Reg Garnett was born in the little Cheshire village of Barnton in November 1917, and is it not worthy of note that an overwhelming number who were to serve with the Glider Pilot Regiment were born either in the latter stages of WWI or shortly afterwards? It is something of a paradox that this generation would spend their early years often the innocent victims of a period of monumental economic collapse only to struggle to create some position in a campaign for employment finally to have their hopes dashed by the onset of another war. Reg Garnett was one of the many who, following this route, sought to establish a career at the school leaving age of 14. It is likely that, as with many future Glider Pilots, the qualities of excellence were nurtured during these unfortunate years. The ICI plant at Winnington was Reg’s introduction to employment and in order to enhance his chances of advancement a lot of his non-working time was invested in part-time education; but not all. Ballroom dancers at Sandbach Town Hall would have tripped the light fantastic to a local band that included piano-accordionist Garnett. Unfortunately, these somewhat halcyon days terminated on September 3rd 1939 and Reg, attracted by the glamour of becoming a despatch rider, volunteered for the Army and enlisted in October 1939. Like so many before and after him he discovered that the army routine does not always follow a carefully instructed plan, in fact, Reg’s programme had as much to do with a bandstand as a parade ground and as an Acting Unpaid Lance Bombardier his military duties had more to do with more musical appearances in the Sergeants’ and Officers’ Messes than with more conventional training; he probably wished that he was a full-time military musician when an un-attentive recruit managed to effect a premature ejaculation of a rifle bullet, placing Reg in the confines of the local hospital.
To be a constituent part of a peripatetic anti-aircraft unit travelling the rounds in Scotland is not the stuff of which dreams are made and desirous of making a complete change in his military career Reg made an application to re-muster as an RAF pilot. This particular route was attractive to many serving soldiers and in similar circumstances Lance Bombardier, Despatch Rider R. Garnett found himself extending his volunteering attitude by joining the newly created Army Air Corps. November 1941 was the time and Shrewton was the place where volunteers were introduced to their new unit and the newly appointed Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel J. Rock. Also among the arrivals were two potential Glider Pilots, Doig and Strathdee. After the customary initiation period at Tilshead, March 9th, 1942 saw this ‘ab-initio’ pilot airborned for the first time in a Burnaston based ‘Maggie’. A successful EFTS and Corporal Garnett made his maiden glider flight in a Hotspur Glider at Weston-on-the-Green and it is on reflecting about this period of his life that the frequent fatal casualties in their early glider training are recalled. The demand for the fully ‘winged’ Sergeant Glider Pilots to be brought to a state of operational readiness was now growing apace so the next stage in training was completed on Horsas at the newly formed HGCU at Brize Norton and all that was now required was the call to full operational status. There was not long to wait.
On June 4th 1943 four tug and glider combinations took-off at first light from Portreath in Cornwall, this was the commencement of Operation ‘Beggar/Turkey Buzzard’ a hazardous and often a most dangerous attempt to ferry Horsa gliders to North Africa, a journey to the destination, Sale, a non-stop trip of 1300 miles. Staff Sergeant Garnett accompanied by two other pilots took off on June 6th 1943 but an unfortunate combination of mist and low cloud forced the rug pilot to return but visibility was so bad that a projected landing at Hurn turned into a nightmare forced landing at the foot of ‘Brown Willy’ on Bodmin Moor. A further attempt to make the flight to Sale was scheduled for August 23rd but on this occasion the towing aircraft developed an oil leak and returned to Portreath and another valiant effort late the same day was aborted by bad weather.
In the finest traditions of the Regiment a further flight was programmed for Staff Sergeant Garnett on September 7th with partners Lieutenant Shuttleworth and Staff Sergeant Fabbott; this occasion seemed to be going according to plan until well past the point of no return when the tug suffered an engine fault and immediate action had to be taken to keep the combination airborne. The glider was stripped of all non-essential weight and out of the door went equipment, pressure bottles and the spare undercarriage. As a precautionary measure the tug flew as close to land as possible but further malfunctions forced the glider into free flight with either an immediate ditching in prospect or a precarious forced landing. After an operation affected by a chapter of accidents a little good fortune was long overdue and this turned out to be the time when the wheel turned when a near perfect landing was made on the Horsa’s skid. There was only one small problem; the landing was at Perniche, in Portugal, which, at this time was a neutral country. This fact was clearly demonstrated by the arrival of armed police. The country was certainly neutral but the population was not, their support was clearly in favour of the Allies as their welcome at a local hotel affirmed. Their journey by bus the next day, guarded by soldiers and police, took on the appearance of a festive visit as each stop, whether it was town or village was greeted by people showering the detainees with crates and bottles of wine, most of which was consumed by the escort.
In Lisbon, ‘The Hotel Europa’ was their destination and here they were reunited with three members of the tug crew survivors of the towing aircraft that had crashed. In order to observe the strict rules of neutrality the next stop was a tailor’s shop where the British Army uniforms were replaced by civilian clothes.
