WWII Gliders

Oblique aerial view of parachutes and Airspeed Horsa gliders on Landing Zone N of the British 6th Airborne Division near Ranville, France, on the morning of June 6, 1944. (Royal Air Force Official Photographer/IWM via Getty Images)

A glider is an aircraft without an engine that is most often released into flight from an aerial tow aircraft. During World War II, both the Axis and Allied militaries developed gliders to transport troops, supplies, and equipment into battle. Although this technique had been discussed prior to the war, it had not been implemented. Gliders were to land behind enemy lines, often at night, and the men carried by them would then become infantrymen once on the ground.

The Germans were first to recognize the potential of gliders in the war, in large part because of extensive pre–World War II scientific research and sporting use. The Germans embraced gliding because it did not violate military prohibitions in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Gliding clubs, which developed in other countries as well, increased interest in the sport worldwide. Sport gliders used air currents to climb and soar for extended periods, while military gliders simply descended on release from aerial tows.

The Germans employed gliders in their invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands in May 1940, especially in securing Fort Eben Emael (May 10), the key to overrunning Belgium. The Germans also used gliders in the invasion of Crete (May 21–June 1, 1941) and during fighting in the Soviet Union in the Battle of Stalingrad (August 23, 1942–February 2, 1943).

Great Britain was the first Allied nation to deploy gliders. The Air Ministry’s Glider Committee encouraged the use of the Hotspur to transport soldiers in late 1940. The Hotspur had a wingspan of 61 feet 11 inches, a length of 39 feet 4 inches, and a height of 10 feet 10 inches. It weighed 1,661 pounds empty and 3,598 pounds fully loaded. The Hotspur was designed to transport two crewmen and six soldiers. A total of 1,015 were built.

In 1941, the British developed the Airspeed A.S. 51 Horsa. It had a wingspan of 88 feet, a length of 68 feet, and a height of 20 feet 3 inches. It weighed 8,370 pounds empty and 15,750 pounds fully loaded. It had a crew of two men and was capable of carrying 25 passengers or two trucks. In all, some 5,000 Horsas were built. They were employed in Operation OVERLORD east of the British invasion beaches, most noteworthy in the successful effort to seize control of Bénouville Bridge (Pegasus Bridge) spanning the Caen Canbal.

The largest Allied glider was the British General Aircraft Limited GAL 49 Hamilcar. With a wingspan of 110 feet, a length of 68 feet 6 inches, and a height of 20 feet 3 inches, it weighed 18,000 pounds empty and 36,000 pounds fully loaded. It had a crew of 2 and could transport 40 troops, a light tank, or artillery pieces. A total of 412 were built.

By the time of the Normandy invasion, only 50 Hamilcars had been produced. Thirty-four were employed as part of Operation MALLARD in support of the British 6th Airborne Division. They transported Tetrarch light tanks and antitank 17-pounder guns. Several gliders were damaged on landing and their cargo lost.

The U.S. Navy explored the possibility of military applications for gliders as early as the 1930s. In February 1941, chief of the Army Air Corps Major General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold ordered specifications drawn up for military gliders. The Waco Aircraft Company in Troy, Ohio, received the first U.S. government contract to build training gliders, and the army began organizing a glider training program.

Constructed of plywood and canvas with a skeleton of steel tubing, the Waco CG-4A had a wingspan of 83 feet 6 inches, a length of 48 feet 4 inches, and a height of 12 feet 7 inches. Its empty weight was 3,300 pounds, and its loaded weight was 7,500 pounds. It had a crew of 2 men and could carry 13 troops or 3,800 pounds of cargo, including artillery pieces, a bulldozer, or a jeep. The Ford Motor Company plant at Kingsford, Michigan, manufactured most of the U.S. gliders, although 15 other companies also produced the Waco. In all 13,908 Wacos were built, making it the most heavily produced glider of the entire war by any power.

Towed by the Douglas C-47 transport, the Waco was first employed in the July 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. A number of Waco gliders were used in Operation OVERLORD to land men and equipment east of the invasion beaches. A number were damaged or lost, and there were heavy casualties.

Because the gliders were so fragile, soldiers dubbed them “canvas coffins.” Men and cargo were loaded through the wide, hinged nose section, which could be quickly opened. Moving at an airspeed of 110–150 miles per hour at an altitude of several thousand feet, C-47s towed the gliders with a 300-foot rope toward a designated landing zone and then descended to release the glider several hundred feet above the ground.

En route to the release point, the glidermen and plane crew communicated with each other either by a telephone wire secured around the towline or via two-way radios. Glider duty was quite hazardous; sometimes the gliders were released prematurely and did not reach the landing zones, and on occasion gliders collided as they approached their destination.

The U.S. 11th, 13th, 17th, 82nd, and 101st Airborne Divisions were organized with two glider infantry regiments, a glider artillery battalion, and glider support units. U.S. gliders were sent to North Africa in 1942 and participated in the July 9–August 22, 1943, Sicily invasion, accompanied by British gliders. High casualties sustained in that operation led General Dwight D. Eisenhower to question the organization of airborne divisions and to threaten to disband glider units. A review board of officers convinced the military authorities to retain them, however. Improvements were also made in structural reinforcement of the glider and in personnel training.

By mid-1944, gliders had become essential elements of Allied invasion forces. Occasionally they were used to transport wounded to hospitals. During the Normandy invasion, U.S. glidermen with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions flew across the English Channel in 2,100 gliders to participate in the D-Day attack. Many gliders and crews were lost. New gliders were manufactured for Operation MARKET GARDEN, the assault on the Germans in the Netherlands, three months later.

Initially the military did not authorize hazardous-duty pay for glidermen, who also did not qualify for wing insignia worn by parachutists. Some of the men created posters; one read “Join the Glider Troops! No Jump Pay. No Flight Pay. But Never a Dull Moment.” By July 1944 glider wings were authorized for glider soldiers, and they received hazardous-duty pay. Also in 1944, the modified Waco CG-15A appeared, offering improved crash absorption. The Waco CG-18A could carry 30 soldiers and was deployed during the 1945 Rhine campaign. Gliders were gradually phased out of military inventories after the war, although the Soviet Union retained them through the 1950s.

Airborne Forces, British and American

The concept of airborne forces originated in 1918 during World War I, when Colonel William Mitchell, director of U.S. air operations in France, proposed landing part of the U.S. 1st Division behind German lines on the Western Front. Thus was born the idea of parachuting, or air-landing troops behind enemy lines to create a new flank, what would be known as vertical envelopment. The concept was put into action in the 1930s.

The U.S. Army carried out some small-scale experiments at Kelly and Brooks fields in 1928 and 1929, and in 1936 the Soviets demonstrated a full-blown parachute landing, with some 5,000 men taking part. British reaction to the reports of experiments with airborne forces in the Soviet Union was of mild interest only, although the Eastern Command staged some antiparachutist exercises. There the matter rested until the Germans showed how effective parachute and air-landing troops were when they carried out their spectacular air assaults in Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands in 1940.

Although manpower demands in Britain in 1940 were such that it should have been impossible to raise a parachute force of any significance, at the urging of Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill, 500 men were undergoing training as parachutists by August 1940. Fulfillment of Churchill’s order that the number be increased to 5,000 had to await additional equipment and aircraft, however. Inevitably, such a new branch of infantry was beset with problems, mainly of supply, but there was also resistance to the concept within the regular units of the British Army. This often led battalions to post their least effective men to such new units merely to get rid of them.

The War Office, representing the British Army, and the Air Ministry, representing the Royal Air Force (RAF), had to agree on aircraft. Because the Bomber Command was becoming aggressively conservative of aircraft, the only plane initially available for training and operations was the Whitley bomber. Aircraft for the airborne forces were thus severely limited until a supply of Douglas C-47 Dakota (Skytrain, in U.S. service) aircraft was established, whereupon the parachute troops found their perfect drop aircraft. The British were also the first Allied nation to develop gliders as troop-carrying aircraft.

Progress in developing British airborne forces was slow; RAF objections were constant, in view of the pressure to carry the continental war to Germany via the strategic bombing campaign. Once the United States entered the war, however, the situation eased enormously, and equipment that Britain was unable to manufacture became readily available.

To provide more men for the airborne forces, the War Office decided in 1941 that whole battalions were to be transferred, even though extra training would be needed to bring many men up to the standards of fitness required of airborne troops. At the same time, the Central Landing Establishment became the main training center for airborne forces. The 1st Parachute Brigade, consisting of four parachute battalions, was established under Brigadier Richard N. “Windy” Gale. Initially three battalions were formed, which exist to this day in the British Army as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions, Parachute Regiment.

The Glider Pilot Regiment was also formed in 1941. Pilots were selected from army and RAF volunteers, but they were part of the army once trained. Airborne forces are infantry, but they had to be fitter than the average soldier, and training was rigorous. Troops were trained to endure in the cold, in wet weather, and in heat. They also had to be fit to withstand the impact of the landing, to fight alone with light weapons, and to fight without support for some days.

The airborne concept at that time was twofold: to raid, in which case troops would be extracted by land or sea after the operation (such as the attack on the German radar station at Bruneval in northern France on February 27–28, 1944), or to land at the rear of the enemy to capture a strategic target. Two examples of the latter are the Orne bridge landing on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and Operation MARKET GARDEN (MARKET was the airborne portion) on September 17–26, 1944, when the 1st Airborne Division tried to secure the bridges across the Rhine at Arnhem in Holland.

U.S. Army chief of staff General George C. Marshall was an enthusiastic advocate of airborne forces. The first U.S. airborne division was the 82nd, a conversion of the 82nd Infantry (all-America) Division, formed in March 1942. Major General Omar N. Bradley commanded the division, with Brigadier General Matthew B. Ridgway as his assistant. Ridgway was appointed divisional commander as a major general in June 1942, and the division became the 82nd Airborne Division that August.

The 82nd went to North Africa in April 1943, just as German resistance in that theater was ending. The division took part in operations in Sicily and Normandy and, under the command of Major General James M. Gavin, participated in Operation MARKET GARDEN in the Nijmegen-Arnhem area and also in the Ardennes Offensive (December 16, 1944–January 16, 1945).

The 101st Airborne Division was activated in August 1942 with a nucleus of officers and men from the 82nd Airborne Division. The 101st was commanded by Major General William C. Lee, one of the originators of U.S. airborne forces, and left for England in September 1943. Lee had a heart attack in the spring of 1944, and Major General Maxwell D. Taylor took over, leading the division through D-Day and Operation MARKET GARDEN, when it secured the bridge at Eindhoven. The division distinguished itself in the defense of Bastogne during the German Ardennes Offensive.

Three other U.S. airborne divisions were established: the 11th, which served in the Pacific, jumped onto Corregidor Island, and fought in the February 3–March 4, 1945, Battle of Manila; the 17th, which was rapidly moved to Europe for the German Ardennes Offensive and then jumped into the Rhine crossing with the British 6th Airborne Division; and the 13th, which, although it arrived in France in January 1945, never saw action. British airborne forces also saw limited service in the Pacific theater.

There was close cooperation between British and U.S. airborne forces. When the U.S. 101st Airborne arrived in England, it was installed in a camp close to the training area for the British 6th Airborne Division. Training and operational techniques were almost identical, and there were common exercises and shoots to create close bonds among troops. There were also frequent personnel exchanges to cement friendship. Similar arrangements were made between the U.S. 82nd Airborne and the British 1st Airborne Division.

Parachute training in the United States was centered at Fort Benning, Georgia, and in 1943 some 48,000 volunteers commenced training, with 30,000 qualifying as paratroopers. Of those rejected, some were kept for training as air-landing troops.

