The Waco CG-4 glider

On silent wings

A Waco CG-4A glider
(Photo: U.S. Army Air Forces)

Paratroopers are rightly counted among the most daring of soldiers in World War II. The men of the 82nd, 101st (Read our earlier article) and other American Airborne Divisions; the British Parachute Regiment; their German counterparts, the "Green Devils"; and other units have earned a reputation with their willingness to jump into enemy-held territory with only light armament, and fight as tenaciously as any other outfit. Today's article, however, is inspired by their often-overlooked companions: the glider infantry, or "glidermen," and is about the iconic American glider, the Waco CG-4, commonly known as the Waco glider.

Nazi Germany was a pioneer of glider operations, and shocked the world with their effective use of unpowered transport planes in the early stages of World War II. The most notable feat was the capture of the Belgian fort of Ében-Émael on May 10-11, 1940. While the fort was considered impregnable to a ground assault, its vulnerability was exposed when German gliders landed on top of the underground complex and disabled its outer defenses with flamethrowers and explosives. (Later German glider accomplishments included the invasion of Greece in 1941 and the rescue of Mussolini from Allied captivity. (Read our earlier article))

German glider on top of the Belgian fort of Ében-Émael
(Photo: unknown photographer)

The Allied sat up, took notice, and quickly launched their own glider projects. Gliders had both distinct advantages and disadvantages when compared to paratroopers. A glider could carry equipment which was too bulky or heavy to be simply tossed out through the side door of a transport plane. Glidermen could also disembark quickly and in a single group after landing, while paratroopers always faced the risk of being scattered. Gliders were extremely quiet, and could land completely undetected, especially at night. (While it involved British Horsa gliders, the capture of Pegasus Bridge on the night before D-Day demonstrated this ability when the first glider landed within 50 yards (45 m) of its target unnoticed.) (Read our earlier article) Finally, glidermen didn't need the rigorous training of paratroopers, since any infantryman could do the job after minimal extra training.

CG-4 construction in Minneapolis
(Photo: Villaume Industries Collection)

Of course, gliders also had weaknesses. They and their towing planes were very vulnerable to both enemy aircraft and fire from the ground, and could do little to dodge or discourage attackers. They needed a smoother surface to land on than paratroopers, and open areas could easily be defended against gliders with "Rommel's asparagus" (named after the German general (Read our earlier article)): wooden posts scattered all around with taut wires between them. In fact, gliders infantry frequently suffered injuries or deaths even during unopposed landings due to the inherent fragility of their aircraft.

A bad landing in Southern France during Operation Dragoon
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Another problem was that while the pilots of a transport plane returned home (unless they were shot down), the crew of a glider was stuck on the ground after landing, typically behind enemy lines. This caused disproportionately high losses among glider crews, and the problem just did not have a good solution. American crews were simply instructed to make their way back to friendly lines on their own. British glider crews were in a slightly better situation: they received basic infantry training, and were supposed to stay with their passengers and fight alongside them. While American pilots were on their own on the ground, their "stick" tried to keep them as safe as possible in the air – glidermen did not wear parachutes, and knew that they would all die if the pilots were incapacitated. Some pilots were given an extra flak jacket – not to wear, but to sit on so their internal organs would be slightly better protected against a flak shell penetrating the glider from below.

A Waco CG-4 pilot and copilot in the cockpit
(Photo: U.S. Army)

The result of the American glider design process was the CG-4 ("CG" for "cargo glider"), designated CG-4A in the U.S. Army Air Forces, and given the service name Hadrian in British service, referencing the Roman emperor who built a 73-mile (117 km) wall to protect the Roman province of Britannia against northern barbarians.

The glider was 48 ft 8 in (14.8 m) long with a wingspan of 83 ft 8 in (25.5 m), and was built of fabric-covered wood supported by a metal frame. Its empty weight was 3,900 lb (1,769 kg), and it was able to carry a 3,600 lb (1,633 kg) – almost its own mass again. It could carry 13 glidermen alongside the two pilots, or a variety of loads, the most common being a jeep (Read our earlier article), its weaponry and three men; a 75 mm howitzer with 25 shells and two artillerymen; a small bulldozer and its operator; or a 27 mm anti-tank gun and its crew. The CG-4 had a significantly smaller carrying capacity than its British counterpart, the Airspeed Horsa, which could transport 28 men. Its small size, however, was also an asset, as it could land in small open areas that other, larger gliders could not have handled.

Glider infantry inside a Waco CG-4A
(Photo: National Archives)

 The CG-4 had an ingenious way of disgorging its cargo rapidly. Once it landed, the entire nose, with the pilots' seats included, could be swung upwards to create a 5 by 6 foot (1.5 by 1.8 m) opening towards the front, through which a jeep could drive out or other cargo removed. A set of safety cables were installed and would automatically swing the nose up if the cargo broke free on a rough landing and started sliding forward – this emergency measure would also lift the pilots up, preventing them from being crushed by the moving cargo.

