In the gallery we have a display showing a tug and tow of the British forces, that being a Dakota and its tow, the Horsa glider.
The first successful airborne assault was carried out by the Germans in May 1940. They used the venerable JU52 with the DFS230 glider.
The attack took place at the fort Eben Emael, Belgium. This attack was so successful that Churchill immediately orders a proposal be put forth to create a British airborne force.
In April 1941, the Germans successfully captured the bridge over the Corinth canal in Greece, using their airborne troops. Fortunately for the allies, that would be the last successful attack using gliders for the Germans. May 1941, operation Merkur (invasion of Crete) saw very heavy losses. Of the 493 JU52’s that began the attack, 271 were lost. This is the fork in the road where we see Hitler reducing his use of airborne troops and the Allies beginning a massive build up on their way to D-day, and beyond.
42 days after the loss of Eben Emael, France surrendered and 2 days after that, the Parachute training centre was opened at the now, Manchester airport under the command of Major John Rock.
Almost immediately there was conflict with the RAF. This early in the war there was a shortage of heavy bombers, the Short Stirling only just becoming operational and the Lancaster was still a year away. Bomber command was against the formation of an airborne regiment as it would deplete the bombers available to them. Not only did we need to find a suitable tow and delivery aircraft, we also had to find gliders. The German method was to design the DFS230, a medium sized glider capable of depositing troops and medium size weapons to the battleground.
The British began with three basic requirements:
1. Capacity of 8 troops (1940)
2. Capacity of 24 troops, light artillery or a sm vehicle (1941)
3. Capacity of mkVII tank or 2 Bren gun carriers (1941)
The result of these requirements was the following 3 designs;
1. The general aircraft Hotspur. (Nov 1940) This glider was designed to be released from 20,000ft (?!!) to then glide over 100 miles of hostile airspace. An almost impossible task. Another flaw was it didn’t carry enough troops to complete the task once on the ground.
2. The Airspeed Horsa.
3. The General aircraft Hamilcar.
The Horsa and Hamilcar took full advantage of the coachbuilders and cabinet makers spread throughout the countryside. The gliders were built in sections and then brought to a centralised assembly point and flight test centers.
The Hamilcar and Horsa were designed to address the flaws of the Hotspur. Both were to be released from very low level, using massive flaps to give the most available lift at the slowest speed possible. An air staff officer surmised; “Their operation is the equivalent of a force landing the largest aircraft without the use of power…. There is no greater test of pilot skill”
Operation Colossus marked the first use of British airborne troops and their first success. This operation saw six Bomber Command Whitley’s drop 35 members of the special air service close to the Tragino aqueduct, near Naples.
Six days after the spectacular German raid on Crete, Churchill demanded an increase in the British force to 5000 airborne troops and an airborne division based on the German model. October 10 1941 saw the formation of the 1st Parachute Regiment, followed 3 weeks later by formation of the 1st airborne division.
November 21 1941 was the date they formed the Glider Pilot Regiment. Army personnel trained by the RAF to fly gliders, would fly into an LZ, fight alongside the troops they brought in till such a time they could be returned to their home airfield to begin the cycle again. The first of 3792 Horsa gliders took to the air September 1941, followed by the first of 391 Hamilcar gliders in March 1942. An interesting fact was DeHaviland actually owned Horsa.
So by mid-1942 they had the gliders and the training infrastructure in place, they had to wait another few months till the correct towing plane was found. The whitely wasn’t powerful enough and the Stirling was now a major part of bomber command. Right through to D-day, Sir Arthur Harris was worried about the drain on his resources to support the fledgling airborne command. The answer came in March 1943 with the arrival of the C-47, the Douglas Dakota.
The ‘Dak’ was to become the workhorse of the RAF for many, many years to come. Along with the Dakota came another glider, the Waco. On D-day the Dakota saw service dropping paratroopers, delivering gliders and making supply drops. As the days wore on the Dakota found yet another use, that of an air ambulance bringing the wounded home to English hospitals. The Heavy bombers (the Stirling, Halifax and Whitworths) were used to tow the gliders into especially hot LZ’s.
1943 saw Vancouver Island become a major player in the Airborne training plan. RAF stn Comox was the base of operations for Dakota flight crew training. A satellite station opened at Cassidy airport (south Nanaimo) to training the glider pilots. Cassidy was also used to experiment with glider ops, trying new ideas.
To say equipment was rudimentary, is an understatement. The airport had three buildings, the main hanger been a barn. August 1944 saw the crews and aircraft been sent to England to take part in the famous Operation Market Garden.
Although by 1943 the threat from japan had been almost nullified, RAF Comox was hit by several Japanese fire balloons. Unfortunately, there was little that could be done to defend against them as they flew in the Jetstream, at such an altitude that the fighters could not reach them.
Gliders were also used in the Invasion of southern France. The final glider op was the Rhine crossing in March of ’45.
The glider Regiment was disbanded in 1957. However, airborne troops have remained an elite element of many modern day armies including the British and American’s. Instead of gliders now, the use of helicopters has become the norm. The Dakota eventually was superseded by yet another icon, the Hercules, which is still in use today.
Thanks to Mel for his assistance with the research.