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AAC pre 1957

During the invasion of Northern Europe the glider formed an essential part of the battle plan. Some 250 Horsa and Hamilcar gliders delivered troops and supplies behind enemy lines during the early hours of D Day - 6 June 1944.

In 1940 Sir Winston Churchill, prompted by the successful use of the parachute and glider forces by the Germans, ordered the training and formation of an airborne force of 5,000 troops. In 1942 the Glider Pilot Regiment (GPR), the Parachute Regiment and later the Special Air Service (SAS) were formed under the banner of the Army Air Corps (AAC). The GPR was created because the Royal Air Force were unable to provide sufficient troop carrying aircraft for 5000 troops and their heavy equipment. It was decided that a glider-borne force should compliment the paratroops. Troops were loaded into gliders which were towed into areas behind the enemy's front line. Each glider needed to have sufficient capacity to airlift a platoon of infantry, or a jeep and gun with its detachment. Larger gliders would be needed for freight and ammunition. The glider pilots then fought as infantry soldiers after landing. Volunteer pilots from the Army started to train on borrowed civilian gliders from September 1940 and soon specifications had been drawn up for a family of operational gliders. As the gliders were made mainly from timber the furniture industry was mobilised to manufacture them. The first of the gliders to fly was the General Aircraft Hotspur in November 1940. Although it never saw operational service it was the mainstay of the glider training programme.

The Horsa glider was used operationally for the first time on 19th November 1942 for the famous raid, Operation FRESHMAN, on the Vemork Heavy Water plant in Norway, portrayed in the 1965 feature film 'The Heroes of Telemark'. Unfortunately both Horsas and one towing Halifax aircraft were lost in appalling conditions. A more qualified success was achieved when large numbers of gliders were used in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943.

The next major glider borne operation was as part of the invasion of Normandy. Some 250 Horsas and Hamilcar gliders were then employed later on 6th June 1944 to deliver troops and supplies behind enemy lines in the early hours of D-Day. The successful capture of the bridges across the Orne River and Caen Canal (Pegasus Bridge) with these glider borne troops in the early hours of D Day, is one of the most celebrated successes of Operation OVERLORD. The immense risks taken by these new glider borne troops was demonstrated in September 1944, during Operation MARKET GARDEN at Arnhem when the overall strength of the GPR was reduced by a third due to troops being either captured or killed.

In 1945 the Army's attention was attracted to the possibility of the helicopter for Air Observation Post (AOP) duties and in 1946 a flight of 657 AOP Sqn was re-equipped with the Sikorsky R4B, or Hoverfly II. On 1st September 1947 Captain PRD Wilson RA conducted the first AOP shoot from a helicopter; however the inadequacies of the Hoverfly and the shortage of spares ended in the Flight's disbandment. It was to be more than ten years before the helicopter was to re-enter Army Service in the observation role.

By the end of the war the proliferation of multi barrel light anti-aircraft weapons and the vulnerability to high performance fighters led to the downfall of the heavy glider. The GPR remained on strength until it was absorbed into the new AAC in 1957.

Historical Army Air Corps beret

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