World War II Glider Pilots; none had ever been before and probably none will ever be again; a hybrid breed like jackasses with no need to reproduce themselves...
April 18, 2007 1:19 PM   Subscribe

Gliders spearheaded many major invasions and other operations in the European theatre of World War II, including the invasion of Normandy. I had no idea, but it turns out the House of Representatives recently passed a resolution honoring the glider pilots, and there's a Silent Wings Museum in Lubbock, TX. The World War II Glider Pilots Association site gives more background on the men, the planes, and the missions, as well as the memorable title quote. There's even a movie. [More Inside]
posted by Mister_A (27 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
There's video on the Silent Wings DVD site, but I recommend downloading the files to watch later. The clip reel (67 MB) has better footage than the trailer (19 MB).
posted by Mister_A at 1:21 PM on April 18, 2007

This brings to mind the prisoners-of-war who sereptiously built a glider in the tower of the German prison at Colditz Castle in 1943/44. They never flew it due to their eventual liberation by American forces. A replica was built, flown and documented by NOVA on PBS a few years ago. More on the Colditz Cock - 1, 2.
posted by ericb at 1:38 PM on April 18, 2007

Oops -- proper hyperlink for '2.'
posted by ericb at 1:45 PM on April 18, 2007

Thanks ericb. You know, I am continually amazed at the ingenuity of the WWII generation. Seems like every one was Macgyver back then.
posted by Mister_A at 1:47 PM on April 18, 2007

Thanks Mister_A, this is really interesting, and my glider-pilot father is sure to get a kick out of this story. It's unclear from the links, what was the primary advantage of the gliders, their silence, or their ability to land short in rough fields (or both)? The latter was surely obviated by the development and widespread usage of the helicopter, but that silence just can't be beat.
posted by saladin at 1:50 PM on April 18, 2007

It was really the ability to land nearly anywhere, and well behind enemy lines, as far as I can gather. Silence would be good too, no doubt. Here's a 10-sec. clip of a glider launch, for your enjoyment.
posted by Mister_A at 1:52 PM on April 18, 2007

Holy shit that was cool. Thanks again, Mister_A.
posted by saladin at 1:58 PM on April 18, 2007

You know, I am continually amazed at the ingenuity of the WWII generation. Seems like every one was Macgyver back then.

I was just about to say the same thing. Great post, Mr. A.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 2:03 PM on April 18, 2007

Mister_A, that launch looks like it might've snapped a few necks!

Good post. I recall doing some research into these after seeing them in "saving private ryan." I've since seen a couple, awaiting restoration, at a glider museum in Moriarty, NM. They are truly amazing machines, with most of the control limited to a single stick, and little in the way of braking, etc. Flying in one seems like it would have been absolutely terrifying.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:17 PM on April 18, 2007

There were tradeoffs between gliders and parachutes.

The biggest advantage of the parachute was that you could come down in most kinds of terrain without trouble. But a "stick" would be spread over a long distance, and it could take time for a unit to form up and become combat ready. Sometimes they never formed up. The other big problem was that they couldn't take much equipment with them.

A glider placed half a platoon in a single location all at once. After they unloaded they were ready to go. Even more important, they could bring more equipment with them, up to and including jeeps, small artillery pieces, machine guns, and considerably more ammunition than parachute troops could.

On the other hand, landing a glider was challenging, and if the pilot loused it up he could kill himself and most of the men in his glider. And there was no second chance. A higher percentage of glider troops would be lost in landing mishaps than parachute troops, but those that remained would be more effective in battle.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:18 PM on April 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

By the way, saladin, I think one of their main advantages is that they were a very inexpensive way to fly in troops. Cheap and simple to build, no engines to overhaul after a few hundred flight hours, no gas tanks to fill, and very few complicated components to maintain.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:20 PM on April 18, 2007

By the way, how many men and how much equipment a glider carried depended on the kind of glider. Some of the ones the Brits used were huge, and had to be towed by a heavy bomber like a Lancaster. American glider troops tended to use smaller gliders, which were towed by C-47's.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:21 PM on April 18, 2007

M.C., they weren't all that cheap. It's true they were cheaper than something like a C-47, but a C-47 could fly hundreds of sorties. For most gliders, their first sortie was their last.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:24 PM on April 18, 2007

Porno and war--the two major creative forces of Western civilization.

I just like to think of the guys who were sitting around and thinking, "Man, I'd sure like to land a jeep behind enemy lines. But how? Drop it from a B-24? Ferry it over via airship? I've got it! GLIDERS!" Which I reckon was, at the time, a superior means of airborne assault than rounding up a bunch of paratroopers, because with gliders you need only a limited number of trained personnel--the pilots--and your forces are immediately concentrated upon landing, plus they perhaps have a safer descent.

Tragically, the naval application of gliders never caught on, as certain tragic experiments with the USS Bonhomme Richard proved.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 2:24 PM on April 18, 2007

Yes and no on the simplicity angle, M.C. Lo-Carb!

