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Dr. Milton Dank

Glider Pilot
European Theater

The Glider Gang
The Glider Gang
An Eyewitness History of World War II Glider Combat
by Milton Dank
A Merriam Press Original Publication

The exploits of the paratroopers and of other elite groups in World War II have been recounted by historians, but the heroic role of the Allied glider pilots has remained little known and even less understood. Now Milton Dank, who served as a glider pilot on three airborne invasions, tells the complete, fully documented story of those daredevil volunteers. It is the saga of the men who flew the fragile canvas or plywood motorless aircraft into Sicily, Normandy, southern France, Holland, and across the Rhine to deliver cannon, jeeps, and reinforcements to the embattled paratroopers. Recklessly brave and grimly determined, the glider pilots endured not only the enemy’s flak but foul weather, inexperienced tow plane pilots, gliders that tended to shred parts in mid-air, their own lack of ground combat training, and inadequate planning at high levels for the airborne assaults. Even perfectly executed glider landings tended to be little more than controlled crashes, and on one occasion the pilots discovered that they were carrying their own grave-marking materials. But though their casualties were tragically high, they risked their lives to complete their all-important missions. By turns moving and horrifying, inspiring and shocking, the glider pilots’ story is superbly chronicled here, often in their own highly dramatic words. This is a brand-new revised edition of the classic work published in 1977 by J. B. Lippincott Company. This new edition features additional material, text and photographs, as well as corrections to the earlier edition.

In the fifty-five years since the end of the Second World War, the small band of surviving glider pilots has dwindled and dispersed. Memories have faded, allowing myths and legends to grow. Today their deeds are a little-known and poorly understood part of World War II airborne operations. Other elite volunteer groups, such as the paratroopers, the Commandos, and the Rangers, have all found their historians; only the “no-engine pilots” seem to have been forgotten.

It was to fill this gap in the history of our war, as well as to pay tribute to the gallant men with whom it was my privilege to serve, that this book was written. It could never have been done without their generous and unstinting help. In interviews, in letters and tapes, and in long telephone conversations, they relived the hours of fear and terror that constitute a glider assault under enemy fire. The commanders patiently explained the planning and the hard decisions that had to be made; the glider pilots told what all too frequently went wrong with those plans. Both willingly supplied valuable primary source material: diaries, journals, mission orders, post-action reports, maps, aerial photographs, group and squadron personnel lists, combat snapshots, and the personal details and anecdotes that make those tragic days live again. They are all to be thanked for their contributions to the story they themselves wrote in the Second German War.

Special thanks must be given to Generals Matthew B. Ridgway, James M. Gavin, Maxwell D. Taylor, and the late Anthony C. McAuliffe for describing their campaigns and their thoughts on gliders and glider pilots in interviews and by correspondence. Brigadier George J. S. Chatterton, D.S.O., and Lieutenant-Colonel Iain A. Murray, D.S.O., were equally generous in talking to the author at length about the missions of the British Glider Pilot Regiment.

Colonels Charles H. Young, Michael C. Murphy, Woodrow T. Merrill, and Hugh J. Nevins supplied a great deal of information on Troop Carrier Command and its glider forces, while Monsignor John M. Whelan, chaplain of the 439th Troop Carrier Group, wrote eloquently of the private fears of the men. Major Harold Norman “Andy” Andrews must be thanked for allowing me to use so much of his unpublished manuscript of his combat experiences as a British glider pilot.

Messrs. Brandon Barringer and A. Felix duPont, Jr., related their experiences in wartime Washington and particularly the roles played by their respective brothers Lewin Barringer and Richard duPont as advisers on the glider program. General Alfred L. Wolf not only arranged these two interviews but was most helpful in locating several senior officers of the glider pilot program.

As befitting a man of the theater, Joshua Logan painted a dramatic picture of the night before D-day on a troop-carrier airfield. He also pointed out an unexpected contribution of military gliders to the postwar Broadway stage: the famous shower in which Nelly Forbush “washes that man right outa her hair” in South Pacific was taken directly from a similar shower made of a wrecked glider fuselage that Logan had seen in France.

For the details of the naval diversions during the landings in southern France, the author is indebted to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who, as a lieutenant commander, U.S. Navy, led his ship on a daring raid on the coast.

My friend and neighbor Harry Ridgway spent long hours explaining the differences between American and British glider operations. As an ex-member of the Glider Pilot Regiment, he was able to clarify such technical details as the “angle-of-dangle” indicator and how one got the tail off a Horsa glider. Also, he very generously allowed me to read his unpublished manuscript on British glider missions.

