Prompted by the successful use of parachute and glider forces by the Germans in May 1940, most notably on the well-defended fortress of Eben-Emael in Belgium by a force of troop-carrying DFS230 gliders, Winston Churchill directed that a parachute force of 5,000 troops should be formed.
As the RAF doubted whether they would be able to provide sufficient troop-carrying aircraft for a unit of this size, it was decided that a glider-borne force should complement the paratroops. Thus, the Glider Pilot Regiment was born and it, along with the Parachute Regiment and the Special Air Service Regiment, formed the first Army Air Corps (AAC).
Volunteer Army pilots started to train on former civilian sailplanes from September 1940 by which time specifications had been written for a family of operational gliders. These were to be mass-produced mainly from wood with established aircraft companies responsible for the design and prototypes and furniture manufacturers mobilised to make them.
New designs appeared – the Hotspur which was used mostly for training, the versatile Horsa and the heavy-lift Hamilcar were those principally used by the British forces. These were augmented by the American designed and built Waco Hadrian.
Horsas were first used operationally in November 1942 when two carrying Royal Engineers were towed off by Handley Page Halifaxes from an airfield in Scotland at night in appalling weather conditions. This unsuccessful mission, codenamed Operation FRESHMAN, was intended to attack a German heavy water plant in Norway.
The first time gliders were used in large numbers was in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. It had only limited success as many of the gliders were released prematurely before crossing the coastline and many landed in the sea.
The next major glider-borne operation was the invasion of Normandy. Shortly after midnight on D-Day, 6th June 1944, coup-de-main parties of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were landed by Horsa to seize and hold two bridges across the Orne and Caen canal. In September 1944, over 600 gliders were used to land troops and equipment near Arnhem and on 24th March 1945 the final glider-borne operation of the war took place when over 400 gliders crossed the River Rhine into Germany.
The original Army Air Corps was disbanded in 1950. As the need for gliders diminished, members of the Glider Pilot Regiment transferred to light aircraft and manned the RAF Light Liaison Flights. The Regiment was finally disbanded in 1957 when it was amalgamated with the Air O.P. Squadrons to form the Army Air Corps of today.
You can learn more about Gilder Pilot Regiment Operations here:
Operation FRESHMAN (Norway)
Anniversary of Operation FRESHMAN – 19 November 1942The first airborne operation of the Second World War to use gliders took place on19 November 1942, under the codename Operation FRESHMAN. The objective of this operation was to destroy the heavy-water plant at Vemork in Telemark County, Norway. This plant was essential to the development and production of a Nazi-built atomic bomb.Thirty members of 9 (Airborne) Field Company and 261 Field Park Company Royal Engineers would form two-self-contained teams of 15 soldiers for the raid, and these troops would be carried in two Airspeed Horsa gliders, tugged by two Handley-Page Halifax bombers, to the target. Norwegian Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents would mark the landing zone (LZ) with radio beacons which could be received by the pilots so they knew where to land.Operation FRESHMANThe tug-glider combinations took off from RAF Skitten, a satellite station of RAF Wick in the extreme northeast of Scotland. The first combination was piloted by Staff Sergeant Strathdee and Sergeant Doig of the Glider Pilot Regiment (GPR), and the second by Pilot Officers Davies and Fraser of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The first combination took off at 17:50, with the second following twenty minutes later at 18:10. The weather was far from ideal, but it was feared that it would deteriorate further and force a postponement of the operation if the gliders did not take off as planned.The first combination managed to reach Norway despite the worsening weather, only to find that their radio receiver was faulty, and could not pick up the transponder signal from the ground. Thus, they attempted to find their LZ using their maps, although the poor weather and heavy cloud made this almost impossible.Still attempting to find the LZ, the combination flew into thick clouds and ice began to form on the aircraft, and they began to lose altitude. At around midnight, the tow rope between the tug and glider snapped, releasing the glider unexpectedly. The Halifax tug, low on fuel, only just managed to make it back to Skitten, landing in the early hours of 20 November. The glider crash-landed, and the two GPR pilots and six of the Engineers were killed on impact. Only five of the Engineers were unhurt, but all nine survivors were sheltered by some local Norwegian farmers until the following afternoon, when Waffen SS troops from a nearby German camp discovered them and quickly took the British soldiers prisoner.The second combination managed to reach the coast of Norway but, for unknown reasons, the tug aircraft released the glider, which crashed at around 23:45. The tug crashed some ten minutes later, flying into a mountain at Hestadfjell and killing the whole crew. The released glider had spiralled out of control and crash-landed in the mountains, killing seven of the men aboard instantly, including both RAAF pilots. Unwilling to leave the seriously wounded, two of the Engineers left the crash site to search for help. After speaking to the local residents of a nearby German-occupied town and believing there was no alternative, the British troops conceded to surrender to the Germans as prisoners of war. After their arrest, the British prisoners were taken to the German camp at Slettebo.Many of the details about the fate of the British troops of Operation FRESHMAN were only discovered after the war had ended. Of the four injured men of the first combination, three were tortured by the Gestapo, and all four had been killed within a day of their capture. The other survivors from this combination were held at a concentration camp at Grini until 18 January 1943, when they were taken to nearby woods, blindfolded and executed by Gestapo troops. The survivors of the second combination were interrogated and executed within a few hours of their capture at the German barracks at Bekkebo.When the British 1st Airborne Division liberated Norway in May 1945, several captured Nazi personnel were implicated in the decision to execute the British prisoners from the failed operation. War trials were held from 10-14 December 1945, and many, including the Commander of the German forces in Norway, were found guilty of War Crimes.Despite being a failure, Operation FRESHMAN did highlight the potential range and advantages of glider operations. It also highlighted the shortcomings of certain pieces of equipment, which were duly rectified, and led to the success of future glider operations.
