Sergeant Victor W. Taylor

 

Unit : No.3 Squadron, 1st Battalion The Glider Pilot Regiment

 

The following account was written by Staff-Sergeant Vic Taylor on the 27th October 2004:

 

During the year 1939 when war appeared inevitable, Vic Taylor applied to join the Auxiliary Air Force Squadron Unit based at Hendon N.W. London but was informed that they had a waiting list and that they would contact him in due course.

 

In the meantime he had registered under the pre-war Militia Acts and had to report for a Medical and interview and was asked which Service he would prefer. He advised them of his prior application for the Air Force but subsequently received his instructions to report to the Army Infantry Training Camp at Blandford in Dorset.

 

Shortly after his training commenced he received a letter from the Royal Air Force calling him for interview which he took to the Adjutant but was eventually informed that it was not possible to transfer from a Senior to a Junior Service and that the Royal Air Force would be so notified.

 

On completion of his Infantry training he was sent on a Signals training course and after passing this was posted to a battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment based, on the coast in Northumberland, as a Signaller. The Signals Officer asked one day if anybody could ride a motor-cycle and Vic volunteered. After a test with the Transport Sergeant he was allocated a motor-cycle and became the Battalion Dispatch Rider, which, in his opinion, was the best job in the Army.

 

After many moves around the country the Battalion was stationed on the East Coast at Walberswick in Suffolk when he was sent for by the Adjutant and informed that transfers from the Army to the Royal Air Force had now been approved for possible flying crews and that he had to attend a Selection Board and Medical at R.A.F. Cardington in Bedfordshire. After two days of oral and written exams, followed by a medical, he appeared before a Selection Panel and was told that he was approved for transfer to the Royal Air Force for training as a Pilot/Observer.

 

He returned to his unit awaiting the "great day" and was eventually sent for by his Commanding Officer and told that once again transfers to the R.A.F. had been stopped but the Army Air Corps had been formed, a unit of which was the Glider Pilot Regiment. If he was prepared to volunteer for this he would receive the same flying training by the R.A.F. on powered aircraft before doing conversion courses on military gliders.

 

His C.O., whom he had accompanied on various Army exercises as his dispatch rider, assured him that he would be welcomed back to the unit if things did not work out as expected.

 

On the 10th March 1942 Vic. arrived at the Glider Pilot Regiment Headquarters at Tilshead, near Salisbury, together with about two hundred other Volunteers, to commence about six weeks training commencing with "square bashing" under C.S.M. Briody and C.S.M. Cowley both from Guards Regiments and both pretty formidable characters. The volunteers were a pretty motley crew from all different units of the Army, from every part of the U.K., some from other countries and it was the task of the C.S Ms to mould them into one unit and to develop, what the Officer Commanding, Major George Chatterton described, as the "total soldier".

 

Those who survived Tilshead were eventually posted to various R.A.F. Elementary Flying Training Schools. Vic Taylor, with twenty nine others went to R.A.F. Clyffe Pypard in Oxfordshire to commence training which consisted of half a day flying instruction and half a day attending lectures on subjects such as "Theory of Flight', Navigation, Airframes, I.C. Engines etc

 

The first hurdle was to go "solo", usually after about 10 to 11 hours dual flying with the R.A.F. flying instructor on "Tiger Moths" or "Magister" aircraft. This was followed by the full course ending with a test with the Chief Flying Instructor and with the various ground subject exams.

 

Because the course was intensive, some of the flying was carried out at a satellite airfield at Alton Barnes which did not have the facilities of Clyffe Pypard. It was at Alton Barnes that Vic was to carry out his first night flying "solo" but on arriving at the airfield the weather conditions were bad and flying was cancelled. There was a party in the Airmen's' Mess and the Army were invited to join in and have a few drinks. The call then came that flying was to be resumed. Vic took off on his first night "solo" in low cloud and it started to rain. On coming in to land on the landing approach indicator (three lights set at different angles, a) orange - too high, b) green - correct approach, c) red - too low) his windscreen and goggles were streaming with rain and the indicator beam appeared to show orange, so he throttled back. The rain then eased and too late he realised that the beam was in red and he crashed through the dry-stone wall surrounding the airfield and stopped suspended in the coiled barbed wire on the other side of the wall. Night Flying was cancelled and the following morning, back at Clyffe Pypard, he expected the worse because of the damage to the aircraft. However, the officer in charge of night-flying received a "rocket" and as there was no "breathalysers" in those days, Vic. got off scot-free.

