Germany takes the initiative
On 10 May, 1940, Winston Churchill became British Prime Minister. On the same day eleven German DFS230 gliders took off from Köln. Their target was a formidable obstacle. Completed in 1935, Eben-Emael fortress, in Belgium, housed a menacing arsenal of six 120mm guns (range 16kms), eighteen quick-firing 75mm guns and twelve 60mm high velocity anti-tank guns. Combined with roof-mounted anti-aircraft guns, twenty-five twin machine guns for close-quarter defence and a maze of tank traps, Eben-Emael was no easy nut to crack. Hence Hitler's unconventional "nutcracker" - glider-borne troops.
En route, two of the gliders became detached from their Ju52 tugs but landed safely. The attacking force commander, Leutnant Rudolf Witzig, was in one of these gliders. Totally unperturbed, Witzig arranged another tow. Meanwhile, the remaining gliders flew on towards the fortress. A light ground mist rose up to meet them as they landed right in the centre of the fortress. In the absence of Witzig, Stabsfeldwebel Wenzel took command. Each section knew its task and throughout the following thirty hours proceeded to take the fortress piece by piece. The last defenders surrendered at noon on the 11th. Witzig had sustained six dead and fifteen wounded. This from a total of 85 troops who had set out from Germany. A simultaneous glider assault on three bridges across the Albert Canal had resulted in two of the targets being captured intact whilst the other was blown up by its defenders. All in all, the entire operation was a mind-numbing success which allowed the German Army to race across the Low Countries and force the British evacuation at Dunkirk. Accurate Intelligence on the capture of Eben-Emael was not good. British Air Ministry sources said that unconfirmed reports had been received which indicated that the Germans had used gliders to capture the fortress.
The Foundations of the GPR are laid
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 sailplanes 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!
On 26 September, 1940, the Duke of Kent watched a demonstration involving two towed gliders. The following month a five-mile night tow was undertaken with two Avro 504s and four sailplanes. Also in October, sixty-six men, from No. 2 Commando, with previous flying experience were attached to Army Co-operation Command squadrons for preliminary training prior to conversion to glider coxswains (the initial name for glider pilots). When a Glider Wing was formed in December, the sixty-six were held on its establishment. However, the question of further recruits from the Army lay in the balance. 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 (the gliders) 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, 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. To counter any problems which might arise at parent units with personnel on detached duties, it was also decided to form a new Army Air Corps with two autonomous regiments, the Glider Pilot and the Parachute. The former was established by Army Order on 24 February 1942.
Above: A German DFS 230 Glider
On 22 June Churchill sent the following to the Army Chief of Staff:
for War Office
"We ought to have a corps of at least 5000 parachute troops, including a proportion of Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians, together with some trustworthy people from Norway and France. I see more difficulty in selecting and employing Danes, Dutch and Belgians. I hear that something is being done to form such a corps but only I believe on a small scale. Advantage must be taken of the summer to train these forces who can none the less play their part meanwhile as shock troops in Home Defence. Pray let me have a note from the War Office on the subject."
The "something" which was being done was The Central Landing School which had opened at RAF Ringway, Manchester on 21 June! Its brief was to investigate the logistical requirements for the use of paratroops and gliderborne troops.
By 6 August, the Air Ministry was able to tell Churchill that 500 volunteers were being trained as paratroops. The Prime Minister was quick to point out that this was only a tenth of the number he had requested in his Minute. The reply was couched in terms of logistics and, in any case, the Ministry considered parachute delivery of troops to be somewhat outmoded. The use of gliders gave far greater breadth to any airborne operation. Churchill's retort was a wish to see a full report on all the work which had been done on gliders. The report arrived on his desk on 9 September. It outlined the types of operations on which airborne troops could be most usefully employed. A complement of 1,000 men was thought a realistic requirement and of this number 900 would be carried by glider. Altogether, by Spring 1941, the War Office expected to have 2,700 glider troops and 360 pilots.
Above: One of the first British military glider demonstrations at RAF Ringway, December 1940 (Source: Imperial War Museum. Cat No. H6215)
Recruiting an Elite
Towards the end of 1941 the following notice was posted in Messes and NAAFIs:
THE AIRBORNE FORCES OF THE BRITISH ARMY CONSIST OF PARACHUTE TROOPS AND GLIDER-BORNE TROOPS OF ALL ARMS OF THE SERVICE.
Officers and men in any Regiment or Corps (except RAC), who are medically fit, may apply for transfer to a parachute or glider-borne unit of the Airborne Forces...A limited number of officers and other ranks are urgently required for training as glider pilots. Applications for transfer or further information should be made to unit headquarters.
Look at the personal stories of the men who joined the Glider Pilot Regiment and it will not take long to see that they were of a similar breed. It goes without saying that they wanted to fly - many had hoped to fly with the RAF but had been disappointed. More than this, they wanted to do something positive. Don't misunderstand this. A good number had already seen service in Europe as part of the British Expeditionary Force. However, they, and others who had only been on Home Defence duties, felt that there had to be another way of taking the fight to the enemy and bringing the war to a speedy end.
Unit Commanders were obliged to forward all applications to Joint Air Force/Army selection boards which used he RAF aircrew selection system.
All successful candidates were sent to the GPR Depot at Tilshead for six weeks. During this time the recruits were 'put through their paces' in the knowledge that they could be Returned To Unit (RTU'd) for any reason decided by the Depot staff.
Those who survived Tilshead then went to one of four Elementary Flying Training Schools. The course lasted twelve weeks, and qualified a trainee as a light aircraft pilot.
EFTS Date became operational
No. 16 EFTS, RAF Burnaston, Derby January 1942
No. 21 EFTS, RAF Booker, High Wycombe May 1942
No. 29 EFTS, RAF Clyffe Pypard May 1942
No. 3 EFTS, RAF Shellingford July 1942
From EFTS, the pilot went on to a further twelve week course at a Glider Training School where he qualified on the Hotspur.
GTS Date became operational
No. 1 GTS, Thame April 1941 No. 2 GTS, Weston-on-the-Green November 1941
No. 3 GTS, Stoke Orchard May 1942
No. 4 GTS, Kidlington July 1942
No. 5 GTS, Shobdon July 1942
A short period of ground training at the Regimental Depot was followed by a six week conversion course onto the Horsa glider at a Heavy Glider Conversion Unit. In 1944 it was decided that a three-week course would be sufficient for the pilot to take command of the glider.
HGCU Date became operational
No. 21 HGCU, Shrewton June 1942
later Brize Norton
No. 22 HGCU, Fairford October 1942
In January 1944 the Regiment was formed into 'Wings', 'Squadrons' and 'Flights'. During the war there were two Wings, each corresponding with a lightly armed infantry battalion, and seven squadrons. An Independent Squadron worked in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Each squadron had four operational flights and a Headquarters flight. A flight comprised four Officers and forty-eight Other Ranks.
Although known as the 'NCO Regiment', since the lowest rank held by a trained member was Sergeant, the GPR had its fair share of officers. Squadron commanders held the rank of Major, whilst Flight commanders were Lieutenants or Captains.