One great contribution made by the United States to the common good was the formation and transfer to England of the U.S. Troop Carrier Command. As noted, transport aircraft shortages bedeviled airborne forces’ training and operations from the outset. The arrival of large numbers of C-47 aircraft was a major assist. The RAF in 1944 had nine squadrons of aircraft, or a total of 180 planes, dedicated to airborne forces.

Polish troops were also trained in Britain as parachutists to form the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade, which fought at Arnhem in MARKET GARDEN. Contingents from France, Norway, Holland, and Belgium were also trained, many of whom served operationally in the Special Air Service Brigade. The British Commonwealth also raised parachute units. The 1st Australian Parachute Battalion served in the Far East, and the Canadian 1st Parachute Battalion served in Europe.

Several small-scale operations had been carried out before 1943 with mixed success, but the big date for airborne forces was June 6, 1944. Plans for D-Day required the flanks of the invasion beaches to be secured in advance, and only airborne forces could guarantee this. Available in Britain for the invasion were two British airborne divisions (the 1st and 6th) and two American airborne divisions (the 82nd and 101st). The plan was to use all the available airborne and glider-borne troops in the initial stages of the operation. Unfortunately, even in June 1944 transport aircraft available were insufficient for all troops to be dropped at once. All aircraft were organized in a common pool so that either British or American troops could be moved by mainly American aircraft. This was another fine example of the cooperation that existed at all levels within the Allied airborne forces.

Operation OVERLORD (D-Day) began for the paratroopers and gliders in the dark early on June 6. To the west, American paratroopers dropped at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula to secure the forward areas of what were to be Omaha and Utah Beaches. Despite many dispersal problems, most of the troops managed to link up and were soon in action, denying the Germans the ability to move against the beachheads. The troops fought with great gallantry despite their weakened strength (caused by air transport problems), and by the end of the day contact had been established with the invasion forces from the beachheads. In the east, Britain’s 6th Airborne Division was charged with controlling the left flank of the British invasion beaches.

Perhaps the most startling operation (for the Germans) was the coup de main attack by glider-borne air-landing troops of 11th Battalion, Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who landed so close to their target that they were able to capture bridges over the Caen Canal and the Orne River. On a larger scale, the 3rd Parachute Brigade was ordered to take out the Merville Battery, which posed a threat to the invasion beaches. The 9th Parachute Battalion, which planned to attack with 700 men, was so spread out on landing that only 150 men were available. With virtually no support, the men attacked the battery and captured it. The battalion lost 65 men and captured 22 Germans; the remainder of the German force of 200 were either killed or wounded.

All Allied parachute and glider troops in the war were of a high standard, and their fighting record bears this out. Even when things went wrong, as often happened when troops were dropped from aircraft, the men made every effort to link up and carry out the task they had been given.

Further Reading

Devlin, Gerard M. Silent Wings: The Saga of the U.S. Army and Marine Combat Glider Pilots during World War II. New York: St. Martin’s, 1985.

Lowden, John L. Silent Wings at War: Combat Gliders in World War II. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Masters, Charles J. Glidermen of Neptune: The American D-Day Glider Attack. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.

Mrazek, James E. Fighting Gliders of World War II. New York: St. Martin’s, 1977.

Mrazek, James E. The Glider War. New York: St. Martin’s, 1975.

Seth, Ronald. Lion with Blue Wings: The Story of the Glider Regiment, 1942–1945. London: Gollancz, 1955.

Smith, Claude. The History of the Glider Pilot Regiment. London: Leo Cooper, 1992.

Gale, Sir Richard Nelson. With the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy. London: Smason Law, Marston, 1948.

Harclerode, Peter. Para. London: Arms and Armour, 1992.

Imperial General Staff. Airborne Operations. London: War Office, 1943.

Otway, T. B. H. Official Account of Airborne Forces. London: War Office, 1951.

Rottman, Gordon. World War II Airborne Forces Tactics. Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2006.

Wright, Robert K., and John T. Greenwood. Airborne Forces at War. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007.

British Glider development I

British Glider development II




James Dietz prints


During the night of December 21–22, a higher-level G-2 report was telephoned in from 82nd Airborne Division Headquarters stating that the U.S. 7th Armored Division had been heavily attacked late that afternoon and pushed out of the Belgian city of St. Vith to the east. A serious accident occurred later that morning when Lieutenant Colonel Harrison broke his jaw when an American truck crashed into his jeep in Cheneux. The injured battalion commander was sent to an aid post and then evacuated to the rear. His loss was another blow to the remaining 1st Battalion members who had recently lost so many others. It seemed almost unbelievable that the officer who had encouraged his men in the attack on Cheneux from his forward command post, who had crossed the Waal River with them under enemy fire in broad daylight, and who had parachuted into Normandy on D-Day had been put out of commission by a traffic accident.

Major Berry, executive battalion commander, succeeded Lieutenant Colonel Harrison as commanding officer. Captain Milloy of Headquarters Company became acting battalion executive officer, being the most senior officer present. He was not only the youngest company commander, but also the most experienced, having led C Company in all previous campaigns. Major Berry learned at the same time that more replacements were on the way, and would arrive the next day. Milloy was temporarily replaced as company commander by 1st Lieutenant Peyton C. Hartley.

It was difficult for the officers and men of A Company who had moved to Trois Ponts to take in the fact that they had seen no action, whereas many other units in the division had been committed in heavy fighting. Their first casualty was sustained when a sergeant was wounded in a German shelling that morning. “When our house was hit by German cannon fire we ran to a house with a back having open land for about 25 to 30 feet to the river front and settled in there,” recalled Private First Class Bayley. “Our houses were just to the north of the town center on the west bank. This was a very quiet area, nothing happening. A few hundred yards to the north of us and a few hundred yards to the south, some of the most vicious fighting of the war was taking place and would extend over the next several days. We could hear some of it, especially the tank and artillery shells, but nothing was coming into our area and there were no engaged firefights. Germans on the other side of the river were keeping out of sight, as we were on our side.

“It was strangely quiet. It is hard to realize that such quiet could occur on an extremely active battle front. We posted lookouts in the upstairs rooms, being careful to keep away from the windows. During the night the platoon members would take observation turns in a foxhole at the back left-corner of the house. We had our rifles and some very powerful plastic Gammon grenades on the front lip of our foxhole to warn the soldiers if an attack was started. We never had to use them.

“We had our first snow the night of the 22nd. I made my bed in a concrete-constructed coal bin. I don’t know why it seemed safer, but it did. This quiet state of affairs went on through the 24th and was apparently going to last into Christmas Day.”

In the early afternoon, heavy German artillery fire rained down on the 3rd Battalion positions at 1330 hours, appearing to come from the direction of the Château de Froidcour on the other bank of the Amblève River. Fifteen minutes later, 3rd Platoon, I Company, paratroopers sighted a white bed sheet hanging out one of the windows of the château. Captain Burriss sent out a contact patrol to investigate, led by 1st Lt. Harold E. Reeves. According to his Silver Star Citation, Reeves “volunteered to lead a combat patrol with the mission of trying to make contact with friendly troops that had been cut off by the German offensive. First Lieutenant Reeves led his patrol through two miles of enemy-held territory under heavy shelling by the enemy and our own artillery. First Lieutenant Reeves pressed his patrol on through all this until contact was established with friendly troops. As a result of this action, First Lieutenant Reeves’ patrol captured 50 Germans and liberated eight American soldiers that had been captured by the Germans a few days before. Information gained by First Lieutenant Reeves as to the location of Allied Prisoners of War and the enemy troops was invaluable in the attack that was launched shortly on his return.”

As 30th Infantry and 82nd Airborne artillery hammered Kampfgruppe Peiper all day long in La Gleize, some of the shells landed in I Company’s position, but fortunately did not hit anyone. At 1650 hours Lieutenant Reeves’ group reported at back to the 3rd Battalion CP. Reeves informed Lieutenant Colonel Cook that there were both American and German wounded at the Château de Froidcour, and delivered a slightly wounded soldier from the 2nd Armored Division who had returned with them.

“On the afternoon of 22 December,” recalled Captain Campana, “the 2nd Battalion was ordered to relieve the 1st Battalion at Cheneux. On arriving in the town, we saw evidence of the bitter fight which had taken place. German dead and equipment lay strewn on the main road and adjacent fields. A disabled self-propelled gun and tank were on the road. Some of the enemy dead were clad in American olive-drab shirts and wool-knit sweaters beneath their uniforms. The battalion took over the defense of the town and bridge and waited for events to happen. Sounds of brisk fighting on our left flank could be heard, intermingled with tank-gun fire. It was the 119th Infantry attacking the Germans in La Gleize with assistance from the 740th Tank Battalion.”

While Captain Komosa’s D Company occupied positions in Cheneux itself, cameramen filmed their reception by Chaplain Kozak on the western outskirts of the town. As the Catholic chaplain prayed with several troopers clustered around him, a platoon radio operator stood behind him, looking sideways into the camera, smiling feebly. Captain Norman’s E Company took up positions just north of Cheneux; to the south, the battered remnants of C Company were emplaced along the Salm River with B Company to their south, followed by A Company in the northern outskirts of Trois Ponts.

Early in the evening, 1st Lt. Thompson, the 3rd Platoon leader in E Company, was ordered to send out a security patrol to the east to screen the vicinity of La Gleize and find the position of the new German lines. Pvt. George H. Mahon describes the five-man patrol: “I walked down in the middle of a street, two men on either side of me. Our mission was not to get into a skirmish but just to locate [the Germans] and get back. First thing I know, I was looking at a wooded area and I saw a flicker like a cigarette. About the same time I saw a concussion grenade go off in front of me. It blew me down and my helmet was blown off. [No one was hit.] We got up and got back to our lines.”

Around 2045 hours the patrol reported to Lieutenant Thompson that they had heard vehicular movement in the town of La Gleize. During this debriefing, Thompson noticed that Mahon was hobbling: “By the time I got near our lines I couldn’t bend one knee. I told Lieutenant Thompson and he said I should go see the doctors. I said, ‘It’s just swollen from the concussion. It wasn’t a fragmentation grenade. I’ll be all right.’ It was about 2300 hours at night. He told me, ‘Go over and see the doctor anyhow. We aren’t going to hit them until about 0230, so go over there and see what he has to say.’

“I went to the aid station and there weren’t any other wounded in there. They had already been evacuated. The doctor said, ‘Take your pants off.’ I took my boots off, my pants off, and then when I pulled my socks off, he said, ‘Wow!’ He stopped me and said, ‘Put them back on. You are going nowhere. Lay down on that stretcher.’ I said, ‘I came walking in here from my company.’ He said, ‘Damnit, I am not requesting you to do it. I am telling you, it’s an order!’ I went over there, lay down, and fell asleep. Next thing I woke up in France in a warehouse-kind of building and then moved to a hospital in England because of frozen feet. It took another two months before I could return to the unit. I was still in my dress uniform from when we left Camp Sissonne.”

Lieutenant Stark of the 80th AAAB requested permission to test-fire a 57mm shell on an abandoned German Mark VI King Tiger tank: “With the taking of Cheneux and the bridge across the Amblève River, offensive action was temporarily halted. All antitank guns were placed in positions so that they covered all angles and approaches to the bridge across the river. I, desiring to replenish the supplies, principally rations and gasoline, tried to locate these supplies. The 1st Battalion had failed to draw supplies for its attachments, and in turn, the regiment had not made any provisions for the resupply of the attached antitank platoons, as it believed the battalions had included them in their requests. The battery commander and I finally received supplies from our own battalion headquarters. All echelons of the unit to which the platoon was attached were contacted, so that the situation would not recur.

