National Geographic : 1944 Aug
Gliders-Silent Weapons of the Sky By WILLIAM H. NICHOLAS With Illustrations from Official Photographs, U. S. Army Air Forces MORE than 400 American gliders, towed by big C-47 transport planes, swept over the English Channel on the second day of the invasion of Normandy. The huge armada stretched across the sky for 50 miles. Swishing .to earth behind Nazi coastal de fenses in Normandy, the gliders brought rein forcements,- supplies, and tactical equipment to the first assault wave of airborne troops. This force had landed by parachute and glider the day before, to open the invasion. Its mission was to capture bridges and nip in the bud any German attempts to launch counter attacks against seaborne troops storming the beaches. The first large-scale mission for gliders in warfare was accomplished successfully. The young Troop Carrier Command and its new silent weapon had come into their own. Hopes of military glider enthusiasts, from General Arnold down, were on the way to realization. Preview of Gliders in Action Only a few weeks before D Day I had stood with a handful of Army Air Force officers and a group of foreign newspaper correspond ents on the edge of a tree-rimmed field at Laurinburg-Maxton Army Air Base in North Carolina. Our eyes were fixed on an approaching air armada of a dozen big trans port planes, each towing two gliders almost as large as themselves. Steadily the procession drew nearer until the towropes were visible. Once overhead, the glider pilots released the lines. The trans ports with their throbbing motors sped on. The freed glider brood wheeled gracefully into the brisk wind. Silently, except for the whir of their wings against the breeze, they coasted earthward, heading toward a clump of trees. The pilots cut the speed of their craft by bringing flaps and other obstructions to smooth airflow into play. The stiff air cur rents made landing difficult, but one by one the gliders hit the field in a cloud of dust. The pilots worked energetically to align them with noses headed directly into the tree clump. Even before the "flying crates" came to rest, Air Commando troops sprang from the side doors. In a matter of seconds, others began to raise the big stub noses. From the capa tious maws came howitzers, jeeps, trucks (page 156). Into the protecting clump of trees the glider troops streaked with their imple ments of war. Routine training? Yes. But it had a new meaning for onlookers at Laurinburg-Maxton that afternoon last May. No longer were glid ers the "stepchildren" of the Army Air Forces. This exhibition of landing, unloading, and deployment carried deep meaning. Gliders and troops had proved themselves in spectacu lar action, first in Sicily, then in Burma. Everyone on the field knew that gliders in steadily increasing numbers had arrived in, or were en route to, Great Britain. Everyone knew this exhibition was a preview of the glider's role in helping to spearhead the in vasion of Europe. Gliders Invade Europe On the night of July 9, 1943, a fleet of 139 American gliders had first invaded Europe. Towed over the island of Sicily, they cut loose and landed near the bridges south of Syracuse and Catania. In the darkness of night, armed men, howitzers, jeeps emerged silently. Their attack preceded the full-scale inva sion, which started next day. Their work of destruction and the confusion they created within enemy ranks were so impressive that General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery credited them with shortening the Sicilian campaign by a full week. Even more spectacular was the achievement in the Far East. The night of March 5, 1944, a fleet of gliders landed American Engineers and British assault troops in the jungles of north-central Burma, 200 miles behind the Japanese lines. By dawn glider-borne troops had established an airfield to which transport planes brought thousands of soldiers and hun dreds of tons of equipment and supplies (page 129). Landings Made in Jungle The Burma exploit gave tremendous im petus to the Army's glider program. Only gliders had made possible this daring campaign of the late Maj. Gen. Orde C. Wingate. Air planes could not land in the jungles. Para troopers could not carry with them the bull dozers and other heavy equipment necessary to carve out landing strips. What are these huge motorless aircraft which have brought destruction to the enemy on both sides of the world?