Friday, September 20, 2013

The Friday Flyby - 20 September


American Waco CG-4 Military Glider

Perhaps I should call this week's installment The Friday Glide-By. Blog buddy Frank planted this idea in my head. After all, the glider played an important role in World War 2, from Eben-Emael to the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater. So I decided to run with it. Buckle up, there are no engines on these beasts and no way to return once we slip the tow rope!

German Fallschirmjäger Debouching from a DFS-230

One of the first uses of glider-borne infantry was in the opening phase of the Western Campaign of 1940, at the Belgian fortress of Eben-Emael.

According to Wikipedia:
With the treaty of Versailles preventing any other form of pilot training in Germany, large numbers of gliding clubs and schools were formed there after World War I. Later, when planning the invasion of France, the German military was faced with the problem of the Belgian fort of Eben-Emael which dominated the River Meuse. Someone (according to some reports, Adolf Hitler himself) pointed out that the top of the fort was a flat grassy expanse on which gliders could land.
Eight DFS 230 gliders, carrying 85 Pioneers under Leutnant Rudolf Witzig, landed on the roof of the fort in the early hours of May 10, 1940. There had been no declaration of war, and they achieved surprise. Using the new shaped charges, they disabled the fort's guns and trapped the garrison inside. The assault cost only 21 casualties.
In the aftermath of this episode, the Allies formed their own glider forces, as part of their airborne forces. Before they could see action, the Germans had made their largest airborne operation, the attack on Crete. Their glider troops and paratroops suffered heavy casualties, and the Germans decided that this mode of warfare was too costly.
German DFS-230 Military Glider

Fort Eben Emael Today
When I was stationed in Germany, I had the opportunity to visit Eben Emael. It remains pretty much what it looked like after the Germans were done seizing it. I remember vividly the shaft leading up to one of the upper gun positions, the walls were still scorched from the German satchel charge detonated there on the 10th of May in 1940!

One advantage glider borne infantry had over their paratrooper cousins is that they could carry more equipment with them. Such as jeeps and anti-tank guns, so they tended to be better able to take car of themselves once on the ground. However, they were always considered to be poor cousins to their jumping cousins, the paratroopers. According to Wikipedia -
In both the British and American armies, there was a sense that the glider infantry were poor cousins to the more glamorous paratroopers. In the British Army, whereas paratroops were volunteers, airlanding units were line infantry units converted without any option (although they were entitled to wear the same maroon beret as the Parachute Regiment). In the US Army, glider troops did not receive the extra pay awarded to paratroopers until after the Normandy invasion (where glider troops provided essential support to the parachute regiments and fought on the front-lines alongside their parachute brethren). This blatant inequality of treatment came to the attention of U.S. Airborne High Command and from that point forward the glider troops were issued the same jump boots and combat gear as paratroopers (including the M1A1 carbine with folding stock) and earned the same pay until the war ended in Europe. There are numerous examples of glider troops volunteering as replacements for paratroop units but very few, if any, examples of paratroopers volunteering for the gliders.

In one respect the American and British armies differed. The British Glider Pilot Regiment were not only trained aircrew, but also well-trained infantry, most of whom would have been junior or senior NCO's in other units. By comparison, the American glider crews were treated as mere drivers.
U.S. Glider Infantryman's Badge

British Glider Pilot Regiment Cap Badge

US Glider Infantry
Another of the famous "glider assaults" was that of the British Airborne attack on D-Day at the Pegasus Bridge (actually the bridge over the Caen Canal between Caen and Ouistreham, renamed in 1944 for the symbol of the British 6th Airborne Division, the winged horse of legend, 
Pegasus).

Pegasus Bridge, note the British gliders in the background
British Airspeed Horsa Military Glider

Other World War II Glider Operations (From Wikipedia):
Sicily The Allies first used gliders in the invasion of Sicily in 1943. This first experiment was disastrous. Poor planning and bad weather resulted in the gliders being scattered in the air. Several landed in the sea and 200 men drowned. Few gliders reached the intended landing zones, and only 73 men (from most of a brigade) reached the intended target, the Ponte Grande bridge south of Syracuse.

