Glider Pilot Blues

(RAF glider pilots and Operation Varsity)

A good trainee pilot takes pride in cutting back the revs on final approach at just the right moment to ensure that the Tiger Moth floats down to the runway, rounds out and stalls safely over the threshold. Of course it’s a great comfort to know that if need be you can gun the engine a little to stretch the glide and hope that the CFI won’t hear the noise.

The last thing a pilot wants (but sometimes gets) is a deadstick landing. The first time it happened to me was when my engine stopped just after takeoff at 3 BFTS. Luckily Oklahoma is flatter, and bigger, than Noel Coward’s “awfully flat, Essex”. Imagine the anguish, then, when large groups of RAF pilots, most of them newly qualified after training in South Africa , Canada and the United States, were told in no uncertain terms that they had volunteered to become (engineless) glider pilots. As a tug pilot I have relied very heavily for their story on Alan Cooper’s book “Wot! No Engines?”, not on original sources.

In some ways the story goes back to the beginning of Airborne Forces, when arguments raged over whether glider pilots should be RAF or Army personnel. It was Morton’s fork for the Air Staff – flying was RAF business, but pilots could not be spared from Fighter and Bomber Commands, and who needed second pilots anyway? It was bad enough to have to respond to Churchill’s plea to the Air Staff to find some “redundant bombers” to form the powered fleet, with the crews to fly them. The Army Council had no pilots to spare, but was worried about allowing suitable men to volunteer for flying at the expense of their Army units. And of course the Admiralty had its own priorities.

At first (September 1940) it was decided some 80 potential glider pilots should come from the Army. By December it was decided that glider pilots should be trained ab initio on powered aircraft and should be airmen. A year later the Army Council agreed that it would supply glider pilots, but only from among those Army personnel who would otherwise have been permitted to transfer to the RAF for aircrew duties. By December 1941 a Glider Pilot Regiment had been formed and glider pilots were clearly Army personnel. This had the merit of allowing them to use their army experience on the ground, once their glider loads had been disembarked, although it was not intended that they would stay long in the ground battle.

These arrangements worked well until the summer of 1944. By then the Army calculated that, although it had 1400 glider pilots in the UK , it needed to find about 135 volunteers a month for glider training. They could be trained ab initio in the EFTS and Glider Training Schools run by the RAF, but these employed about 1500 RAF personnel. At the same time there was a surplus of fully trained pilots within the RAF. Converting some of these to become glider pilots would take only four to six weeks. Matters came to a head after Arnhem , when over six hundred Army glider pilots were lost to the service. “Lending” RAF pilots was the only answer to the question “How can we mount another airborne landing in the next months?”

So it was that around 1500 RAF pilots came to realise that they would not become fighter aces or Pathfinder wizards. Instead it was a short glider course, followed by Heavy Glider Conversion and then operational training. They also received variable amounts of “battle” training. 440 gliders were needed for the Commonwealth element of the planned Rhine Crossing (Operation Varsity) and the RAF pilots were going to fly many of them. They would be seconded to the Glider Pilot Regiment, but they would formally be members of RAF 38 Group, which would supply the four-engined aircraft used to tow the gliders into battle.

Operation Varsity.

The Rhine has always been Germany’s most valuable defence against an invasion by land. Arnhem was an attempted Rhine crossing which failed because the main forces were too far from the air landing forces to exploit their initial leap across the river. By the end of 1944 the Allied armies were on the west bank of the Rhine and close enough for that not to be a problem. The area north of Wesel looked suitable for a crossing and for a major advance into the heart of Germany . However, the forward units needed protection while a 10-mile wide bridgehead was created for an invasion force of over a million men. In particular the high ground known as the Diesfordter Wald had to be denied to German artillery and bridges over the nearby Issel had to be kept open for the advance into the North German plain. This was an eminently suitable task for airborne forces, which would have a choice of dropping and landing zones nearby. This was Operation Varsity.

Varsity was the largest airborne operation ever to be undertaken, involving 1700 powered aircraft, 1300 gliders and 21000 troops. It is impossible to imagine anything similar in the future. It was timed to begin at 1000 hours on 24 March 1944, but before that there had been massive bomber attacks on nearby targets by the RAF and the US 15th Air Force. Ground attacks were mounted by 2nd TAF, using 900 aircraft. RAF Fighter Command and the 9th US Air Force, using 889 aircraft, provided total control of the airspace en route (not just air superiority).

The order of battle for the airborne forces was made up of 6th British and 17th American Airborne Divisions, with 13th Airborne Division in reserve. The glider-borne troops and equipment were carried by RAF 46 Group (using 120 Dakotas ), RAF 38 Group (using 320 Halifaxes and Stirlings) and 9th US Troop Carrier Command (using C46s and C47s). The British paratroops were carried in 240 C47’s of Troop Carrier Command. These aircraft all took off from East Anglia and met up with 17 th American Airborne Division near Wavre, in Belgium .

For Operation Varsity the RAF glider pilots were towed by aircraft from 38 and 46 Groups. They made up about half the number of British glider pilots in action. Their personal reminiscences of that eventful day are an important part of ‘Wot! No Engines’. It would be impossible to summarise all they have to say, except that it was no picnic. In spite of the attentions of the Allied ground attack and fighter aircraft there was substantial flak coming up from around the dropping and landing zones. Either the German artillery had been able to move in their mobile 20mm and 88mm batteries remarkably quickly or they had prior information about when and where the landing would take place. In the view of Lt/Col Murray (OC No1 Wing, GPR) “the amount [of flak] experienced was not more than slight to moderate”, but substantial damage was done to incoming gliders. Only one in five of the British gliders landed undamaged.

– Par Nobile Fratrum [A Noble Pair of Brothers] –
– A glider pilot and his tug pilot –

So how did the blue-bereted glider pilots perform as soldiers on the day? Col Murray has a view: “In the initial phase it was obvious that the RAF glider pilots were not fully prepared for the ground battle. This was rapidly overcome and in many instances their conduct was good and they showed courage and determination……considering the short period of military training they have had…..”.

And in the air? There is nothing to suggest that as glider pilots they were better or worse than their Army comrades. Of the 25 medals awarded to glider pilots, 5 went to RAF pilots. 61 RAF glider pilots, one in six of those who took part, were killed. All 61 are commemorated in the RAF 38 Group Roll of Honour which is held in the crypt of the Church of St Clement Danes in London. The motto of RAF 38 Group, Par Nobile Fratrum (A Noble Pair of Brothers), with a sword carried in the claw of an eagle, symbolises the Army carried into battle by the Air Force. As a phrase, it could not be bettered as a description of all the glider pilots who played their parts in Operation Varsity.

Kenneth FRERE

Next page: Albemarles at Arnhem