The Glider Pilot Regiment, central to the theme of my ‘Gliders over Normandy’ series became one of the most famous regiments in the history of the Second World War. But they took their inspiration from another source; the Germans.
Britain’s Glider Pilot Regiment was formed at the end of 1941, the process having started during the battle and subsequent fall of France in June 1940. Germany’s Fall Gelb, the planned military operations to occupy France had relied heavily on airborne operations, and it was the first time that the world had seen them used in such a way.
As a result, Winston Churchill requested that the War Office looked into creating Britain’s own airborne force of around 5,000 paratroopers, including a potential glider force.
The use of gliders had impressed many in the British government, which was furthered by Hitler’s desire to make the world see how forward thinking and clinical his forces were, particularly after the first time that gliders were used in combat.
The Battle of Fort Eben-Emael was an unprecedented German success. The fortifications in Belgium were heavily defended and well placed, with artillery emplacements capable of raining shells down on many strategic bridges over the nearby Albert Canal, which the Germans planned to cross during their advance.
On May 10th 1940, 41 (out of a planned 50) DFS 230 gliders were launched from their Junkers Ju 52 tug aircraft. The 230 glider was a revolutionary concept in warfare, with its design benefitting from a prolonged period of testing and improvement, in comparison to something like the British counterpart, the Hotspur, which never saw active service due to its high sink rate amongst other issues.
The 230 was designed to land directly on top of its targets, so had a drag parachute attached, allowing it to dive down on its target at around 80 degrees, and occasionally use its only armament, a single machine gun operated by one of the passengers in the glider.
At Eben-Emael, ten of the gliders were able to land on the roof of the fortress, which had been camouflaged with a layer of grass, thanks to the large skid that was fitted to the bottom of the glider to aid its landing abilities.
Each glider could carry around ten men, including the pilot, which meant that at the Battle of Eben-Emael, around 490 German Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) were able to land there safely.
Up against a force of well over a thousand Belgian troops, these elite German paratroopers took just over twenty minutes to silence the resistance offered by the Belgians, managing to take them by complete surprise and taking the large majority prisoner. The Fallschirmjäger, considering the emplacement that they were attacking, suffered few casualties, with under fifty being killed and around a hundred injured.
The huge success of the operation led Hitler to invite many correspondents and journalists to the site, even organising tours for them to inspect the fort and how his troops had managed the bold operation. This, in turn, allowed the Allies to dissect how they had done it and eventually would lead to the formation of the Glider Pilot Regiment and the Parachute Regiment, which would both see extensive action on D-Day and beyond.
Book 2 in the Gliders over Normandy series, ‘All Men are Casualties’ is available for pre-order now at a discounted rate.