Glider Training


When Winston Churchill ordered the formation of ‘airborne forces’ on 17th June 1940, some three months before the Battle of Britain was won remember, I doubt if even he realised just how big things would become. (Within 56 months it was possible to land two complete divisions by air in the space of 63 minutes during Operation Varsity). The first thing to materialise was the Central Landing Establishment at Ringway, now Manchester International Airport, where the initial attempts at military parachuting and gliding began in earnest. Although it must be pointed out here, that there was still little idea of how these forces would be used in reality, details about the German attacks by glider-borne troops on Fort Eben-Emael were still relatively unknown for instance.

The glider part of this set-up had a very meagre start due mainly to the fact that there just wasn’t any form of troop-carrying glider in existence in Britain at the time. So the first gliders to be used were hurriedly impressed from the hangars and trailers of the few pre-war civilian clubs. The fact that most of the men involved in forming the gliding section had come from those same clubs just added to the ‘amateur’ feel of things. In fact the first C.O. was Tim Hervey who had been Manager and CFI of the London Gliding Club before the war. His CFI now was to be John Saffrey, the Chief Ground Instructor Lawrence Wright both also of London Gliding Club, ably assisted by Toby Ashwell-Cooke founder and Chairman of the, yes you’ve guessed it, London Gliding Club!
The first machines were already at Ringway having taken part in the trials of RDF, now radar, by the Special Duties Flight led by Mungo Buxton, off the South coast a few months previously. (See Philip Wills book ‘On Being a Bird’). They consisted of the great Philip Wills’ Minimoa, a Rhonbussard, a Condor, a Viking 1 and three Kirby Kites. (You can still see one of these Kites, the one fitted with wooden control rods instead of metal cables, usually at Vintage Glider Club rallies where its owner, Peter Underwood, flies it regularly).
There being few two seat dual control gliders around for training, experiments were undertaken initially by removing the propellers from several B.A. Swallows, a fairly common light aircraft, and using these towed behind a Whitley.

Once things got under way it soon became obvious that the mixture of parachutists and gliders on the same field wasn’t going to work and so the glider section which had become known as the Glider Training Squadron began to look for new accommodation. This in itself was very difficult, all the large airfields were already being used, obviously, and most of the fields that were left would be too small for the new troop-carrying gliders that were on the drawing boards.
Finally the little airfield at Haddenham was discovered by Tim Hervey and Toby Ashwell-Cooke and it was decided to move shortly after Christmas 1940.

Ringway, 1940. De-rigged Kirby Kite in the foreground with a Whitley bomber behind. In the background are two BA Swallows (without propellers) considered for a while as a means of training glider pilots.

The following quote from Lawrence Wright’s ‘The Wooden Sword’, (surely the best book on British military gliding ever written), will give the best impression of what they found:-
"In the dismal light of a wet winter, it looked a small field; less than half a mile each way. There were trees on two sides, a factory in one corner, and on a third side a deep railway cutting that recalled the title of the surrealist picture ‘Garden Aeroplane Trap’. When a train passed, a wall of steam rose in the cold damp air and blotted out the approach view with a suddenness that promised to be disconcerting. The run was ample for Tigers, which could pull sailplanes out of half it’s length, but it might be tight for the eight-seater when it came. There were no tracks or paths: you drove in through a field-gate across a threshold of mud and cow dung. The ground varied from old ridge-and-furrow, alternately hard and soft, to patches of new grass and standing pools....... To make it finally and completely uninviting to incoming (enemy) aircraft, the field was dotted haphazard with old motorcars; it looked like the fairground Dodgems when the current is switched off....... There was a tiny hangar for light aircraft, three of them if their wings folded; but no other building, not a hut, not a tent, and of course no services."

The Glider Training Squadron arrived at Haddenham on New Years Day 1941. The first five Tiger Moths at 12:45, (within one minute of their ETA despite bad weather en-route), and the road parties including the gliders in their trailers later that evening.
Thus ‘R.A.F. Thame’ was born.

Headquarters was initially in Yolsum House, home to a retired Colonel, next to the airfield but soon moved to No.8 Church Road in Thame itself. The lower ranks were housed with help from the local Searchlight Battery Commander (343 SL Bty, Rycote Wood) in the Workhouse! Others including Lawrence Wright were billeted at Lord Lochores home in nearby Chierseley. The Officers Mess was in ‘The Swan’ in Thame! (Yolsum House was demolished in 1988 to make way for Waterslade Pens).

