight. Interior shots of Stirling crew. Flight over the English Channel. The white cliffs of Dover can be clearly seen. Approach of the European coast.
During the month of September 1940 an order was placed by the Ministry of Aircraft Production for 400 Hotspur gliders. The Hotspur was the prototype of the operational Horsas and Hamilcars which were to follow in due course.
Progress was very slow, for the aircraft industry was engaged in producing bombers and lighters in an unending effort to keep pace with the unending demands of the Royal Air Force. It was not until well on into 1942 that the Horsa glider became available, in slowly increasing quantities. In its final form the Horsa is a high-winged monoplane with a tricycle undercarriage which can be jettisoned if need be in favour of a central skid. Its overall length is 67 feet, its span 88 feet, and the height to the top of the large fin to which the rudder is attached is nineteen feet six inches.
Inside, the Horsa looks not unlike a section of the London Tube railway in miniature, the fuselage being circular and made of a skin of plywood attached to numerous circular ribs of stouter wood. The seats run down the length of each side and are also of light wood, each being provided with a safety harness fitting over the shoulders of the wearer, while a belt encircles his waist. The floor of the glider is corrugated to prevent slipping. There are two entrances, one to port near the nose, the other to starboard near the stern. The doors slide vertically upwards, but the whole tail unit is detachable to enable the quick unloading of jeeps, anti-tank guns and other heavy material. In an emergency the tail can be blown off by means of a dynamite cartridge, but this method involves a risk of tire. Escape hatches are fitted so that, if the glider falls into the sea, the occupants can leave it quickly.
One great advantage possessed by gliders is that their wooden construction gives them buoyancy. Some of them have been known to float for twenty-four hours.
The angle of dangle
The two pilots sit side by side, the first pilot being on the left. The controls are similar to those of a power-driven aircraft except that there are no throttles. Instead, a small lever, painted red, operates the tow-rope release.
One instrument, fitted fairly recently, is of special importance, for by means of it the glider pilot can fly correctly at night or in cloud when he cannot see the tug. It is the Cable Angle Indicator, known colloquially as the “ Angle of Dangle ” and consists of two illuminated white lines on the face of a dial, one horizontal, the other vertical. These are connected with the tow rope, whose slightest movements cause them also to move. By keeping his eye on them, the pilot knows when the tug is in the correct position and can take immediate action to remedy a fault in flying. The correct position to be assumed by the glider is either slightly above the tug, high-tow, or slightly below it, low-tow. The glider must never be directly behind the tug, for the slipstream would cause it to oscillate so violently that the tow rope would soon snap. The breaking of the tow rope is naturally the chief fear of the pilot, and it may assume the proportions of a nightmare if he is flying in cloudy and bumpy weather. The strength of the rope depends on the strength of the tug’s fuselage and the nose of the glider, to which it is attached by a simple bolt-and-shackle device. Too strong a rope would mean putting too great a strain on the tug ; too weak would lead to frequent snapping.
For the Horsa the circumference of the tow rope is 35g inches, for its larger freight-carrying brother, the Hamilcar, 4.2 inches. The rope is waterproof, 350 feet long, and contains within it the telephone wires connecting the pilot of the glider with the pilot of the tug.
The Hamilcar is considerably larger than the Horsa and is used to carry freight only. This may consist of a light tank or two Bren-gun carriers, or two jeeps with trailers. They are all carried in the front half of the glider, of which the interior resembles a long rectangular barn tapering towards the stern, and looking not unlike a distended, four-sided concertina. Two tracks to carry the vehicles run from the nose to a point about half-way down the glider, and on these they stand, being shackled to various strong points by cables and chains. The nose of the Hamilcar is hinged so that it can open like a door, and since the vehicles are housed in the forepart, their weight causes the glider to tip up on being brought to a standstill and thus they can run straight out on to the ground without making use of a ramp.
The crews of all vehicles remain in them throughout the trip, and when nearing the ground the engines are started so that the jeep or carrier can be driven away the instant the nose is swung back.
Both the Horsa and the Hamilcar are fitted with large flaps, which enable them to be dived at a comparatively steep angle and thus, if necessary, brought quickly to the ground after being cast off. The landing speed in still air is not less than 70 m.p.h. No glider pilot or glider-borne soldier carries a parachute, but all wear Mae Wests.
