In Operation Beggar, Horsa gliders desperately needed for the invasion of Sicily were flown all the way from England to Tunisia, through skies patrolled by German aircraft.
RAF Flight Lieutenant D A ‘Tommy’ Grant was one of the key men behind the coup-de-main successes of the Glider Pilot Regiment in the invasions of Sicily and Normandy. For Sicily he towed the only Horsa glider to reach its LZ next to the Ponte Grande bridge. For Normandy he trained the glider pilots who landed with such spectacular accuracy to seize the Orne River and Caen Canal bridges.
In early 1943 Grant was a test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, where he was one of a small number of expert pilots dedicated to exploring and developing the techniques and technology of the new art of glider warfare. When he heard that a glider operation was in the offing in North Africa, he arranged to have himself posted on an operational attachment to 295 Squadron. The Squadron comprised the Halifaxes that were due to tow Horsas during the invasion of Sicily.
Three night operations were planned against bridges in Sicily: Ladbroke, a glider assault near Syracuse; Glutton, a parachute and glider attack near Augusta; and Fustian, a parachute and glider attack near Catania.
Most of the gliders involved were to be American Wacos, which could be shipped by sea, disassembled in crates. The Horsas, however, had to be flown all the way from England to Tunisia, through skies patrolled by German aircraft.
Although fraught with difficulties and dangers, the effort was considered vital. The Horsa could carry a whole platoon of troops, which could immediately deploy as a tactically cohesive unit in a coup-de-main operation, such as seizing a bridge.
A Horsa could also carry both a 6 pounder anti-tank gun and its jeep. The smaller Waco could carry only a gun or a jeep, but not both, thus requiring two gliders per gun. The chances of the gun crew finding each other after a night landing in rough country were slim, leaving the lightly armed airborne troops exposed to enemy tank attacks.
All this meant that each additional Horsa that took part might tip the balance between success and failure. It was crucial that as many Horsas as possible should reach Tunisia, where the departure airfields for the invasion were clustered.
What follows is a transcript of Tommy Grant’s after-action report on the Horsa ferrying operation, Operation Beggar, also known as Operation Turkey Buzzard. Text in square brackets is editorial.
This was the first attempt at long range ferrying of gliders, and it should be of interest in considering whether gliders can be used as long range freight carriers.
The plan was to ferry 36 Horsa gliders to Kairouan, Tunisia, by the 9th July [the eve of D-Day for the invasion of Sicily]. ‘A’ Flight, No.295 Squadron, were to do the ferrying, using 12 Halifaxes Mk.V. These Halifaxes were also to tow the gliders into operation on the night of the 9th July [when the gliders took off for Sicily in Operation Ladbroke].
The ferry journey was divided into three stages, the first, Portreath [in Cornwall] to Salé, near Rabat, Morocco, the second, Salé to Froha [in Algeria], 10 miles South of Mascara, and the third, Froha to Kairouan [in Tunisia, where the take-off airfields for the invasion were located]. This operation was not fully successful. At Kairouan on the evening of the 9th July there were only 19 Horsas and 7 Halifaxes with their crews and one spare Halifax. That is to say, just over 50% of the gliders and Halifaxes with crews arrived. The last Halifax and glider arrived on mid-day on the 9th.
The Squadron had certain initial difficulties. I believe that No.38 Wing were told to go ahead with the operation when there was very little time left for preparation. The conversion of ‘A’ Flight to Halifaxes had in consequence to be hurried. Three crews were lost on this conversion. Replacement crews were converted in even less time. One pilot who had only recently come to the Squadron from Oxfords flew his first Halifax on 1st June: he left England towing a Horsa on 14th June, towed four Horsas to North Africa, and took part in the operation. My crew made up the number to 12, but it was not complete until 25th June. Unfortunately, about ten days earlier one Halifax had crashed flying to Portreath in bad weather, and the number of crews was reduced again to 11.
The ferrying had to be carried out in about six weeks. To tow 36 Horsas to Kairouan entailed some 77 hours flying for each Halifax crew, 50 hours of which were towing. Counting glider hours, the total amount of flying required was approximately 1300 hours. This demanded first class serviceability of the tugs.
The Squadron also had bad luck with their stores. The stores for the Halifaxes were sent ahead by direct Air Ministry arrangement. They had not begun to arrive at the Squadron until the operation was completed. In consequence, the Squadron had to do most of their ferrying not only far away from their bases in England but also away from any proper facilities for inspecting and servicing the aircraft.
