The Glider Pilot Regiment was a specialist British unit of the Second World War. The Regiment was responsible for crewing the British Army’s gliders and saw action in the European Theatre in support of Allied airborne operations.
The Glider Pilot Regiment (5,000 men) was part of the Airborne Force ordered to be formed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1941. The use of assault gliders by the British was prompted by the German assault on Eben Emael fortress. The Regiment was formally inaugurated on 24 February 1942 as part of the Army Air Corps which then comprised the Glider Pilot Regiment, the Parachute Regiment and the Special Air Service.
Volunteers were called for from Army units and after military and RAF aircrew selection tests they were subjected to a rigorous regime of 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. The motto of the Regiment was “Nothing is Impossible”.
Among the glider types developed were:
The Horsa gliders were capable of carrying 28 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 Waco CG-4A, officially called the Hadrian by the British, but “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 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
- Operation Dragoon (the invasion of southern France)
- Operation Market Garden (Arnhem)
Out of the 2,596 gliders dispatched for Operation Market Garden, 2,239 gliders were effective in delivering men and equipment to their designated landing zones.
- Operation Varsity (Crossing of the Rhine)
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% of the Regiment’s killed in action on that day were RAF pilots seconded to the Glider Pilot Regiment.
- The GPR were also the means of delivering clandestine and special cargoes. SAS troops were taken into France by glider to conduct disruptive operations. An early (failed) attempt to destroy the Heavy Water Plant in Norway was inserted by gliders (Op Freshman) (one piloted by a King’s Dragoon Guard (forebear of the author’s regiment QDG) who sadly died on the operation).
- Another GPR operation was to deliver the Russian delegation into Yugoslavia for talks with Tito. It is understood that they landed at Glamoc – slightly ironic as the author was based near there in 1998.
The very heavy casualties sustained by the gliders in the war brought an end to the assault glider. Their operational role is now carried out by the support helicopters of the Army Air Corps and Royal Air Force.
The Glider Pilot Regiment was awarded the following battle honours for its service during the Second World War:
- Landing in Sicily (Inexperience in the US tug crews contributed to a high casualty rate during the landing. In order to get the Gliders into North Africa for the Op the Gliders were initially towed from UK, with RAF tug crews and GPR Horsa crew rotating through the cockpit on the move).
- Sicily 1943
- Normandy Landing (Operation Mallard was the codename for the 6th Airlanding Brigade operation, which was conducted by the British Army on 6 June 1944, as part of the Normandy landings during the Second World War. Operation Tonga followed, dropping the division’s two parachute brigades near Caen to the east.).
- Pegasus Bridge
- Merville Battery
- Southern France
- Arnhem 1944
- North-West Europe 1944-45
There is a memorial to the Glider Pilot Regiment in Tilshead.
Frank Druce and George Clegg