Operation HUSKY (Sicily)
Anniversary of Operation HUSKY – 9 July 1943During the Second World War, Operation HUSKY was the codename given to the Allied invasion of Sicily. The airborne part of this was the first major Glider Pilot Regiment (GPR) operation of the war.Operation HUSKYAfter Sicily was selected as the Allied objective during the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, planning began for two British airborne landings in July. The first was codenamed Operation LADBROKE and the second Operation FUSTIAN.
- Operation LADBROKE was planned as a night-time operation, to take place during the night of 9-10 July. It would involve the Glider Pilot Regiment and the 1st Airlanding Brigade, which included the 1st Border Regiment and the 2nd South Staffords.
- Operation FUSTIAN was planned as another night-time operation, to take place during the night of 13-14 July. It would involve the Glider Pilot Regiment, the 1st Parachute Brigade and 1st Airlanding Anti-tank Battery Royal Artillery.
Operation ELABORATE (N. Africa)
Anniversary of Operation ELABORATE – 15 August 1943After the successful invasion of Sicily (Operation HUSKY) in July 1944, the Glider Pilot Regiment (GPR) needed to reinforce their units stationed in North Africa for future operations. Operation ELABORATE took place in August and September 1943 and involved the transportation of Airspeed Horsa gliders from the United Kingdom to North Africa in preparation for these further operations in the Mediterranean Theatre.Operation ELABORATE After the heavy losses of gliders sustained during the invasion of Sicily, it was decided that 25 Horsa gliders should be sent to North Africa between 15 August and 23 September 1943 to reinforce the GPR units in the Mediterranean. Horsas could carry more than twice as many men as the CG4-A Waco (Hadrian) gliders that had been used in the main during the Sicily invasion, which meant that fewer tug planes would be required to deliver the same amount of troops on future operations.Horsas were also big enough to carry a six-pound anti-tank gun, the jeep to transport it and the crew and ammunition to use it, and deliver them together as a complete, battle-ready unit. A problem encountered on the Sicily operations was that Hadrian gliders were only big enough to carry the six-pounder or its jeep, increasing the chances of these two essential parts landing far apart on a battlefield or worse, one element being shot down on landing. If the jeep-carrying glider was lost, the partner six-pounder was left immobile and useless.For Operation ELABORATE, the plan was for Royal Air Force Halifaxes of No. 295 Squadron to tow the gliders from Portreath, Cornwall to Salé, Morocco; a perilously long journey of over 1,600 miles. The gliders were to be manned by three glider pilots instead of the usual two, in order to share the strain of being continuously airborne for this amount of time. However, the greatest danger to the tug-and-glider combinations was that the planned route to Morocco was in range of the German fighter units stationed along the Bay of Biscay in German-occupied France. This leg of the journey would be the most dangerous by far, until the combinations were far enough south to be out of range of enemy aircraft.Ten separate lifts took place over the following weeks and on 18 September the twenty-third Halifax-Horsa combination took off from Portreath, with the glider piloted by Lieutenant Prout and Sergeants Hill and Flynn. By 11:00 the tug-and-glider combination was flying in conditions of low-cloud and rain off the coast of Portugal at approximately 1,000 feet when twelve German Junker Ju88s attacked. The glider released its tow rope to give its tug the chance to defend itself, and crashing into the sea, the three glider pilots emerged from the wreckage in their inflatable dingy. Coming directly under fire from the German aircraft, the Halifax then engaged the nearest Ju88s and Sergeant John Grant, the rear-gunner, managed to shoot one down and force the other to disengage. Six hours later, the pilots were picked up the Royal Navy ship HMS Sale. The tug aircraft, badly damaged and full of bullet holes, eventually managed to reach Salé. Sergeant Grant was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his actions.Fifteen of the twenty-five combinations that left Portreath arrived successfully in Morocco, and the only GPR casualties of the operation were the three-strong crew of one glider that unexpectedly crashed in the sea off the coast of Portugal on 23 September. In addition to this glider and the other mentioned above, a further eight gliders didn’t reach North Africa; two returned to base after experiencing problems soon after take-off, three ditched in the sea and two force-landed and one more crashed in Portugal.Operation ELABORATE was an impressive achievement, and the fifteen Horsa gliders that arrived in North Africa proved a valuable asset to the GPR in the Mediterranean Theatre and the operations they were involved in the following year.