The first glider exercises
In 1940 and 1941 such gliders as these and troop-carriers such as the Stirling and the Halifax, were still an aim, not an accomplishment. Through those first difficult eighteen months Rock, Norman, Newnham and the rest laboured unceasingly at their task. Their mood was sometimes grim, for those early days of experiment were difficult and rendered more so by lack of equipment and aircraft. The first parachute exercise took place on December 3rd, 1940, in the presence of the then Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces. By that date some 350 parachute soldiers had made single jumps, and the technique of jumping in “ sticks ” was being developed. On this occasion the dropping zone was bounded on one side by a railway and on the other by some high-tension cables. It was a foggy morning but the mist cleared, and at a minute before nine o’clock the first of the four Whitleys taking part appeared. The drops were made without incident and included the dropping of a container distinguishable by the red parachute to which it was attached. On reaching the ground the parachutists, all save one, who had dislocated his -knee-cap, formed up and made for their objective, encountering on the way the motor car of the Crown Prince Olaf of Norway.
Putting one of the lessons they had been taught into immediate practice, they commandeered it and its driver and thus reached their objective, a nearby airfield, all the faster.
The first glider exercise was a modest one, and those who witnessed it must have required no little imagination to picture the huge fleets of huge gliders belonging to the types just described, 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 an autumn day, October 26th, 1940, two single-seater sail planes moved slowly by behind two Avro 504 tugs.
Six months later it was possible to stage a well-combined exercise for the benefit of the Prime Minister. It was no more than a demonstration. On April 26th, 1941, a formation of six Whitleys dropped their full complement of parachute soldiers, five sail planes landed in formation, and one Hotspur was towed past the visitor. 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 a Glider Exercise Unit was formed, and the technical and tactical problems connected with the use of gliders were worked out by Rock and Wing Commander P. B. N. Davis. It was then that the foundations of what is now the general practice were laid. Expansion continued, and the number of glider-training units considerably increased, until they occupied several stations of the R.A.F.
By November 1941 the initial period of experiment was drawing to a close.
The foundations had been laid strongly and well. Now at last the house could be built. 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 and presently wore on their heads the maroon-coloured beret soon to become famous and on their shoulders Bellerophon astride winged Pegasus.
“Right adjuncts of the war”
Browning and his staff began working in underground offices in Whitehall, which earned for them the nickname of “The Dungeon Party.” From these holes deep in the ground, schemes to take troops high in the air to the battlefield were thought out and perfected. The first parachute brigade under Brigadier (now Major-General) R. N. Gale, D.S.O., O.B.E., M.C., was formed at that time, shortly to be followed by the first air landing brigade under Brigadier G. F. Hopkinson, O.B.E., M.C. Browning is a Guardsman and therefore knows the supreme value in war of highly trained, well-disciplined troops. The first parachutists had been of the guerrilla type, and not a few of them had seen service in the Spanish Civil War, some on one side, some on another. They were formed into troops of fifty, composed of a captain, two subalterns and forty-seven other ranks. The officers were responsible for the ground training, and great latitude had been allowed.
It is no more possible to deny that this was necessary in the early stages of development than it is to question the work of Lieutenant-Colonel E. E. Down, C.B.E., who adopted more regular methods. Under him and his successors the parachutists learnt a way of life and acquired a standard of discipline equal to the highest in the Army. The selection and early training took place, and still does, at the Airborne Forces School and Depot.” Here is decided the rejection of unsuitable candidates and here those who survive the first tests are put through a preliminary course of rigorous training under Army, Instructors. This Depot is to the Airborne Forces what Caterham is to the Brigade of Guards, a place of trial but not of error.
One problem engaged the special attention of those in command. It was how to keep parachute soldiers in good form so that they should not lose their initial keenness or become oppressed by the daily uncertainty of the immediate future. Seldom could the day and hour be prophesied when a jump would be made. The Whitleys might be unserviceable ; the weather might be unsuitable ; these and other factors impossible to foresee made much waiting inevitable. However enthusiastic and strong-minded a man may be, such waiting is a strain on his nerves, and every effort was made to palliate or remove its possible danger. From the very first it had been recognised and unceasingly proclaimed to those concerned that to drop by parachute or to land from a glider was but a quick and novel way of reaching the battlefield. It was no more than this. Because a man landed successfully, he was not necessarily a good soldier. One of the first lessons, therefore, which had to be taught and assimilated was that this form of reaching the battlefield was merely incidental, a means whereby a highly trained soldier could be taken to a spot where he could inflict the greatest hurt on the enemy.
Very detailed and comprehensive programmes of infantry training were, therefore, instituted and carried out by all recruits to airborne forces. They were already trained soldiers when they reached the Central Landing Establishment. There, until the Depot was established, their training continued and was intensified, the art of dropping being merely an incident in the prescribed course. Thus the period of waiting was filled with strenuous military exercises and even more strenuous physical training, but both might be interrupted for an hour or so at any moment by an order which sent the platoon into the waiting Whitley and thence by parachute on to some nearby airfield. When, in addition to parachute troops, battalions of glider-borne infantry began to be formed, a development which did not assume any large proportions until after the Allied landing in North Africa in the late autumn of 1942-the same principles were followed, The aim was in each case the same-to train a body of already highly competent infantry soldiers to the highest possible pitch.