They were probably simpler than powered planes, but despite its skeletal appearance, the CG-4A glider comprised some 70,000 parts; in addition, it had to be delivered to England in crates to be assembled there, rather than flown over like a powered plane. The amazing thing is that these gliders could carry cargo greater than their own net weight, which was strikingly light at some 7500 lb if I recall correctly.
posted by Mister_A at 2:25 PM on April 18, 2007

Of course, the basic notion of gliding to a landing (unlike a sailplane) is still used in relatively modern systems.
posted by MrGuilt at 2:38 PM on April 18, 2007

I vaguely remember reading somewhere that the parachute infantry disliked being called "Airborne" because it included both parachutists and glider troops. The parachutists apparently didn't think much of the glider boys.
posted by Rangeboy at 3:49 PM on April 18, 2007

Gliders are one of those things that I suspect will make a comeback. Same with dirigibles. There is just something about them that strikes me as still valid. Perhaps with the modern materials and a clever eye to see where they could fit, they will see life again.

Kinda like how someone looked at a civil war era Gatling gun and came up with the Vulcan machine gun.
posted by quin at 4:27 PM on April 18, 2007

Wow, another good museum trip in the offiing, if I'm ever going near Lubbock. (Good Tex-Mex to be had there, but can't remember name of restaurant).

Speaking of museums involving gliderborne troops, there's this one, with the "They don't pay these guys enough" exhibit. That was one hell of a chancy way to ride into a combat zone so you could go to work.
posted by pax digita at 5:02 PM on April 18, 2007

Off-topic, but somewhat/somehow related (at least in my mind) -- I recommend the film Flyboys which chronicles the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of Americans who volunteered to become some of the first fighter-pilots ever in the French military before the United States entered WWI. True pioneers, like their later brethren who piloted the gliders of WWII.
posted by ericb at 5:29 PM on April 18, 2007

Unfortunately the Wikipedia article about the Messerschmitt Me 321 glider lacks pictures, but Google "Me 321" for images and you'll see how big a tactical assault glider could get -- they could (theoretically, at least; dunno if it was tried operationally) deliver light armor with this monster. The scariest aspect of a Me 321 mission would've been the tow phase; having three Bf 110s in ultra-close formation trying to haul one of these babies would not have been for the faint of heart, damn betcha.
posted by pax digita at 6:15 PM on April 18, 2007

Operation Market Garden, June 6 1944

Have a look at that closeup. Modern glider pilots call it "landing out". I can't even imagine it.
posted by sea at 6:45 PM on April 18, 2007

I'm glad you can't. It was a nightmare, from what I've read.

Market-Garden. Yeah, I grew up with the memory of the book and movie A Bridge Too Far -- people forget that for the Allies, even as late as summer/autumn '44 it wasn't always a smashing-victory-to-smashing-victory lockstep of inevitability. Some people hoped and prayed the war might be over, or at least the Rhine crossed, by Christmas, but...oh, well....

Dad was damned glad he was still stuck in England counting howitzer parts when that goatf*ck happened --- word got around pretty quickly through the rumor mill -- and even gladder when his division was too understrength to get thrown into the Ardennes meatgrinder (the "Bulge") that Christmas, although a cousin of his was aboard the Leopoldville when it got torpedoed.
posted by pax digita at 7:10 PM on April 18, 2007

Oh, and I just noticed the date you wrote...Market-Garden was at the end of the summer of 1944; Overlord was 6 June.
posted by pax digita at 7:13 PM on April 18, 2007


A compelling episode depicted in the amazing television series 'Band of Brothers.'
posted by ericb at 7:22 PM on April 18, 2007

people forget that for the Allies, even as late as summer/autumn '44 it wasn't always a smashing-victory-to-smashing-victory lockstep of inevitability.

My grandfather was one of the paras that went into Arnhem and it affected him for the rest of his life. From what I can gather, he lost lots of friends. He would never talk about it - he had a medal which he kept at the back of a drawer. I found it once and he went ballistic. I remember also once watching Allo Allo (crappy WWII-set sitcom with dodgy French accents) aged about 10. He came in, saw me, and turned it off: "you shouldn't laugh about war", he said. "It wasn't funny".

He died in 1998 and I never got a chance to ask him properly, nor did he write any of his memories down. Part of me thinks that's a shame but there is also part of me that is glad they died with him.
posted by greycap at 11:12 PM on April 18, 2007

British 1st Para had a very bad time in Arnhem. They found two SS Panzer divisions had been resting in Arnhem, and paratroops are not very good at fighting armor. About 10,000 men went in; about 2,000 made it out. The rest were dead, wounded, or captured.

Greycap, I'm not surprised your grandfather was reticent about that experience. It was not a fun time for anyone involved.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:27 PM on April 19, 2007

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