Unit : The Glider Pilot Regiment.
I volunteered to join the RAF in 1943 with the express intention of becoming a pilot, and to be fighter pilot was my dream; however, as it happened, it was not to be. I became a glider pilot and I didn't fly a Spitfire until after the war.
I was awarded my wings in June 1944, at the RIDDLE McKay Aero College Clewiston Florida, now an Air University. Almost a year had passed since I joined the RAF - and that included a trip across the Atlantic in the Queen Mary, which was used as a troop ship throughout the war. On board were American troops returning home, some with wounds, and about two thousand RAF cadets. We docked in New York Harbour and then went by rail to RCAF Moncton in Canada. There we were split into groups of 120 cadets and allocated to a training airfield. Some went to British Flying Training Schools in California, and Arizona, and others, not so lucky, to Canadian schools. I was with a group sent to the Riddle McKay Aero College.
After graduating, the process was reversed, but this time we crossed the Atlantic in the troop ship Empress of Britain - a much slower ship, which had a partial engine failure on the third day out from Halifax, and all the troops on board had to parade on the boat decks with lifebelts at the ready! Fortunately, the engine was repaired and we docked at Gourock in Scotland without further incident. I then spent the next 3 months on various courses, learning to fly in bad weather - until in September, Operation Market Garden, which we all refer to as The Battle of Arnhem, was fought and lost.
The Glider Pilot Regiment had a total of about 2000 pilots, and after the battle only around 200 were left that could be used again. So with future glider operations in jeopardy, the planners had no option but to ask the RAF for the loan of 2000 of their pilots to transfer to the Army. I was one of them. We began a short course on the Hadrian, and the Horsa ,and some pilots went onto the big tank carrying glider the Hamilcar. The Horsa glider was made of wood with fabric covered control surfaces and a removable tail, and the nose could be swung open for loading purposes. The Hadrian and the Hamilcar had a conventional air frame covered mainly with fabric and plywood. The Hadrian was used mainly for carrying troops, and the Hamilcar for carrying light tanks, like the Tetrach. The whole nose of the glider swung sideways to accommodate them. There was no armour plate anywhere, and no parachutes. Hamilcar glider carrying a Tetrarch Tank (7,5 t) Another thing worth mentioning is that one could hear all the noises from the ground after cast off, a fact that was very disconcerting on the Rhine Crossing. We were towed by a rope that split into two parts and fastened under each wing. Contained in the rope was a communication cable that never seemed to work, requiring Aldis Lamp signals from the tug when it came time to release.
In December 1944, we were sent to the depleted squadrons as reinforcements. I, along with about 100 other pilots, went to E squadron at RAF Blake Hill Farm Cricklade Wiltshire. The only thing an RAF pilot lacked was experience in warfare. The Army pilots had a lot of that with the landings at Crete, and "D" Day and Arnhem. It would have helped if we had been given some German troop recognition since we were to be in close combat with them. The regular troops could even distinguish the sounds of gunfire as there is a distinctive sound with Bren guns, Spandau machine guns Schmeisser automatics and rifles, and they all sound differently.
We were issued with army uniforms comprising khaki battle dress, an airborne camouflage smock, boots, gaiters, a webbing belt, a small pack and braces, ammunition pouches, a yellow silk which one wore as a scarf and would distinguish us from the Germans, and an airborne soldiers’ helmet complete with netting for camouflage use. This helmet saved my life as I was later to find out!
Finally, a shelter half that was used in the rain, could be used as a ground sheet. Two of these buttoned together made a tent. Little did we know that the enemy had very similar gear when viewed from a distance, hence the yellow silks to avoid blue on blue engagements.
January and February were spent flying in large formations, including night flying, and finishing with a landing on a designated spot on the airfield grass simulating a landing zone. You can imagine that a Horsa Glider weighing 18000lbs. all up weight was a very un-manoeuvrable aircraft, and there were many crashes on landing. The brakes and the flaps, for instance, were operated by compressed air stored in a large metal bottle in the cockpit. This was sufficient to operate the brakes and flaps once each, and the angle of approach with the flaps down was over 60 degrees. As the war progressed in January 1945, it became obvious that a landing had to be made across the River Rhine in order to establish a bridgehead. But where? In March, the Americans captured the Remagen bridge, but this was deemed inadequate - so OPERATION VARSITY, already planned, was put into action. We we were not to learn where or when, however, until nearer the time.
