Elsenborn Ridge:
Glider Infantry

The Band of Brothers series opens each installment with interviews of World War Two veterans who served with the 101st Airborne Division. The first episode’s interviews are about the recruitment and training of the parachute infantry. This not unreasonable, considering that the series follows the wartime career of the members of a parachute infantry company. For those of us who peruse back through the pages of military organizations, there is a telling absence in the interviews. The glider infantry of the division isn’t mentioned. On D-Day the 101st went into action as a “square” division, two parachute infantry regiments and two glider infantry regiments. Not only is this a unique configuration for a U.S. Army combat deployment, leaving the glider infantry out also ignores about half of the division’s infantry personnel.

Originally the U.S. Army’s expansion plans called for an airborne corps, with two glider infantry regiments and one parachute infantry regiment, along with appropriate support and transport elements, in each division. While parachute troops were volunteer enlistees and given extra pay, glider infantry were converted from existing infantry units. Gliders were presumed to be fairly safe, certainly as opposed to jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. As such, glider infantry was given no special consideration and the regiments werew generally thought of as inferior to the parachute units. Even today, that misconception somehow persists. One can even see it in the Airborne scenarios of Panzer Grenadier.

The organization tables for glider infantry regiments were based on those for mechanized infantry. The rationale is unclear; perhaps the Army’s planners saw a parallel function. Whatever it was, everything has to start somewhere. The conversion from regular infantry to glider infantry was supposed to be easy, but the proposition ran into difficulties from the start. First off, there were not enough suitable gliders. Secondly, flying a loaded glider is much more difficult than piloting an unloaded one. Pilots required longer training than expected to become effective. A loaded glider was often in need of repair, even after a good landing, making attrition a problem. The basic logistics led the army to reverse the glider/parachute ratio for a while.

Changes appeared at the lower levels as well. Organizationally the glider infantry regiment became a binary formation, that being two battalions instead of the usual three. The weaponry became lighter to accommodate air transport. Gone were the .50-caliber machine guns, replaced by the .30 caliber M1917 Browning. That gave the glider troops slightly better firepower than the M1919A4 machine guns that the paratroopers got. The parachute platoons lost a rifle section per platoon which the glider infantry was able to keep. This left the glider battalions better equipped and manned than the parachute infantry units, but there were fewer of them.

The United States Army created nine glider infantry regiments, seven of which went to Europe. Four of those conducted glider assaults. The 325th Glider Infantry Regiment was the first to enter combat, at Salerno in 1943. Instead of arriving in gliders, they were deposited on the beach as regular infantry. Use of gliders in combat operations would not take place until June 1944 on the day after D-Day. The 325th, 327th, and 401st Glider Infantry Regiments arrived to the support the parachute regiments. The glider men fought alongside the parachutists for over a month, until finally relieved from what was supposed to be a three-day operation.

In between Salerno and D-Day, the attitude toward glider infantry had begun to change. As training went forward, command and planning officers noted how violent the ride in a glider actually was. Airsick bags became standard issue, and no meals could be eaten before take-off. Surviving the ride was not the only hazard. Landing a laden glider is little more than somewhat-controlled crashing. After some command and staff officers had used this “safer” mode of transportation, they began to push for equal pay for the glider troops. Glider troops never quite got it, but pay improved.

After D-Day and the race across France came what was to be called the largest airborne assault in history. Operation Market-Garden again employed three airborne divisions and an additional air-landing division. For the Americans it was actually a little smaller. Most of the 401st Glider Infantry Regiment was gone; only a battalion remained. The 325th and 327th were again fully employed. They again fought staunchly beside their paratroop brethren. The British tanks rolled by. Again the glider men did not get the recognition they deserved, being discounted or lumped in with the paratroopers.

During the Battle of the Bulge the 193rd and 194th Glider Infantry Regiments, of the 17th Airborne Division, went back to their mechanized infantry roots, as opposed to armored infantry. They were part of Patton’s counterattack to relieve Bastogne. Through early January 1945, they would help reduce that bulge. Afterwards the 194th performed the last glider assault of the war in Operation Varsity. The American public was angered by the 600 fatalities sustained, but largely missed the detail that 140 of those were extracted from the 194th Glider Infantry Regiment.

The end of the war also ushered the glider infantry regiment out of the airborne divisions. Gliders continued to be used for heavier weapons for some time. The infantry however, all went to parachutes. This was perhaps not so bad since troopers who had used both methods preferred jumping out of a plane with a parachute to crashing in an unpowered plane without one.

Click here to order Elsenborn Ridge right now!