“Near one of the gun positions overlooking the bridge was a knocked-out German Tiger tank. I was curious to know exactly what effect a shell fired from a 57mm gun would have on the front of the tank. Such an opportunity had not previously been afforded. Permission to fire the gun was received from the battalion commander. A special round of super high-velocity armor-piercing shell was fired from a distance of about 200 yards, and the front of the tank was penetrated slightly above the axle.”

Lt. Col. William B. Lovelady of the 33rd Armored Regiment supported the 119th Infantry Regiment between Stoumont and La Gleize, with a CP situated at Roanne, east of La Gleize. He recalled that “on December 22, 1944, about 9:30 PM, a young lieutenant from the 82nd Airborne was brought to my command post. He was wet, cold, and his face was all blackened. He had swum, waded, or whatever across the Amblève River to contact one of our outposts. He told them he had information for the Commanding Officer and asked to be taken there. You can imagine my surprise and gratitude to see him, since we had not been in contact with friendly forces for three days, and to learn that the paratroopers were just across the river cheered us. His message was that we were now attached to the XVIII Airborne Corps. He gave me a sketch of the disposition of forces just across the river, and asked me for a similar sketch or diagram of our forces. (Generally, just strung out across the road with the Amblève River on the right, and a steep wooded hill on our left.)

“Just before he left, he asked if we needed anything. We told him that the Germans were dug-in on the hill to our left and we needed artillery or mortars. He offered help. He said he would shoot a line across the river at dawn and we could call for and direct the fire from their Howitzers. This was done and we soon neutralized the enemy on the hill. This experience was one of the greatest in our five campaigns. We have no record of this incident in our book, Regimental or Combat Command B logs, and most, if not all, of the individuals that knew of this have either passed on, or are out of contact. Perhaps there is a mention of this incident in the Airborne or Regimental Journals.”

That same evening in La Gleize, bad news came through for Obersturm-bannführer Peiper: “The last hope for relief through units of the Division had to be given up. In the last radioed order which was received, Division ordered the encircled forces to fight their way out of the pocket. For unknown reasons the U.S. infantry and tank units [of the 30th Infantry Division] failed to resume their attack against La Gleize on 23 December, but the situation in the pocket nevertheless remained grave. Ammunition and fuel supplies were practically exhausted and no food supplies had arrived since the first day of the attack. Ammunition and fuel supplies by air on 22 December admittedly had arrived, but only about 10 percent of the supplies dropped by the three planes reached the target area, an amount which could have no effect whatever.”

Operation Barras – the Hostage Rescue

SAS soldiers at Gberi Bana

The seizure of 11 members of the Royal Irish Regiment and their accompanying Sierra Leonean Army Liaison Officer could have turned the whole situation on its head. Instead after a period of negotiation in which half the hostages were released by the West Side Boys the remainder were released in a dramatic assault by British Special Forces accompanied by elements of the 1 PARA. The operation was fraught with danger and required the Prime Minister Blair to accept the potential loss of a significant number of personnel if one or more of the Chinook helicopters were shot down with upwards of 60 SAS personnel on board. Instead, it proved to be a turning point in the whole campaign even though the RUF, which had been the main focus for the British forces, was not involved, as well as sending a wider signal about Britain’s commitment both to its forces and to Africa in general.

The West Side Boys and the Seizure of the Royal Irish Patrol

The Royal Irish Regiment replaced the 2nd Battalion, Royal Anglians in the STTT role and within a few weeks found themselves with 11 of their personnel taken hostage. Their roulement with the Royal Anglians had occurred without any major problems; the Royal Anglians were needed back in the United Kingdom to prepare for their forthcoming deployment to Northern Ireland and the Royal Irish were the next duty general light infantry battalion. Like the Royal Anglians their deployment of some 200 personnel consisted of a training team plus a defence force based around their C Company.4 At the same time, other assets in country were steadily reduced. The Chinook force had departed after the rescue at Kailahun in July and the Special Forces contingent also largely withdrew, which meant that they had less back-up than their predecessors but this was not perceived to be a problem. It was generally assumed that the RUF would not return to offensive operations until November when the rains would have stopped and there was a window of time to bring as much of the SLA through the STTT process as possible.

The WSB were one of a number of armed militias which would have been called brigands in an earlier error. Their name derived from the New York Street gangs. Writing in The Times Michael Dynes characterised the West Side Boys as:

Drugged, drunk and dangerous, the West Side Boys have created an extra layer of chaos in war-torn Sierra Leone since their renegade militia broke with President Kabbah’s besieged government three months ago. The 30-strong force believed to be responsible for the capture of 11 British soldiers is renowned for youthful brutality and swaggering confidence. They are fortified by a seemingly infinite supply of so-called ‘morale boosters’, sachets of gin or vodka that are gulped down on an empty stomach to help them keep fighting, and are clad in a ragtag uniform of boots, T-shirts, baggy jeans and wraparound sunglasses.

They had been led by Johnny Paul Koroma, the head of the 1997 coup, who by September 2000 was a colleague of President Kabbah. Koroma had decided to back Kabbah in May and the WSB had been one of the militias that had initially supported the government against the RUF. The WSB therefore had links to the government but as Koroma had decided to base himself in Freetown he was replaced as leader of the WSB by the self-style Brigadier-General Kallay. Kallay was a defector from the RUF but retained some loose links to the RUF that were never entirely clear and would provide a source of concern for the hostage negotiators. Under Kallay, the WSB had drifted away from Koroma and the Sierra Leone government and they had ignored a subsequent Sierra Leone Government ultimatum to enter the DDR process and disarm. Instead, they chose to set up a base in a collection of huts at a village called Gberi Bana on Rokel Creek, a fast-flowing river near the Occra Hills. From here they terrorised the local community extorting from them for their various needs.

The relative calm was disturbed however by unforeseen events. On Friday 25 August 11 members of the Royal Irish Regiment and an accompanying Sierra Leone Army liaison officer were sent out on a routine patrol to visit the Jordanian UNAMSIL battalion based some 60 miles east of Freetown. The patrol was based on three Landrovers, one equipped with a heavy machine gun, and led by the company commander, 9 They were told by the Jordanians that the local villages were no longer in the hands of the West Side Boys who had apparently vacated the area. The company commander therefore decided that this was an opportunity that should be exploited and that it would be a good move to talk to the locals to start to get a feel for the area in preparation for UNAMSIL taking control. On arriving at the village of Magbeni the patrol was overwhelmed by at least 25 heavily armed West Side Boys whose armament included a Bedford lorry equipped with an antiaircraft gun. Instead of starting a firefight the company commander sensibly decided to avoid confrontation and the patrol was seized and taken prisoner. The manner of their capture was to cause considerable embarrassment in Whitehall, because of the earlier British criticism of the capture of UNAMSIL personnel in May, and the Company Commander was subjected to a Board of Inquiry. The Royal Irish were rapidly moved by boat across the creek to the nearby village of Gberi Bana, the main WSB base where they would remain until freed 15 days later.

Negotiation and Planning

As soon as it was realised that the patrol was missing back at their base at the Benguema Training Centre an intensive air and surface search began in the remaining hours of daylight. As daylight faded PJHQ was alerted and the search for the missing patrol was resumed the following morning. However, the patrol was not found and it soon became discovered that the patrol had been taken hostage by the WSB.

The treatment of the hostages varied between atrocious behaviour, including beatings, mock executions and witnessing various members of the WSB abuse their other captives, to acts of friendliness. Much depended on the individuals concerned and their relative state of mind. This largely depended on the level of alcohol and drug consumed by their captors on any given day. However, in general, the British Army personnel were comparatively well treated in comparison to their Sierra Leone Army Liaison Officer and the leadership of the West Side Boys viewed them as useful bargaining counters.

Whilst the British forces in Sierra Leone were operating under the jurisdiction of the Sierra Leone government it was readily apparent that the government of Sierra Leone lacked the necessary expertise to undertake negotiations for the release of the Royal Irish. Instead, President Kabbah allowed the British to undertake these negotiations themselves. A specialist team was rapidly put together which drew on experienced negotiators from the Metropolitan Police and also various military representatives. The negotiations were led by the Commanding Officer of 1 Royal Irish, Lieutenant-Colonel Simon Fordham, who in the words of Tim Collins, then working directly got the Director of Special Forces in London and subsequent Commanding Officer of 1 Royal Irish, was:

an able and clever man, who with the help of Metropolitan Police negotiators was able to effect a rapport with the terrorists. We in London knew that the hostage takers were impressed by his seniority and enjoyed talking to him as ‘equals’, and I’m in no doubt that he kept them as calm as possible and so bought time for a potential rescue operation.

The British government also encouraged the former WSB leader, Johnny Paul Koroma, to use what influence he had with the group to obtain their release but this ultimately proved far less than was hoped.

The negotiating team were soon able to make contact with the West Side Boys and talks began initially with their leader, Foday Kallay, present. The West Side Boys made a specific demand for a satellite phone and the number for the BBC World Service in return for the release of all the hostages and equipment. The telephone was provided, together with a number for the BBC World Service. A further agreement was made to provide fuel to drive the British vehicles out. Later that evening (30 August) after the agreed time had passed the Jordanian UNAMSIL battalion reported that five British hostages had been freed. They reported that all the hostages had been subjected to mental abuse, including mock executions. This partial release encouraged the view in Whitehall that progress had been made and that negotiations should continue to try and obtain the release of the remaining captives. This was viewed as the most likely avenue for success. Moreover, continuing to negotiate gave additional time to prepare military alternatives. The negotiations with the West Side Boys continued over the next few days but, significantly, their leader, Kallay, was no longer present. The local United Nations leadership learned that there was dissent within the ranks of the West Side Boys and there were doubts whether Kallay remained in command or was even still alive. The release of the five Royal Irish captives and the response of the British to this appears to have encouraged the WSB to expand their demands. These swung between safe passes to the UK to start university degrees to posts in the government of Sierra Leone and almost certainly depended upon the individual actually negotiating at a particular point in time.

Whilst all this was taking place the Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition called for British forces to be withdrawn from Sierra Leone and queried what they were trying to achieve. They were also very critical of the vulnerability of the small numbers deployed and argued that this hostage seizure reflected a confused government policy. A Times leader highlighted the predicament of the government:

The 11 were too few; they were off guard; they were unprotected. They had better be rescued fast, by negotiation or by force, if the Government is not to be held culpably reckless of the safety of Britain’s Armed Forces. The character and conduct of this mission must then be re-examined.

The Shadow Defence Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith noted:

This is a matter of deep concern and our thoughts go out to the families of those who have been captured … Whatever else happens, the Government must not lack the resolve to take whatever measures are necessary to secure their release.

In other words Duncan-Smith, a former Guards officer, backed the use of force to release the hostages if it proved necessary.

Whilst a negotiated settlement was the preferred solution, preparations for military options were begun almost as soon as news of the Royal Irish seizure was received. Such an operation was traditionally the preserve of Britain’s Special Forces but the scale of it forced them to seek additional help from the regular army. From the beginning it was emphasised to ministers that such an operation would be an assault and not a classic rescue operation such as the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege. The size of the West Side Boys contingent estimated at 200–300 and their location spread over a number of villages with a river dividing them in half precluded such an option. Two military options were developed. The first, an emergency assault, would have been used if the lives of the hostages were thought to be at imminent risk and thus it would not have been at a time of the military’s choosing. The second option, a deliberate assault, was a planned attack aimed at freeing the hostages at a time chosen by the commander in the field.

