The Glider Pilot Regiment
The Glider Pilot Regiment was a British airborne forces unit of the Second World War, which was responsible for crewing the British Army's military gliders and saw action in the European theatre in support of Allied airborne operations. Established in 1942, the regiment was disbanded in 1957.
The German military was one of the pioneers of the use of airborne formations, conducting several successful airborne operations during the Battle of France in 1940, including the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael. Impressed by the success of German airborne operations, the Allied governments decided to form their own airborne formations. This decision would eventually lead to the creation of two British airborne divisions, as well as a number of smaller units. The British airborne establishment began development on 22 June 1940, when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, directed the War Office in a memorandum to investigate the possibility of creating a corps of 5,000 parachute troops.
On 21 June 1941, the Central Landing Establishment was formed at Ringway airfield near Manchester; although tasked primarily with training parachute troops, it was also directed to investigate the possibilities of using gliders to transport troops into battle. It had been decided that the Royal Air Force and the Army would cooperate in forming the airborne establishment, and as such Squadron Leader Louis Strange and Major J.F. Rock were tasked with gathering together potential glider pilots and forming a glider unit; this was achieved by searching for members of the armed forces who had pre-war experience of flying gliders, or were interested in learning to do so.
The two officers and their newly formed unit were provided with four obsolescent Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers and a small number of Tiger Moth and Avro 504 biplanes, for towing purposes. Around this time the War Office and Air Ministry began to draw up specifications for several types of military gliders to be used by the unit, which would eventually take the form of the General Aircraft Hotspur, General Aircraft Hamilcar, Airspeed Horsa and the Slingsby Hengist. These designs would take some time to be implemented and produced, however, and for the time being the fledgling unit was forced to improvise.
A Glider Training Squadron was formed, and the first test-flights were conducted using Swallow light aircraft which had their propellors removed to simulate the flight characteristics of a glider; they were towed by the Whitleys using tow-ropes of varying number and length for experimentation purposes. Appeals were made throughout the United Kingdom for civilian gliders to be donated to the squadron, and the first four arrived in August; three of them had been manufactured in pre-war Germany. Soon several more were donated, and these were put to use training instructors, glider pilots and newly formed ground crews. Accidents were quite frequent in these early months, primarily due to the hemp tow-ropes breaking during flight; these problems were only solved with the introduction of nylon tow-ropes imported from the USA. The first demonstration of the squadron's abilities took place on 26 September, when Prince George, Duke of Kent witnessed a demonstration of the fledgling airborne establishment's capabilities: four parachute-drops were conducted, and then two gliders were towed by civilian aircraft. This was followed on 26 October by a night exercise being conducted by the squadron, with two Avro 504s towing four gliders, and on 13 December five gliders were towed to Tatton Park, where they landed alongside sixteen parachutists dropped from two Whitley bombers.
There was a certain carefree atmosphere in the squadron in the first few months of its existence; new recruits were not obliged to pass a medical test to join the squadron, and it attracted a number of adventurous-minded men with a passion for flying, including a sergeant who had flown a Messerschmitt during the Spanish Civil War. These first pilots had been volunteers recruited from all branches of the armed forces, primarily the Army, but as the squadron began to conduct training exercises, arguments broke out between the RAF and the Army over the pilots. In the view of the RAF, gliders were aircraft and therefore came under their jurisdiction and should be controlled by them; the Army argued that as the glider pilots would subsequently be fighting alongside the troops they were transporting after they had landed, they should come under Army control.
After much debate, a compromise was brokered between the two services: the pilots would be recruited from the Army but would be trained by the RAF.
Volunteers were sought from the Army and had to be passed by RAF selection procedures before entering training. Once qualified as light aircraft pilots after a 12-week course, they were given further training on gliders: another 12-week course to qualify on the General Aircraft Hotspur. After a while they would then go to a Heavy Glider Conversion Unit for a six-week course so they were qualified for the Airspeed Horsa.