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Were assault gliders the worst idea of World War II?

In the history of warfare, few weapon systems were as unprecedented, short-lived and quickly forgotten as the assault gliders of World War II. It’s tempting to add “ineffectual” to that list, but there is at least some evidence that without gliders the Normandy invasion might not have succeeded, and they also enabled a few successful small-scale raids. But nearly every large-scale glider assault the Americans, British and Germans attempted was a disaster.

In 1783, after the French debut of hot air and hydrogen balloons, the eminently practical Benjamin Franklin postulated what could be considered the ancestral assault-glider fleet: “Five thousand balloons capable of raising two men each,” the wily Philadelphian suggested, could carry 10,000 troops into battle (assuming cooperative winds). “They could not cost more than five ships of the line, [and] 10,000 men descending from the clouds might in many places do an infinite deal of mischief, before a force could be brought together to repel them.”

Franklin’s idea didn’t catch on, nor did the 1853 invention of the first true man-carrying glider—by Englishman George Cayley— result in a sky full of unpowered, soldier-bearing aircraft. Indeed, it was up to the Soviet Union to invent the troop- and cargo-carrying assault glider. In 1932, nearly a decade before the United States entered the field, the sole prototype Gribovski G-63 was built to carry 16 troops in leading-edge cubbyholes in its wings.

And if that wasn’t pushing the envelope enough, aeronautically speaking, in 1942 the Soviets’ Antonov design bureau attached rudimentary wings to the rear deck of a T-60 light tank. Conventional assault gliders made what were frequently called “controlled crash landings,” but the Antonov A-40 crashed entirely uncontrollably: The tank carried a tank crew but no pilot, since there were no controls. The one test flight ended quickly when the towplane was unable to maintain flying speed with the heavy hermaphrodite behind it, so the pilot cut it loose. The glank, if we can call it that, actually glided quite nicely, and the crew drove it back to the airfield after landing.

The Germans had developed their first military gliders as “freight gliders,” solely to resupply paratroops already on the ground. This, interestingly, was an offshoot of a mid-1930s Lufthansa concept of using civil freight gliders towed behind airliners to serve towns that didn’t have actual airline service; one can only assume the cargo didn’t include passengers.

To the Belgians falls the dubious honor of being the first to be blindsided by assault gliders. In 1940 their enormous, largely underground Fort Eben Emael, on the Belgian-German border, was thought impregnable. Adolf Hitler, widely assumed to have been a military moron, actually came up with the plan to land Wehrmacht DFS 230 gliders directly atop the conveniently flat, grass-covered fort, and the Belgians never heard them coming. It took just 85 airborne troopers, using newly invented shaped charges and flamethrowers, 20 minutes to disable what was then the world’s largest fixed fortification.

The emboldened Germans next tried using gliders to assault the Mediterranean island of Crete, an inconvenient British Royal Navy stronghold, in May 1941. The British had intercepted and decoded enough radio traffic to know the attack was coming—one of the earliest penetrations of the German Enigma machine—and they ringed the landing zones with artillery and machine guns. The defenders slaughtered the Wehrmacht glider troops and parachutists who took part in the assault.

The Germans ultimately took Crete, through tactical skill enabled by British temerity and blunders, but even Hitler concluded after the campaign that “the day of [airborne] troops is over.”

Most of the world knew nothing about the Eben Emael assault, as the concurrent blitzkrieg of Panzers and Stukas was far more spectacular, but Maj. Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps, had noticed and demanded the Army get into glider-building and pilot training. It was not a universally popular decision—in 1942 the colonel in charge of glider procurement supposedly said, “The man who sold General Arnold on gliders is Hitler’s best friend in the United States.”

Procurement of training gliders was the first order of business. The initial contracts went to sport-glider manufacturers Schweizer and Frankfort and a new company called Laister-Kauffman. The U.S. Army Air Forces, as it was now called, began buying every civilian two-place glider it could find. As the number of glider schools grew, the USAAF also directed Piper, Taylorcraft and Aeronca to build engineless versions of their popular tube-and-fabric tandem two-seaters, with the student’s seat shifted into the nose to compensate for the missing engine’s weight. The de-engined Cubs and Champs glided so poorly they often beat the towplane back to the runway.

