The San Diego Air & Space Museum recently unveiled a new Combat Gliders exhibit in the World War II Gallery. The exhibit is laid out in five panels – Combat Gliders of World War II, The World at War, Training, Operations, and Carl Gwartney – and on one video monitor.
Combat Gliders of WWII
A little known and less publicized aspect of World War II history is the story of the combat glider. The idea of inserting troops in selected target areas via gliders originated with the Germans and deployed most famously at the assault on the Belgian Eben Emael fortress, and at other sites elsewhere, in 1940. As a result, Major General Hap Arnold, active Deputy Chief of Staff for Air, quickly realized the advantages of the tactic and initiated a program to develop American combat glider capability early in 1941. Ultimately, 5,500 enlisted personnel would earn glider pilot wings while being trained for combat. They would be promoted to Staff Sergeant for their role in the program, or maintain their current rank if it was higher. This exhibit tells the story of those brave men, the aircraft developed for that purpose, the training requirements, and the operations in which they participated. It also highlights the career of one San Diegan GC-4A glider pilot and his heroic accomplishments.
The World at War
It was the Soviet successes with military glider design that inspired the German Luftwaffe to proceed with their program and with the design and construction of their DFS 230, 10 troop capacity gliders. The type was used quite effectively against allied positions on the western front early in the war. The 23 troop Gotha 242 and Messerschmitt 321 large capacity gliders followed on. The successful use of the DFS 230 in the assault at Eben Emael prompted efforts at combat glider development in the United States in 1941-1942.
The most widely deployed U.S. combat glider was the WACO CG-4A, first used in the invasion of Sicily. Flight tested in May of 1942, eventually 13,900 were produced by WACO, Ford, Cessna, Gibson Appliance and others. Constructed primarily of steel tubing and wood with fabric covering, they were capable of transporting 13 troops, flight crew of two and their equipment, to positions behind enemy lines. WACO also produced the 30 troop CG-13A of the same type construction, deployed in both Europe and the Pacific.
Combat glider development began in Great Britain at about the same time as it did in the U.S. Best known and most widely deployed of the several designs was the British “Horsa,” a 28 troop aircraft of which 3,600 were built. A smaller glider, the Slingsbee “Hengist,” reached the production stage but was dropped in favor of the U.S. built WACO CG-4A when it became generally available to the Allies. A massive seven-ton capacity cargo glider was also developed at the time by General Aircraft of Great Britain. Known as the “Hamilcar,” it was capable of transporting light tanks and other transport vehicles directly to the scene of the action.
Glider pilot training began with the call for 5,500 (later upped to 6,000) enlisted personnel who would sign on to one of the most hazardous operational duties the Army Air Corps would offer. From a series of airfields scattered about the country, the recruits would lift off behind a tow aircraft in mostly modified light aircraft of the time from Taylorcraft and Aeronca. Their engines were removed and replaced by a pilot’s seat, crating the TG-5A and TG-6A (for training glider) designations. They would become the backbone of the Glider pilot training program in the United States. From start to finish, the syllabus entailed approximately 60 to 70 hours of instruction in primary and advanced schools before the newly minted combat pilots were sent to war.
From the time General Arnold ordered the creation of a combat glider force until the first pilots and machines would see combat, more than two years would pass. From the first Allied use of the tactic during the invasion of Sicily in July of 1943, to the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944, in the Philippines and Burma toward the end of the war, the program would experience both tragic failures and moderate successes. Among the former, loss of life and equipment during crashes on unprepared surfaces were extremely costly. Failing to reach the intended landing zones proved similarly despairing, where for example, 250 troops drowned during the battle for Sicily when more than 20 gliders did not reach landfall. On the other hand, among the successful operations, on D-Day, gliders, along with paratroopers, landed safely six to 10 miles behind enemy lines in Normandy to help protect the troops that stormed the beaches of the English Channel. The final glider mission of the war took place at Luzon, Switzerland on June 23, 1945.
San Diego’s own combat glider pilot, Carl Gwartney, was born in Alamosa, Colorado in 1920. It was there in central Colorado where he learned to fly at age 18, accumulating more than 300 hours of flight time before joining the U.S. Army Air Corps glider program in 1942. After completing initial training at Condor Field, CA (Twentynine Palms) flying the TG-2, followed advanced training at Dalhart and Lubbock, TX, in the CG-4A, he was assigned to the 313th Troop Carrier Group – 29th Troop Carrier Squadron.
Based initially in Tunisia, Morocco, and later Sicily, his squadron flew troops from the 82nd Airborne into the island during the invasion in July of 1943. Following the Sicily operation, Gwartney’s squadron relocated to Folkingham, England where he flew in support of the D-Day invasion of Normandy and later on September 18, when he piloted the 17th glider to land in Holland during “Operation Market Garden.”
It was somewhat unusual for glider pilots to fly as many as three missions due to the difficulty in returning to base after completion. Many became foot soldiers for extend periods of time as a result and many were killed in action. Carl was thankfully an exception.
When the war ended Carl chose San Diego as his home where he worked at the San Diego Union newspaper for his entire career. And while he did not pursue further powered flight, he did take up flying RC model aircraft and achieved a level of sophistication at the craft few others would equal. Built by Carl’s friend Ray Menegus, a CG-4 glider modeled after the one he flew on his last mission, is suspended in the Museum’s World War II Gallery. It will eventually be towed by a C-47 as it was during “Operation market Garden.”