At 1900 on Thursday 18 April 2013 I was invited to The Flying Shack, Bamfurlong Lane, Staverton for the launch of The Jet Age Museum’s Operation Build a Horsa Glider Cockpit. Smartly printed leaflets distributed to guests began:
“Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Europe in 1944/45 by airborne forces in assault gliders, members of the Jet Age Museum will reconstruct a cockpit of the famous, all timber, Horsa glider.
Using original drawings and construction techniques, last used in 1944, the project will take nine months, with the finished cockpit being exhibited in the new Jet Age Museum at Meteor Business Park, Staverton, in 2014.”
Among the visual aids used to help convey this message was a full sized model of a Second World War glider pilot complete with red beret, leather helmet and revolver, flanked by pop-up graphics featuring Horsa plans, maps of locations relevant to them in Gloucestershire and photographs of both the real aircraft under construction and in action and a colour photograph that I had taken of a 1/72 scale model I had made of British operated Airspeed Horsa Mark I RZ108.
It was a proud moment for me, not least as I really liked the picture, which looked as though it was a still from the film “A Bridge Too Far” rather than taken on my work bench. However, it was only through a chance series of events that I came to build this model at all!
Earlier in 2013, aware that Trevor Davies and other Jet Age members were keen to add a replica Horsa cockpit to an already established collection of Airborne Forces memorabilia, I mentioned to him that Cheltenham Model Centre had one remaining 1/72 scale kit of an Airspeed Horsa – something of a rarity at the best of times – which could make a useful fundraising tool. I was then personally able to sell Trevor the kit when he visited the shop along with all the relevant paint, glue and even a craft knife as he had not done any modelling for some years.
A few days later the phone rang at home. It was Trevor who, having taken one look at the first section of the instruction leaflet, decided that it was too tricky for him, was now asking if I could assemble the model instead. Never one to pass up a modelling challenge, I agreed.
From having first become aware of its existence on card 30 of the 1973 Brooke Bond series “History of Aviation”, I often wondered why a model of the 88′ wingspan 25 seat Airspeed Horsa had not been marketed alongside the impressive Airfix range of World War II soldiers and fighting vehicles. Further research into what was sold as Airfix kit A05036 however revealed that it had originally been produced by the more obscure American firm Testors and the moulds subsequently passed to Revell and then Italeri.
Like plastic kits of helicopters and seaplanes too, assault gliders would also have been viewed by many prospective purchasers – mainly children back in the 1970s – as highly specialised and lacking the supposed glamour of attack and fighter aircraft. Given that perception it is little surprise that the Airfix box artwork alluded to possibly the Horsa’s most famous and daring operation, the capture of the Benouville and Ranville bridges on the Caen Canal and River Orne during the early minutes of D-Day, 6 June 1944.
Vital to the success of D-Day was the securing of the areas to the east and west of the five invasion beaches, and while the Americans parachuted into the eastern Cotentin Peninsula six Horsas carrying Royal Engineers and members of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry landed close to the strategic bridges to the west, navigating only by compass and stopwatch.
The box also mentioned that both Marks I and II of the Airspeed Model AS51 Horsa – first flown in 1941 – could be completed from the kit and the instruction sheet began with work needed to differentiate the two. The easier option – avoiding shortening the forward fuselage halves and one floor section – would have been to make the Mark II, which featured a hinging cockpit as well as the common removable tail section for the easy insertion of jeeps, small artillery pieces and other large equipment including sections of Bailey Bridge. Indeed, although it required the addition of the starboard side cockpit hinges, the Mark II also avoided assembling the complex three-section forward port cargo door of the Mark I.
However, having studied the three finish options, Trevor had expressed a preference for British operated Mark I RZ108 with its D-Day invasion stripes rather than the American equivalent RF141 or the Mark II RJ245 in Royal Air Force training markings with a yellow and black striped underside to the fuselage and wings.