A museum exhibit showing how the upwards-opening cockpit helped with loading and unloading
(Photo: Gary Todd / Wikipedia)

The designers also gave thought to reusability. The U.S. Marine Corps already experimented with a way of letting a low-flying plane "catch" a pouch with dispatches with the help of a cable as early as 1928, and a similar, more refined system was implemented for the aerial pickup of mail in the late 1930s. The system was adopted to allow a plane to pick up a CG-4. The glider's tow cable would be looped at the end and held at the height of 12 feet (3.6 m) by two poles. The pickup plane would have another cable trail behind it with a hook at the end, which would catch the loop and yank the glider into the air, with the sudden force of the pickup ameliorated by a winch system. The system was later expanded to allow a single plane to pick up and tow home two gliders at the same time.

Demonstration of the snatch. The glider on the ground has the loop on its tow cable held up by two poles, while the pickup plane approaches from behind.
(Photo: U.S. Army Air Forces)

The pickup system saw limited use in Europe due to the reluctance of U.S. commanders in France to engage in what they thought was a needlessly dangerous and complicated procedure just to recover some single-use equipment.  Only 13 of the 517 CG-4s used on D-Day were snatched up and returned. More could have been saved, but many were damaged by German shelling, locals, or Allied troops during the fighting after the planes had already landed. General Henry "Hap" Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, was greatly displeased and pressured his subordinates into putting more effort into recovery. Consequently, a serious attempt was made to recover gliders used in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands in September 1944. Unfortunately for the recovery teams, a storm wrecked over 100 gliders, and only 281 of 1,900 CG-4s used in the operation could be snatched.

German soldiers inspecting a destroyed Waco glider in Normandy
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Gliders and glider recovery efforts also played a vital role in Burma, where Chindits, British and Indian special forces operating deep in Japanese-held territory, relied exclusively on air-dropped supplies. Gliders bringing in ammunition and food often also carried mules, which were valuable pack animals in the dense jungles. (There were also experiments with putting parachutes on mules and airdropping them. Many mules broke their neck or legs on landing, so the experimenters proceeded to wrap them in inflatable rubber dinghies and attach the parachutes to those.)

Setting up tow ropes in preparation of a mission in Burma
(Photo: British military)

The Chindits also made regular use of the air pickup procedure to evacuate the sick and wounded. 700 to 800 casualties were evacuated in June 1944, without the loss of a single glider or C-47 tow plane. Such medical evacuations also occurred in Europe, albeit on a smaller scale, late in the war: in March 1945, twenty-five seriously injured American and German soldiers, in six litters to a glider, were snatched up near the German town of Remagen and taken to a hospital in France.

The gliderborne evacuation of wounded soldiers from near Remagen
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

One man who could not be saved by a glider – and was, in fact, killed in one – was Brigadier General Don Forrester Pratt, the highest-ranking Allied officer to die on D-Day. Pratt was the assistant division commander of the 101st Airborne Division and was flying into Normandy between 3:45 and 4:00 a.m. on June 6, 1944, in the very early hours of the invasion. The glider touched down without a problem, but kept sliding on the tall wet grass even after the breaks were applied. The vehicle crashed into a line of trees. The pilot suffered severe injuries on impact and broke both his legs. The copilot was impaled by a branch and killed. Pratt was sitting in his jeep, and his neck broke from whiplash. His story was fictionalized as the death of "Brigadier General Amend" in Saving Private Ryan.

Brigadier General Don Pratt lying dead in the wreckage of his glider
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Less famously but more tragically, over 200 glidermen (some sources claim 250, others up to 300) drowned during Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, on July 9-10, 1943. This was the very first combat mission in which CG-4s were used. Gliders and their tow planes came under enemy flak fire; dozens of gliders were released too early and too far from the shore in the confusion. 65 of these crashed into the sea and their crews and passengers drowned.

A CG-4 in the water off the coast of Sicily after the disastrous operation
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Despite its vulnerability, the CG-4 continued to be an important part of the American airborne arsenal throughout the war, and over 13,900 such gliders were built in total. A much smaller number, 473, were built of the CG-15, which had shorter wings and a more aerodynamic nose so it could be towed at faster speeds. Nevertheless, the time of the CG-4 was over at the end of World War II. Many surviving pieces were sold off as surplus and ended up used as hunting, fishing or vacation cabins. Yet others were discarded, since the buyer only wanted the five humongous boxes they came in, and promptly broke those down for valuable lumber. One of the few survivors is on display at the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, which we visit on our Normandy Tours.

The Waco glider on display at the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere-Eglise
(Photo: Author’s own)

As far as we know, the iconic Waco glider was last used in the early 1950s, when the U.S. Air Force aided scientific research in the Arctic. CG-4s equipped with skis instead of landing gears could land on floating ice floes, then snatched back up with the line and hook method once the researchers were done at the location.

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