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Frank Ashleigh - Glider Pilot Regiment
Interview with Frank Ashleigh, 21st February 2012
Frank is a cockney and was born on December 23rd 1924, (87). He is mentioned in the book Glider Pilots at Arnhem by Mike Peters and Luke Buist. He was educated at Primary School in Stamford Hill and at Secondary School Upton House, Hackney.
“I was always interested in flying, a fascination, volunteered for the RAF – no chance, so I volunteered for the army”.
An AID approved welder, Frank worked at Straughan’s. During his time there he welded probably the army’s first welded Armoured Car. He warned the company that they were using the wrong welding rods, but they wouldn’t listen and the vehicle fell apart when the gun was fired! He also built a girder which ended up being used in the construction of aircraft hangers. The company did not want him to join up, but suddenly his work deteriorated and they let him go.
Frank volunteered on his 18th birthday, and joined in February, 1943 he was ex-cadet force and Home Guard and was comfortable with rifle drill and a very good shot. He went to Woolwich arsenal then to Arnold in Nottinghamshire for primary training.
Frank then joined the REME and was sent on a welding course even though he was already fully qualified. Then posted to Southend-on-Sea where his role was as a Regimental Policeman, “I didn't know what being a craftsman had to do with being a Regimental Policeman!”
It was there he became involved with the GPR. He read in part 2 orders that volunteers were required for the GPR. There was a warning that this might be hazardous. With two friends he applied. “The three of us were sent to a selection board, where two were rejected and I was accepted”. He went to Fargo (Fargo Camp, Salisbury Plain near Larkhill, GPR Regimental Depot) for a 6 week weeding out process. At the end of it those still there were prom ted to the rank of corporal. “I will never forget a painting on the door of the corporals’ mess of hideous grinning devil with the caption; ‘so you want to be a glider pilot’. After that nobody requested RTU. It gave me a tremendous kick walking down the avenue and seeing ‘flying kit’ on the door of a Nissan hut. Then whilst stationed at Booker, we were bussed to Denham airfield every day for primary flying training”.
“It was there I had the weirdest experience of my life. I was told to fly a Tiger Moth; it didn't feel right and I put it Unserviceable. The following day I was asked to fly the same aircraft, again I refused and put it Unserviceable. The Instructor asked if he was refusing to fly, I said no, I’m just refusing to fly that aircraft. Another trainee, Roy Roberts, took it up, got to 50 ft when the engine cut, he stalled and crashed. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since. Roy wasn't hurt and 30 minutes later he was up again”.
“Then I was posted to Stoke Orchard to fly the beautiful Hotspur, then off to North Luffenham for Horsa training and the horrible Whitley Tug! After getting my wings, (the army flying badge) I was posted to No2 Flight A Squadron Harwell, , and I was paired up as second pilot with Lofty Cummings who had transferred from the Fleet Air Arm. As well as being the tallest Lofty was the finest pilot on the airfield, sadly he bought it at Arnhem”. Frank visits Arnhem every year and always visits Lofty’s grave in the cemetery at Oosterbeek. Frank feels very much at home in Arnhem and has taken all the members of his family there. He always meets Henk a Dutch historian who has been decorated by the Dutch Government for his services to the airborne forces.
Whilst on a Hotspur training flight in Gloucestershire Frank heard gunnery instructions over the radio and later discovered that they had come from the Normandy landings.
Arnhem was Frank’s first and only operation; “We went in on the second lift on Monday, 18 September. The flight was uneventful; no opposition whatsoever, no flak nor fighters. He made a full flap approach and landed on landing zone X-ray. The glider was unloaded; it was carrying a Jeep with two trailers and its four-man crew from the Royal Corps of Signals. In the trailers was a radar set.. The tail was taken off the glider, the ramps were put in place and the jeep and trailers just vanished; we never saw them again. We spent the night in Wolfheze; the following morning at dawn we went off to Oosterbeek to the Hartenstein Hotel, the HQ of the Airborne Division where we dug in. After about two hours, with 2 other glider pilots and a Captain in the South Staffs (Staffordshires) I went out on patrol. We got about ¼ mile when we realised we were surrounded , everywhere we looked were German soldiers. We dived into a church, St Bernulphus RC Church. We climbed a winding staircase that led to the organ loft, on to the belfry and then higher into the roof. There we found a catwalk stretching the full length of the church with a rectangular window at the far end. We opened it, everywhere we looked there were German soldiers, we opened fire.
We were there for 4 days. At irregular intervals would go up to the roof, fire a few rounds then disappear back into the organ loft. Eventually, when the four of us were in the organ loft, the door opened and a German soldier came in with a Luger. He shot the Captain in the stomach. He decided, quite correctly to give himself up to get medical attention and being in shock told the Germans that 'there are 3 more British soldiers up there'. A German Officer came into the church and shouted up to us in perfect English ‘you have 5 minutes to come down with your hands up. We have men posted on the staircase, there is no way out’. We broke the firing pins off our weapons, took the fuse out of the one grenade that we had and concealed it in an organ pipe, then went down and surrendered. We told the Germans, in broken German, that we hadn’t eaten for days. In 10 minutes 3 plates of food arrived. We were very suspicious, they said ‘don’t worry it’s not poisoned’.
Then over the river to Oberusal, an interrogation centre, where after a couple of days of giving only 'name rank and number'. ‘We were told 'right gentleman you are going to have your photograph taken’. That’s it we thought we are going to be shot, but no we were simply going to have our photographs taken. Then to Stalag Luft 7; at Bankau. We stayed there until January 1945 and then came 'the long march' over the Oder, 83 miles in 17 days at sub-zero temperatures. We quickly learned that the ideal place overnight was in a cowshed, as cows give off body heat; but horses do not. Eventually we arrived at Luckenwald south of Berlin and stayed there until the Russians liberated us. There were lots of Russian POW’s there they were in an appalling state, virtually skin and bone; we gave them what food we could spare, we always found something for them. When the camp was liberated the commandant was captured. the guards having fled. The Russian soldiers gave the commandant to the Russian prisoners I don’t think he lasted long! The following day I was flown home.
“My uncle was serving as a Captain in the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps), a doctor. He found out that I was back in the UK and sent his sent his personal transport to collect me. His driver took me to my aunt living in Slough. She greeted me very simply with a ‘Hello Frank how are you, I suppose you would like a bite of something to eat’ and put a chicken in front of me I couldn't eat very much of it. The car took me back to the repatriation camp, then I was off on 6 weeks leave with double civilian rations! They didn’t quite know what to do with me”.
“I Was sent to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst; just to get me out of the way. I was expected to keep out of sight. One day there was an item on part 2 orders ‘Army flying badges will not be worn’ this was obviously directed at me. I requested an interview with the C.O., he said ‘why have you come to see me’?, “I replied reference part 2 orders; correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that I can only lose my wings after being convicted of a flying offence and as I am no longer flying and have not been so convicted, please advise me under what authority is that order issued. The C.O. then said ‘that order is rescinded’, I proudly wore my wings for the rest of my army career”.
“Eventually I came up to London and was sent to form the London District Leave Hostel Unit; this was 3 houses in Victoria to be converted into a hostel unit for troops on leave. I had a staff of 4 Sappers, 30 ATS girls and 300,beds. A terrifying experience 3 enormous houses integrating doors cut through them 4 sappers, 30 ATS and 300 beds. I stayed for the last 6 weeks before being demobbed in May ‘46 at Woking”.
Frank feels his oddest memory in the army was being sent on a welding course when he was a fully qualified welder.
“The Hotspur was a delightful aircraft, very forgiving”.
“The Horsa was a wonderful aircraft, it would not go into a spin, it simply did a stall turn. It was very light on controls and very responsive”.
“The angle of dangle was a simple mechanical instrument showing you your position relative to the tug measured by the amount of sag of the tow rope between the tug and the wings of the glider”.
“The telephone cable between the tug and the Horsa didn’t work when under tension, so we used to signal by Morse code using a torch”. “On the Arnhem operation our Stirling tug lost an engine on take-off. As it didn't have enough power to take off with three engines, we were the last off the ground instead of being fourth”.
