Horsa glider file photo

Horsa

CountryUnited Kingdom
ManufacturerAirspeed Ltd
Primary RoleGlider
Maiden Flight21 September 1941

Contributor: David Stubblebine

The Airspeed AS.51 Mk I and AS.58 Mk II Horsa gliders were British World War II troop-carrying gliders built by Airspeed Limited and subcontractors and used for air assault by British and Allied armed forces. The Mk I and the Mk II were virtually identical in outward appearance and performance but, naturally, some design improvements were seen in the Mk II. They were named after Horsa, the legendary 5th century conqueror of Southern Britain.

Design and Development

The Horsa first flew on 12 September 1941. It was a high-wing cantilever monoplane with wooden wings and a wooden semi-monocoque fuselage. The fuselage was built in three sections and bolted together. The front section was the pilot's compartment and main freight loading door, the main section was accommodation for troops or freight, and the rear section supported the tail unit. It had a fixed tricycle landing gear and it was one of the first gliders equipped with a tricycle undercarriage for take off. On operational flights this could be jettisoned and landing was then on a sprung skid under the fuselage. The wing carried large "barn door" flaps which, when lowered, made a steep, high rate-of-descent landing possible - allowing the pilots to land in constricted spaces. The pilot's compartment had two side-by-side seats and dual controls. Aft of the pilot's compartment was the freight loading door on the port side. The hinged door could also be used as a loading ramp. The main compartment could accommodate 15 troops on benches along the sides with another access door on the starboard side. Supply containers could also be fitted under the centre-section of the wing, three on each side. The later AS.58 Horsa II had a hinged nose section, reinforced floor and double nose wheels to support the extra weight of vehicles. The tow was attached to the nose-wheel strut, rather than the dual wing points of the Horsa I.

To assist in rapid unloading of troops and equipment on landing, the fuselage joint to the rear of the Horsa's main section could be broken after landing, releasing the empennage (tail section). After the Normandy invasion, explosive bolts were installed to make this process even more rapid. On at least one occasion (Market Garden, Sept 1944), the bolts exploded in flight as the craft was being towed to the target area with a full load of combat troops aboard. The empennage was released and fell away, destroying all capabilities for independent flight. While the Horsa continued to trail behind its tug, it is not known what became of this glider after it released its tow line.

The Horsa was considered sturdy and very maneuverable for a glider. Production was by Airspeed and subcontractors including Austin Motors and the furniture manufacturer Harris Lebus. A total of 3655 were built. The specification for the gliders had demanded that they were built in a number of sections, and to use facilities not needed for more urgent production, and as a result production was spread across separate factories which limited the likely loss in case of German attack.

Operational History

The use of assault gliders by the British was prompted by the use by Germany of the DFS 230, which was first used in May 1940 to successfully assault the Eben Emael fort in Belgium. Their advantage compared to parachute assault was that the troops were landed together in one place, rather than being dispersed.

With around 28 troop seats, the Horsa was much bigger than the 13-troop US Waco CG-4A Haig (known as the Hadrian by the British), and the 8-troop General Aircraft Hotspur glider which was intended for training duties only. As well as troops, the AS.51 could carry a jeep or a 6 pounder anti tank gun.

The Horsa was first used operationally on the night of 19/20 November 1942 in the unsuccessful attack on the German Heavy Water Plant at Rjukan in Norway (Operation Freshman). The two Horsa gliders, and one of the Halifax tug aircraft, crashed in Norway due to bad weather. All 23 survivors from the glider crashes were executed on the orders of Hitler, in direct breach of the Geneva Convention which protects POWs from summary execution. After this Hitler called the airborne soldiers "Red Devils" due to their maroon berets. The name stuck with them.

On 10 July 1943, 27 Horsas were used in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. Large numbers were subsequently used in Operation Tonga and the American airborne landings in Normandy, Operation Dragoon (southern France), Operation Market Garden (Arnhem) and Operation Varsity (crossing the river Rhine). In Normandy, the first units to land in France did so by Horsas, capturing Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal.

On operations they were towed variously by Stirling, Halifax, Albemarle, Whitley and Dakota tugs. The pilots were usually from the Glider Pilot Regiment, part of the Army Air Corps, although Royal Air Force pilots were used on occasion. The Horsa was also used in service by the US Airborne operations.

On 5 June 2004, as part of the 60th anniversary commemoration of D-Day, Prince Charles unveiled a replica Horsa on the site of the first landing at Pegasus Bridge in Benouville, France, and talked with the original pilot of the aircraft, Jim Wallwork.

Variants

AS.51 Horsa I
Production glider with cable attachment points at upper attachment points of main landing gear.

AS.58 Horsa II
Development of the Horsa I with hinged nose, to allow direct loading and unloading of equipment, twin nose-wheel and cable attachment on nose-wheel strut.

Sources: 315th Troop Carrier Group Association, Fiddlers Green, Royal Air Force, Wikipedia, WWII Glider Pilots Association .

SPECIFICATIONS

Mk I
ArmamentCan carry 25 glider troops or 1 field gun
Crew2
Span26.83 m
Length20.43 m
Height5.95 m
Wing Area102.60 m
Weight, Empty3,804 kg
Weight, Loaded7,045 kg
Speed, Maximum242 km/h
Speed, Cruising160 km/h

Photographs

Controls of a Horsa glider, 1942Halifax bomber towing Horsa glider into the air, date unknownHorsa glider on landing approach with all flaps down, date unknownBritish troops loading field gun aboard Horsa Mk II glider with glider nose section swung away, date unknown
See all 34 photographs of Horsa Glider



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Visitor Submitted Comments

  1. RTB says:
    15 Sep 2009 05:15:14 PM

    Born 1928 in Thatcham 2 miles fro Greenham Common. Saw Waco Gliders, brought in wooden boxes from the US some on spar daecks of tankers to Liverpool,being assembeled by GIs spoke to them Saw C - 47 towing them. More in my memoirs A sailor on Horseback or a Rolling Stone Memoirs of Capt. Robert T. Bush
    available on amazon.com
  2. Anonymous says:
    30 Sep 2010 01:46:36 AM

    Further to RTB's comments above: The Horsa was delivered in 30 seperate parts which then had to be assembled (usually by RAF Maintenance Units). Only about 700 of the 3,799 machines built came fully assembled from the Airspeed factory at Christchuch, Hants.
  3. Peter says:
    17 Mar 2013 01:58:41 PM

    I have a print of a Horsa, landed, with parachute Regt loading their bren guns carrier. The chalk number is 261,the fuselage number is R 4027, presumably the first letter is missing and the name is 'The Undertaker'
  4. Gil Ferrey says:
    12 Jul 2014 10:42:44 AM

    I am in contact with a 94 year-old American Glider pilot who flew Horsas only, and landed on D-Day minus, and also in Nancy and Saargemund. I can find no information on the latter two operations. He had a DUKW on board in the last operation where the glider was shot down and crashed in the trees after having been hit at 5,000 feet with an German 88 mm anti-aircraft shell.

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Controls of a Horsa glider, 1942
See all 34 photographs of Horsa Glider



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