Extended biography of SSgt Mike Hall GPR

Mike Hall volunteered for service in the Territorial Army in 1939 and later enlisted into the London Irish Rifles.

In 1942 he was among the first intakes into the fledgling Glider Pilot Regiment, reporting to the Depot at Tilshead in March 1942. Despite weeks of intensive physical training, the regime was a significant improvement in conditions from the Rifles and Mike appreciated the transition.

From the outset Glider Pilots were expected to be able to fight alongside the troops that they carried into battle. Their training included lectures on tanks, artillery and infantry tactics, whilst the glider students also underwent air navigation, meteorology and aircraft recognition training. On completion of this basic training Mike moved on to 16 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) at Burnaston outside Derby, billeted at Repton Public school.

At Burnaston he was introduced to the Miles Magister trainer aircraft and took to the air for the first time on 31 May 1942. Mike remembers the Miles Magister training aircraft fondly. He found it an easy aircraft to fly and after just thirteen day, with a mere ten hours and ten minutes of instruction, he completed his first solo flight on 12 July 1942;

"The Magister aircraft was a single wing, dual control plane with the instructor in the rear seat, and it was easy to fly.  It must have been easy for on 12 June 1942, after just thirteen days and ten hours and ten minutes of instruction I did my first solo flight, after passing my solo test.  The experience of being alone in an aircraft completely in charge is something I will never forget.  It was wonderful."

With the basics completed, the Magister was also used to develop advanced flying skills to recover engine problems and land in varied conditions. Although not as enjoyable, Mike and other students knew these skills would prove vital in due course.

In August the course took on the challenge of learning to fly at night. Orientation and navigation was further complicated by the black out regulations brought on by the vicinity of Burnaston to the Rolls Royce factory near Derby, a regular target for Luftwaffe raids. If the Air Raid Warning was initiated all aircraft had to return to Burnaston as quickly as possible, all lights were extinguished on the runway. For pilots who were further away from the airfield, conditions became very hairy, very quickly as they endeavoured to find their your way home in the darkness.

Training at EFTS finished for Mike in early August, and he returned to the Depot at Tilshead to begin glider training. In early September 1942, he moved to RAF Weston on the Green near Bicester, Oxfordshire, and home of No 2 Glider Training School (GTS) equipped with Hotspur gliders. Mike remembers the Hotspur well and recalled the essential difference of glider flight :

"Although the actual flying of the glider was the same as powered aircraft, we had to learn the most important part of all, that of judging distances, for once you had cast off from the tug you were on your own and could not open up an engine if you made an error in gauging your landing."

This stark reality was quickly brought home to Mike and his colleagues when a pilot was killed landing a Hotspur on the first day of the course. Their training continued however, and the students learned to cast off from their tug aircraft at altitudes varying from 6-12,000 feet. The higher the cast off, the more navigation skills and judgement of distance required. Mike flew solo on the Hotspur on 8 September and this milestone was followed by an intense period of glider training, sometimes flying numerous sorties in a single day.

With Tilshead functioning at capacity, Mike was moved to Bulford in late October for drill and military training before passing out to travel to RAF Brize Norton at the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit (HGCU) to train with Horsa gliders. With excellent facilties at the aerodrome, Mike was impressed by the maneuverability of the Horsa:

"With a wing span wider than a Halifax bomber and enormous pneumatic flaps served by a large cylinder of compressed air it was possible to land the aircraft more or less like a lift which was necessary if one had to land in a confined space."

After just one hour of tuition, Mike flew the Horsa without an instructor on 7 December 1942, before continuing with further training to cover more advanced flight techniques. After successful completion of the course, Mike was sent to Hurn Airport near Bournemouth in January 1943.

As fully qualified pilots Mike and his comrades were quickly found useful tasks to do. When not training they and their Horsa gliders were employed moving stores from one airfield to another or they were used to ferry gliders around the country. In May 1943 Mike was among a group of glider pilots that flew a formation of gliders carrying stores from England to Northern Ireland. Flying over the Irish Sea triggered the realisation that they had not carried out any sea drills to replicate ditching their gliders at sea. Training soon followed at Bournemouth swimming baths!

Operation Turkey-Buzzard and training for the invasion of Sicily

The war in North Africa was coming to an end and Allied intentions focused on Sicily. A need was identified for Horsa gliders to support the Airborne phase of the invasion; the problem was that there were no Horsa gliders anywhere near the Mediterranean. The decision was taken to ferry gliders by air from England to North Africa, Mike and a small band of selected pilots would fly those aircraft. They were moved out of Hurn and initially re-located at Holmsley Airfield were they carried on stores ferrying duties.

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, with co-pilots Sgt Roberts and Sgt Newton until 20 June 1943.

