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Air Corps Infantry: The Original Cross-Functional Airmen

Wild Blue Yonder / Maxwell AFB, AL --

 

The planes droned by, filling the sky with a chest-rattling thrum. Allied material superiority was in full display as lines of over 1,600 C-47 Skytrains and C-46 Commandos stretched from airfields near London and Paris all the way to the Rhine.1 Fighters and medium bombers swept the skies and pummeled flak positions, punching a hole through German lines. The long train of American airpower carried the soldiers of Operation Varsity, the Allies’ airborne effort to cross the Rhine River that served as Germany’s last western natural barrier.

The armada contained a new breed of Airmen, men trained as pilots and grunts. They had two objectives that morning. The first, to safely land their gliders with their war-fighting cargo and associated troops. The second was to pick up that equipment, seize, clear, and hold ground. Their efforts heralded a concept that the Air Force is again exploring, and their success is a beacon to modern cross-functional Airmen.

Operation Varsity

The plan called for the planes to disgorge members of the US Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps at drop zones around Wesel, Germany. Two of its airborne divisions—the American 17th Airborne (17AD) and British 6th Airborne—were to seize key terrain on the east bank and surrounding countryside while the British 21st Army Group conducted a river crossing under Operation Plunder.2

Like all WWII airborne operations, Varsity’s troops arrived at the fight by either parachute or glider. Acting in some ways like modern helicopters, gliders provided a method of delivering larger troops concentrations and heavy equipment that could not be dropped from the airplanes of the era. Varsity called for 900 CG-4A Waco gliders. Along with the troops and cargo, the gliders delivered a highly valuable and limited asset to the battlefield, one that Allied leadership was always desperate to recover: pilots.

Glider Pilots

As anyone who has dealt with the modern US Air Force can attest, pilots can be a difficult group to work with. Generally, they possess an ego nearly as large as the pot of money needed to train and sustain them. This stereotype held true in WWII as well, and one subgroup that provided numerous headaches for higher headquarters was glider pilots.

Glider pilots were a unique resource of the Allies and were usually evacuated from the battlefield as soon as possible after landing. Throughout the war, these pilots had a reputation for joining in the fighting with the infantry and going out on patrols, and in one particular case, they were accused of sunbathing rather than meeting at assembly points for evacuation.3 Indeed, the operations order for Varsity stated that “glider pilots are individually responsible for reporting promptly to their Group assembly area and will be held strictly accountable for their actions if they fail to report as instructed.”4

Unfortunately for Allied leadership, even 1,600 planes and 900 gliders could only deliver so many troops to the battlefield. And unlike modern helicopters, gliders were incapable of returning to a staging area for additional lifts of soldiers. Thus, glider pilots often found themselves in the middle of a fight, and although often eager and willing to engage the enemy, were instead ordered to avoid fighting so they could evacuate and fly another day. British glider pilots were trained to fight with the infantry, and their mere presence on the battlefield increased the number of “shooters” available to attack the enemy, or at the very least defend drop zones for follow-on forces.5 The American military saw its pilots as too valuable to risk as infantry forces. At least, this was true until the war’s demand for manpower stretched on into the winter of 1944.

Glider pilots. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Glider Pilots
Glider pilots. (U.S. Air Force photo)
VIRIN: 050520-F-1234P-042

(USAF photo)

Figure 1. Glider pilots. The success of German glider-borne forces early in World War II catapulted the Air Corps into a glider program in February 1941. Glider pilots were unique in that they had no parachutes, no motors, and no second chances. In December 1941, plans called for training 1,000 AAF glider pilots, but eventually about 5,500 received their wings. Most glider pilots came from enlisted ranks—all were volunteers. Upon graduation, enlisted men would be promoted to staff sergeant (or would retain present grade if higher) while officers would train in grade. But after 21 November 1942, all enlisted graduates were appointed as flight officers upon completing advanced glider training.

