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The Combat Glider

World War II

By James KillmerPublished 5 years ago 19 min read

During the Second World War, many aircrafts, such as the P-38 Lightning, P-51 Mustang, F4U Corsair, British Spitfire, B-17 Flying Fortress, the German Messerschmitt, and the Japanese Zero were deployed into action. There was another type of aircraft used in World War II, and even though it was not prominent, it did play an important role in the war. This aircraft was the combat glider.

The combat glider was an aircraft that, even with known drawbacks, was used in major battles of the war. War gliders had disadvantages such as they could not be towed easily through turbulent clouds, or released and landed at low altitudes at night under enemy fire. Designers did not consider the conditions these gliders would face in a war environment. The ad­vantages of using gliders for warfare were that they gave ground units better mobility, and they could glide over enemy defenses and different types of terrain. They could carry in a single load, a squad, platoon, or a company and discharge the unit ready to fight. They were silent and they were cheap to man­ufacture.

The main gliders used in the war were the British Horsa, the American Waco CG-4A, and the German DFS-23O (Figure #1). The British used the Horsa Mark I and II, Hamilcar, Hengist, and the Hotspur gliders. General Aircraft Ltd. at Birmingham, England constructed The Hamilcar. It was the largest glider in the Allied fleet. It had a wingspan of 110 feet and a fuselage length of 68 feet. It was a heavy transport glider, capable of carrying loads of up to 36,000 pounds. 412 were constructed for service in Normandy, Wesel, and Arnhem. Slingsby Sailplane Ltd. built the Hengist and it had a capacity for 15 troops. A total of 18 of these gliders were built. The Horsa Mark II and I were built by Airspeed Aviation Company Ltd. They made 700 production models. The Mark I glider was originally planned as a paratroop transport. The Mark II was designed to clear up the loading and unloading problems the airborne division would encounter in the field with the Horsa Mark I glider. The Horsa gliders had a load capacity of up to 7,500 pounds. These gliders saw action in Sicily, Norway, Normandy, Arnhem, Yugoslavia, and across the Rhine at Wesel. General Aircraft Company Ltd built The Hotspur II, III, and I. These gliders were exclusively used for training. None were used in combat.

The United States used many designs and modifications of the Waco glider. There were as many as 41 models tested and made. The Waco OG-4A was a fifteen-place glider and the best handling of all that were built. The Air Force awarded contracts to eleven companies to build the Waco glider. The total production amounted to 13,909 gliders at a cost of 18,800 dollars apiece. The gliders fuselage was built with steel tubing as a frame covered with fabric and the floor was made out of plywood. The spars and ribs of the wings were made out of wood with the wing surface being plywood covered with fabric. The instrumentation was minimal. Pilots had to fly with an airspeed indicator, a rate-of-climb indicator, and a turn-and-bank indicator. Overhead in the cock­pit were three crank pulleys that could set the trim tabs on the rudder, ailerons, and elevator to relieve the pressure on the dual wheel controls. There were 7,000 alterations of the CG-4A glider all through its production.

The Laister-Kauffmann Aircraft Corporation, one of the 11 companies contracted to build the CG-4A glider, built six Trojan Horse gliders, which had a wingspan of 105 feet. The fuselage was 75 feet long and it could carry 60 troops or up to 17,000 pounds of heavy equipment.

The Schweizer Aircraft Corporation was contracted by the Air Force to construct military gliders. They had built the TG-2 and TG-3 trainers.

The Germans used the DFS-230 assault glider for the most part. Gotha works built 2,230 of these gliders that could carry nine troops or a cargo load of up to 2,800 pounds. It had a wing­span of 72 feet and the fuselage was 37 feet long. The unique things of all German gliders were they had light machine guns affixed externally.

There were other countries that built at least one model of a combat glider and they were Argentina, Australia, China, Czechoslovakia, France, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, Sweden, and Turkey (Appendix 1).

