The Glider Pilot Regiment 1942-1945
Operation 'Freshman' set out to destroy German heavy water production at Vermok in Norway. Two Horsa gliders were used, each carrying fifteen Airborne Engineers. S/Sgt Strathdee and Sgt Doig were selected for one glider and two RAAF pilots, PO Davies and Sgt Fraser, for the other. The length of the flight ruled out all tugs except the mighty Halifax. Although short in numbers, three were found and made available. A rigorous phase of training took place, including night flying and landing.
In the second week of November, the aircraft, crews and passengers moved to Skitten, in northern Scotland, from where they would leave on the 19th. As that day progressed, the weather became increasingly more unsuitable. Nevertheless, the crews decided to go. The weather on the flight was extremely poor and a snow storm greeted the combinations as they made landfall over Norway.
Flying over the Landing Zone for an hour without realising, the decision was made to turn for home. Both gliders and one tug crashed on the return leg, with several fatalities and injuries. Norwegian civilians did what they could for the survivors but could not prevent their capture by the Germans. It is at this point that the story takes a gruesome turn. The severely wounded were strangled to death and the rest shot by firing squad on 18th January. After the war, many of those responsible for these deaths were given various sentences by War Crimes Tribunal.
For more information visit Operation Freshman
The initial airborne assault on Normandy, Operation 'Tonga', was made in the dark with only minimal assistance from ground-based holophane lights. Overall, conditions were not good and many gliders landed away from their designated Landing Zone. As dawn broke on 6 June, there were still some pilots trying to find their way to their intended rendezvous.
Two coup de main landings were included in the operation:
The most noted of the two was the landing at the Caen Canal and River Orne bridges, Benouville, where five platoons from 2nd Ox & Bucks Light Infantry (under the command of Maj. John Howard), and supporting Royal Engineers were 'delivered' onto the German defences.
Coming into Landing Zone 'X', S/Sgts Jimmy Wallwork and John Ainsworth were piloting Howard's glider. They buried its nose in the earth embankment by the canal bridge. In the crash they were both catapulted out of the cockpit still strapped into their seats. Later, Jim Wallwork quipped that they were the first two Allied soldiers to land on occupied French soil!
Nos. 2 and 3 gliders landed in
the wrong order; S/Sgts Geoff Barkway and Peter Boyle
coming in first. Their glider hit hard and Barkway
was thrown clear. Their passengers shaken but fighting fit were able to get out
and join their fellows. While Boyle was carrying ammunition to the assault
group, he heard a cry from the glider. Barkway had
been shot in the right wrist; as a result, his hand had to be amputated. S/Sgts
Oliver Boland and Peter Hobbs only spotted the landing zone from a height of
200 feet, but made a good landing nevertheless.
On LZ 'Y', only two of the three gliders were on target. The speed of No. 6, flown by S/Sgts Roy Howard and Fred Baacke, was too high and the pilots had problems decreasing it; two of the passengers were despatched to the back of the glider and the speed levelled at 80 mph. The nosewheel was the only part to break off on landing. The platoon captured the bridge. Glider No. 5, piloted by S/Sgts Stan Pearson and Len Guthrie, came down in a field 500 yards from the bridge. Its passengers sped to the bridge, but it had already been taken. Glider No. 4, piloted by S/Sgts Tony Lawrence and Harry Shorter was released over the Dives not Orne estuary. The pilots landed the glider by a bridge, which their passengers captured. After a couple of short firefights with German troops, pilots and passengers made their way to the rest of their comrades.
However, there were a further ninety-two gliders which took part in 'Tonga'. For the most part, they delivered men and guns to form an anti-tank screen for the troops landing on the beaches.
One of the 'ninety-two' was flown by S/Sgt 'Jock' Bramah and Sgt Ron Bartley. They and their two medic passengers both survived a 100mph (160km) crash into an orchard with nothing more than cuts and bruises. The medical jeep, had to be abandoned. Ron Bartley takes up the story:
'We had no idea where we were (but) we seemed to have landed bang in the middle of Jerry activity. We then decided to follow our survivor's training and contact someone local and when we got to the edge of the forest we saw a house not far away.'
