Monday, July 1, 2024

Operation Elmira

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, just as the sun was setting, two waves of Douglas C-47s towing Horsa and Waco CG-4A gliders flew east over Utah Beach in Normandy, France. They were headed for Ste-Mére-Eglise, just a few miles in from the coast. Loaded aboard the 176 gliders were 1,190 troops, 59 vehicles, 25 anti-tank guns, and 131 tons of ammunition. It was Operation Elmira and they were flying into trouble.

The first glider combat operation was carried out by the Germans on May 10, 1940 when they used them to land troops inside Fort Eben-Emael, Belgium, allowing them to take what was supposed to be an impenetrable fortress. The United States Army Air Corps began its own glider program in February 1941 in response. In May 1941, army glider pilots began training at Harris Hill in Elmira, New York, on the east coast, and Twenty-Nine Palms, California, on the west. These early trainees were trained on commercial sailplanes, including the Schweizer SGS 2-8, manufactured here in Elmira. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war in December 1941, the Air Corps began training its glider pilots in earnest. American forces first used gliders during the Sicily campaign of 1943 and again in Burma in 1944. 


Gliders proved a valuable tool during the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. Operation Elmira was the third and final mission flown by the 82nd Airborne Division on D-Day. The goal of Operation Elmira was to bring in reinforcements and equipment to paratroopers who had parachuted in earlier in the day. The mission consisted 36 Waco CG-4A gliders and 140 Horsa gliders towed by 176 Douglas C-47 airplanes. They left England around 6:30 pm and arrived in France in two waves. The first wave arrived around 9pm while the second arrived two hours later around 11pm. 

Horsa glider being pulled by a tow plane on its way to Normandy, June 6, 1944

 Things went wrong fast. The original plan called for the gliders to land at two different zones, LZ W and LZ O, but troops on the ground were unable to secure LZ W. Ground forces attempted to communicate with the in-coming pilots to warn them to divert all gliders to LZ O, but the message never went through. Instead, the C-47’s and their gliders flew into a barrage of German ground fire as soon as they began their approaches over LZ W. Of the 176 airplanes, 92 were damaged and five are shot down. Eight of the pilots were injured and one was killed. Things were even worse for the gilder pilots.

The gliders came down hard. One pilot, Ben Ward, touched down in a field only to realize that his break line had been shot out and they were headed for a pair of trees at 90 miles per hour. Their Horsa glider slid between the trees, sheering off the sides of the fuselage and killing one of their passengers. All told, most of the gliders were destroyed upon landing. Ten of their pilots were killed on impact with 29 injured and 7 missing in action. Of the 1,190 troops they carried, 157 were killed or injured. 

Horsa glider with rear open for loading

 The glider crews and passengers were still in danger even after they landed, considering many of them had landed behind enemy lines. Glider pilot Clifford Fearn had barely unbuckled his safety harness when his glider was overrun by Germans and they were all taken prisoner. He was freed a few hours later by advancing American troops. Another pilot, Rollin B. Fowler, found himself in a similar situation but managed to free himself with a grenade he had stuffed down his pants.

Despite the initial issues with the landing zones and resulting casualties, Operation Elmira was largely considered a success. Most of their cargo was delivered undamaged, as were the reinforcements. Seeing the first wave arrived in daylight hours helped boost American morale, even as it demoralized the Germans. Gliders continued to be used throughout the war, including on the very next day. Despite how useful they had been in delivering men and supplies, the sun soon set on combat gliders. They were never used again after World War II. Instead, they were replaced in their role by helicopters which had the advantage of being able to fly in and out under their own steam.  



If you’re interested in learning more about Operation Elmira, the Chemung County Historical Society has a collection of first-person accounts of men who participated as compiled by researcher Adelbert Sahlberg in 1998.

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