The use of a combat glider was the idea of Adolf Hitler. Germany, through its glider youth program, had been teaching young men how to fly. Since this training was considered non-military, Germany could bypass the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty. Now they were building a nucleus of young pilots who will one day be part of the Luftwaffe. Hermann Goring was the principle figure in keeping German air-mindedness a reality with glider clubs.

In 1939, Adolf Hitler knew that a decisive assault on the fort called Eben Emael in Belgium would have to be undertaken. The walls and roof of the fort were made of reinforced concrete over five feet thick. There were various cannons, machine gun casements, mines, anti-aircraft batteries, and the latest sound ranging equipment. Everything was done to make the fort invul­nerable and self-sufficient. All experts agreed that this fort could not be successfully assaulted. Adolf Hitler proposed to use gliders to take the most powerful fort in the world. His advisors agreed and they decided to send a glider force to the top of Eben Emael at dawn. This operation was given the name "Granite." On May 10, 1940, at 3:25AM the surprise attack was carried out. 78 men took the detachment made a completely unexpected landing on the roof and within 24 hours the fort, which was manned by 750 soldiers was taken. Hitler was pleased with the success of the assault and planned on new missions including an airborne landing connected with a seaborne operation on England, which was later abandoned. This raid was a well-kept secret for months and British and American Headquarters took little notice.

Hitler decided that the campaign in Greece had been finished when the allies were driven off the mainland, but it was proposed to Hitler to take Crete with airborne forces itself. On May 20, 1941, 1,000 planes and 75 gliders were sent on a mission to capture Crete. The initial attack was a failure. German paratroopers and airborne infantry paid a heavy price in the landings. Over 5,000 Germans were killed, wounded, or missing. Even though the Germans took Crete, Hitler discontinued the use of paratroops and glider forces. The assault was played out in the open and Hitler swung the door wide open for the Allies to study and learn from that attack which later would show in the campaigns taken by the Allies three years later.

In the early summer of 1941, England was at war with Germany and it was obvious that the United States would be involved. November 1941 marked the beginning of the airborne divisions and the glider pilot regiments. There were over 100,000 men who vol­unteered for this branch of service. The glider pilot had to be "a total soldier" since he had to fly and also take a ground combat role.

Operation "Freshman" was the first mission of the Allied forces. Allied intelligence found that the Germans stepped up the production of heavy water at the Norsk hydro plant at Vemonk, Norway. Bomber raids failed to make the plant inoperative and it was de­cided to have sabotage teams carry out an assault arriving in gliders. The teams were sent in two Horsa gliders, with each team being independent of the other. The gliders took off from Scotland at 6:00PM, being pulled by Halifax bombers. One combination approached the coast of Norway in a snowstorm. It was impossible to identify ground objects and after mistaking lights of a small town in the vicinity of the landing site, the glider released. The Halifax turned and crashed into a mountain and the glider crashed landed. The second glider reached the landing site, but was unable to identify it. After flying around the area for an hour the team decided to return to England. Icing developed on the wings and before reaching the coast the towrope broke. The glider crashed. The surviving airborne troops were captured and shot by the Germans. The first combat mission of the Allied Glider Regiment ended in failure.

The invasion of Sicily was to be carried out by the British eighth Army, followed two days later by American paratroopers. The assault to hit the beach defenses was put off for two days and General Montgomery convinced General Eisenhower that it would be better to have the Americans land in the central sector at the same time the British stormed the beaches. They decided to have a glider assault on the vital coastal ridge south of Syracuse, Italy. The code name of the operation was "Ladbroke." On July 9, 1943, in North Africa, 144 planes, both American and British, towed 136 Jacos and eight Horsa gliders through the dark to Sicily. Each glider had been given a specific mission to carry out. As the force moved along the east coast of Sicily, the shoreline and release points were obscured by clouds and dust stirred up by 40 mph winds. Pilots became confused and could not judge the distance to the landing zones. The formations started to break up and gliders released haphazardly. There were gliders at all altitudes, moving in all directions, trying to find landmarks and good fields to land in. High wind and dust, anti-aircraft fire, the inexperience and poor navigation of the tow pilots contributed to the fatal consequences of the mission. About 69 tacos went down into the sea and over 200 men had drowned. Out of 144 gliders, 54 landed in Sicily and only four gliders landed at the designated zone.

