In early March 1944 six glider crews were collected at Netheravon from various flights of the regiment. No word as to why, in the usual glider pilot style, but we foregathered at mid-field and were addressed by our Colonel, George Chatterton, behind whom appeared a covey of army and air force brass. Heavy brass. He pointed out a couple of triangles marked with broad white tape, one here, one there on the airfield. Not very big, but apparently in his judgement, big enough.
Briefing was very succinct: " You will be towed at one-minute intervals to 4,000ft, which will take about one hour. You will then release three miles away at a point decided by your tug, from where you will be able to see these triangles. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 will land in this one, making a right hand circuit, and 4, 5 and 6 on t'other from a left hand circuit. Now hop off for lunch. All gliders are ready and assembled on the towpath. Take off 1300hrs".
No word as to how we were chosen. Perhaps drawn from a hat? Perhaps crews our squadron commanders were glad to part with? We were all sergeants. My co-pilot was Johnnie Ainsworth. I was told to fly first and, although throughout training the other crews changed numbers and patterns (a wise move), I always stayed as number 1. So we took off and flew a short course, saw the triangles, cast off and landed all six in our correct areas, to our utter astonishment. A mutter of disbelief emanated from the brass, and a few low -key bragging words about "his boys" from. George. The Royal Air Force cast the doubt, so we did exactly the same the next day with exactly the same - to us - incredibly lucky result.
From that point, the operation was " on" although no-one mentioned it to us. And Deadstick, the codename for the glider pilot training, started. Here perhaps might be included a quotation from Air Vice-Marshall Arthur Harris, Chief of the Air Staff, who opined that it would be disastrous to try to train army personnel to fly troop-carrying gliders. His actual words were:
"The idea that semi-skilled, unpicked personnel (infantry corporals have, I believe even been suggested) could , with a maximum of training, be entrusted with the piloting of these troop carriers is fantastic. Their operation is equivalent to forced landing the largest sized aircraft without engine aid - than which there is no higher test of piloting skill".
We can now extend a belated 'thank-you' to "Bomber Harris" as he became known, for such an accolade to the Glider Pilot Regiment.
Somewhere in the West Country, Major John Howard and his merry men of D Company, Ox & Bucks, also started their preparations for an assault on something or other! It took only a few trial runs with Albemarles at Netheravon to prove that we needed a much more powerful tug to get a fully loaded Horsa up to 6,000ft - which was the new and final height - in less than an hour, so a switch was made to Tarrant Rushton airfield and No 298 and 644 Halifax Squadrons. Here, for the first and only time, we were crewed with our tug and stayed together through the training and final run-in. This was a most important move, as we developed a confidence and friendships in a sometimes dangerous and more often hilarious training period. My tug skipper was Wg Cdr Duder DSO DFC, enough to give anyone plenty of encouragement as he obviously knew quite a bit about flying and was indeed the proverbial ace.
It was all a bit half-arsed at first. A daylight tow was made at various times, apparently when Tarrant Rushton airfield was not too busy, which as two operational squadrons were based there, was not very often. Height was now set at 6,000ft, and two separate courses and times developed. Gliders 1 - 3 to fly a three-sided path, and 4 - 6 a dog-leg pattern. We were towed in line astern at one-minute intervals. Broadly, 1 - 3 flew downwind leg of 180 degrees at 90mph for 3mins 40secs, then a 90-degree Rate One turn right on to second course for 2mins 5sec, and a last 90-degree turn right for the run-in, by which time the target should be directly ahead. Gliders 4 - 6 cast off at the same spot, operated half then full flap and in a dog-leg couse flew in straight to the target.
It soon became evident that to fly out of and back to Tarrant was no longer feasible, so the search began for a suitable target area, which some boffin or other decided would be "Holmes Clump". I don't know who Holmes was, but his Clump is etched on all our hearts forever. It is an L-shaped wood just off Netheravon, most convenient in that gliders landing there can be towed across the fields by tractor back to Netheravon airfield proper. And from this was developed Deadstick training. Fourteen glider pilots (six crews and one back-up - which did prove necessary) were sequestered in one Nissen hut at Tarrant with a Lieutenant as our mother hen, our own transport, and our own independent operation directed by two RAF pilots, Flt. Lt Tom Grant, a tug/glider specialist, and Keith Miller, a similar specialist. These two organised everything. Briefings, courses, winds and timings on every flight. The drill in flight was to cast off at 90mph while turning onto the decided course, immediately I was "On", the co-pilot operated the stopwatch and timing started, countdown by Ainsworth, " Five, Four Three, Two, One, Zero, and I made a controlled Rate One right turn to course 2: and when I was "On" again Johnnie restarted the watch. Another countdown and at zero, another 90-degree turn right and the target lay ahead.