From the start it was decided that it would be waste of time and energy to take less well qualified troops to battle by these expensive means. Expensive in every sense. A parachute or a glider can rarely be used on operations more than once and–far more important-their use for the conveying of troops to the scene of conflict involves, as will be seen, meticulous planning and considerable effort on the part of the Royal Air Force. This is altogether justifiable if the troops are worth their salt, but not otherwise. Thus it is that airborne soldiers have from the outset been required to reach the very highest standard.
The Glider Pilot Regiment is formed
Half and presently more than half of General Browning’s Command consisted of airborne troops carried to battle in gliders. A Glider Pilot Regiment, for it had been decided that the pilots should belong to the Army was therefore formed by Rock in January 1942, and he himself went to a Training School with forty Army officers and other ranks in order to learn the business of flying gliders, While he was away, Major (now Brigadier) George Chatterton, D.S.O., was given the task of raising the regiment. To do so was no easy matter. That there were a large number of enthusiastic volunteers available was most fortunate, but what they were to be trained to do beyond flying a glider had not been fully determined. Rock and Chatterton set to work, and in a short time produced a Directive on the air and military training of glider pilots, much of it based on the views of Rock, Davis and Nigel Norman. There was one cardinal principle which was regarded as essential, and which has from the very beginning imbued each and every man of the Glider Regiment. It was that the glider pilot must be a “ total ” soldier. Not only must he be able to fly with the utmost skill and resolution ; he must also be equally at home manning a Bren gun after landing, or driving a jeep, or tiring a rifle, an anti-tank gun, or a mortar.
He must be at once a jack-of-all-trades and a master of each.
Glider pilots had to reach as high a standard on the ground as they attained in the air. How they conducted themselves in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Holland and the Rhine shows with .what fortitude and unanimity it was reached. Their bearing on every field of battle ennobled by their presence has been that of soldiers determined to maintain and further the highest traditions of the British Army, having already in the air lived up to those of the Royal Air Force. Captain W. N. Barrie, D.F.C., who after having flown 450 miles to Sicily, landed his six-pounder anti-tank gun and fought it for three days ; or Sergeant Pilot Galpin who, released at 6,000 feet six miles from Syracuse, glided through flak and searchlights to land by the all-important bridge whose capture was essential to success, and there fought as a Bren-gunner for seventeen hours ; or Sergeant Pilot Ainsworth who, falling into the sea off Sicily, swam with a wounded man, towing him for two miles to shore, killed two sentries with a knife, his only weapon, and disarmed another, captured twenty prisoners, fought as an infantryman for several days, and a year later flew as second pilot in the glider which landed next the swing bridge over the Caen Canal, are but three examples chosen at random of what these men, who wear the wings joined by a crown surmounted by a lion’s head, can and do accomplish in the course of duty.
They first went into action on November 19th, 1942.
Out of the many thousand volunteers interviewed for the purpose of choosing glider pilots, only very few were accepted. Of these, a third failed to pass their qualifying tests or to reach the military standard required. It is thus only a chosen band who have been judged worthy to follow this arduous and gallant calling. As with the parachute soldier, they represent every regiment in the British Army.
There are also the aircraft and pilots of the Royal Air Force to be considered. Here again much trouble was experienced. Harvey and Norman, both indefatigable, worked with a grim energy to fulfil their task in the teeth of difficulties of every kind. The War Office and the Air Ministry, their joint masters, were for months greatly occupied with problems which seemed to them, and indeed were, more urgent than the training of airborne troops to be used only when Great Britain switched from defence to attack.
As far back as June 10th, 1940, a conference of experts in the Air Ministry had decided that the Whitley was the only aircraft suitable for the carriage of parachute soldiers, the reason being that it had a turret situated on the underside of the fuselage which could be fairly easily removed, the resulting void being used as the jumping hole. Eleven days after this conference, four Whitleys were detailed to form the nucleus of the air transport side of the Central Landing Establishment, and for a long time they remained a nucleus, little or nothing being added to them.
The aircraft and the crews
When gliders came into use it was necessary to decide by what type of aircraft they should be towed. It had to be one with a reserve of power or its engines would overheat. Once again the Whitley was pressed into service ; other aircraft detailed for towing were the Hector, the Master and, later on, the Albemarle, Halifax, Stirling and Dakota. For a long time Hectors and Masters towed Hotspurs, but they were quite unable to deal with the larger Horsa. In June 1942 a decision was made to allocate the Albemarle, a fairly fast medium bomber with a tricycle undercarriage, for use as a troop-carrier or a tug. Much good experimental work was carried out using this aircraft for towing at a time when nothing else was suitable or available. Albemarles were used in the Sicilian operations in July 1943. They were succeeded by Dakotas, Halifaxes and Stirlings.