Creating Cross-Functional Airmen

As noted, glider pilots filled a niche that riflemen could not. But they took seats away from the people who did the fighting on the ground. By December 1944, at least one division decided that this pool of manpower available at the outset of a battle could not be overlooked. If additional troops could not be brought quickly to bear against the enemy, then the 17AD would use every man available. And thus, the first and only infantry company of the US Army composed solely of officers was born, along with the opportunity for flyboys to get into the fight as never before.6

In early March 1945, 17AD commanding officer Gen William Miley called for glider pilots to form an additional infantry company for the coming operation. Capt Charles O. Gordon, operations officer for the 435th Troop Carrier Group (TCG), volunteered his unit.7 Several men were given rudimentary infantry training, including weapons and basic tactics, and after two weeks were considered ready for action.8

Their objective, after safely landing their heavily loaded gliders, was to help secure a key crossroads on the southern flank of the landing zone. The 435th TCG had just shy of 300 men to accomplish the mission, all under the command of Captain Gordon.9 Gordon and his men had weapons and presumably their fierce desire to engage the Germans, maybe to exact a little piece of revenge for the antiaircraft gunfire that had hounded them and their brothers for years.

The Flight

The morning of 24 March was a good day for operations, although many pilots reported a difficult flight for two reasons. The first was the turbulent air created by 1,600 airplanes’ worth of prop wash. The second was thanks to the fact that many tow planes hauled two gliders—a first for the Allied pilots—resulting in slower airspeeds for the entire trip. The planes flew the longest route yet attempted for an airborne operation, nearly 300 miles each way at 110 mph, carefully managing fuel loads that were lower than usual due to new self-sealing fuel tanks just installed.10

The flight to the landing zone was relatively simple compared to previous airborne operations. The Allies controlled the skies, and fighter bombers scoured known flack positions. The transports and gliders took very little fire until directly over the drop zones, and most of that was due to small arms.11 As they crossed the Rhine, the transports dropped to 600 feet and released their gliders and paratroops.12 Once the gliders cut loose though, enemy fire proved more effective, at least in the immediate landing zones.

The Army Air Force after-action report states that “enemy ground resistance had clearly been critically disorganized by the air attacks to which it had been subjected, both in the battle area and further afield.”13 In the fields outside of Wesel, the glider pilots and the soldiers they delivered disagreed with that assessment. Pilots reported that small arms, light flak, and 88mm guns concentrated “moderate to intense” fire focusing on the gliders rather than the tow-planes.14

Lt Frank Blood, a glider copilot, said that when his pilot was shot beneath his flak vest, he “grunted, lifted his hands from the controls and said ‘it’s all yours.’ . . . An airborne boy sitting just behind me . . . had his kneecap shot away, but in spite of that he supported the pilot with one hand, puffed at a cigarette, [and] called off the air speeds to me.”15

Once on the ground, the fire continued in intensity. Flight Officer Alvin F. Holderbecker described a hellish scene typical of all landing zones (LZ): “We landed under a murderous crossfire of 88s, machine guns, and snipers. Three bazooka shells put a house full of snipers out of action. But we lost over a hundred men in that one field.”16 In all, the 435th lost nine of 144 gliders approaching the LZ, but many more soldiers and crews were killed after the gliders touched down.17

The Battle of Burp-Gun Corner

By 1530, about four hours after the airborne invasion began, the pilots had gathered at the assembly point in a nearby woods. They left a small guard to look after several POWs, and the company moved out toward their objective. The four platoons, one from each of the 435th’s squadrons, established a defensive line at a crossroads at the southwestern end of the LZ, just north of Wesel.18 Their positions sat atop a ridge overlooking the town and centered on a small crossroads. The location was directly in the path of any Germans who tried to escape the British Army’s onslaught from the Rhine. With enemy contact likely at any time, the platoons wasted no time in clearing several nearby houses, taking prisoners, and digging in for the night.19

The attackers came slowly at first and were easily repulsed by the pilots. Shortly before midnight, a team of British commandos linked up with the men of the 435th but was passed through to the 17AD headquarters. That small team was not the pilots’ relief, and it did not signify the end of fighting either.20

