45: Army Air Corps & Glider Pilot Regiment

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Army Air Corps & Glider Pilot Regiment

Army Air Corps (United Kingdom)

The Army Air Corps is a component of the British Army, first formed in 1942. There are eight regiments (5 Regular Army, 2 Territorial Army, 1 training) of the AAC as well as five Independent Flights and two Independent Squadrons deployed in support of British Army operations across the world. They are located in Britain, Belize, Brunei, Canada, and Germany. The AAC provides the offensive air elements of 16th Air Assault Brigade.

The first Army Air Corps

The British Army first took to the sky during the 19th century with the use of observation balloons. In 1911 the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers was the first heavier-than-air British military aviation unit. The following year, the Battalion was expanded into the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps which saw action throughout most of the First World War until 1 April 1918, when it was merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force.

Between the wars, the Army used RAF co-operation squadrons, though a true army presence did not occur until the Second World War.

At the beginning of the Second World War, Royal Artillery officers, with the assistance of RAF technicians, flew Auster observation aircraft under RAF-owned Air Observation Post (AOP) Squadrons. Twelve such squadrons were raised three of which belonged to the RCAF— and each performed vital duties in a wide array of missions in many theatres.

Early in the war, Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, announced the establishment of a new branch of army aviation, the Army Air Corps, formed in 1942. The corps initially comprised the Glider Pilot Regiment and the Parachute Battalions (subsequently the Parachute Regiment), and the Air Observation Post Squadrons. In 1944, the SAS Regiment was added to the Corps.

One of their most successful exploits during the war was Operation Deadstick the attack on Pegasus Bridge, which occurred on 6 June 1944, prior to the landings on Normandy. Once the three gliders landed, some roughly which incurred casualties, the pilots joined the glider-borne troops (Ox’s & Bucks Light Infantry) to act as infantry. The Bridge was taken within ten minutes of the battle commencing and the men there withstood numerous attempts by the Germans to re-capture the location. They were soon reinforced and relieved by soldiers from Lord Lovat’s 1 Special Service Brigade, famously led by piper Bill Millin. It was subsequently further reinforced by units of the British 3rd Division.

The AAC was broken up in 1949, with the SAS returning to its independent status, while the Parachute Regiment and Glider Pilot Regiment came under the umbrella of the Glider Pilot and Parachute Corps. The pilots who had once flown the gliders soon had to transfer to flying powered aircraft, becoming part of the Air Observation Post (AOP) Squadrons.

The present Army Air Corps

In 1957 the Glider Pilot and Parachute Corps was renamed to The Parachute Regiment, while the Glider Pilot Regiment and the Air Observation Squadrons amalgamated into a new unit, the Army Air Corps.

From 1970, nearly every army brigade had at least one Aviation Squadron that usually numbered twelve aircraft. The main rotor aircraft during the 1970s were the Westland Scout and Bell Sioux general purpose helicopters. Their power though was soon bolstered by the introduction of the Westland Lynx helicopter in 1977 as well as the unarmed Westland Gazelle.

Basic rotary flying training was carried out on the Bell Sioux in the 1970s, the Westland Gazelle in the 1980s and 1990s and is currently conducted on the Eurocopter AS350 Squirrel.

Fixed-wing types in AAC service have included the Auster AOP.6 and AOP.9 and DHC-2 Beaver AL.1 in the observation and liaison roles. Since 1989, the AAC have operated a number of Britten-Norman Islander and Defender aircraft for surveillance and light transport duties. The corps operated the DHC-1 Chipmunk T.10 in the training role until its replacement by the Slingsby T-67 Firefly in the 1990s. The Slingsby T-67 Firefly was replaced by the Grob Tutor in 2010.

A further boost in the Army Air Corps’ capability came in the form of the Westland Apache AH.1 attack helicopter. In 2006, British Apaches deployed to Afghanistan as part of the NATO International Security Assistance Force.

In July 2007 an order was placed for four Beechcraft King Air 350ERs (service designation Shadow R.1) for use in the surveillance role in Afghanistan, the type being much more capable than the Islanders currently used. These will be operated by the RAF not the AAC, this is due to issues of who operate pressurized and non-pressurized airframes.

Glider Pilot Regiment

The Glider Pilot Regiment was a specialist British unit of the Second World War which was responsible for crewing the British Army‘s Military gliders and saw action in the European Theatre of World War II in support of Allied airborne operations. Established in 1942, the regiment was disbanded in 1957 becoming part of the Parachute Corps.


