top of page

Gliders, The Unsung Heros of D-Day

Modern gliders are intricate aircraft designed for recreational flying and competitions. However, many people are unaware of the important role of gliders in World War II. The German and Allied forces used gliders to transport troops and equipment to the battlefield.

Gliders being towed by C-47's

The skill and bravery of both British and American glider pilots were widely acknowledged as major contributors to the eventual success of the D-Day invasions. It takes immense courage to fly into a war zone, behind enemy lines, in an aircraft that has no power of its own and is primarily made of wood or canvas. Yet, that's exactly how some British and American forces entered into battle at Normandy.

Troops entering a glider

The development of the glider was partly due to the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. According to the Treaty, Germany was not allowed to build certain aircraft types. This led designers to focus on creating unpowered aircraft. Both Germans and later Russians spent a lot of time and effort developing glider aircraft for military use. By 1934, there were 57,000 licensed glider pilots in the Soviet Union alone. Germany was the first country to use gliders for military purposes.

German Glider

In May 1940, 41 gliders were towed behind Junkers Ju 52 aircraft to deliver ten troops per glider in an operation to capture the bridges over the Albert Canal at Veldwezelt, Vroenhoven, and Kanne, as well as the Eben Emael fortress during the Battle for Belgium. Ten gliders landed on the grassed roof of the fortress, and within just twenty minutes of landing, the German invaders had neutralized the fortress. As a result of this raid, both the Japanese and the British had active glider programs by mid-1940.

German Troops exiting a Glider

The British-designed Airspeed Horsa glider was primarily made of wood and consisted of over 30 separate components. These components were manufactured by Airspeed, furniture makers like Harris Lebus, and other contractors, including Austin Motors. The parts were then transported to RAF maintenance units for final assembly.

Airspeed Horsa Glider

The Horsa had the capacity to carry 25 troops along with a crew of two. Alternatively, it could accommodate a six-pounder gun, its tow jeep, and the gun crew. Approximately 3,800 Horsas were built in total, with American forces utilizing around 300 of them.

Loading a Jeep for Transport

The prototype of General Aircraft's GAL 49 Hamilcar glider first flew on March 27, 1942. It was a significantly larger aircraft compared to the Horsa or the CG-4A, and as a result, it had a better payload capacity. The Hamilcar could transport either 60 troops or a light tank, such as a Tetrarch or M22 Locust. Alternatively, it could carry a 17-pounder anti-tank gun with a towing vehicle, a 25-pounder howitzer with a towing vehicle, or two universal carriers. However, its larger size had some drawbacks. It was almost always towed by a Halifax bomber and tended to break its tow line. Additionally, it was more vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire, especially during the final approach.

Light Tank being loaded in a GAL 49 Hamilcar

The USAAF initially planned to buy around 140 gliders to transport construction equipment for airfields in the Far East. However, due to issues with building and delivering the Hamilcar gliders, the first 40-50 were delayed and weren't completed until early 1944. Because of this, the US decided to cancel their order, and the British were the only ones to use this type of glider on D-Day, although they used it in small numbers.

GAL 49 Hamilcar Glider

The "Hadrian" glider, designed by Americans and named by the British, was smaller than the Horsa and Hamilcar gliders. Its compact size allowed it to land in smaller areas compared to the Horsa. The Waco glider was built with a welded tubular fuselage covered in canvas, and its wings were covered in thin plywood.

Waco Glider "Hadrian"

The CG-4A glider was 48 feet in length and had a wingspan of 83 feet. It could carry 13 troops with equipment, a jeep, or a 75mm howitzer. The payload area was easily accessible because the nose and cockpit were hinged. One of the safety features of the Waco glider was a cable tethered to any wheeled cargo, such as a jeep. Upon landing, if the vehicle slid forward inside the glider, the cable would lift the hinged cockpit upwards to the unloading position, potentially saving the flight crew from injury.

The CG-4A first flew in May 1942, and around 14,000 were constructed across 16 different American factories. Waco itself built 1,074 units, while the Ford Motor Company built the most, with 4,190 being constructed at their Kingsford, Michigan plant. The unit cost for CG-4As built by Ford was around $15,000, and around $20,000 for those built by Waco. However, the sixty gliders built by the Babcock Aircraft Company in Florida cost the US Government $51,000 each, while the National Aircraft Corporation of Indiana managed to charge $1.7 million for the single Waco glider they constructed.

Never before in history had any nation produced aviators whose duty it was to crash land, and then go on to fight as combat infantrymen. They were no ordinary fighters...They were the only aviators during World War II who had no motors, no parachutes, and no second chances.

Glider landing area

On the evening of June 5, 1944, C-47 "Dakotas" along with Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle and converted Handley Page Halifax bombers, adapted to be glider tugs, took off from bases around England. British and American troops would be landed to support the first waves of paratroopers at the eastern and western flanks of the invasion area.