 

Having successfully completed the E.F.T.S. course, with over a hundred hours flying on powered aircraft it was off to R.A.F. Shobden in Herefordshire, for a G.T.S. course on Hotspur gliders. Here to "enjoy" the flavour of engine-less flight.

 

On completion of this course Vic. and Co. were posted to Fargo camp to receive the Army Flying Badge (Wings) presented individually to each of the pilots by General Browning, Commander, Airborne Forces and promotion to the minimum rank of Sergeant. (Nb. all pilots holding a higher rank when joining the Regiment retained their rank).

 

Vic. and others on his flying courses now formed a Flight of No. 3 Squadron of the Glider Pilot Regiment and the Squadron was based at Southbourne, Bournemouth and were sent, a group at a time to R.A.F. Brize Norton Operations Training Unit for a conversion course on the new operations glider, the Horsa.

 

The Squadron had now been issued with the maroon berets, the Army Air Corps cap badge and Airborne Division Insignia's which completed their transformation from the motley group that had first appeared at Tilshead in March to a unified force with its own identity. After a short embarkation leave No.2 and No.3 Squadrons with other units of the 1st Airborne Division proceeded to Gourock on the Clyde to embark on the "Niew Holland" and set sail on the 13th April, as part of a large sea convoy. All identification (i.e. berets, insignia, even rank) were removed and no indication given as to final destination until Gibraltar was sighted and disembarkation made eventually at the Algerian port of Oran. Then a hair-raising trip in American Army trucks with "Kamikaze" drivers, about 60 miles inland, to a temporary P.O.W. camp, erected by the Americans, at Tizi on the Mascara plain. Here the two Squadrons were encamped in "pup" tents with an electric storm raging around the Atlas mountains for three days.

 

It appeared that there were no Horsa gliders available but the American gliders, the Waco (named the Hadrian in the U.K.) were being transported to La Senia airfield, near Oran in crates. A Flight from each of the two Squadrons were sent to La Senia to assist in the unloading and assembling of the gliders, living on site in the empty crates but enjoying the American base rations, including coffee, bacon & flapjacks with maple syrup, steaks, peanut butter ice cream etc. In addition to this they were allowed to use the P.X. (Post Exchange) the American equivalent to the NAAFI but with a greater range of goods at lower prices.

 

In about ten days about fifty gliders had been assembled, although there were many missing parts, and the pilots returned to their Squadrons, Vic. Taylor to No.3 Squadron at an airstrip at Relizane. After a few days some American pilots flew the Waco's over from La Senia and an intensive flying programme began, first with familiarization flights with the Americans and then exercises day and night, for ten days. The Waco was about half the size of the Horsa, of tubular steel framework with fabric covering. The undercarriage was low and the aircraft had spoilers instead of flaps, which meant that landings had to be made in a low flat glide unlike the dive-approach landing achievable with the "barn-door" flaps of the Horsa.

 

On June the 27th, the Squadrons, carrying members of the 1st Air Landing Brigade, flew from Matmore and other airstrips on the Mascara plain, to airstrips at Kairouan near Sousse in Tunisia, a distance of 570 miles. This was five hours flying time, crossing the Atlas Mountains in rough air with drops of 300 to 400 feet in the turbulence. There was only one fatal crash as the result of the gliders tail falling off. Both Pilots and twelve Troopers were killed.

 

On the 6th July an ammunition dump near the area where the Squadron was based caught fire and tons of explosives blew up saturating the camp-site. Vic Taylor and many others lost all of their kit except what they were wearing at the time, in Vic's case, a pair of shorts and his boots and socks. The following day the division was being inspected by General Montgomery at one of the Airstrips but without most of the Glider Pilots who were being re-equipped and given final briefing for the operation on the night of July the 9th, the invasion of Sicily.