Operation NEPTUNE (D-Day)
Anniversary of Operation NEPTUNE – 6 June 1944During the Second World War, Operation OVERLORD was the codename given to the Allied invasion of German-occupied France in 1944. This is now commonly known as D-Day.The wide scale airborne landings in Normandy on 6 June and the massed beach landings were known collectively as Operation NEPTUNE, and formed a large and important part of Operation OVERLORD.Operation NEPTUNEThe airborne part of Operation NEPTUNE involved troops delivered directly to the battlefield by glider and parachute. These troops were some of the first onto European soil during the invasion, and were a combination of two smaller operations:
- Operation TONGA – a night-time operation that took place during the night of 5-6 June, involving the Glider Pilot Regiment and 3 Parachute Brigade and 5 Parachute Brigade.
- Operation MALLARD – a day-time operation that took place during the afternoon of 6 June, involving the Glider Pilot Regiment and 6 Airborne Division.
- To capture and hold the bridges over the CaenCanal and OrneRiver (this was known as the coup-de-main)
- To destroy the German artillery battery at Merville
- To secure the areas between the OrneCanal and the River Dives.
Anniversary of Operation DRAGOON – 15 August 1944Operation DRAGOON was the codename eventually given to the Allied invasion of Southern France during the Second World War. Originally called Operation ANVIL, this invasion was planned to coincide with the D-Day landings in Normandy in the summer of 1944. However Allied commanders did not want to overstretch the forces that were already deployed elsewhere in Europe, so the invasion of Southern France was postponed. But, after Allied forces captured Rome in May and the success of the D-Day landings in June, the invasion of Southern France was reconsidered and reformed as Operation DRAGOON. Operation DRAGOONOperation DRAGOON involved British, American, Free French and Canadian forces and was mounted from Italy on 15 August 1944. The Glider Pilot Regiment’s (GPR) 1st Independent Squadron was tasked with delivering artillery support to the 2nd Parachute Brigade, and carried the 300th Airlanding Anti-tank Battery ra and 64th Light Battery ra in 35 Horsa gliders to their targets.A strong foothold was needed so the Allied invasion forces could achieve their main objective of:
- establishing a large bridgehead in the St. Tropez area. This would stretch 50 miles along the coast and 20 miles inland, enabling Allied forces to capture the main ports of Toulon and Marseille.
- to capture the smaller ports of St. Raphael and St. Tropez to allow supplies to be delivered by sea. The surrounding flat areas could also be used to build airfields to support the operation and subsequent advances.
- to liberate Cannes and Nice and advance northwards up the River Argens valley.
