Top 13 War Gliders

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History remembers well the Horsas and Wacos, but little of over four dozen other motorless air warriors. After German glider operations were so shockingly successful in 1940 all the major belligerents were compelled to look into glider programmes. Eight decades later, so are we. Big-bodied freighters appeared capable of swallowing an armoured vehicles, artillery pieces and entire companies of men. There were also smaller more nimble designs that could silently deliver of a squad of special forces right where the enemy didn’t want them. Even amphibious war gliders were tried out. Sometimes a design was so promising, it would sprout engines, sometimes even rockets. Exciting. Sometimes stupid and inconclusive.. but always exciting, Hush-Kit presents the top 13 military glider.

By Stephen Caulfield

13. Blohm & Voss Bv 40 ‘Dadaist Pitbull’ 

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Let’s start with the worst. What could be worse in 1945 than the idea, the hallucination that is, of a fighter/interceptor with no motor? Picture a chihuahua with a pit bull’s head grafted onto it and maybe you get a bit more of an idea of this aircraft. Seven were built and five briefly flown. The idea involved it being towed to operational altitude above an Allied bomber force by a Messerschmitt Bf 109, once released it would dive down making a single pass at well-defended enemy bombers, at an unlikely 560 mph. If the pilot avoided being shot down, or didn’t black out recovering from the dive, he was then unable to recover the energy for manoeuvres at high enough speed to stay safe and so must depart and land. Though not officially a suicide weapon, it seems unlikely that a pilot assigned to such a unit would be persisting with any long term ambitions like giving up smoking or losing weight. The towing 109 pilot may wonder if his own aircraft, time and fuel could have been put to better use.

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A cheap solution to the strategic bombing then being visited upon Germany this was a prone pilot, twin 30-mm cannon armed machine maximising the use of non-strategic materials. The Bv 40 showed how bad things had gotten for the power that had jolted the world with its gliders back in 1940. As Allied gliders became bigger, more effective machines including ones of all-metal construction, the Third Reich turned to this kind of stupid, and stupid-looking, thing.

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Comparable wing span: Gee Bee Super Sportster R-1

12. Kokusai Ku-7 Manazuru (white-naped crane) 

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A slightly larger facsimile of the Gotha Go 242, Germany’s successor to the DFS 230, the Manazaru saw none of the action of its Axis counterparts. The Japanese military had only token interest in gliders and too many other operational considerations requiring investment. When the war went bad for Japan,  gliders would prove to be of little use. The Ku-7 adopted the pod-and-boom configuration found on several other transport gliders and later adopted by designers of post-war freight aircraft.

Comparable wing span: Hawker Siddeley Nimrod

11. Bristol XLRQ-1 ‘RQ Poirot’ 

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We promised you an amphibious combat glider, and here it is. The XLRQ-1 was designed for beach assaults and could accommodate static-line parachute jumping in case its occupants weren’t finding life hazardous enough. Of the following items included in the original U.S. Navy/Marine Corps specification only one is not made up: casino, ice-cream parlour, movie theatre, laundromat and externally mounted machine-guns. Operational considerations in the Pacific theatre scuttled (metaphorically not literally) this one.

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Comparable wing span: Douglas B-66 Destroyer

10. Cornelius XFG-1

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Extremely allergic to the era’s popular Zippo brand cigarette lighters, only two test examples of this single-trip fuel hauling glider were built. Forward-swept wings, automatic stability in towed or gliding flight and four degrees of on-the-ground adjustable wing dihedral made this aircraft a guaranteed choice for this list. How else would you have carried just over 2500 litres of gasoline (or other precious fluids!) to a thirsty battlefield? There was a proposal to employ the XFG-1 as a winged reserve tank to be cut loose after it had contributed its cargo to whatever ultra long-range aircraft had towed it aloft.

Comparable wing span: de Havilland Mosquito.

9. GAL 48B Twin Hotspur

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When an aircraft is determined to be a good one, how do you make it better? You could twin it, dear reader.

