Birth of the Airborne

by Squadron Leader John Macadam

In the dark days of the enemy blitz on London, when Britain stood alone and all the world expected her to go under, one or two Royal Air Force officers quietly locked themselves in a building in one of the more famous London squares and settled down to work.

They were not locked there for their own safety, nor were they there to devise measures of defense against the seemingly overwhelming German air attack. They were there, calmly and methodically to plan the attack on Germany which, over three years later, was to become the D-Day invasion of Europe by means of airborne landings by parachute and glider.

So much for the theory that Britain was nearly "on her knees" in the dark days of 1940. So far was she from her knees that she was, in fact, planning an invasion for some three and a half years later.

Only now, when Germany is beaten and there have been three successful airborne penetrations behind the enemy lines, is it possible to tell the story of what was probably the most remarkable and least publicized operation of all: the transporting of gliders from England to Africa for the first real assault on Hitler's European Fortress in Sicily.

The powerful formation of 38 Group, the RAF component for operational purposes of First Allied Airborne Army, was, as late as the summer of 1943, a mere Wing of three sparely-equipped squadrons, 295, 296 and 297, with about sixty Whitley aircraft. Ground crews struggled with inadequate accommodations, aircraft and manpower. They railed at what they considered official lack of interest. What they did not know was that they were part of a long-term plan for the invasion of the Continent, that while they carried out their experiments and readied themselves for the big task ahead, priorities must go to RAF Bomber Command, the one offensive air weapon that Britain then had.

And so, in the summer of 1942. the old 38 Wing was struggling to get rid of its Whitleys and replace them with more up-to-date aircraft. The strategists watched their struggles and admired and sympathized — and still kept the supplies running to Bomber.

It all began for the airborne enthusiasts in 1940 with an experiment that belongs more to boys' fiction than to the stern actualities of modern warfare.

Squadron Leader Louis Strange, who had won a bar to his last-war Distinguished Flying Cross by flying Hurricanes out from under the noses of the Germans as they came through the Low Countries, was acting as a supernumerary officer at the time, and he was given the job of experimenting with the dropping of parachutists. He had no previous experience of the technique; so he rang up his friend Irving, the parachute manufacturer. Irving said. "Get a kite and we will see what we can do." The Squadron Leader got an old Whitley, flew it to an airfield near his friend's factory, and that night they took the belly gun turret out, leaving a hole in the fuselage.

By morning, Irving had rigged up man-sized dummies attached to the fuselage by very rudimentary static lines, and with Squadron Leader Strange at the controls they set off for the north of England in their old Whitley. Flying low over a marked stretch of open country, Strange steadied the aircraft for a low run in. Irving tossed the dummies out and together they watched them sail gently to the ground on the end of the parachutes to the marked area.

From the nearest telephone they told the Air Ministry, "The Parachute Training School has started."

From that, the present 38 Group, with battle honors won in the invasions of Sicily, Normandy, Holland and Germany and a high reputation for its supply service to the Special Air Service troops and to the resistance all over Europe, went on to make a mark on the scroll of history that will never be erased.

There had actually been a landing of a Parachute Brigade of British airborne troops from US Douglas Dakotas in the summer of 1942 in the invasion of North Africa, but this was only moderately successful and was not on any scale sufficient to give more than a glimmering of its potentiality. In the winter of 1942, however, Air Commodore Sir Nigel Norman, in command of 38 Wing, and Lt Gen F N Browning, British pioneers of airborne strategy, planned for the First Airborne Division to go by sea to North Africa in the spring of 1943 for the intended invasion of Sicily. Hadrian gliders — known to the Americans as Waco CG-4s — were sent crated from the United States to Algiers, and in May and June, 296 Squadron, RAF, flew from the United Kingdom to Froha, near Mascara. The Airborne Division also went by sea and assembled in the same area. They were so short of skilled labor and indeed manpower of any sort, that Col G H Chatterton and his glider pilots had to assemble the Hadrians themselves. They assembled fifty in about ten days and flew them on to the Mascara area, where they started a certain amount of combined training.

