Spitfire Glider Tugs

A seemingly desperate scheme to fly an entire fighter wing to Normandy in gliders proves to be practicable... though luckily for the author and his fellow Spitfire pilots of 401 Squadron it was never put to the test on operations.

Many innovative and ingenious ideas were conceived in the months prior to the invasion of Europe; some major in scope, others relatively minor. Best known were probably the Mulberry harbours, and to a lesser degree some of ‘Hobart’s funnies’, such as the Crab, or flail, tank. For all the ideas that were accepted there were as many, probably more, that were not, either because they were impractical or, when the time came to use them, were found unnecessary. The project with which I was involved fell into the latter category.

In the early autumn of 1943 someone in the planning team suggested that, in the event transport aircraft were not available when needed, fighter squadrons could haul their own spare pilots, ground crew and supplies to France, using their own fighter aircraft as tugs. The feasibility of the idea had to be tested, and 401 Squadron was chosen for the experiment. On 27 October, Flight Sergeants Morrisey and Maybee, F/O Bob Hayward, (later S/L, DSO, DFC) and I travelled by train to Netheravon to take a glider course. Netheravon was a World War I grass field, and like so many old RFC airfields, it was built like an inverted saucer. My main recollection of the place, as I first approached in a taxi from the station, was of a Halifax seemingly emerging from the bowels of the earth, closely followed by a Horsa glider. They had just crossed the crest in the middle of the field, which was so high that from ground level at one end the far side of the field could not be seen!

Flight Lieutenant Bill McRae, 401 Ram Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force. Photo via Marilynn Best (née McRae)

A fine shot of 401 Squadron Spitfire pilots including several who flew gliders—Bob Hayward (standing 4th from left), Bill McRae (sitting 5th from left looking at his hands) and Norm Maybee (standing behind McRae). Photo via flyingforyourlife.com

Our gliders were General Aircraft Hotspurs, much smaller than the Horsa and more elegant, looking a bit like a Mosquito without engines. Originally used as Army training gliders, they were of all-plywood construction, built mostly by former furniture manufacturers. Like old furniture, or an old wooden sailing ship, they creaked and groaned when manoeuvred, much to the dismay of our ground crews who were used eventually for ‘live load’ trials. Two seats in tandem up front had dual controls, and back in the cabin there was accommodation for nine. Two spindly legs with small dual wheels plugged into the wings and could be jettisoned to allow landing on a skid.

The General Aircraft Hotspur glider was sleeker than most combat gliders of the Second World War. The author likened it to a de Havilland Mosquito without the engines. Photo: RAF

Our ‘course’ was rather elementary, one circuit from the back seat, two from the front. The main emphasis was on take-off, where we were told to slide over to the left to avoid the slipstream, then hold the glider down until the tug became airborne. The glider lifted off at less than half that of the Spitfire’s on tow, which was 90 mph; theoretically at least the glider could lift the tail of the tug and prevent it from rotating. The controls were heavy but effective, and it was possible to sit on the end of the field doing steep “S” turns to kill height. The split flaps were used as air brakes. These were operated by a straight mechanical connection controlled by a lever resembling a parking brake, with a ratchet to lock the flaps in position. Half the time this ratchet did not work, and it was necessary to hold the flaps down by holding on to the lever to prevent them from banging up. It helped to have someone in the back seat to do this job. After the three circuits, we put in a couple of hours paired up with each other. I also put in four and a half hours towing with a Mk. II Miles Master to learn the other half of the trade. Then it was back to Biggin Hill to start the program.

British Army airborne soldiers get a lesson from an RAF pilot on the controls of the Hotspur. There were two pilots sitting in tandem and while the instruments and controls were rudimentary, it sometimes took both pilots to operate the glider safely.

Two views of the Hotspur showing the landing gear configuration. The gear could be jettisoned for a landing with a skid which is seen running under the length of the fuselage in the top photo. Bottom image: Hotspur Mark I, BV136, on the ground following completion at the Slingsby works, Kirkbymoorside, Yorkshire, before delivery to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, Wiltshire. Photos: RAF via Imperial War Museum

A pair of Hotspurs of No. 2 Glider Training Unit based at RAF Weston-on-the-Green, gliding in formation over Oxforshire farmland. Photo: Imperial War Museum

Although we had two Masters on strength to be used as tugs, right from the start we used our Spitfire IX’s. A hitch to receive the tow rope was attached to the tail wheel strut, with a release cable running to the cockpit. Maximum permissible speed for the glider was 160 mph, which meant the Spit was flying nose high, overheating and fouling the plugs. The program was set back a bit when Morrisey and Maybee collided in the air on a sweep over Holland, leaving only Hayward and myself to do the initial check-outs. Four more pilots were sent to Netheravon and by the 15th of December enough pilots had been checked out to allow a full squadron exercise; this was simply to fly around in loose formation for an hour and return to Biggin Hill. Our first opportunity for a practical demonstration came on 7 January 1944, when 412 Squadron went to Hutton Cranswick on a gunnery course. Using three gliders, towed by our Spits, we undertook to transport all the spare pilots, ground crew, spares etc. The gliders were flown by Hayward, Tom Koch and myself. Hayward was heavily loaded with ten armourers and their kit; I don’t know what Koch was carrying. Sitting behind me I had Don Laubman, later Lt/Gen Laubman, an old friend from guard duty days three and a half years earlier. Apart from that my logbook just reads “To Digby with 412’s junk”, so I presume I was loaded with spare pilots and/or their stuff. After one hour twenty the Spitfires had to refuel, so we landed at Digby. Hayward was the first to take off for the last leg and had reached about 300’ when the tow rope broke. Helped probably by his 1,500 hours as an instructor, he did a masterful job of getting back into the field in one piece. A new rope appeared from somewhere and all three gliders were soon on the way again, albeit with ten nervous armourers. We unloaded at Hutton Cranswick and spent the night there, returning to Biggin with the empty gliders the following morning. When word got out about the broken rope, we received a lot of questions from the ground crews along the lines: “What happens if the rope breaks over the channel”, to which we probably answered facetiously: “Better learn to swim.” But seriously, this episode told us, should we ever use these things operationally, not to put all one trade in one glider.