The first gliders to arrive were five Kirby Kites and it was this type that was to become the mainstay of Army training for nearly a year. These were chosen by the fact that they were just about the only pre-war British glider that had been built in anything like substantial numbers. The GTS was to have fifteen on its books before too long, almost the entire production run.
That first day because of the lack of hangarage the aircraft were to remain outside, almost certainly the first time this had happened to the gliders. It was at this time that due to freshly applied camouflage, that the various components of the Kites were mixed up when they were rigged. This way, wings from one Kite were attached to the fuselage of another using the struts of a third. Apparently they still flew OK. That first night a thick layer of snow fell which lasted a week but even this didn’t stop flying which began on the 4th. Having flown myself from Haddenham in January I can only give full marks for those pilots flying open-cockpit aircraft, both tugs and gliders, in such weather, but then there was a war on.
The first hut was found in a local builder’s yard in Thame and this became a combined Glider Repair Shop and Crew Room.

RAF Thame's first hangar, a First World War 'Bessoneau'.

The staff of the GTS was a very mixed bunch, as I’ve mentioned most were connected with pre-war gliding but as far as the Services went things were even odder. Several were seasoned RAF Officers or NCO’s, some wore Army uniform of differing ranks and there were also several wearing Fleet Air Arm uniform including CFI Flight Lieutenant John Saffrey and newly arrived Flying Officer John Sproule. John Sproule had worked for Slingsby Sailplanes before the war designing the Kadet amongst other jobs and so his expertise was soon put to use when he fitted spoilers to the Kites to aid formation flying and spot landings. He had also been the co-pilot of a Falcon III that had broken the British endurance record on a flight at Dunstable that had lasted 22 hours!

The staff of the Glider Training Squadron, 1941. Tim Hervey ninth from left, John Sproule far left.

After a couple of months were spent organising everybody into a cohesive unit and a training syllabus had been prepared, GTS was finally able to commence training of Army pilots. The first 12 pupils, (all volunteers including Jack Caslaw, Dickie Key, Malcolm Strathdee, John Lander, and ‘Jonah’ Oxenford), arrived on 5th March 1941, having completed preliminary training on powered aircraft by, believe it or not, various units of Army Co-operation Command, none by proper training squadrons. It was obvious when they arrived that this training had been haphazard so a full refresher course was undertaken on the Tiger Moth. This wasn’t totally necessary in all cases because some had flown before the war, in the case of Malcolm Strathdee reputedly in the Spanish Civil War in Messerschmidt Me109’s! Jack Caslaw had flown Blenheim's in the RAF.
(Although not directly connected with Haddenham’s history it should be noted that Strathdee was killed on the Allies first military glider operation when an attack was made on the ‘Heavy Water’ plant in Norway by troops flown in two Horsa’s. The whole thing was a disaster and all were killed, either in the crashes of both gliders in the storm hit mountains or later execution by the Gestapo. 'Jonah' Oxenford was later killed at Arnhem. Jack Caslaw died in December 2003).
Training on the gliders soon began, Strathdee becoming the first Army pupil to go solo in the middle of March, but things didn’t go entirely smoothly. The first accident in Army gliding happened on 21st March when Cpl. Weston got caught out and landed his Kite, fairly successfully as these things go, on top of the Sergeants Mess! It should come as no surprise that he was promptly returned to his original unit.

Malcolm Strathdee is congratulated by John Saffery, Tim Hervey and John Sproule on becoming the first Army glider pilot.

Cpl. Weston lands on the Sergeants Mess!

By April two more courses had arrived and the first was ready for bigger things. Unfortunately the first General Aircraft Hotspur didn’t arrive until the 6th (by road) and wasn’t test flown until the 9th. So things developed rather slowly, the pupils quickly picking up the art of soaring the Kites in thermals and using these to prolong their flying times, so much so that often the whole fleet was airborne at one time! The airfield was home to a varied collection of aircraft by this time namely twelve Tiger Moth’s, one Swallow, one Avro 504N, twelve Kirby Kites, a nacelled Dagling Primary, a Slingsby Falcon III two seat glider and a single Hawker Hector. The Avro was used for towing the large Falcon, according to Dickie Key "smelling like a chip shop with its rotary spewing Castrol E", the Dagling was used only once officially and that was for the test pilot of the Hafner Rotachute to get some practise at powerless flight with a high sink rate.

Slingsby Falcon about to give a VIP a ride. Note the pre-war hangar in the background.

Dagling just after lift-off on a winch launch. Note the numerous wooden huts and canvas hangars now ranged along the south-eastern side of the aerodrome.