The landings of the Allied forces impressed Adolf Hitler. He ordered a parachute drop in Sicily to boost the German forces. Three hours later British paratroopers and glider divisions un­knowingly paid them a visit. The ill-fated Allied operation was code named "Fustian.”

While the war in Europe was taking its toll, the United States was involved in a war in the Pacific. There was a plan to help General Wingate take Japanese held Burma and seize two landing zones and construct airstrips. On March 5th and 6th, 27 C-47s, each towing two gliders took off out of India. It was a 250-mile flight and engines overheated, towropes snapped dropping gliders into hostile jungles. 37 gliders reached the landing zones and unseen in aerial photographs, tree trunks were scattered allover the fields. Despite high casualties the landing strips were eventually built.

The fiasco in Sicily almost ended the airborne divisions. Recommendations were made to abandon the divisions, but there were still some men who had faith. The problems that occurred in Sicily were studied very carefully and the real test for the airborne di­visions would be in the fields of Normandy.

During the winter and spring of 1944, the airborne forces were being trained and prepared for the invasion of France. The airborne assault was code named "operation II Neptune." The overall invasion was code-named operation "II Overlord II," and the plan was debated for some months. The plan called for dropping two American airborne di­visions, but one of the groups had to be shifted because a German division moved into their landing area. Paratroopers and glider airborne units would land during the night and carry out assaults on critical bridges and German batteries.

At British airfields, men of the glider regiments were going through extensive training and briefings. By the end of May, the airfields had over 1,200 troop carrier planes, 1,100 Waco CG-4A gliders, and JOO Horsa gliders ready for battle.

The final battle plan called for reinforcing each paratroop division at dawn by 50 glider serials. On D-Day, there would be a dusk glider landing to support the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division. Glider missions after this point would be determined by the tactical situation. The initial objective was to capture the bridges over the Orne River at Benouville and Ranville. To capture or destroy German batteries at Merville and clear landing zones for following glider serials.

With bad weather setting in, the invasion was postponed for 24 hours. On June 6th, 11:00PM, the troop carrying Dakotas took off to join the other paratroop serials taking off at a dozen other airfields in England. The glider crews awaited the return of the Dakotas. Everything was fine with the paratroop teams until they reached the French coast. Low-level clouds and intense anti-aircraft fire scattered the formations. The paratroops were dropped over a wide area, some twenty miles from the proper fields and they had to fight their way to the assembly point. Disorganized and de­moralized they found it difficult to carry out their mission that was primarily to secure and mark the two landing zones in which the gliders would be coming into at 4:00AM. The job was hopeless and now there would be no beacons to guide the gliders into the fields. It would be dark and the Germans were sitting tight ready for their arrival.

West of Reading, England, 102 Wacos loaded with anti-tank guns, jeeps, and reinforcements, had taken off with their vital equipment. At 1:19AM, 50 tugs and gliders followed the same route as the paratroop mission. After reaching the coast of France they encountered heavy flak but there were no weather problems. When they hit the landing zone "E" area the anti-aircraft fire inten­sified. The 50 gliders flew on through the fire and in the moon­light the pilots desperately landed in fields.

While the first glider mission were undertaking their duties, the second group were staggering over their landing zone four miles northwest of LZ "E." 52 Waco gliders loaded with 22 jeeps, 16 57mm anti-tank guns, 10 tons of vital equipment had taken off at 2:00AM from Ramsbury, England. They ran into the same cloud problems as the paratroop missions. Like the earlier mission, it was every man for himself. Under enemy fire the pilots had to glide their ships through the darkness and find a suitable field to land in.