Two days later a train journey to Elvas on the Spanish frontier saw them greeted by Cavalry Officers who had arranged for their hotel and a suitable social programme during their stay. Horse-riding, travel, parties, bull fights and dances were all part of the agenda and even when they participated in the local custom of an evening promenade they were greeted by friendliness by the local community. Unfortunately, this idyllic existence was only temporary and on October 1st they were returned to Lisbon to be joined by another FP crew who had landed at Oporto and had been staying with an English family who owned a vineyard; they too had been feasting on the delights provided by a country that held them in such high esteem. On October 2nd a BAOC Sunderland was available for the return to the UK; no seats or comfort on this journey simply floor space. After a short stop in Foynes in Eire the aircraft landed at its base in Poole Harbour and the pilots were back in Britain after an absence of nearly four weeks. No self-respecting Glider Pilot could be involved in such an expedition without the fresh bananas and pineapples that formed part of REg’s ‘kit’ were highly welcomed prizes at the local Dance when the inevitable leave spelled finish to this operation.
Although the Portuguese saga was over, the war wasn’t and Staff Sergeant R Garnett was re-allocated to further glider training and on December 19th 1943 he was at the controls taking his first flight in the giant Hamilcar. Preparations were now afoot for the storming of the ‘Fortress Europe’ and as specialised training took on a new sense of urgency it was obvious that Hamilcars were to participate and hold a key role. On June 6th 1944 Operation Mallard was activated and Reg, together with his co-pilot Sergeant Blair joined the massive and impressive air armada that streamed across the Channel, over-flying the legions of naval craft supporting the assault on the mainland. No bad luck on this operation, watching two other Hamilcars cutting a swath through the anti-glider poles Reg saw his opportunity and was able to follow on and make a safe and accurate landing allowing the airborne soldiers and their Tetrarch to exit and proceed, without hindrance, towards their battle positions. The pilots, under orders to return to the coast set course in that direction but using that strange sixth sense unique to Glider Pilots they were able to detect that free wine and coffee were being dispensed at the Café on the Orne Bridge. Refreshed by this French hospitality, the Glider Pilots continued their victorious return to the UK but again, in true Glider Pilot fashion, marked their appears by liberating a poster from the wall of the Café so they could broadcast their activities to the resident personnel at RAF Tarrant Rushton.
During the unsettled time of on/off operations that marked the summer of 1944 the main pursuit of The Glider Pilot Regiment was training but with Staff Sergeant Garnett a strange interlude was to be the preface to the forthcoming battle in Holland. Seven days CB was the award for a confrontation with the Squadron Commander but almost immediately he was detailed to carry out a unique exercise in a fully loaded Hamilcar. With Sergeant Paddy Matson as second pilot he was briefed to fly the glider with its cement payload up to its maximum height. On September 11th the combination became airborne and climbed slowly in circular flight to a ceiling of 12,000 feet and after this 1 ½ hour trip both the towing aircraft and the glider began to experience difficulty. With the aircrews almost screaming trying to grip the rarefied air the combination began to add altitude by a series of steps; a climb of 300 feet, the a loss of power and a drop of 200 feet. By this system with a profit of 100 feet in each manoeuvre a height of 16,000 feet was eventually attained and with controls unable to respond correctly and with the crew nearly exhausted and hampered by lack of oxygen it was decided that the ultimate had been reached and at 15,000 feet over the Isle of Wight Staff Sergeant Garnett released. Fortunately the clear light of this September evening had enabled accurate sighting of Tarrant Rushton to be kept through the flight, so, with a series of wide, circular descents a fine landing at base was made to conclude a historic event in aviation.
Within a week of this spectacular episode Reg Garnett and his fellow pilot Sergeant Paddy Matson, himself a veteran of the Spanish Civil War were in the air flotilla streaming towards the cauldron that was Arnhem. Reg and Paddy’s flight into Holland is recounted in Glider Pilots at Arnhem:
The third Hamilcar to come to grief that day was flown by Staff Sergeant ‘Reg’ Garnett and Sergeant E ‘Paddy’ Matson, they were late arriving over the Landing Zone due to mechanical problems with their Halifax tug. Although given the option by the tug pilot to return to Tarant Rushton, Reg had elected to press on to Holland. Not only was Reg taking his chances by arriving late and flying his Hamilcar into a Landing Zone already covered in abandoned gliders but there was also the realistic possibility of being cast off over occupied territory by his tug if the mechanical problems deteriorated further. His load consisted of two Bren Carriers belonging to John Frosts 2nd Battalion, knowing their value to the battalion he pushed on and was now making his approach onto Landing Zone ‘Z’. Reg, with great understatement summed up his landing in a 1993 issue of ‘The Eagle’:
Handicapped by a faulty tug. Took the decision to press on, but as a result a late arrival over the target complicated the landing and, with brakes malfunctioning on loose ground, the flight was terminated by the railway embankment. Fortunately the rapid exit of the two Bren Carriers caused neither casualties nor damage.