Life at Haddenham became fairly leisurely for most of 1941 whilst the GTS built up its strength and syllabuses and training manuals were created from scratch. Because airborne forces were still a new idea Haddenham became a focal point for various visiting dignitaries most notably the King and Queen on 27th of June. After visiting the Hordern-Richmond factory Their Majesties were treated to a display of formation flying by three of the army pupils in Kirby Kites followed by John Sproule who did an aerobatic display in the Viking 1. He started with a loop straight off the aerotow rope and ended with a down wind beat-up, followed by a stall turn and finished with a spot landing right in front of the seated VIP’s. All this had been done with a smoke candle attached to the tail! (This can be seen on the short film "All the Kings Horsa’s" which is sometimes shown at the Museum of Army Flying at Middle Wallop).
Other visitors around this time were Eric Kennington the official war artist who after painting the portraits of several of the pilots also created the first GTS badge. This was a mix of Pegasus and rocking horse with doors in its side and an aerotow hook on its front. Although it was painted on several of the Hotspurs it was never recognised officially and was later replaced by the more famous Pegasus of Airborne Forces.

For those members of the Vintage Glider Club reading this, two more visitors about this time should be noted, they were Fred Slingsby and one Pilot Officer Mike Maufe who came down from Ringway to see why tow ropes were continually breaking.
There were also visits to be made by GTS staff such as that made by Tim Hervey and John Sproule to Heath Row on 3rd September to see the first flight of the new Airspeed Horsa which was to become Britain's main troop carrying glider.

The King and Queen visit RAF Thame, 27th June 1941, for a demonstration of military gliding.

On the 2nd December the Glider Training Squadron became No.1 Glider Training School when it was transferred from Army Co-operation Command to Training Command. A few days later the Officer’s Mess moved from 'The Swan' to Dinton Hall just down the road.
Just before Christmas Haddenham had its first fatality when Flight Lieutenant ‘Buzz’ Lacey was killed when his Tiger Moth flew into power-cables shortly after towing John Sproule in a Kite to Chinnor for a Home Guard exercise.
By the end of the year the gliders had amassed 1,131 hours and the powered aircraft 4,239.

'Jonah' Oxenford's Musketry course - he was killed at Arnhem three years later.

The Hotspur had originally been designed as an assault glider, not a trainer, so was not entirely ideal for its new role. The Mk.1, originally known as the 10/40 before it got its name, had a wingspan of 18.8 metres and was built along sailplane principles because the original specification had been for it to be able to glide for 100 miles from a release height of 20,000ft. In fact it was quite possible for it to be soared under a large thermal street. The two pilots sat up front in tandem with six troops below and behind them in the fuselage. The troops sat sideways and were to leap into action through a two-piece hatch in the fuselage top. It was fitted with two large main undercarriage units and a tailskid, all of which could be jettisoned after take-off but very rarely were, and a central fuselage skid. Only eight of this first mark were built before the aircraft was altered to more suit its training role. Nearly 5 metres was chopped off the span and the cockpit was revised with better instrumentation and controls for the rear cockpit and a better canopy with more visibility, also the roof hatch was dispensed with. Most of the people I’ve spoken to say the Hotspur wasn’t exactly nice to fly being very heavy on the controls. According to Dickie Key the control column looked like it was made “from a bit of 4x2”.

Hotspur Mk.1 with the long wingspan. Below is a Mk.2

The coming of 1942 was the turning point for Army gliding with things becoming more organised. There were lots more Hotspurs available for training and indeed No.2 GTS had been formed at Weston-on-the-Green. So eventually the Kirby Kites and the other previously civilian gliders were retired, (actually left out to rot, along with the Avro 504N) and it became almost solely Hawker Hector and Hotspur combinations that were to be seen in the skies over Haddenham. Many of these flights were quite long with various routes around the Midlands undertaken. However the ground at Haddenham was very rough for the heavily laden gliders and even worse for the tugs. Many a time the poor Hectors had an undercarriage leg give way on take-off, so much so that there was an official signal created to be given from a chase aircraft sent up to meet the hapless pilot of the broken aircraft. Because of the difficulty of landing with one wheel hanging down the usual solution was for the occupant to bale out and leave the plane to itself.
As the pace quickened accidents also increased. A glider launch point can be a fairly hectic place and careful eye must be kept on the proceedings, towropes can get crossed leading to un-ready glider pilots being launched hastily trying to get the canopy shut and even a glider without pilots was known to have taken-off behind a Hector leaving the unsuspecting tug pilot to hastily cast it off before it caused both to crash. George Cliff who was a tug-pilot early on at Haddenham as well as several other School’s makes several comments in his logbook about being ‘dangled’ by pupil glider pilot’s whilst towing in the Hector. He even drew a cartoon to the fact! (George Cliff later went onto operational flying on Spitfires and was then posted to India where he test flew everything from Spitfires to Liberators).