The area around the town of Haminkeln was chosen as it was flat and relatively free from forests. Ten landing zones were planned in which Para Troops would be dropped, and Gliders would be landed. Learning from the mistake at Arnhem where everyone landed in the same zone making the troops vulnerable to shelling, these were positioned in a circle about the countryside with the town as the centre. Each pilot was given a "pin point" target to land on, if possible, helped by a series of photographs given to each crew. Meanwhile, "E" squadron was repositioned to RAF Burch in Essex - much nearer the drop zone - and there we made our final preparations for OPERATION VARSITY. We were still not told when or where it would take place, however! We busied ourselves preparing the gliders with the individual loads, firing various weapons and riding around on lightweight motor cycles and driving Jeeps about the place. My load consisted of a Jeep, a 6 pounder anti tank gun, a gun limber loaded with ball ammunition, a couple of cases of .303 ammunition, a lightweight motor cycle an a Staff sergeant and two corporals of the Ox and Bucks Regiment who were the gun crew.
Finally, the gliders had to be positioned on one side of the runway with the tugs on the other, and with the tow ropes laid out for take off in very orderly lines. C47 Dakotas could only tow one glider but the Liberator, being more powerful, took two. Each day more and more troops came in, mainly Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, Devon Regiment, and Royal Ulster Rifles.
Then finally came the day, and we received our final briefing, reveille at 4.30 am breakfast at 5am, and take off at 6am. March 24th was a beautiful day and when we were at the towing height of 2500 feet you could see for miles.
We joined up with the glider stream to the South East of London and we were the lead squadron of the 6th AIRBORNE DIVISION, that had taken off from eleven airfields, and behind us stretching for many miles were the hundreds of tugs and gliders that comprised the 6th Air Landing Brigade.
What a sight we must have been! Eleven streams of Liberators, C47s towing gliders, and C47s carrying paratroops all converging over Hawkinge, and making for the next turning point South of Brussels where we were to join up with the American 17th Airborne Division. having taken off from 12 airfields in France. They were on a parallel track to ours and about 5miles to the South, heading for the same destination.
Meanwhile, Winston Churchhill, General Eisenhower, General Montgomery, and General Ridgeway were at Xanten on high ground, so that they could see the drop over the Rhine. They had a grand stand seat in order to view the landing which they could easily see, it being such good weather.
It was a 4 hour flight to Haminkeln, and as we approached the Rhine we could see the smoke screen put down to assist the Commandos who crossed the river during the night.
Then flak began on the Eastern side, and one could see the RAF Typhoons diving down on the flak guns and generally clearing the area to help the landing. Visibility was unlimited at height, but not lower down in the fog and smoke. The British 21 Division was amassed on the Western bank all ready to cross when we had established a bridgehead. As we crossed over the Rhine it was too foggy to see the ground, and the town of Wesel had been bombed during the night ,and the smoke from the fires and the smoke screen used by the commandos who had crossed the Rhine during the night added to the poor visibility.
Over to my right, a Hamilcar took a hit in the belly and the tank dropped out, complete with its crew. It was common practise for the tank crew to man the tank before landing so that they could drive straight out of the glider and be in action immediately. The Hamilcar was now unbalanced and would have crashed.
I was flying the 12th glider in the stream, and the aircraft about the fourth along was hit by flak and one wing broke off and came perilously close to me whilst the rest of the glider plummeted to earth. All around various aircraft were hit by flak or fighters, and some of the C47s were in flames. It looked like the safest place to be was on the ground!
The size of the landing area was about 6 miles long by 4 miles wide and you can imagine how congested it became throughout the landing. From 10.00hrs to 14.00hrs, upwards of 3000 aircraft were in that area.