Meanwhile, in England, considerable difficulties surrounded every effort of 295 Squadron to get going. They were still operating with Whitleys, and were given three Halifaxes to play with. They lost one of these, but on May 1, 1943 they were given their definite commitment to take part in the Sicily invasion two months later. Immediately, the ground staff and crews moved to Homesley South, near Christchurch in Hampshire, and set up camp. They had no hangars — nothing. The higher strategists, confident in their long-term view, were still giving priority to the increasingly offensive Bomber Command.

Aircraft came straight from the assembly belts and were modified by the maintenance crews themselves for towing.

Sir Nigel Norman, unfortunately, had been killed in a flying accident and Air Commodore Primrose, his successor, had decided to fly out about three dozen Horsa gliders for the invasion. They were mainly to carry jeeps and guns, but Primrose also had the idea of testing the Horsas in operations. They were stuffed with new equipment and towed by about two dozen Halifax Vs which had been diverted from Bomber Command. "A" Flight of 295 Squadron got the job, and by the end of May, having lost four crews in training, had twelve crews operational. This training was done in the face of continued difficulties, and apart from the honor which attaches to the tug aircrews and the glider pilots, great credit goes to the ground crews who, starting from scratch, modified, maintained and kept in running order aircraft which were no more than adequate for the tremendous task they had been given.

On June 2, 1943, the first two Halifaxes collected their Horsas and flew to Portreath in Cornwall. They refueled there with overload tanks, giving them 2,572 gallons maximum capacity. The gliders were loaded with spare wheels and about 1,000 lbs of extra stores. The following day the first aircraft, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Briggs, took off and landed nine and three-quarters hours later at Rabat-Sale in Morocco, a journey of 1,350 miles.

That started a regular delivery service over the hazardous 1,350-mile route from Cornwall to Morocco, and as each tow plane returned to Cornwall, the overworked ground staff gave its engines a thorough overhaul and prepared to turn it round on its next tow.

During June, twenty-eight Horsas were delivered at Rabat-Sale for the loss of three crews. Extra crews were trained hurriedly and, with no time for finessing and little time for rest, they kept up the ferry from England to Africa. The servicing of the Halifaxes in Africa became increasingly difficult, and an extra detachment of twelve men was brought back from Mascara. By the first week in July ferrying had finished, and then began a frantic rush to get the Halifaxes, Horsas and ground crews to Tunisia in time for the Sicily invasion. Only two days before D-Day Sicily, the Halifax crews and gliders were assembled on a strip near Kairwan. Two crews had made forced landings and been left behind in the desert. Two had crashed at Rabat-Sale and four others were lost in the 1,000-mile flight across Africa, a flight that had to be carried out always in the heat of the day with the crews flying all day and sleeping in their aircraft at night while the ground crews serviced them by torch-light. To make matters more difficult, all refueling had to be done from tins.

The airborne invasion began on the evening of July 9, and after three and a half hours' flight, the gliders made a moonlight landing in Sicily. A week later they flew back to England, and lost two more aircraft on the way.

That is the saga of 38 Wing, which, a few months before D-Day Normandy, was expanded, strengthened and modernized by Air Vice Marshal L N Hollingshurst — working now to the short-term plan — into 38 Group. The three original Squadrons are still carrying out their airborne tasks, with the same enthusiasm manifest in Sicily. With their companion Squadrons, they invaded Normandy and Holland. They supplied the Special Air Service troops and the resistance all over Europe and, later, under the command of Air Vice Marshal J R Scarlet-Streatfield, invaded and helped to defeat Germany.

This article was originally published in the August, 1945, issue of Air News magazine, vol 9, no 2, pp 49-50, 64.
The original article includes 3 photos: CG-4A, Jeep unloading from CG-4A, Horsa.
Photos credited to Hans Groenhoff.