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 (“Screaming Eagles”) began moving 52 CG‑4A engine­less combat gliders and C‑47 Sky­train tug 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 combat gliders for the 82nd Air­borne Divi­sion (“All Americans”). Each of these flimsy, power­less, un­armed gliders carried 13 men and their gear or three men and cargo: a Jeep or a Jeep trailer fully loaded with combat supplies, or a 75mm howitzer or 37mm anti­tank gun, or 4,000 lb of sundry ammu­ni­tion and/or medi­cal supplies. Gen. Max­well Taylor, 101st Air­borne com­mander, stretched out on the floor on pillows in his lead C‑47 named Brass Hat, catching shut-eye. Glider­men mostly remained seated in their flimsy craft, helmet in lap into which some vomited though most vomit ended up on the floor. Prop wash from the tow plane’s twin engines beat on the glider’s stretched canvas skin, creating the sensation of one being inside a deafening bass drum.

Over Guernsey and Jersey, the German-occupied Chan­nel Islands, enemy flak bat­teries opened fire on streams of Sky­trains and their trailing gliders en route to the Coten­tin Penin­sula and their drop zones behind the Allied inva­sion beaches. Over France, flying at 1,000 ft (jump alti­tude) or less, the aerial armada was within cross­fire range of German machine guns and flak guns, which pock­marked the black sky with orange tracer rounds and fiery, red explo­sions. (Seventeen Sky­trains were shot down.) Sky­train and glider pilots, nick­named “sui­cide joc­keys,” weaved and twisted their craft as they took eva­sive action, 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” (tall inter­locking wooden poles) and were digging and flooding 6‑ft deep by 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, one of two U.S.-assigned invasion beaches on June 6, 1944. Gli­ders swooshed in from every direc­tion, many over­shooting the fields and plowing into sur­rounding hedge­row fences, farm­houses, or stone walls, blind in the black night. Some occu­pants were im­paled by the gli­der’s splin­tering wood or were crushed when equip­ment broke away from the plywood floor. 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.

Over 20,000 parachute and glider infantrymen were delivered to Normandy. Of the roughly 4,000 who parti­ci­pated in the ini­tial air­borne assault phase, 10 per­cent became casual­ties, either killed or maimed. (More casual­ties occurred in glider landings than in para­chute jumps.) But of course Operation Over­lord’s suc­cess or failure depended on the amphibious landings and the German response.

Waco CG-4A Combat Gliders in the Airborne Invasion of Normandy, 1944

Combat gliders in the airborne invasion of Normandy: Waco CG-4A glider Combat gliders in the airborne invasion of Normandy: Paratroopers inside glider

Left: Forerunners of today’s helicopter-delivered air­mobile troops, combat 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 the equip­ment that para­troopers simply could not carry. The Waco CG‑4A combat 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 stealthy combat 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 engineless CG-4A (Cargo Glider Model 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 the combat glider carried two crew mem­bers (pilots) and 13 infantry­men (“glider­men”), many of them burdened by upwards of 200 lb of equip­ment and weapons, such as Browning Auto­matic Rifles (BARs) and bazookas shown here. Con­figured as a cargo car­rier with two crew members, it carried four infantry­men and one Jeep or three infantry­men, one 75mm howitzer, and 25 rounds of ammu­ni­tion. Once on the ground, glider pilots took up arms and fought as part of the infan­try units they delivered to the target. Some 5,500 gutsy pilots won their glider quali­fi­cation wings during World War II. Their wings sported a “G,” which they joked stood for “Guts.” Glider pilots delivered 30,000 troops to combat zones and suffered a 37‑percent casualty rate, some of the highest casualty rates of the war.

Combat gliders in the airborne invasion of Normandy: Glider in tow Combat gliders in the airborne invasion of Normandy: Glider unloading

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

Right: The combat 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 by 60‑in opening into its cargo com­part­ment. This made it pos­sible to quickly load and, after a success­ful belly-flopped landing, unload the glider.

Combat gliders in the airborne invasion of Normandy: U.S. troops examine crashed glider, Normandy, June 1944 Combat gliders in the airborne invasion of Normandy: German troops examine crashed glider, Normandy, June 1944

Left: A normal three-point landing required a landing run of 600–800 ft. Combat gliders at the far end of gross weight needed 2,000–3,000 ft. In this photo U.S. troops exa­mine a crashed glider. Built for just one flight and a vio­lent end at that, almost every glider used in Nor­mandy was lost. Few undamaged craft were ever retrieved.

Right: Germans examine the remains of this combat glider that landed in their midst, having crashed into a hedge­row in the inky darkness. Sev­eral of the occu­pants were killed and the rest were over­powered and taken pri­soner. The 101st Airborne Division lost 30 men in glider crashes on D‑Day, among them Brig. Gen. Donald F. Pratt, the 101st Airborne’s deputy com­mander, who died of a broken neck when his CG‑4A Waco glider skidded into a hedge­row (could this photo be of Pratt’s glider?); the 82nd lost ten times as many.

Airborne Invasion of Normandy, France, June 1944