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What worked for the Gigant’s glider tug the Heinkel He-111 Zwilling didn’t for the Hotspur, a close take on the impressive DFS 230. The Twin Hotspur was a one prototype single crash programme. Here is a picture of it.

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Comparable wing span: de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou

8. Antonov A-7 ‘Stealthy saboteur’

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Where the western Allies put gliders into the forefront of strategic combined arms battles like the invasion of Sicily and Normandy, and then showpiece operations like Market Garden and Varsity, the Soviet Union saw things differently. Observation and sabotage teams were placed behind German lines by the Antonov A-7 which also delivered supplies to partisan formations. Quietness equalled stealth behind the lines.

Comparable wing span: Mitsubishi G4M ‘Betty’

7. Yakovlev Yak-14 ‘Mare’ ‘тихая кобыла’

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Combat transport gliders had just over a decade of life, framing the Second World War by a couple of years. The very last programme of any substance in this direction (to date) belonged to the Soviet bloc and was the Yak-14 of 1948. Over 400 were built but advances in air defence technology, powered STOL aircraft and military helicopters sealed the fate of this aircraft as an entire type by the 1950s.

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Comparable wing span: Vickers Wellington

6. Douglas XCG-17 ‘Dakota Unfanning’

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Oh, the ingenuity we waste on war. One of the most common and successful glider tugs of the Anglo-American war effort was the Douglas C-47 Skytrain. An example of the fabulous Douglas DC-3’s military version had its engines replaced with hemispherical fairings for testing as the glider itself! It was hoped up to 40 soldiers (or 14,000 pounds of cargo) could be hauled aloft in such a machine behind the newly available, four-engined Douglas C-54 Skymaster. The XCG-17 could be towed at speeds approaching 270-290 miles per hour, significantly more than most gliders were capable of. A low stalling speed of about 35 miles per hour made for good field landing performance. This conversion yielded the flattest glide angle of any of the transport gliders developed in the United States up to then. A conceptual success, the sensible XCG-17 never saw production.

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Comparable wing span: Lisunov Li-2

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5. DFS 230 ‘DFS Sail on!’

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Sikorsky’s stealth version of the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter might make a fair cross-era comparison to the DFS 230. Serving through the entire war, the DFS 230 was an instrument of the Third Reich’s shock and awe – and later of its brutal desperation. Assault troops and demolition experts delivered to the roof of Belgium’s fortress Eban Emael underwrote the fall of that country in 1940. Crete and North Africa saw the diabolical flexibility of the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht well enhanced by further deft use of this light glider. Even modest aircraft like the Henschel Hs 126 could deliver the machine gun-equipped DFS 230 and its squad of nine men. They were used to bring small quantities of supplies to encircled German units during several stages of the campaign against the USSR as well. One of the single most defiant special forces operations ever relied on the DFS 230. The Gran Sasso raid of September 1943 saw Hitler’s despatch of a tiny elite force to rescue his deposed pal Alberto Mussolini from forced confinement in the Hotel Campo Imperatore in mountainous central Italy.

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Comparable wing span: Junkers Ju 188

4. Waco CG4′ ‘Waco siege engine’ 

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Britain’s military industrial complex made a greater commitment to glider warfare than that of the United States. Still, the latter’s enormous war effort made room for novel prototypes by the score anyway and produced that great workhorse of glider assault, the Waco CG4. Called the ‘Hadrian’ in Royal Air Force service, the CG4 was built in car, household appliance and furniture factories – as well as by traditional aircraft makers. It was the most numerous of all the combat transport gliders. Bigger and much more capable than the DFS 230, the CG4 carried less troops than the Airspeed Horsa and less cargo than the GAL Hamilcar, but offered two important advantages over its Allied stablemates. Firstly, it could land in tighter spots between coppices, hedgerows, built structures, water features and burning wreckage. The CG4 addressed the problem of recovery, too. Gliders present an awkward proposition after use; whatever state of repair they land in there is an expectation that they be retrieved, inspected, repaired and reused or otherwise disposed of. Utilising a hook-and-wire system, an airworthy CG4 could be hauled back from the field via a roaring low altitude pass by a tow aircraft. James Bond stuff for those of steady nerve and stomach only.