Operation MARKET GARDEN
Anniversary of Operation MARKET GARDEN – 17 September 1944After the successful airborne operations during the invasion of occupied-France during the summer of 1944 (Operation NEPTUNE in Normandy and Operation DRAGOON in the south of France), the Allied High Command turned their attention to crossing the Rhine and entering Germany.The 1st Airborne Division was composed of 1st Airlanding Brigade, the 1st and 4th Parachute Brigades, the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade, and to which the Glider Pilot Regiment (GPR) were attached. The Division had been on constant stand-by since the invasions and, after 16 cancellations, their involvement in the attempt to cross the Rhine was confirmed for17 September 1944.Operation MARKET GARDENThe main objective of the operation was to capture a series of bridges across the River Rhine, the River Maas and other smaller tributaries and canals in order to mount a rapid invasion of northern Germany. This would allow the Allies to capture of the industrial heartland of Germany in the Ruhr Valley, hopefully ending the war by Christmas 1944.The GARDEN element of the operation was the main armoured advance up Highway 69; a route that began in Belgium and would cross all of the captured bridges and culminate at the last bridge in the sequence, the road bridge at Arnhem, 64 miles from the starting point.The bridge at Arnhem was the target of the 1st Airborne, which was of vital importance because it allowed a route into Germany which would bypass the Maginot Line; a series of heavy fortifications along the France-Germany border.MARKET was the airborne side of the operation, and the GPR would deliver the troops, weapons and equipment of the 1st Airborne into Arnhem using nearly 700 gliders; 658 Airspeed Horsas, 29 General Aircraft Hamilcars and 10 CG4-A Waco (Hadrians). It was the largest airborne operation of the war, and involved three lifts over the first three days of the operation. 359 gliders were involved in the first lift, 297 in the second, and the final 44 gliders took off as part of the third.The landings on the first day were relatively successful, and the north end of bridge at Arnhem captured in the evening of the first day by around 750 men of 2 Para Battalion and other units. Advances were made to reinforce their position, but were headed off by German reinforcements, and all attempts to reach them over the next few days failed. The men on the bridge were surrounded and cut off.After three days of heavy fighting, resistance at the bridge ceased, and the surviving British forces surrendered to the Germans. To the west of Arnhem, the remaining troops of the1st Airborne, including the majority of the GPR on the ground, formed a defensive perimeter in the Oosterbeek area in an attempt to hold the bridgehead they had established. They hoped to be able to hold for long enough for the main British advance to reach them. Due to severe delays, supply issues and strong German resistance at the other bridges along the route, the advance never reached Arnhem.Desperate fighting followed, and an operation that was supposed to last no more than two days dragged on for over a week. At dawn on 25 September, the ninth day of the operation, the remnants of the 1st Airborne received orders to withdraw under cover of darkness. During the night, the retreating troops were ferried across the Rhine and returned to the nearby town of Nijmegen, where the main British advance had stalled.Major General Roy Urquhart, the Commanding officer of the 1st Airborne, wrote that the men of the GPR “played all kinds of parts but everything they were asked to do they did wholeheartedly. I'm afraid [their] losses were rather heavy.”The GPR casualties were indeed heavy; 229 men of the regiment were killed at Arnhem, with 469 more wounded or taken as prisoners. 40 awards for gallantry were bestowed on GPR personnel for their brave service over those fateful nine days on the ground in Holland.The war dragged on, and it was not until the wide scale operations in March 1945 that the Allies finally managed to cross the Rhine and enter Germany.
Anniversary of Operation MOLTEN – 9 October 1944Throughout the summer of 1944, the Glider Pilot Regiment (GPR) had been heavily involved in a series of large Allied operations; Operation NEPTUNE (northern France) in June, Operation DRAGOON (southern France) in August and Operation MARKET GARDEN (Holland) in September. All of these operations made up the initial invasion of, and subsequent advance through, the German-occupied areas of northwest Europe. In October, it was decided that the elements of the GPR posted in northern Italy should be reinforced for any future airborne operations that were currently still in the planning stages.Operation MOLTEN was the codename given to the ferrying of thirty-two Airspeed Horsa gliders from RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire to Chiampino airbase, on the outskirts of Rome, Italy. These gliders would be under the command of Major J F Lyne gpr, and would be towed by Stirling IV aircraft of 190 and 620 Squadrons RAF.Operation MOLTENOn 4 October, Major Lyne and the pilots of ‘D’ Squadron GPR reported to RAF Fairford for their mission briefing. Here the details of the operation were finalised, with a stop at Istres airfield, near Marseille on the south coast of France, included on the journey to their final destination of Italy.The first of the gliders took off at 10:00 on 9 October, towed by a Stirling of 190 Squadron. By 16:00 on the same day, twenty-nine of the combinations had landed successfully at Istres. Of the thirty-two that had left Fairford, one had cast off its tow in cloud over Swindon, while another two had lost their tow plane over France; one landed near Bayonne and another near Toulouse. In addition, two of those that reached Istres suffered damage to their wings on landing, leaving twenty-seven airworthy Horsas ready for the remainder of the operation. That evening, the tired crews of the GPR arranged their gliders on the airstrip, ready for take-off the following morning.After the final preparations for the journey to Chiampino were completed on the morning of 10 October, the first of the remaining twenty-seven gliders was ready to go. Take-offs commenced at midday and by 16:30 that afternoon all twenty-seven had touched down in Italy. The US Army garrison at Chiampino provided food and billeting to the exhausted glider pilots. The two damaged Horsas remained in France with their crews and, once repaired, they joined the rest of their squadron in Italy.Operation MOLTEN was a success, with twenty-seven of the original thirty-two gliders reaching their destination after ten hours of flying over a two-day period. Once in Italy, Major Lyne ordered that the gliders be placed under armed guard, in case parts of their wooden frame began disappearing courtesy of the local populace, who wanted to use them for firewood. This guard duty was performed by the glider pilots themselves until a detachment of 2nd Parachute Brigade were detailed to the airfield for sentry duty.After much debate and deliberation, the sixty glider pilots that were involved in the operation were eventually picked up by C-47 Dakotas, which carried them back to England on 17 October, eight days after they had left for Italy.
