In September 1941, the War Office announced that a brigade of glider-borne troops should be raised to compliment the 1st Para Brigade. The 31st Independent Infantry Brigade was selected to be converted for the purpose and became the 1st Airlanding Brigade on the 10th October. The unit had been stationed in India up until the end of 1940 and had since been billeted in Wales, where they had occupied positions to counter a possible invasion. Earlier in the year, the unit was ordered to move into the Black Mountains to test the feasibility of an infantry brigade, complete with its own medical service, engineers, and anti-tank guns, operating with pack-transport. Several months of training with hundreds of horses and mules followed, and in the process the Brigade acquired extensive knowledge of the art of mountain warfare. Now commanded by Brigadier Hopkinson OBE MC, the later commander of the 1st Airborne Division, the Brigade consisted of four infantry battalions; the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles, the 2nd South Staffords, the 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, and the newly arrived 1st Border. The need for glider-borne troops had been realised with a view to providing parachutists with both support equipment and additional infantry, and it was with this and the subsequent formation of the 1st Airborne Division that airborne troops received a clear message that their purpose was expanding far beyond that of infrequent commando raids.


Glider troops were trained beyond the level of the standard British soldier though not to the peak and expense of paratroopers, and as such they were less swift when deployed in an attacking role, but were entirely solid in defence. Glider battalions were approximately 50% larger than parachute battalions, comprising of 16 rifle platoons in 4 companies, as opposed to 9 enlarged platoons in 3 companies. In addition, each of their Support Companies were much larger than that of a conventional infantry battalion, containing double the amount of men and equipment in their Machine Gun, Mortar, and Anti-Tank Platoons.


In early 1942, command of the Brigade passed to Brigadier Hicks. In April 1943, shortly before they set sail for North Africa in preparation for the invasion of Sicily, the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles and 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry were released from the Brigade and formed the nucleus of the 6th Airlanding Brigade, the gliderborne infantry of the 6th Airborne Division. Their loss was covered by the arrival of the 7th KOSB, but it was an impossible hope to train these men in time for departure, and so the Brigade left for North Africa with just two battalions. Arriving in Tunisia on the 26th May, the Brigade was based at Kairouan, near Sousse, and spent the following six weeks training intensively.


Sicily - Operation Ladbroke


On the night of the 9th July 1943, the 1st Airlanding Brigade took to the air in 137 US Waco's and 10 Horsa gliders, towed by 109 American C-47's, and 48 Halifax's and Albermarle's of the RAF's No. 38 Wing. Their target, as well as a number of secondary objectives, was the Ponte Grande bridge near Syracuse. Sadly this mission soon developed into a terrible disaster. Flying individually rather than in formation, the tugs encountered unforeseen winds of up to 45mph and this, combined with the navigational difficulties of flying down moon and at low altitude, threw the timing of the operation into chaos.


Furthermore the American pilots were far from being veteran flyers by night and, as they were quite unaccustomed to dealing with flak, they were ordered to release their gliders 3000 yards from the coast line to avoid heavy anti-aircraft fire. Sadly, even the most experienced of pilots underestimated this distance in the harsh conditions. The net result was that 73 of the 147 gliders landed in the sea, drowning many of men inside, and those who managed to get out and make it ashore had to abandon all their weapons and equipment in the process. 6 Waco's had cast off or crashed over Tunisia, while a further 56 gliders were scattered across the south-east coast of Sicily. Only 12 aircraft landed within any respectable distance of the bridge, and only one of these, a Horsa, arrived on its planned Landing Zone, 300 yards from the Bridge. 8 officers and 65 other ranks of the 2nd South Staffords managed to capture the bridge intact, and despite their pitifully small numbers managed to hold it until 15:30 on the following day, when lack of relief and ammunition forced them to give way to the persistent enemy attacks. However all was not lost as before the bridge could be destroyed, infantry of the 8th British Army arrived and recaptured it.


Of the 56 gliders that were scattered up to 25 miles from Syracuse, they did a fine job of making a great nuisance of themselves; attacking and destroying whatever strategic targets they could find, whilst also amassing a considerable number of Italian prisoners. However this was but one of the few positive points to note about the Brigade's action. Their casualties had been extremely heavy, totaling 605 all ranks (a third of the whole brigade), 326 of whom were presumed drowned.




Between July and September 1943, the 1st Airlanding Brigade received large drafts of reinforcements to cover the losses sustained in Sicily, and were soon back up to full strength and able to accompany the 1st Airborne Division on its relatively peaceful sea-borne invasion of Italy on September 9th. The 1st Airlanding and 1st Para Brigades were held in reserve while the 2nd and 4th Para Brigades advanced inland. However on September 19th, the 1st Airlanding Brigade was called forward to relieve the 4th Para Brigade in its forward position, where it remained until the entire Division was withdrawn to England in November.




The lengthy period of inactivity in 1944 saw a number of the Brigade's men depart to become parachutists. Though glider troops were paid an extra shilling a day than the conventional infantryman, it was only half the sum that a paratrooper received, and so this and the associated glamour was a great temptation. However, some men were merely quite unprepared to run the risk of another Sicily. Applications for volunteers for airlanding training ended in 1942, and any suitable but surplus men who had applied and been accepted were compulsorily called up whenever a vacancy arose. However men were also drawn from the Young Soldiers Battalions in which men, many of whom were only 18 years old, were held after completing their basic training. Consequently, the men of the 1st Airlanding Brigade at Arnhem were, on average, the youngest in the Division.


After Arnhem, reinforcements eventually succeeded in bringing the Brigade up to a reasonable level of strength. As soon as the war had ended, they flew to Norway with Divisional HQ, where they spent a number of weeks overseeing the surrender of German troops in the country. Upon returning to England in August 1945, the 1st Airborne Division was disbanded, and the 1st Airlanding Brigade returned to their original role of a conventional infantry brigade.


Commanders of the 1st Airlanding Brigade



Brigadier G. F. Hopkinson


Brigadier Philip H. W. Hicks


Brigadier R. H. Bower