 

Some of the American Glider Pilots had volunteered to fly on the operation as there were insufficient British Pilots and Vic was told that his Co-Pilot would be Flying Officer Michael Samek of the American Army Air Force. Despite adverse weather conditions, they took off in blinding dust caused by the slip-stream from the tow-plane to find that the intercom system between the glider and the tow-plane was not operating. They were carrying one officer and eleven other ranks of the Border Regiment, a number of whom were air-sick on the journey.

 

On nearing the coast of Sicily tracer fire was coming up from the coast and the tow-plane changed course. The agreed signal of the tow-plane flashing its navigation lights was given despite the fact that the glider pilots could not see any land. Michael Samek said to Vic that if they didn't cast off from the glider, they would release the tow-rope from the tow-plane. The nylon tow-rope would then spring back under the glider and would not release therefore causing a hazard when coming into land. It was agreed to cast-off and head towards land. However, a strong off-shore wind was blowing and it became obvious that a landing on the sea was to be carried out. The troops were told to open the rear escape hatches and take off their heavy equipment. A successful landing was made on the sea but the fuselage sank below the surface, the wings and tail plane floating. Vic and Michael Samek escaped through the front of the glider and some of the troops through the rear hatches. Unfortunately six of the troops did not manage to get out, it being assumed that they had suffered badly with air-sickness and could not make the effort to save themselves in the chaos and darkness under water.

 

The survivors clambered on to the wings and inflated their life-belts (these were similar to the inner tubes in car tyres, not the Mae West life jacket used by the R.A.F.). The shore could be dimly seen when the cloud broke and the moon came out and land was estimated to be about three miles distant. There was still a strong off-shore wind blowing and searchlights and tracer from a shore battery. Michael Samek and the Border Regt. Officer thought that they could swim to shore and set off. Two of the remainder could not swim and Vic decided that their best chance, once it became light, of being picked up was by one of the seaborne invasion craft coming in the following morning to Syracuse.

 

After ten hours in the water, with the remains of the glider breaking up, a ship was seen making towards them. A boat was lowered and rowed towards them. It was not a British Ship and they could not understand the boat crew. However, when they reached the ship, a rope net was lowered over the side and they climbed aboard to be greeted by two Sailors with blankets and a bottle of gin. It appeared that the ship was a Greek Destroyer with British Signallers and Liaison Officer. The survivors, including Vic Taylor, were a corporal, a lance corporal and three privates, but about an hour later another survivor was sighted floating in his "life-belt" and when he was brought aboard he was recognised as "Smudger" Smith, another pilot from No.3 Squadron.

 

The following two days were spent sailing up down the coast of Sicily firing at shore batteries and then the Destroyer made back towards a naval Tanker lying off Syracuse to re-fuel. The survivors were told that they could not be put ashore but they were to be transferred to the Tanker. On board the Tanker they were constantly attacked by enemy aircraft and were picking up survivors, from ships which had been hit and sunk. After the Tanker's Chief Engineer was hit and killed and the ship found to be taking in water, the Captain decided to make for a port for repairs. They finally made it to the port of Tripoli in Libya, the survivors were landed and transported to a Transit Camp outside the town. Vic reported to the officer in charge of the camp and asked that their base unit in Tunisia be notified and arrangements made to transport them. Other than being fed and being provided with some clothing nothing appeared to be happening so when a convoy of trucks pulled into the camp and Vic learned that they were going along the coast road to Tunisia and then up north to the port of Bizerta. Vic spoke to the officer in charge, telling their story and he agreed to let Vic and his group of survivors join his convoy up to Kairouan. It was a long, hectic journey on the back of truck for three days, but at Kairouan Vic. and "Smudger" left the Border Regt. lads to go on to their base camp near Sousse and managed to get a lift to the Glider Pilot Regt. base camp where they were told that the War Office had been notified that they had been reported "missing, believed dead". Vic then learned that the Squadron had lost a great number of pilots at Sicily but the remainder had now returned to the base.

 

Within a week or so flying had commenced again and when not flying Vic carried out his secondary role of Squadron D.R. (Dispatch Rider), a job that he carried out whenever the Squadron was at a permanent base. He also gave instruction to other Pilots on riding a motor cycle.