The first daylight regiments arrived at LZ "E" 9:00 PM (British double summer time) on D-Day, two hours before sunset. 32 Horsa gliders carrying guns, vehicles, and personnel of the 101st Airborne Division arrived in clear skies and did not run into intense anti-aircraft fire.

The second serial in the evening of D-Day was intended to support the 82nd Airborne Division. The force consisted of two lifts. One group had 76 gliders, 22 Wacos and 54 Horsas. The other group of gliders, 14 Wacos and 86 Horsas, followed two hours later heading for landing zone "W." The possession of LZ "W" was a hard fought battle and it was not under control at 9:00PM. The gliders arrived in heavy fire and the pilots searched frantically for fields to land in.

After midnight of June 6, six Halifaxes towing Horsa gliders flew to a point fifty miles east of the Cotentin Peninsula with six platoons of the British 6th Airborne Division, plus a detachment of Army engineers. Their job was to secure the bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal and clear out landing zones in that area. The assault was a success. Fifty miles separated the Americans at the Cotentin Peninsula from the British near Caen. The airborne divisions fulfilled their missions and help pierce the German fronts.

The invasion of Southern France was supposed to take place the same time as the landings in Normandy, but the shortage of aircraft made this possible. The operation originally called "Anvil" and later changed to "Dragoon" was carried out by the 1st Airborne Task Force.

D-Day on the Riviera was August 15, 1944. The pre-dawn glider mission took off 5:00AM. 35 Horsas and 40 Wacos carried cargo and artillery. By the time the Horsas arrived at Corsica, the mission was cancelled because of fog. However, the Americans circled around the landing zones for an hour hoping the fog would lift. At 9:30AM, 33 Wacos were released. Operation" Dove" began in the afternoon with the cancelled Horsas and 41 planes with paratroops. After this group there would be 332 Waco gliders carrying a complete infantry battalion. There was very little enemy opposition and the formations were undisturbed while flying along the Argens River. The first r-serials failed to recognize the landing zones although they were clearly marked by the towns of Le Muy and Naturby. Due to problems encountered and mistakes made during the operation, the air was filled with C-47s with gliders on tow and gliders in free flight at different altitudes. It was complete chaos. For a rapidly put together airborne operation, the paratroop and glider landings in Southern France were a model success.

Operation "Market Garden" would involve two American and one British airborne division dropping in front of the British troops on the Meuse Escaut Canal line, opening a corridor through Holland. Their mission would be to capture vital bridges that span seven rivers and canals. This would allow the British XXX Corps to reach the town of Arnhem. The 101st Airborne Division would capture and secure the bridges in the Eindhoven-Veghel area. The 82nd Air­borne Division would cover the Grave -Nijmegen area, while the taking of the Arnhem Bridge would be the responsibility of the British 1st Airborne Division.

The plan called for three perfect days of weather. September 17, 1944, American troop carriers took off for the channel coast. Ahead of the airborne divisions, nearly 3,000 bombers and fighters were ordered to attack German flak defenses. In the largest day­light assault of the war, 2,000 planes, 600 gliders, had 20,000 men, 500 vehicles, and 330 cannons to open the door for the Allied sweep to the Rhine.

The American glider serials had 38 Horsas and Wacos, while the British glider force consisted of 478 Horsas and Hamilcars. As the 101st Airborne Division approached the area of the Zon Forest they encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire. The 101st quickly assembled and moved on to secure the bridges. Despite heavy losses, the mission was considered a success. The 82nd Airborne Division had a quiet trip until they turned their course at Grave. German gunners on the border of the Reichswald Forest let loose a barrage of fire. Only six gliders made the landing zone, all the others came within a mile of it. The British glider group approached the fields west of Arnhem with no enemy action. At the end of the first day the Allied Airborne Army were optimistic about the mission. They thought the daylight missions were largely successful with acceptable losses. It seemed that the second and third day lifts would give the airborne divisions the punch to capture their objectives.