In attempting to reach the house the four men were hit by machine-gun fire. The fate of the two medics is not clear but Bramah was hit in the lung, taken for dead by the Germans, but survived and was cared for in a local village café. On, or about, 16 June, having shot two German soldiers trying to capture him, he performed a Hollywood-style escape from his first-floor bedroom window. He was reunited with Ron Bartley about 20 June.
The latter had also had a remarkable escape from death. The bullets on the 6th had torn into his ammunition pouches and shattered primed grenades!
Eventually, both men returned home. Jock Bramah survived Arnhem and the Rhine Crossing only to die in a climbing accident in Scotland.
The Pegasus and Orne Bridges: Their Capture, Defence and Relief on D-Day is a well researched account and The Devil's Own Luck is a personal one.
This operation was a first in military history. Twenty-nine Hamilcars carried an armoured reconnaissance regiment direct to the battle-field.
In addition, 229 Horsas carried a mixture of infantry and heavy support weapons. The glider of Capt. John Morrison, from 'G' Squadron, carried a platoon of the Ox and Bucks:
'Now I could see our field marked by purple smoke...Thrusting the controls forward, we hurtled in at speed...and the glider finished up with a resounding crash into an earth bank which...provided welcome protection against the increasing volume of fire...Other gliders collected poles in their run up which meant the loss of a wing or undercarriage but no injury to the troops carried. However, one of my crews hit a pole head-on and the first pilot was killed instantly.' (extract, courtesy of Airlife, from 'Silent Invader' by Alexander Morrison)
Capt Morrison and his second pilot, S/Sgt Wally Beech, joined their passengers in the initial assault. The German opposition was slight and soon surrendered leaving the British with three mortars and a collection of bombs. By D+2 the order came for all pilots to march to the beaches for the journey home.
At the end of May, ten crews, from B Sdn, were taken off D-Day training and given the name X Flight. They collected their Hadrian gliders from American bases and flew them to Netheravon. Each glider's first pilot had also been a Sicily pilot, so was familiar with the type. The crews were told very little, except that they would be taking part in a special operation. They were then put through an intensive flying course. The Flight moved to Tarrant Rushton on 7 June where its members continued their training with Halifax tugs.
On 4 August, Chatterton arrived with the gliders' loads - thirty-five French SAS soldiers and ten jeeps. Each of the latter was armed with twin Vickers K machine guns, mounted fore and aft. The soldiers' personal weapons included Sten guns, explosives and a PIAT anti-tank weapon. The Flight was finally briefed on its mission. Their destination was the Vannes area, 170 miles behind German lines. Their passengers were part of a force of 150 men from the French 4th Parachute Battalion. The paratroops had already arrived in the operational area courtesy of RAF Keevil. Together, these men would join up with 3000 French resistance fighters.
The ten Hadrians set off for France at 20:00 hours on the evening of 5 August. Nine landed safely in a small field about ten miles from Auray. The tenth, piloted by S/Sgt Harry Rossdale and Sgt Hugh Martin, crashed into a tree and both pilots and passengers were injured. The Resistance were waiting and all the occupants were taken in convoy to a small coastal village. Here, the pilots and their passengers parted company. At dawn, the pilots were rowed across an inlet to the Resistance HQ. This was to be their home for the next week.
Passed through the American lines, the glider crews arrived at Rennes where they were flown back to Netheravon.
The dates refer to those of the landings. The operation did not finish until the 25th, and glider pilots were involved in fighting from the outset.
Major General Roy Urquhart, O/C 1st Airborne Division, wrote to Chatterton:
'...they (the glider pilots) played all kinds of parts but everything they were asked to do they did wholeheartedly. I'm afraid your losses were rather heavy.'
Over 1300 pilots landed in Holland and of these 229 were killed and 469 wounded or taken prisoner.