Even the Navy got into the act and set up a tentative glider program at Pensacola. Someone proposed using amphibious gliders to ditch Marines just off invasion beaches, but, fortunately for the jarheads, the idea went nowhere.

Companies already manufacturing military aircraft weren’t permitted to take on glider-building contracts, as their work was considered far too important to divert, so the Ohio-based Waco Aircraft Company got the nod. Waco had been building elegant radial-engine sport biplanes and four-place cabin cruisers, but the assault gliders they came up with—first the short-lived CG-3 and then the ubiquitous CG-4A—looked nothing like their powered airplanes. With typical American expediency, the company decided that for an airplane with nowhere to go but down and a one-trip lifetime, a box with a pair of big Hershey bar wings and a rudimentary tail was far easier to load and empty and would do just fine.

While cheap to build, the early CG-4As built by Waco and its subcontractors had serious quality-control issues. Indeed, one of the aircraft almost cancelled the entire U.S. glider program. On Sunday, Aug. 1, 1943, more than 5,000 people trooped out to the St. Louis, Mo., municipal airport to watch the demonstration flight of a CG-4A that had just rolled out of the hometown Robertson Aircraft factory. Aboard were St. Louis Mayor William Dee Becker, a few of his aldermen, several high-ranking USAAF officers and the aircraft company president. Immediately after the glider released the towline from a C-47 directly above the airport at 1,500 feet, the Waco’s right wing snapped off and the aircraft crashed directly in front of the crowd. A photo of the plummeting glider appeared the next morning on the front page of every major U.S. newspaper. In minutes the entire country went from knowing absolutely nothing about assault gliders to knowing they killed their passengers in the most horrific way imaginable.

But American gliders weren’t the only ones hazardous to soldiers’ health. The British equivalent of the steel tube–framed CG-4A was the Airspeed Horsa, whose cigar-shaped monocoque fuselage was made entirely of wood. In heavy landings, Horsas became deadly blizzards of splinters, leading to their inevitable reputation as “flying coffins.”

Despite their inherent weaknesses, assault gliders remained in several nations’ inventories because of their supposed advantages: The soldiers who rode them, unlike paratroopers, needed no special training; assuming they survived the landing, troops arrived on the battlefield as a small but cohesive fighting group of 14 riflemen, again unlike paratroopers, who often had to spend hours coalescing after a mass jump. And, unlike paratroopers, glider units brought their artillery and vehicles with them.

Another frequently mentioned “advantage,” though it was almost invariably theoretical, was that gliders made no noise and thus enjoyed the element of surprise, arriving “on silent wings,” as the cliché has it. It worked at Eben Emael, over which Luftwaffe towplanes released the gliders high and far from the target. But later in the war, when enormous fleets of roaring C-47s and obsolete British bombers towed Wacos and Horsas to their targets, it was no secret when hundreds of gliders were inbound to Normandy or Rhine River bridgeheads.

Some say gliders were cheap. A CG-4A, for example, cost between $15,500 and $24,000, depending on the subcontractor who made it. But a P-51 Mustang fighter cost the U.S. Government just under $51,000 in 1945 and, unlike most gliders, was good for multiple missions without requiring a rebuild after each flight.

So who flew the gliders? In the USAAF certainly not P-51 or B-17 pilots who at the last minute instead opted for Wacoan glory. Typical glider pilots were guys who had washed out of conventional flight training but still wanted to fly, or light-plane pilots with civilian flying experience who would never have passed the aviation-cadet physical or were too old. Some were enlisted men who wanted to be pilots but didn’t have the required college degree. A few weren’t even U.S. citizens. All were volunteers.

The USAAF at least initially felt that since officers were the only ones smart enough to fly powered aircraft, it certainly couldn’t commission mere glider pilots as lieutenants. The compromise was the creation of a new rank, “flight officer,” equivalent to the Army’s warrant officer. Some glider pilots eventually earned their commissions. The highest-ranking active U.S. assault-glider pilot was a lieutenant colonel—a well-known former barnstormer named Mike Murphy. A superb all-around pilot, Murphy did much to legitimize the USAAF’s glider program, both as a pilot and as a promoter.

