Lieutenant-Colonel George James Stewart Chatterton

 

Unit : Battalion Headquarters, 1st Battalion The Glider Pilot Regiment

Army No. : 91149

Awards : Officer of the British Empire, Distinguished Service Order.

 

George Chatterton was born in 1912. He attended Pangbourne Nautical College with the intention of becoming an officer in the Merchant Navy, but on leaving, in 1930, he entered the Royal Air Force instead, serving with No.1 Squadron, at Tangmere. Chatterton became an accomplished aerobatic pilot and took part in several flying displays, in Britain and abroad. A crash in 1935, however, resulted in his being medically discharged from the RAF as unfit to fly. In 1938, with a continental war looming, Chatterton entered the Army and was commissioned into The Queen's Royal Regiment. In 1939, attached to the 3rd Battalion The Grenadier Guards, he accompanied the British Expeditionary Force to France, but on his return to England, via the beaches of Dunkirk, he, like so many others who would enter the Airborne Forces in the first years, grew weary of tedious home defence postings and so volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment.

 

Shortly after his arrival, the Commanding Officer of the Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel John Rock RE, who had done so much to lay the foundations of the British Airborne movement, was tragically killed during a night flying accident. Chatterton replaced him as commander and soon made his presence felt. He decided that the Glider Pilot Regiment should produce men who were every bit as proficient in fighting on the ground as they were at flying in the air, and to this end he employed Drill Sergeants from the Brigade of Guards to oversee a thoroughly punishing training regime that would weed out all but the very best men. Chatterton's speech to the Regiment in 1942 rather summed up his approach: "We will forge this regiment as a weapon of attack... Not only will we be trained as pilots, but in all we do... I shall be quite ruthless... Only the best will be tolerated. If you do not like it, you can go back whence you came."

 

Despite this determination, Chatterton was, as were other branches of the Airborne Forces in these early days, severely handicapped by a lack of aircraft with which his men could train. When the 1st Battalion of the Regiment arrived in North Africa, this deficiency, amongst many others, became apparent when they began to prepare for the Invasion of Sicily.

 

In May 1943, Chatterton was invited by Major-General Hopkinson, the commander of the 1st Airborne Division, to study the proposed plan for Operation Ladbroke. He became increasingly appalled as Hopkinson talked him through it. Essentially, the 1st Airlanding Brigade were to be flown 250 miles across the Mediterranean and set down, at night, on a series sloping landing zones which were strewn with rocks, and bordered by stone walls and ditches which could easily foul any glider landing at speed. Yet this was as nothing to the fact that a glider-borne operation was being proposed when there were, at this time, no gliders at all in North Africa, and Chatterton's men not only lacked the necessary flying experience to cope with the difficult conditions that such an operation would impose, but they also had virtually no experience of night flying. Hopkinson's reply, that he would be supplied with American gliders, which none of his men had seen before nevermind flown, and that American aircrews, whose navigational expertise was somewhat doubtful, would tow them to Sicily, did nothing to decrease Chatterton's pessimism. He proceeded to outline his objections to Hopkinson, who, clearly displeased, left Chatterton alone for a few minutes to consider the operation further, adding that if he did not agree to it then he would have him removed from his post. Hopkinson had no direct authority to do this as the Glider Pilot Regiment was only attached to his Division, not a part of it, but he could certainly apply pressure elsewhere to have him removed. Chatterton could see little in Operation Ladbroke that gave him cause for optimism and he was angry at having been presented with such a ridiculous dilemma, yet he reluctantly consented to the plan, but only because he believed that it could only become much worse if he was removed from his post, and, as was most likely, he was replaced by someone of small experience.

 

Not content with having to borrow 500 Waco gliders and the 51st Troop Carrier Wing from the Americans, Chatterton also had to request a team of their glider pilots to assist his men in a crash course on handling the Waco glider. The British glider pilots made swift progress, but the exercises were not a great tactical success, particularly Chatterton's experiment to divide an anti-tank gun and its towing Jeep between two gliders, for a single Waco could not support the weight of both; typically, the two landed so far apart that both loads were rendered useless. In desperation, Chatterton appealed for British Horsa gliders to be flown in from Britain, 1,400 miles away. Despite initial scepticism in the War Office, for a glider tow over such a distance had never been attempted before, consent was eventually given to Operation Beggar, as it was known to the RAF, or Turkey Buzzard to the Glider Pilot Regiment. Despite the great dangers involved in towing the gliders to Africa, over sea and within comfortable range of interception by German fighters, the mission was a great success and eventually 27 Horsas reached Chatterton's men. Even so only 8 of these were allotted to the 1st Airlanding Brigade operation, the remainder being required by the remainder of the 1st Airborne Division's operations in Sicily.

 

In the final weeks before the operation was launched, Chatterton was flown at low altitude over Sicily in a Beaufighter, so that he could better observe the terrain on which his men were to land. Taking note of the rocky ground all around him, he returned to North Africa full of apprehension.

