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.
About 2100 I got my first glimpse of France to our right. Huge clouds of smoke were billowing from burning villages near the shore. Everything seemed to be going smoothly and according to plan. At 2100 we were heading in toward the northeast beaches of the Cotentin Peninsula. Below us were hundreds of naval craft of all sizes, shapes, and descriptions.
Shortly before 2130 we crossed Utah Beach and could see our proposed landing zones. The formation began descending. I was at the controls while Bill oriented himself and sought a field fit for landing. Suddenly I became aware of small flashes of fire coming from the area where we had been briefed to land. Germans were still there! We promptly decided to hang on and look for safer refuge, but some of our gliders were landing directly into that enemy fire.
Bill signaled that he would take the controls. I relinquished them and seized the intercom.
“Glider to towship, glider to towship, come in towship,” I called.
“Towship to glider,” a metallic voice responded in my earphones. “Looks like this is it, fellas. Good luck.”
“We’re cutting loose,” I said. “We’ll see you later—I hope!”
Bill gave the high sign, and I pushed the big red knob of the release lever. We were coasting free through that misty, smoke-filled, shell-ridden air. The towship was hightailing into the distance. And below us—?
The fields were not so large as we had expected, and the trees were anywhere from forty to a hundred feet tall and seemed at least three hundred to us. Bill approached a rectangular field on the north side of a country road. The air was filled with descending gliders, every one seemingly intent upon getting into that field ahead of us. A glider cut in our left; Bill had to swerve right and do the best he could to get into the rear pasture of a farmhouse. It was less than a hundred yards long, surrounded by trees, graced with a stone barn, covered with stumps and chuckholes, and traversed by a power line upheld by sturdy posts. We had arrived in the bocage of Normandy.
We hit a tree with our left wing. There was a terrible rending, crashing sound. The glider careened to the right. The ground crash shock was taken by our right wing and landing gear. The nose wheel came up through the fuselage, the skid crumpled, and the floor buckled. A good-sized tree passed by my side of the nose with inches to spare.
The nose of our glider was the only portion not completely demolished. Bill and I looked at each other in stupefaction. When we mustered enough courage to look back and see how our airborne charges had fared, we found one man had fractured his arm, but the rest were not seriously hurt. We had been fortunate. During our landing approach I had fleetingly observed a big Horsa somersaulting over some high trees before crashing sickeningly on its Plexiglas nose.
The enemy was lobbing mortar shells into our area. We found the main road extending north through Ste.-MèreEglise to Cherbourg, moved up it, and soon met some other glider pilots who had landed nearby, including several from our own squadron. We were mighty glad to see them.
An airborne captain arrived in a jeep and informed us that we were needed to stand security on a number of Sherman tanks just arrived. The tank jockeys had been hard at it since 0300 that morning. I was dead tired, but not so much so as to not note the fireworks going on all about us.
In the morning about forty of us glider pilots were formed into a combat patrol and to our dismay learned that our mission was to knock out a German fieldpiece, a dreaded eighty-eight, which had been raising the devil with our tanks along the road to Ste.-MèreEglise. But two Sherman tanks fired on it, and by the time we worked our way along the hedgerows up to the emplacement, the gun was deserted.
In the field in front of it were three gliders, one completely burned, the second a mess of kindling wood. The third had apparently made a perfect landing, but directly into the face of enemy machine-gun fire. The two pilots sat stiff and cold in their seats.
We went back along the main road to a spot near where we had maintained our watch the previous night. For the first time I saw German prisoners being brought in. They were a tired, bloody, beaten-looking group of men. As they passed, one of them smiled wearily at me, as much as to say, “Well, I guess we’ve had it.”
In a field nearby lay a great number of dead covered with parachutes and shelter halves. Some of them had already been buried in rude, temporary graves marked by sticks with dog tags attached. I hurried away from the dismal place.
At about 2000 that evening of June 7 orders came through for us to be evacuated. Dog-tired, we finally reached Utah Beach about 2330, and about 0830, June 9, we landed at Portland Bill on the south coast of England. It was a long ride to Greenham Common in an open truck, and rain poured down for about half the distance. At long last, around 1630, we arrived at that blessed base. Next to home I know of no spot on earth that ever looked so wonderful. Everyone at the base was overjoyed to see us. The greater part of us had been given up for dead in the pessimistic reports given by the power pilots who had towed us into that inferno.
An immediate count of our squadron casualties revealed only one glider pilot definitely known dead, Flight Officer John Mills, whose Horsa I had seen cartwheeling. Five of our men had sustained serious injuries—two would never fly again—and four were missing. Later we learned two of the missing were dead.
We were a sadder and wiser group of young men. Our enthusiasm for action had cooled, and henceforth we would look with apprehension on any proposed glider combat mission.
But the heat of that ordeal had forged a strong bond of kinship that would exist forever among those glider pilots who had participated. The significance of the episode seems to grow greater as it slips farther into the recesses of our memories.