The British 6th Airborne Division

Foreseeing the need for at least 5000 parachute troops, a British Airborne force was ordered by Winston Churchill in June 1940. Training of the new Airborne Divisions was handed over to the Royal Airforce who quickly trained the first 500 men. This new force would ultimately become the British Parachute Regiments or 'Paras' of today. Although it was possible to drop men and light equipment by parachute there were limits to the quantities of supplies and equipment that could be landed in this way.

In the same year instructions were issued for a military glider to be designed capable of carrying between 24 and 36 fully armed troops. The structure was to be in sections that could be rapidly produced by the furniture industry, a workforce not heavily committed to the war effort. These cheap, easy to assemble, gliders made of wood would be towed to the target then cast off to make an unpowered landing. The 'Horsa' built by Airspeed (above) was about 20 metres long and could carry troops, jeeps and even anti-tank guns. The bulkier 'Hamilcar' glider could carry two jeeps complete with trailers or two Bren-gun carriers. The use of gliders to fly in men, weapons, artillery and jeeps proved invaluable on June 6th 1944 (D-Day) as part of Operation Overlord.
 

Just after midnight the British 6th Airborne Division landed east of the River Orne, 4 miles North-West of Caen in Normandy at the same time as the US 82nd & 101st Airborne Divisions were landing in the Crotentin peninsula. Their task was to seize key bridges and routes in preparation for the seaborne assault on the beaches at dawn. The photo shows men of the 6th later on the same day in front of a damaged Horsa glider used in the landing.

Despite the overall success of the Normandy landings the logistics of Glider-borne assaults were considerable. In September of the same year Operation Market Garden (Arnhem) theoretically required 2495 planes to carry parachutists and a further 1295 to tow gliders. In reality only 1545 planes were available so the troops and equipment had to be landed in three waves, a factor which undoubtedly contributed to the tragedy that followed.

Having learnt much from the Normandy and Arnhem landings, gliders were once again put to use in Operation Varsity which formed part of the Rhine Crossing operation code named 'Veritable'. On the 24th March, 242 Dakota bombers and 440 towed gliders left England at dawn to drop the British 6th Airborne Division around Hamminkein just North of the Rhine. At the same time a similar fleet of aircraft landed the 17th US Airborne Division. The above photo shows men of the 6th unloading an anti-aircraft gun from a Horsa glider as part of the operation. Jeeps landed this way could only move forward at the same speed as the paratroops advancing on foot but they were able to carry support weapons, ammunition, equipment and other supplies.

In practice, a series of modifications were made to the basic jeep to make it more suitable for use with the Airborne Division. Some of these were essential in order to make the jeep actually fit into the Horsa gliders.

The slower alternative to gliders is illustrated on the left. Here jeeps and trucks are seen lined up in Southampton docks waiting to be loaded for the channel crossing to Normandy by sea.

 

 

The glider arm of the British Airborne Division was ultimately disbanded after the war in 1946.

More information can be found by visiting: www.gliderpilotregiment.org.uk

The very nice example of a restored airborne jeep (opposite) was photographed at the Overlord Show at Denmead Hants in 1999.

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