“The white tape that led the evacuating troops from the Hartenstein to the Rhine , was laid by Glider Pilots. I wasn't one of them, being already in the bag”. (For the troops of 1st Airborne Division retreating over the Lower Rhine)
“We were Total Soldiers; fully trained in every aspect and we took control and we took control and command as was expected of us. Wings give an automatic position of authority”.
On Night Flying: Frank only did one solo night flight in the Hotspur. He did fly at night in a Horsa but never solo.
“With full flaps the ground speed in the Horsa was 25 mph. The flaps were like barn doors and on a full flap approach the Horsa would descend at about 40 degrees from vertical; the air-speed remained constant, the controls were inch perfect”. Flying into a very strong headwind on full flap, it was just possible to undershoot as happened at Harwell, where Frank saw a Horsa flying backwards.
“Before Arnhem there were 16 cancelled operations, the Glider Pilots were on alert for all of them. “After the 13th or 14th cancelled operation, the glider pilots blasted the tannoy to pieces with their Stens!”
“On one occasion I was taken by truck from a secret airfield to Victoria Station to be picked up there that night for the return journey. I was arrested by the MP’s (Military Police) and taken to Scotland Yard. I was interviewed there by the Provost Marshall who, because as ordered, I would not divulge the location of my airfield phoned Lieutenant-General (Boy) Browning. General Browning instructed the Provost Marshall to have his personal transport take me wherever I wanted to go and in future, to 'Leave my Glider Pilots alone!' “.
“In the book 'Glider Pilots at Arnhem' it states that Sgt. Mc Guinness flew with Lofty Cummins. This is incorrect. It was my privilege to fly with Lofty. The book also says that we brought in the only radar set to arrive which is correct. It also says that we riddled it with Sten gun bullets, which is not correct, we made a perfect landing, unloaded the glider, the troops with the jeep and the radar set and they were on their way”.
“We broke the tip off our daggers and re-sharpened them because the tip was too brittle”.
“The sword in the Civic Hall at Arnhem; is engraved with the name of every regiment which fought at Arnhem”.
On RAF Pilots: “Because of the heavy losses sustained by the GPR at Arnhem, pilots from the RAF were retrained to fly gliders. As pilots they were excellent but due to their lack of training once on the ground they were not very useful as they had no knowledge of field craft”.
On Weapons: Frank’s choice was the SMLE (Short-Magazine-Lee-Enfield Rifle); he explained that as a Glider Pilot he could have any weapon he wanted. “The SMLE was so accurate, unlike the Sten, not much use over 50 feet”.
In the action at St Bernulphus RC Church; “When firing, we stood well back from the window, so as not to reveal our position. By the end of the action I had only 3 rounds left out of 4 Bren gun magazines + 10 rounds in the magazine of the SMLE”.
On going into battle “In the Airborne there was no gradual acclimatisation, I was terrified, as was everybody, but simply got on with the job I had been trained to do”. Frank had just the one forced landing in the Tiger Moth. “You had to learn the difference – can’t go around again in a glider!”
Sapper Tony Wann, 9th Fld Coy RE
'Chronicle & Echo' report 10th October 1944)
NORTHAMPTON PARATROOPER'S TANK EXPLOIT
Sicily, Taranto-Arnhem. Twenty-one -years-old Sapper Donald A Wann, of the Air-borne Division, whose home is in York Road, Northampton, has taken part in landings at all three "hot-spots". When seen by a "Chronicle and Echo" reporter at his home, Sapper Wann had a word of comfort for the relatives of men who had been reported missing at Arnhem. "Most of them," he said, "will be prisoners-of-war", as they fought to the last round, and it was just a matter of time before they were taken prisoners by the Germans."
GAVE HOTEL A "MISS"
He considers himself lucky in being in the first wave to land near Arnhem on Sunday, September 19, at about 1.30 in the afternoon because the Germans were taken completely by surprise. There was no "reception" in the form of anti-aircraft fire, which greeted the gliders which followed. Their rendezvous was a hotel and they set off down the road, but, when nearly there, were told by a member of the Dutch underground movement that the hotel was occupied by 200 S.S. troops. "So naturally we changed our mind," he said.
SHRAPNEL IN HIS EQUIPMENT
A day or so afterwards Sapper Wann and an officer went out after two German tanks which had been reported in the area. Armed with Piat guns, they discovered the tanks, one a small flame-thrower type and the other a larger one. "Taking cover," said Sapper Wann, "we fired and knocked out the small tank, but we did not get the larger one, which was supported by German infantry". "They scouted and discovered our position, and the officer accompanying me was killed by shrapnel. But the large tank was turned back. The next morning I found two pieces of shrapnel in my equipment." The Sky Troops carried food to last for two days, and all Sapper Wann had to eat in 10 days, besides this, were two tins of soup which he managed to rescue from a container which was dropped by parachute. To make matters worse, the Germans put snipers in the path of a well about 500 yards away.
END OF THE SNIPER
An ingenious method of dealing with enemy snipers was described by Sapper Wann. When one of the many snipers was discovered and could not be hit, a message was run back to the artillery about two miles away. "The artillery then fired on the tree in which he was ensconced, and wiped it out - and three or four trees in that area. He had warm praise for the pilots of the gliders, not only for their accuracy in landing, but for their courage in the fighting. "These pilots," comments Sapper Wann, "are perfectly entitled to make their way back to our own lines or not do anything, but they split up into groups of 10 or 12 and seemed to be killing Germans all over the place."
"LIKE QUEUING FOR PICTURES"
Describing how, after the withdrawal, he and his comrades made their way back over the river, Sapper Wann said "instead of shouting and pushing, the troops were marvellous. They waited in a queue 'like queuing for the pictures' - for about three hours in pouring rain and bitter cold." On the other side a great reception awaited them and this was repeated at the aerodrome where they landed in England, and where they had a grand feast. "The Germans treated our men all right," he told the reporter. "To quote an instance, a small party of Germans captured a small hospital in Arnhem where our wounded were, but after looking round they left without touching anyone or anything. "And when the Germans wanted to fetch wounded from our lines they just came over in an ambulance, collected them and drove back without being fired upon. We did the same thing." Sapper Wann joined the Royal Engineers in May 1942, and volunteered for the Airborne Division later in the year. He attended Northampton Town and County School, and was later on the staff of Messrs. Brown and Henson, architects, St Giles' Street, Northampton.
Noran Didsbury - Glider Pilot Regiment, E Sqn
“Let’s start at the beginning . . . I was originally part of E-Squadron based at RAF Down Ampney and RAF Blakehill Farm. Just before the Arnhem operation started we were sent to various aerodromes to see if anyone was short of crews. We went to Brize Norton, I think we also went to Manston and we ended up at Tarrant Rushton and from there we went out on the third lift heading to Arnhem. We were led to believe that we would be carrying the 52nd Highland Division who, due to their mechanical expertise, were going to create a sort of runway but when we got to the Horsa we found we were carrying the Polish Anti-tank Brigade. Our load consisted of a Jeep, 6 Pound Anti-Tank Gun, 17 radio sets, some ammunition, 2 Polish gunners and an Alsatian dog called Bruno!
We were towed across the Channel at about 2,500 feet by a Halifax and we discovered there was a thick screen of fog which we had been told wouldn’t be there. You then had the situation where some pilots were trying to fly above it, some below it – needless to say it got quite interesting. We managed to hit the Dutch coast without any problems and expected shrapnel to start coming up at us, which it did of course but eventually a shell hit the tow rope and that was that! So we said ‘Well, that’s made a mess of it’ or words to that effect and instantly adrenaline started to kick in and we knew we had to get out of the stream so we took the nose down and turned 180º. It took both of us (the pilots) to pull the Horsa out, we were going that fast with the heavy load and you could just see the guns starting to move forward towards the cockpit. We both managed to eventually pull the glider out of the stream and we were not much more above tree-top height and heading back towards home. We thought we were out of trouble but whilst travelling in a straight line the glider all of a sudden pulled down towards the ground! We were doing about 130mph when we hit the deck! The Nose Wheel had gone through the roof but we all got out without a scratch and the dog was running around asking ‘what’s next’?! We were all very lucky but because of the remarkable design of the Horsa it just fell apart upon landing. Within ten minutes of being down on the ground we were picked up because we were in the middle of a gun emplacement.
