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/-161 km 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 (equi­va­lent to one stick): a Jeep or a Jeep trailer fully loaded with combat supplies, or a 75mm howit­zer or 37mm anti­tank gun, or 4,000 lb/­1,814 kg 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 during the hour-long flight. 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 the 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/­305 m (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 nerve-frazzled, 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/­1.8 m deep by 10 to 12 ft/­3 to 3.7 m 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 as pilot after pilot broke for­ma­tion in an effort to avoid in­coming ground fire. Many gliders over­shot the fields and plowed 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/­19.3 km 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, the over­whelming major­ity thrown into com­bat for the first time. Of the roughly 4,000 sky soldiers 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 from trans­port planes.) 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 gliderGliders in the airborne invasion of Normandy: Paratroopers inside glider

Left: Forerunners of today’s helicopter-delivered air­mobile troops, these large “flying-boxes-with-wings” 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/1,700 km 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/­241 km at 7,500 lb/­3,402 km or 128 mph/­206 km at 9,000 lb/­4,082 km. As a troop car­rier the com­bat glider carried two crew mem­bers (pilots) and 13 infan­try­men (“glider­men”) in cramped quarters, many of them bur­dened by up­wards of 200 lb/­91 m 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, air­crews 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; 80 per­cent of them trained at South Plains Army Air­field in Lub­bock, Texas. 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. Con­sidering the innu­mer­a­ble acts of cour­age that took place in Normandy, just two mem­bers of an air­borne or glider unit received the Medal of Honor for extraor­di­narily heroic actions performed during Operation Overlord.

Combat gliders in the airborne invasion of Normandy: Glider in towCombat 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/­91 m by 1 in/­2.5 cm 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/­14.8 m and a wing­span of 83 ft 8 in/­25 m. It had a height of 15 ft 4 in/­4.6 m. The entire nose section (in­cluding the pilot’s com­part­ment) of the CG‑4A swung upward, creating a 70 in/­1.8 m by 60 in/­1.5 m opening into its cargo com­part­ment. This made it pos­sible to quickly load and, after a success­ful belly-flop landing, unload the glider.

Combat gliders in the airborne invasion of Normandy: U.S. troops examine crashed glider, Normandy, June 1944Combat 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 ft/­183 m to 800 ft/­244 m. Combat gliders at the far end of gross weight needed 2,000 ft/­610 m to 3,000 ft/­914 m. 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

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