The story of Lt Michael Dauncey is eminently suitable as an example of the exploits
of the Glider Pilots at Arnhem. Dauncey flew as
Second Pilot to S/Sgt Alan Murdoch. Their 'load' was a contingent of the 1st
Air Landing Light Regiment, RA. The flight was, on the whole, uneventful and
the landing straight out of the text-book. Mike Dauncey's
role was in support of the Light Regiment.
On Saturday, 23 September, Lt Dauncey and two paratroopers raced over to the German line, some thirty yards away, and brought back eight prisoners, a machine gun and a collection of Luger pistols. Sadly, his luck was not to hold out much longer. The following day, in an attempt to view enemy positions more clearly, he was hit in the eye by a piece of shrapnel. It was not until the evening that he was able to be led down to the Regimental Aid Post. He could not be helped so slept the night away and left the next morning on a tank-hunting mission. He narrowly escaped being driven down by a tank and then found himself in a fire-fight with a German armed with a Bren Gun. Dauncey replied with his Luger and received a bullet in the thigh. His leg was dressed by a couple of Airborne soldiers and the three took shelter in a slit-trench. Looking round to see what had landed on his blind side, Lt Dauncey was hit in the face by the explosion from the object, a German grenade. His jaw was broken in two places and, although he could think clearly, he was very weak. He returned to the RAP and was, eventually, treated.
Evacuated to the Eye Hospital in Utrecht, Dauncey received excellent treatment. From here he was moved to the St Antonious German Prison Hospital. As in the case of Jock Bramah, whom we met earlier, Mike Dauncey effected a movie-style escape. With a Major from the Black Watch he climbed down knotted sheets, scaled a barbed wire fence and headed into the darkened streets. Aided by brave civilians the two men stayed with a doctor and his family until February. They were then helped to reach the Allied lines. Mike Dauncey returned to the UK where he continued to pursue his army career until retirement in 1976.
The definitive account of the GPR's role can be found in Glider Pilots at Arnhem by Mike Peters and Luuk Buist.
For an excellent account of the airborne battle see Martin Middlebrook's Arnhem 1944: The Airborne Battle.
Also, visit The Battle of Arnhem Archive
Operation 'Varsity' was the final attempt to winkle out the last segments of German defence and to strike for Berlin. The disaster at Arnhem had taught the Allies several lessons, and they were not about to turn this operation into a repeat performance. Because of the Regiment's great loss at Arnhem, this operation includedsome 1500 hundred RAF pilots who had undergone a conversion course for glider flying. Sixty percent of the Regiment's fatalities on 'Varsity' were from this group.
On 24 March, 1945, one lift carried 14000 men of the British 6th Airborne and the American 17th across the Rhine. To aid the first shock of the landing new Horsa Mk IIs were used. With a swing nose capability they enabled their loads to roll straight into battle. More use was also made of the giant Hamilcar gliders which could carry a light tank straight to the enemy. Lastly, gliders were to make tactical, rather than mass, landings in an attempt to spread the enemy's defences.
Capt Thomas McMillen carried a jeep, trailer and HQ section of 2nd Ox & Bucks under the command of Capt H J Sweeney. As his glider approached the LZ:
'...a very near burst (of ack-ack) went off under the starboard wing.'(extract, courtesy of David Brook, from 'The Eagle' - journal of the GPRA)
The strike had shattered the undercarriage and compressed air for the flap was leaking out. Literally 'flying on a wing and a prayer', McMillen managed to put the glider down in a clearing and used the starboard wing as a brake.