I became a Prisoner of War and unfortunately I never saw the other pilot or any of the other chaps ever again. I was taken to a POW Camp, which I think must have been some sort of holding camp, that was just across the Rhine. I remember the number of the Camp was 12A and I think it was in Limburg [Stalag 12A was one of Germany's largest prisoner of war camps located in Limburg, Germany]. We were in that Camp for about 36 hours and it came to night when we were put into the infamous cattle trucks and away we went by train. We went to Cologne initially and that was an incredible sight, it was a bright moonlit night – awe-inspiring. From there we were moved off again, we were attacked during the journey by a couple of RAF Typhoons, they hit the engine but we were lucky especially because they left us locked in the vans. We finally ended up in Southern Germany and I was placed in Stalag 4B, which was in a place called Mulhberg. I spent the rest of the war there, eight months in total.
I was very fortunate in those days because I was a fully-qualified accordionist so I was able to keep myself and others entertained in the Camp by playing a secondhand instrument. I used to go between the Huts in the Camp during the night and play in as many as I could for the payment of a cup of tea. You know the famous scenes in the ‘Great Escape’ where there’s loads of search lights and you see a man trying to dodge them all to get to the next Hut – that was what I was doing but with an accordion! The food was very basic of course - for Breakfast you got a vat of dirty boiled potatoes with no salt and if supply was good a German loaf made from black flour between four people or sometimes eight people. The outside of the loaf was covered in mould, they were designed to have a shelf life of 9 months so you would cut off all the mould to find the edible part of the bread in the middle. At tea-time you would get another vat with a different root vegetable in it such as carrots or parsnip, sometimes they would put in an Oxo cube to add a little flavour. Despite the poor food being in the Camp wasn’t all that bad and there was no ill-treatment because I think the Germans knew the War was coming to an end. Another memory from the Camp was my 21st Birthday. Myself and three friends, who were all non-smokers and of course cigarettes were currency in the Prison Camps, decided to go to the Prison Market and buy a block of chocolate. We went to the Market and bought a small tin of John West, Red Salmon and a 2oz block of Cadbury’s Chocolate which in those days contained eight squares. When we opened the tin of Salmon a collection of stones dropped out – it had been doctored by one of the Russians on the Market! It was shortly after my Birthday that we discovered we were free – we had been relieved by a Russian Horse Drawn Cavalry! Most of the Germans had left, all except five who were found strung-up outside the Camp.
The four of us moved on from the Camp to a small town called Riesa. We spent about 4-5 days in a house there surrounded by plenty of food. We realized we couldn’t stay there forever and knew we had to get out so we starting walking towards the River Elbe where we came across a Russian Guard who was in his 60’s! We knew that the four of us could handle him so we went back to the house to collect our belongings and devise a plan. Two Russians came barging in and asked for our radios which we happily gave them and in return we ended up purchasing a very old Mercedes from them for 10 cigarettes! We eventually came to where some American’s were stationed but we were told we couldn’t be flown out because they had finished flying troops home the day before! Fortunately the American Commander gave us a Jeep and told us to drive to Hanau and we could be flown home from there. We flew in a Dakota from there to Bruges and from Bruges we came back in a Lancaster. The strangest thing of all though was the pilot who towed us over was the pilot who brought us home and his response to us was ‘you took your flaming time’.
Cyril (Ash) Ashley - Kings Own Scottish Borderers
“Chance played such an important part really, a most momentous one for mine, we were making a night advance and I was lead platoon. Every half hour the lead platoon would move to the back of the column, and all the platoons would move up on so the next cha took lead platoon, and within minutes of my moving back to the rear, the platoon which had taken my place, commanded by a great friend of mine, a Lieutenant Murray, 19 years old and son of a Brigadier, came under fire from a German patrol in the woods and he and his platoon were killed. That was in minutes of me moving from that position to the rear.
It was not long after that we were captured. We were all lined up and the German officer came along shaking our hands congratulating us on the scrap we had put up. That takes a bit of believing doesn’t it?! So that was a good side, or one of the little good sides I saw. The conversely, marching away into captivity and the Dutch people would come running out from their houses with water and apples, anything to help us along the way, and when the guards turned round they would all fly back into their homes, and then they would come out again. And then something happened, which although we had the good and bad in our units, I don’t think a British man could have done. They turned round and fired into that crowd of women and children. And I just can’t believe that an English soldier could do that, bad as he may be. So that was the two extremes. Then, of course, we had the other side which people will often say to me – were you frightened? – Now, I can honestly say that I wasn’t frightened. We were young, fully trained, anxious to have a go, all the adrenalin flowing; but later on when we were put in the cattle trucks to be taken down into Germany, we pulled into Koblenz and the populace was not very happy, and the station was crowded with women banging on the doors of the cattle trucks, screaming, and I was frightened then. I was glad to get away from that station at the time.”
Bernard Halsall MC - Glider Pilot Regiment
“I joined the Liverpool Scottish, Queens Own Cameron Highlanders, a territorial unit, on my 18th birthday which was in March and then I got mobilised towards then end of August 1939 so I was in a week before it started.
I was batman to a group of three officers and then I got sent to Colchester officers training unit in February the following year and commissioned in June 1940. I was posted to the Liverpool King’s Regiment training recruits where I did various courses. I eventually got fed up with training recruits and asked for a transfer. I decided I would go for the first request that came and it was for glider pilots, which had never crossed my mind before. I went for a medical and an interview and before I knew it I was in. The Colonel asked who was born in Corsica and I told him Corsicans to which he replied that if I survived the war and got married never forget to tell my children where Napoleon was born and that was my introduction to the Glider Pilot Regiment.
We trained on the Hotspur glider at Weston-on-the-Green but before we went onto gliders we had to train to fly a powered aircraft. That was at a place called Selingford, near Farringdon, where we had to do 150 hours on a powered plane before we could get on a glider. When we got onto gliders it was a Hotspur and then at Brize Norton we moved onto Horsa gliders and then I went out to Africa in 1943.
Gliding was wonderful. The glider came down no matter what you did soothe training focused on landing. How to get the glider down and land accurately and we put in many hours to get this right. I think gliding was the second best experience there is, it was like being a bird, everything looked so small and insignificant, and there was no noise either marvellous!
I was sent out as reinforcements as the main body of troops had gone out some months before. We were stationed somewhere in Algeria near the Moroccan border I think. We had to fly American gliders from Algeria to Sousse where they had got four or five airstrips. We had to fly through the Atlas Mountains because we couldn’t get through them in a glider. We took the troops with us so the also had the experience of flying through the Atlas Mountains. I think we lost two gliders on the way but otherwise it was all right and it was from Sousse that we did our briefings for Sicily.
There were American Dakota planes to pull us and we had fortnight to wait during which we had an explosion in the camp when the ammunition dump went up which burnt my mosquito net. It was the first sea and air invasion of Europe by the allies. Monty’s army had come up trough Tunisia and were ready to go into Italy. The gliders hadn’t been used on any scale before and it was thought that we could land first on the night of the night of July and Montgomery’s army would land at dawn on the 10th some 15-20 miles away from us. We had to capture a bridge just South of the deep seaport of Syracuse. The bridge was over two water obstacles, I think it was a canal and a river, and it was the only bridge for miles and miles and we had to capture it so that Montgomery’s tanks could move over into Sicily. There 1500 men took off in about 140 gliders mainly pulled by Dakotas although some Horsas had been flown out and they joined in.
We were to go at night and land about midnight, capture the bridge, the original plan being for the 1500 troops to move off into Syracuse once the bridge had been taken. I wasn’t conscience of any pressure, we had trained hard and had a wonderful gang of chaps and there was a job to be done. We took off about 0640 which gave us an hour of daylight before the dark set in at which time we were about half way to Malta. We had to fly at 100 feet to keep out of enemy radar which meant you had to concentrate hard on the tow rope. The flight was about three and a half to four hours during which a strong wind had blown up and we actually had sea spray hitting the cockpit at times. It was not as gentle as we had been led to believe it was going to be. I don’t remember being frightened but it was easier for the pilot because you were so busy. The troops were amazing really as they had to sit for four hours just waiting to be dropped into battle.