The crew of a tug have to be as highly trained as those of a bomber, and it took some little time for this to be brought home. Moreover, in the early days, trained crews as well as aircraft were needed for immediate operations against the enemy. Nevertheless a few were forthcoming at the start, and their numbers had grown by February 1942, when Army Co-operation Command formed No. 38 Wing to provide the transport necessary for air-borne forces. At the outset it possessed only eight trained crews. Eighty-six Blenheim crews, of whom forty-live had reached the necessary operational standard, were hastily drafted to the Wing, of which Norman was the first commander; but some time elapsed before the full complement of aircraft and crews were available for operations.
During all those weary months of unending training and very few operations, something of great importance was learnt. It was 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 crew in the first and the pilots in the second could achieve the high standard of efficiency required. That this lesson took some time to learn was due, not so much to the reluctance of both parties, as to the fact that for many months they were separated by a considerable distance. By the autumn of 1942 some hundreds of glider pilots had been trained and were in Army camps on Salisbury Plain. An adequate supply of gliders and tugs was not available, however, to keep them in training, with the inevitable result not only that the pilots became out of practice, but also that they could have no contact with the crews of the tugs. Such a state of affairs was presently remedied, but it took time to do so.
The problem of keeping in good heart the crews of the aircraft engaged in carrying parachutists or towing tugs was faced from the outset and solved by Nigel Norman. No. 38 Wing was allowed from time to time to send aircraft to take part in bombing and other operations against the enemy. The targets chosen for them were in every case those of a type which might one day be attacked by parachute troops. They were Transformer Stations, to hit which it is necessary to fly low and bomb with great accuracy. Objectives of this kind near Chartres and between Le Mans and Paris were attacked with considerable success, though the loss on one such operation of three aircraft out of the ten dispatched was relatively high.
Other operations included the dropping of men and supplies to those persons in France and other countries who had never accepted the dominion of the Germans and were fighting them with every means in their power.
The number of these patriots grew steadily as the war progressed, and their appetite for arms and ammunition was insatiable. To assuage it was difficult at first, and even towards the end the supplies dropped, great though they were, never equalled the demand. Such operations provided at once excellent training for our crews and an opportunity, constantly renewed, of keeping them up to the mark. Many hundreds of missions to districts as far distant as the Savoy Alps and the Pyrenees were made by pilots and crews under training with the airborne forces. The performance of such duties caused the navigators of the airborne Wing to be numbered among the most skilful of the Royal Air Force. As time went on and the instruments were invented and perfected, increasing use was made of Radar navigational devices. They added greatly to the skill of navigators. A third advantage of carrying out bombing and supply-dropping operations was to accustom the crews to anti-aircraft tire. This was known as “ flak inoculation ” and proved invaluable in giving pilots that measure of steadiness and cold determination which enabled them to fly a straight course to the dropping and landing zones.
Thus did all branches of airborne troops-the parachutists, the glider pilots, the glider-borne infantry and the Royal Air Force crews-train through long months during which it seemed that it would never be their lot to take part in any operation on a large scale. Yet all the time they were becoming steadily more and more skilled and more and more tit to wage a most novel and hazardous form of warfare.
As has been explained, the airborne forces are composed partly of parachute troops and partly of glider-borne. Both are organised in battalions and brigades, and together they form airborne divisions. Those who go to war in gliders, the Air Landing Brigades, differ from their parachutist comrades in one important respect. Some but by no means all are volunteers, the original members of certain regiments of the Line. At the beginning their ranks were comprised either of Regular or Territorial soldiers. The gaps caused by casualties have been filled by those called to the colours through the operation of the National Service Acts. Many of the troops composing an airborne division belong to it not from choice but as the result of orders, yet the behaviour of these men on the field of battle leaves no doubt as to the wisdom of such a decision. They have most worthily upheld old and honourable traditions and have added fresh lustre to regimental colours blazoned with the names of battles fought when Marlborough and Wellington were the general officers in command.
The airborne divisions are carried to battle by aircraft of the Royal Air Force. Several Wings now operate, and were under the command of Air Vice-Marshal Hollinghurst, whose place was taken by the late Air Vice-Marshal Scarlett-Streatfield in the Autumn of 1944.
The moment has now come to describe the exploits of these troops, from the first small beginning on February 10th, 1941, when a party of parachutists dropped from six Whitleys near an aqueduct in southern Italy with intent to destroy it, to March 24th, 1945, when two divisions, one British and one American, took the air against an enemy keeping a sullen, and as it turned out, wholly inadequate watch on the Rhine.