On 5th November 1940, 75 years ago to the day, the Hotspur glider embarked on its maiden flight, just four months after the specification for the glider had been received by manufacturer General Aircraft Ltd. It was the first British, purpose built, military glider and for the majority of Glider Pilots the Hotspur was their first experience of free flight. In the recently published book, ‘I Just Wanted to Fly’ Former B Squadron Glider Pilot, Bernard Osborn recalled fond memories of flying them.
“They were a doddle. I loved ‘em! If they had anything wrong with them at all, it was an awful job to get them down. This is not good news because once you get away from your tug you want to get down like lightning.”
Above: The General Aircraft Hotspur MkII had a shorter wing span and was more robust than the MkI
Originally designed as an operational glider, it was similar in size the German DFS230 glider which had been used with great success in the German assault of the formidable Eben Emael Fortress in Belgium in 1940. The Hotspur MkI had space for eight troops. The pilots sat in tandem and could enter and exit the cockpit via a hinged canopy. For the passengers, the top of the fuselage could be removed so that they could jump over the sides upon landing. As a glider the MkI could remain in free flight for great distances, but tactically this was a problem as operational gliders needed to descend quickly to their landing zones, following their release from the tug aircraft. The MkII was introduced, which among other changes, had a shorter wing span and was more robust. It was able to achieve greater speeds and descend more quickly.
However, a change in requirements meant it was unsuitable for operational use and it made way for the larger Hadrian, Horsa and Hamilcar Gliders, all of which could carry many more troops into battle and therefore required fewer tug aircraft. Concepts were developed to keep the Hotspur as an operational glider, such as towing two of them at a time. A “Twin Hotspur” was also developed which consisted of joining two Hotspur fuselages side-by-side. Other ideas, such as using the Hotspur to parachute from, were also explored. These concepts were not deemed feasible. Instead, the Hotspur remained in service with the Glider Pilot Regiment throughout the war and into post war years, solely as a training glider and between 1941 and 1943 over 1,000 were produced, primarily by furniture manufacturer Harris Lebus.
Above: The “Twin Hotspur” capable of carrying 15 troops. It was intended as a temporary solution for larger scale airborne landings while larger gliders were being developed but only a prototype was built.
The Hotspurs were primarily used at RAF operated Glider Training Schools (GTS) which were set up in 1941 and 1942 located in Thame, Weston-on-the-Green, Stoke Orchard, Kidlington and Shobdon. A number of tug aircraft had been experimented with, including the iconic Spitfire, but it was primarily training aircraft such as the Miles Master which were used to get the Hotspur airborne.
Above: The open canopy of a Hotspur as pilots prepare for training
Prospective glider pilots would attend one of these GTSs after an initial stint in the Glider Pilot Depot at Tilshead and a course on powered aircraft at an RAF operated Elementary Flying Training School. John McGeough, who would eventually serve in ‘C’ Sqn of the Glider Pilot Regiment and take part in Operation Market Garden, shared his memories of flying Hotspurs in No. 5 GTS in Shobdon.
“It was our first introduction to gliders. I had never seen one until I went to Shobdon. I absolutely loved it. When you are off tow, the silence was absolutely marvellous.”
“The RAF ground crew connected the cable to the tug aircraft and connected the other end to the glider. You had an RAF man in front of the tug aircraft and he had a little flag. He would wave it and then would wave it in a different direction when the slack was taken up, because if the tug pilot took off too quick or the rope was slack, it would break. He would wave the flag and the tug pilot knew when he changed the direction of the flag waving that the slack was taken up and he could go full throttle. Off he went, the glider behind him. [You have to] keep dead astern and not too high. If you were too high you would pull his tail off. [When airborne] a high tow is when it is above the slip stream of the aircraft and the low tow is when it is below the slip stream of the aircraft. 99.9% of the time you would fly in the high tow position. Your mind was always concentrating on the rope. You must not break the rope. You have to keep in the correct position relative to the tug; the right height and not to either side - dead astern. If you maintained the correct position it was relatively easy. You had to concentrate because you had to follow every change of course the tug made. Normally the glider pilot would cast off because he was responsible for knowing he was in the correct position. The only time the tug cast off was in an emergency. There was a red knob and you just banged the knob.”
McGeough continued to describe free flight and landing “It was very, very simple. Like a powered aircraft, each glider has a stalling speed and you must maintain above the stalling speed or otherwise you are going to be in trouble. But you had to be right first time because if you missed judged your approach you could not go around again. We used to say to the RAF pilots ‘It is alright for you, if you make a mistake you can go around again but we can’t!” There was a bit of banter between us.”
Banter aside many, of these young and relatively inexperienced glider-pilots-in-training did have accidents, leading to many casualties and many more wrecked Hotspurs. D-Day and Arnhem veteran Stanley Hann experienced his one and only flying accident in a Hotspur, in his early days with The Regiment, when he overshot the landing strip on a cross country exercise, and hit a stone wall. Although not injured, the glider was written off. Hann was still fond of the glider though: “[It] was very nice… beautifully streamlined and a lot of fun”
Of course not all pilots were of the same opinion. Sicily and Arnhem veteran, Alec Waldron said, “The Hotspur was a bloody awful aircraft to fly. The rudder frequently stuck… the control column was stiff and unresponsive at times. The aircraft itself was very aerodynamically efficient but of course it had no brakes so when you landed and were going a fair rate you rubbed the nose in to stop it.”
Britsh Pathe video footage of the Hotspur
Whether they loved it or loathed it, no other glider came close to meeting the training requirements for Glider Pilots. New gliders, such as the Slingsby TX3/43, were tested for training purposes but were found to be unsuitable for preparing trainee pilots for flying the larger Horsa. Instead the Hotspur would stay in use as the training glider of choice by the Forces throughout the war and into post-war years. These days a replica can be seen in the Museum of Army Flying in Hampshire. This Hotspur was built over a period of 10 years by a team, including former pilots from The Regiment, and was unveiled at the museum in December 2001.
Above: The replica Hotspur in the Museum of Army Flying in Hampshire
That is the short history of the Hotspur; the little glider that provided the training platform for Glider Pilots who would go on to take part in some of the boldest airborne operations ever undertaken. Before I finish up, I will leave you with one last quote from John McGeough on the joy of flying the Hotspur!
“Nothing nicer than a beautiful sunny day, taking off from Shobdon over the Malvern Hills. Over the hills you see the whole of England spread out in front of you. On a nice day you would have all the local girls walking in the hills and they would be waving at you. You would think you were king of the air, boosting your morale to no end!”
You can read more about experiences of flying WWII gliders in the first two books from our Airborne Memoirs project; "Arnhem on the Horizon" and "I Just Wanted to Fly". Available in our website shop here.