Although Operation Market Garden failed to take Arnhem 75 years ago this month, it proved to be an intriguing chapter in wartime aviation as Allan Mallinson explains

75 years ago this month, Operation Market Garden failed to take Arnhem. Allan Mallinson explains how it has become a fascinating chapter in wartime aviation.

For more intriguing wartime history, read about the Cavalry at Cambrai, when tanks fought alongside mounted soliders for the first time, marking a turning point in the First World War.


In the annals of the British Army… there can be few episodes more glorious than the epic of Arnhem.” Field Marshal Montgomery’s tribute to the men of the First Airborne Division, who in September 1944 battled heroically but unsuccessfully for the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem in the Netherlands, has stood the test of time. Few battles are still commemorated with the same defiant pride as Operation Market Garden, especially in the Parachute Regiment.

While the battle honour ‘Arnhem 1944’ and the Parachute Regiment are forever, and rightly, linked, there were others who fought and died there. Besides the supporting arms and services who jumped with the Paras on 17 September (engineers, signals, medical and more), there were many whose arrival by air was equally, if not more, perilous. More than half the 1st Airborne Division landed by glider. Of Arnhem’s five VCs, two were awarded to the Parachute Regiment, one was won by an RAF pilot and two went to the glider-borne First Air Landing Brigade.

Like so many wartime innovations, the British Army’s glider troops had been decisively championed by Winston Churchill. On 10 May 1940, the day he became prime minister, German troops invaded Belgium and a handful of glider-borne Fallschirmjäger captured the supposedly impregnable fortress of Eben-Emael. In September 1939, Fallschirmjäger had landed by parachute and seized key targets in Poland, and in April 1940 in Norway, and would do so again in the Low Countries during the May Blitzkrieg. Six weeks later, after the British evacuation at Dunkirk, Churchill sent a memorandum to General ‘Pug’ Ismay, his military assistant, saying:

“We ought to have a corps of at least 5,000 parachute troops… I hear that something is being done to form such a corps but only I believe on a small scale. Advantage must be taken of the summer to train these forces who can nonetheless play their part meanwhile as shock troops in Home Defence. Pray let me have a note from the War Office on the subject.”

The something being done was the opening of the experimental Central Landing Establishment at RAF Ringway, now Manchester Airport. Consequently, in August, the Air Ministry was able to report that 500 volunteers were being trained as parachutists. Churchill was disconcerted that this was only a 10th of what he’d wanted but conceded that gliders had greater potential. The problem with parachute troops was that they were widely scattered during the drop. At Arnhem, the commanding officer of the Second Battalion, Parachute Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel John Frost, famously used a hunting horn to rally his battalion. Glider-borne troops, on the other hand, landed in formed bodies of sections and platoons, making rallying quicker. The gliders were, however, highly vulnerable to flak while being towed, as well as to small-arms fire during the glide in after release from the tug aircraft, and to obstacles on the landing ground. As their pilots joked, gliders were ‘towed targets’; every landing was a crash-landing, a ‘planned accident’.


Initially, the Air Ministry insisted that glider pilots must be RAF. The Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Arthur Harris (later dubbed ‘Bomber’ Harris by Churchill when commander-in-chief Bomber Command), wrote: “The idea that semi-skilled, unpicked personnel (infantry corporals have, I believe, even been suggested) could with a maximum of training be entrusted with the piloting of these troop carriers is fantastic. Their (the gliders) operation is equivalent to forced landing the largest-sized aircraft without engine aid – than which there is no higher test of piloting skill.”

However, there was the tricky problem of what the glider pilots would do once on the ground. Clearly they could not be evacuated until ground troops arrived, or airstrips were captured to allow aircraft to fly in and out. The Army wanted them to fight as infantry. This was not appealing to the RAF, who saw pilots as expensive to train and not to be risked in this way. Two events forced the issue.

In April 1941, Churchill visited Ringway to find just a handful of glider pilots in training. He wrote angrily to Ismay: “Let me have this day the minute which I wrote in the summer of last year directing that 5,000 Parachute Troops were to be prepared, together with all the minutes of the departments concerned which led to my afterwards agreeing to reduce the number to 500. I shall expect to receive the office files by midnight. Let me have all the present proposals for increasing the Parachute and Glider force together with a timetable of expected results.”

Then, the following month, Fallschirmjäger captured Crete. Churchill now insisted on urgent action and a compromise was found. The Army would supply the pilots and the RAF would train them. To smooth administration, a new organisation would be formed, the Army Air Corps, with two autonomous regiments, the Glider Pilot and the Parachute. There would be no shortage of volunteers for both.

Operation Market Garden

Dakotas towing Horsa gliders towards Arnhem on 18 September 1944, by Gary Eason.

Fortunately the War Office and Air Ministry had already put out to tender specifications for several types of glider, so production was stepped up relatively quickly. The first, General Aircraft Ltd’s Hotspur, named after the medieval warrior knight (all subsequent models would be named after famous warriors), had arrived at Ringway in early 1941. It could carry eight fully laden troops, but although a thousand would be built they were used solely for training. Instead, the Horsa, named after the legendary Saxon warrior, would become the mainstay of the air-landing forces. Developed by Airspeed Ltd at Christchurch in Hampshire, it was constructed almost entirely of three-ply wood, had a wing-span of 88ft (27 metres) and a length of 67ft (20 metres). The pilots – there was a co-pilot in each type of glider – sat side by side, unlike in tandem with the Hotspur. Visibility was much improved, too, by a head-to-foot Perspex windscreen. The Horsa could carry 28 troops, the standard airborne platoon, or equipment such as jeeps and light guns. Fully-laden, it weighed three-quarters of a ton, needing a strong tug aircraft to get it into the air. In all some 3,500 would be built.

