Les Howard began the war serving in the 2/7 Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. He was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal and in the autumn of 1941 he was stationed near the small town of Fakenham in Norfolk. Bored with the routine of home defence duties he was very interested in an Army Council circular requesting Army volunteers for transfer to the RAF as aircrew. Convinced that he had reached his ceiling in the Infantry Les submitted his application straight away.
Eventually after a lengthy delay L/Cpl Les Howard was called forward to the RAF selection board for tests at RAF Cardington. On completion of a full day of written tests Les was interviewed by the board and invited to transfer to the RAF for aircrew training. Elated and keen to begin his flying training Les returned to his battalion to await joining instructions from the RAF. On a very bleak morning in November 1941 fate took a hand:
‘I was ordered by my Sergeant Major to report to the CO. He received me with a mischievous smile on his face. ‘You put in for a transfer to the RAF.’ ‘Yes sir’, ‘well I am pleased to inform you that the Army has blocked any further transfers.’ He must have seen my face drop for his smile grew almost into a laugh. Then he informed me that the Army were forming a ‘Glider Pilot Regiment’ and that I had the opportunity to apply for that. ‘Would you like to’ he said. ‘Yes I would’, I replied. His face changed and he looked me straight in the eye and said ‘You must be mad’!
In February 1942 Les Howard was among one of the first trainees to report to the Glider Pilot Regiment Depot at Tilshead near Larkhill. The Wiltshire weather was cold, wet, windy and the training intense when Les joined 5 Flight of the newly formed 1st Battalion GPR. He remembers those first weeks in the regiment vividly:
‘What followed was six-weeks of bull, drill, route marches etc etc. All under the ever watchful eye of Sergeant Majors Jim Cowley and Mick Briody. Well they certainly worked us all, endeavouring to develop us into what the battalion 2ic Major Chatterton described as the ‘total soldier’.
Les Howard left the Tilshead depot in April 1942 and travelled to Number 16 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) at RAF Burnaston near Derby. Here he was introduced to flying in the low-wing monoplane trainer - the Miles Magister. His instructor was Pilot Officer Eves RAF. Les took to the air for the first time 17 April 1942; he logged his first solo flight at Burnaston on 2 May 1942. He continued flying at EFTS into the June of 1942 until he and his comrades were moved on to begin their conversion to gliders at RAF Thame and RAF Kidlington. The course was introduced to powerless flight on the newly developed Hotspur training glider:
‘We went to Kidlington to complete our Hotspur training including night flying. Do you know, I enjoyed flying the Hotspur except for one occasion. Night flying on a short cross-country, at 2,000 feet, my cockpit hood blew off. Not a nice experience to say the least, I do believe that I was not the one to have experienced this’.
With conversion onto the Hotspur complete, the next stage of training was conversion to Britain’s new assault glider the Horsa. Training took place at the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit (HGCU) at RAF Brize Norton. On completion of HGCU Les and his fellow Glider Pilots were awarded their Army wings and Les was promoted to sergeant. It was early days for the fledgling regiment and it was a struggle to get Glider Pilots onto RAF stations and into the air. As an example, Les Howard flew as a passenger on RAF Hampden bombers to increase his aviation awareness. Basic military skills were not forgotten, the total soldier concept was much to the fore:
‘We had plenty of that type of training including one interesting exercise walking through Wales. We were sent in twos with a map but not money or food. Taffy Lovett was my companion. I could have picked no one better than a Welshman. We had to find our way to Barry, a seaside town on the west coast of Wales by such and such a day we had some remarkable experiences.’
The Glider Pilot Regiment was an integral part of the newly established Airborne Division. The new force would soon be committed to its first operation. Sergeant Les Howard along with many of his comrades was destined to be involved in the new operation. Embarkation orders soon arrived and triggered a very human and not untypical reaction from Les:
‘Back on Salisbury Plain in March 1943 we were informed that we had been given 3-4 days embarkation leave – Wow! Three days…not long was it? I immediately dashed off to Hornsey in North London to meet my fiancée Irene. I discovered she was singing in a show at the Hornsey Town Hall. On arriving there the door man told me that the hall was full and directed me to the stage door. I got there and went inside and stood in the wings. Above the stage sitting on a swaying half moon was Irene singing ‘Blue Moon’. When she saw me she nearly fell off. Finally when she heard my news, we decided we should get a special license to get married. That we did on March 15th 1943. We had a short honeymoon before I returned to my Company.’
North Africa and Sicily
Soon after Les’s honeymoon, the men of 2 & 3 Companies GPR deployed by sea from the sea port of Gourock in Scotland. Sergeant Les Howard sailed on board the Dutch liner ‘Nieu Holland’, moving down the River Clyde in a convoy destined for North Africa. The convoy had an incident free, but rough journey to its final destination, the port of Oran. The troops disembarked in Africa on a cold wet Saint George’s Day – 23 Apr 1944. Les Howard, now a Staff Sergeant summarised the first few weeks in North Africa for The Eagle magazine:
‘Glider Pilots in North Africa? Nobody seemed to know what to do with us but somebody soon found out. Yes, we did help put those CG 4A (WACO/Hadrian) gliders together ourselves at Oran. We did go on to train and fly them from strips around Northern Algeria. For my first flight I was instructed by Flight Officer Schott of the USAAF. Thirty-minutes and then solo, I had about two and a quarter hours training on the Hadrian. We flew the South Staffs over the Atlas Mountains from Thiersville to a strip near El-Djem not far from Sousse. It was on this operation that one of the most terrible accidents we experienced occurred. Sergeant Higgins, who was flying behind me lost his tail plane and the glider crashed into the mountains with the loss of all on board.’
