To commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we tell here the story of one Horsa glider which took part in Operation TONGA. The aims of the operation were to capture strategic bridges and secure the eastern flank of the Allied invasion area. The glider was allocated the Chalk Number 70 and was piloted by Major S C ‘Billy’ Griffith (a former Test cricketer) and Squadron Sergeant Major Kenneth Mew, both of the Glider Pilot Regiment. They were carrying elements of the 6th Airborne Division Headquarters, including the commander, Major General Richard ‘Windy’ Gale. Stay tuned and follow D-Day live as it happened* 75 years ago. All updates published here:
1700hrs - 4 June 1944: On 4 June 1944, Major Griffith and Squadron Sergeant Major Mew were serving with ‘A’ Squadron of the Glider Pilot Regiment at RAF Harwell.
1900hrs - 4 June 1944: A day or so before they were due to take off, Major General Gale addressed all the officers and men. He later recalled “They were in great heart, cheerful, expectant and ready for anything”.
1900hrs - 4 June 1944: At about the same time, Mew got into an altercation with a fellow glider pilot, accidentally stabbing him in the buttocks. As he took his friend to the medics, Mew vowed to hold his temper in the future. He had come close to ending his military career in a prison cell, just days before D-Day.
2100hrs - 4 June 1944: Gale went to bed early. Sleep was wanted, he recalled; “… a tired commander is not much use to his troops”. At about midnight, he was passed a Top Secret message containing just one codeword. The operation was on. Gale was relieved at the news: “I turned over and, contrary to what I had expected, fell into a sound sleep.”
0900hrs - 5 June 1944: During 5 June, the glider pilots, were briefed. They had been kept out of the secret right up until the last minute. They studied maps, films, photographs and charts. Griffith and Mew were to fly in the third wave of gliders, carrying 12 men, a Jeep and two motorcycles into a Landing Zone close to the village of Ranville.
1600hrs - 5 June 1944: Wing Commander Dennis Wheatley visited Gale prior to the operation, bringing a bottle of wine. Gale recalled it was: “… the most delicious hock I ever remembered tasting”. Wheatley also gave him a small crusader sword as a talisman for good luck.
2300hrs - 5 June 1944: Before the first wave of gliders took off, Major Griffith (who was Commanding Officer of the Squadron) shook the glider pilots’ hands and wished them good luck.
0000hrs - 6 June 1944: The gliders were prepared for the third wave. They were tightly packed on the runway, attached to their tugs, ready to take off in quick succession.
0100hrs - 6 June 1944: Just as he was emplaning, Gale was handed a tin of treacle by a member of the airfield staff who knew he liked it “very much”. He recalled: “… we all fastened ourselves in and waited for the jerk as the tug took the strain on the tow-rope”.
0130hrs - 6 June 1944: The glider took off at about 1.30am. Gale wrote: “… we could feel ourselves hurtling down the smooth tarmac. Then we were airborne and once again we heard the familiar whistle as the air rushed by and we glided higher and higher into the dark night”.
0230hrs - 6 June 1944: Part way across the Channel, they hit a storm. Griffith struggled to control the glider which was “all over the place”. In the turbulence, the telephone wire between the glider and its tug broke, severing communications between the two aircraft.
0250hrs - 6 June 1944: As the glider flew over the coast, they entered cloud. The pilot of the tug shone a bright Aldis lamp to help guide the glider pilots. Flying at about 5,000 ft. they were met by a stream of flak (anti-aircraft fire). Gale recalled: “It was weird to see this roaring up in great golden chains past the windows of the glider…”
0255hrs - 6 June 1944: Griffith realised the importance of landing in the correct place. He saw Ranville church to his right and knew they were there. The tug pilot turned on all his lights to help them land. Griffith later recalled: “It was a bloody brave thing of him to do because it attracted all the flak (anti-aircraft fire) onto him”.
0300hrs - 6 June 1944: After being cast off from the tug, Gale recalled: “…no longer were we bumping about, but gliding along on a gloriously steady course... Round we turned, circling lower and lower.” The troops in the back of the aircraft linked their arms around the man next to them to brace for the landing.
0305hrs - 6 June 1944: Somebody on board the glider shouted “Look out!” Griffith put the nose of the aircraft down and a bomber went overhead, missing them by about ten feet. He decided they would be safer on the ground and began to bring the glider down.
0310hrs - 6 June 1944: After a final steep dive, they bounced down on a rough stubble field. They sped across the field and, with a bang, hit a low embankment. The forward undercarriage wheel stove up through the floor, and the glider spun around on its nose in a small circle.
The enemy had filled the field with anti-aircraft poles. With a grinding crash, one of these poles tore the starboard wing off the glider. Griffith said to General Gale: “I’m terribly sorry about the landing, Sir” to which he responded: “I don’t give a ****** about the landing, we’re in the right place”.
0315hrs - 6 June 1944:They opened the glider door. All was quiet outside. But not for long. The other gliders of the wave began coming in, crashing and screeching as they applied their brakes. Gale described it as “… a glorious moment”.
0320hrs - 6 June 1944: Immediately on landing, each man had an allotted task. Mew and other soldiers from the glider grabbed their guns and formed a defensive perimeter. They held this until the sound of bagpipes heralded the arrival of Lord Lovat and his Commandos to relieve them.
0400hrs - 6 June 1944: In the crash landing, the glider nose had become embedded in the ground and the Jeep couldn’t be unloaded. Gale and others had to proceed to Ranville on foot. They got out of the field and crossed, waist-high, through a crop of corn to the village road.
0430hrs - 6 June 1944: Through the village was a country house that Gale had selected to be his temporary headquarters. When they got there, Griffith kicked open the door and lurched in with his Tommy gun. He was greeted by two “spinster” ladies in nightdresses who fussed over the General, making him a breakfast of bacon and eggs.
0550hrs - 6 June 1944: Gale recalled: “Soon dawn commenced to break, just a few yellow streaks towards the East”. The strategic canal and river bridges had been captured, and Ranville was in Allied hands. The operation had been a success.
0600hrs - 6 June 1944: Griffith was later awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in Holland and ended his career with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Mew also received the Distinguished Flying Cross later in the war, at the Rhine Crossing in 1945.
*NB. these are rough timings from our curatorial team