Anniversary of Operation MANNA – 12 October 1944After joining the Second World War on 28 October 1940, the Greek military initially enjoyed success against the invading Italian forces that were advancing through Albania. However in early in 1941, Germany began a concerted invasion of Greece in retaliation. Despite aid from a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of over 60,000 men, the Germans successfully completed their occupation of Greece with the capture of the island of Crete, with the whole occupation taking less than a month. The BEF subsequently withdrew, and it was not until late 1944 that the British would return.Operation MANNA took place in October 1944, and was part of the British-led liberation of Greece. The Glider Pilot Regiment (GPR) would support the 2nd Parachute Brigade (2 PARA) in first securing Megara Airfield, and then liberating German-occupied Athens.Operation MANNAThe initial objective of the operation was to secure Megara Airfield, which was some28 miles outside of Athens. Towed by American Dakotas, the GPR would land twenty-six CG4-A Waco (Hadrian) gliders at Megara. These would deliver heavy equipment and support to 2 PARA, and then assist with the liberation on the ground. The arrival of British troops would also allow the British to actively support the Greek Government, who were resisting an attempted take-over from the Communist-led Greek People's Liberation Army (ELAS).On 12 October, elements of 2 PARA were dropped onto the airfield at Megara. On the same day, German forces evacuated Athens; the recent advance of Russian troops through Yugoslavia coupled with the impending British landings forcing them to withdraw. Bad weather over the next few days prohibited any further support arriving by parachute until 14 October.In the meantime, a debate was raging about whether or not Hadrian gliders could safely carry bulldozers into Greece. This was potentially risky for two reasons; firstly, the terrain around Megara was less than ideal for glider landings and the airstrip also was heavily mined. Secondly, a Hadrian wasn’t built to carry the weight of a two-ton bulldozer, which about 1000lbs above the maximum load for the glider. The idea was initially discarded due to the risk to the pilots. However, because the advance party of 2 PARA had come under heavy shell fire at Megara, bulldozers were deemed essential so they could level-out the airstrip for the main landing party. The first six Hadrian gliders left Manduria airfield, in southeast Italy, on 13 October and delivered bulldozers and supplies to the troops on the ground at Megara. Three days later, on 16 October, the other twenty Hadrians arrived, carrying one further bulldozer as well as 6-pound anti-tank guns and jeeps for their transportation.The GPR and 2 PARA entered Athens in a jeep convoy and were met with Greeks celebrating of their liberation. Once billeted near to their gliders, the pilots assisted the PARAs with their routine maintenance checks to ensure that all was well in the city. However, as the political situation in Athens deteriorated, fighting broke out between ELAS militants and Greek Royalist supporters. Soon the men of the GPR and the PARAs were mounting a 24-hour guard, and Major McMillen gpr was put in effective control of the military presence in Athens; he would go on to liaise with local heads of the community during the build-up to the Greek Governmental free elections in an attempt to keep hostilities to a minimum.However, the British troops were slowly sucked into intense street fighting and, by the time the men of the GPR were withdrawn back to Italy on 5 December 1944, vicious riots had broken out in the streets of Athens. An uneasy cease-fire could only be partially maintained, while attempts at disarming the various partisan factions were met with wildly different degrees of success.As well as trying to contain the escalating violence between the Greek factions in Athens, feeding of the local populace was paramount. 2 PARA continued to feed 20,000 civilians each day until their withdrawal in January 1945. The restoration of the Greek Monarchy allowed a brief respite for the people of Athens, but the underlying tensions that had been brewing could not be prevented from eventually igniting in March 1946. The civil war that erupted would rage on for four years, and cause the deaths of around 40,000 people.