The signaller on my tug flashed the release signal and I cast off. It wasn’t possible to see Haminkeln in the early morning fog but the church spire was sticking up out of it, and using this landmark I manoeuvred to where I thought my allocated pin point was.
As I turned over the unmade autobahn, now the E36, a feature we were not to cross, my glider was hit by flak in both flaps which were down and were in shreds. This made the landing difficult because it wasn’t possible to reduce speed.
Troops with rifles and machine guns were firing at this sitting target slithering towards them. To add to the difficulty, the ground was covered in “Rommel’s Asparagus,” pieces of railway line dug into the ground to deter an airborne invasion. The Germans had obviously expected us somewhere in the area. The element of surprise we had when we first arrived quickly disappeared shortly after landing. It was impossible to avoid these obstructions, and the starboard undercarriage was knocked off and a piece of wing went, too.
This turned out to be a good thing, with the use once-only air brakes and the drag from the missing wheel digging into the ground, I quickly came to a standstill with the nose embedded in a rabbit warren and the glider twisted over to the right.
When I managed to take in the surroundings, I found that we were only about 100 yards from the farmhouse that was my pinpoint! What luck!
A Spandau machine gun was firing at us from somewhere along the railway embankment and until it was silenced it made the removal of the load difficult. As the Horsa was on its right side, we had to remove the tail to get the Jeep and ammunition limber, plus the Anti-Tank Gun, out of the fuselage of the glider.
This was facilitated by undoing the twenty or so quick release bolts that held the tail on and manhandling it out of the way. We piled everything into the Jeep and made off to the farmhouse where we were met by the occupants surrendering to us. There were two or three Volksturm troops with rifles, two women, and three little girls hanging on to the women and they seemed to be terrified of us. The farmhouse was a typical German one with the farm animals in one part and the family in the other, and all under the same roof.
We were issued with cards which said on one side ‘Do as you are told and no harm will come to you’, and on the other side the same thing in German. We gave them these cards, and put them in the cellar with some food and milk then locked the door so they could not get out.
We positioned the anti-tank cannon so that it was covering the road from Haminkeln, and then dug a line of fox-holes from it in a small orchard. It then became relatively quiet and it seemed as though everyone had stopped for lunch, only the odd shot here and there, when suddenly a German tank appeared about 1000 yards away and coming towards us.
It took 3 armour-piercing shells to get a hit - and behind the tank were the foot soldiers who quickly dispersed. Later on, a half track vehicle was destroyed coming out of Haminkeln. These incidents increased our morale enormously and for the glider pilots it seemed Plan 2 was due.
This was part of our briefing, and the pilots having secured the pinpoint and delivered their loads successfully, were to go to the Haminkeln railway station and guard prisoners and only fight as soldiers if necessary to do so. This was to preserve them for future operations. So four of us got on board the Jeep and we set off. The station where Major Jackson, our squadron C.O., had his headquarters was only a mile away and we had only gone about 200 yards when we came under machine gun fire. This was heavy enough to make us turn back and we reached the farmhouse without a casualty. Plan 2 would have to wait a while...
Late in the afternoon, a young Lieutenant was killed who had wandered into our position from a glider that crashed nearby. He was with about four soldiers who had survived the crash. The remaining hours of day light went without an incident.
Occasionally, the men in the fox holes would fire at the enemy who could be seen briefly - but about 1000 yards away - making it difficult to know the result. Then it got dark, and the firing began again with a vengeance!
Somewhere to the East of us, one could hear the sound of tanks manoeuvring. It lasted about an hour then stopped, and we breathed a sigh of relief. We didn’t have the necessary PIAT [Personal Infantry Anti-Tank] weapons to stop them. But the Germans didn’t know that!
A decision was then made to stay with the men, because to attempt to go to the railway station was too dangerous. There were about 25 of us, a mixture of Para-Troops, glider pilots and Ox and Bucks Light Infantry.
There seemed to be a lot of activity at a farmhouse that was just visible about a mile away, so Staff Sergeant Rolfe decided to call on the radio for artillery still on the west bank of the Rhine to shell it.
