The Airspeed AS.51 Mk I and AS.58 Mk II Horsa gliders were British World War II troop-carrying gliders built by Airspeed Limited and subcontractors and used for air assault by British and Allied armed forces. The Mk I and the Mk II were virtually identical in outward appearance and performance but, naturally, some design improvements were seen in the Mk II. They were named after Horsa, the legendary 5th century conqueror of Southern Britain.
The Horsa first flew on 12 September 1941. It was a high-wing cantilever monoplane with wooden wings and a wooden semi-monocoque fuselage. The fuselage was built in three sections and bolted together. The front section was the pilot’s compartment and main freight loading door, the main section was accommodation for troops or freight, and the rear section supported the tail unit. It had a fixed tricycle landing gear and it was one of the first gliders equipped with a tricycle undercarriage for take off. On operational flights this could be jettisoned and landing was then on a sprung skid under the fuselage. The wing carried large “barn door” flaps which, when lowered, made a steep, high rate-of-descent landing possible – allowing the pilots to land in constricted spaces. The pilot’s compartment had two side-by-side seats and dual controls. Aft of the pilot’s compartment was the freight loading door on the port side. The hinged door could also be used as a loading ramp. The main compartment could accommodate 15 troops on benches along the sides with another access door on the starboard side. Supply containers could also be fitted under the centre-section of the wing, three on each side. The later AS.58 Horsa II had a hinged nose section, reinforced floor and double nose wheels to support the extra weight of vehicles. The tow was attached to the nose-wheel strut, rather than the dual wing points of the Horsa I. To assist in rapid unloading of troops and equipment on landing, the fuselage joint to the rear of the Horsa’s main section could be broken after landing, releasing the empennage (tail section). After the Normandy invasion, explosive bolts were installed to make this process even more rapid. On at least one occasion (Market Garden, Sept 1944), the bolts exploded in flight as the craft was being towed to the target area with a full load of combat troops aboard. The empennage was released and fell away, destroying all capabilities for independent flight. While the Horsa continued to trail behind its tug, it is not known what became of this glider after it released its tow line. The use of assault gliders by the British was prompted by the use by Germany of the DFS 230, which was first used in May 1940 to successfully assault the Eben Emael fort in Belgium. Their advantage compared to parachute assault was that the troops were landed together in one place, rather than being dispersed. With around 28 troop seats, the Horsa was much bigger than the 13-troop US Waco CG-4A Haig (known as the Hadrian by the British), and the 8-troop General Aircraft Hotspur glider which was intended for training duties only. As well as troops, the AS.51 could carry a jeep or a 6 pounder anti tank gun. The Horsa was first used operationally on the night of 19/20 November 1942 in the unsuccessful attack on the German Heavy Water Plant at Rjukan in Norway (Operation Freshman). The two Horsa gliders, and one of the Halifax tug aircraft, crashed in Norway due to bad weather. All 23 survivors from the glider crashes were executed on the orders of Hitler, in direct breach of the Geneva Convention which protects POWs from summary execution. After this Hitler called the airborne soldiers “Red Devils” due to their maroon berets. The name stuck with them. On operations they were towed variously by Stirling, Halifax, Albemarle, Whitley and Dakota tugs. The pilots were usually from the Glider Pilot Regiment, part of the Army Air Corps, although Royal Air Force pilots were used on occasion. The Horsa was also used in service by the US Airborne operations.
On 5 June 2004, as part of the 60th anniversary commemoration of D-Day, Prince Charles unveiled a replica Horsa on the site of the first landing at Pegasus Bridge in Benouville, France, and talked with the original pilot of the aircraft, Jim Wallwork.