 

Probably the hardest decision he had to make was at what height he should order the American aircraft to release his gliders as they approached Sicily. The formation had to approach Sicily at very low altitudes, so that they would not be detected by Italian radar, but how high they should climb to release them was a difficult matter, made worse by the fact that the gliders were to be released two miles off-shore, and so if they were not high enough they would ditch in the sea before they made land. Chatterton was quite unable to make up his mind, and as D-Day neared, and winds over the Mediterranean began to strengthen, his dilemma became all the more impossible.

 

As he made his preparations to take-off in a Waco glider, Chalk No.2, on the 9th July 1943, Chatterton was approached by Wing Commander Peter May, of 38 Wing, who, without any attempt at disguise, admitted that he had always admired Chatterton's suede chukka boots, and that it would be a great pity if they went to an undeserving owner in the event of his death. Chatterton keenly agreed that he should ask his batman for them if he did not return from Sicily.

 

When Chatterton's glider approached the release point off Sicily, he, like the majority of his pilots, could not even see the coastline as he reached for the release lever to began his descent. At last, at a height of just 200 feet, he could see the shape of a cliff face ahead, seemingly coming towards him at a quite uncomfortable speed. Chatterton desperately climbed, against the glider's protests, to avoid it, but as he was doing so one of his wings was hit by flak and the glider fell into the sea, 100 yards from land. The cabin began to fill with water alarmingly quickly, but fortunately Chatterton and all of his passengers, including Brigadier Hicks and a portion of his Headquarters, managed to get out and reach the shore safely. Making their way inland, the party encountered an SAS patrol, whose orders were to locate and destroy any enemy strong-points in the cliffs around the 8th Army's landing area. The Airborne troops fell in with them, and by dawn they had attacked and silenced numerous positions, and taken some 150 Italians prisoner.

 

For his efforts to prepare the Glider Pilot Regiment for the invasion, Chatterton was awarded the Distinguished Service Order:

 

On the night 9/10th July Lieutenant Colonel Chatterton led the 1st Battalion Glider Pilot Regiment into action in a difficult operation involving a landing by moonlight in Sicily. The Regiment, organised and trained by this officer, performed a hazardous and difficult task with great distinction. He himself landed his glider under the most trying and exhausting circumstances without damage to the crew. By his personal disregard for his own safety at all times Lieutenant Colonel Chatterton set an example of courage and determination which, together with his outstanding leadership, enabled the 1st Battalion The Glider Pilot Regiment to carry out its first airborne operation with such distinction and gallantry.

 

Promoted to Colonel and given command of The Glider Pilot Regiment, Chatterton was quite determined that the disasters of Sicily should not be repeated, and, when working with Lieutenant-General Browning's 1st British Airborne Corps Headquarters in 1944, he did much to oversee the planning for the drops in support of the Invasion of Normandy. Although the parachute deployment went awry, the glider landings were a spectacular success with the overwhelming majority reaching their zones safely.

 

Yet there were still disasters to come, notably Operation Market Garden in September 1944. Most of the Glider Pilot Regiment was deployed in support of the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem, but Chatterton, with his Headquarters and a part of "A" Squadron, instead carried Corps Headquarters to Nijmegen, alongside the US 82nd Airborne Division; Chatterton personally flying Lieutenant-General Browning in. At Arnhem, the great weakness in the air plan was the fact that the drop and landing zones to be used were up to eight miles from the main Arnhem road bridge, the Divisional objective. Chatterton was one of several personalities who were adamant that a force of five or six gliders, as occurred in Normandy, should land next to the bridge to secure it immediately, but he felt that his was a lone voice and "I distinctly remembered being called a bloody murderer and assassin for suggesting it." The RAF did not wish to fly to close to Arnhem as it would bring their aircraft within range of the flak guns, which in the event were not in place, at nearby Deelen Airfield. This oversight did not directly contribute to the defeat of Market Garden, but it was one of a plethora of careless oversights that undermined it.

 

The Glider Pilot Regiment suffered horrendous casualties at Arnhem; 1,262 men flew in, of whom 219 were killed and 511 taken prisoner. In the aftermath, Chatterton tried to rebuild the formation which he had worked so hard to create, "borrowing" surplus pilots from the Royal Air Force to make up the difference. The Regiment was restored to full strength in time for the 6th Airborne Division's attempt to cross the Rhine in March 1945. The operation was a great tactical success, although once again the casualties were very heavy. Landing in daylight on heavily defended zones, surrounded by anti-aircraft weapons, the slow and vulnerable gliders suffered particularly severely and a great many were shot out of the air.

 

Chatterton, having attained the rank of Brigadier at just 33, left the Army after the war and embarked on a financial career in London. He still maintained his links with the Glider Pilot Regiment; forming the Blue Wings Association, which sought to employ ex-glider pilots in high grade jobs in the tourist industry. Later he helped to establish the Upward Bound Trust, an offshoot of the GPRA that encourages young people to glide, and was also a trustee of the Museum of Army Flying at Middle Wallop. He worked for The Lord Mayor of London and helped to establish the Thalidomide trust with Lady Hoare, which raised over 1 million under his direction, and in recognition of his efforts he received the OBE. Brigadier George Chatterton died in November 1987.

 

Thanks to Bob Hilton for his help with this biography.

 

Back to The Glider Pilot Regiment

Back to Biographies Menu