WW2 History:
Following is an article on the British Glider Pilot Regiment, a highly-trained and integral part of all Commonwealth WW2 airborne operations.


The Glider Pilot Regiment
1942-1957
By: Tony S, 3rd Para Bde.

The Glider Pilot Regiment was formed in 1942 as part of the newly raised Airborne Forces. Originally both the Glider Pilot Regiment and the Parachute Regiment formed the Army Air Corps of the British Army. The Parachute Regiment adopted its own distinctive cap badge, so the Glider Pilot Regiment and two of the independent Parachute Companies were the only units that used the "AAC" cap badge during the war.

From its inception the regiment was faced with constant struggle. Its original commander Lt. Col. Rock was killed in a training accident. Command of the regiment fell to the second in command, Lt. Col. George Chatterton, who would command the regiment for the rest of the war. It also faced opposition from many in the Royal Air Force who viewed the regiment as an infringement on their territory. In fact, for the Rhine crossing airborne operation the RAF supplied many replacement glider pilots due to the heavy losses suffered by the Glider Pilot Regiment at Arnhem.



The British Army viewed the Glider Pilot as an extremely important asset to be highly trained and utilized in the most daring undertakings of the war. Volunteers for the Regiment had to be at least the rank of Sergeant, "be of exceptional high educational and medical standard", and be able to pass the RAF Aircrew Selection Board. This insured that the candidate was already a highly trained soldier and had passed many physical challenges required of a Glider Pilot. Physical training was carried out by two Brigade of Guards Warrant Officers, veterans of this training recall that these two Warrant Officers were harsh disciplinarians who insisted on spit and polish as well as physical conditioning and perfection in their flying training. This was part of the British Army's "Total Soldier" concept for the Glider Pilot. The army realized that the Glider Pilot would have to be an expert at flying his aircraft and be able to transition immediately to a experienced British Army NCO capable of leading troops in combat. As part of this concept the Glider Pilots were expected to become expert at every type of weapon and equipment used by the Airborne Forces. This included Bren Guns, Jeepsm, the Piat, and of course being able to successfully land his glider!

The Regiment's first operation was "Operation Freshman" which was a sabotage raid on the Norsk hydroelectric power plant in Norway. Unfortunately this operation was not successful through no fault of its participants. The regiment suffered its first casualties when the pilots were both killed in the crash of their glider.

The next operation involved the ferrying of Horsa gliders from Great Britain to Morocco. This operation was hazardous as well, with several gliders being shot down over the Bay of Biscay by German fighters. During this operation five Glider Pilots lost their lives.

The invasion of Sicily would be the Glider Pilot Regiment's first full scale action. Unfortunately this airborne operation had many flaws in it. Among them was the selection of landing zones for the gliders that were bordered by rock walls, strewn with impediments, and partially wooded. These were disastrous conditions for a glider landing. Lt. Col. Chatterton, the regiment's commander, expressed grave concerns about these conditions and was given the option of being relieved of his command or go forward with the plans he was given. As predicted the Regiment suffered heavy losses both in pilots and aircraft. Due to inexperience on the part of the USAAF tug pilots most of the gliders landed off course or in the sea. Of the 145 gliders taking part in the invasion only 54 gliders actually landed in Sicily, the rest had landed in the sea, many having been released 3000 yards or more off of the coast. Operations in the Mediterranean Theater would continue throughout the war. Glider Pilots took part in resupply operations to Marshal Tito's partisans, the invasion of Southern France, and the invasion and occupation of Athens, Greece in late 1944.



Probably the most famous operation the Glider Pilot Regiment participated in was the coup de main attack on the Caen Canal Bridge, later known as "Pegasus Bridge". This attack consisted of six Horsa gliders. These specially picked and trained glider crews underwent intensive training for the night landing scheduled for early June. This landing would be the initial action in Operation Overlord, the Invasion of Normandy. This operation was an unqualified success with all but one of the gliders landing within yards of their targets.

(Authors Note: I've had the privilege of corresponding with S.Sgt Jim Wallwork, who piloted Glider No. 1 into Pegasus Bridge. Mr. Wallwork participated in Normandy, Arnhem, and the Rhine operations. He was one of the few in the Regiment who survived to claim that honor. I was also privileged to see and touch a Perspex fragment from his glider that he kept. What a humbling experience holding a piece of the first glider to land at Pegasus Bridge in the Invasion of Normandy!)