Lengthy image searches of the internet resulted in no photographs showing a Spitfire actually connected to a glider or even in the proximity of one. Only one image specific to the Spitfire tug program could be found—of the specially designed hitch and release mechanism integrated with the Spitfire’s tail wheel. Photo via The Aviation Forum

At RAF Netheravon, British Army paratroops board a General Aircraft Hotspur during a training exercise. It was hoped that the gliders would carry all the ground crew, support staff and even spare pilots of 126 Wing RCAF to Normandy. If caught by enemy fighters or forced to ditch in the channel, one can only imagine the impact on the wing. Photo: Imperial War Museum

It’s a good thing that Don Laubman, whom the author shared a Hotspur cockpit with, did not have to waste his considerable skills as a Spitfire pilot flying gliders after D-Day. Laubman became a celebrated ace with 15 destroyed, and 3 damaged. 14 of those 15 were between June and October 1944. His decorations include the DFC and Bar as well as the Canadian Forces Decoration with 2 Bars. He is the fourth ranking RCAF ace.
Photo via flyingforyourlife.com

Having proven the scheme was practical, and that with a full complement of 12 gliders it was possible to move the Wing, we were now given the go-ahead to check out the rest of the Wing. Using the same approach that we had received, we proceeded to expose a few of the 411 and 412 pilots to the Hotspur, and then they could continue to check out the rest. We were fortunate to complete the program without an accident, until the very end, although I came close on one occasion. By the time we had completed a circuit the Spit would have dropped the rope and it would have been dragged back into position for another lift. The ‘erks’ were complaining that we were landing too long, giving them a lot of work dragging the glider back to the end of the runway. The southeast end of the main Biggin runway ended at a perimeter track, closely bordered by a high chain-link fence. Immediately beyond the fence the escarpment on which Biggin is built drops off sharply into a deep valley; approaching, you faced the steeply rising side of the escarpment, topped with the fence. While checking out another pilot I decided to see how short I could get down. At the last minute on approach I realised I had cut it too fine and I was about to run into the side of the hill, or at best the fence. Not knowing if it would work or not, but with little alternative, I shoved the nose down as steeply as I dared to build up speed, then at the last moment hauled back on the stick. We staggered up over the fence, barely, and then stalled out with a horrible clatter onto the perimeter track, with just enough forward motion to trundle forward to stop almost over the end of the rope. Trying to look nonchalant as we switched seats, I suggested to my ‘student’ that perhaps he should not try to cut it so fine.

By the beginning of March we had completed the program and began moving the gliders to Kenley. My last flight in the Hotspur was on the 9th of March when I delivered one to Kenley, where we presumed 127 Wing would be taking the course. Whether they did or not I never learned but that was the last of the gliders as far as we were concerned. The one accident occurred on a transfer flight to Kenley. I happened to be in the air when I saw the glider take off and climb out in the direction of Kenley; then the rope disconnected from the Spitfire, dropping away to hang down from the glider. Out-of-sight-out-of-mind, without dropping the rope the glider pilot began a standard approach to a good-sized field and appeared to be doing fine when suddenly the trailing rope caught the trees and pulled him straight down. The glider burst like a box of wooden matches being dropped, and I saw one of the seats come flying out with the pilot attached. There was nothing I could do but call the Biggin tower to send an ambulance, which they did. At a fighter pilot’s reunion in Regina the dinner table discussion got around to the glider exercise. I mentioned this accident, at which the fellow sitting next to me, a former 411 pilot named Mitchell, asked how I knew about it. I explained how I had actually seen it happen. He told me he was the one I saw flying in the seat, and it had cost him six months in hospital. Then he looked at my name badge and said: “McRae, McRae, that name sounds familiar.” At the first break he went up to his room and came back with his logbook. Sure enough, there was my name, twice, where I had given him ‘the course’ 51 years before, one circuit in the back seat, two in the front!

Another scheme that was rumored to be considered was the possibility of Spitfires operating from an aircraft carrier off the French coast, should landing grounds not be quickly available in France. This would have saved the twenty minutes travel time, each way, between England and Normandy. One squadron in our Wing, 412 I believe, took the DDL (Dummy Deck Landing) course, with painted white lines on the runway simulating arrester cables, and a Navy batsman. Mercifully, this brainwave was never needed; otherwise the number of Spitfire write-offs would likely have been considerably higher!

Bill McRae

This story and many others, Bill McRae wrote for the Canadian Aviation Historical Society (CAHS) over many years. He sent this and several other stories to Vintage Wings before his death in 2011. Precious gifts that they are, we dole them out one at a time, hoping to extend the connection to Bill into the future. Bill was witness to history and a gifted, humble and humorous writer of his and his fellow pilots’ experiences throughout the war. He believed deeply in the importance of the CAHS and its goal to record for all time the powerful aviation heritage that is Canada’s. To find out more about the CAHS, visit www.cahs.ca

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