- Historic Sites
May/June 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 3
I was excited. I looked at Flight Officer Bill Meisburger, my chosen partner in this coming operation and my fast friend. He was pale, but his eyes were bright. With some twenty-four other glider pilots and forty power pilots we were crowded into the bare, dank interior of a Nissen hut at Greenham Common, the big American troop carrier air base west of London, being briefed on our first airborne combat mission.
“Gentlemen,” Maj. Clement Richardson, our squadron commanding officer, began tremorously, reflecting the tension in the room, “I want you to know that the big show is about to begin, and we are beginning it with a bang.” He unveiled some large maps and charts on the wall. Our C-47s would transport paratroops into Normandy in the very first wave of assault on the night of D-day minus one. Our gliders would go in on Dday proper. We were only a small part of the gigantic Overlord operation, but to all appearances we were in the brunt of it.
Sleep did not come easily for me that night. I kept mulling over the events of the past few days: lectures on air-sea rescue, sessions on first aid, lectures on mines and booby traps, the erecting of barbed-wire barriers around that part of the hut area occupied by combat crews, and our restriction to this enclosed space.
Around 1900 on Monday, June 5, we were summoned to the squadron briefing room. This was it! We learned that planes loaded with paratroops would take off that evening at 2230. All glider pilots were to make final preparations for the following day.
Amid general hullabaloo the power pilots appeared in all their combat finery—shock helmets, flak suits, Mae West life preservers—and last-minute activities included the payment of gambling debts and the bidding of warm farewells. We all acted as if nobody would ever see anybody again.
At 2230 sharp the first C-47 began to ease down the runway piloted by Col. John Donaldson, commanding officer of the 438th Troop Carrier Group. One by one those eighty ships followed, laden with their precious cargoes of human destroyers. The long caravan of planes headed south and disappeared into the gloom.
About four in the morning several of these power pilots piled into our hut, brimming with excitement. We were overjoyed to see them. The flak had been light, no enemy aircraft had been encountered, all sticks of paratroopers had been discharged successfully, and not a plane or a man had been lost. Excitement and joy unbounded reigned throughout our camp that night.
Now it was our turn. Bill and I solemnly flipped a coin to determine who was to occupy the left seat in the pilots’ compartment of the glider. Bill won the toss. After eating an early supper at 1600, we were trucked to the flight line. Bill and I were assigned to glider number forty-nine in a fifty-ship formation. We doffed our packs and donned flak suits over our Mae Wests. At 1850 the first towship dragging its ponderous charge behind was rolling down the long runway.
Our squadron was flying the British Horsa glider, a bigger, heavier, more unwieldy craft than the familiar American CG-4a. Its sixty-eight-foot fuselage was round, with huge wings extending from each side about one-third of the length back from the Plexiglas nose. The wingspan was well over eighty-eight feet.
The Horsas were painted a dull, dead black, suitable for such flying coffins. The glider was designed to hold, besides the two pilots, thirty-one airborne infantrymen with all their equipment. Our particular ship was carrying fourteen 82d Airborne troops and a trailer loaded with communications equipment.
Our turn to take off came about 1910. The runway at Greenham Common was about a mile and a quarter in length, and we needed every inch. The gliders were lined up on each side of the wide strip of concrete in alternate order with their wings interlapping. Each towship would swing out immediately after the previous unit had started on its way, and as the powerful craft slowly eased down the runway, its two-inch, three-hundred-foot nylon towrope would slither and slide from its carefully coiled position like a huge serpent.
Bill and I watched in fascination as our rope slowly inched out, and after what seemed an eternity, it grew taut, lifted slightly from the runway, and we could feel the strain. We moved slowly at first, then faster and faster. The noise of the wind about our Plexiglasenclosed compartment rose to a shriek.
Reluctantly the ponderous glider left the ground. The air was warm and turbulent, and Bill had to wrestle with the controls as the towship, its tail oscillating from side to side, gradually left the ground and grazed the treetops at the end of that long runway. We were off!
The air was very turbulent, and Bill and I spelled each other at the controls in ten-minute intervals. I was wringing wet after my first stint.
About twenty minutes after takeoff, I loosened my safety belt and went back into the cargo compartment to see how our troops were faring. Three of them were seated on the right side in front of the trailer, the remaining eleven behind it. The men in front weren’t feeling very good; they had their helmets off and were putting them to functional use. They looked up briefly with dull, listless eyes.
After forming, we headed south and slightly east. The air became smooth over the water, and we began to enjoy the trip a little.