Similarly, when asked, Trevor opted for a completely assembled aircraft static with doors closed and undercarriage in place rather than a model representing a set of prefabricated parts gathered together before assembly (as would have taken place at RAF Aston Down and Little Rissington in Gloucestershire) loading prior to takeoff, being towed (with cables hooking on the main landing gear strut legs on the Mark I or to the leg of the twin nose wheels fitted to the Mark II) or with the tail having been jettisoned after a skid landing in combat. However, the nature of the kit would have lent itself to any of these potential dioramas – albeit with the depiction of a real life “kit of parts” being the most challenging.
The rear fuselage was a separate unit, the skid an option and the flap-down Mark I cargo door – designed for use by nothing heavier than a motorcycle – comprised no less than eight well moulded parts. A diorama with the cargo door open – or cockpit hinged – would also have yielded the sight of the well detailed interior offered by the kit, the recommended Humbrol 78 Cockpit Green contrasting with the Dark Earth and Dark Green and Matt Black of the outside. Similarly, this would have been a chance to scratchbuild some ramps like the ones depicted below and add suitable small vehicles such as Jeeps and trailers, the longitudinal forward fuselage seats tipping up to allow the ingress of such loads which had to be positioned correctly to allow optimum weight distribution for good flying characteristics.
In fact what Trevor really wanted was a pretty basic outline of the aircraft – although working against this in modelling terms was the combination of nose wheel undercarriage – still rare on a British aircraft of the 1940s – and highly detailed Perspex “greenhouse” cockpit. This only left a small area under the cockpit floor – and for that matter under the front fuselage floor – into which I could stuff pieces of lead which, despite my best efforts, were not enough to stop the Horsa sitting on its large and robust tail. The fairly flimsy front landing leg was thus not going to be held in place by weight bearing down on it but could still be glued to a base – hence the transition to a diorama after all!
Fortunately I had a suitably sized square of MDF left over from another project which I was able to coat in black chalkboard paint and then partially cover in a model railway type grass-effect roll to create the impression of an airfield with a tarmac runway or perimeter track. The “tarmac” was then weathered with talcum powder and some vehicles and figures added, giving an even greater sense of scale without overcrowding the Horsa itself.
This arrangement – much more practical and impressive to transport and present than just a 1/72 scale aircraft on its own – also allowed me to make use of the pilot and combat soldier figures included in the kit, other Army personnel coming from the Peco Modelscene range and the Bedford MWD and AEC Matador lorries being purchased as set 76SP065 from Oxford Die Cast.
I pointed this out to Trevor when he collected the completed item and even suggested that he might like to approach Haden Browne Plastics in Gloucester to build a Perspex box to protect his new Horsa from dust and prodding fingers. As can be seen above, the diorama – which itself was displayed at the Flying Shack Launch – was given a very smart yet practical covering by the renowned Barton Street firm with both side members and one-piece top, front and bottom section firmly screwed to the MDF base. Better than that, when Trevor explained what the model was for – including possible future Museum display once the cockpit section had been completed – Haden Browne offered to help sponsor the project. Well done that company! Once display option issues had been resolved and the complicated forward fuselage and cockpit interiors completed, finishing the model was relatively easy with a only few under-wing structures waiting until after painting and decal application to be attached.
Similarly, the overall matt black of the wings and fuselage were forgiving of any mistakes in applying the two tone camouflage although adding the white invasion stripes to areas deliberately left black required patience, firm fingers and a great deal of Tamiya modelling masking tape. I had been expecting decals for those! I was also pleased that Ken Plowman – a Horsa pilot from 1944 to 1945 – liked the finish of my model which, he said, captured its almost-disposable fabric and wood construction.
Although a welcome addition to the worlds of both aero and military plastic modelling, the Airfix- badged Horsa was by no means the first representation ever produced of this flying machine, as witnessed by the matching brass Douglas C-47 Dakota and Horsa pictured above next to my diorama on Launch Night. Similarly, the Horsa itself was not the first or last combat glider – or indeed the first or last glider of any description.