We had trouble in our glider because when it got dark the lights failed on the tug aircraft which was very dangerous if you couldn’t see where it was. So we had to hack a hole in the Perspex so that we could see the towrope better and we flew on starring at the rope for well over half the trip until we got to the Island. The moon came out for a short while and we could see the coastline, we had maps of the coastline and where we were didn’t resemble the coast I had studied at all. Then some flak started to come up and we could see firing on the ground and then the moon went in.
I can remember crossing the coast and seeing the sand from about 300 feet. Then it went pitch black – I was told after that hit a stone wall at about 85 mph and we were all knocked unconscious. One chap broke his leg and another wasn’t too clever but the rest of the troops were alright and we moved off towards the objective. We had to get around about three pillboxes and dawn was breaking when we got sight of the bridge. There was quite a gathering of us by then, around forty of us, and we left the wounded at a crossroads. There was pretty heavy fire going down to the bridge where one glider, a Horsa, which had landed within 20 yards of the bridge flown by Staff Sergeant Galpin. On his glider there was a Major Beasley of the Royal Engineers who took the detonators out of the explosives that the enemy had laid around the bridge and that helped us enormously.
We split the area up around the bridge and I took the southern bank. The firing against us got progressively worse and we had a lot of trouble with machine gun and mortar fire. I can remember standing up three or four times on the bank and I could so the dust of Montgomery’s approaching army and I as shouting because they weren’t getting to us as quickly as they might. By 3 o’clock we had ran out of ammunition and there were very few of us left so we decided to surrender as it was the only possible thing left to do. Officially 78 of the 1500 reached the bridge and there were only nine of us left when we surrendered. The Major was next to me when a burst of machine gun fire shot him through the head and caught a few others, it made a hole in my red beret but that was one of the advantages of being small! We were marched away over a river where we suddenly met a British patrol were we were freed again.
We went back down to the bridge and the 8th Army had got through and there was one 8th Army soldier dead on the bridge and I always think of him at a time like this because he shouldn’t have been there if we could have hung on for another quarter of an hour, but we couldn’t so that was that. He was from the Green Howard’s Regiment.
I was relieved that Montgomery’s army had got there but sorry that we hadn’t lasted out. I was just glad to have survived I think really. You didn’t give thought to those that were missing because you didn’t realise just how many had gone. The majority of the 1500 men were drowned. A storm had blown up and we were only a 100 feet over the sea. It had been a long trip and the tugs were worried about the amount of fuel they had left and they released the gliders too early so we suffered very heavy casualties.”
John William Rayson - RAF Glider Pilot
“As I understand it, the Glider Pilot Regiment suffered severe casualties at Arnhem and it was imperative that the Regiment was brought up to strength as soon as possible. Two options were available; firstly to train army personnel who had been taught to fight on the ground to fly; first on Tiger moths and then on gliders or secondly to train qualified RAF pilots to fight on the ground and then convert them on to gliders.
It was decided that option two would be the quickest because only the rudiments of ground fighting would be required because once on the ground the glider pilot would be mainly employed in a defensive role. In the air the pilot was in charge but once on the ground the senior army personnel in the glider would take charge.
During November 1944 I was posted to RAF Bridgnorth, which was run by the RAF Regiment. This was a two-week course consisting of assault courses, unarmed combat, weapon training and map reading exercises during the day and at night. I remember that we had to crawl through ditches half full of water, under footbridges where instructors were standing throwing thunder-flashes at us as we passed; it was all quite tough. I also remember that we were trained to fire revolvers from the hip, rather like cowboys in western films.
The officer in charge of our course was Sir Michael Bruce, the brother of Nigel Bruce the Hollywood film star known for his part as Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes films. Both were old boys of my school, Abingdon School.
From Bridgnorth the course was posted to No.5 G.T.S. at, I believe, somewhere near Ludlow. Here we had our first taste of flying gliders. We flew the Hotspur glider made by General Aircraft. The instructor sat behind the pupil. We were towed by Miles Master single-engine aeroplanes. Flying on tow was a little tricky to maintain position in relation to the tug until one learnt to relax and let the glider virtually fly itself. One was also very conscious of the fact that once released from the tug aircraft one was on one’s one and every landing was a ‘forced’ landing. No engine to drag you in over the boundary when having misjudged a landing or being able to go round again if you were not happy with the approach as you could do in a powered aircraft. Your judgement when landing a glider had to accurate as there was no turning back. The course lasted about two weeks and according to my flying logbook I did 4 hours 10 minutes daylight flying with the instructor, 4 hours 5 minutes daylight solo flying, 40 minutes dual night and 20 minutes solo night flying. A total of 2 hours was spent in the Link Trainer. From the flying hours point of view gliding was a very slow business because one had to wait for an available tug aircraft to tow you off, and having landed one had to wait until a tractor to arrive to tow you back to the runway. During a whole day on the airfield one only spent about an hour in the air.
Having completed our initial glider flying training, the course was then posted to RAF Brize Norton, which was No.21 H.G.C.U. Here we flew Horsa and Hadrian gliders as well as continuing on the Link Trainer. The Horsa glider was the mainstay of the Glider Pilot Regiment.”
March 24th. The Rhine Crossing.
“The day before we took off we all got our equipment together and I remember apart from a .303 rifle, ammunition, hand grenades, I was also given a 2-inch mortar with bombs. I did not get much sleep during the night of March 23rd/24th and I think we had to be ready to go down to the runway at about 0600 hours. I clearly remember knocking the cork out of my water bottle on the way to the glider and losing all the water over my trousers! This worried me as I wondered whether I would be able to get descent water in Germany which was not poisoned or contaminated! The gliders of B Squadron had all been marshalled at the end of the runway close together in two lines, one just in front of the other, and the tug aircraft were lined up on either side of the runway and at an appointed time a tug would taxi out in front of the glider and we would be hitched up and waved away. This went very smoothly with the combinations taking off quite quickly one after the other.
We crossed the Rhine some three hours after take-off and immediately we were in an area of very bad visibility. I found out later that this was due to dust and debris that had been thrown up from the largest artillery barrage of the war which had occurred during the night, and also due to heavy bombing of Wesel. Although we couldn’t see the ground the tug pilot told me to release as he reckoned we were over the correct point and he wished us both luck. I thanked him for his good wishes and hoped he and his crew would enjoy their breakfast of beacon and eggs when they returned to Earls Colne. How I wished I was with them!
We couldn’t see the ground and there were several gliders who had released and were turning aimlessly and we knew full well that we were meant to be landing by a farmhouse and we did not know where we were. I followed the glider in front of me and he did a turn to port of 360 degrees. While he was doing that there was a certain amount of flak coming up. I carried on, hoping I was going in the right direction and turning here and there so that I did not go too far into Germany and overshoot the landing zone. I was down to about 250 feet when I first saw the ground and I recognised on my port side the village of Hamminkeln so I continued flying south looking for a field in which to land.
I spotted a field where I thought we could land which I hoped would be somewhere near the farmhouse where we were meant to be. I operated the lever to bring the flaps down as I did not have much time to lose height. I pushed the nose of the glider down and to my horror found that the speed built up to about 120 mph and it was obvious the flaps had not come down. I think that gunfire had pierced my compressed air bottle and so this put the flaps out of action. It was impossible to get into the field without crashing so I decided the only thing I could do was to do a shallow dive into the field and aim between two trees at the far end, hoping that the wings would hit these trees and bring us to a standstill. This did not happen – I hit the ground and broke the nose wheel so the cockpit started digging into the ground. At about this time I think a mortar bomb exploded under my starboard wing which turned the glider upside down. The nose broke away from the glider and rolled over and over like a ball for some time; eventually it came to rest. I pulled the release on my safety harness but did not realise we were upside down until I fell on my head! Sergeant Pridden (co-pilot) and I were not hurt. We crawled out of the cockpit and ran back to what was left of the glider. Amazingly no-one was hurt. One chap did have a graze on his thumb and that was all. We then came under fire from two Spandau machine guns which were situated near the trees which I had been aiming for. We kept very still under the wreckage of the glider and amazingly the firing soon stopped and I can only think the Germans thought that no-one could have got out of our glider alive."
