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On the 24 February 1942, the Glider Pilot Regiment was formed as a part of the Army Air Corps.  Volunteers were called for and after military and RAF aircrew selection tests they were subjected to rigorous military training designed to make them "Total Soldiers". This was to train them to use all weapons and equipment of the fighting soldiers they carried into battle so that they could fight alongside them on the ground.

The man behind this concept was Colonel George Chatterton, a charismatic leader and a ruthless disciplinarian. His experience as a pre-war RAF fighter pilot and subsequently an infantry officer fitted him well to the task of turning highly trained determined soldiers into skilful pilots.

A Glider Training Squadron had been set up, under the command of Squadron Leader H E Hervey, MC. Initial gliding tests were carried out by using Swallow aircraft with their propellers removed. A nationwide request for commercial gliders brought in enough to begin training instructors, pilots and ground crew. Of the Squadron's first four trainer gliders, three had been built in Germany.

The use of assault gliders by the British was prompted by the use by Germany in May 1940 to successfully assault the Eben Emael fort in Belgium. Their advantage, compared to a parachute assault, was that the troops were landed together in one place rather than being dispersed.

The ability of Army personnel as fit to fly was a long-standing and contentious issue. Indeed, the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Arthur Harris, thought Army flying preposterous:

“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.”

Two events brought the issue to a close. On 26 April 1941, Churchill visited the Central Landing Establishment at Ringway. He found just a handful of glider pilots in training. Then, on 20 May 1940, Germany captured Crete with airborne troops. Churchill called for immediate action, and it was agreed that the Army would supply glider pilots with the RAF taking responsibility for qualifying them.


Among the glider types developed were the 25 trooper Airspeed Horsa and the 7 ton capacity General Aircraft Hamilcar cargo glider. The General Aircraft Hotspur was used for training the pilots who formed the Glider Pilot Regiment.

The Horsa gliders were capable of carrying 25 fully armed and equipped airborne soldiers, or a Jeep and trailer or gun. They greatly enhanced the mobility and force of the otherwise lightly armed airborne troops. A larger glider, the Hamilcar, could even carry a seven ton tank. A smaller American glider, the Hadrian, but called the "Waco" by the pilots and soldiers, was used in Sicily and in Burma. The Waco's steel frame was better suited to jungle operations than the wooden Horsa.

The Airspeed Horsa

With around 25 troop seats, the Horsa was much bigger than the 13-troop Hadrian or Waco glider, and the 8-troop General Aircraft Hotspur glider which was intended for training duties only. As well as troops, the Horsa could carry a jeep or a 6 pounder anti tank gun.

The Horsa II had a hinged nose section, reinforced floor and double nose wheels to support the extra weight of vehicles. The tow was attached to the nose-wheel strut, rather than the dual wing points of the Horsa I.

The Horsa was first used operationally on the night of 19/20 November 1942 in Op. FRESHMAN, the unsuccessful attack on the German Heavy Water Plant at Rjukan in Norway. The two Horsa gliders, and one of the Halifax tug aircraft, crashed in Norway due to bad weather. The survivors from the glider crashes were executed on the orders of Hitler.

On operations the Horsa was towed variously by Stirling, Halifax, Albemarle, Whitley and Dakota tugs, using a harness that attached to both wings. The pilots were usually from the Glider Pilot Regiment, although Royal Air Force pilots were used on occasion.

The Horsa was built from 1940 onwards. It first flew on 12 September 1941. The Horsa featured a high-wing and was of all-wooden construction due to the shortage of other materials and the expendable nature of the aircraft. It was one of the first gliders equipped with a tricycle undercarriage for take-off. On operational flights this could be jettisoned and landing was then on a sprung skid under the fuselage. The wing carried large, 'barn door' flaps, which when lowered made a steep high rate-of-descent landing possible that allowed the pilots to land in constricted areas.

The Horsa was considered sturdy and very manoeuvrable for a glider. A total of 3655 were built. The specification for the gliders had demanded that they were built in a number of sections, and as a result production was spread across separate factories which limited the likely loss in case of German attack.

General Characteristics

  • Crew: 2, First and Second Pilot
  • Capacity: 25 troops
  • Length: 67 ft
  • Wingspan: 88 ft
  • Height: 21 ft
  • Wing area: 1,148 ft²
  • Empty weight: 7,500 lb
  • Loaded weight: 15,250 lb
  • Max. speed: 127 mph on tow, 100 mph on gliding.

In Operation

The advantage of the glider was that it could deliver an airborne platoon with all its equipment to a precise spot, day or night, to achieve surprise. The most spectacular example of this was the capture of the Orne bridges in Normandy on D-Day. A similar number of men dropped by parachute would be spread over a large area. Gliders also carried the heavier equipment of the Parachute Regiment, Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers. The most famous actions were the taking of the Pegasus Bridge during the invasion of Normandy (Op. DEADSTICK) and as part of Operation OVERLORD (Op TONGA was the glider element), Op. MARKET GARDEN at Arnhem, and Op. VARSITY in the crossing of the Rhine. Out of the 2,596 gliders dispatched for Op. MARKET GARDEN, 2,239 gliders were effective in delivering men and equipment to their designated landing zones.

Massed airborne landings at Sicily, Normandy and Arnhem achieved success but at great cost. The Airborne Forces at Arnhem did not lose the battle, they were ordered to hold for two or possibly three days, they held out for eight days. The Regiment's casualties were the highest at Arnhem, 90% were killed, wounded or taken prisoner of war.

These losses were made up by the secondment to the Regiment of Royal Air Force pilots and several hundreds of them took part in the greatest and most successful airborne operation of the war, Operation Varsity, the Crossing of the Rhine. The RAF pilots acquitted themselves with great gallantry, in the air and on the ground, 60% that were killed in action on that day were RAF pilots seconded to the Glider Pilot Regiment.

The very heavy casualties sustained by the gliders in the war brought an end to the assault glider. In today’s modern Armed Forces a similar operational role is now carried out by the support helicopters of the Army Air Corps and Royal Air Force.


Glider Landing - 6 June 1944

Glider Landing D-Day 6/6/44

Op Deadstick - Coup de Main Gliders (1)

Op. Deadstick (Coup de Main landing) - Gliders 1 (back) and 3 (front)

Op Deadstick - Coup de Main Gliders (1)

Op. Deadstick (Coup de Main): L - R Gliders 2, 3, & 1

Glider Ready To Tow

Glider Ready to Tow

Inside a Horsa Mk 1 Glider

Inside a Horsa Mk I Glider

Unloading a MkII Horsa

Unloading (Horsa Mk II)



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