The airborne invasion of Normandy consisted of several waves. The first wave consisted of the six Horsas carrying D Company of the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry plus a platoon of Sappers and equipment assigned to the coup de main attack on the river and canal bridges. These gliders landed at approximately 0015 Hours the morning of June 6th. The second wave consisted of 17 Horsa gliders which carried the 3rd Para Brigade HQ, elements of 1 Canadian Para Battalion, field ambulance units, AT Guns, and Heavy weapons and equipment. This wave landed between 0026 and 0046. The third wave was made up of 68 Horsas and 4 of the huge Hamilcars gliders. This wave arrived at approximately 0300 in the morning. It carried 6th Airborne HQ, elements of the 6th Airlanding Brigade, and heavy 17-pounder AT guns and towing vehicles carried in Hamilcars. Three of the Horsas in this wave were to cast off and crash land atop of the Merville Battery to reinforce the attack by A Coy, 9th Para Battalion. The fourth and final wave landed at 2100 hours and consisted of 30 Hamilcars and 226 Horsas. This landing carried the rest of the 6th Airlanding Brigade. One interesting note about this glider invasion of Normandy was that it was the first time in history an Armored Formation had been flown into Combat. The 6th Airborne Armored Reconnaissance Regiment was flown in 29 Hamilcar gliders. These gliders carried "Dingo" armored scout cars, "Bren Gun" universal carriers, and "Tetrarch" Airborne Tanks. This ended the Glider Pilot Regiment's participation in the Normandy invasion, but not without the loss of 34 pilots killed in action along with many more injured or wounded.


After the invasion of Normandy a small flight of the regiment, called "X" flight, was involved with the landing of a French SAS unit behind German lines in the Brittany peninsula. This unit was comprised of ten heavily armed SAS jeeps and thirty-five French members of the SAS. This unit was to reinforce the 4th French Parachute Battalion fighting with the Maquis. The flight consisted of ten Horsas, which executed the landing without any difficulty, and the Glider Pilots arrived back in England eleven days later. The pilots were especially happy to return to Allied lines due to the fact that there was a bounty offered by the Germans of 20,000 francs for their capture, dead or alive.


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Arnhem: this name conjures up thoughts of military disasters in the minds of most military historians. The Glider Pilot Regiment suffered terrible losses during Operation Market-Garden. However, the skill, bravery and experience of the Glider Pilots would stand out during the battle for Arnhem. The regiment was wholly committed for Market-Garden; 1378 pilots were neede, fully 90% of the entire regiment. The first lift of gliders consisted of 304 Horsas, 13 Hamilcars, and 4 American CG-4A Hadrians. This lift carried 1st Airborne Divisional HQ, elements of 1st Air-Landing Brigade, 1st Air-landing AT Battery, 1st Air-Landing Light Regiment RA, field ambulance units, and heavy equipment. The second lift consisted of 32 Horsas and 6 American CG-4A's. This lift carried 1st Airborne Corps HQ to Nijmegen. (This second lift would become very controversial to historians. It is believed that General Browning, 1st Airborne Corps Commander should have stayed in England instead of using enough gliders to carry an infantry battalion to land him, his HQ and staff. Many believe that this "extra" battalion could have made the difference at the Arnhem Bridge or defending the Arnhem pocket.)

These first two lifts landed on 17 September 1944. The third lift was delayed five hours and finally landed late on September 18th. This lift was made up of 275 Horsas, 15 Hamilcars, and 4 Hadrians. It carried more elements of the 1st Air-Landing Brigade, 2nd Air-Landing AT Battery, elements of the 1st and 4th Parachute Battalions, and part of the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade. The fourth lift landed on September 19th and consisted of 43 Horsas and 1 Hamilcar. This last lift suffered heavy casualties due to the landing zones being overrun by the enemy as well as being under constant fire. Airborne doctrine called for the withdrawal of the highly trained Glider Pilots as soon as possible after securing and defending their respective glider loads. However, during the battle for Arnhem this was of course impossible. For instance some 21 Glider Pilots fought with Col. Frost and the rest of the 2nd Parachute Battalion during the epic battle for the Arnhem Bridge. Another pilot Lt. M.D.K. Dauncy was recommended for the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military honor. Lt. Dauncy, wounded some four times, led defenders of the divisional artillery positions during numerous attacks and led several counterattacks. When the position was about to be overrun by a German self-propelled gun, Lt. Dauncy assaulted the vehicle single-handed with the only AT weapon left, gammon bombs. Subsequently captured due to his severe wounds he later escaped and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. When the 1st Airborne Division was withdrawn back across the Rhine, it was the soldiers of the Glider Pilot Regiment that were to act as guides, showing the divisions tired soldiers the way to safety. The regiment suffered heavily from this battle. 229 pilots had been killed, and 469 had been wounded or captured. It would be next to impossible for the regiment to recruit and train the necessary replacements for any further operations.



The next operation would be the last of World War II. Named Operation Varsity, it was planned to put the Allied Airborne forces across the Rhine River into Germany. This operation called for a huge airborne lift of 440 gliders, the largest single lift ever attempted. Due to the heavy losses at Arnhem, the regiment would be severely short of pilots. The only trained pilots available were those of the Royal Air Force Reserve Pool. Some 1500 RAF pilots were transferred to the Regiment up until December 8, 1945. These RAF pilots were given a crash course in small arms, infantry tactics, and conversion courses to the Horsa and Hamilcar gliders. As much as possible RAF pilots would be paired with Army Glider Pilots when forming glider crews. The lessons learned at Arnhem meant that the glider landing would be made all at once, instead of smaller lifts made over several days.