Only once did Deadstick break any gliders when number 6 was late, he eventually landed with the most horrific noise and we feared the worst, but luckily except for the odd broken bones all was well, hence our need for a spare crew. In all we practised Deadstick 42 times and were bloody good at it by June 1944. The airfield was sealed on June 1st and John Howard and D Company, Ox & Bucks Light Infantry were our only and live load. They were the best troops we ever met, and we were glad of that.
At last we were told where, how, and why the two bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal had to be taken intact and held. Gliders 1 - 3, flying the three course path, were to take the canal, while 4 - 6, would drop straight down and take the river. There were still various problems to deal with and in turn they were overcome but the Day had come. We took off at 2245 through low cloud and into clear at 6,000ft over the channel. It was a smooth flight and Howard encouraged the men to sing - none were airsick. Thanks to our tug crew we were dead on time and dead on target. "Cast Off". The singing stopped and that was when six Horsas tiptoed quietly into two little fields in Normandy and released 180 fighting men in full battle order to give the German garrison the surprise of their lives.
The tug pilot said, "Weather's good, the clouds are at 600 feet, a couple of minutes before we cast off. And we all wish you the best of luck". Alter course, air speed right, John Ainsworth with the stopwatch, I'm checking the compass, he's checking the air speed. We cruise along and then 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . bingo, right turn to starboard onto course. Halfway down the crosswind leg I could see it all, the river and the canal like strips of silver in the moonlight. Visibility was good- the temptation to fly in was forgotten as training, training and more training took over. I duly completed the crosswind leg as Johnnie timed me, made the regulation rate-one turn and there as expected was the target straight ahead. The final approach was a little fast and I landed probably at about 95[mph] instead of at 85, and 10 miles per hour in the dark looks rather quick. I hit the field and caught the first bit of wire and so I called "Stream," and by golly, it [the parachute] lifted the tail and forced the nose down. It drew us back and knocked the speed down tremendously. It was only on for two seconds, and "jettison," and Ainsworth pressed the tit and jettisoned the parachute. Then we were going along only about 60, which was ample to take me right into the corner. We got right into the corner of the field, the nose wheel had gone. The cockpit collapsed, and Ainsworth and I went right through the cockpit. I went over head first and landed flat on my stomach. I was stunned, as was Ainsworth; I came around and he seemed to be in bad shape. I said, "Can you crawl?" and he said, "No," and then I asked if I lifted, could he crawl out and he said, "I'll try". I lifted the thing and I felt that I lifted the whole bloody glider when probably all I lifted was a small spar, but I felt like 30 men when I picked this thing up and he did manage to crawl out.
Although we made an awful noise on landing we seemed not to bother the German sentries, I was stunned and pinned under the collapsed cockpit, but the troops were getting on with it. Exactly one minute later No.2 arrived and joined in, followed by No. 3. This all justified all those training flights. Long afterwards we all confessed to feeling rather pleased with ourselves at having pulled it off - this when June 6 was twenty minutes old and our little battle was just starting. Air Chief Marshall Leigh-Mallory called it the greatest flying feat of the Second World War.
There was only one casualty on landing, the Bren gunner in No. 3 who drowned in a pond. Johnnie and I revived in a few minutes and with the aid of a medic I crawled free of the debris. I made myself useful carting ammunition from the glider to the troops, then we heard the Tank. We needed Gammon anti-tank bombs, but I could not find those bloody bombs, so took a case of .303[inch rifle bullets] which made Howard cross. "Get the bloody Gammons" he hollered.
It was a rough night. We pilots did what little we could to help but the Parachute Brigade arrived at 0300hr and Lord Lovat at about 1300 on the 6th, they were indeed welcome. By daylight my legs had seized and I became a stretcher case and after local medical assistance ended up at Ronkswood Hospital, Worcester.
I returned to my regiment some three weeks later in time for Arnhem, then back to Tarrant for a conversion course on Hamilcars in order to fly a 17-pounder and crew across the Rhine in March 1945. It was short, sharp and a good clean way to go to war. I do not think any of us would have changed a thing.
Compiled and reproduced by kind permission of Jim Wallwork DFM, with thanks to Keith Petvin-Scudamore of www.britisharmedforces.org
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