But an airborne force needed heavier equipment than could be carried in the Horsa or dropped by parachute. General Aircraft Ltd was therefore contracted to develop a heavy lift glider, christened the Hamilcar after the Carthaginian general, father of Hannibal. It was only a foot longer than the Horsa but its wingspan was 25% greater, allowing a fully-laden weight of nearly 17 tons. It could, therefore, carry a 25-pounder field gun or 17-pounder anti-tank gun plus the prime mover, or two jeeps, or a light bulldozer. Its main intended cargo was, however, the Tetrarch light tank. But so tight was the fit that once embarked, the Tetrarch’s crew had to remain inside the tank. Some 400 Hamilcars were built during the war, though relatively few were used operationally, in part because of a shortage of powerful enough tug aircraft.

Perhaps the most unconventional of all cargoes, however, were the mules and packhorses airlifted into Burma in 1944 in US Army Air Force Waco gliders during the second British ‘Chindit’ operation against the Japanese. The Waco could carry three horses or mules, the more headstrong being sedated for the flight, and were accompanied by a soldier with a rifle in case they became dangerously unmanageable.

Accidents during training, as well as on operations, were frequent. Keeping the glider in the right position relative to the tug aircraft was critical, and in cloud nigh impossible. Too high or low and the tow-rope would break, especially in the early days when they were made of hemp. Nylon ropes from America, with more stretch (up to 25%), improved matters, though stretching meant that the telephone cable between tug and glider coiled round the rope was more liable to snap. Without intercommunication, accidents and misjudged release were more likely.


Glider pilots and the men of the Parachute Regiment were all volunteers, but the air-landing troops were detailed en bloc from existing, mainly regular, infantry battalions – and seemingly arbitrarily. First Battalion The Border Regiment, after being evacuated from Dunkirk, had spent the next 18 months training with packhorses and mules for an undisclosed purpose, but in early 1942 were suddenly told of their new airborne role. Not all the men felt up to it. Good sense prevailed, however: they were allowed to transfer to other, newly raised, battalions of the regiment, and replaced by volunteers from those same units. The turnover was 40% but esprit de corps received a boost when the battalion learned that glider troops would wear the maroon beret.

First Border went into action with First Air Landing Brigade in July 1943 during the Allied invasion of Sicily. Strong winds, pitch darkness – in part due to dust whipped up by the wind – and the inexperience of the American tug pilots led to half the gliders being released prematurely and landing in the sea. The battalion lost 50% of its fighting strength in the operation. After Sicily, the rule was that gliders were not to be released at night over water.

With the rest of First Air Landing Brigade they were brought back to Britain to be reconstituted for the ‘Second Front’, the liberation of North-West Europe. During the autumn and winter, however, many men left to become Paras. Although glider troops were paid an extra shilling a day, it was only half what a paratrooper received – which, with the glamour of parachute wings on the shoulder, was a great pull. Replacements were drafted from Young Soldiers’ Battalions, holding units for 18-year-olds who had completed basic training. Arnhem would be their first taste of battle.

After the Normandy Landings in June 1944, where airborne troops also played a major role, and the subsequent advance to the Dutch border, Allied progress was slowing. Operation Market Garden was a bold attempt to restore momentum. ‘Market’ was the airborne plan to seize the bridges along the main road through Nijmegen and beyond to Arnhem, while ‘Garden’ was the follow-up by Second (British) Army to cross the Rhine at Arnhem (an advance of 60 miles) for a break out onto the North German Plain. The bridges at Eindhoven and Nijmegen were to be taken by the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, and at Arnhem by the British First Airborne. The First Air Landing Brigade’s task was to secure a firm base west of Arnhem to support First Airborne’s two parachute brigades as they seized and held the bridge. Over two days, some 600 Horsas and 30 Hamilcars would set out for Arnhem. Losses of gliders, and therefore of men and equipment, were around 10%.

The German defences, and the unexpectedly strong Panzer reserves nearby, proved too strong, however, and the Paras were unable to take and hold the bridge. After nine days’ fighting, the survivors having withdrawn into the firm base at Oosterbeek, and the ground forces failing to make it to their relief, the remnants of the division were ordered to slip south across the river under cover of darkness. Of the 10,000 men of the First Airborne Division who had landed by parachute or glider, just 3,000 came out.

After Arnhem, First Air Landing Brigade, though quickly brought back up to reasonable strength, did not see action again. In March 1945 a second air-landing brigade spearheaded the crossing of the Rhine, Operation Plunder, with many RAF pilots flying the gliders, so great had been the losses in Army pilots. However, after the war, glider training in the British Army dwindled, the newly developed helicopter taking over the role of ferrying troops instead. In 1957 the Glider Pilot Regiment was disbanded. Some 2,500 pilots had been trained during its 15 years’ existence and 592 had died in service, a colossal attrition rate.

Montgomery told the survivors of First Airborne, “In years to come it will be a great thing for a man to be able to say, ‘I fought at Arnhem’.”

Over a thousand of those who fought there were the glider pilots.

The story of the gliders is told at The Army Flying Museum at Middle Wallop, Hampshire. Allan Mallinson’s The Making of the British Army is published by Penguin Random House (£12.99 paperback).