I Was There! - I Saw the Glider Pilot Survivors on Parade
Commemorating their fallen comrades, at Stedham, near Midhurst, on July 29, 1945, survivors of the Glider Pilot Regiment remembered that two out of three of the Regiment's troops were missing or dead. The memorial service was attended by Edward Denny, whose description of the moving occasion is reprinted from The Evening News.
The inhabitants of this sleepy ancient Sussex village were very privileged spectators. As the troops came down the road behind the band, with the perfection of march discipline, they had in their gait the confident lilt that comes to men when they are sure of themselves and justifiably proud of themselves and their Regiment. It would have been difficult to find a finer or more alert body of young men. For these were the survivors of the Glider Pilot Regiment on parade.
As I watched them my thoughts went back to their beginnings – to the early days when I first saw them, a "hush-hush" unit – on that windswept hill at Tilshead in Wiltshire. Then they had nothing but enthusiasm and a couple of gliders. I remember Brigadier George Chatterton, their commander (who hand-picked his officers, rejecting 11 out of every 12 of the volunteers who came forward for this strange new form of warfare), addressing them. It was a regiment in those days without traditions, without precedents to go on. They were regarded somewhat askance by the orthodox War Office pundits.
The traditions had to be created. The glories of Sicily, Normandy, Arnhem and the Rhine were unguessed in those far-off days when Britain thought in terms of countering, rather than staging, airborne invasions. "In this regiment", said the Brigadier, "we aim at the discipline of the Guards, the toughness of Commandos, individual intelligence and initiative of the Intelligence Corps".
How well they succeeded! For here was indeed a corps d'élite – officers and men (sergeants, most of the latter) trained to be not merely first-class airmen, not merely to get their loads down at the right spot and at the right moment, but, if necessary, to fight as an infantry unit or as individuals (like the officer who fought a captured gun for many hours after all his companions had been killed), to fight with any and every type of weapon, and at all times to display that energy and initiative that only come to the highly trained, intelligent individual. In those far-off days there were 1,200 of them. Today there are 400. Two out of every three of the Tilshead boys are dead or missing.
The chance of their being in camp in the neighbourhood of the Brigadier's house had led to an invitation from that officer to make his house and grounds their own, and to attend a memorial service for the fallen in the village church. For him, as he is being invalided out, it was probably his last parade.
And now they were in the church – a strange invasion, filling every pew, making the ancient crossbeams echo with the clump and scrape of army boots, downing the stalwarts of the village choir, the high thin voices of the children with a volume of noise which the little church can seldom have heard, as 400 voices thundered "Fight the Good Fight", "O God, Our Help in Ages Past", and finally "Abide With Me".
The thoughts, the memories evoked by that moving and extremely simple service must have been varied. The long browning-off periods between operations; the first not very succesful coup in Sicily, when the inexperienced tugs cast off too far out at sea and most had to swim for it; Normandy, and the bloody weariness of Arnhem; the thick haze of smoke and rubble dust which made the last, most costly and most successful operation, the crossing of the Rhine, so hazardous; grim memories of the young corporal simply disappearing when caught by the German flame-thrower; humorous memories... all these and many others may have been in the atmosphere of that little church, highly charged with the emotion which is only evoked by simplicity.
Simple, too, was the Brigadier's farewell address. I wish it could have been recorded. He spoke without histrionics, of "the things I have watched as the Commander of this Regiment – the wonderful qualities of the patience, discipline, and fortitude of all concerned. I have always wanted you to have the better qualities which are given to men. By that I mean simplicity, faith, and that good courage on which you would have to fall back when the real trial came – and you had them". He recalled old memories and abiding comradeship. There was nobody in that church who was not intensely moved.
The slanting sunlight caught and gilded the memorial tablets, of long-dead squires and their relicts. The Regiment's first flag, designed by the men of the Regiment and struck for the first time, so long ago it now seems, on that bare hill at Tilshead, blessed by the vicar, later to hang in the church. Last Post, Rèveillé, then out in the sunshine past the grassy mounds, the ancient yews and the lavender hedge, murmurous with bees, for that final pulse-quickening march past; these are things which the spectators of that little ceremony will not soon forget. It gave one a nagging sense of dissatisfaction not to have been privilaged to be of that goodly company – and a quiet pride in a country which can still produce such men.
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