Alan Austin - Glider Pilot Regiment
“I trained in the Royal Signals as a wireless operator and transferred to the Glider Pilot Regiment and then of course the Arnhem invasion was due and we took off.
Everything was fine – sea crossing fine – and we were coming in across the Dutch coast and unbeknown to us there was a German flank ship which opened up on us. It shot the tug pilot in the Dakota and his port engine had gone. He came on the blower to me down the line of communication down the tow rope to say that he’d got to release us, ‘Cheerio, hope you get back and the same for us!’ So I found a piece of land that was suitable and made a perfect landing area, I’ll say that much. So we got out of the glider and this Warrant Officer said to me ‘We’ll split up, I’ll take one section and you take the other.’
So I had five or six guys with me when I suddenly spied a farmhouse and knocked on the door. It was answered by a great big Dutch woman and her husband. We explained our situation and they hid us there for 4 or 5 days. Fed us, allowed us to sleep, everything! It was marvelous. One morning the Dutchman said ‘We’re going to take you out now’ to which I replied where too? He said he was taking us to a fishing village from where we could get home and said he had some bikes. Sure enough he’d got enough bikes stacked out in the yard and we cycled down to the fishing port. When we got down there fishing boats were lined up on the water and they took us all in. When we got 4 or 5 miles out we were picked up by a British destroyer.”
Joan Roberts - Factory Worker responsible for Horsa construction, Wolesey Factory
“I was conscripted into working on the glider wings from November 1941 until 1943. I had never been in a factory before, so it was quite an experience for me.
It was there that I met Gwen Pearson in the training shop. We were then sent into the main shop where we met Al Roberts and Harry Morton who were to make up the team to work on the jig.
While the men fitted the spars to the jig, Gwen and I collected the small parts from the stores. This consisted of Ribs, Plywood, Angle pieces, Glue, Small nails and a Hammer. A plywood angle was glued to each side of each end of a rib. When set each rib was then placed in position using the hammer, the angles were then nailed firmly into the spar.
Gwen and I suffered from bruised fingers, as it was difficult to hammer in such a confined space. Ernie from another jig made us a pair of tweezers in the shape of women’s legs (this caused quite a laugh). But they were a great help. When all the ribs were fitted a skin of plywood was glued to the top of the wing and left to set.
Not until I became involved in the glider project did I realise the significance of the job we were doing during the war.”
Leslie Brooks - Engineer, Member of the Horsa Design Team, Airspeed Ltd
“I was 24 when I worked for Airspeed down in Portsmouth and it is in that location that I ran the section responsible for the design of the Horsa tail.
I was initially turned down as a pilot due to medical problems and as a result I turned my hand to design and Engineering. I was always pretty creative and thought I would enjoy the opportunity to design and make aircraft if I couldn’t fly them. Working at Airspeed was one of the best times of my life. I was responsible for the team in charge of the design of the Horsa tail.
I remember the first stages of the design process for the Horsa including the suggestion of using a paraffin heater in the fuselage so that the troops would be kept warm. I know it seems unbelievable but we tried and tested the idea as we were pretty confident that it would work. We had a test run with the heater inside the fuselage, I was on that particular test flight and at first things seemed to be going quite well. After a while we could smell burning and all of a sudden a small fire broke out in the fuselage. We had to crash land the Horsa and after what was really a lucky escape the heater was taken out of the design plans.
During the initial stages of the tail design there were no struts used on the tail but eventually as a method of strengthening and supporting the tail’s huge weight one strut was introduced. We realised, after some more test runs, that the tail was flexing too much with just the one strut so eventually we introduced two struts and this proved effective and in fact was part of the final design.
It took us approximately twelve months to complete the design for the Horsa and during that short period of time I had a blast and we all knew that we had created something pretty special. Fantastic aircraft.”
Frank Dougan - Private (Bren Gunner), 12th Battalion, Devonshire Regiment
“I was nineteen when I first entered WWII as part of the Devonshire Regiment, 6th Air Landing Brigade. I was never scared to be part of the war at such a young age because to be honest you didn’t really have time to think about it. You just had to get on with it and hope for the best.
My first taste of glider life was through the training regime we were put through to test our navigational skills and give us an idea of what we might face during future operations. The Horsa port holes were blacked out and we were towed somewhere unknown and once we had landed we had to find our own way back. You learnt quite a lot about the gliders during the training period particularly when it came to getting out of the gliders successfully. Usually the nose end wouldn’t budge and the tail end wouldn’t blow off with the explosives so we usually just ended up cutting our way our using axes. In all honesty we destroyed more gliders in practice than we did out in the field.
I had many close shaves during my military career but I was always very lucky to have escaped unharmed. When I was based at Pegasus Bridge during 1944 a sniper shot at me whilst I was digging a trench but luckily for me the bullet hit my shovel and not my head. I couldn’t see where the shot had been fired from but I lay down close to the ground until my breathing had slowed down and I was sure he had gone. The sniper was so close to hitting me he probably thought from a distance that he had shot me. It was also at Pegasus Bridge that I remember seeing my first dead body which at the time didn’t seem to faze me.
I don’t think you had time to worry. I remember when we were patrolling an area at Pegasus Bridge my friend and I could see a figure wandering across one of the fields. On first glance the figure seemed British in appearance because he was sporting a Glider Pilot uniform. My friend however was suspicious of the individual and so called out to him numerous times and when the figure failed to answer my friend raised his gun and shot the man in the back of the head. It turned out that the man was a German soldier walking around with a Glider Pilot Regiment maroon beret on!
After Pegasus Bridge, we were all looking forward to Christmas back at home. We all thought about the lovely Christmas dinner that would be waiting for us but on the 24th December 1944 we were on our way to Belgium to help the Americans in the Battle of the Bulge. It was during the Ardennes Campaign that a bullet grazed my forehead; I felt the heat from the bullet on my face. Once again I was lucky!
One particular memory that has stayed with me over the years was my experience during the Rhine Crossing (Operation Varsity). I sat towards the nose end of the Horsa, right next to the door which was also the entrance for all the men and equipment to get into the glider. At 0800 on the 24th March 1945, we were all tucked in close to next to each other in glider 133. The adrenaline was flowing as we took off but we had only been in the air for a few minutes when a huge hole appeared above the cockpit! It was so loud inside the Horsa we thought we had been hit! Then we quickly realized, once the pilots started shouting at us, that the tow rope had broke. We couldn’t land back on the runway we had taken off from because there were still gliders there ready to depart so we had to look for a nearby open space. After circling for hours we eventually found a field although God knows where we were but we landed there. There was smoke everywhere when we landed because of the shells that had exploded in the back of the Horsa but we managed to get out in the end. I was the first man out of the glider and all I could see was black smoke but eventually it cleared and there were big smiles as we watched the gliders continuing in formation overhead.”
Frank Edwards - Ex Sergeant, Glider Pilot Regiment
“The Horsa incident - on take-off in those days, I don’t know what it’s like now but it was a rather bumpy experience in a glider back then. The tow-rope was usually very sturdy and was our only method of contact to the tow aircraft - it was supposed to have a telephone wire in it but it never worked.
On take-off in a Horsa, it must have been at Brize Norton, our port anchor actually came off – the tug didn’t know and continued on its path whilst we were being dragged through the air with the tow rope only partially attached! Myself and my co-pilot managed to release the tow rope and crashed heavily onto the ground. Apart from wrecking the undercarriage we did nothing seriously wrong. In fact it was so unimportant that nobody seemed to be interested in it.