When the time came, the pilots emplaned in the knowledge a glider crew and tug had been shot down just days earlier over the Bay of Biscay. Unaware of the fate of the downed glider crew (who survived after 11 days adrift!), Mike and his two second pilots set off from Cornwall on 21 June 1943. Their destination was Sale Airfield, near Rabat, 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.

After three hours at 500 ft in the comforting presence of three other glider/tug combinations and a fighter escort of RAF Beaufighter aircraft, the escort bade them farewell and they were on their own. 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, although another Horsa landed shortly after them damaging the glider. The long range Halifax tugs returned to England to collect another wave of Horsa gliders. Mike remembers Sale:

"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, crossing over the Atlas Mountains. Mike travelled as a passenger to another dust blown airfield, at Froha airfield, in Tunisia, before travelling on to Sousse airfield a couple of days later.

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. Mike 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, using US crewed C47 Dakota transports as tugs. 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, as Operation Ladbroke was a disaster. In poor nightflying conditions, 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.

Mike was also not selected to fly on the second Airborne operation mounted in Sicily, Operation Fustian. He crossed to mainland Italy landing at Taranto with 1st Airborne Division later in the year. The 1st Battalion GPR was employed in the infantry role for the rest of 1943. After a short stay back in North Africa Mike returned by sea with the bulk of the GPR to England.

Training for D-Day in early 1944

In January 1944, after some leave and much needed refresher training at Brize Norton Mike was posted to RAF Blakehill Farm arriving in March 1944. Mike was now a Staff Sergeant, and first pilot; he was paired with Sergeant George Hogg who was one of the new GPR second pilots. Mike and George got on well as a crew from the outset; they first flew together in a Horsa on 8 March 1944. In April 1944 Mike teamed up with a friend from his EFTS days. Staff Sergeant Wally Holcroft was a Lancastrian who hailed from Burnley, the two men spent their off duty time cycling around the local farms scrounging eggs to augment their rations.

They were soon on the move to RAF Wroughton, near Swindon, where they took on the enjoyable task of collecting new Horsa gliders from the factory at Christchurch and flying them to their new squadrons – building up flying hours and experience as they went. This enjoyable interlude ferrying gliders ended in May and the crews returned to Blakehill to begin training for the invasion of Europe later that summer.

Training can be an eventful and sometimes dangerous experience. Mike took part in a large scale glider landing exercise:

"A mass landing exercise was carried out which involved a dusk take off from several airfields making a rendezvous over a certain point marked by a flashing beacon and then the whole armada of over a hundred gliders were towed to land on Netheravon Airfield – not the best of landing areas. Before we took off an old friend of mine who was not on the exercise asked if he could come as a passenger because, as he said, I was a very good pilot – The fool!

We left our airfield at Blakehill at dusk in order to land in the dark; the Landing Zone was also marked with a flashing beacon. It happened that my glider was at the end of this great mass of aircraft and by the time I was over Netheravon a thick ground mist had come up and all we could see of the ground was the beacon blinking faintly through the mist. I cast off and approached to land but some gremlin had it in for me by lifting the ground by several feet. I hit the ground, fortunately fairly flat, but by not pulling out quickly enough I did not do the glider any good. The nose wheel came through the cockpit floor and the two wheel struts went into the wings – a total write off!"

Mike was involved in numerous special exercises that summer but after missing the Sicily invasion, he also missed D-Day after being nominated as a reserve. 

Operation Market to Arnhem 

The next big Airborne operation would be part of Operation Market Garden. 1st Airborne Division were to take the bridge at Arnhem.

Mike and Wally were both members of 14 Flight, F Squadron for the Arnhem operation. Pilots from 14 Flight were due to take off from Blakehill Farm as part of the First Lift on 17 September 1944, commanded by Lt Aubrey Pickwoad DFC. Paired with Sgt Hogg, Mike later recalled:

"On the morning of 17 September we had a short briefing at about 0830 hours and then made our way out to the airfield where all of our tugs and gliders were lined up."

Mike and George flew Horsa HN 835, carrying a Platoon of the Border Regiment to Landing Zone S. On sighting his LZ Mike cast off from his tug and shot an approach onto his designated LZ. Being among the first wave of gliders he could quite easily pick his own spot to land. Once clear of the glider he and George met up with Wally Holcroft and watched the remaining gliders landing in large numbers – each one having less space to do so as time progressed!

Mike recalled his experiences of the next few days in a self written account for his children. Mike remembered the first few hours on the ground after landing:

"Our initial orders were to stay with the Border Regiment and form part of the defensive force around the Landing Zone for the second lift. So off we went under command of their Company Commander. Wally and his co-pilot called Hartford were also with us. This meant a march of about two miles passing many parachutes, and as they are made of silk there were any number of Dutch people gathering them up for their own use. They waved to us and cheered."