The notice to move of various units was reduced and SAS personnel were recalled from Kenya where they had been on exercise. Tragically this led to a couple of SAS personnel being killed in a car accident on their journey back to the Kenyan capital. As for the regular army, ironically, it was the A Company of 1 PARA, which had missed out on Operation Palliser, which was the Airborne Lead Company on call and they formed a major component of the hostage rescue mission – Operation Barras. Rumours about the deployment and use of the SAS began to surface quite early. A Times report of 30 August stated that the SAS had been sent into the jungle to track down the rebel hideout. This was a little premature and soon afterwards Geoff Hoon considered proposals for a rescue operation. They were approved and the initial deployment of units commenced over the weekend of 3—4 September 2000 with reconnaissance elements deployed into the jungle a couple of days later.

Given the likelihood of significant casualties the government did not want to choose the military option unless they really had no alternative both Hoon and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had to weigh up various risks. The deployment of forces deep into Sierra Leone might be detected, and thus lead to precipitous action by the West Side Boys against the hostages. Yet, their exact location and well-being needed to be established. If an emergency assault was necessary, time was critical especially as an emergency assault would take at least 15 hours to mount from the United Kingdom. It was therefore agreed to the deployment of the requisite forces to Senegal to shorten the response time to around six hours. At the same time the authority to launch an emergency assault was delegated to the British High Commissioner and the Commander of British Forces in Sierra Leone to further shorten the time required.

The elements of 1 PARA officially became part of the rescue plan on Wednesday 30 August and they began working out their requirements to deal with the village of Magbeni which was south of the creek whilst the Special Forces would release the hostages held in Gberi Bana. The role of 1 PARA was threefold. Firstly, it would act as a diversion for the WSB who would be confronted by attacks on both sides of the river simultaneously, Secondly, it would prevent the WSB forces south of the river interfering with the rescue of the prisoners north of the river. Thirdly, by engaging directly with the West Side Boys 1 PARA was to severely reduce their capabilities and thus limit their actions in the future. The 1 PARA elements were based on a reinforced company group (A Company) with extra battalion assets including sniper teams, the Patrols Platoon, heavy machine gun sections and a mortar section. The inclusion of these assets was made to maximise the options of its commander and the firepower that could be deployed to help offset the numerical advantage of the WSB as it was acknowledged that there could be no back-up forces should the company become pinned down.

Some of the members of the company had only joined it a few weeks before from basic training and there was some discussion about replacing these inexperienced soldiers. However, it was decided that as they had passed training replacing them would have a negative effect on the individuals concerned and the company. A Company moved on Saturday 2 September to the OMC and then to Dakar where their training began from Sunday onwards. The forces were held at Dakar to avoid detection and thus not encourage the WSB to take any precipitous action against the hostages. It did mean that they were still a few hours away from the WSB camp should an immediate response be required and this would involved spending a number of hours in a cramped Chinook before the mission began if an emergency assault was suddenly required.

Other preparations for a deliberate assault were taken in parallel. This included getting three Chinook to self-deploy initially to Dakar and also to bring forward the deployment of RFA Argus from the United Kingdom so that she could be diverted to Sierra Leone if needed. It was hoped that she could be just off the Sierra Leone coast by the following weekend and thus available as an alternative base for the Chinooks closer to the WSB base but out of view from the land. She also embarked the equipment for a field medical unit to provide increased medical facilities to support an assault should it be needed.

Further meetings and discussions by radio with the West Side Boys occurred and in one radio discussion a demand for supplies was made and some were given. However, little substantive progress was made over the weekend and on Monday 4 September approval was given by the Defence Secretary for the forward deployment of the leading elements of the Task Force to Sierra Leone, although it was decided that the Chinook helicopters should remain at Dakar. This meant that the rescue force could be picked up by the Chinooks on the way rather than for the troops to be sat in the helicopters for a number of hours prior to an assault. The Chinooks were held back because it was felt that the deployment of the soldiers could be hidden but if the helicopters were seen, which was likely, the West Side Boys would take this to be a sign of imminent British action and act against the hostages. At this stage it was believed that the balance of risk favoured accepting a longer reaction time rather than cause a precipitous West Side Boys response.

Negotiations continued on 6 September. However, Kallay was still missing and those West Side Boys involved seemed increasingly unpredictable. In discussion with the negotiating team on 6 September the officer in charge of the patrol sounded tired and demoralised indicating that the mood in the village where they were being held was bad. However, the negotiations were continued and a portable generator was handed over. The West Side Boys even indicated that the negotiating team could expect good news on Thursday 7 September and the next 24 hours were identified by the negotiating team as important in determining whether the West Side Boys were serious about further releases.

However, no good news was received and the mood at the daily COBR meeting in London was sombre. British Special Forces had managed to get close enough to the WSB base by the Tuesday but had not seen any sign of the hostage for some 24 hours. At the most recent meeting with the WSB it was clear that the group were making preparations to move and there was a real concern that the hostages might either be killed or handed over to the RUF as a bargaining chip. It was therefore decided on 7 September to recommend that the following day’s ministerial meeting make the decision whether to launch a deliberate assault in light of developments on the ground. To facilitate this it was agreed that the Chinooks should also be deployed to Sierra Leone and, as RFA Argus had not yet reached the area, the risk of the Chinooks being detected accepted as less than the dangers of the WSB taking flight with the hostages. At the subsequent ministerial meeting it was decided that the time had come to take military action. The meeting was briefed by the Director of Special Forces’ Chief of Staff. According to Tim Collins who was there:

It fell into two parts: Operation Barras, the rescue, and Operation Amble, which aimed to involve the local SLA on the periphery, in order to give them some credit for the apparent outcome and to demonstrate the effectiveness of the British training to any other not-so-innocent bystanders.

We would strike at dawn. The Chinooks would suppress known enemy billets on their approach, and their door gunners would take down the 12.7mm heavy machine guns as they landed on the football pitch. SAS teams already in place would provide covering fire. Simultaneously, Lynx helicopters from the Special Forces detachment would strafe the area to the south of the river, preventing use of the captured vehicles and more importantly the captured machine gun, keeping reinforcements at bay and creating an opportunity for the Para distraction force to land and assault the rebel village of Gberi Bana to the south.

The main assault troops, guided from the football pitch by the observation teams already in place, would close in on the hostages and take them to safety. A four-man team would go after Kallay. We wanted him alive. A sixteen-strong troop would cover the rescue force and dispatch any West Side Boys who tried to interfere.

Despite the protestations of the representative from the Prime Minister’s office it was decided that British forces would not conduct any follow-on operation (Operation Amble) but that the Sierra Leone Army should be encouraged to clear the West Side Boys from the Occra Hills as soon as possible thereafter.

Kallay then returned to the negotiations with new political demands as well as for some equipment and provisions. The political demands were impossible for the British government to meet and the West Side Boys seemed keen to secure still more hostages. The view in Sierra Leone and at that day’s Whitehall meeting was that the negotiated release of the remaining hostages was most unlikely and that their lives were now in extreme danger.

The Deliberate Assault and its Aftermath

The commander on the ground indicated that his preferred intention was to proceed with the deliberate assault at first light on the following day – Saturday – and Ministers approved this. However, it took longer than planned to get the ground forces into position and the assault was put back by 24 hours. At first light on Sunday 10 September a deliberate assault was launched. Overwhelming force was used to achieve tactical surprise and to try and maintain a level of engagement that would paralyse any West Side Boys response, thus minimising the risk to the assault force and to the hostages. Chinook and Lynx helicopters flew in at very low altitude to achieve surprise as daylight broke. The Lynx helicopters laid down suppressive fire aided by the reconnaissance party on the ground and a government of Sierra Leone Hind attack helicopter which was added into the package at the last minute when one of the Lynx helicopters had technical problems and would not work. Two Chinooks flew directly over the location of the captives on the northern side of the river and Special Force troops disembarked by rope. The rescue team safely snatched the hostages but one of the rescue team, Bombardier Tinnion, was critically wounded. In a brilliant and highly dangerous piece of flying an RAF Chinook returned to picked him up despite a heavy fire-fight and flew him to RFA Lancelot, a naval landing ship in the port of Freetown, that was set up to act as the main casualty receiving point. However, Tinnion died before he reached the ship despite the best efforts of the medical team accompanying the assault.

Meanwhile, in the operation on the south side of the river A Company of 1 PARA landed in two waves from the third Chinook south of the river to clear the village of Magbeni of West Side Boys. The aim was to neutralise the heavy weapons of the West Side Boys, recover the vehicles lost when the patrol was seized and destroy the military facilities available to the West Side Boys. Unfortunately the landing site used by the paratroopers turned out to be a swamp. As the ground was open and close to the villages the reconnaissance team had not been able to physically test the ground and had assessed it as the firmest ground available. The PARAs therefore had to wade 150 yards through chest high swamp to approach the village of Magbeni from the west. In almost a repeat of the attack on Goose Green during the Falklands Conflict one of the early casualties was the commander of the assaulting force along with most of his command team. His deputy quickly took over and completed the operation and the village was cleared of WSB, their other captives freed and the vehicles of the Royal Irish were retrieved and flown out.

In summing up the operation at a press conference Geoff Hoon stated:

The operation sends a number of powerful messages. Firstly, it is a yet further demonstration of the refusal of successive British Governments to do deals with terrorists and hostage takers. Secondly, we hope the West Side Group and other rebel units in Sierra Leone will now realise the futility of continuing unlawful operations and instead accept the rule of law and the authority of the democratically elected Government of Sierra Leone. Thirdly, we hope all those who may in future consider taking similar action against UK Armed Forces will think carefully about the possible consequences and realise there is nothing to be gained by such action.

Hoon neatly summed up the various constituents that the rescue was aimed at. For the government the hostage crisis was about managing risk. Issues about casualties, proportionality and the decision to use force were inextricably linked with concerns about potential winners and losers from the deliberate assault. A great deal was at risk for the British government. Its’ attitude towards ensuring that its hostages were released and the manner in which they were released sent signals to the RUF and to other groups within Sierra Leone, the African continent and globally. If the assault had indeed failed and there had been a significant loss of life then the policy of the British government towards Sierra Leone would have been forced to change and almost certainly involved the complete withdrawal of British forces. The resultant impact on the RUF, UNAMSIL and the Sierra Leone government would have been considerable. Moreover, it would have raised questions about government intervention policy three years before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As it was the operation was a great success and had a major impact on the situation in Sierra Leone.


The German airborne invasion of Crete in May 1941 had diametrically opposite effects among the Allied and German strategists. The Germans, responding to tirades by Hitler, decided never again to commit large scale parachute forces. The American and British military leaders believed that the airborne assault on Crete was vindication of steps both countries had taken to create airborne forces.

The creation of the American airborne force had its beginning in World War I. In October 1918 Brigadier General William Mitchell received approval to proceed with planning on a proposal he had made to drop the 1st Infantry Division by parachute into the German rear near Metz. The responsibility for detailed planning was given to one of Mitchell’s young staff officers, Lewis H. Brereton. The plan was to use bombers as platforms from which the infantry would jump. The Armistice to end the war intervened and planning for the Metz operation stopped.

Almost 20 years would pass before the U.S. Army again seriously considered delivering troops to the battlefield by parachute. A 1928 demonstration at Brooks Field, Texas in which a three man fire team jumped from four planes and assembled a machine gun on the ground was the only sign of interest shown in using parachute forces; little attention and no further action resulted from this brief experiment.

In 1934 and 1935, Major William C. Lee, a U.S. Army officer serving as a military attaché in Paris and London, observed German military training. This training included soldiers jumping by parachute to capture objectives and equipment, and men being delivered to the battlefield by glider. Lee’s interest was immediate. Later, as an instructor at the Infantry School and as a student at the Command and General Staff College, Lee wrote articles and talked with his fellow students about his ideas for vertical envelopment. He refined his ideas based on discussions with staff and fellow students.