In the caste-crippled United Kingdom, the military seemed only interested in a glider applicant’s education. If a prospective glider pilot—and there were 100,000 volunteers, initially—got past the aviation equivalent of SATs, the RAF put them through exactly the same basic flight training given to future fighter and bomber pilots and then made them wait for an opening at a glider-training school.

No other discrete group of World War II aviators—with the exception of Japan’s kamikaze pilots—so willingly faced a greater chance of death or injury as did assault glider pilots. They flew flimsy, slow, unarmored, unarmed and engineless aircraft, and they flew them directly toward the enemy’s guns. If anything happened en route—a towline severed by enemy fire, towplane mechanical problems, damage to the glider— they were on their own with nowhere to go but down, and many ditched at sea. If the glider pilots actually made it to the LZ, landings often left aircraft standing on their noses, wings torn off, ground-looped or destroyed by hedgerows. If the pilots survived, they often became temporary infantrymen. And when the battle was over, they had to find their own way home to do it all over again.

Of the 7,260 Americans trained to be glider pilots, 375 died, either in combat, training, ferry flights or other glider use—one of every 20 men glider-rated by the USAAF. Nothing even statistically close can be said of those who got their wings as fighter pilots, became carrier-qualified, flew bombers or even became test pilots. Only Vietnam War forward fire-control pilots had a higher mortality rate.

The first U.S. glider campaign— the July 1943 invasion of Sicily— was not a sterling success. American and British commanders fought each other harder than they did the Germans; the chosen landing spots were rocky, steep and tiny; and planners scheduled the gliders for night landings. The glider fleet flew into unexpectedly strong headwinds, and many towplanes, fearful of flak, ordered the gliders cut loose at distances that made it impossible to reach the beach. Of the 130-odd American Waco and British Horsa gliders that launched, nearly half ditched in the Mediterranean, only 59 actually making it to dry land and only a dozen landing on the designated LZs.

The next night, another 144 C-47s took off from Tunisia, this time loaded with paratroops rather than towing gliders. Sixty were either shot down or badly damaged—by hair-trigger U.S. Navy gunners. After the campaign, in which the Allies ultimately took Sicily with amphibious landings, Dwight Eisenhower wrote, “I do not believe in the airborne division.”

By the time of the Normandy invasion 11 months later, Eisenhower had at least partially overcome his airborne doubts. But for a variety of reasons, the initial glider landings were again scheduled for well before sunrise. The Army may have realized it had created a vehicle so hideously vulnerable it was best used in darkness. Regardless, the Germans had a pretty good idea gliders were coming and studded all the potential LZs with Rommelspargel (“Rommel’s asparagus”)— 13- to 16-foot logs stuck upright in the ground.

The open fields were small and ringed by what pilots had been told were “hedgerows.” To them, that meant the topiary that bordered lawns back home, but what they found instead were centuries-old earthen levees topped by gnarled trees, the roots of which had cohered the dirt into near-concrete. Tanks couldn’t bust through them, much less tube-and-fabric gliders. Even the famed Mike Murphy ran into one and killed a brigadier general sitting in his special command jeep in the cargo compartment.

Of the 512 gliders that landed in Normandy, nearly all were wrecked, and many of the troops they carried were injured or killed. Still, the artillery and ammunition they carried allowed the paratroops already on the ground to block the Wehrmacht from reaching the beachhead, which they’d have been unable to do with what weapons they carried.

About 400 gliders were used in Operation Dragoon, an assault on the south of France little more than two months after D-Day, and again human losses were heavy, but the crucial cargo survived. But it was largely a waste, as the concurrent amphibious landings went unopposed. Some feel the airborne assault was more theater than necessity; a few generals were intent on “using their airborne,” and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal were aboard ships just offshore as observers.

By far the largest glider operation of all time was Operation Market Garden (Market was the airborne assault, Garden the follow-up ground component) in the Netherlands in September 1944. Market used nearly 2,600 U.S. and British gliders and ultimately was a failure. United Press correspondent Walter Cronkite rode in one of the Wacos—not by choice but by assignment—and later wrote, in the foreword to John Lowden’s Silent Wings at War, “I’ll tell you straight out: If you’ve got to go into combat, don’t go by glider. Walk, crawl, parachute, swim, float—anything. But don’t go by glider.”