The tug exploding in mid-air was a Miles Master, towing a Hotspur – a beautiful training plane. I was with an RAF pilot if I rightly remember, called F/Sgt Black, and we’d got about 200 feet on the clock, and suddenly on take-off this Miles Master just literally turned into a ball of fire – I’ve never seen anything like it and couldn’t imagine it, just a flaring ball. We cast off from it immediately, got it over the aircraft hangars at the end of the airfield and out over the boundary fence. Must have gone about 150 yds. We’d no choice left – we had to land in scrub country, Hawthorn bushes, trees, all that sort of stuff that you’d expect on heath land. So we had to do our landing in that. I do remember bits of the Hotspur tearing through these bushes and things and chunks of the Hotspur being catapulted in front of us! When I came to I couldn’t find anything. I remember lying there, in that sort of gorse heath, wondering what I was doing and why I was lying down. Every part of me tingled intensely and I then realised I had still got my harness on. When I was thrown out of the Hotspur I’d taken the whole fitting out with me! I had been shot through the top of the cockpit – it was a Perspex cockpit. I got up from the shrubbery and looked around, I could see the smoke from the Miles Master, black oily smoke, about 150 yds away, and I wondered what had happened to Blacky… Where is he, and where’s the Hotspur. Actually, I couldn’t find any of them. I didn’t see Blacky or the Miles Master pilots again. I never experienced anything quite like that day ever again! During the Court of Inquiry this guy came to see me in the hospital, he told me that the Hotspur had disintegrated in the rough landing. He seemed to think we had done rather a poor job of landing the glider. I don’t know how you’re supposed to land a glider in a mini-wood without causing some damage! You had no time at all to think. We were panic stricken!
When I was in hospital after the crash the extent of my injuries became clear. One of my first memories in hospital was waking up and hearing hymns - I thought ‘Christ, I’m in heaven after all.’ I could hear these creaking old voices singing hymns and I couldn’t move. I was bandaged in such a way that I couldn’t move my arms or hands and I was lying prone. It was horrible lying prone on a sort of rubber sheet thing and I was cold and thirsty. A young girl came along every so often to give me some water but I was only ever allowed a small amount, I kept thinking to myself why am I so helpless! Apparently my going through this Perspex had acted something like a potato-scraper. It had taken all the skin off the parts of my body that stick out. It scarred my face and on hot days it shows, red blotches appear. The doctors kept finding bits of Perspex in my body – it doesn’t show on X-rays, so they waited until I started to bleed somewhere, and then they’d pull it out.
I was swathed in hospital, virtually like a mummy. They used a thing – Acraflavin – some sort of a green oil stuff, and they’d soak the bandages in this green Acraflavin, that’s why I was lying on this rubber sheet. It was supposed to heal skin or make skin grow. I healed very quickly – the Acraflavin must have worked. I was then ready to get out - the military guy who was the senior military man at the site, a Captain in the Pioneer Corps, very nice old boy, he’d been in the same regiment as my father, they hadn’t known each other but they were both ex-Royal Welsh Fusilier men. Dad was in a battalion that had distinguished itself at the Battle of Mons, being in the regiment he knew of the battalion and of this wonderful battle, so I could do no wrong. I could have walked out of there at any time I liked. He’d arranged for me to go, but he said “Ive got some bad news for you – you can’t go.” They had brought three chaps back from Burma because they needed a special operation for wounds and it was soon discovered they had got Typhus and that closed the whole hospital down.
Everybody was wedged in this hospital and couldn’t go out. Everything was delivered and pushed down on trolleys and then the porters would run away. We used to watch them through the windows. Our people had to stay in hospital and push trolleys out with dirty laundry in, that sort of thing, and then run back in. Sounds silly but it worked really. That lasted about a fortnight and then VE Day came whilst I was in hospital.
Anyway, I finally got discharged from hospital and continued on with the regiment. To be honest, I never did anything quite as exciting afterwards.”
Godfrey Yardley - Ex Para of the 10th Worcesters, 2nd Oxford & Bucks
Operation Fortitude The Ardennes Offensive
“This was commonly known as “The Battle of the Bulge” or “Runstedt Rush”. The Germans had broken through the American lines in the Eifell region of the Belgian Ardennes at the beginning of December 1944, the critical point came a few days before Christmas when the 6th Airborne Division was rushed out at twenty four hour notice to back up the Americans and prevent the Germans crossing the River Maas in the Dinant region. Within twenty-four hours on December 22nd we embarked by rail from Bulford station to Dover where we spent the night in a transit camp. The next morning (23rd December) we sailed from Dover to Calais on the ferry “Shepperton” being the first allied troops to use the port after liberation. Another night in a transit camp then onward by road in freezing cold lorries to Olsene where we spent the night, being distributed amongst the local houses, my Bren gunner and I sleeping in a bed!! On the 25th December we were soon off again by road; after travelling all that day and night we arrived in Givet on the River Maas at about 04.00 am –the coldest journey I have ever experienced in my life – snow, ice and freezing temperatures – ever since I have hated snow, ice and cold weather, and will do so for the rest of my life.
We were soon allocated defence positions, my Platoon No.l4 at the time, were given a small hill, just outside the town, where we found a cave in the hillside, it was so cold outside that to go into the cave was heaven, it then became our Platoon H.Q. Outside the ground was so deeply frozen that it was impossible to dig slit trenches, we tried blowing the ground with Hawkins anti-tank grenades with no effect, in the end we had to call in the Royal Engineer sappers with pneumatic drills. We soon found ourselves amongst the American paras manning anti aircraft guns. It was during this period I was suffering with neuralgia which was very painful due to the temperature change when first going outside and then back into the cave I reported sick and was given aspirin and sent back up the hill, however, my Platoon officer, Bob Preston and Sgt Mick Evans gave me some of the whisky ration from time to time to ease the pain it tasted good. From then on we moved about every couple of days until the crisis was over. During this time we carried out lots of patrols, day and night, in and around several villages. The civilians were very friendly but very poor, the houses etc being in very poor condition. During this period of movement our billets varied from houses to cattle buildings, the best was a hay loft over the cattle, which were kept indoors for obvious reasons, this provided dry and warm accommodation. On one occasion B Coy had the job of reconnoitring a certain area and finding a route for the rest of the Regiment to follow, this was done but someone had to go and lead them in; John Thorn and I had a mine detector and started to check the road for mines, this proved too slow for the corporal in charge, bearing in mind everywhere was covered in frozen snow he decided the ground was safe to walk on so off his party went, in the meantime John and I continued our mine sweeping, suddenly we picked up something and carefully started the procedure of uncovering it – it was a mine and we took the precaution of carefully checking for a booby trap – and it was – underneath as it happened. At the side of the road close by was a pigsty, also the telegraph cables were down, so we cut off a good length and carefully threaded under the pressure plate, paying out the cable behind the pigsty, making sure there was no one about we pulled the wire, the booby trap was live and of course the mine exploded blowing a goodly hole in the road. A few seconds late Major Ballard, the company commander, came dashing down the road to find out what had happened expecting to find casualties, we explained what had happened and he congratulated us on our procedure and caution
C Company were not so fortunate as they had to join a Company from the 13th Parachute Regiment to fight what was known later as “The Battle of Bure”. It was at this point that the German s reached the end of their advance westwards; this is a story on its own. However, the success of this battle cost the lives of several men from C Company and 13th Para, plus many wounded. It is interesting to note that the Commanding Officer of 13 Para was Lt. Col. Luard who was commissioned into the Ox & Bucks before transferring to the Parachute Regiment. We eventually moved north to Grubbenvor in Holland, still in very hard weather, again this was on the banks of the River Maas, the ground on both sides sloped down to the river which meant during daylight the area was a no mans land. During this period we were on one side and the enemy on the other and a certain amount of respect existed for each other – discreet movements during daylight as we were in full view of each other. On our side of the river was a small deserted village which we had reached just after last light in Platoon strength; just before first light we handed the position over to a couple of snipers, this was the routine day after day, we also sent a number of patrols across the river
A number of small incidents occurred which are worthy of note. One night I was called to accompany the Platoon Sergeant and a couple of other chaps on a patrol along the road which ran alongside the river our side, we had not gone very far when suddenly there was a “plop” quickly followed by a brilliant light, a trip flare, we were totally exposed to anyone within a radius of half a mile, needless to say we hit the deck in two seconds flat and waited to receive gunfire from the enemy side of the river at least. Nothing happened, when the flare burned itself out we stood up and the Sergeant said “Sorry chaps, I forgot about the trip flare” Can you think of what we might have said to him, Sergeant or otherwise! The patrol was terminated at this point with much ribaldry on arrival back at Platoon HQ.