In a later assignment to the Office of Chief of Infantry, Lee, now a lieutenant colonel, continued to push his ideas for airborne infantry. This was to the dismay and displeasure of his boss, who wanted Lee to concentrate on coordinating armor projects and to be the resident expert on foreign military armor forces and organizations. However, when President Roosevelt saw a newsreel about German parachute forces and inquired about the American capability with such forces, Lee was given his dream project, on 25 June 1941. Others were also working on this project, including the Infantry Board, which had made several proposals to the Chief of Infantry on size of units, equipment, and how they should be employed.

On 26 June 1940, the Parachute Test Platoon was created at Fort Benning, Georgia with a strength of 2 officers, 1 warrant officer, 6 sergeants, and 42 enlisted men. This unit inaugurated many of the training doctrines employed by the U.S. airborne program during the remainder of the war.

Since there was no formal training course, the original test platoon got its training where it could. This included several trips to Washington Township, New Jersey for training on the 125-foot jump towers there that were owned by the Safe Parachute Company; towers based on this design, but 250 feet tall, were eventually built at Fort Benning. The Test Platoon also sent representatives to Chanute Field, Illinois to learn rigging, sewing, and maintenance of parachutes. The Test Platoon later passed this training on to other units as they were activated. The first jumps were conducted at Fort Benning on 16 August. Soon thereafter the Provisional Parachute Group was activated at Fort Benning to supervise the activation and training on the battalions and, later, regiments of parachute and glider units that would follow.

Over time training settled on a six-week course, which was conducted in several stages. ‘A’ Stage lasted three weeks and was almost exclusively devoted to physical training, especially running; the physical training did not stop when this stage was completed but carried over into all of the stages. ‘B’ Stage lasted one week and consisted of aircraft exit techniques from mock-ups of plane frames and from the 34-foot towers, controlling the parachute in the air, parachute landing falls, and parachute packing techniques. ‘C’ Stage lasted one week and included more parachute packing, the suspended harness, and the 250-foot towers. ‘D’ Stage was jump week. Five jumps qualified a trooper for jump wings, the badge of the paratroopers that had been designed by one of the early airborne officers, Lieutenant William P. Yarborough.

The parachute battalions, which would form the cadre of the regiments, were designated in the 500 series; thus, the first battalion activated was originally designated as the First Parachute Battalion, then redesignated as 501st within two weeks; the second was 502nd, and so on. 501st Battalion was later redesignated as 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment and formed the core of the 501st Regiment.

The entire redesignation and activation process was generally a smooth operation but there were several gyrations that were mind-boggling. For sake of continuity and lack of confusion, the unit involved in the operation in this discussion will be referred to by its final designation: the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion. In June 1942, the 509th was sent to England and attached to a British airborne division for training. The battalion commander was Lieutenant Colonel Edson D. Raff.

The decision to commit parachute elements to the North African campaign was not made until early October 1942. The only American unit close enough to be considered for use in Africa was the 509th. When presented with the proposed mission for his unit, Lieutenant Colonel Raff told his theater commander he had no doubts about his unit’s ability to accomplish the mission. His only provision was that he be permitted to command the paratroopers once they were on the ground.

Raff made this condition because the plan called for the 509th to fly 1,500 miles, at night, in planes belonging to the 60th Troop Carrier Group. The 60th had been hastily assembled and its training had not reached the level that its cargo, the paratroopers, had. Since there were no plans to refuel after leaving England, Raff wanted it clear from the beginning that the paratroopers would be under his command on hitting the ground, not the Air Force commander’s in case he happened to land at the objective.

The plan for employment of the 509th was written by Raff and the airborne staff officer for Operation Torch, Major William Yarborough (who, in addition to designing the U.S. paratroopers’ jump wings, had also been instrumental in designing the special jump uniform American paratroopers wore during the period). Raff and Yarborough were friends and both wanted the airborne concept to work so they spent much time refining and reworking the plan. The plan called for the 509th to accomplish three objectives: destroy enemy fighters at an airfield designated “X”; seize and hold an airfield designated “Y”; and cut communications west of a town designated “L”, located east of airfield “Y”. All the maps, photographs, and terrain models used in the training were marked with these letter designations. The vital necessity was to gain air superiority. There was a strong possibility that the French would remain loyal to their puppet government at Vichy and oppose the Allied invasion in North Africa, and attention was focused on the two airfields.

Just after dark on 7 November 1942, the longest uninterrupted flight by paratroopers during World War II began. This had followed weeks of special training and rehearsals. Raff and his men were ready to show what they could do. The sky train consisted of 39 C-47s, each loaded to the brim with fuel for the long flight. The pilots, although fairly competent at beam-riding on airline routes, had little practical experience at dead reckoning or astro-navigation. They were, however, determined and adaptable. The planes maintained good order until they approached Spain. After the fighter escort turned back, the transports hit clouds that were moving lower just as the sky was getting dark. As they climbed through the clouds the planes became separated. The pilots continued to fly south while their loads of paratroopers, wrapped in blankets, slept in the cramped aircraft cabins.

By morning, 33 of the 39 planes were still within sight of one another but there was a bigger problem—the pilots weren’t certain where they were. The men of the 509th were also uncertain as to whether they would land to French cheers or drop by parachute between two fields and march against French guns. The answer was to have been radioed to Raff as his unit flew across the Strait of Gibraltar but, if sent, the signal was not heard. In the meantime valuable fuel was being burned while the pilots continued to figure out their location after reaching the African coast. Finally the air commander ordered one of his planes to land and find out where they were; it turned out that they were within about 100 miles of their targets.

At 0845, 8 November 1942, the paratroopers in the main group of planes got their first inkling of what kind of reception was awaiting them when they flew over La Senia airfield (Objective X) as Allied planes were bombing it. Confusion followed. Several of the troop carrier planes were short on fuel and landed in the desert. Twelve flew to an area between La Senia and Tafaraoui (Objective Y) where Raff ordered the paratroopers to jump. First the supply containers, then the troopers left the planes and floated to the ground underneath parachutes. Once assembled, the 509th quickly linked up with an armor force of the 1st Armored Division, which had arrived from the beaches near Oran, and together they occupied the airfields. A quick check of casualties among the paratroopers showed that, although about 20% of the unit was missing, there were no killed or wounded.

Raff considered the result of this operation to be an undramatic end to the first U.S. combat jump. In fact his paratroopers played little role in the objectives assigned to them. Although it was an inauspicious opening combat assault for American paratroopers, they were destined to do better.

The North African use of American airborne troops was, in some respects, similar to the Tragino Aqueduct mission. The targets in this case given to the paratroopers were appropriate and the justification for the targets was also good. However, because of the distance they had to travel from departure airfields in England, and the fact that when they arrived at the targets there was already an armor force on the ground, should cause a question as to whether this was a good use of special operations forces. Indeed, many things could have delayed the armor force, which would then have made the employment of airborne troops seem to be the correct decision. The answer, in this case, to the necessity of using special operations forces is fuzzy. The event shows they probably did not help much in capturing some of their assigned targets.

Since the U.S. planners were anxious to include paratroopers in this operation, assuming the risk of such a long flight to the target was definitely wishful thinking. A better use of these specific forces may have been to hold them in reserve and stage them out of Gibraltar, much closer to where they were to be used and more flexible in terms of what targets could be assigned to them.

This criticism of the plan is based on the flying distance from departure airfields to the targets, lack of navigation aids along the way, lack of updates on the ground situation while in flight, and the expectation that the ground battle plan would not impact on the airborne targets. This last must always be prominent in plans for parachute operations; if the airborne assault is into friendly lines it is probably an expensive waste of time and effort, unless it is planned that way from the start or is used to reinforce the ground situation.

On the other hand, some things went correctly in this operation. The intelligence on the targets was correct in that these sites were key military objectives. Several other forces (including air and armor) were either assigned the targets as well or simply went after them as targets of opportunity.

The use of untrained air crews to conduct the U.S. Army’s first airborne operation was not a decision that the parachute planners or troopers could change. It is one of three major instances of poor coordination in this operation; the others being the poor communications among the aircraft once they took off and the fact that the long pre-jump flight put most of the planes at the edge of their fuel capacities. As mentioned in the Tragino operation, why not pick a better mission to prove the principle? The obvious answer is that they had to accept what was available. However, that’s too pat an answer because in both cases it was the airborne advocates that were pushing for a chance to prove the usefulness of an airborne capability.

The plan was far from simple. It involved dropping paratroopers onto three separate targets after having flown all night to get there and receiving no tactical update. Even these days that would not have been a simple plan.

While there is no doubt that the 509th rehearsed operations while in England, those rehearsals did not involve enough complications to train the men to make adjustments to the plan once over the target or on the ground, or to take into account the long flight to the drop zones.

The presence of friendly armor forces at one of the targets removed any element of surprise for the jump operation. In addition, Raff really had no idea of the tactical situation on the ground when the jump sequence was conducted. This could have proved entirely disastrous to his command; fortunately it did not.

Many of the problems with this operation can be attributed to the communications (especially the lack thereof) that I mentioned earlier. If the airborne planners had examined this operation with more of a critical eye, they would have made a better plan, one that would have highlighted the new U.S. airborne capability better. In the event the problems mentioned did get taken into account on subsequent jump operations, which more than proved the principle of the airborne force capabilities.


Autry, Jerry; General William C. Lee—Father of the Airborne; Raleigh, NC; Airborne Press; 1995

Galvin, John R.; Air Assault—The Development of Airmobile Warfare; New York; Hawthorn Books; 1969

Huston, James A.; Out of the Blue—US Army Airborne Operations in World War II; West Lafayette, IN; Purdue University Studies; 1972

Lassen, Don and Richard K. Schrader; Pride of America—An Illustrated History of the U.S. Army Airborne Forces; Missoula MT; Pictorial Histories Publishing; 1991

MacDonald, Charles; Airborne; New York; Ballantine Books; 1970

Raff, Edson D.; We Jumped to Fight; New York; Eagle Books; 1944

Tugwell, Maurice; Airborne to Battle—A History of Airborne Warfare 1918–1971; London; William Kimber; 1971

Lieutenant Commander Ian Fraser VC, Royal Navy; from Frogman VC

Lieutenant Fraser (right) with Leading Seaman Magennis, who was also awarded the VC for the action.

The closing days of the war saw another extraordinary special operation. The British four-man midget submarine, XE-3, commanded by Lieutenant Ian Fraser, RNR, and with Leading Seaman James Magennis as the diver, had the task of blowing up the Japanese heavy cruiser Takao at Singapore in advance of a British invasion of Malaya which would lead to the liberation of the island. Following serious damage at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, she had been taken to Singapore and patched up to act as a shore battery.

At that part of the Strait where the Takao lay the water is shallow, with depths shown on Admiralty charts of from eleven to seventeen feet; but there is a depression in the sea-bed, which amounts to a hole, five hundred feet across, fifteen hundred feet long, and some five feet deeper than the water around. The Takao lay across this depression so that the first hundred feet of her length, beginning at her bow, lay in water which dropped to less than three feet at low tide; and the same conditions occurred at her stern. It was proposed that I should pass over this shallow patch and down into the hole where I was expected to manoeuvre my boat under the ship. As I have already said, I had made it clear that I thought this feat impossible.

‘Stand by for a bearing, ship’s head, now,’ I ordered. Then I translated the bearing into a true bearing and laid it on the chart. The attack had started.

From that moment, until I was back on board the Stygian, all fear left me.

I felt only that nervous tautness that comes so often in moments of stress. I let each of the others have a quick look at the Takao through the periscope, and then we were ready …

It was eight minutes to two when I finally decided that the position of XE-3 was right enough for us to start the actual run in. By this time the sun was high in the heavens, the sea was as placid as a Scottish loch early on a summer’s day, and visibility, both above and under the water, was excellent …

When, during a spell on the run in, I glanced through the night periscope, I was disturbed to find that I could see both ends of XE-3 quite distinctly, showing that the underwater visibility was ten feet or more. I reconciled myself to this disadvantage by thinking that I would at least be able to keep an eye on Magennis as he attached the limpet mines.