 

During this period a great number of flying exercises were carried out with an emphasis on night flying with releases at various heights and moonlight landings. They had been joined on these by members of the former long-range desert group commanded by a Major Peniakoff and officially known as Popski's Private Army. They were keen on carrying out an operation in gliders on the mainland of Italy. This operation was cancelled however and the whole situation was changing when it was rumoured that the Italians were seeking an Armistice.

 

An invasion of Italy was to take place, with the British 8th Army crossing the Straits of Messina from Sicily to the "toe" of Italy, the American 5th Army landing at Salerno on the west coast and the British 1st Airborne Division ordered to take the naval base of Taranto. As there were insufficient aircraft available to carry out an airborne invasion it was decided to go in by sea. No.3 Squadron was transported by trucks, carrying light equipment and under their new Squadron Commander, Major Robbie Coultard, boarded the R.N. Cruiser H.M.S. Aurora at Bizerta, with the advance party. The remaining pilots boarded the Cruiser H.M.S. Princess Beatrix. On the journey across the Mediterranean they passed an Italian Battle fleet escorted by Royal Navy Destroyers making their way to Malta. The Squadron disembarked at Taranto without incident but the cruiser H.M.S. Abdiel, which was following the Aurora in, struck a mine with heavy losses, including many paratroopers.

 

The Squadron was based at many locations in Southern Italy in the following weeks while the Division was in action and during this time the Divisional Commander was killed. They were finally based in a town called Putignano, with the remaining elements of the Regiment. Here they were told that the 1st Airborne Division was to return to the U.K. but that No.3. Squadron was to remain in the Mediterranean area and were to be renamed the 1st Independent Squadron. Also to remain were three Battalions of the Parachute Regiment, to be renamed the 2nd Independent Brigade together with the 300th Air Landing Anti-Tank Battery, R.A. and the 64th Light Battery R.A. The Squadron was then brought up to strength with pilots from the other Squadrons.

 

On November the 20th 1943 the Squadron was transported by air to Oujda in Morocco, which was the American Airborne Forces Training Centre, and here were able to carry out some training flights. As there were a large number of Waco gliders here it was decided to ferry these over to airfields in Sicily. On December the 7th, Vic and his regular Co-Pilot, Jock Mackay, took off on the first leg and landed at Oran for an over-night stay, but on arriving at the airfield the following morning found that during the night there had been a storm with very strong winds and the glider had broken its moorings, overturned and was smashed. They hitched a lift on an American Bomber going to Algiers but were then stranded, so they had to negotiate for a passenger flight with the Mediterranean Air Transport Service to Tunis. At the flight assembly point they were joined by other passengers including Humphrey Bogart and his wife (the one before Lauren Bacall), Although Bogart got an earlier flight, his wife travelled with them to Tunis. The 'plane was going on to Sicily so they talked the pilot into letting them stay on.

 

In Sicily the Squadron were split between three airfields at Comiso, Gerbini and Ponti-Olivio and here managed to get in a lot of flying, including night flying, landings with parachute arresters, skid landings etc. All this flying was with the Waco glider but it was decided that the Squadron should change over to the Horsa which could carry the 6 pounder anti-tank gun, its towing "jeep", the gun crew and ammunition. Some Horsa's had been located in various parts of N. Africa and the pilots were sent out in the tow-planes to bring them back to Comiso. Vic Taylor, Jock Mackay and Danny Green (who had earlier flown a Horsa from the U.K. to N. Africa) were transported to Rabat, north of Casablanca, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. After a two day stop-over, exploring Casablanca, they flew the Horsa from Rabat to Oujda, from Oujda to Algiers, Algiers to Tunis and Tunis to Comiso. The flight went without incident except at Algiers they decided to do a full flap dive approach, something that they hadn't enjoyed since their Brize Norton days. As they had no means of communicating with the ground it caused quite a stir when an Aero-cobra was about to take off, saw an aircraft coming down in an almost vertical descent, the pilot did a record taxying off the run-way. The landing was perfect but not appreciated by the Air Controller. As the air bottles (for the flaps and brakes) required refilling, Vic and Co. had to stay overnight and were transported to an R.A.F. Unit for accommodation but having arrived were told that they couldn't leave the following morning as there was a small-pox epidemic and they would have to be vaccinated. They finally located a Medical Officer late at night, who was "tipsy" but agreed to carry out the vaccinations (in Vic's case by cutting a "V" in his arm in which to place the vaccine, the scar of which is still a permanent reminder). They were able to leave the following morning to continue their flight to Sicily.