In the passenger section, Capt Sweeney was oblivious to all the concern:
'...All I knew was that Capt McMillen had suddenly dived down to earth and we landed...With the bullets pinging around us we then realised that we had landed between the autobahn and the River Issel.'(extract, courtesy of David Brook, from 'The Eagle' - journal of the GPRA)
Leaving the jeep and trailer, the glider's occupants waded the river to the shelter of its high bank. Making their way towards the railway station (their initial objective), they seemed to be surrounded by gliders crashing into the trees on each side of the river. Before too long there was a good number of casualties from these crashes, but also a formidable force of fit combatants, including a complete platoon from the Ox & Bucks:
'...We set off through the woods away from the river towards the railway line. As I called everyone to fall in Sgt Stevens...did not get up from where he had been behind the river bank. I went over to him to find him dead. He had unfortunately been shot through the head.'(extract, courtesy of David Brook, from 'The Eagle' - journal of the GPRA)
Despite all setbacks, all objectives were captured by 1300 hours and, less than 24 hours later, a physical link was made with 21st Army Group.
Writing after this operation, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, wrote:
'My heartiest congratulations on their (the Glider Pilots') wonderful performance in operations connected with the crossing of the Rhine. The skill and bravery displayed by them in this magnificent action of airborne forces will pass down to history as one of the highlights amongst the deeds of valour of this war.'
The Last Drop: Operation Varsity 24-25 March 1945 gives a full account of this operation.
The Mediterranean operations were carried out by the Regiment's Independent Squadron.
The assault on Sicily (Operation 'Husky') was the natural follow-up to the campaign in North Africa.
'Ladbroke' was the first, and larger, of the two landings in Sicily. It involved troops from the British 1st Airborne Division being landed close to the Ponte Grande bridge which they were to capture and hold.
Preparations for the operation were rushed. In May, pilots were required to build the CG-4A (Hadrian) gliders at La Senia airfield in Oran. In ten days they built fifty-two and these were then flown to Froha and Thiersville. A further three hundred and forty-six gliders were built by American maintenance teams. Within three days of being delivered (16 June), most of the gliders had been grounded for repairs. By the end of the month, tail-brace weakness meant that all the gliders were grounded.
At Froha, during the first three weeks of June, over 1800 tows were made to give the American tug pilots experience which they did not previously have. On the glider side of the operation, American pilots with less flying experience than their British counterparts, were given the task of conversion training on Hadrians.
All the Hadrians were towed to five airstrips near Sousse and Kairouan, on the Tunisian coast, from where the operation would begin. They joined nine Horsas which had been ferried in on Operation 'Turkey Buzzard'.
Disaster struck on the night of 6 July when the divisional ammunition dump, situated next to the tented camp, blew up. Amazingly no-one was injured, but a great deal of equipment was lost. The men of the Quartermaster's depot, as only they know how, managed to sort everything out in time for the 'off'.
Troops preparing for the Sicily landing
On the night of the operation a gale was blowing. In fact it had been blowing all day. Nevertheless, the tug/glider combinations took off on time. They had a 450 mile (725 km) flight ahead of them at an altitude of no more than 100 feet (30 m). In the poor weather conditions the glider pilots had to fight hard to keep station on their tug aircraft.
S/Sgt Jack Caslaw recalls:
'A message came from our tug - 'This is it, good luck fellas.' The four Dakotas cast off their charges and I took over...Then I saw we were going to ditch...I held her off, and off, until the tail contacted a wave top, and she just swashed down into the water; no-one even lost their footing.' (extract, courtesy of David Brook, from 'The Eagle' - journal of the GPRA)
Jack, his second pilot Sgt 'Andy' Anderson and their passengers were picked up by a British destroyer early the next morning.
US Glider Pilot Flight Officer Sam Fine, one of thirty volunteers as co-pilots in British gliders, was second pilot to S/Sgt 'Lofty' Wickner:
'As we flew along the coast of Sicily it was lit up with search-lights and anti-aircraft fire...I released and pulled the stick back...made a left turn and headed to shore through the search-light and anti-aircraft fire...I made a very nice touch down but was rolling too fast. As there was a stone wall ahead of me, I turned the glider to the left and hooked the left wing onto a tree. That stopped us very nicely...A shot rang out (and) I was knocked out of my seat.' (extract, courtesy of David Brook, from 'The Eagle' - journal of the GPRA)
All the glider's occupants got away and quickly joined up with another group of airborne soldiers. Sam Fine's group marched to the bridge.