Later on, at eight minutes past two, the range was 2,000 yards, one mile away, about 30 degrees on our port bow.

‘Four hundred and fifty revolutions, steer 218 degrees, stand by to start the attack.’

‘Course 218 degrees. All ready to start the attack,’ came the reply.

‘Start the attack,’ I ordered.

Magennis started the stop-watch, and we prepared ourselves. ‘Up pe riscope.’

Magennis pressed the switch, the motor whirred. ‘Whoa!’

The motor stopped.

‘Bearing right ahead, range two degrees on her funnel, down periscope.’

Magennis changed the degrees into yards by means of the slide rule.

‘Length 1,600 yards, sir,’ he called.

I did not answer; there was no need to. Each of us was sweating profusely, and energy and air had to be reserved. In any case, we were only doing now the thing that we had practised time and time again when stationed in the Scottish lochs and when lying off the coast of Australia.

The only sounds in the boat were the whirr of the main motor, the hiss of escaping oxygen from the cylinder in the engine-room, and an occasional scraping sound of steel on steel in the well-greased bearings when the hydroplane wheel was turned. Ten feet, forty feet. ‘Up periscope’, range, ‘Down periscope’. So it went on until the range had narrowed to 400 yards.

‘Up periscope, stand by for a last look round.’

Click! Down went the handles: I fixed my eye to the eyepiece for the hundredth time, slowly swinging to port.

‘Ah, there she is, range eight degrees.’

Slowly I swung the periscope round to starboard.

‘Flood “Q”, down periscope, quick, thirty feet. Bloody hell! There’s a boat full of Japs going ashore; she’s only about forty or fifty feet away on the starboard bow. God, I hope they didn’t see us.’

So close had they been that I could make out their faces quite distinctly, and even had time to notice that one of them was trailing his hand in the water. The boat, painted white, stood out clearly against the camouflaged background of the cruiser. Similar to the cutters used in the Royal Navy for taking liberty men ashore, she was packed with sailors. The helmsman stood aft, his sailor’s collar and ribbon gently lifting in the breeze caused by the boat’s headway. She was so close that it seemed that her bow waves almost broke over our periscope. I could see the lips of men moving as they chatted away on the journey ashore. They should have seen us. I do not know why they did not.

‘Thirty feet, sir.’

My mind re-focused.

‘All right, Magennis, the range is 200 yards, we should touch bottom in a moment.’

To [Sub-Lieutenant ‘Kiwi’] Smith, RNVR: ‘Keep her as slow as you can.’

Followed anxious silence, then a jar and the noise of gravel scraping along the keel as we touched bottom. [ERA] Reid had to fight hard to keep her on course as we scraped and dragged our way across the bank at depths of only fifteen feet, which meant our upper deck was only ten feet below the surface.

Watching through the night periscope, I could see the surface of the water like a wrinkled window-pane above our heads, until it gradually darkened as we came into the shadow of the great ship. Something scraped down our starboard side, and then, with a reverberating crash, we hit the Takao a glancing blow which stopped us. I thought we had made enough noise to awaken the dead, and I was worried in case someone above might have felt the jar.

‘Stop the motor! I wonder where the hell we are?’ I said. I could see nothing through the periscope to give me a clear indication of our position in relation to the enemy ship, only her dark shadow on our starboard side. Obviously I was not underneath it, as the depth on the gauge was only thirteen feet.

I began to fear that we might be much too far forward, that the ominous-sounding scraping along our side had been made by an anchor-cable at the target’s bows.

‘We seem to be too far for’ard,’ I reported. ‘We’ll alter course to 190 degrees and try to run down her side. Port 30, half ahead, group down.’

The motor hummed into life again, but we did not budge.

‘Group up half ahead,’ I called, and we tried many other movements. The motor hummed even faster, the propeller threshed, but still no sign of movement. We were jammed, and, looking back on this afterwards, I am inclined to think that as the Takao veered in the tideway, the slacking cable came to rest on us. Then it lifted as she veered away again, or else we were jammed for the same reason under the curve of her hull at this point. It was only after some really powerful motor movements in both directions, and ten minutes of severe strain, that we finally broke loose and dragged our way out across the shingly bottom to the deeper channel.

I had attacked from too fine an angle on the bow, and after running out again I altered course and steered for a position more on the Takao’s beam, which would mean a longer run over the shallow bank, but I decided the risk was worth it, if I were to hit the ship amidships.

At three minutes past three we were ready again, a thousand yards away. Once more we started the run-in for the attack. This time we were successful. We slid easily across the bank with the gauge at one time registering only thirteen feet, and then blackness, as we slid into the hole and under the keel of the Takao. It was just as I had practised it so many times before, and I was surprised how easy it was.

The depth gauge began to indicate deeper water, 15 feet, 18 feet, 20 feet, and then a greying of the night-periscope and upper viewing window.

‘Stop the motor.’

Then blackness in the night-periscope and upper viewing window.

‘Full astern.’

The bottom of the Takao showed dimly, and then suddenly it was distinct, encrusted with thick heavy layers of weed as it fell sharply to her keel.

‘Stop the motor!’

The hull stopped sliding overhead. We were under her.

We were resting on the bottom with the hull of the Takao only a foot above our heads. I wondered if we would be able to go straight through …

Magennis was ready: he must have been stewing in his rubber suit, and I thought, momentarily forgetting the dangers, how pleasant it would be for him to get out into the cool water. He strapped on his breathing apparatus. The only instruction I could give him was to place all six limpets in the container as quickly as possible and not to make a noise. I fitted in the Perspex window, patted him on the shoulder, and into the escape compartment he went. Reid closed the door on him; the valves were opened and shut, and the pumps started. Looking through the observation window into the wet-and-dry compartment, I could see Magennis breathing steadily into the bag as the water rose around him …

He shut the lid and disappeared over the side, and we settled down nervously to await his return.

We counted the limpets as he bumped them out of the containers and moved them one by one along the starboard side, and occasionally I caught a glimpse of him as he worked away under the hull above. Six limpets he took – three towards the for’ard end and three towards the after end. In all, the total time taken was somewhere round about thirty minutes. To me it seemed like thirty days …

The tide was still falling. Although the rise and fall in the Johore Strait is only eight feet, this was more than sufficient to allow the cruiser to sit on us in the shallow hole beneath her hull. High water had been at 1200, zero hour for the attack, and it was now nearly four hours later. I was very anxious to get away. Magennis still seemed to be an age, and just when I could hardly contain myself a moment longer, he appeared on the hatch. He gave the ‘thumbs up’ sign again and in he jumped. I saw the lid shut and the clip go home. He was back, and now at last we could go.

Quickly, we started to release the side cargoes. The fuses on the port charge, four tons of Amytol, had, like the 200lb limpets, already been set to detonate in six hours’ time, so that it was only necessary for us to unscrew the small wheel which started the mechanism, and then to unscrew the larger wheel which released the charge. The first ten turns of this wheel opened a kingston in the charge to allow water to enter the compartment, previously filled by air, and rendered the charge negatively buoyant. The last turn released the charge itself, which should have fallen away and rested on the bottom. In order to relish the full pleasure of placing four tons of high explosive under a Japanese ship, the three of us took it in turns to operate the wheels as Magennis was draining down his compartment. The port charge fell away – we heard it bump down our side, but we hung on for Magennis to re-enter the craft before finally letting the starboard limpet-carrier go. As a result of this delay, it became too heavy and would not release or slide away. Such an emergency had already been thought of by the designers of XE-craft, and an additional wheel had been provided. This operated a pusher to push the side cargo off, and between us we wound the wheel out to its limit, but with no effect. The bottom of the cargo swung out from the ship’s side, but the top was still held fast. By now I felt sure that the pins at the top were holding, but I thought to myself that the movement of the craft might shake it loose. We certainly couldn’t make headway very far with two tons of dead weight fast to our side.

In the meantime Magennis reported that he had found it very difficult getting the limpets into position; the work of attaching them successfully had exhausted him … The limpets themselves, clumsily designed (they were big awkward jobs to drag through the water, all angles and projections, and they caught and tangled in the weeds), had to be attached. Unfortunately, owing to the positive buoyancy of the charge itself and the angular bottom of the Takao, there was a tendency for the charges to break loose from the magnetic hold-fasts, which, for reasons unknown, had become very feeble, and to run up towards the surface, with Magennis chasing after them to bring them back into position in two groups of three charges. In each group he had secured the limpets some 45–60 feet apart – three away along the cavern to our starboard side, and three along the cavern on either side of the keel, so that they could not dislodge and slide off on to the bottom. He had set the firing mechanism working, but in his exhausted state had become unable to remove three of the counter-mining pins, which ensure that should one limpet blow up the rest will follow immediately, even if the clocks have been wound for the set delay. The counter-mining device, which was lethal after twenty minutes, also ensured that any diver sent down by the Japanese to render the mines safe, or to remove them, would blow himself to eternity should he give the charges the slightest blow …

‘Group up, half ahead – let’s get to hell out of this hole!’ I gave the order with a feeling of relief.

‘Main motor, half ahead, sir,’ from Smith. ‘May I start the fan, sir?’

‘Yes, start the fan.’

Magennis began to take off his breathing set and hood. ‘What is the course, sir?’ asked good, calm, cheerful Reid.

‘Two hundred degrees,’ I answered. ‘Let me know if you have any trouble keeping her on.’

I moved over to the sounding machine and switched it on, and then back to the night-periscope to watch as we moved out under the vast hull which was slowly settling down upon us with the fall of the tide, and through which we hoped our charges would blow a hole big enough to sink her for good.

But although the motor had been running for several seconds, there was no sign of movement.

‘Full ahead,’ I ordered.

Still no movement!

‘Stop, full astern, group up.’

Glancing at Smith, I sincerely hoped I was not becoming hysterical. I felt certain that the Takao must have settled down on us, thus preventing any movement whatsoever. We couldn’t go astern as the Takao’s keel was lower than the rear periscope standard. We must go ahead if we could go anywhere at all.

‘Stop, full ahead, group up, lift the red, stop.’

This gave us maximum power, the motors whirred and we could hear the propeller thrusting hard against the water, but it was useless. We seemed to be well and truly stuck, and for a moment I thought of hanging on until half an hour before the charge was due to go off and then abandoning the ship. After all, I consoled myself, it was only 200 yards or so from the shore, and we might be able to hide in the swamps and forests until Singapore fell into British hands again …

We tried pumping the water aft and then for’ard, out and then in, and finally, we even partially blew No. 2 main ballast tank to try to shake loose from what looked like being XE-3’s watery grave. I was in despair. Sweat poured into my eyes. But still that black menacing shape stood overhead. Then suddenly, with a final effort, she began to move.

‘Ship’s head swinging to starboard, can’t control her.’

Once again Reid’s quiet voice calmed my turmoil. We began to move slowly ahead, the flooded charge dragging like a broken wing on our starboard side. The black roof slid astern, and fresh pure welcome sunlight streamed through the water into my upturned eyes.

We had a bow angle of some five degrees, and slowly the needle of my depth gauge moved in an anti-clockwise direction until it steadied at seventeen feet. The weight on our right swung the ship’s head round until we were parallel to the side of the Takao, and I reckoned some thirty feet away on her port side.

‘Stop the motor, we’ll have to try to release the cargo. It’ll have to be very carefully done as we’re only a few yards away,’ I explained.

