RAF Aldermaston and Ramsbury Airfields, England · June 3, 1944

On this date in 1944 in Aldermaston, England, men of the 434th Troop Carrier Group and the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion began moving 52 CG‑4A gliders and C‑47 Sky­train tow planes onto the air­field to lead the glider phase of Oper­a­tion Over­lord, the in­va­sion of Nazi-occu­pied France. Taking off five minutes behind the 434th from Rams­bury airfield over 100 miles to the west was the 437th Group towing 52 CG‑4A gliders for the 82nd Air­borne Divi­sion. Each of these power­less, un­armed gliders carried 13 men and their gear or four men and cargo: Jeeps or 37mm anti­tank guns, ammu­ni­tion, and medi­cal supplies. Gen. Max­well Taylor, 101st Air­borne com­mander, stretched out on the floor on pillows, catching shut-eye. Most men remained seated, hel­mets in their laps, into which some vomited, though most vomited directly onto the floor. Over Guern­sey and Jersey, the Ger­man-occupied Chan­nel Islands, enemy flak bat­teries opened fire on the Sky­trains and their gli­ders. Over France, flying at 1,000 ft or less, the sky arma­da was with­in cross­fire range of Ger­man ma­chine guns and flak guns. Pilots, nick­named “sui­cide joc­keys,” weaved and twisted, throwing heavily bur­dened men in­side the fuse­lage this way and that, the bruising and bone-jarring made worse by slipping on the vomit-strewn floor. Twenty-four hours earlier the Ger­mans had begun studding the fields and pas­tures in the two intended landing zones with “Rom­mel’s aspa­ragus” (wooden poles) and were digging and flooding 6‑ft deep x 10–12‑ft wide ditches across other fields to hin­der gli­der landings. U.S. casual­ties in men and equip­ment were heavy in the night­time and early morning (4 a.m.) landings behind Utah Beach on June 6, 1944. Gli­ders came in from every direc­tion, many over­shooting the fields and landing in sur­rounding hedge­row fences or crashing into farm­houses or stone walls, blind in the black night. Some gli­der troops were im­paled by splin­tering wood or were crushed when equip­ment broke away. One glider landed on a land­mine. Some gli­ders missed their landing zone and crashed into a swamp 12 miles to the south. Twenty-one of the 850 gliders carrying infantrymen were wrecked in landing. Of the roughly 4,000 men who parti­ci­pated in the ini­tial air­borne assault phase of Opera­tion Over­lord, 10 per­cent became casual­ties, either killed or maimed. But of course Over­lord’s suc­cess or fai­lure depended on the sea­borne landings and the German response.

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Waco CG-4A Gliders in the Invasion of Europe, 1944–1945

Waco CG-4A gliderParatroopers inside glider

Left: Forerunners of today’s helicopter-delivered air­mobile troops, mili­tary gliders came of age in World War II when they were made capa­ble of getting a whole squad or more of infan­try, with heavy wea­pons, onto the ground quickly, with equip­ment that para­troopers simply could not carry. The Waco CG‑4A glider (C for cargo, G for gli­der) was the most widely used U.S. troop and cargo mili­tary gli­der of World War II. Deri­sively called “flak bait” or “flying cof­fins,” 13,909 of these stealth air­craft were manu­fac­tured by 16 com­panies during the period 1942–1945—more than the num­ber of B‑17, B‑25 or B‑26 bombers; P‑38, P‑39, or P‑40 fighters; or any of the C‑46, C‑47, or C‑54 trans­port planes manu­fac­tured during that same time period.

Right: At 3,750 lb the CG-4A high-wing mono­plane could carry more than its own weight in pay­load, and fre­quently did. Its maxi­mum speed was 150 mph at 7,500 lb or 128 mph at 9,000 lb. As a troop car­rier it carried two crew mem­bers and 13 pas­sen­gers (“glider­men”). As a cargo car­rier with two crew members it carried four pas­sen­gers and one jeep or three pas­sen­gers, one 75mm howitzer, and 25 rounds of ammu­nition.

Glider in towGlider unloading

Left: Unarmed and unarmored, canvas-covered gliders were towed behind Douglas C‑47 tug planes on 300‑ft x 1‑in nylon ropes. Com­mu­ni­cation between the early gli­ders and their tugs was via a tele­phone wire wrapped around the tow-rope. These wires often shorted out while being dragged along con­crete run­ways during take­offs. Two-way radios even­tually replaced this system.

Right: The glider had a length of 48 ft 8 in and a wingspan of 83 ft 8 in. It had a height of 15 ft 4 in. The entire nose section (including the pilot’s com­part­ment) of the CG‑4A swung upward, creating a 70‑in x 60‑in opening into its cargo com­part­ment. This made it possible to quickly load and unload the glider.

U.S. troops examine crashed glider, Normandy, June 1944German troops examine crashed glider, Normandy, June 1944

Left: A normal three-point landing required a landing run of 600–800 ft. Gli­ders at the far end of gross weight need 2,000–3,000 ft. In this photo U.S. troops exa­mine a crashed glider. Almost all the gli­ders used in Nor­man­dy were lost. Few un­da­maged craft were ever retrieved.

Right: Germans examine this glider that landed in their midst, having crashed into a hedge­row. Sev­eral of the occu­pants were killed and the rest were over­powered and taken pri­soner. The 101st Airborne Division lost 30 men in glider crashes, the 82nd nearly 300.

World War II Gliders and Glidermen