I should point out that everywhere was still covered in snow so for those on patrol or other warlike activities we were issued with white snow overalls; as they were in short supply they were passed on to others for their use, needless to say they were very rarely dry.
Another occasion went something like this. It was normal routine to “stand to” half an hour before first light and half an hour during last light, always considered to be the best time for an attack. During the first light period and for some time afterwards we used to watch a number of Germans around their dugout having a wash and shave etc, plus a cyclist who appeared about the same time. One day someone had the idea we ought to put a stop to this blatant arrogance, so an artillery shoot was laid on. An artillery observation team came forward and when the man on the bicycle got to a certain point the order to fire was given. This had to be timed correctly so that the shells arrived at the right point at the right time, and so it was, a lot of 25 pound shells caused a lot of smoke and dust, after a few short minutes this cleared and out of its midst arose the cyclist, got on his bike and rode away to the cheers of everyone. We did not repeat the event; everyone thought he deserved to be left alone in future. We often wondered if he survived the war. I hope so.
One morning after we had handed over to the snipers at the deserted village, we had arrived back at our Platoon daytime positions. The normal procedure was to have our rum ration, which was slightly diluted with hot water, I have to say it was a generous portion, consequently within a short time it began to take effect, unfortunately we were suddenly called back to the village as the snipers had been confronted by some enemy soldiers. I cannot remember more details but no casualties resulted from this encounter, it could have turned nasty as we had to rush down to the village and rush back before it got too light, not that this worried us as by this time we were in high spirits literally as a result of the rum. Normally after a night standing patrol we would be tired and sleeping off the rum.
I should mention food. The British forces, particularly the army, lived on “Compo Rations”, in a box for seven men, it consisted of prepared tinned food, in the main pretty good but it could be monotonous, in addition a box would also contain such things as cigarettes, matches, chocolate oatmeal blocks, bully beef, etc. For a time in the Ardennes we had some American “K” rations, in our opinion totally inadequate under such weather/action conditions, whatever may be said about British compo rations it was good sustaining food, which a reasonably trained cook could make better, even today much good food is made unacceptable by the cooks. One high- light was the self heating tins of cocoa or soup; this had a heating element down the middle – remove the cap on top and ignite with a lighted cigarette, but before this it was VITAL to pierce the top face of the can, otherwise the heat generated within would turn it into a bomb - the contents were delicious. One can was issued to each man when going out on night patrol, especially in very cold weather.
Unknown to me at the time, the Regiment was arranging for a limited number of men to go on forty eight hour leave in Brussels. I was informed I was one of the lucky ones and to be ready to leave at a minutes notice, needless I was. I well remember the night journey, going along, closely followed by V1 doodlebugs also heading for Brussels and like targets. This is true, you could see them flying a few hundred feet above and alongside us; I guess they had been launched not very faraway and had not yet gained height. After Varsity we were to over-run many V1 and V2 launching sites. My leave was greeted by massive near explosions, in fact I looked through the window of our accommodation and saw one explode – they were in fact V2 rockets, you did not hear or see their arrival, only the explosion, nevertheless, despite the danger, leave was very enjoyable and soon ended; I cannot remember anything except the warmth and drink!
Some nights were very clear, the sky being full of stars, it was not unusual to hear our bombers flying into Germany, and on a number of occasions to witness them being shot down in flames, also we saw V2`s being launched; their propellant blast lighting up the launch point. Another daylight phenomenon was to see German artillery shells passing through the sky a few hundred feet up, seconds before they lost velocity and fell to earth and exploded. We reckoned they were long-range guns from the Seigfried Line, firing on their extreme range. We witnessed this as a blur, but without doubt, shells.
On arrival back at camp I was greeted with the news that an American unit was taking over the next day. The Americans did not observe the discretion we exercised in relation to day light movement, consequently we moved out O.K. but of course they drove up in their transport into their allocated positions; we had just got clear when the enemy opened fire on them with artillery etc. I don`t know the result of this indiscretion but lives must have been lost? We had to fly back to Bulford within forty-eight hours, travelling to Brussels airport and then to England on 28th February 1945 – what of the future?
Our hasty return was of course in relation to the crossing the River Rhine, we guessed we were in line for another airborne operation and as the 1st British Airborne Division had been badly depleted at Arnhem it was taken for granted that it was our turn again – it was just a matter of when. After seven days leave extensive training followed and finally ended with a three-hour mass divisional flight – this was as expected a rehearsal for the Rhine crossing operation – Varsity. One British, the 6th, and one American, the 17th, were to fly side by side across the Rhine into the heart of Germany in one single lift, the largest of WWII. On the 19th March 1945 we moved to Birch airfield and flew from Gosfield on 24th March.”
John Dilworth - RAF Voluntary Reserve and Army
“When war was declared in 1939 I was sixteen years old.
As soon as I was seventeen I applied to join the RAF. I was called to Cardington Base for tests and was very happy when accepted into the RAF Voluntary Reserve. I was on Deferred Service and given a badge to signify my status. I wore it with pride and waited with eager anticipation to begin my training. But when my nineteenth birthday passed I decided that I had better remind them that I was still waiting! My two older brothers and one sister were already in the forces, another sister was a civilian nurse and my girlfriend (later to become my wife) was serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Army. My father was an officer with an old Scottish battalion, the Cameronians, and based in Glasgow. I felt left out and was determined to do my bit so I wrote to the Air Ministry demanding to be called up. They did respond but it was not what I wanted to hear. I was to wait until I was called for. Still impatient to serve I wrote again, this time asking if I could join as a gunner or wireless operator if that would speed up my entry into the RAF. The response was negative. I had been selected for pilot training and I must wait till called for.
At that time I worked in an office alongside an ex RSM. He listened patiently to my grumbles and when I told him that I might enlist in the army instead because I was so tired of waiting, he advised me that the best regiment to join was the Life Guards. I had never heard of them but I wrote to the Air Ministry again, asked to be removed from the list for pilot training and volunteered for the Life Guards. After an interview with Colonel Lane-Fox at Combermere Barracks at Windsor and producing the two references as required in 1942 I was accepted. I was called up a month later. At last I was in the war and ready to do my duty!
.I had trained at Windsor for a few months when a request came through - volunteers were wanted for the Glider Pilot Regiment. I had always wanted to fly so as soon as this opportunity arose I grabbed it. I applied and was interviewed by the RAF officers and was accepted and made Corporal.
We were trained on Salisbury Plain for a few weeks and then transferred to my first airbase, Booker Airfield, High Wycombe. I was taught to fly Tiger Moths. The cockpit was open and so we wore helmet, goggles and flying Jacket. We still wore our army boots which scraped on the metal floor of the aircraft. The pupil sat in front of the instructor. I did quite well but had a little difficulty with my landings. I blamed the boots! It was decided that I would benefit from extra training on a landing simulator based at London Aero Club. This was some distance away so I was taken there in a chauffeur driven car. I was very pleased with this arrangement but the lady driver was less so. She was more used to driving high ranking officers and VIPs.
That course successfully completed I was made sergeant and moved to Shobden Base where I was taught to fly the Hotspur Glider by RAF Instructors. This was very different from my flying experience so far. The Hotspur was cigar shaped, long and narrow. It could take about eight passengers but it would have been a squashed ride. The pilots sat one behind the other.
After more training at Stoke Orchard base I was then sent to North Luffenham to begin training to fly the Horsa Glider. The Hotspur was a small glider so I was struck at once by the size of the Horsa. It was big! The pilots were taught in pairs. One would pilot the glider with an instructor and the second would go into the Tug plane and then vice versa. The tug was a Whitley, a plane used for parachute training. In the Whitley the task was to make one’s way to the rear of the plane to secure the yoke when the glider was released. This involved edging past the large gap through which the paratroopers jumped and through which I did not want to fall.