S/Sgt Dennis Galpin was carrying 15 Platoon, 2nd Battalion South Staffs under command of Lt L Withers. As with F/O Fine's glider, this one also attracted searchlights and anti-aircraft fire.
Having evaded this fire, by flying out over the sea, Galpin decided to head straight for the bridge at low-level. The searchlight followed his glider and kindly illuminated the LZ.
The bridge was captured quite quickly and, by dawn, the small force of defenders had been joined by other airborne troops and glider pilots. Here they waited for the inevitable Italian counter-attack.
Around 1000 hours a battalion of enemy infantry, supported with artillery and mortars, arrived at the bridge. A ferocious battle ensued, but the Italians were unable to dislodge the British troops who suffered horrendous casualties. Eventually, though, the survivors were left with no option but to surrender. They were taken prisoner but were not held captive for long. The British ground force swept in and released them. Sam Fine's wounds were seen to at a field hospital. Sadly, 'Lofty' Wickner did not survive the fight at the Bridge.
Three hundred other British Airborne troops had perished in the sea of Sicily. Gen John Hackett explains:
"The operation was a disaster. US Troop Carrier Command tug pilots, flying C-47s with no crew protection and no self-sealing tanks, with virtually no military experience, were panic-stricken at their first encounter with flak and cast off their Horsa gliders over the sea at night, facing high wind, too far out for most to make landfall."
This operation was the glider-borne section of a 1st Parachute Brigade assault on the Primasole Bridge. Nineteen gliders were to carry members of the 1st Airlanding Anti-tank Battery Royal Artillery.
All the gliders took off successfully, but were disrupted in their final approach by anti-aircraft fire. The first source was Allied warships which took the tug aircraft for enemy fighters. The second source was actual enemy batteries on land. Eleven of the gliders were shot down by the enemy fire.
The Bridge was taken and held by a combined force of paratroops and glider pilots. They were supplemented with three 6-pdr guns. The pilots worked these with the Royal Artillery gunners. The position was held until the 15th when infantry and armour of 13 Corps came through.
The three operations of 1944 were carried out in daylight.
'Bunghole' involved three Hadrians carrying a Russian military mission to meet up with Tito and his partisan force.
The gliders took off at 1100 hours on a 250 mile (402 km) flight to the valley of the River Una. Two hours and fifteen minutes later the gliders sank into the snowy landing zone. The crews joined in the partisan life for the next few weeks until a RAF Dakota could get into the valley and return them to base.
This was the airborne element of the invasion of Southern France and was carried out by 1st Airborne Task Force (a mix of Allied gliders and paratroops).
The Independent Squadron supplied thirty-five crews, flying Horsas. On the day of the landing, a thick fog gathered over the LZ. and the Horsa combinations were recalled, because it was felt that their greater weight would not allow the tugs sufficient fuel to keep circling and then return to base. After refuelling, the Horsas were taken back to France as part of the main lift in the afternoon.
A number of fields, on and around the landing zones, contained anti-landing poles, similar to those used in Normandy. In addition, and somewhat unexpectedly, an enemy group had re-entered the area shortly beforehand. Sgt Roy Jenner was killed by artillery fire, as he was on final approach; he was the Regiment's only fatality on the operation. Three members were seriously injured on landing, including the Squadron CO, Maj G A R Coulthard,, who overshot the zone and crashed into a wood.
Overall, the entire operation was a complete success and the amphibious forces passed through the airborne bridgehead. They linked up with troops who had entered France through Normandy within a month of 'Dragoon'.
The aim of this operation was to land troops and equipment at Megara to assist in the liberation and occupation of Athens.
On 13th, six Hadrians, four of them carrying bulldozers, landed successfully. The following day, a further thirty-four Hadrians also landed successfully with their loads of troops and jeeps.