The RAF codenamed the glider delivery mission as Operation Beggar, the GPR came up with the very apt ‘Operation Turkey-Buzzard’. Mike and his fellow Turkey-Buzzard pilots began flying long distance navigation exercises all over Britain. They were towed on these training flights by specially modified RAF Halifax bombers that had much increased range and endurance over the standard Halifax. Eventually the crews were briefed that they would be flying to Morocco and that they could expect to be in the air for over nine hours. Each glider would have a crew of three Glider Pilots in order to create the opportunity to rest pilots during this marathon flight. Mike and his GPR comrades had flown down to Portreath in Cornwall by Whitley bomber, once established there they continued training in preparation for the flight to North Africa:
"We did a certain amount of training each day until 20 June 1943 when I and my two co-pilots, Sergeants Roberts and Newton, were told we would be off the next day, so we went into Portreath for a last visit and a cup of coffee. Whilst in the café we were reading 'the Daily Express' and to our horror in the stop press a report that the Germans had claimed to have shot down a tug and glider over the Bay of Biscay and we were off the next day."
In fact the report was true and the crew of the glider spent eleven days adrift in their survival dinghy before being rescued by a passing Portuguese merchant ship. Unaware of the fate of the downed glider’s crew Mike and his two second pilots set off from Cornwall on 21 June 1943. Their destination was Sale Airfield near Rabat in Morocco.
Shortly after take off the Horsa jettisoned it undercarriage in order to reduce drag. A replacement set was carried internally and the glider would land on its central skid as intended by its designers. The first three hours were spent flying below 500 ft in the comforting presence of three other glider/tug combinations and a fighter escort of RAF Beaufighter aircraft. However, at the limit of their escort’s endurance they wished the glider formation good luck and bid farewell, slowly turning away and heading for home. Later over the Bay of Biscay while scanning the sky for German aircraft Mike saw an unidentified aircraft at a much higher altitude, thankfully it left his aircraft alone. One of the other combinations did not reach Morocco however and was presumed to have been shot down. Mike and his crew reached Sale airfield and landed safely, another Horsa landed shortly after them damaging the glider. The long range Halifax tugs returned to England to collect another wave of Horsa gliders.
"We stayed at Sale for a few days, sleeping in our gliders, it was very hot. We spent a lot of time in Rabat visiting coffee houses and the Kasbah…the people were very friendly but we had to be very careful about security."
After their exotic break in Rabat the crew’s journey continued, this time crossing over the Atlas Mountains. Mike travelled as a passenger to another dust blown airfield, this time in Tunisia. The glider landed safely at Froha airfield and Mike and his comrades enjoyed another couple of days rest before moving on again to Sousse airfield. This was destined to be one of the main mounting bases for the invasion of Sicily. Mike joined the Glider Pilots that were already established at Sousse and it was here at Sousse that he was introduced to the American CG4A WACO glider:
"It was here that I saw the first WACO and I was not impressed. They were delivered in enormous packing cases, like a prefab house, in bits with assembly instructions and we were given the job, in the sweltering heat and some sand storms, to assemble them fit for flying."
When not building WACO gliders the Glider Pilots were learning to fly them and participating in pre-invasion exercises. The tug aircraft were US crewed C47 Dakota transports. Over the coming weeks the exercises increased in scale and complexity as the Mediterranean ‘D’ Day drew nearer. Flying from these austere Tunisian air strips was not straight forward. The runways were constructed by US engineers over soft sand using inter-locking steel panels. When the tug aircraft started its engines it immediately generated an impenetrable dust cloud and from that moment all visual contact between glider and tug was lost. The glider pilot focussed his undivided attention on the few feet of tow rope visible just outside the cockpit; he gauged the position of the tug by this method. In spite of his training Mike did not fly on Operation Ladbroke or Operation Fustian (Sicily landings):
"The actual assault on Sicily was on the night of 9/10 July 1943 and all crews were paired up and briefed on their tasks for the operation, but for some unknown reason I and two other pilots were not included and were to stay behind. I was most put out and complained to my Flight Commander that I had flown the Horsa out from England and had now been left out of the ‘fun’. He said nothing could be done about it so off they all went without me.
In hindsight Mike was lucky to have been left behind, in spite of all of the planning and training, Operation Ladbroke was a disaster. Against an extremely strong head wind many gliders were cast off way out to sea at the incorrect height – they had little chance of making landfall. As a consequence of this over 300 soldiers from 1st Airlanding Brigade drowned off Sicily.
SSgt Hall later took part in the seaborne invasion of Italy in September 1943 performing an infantry role, before returning the UK by sea before Christmas later that year.
Written by Mike Peters with the consent and assistance of Mike Hall