MIGHTY HISTORY
Jeremy Laird

What it was like to land behind enemy lines in a glider on D-Day

D-Day, June 6, 1944, the largest amphibious invasion in history. Over 150,000 American, British, and Canadian troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, but over 15,000 airborne soldiers dropped in behind enemy lines on D-Day. Most parachuted in, but over a thousand landed in Normandy inside gliders made of plywood.

Ninety-seven-year-old Millcreek, Utah, resident John "Jack" Whipple piloted one of the hundreds of gliders to set down in the fields of France on that June morning.


Tow planes delivered Jack and hundreds of other fearless flyers to the air over Northern France. Whipple was behind the controls of an Airspeed Horsa the day of the invasion.

"When we came over Utah Beach we received some ground fire," said Whipple. "Then we flew over the Germans, and received a lot more fire."

Horsa Glider

Allied forces used two gliders in the invasion: the Waco CG-4A and the Airspeed Horsa. These were not the modern sail planes of today, but cargo and troop carriers. The CG-4 carried a pilot and co-pilot, 13 soldiers and their equipment, or a jeep and two or three soldiers.

Whipple's Horsa carried him and co-pilot, a jeep, an anti-tank gun, four soldiers that morning, but the Horsa could also be configured to carry 30 soldiers and their gear. The total weight of a loaded Horsa hovered around 15,000 pounds.

After the tow planes cut the gliders loose, pilots had just moments to find their landing zone.

"The quicker the better," said Whipple. "They were shooting at us – probably 3 to 4 minutes."

To make matters worse, reconnaissance photos given to pilots were months old.

Jack Whipple, 1944

"The photos had been taken in January or February and the trees had no leaves," Whipple recalled. When we got there, the trees were in full leaves and we missed our main check point."

Losing altitude, Whipple picked a field to land in, but quickly realized it wasn't big enough. He slammed the glider in to the ground, ripping off the landing gear. He then performed an intentional ground loop, digging one wing into the ground, thus slowing the glider and protecting the fuselage. A maneuver, which all these years later, Whipple points out, was authorized.

"We landed, didn't hurt anybody or the major equipment," he said.

At this point, his role shifted.

"Glider pilots did the flying, and right after we landed we became infantry men. Most glider pilots were trained as infantry men, but we couldn't wear the infantry badge because we weren't in their unit. We were still in the air corps." Whipple said.

Troops aboard a Horsa glider

"We landed behind enemy lines. We had about perhaps five or six Horsa gliders. We got together after landing and helped those who were injured. We got attacked that night, but we were able to keep the group together and able to keep the enemy away."

The airborne assault on German forces was a key part of the allied invasion.

"It made it easier because the Germans then had to fight both sides of a squeeze," said Whipple, squeezing his hands together. "The people coming on the beach—and the airborne."

And while hundreds of gliders may not sound like a lot, the gliders provided the airborne units equipment to combat heavy and mechanized infantry, and needed supplies to operate behind enemy lines. Whipple flew two additional combat glider missions—one in Holland and the final one as part of the Rhine Crossing.

After returning from the war, he earned his private pilot license, and flew all over the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

This article originally appeared on U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.