FLYING MAGAZINE – NOVEMBER 1943

Attack By Glider  by John Stuart

Flying Magazine Cover - November 1943 By demonstrating its ability to deliver armament and troops under difficult conditions, the Airborne Command has given the AAF glider program a new lease on life.

The magazine in it’s entirety can be viewed here – November 1943 – Flying

 

 

Nov 1942 - Flying Magazine Page 1 of ArticleNov 1942 Flying Magazine Page 2 of ArticleNov 1942 Flying Magazine Page 3 of ArticleNov 1942 Flying Magazine Page 4 of Article   

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Attack By Glider  by John Stuart

The Army Air forces has learned how to take ground and hold it.

That statement can be made confidently. How much ground may be taken, how decisively it can be held, are details that await the test of battle. There are many tactical bugs to be ironed out before the high command will risk the tow of large numbers of human dice – the troopers of the air-borne command in parachutes and gliders – behind enemy objectives on a large scale. But it can be stated definitely that the principle of taking and holding enemy territory from the air has been proved valid. The high command is committed to the principle and its application awaits only the working out of the few “hows” and “wheres.”

The time may not be far off. It is significant that Gen. H.H. Arnold, chief of the Air Forces, on his flight to England very recently was accompanied by Maj. Gen. W.C. Lee, who commands a certain unspecified airborne division. That news was greeted with cheers by the men who handle our big troop-carrying gliders. In training and in tactical practice they have been hammering up and down into and out of the air and wondering if they are ever going to get a crack at the enemy in their own distinctive way.

It is probably only because they are “mad,” also in their own distinctive way that they have stuck to gliders anyway. For the glider training program [See “One-Way Johnnies” in FLYING, June, 1943. Ed.], began with a series of vicissitudes and has been bewitched by certain tragedies right up to recent days. These include the death of the mayor of St. Louis, Mo., and other passengers in a glider accident due to a defective metal fitting and even more recently, the fatal California crash in which Richard C. DuPont, special assistant to General Arnold; and Col. P. Ernest Gabel, deputy director of the Army Air Forces glider program, lost their lives. Even the results of the Sicilian campaign may best be described as inconclusive so far as the Airborne Command is concerned.

The soundness of the principle of taking ground from the air has been established, however, because such incidents as those mentioned have been recognized as unfortunate nonessentials not impairing the validity of the principle itself.

The principle was never more forcefully demonstrated than it was before General Arnold at Laurinburg-Maxton Field in North Carolina, early in August. The principle may be described as follows: In silent gliders of amazing flight capabilities, organized cadres can be set down in fighting formation in places so unlikely that the enemy will not have thought it worth while to hold those places in adequate force.

The boys at Laurinburg-Maxton did just that. One afternoon in a brushstrewn, sapling-studded cow pasture, perhaps, 1,000 by 500 feet, 22 Waco CG-4A gliders cam slipping in over the trees at the field’s edge. Faster than observers could count them they came in from all directions. Some taxied up under the trees – three of them stopped just two fee short of the observers’ stand. Others spot-landed by brush heaps in the center of the field. Some actually split wings to get in between trees.

From most of them, before the minor sandstorm created by their landing had cleared away, charged 15 infantrymen, armed with everything from carbines to Garands. They “lit” running. Before they could be counted they had disappeared in the surrounding trees and the crack of their small arms and the whumphof their grenades could be heard as they staged a theoretical attack against a command post in the next field.

Meanwhile, from a group of trees in the middle of the field where two gliders had ended their ground run, came the wham of the good old “75.” A pack howitzer of that caliber had been landed and assembled there. The whole nose of another glider nearby rose up on hinges – and out rolled a jeep loaded with “75” ammunition. Another disgorged a 37 mm. antitank gun.

Within minutes, a fighting, coherent and co-ordinated attack with artillery support had been organized in that cow pasture.

Two landing gears had been washed out. The tail of one glider had been cut off. One had a wing split so deeply by a tree that it would hold a large man in the gap. But out of the strong, moly-steel tube box, which is the glider’s fuselage, every man and every fighting arm had emerged without damage and gone to work on the “enemy.”

That night the performance was repeated. Into a smaller cow pasture slipped six fully-manned gliders in absolute darkness and silence. Several hundred newspaper men, photographers and Army observers had gathered round the field, some miles from the Laurinburg-Maxton airdrome. They had been brought up in jeeps and cars. All car lights were immediately extinguished. Then a loud speaker from a tower ordered a stop to all smoking and all conversation above a whisper. The crowd was effectively absorbed into the night.

All road lights had been extinguished in the neighborhood, too. Only the distant flash of the Laurinburg-Maxton revolving beacon and the distant glow of the lights around its hangars and shops gave any indication of artificial illumination. Had an actual landing been planned, far behind the lines, it was the kind of illumination that might have come from an artillery barrage or flare for an infantry attack up front. We stood silent beneath the Carolina stars, peering into the sky. And some among the Army men were expert peerers and listeners.

They heard – and some said they saw them against the starts – the six Skytrains that were towing the gliders. Then all around and sight, except the stars, died away.

“They’ve cut loose,” someone whispered.

And there, in that darkness and silence, at least 200 people, knowing the gliders were coming, looked at the Milky Way and sought to get silhouette of a CG-4A. None that I talked to succeeded. Somewhere, up there against the clear starts, we all knew that six aircraft, almost as big as Skytrains, were circling in for a landing right at our feet. Yet nobody saw them – and nobody heard them.