Portreath to Salé (1,400 miles)
31 gliders left Portreath in about 40 days for Salé; only 27 arrived, one of which crashed on landing, and another went unserviceable on landing and was not used in the operation.
The Halifaxes for this journey were at full petrol load (2,500 gallons), making an all up load of 62,000 lbs. None of this petrol was jettisonable. The Halifaxes were above three-engined load, and as the auxiliary tanks were in the bomb bays, if an engine had cut, it would have been impossible to force land wheels up without the risk of fire. The Squadron did have one fatal accident caused by fire when force landing, wheels up, at full fuel load.
I was told that the gliders had never been towed by Halifaxes at this load before. The Squadron said that they had asked A.F.E.E. [the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment] to clear the Halifaxes for towing this load, but were told that they were too busy. The Squadron, therefore, had to do it themselves. For this tow, the Horsa jettisoned its undercarriage, and carried a spare undercarriage.
The flight was carried out in daylight, as it was thought too risky to fly by night, in case the tug flew into cloud. The blind flying instrument developed by the R.A.E. [Royal Aircraft Establishment] was fitted in the first few Horsas. However, it had never been seen before by the glider pilots, and was looked at with distrust. Neither glider pilot nor tug pilot liked the idea of the glider flying under the slipstream; the glider pilot because he thought that the slipstream of a Halifax was so powerful that it would make the glider uncontrollable, the tug pilot because he thought that it would stall the aircraft at that load.
The authorities at Portreath had to guarantee the combination that they would not have to go through cloud. This meant considerable delay awaiting good weather. In fact, several pilots had to fly through cloud. Two glider pilots climbed through 2,000 feet of cloud successfully on an Aldis lamp shone from the rear turret of the tugs. One glider pilot got into trouble in cloud, the rope broke and he ditched the glider in the Bay of Biscay. He was picked up by a destroyer ten hours later, and the Horsa was still afloat.
For safety, the tugs were sent a considerable distance out to sea, making a journey of approximately 1,400 miles. In spite of this, one tug was shot down by two F.W. Condors, who were returning from a raid on a convoy off Portugal. The glider was released during the battle and the three glider pilots were picked up by a Spanish ship after eleven days in a dinghy. Another tug and glider were missing from this part of the journey; no news has yet been received of them.
I myself never did this tow. I waited at Portreath for five days for good weather, and then was re-called to the Squadron as the wrong hydraulic fluid had been put in my aircraft. As there was a considerable amount of towing to do in Africa, I was then sent out in an aircraft which had not had a consumption test, and could not tow. It was not a very pleasant tow for the pilots, apart from the worry about the weather. I towed a glider with a loaded Halifax in England. The recommended speed was 130 to 135 m.p.h. I did not feel that at that speed with a loaded Halifax there was much in hand. One pilot told me that in order to get as quickly as possible into weak mixture (plus 4 lb. boost, 2650 revs.) he flew at 120 – 125 m.p.h.
An escort of Beaufighters was provided for the first three hours of the trip. They insisted that the flight should be made at 500 feet, to avoid interception on their return flight.
One tug pilot had a starboard outer engine failure at 400 feet three hours out to sea; he managed to bring his glider back to England. It was a very good bit of flying, as he can only just have been under the three engine load for a Halifax alone.
The casualties on this trip were as follows:-
1 Shot down by enemy action. 1 Shot down by enemy action.
1 Missing. 1 Missing.
1 Forced landed into the sea. 1 Crashed on the way to Portreath.
1 Brought back.
1 Written off on landing at Salé.
Salé to Froha (350 miles)
For this trip and the trip to Kairouan the Horsas undercarriages were not jettisoned. The tug pilots considered that the undercarriage made a difference of at least plus 1 lb. boost on their throttle settings. This would seem to be true, because in no case did any tug pilot manage to get into weak mixture during a tow in Africa. Most pilots were flying at +5 1/2 lb. boost, 2650 revs., even after nearly four hours towing.
Unfortunately, there was frequently low cloud in the early morning at Salé. As we could not fly through cloud, we had to wait until the sun cleared the cloud away. I did two tows from Salé; both were done late in the day, and they were extremely bumpy.
During this part of the journey, two gliders were dropped in the desert. I believe that in both cases it was the fault of the tug crew. One was recovered in time for the operation.