 

On returning to Comiso, after a short leave at Toarmina, a pre-war holiday resort on the south coast of Sicily, Vic and nine other pilots who had been on leave were advised that they had been "volunteered" to join units of the Parachute Brigade who were in the mountains east of Monte Cassino in Italy. After a long trip up through Italy they arrived at the Brigade base where they were directed, each to a different Company of the three Battalions of the Parachute Regt. The pilots, who included Jock Mackay, Bill Sleigh, Ian McLeod, Don Stewart, Tom Gillies, Dick Clerk and others, split up to join mule teams, operated by an Italian Alpine Unit, on a night climb up the mountains (the only means of transport), hanging on the tail of a mule, which were led by the Italians. In the mountains they were subjected to constant artillery and mortar fire during the day and occupied forward positions at night, when patrols were sent out into the valley between the opposing forces. Vic went out on "recce." patrols with a Sergeant and a L/Corporal of the para's and was advised that the purpose was to obtain information or to capture a prisoner to interrogate, the tommy-gun with which he was issued, was for personal defence only. Also, if there was any gun fire in the valley, both sides would open up with mortar fire, which was exceedingly uncomfortable. In mid-May, after an intensive barrage of artillery fire along the whole line and aerial bombardment the Allied forces advanced and Cassino was taken.

 

Vic and the other pilots were withdrawn and transported to an airstrip where they joined the Airborne anti-tank battery and were instructed in all the various tasks of the gun crew. The rest were now ferrying the Horsa gliders up from Sicily and flying commenced with full load trials, including the loading & unloading of the glider. The pilots then returned to Sicily to ferry the remaining gliders to Italy, first to Marcigliano and then to Tarquinia, an American Bomber Airfield, on the coast north of Rome. Here the Squadron was attached to the 52nd T.C. Group of the American Army Air Corps and on August 11th, carried out a mass formation exercise with them. The pilots were then briefed on the operation to be carried out on the invasion of the South of France on August the 15th 1944.

 

There were 35 gliders in the air fleet and Vic and his co-pilot Jock were carrying a 6 pounder anti-tank gun, the towing "jeep", the four gun crew and the ammunition. The gliders and tow-plane combinations took off and formed over the sea making for the French coast. However, on nearing the coast it was reported there was low cloud and mist over the whole landing area therefore the air fleet flew back to Tarquinia where the glider pilots released and landed followed by the tow-planes. Two of the units had engine trouble and were diverted to Corsica. A spare glider was loaded, with the reserve crew of "Dixie" Lee and Ian McLeod, and 34 gliders and tow-planes re-assembled on the run-way. After a quick meal, the whole fleet took off again and after a good flight reached the coast of France and on to the landing zone between La Motte and Le Muy, inland of Frejus and St. Raphael. They had been joined on the way over by the two units from Corsica.

 

The enemy appeared to have had some prior knowledge of the landing zone, because, what had appeared to be a large cleared field in the aerial photographs at the briefing was seen on the approach in, after casting-off, to be stony, full of shrubs and vines, with large poles erected in between. However, by landing between the poles, losing the ends of the wings and reducing the landing speed, followed by the loss of the "nose" wheel, the glider came to a halt with no casualties. Vic and Jock released the hatch and ramp and assisted the gun crew to unload their "jeep" and gun etc. and they were able to drive away to their allotted R.V. The landings overall were a great success although one pilot was killed and several injured. The pilots joined together to form a unit. The whole invasion force, with the exception of the 2nd Independent Para. Brigade and the 1st Independent Glider Pilot Squadron, was an American affair. For the rest of that day, and the following day, the British troops watched the American gliders and paratroopers come in, keeping their heads down low, because as soon as they landed those "Yanks" came out shooting. After a few days the main landing force by sea had joined up with the Airborne Force, who were now wondering what to do with all the German prisoners taken. The British were now withdrawn to the coast to be transported back by sea to Naples and then to Tarquinia. Within two weeks the Squadron moved south to Manduria where some Waco gliders had been located, and carried out test flights.