The glider assault was part of the larger Operation Tonga and the most well-known part was the British Operation Dead-stick. Dead-stick was an assault on the bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal between the villages of Benouville and Ranville. For this task, six gliders were used to carry soldiers of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (the "Ox & Bucks") and a group of Royal Engineer sappers.

Ox & Bucks Landing at Caen Canal
Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork

Taking off from the Dorset airfield of RAF Tarrant Rushton they were towed across the Channel by Halifax bombers. The gliders were released from their tug aircraft just after midnight. The first glider to land at the Caen Canal bridge, piloted by Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork, landed at 00:16 just metres from the Bridge - the glider's nose crashing through the barbed wire of the German defences.

Only two of the three gliders assigned to the Orne River bridge reached their target, landing at 00:20. The third glider, badly, of course, landed 12km away in the Bois de Bavent. Both assaulting forces captured their targeted bridges within minutes. Reinforced during the night by paratroopers of the 7th parachute battalion, the soldiers were able to hold both bridges until troops from Sword Beach arrived later in the day.

Operation Tonga involved British gliders landing near Caen to support the initial airborne landings of the 6th Airborne Division. More than 300 Horsa gliders and over 30 Hamilcars were deployed in France by nightfall. In the American sector, reinforcements and support for the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were delivered by Waco and Horsa gliders on June 6th to assist the paratroopers who had landed early on D-Day in the Cotentin Peninsula. At 01:19, 52 CG-4A gliders took off from Aldermaston Airfield in England for Landing Zone E in Normandy as part of Mission Chicago. Ten minutes later, another 52 gliders departed from Ramsbury for Mission Detroit, heading to Landing Zone O.

D-Day Operation Map

Throughout the evening and the next morning, additional American troops were transported to the battlefield by a combination of several hundred CG-4A and Horsa gliders. Despite many gliders being badly damaged, the number of casualties was lower than anticipated. Even though the gliders were designed to be reusable, 97% of them were ultimately dismantled on-site.

Scrapped Glider

If the landing wasn’t daunting enough, the recovery of especially the CG-4A required nerves of steel. Two stanchions placed 20ft apart were erected some distance in front of the glider with a loop of nylon tow-wire placed between them. A specially equipped C-47 would approach at an altitude of approximately 20 feet a pick-up hook would snag the tow wire. Once the hook engaged the pick-up loop, the pilot would increase to full power whilst cable on a motor-driven, energy absorbing, drum inside the fuselage of the C-47 released additional nylon cable. Enough tension was maintained to start pulling the glider along the ground until it reached take-off speed. The process was fast but just slow enough to prevent the glider from being torn apart.

In Normandy, eleven glider pilots from the 437th Troop Carrier Group were responsible for retrieving gliders used in the invasion. They found that none of the Horsa gliders and only 13 Waco gliders were suitable for retrieval using the snatch method, while the rest were either too damaged or located in areas with too many trees. On June 25th, the 13 suitable gliders in Normandy were successfully retrieved and brought back to England.

The Snatch

However, during Operation Market Garden and later in Germany, glider snatching was far more successful. In March 1945, two CG-4A gliders landed near Remagen bridgehead in Germany. Fitted with stretchers, the snatch process was used to recover some seriously injured American and German soldiers.

Evacuating Wounded by Glider

In the UK, a Mark II Horsa (KJ351) is preserved at the Museum of Army Flying at Middle Wallop. An organisation called the Assault Glider Trust started to build a full-sized replica of a Horsa at RAF Shawbury using templates made from original components found scattered over various European battlefields and using plans supplied by BAE Systems under the proviso that the glider must never be flown. Unfortunately, the Trust seems to no longer be functioning and the Horsa (along with a CG-4A they were building from donated parts) is in storage at RAF Cosford and not currently viewable by the public.

Mark II Horsa (KJ351)

Sadly, no complete examples of a Hamilcar glider survive, although a significant proportion of the fuselage of Hamilcar TK777 is preserved at the Museum of Army Flying at Middle Wallop. There is also a section of the fuselage of TK718 on display with a Tetrarch tank at the Bovington Tank Museum, however, the section of the fuselage is in very poor condition.

Hamilcar TK777

Following the war, many Wacos that remained in the United States were declared surplus and sold. Some were sold for their wood, still in their original packing cases, whilst some sections of the fuselage were used as towed camping homes or small cabins. Despite this, however, there are many examples of the Waco still viewable today, including two in Normandy and four in England. There are more than a dozen at different aviation museums across the United States.

In Normandy, there is a complete CG-4A in Saint-Mére-Èglise at the Musée Airborne. It is the centre-piece of a parachute-shaped exhibition room, and visitors can walk through the aft section of the aircraft which has been fitted out with uniformed mannequins. A short drive away at Saint-Côme-de-Mont, the D-Day Experience also has the forward section of a Waco glider. Their example has the outer skin removed, revealing the skeletal framework beneath. Behind the cockpit seats is a jeep, illustrating what a tight fit it was.



bottom of page