Froha to Kairouan (600 miles)
This journey was more difficult than the journey from Salé. The mountains between Salé and Froha were 3,000 – 4,000 feet. Between Froha and Kairouan we had to fly over mountains up to 7,000 feet. I used to fly at 9,000 feet. Some pilots flew lower, even at 6,500 feet along the valleys. This was all right if one got there early in the morning, but later in the day one could lose as much as 1,300 feet in one bump. During my last trip I lost about 3,000 feet over a period of 10 minutes.
This was an extremely tiring trip for the pilots. It involved a long climb at 100 feet a minute to 9,000 feet, and either a very bumpy journey if they started late, or an hour and half flying dead into the morning sun.
The first glider was delivered on the 28th of June. I delivered the second one on the 29th. We were obviously behind schedule, and the Officers in charge of the operation did their best to rectify this. Each tug was to do one journey there and back per day, 7 – 8 hours flying. The aircraft were serviced in the evening, and if necessary at night. According to the programme I was down for 42 hours flying in six days. The other pilots were to average about 35 hours flying in five days. Needless to say, nobody completed this programme, as the Halifaxes could not stand up to it.
My starboard oleo leg [part of the undercarriage] went flat, and I did not do a long tow between 29th June and 5th July. For this reason, I delivered only two gliders to Kairouan. I did not have any engine trouble. Other pilots were not so lucky. On five occasions gliders were released owing to engine trouble and landed in the desert. Four gliders remained in the desert during the operations. On the whole the Squadron was lucky not to lose more gliders. On three occasions Squadron Leader Wilkinson had engine trouble. On two he brought his glider back to Froha. On the third he managed to get it to Kairouan. After releasing the glider he had to feather the second engine and landed on two. That Halifax was unserviceable for the operation awaiting three engine changes. In all, on this part of the trip, there were 5 Halifaxes which had to have engine changes. Two Halifax crews were not able to reach Kairouan at all, and took no part in the operation.
Long distance towing
It is impossible to use a Halifax/Horsa combination economically for carrying freight over distances exceeding 1,000 miles – the fuel load of a Halifax is too high. The safety factor is so small that it is impossible to put any appreciable freight into the Horsa.
Horsas can be ferried light over long distances, provided great care is taken to ensure that the Halifax is in very good condition. Special attention should be paid to the loosening of joints in oil and coolant systems by vibration. I calculated that during my attachment to No.295 Squadron they had approximately 25 engine failures on Halifaxes in flight. One pilot had six engine failures during flight in three weeks. Some, no doubt, could be attributed to the fault of the crew, but the majority were oil or coolant leaks due to vibration. An oil leak may easily force the Halifax to jettison his glider, and two oil leaks on a long sea journey may cause complete loss of the Halifax.
My own experience is, perhaps, interesting. I had no engine failures while towing. Counting the operation, my aircraft did approximately 22 hours towing in Africa. Before returning to England, it was given a 40 hour inspection. On the journey back to England I had three engine failures, one on the journey to Ras-el-Ma, one in the Bay of Biscay, and the third as I came over Valley Aerodrome, where I landed on two engines. All these were caused by oil leaks, and all within 17 hours ordinary flying (not towing) after a 40 hour inspection.
The other two aircraft which left Africa for England at the same time are missing. I do not imagine that they were shot down by enemy aircraft, as there was plenty of cloud cover. Both may have had two engine failures. Each had had a 40 hour inspection before leaving.
On all long ferrying tows it is absolutely necessary for the glider to jettison his undercarriage. I suggest that the blind flying instrument should be used. This should enable the flight to Africa to be done by night, thus making it shorter and safer.
It is essential that the bomb-bay tanks in the Halifaxes should be made jettisonable. I think that it would be advisable to have an auxiliary hand pump from these tanks, in case the electrical immersion pump fails, as it did on one occasion.
Ferrying gliders long distances is practical, but it is not a very simple or quick way of delivering them. It requires considerable ground organization and adequate inspection facilities for the tug at each stage. If this journey were to be attempted again, I think that the journey from Salé to Kairouan should be made in one trip, the Horsa jettisoning its undercarriage on take-off. The Halifax should have one auxiliary tank of fuel.
This article first appeared in Glider Pilot’s Notes, the magazine of the Glider Pilot Regiment Society.