Aviation History Speaker Hosts Enlightening Discussion on Overlooked Piece of World History
On February 12 at 7:00 P.M. in the Lower Hangar of the Student Union, French combat guide and battlefield expert Francois Gauthron gave a nearly 90-minute lecture on the use of gliders in the Second World War before, during, and after the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Gauthron began his lecture by noting that this subset of history isn’t the whole picture: “Normandy is a very narrow piece of gliders in combat.” Gauthron spoke to a densely-packed room composed of both Embry-Riddle students and members of the Prescott community.
The battlefield expert explained a bit more about the tactical role of gliders during the war. “It’s impossible to disconnect the airborne part of the war and gliders… most of the time they were carrying more than their own weight. They were used for anti-tank guns and other heavy equipment.”
The topic of the lecture then transitioned to the early history of the types of gliders used throughout the war. “[Gliders] were developed in Germany as a hobby… because Germany [was] not allowed to build up their military, they developed the concept of assault gliders. They ended up with a monster that could transport 140 soldiers fully armored.”
Gauthron then explained that the next nation to develop significant glider capability was the USSR. “The first men to jump from aircraft [for military purposes] were the Russians.” He then noted that the United States did not develop military gliders until 1941, when the US military became concerned with developing a paratrooper fighting force.
After this, the subject shifted to battles which involved the use of paratroopers deployed from gliders. “Usually one landing comes to mind, Normandy.” He explained that the allies used gliders in the North African campaign, and spent a significant portion of time on Sicily, referring to it as “the bloodiest D-Day.”
“The drama of the Sicily landing was not because of gliders. It was because we [the U.S.] didn’t know how to train our pilots. So we learned. We learned we had to pay attention to the stabilization of the plane, otherwise the rope would have too much tension and break. We had 76 ropes break in Sicily.”
There was also some time spent on the use of gliders by the Germans. “A fortification on the Maginot Line meant to resist infantry attacks for… six months was taken by gliders in 45 minutes.”
The subject changed again to the capabilities of the gliders. “American gliders could transport around 4,000 pounds. The British gliders could transport around 8,000. The British used hemp rope with communications wires through the middle, while the Americans used nylon.”
Expanding more, he explained “you would believe gliders were used for short flights. In fact, the longest glider ride was around 770 miles. They were doing tremendous operations.”
The topic of discussion then arrived at the Normandy landings. “At Normandy, many of our paratroopers were dropped 20 to 25 miles away… Now, there are two kinds of crashes. A killing crash which kills all or some of the men. Some crashes have broken tails or open cockpits which is often done on purpose to get people and equipment out of the glider.”
The speaker then offered more about the lessons learned from Sicily. “512 gliders were used [at Normandy], no more than seven killed all of the soldiers on board. 28 glider pilots were lost, but most of these were killed after touchdown.” Employing his battlefield expertise, he explained more about the conditions of the D-Day landings. “There was overcast weather, which meant pilots couldn’t even see the shoreline.”
Then, pulling more from his knowledge as a combat guide, Gauthron spoke on the conditions on the ground. “The fields were very narrow, and the hedge rows [separating them] could be 50 feet tall.” He also commented on a less obvious tactical disadvantage of this situation. “The hedge rows that were side by side were totally canopied, the perfect place to hide equipment like anti-aircraft guns.”
After discussing Normandy, Gauthron brought up another use of gliders in the war. “They could be used as a flying ambulance. There was a crash in New Guinea. The Dani tribe tried to help the survivors, but many died from fever and other complications.”
“A snatch operation was done using a glider. A C47 would hook a rope between two poles and tow the glider. Because of that operation, they were able to rescue the three survivors.”
The audience found the lecture enlightening. Embry-Riddle student August Kather said “It was very informative. I didn’t know it was all over the world, not just Normandy and D-Day.”
Other students felt similarly. Alexis Ahrens commented “I liked how he compared the different countries and how they thought differently from each other.” Another student, Dario Moiso said “I definitely learned a lot. I didn’t know very much of that history.”
Prescott local Jim Downey, also in attendance, said “I thought it was extremely interesting. It filled in a lot of things I didn’t know about gliders. This type of stuff is kind of overlooked, and it’s important to know. Every time we lose a veteran, we lose a story.”