World War II: On a Wing and a Prayer: A Closer Look at Military Glider Aircraft

Image: World War II Through the Lens of William D. Willis

In my previous online display, I explained that gliders were lightweight engineless aircraft that were used by the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II to transport troops and heavy equipment into enemy-controlled areas without detection. However, the United States was not the first to use this innovation so how did the idea of gliders start and by whom?

Image: A C-47 Skytrain towing a Waco CG-4A glider
A C-47 Skytrain towing a Waco CG-4A glider

Surprisingly, it was Germany that first used gliders. As a result of the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended World War I, Germany was prohibited from having an air force or from using any type of aircraft to train pilots except for gliders. Soon, glider clubs and training schools became popular. In 1932, the Soviet Union developed larger gliders that seated up to 18 people and could transport heavy equipment and cargo.

As Germany experienced the slow rise of a leader named Adolf Hitler, who was responsible for the formation of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party also known as the Nazi party, the country began to rebuild its military which included the new German air force called the Luftwaffe. After World War II started with the invasion of Poland by Germany, the Luftwaffe first used gliders in May of 1940 to land troops to quickly overtake the Eben Emael fortress which dominated the River Meuse in Belgium. This use of gliders in military service prompted the British, Americans and Japanese to develop their own glider programs.

Let’s examine how the United States started its glider program. Maj. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, acting Deputy Chief of Staff for Air, was largely responsible for selecting the Waco Aircraft Company from Ohio to produce military gliders for the United States. The Waco CG-4A glider, towed by a C-47 Skytrain or Dakota, was most commonly used in missions because it could carry a cargo load of 3,710 pounds manned by a crew of two pilots. For example, this type of glider could accommodate 13 combat-ready troops, a jeep and/or a small artillery piece. Although the use of military gliders accelerated after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they soon earned the nickname “flying coffins” because of the high rate of casualties during both training and assigned missions. Examples of the Waco CG-4A glider and the C-47 Skytrain are on display at the Air Mobility Command Museum in Dover, Del.

Delaware was certainly at the forefront of the glider program. In June 1943, Maj. Gen. Arnold appointed Richard C. du Pont, Sr. from Wilmington to head the Army Air Force glider program. It was the highlight of my research to learn how Delawareans played an important role in shaping the glider program. Sadly, du Pont was killed in California on Sept. 11, 1943 during a demonstration flight of an experimental glider, but his brother, Maj. A. Felix du Pont, Jr., who was serving as the head of combat training and the director of glider operations in the Pacific Theater, assumed the position as head of the glider program. Another interesting fact to add from my research is that the du Pont brothers had founded an airmail service called the All American Aviation Company, which later became US Airways.

Glider troops participated in many of the major campaigns in the European Theater of Operations including the invasion of Sicily, the Normandy invasion (D-Day), Operation Market Garden and the crossing of the Rhine. They also participated in the war in the Pacific. In all military missions made by the glider troops, causalities were unavoidable so safety precautions were practiced. However, I found it interesting that glider troops were not required to wear parachutes.

Today, gliders are no longer used in military service except by the U.S. Air Force for training purposes. The American glider program became defunct soon after the end of World War II but it is interesting to mention that the United States produced 14,612 gliders of all types and trained over 6,000 glider pilots between 1941 and 1945. I will also add that the 305th Troop Carrier Squadron, currently the 305th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron that operates from the New Castle Air National Guard Base, dropped paratroopers and released gliders with reinforcements in the invasion of Normandy and in Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands in June and September 1944.

Image: Two C-47 Skytrains
Photograph of two C-47 Skytrains
Image: Dr. Carolyn Apple

Carolyn Apple Author

Dr. Carolyn Apple was a retired Dover-area emergency medicine physician and Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs volunteer.

The images in this display were selected from the William D. Willis World War II Photographic Collection, one of the permanent collections preserved by the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. Mr. Willis of Dover, Del. served as a photographic technician with the Army Air Force during the Second World War.

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