In Tunisia the Glider Pilots and the men of the Airlanding Brigade began to work toward what was to become Operation LADBROKE. The glider-borne troops would spearhead Operation HUSKY – the Allied invasion of Sicily. The training exercises included night flying and night landings in the desert. D-day for the Airlanding Brigade was set for 9 July 1943, Staff Sergeant Les Howard and his second pilot Sergeant Jimmy Tigar took off in ‘Glider 34’ carrying the Pioneer Platoon of the South Staffs. They were one of the few gliders that battled through strong head winds and flak to make landfall. In fact Glider 34 landed two miles south of their designated Landing Zone. Immediately after landing the two pilots and the South Staffs set off for the Italian held town of Syracuse. They were engaged by Italian troops several times but undeterred they pushed on to reach the main road to Syracuse and the initial objective of Operation LADBROKE, the Ponte Grande Bridge. The journey was eventful:
‘We saw in the distance what appeared to be a large house and went forward toward it, when we were fired at from the house. We returned the fire then heard a lot of screaming and shouting, the noise going further and further away. We edged up to the building to discover it was a barracks of some kind. The occupants had evidently got out of bed and vanished leaving most of their arms and weapons there. We decided to stay on in case they came back so we hid behind the stone walls around the lemon trees growing in the grounds of the building.'
The following morning the lead elements of the Eighth Army had landed to the south of Syracuse and were pushing steadily inland. At 0700 hours the Green Howards reached the house held by the South Staffs and their Glider Pilots. The Company Commander of the Green Howards informed the Airlanding troops that they had taken their first objective. He ordered the South Staffs to remain in place and hold the house until he could arrange their relief. After two days holding the position they were finally relieved and driven into Syracuse to rejoin their own brigade. It was on their return that the two Glider pilots heard about the heavy losses incurred on the night of 9 July 1943. They were shocked to hear that fifty-seven Glider Pilots had drowned off shore having never made landfall. The Airlanding Brigade had lost over 300 officers and men drowned in the Mediterranean without ever seeing Sicily.
Les Howard remembers the period after the liberation of Sicily as an acutely frustrating time for the men of 1st Battalion GPR. They were initially confined to a transit camp amid concerns that they would vent their anger over the loss of so many comrades on their American tug pilots. Brigadier ‘Shan’ Hackett remembered the level of anger felt by the Glider Pilots:
‘Glider pilots who were recovered from the sea came back looking for tug pilots’ throats to cut. I saw no option but to confine them to camp until after the American parade for the award of decorations for gallantry, by which time the admirable qualities always to be found in glider pilots had reasserted themselves and calm was restored.’
What followed for Les Howard and the remaining glider pilots was a period of recuperation and regrouping in North Africa. In August 1943 the battalion was deployed without its gliders in the infantry role. They were part of the airborne force that occupied the port of Taranto on the Italian mainland. After a quiet autumn the glider pilots began to return to England. In Les Howard’s case he sailed from Italy on a French ship on Christmas Day 1943. The journey was not straightforward as the French ship broke down and drifted off the Sicilian coast for a number of days. The disgruntled passengers returned to North Africa and embarked on a second more reliable troop ship that carried them back to ‘Blighty’ without incident.
On completion of some well earned disembarkation leave Les Howard was back on the move again. The Glider Pilot Regiment had undergone a significant reorganisation after Sicily:
‘I found myself at RAF Down Ampney as part of E Sqn GPR. Training started almost straight away. Cross countries by day and night and many massed landings. On 22 January 1944 I was flying with Sergeant Melvin as my second pilot, we took off just before dusk on a triangular cross-country with a full load of ballast. After an hour into the exercise the tugs port engine caught fire and we had to release. We were in total darkness at 2,500 feet. In the distance we saw a spark of light and headed for it. As we got near we saw it was an aerodrome, we could just make out the runway and made for it. We landed down wind and pulled off the runway. At the end of the runway were about six bombers revving up to take off for an operation. We were greeted by a jeep with a Group Captain and a Wing Commander in it. They could hardly believe what they saw. An aircraft with no engines!’
Les and his second pilot had landed their Horsa at RAF Turr-Weston. After an overnight stay they were collected by a new tug the next day. Most of the station turned out to watch the glider take to the air again.
Normandy and Arnhem
Les was selected as a reserve for ‘D’ day and did not fly to Normandy. In September 1944 he flew to Arnhem on Operation MARKET GARDEN. He was captured at the end of the epic battle and spent the rest of the war in captivity. He was held in Stalag Luft 7 until the end of the war. On his release he returned to England and after leave began training at Brockenhurst for operations against Japan. The war ended on VJ day and Staff Sergeant Les Howard was eventually demobbed.
Les Howard now lives in Sudbury in Suffolk; he is remains an active member of the veterans community as part of the Glider Pilot Regiment Association (GPRA).
Compiled with assistance from Mike Peters
Source: Compiled with assistance from Mike PetersRead More