Although Icarus and Daedalus in Greek mythology and William of Malmesbury, the mediaeval “flying monk” could have been described as glider pilots, more practical pioneers of fixed wing engineless flight included Sir George Cayley, Otto Lilienthal, Percy Pilcher and the Wright Brothers. Even after Orville and Wilbur Wright had progressed to engines though, many pilots of the Twentieth Century began their careers on gliders launched off hillsides, hauled into the air on cables or towed up by aircraft. One such sports glider was the Camm Primary – modelled here from scratch in 1/24 scale and displayed at the IPMS Gloucester Branch show of 2012. Designed by F.J. Camm, details of this basic, minimalist – yet full sized – machine first appeared in his “Model Aircraft Book” of 1936. Intended for home construction, Camm claimed the Primary was almost as good as many of the more advanced sailplanes of the era. Frederick James Camm (1895 – 1959) was the younger brother of Sydney Camm – famous for his Hurricane, Typhoon, Hunter and Harrier aircraft designs for Hawker – and was himself most famous as a technical author, founding the “Practical” series of magazines for Sir George Newnes, who also published the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Although aerotowing had first been achieved in Germany in the 1920s, using the technique over long distances rather than just to get a glider airborne was first devised by British author Barbara Cartland. Made a Dame of the British Empire before her death in 2000, Barbara Cartland – who had strong links with Tewkesbury Borough – received the 1984 Bishop Wright Air Industry Award for this idea, which was first used to deliver mail without the towing mail aeroplane having to land and take off from secondary airfields.
It had an analogy in the Great Western Railway practice of the time where a “slip coach” was detached from the rear of an express train at speed and then piloted into the next station by a Slip Guard – essentially a driver controlling the carriage with just a vacuum brake which could not be re-evacuated if over-used too quickly. This took both skill and local knowledge if the slip coach was not to be stranded and block the line for trains behind it – but did avoid express trains – slow to accelerate in the days of steam – from having to stop and then start again to set down passengers.
The proving flight for this technique was from London to Blackpool on Tuesday 7 July 1931 with Geoffrey Tyson at the controls of the de Havilland Cirrus Moth towing a BAC 7 two seat glider. The ensemble made a planned stop at Birmingham to refuel but then landed at Squires Gate rather than Stanley Park, which was then Blackpool’s main airport. Once again though, the Cirrus Moth and BAC 7 took to the skies and reached what is now the site of Blackpool Zoo.
By 1934 the USSR had ten gliding schools and 57 000 glider pilots had gained licences – while as far back as 1932 it had demonstrated the TsK Komsula, a four seat glider, designed by G.F. Groschev that could also be used for cargo. Larger gliders were then developed culminating in an 18-seater at the military institute in Leningrad in 1935.
However, these early advances were not consolidated and the two military glider designs mass produced during the Great Patriotic War – the Antonov A-7 and Gribovski G-11, pictured in model form from the Jet Age Reserve above – were relatively light. Vladimir Gribovski designed his 11 man glider in two months and testing began on 1 September 1941. It was later used to supply anti-freeze to Soviet tanks during the Battle of Stalingrad, for supplying partisans and in the crossing of the River Dneiper on 21 September 1943.
Although, like all assault gliders, the G-11 was silent and could place troops and equipment on a small designated landing zone – rather than them being spread out in a parachute drop – its role was eventually supplanted by short take off turboprop aeroplanes and gas turbine helicopters, which could offer both vertical landing and take off – in the case of casualty extraction – and a much greater chance of re-use. Similarly, the greater power to weight ratio of modern transport aircraft gas turbines mean that even vehicles such as light tanks can now be flown over a battlefield and dropped by parachute.
Despite this, Soviet glider design and building blossomed again during 1944 to 1948 with a 35 seat Yakovlev Yak-14 becoming the first glider to fly over the North Pole in 1950 and three glider regiments being maintained until 1965.
