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FEATURE – ‘Total Soldiers’ – the stirring story of the British Army’s Glider Pilot Regiment

Photo: Groundcrews work to load an anti-tank gun on board an unknown Airspeed Horsa. KEY COLLECTION

 

Dr David Pasley describes how the men of the British Army’s Glider Pilot Regiment earned the title ‘Total Soldiers’

It’s early morning on September 17, 1944. Forty-seven Airspeed Horsa troop-carrying gliders sit in two staggered columns on the runway at RAF Broadwell in Oxfordshire – their wings spanning 88ft (27m). Alongside them, Douglas Dakota ‘tugs’ with engines bellowing await the signal to move. As the lead ‘Dak’ taxies out, its powerful motors blow up debris, which bounces off the windscreen of the glider behind – Lt Col John Place, CO of the Glider Pilot Regiment’s 2 Wing at its controls. Beside him sits his second pilot and intelligence officer, Lt Ralph Maltby. It’s 0945hrs. Place gives the thumbs up and the Dakota eases forward until the tow rope between it and the Horsa becomes taut. Jerking violently, the pair begin to pick up pace and in no time the near-seven-ton (7,000kg) glider is airborne – quickly followed by the ‘tug’. They are the first of 320 combinations to take off that morning from airfields across England destined for Holland – Operation Market Garden has begun. For many of the glider pilots, this would be their first foray into combat.

THE ORIGINS

In May 1940, Germany had conducted a daring raid on the fort at Eben-Emael in Belgium by landing nine troop-carrying gliders on top of the stronghold. Allowing the men on board to cripple its defences, this essentially opened the door for the Wehrmacht to advance into the low countries. This single action spurred Britain into developing its own airborne contingent consisting of both paratroopers and glider-borne troops. In terms of glider pilots, it was a point of contention as to whether these would be sourced from the army or the RAF from the outset. In December 1940, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris made a scathing indictment regarding the selection of said fliers from the army: “The idea that semi-skilled, unpicked personnel, infantry corporals have I believe even been suggested, could with the maximum of training be entrusted with the piloting of these troop carriers is fantastic. The operation is the equivalent to force landing the largest sized aircraft without engine aid – which there is no higher test of piloting skill.”

Following a meeting on November 4, 1941 it was proposed that glider pilots would remain in the army, but attached to the RAF for the duration of their training. And so, the Glider Pilot Regiment (GPR) was officially formed in February 1942 under the command of Lt Col John Rock. While Harris may have underestimated the capabilities among the ranks of the army, he was quite right about the level of skill required. Those wanting to join the regiment faced an arduous and long journey to prove themselves worthy…

The rest of this feature can be read in the current FlyPast, in UK shops now, or available at www.flypast.com

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