A ‘hero’ of D-Day – the Waco CG-4A assault glider
Tags: 'Market Garden', 'Varsity', aircraft, assault glider, Aviation, British Glider Pilot Regiment, D-Day, Elvington, England, glider, Hadrian, museum, Museums, Normandy, RAF, Second World War, Sicily, U S Army, USA, WACO CG-4A, warbird, WW2, Yorkshire Air Museum
They came from the dark sky in droves, seeking landing fields marked by beacons laid by pathfinders. They dove singly onto moonlit precision targets like bridges and strongpoints. They carried elite airborne infantry, troops from the United States, Canada and Britain, and their support arms such as the British QF 6-pounder anti-tank gun, or the U.S. 75mm pack howitzer, or the ubiquitous 1/4 ton Jeep. We are talking of the Waco CG-4A glider, one of the principal reasons the Allies took and held their initial targets in Normandy, on that fateful night of D-Day, 6th June, 1944.
The Waco Aircraft Corporation of Troy, Ohio (founded 1919) was the second oldest established manufacturer of civilian aircraft in the United States. It concentrated exclusively on building biplanes, and was quite successful, in the years before WW2. With the establishment of parachute and glider-borne infantry immediately prior to the outbreak of hostilities – principally by Germany – it was possible to see that the tactic of ‘vertical envelopment’ by means of airborne troops, and pinpoint attack of high value targets, would have great value in wartime. As well as parachute forces, the United States needed an assault glider, and needed one in a hurry.
Waco was contracted to build various types of glider for the U.S. Government. The CG-3A (for training), the CG-13A and CG-15A (limited numbers) and the CG-4A, which was first produced in April, 1942. This last type was developed into a superbly adaptable assault glider made in huge quantities; no less than 20,000 had been delivered by the end of 1944. More than 15 different companies were involved in producing the CG-4A, including Cessna, Ford, Gibson Electric Refrigerator, and Laister-Kauffman. For example, Pratt Read in Connecticut produced 956 of these gliders, and Waco themselves built 999.
The CG-4A was of very simple construction; it had a two-spar wing built in wood, and clad, from the leading edge to just aft of the main spar, in plywood sheet. The rest of the wing was fabric covered. The ailerons were unbalanced, but had trim tabs, as did the rudder and elevators. Two types of wheeled undercarriage were fitted, either a ‘tripod’ type with an oleo shock absorber, and attached close to the front wing-spar location (see photograph – this type was usually used for training), or a simple ‘cross axle’ type, which was capable of being jettisoned, and was used for combat missions. In that case, the glider landed on the two sprung skids you can see under the front fuselage. There was a simple tubular steel framework supporting the nose section containing the two pilots. This was designed to hinge upwards after landing and allow the airborne infantry – 13 fully armed troops – to deploy, or other troops, already landed, to gain access to the weapons or cargo carried inside. Towing speed – using a 350 foot long nylon rope – ranged from 125 to 150 mph, and minimum safe gliding speed was 38 mph.
Normal towplane for a laden CG-4A was the C-47, but the Royal Air Force (which had been assigned around 1,000 CG-4As to supplement ‘homegrown’ gliders) used bigger four-engine tugs like the Handley Page Halifax bomber which could tow no less than three of the American gliders at once; other British tugs included the Dakota (C-47), Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle, and the tough Short Stirling four-engine bomber. The RAF called the Waco product the ‘Hadrian’ (as we like to NAME all of our aircraft, just to confuse people!) They were well-regarded by the British, despite the fact that the could carry far less that the British assault gliders such as the ‘Horsa’ or ‘Hamilcar’. First used in an inconclusive strike on a heavy water plant in Norway, they would later be part of the aerial assault during the invasion of Sicily. The CG-4A was in British service from 1942 to 1945, flown by pilots of the British Army’s Glider Pilot Regiment, and sometimes the RAF.
The CG-4A you can see here has been beautifully restored by the staff and volunteers of the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington, just to the east of the city of York. ‘237123’ has been rebuilt using the original steel frame, but with its wings removed, and transparent panels fitted, so the public can see the internal structure. You can also see the ‘training’ undercarriage, and the sprung landing skids. It is painted in typical overall Olive Drab, but the black and white D-Day ‘invasion stripes’ are visible under the rear fuselage; these were applied hurriedly during the day of June 5th, as an Allied recognition marking. Similar stripes would have circled the upper and lower surfaces of the wings. Despite the fact that the CG-4A was reusable (if undamaged) and the technology for a ‘ground pick-up’ existed and was in theatre, few were returned to their bases in this fashion.
Although the CG-4A was used in other operations in the ETO, such as ‘Market Garden’ (Arnhem) and ‘Varsity’ (the Rhine Crossing) and did stalwart work in the China, India, Burma theater of operations and in the South West Pacific, there was little use for combat gliders after hostilities had ceased. By the early 1950s, none were operational. In the future, ‘vertical envelopment’ would be achieved by the major powers using the new generation of assault helicopters. The day of the assault glider had come – and gone!
One interesting aside; US glider pilots were just that, pilots who were sent back to their home unit or base as soon as practical. The members of the British Glider Pilot Regiment (all senior NCOs), however, were trained to fight alongside the troops they had just landed! Several major decorations were gained during such actions.
The WACO CG-4A might not have looked very impressive, but its war record certainly was. Along with the Parachute Infantry, the CG-4A and its glider-borne troops took off on the night of 5/6th June, 1944, from bases all over England, to spearhead the liberation of Continental Europe – and did just that.
Oh, and one last thing. The number ‘329’, shown on the nose of the glider above, was a temporary ‘loading number’ assigned to a glider at the start of a particular operation, in order to identify this glider to base staff (so it could be loaded with the correct tactical load) and also to the infantry and pilots who would be searching for it on an airfield crowded with identical machines!