Over 170 glider pilot veterans were interviewed, answered questionnaires or queries by letter, sent in tapes, or in some other way contributed to this book. Their names can be found in the back, listed alphabetically, as a small token of my appreciation for their help.

Research on the glider war was done in this country at the National Archives and Records Service (Washington, D.C., and Suitland, Maryland); the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; the Office of Air Force History, Arlington, Virginia; the Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama; the New York Public Library; and the libraries of Princeton, Yale, and Temple Universities, and the University of Pennsylvania. One very important source is the “War Room” of the National Association of World War II Glider Pilots, where the memorabilia of its members are fondly displayed. The curator of this Dallas museum, Bill Horn, not only arranged for me to visit it but answered many of my questions on the exhibits. The association newsletter, Silent Wings, carried many of my queries, thus helping to locate glider pilots who participated in particular combat actions. The executive secretary, Ginny Randolph, was always helpful with roster information and with arranging interviews at the national meetings.

In England, A. J. “Holly” Hollingdale, general secretary of the Glider Pilot Regimental Association, was most generous with his time, arranging for interviews with members and supplies of The Eagle, the magazine put out by the GPRA. The staff of the library of the Imperial War Museum rounded up a number of official histories on airborne operations, but it was discouraging to find that the museum itself had not a single item on glider warfare on exhibit. It was at the Museum of Army Flying in Middle Wallop (Hants) that I saw the only Horsa left in England—and this wingless and tailless. My thanks to Tom Pearce, curator and wartime glider pilot, for letting me sit once more in that spacious greenhouse of a cockpit.

For many of the photographs used in this book, the author is indebted to the U.S. Air Force Central Still Photo Depository, Arlington, Virginia (Mrs. E. Fincik); the Don Pratt Museum of the 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Kentucky (Lieutenant Cody Phillips, division historian); and the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum, Fort Bragg, North Carolina (Mr. Thomas M. Fairfull, curator).

The song of the German Glider Pilots:
“The sun shines red.
Comrades, there is no going back…”
The motto of the British Glider Pilot Regiment
“Nothing is impossible.”
The battle cry of the American Glider Pilots
“Jesus Christ! More spoilers!”

“To the glider pilots—conceived in error, suffering a long and painful period of gestation, and finally delivered at the wrong place at the wrong time.” This is the traditional toast of the surviving members of the Allied glider effort in World War II, the men who flew the canvas-and-plywood motorless craft into Normandy, southern France, and Holland, and across the Rhine. Recklessly brave and grimly determined, they had to endure not only enemy flak, but foul weather, inexperienced towplane pilots, gliders that had a nasty habit of shedding parts in flight, the Americans’ lack of ground combat training, and an ignorance on the part of Allied planners of the limitations of airborne formations. They were “conceived in error” since they were thought to be the answer to the German glider force which had just helped conquer Crete, but the German losses there had been so high that Hitler had forbidden any more large airborne assaults! Their “long and painful period of gestation” was suffered because of the opposition of senior commanders to the idea of such an unconventional force. It was three years after Crete before the Allied squadrons were ready. “Delivered at the wrong place at the wrong time”—a litany of mistakes almost without parallel in the war. They were dropped into the sea off Sicily, scattered at night over Normandy, and released over a thick smoke screen across the Rhine. The American glider pilots were a mixed bag: flunked-out aviation cadets; men who were too old for flight-crew training or who could not pass the strict physical examination; ground troops who wished to get into the Air Corps; men who wanted adventure, wanted to try something new—and, above all, to fly. The British glider pilots were from the same mold. Bored with the Army routine in an England on the defensive after Dunkirk, they volunteered by the thousands. It was the risk, the smell of danger that lured them, as it had tempted Englishmen for centuries. Officers fled from safe desk jobs for the chance to fly and fight. Brawlers who detested discipline and lived only for combat eagerly answered the call.

Milton Dank served as a glider pilot with the 439th Troop Carrier Group in Europe from February 1944 to June 1945, flying the southern France, Holland, and Rhine missions. Subsequently receiving his doctorate in theoretical physics, he worked for fifteen years as a research physicist in the aerospace industry. He is also the author of The French Against the French, an account of collaboration and resistance under the German occupation. Dr. Dank lives with his wife in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. He has two daughters.

Hard cover
ISBN 1-57638-173-0

Soft cover
ISBN 1-57638-172-2

Merriam Press
218 Beech Street
Bennington, VT 05201, USA

Captured by SS by Milton Dank