After a relatively quiet night listening to artillery and Mortar fire Mike and his comrades managed to produce porridge for breakfast and prepared to receive the gliders of the Second Lift. The flight’s positions were strafed by Luftwaffe aircraft during the morning, an unexpected threat given the level of Allied air superiority. The Second Lift finally arrived later in the afternoon:

"Just after lunch we heard the drone of aircraft engines and it was a wonderful sight to see the paratroopers floating down and a mass of gliders coming in to land. There were more casualties on this lift as the Germans were now prepared."

With the arrival of the Second Lift, F Squadron joined other glider pilots of 1st Wing in positions around the HQ of 1st British Airborne Division at the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek. Mike and other Glider pilots played a role in guard duties over the German POWs held in the makeshift Prisoner handling facility at the Tennis Courts near the Hotel building.

After grabbing some rest, Mike and Wally Holcroft moved away from the Hartenstein Hotel to join up with the remainder of 14 Flight, digging new trenches in readiness to hold their ground:

"Being in charge of the Bren Gun I was called to cover various places on the length of our section of the perimeter which meant Wally and I were separated for periods, so I spent the morning covering one end of our section and returned to rejoin Wally about midday."

Mike also witnessed the Third Lift as it pressed on through flak on 19 September 1944:

"We heard the drone of engines and in came the Third Lift, this being Tuesday 19 September. The reception they received from the Germans was something to see for they had brought up many anti-aircraft guns which took their toll of several planes. It was terrible to see these Dakotas, who were dropping supplies to us as well as dropping paratroops, flying on a steady course, some with engines ablaze, to make sure we got our supplies of rations, etc. The RAF was magnificent and had many casualties."

Mike and 14 Flight were subsequently employed on a series of fighting and anti-sniper patrols. They were also engaged by German self-propelled artillery on more than one occasion. Over the next few days and nights 14 Flight was slowly pushed back through woods and houses as the Germans squeezed the airborne perimeter tighter and tighter:

"It was now 24th September and the last few days had been really hectic. We had moved around in the area beating off enemy attacks as best we could. The whole time shells and mortar bombs were coming over and snipers were very active. Every day there were rumours of the Second Army reaching the river and preparing to cross. They never came."

Unaware that the battle for the Arnhem road bridge was long over 14 Flight continued to fight on the perimeter. Mike awoke in his cellar on the morning of 25th September; the battle was beginning to draw to a close:

"During the morning a woman who lived in the house came in, where she had been – a safer place she said was hard to imagine. She looked around the house, at the gaping holes in the brickwork, damaged furniture and ornaments, many paintings on the walls had been badly damaged. This upset her the most. She went down into our cellar and took some of the full preserving jars, did not complain about us using some, and to think – thanked us for coming!"

Later that day an NCO came to the house and took the names of all of the defenders saying that he had heard that the Division was going to evacuate that evening. A little while later Wally Holcroft was summoned by name for briefing. When he returned from 1 Wing Headquarters he informed the Glider Pilots that Operation Berlin was planned that night – Mike and his comrades would cross the river that night:

"We eventually reached the lower road by the little church, which was a shambles, passing abandoned equipment on the way. To make things more difficult it was raining hard. As we reached the actual river bank there were guides posted to make it as orderly as possible to get to the boats that were going back and forth across the river. We could see these boats, not much bigger than a rowing boat, in the lights of all the flashes that were going on. Of course Jerry knew what was happening and he was sending over shells and mortars to where he thought we were, and he was not far wrong, with the result that many more got killed or wounded, for the bombardment was awful."

After an eventful crossing in an engineer assault boat Mike gratefully set foot on the far bank, he had made his escape from Arnhem. After a two or three mile walk he found his way to the divisional reception centre where he received hot stew, tea and a warm blanket.

The next day Mike and Wally found there way into Nijmegen and managed to persuade a barber’s wife to give them a shave and wash their hair! A few days later Mike flew out from Grave to England where the reality of the battle really began to sink in:

"It finally turned out that of about sixty men in our flight we had eleven deaths and eighteen wounded prisoner of war or missing. Nearly half the flight. When the remainder of the flight eventually returned we were addressed by Lieutenant Pickwoad who thanked us for what we had done, and in turn we thanked him for his leadership."

After leave and refresher training on the Horsa Mike Hall was posted out to India where the Indian Airborne Division was preparing for the invasion of Japan. He was to fly the WACO glider until the end of the war.

Staff Sergeant Mike Hall survived the war and was demobbed in 1946. He is still an active member of the Glider Pilot Regimental Association.

Further Reading

Mike Peters, Glider Pilots on Sicily, (), Pen & Sword Ltd. Mike Peters & Luuk Buist, Glider Pilots at Arnhem (2009), Pen and Sword Mike Hall, What did you do in the war Daddy? (Unpublished). 'Portrait of a Pilot', The Eagle Magazine (April 2010). Walter Holcroft, No Medals for Lt Pickwoad
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