Staff-Sergeant Harry Howard

 

Unit : No.15 Platoon, "F" Squadron, No.2 Wing, The Glider Pilot Regiment

 

At the time of D-Day I was a S/Sgt Pilot in F Squadron of the Glider Pilot Regiment, based at Broadwell RAF Station near Burford in Oxfordshire, having returned from glider operations in the Mediterranean earlier that year... Below is my account of what happened to me on the evening of D-Day, and to the 26 members of {Lieutenant} Paddy Devlin's {No.1} platoon {"C" Company, 1st Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles} who were on board my Horsa glider, which was towed by a Dakota, or, as you will read, two Dakota tugs.

 

I was a Staff Sgt first pilot in 15 Flight, F Squadron of the Glider Pilot Regiment, and my second pilot was Sgt. Holman with whom I had only flown for twenty minutes prior to Operation Mallard, which was a landing on the evening of D-Day to reinforce the earlier airborne operations which took place in the very early hours of 6th June. Sixth Airborne Division were untried in battle, but, like everyone else who had trained and trained again for the invasion, we were raring to go. I recall the briefing, the maps and photographs of the approach along the River Orne and Caen Canal to the landing zone near Ranville, and the gaiety of the Royal Ulster Riflemen who filed aboard my glider.

 

Soon came take-off; I had gained sufficient speed on tow behind my Dakota tug to lift the glider off the runway to a position just above the tug's slip-stream; we were over half-way down the airfield when to my horror, because the tug was still on the deck, its undercarriage started to rise and the aircraft bellied on to the runway with sparks flying everywhere. I realised immediately that it could not become airborne and my speed was carrying me over and past the tug. There was still some runway ahead of me, so I released the tow rope, applied full flaps and touched down beyond the tug which I saw as I passed over it, had fortunately slewed to starboard on to the grass verge. This meant the runway was still clear for further combinations to take off, provided of course that I did not block it with my aircraft. Although the Horsa was equipped with a skid which was designed for landing in a shorter distance than would be possible with the undercarriage, we had long learned to keep the wheels intact and not jettison them after take-off. They were fitted with hydraulic brakes which meant that upon touching down the glider could be steered left or right for a distance if there was an obstruction straight ahead. The skid method gave no such choice and the braking system was almost as effective in distance travelled before stopping. I dared not apply brakes and rudder too quickly in case we ground looped and came to grief. The perimeter fence was looming up very quickly but fortunately I turned left off the runway and came to rest near the perimeter track. You can imagine the Irish comment which came back to me from the strapped-in platoon in the main fuselage. I think we all felt both relief and disappointment, but no sooner had my co-pilot and I taken full stock of the situation than we heard the roar of one of the station tractors and before we could fully realise it, we were hitched up, taken back to the start line about two miles round the perimeter track and coupled to one of the reserve tugs.

 

Meantime the full stream from Broadwell had taken off, but by cutting the corners while the whole air armada of some 250 gliders with their tugs, was forming up over southern England, I found myself back. Impressions of the immense amount of shipping; the spot-on approach to the Landing Zone by my new tug crew; their message of good luck over the tow-rope inter-com before I cast off for the landing; the concentration involved in watching airspeed, avoiding other gliders on the final circuit, and choosing the most open landing space amongst the haphazard array of gliders and obstacle posts on the ground; and the hope that the German ack-ack fire together with their mortar barrage on the ground would miss us - these impressions were certainly noted, but somehow seemed of little consequence compared with the excitement - for me at least - of the original take-off. We pilots were not expendable, unlike our gliders, and after digging in for the night (it was now 9pm) in a wood bordering the LZ and standing to on D + 1 for the counter attack which never came in my sector, we were relieved by Lord Lovat's Commando amongst other seaborne troops, and apart from being sniped at by a lone German in a church tower we eventually found our way back to the coast at Ouistreham where we were taken aboard a landing craft and returned safely to England for debriefing and preparation for a further flight of reserves if the invasion had gone sadly wrong. I was proud to have been in the vanguard on D-Day, and perhaps I was lucky that, because of the superb training and organisation for that fateful day, matters went so well for me, that my 24 hours of action could well have been one of the several practice operations which preceded D-Day, and which, when one remembers the chaos of some of those, were probably just as dangerous as the real thing.

 

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