Normandy With better intelligence and planning, the glider landings in The Battle of Normandy were far more successful. In particular, one coup de main force in six Horsa gliders seized vital bridges over the River Orne by surprise. The British 6 Airlanding Brigade were in action early on following concentrated landings, and prevented early German attempts to counter-attack the Allied landings. American landings were more scattered, but still more successful than many planners had hoped for.

Arnhem In Operation Market Garden, the British 1 Airlanding Brigade were landed on the first day of the operation. The landings took place in daylight and were unopposed, but the only landing and drop zones thought suitable for such a large force were a considerable distance from the vital bridge which was the objective. No attempt was made to mount a coup de main attack by glider (although this was largely due to the haste with which the operation was mounted). A jeep-mounted reconnaissance squadron brought in by glider failed in the mission.In the subsequent fighting, the airlanding brigade and the Glider Pilot Regiment suffered heavy casualties.

Rhine Crossing The last major operation involving gliders was the crossing of the Rhine in 1945. To avoid the long delay in relieving the airborne troops which had been a major cause of the failure of Operation Market Garden, the landings were made close to the German front line defences. The landings took place in daylight once again, and heavy German anti-aircraft fire took heavy toll of the vulnerable gliders. Most Allied casualties were incurred by the glider pilots.

Far East The Chindits, a large force operating behind Japanese lines during the Burma Campaign, were flown by the 1st Air Commando Group to landing zones which had been secured by advance guards landed by glider on March 5, 1944. This operation, although successful, also incurred heavy casualties. This was partly because the intended landing ground was changed at the last minute. Also, the distance flown and the loads towed by the tug aircraft were greater than anything met in Europe. Many gliders had to be released over enemy territory or mountains. Others crashed on landing on the unfamiliar landing zone. However, enough construction equipment was landed to make the landing ground fit for transport aircraft.
After the war the glider infantry units were all disbanded. They have been replaced by helicopter borne infantry. But for the period of World War II, the whistling near-silent approach of an incoming enemy glider must have filled the nightmares of a number of Belgian and German survivors of the war.

And how about this monster? The Messerschmidt Me-321 Gigant (giant) -

Me-321 Gigant

14 comments:

  1. The poor glider pilot was toast. If he wasn't killed in the landing, he had no Inf combat tng and only a side-arm for protection. IIRC every single glider pilot was automatically written off the manning roster the minute he took off as a KIA.

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    1. The Brit pilots were better off.

      Of course, they were still flying a glider!

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    2. More than a few of the glider pilots' passengers were toast, too. There's a reason there weren't "many, if any" volunteers to cross over from the paratroops to the glider infantry.

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  2. German bunkers from which they shot at our soldiers landing on D Day are as solidly built as Eban Emael, it seems.
    I will never forget being there and hearing that the French could literally not destroy those buildings. I went down into one and stared out through the very thin horizontal slit through which the rifles jutted out killing our men. Quite a moment.
    Particularly with a German husband while we lived in France!
    The German cemetery the ground of which the French gave the Germans not long after the war, has a sign above the opening that says HERE LIE GERMAN SOLDIERS MANY OF WHOM DID NOT PICK THE CAUSE OR THE FIGHT.
    Makes me cry every time I think of it.

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    1. Good point Z about the soldiers not picking the cause OR the fight. If soldiers could choose the cause and the fight, we'd have fewer wars.

      We lived in Germany for seven plus years, grew to love the country and the people.

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  3. Gives whole new meaning to the phrase, 'always enough power to reach the scene of the crash.'

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    1. Heh, I didn't think of that. But you're right.

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  4. Thank you for this post. The USA veterans received very little recognition as did the air crews that towed them.

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    1. It was a good idea. I just hope I did it justice.

      Combat was dangerous enough, can't imagine getting there in a canvas and wood glider!

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  5. GLIDERS in WWII! Who knew? Now I do.

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    1. Very few people remember, Frank suggested I remedy that.

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)