Germany in the 1930s also had both a strong gliding culture and a military co-operation programme with the USSR as a way of circumventing restrictions on powered military aircraft imposed by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. As such, Luftwaffe Colonel Kurt Student was able to report back to his superiors the large transport gliders that he had seen flying in conjunction with a 1 500 man parachute drop near Moscow.
The Luftwaffe opened a parachute school as a result in 1937 and further field testing convinced Student that a vehicle was needed to deliver the heavy weapons for the lightly armed parachute troops. Hans Jacob of the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt fur Segelflug (German Research Institute for Sailplane Flight) was tasked with developing a glider to carry 10 fully equipped troops or 1 200 Kg of equipment into battle and the DFS 230 (pictured above) first flew in 1937.
Germany became the first nation to use gliders in warfare on 10 May 1940 when forty one DFS 230s towed into the air by Junkers Ju 52s facilitated the capture of bridges over the Albert Canal at Veldwezelt, Vroenhoven and Kanne as well as landing on the grassed roof of Eben Emael fortress and neutralising its threat to advancing ground forces in twenty minutes. The success of this attack from the skies was publicised all round the World by Nazi propaganda and led to Britain, Japan and the USA all rapidly re-assessing the role of gliders.
On 26 April 1941 troops from six DFS 230 gliders captured the bridge over the strategically important Corinth Canal in Greece accompanied by 40 plane-loads of German paratroopers and although the bridge was demolished by the British a few hours later Kurt Student – by now a General – convinced Hitler that Crete could be captured using only airborne troops. Consequently on 20 May 1941 500 German transport aircraft carrying paratroopers and 74 DFS 230 gliders took off from the Greek mainland. During the capture of the island 5 140 German airborne troops were either killed or wounded out of the 13 000 sent and 350 German planes destroyed, half of which had been Ju52s. This seriously depleted the force needed for the nearly-successful invasion of the Soviet Union that July and as a result Hitler vowed never to use his airborne force in such large numbers again.
However, German gliders were later used for emergency re-supply operations in Russia, North Africa and Eastern Europe towards the end of the war and nine DFS 230 were used by the troops who rescued Benito Mussolini from the Campo Imperatore Hotel on 12 September 1943, the deposed Italian dictator being flown out of the Appenine mountains in a Fieseler Storch STOL aircraft. It is believed that some Special Forces still use gliders for silent small-scale insertions today.
Larger German gliders such as the 23 troop (or one Kubelwagen) Gotha 242 and 130 man Messerschmitt 321 were developed first for Operation Sea Lion and then for Operation Barbarossa with powered versions of the latter being used to supply the Afrika Korps in Tunisia. Being able to land anti tank and anti aircraft guns – or even small tanks themselves – would greatly strengthen lightly armed airborne forces but the engine power to do this would have to wait for the post War development of gas turbines.
On 24 February 1941 United States Army Air Force Classified Technical Instruction 198 was issued under the instruction of Major General Henry “Hap” Arnold – later associated with Sir Frank Whittle’s jet engine being evaluated in America – to initiate the study and development of two, eight and fifteen sear gliders and their associated equipment. Of the four firms that agreed to participate in the study, only the Waco Aircraft Company was able to deliver the experimental glider prototypes that satisfied the requirements of Materiel Command, the eight-seat Waco CG-3 (modified to become a production nine-seat glider) and the fifteen-seat Waco CG-4 – later known in Britain as the Hadrian and pictured above in model form from the Jet Age Reserve Collection.