Shortly after the visit from the commandos, the retreating Germans arrived in force. Arrayed initially against the platoon from the 75th Troop Carrier Squadron at the southern end of the line, the Wehrmacht attacked with two 20mm cannons, 60–200 infantry, and a tank. The pilots waited until the enemy was almost on top of them before opening fire. The German cannons quickly took out a 50-caliber machine gun and poured rounds into the pilots’ positions and surrounding houses. According to Flight Officer Frederick Mitchell, “We gave ’em hell from everything we had. They pulled back and then came back yelling and in force.”21

Still, the pilots held their nerve and fought back the second wave. While men scattered throughout houses and foxholes fired small arms and light machine guns at the Germans, F.O. Elbert Jella scored a direct hit on the tank with a bazooka. The damaged tank attempted a hasty retreat, and in the process backed over and crushed one of the 20mm guns. The subsequent retreat of the tank and destruction of half of their heavy weapon support broke the will of the attacking Germans. The survivors withdrew into nearby houses and traded random fire with the glider pilots throughout the night. But when the sun rose, it was the cross-functional Airmen who could claim victory. Fifteen Germans lay dead, with a similar number of wounded, while upward of 50 men surrendered the next morning.22 The crossroads had held, and the pilots could claim victory in the “Battle of Burp Gun Corner” as British forces moved up to relieve them the next day.

Lessons

The brave pilots of the 435th TCG demonstrated that highly motivated troops can be trained to accomplish additional tasks when necessary. The key is that they were provided with a level of training that supported their tasked mission. The pilots did not emerge from the training as expert infantrymen, but they knew enough to survive and fight effectively. They had confidence in their ability to win.

This lesson can be applied to the modern Air Force’s manning problem. While we should never expect our people to completely master two or more skill sets and then maintain proficiency in them, we can improve our readiness and redundancy through additional training. In a high-end fight where communication and logistics are highly difficult, an Airman who can accomplish multiple functions for a team is invaluable.

Many units are currently trying to tackle this problem and to find the right balance. They are investigating whether mechanics can be trained to refuel fighters or if communications personnel can drive forklifts and download cargo. There are a million ways to approach cross-functional Airmen, and the benefits are apparent. However, we must be careful not to overload our Airmen and to provide a balance between their training and home life. We must give them the proper time and resources to not only receive training on their cross function but also to maintain proficiency. The glider pilots of the 435th received in-depth training from infantry forces and had confidence in their weapons and tactics both in the air and on the ground.

The modern Air Force should continue to pursue creating cross-functional Airmen. We have proven it can be done. And the 435th serves as a beacon of how those Airmen can fight, and win, in any situation.

Lt Col Ian Bertram

Lieutenant Colonel Bertram is a USAF helicopter pilot with over 2,000 hours in the UH-1N and Mi-17, an air advisor with experience in Afghanistan and INDOPACOM, and holds a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University. He is currently a test director for the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center.

 

Notes

1 Operations Order, Amendment No. 2 to Field Order No. 5, IX Troop Carrier Command, sec. 7.

2 Operations Order, 1, sec. 1B.

3 Hans den Brok, Battle of Burp Gun Corner (New Orleans: Walka Books, 2014), 1.

4 Operations Order, 2, sec. 3c.

5 den Brok, Battle of Burp Gun Corner, 1.

6 Ibid., 9.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 9.

9 Ibid., 79–82.

10 435th Troop Carrier Group, Historical Data, March 1945, 5.

11 Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff A-3, Report of Allied Air Operations in Preparation for, and in Connection with, Operations “Plunder” and “Varsity,7, sec. 31, 6 April 1945.

12 Headquarters IX Troop Carrier Command, Tactical and Non-Tactical Operations during the Final Phase of the War in Europe Including Operation “Varsity,” 20 May 1945, 65.

13 Headquarters IX Troop Carrier Command, 9, sec. 46.

14 435th Troop Carrier Group, Historical Data, 5.

15 435th Troop Carrier Group, 6.

16 435th Troop Carrier Group, 6.

17 Battle of Burp Gun Corner, 46.

18 Battle of Burp Gun Corner, 48–49.

19 Valor, Air Force Magazine.

20 den Brok, Battle of Burp Gun Corner, 51.

21 Ibid., 58.

22 Ibid., 58–61.

 

 

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