In the end, gliders seemed only to succeed in small special operations, not grandiose aerial envelopments like Market. The Eben Emael attack was the earliest example, and in July 1943 German SS raider Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny also used a small glider force to snatch overthrown Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini out of Italian hands from a mountaintop hotel-turned-prison. In December 1944, early in the Battle of the Bulge, the Wehrmacht captured the surrounded U.S. 82nd Airborne Division’s entire medical staff and supplies, but a single Waco later landed inside the Bastogne perimeter with a vital replacement cadre of surgeons and medicine. Sixtyfour more gliders followed with gasoline and ammunition, enabling the 82nd to hold out until the winter weather broke and USAAF fighter-bombers helped to break the siege.

In March 1944, in one of only two such missions attempted in the Pacific Theater, 54 gliders landed undetected 100 miles behind enemy lines in the Burmese jungle, carrying engineers, a unit of the British Army’s famed Wingate’s Raiders and even some light earthmoving equipment. In 24 frantic hours they built an airstrip big enough for cargo aircraft. Before the Japanese knew what was happening, C-46s and C-47s had landed 9,000 more troops, almost 1,400 pack mules and ponies and more than 250 tons of supplies.

The Burma operation included the only celebrity pilot the glider corps could boast—film (and later TV) actor Jackie Coogan, a well-known former child star. Coogan was quite a joker, and while the gliders and towplanes were staging at an airfield in India, he thought it would be fun to have an elephant tow his glider to its pre-takeoff position. The elephant apparently panicked when it looked back and realized it was towing not a log but some enormous device with 84- foot wings. Despite the prodding and shouts of its mahout, the plump pachyderm headed into the jungle at an elephantine trot, cleanly divesting the Waco of its wings. Fortunately, Coogan had been married to pinup favorite Betty Grable and was widely admired by his fellow glider pilots.

The Army’s last parachute/glider assault was to be Operation Eclipse, to capture Berlin. Fortunately, it never happened, since the plan was for Wacos, Horsas and Hamilcars to land on the city’s boulevards and open parkland amid a hornet’s nest of diehard defenders.

As early as 1943, U.S. military planners had realized that doped-fabric Wacos would never remain in one piece behind the four-engine C-54s being brought online to replace the far slower C-47s, so the planners conceived an all-metal glider, a project assigned to a company called Chase (later to become part of Fairchild). The Chase XCG-18A glider was ultimately given a pair of radial engines and redesignated the YC-122 Avitruc, which in turn led to the Fairchild C-123 Provider transport used in Vietnam. Curiouser still, this larger progeny of the 18A was fitted with turbojet engines (two per pod, one pod under each wing) and redesignated the XCG-20A—a glider that became the first jet-powered transport aircraft flown in the United States.

Will we ever see military gliders again? Doubtful. Freight gliders, to revisit the 1930s German concept, could perhaps be reinvented. Imagine large, expendable UAV gliders carrying ammunition, fuel, medical supplies or food, which when dropped by towplanes would allow pilots in the United States to remotely resupply troops halfway around the world without having to run ground-level gantlets of IEDs and insurgents. But as troop-insertion tactics increasingly embrace the use of large helicopters, tilt-rotors, hovercraft and who knows what next—all of which have the advantage of being able to extract troops as well as insert them—the possibility of true assault gliders ever being employed again in warfare is minuscule, short of shadowy James Bond-ish raids of wingsuited Special Forces paratroopers soaring behind enemy lines like flying squirrels, or perhaps crude sailplanes launched off Afghan mountaintops to carry suicide bombers into infidel strongpoints.

But for large-scale conventional warfare—if there is ever again such a thing—the troop-carrying glider is history and almost certainly will remain so.


For further reading, Stephan Wilkinson recommends The Glider Gang: An Eyewitness History of World War II Glider Combat, by Milton Dank, and Silent Wings at War: Combat Gliders in World War II, by John L. Lowden. Wilkinson also recommends the documentary Silent Wings: The American Glider Pilots of World War II, narrated by Hal Holbrook.

Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here