The 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the USA to set the number of glider pilots needed at 1 000 to fly 500 eight-seat gliders and 500 fifteen-seat gliders. The number of pilots required was increased to 6 000 by June 1942 and the Hadrian was first used in the 1943 invasion of Sicily
Built from a fabric covered metal and wood frame and piloted by a crew of two, the CG-4A Hadrian could carry 13 combat equipped troops or a Jeep and artillery piece and also later participated in Operation Overlord, the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Market Garden and Operation Varsity as well as in the Far East. Built by the Ford Motor Company and Cessna Aircraft Company as well as furniture, piano and coffin makers across America, the Hadrian last went to war at Luzon in The Philippines on 23 June 1945 but combat glider operations were only deleted from the US Army’s capabilities on 1 January 1953.
Following the German glider assault on Eben Emael in 1940, British glider development was to yield the tail-sitting eight seat Hotspur (used as a tandem trainer) and seven ton capacity Hamilcar from General Aircraft Limited although its most prolific achievement was the fabric covered wooden 25 seat Airspeed AS51 Horsa.
This had been designed and built in prototype at Salisbury Hall near St Albans by Airspeed Limited (by then a subsidiary of de Havilland) to Air Ministry Specification X26/40 in only ten months with DG597 being first flown on 12 September 1941 behind a Whitley from Fairey’s Great West Aerodrome, now Heathrow Airport.
The Horsa was considered sturdy and very manoeuvrable for a glider, based on a high-wing cantilever monoplane with wooden wings and a wooden semi-monocoque fuselage. The wing also carried large two piece split “barn door” flaps which, when lowered, made a steep, high rate-of-descent landing possible — allowing the pilots to land in constricted spaces – and at the same time minimising exposure to anti-aircraft fire. This manoeuvre is still used by tactical transport aircraft today and after the Vietnam War became known as the Khe Sanh Drop. Both flaps and wheel brakes on the Horsa were powered by compressed air bottled at 200 psi, allowing a direct descent to a runway beneath from an altitude of 2 000′.
A. Hessell Tiltman – who also designed the Airspeed Envoy and Oxford – said that the Horsa “went from the drawing board to the air in ten months, which was not too bad considering the drawings had to be made suitable for the furniture trade who were responsible for all production.”
The initial 695 production gliders were manufactured at Airspeed’s factory in Christchurch, Hampshire with subcontractors including Boulton Paul of Norwich, Austin Motors at Longbridge, Morris Motors at Cowley and furniture manufacturers Harris Lebus producing the remainder. As the subcontractors did not have airfields to deliver the gliders from they sent the sub-assemblies to RAF Maintenance Units for final assembly. More than 3 500 examples were eventually constructed.
In Gloucestershire, Horsa cockpits were built by H.H. Martyn of Sunningend, Cheltenham – ancestor of the Gloster Aircraft Company and renowned for the high quality of their woodwork – while Horsa assembly centres included RAF Aston Down in (a training airﬁeld from 1938 to 1945) and Little Rissington, where the gliders were also ﬂight-tested and stored in preparation for the invasion of Europe.
Invasion glider training was carried out at RAF Stoke Orchard, now occupied in part by Cory Environmental Resource Managementʼs Wingmoor site, which was mainly used for glider training and development between 1941 and 1945. No 3 Glider Training School was formed there in August 1942 and training was carried out on Hotspur gliders. RAF Northleach acted as Reserve Landing Ground in support of No. 3 GTS at Stoke Orchard from November 1942.
Although its first use in Operation Freshman in Norway in 1942 was not a success, the Horsa took part in much larger numbers in the invasion of Sicily in 1943 (Operation Husky) and Operations Overlord, Market Garden and Varsity as well as in the Far East against the Japanese. Out of the 2 596 gliders dispatched for Operation Market-Garden, 2 239 were effective in delivering men and equipment to their designated landing zones while 400 Horsas helped the Allies cross the Rhine in 1945.
Both RAF Down Ampney and RAF Fairford were embarkation airﬁelds for the invasion of Europe. Down Ampney was used for Dakota and Horsa glider training and saw Horsas towed by Douglas Dakotas to Normandy and the D-Day landings. On 17 September 1944, 49 Dakotas with their Horsa gliders took part in Operation Market Garden, intended to secure the bridge at Arnhem.