I was posted to “A” Squadron at Harwell just after the D Day landings. My future wife very proudly sewed my Wings Badge to her ATS shoulder bag to show the world that she was “going out” with a pilot from the Army Glider Regiment. Over sixty years later she still has the bag!
The training was intensive with constant practice – I had got the hang of landing by then! We did not know when or where we would we would be ordered into action although there were plenty of rumours. Projects were started and then dropped because of the speed of the allied advance.
In September we were given instructions. By this time I was twenty one years of age. We were to take troops and supplies to Arnhem where a big airborne operation was to take place known as Operation Market Garden. For three days Tugs (Sterling, Dakota and Halifax) and gliders were lined up on the runways. At the sides the two pilots and their cargoes moved up to be loaded into the next available Horsa. Wave after wave of aircraft took off. My co-pilot and I stood with our “cargo”, six or so soldiers of the Free Polish Army and a jeep and trailer. As we started to load we realised that there was a big problem. The Polish soldiers had the wrong sort of jeep. They had a jeep with a rigid windscreen and we needed a jeep with a drop –down windscreen to fit through the loading door. We had to move aside and allow the next crew onto what should have been our glider. My co-pilot and I were sent to another airfield to prepare for an extra lift to Arnheim. We slept in temporary accommodation, tents pitched by the airfield near Newbury. There was a delay and we were told that the Tugs were not available because they were being serviced.
Word came through that the offensive had been a failure and had been cancelled. A strong enemy force had defeated the allied attack. It was a sad time. Many of my good friends and comrades had died or been seriously injured. Training continued and I travelled to many airfields collecting gliders to be used by those squadrons who had been at Arnhem. In December 1944 my girlfriend and I were married. I had a weekend’s leave and the wedding took place in a church close to my base in Rivenhall. We both wore our uniform.
Training intensified for the next offensive, and lessons learned from the mistakes of Arnhem were put into practice. We took off and landed constantly when the weather allowed. We practised mass landing. We were sent on refresher courses which included “blind flying” in a Tiger Moth, from Exeter Airfield. We learnt to pinpoint our landing area. We had no idea where or when we would be sent. Rumours abounded.
One of my very sad duties was to accompany the coffins of those who died in training as they were taken home. I accompanied the undertaker and the coffin in the Guards van, attended the funeral and visited the bereaved families. One day in March we received our briefing. The operation was called “Varsity” The allies were going to push into Germany and cross the Rhine. Much opposition was anticipated. The Rhine crossing was carefully planned. Composite units were to land together to become an efficient fighting force as quickly as possible. The bar in the mess was shut the day before but on the day itself the pilots were served their morning cup of tea in bed!
This time we had the right equipment and when our turn came we took to the air. The tug pilot navigated and after about two hours we were close to our landing area. This was our first active service and we did not know what lay ahead of us. We released the Tow Rope and after about five or six minutes of free flight we landed safely, as planned, in a ploughed field, though in the face of enemy fire. We landed near the haystack identified at the briefing. The artillery had bombarded the German positions earlier and everywhere was covered in smoke. It was perhaps because of this that some American paratroopers were dropped in the wrong area and we saw many dead. Some had been shot as their parachutes got tangled in the trees and their bodies hung still. We acted swiftly as trained. I opened the doors and men and jeep rolled out. The field was full of gliders, men and equipment. There was a lot of noise, gliders splintering, men shouting, engines running, weapons being fired. Not all gliders landed as successfully as ours. For a while it was chaos but the training kicked in and the soldiers rapidly got sorted and moved forward. We were armed with rifles which we fired at the enemy as we made our way as briefed to a farmhouse which was to be the headquarters of the Lieutenant-General (I-C). We were to guard him. This meant that we were away from the thick of the fighting and relatively safe. This was because pilots were a valuable resource and would be needed again.
A German prisoner of war was ordered to dig a slit trench for us for shelter. We lined it with American parachutes and settled in. The American paratroopers carried two and discarded the second emergency parachute after landing. They were made of silk. It was quite comfortable until a number of American Liberators came over flying very low and dropping very large canisters containing supplies. Some of these landed dangerously close to us and one split open very near us as it hit the ground. Its contents spilt out over the earth – hundreds of pairs of pyjamas! Glider pilots were then ordered home and we travelled back in a Dakota. The plane landed in a civilian airfield at Lyneham. The staff were unsure how to deal with soldiers returning from the battle front and decided that we should fill in the same forms as civilians. We were required to fill in forms answering questions such as, “Who authorised your journey?” and, “Where have travelled from?” Tired soldiers complained and tempers frayed. Someone with common sense intervened and let us through quickly. Some of my friends were then sent to India with the Glider regiment in preparation for an anticipated attack on Japan and were forgotten. ( I wonder if they are still there!) Once home I successfully completed the 1st Pilots Course at Brize Norton. The war ended. We celebrated Victory in Europe in May 1945 and Victory in Japan in August the same year. But I did not get demobbed. Instead we were sent to Palestine where a terrorist bullet missed me by inches as I travelled by train. I was lucky again when a terrorist bomb blew up the railway line but not the train whilst going on leave to Cyprus. I was finally demobbed in April 1947. I was twenty three. Whilst writing this service record I am very conscious of my modest contribution to the history of the Glider Pilot Regiment. Some pilots took part in airborne operations in Sicily, the D Day landings, Arnheim and the Rhine Crossing. It is their exploits which I remember and honour.”
Richard Dick - RAF Glider Pilot, No 671 Sqn, RAF
“On the 6th December 1944, a bunch of us were flown in a C-46 Commando aircraft of the USSAF from Lalaghat to Karachi via Agra, the object being for us to ferry Hadrian gliders from Karachi to Lalaghat or other forward bases. After arrival in Karachi on the 8th myself and my co-pilot, Alan Carr, were allocated a Hadrian and were then introduced to the American crew of the C-46 that was to tow us. It was a little alarming to hear that they had not towed gliders before! We also found our glider to be heavily laden with crates of spares for a USSAF forward base. Their lack of towing experience became immediately apparent on take-off when they opened everything up regardless of the elastic pull of the tow rope! The ensuing effect can be imagined – I seemed to be over their tail before it started to lift and that was with a heavily laden glider.
On the morning of the 9th I asked the tow crew to be a little more considerate on take-off. It was a very bumpy trip from the start with heavy cumulus build-up. After an hour and a quarter the captain of the C-46 told me over the intercom that he would seek smoother air higher up. Without further ado he climbed into the base of the cumulus. I can only describe the thermals as being horrendous and the cloud was so thick that I could not see the tow aircraft. In the middle of all this the crates broke loose, thrashing away at the sides, roof and floor of the Hadrian. As I fought to keep some sort of control, Alan was exhorting the C-46 pilot to go back down. I don’t remember his replies but as if it was yesterday I remember the tremendous crash as a heavy crate broke through the floor, leaving a gaping hole. In the next few minutes, everything loose in the fuselage, including our personal baggage, fell through the disintegrating floor to the ground far below. The time had come to cast-off, which I did. However, with no load and no ballast sandbags up in the nose the descent below cloud base in the thermals was interesting to say the least and it was an enormous relief to break cloud and see terrafirma, albeit a long way down. With full nose down trim, we managed to keep above the stall, while I selected a landing spot. After getting out of the Hadrian, Alan and I noticed a droop in the wings – the main spar had cracked.
Amazingly enough, the C-46 pilot actually realized that he had lost his tow and did some low passes dropping messages and some food and water. We learnt that we had come down near a village of Raghurasingh. With a map they dropped, we were told to proceed to the village where we would be picked up. We were there six days, living off the charity of the villagers, in a mud hut with a couple of charpoys. With no kit at all, we got a bit smelly by the time we were picked up by a USSAF jeep and driven to Jogatpur from where we were flown in a Fairchild Argus to Chakeri and then to Agra on 15th December. We were flown by C-46 to Calcutta, then on to Tezgaon and ultimately Sylchet.”