The German military was one of the pioneers of the use of airborne formations, conducting several successful airborne operations during the Battle of France in 1940, including the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael. Impressed by the success of German airborne operations, the Allied governments decided to form their own airborne formations. This decision would eventually lead to the creation of two British airborne divisions, as well as a number of smaller units. The British airborne establishment began development on 22 June 1940, when the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, directed the War Office in a memorandum to investigate the possibility of creating a corps of 5,000 parachute troops. On 21 June 1941, the Central Landing Establishment was formed at Ringway airfield near Manchester; although tasked primarily with training parachute troops, it was also directed to investigate the possibilities of using gliders to transport troops into battle. It had been decided that the Royal Air Force and the Army would cooperate in forming the airborne establishment, and as such Squadron Leader Louis Strange and Major J.F. Rock were tasked with gathering together potential glider pilots and forming a glider unit; this was achieved by searching for members of the armed forces who had pre-war experience of flying gliders, or were interested in learning to do so. The two officers and their newly-formed unit were provided with four obsolescent Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers and a small number of Tiger Moth and Avro 504 biplanes for towing purposes. Around this time the War Office and Air Ministry began to draw up specifications for several types of military gliders to be used by the unit, which would eventually take the form of the General Aircraft Hotspur, General Aircraft Hamilcar, Airspeed Horsa and the Slingsby Hengist. These designs would take some time to be designed and produced, however, and for the time being the fledgling unit was forced to improvise.

A Glider Training Squadron was formed, and the first test-flights were conducted using British Aircraft Swallow light aircraft which had their propellors removed to simulate the flight characteristics of a glider; they were towed by the Whitley bombers using tow-ropes of varying number and length for experimentation purposes. Appeals were made throughout the United Kingdom for civilian gliders to be donated to the squadron, and the first four arrived in August; three of them had been manufactured in pre-war Germany. Within a short period of time several more were donated, and these were put to use training instructors, glider pilots and newly-formed ground crews. Accidents were quite frequent in these early months, primarily due to the hemp tow-ropes breaking during flight; these problems were only solved with the introduction of nylon tow-ropes imported from the United States of America. The first demonstration of the squadron’s abilities took place on 26 September, when Prince George, Duke of Kent witnessed a demonstration of the fledgling airborne establishment’s capabilities; four parachute-drops were conducted, and then two gliders were towed by civilian aircraft. This was followed on 26 October by a night exercise being conducted by the squadron, with two Avro 504s towing four gliders, and on 13 December five gliders were towed to Tatton Park, where they landed alongside sixteen parachutists dropped from two Whitley bombers.

There was a certain carefree atmosphere present in the squadron in the first few months of its existence; new recruits were not obliged to pass a medical test to join the squadron, and it attracted a number of adventurous-minded men with a passion for flying, including a sergeant who had flown a Messerschmitt during the Spanish Civil War. These first pilots had been volunteers recruited from all of the branches of the armed forces, primarily the Army, but as the squadron began to conduct training exercises, arguments broke out between the RAF and the Army over the pilots. In the view of the RAF, gliders were aircraft and were therefore in their jurisdiction and should be controlled by them; the Army argued that as the glider pilots would subsequently be fighting alongside the troops they were transporting after the gliders had landed, they should therefore come under Army control. After much debate, a compromise was brokered between the two services: the pilots would be recruited from the Army, but they would be trained by the RAF.

The RAF was dismissive of soldiers flying aircraft, but it was agreed that the pilots would be drawn from the army and trained by the RAF. Volunteers were sought from the Army and these had to be passed by RAF selection procedures before entering training. Once qualified as light aircraft pilots after a 12 week course, they were given further training on gliders; another 12 week course to qualify on the General Aircraft Hotspur glider. After a period they would then go to a Heavy Glider Conversion Unit for a six week course so they were qualified for the Airspeed Horsa.

In 1942 the Glider Pilot Regiment came under a newly formed administrative corps, the Army Air Corps, alongside the Parachute Regiment, and the Air Observation Post squadrons of the Royal Artillery.

Operation Market-Garden

Over 1,200 members of the Regiment were active in Market-Garden: 229 died and a further 469 were wounded or taken prisoner.

Operation Varsity

Operation Varsity was the airborne landings in support of the amphibious crossing of the Rhine by British Commonwealth and US ground forces in 1945. Following the losses incurred by the Regiment’s at Arnhem, with 90% killed, wounded or taken prisoner of war, the regiment was built up to strength for Varsity by seconding pilots from the Royal Air Force.

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