Today, a padded envelope arrived containing ‘five’ 50 pence pieces (or ‘coins’) commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the British D-Day Landings at Caen and Normandy. These coins were acquired for our family collection by my mother – Diane Wyles! Each depicts British landing crafts speeding toward the Normandy beaches – whilst over head RAF aeroplanes tow wooden gliders that carry British ‘Air-Landed’ elite troops that wore the same winged pegasus shoulder badge as the British Parachute Regiment.
Whereas Paratroops jumped from a moving aeroplane and land by parachute, ‘Air-Landed’ troops were towed until their gliders were cut loose at a certain point near the landing zone. These wooden gliders (containing no armour) would then glide down and ‘crash’ into the ground with most men knocked-out for a second or two. This is why these ‘Air-Landed’ men trained almost like heavyweight boxers to ensure they could recover from a solid blow to the head! With around 30 men in each glider, this had the advantage of an entire platoon being landed behind enemy lines intact with its equipment, rather than spread far and wide as was the case with paratroopers. Paratroopers had to re-group in unfamiliar territory whilst probably taking casualties, and all this could take more time than expected.
Around 8,500 Paratroopers and ‘Air-Landed’ Troops (of the British 6th Airborne Division) were initially dropped just before midnight on June 5th, 1944 during Operation Tonga (June 5th-June 7th 1944) more than 6 hours before the British and Allied landing-craft hit the Normandy beaches. The British 6th Airborne Division suffered around 800 casualties in these early engagements. The pilots who flew the wooden gliders were considered ‘special forces’ who had to gather together after touch-down and make their way back to British lines for redeployment (as glider pilots). Of course, as they touched-down prior to the D-Day Landings, there were no ‘British Lines’ in German occupied France! These glider pilots found themselves fighting for their lives whilst trying to head towards the West coast of France. When eventually discovered by the Allies, they were sent back to the UK for redeployment. (This will have to be checked, but I have a dim recollection of a glider pilot making it to the French coast and then swimming the English Channel back to England)!