Gerald James is pictured here in a Tank suit soon after his liberation by Americans from a Prisoner of War camp in Germany, April 1945.Gerald James
Order of Service at a Service of Thanksgiving for the 6th British Airborne Division held at Wismar, Germany, May 6, 1945.Gerald James
Gerald James, October 31, 2009.Gerald James
Prisoner of War notification, April 13, 1945.Gerald James
"Let’s see, 38 didn’t arrive for various reasons, that would be aborted take-offs, aircraft malfunctions, broken toe ropes, gliders disintegrating in the air and this type of thing."
When I volunteered, I asked to go to the parachute regiment, but at that time, there was no direct entry into the unit, simply because they had no training facilities of their own. So the idea was that you would join the army, go to a service unit and then from a service unit, volunteer for the parachute regiment. But when I joined the army, I ended up in the Royal Armoured Corps, doing all my training on tanks, Cromwell Tanks initially, and went to a service unit. But from there, volunteered for an airborne unit, which happened to be the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment.
And when I went to the unit, which was the unit that flew tanks by gliders, expecting to go onto a tank, it didn’t happen. They put me into, they had just formed a support squadron, which consisted of four, three inch mortars and four medium machine guns. And I was put in the three inch mortar troop, which I knew nothing about. And well, this is the army, this is the way the army works. Right after that, they re-equipped us with 4.2 inch mortars, so that was what I did all my active service on in the reconnaissance unit.
Well, initially, the, there were two types of gliders used by the British Forces anyway. There was the Hamilcar [Mark I], which was a big glider that carried tanks and 17 pounder anti-tank guns, Bren Gun Carriers and this type of thing. And then there was the [Airspeed A S 51] Horsa, which was basically a troop transport that would carry up to about 28 infantry men. But you could also get a Jeep into it and a six pounder anti-tank gun. Initially, they had the Mark I Horsa glider which was difficult to load because you had to load through a side door. But then they came up with a Mark II Horsa where the nose swung open and you could drive a vehicle or push equipment up through the front of the, the glider.
Initially, the, the idea behind the glider was that it would carry a whole group of men and put them all in one place. It would carry equipment that could be put or landed all in one place. At one time, they tried dropping equipment from the air. And the only problem with this, when it landed, it would land piece by piece all over the place, then you had to find it and put it all together and away you went. So the glider took place of this airborne dropping. From my recollection, this was my 19th birthday, the 24th of March, and in this operation, I think it was named Varsity, there were about 440 gliders that we used. And if I remember correctly, somewhere around 402 actually landed on the different landing sites, over the Rhine, near a place called Wesel, close to a small village called Hamminkeln [Germany]. Let’s see, 38 didn’t arrive for various reasons, that would be aborted take-offs, aircraft malfunctions, broken toe ropes, gliders disintegrating in the air and this type of thing.
So anyway, just over 400 gliders actually landed on the various sites. And the area would be split up into landing sites for gliders and dropping zones for paratroopers. And our landing site was designated P, I think, in which there would be close to 100 gliders landing within a short period of time. I think it was, the landing was supposed to take place between 10:00 and 11:00 in the morning and unfortunately, the American 513th Parachute Infantry overshot their dropping zone and they landed on our landing zone. So our gliders were landing amongst these paratroopers and you know, an airborne landing is, it’s quite a disorganized effort initially because when a glider is released, obviously they have a point at which they try to make. But obviously, that area may be filled with other gliders or obstructions, so a glider will land wherever it can. So then, you have to get everybody together and get reorganized on the ground. In some cases, takes time, but I mean, if you’re landing in amongst enemy troops, you’re in action right away.
Obviously, they’re going to shoot and try and shoot down the aircraft, which they do. And if you’re a paratrooper, then they will shoot you in the air. If you’re a glider, they try to shoot down the glider. I was just one of thousands and the probably 20,000 on that operation. It was the largest single day airborne operation of the war because there was the American 17th Airborne Division and the British 6th Airborne Division dropped at the same time. So you had close to 20,000 troops being in the air at one time. But we were given a point, an assembly point, which we had to go to and then we came under the command of the artillery, although normally, we weren’t part of their unit. But for this particular operation, we were. And then we just set up mortars and whenever required, we fired. And of course with a mortar, you know, frontline troops, you’re a little bit in behind and quite often, well, most times, you never see what you’re firing at because you have a, an observation point in front of you that’s relaying targets back to you. So you’re just standing there firing, laying a mortar and firing it and that’s about it.