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 American Waco CG-4A (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 AS.58 or 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.
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. The survivors from the glider crashes were executed on the orders of Hitler.
On July 10, 1943, 27 Horsas were used in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. Large numbers were subsequently used in Operation Tonga and the American airborne landings in Normandy (Battle of Normandy), Operation Dragoon (southern France), Operation Market Garden (Arnhem), and Operation Varsity (crossing the river Rhine). In Normandy, the first units to land in France did so by Horsas, capturing Pegasus Bridge.
On operations they were towed variously by Stirling, Halifax, Albemarle, Whitley and Dakota tugs, using a harness that attached to both wings. 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 USAAF. On June 5, 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, and talked with the original pilot of the aircraft, Jim Wallwork.
Capacity: 25 troops
Length: 67 ft (20.4 m)
Wingspan: 88 ft (26.8 m)
Height: 21 ft (6.4 m)
Wing area: 1,148 ft² (106.7 m²)
Empty weight: 7,500 lb (3,400 kg)
Loaded weight: 15,250 lb (6,920 kg)
Max takeoff weight: lb (kg)
Maximum speed: 127 mph on tow; 100 mph gliding (204 km/h / 160 km/h)
Wing loading: 13.3 lb/ft² (64.8 kg/m²)