The Bren Carriers broke free during the crash and burst through the wood and fabric of the nose of the Hamilcar. One of the carriers was found to be serviceable and was driven off under its own power to join the advance on the bridge, the second was thought to be unusable and remained at the embankment on the Sunday. The Halifax that had delivered Reg and Paddy Matson to their fate at the railway embankment had turned for home. At the controls Pilot Officer Herman had his own problems; he had to fly with all four engines permanently set at full throttle to maintain a safe cruising speed and height. Consequently the fuel consumption of his aircraft was increased significantly and he failed to return the 644 Squadron aircraft to RAF Tarant Rushton that day, he was forced to divert into RAF Earls Colne near Colchester in Essex were he landed safely.
After a night on the LZ, with sleep punctuated by shelling, a small group moved forward only to find themselves engulfed by the inmates of a recently liberated insane asylum. During the movement towards Arnhem, Reg met an old pal from the Staffordshire Regiment who sadly later perished with the troops who were holding the front to the right of Oosterbeek. After various scuffles with German troops and Dutch collaborators the group, now joined by others, dug in under shell and mortar fire in the wood adjacent to the river and from this position were able to view the heroic attempts of the RAF to resupply the beleaguered Airborne Division. On day 5 a short respite with a little sleep and food from the Dutch civilians in a neighbouring mansion came as a welcome relief from the rigours of the battle zone, but back inside the decreasing perimeter the worst fears, with the accelerating lists of casualties, only confirmed the fact that the final act was drawing to a close. As the remnants of the defending force were withdrawing towards the river they received the ultimate humiliation, they were shelled by friendly fire from across the water causing fatal casualties. By lunch time on the next day they managed to reach the riverside only to find 6 small boats remaining to complete the closing phase of the evacuation. The opposite shore should have presented a degree of safety but as the boat beached a long desultory German shell struck the group as they were scrambling up the bank; by some divine providence the soft ground absorbed the lethal potentialities and Reg escaped with a stunning and a lapse into unconsciousness, and this is the way in which the drama ended, face downwards in the mud of Holland.
Back in the UK Staff Sergeant Garnett’s next assignment was to instruct the newly arrived re-enforcements of RAF pilots in the intricacies of operational glider flying and was eventually briefed for ‘Operation Varsity’ with an RAF Officer as co-pilot but on the even of the operation the officer took over as aircraft captain with an RAF Sergeant as co-pilot, Reg was relegated to a back up position. It was a tragic act of fate that this Hamilcar broke up on its approach to the Landing Zone and all perished.
To all intents and purposes, Staff Sergeant Garnett’s war was now over and before saying farewell to the Services he made his last flight on October 15th 1945, in a Tiger Moth. And so to demobilisation…
Like so many other men and women whose lives had been disrupted by the war, Reg decided upon a change of direction, and having moved residence from Cheshire to Surrey he accepted a position as mechanic with Ford main dealers and after periods of training with Fords at Dagenham continued as the Company’s foreman for 12 years. Always ambitious and searching for satisfactory promotions, Reg became manager of a company dealing in gaming and entertainment machines and after 3 years experience used his entrepreneurial capability to become a partner in an Amusement Arcade in Hayling. After a prosperous 3 years he was forced to sever his association in order to spend more time caring for his wife who had contracted a debilitating, crippling ailment. To this end a suitable position with a company dealing in fruit machines was available and in this capacity he remained until retirement at the age of 65.
Reg still lives quietly at Hayling with his semi-invalid wife and even if the most exciting episode in his life is the daily stroll along the beach with his faithful dog he can still recall and contemplate those bygone days of yesteryear when he was an active member of that most august WWII unit, the Glider Pilot. The elitist nature of the Glider Pilot Regiment has now been quoted by so many different people at different times and in so many different circumstances that the high merit of this prestigious military unit must be considered as factual. It follows on, quite logically, from this statement that the characters and personalities of the pilots who formed this ‘Corps d’elite’ also possessed the same exemplary qualities and as the full story still unfolds, even after half a century, the excellence of ‘these magnificent men and their flying machines’ is drawn more and more into true focus. And yet, among the occupants of these galleries of glory one can always uncover new accounts that surprise and amaze. It is quite extraordinary that ‘midst all the stories of gallantry and devotion one pilot is able to distinguish himself by being a candidate for The Guinness Book of Records with his achievement in flying a military glider.
Ex Staff Sergeant R. Garnett has but one final wish, in some future edition of the Guinness Book of Records he may read, among the exploits contained therein, that he, “on September 11, 1944 achieved the altitude record for a loaded military glider by attaining the official height of 16,000 feet.
The Eagle Magazine – Official Magazine of the Glider Pilot Regtl Association.
Glider Pilots at Arnhem – By Mike Peters & Luuk Buist, published by Pen & Sword Ltd