In fact the Glider Pilots could be considered the renaissance men of the Second World War, having been trained by the Royal Air Force to fly both powered aircraft and gliders and also being skilled as infantry and artillery troops, having a fair knowledge of foreign weapons and even being able to take on enemy tanks with six pounder guns.
The Italian campaign even saw them invading the port of Taranto by sea, and although one plan to create an air-dropped bridgehead behind the Germans retreating to the River Po was cancelled when “recce” Mosquitos discovered a flak regiment camouflaged near the landing zone, northern Italy later became the springboard for glider operations into southern France, Greece and Yugoslavia.
The Glider Pilot Regiment had been formed from volunteers from various Army regiments who had initially been selected to be trained as RAF aircrew. However, when this scheme was cancelled, the prospective flyers – who had passed medical and written examinations as well as appearing before an Aircrew Selection Board – were invited to join the First Airborne Division under the command of General “Boy” Browning. Powered training took place using de Havilland Tiger Moth and Miles Magister aircraft before the students moved to to tandem-cockpit Hotspur Mark II gliders towed aloft by Hawker Hector and Hind biplanes. After thus gaining their glider wing badges, conversion to Horsas involved the use of twin engined Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys and Albemarles as tugs.
A necessary but less glamorous part of Glider Pilot training was ditching drill, carried out in full flying gear including boots in the deep end of a swimming pool and involving righting and then scrambling on board an RAF type inflatable dinghy.
Unlike the fighter pilots, the soldier airmen did not have to jump in off the top diving board, but many of them faced the very real possibility of ditching in the Bay of Biscay while gliders were being ferried out from Portreath in Cornwall to Sale in French Morocco for the Operation Husky landings in 1943. Apart from the Bay’s notorious bad weather, the Handley Page Halifax tug aircraft of 295 Squadron and their gliders made easy targets for the Luftwaffe’s Focke-Wulf Condor and Junkers 88 aircraft – based in France to stop the RAF harassing Kriegsmarine U-boats. In the event of an attack after their Bristol Beaufighter escort had turned back for the Scilly Isles, the Horsa pilots were under orders to cast off and ditch, allowing the rear gunner of the Halifax to engage the attackers while the wireless operator aboard the four engined aircraft sent a distress call to naval units in the area. Once on the water, the Horsa crew were able to leave the glider through a hatch in the roof just forward of the rear radio mast.
However, in 1975 the Mosquito Aircraft Museum at Salisbury Hall managed to acquire a Mark I forward fuselage that had been used as a garage since being purchased from RAF Brize Norton in 1948 by a Mr Les Pettifer – who insisted that for the price of £ 2.00 the RAF also included a cockpit. On preservation this was found to carry the H.H. Martyn’s number HHM317, indicating that the worksplate had been attached some time after August 1943. However, this was a cockpit for a Horsa II – named the AS58 by Airspeed – which was attached to the incompatible Mark I forward fuselage by nails! Both fuselage and cockpit sections were fully restored in 1980.
On 5 June 2004, as part of the 60th anniversary commemoration of D-Day, HRH Prince Charles unveiled a replica Horsa on the site of the first landing at Pegasus Bridge, and talked with Jim Wallwork, the first pilot to land the aircraft on French soil during D-Day. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for what Air Chief Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory called “one of the most outstanding flying achievements of the war”, Jim Wallwork – who died in January 2013 – had already piloted gliders in Operation Husky and would go on to do the same at Arnhem and at the Rhine Crossing – a possibly unique achievement.
Ten replica Horsas were built for the Richard Attenborough film “A Bridge Too Far” in 1977 and although one was modified for a brief “hop” towed behind a Dakota at Deelen in The Netherlands most of them were static and eventually destroyed in battle sequences. However, even these replicas proved to be tail heavy and were held up by supports which the film makers had to carefully keep out of shot whilst filming. They should have superglued the nosewheels down!