WWII Gliders: hands up who would fly in a fragile, motor-less aircraft without a parachute?

Blogger: GemSen
On the back of hearing the news about the enthusiasts who are busy building part of a World War II Horsa Glider in Gloucestershire, I thought I'd take a closer at this unique and useful aircraft — and also at the brave pilots and troops who flew in them. Gliders had a fleeting moment in military aviation history, but actually this humble aircraft worked hard behind the scenes helping to crack Hitler's Fortress Europe.

The military glider is exclusive in the way that it is one of the few military aviation weapons that only spanned one war - WWII - in which it proved very useful. Due to their flimsy and disposable nature they are very rare  —  which is what inspired the re-creation of the one in Gloucestershire. The wooden cockpit currently being recreated is being built on the site that it was originally made at, as part of an exhibition for the new Jet Age Museum, in Staverton — due to open next year. "They were disposable, and never designed to come back that's why there are so few," co-ordinator Trevor Davis told the BBC in an article on the project. "They delivered not only troops but armaments and vehicles in a very economical way when resources were very difficult," said Mr Davis. "But they were only planned to go once and most broke up on landing". Larger gliders were even developed to carry heavy equipment like anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, jeeps and also light tanks which made otherwise lightly armed paratroop forces a stronger force.

Manufactured by companies like Gloucestershire based HH Martyn, and assembled at Minchinhampton and Little Rissington, Gliders were disposable but also invaluable. They delivered large amounts of troops and resources to their targets, conveniently and economically all together - rather than scattered all over the place, by parachute. It also allowed troops without parachute training to be deployed and utilised. Towed into the air by military transport planes, these big engine-less aircraft with a 88ft (27m) wingspan, were designed to carry large numbers of troops and supplies. After being released from the tow craft they were to land on any open terrain close to target and hopefully with minimal damage to the cargo and crew. However, most landing zones were far from ideal and most gliders broke on landing. Due to the one-way nature of the missions meant that gliders were treated as disposable and made out of relatively cheap materials like wood. They were made by cabinet-makers, and the British started developing and using them in the mid-1940s. Must have taken some serious guts Can you imagine flying in a motor less, fragile, and disposable aircraft without a parachute? Coming from someone who doesn't enjoy flying — the very thought of riding in one makes me especially uneasy - the men who got in them must have had some guts. This makes me respect these courageous men further still. The Glider Pilot Regiment suffered 90 per cent casualties during  'Operation Market Garden', the assault on Arnhem in September 1944 - where they were most famously used. More successful was 'Operation Varsity' in March 1945 with Horsa Gliders helping to land 14,000 British and American troops on the east bank of the River Rhine. In a recent article about the glider in Gloucester being recreated, Ken Ploughman, a former RAF pilot who flew in Operation Varsity, told the BBC that rather than the risks:  "I thought more about what the troops were thinking".
"I never thought about it and we didn't have parachutes either - I mean it was a job and our main concern was to get them into operation," he said.
He also said the Gloucestershire built cockpit had saved his life. "We'd landed on the banks of a little stream - struck it - had to because I had no choice as to where we were landing and the nose broke off with us in it," he added. "It remained in one piece and rolled into the field - well it saved my life, it really saved my life."

Are you are searching for ancestors that fought during WWII? Forces War Records have a wealth of records that could aid your research. If you're looking to add more colour to your research then have a look through our historic document library and you’ll find plenty of interesting finds including war diaries, that are available to read for free. There’s nothing quite like reading a personal account of war. Sources: BBC & Wikipedia.
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