Hotspur Mk.1 over the River Thame. Note the slit trenches.

Inside the Hotspur - seating for six troops sideways along the narrow fuselage.

These two images show the airfield from two directions as it was in 1942. The left-hand shot is over what is now Sheerstock looking North. The shot above is from the centre of the field looking South. Note the Hotspur Mk.II's and the back end of a clipped wing Spitfire in the bottom right-hand corner.

Cpl. Christie escaped with only cuts and bruises after overshooting the airfield and crashing through the fence into the railway cutting. It soon became obvious that Haddenham was really too small for a busy training school and had in fact always been too small for fully laden Hotspurs on nil wind days.


So in July 1942 No.1 Glider Training School was given its marching orders and on 1st August moved shop to Croughton Airfield in Northamptonshire. However this wasn’t quite the end as far as military gliding went as soon after a Glider Instructors School was set up, still run by Tim Hervey, and for about four months new Instructors were given their basic glider training here before being posted to the other schools now opening up all over the country. By this time most of the Hectors were well worn out so the majority of the towing was done by Miles Master II’s.
The GIS moved to Shobdon early in 1943.

No.1 Glider Training School leaves for Croughton.

The photo at right shows the airfield in 1942. (North at top).

Towards the end of 1942 and into 1943 it was decided that it was necessary to extend the length of the field (somewhat late considering the troubles GTS had on calm days).
As it was obviously impossible to extend westwards because of the railway line it was only logical that Windmill Road, which was only a small lane, should be closed and the fields eastward taken over. About another three to four hundred yards was found in this way, which was obviously a major improvement.

Most of the photos in this chapter were taken from an album belonging to Tim Hervey.


A copy of the poem on the right was found in George Cliff's logbook. It obviously struck a chord.

The author was P/O O.C. Chave whose son tells his story here:

P/O O.C. Chave, later Flt Lt, was my father who was killed night of 14th Feb 1943 flying from RAF Bourn Cambs with 15 Squadron. I was born a few months later in May.My son and I visited the crash site in Belgium last summer as I located a historian who knew where it was and gave me part of the oxygen system piping from the crash site where we still found small items scattered in the field of maize!

My father was a weekend Pilot in the RAFVR and was a QFI and on the outbreak of war was mobilised and sent to RAF South Cerney instructing on Oxfords where he ended up as Flt Commander of C Flight. He later volunteered to fly Bombers I guess that poem explains it all as to why.

He had a book of Poetry published by Blackwells of Oxford named Winged Victory Poems of a Flight Lieutenant under the nom de plume of Ariel. Most of his poems were published in Punch.
Many years ago when at Kidlington doing my ATPL exams I used to go in to Woodstock most nights around 9pm after swotting up to have a beer or two in pub and I got talking to a man who came in who looked your typical WW11 Pilot with RAF mustache who was the landlord of the Pub/Hotel opposite. It turned out he was ex RAF Wing Commander on V Bombers and when I said my father was in RAF until he got killed he asked my name and he shot off back to his pub and returned with his log book with my father named as his Instructor at Redhill in 1937.
Christopher Chave





Woe and alack, misery me, I trundle around in the sky,
And instead of machine - gunning Nazis, I'm teaching young hopefuls to fly.

Thus is my service rewarded, - my years of experience paid,
Never a Hun have I followed right down, nor ever gone out on a raid

They don't even let us go crazy, - we have to be safe and sedate,
So it's nix on inverted approaches, they stir up the C.F.I.’s hate.

For it's Oh, such a naughty example, and what will the A.O.C think?
But we never get posted to fighters - We just get a spell on the Link!

So it’s circuits and bumps from mornin ‘till noon, and instrument flying! till tea,
“Hold her off, give her bank, put your undercart down – you’re skidding, you're slipping” - that's me.

And as soon as you've finished with one course, like a flash, up another one bobs,
And there's four more to show round the cockpit and four more to try out the knobs.

But sometimes we read in the papers, of the deeds that old pupils have done,
And we're proud to have seen their beginnings, and shown them the way to the sun.

So if you find the money and turn out the 'planes we'll give all we know to the men,
'Ti1l they cluster the sky with their triumphs, and burn out the beast from his den.




In The Beginning




Glider Training


Ferry Pilots


Closing Down


Airtech Ltd


Motorcycle Racing


Arms Smuggling etc


Upward Bound

Acknowledgements, Bibliography, Links, Etc


©Copyright Peter Chamberlain, 2014