Magennis was still sweating away in his suit, and I felt he had done enough to make the operation a success. As Reid had little or no experience of underwater swimming in the frogmen gear, and Smith wasn’t particularly good at this either, I considered that it was justifiable for me to take the risk of leaving the boat for a few moments, even if I was the commanding officer. Should anything happen, I had enough confidence in Smith to know that he could get her out to rejoin the Stygian

‘Come out of the way, Magennis, I’ll go out and release it myself. Get me the spare set from the battery compartment.’

‘I’ll be all right in a minute, sir,’ said Magennis, ‘just let me get my wind.’

What a wonderful lad he was! He said this with a most hurt expression on his face, quite obviously meaning that since he was the diver it was up to him to do the diving. And so we sat quietly for five minutes, and when he was ready I replaced his hood and Perspex face. ‘Thanks,’ he said, and into the wet-and-dry compartment he went for the second time.

The wheels spun, the pumps started and the water began to rise. Reid had equipped Magennis with an elephant-size spanner, and as the lid of the hatch opened, I saw this come through the opening immediately behind a mass of air bubbles, followed by Magennis. Once again I wondered what he was thinking about only thirty feet away from a Japanese cruiser in seventeen feet of clear water, his only weapon being a spanner. The bubbles released from opening the hatch were quite enough to cause me a great deal of worry. Had anybody been looking over the side of the Takao – perhaps a seaman gazing idly into the water with his thoughts away at home in Yokohama, Nagasaki, or somewhere like that – he must have seen us. The water was as clear as glass, and Magennis in his green diving suit was sending out a steady stream of bubbles from the reducing valve of his set.

Inside the boat it was as quiet as death: none of us spoke. I could hear the ship’s chronometer ticking away, the anxious seconds interrupted by an occasional clank as Magennis used his spanner. It took some five minutes to release the cargo; five of the most anxious minutes of my life. Watching through the periscope, I could see the position of both securing pins at which he should have been working, but for some reason or other he was out of sight. I bit my fingers, swore and cursed at him, swore and cursed at the captain and all the staff on board Bonaventure who had planned this operation, at the British Admiralty, and finally, at myself for ever having been so stupid as to volunteer for this life, and, having volunteered, for being so stupid as to work hard enough to get myself this particular operation. I wished myself anywhere except lying on the bottom of Singapore harbour.

I don’t know what Reid or Smith thought of this little display, but as far as I know they never mentioned my temporary lapse.

I had told Magennis to make no noise, but his hammering and bashing, in what I thought to be really the wrong place, was loud enough to alarm the whole Japanese Navy.

‘What the bloody hell is that bloody fool doing?’ I asked no one in particular. ‘Why the hell doesn’t he come on top of the charge. Why didn’t I go out myself?’ Then I saw Magennis for a moment, and at the same time the cargo came away and we were free. He gave me the ‘thumbs up’ sign for the third and last time and slid feet first into the wet-and-dry compartment and closed the lid. Wheels turned, pumps started and down came the water.

Right, I thought. Then: ‘Starboard twenty, steer 090 degrees, half ahead, group up,’ I ordered all in one breath.

‘Aye, aye, sir.’

‘Twelve hundred revolutions.’

‘Aye, aye, sir.’

‘O.K.,’ I said. “Home, James, and don’t spare the horses.’ I think we all managed a smile at that moment.

XE-3 achieved the difficult task of returning to her rendezvous with HMS Stygian, the submarine that had towed her from Borneo, and an explosion suggested the attack had been a brilliant success. It turned out, however, that the Takao had not been sunk: the explosion was, by strange coincidence, that of a crashing aircraft. The order to make a second attempt was nullifed by the dropping of the atomic bombs. Both Magennis and Fraser were awarded the VC.



Naval Demolition Units WWII Part I

NCDU-45, December 1943, prior to shipping out for England, left to right, front to back: Conrad C. Millis, Corona, Calif., killed in action; Lawrence S. Karnowski, Tampa, Kan.; Gale B. Fant, Minter City, Miss., wounded in action; Lester J. Meyers, Freeport, Ill., wounded in action; Robert L. Svendsen, Long Island, New York; and Clarence J. Hopper, Osseo, Minn.

In January of 1943, the army had begun to experiment with clearing man-made beach obstacles at Fort Pierce. On 6 June, Adm. Ernest J. King, the chief of naval operations, gave the order for the training of Naval Demolition Units. By coincidence, his order was issued exactly a year before the Allied forces landed at Normandy against the most formidable array of beach defenses ever erected. This was also five months before Tarawa, and Washington’s concern seemed to be focused more on the problem of dealing with the obstacles Hitler might place along the French coast than with the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific.

Picked to lead this new effort was a young naval reserve officer named Draper L. Kauffman, one of the most colorful figures in the history of naval special warfare. A very slender man who stood just about six feet tall, Kauffman had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1933. In those depression years, the navy seized on any excuse to deny commissions to those completing the course at Annapolis. Of the 432 graduates in Kauffman’s class, only 216 received commissions. Even though Kauffman’s father was a senior officer, he was screened out because of his poor eyesight. But by the time of Pearl Harbor, Kauffman had managed to see more of war through his thick Coke-bottle glasses than his classmates who had been granted commissions.

Using his naval background, he went to work for a steamship line and was assigned to work in Europe early in 1939. He spent two months in the company’s offices in England, two in France and two in Germany. He twice attended speeches by Adolf Hitler and, even though he couldn’t understand German, found him thoroughly frightening. In mid-1939, he returned home convinced not only that war was imminent, but that the West would lose. Shortly after war broke out in September, he signed up as a member of an American volunteer ambulance corps. When the Germans attacked France on 10 May 1940, he was attached as an ambulance driver to an elite French unit operating in the no-man’s-land between the Maginot and Siegfried lines.

The next two weeks were filled with horror. Kauffman learned three lessons from that experience: he gained a great and lasting respect for the infantry; he understood how a man can throw down his rifle and run away; and he vowed that if he ever got into combat again, he would again want to be in a volunteer outfit.

As the German juggernaut rolled westward, the French hospital closest to the front lines was overrun, leaving the French wounded without adequate care. A French general asked Kauffman if he would drive his ambulance back through both French and German lines and try to get the most seriously wounded to the hospital. Kauffman and a German-speaking lieutenant set off, ringing the bell on the ambulance frantically. The scene was like a pastoral painting, with cows grazing peacefully in the fields. Suddenly they saw a movement at the side of the road up ahead. Kauffman and his aide jumped out with hands over their heads, shouting “Kamerad!” When he thought about it later, the scene seemed like something out of a grade-B movie. But at the time, it was deadly serious. The German soldiers permitted them to continue on to the hospital, from which they had helped evacuate the wounded only three days before. But then they were made prisoners.

Because he was an American, Kauffman was eventually released and worked his way, over a period of a month and a half, down to Lisbon, across the South Atlantic to Brazil, up to Boston—and back to Scotland as a volunteer in the British navy. This was nearly a year and a half before the United States entered the war.

In a sense, Kauffman seemed to go out of his way to look for trouble. But trouble also came looking for him. While he was in a British naval school, a German bomb fell nearby and British army experts moved in to disarm it. As they worked, the bomb went off, killing the army crew. The next morning, a call went out for volunteers for bomb disposal. It was only after Kauffman had volunteered that he went out and took a sobering look at the hole in the ground where the army experts had been atomized.

Kauffman worked throughout the German blitz against Britain in the winter of 1940–41 and into the spring of 1941. Much of the work was unglamorous manual labor—digging as deep as thirty feet in the ground and shoring up the earth around the bomb before beginning the delicate business of disarming it.

The British quickly learned that the German bomb fuzes were numbered and that the numbers told what kind of fuze it was. A number ending in 1 was an antidisturbance fuze. A 7 meant a time fuze. A 4 was antiwithdrawal, and 5 was a straightforward arming fuze. The numbers remained a reliable guide because the Germans needed them to disarm bombs when their planes crashed at home.

But two other devices seriously complicated the task of the disarmament experts.

One was a two-thousand-pound mine dropped by parachute. If the mine came down on land instead of water, it was supposed to go off seventeen seconds later. But sometimes the fuzes jammed and the experts were called in. If in tinkering with the mine, the bomb-disposal man started it ticking again, he had something less than seventeen seconds to get away. The first mine Kauffman saw and successfully disarmed came down in Liverpool about Christmas time. He found it in a house of ill repute, sitting in an overstuffed chair draped in Christmas streamers.

The other threat was the German acoustic fuze. It was designed to react to any noise and begin ticking. The rule the bomb disposal crews worked out was to wait ten to twelve seconds after making any sound lasting more than half a second. Thus, if a man was trying to remove a screw, he would turn it a quarter turn, check his watch, turn it another quarter turn, and so on. On 2 January 1941, Kauffman was working on an acoustic fuze when his hand slipped and he heard the fuze begin to tick. He ran and was far enough away to survive, although the blast of the bomb hurled him through the air. His British commander awarded him a certificate for setting a new record in the one-hundred-meter dash.

After the blitz ended in May 1941, Kauffman returned to the United States and finally received his navy commission. His eyesight had not improved, but his experience was too valuable to waste. He was assigned to set up an American bomb-disposal school. But before he could get the school organized, the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. A week later, he was in Hawaii disposing of unexploded bombs. One bomb had landed just outside an ammunition depot at Schofield Barracks. Kauffman, with no experience with Japanese ordnance, approached it with extreme care, fearful of an ingenious device that might quickly take his life.

“It turned out that I couldn’t have set that bomb off if I’d had a sledge hammer,” he later recalled. “There was no way. The fuze was completely faulty. So the risk was absolutely zero.…”

In spite of Kauffman’s modest appraisal of the danger, he was awarded the Navy Cross for his work at Pearl Harbor.

Kauffman finally organized his bomb-disposal school at the Washington Navy Yard in January 1942. Except for Kauffman, who had been assigned to set up the school, the class was made up entirely of volunteers, all of them bachelors. For the next year and a half, Kauffman turned out bomb-disposal experts, first at the navy yard and then at American University, in northwest Washington. Much of the training involved digging deep holes. The final exam required nearly thirty hours of hard work, a foolproof way to find out if a man would become careless with fatigue.

This reliance on physical stress as a way of testing a man’s capability and screening out those who don’t measure up remains an important part of the training of the navy’s SEALs to this day. Today’s SEALs are also experts on using explosives and, if need be, disarming enemy munitions. So there is a direct link back to the bomb-disposal experts Kauffman trained half a century ago.

In May of 1943, Kauffman was called back from his honeymoon to set up a school to train the first Naval Combat Demolition Units, generally considered the direct ancestors of the SEALs. In a hurried meeting in Washington, he was shown pictures of obstacles being built on the beaches of France and told to “put a stop to that.” With his orders came a document permitting him to travel wherever he had to and to assemble the men and equipment he needed.

On 6 June 1943, the same day that Admiral King issued his authorizing order, Kauffman set up shop at Fort Pierce, a short distance from the old casino occupied by the Scouts and Raiders. The first volunteers came mostly from the Seabees, the legendary navy construction battalions, with officers raided from the bomb-disposal school.

Training began with a one-week ordeal that is still known as Hell Week and that quickly eliminated 40 percent of the class. The survivors were proud of their accomplishment, but they joked that “Hell Week separated the men from the boys; the men had sense enough to quit and left us with the boys.” That humorous assessment reflected a more serious concern, one that has continued to nag at those responsible for selecting members of the Underwater Demolition Teams and the SEALs. Since no one knows just what it takes for a man to excel as a SEAL, how can one be sure that men who might make superior SEALs are not being screened out by the contrived hardships of Hell Week?