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Comparable wingspan: Lockheed U-2A

3. GAL 58 Hamilcar ‘Mark Hamil’s Car’

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Skid-landing less than a dozen men with rifles is one thing, but a flying freight container to feed the hunger of mechanised battlefields for food, ammunition and every other type of supply is another. The Hamilcar was all business. Normally towed aloft by a Handley Page Halifax III, the Hamilcar with its arch-shaped fuselage could accommodate two models of light tank and various combinations of Jeeps, Bren gun carriers and towed artillery pieces as well every manner of boxed supply.

Flat-floored freighters (trying saying that three times in a row while landing in a field close to the Belgium border) like the Hamilcar were designed to address the toughest issue of sending armies to war by air. While renowned for their toughness, air transported formations lack larger calibre guns, armour and other forms of equipment necessary to decisively control the battlefield.

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The Hamilcar  was named after Hamilcar Barca (c. 275–228 BC) –  a Carthaginian general and statesman.

Comparable wing span:Shin Meiwa US-2 (link to its predecessor) 

2. Messerschmitt Me 321/323 Gigant ‘The Barmy Army Whale’ 

One more grotesque fantasy from the 1930s comes alive in a world tearing itself to pieces. Even eighty years on it is difficult to know what to make of the minds that would advocate machines like this. All the aircraft on this list could be said to lumber in some fashion but this heavy strategic glider, with the good looks of a prehistoric insect, appears to take that to extremes. The Allied inventory certainly had nothing like it. Initially, three Messerschmitt Bf 110s were needed to pull a Gigant into the air. Later, a five-engined twin version of the Heinkel He 111 bomber was deployed on behalf of this barmy whale. Engines sourced from occupied France were also added to the 323 by the half dozen to boost take-off performance. Deutsch Wochenschau newsreels relish the spectacle of literal parade grounds’ worth of motorcycles, trucks, half-tracks, 88-mm guns, staff cars, kubelwagens and marching men going through the clamshell doors in the nose. If not for the slaughter off-screen, it might all look like fun. Such footage restores some of the spectacle of the twentieth century’s total war to the modern viewer. Compare the graceful little sports gliders of today to the Gigant. Mind that your head doesn’t explode when you do.

Comparable wing span: Boeing B-52 Stratofortress

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1. Airspeed 51 Horsa

Ah, the heroic Airspeed 51 Horsa. We saved you the best for last. From the hands of the makers of armoires and dining room sets came the most successful aircraft on this list. The big tricycle-geared Horsa was a winner from the start. Described by one of her pilots in a recollection written in 1972 as a ”massive exercise in carpentry”, the stable Horsa was easy to handle and could be flown with precision. Many an Allied aircraft took the fight to the enemy, of course, but a fuselage containing forty ferocious special forces soldiers let the Horsa do that in a particularly visceral fashion. The other wooden wonder, with some 400 allotted to the Americans, had its greatest success during the invasion of Normandy. That operation, and several others in the European theatre, are unimaginable without the presence of the Horsa. Its service life continued into the 1950s. Few other warplanes have had the honour of being converted to civilian housing at the scale the Horsa did. That latter use being one that ought to warm the heart, at least a little.

Comparable wing span: Grumman E-2 Hawkeye

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3 comments

  1. Gus Garrido

    Great article, Stephen! I was only ever aware of the Horsa, and never knew about these other models. I agree wholeheartedly with your comment on the waste of ingenuity in the cause of war. Seems like we could use some ingenuity nowadays!

  2. FaughABallagh

    Absolutely fascinating and very entertaining article, but (and I may be missing something) is the Hamilcar shown not sporting a couple of engines? Is it still a glider if it’s powered?

    • bismarck900

      Gliders have often been given powerplants – mainly to assist fully loaded takeoffs and to extend their range. The two Allied light air portable tanks of the war were still in the eight to nine ton range so if you were involved with delivering one you’d want al the thrust you could get. I’d call the Hamilcar a motor assisted glider and the powered version of the Gigant a transport plane evolved from a glider. Some modern sport gliders have assistive engines.

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