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Aviation History & Nostalgia

JUN 06 2011
Aviation History >> D-Day and Arnhem Glider Operations

I hope you’ve all been enjoying the airshow archive pieces we’ve been publishing of late – I know I have! It’s always a pleasure to look back at the past so, with that in mind, here’s another archive-type report, but one of a considerably more mature vintage and one that’s, most definitely, a lot closer to home.

Whenever anybody asks me why I love aviation so much, I often cite my granddad as the main reason why. I’d known from quite a young age that he’d flown gliders during WW2. I’d also known that these gliders were Airspeed Horsas and, prior to flying those, he’d carried out elementary flying training on Tiger Moths and gained initial glider flying experience on General Aviation Hotspurs, and that he’d taken part in D-Day and Arnhem. It’s only fairly recently, though, that I’ve found out exactly what he did. I thought his story deserved a wider audience, not just to highlight his involvement in two of the key moments of WW2, but also to showcase the significant contribution made to allied wartime operations by the Glider Pilot Regiment as a whole. Here, then, is Bernard Osborn’s story, published 67 years to the day after one of the key wartime operations in which he participated.

Bernard grew up in Bromley, Kent, in close proximity to both Croydon Airport and RAF Biggin Hill. A rich procession of military and civil aircraft were therefore seen throughout his early years and, at Biggin Hill in particular, the annual Empire Air Day events were nothing less than inspirational. “I remember seeing the Hurricane prototype one year” he says [likely May 1936 – the Hurricane’s first flight had occurred in November 1935]. “It was painted silver, it dived down on the crowd and I just thought to myself – wow!!”

When he reached the age of 18, Bernard volunteered at his nearest RAF station, urging the commander that, above all else, he wanted to be a pilot, but it wasn’t to be, yet. Instead, his first period of Army training took place at Strensall Barracks, near York, and lasted for six weeks. At the end of this, having already been interviewed at length, he was approached by a senior colonel. “He asked me, what am I doing, and what did I do before I joined the forces? I replied that I’d been a junior clerk”. This response prompted the colonel to suggest some sort of military office job might be a suitable position, to which Bernard replied: “Sir! I want to help win this war!”

Further training ensued, this time as a gunner operator, in which capacity he joined the 2nd Battalion of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry. “They were a lovely bunch of chaps”, Bernard says, “but it wasn’t what I wanted. However, one Sunday afternoon, when I was reclining on my bed, thinking of home, I noticed a little advertisement. ‘Volunteers Wanted’, it said. ‘Glider Pilot Regiment.’” Bernard’s keen application took him to Fargo Camp, on Salisbury Plain, for an extensive series of trials, which included interviews and physical training exercises. Eventually, a final interview produced a magic sentence from the man behind the desk. “’You’re going for flying training next week’, he said.”

As a result, Bernard was soon behind the controls of Tiger Moths at Booker Airfield. He remembers his first loop, in particular, as a “wonderful” experience, with the “mud from the bottom of the cockpit going down the back of your neck.” Initial dual flights gave way to the first solo flight and, subsequently, the first night solo flight and, Tiger Moth training completed, Bernard then moved on to Hotspurs, this time at Shobdon Airfield. These, he describes as ‘lovely to fly’ and a ‘very good glider’. The sweet little Hotspurs were probably too good, in fact, apparently content to soar around all day unless forcibly encouraged back down to earth!

Finally, Bernard was promoted to the Airspeed Horsa and was trained to fly it at RAF North Luffenham. Typically, these Horsas – which could accommodate up to 28 troops, with their weapons - would be towed aloft by Dakotas, early-mark Halifax and Armstrong Whitworth Albemarles. While an aircraft on a quite different scale to those he’d flown before, he nevertheless enjoyed flying the Horsa very much and, having been presented with his Wings, he was sent to RAF Brize Norton. Here, he met Teddy Norris, the man that would end up being his co-pilot and, very soon after his arrival, he and the other glider pilots based there were told of a major upcoming operation, in which they were required to participate. 6 June, 1944 – the opening day of the Normandy Landings – approached.

“I thought, well, this is why I joined up”, says Bernard, adding that, while he and his colleagues weren’t involved in the Pegasus Bridge-taking missions, he and Teddy landed, along with around 200 others, later on in the day. Some days later, he was authorised to return to the UK and did so in a small boat, ending up back at RAF Brize Norton. The next few weeks proved to be frustrating, with no less than 13 operational briefs given, but none of them taken any further. Then, on 17th September, 1944, Bernard found himself back in action, this time in Operation Market Garden – the Battle of Arnhem. Having landed his Horsa, all seemed very quiet at first but it soon heated up.

Market Garden was an operation on a massive scale and, ultimately, the British glider troop insertions had to be carried out in waves – there simply weren’t enough available tow aircraft to go around. So the Dakotas et al carried out giant pick-up and drop-off circuits, in effect, while Bernard and others were tasked with guarding the landing ground at Arnhem. That was the intention but, in fact, he didn’t get to stay there long. The British forces, he says, were “struggling”, while the German forces were “very organised and extremely capable”. While one battalion of paras had made it to the Arnhem road bridge, any further progress was halted, with the German troops having blocked off three roads into Arnhem and bolstered their physical presence with heavy armoured vehicles.

