One Night in June

MOST OF US have read, at one time or another, of the nine assault gliders which preceded all other forces into Normandy during the early hours of D-Day in June 1944, carrying troops to seize the bridges over the River Orne and the Caen Canal--objectives vital to the seaborne assault, which was to hit nearby beaches at dawn.

MOST OF US have read, at one time or another, of the nine assault gliders which preceded all other forces into Normandy during the early hours of D-Day in June 1944, carrying troops to seize the bridges over the River Orne and the Caen Canal--objectives vital to the seaborne assault, which was to hit nearby beaches at dawn.

But little has been recorded of the other 89 gliders--Horsas and Hamilcars--which took part that night in Operation Tonga, designed to put in place an anti-tank screen to protect the southern and eastern ranks of the invasion beaches from Nazi counter-attack.

This book repairs that omission, and it is gripping reading. It is just as well that it was written about a decade ago, for its particular strength is that it includes many first-person accounts from those involved--glider pilots, tug pilots, their army passengers, invasion area residents, resistance workers and even the enemy. Had the authors--son and nephew respectively of two of the glider pilots involved--left it any later, many of their sources would not have been available for interview. Operation Tonga survivors are now, sadly, a dying and much diminished breed.

Unlike some other books about the airborne forces of the second world war, there is plenty of stick-and-rudder detail to satisfy the Pilot reader, who will not be left wondering what it is like to fly a lumbering, overloaded and unpowered troop or tank transport at night behind a labouring tug flying into a screen of flak ahead and then to land in the heavily wooded small fields of the Norman bocage.

But there is plenty, too, of the land battle that followed and in which the glider pilots played their full part as combat troops, together with many stories of escape, evasion and sudden death, even summary execution, in which many were subsequently involved.

Despite very detailed appendices--gliders and their crews, their loads, their departure points, times, their landing places, their fates, and similar detail on their tugs, this is no dry and dusty archival record but an intensely readable and very impressive account of one night in a form of warfare only ever used in one conflict in the world's history, and one that won't be seen again.

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As General Sir John Hackett, himself an airborne forces hero, says in his foreword: 'No other body of British fighting men can match the record of the [Glider Pilot] Regiment, whose unique performance deserves the highest praise.'

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