This called for very accurate co-ordinates to be given, and within 5 minutes the shelling began, and lasted until the farmhouse was demolished. Then, just before midnight, S.Sgt. Rolfe decided that we would all stand to in the foxholes. He must have had a premonition that something was going to happen and it did!
It must have been around 03.00hrs when the mortars began and the first thing to be hit was the farmhouse. It quickly caught fire, and the cows began bellowing and the pigs squealing, and that noise, added to the explosions of the mortars, was deafening.
I looked out of my fox hole and could see the Germans running about, firing then retreating into the darkness. We were now illuminated by the fire, and the Germans were beyond the footlights, so to speak, running about and blowing whistles.
The only way of knowing where they were was by the flashes of their guns. I could hear our Bren gunners firing away into the darkness, and then an experienced army glider crew got out of their fox holes and ran off round the back of the farm house! An RAF pilot, Sgt. Pritchard, on seeing this also got out of his hole - but as he did so, a mortar or possibly a grenade landed near him and mortally injured his back.
This was enough for me and I gathered my weapons and ran towards the anti-tank gun to be near the others, and I got down near its left wheel and next to S.Sgt. Rolfe. Neither of us had a foxhole and we just lay there.
Then, moving slowly, two soldiers appeared - but it wasn’t possible to tell if they were the enemy at a distance. Then they stopped, and one crouched down with the other bending over, so I shouted to S.Sgt. Rolfe for confirmation and he said “They’re Germans, shoot them!” It is difficult to come to terms with the thought that you are about to kill someone, and I fired a full magazine of Sten 9mm, then another to make sure. A total of 64 rounds for two men!
Then it was all over. Our position was over-run by the Germans, and I found myself looking at the toe caps of a pair of Jack Boots worn by a young Panzer Grenadier. I got to my feet and he asked me if I had any chocolate? He was completely indifferent to the two bodies nearby that I had shot.
There were probably about 30 Panzer Grenadiers who attacked us and they left their dead where they were, along with ours. Those of us who were left were marched off into captivity.
The two Corporals were badly wounded, one had most of his foot blown off and the other had shrapnel wounds in both legs. Neither could walk, so we carried them on rifles held by two men each. To make matters worse, we came into a farm yard, and laying there was a German Leutnant who had been hit in the back and the hole was as big as a fist.
It was obvious he wasn’t going to make it, but they produced a 7 foot ladder that we used as a stretcher and six of us carried him for about two miles on it. All the time he was in agony, and it wasn’t possible to avoid bumping the improvised stretcher whenever we changed ends.
When we arrived at the river Issel we had to make an improvised bridge with logs that were just long enough to reach the far side, and by sitting alternately we passed the stretcher across our knees but this involved being in the water as the logs bent under the weight. We carried on walking West with our captors until the officer on the stretcher died. We left him there beside the path and carried on.
Eventually, we came to a large house that the Germans were using as a Head Quarters, and they had painted large red crosses on the roof so that it would not be attacked. We were all lined up in the courtyard. Then a Hauptmann appeared, and for some reason he picked me out and I was marched off inside to his office. He spoke very good English, and started his interrogation by offering me one of my cigarettes that were taken from me when I was searched. His questions were about OPERATION VARSITY and what did I think would happen to them when eventually our troops came!
Meanwhile, I had removed my helmet and I was pressing it down on my knees as my legs had were shaking uncontrollably, and on staring into it I noticed a hole big enough to poke a finger through. A piece of shrapnel from a mortar must have done it! My head wasn’t injured at all, so I reckon that helmet saved my life! The German officer couldn’t believe it and called in the armed guard outside to show them, and then I was returned to the other P. O.Ws.
We were marched out and continued Easterly until we came to a multiple flak battery and the officer in charge made us take off our yellow silks and he draped them all over the cannons to make out as though they had been captured! However, within a few minutes, a Typhoon flying at about 2500 feet was shot down and the pilot baled out and they continued firing at him as he came down.
On the Monday morning we were put into cattle trucks and travelling by night we eventually arrived at Fallingbostel - Stallag XIB six days later. Apart from water, I don’t remember being given anything to eat!
© Kenneth Cooper, September 2008
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