Once the second British troop insertion had taken place, these men, along with Bernard, Teddy and their colleagues, started to move towards the bridge but soon came under fire. Uninhibited, they carried on and covered a total distance of about five miles that night, leaving one mile to go before they reached the bridge. The German forces weren’t happy with this and started to progressively push them back that bit further each day that followed, to the point that the British forces’ food and ammunition supplies were starting to run dry. By way of contrast, Germany’s supplies seemed almost endless.

Four days after having landed, Bernard and Teddy were positioned in a two-man slip-trench, involved in what he terms something approaching a “mini WW1, with lots of casualties” taking place all around. According to figures published afterwards, Operation Market Garden ultimately involved a good 1,200 members of the Glider Pilot Regiment, of which 299 were never to return. By 25th September, Bernard had made it down to the edge of the Lower Rhine, where it was planned that the Royal Engineers would ferry him and the others to safety. He’d got there with the help of a series of white guidance ropes and been placed in charge of five or six paras but, as he drifted out, into the darkness, he suddenly had a thought. Where was Teddy?

Operation Market Garden was Bernard’s last operational sortie of the war. The Glider Pilot Regiment went on to participate in the Rhine landing elements of Operation Varsity and, with word of their accomplishments having spread around, he was disappointed not have to been involved but, not long after, he was posted to Palestine and flew sorties out of RAF Aqir.

Due to the restrictions placed on the use of cameras in wartime operations, the majority of photos that accompany this piece date from my granddad’s time out in Palestine but, prior to his relocation, he’d had the chance to fly a monster of a glider - the immensely bulbous General Aircraft Hamilcar. With four different aircraft types in his logbook, his involvement in WW2 having come to an end and his deployment to Palestine having concluded, Bernard left the Glider Pilot Regiment and embarked on his next challenge, this time in the civilian arena.

The Glider Pilot Regiment itself lived on for twelve years, post-WW2, prior to being disbanded in 1957, but its legacy lives on in within many mediums. The 1977 motion picture A Bridge Too Far is a celluloid monument to the bravery of its exploits, while bits and pieces of Horsas are displayed at several museums, including the Museum of Army Flying at Middle Wallop and the De Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre. There’s also the Eagle magazine, to which many former glider pilots subscribe. Bernard’s one of them and, over six decades on from Arnhem, he noticed a rather familiar name in one edition – that of his former co-pilot, Teddy Norris. Teddy had been name-checked, in a letter sent in by one reader. Having swiftly contacted the publishers and obtained his contact details, Bernard was subsequently able to speak to Teddy, on the phone, “for a good half hour.” Very sadly, Teddy died just before a planned meeting of the two men. For many, many years, Bernard had wondered just what had happened to Teddy back in 1944. That he got to speak to him again, so many years later, remains, I believe, one of his greatest joys.


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2014-09-24 - Alan Dennis
My friend Tony and I met Bernard this weekend in the Van der Valk hotel, near Arnhem. We were there for the 70th anniversary of the allied landings at Ginkel Heath. Amazing chap - he seems more like 72 than 92! Had a good 1/2 hour with him an he discussed many of the things that Paul has covered here - fantastic to find this article and get a bit more of the story that we did not have time to cover. It was a real honour to meet Bernard and shake his hand. We owe these men a real debt.


2013-09-23 - Ian
My friend Ben Delahunty, was involved there too. Hes still alive and kicking, i met him for a pint yesterday. Incredible man.


2012-04-19 - Philip Reinders
I recently published a 70 page book about the use of Horsa MkI during the Battle of Arnhem.


2012-04-19 - Philip Reinders
I recently published a 70 page book about the use of Horsa MkI during the Battle of Arnhem.


2011-11-22 - OneEighthBit
Regarding the experimental "white" Horsa - This was TL472 and it was a one off actually painted silver in an effort to try and reflect the sun which was making the heat inside the gliders unbearable. It crashed during a "slash" and it was considered that the silver paint might of been a factor. There was some belief it caused the dope fabric covering to lift and the glue in the construction to come unstuck.


2011-06-23 - Bill McVEan
One trifling error, the evacuation of Bernard and about 95% of the airborne troops from Oosterbeek was done by RCE - Royal Canadian Engineers. The Canadians used 20ft boats powered by 50hp outboard motors. The British used paddle boats, because of the current, 4 to 6 paddlers took out only 2 airborne per boat load. The last Canadain boat to cross had 33 men.


2011-06-06 - Paul Fiddian
Many thanks for your kind words, Mark and Spencer. It was a pleasure writing this one and I'm very pleased that you enjoyed it! Cheers - Paul


2011-06-06 - Mark
A very poignant and timely story which deserved to be told.Well done to all at GAR for marking the anniversary in this way,many other forms of aviation journalism could learn a thing or two by this
Cheers
Mark


2011-06-06 - Spencer Wilmot
One of the best articles so far. My Granddad was in the Wellington so I could relate a little to this. Really well done Paul/GAR and respect to your granddad!
Spence



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