The trainees at Fort Pierce spent much of their time in rubber boats and in the mud, and they ran miles every day. But surprisingly, little attention was paid to swimming. The assumption was that they would paddle ashore as part of an amphibious operation and do their demolition work in relatively shallow water while army demolition experts took over at the high-water mark.

Although men of the Underwater Demolition Teams later prided themselves on their nickname of the Naked Warriors, the trainees at Fort Pierce were anything but naked. They did their work dressed in soggy fatigues, with heavy boondocker shoes on their feet and awkward metal helmets on their heads. Much of their training was done at night.

The men quickly became adept at handling high explosives. Those who couldn’t overcome their fear of being blown to kingdom come were sent off to other assignments. They were probably the smart ones. As the UDT men later realized, they and their explosives-filled rubber boats were disasters waiting to happen.

Although Kauffman was probably the nation’s expert at disarming bombs and mines, the demolition men had a good deal to learn about handling explosives safely, placing them on obstacles at the edge of the sea, wiring the whole complex together, and making it all blow up at the same moment.

One breakthrough was the brainchild of a man named George Kistiakowsky, an irrepressible scientist who loved to careen around the compound at the controls of a tank and who quickly earned the nickname of the Mad Russian. It was his idea to stuff blocks of tetryl, a powerful explosive that comes in the form of a yellow powder, into floatable rubber tubes. Packing eight two-and-a-half-pound packages of tetryl into a section of tube created a twenty-pound length of explosive hose that could be towed by a swimmer, manipulated in the water, and wrapped around an obstacle. Later, much longer explosive-filled tubes, based on Kistiakowsky’s original concept, were used for clearing obstacles and blasting trenches on the ocean floor.

Kistiakowsky was a favorite in the training compound until he disappeared one night. Shortly after the war ended, Kauffman saw a picture of Kistiakowsky with Robert Oppenheimer and learned he had been spirited away to work on the first atom bomb. Kistiakowsky later went on to serve as science adviser to President Eisenhower.

Kauffman and his men worked hard not only at training but at developing workable tactics. Still Kauffman couldn’t rid himself of a nagging worry. He couldn’t picture his men paddling ashore in their explosives-laden rubber boats, groping around in the dark, and successfully destroying the enemy’s beach defenses. He had the uneasy feeling that they were really trying to prepare for an impossible mission.

Despite his misgivings, the first six men of the Eleventh Naval Combat Demolition Unit were sent to England early in November 1943 to begin preparing for the Normandy invasion.

Naval Demolition Units WWII Part II

A few weeks later, Bucklew and four members of the Scouts and Raiders, still a separate unit, also arrived in England and began stealthy reconnaissance operations along the Normandy coast. In what was quickly recognized as a classic breach of the most basic security rules, an admiral thoughtlessly permitted Bucklew and his men to see the plans for Overlord, the code name for the Allied invasion of France. When it was realized that these men would actually be crawling up on the enemy’s beaches months before the invasion and were therefore in serious danger of capture, they were sent to a special school to teach them how to resist interrogation and to escape, if captured.

Operating from small rubber boats at night, Bucklew and his men took soundings of the water depth all along the planned invasion beaches. Bucklew even crawled ashore one night and brought back a bucketful of sand so army experts could test it to determine how well it would support tanks and other heavy vehicles as they came ashore. Perhaps more important, Bucklew also studied the nighttime silhouette of the French coast so he would be able to guide the invading force as it approached the Normandy beaches for one of the most crucial battles of the European war.

The six graduates of Kauffman’s academy who arrived in England early in November of 1943 made up a Naval Combat Demolition Unit. These units were later enlarged into thirteen-man gap-assault teams. In contrast, the Underwater Demolition Teams being formed in the Pacific were much larger, consisting of about eighty enlisted men and sixteen officers—smaller than, but roughly comparable to, an army infantry company.

Those first demolitioneers were among the initial victims of the great secrecy surrounding plans for the invasion. No one knew who they were, what they were supposed to do, or even where they were expected to eat and sleep. This was in contrast to the situation in the Pacific, where Admiral Turner gave his personal high-level attention to the welfare of the Underwater Demolition Teams. Not until early April, just two months before the Normandy invasion, did the navy men get together with the army engineers to plan the clearance of beach obstacles. And it was well into May before two lieutenant commanders—with no experience in demolition work, but enough rank to gain access to needed intelligence—were sent to England to take command of the units assigned to clear the obstacles at the two American beaches, Omaha and Utah.

The intelligence was ominous.

Field Marshal Rommel himself had visited the potential invasion beaches and sketched out formidable defenses in which steel posts were driven deep into the sand, connected with barbed wire, and reinforced by mortar and machine-gun emplacements. To further strengthen the defenses, the posts were topped by platter-shaped teller mines that would go off on contact.

Even more worrisome were the huge metal structures that had been spotted hidden near beaches all along the French coast. These so-called Belgian gates were steel latticework barriers, ten feet square and propped up by heavy steel braces. Although they weighed three tons, they were designed to be manhandled far out onto the sand at low tide to block access to a beach.

Word of these formidable defenses worked its way down to the navy demolition teams early enough for them to build their own Belgian gates and then try to destroy them. The trick was not only to blow up the structure but to prevent littering the beach with a tangle of steel that would remain as much a problem as the original obstacle. A young lieutenant named Carl P. Hagensen came up with the solution: a waterproof canvas bag filled with plastic explosive and fitted with a cord at one end and a hook at the other so that it could be quickly attached to an obstacle.

Bucklew, who did not like loud noises, was impressed by the practice explosions conducted in a sandy area near Plymouth on the south coast of England. In the States, training usually involved a charge of half a pound, on rare occasions a full pound. In England, the demolition men used twenty-pound charges, enough to “blow that steel for half a mile.” In those tests, the sausage-shaped packages of explosives designed by Hagensen worked perfectly. Attached to the braces of a Belgian gate, they caused the big frontal latticework to fall flat on the beach. By the time of the invasion, ten thousand Hagensen packs were ready for use, and they soon became popular with the Underwater Demolition Teams in the Pacific.

In the weeks before the invasion, every available man was flown from Fort Pierce to England, while other sailors were simply drafted into the demolition teams and hastily trained. As the training ended in late May, the men were organized into thirteen-man gap-assault teams, one for each of the eight gaps planned for the beach code-named Utah and one for each of the eight gaps in the two halves of Omaha Beach. Working in tandem with them were twenty-six-man teams of army engineers whose job was to take care of the obstacles above the high-water mark while the navy worked on those closer to the water or actually submerged.

Long before dawn on 6 June, Bucklew was in a big landing craft in the van of the armada churning across the channel. About fifteen miles off the French coast, his small boat was launched, and he set off on a now-familiar assignment—to lead the troops to the proper landing zone on Omaha Beach. With his little boat stripped of most of its armament, his gasoline engine pushed him along at about fifteen knots, which meant a run of an hour or a little less.

Bucklew had gone only about three miles when war suddenly erupted far down the coast to his right, about ten miles away. The sound of powerful explosions echoed across the choppy seas, and flares lighted up the sky. Bucklew had a terrible feeling that he had missed the time and the place of the landing and that the troops had gone in at the wrong spot on their own. But that was impossible. If he had gone only three of the fifteen miles to the beach, he couldn’t be that far off course. Then he recalled that army Rangers were scheduled to scale a cliff some distance away from the actual site of the landing, and he recognized the sounds of conflict as part of that diversionary operation.

Still he did not feel really comfortable that he was heading for the right spot until he saw the steeple of the church at the French town of Vierville, centered behind Omaha Beach. Not only had the steeple been pointed out in intelligence briefings, but Bucklew had seen it himself in his earlier visits to the landing beaches.

Everything seemed to be going precisely according to plan. In the hours before the landing, waves of bombers swept over the Nazi defenses, dropping thousands of pounds of explosives. Then navy guns took up the task of paving the way for the landing force. Bucklew watched in awe as the salvos from the battleships, looking like huge balls of fire, passed overhead three at a time. The gap-assault teams approached the beaches in one-hundred-foot-long tank landing craft, each carrying a thirteen-man navy unit, a twenty-six-man army team, two tanks, and a tank fitted with a bulldozer blade. Each landing craft towed behind it a fifty-foot boat filled with explosives and other equipment. Watching the gunfire display, it was easy to believe the assurance many of the men had received that they would find nothing alive on the invasion beaches.

The demolition men also had the added comfort, under the plan, of forming the second wave of the assault rather than going in first to take out the obstacles. First would come Sherman tanks that had been fitted with large, waterproof canvas girdles which permitted them to swim ashore. With the tanks would come infantrymen to clean out the few snipers who might survive the ferocious bombardment. Two minutes later, just as the low tide turned, the gap-assault teams would step ashore. They would race the incoming tide up the beach, doing most of their work on sand not yet covered by water.

The plan and the reality turned out to be two quite different things. The bomber crews, anxious not to hit the Americans, dropped their bombs slightly inland. Many of the navy shells also passed over the positions commanding the beaches and plowed the French farmland, digging long furrows eight feet deep and ten feet wide. The result was that many of the German guns, carefully positioned and sighted to cover the approaches to the beaches from the most advantageous angles, survived and greeted the approaching landing craft with withering fire.

The current along the coast also played havoc with the plan. Many of the gap-assault teams drifted off course and landed in the wrong places, finding themselves the first on the beach rather than following tanks and infantry ashore. Many of the men were killed or wounded before they ever set foot on French soil, either cut down by machine-gun bullets or swallowed up in the blast when their own landing craft were hit by enemy shellfire.

A few of the teams were able to work their way among the obstacles, placing their explosives and linking them together with primacord, a thin, explosive-filled cord that served a dual purpose. It carried the fire to the charge, much like the fuze on a firecracker. And it also gave an extra bang, to set off the explosive. Quickly the men ran for shelter, popped off a purple flare to warn of the impending blast, and then set off the explosion. In some cases, the explosions had to be delayed because infantry had taken shelter among the obstacles, too frightened to move on up the beach. The sailors ran among them, urging them to move, and setting fuzes timed to go off in two minutes. The GIs moved.

According to plan, the gap-assault teams were to land on Omaha Beach at 6:33 A.M. They had twenty-seven minutes to clear sixteen fifty-foot-wide gaps to permit the bulk of the D-day assault force to come ashore. But by noon, only five of the gaps had been successfully opened, and several of them had been partially blocked again by sunken landing craft and shattered tanks.

All through the afternoon, the demolition men followed the retreating tide, fighting to open the remaining gaps. Often, they were handicapped by lack of explosives because of the loss of some of their landing craft. The small mines that the Germans had attached to the obstacles were salvaged to eke out enough explosive power to blast the remaining barriers. At several points, the defenders seemed to hold their fire until a series of obstacles was almost ready to blow. Then they would set it off prematurely with gunfire. In one crew, five men were killed and six more were wounded by such a tactic.

By evening, when the tide turned once more, thirteen of the planned sixteen gaps had been cleared and marked, and the Americans had a firm foothold on Hitler’s “Fortress Europa.” But the cost had been hideous. 6 June 1944 is remembered as by far the worst single day in the history of naval special warfare. Of the 175 navy men involved in the assault on Omaha Beach, 31 died and 60 more were wounded, a casualty rate of 52 percent.

Twelve miles to the northwest, the remaining gap-assault teams came ashore with the second American landing force on Utah Beach. Here the line of obstacles along the beach was incomplete, a much less formidable gauntlet than that arrayed at Omaha Beach. Within an hour and a half, the demolition men cleared seven hundred yards of beach. Then they waited for the tide to recede and opened up another nine-hundred-yard gap. Four of the sailors were killed and eleven wounded when an 88mm shell fell among them, a much smaller casualty toll than that suffered by their colleagues a few miles away.