The second day airborne divisions took off later because of bad weather conditions. After the lifts were in the air they formed three lanes to cross the North Sea. The right-hand lane was to resupply the 101st Airborne Division in the Zon area. The center lane resupplied the 82nd Airborne Division near Nijmegen. The left hand lane was going to Arnhem. The formations arrived in consid­erable flak and ground fire. Some glider serials were unable to spot the landing zones because of flak damage to the lead planes and navigation errors. Gliders overflew the zones and continued into Germany.

The next three days, bad weather doomed the operation. The efforts to resupply the airborne divisions were unsuccessful and on the eight day of the battle for Arnhem, the situation was really desperate. The 1st Airborne Division could not be reinforced in time. Only one-quarter of the 10,000 men were withdrawn from Arnhem. Of the 13,000 glider pilots, one-half were either killed or injured.

Planners of the Allied Airborne Army failed to take into account the surprising German recovery after the campaign in France. The British 1st Airborne Division bravely fought at Arnhem but was wiped out. Its number disappeared from the Army list.

The key to the war was at a Belgium town called Bastogne. It was a critical communications junction, where seven highways and three railways merged. On December 20th, four German divisions and the 101st Air­borne Division fought back hoping for relief in personnel and supplies surrounded all sides of this town. Operation" Repulse" was an effort using glider pilots, to resupply Bastogne. Germans overran the field hospital and all the medical staff was captured. There were over 400 badly injured men, some needing surgery. From a fighter base at Detain, near Verdun, two surgical teams of thirteen men were flown to help the medical situation. Word came back of the success of the mission and another 10 gliders were being prepared to resupply the airborne division. The next mission had 35 gliders land within the boundaries of Bastogne, bringing in 53 tons of needed supplies.

On March 24, 1945 operation "Varsity" was the largest single-day operation of the war. There were 610 C-47s pulling 906 Waco CG-4A gliders across to the Rhine. The entire sky train took more than three hours to pass a given point. They were loaded with 17,000 paratroops and would deliver a glider infantry and equipment in a small area near the Rhine.

At the landing zones, many glider pilots were struggling to land safely amid the violent ground battles to control the area. The glider pilots suffered badly with 38 killed, 37 wounded, and 135 missing. Despite the heavy losses, the glider regiment played an important role in the attack by bringing in 3,400 troops, 271 jeeps, 66 cannons, and 275 trailers, trucks, and bulldozers.

By the middle of April 1945, Berlin, Germany was the goal of two converging armies. In locked files at Supreme Headquarters, there was a folder labeled "Operation Eclipse." That was prepared as far back as November 1944. It contained plans for a massive airborne invasion to capture Berlin either at the last stage of the war or in the event of a sudden German collapse. Operation "Eclipse" would never take place. The glider pilots fought their last battle crossing the Rhine River near Wesel.

Gliding was an integral part of the aviation scene back then and it still is today. You have to admire the men who made up the airborne divisions. Their spirit, determination, and bravery was not only commendable, but was the needed support that without question help decide the war... A creature of World War II, never used in combat before, and never to be used again, the combat glider now disappeared from history."

1 Milton Dank, The Glider Gang, (N.Y., J.B. Lippincott Co., 1977), p. 258.

Barnaby, Ralph S., American Soaring Handbook, California, SSA Inc., 1965, 2nd Edition 1974.

Dank, Milton, The Glider Gang, N.Y., J.B. Lippincott Co., 1977.

Jablonski, Edward, Man With Wings, N.Y., Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1980.

Mrazek, James E., Fighting Gliders of World War II, N. Y., St. Martin's Press, 1977.

Sliwa, Shirley, " How the SGS-2-8 Became the Military TG-2," National Soaring Museum Magazine, Vol. 2, No.4, 1978, p. l0.


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