A death-defying D-day mission in a wooden glider

Major Howard’s 180-strong company of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, from the 6th Airborne Division, had been training for this moment for two years. For many, this would be their first experience of combat. After abandoning their crashed aircraft, they would have to have to fight on foot.  

While the name “glider” may imply a calm journey, Major Howard admitted to BBC current affairs programme 60 Minutes in 1984 that travelling in these aircraft was anything but smooth. “Most of us were sick in gliders, but the funny thing is that the only time I was never sick in a glider, and I must have done 12 or 13 flights altogether with training, was on the night of D-Day,” he said. Towed by heavy bomber planes, the six gliders took off from Tarrant Rushton, a Royal Air Force base in southern England, at 22:56 on 5 June 1944. After about an hour in the air, the gliders were released from their restraints to begin their final descent into enemy territory.  

Prepare for landing

Major Howard said when the order was given to prepare for landing, all they could do was interlock arms and fingers with their comrades and hope for the best. “You’re sitting facing one another, you link arms, you do a butcher’s grip like that, you lift your legs and you just pray to God,” he said. “Before we almost had time to do that, there was the first thump of a landing, and it was a hell of a crash. And before we knew it, we were airborne again – we’d obviously bounced. On that first bounce, the wheels had come off.  

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“We expected that because it was a very bumpy old field, it wasn’t like an airfield, and we were going to land on skids. Then there was another thundering crash, and this time I saw sparks, or what looked like Tracer (bullets) going past the door of the window, and I thought, ‘my God, they’re ready for us. They know we’ve arrived.'” The glider bounced again and then came to a juddering halt. They had survived the crash landing. Would they now be met with a hail of German bullets? For Major Howard, everything went dark. “It occurred to me that there was no firing, and I couldn’t see anything,” he said. “The first fear was that I’d been blinded in the crash. I felt my body, that felt alright, and then I realised that all that happened was my battle bowler had come down over my eyes. I’d hit the top of the glider.” With only moonlight to guide them, the gliders had landed in silence just 30 metres (98 ft) from their target.  

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