It was so dark that we on the ground could only see the silhouettes of the tree tops at the other end of the field. We couldn’t estimate their distance or their height. We wondered how a glider pilot, up there in the sky, could see this hand-patch of a cow pasture and distinguish it from its lethal border of trees.

Suddenly there was a faint rumble off to the left, like a farm wagon miles away in the night. A carefully hooded hand flashlight (presumably in the hands of a spy or fifth columnist), glimmered weakly 10 feet from the trees beneath which we stood. And then, only because it was darker than the pale dried grass of the field, we saw the wing and tail of a big glider in front of us. And when it stopped there, utter silence fell again.

“It was empty, wasn’t it?” I asked a nearby major.

“Fifteen men jumped out and went into the brush,” he whispered. “They teach the boys not to bump their carbines against their belt buckles.”

The hooded flash now stood at the first glider’s tail, and almost immediately a second one came rumbling fairly up the field – nobody saw it come over the trees – and stopped three feet from its leader. Another taxied silently up alongside the first. Then two more and then absolute silence.

There was concern about the field.

“Six, weren’t there?” someone whispered.

“Yah, I hope nothing happened….” And the whisper died.

For, on the night air, came an indisputable hint of music. Faces looked grim as the strains grew louder. Suddenly, down the line a voce broke forth. It must have been a full colonel, at least, or a new second lieutenant.

“Tell that damn fool to cut off that radio in his car!” the voice shouted.

But the music wasn’t stilled. It grew into the clearly recognized melody of “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer.” It was, plainly, coming from a glider in the sky. Laughter broke out around the dark field as the music came in full brass chorus – but still nobody saw anything. The tune ended. There was that faint farm wagon rumble. And then, as a searchlight picked up that sixth glider, safely landed at the end of the line, its nose hinged up and out marched a 15-piece band, complete to the “oompah” of the tuba, playing “Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here.”

And “Hap” Arnold, the four-star general who commands all the Army Air Forces, turned to the late Colonel Gabel, who had staged the demonstration. “Hap” Arnold earned his nickname from the infectious grin that appears in most of his photographs. The men of the Air Forces, however, know how grim that smile can become when things go wrong. Now it was brighter than the searchlight.

“Boy,” he said. “This gang of yours is certainly here.

Telling about it to the newspaper correspondents next day, he elaborated.

“This is more than a great show,” he said. “This is a demonstration of what these boys can do. And when they can do things like that – it’s important.”

He saw them, too, land a glider, again with 15 armed men who came out not running but swimming – and still ready to fight – in the middle of a cypress stump lake. He saw Maj. “Mike” Murphy with six passengers in a CG-4A cut loose at six thousand feet and do nine loops and a couple of wing overs before he landed it, precisely, just 10 feet from General Arnold’s command car. He saw gliders towed in fleets and formations. He saw them towed behind almost every type of tactical airplane – how many types and what they are remains a secret. He saw developments of the CG-4A that will make it twice the potent striking weapon it is when it lights in some obscure and unprotected cow pasture in France or Germany.

Those who know General Arnold’s grin and the way it changes didn’t need his statement in words when the show was over. They knew he was “sold.” And they know, too, that when he is “sold” on a program – that program goes.

This, it should be cautioned, does not mean a new expansion in the glider program. Both in quantity and in quality those responsible for the program believe that their present plans will provide all the ground-taking power in the air that the grand strategy or the emergent tactics of the months to come will need. Despite all the vicissitudes and the tragedies they believe that quality is as good as quantity. There was every evidence of this at Laurinburg-Maxton. I talked to one officer, a West Point graduate of recent vintage, whose classmates are now full colonels in other branches of the service. He is only a captain. He has turned down [a] certain promotion to stick with the gliders.

“But suppose you’re coming in and a few enemy machine gun posts cut loose on you?” I asked.

“We don’t come in where there are enemy machine gun posts,” he answered very definitely.

Certainly there would have been no time to organize machine guns posts on the ground where they would do any good between the time those first gliders appeared over the trees and each had landed and disgorged its squad of 15 fighting, firing, grenade-tossing infantrymen. And of course, says the Airborne Command, the rear territory is thoroughly scouted before they choose a place to land.

Col. Reed Landis, veteran flyer and organizer and present commander of the Troop Carrier Command, expressed it at a dinner gathering when the show was over.

“The Troop Carrier Command,” he said, “is not only Paul Revere. It’s Paul Revere and his horse. And the good old Skytrain is something that might be compared with the squirrel rifle of Paul Revere’s day. It’s a weapon that, as you have been shown, can do about anything, including landing from the air the men who can take and hold ground.

“This war cannot be won without the kind of teamwork between ground and air that is represented in this work of the Airborne Command. And this war must be won conclusively.”

So, wait and see. There are a few tactical bugs to iron out. There are some logistic problems. There was a timetable or two that went wrong over Sicily to the bitter cost of the Airborne Command. But the basic principle has been established. It has been proven that air power is capable of the one function it has been accused of lacking – the ability to take and hold ground from the air.

Crete was an evidence of the principle’s validity, but there were holes in the evidence. Washington believes – and the men with the gliders are sure of it – that France and Germany will prove it “conclusively” in victory.  END

 

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