The first gliders to land were the coup de main force made up of troops from the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, landing at 1021 hours on March 24, 1945. These troops were carried by eight Horsa gliders and were tasked with capturing two road bridges and one railroad bridge. Next in at 1023 hours were 58 Horsas carrying elements of the 6th Airlanding Brigade. Another bridge coup de main force made up of troops from the Royal Ulster Rifles landed at 1022 hours in seven Horsa gliders. At 1028 hours 59 Horsas landed carrying further elements of the airlanding Brigade. The Airlanding Brigade HQ and more elements of the division landed at 1034 hours in 88 Horsas and six Hamilcars. The landing continued with 116 Horsas and 28 Hamilcars landing at 1035 Hours, and 55 Horsas and 15 Hamilcars landing at 1057 hours.

Although these landing took place over six landing zones, the congestion and organization involved was massive with all gliders landing within an hour's time. Many veterans recall the intense flak of the Rhine crossing. Again the glider losses were heavy, some 75% of all gliders were hit by flak, many either disintegrating before landing or crashing in flames. Again the pilots of the regiment displayed remarkable courage. One pilot, Sergeant-Major Turnbull, was piloting his aircraft in for a landing when a Dakota (C-47) flew across his flight path, its tow rope striking and ripping off the starboard aileron. The tow rope wrapped itself around the Horsa's cockpit, smashing the Perspex, ripping out the flap and brake controls and ripped half of the control column out of the glider. The Horsa was now turned on its back plunging towards the ground. SM Turnbull coolly regained control with what was left of his control column, landed safely in his allotted LZ and went into combat with the glider troops he carried. For his feat SM Turnbull was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, the ONLY soldier to receive this decoration in WWII. The glider pilots were withdrawn from the fighting within days and returned to England.

The Glider Pilot Regiment served on after the war as part of the British Armies Airborne Forces. Serving in Palestine as peace keepers, acting as "second pilots" during the Berlin Airlift, and as artillery spotters/pilots serving in Malaya and Korea. The Glider Pilot Regiment was disbanded on July 12, 1957. Its role being taken by the formation of a new "Army Air Corps" which encompassed all of the Army support flying needs. The advent of the jet age had made glider landings obsolete.

INSIGNIA Glider pilots during WWII wore the British Army Air Corps or "AAC" cap badge exclusively. The often seen "Glider Pilot Regiment" cap badge was actually a post-war hat badge adopted in 1950. Their shoulder titles were either the "Glider Pilot Regiment" title or early war photographs show a "Army Air Corps" title. Pilots also wore the famed Pegasus patch as well as "Airborne" titles. Glider pilots were either qualified as "1st Pilots" who wore the large RAF style wings with the Kings Crown and Lion, or "2nd Pilots" who wore a smaller style wing with a simple "G" within a circle. 1st Pilots were at least the rank of staff Sergeant, while 2nd pilots were Sergeants. RAF pilots attached to the regiment continued to wear RAF insignia and clothing along with the airborne equipment. Many RAF personnel wore the coveted maroon airborne beret contrary to RAF regulations.



AIRCRAFT The combat gliders used by the Regiment consisted of three types: Horsa, Hamilcar, and the American built CG-4A Hadrian. The Horsa was the backbone of the British Airborne Forces, it had a wingspan of 88 feet, a length of 67 feet and was made entirely of wood. The Horsa could carry either 28 fully armed and equipped soldiers, two jeeps, or a 75 pack howitzer and a jeep. The only draw back of the venerable Horsa was that the cargo had to be man-handled out a side door in the fuselage. If that didn't work the tail was to be removed or "blown off" with explosives. The later Horsa II which was available for the Rhine crossing had a upward hinging nose making unloading much easier. The mighty Hamilcar was a huge wooden monster. It had a 110 foot wingspan, and a length of 68 feet. The Hamilcar could carry almost 18, 000 pounds of cargo. It would usually carry one of the following loads: a "Tetrarch" airborne tank, two "bren gun" universal carriers, two "Dingo" armored scout cars, a 25 pounder artillery piece and towing vehicle, or 40 fully equipped and armed soldiers. The "Achilles heel" of the Hamilcar was in its cockpit, which was mounted on the very top of the fuselage some 25 feet off of the ground. Being prone to flipping over upon landing the Hamilcar would crush its pilots as well as make a mess of its cargo. The Hamilcar was also the largest production wood aircraft ever built. The American built CG4-A Hadrian was used by the Glider Pilot Regiment during the Sicily invasion and in then only in limited numbers afterwards. It will be covered in detail in a later article on American Glider Pilots of WWII.

ORGANIZATION The organization of the Glider Pilot Regiment was unique among army units. The Regiment was made up of two "wings". No. 1 Wing consisted of four squadrons that were further broken down into flights. No. 2 Wing was made up of three squadrons that also were broken down into flights. These "squadrons" were based at RAF stations with their respective tow plane squadrons. This helped foster a sense of cooperation and camaraderie with their tow pilots. The regiment's high level of landing accuracy was due in part to the intimate relationship these "glider teams" had.