 

The Squadron's next operation was to be the invasion of Greece and on the 13th of October Vic and Jock lifted off on the three hour flight over the mountains of Albania and Northern Greece to an old abandoned air-strip outside Megara, a small town about ten miles west of Athens. The Pathfinders platoon of the Parachute Regiment had been dropped the previous day and had swept a lane of mines, left by the Germans, and marked it with white tape. This was clearly visible from the air and Vic and Jock, and the three other gliders of their flight, all carrying ground levelling equipment, had a good landing and manhandled the gliders to the side of the airstrip. It appeared that the Germans, who had been in the area, had moved out a couple of days before the gliders arrived. The landing zone was cleared and levelled and the following day the Independent Para. Brigade dropped followed by the remainder of the gliders. The glider pilots moved into an old school in the town whilst the para's moved on to Athens. A seaborne force had landed at the port of Piraeus and soon the Germans were being driven out of the country. With the exit of the Germans a power struggle commenced between Greek Royalists and the ELAS partisans, who had been supplied with arms and ammunition, dropped by air, to fight the Germans but were now using them against their own people. This eventually developed into civil war with the British playing "piggy in middle". In Megara, where the town's people were mainly Royalist, they had been subjected to intimidation by the partisan groups during the occupation, now found themselves threatened again by the partisans, swaggering around with their guns and bandoliers of ammunition. As this was mainly an ELAS area and the Squadron were the only force available, Major MacMillan, the Squadron Commander, decided to put on a show of strength. A guard was mounted on the gliders on the airstrip and the rest of the Squadron carried out armed patrols around the town. This appeared to work and with the arrival of additional troops in the area it was decided to retrieve the gliders. With the airstrip cleared, C47's of the American Transport Command arrived to lift them off. Some were flown to San Severo, on the Foggia plain in southern Italy, but the glider flown by Vic, and his co-pilot, was towed to Tarquinia, north of Rome, mainly at high altitude, up to 15,000ft., above the clouds and mountain peaks. The flight took seven hours, and despite sustaining themselves by drinking two bottles of Retsina, a Greek resinated wine, to keep out the cold, they were completely exhausted when they landed. A number of pilots ended up in hospital after the flight but all soon recovered. A few days later they were ferrying Horsa gliders from Ciampini near Naples, to Guidonia.

 

The Squadron was then re-grouped and based at Lido-de-Roma, on the west coast and brought up to strength with a detachment of "Second Pilots" sent out from the U.K. The Squadron also acquired a new Squadron Commander, a Major Cairos, its fourth C.O. since leaving the U.K. An explosive's expert was also brought in to give instruction in the use of various means of using dynamite, gun-cotton etc. The Squadron then carried out flying exercises with the new second pilots, and ferrying of Horsa's, which had been located around Italy, to assemble them for future operations. The situation of the war was now changing rapidly and finally ended, first in Italy and then in the whole of Europe.

 

In June I945 the Squadron was returned to the U.K. by sea, from Naples, back to Tilshead and sent on disembarkation leave. On return from leave they were being re-equipped to go to the Far East when the Atom Bombs were dropped and the Japanese surrendered. The Independent Squadron remained together and were based at the Balmer Lawn Hotel at Brockenhurst in the New Forest. Some of the pilots signed on for additional service and together with some of the younger pilots were transferred to other Squadrons. The Squadron was gradually depleted in strength as demobilisation carne up and was finally wound up.

 

Vic Taylor was "de-mobbed" in May 1946 and returned to his pre-war occupation, retiring in 1979 as Chief Electrical Engineer for the London Borough Harrow, Vic and his wife Katherine who were married in 1941 moved to a Norfolk village where they have been very involved with various clubs and activities over the past twenty-four years. They have three sons, married, and six grandchildren.

 

VWT. 27.10.2004

 

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