RAF 38 Group
Airborne Operations

Par Nobile Fratrum

Moto: ‘Par Nobile Fratrum’,  meaning a noble pair of brothers, and the crest depicting an ‘Eagle’s leg grasping a sword’, the RAF’s 38 Group was created to support and deliver Airborne Forces during WWII. 

RAF 38 Group and Airborne Operations

RAF Halifax with Horsa Glider on Operation Buzzard
1st Airborne Brigade with Horsa Glider, 1944

With the increasing use of paratroops and glider borne forces, the RAF began to use specialist personnel to act as the eyes and ears of the Air Force on the ground. These Airfield Activation teams saw action wherever ‘austere’ landing strips needed to be established.


The first use of British paratroops was Operation COLOSSUS in February 1941, where a small force was sent to attack an aqueduct in Italy. Later airborne assaults were on Bruneval in France, Operation TORCH in Tunisia and as part of the Allied invasion of Italy. These culminated in Operation OVERLORD, mounted in support of the Normandy D-Day landings. The success of these operations was due to effective resupply drops and total air superiority, but a known difficulty for all the airborne operations was the correlation and control of Close Air Support missions to avoid the possibility of incurring ‘friendly fire’ deaths.

Royal Air Force 38 Group

Glider Pilot Wings, GPR
Airborne Armada, Operation OVERLORD, D-Day 1944
RAF 38 Airborne Operations, RAF Horsa Glider in Flight
Pegasus Bridge, D-Day 1944

Initially formed as No. 38 Wing RAF, on 15 January 1942 from 295, 296 and 297 Squadrons and based at RAF Netheravon, No. 38 (Airborne Force) Group was formed in August 1942, in Wiltshire under Group Captain Sir Nigel Norman.


During 1943, the first operations utilising the Group were “BITING (Bruneval) and “FRESHMAN” (Norway). The first was being deemed successful, but the second was the unsuccessful attempt to destroy the hydroelectric power station vital for German atomic research.


From March to August 1943, Operation BEGGAR – North Africa, HUSKY – the invasion of Sicily and Operation ELABORATE, which involved 295 Sqn ferrying gliders to North Africa via Portugal. Later this year changes to aircraft types and operational bases were made. With aircraft heavily involved in operations BEGGAR (Turkey Buzzard), where Handley Page Halifax bombers towing Airspeed Horsa gliders 3,200 miles to Tunisia, prior to the Allied invasion of Sicily. The British Horsas were needed to complement the smaller American Waco gliders, which did not have the capacity required for the operations planned by the 1st Airborne Division.


Additionally, Operations LADBROKE the glider borne landing near Syracuse, Sicily on 9 July 1943 and FUSTIAN, the assault on the Primosole Bridge across the Simeto River.


By the 5th of June 1944 the Group’s aircraft squadrons had been updated and had been redeployed between RAF Brize Norton, RAF Fairford, RAF Harwell, RAF Keevil and RAF Tarrant Rushton in preparation for Operation OVERLORD, the invasion of Europe. From then to 16 June 38 Group was fully involved in Operations TONGA, the delivery of paratroop-filled gliders at the onset of OVERLORD, MALLARD – the delivery of the main airborne forces and their equipment by glider, and ROB ROY the daily ferrying of supplies and equipment to Major General Gale’s 6th Airborne Division in the days after the TONGA airborne component of the ‘Overlord’ landings in Normandy.


Three months later, the Group went back to war with a vengeance (Operation “MARKET”) from 17th to 21st September, attempt to take bridges over the canals and across the Rhine at Nijmegen. In parallel, during 1944 numerous sorties were made over mainland Europe in support of the Special Operations Executive and detachments of the Special Air Service, on 24th March 1945 38 group was fully employed in delivering airborne troops to the far bank of the Rhine (Operation “VARSITY”). It is of those 60 RAF pilots were lost flying gliders in this action.

Operation BITING Bruneval, France 1942

Op BITING, Bruneval, France
WWII German Wurtzburg Radar
WWII British Parachute drop
Royal Navy extraction, Op BITING

Operation BITING, or the Bruneval Raid, was a British Combined Operations raid on the German radar installation in Bruneval, France in February 1942. A number of these installations had been identified in an aerial reconnaissance during 1941, but their exact purpose and the nature of their equipment was not known. 


Several British scientists believed that these radar stations were connected with the heavy losses being experienced by RAF bombers during bombing raids on targets in Occupied Europe. They requested that one of these radar installations be raided and the technology it possessed be studied and, if possible, brought back to Britain for examination. 

The Germans had erected extensive coastal defences to protect the installation, so a commando raid from the sea would sustain heavy losses and give sufficient time for the equipment in the installation to be destroyed to prevent capture. It was therefore decided that an airborne assault, followed by sea-borne evacuation would be the ideal way to surprise the garrison at the installation and seize the technology intact, as well as minimising casualties. 


On the night of 27 February, after a period of intense training and several delays due to poor weather, a small detachment of airborne troops under the command of Major John Frost parachuted into France a few miles from the installation. They then assaulted the villa where the Würzburg radar equipment was kept, killing several members of the German garrison and capturing the installation intact after a brief firefight. Flight Sergeant C.W.H Cox of the RAF was an expert radio technician who volunteered for the operation. He located the Würzburg radar set and photographed it, then disassembled it and removed several key pieces to take back to Britain.


Unfortunately, the detachment assigned to clear the beach had not fully completed the task, so another brief firefight on the beach followed before the raiding force could be picked up by a small number of landing craft and transferred to motor gun boats to take them back to Britain. Otherwise, the raid was entirely successful. The airborne troops suffered only a few casualties, and the pieces of the radar they brought back, along with a captured German radar technician, allowed British scientists to understand German advances in radar and to create countermeasures to neutralise them.

Nineteen decorations were awarded to men taking part in the raid. Major Frost was awarded the Military Cross, and Flight Sergeant Cox the Military Medal. There were three Distinguished Service Crosses, two Distinguished Service Medals, one other Military Cross, two further Military Medals and nine Mentions in Dispatches.


The success of the raid also prompted the War Office to expand the existing British Airborne Forces. They set up the Airborne Forces Depot and Battle School in Derbyshire in April 1942 and in August 1942, created the Parachute Regiment and converted a number of infantry battalions to airborne battalions.

Operation MARKET GARDEN, Arnhem 1944

Glider Landing Zone, Arnhem
Air Ministry Experimental Station, LWU
Horsa Glider with the LWU at Arnhem, Operation MARKET GARDEN

Operation MARKET GARDEN was Field Marshal Montgomery’s bold plan to capture the vital bridges over the Dutch rivers at Arnhem in 1944. The plan required the deployment of two highly secret radar Units so that Close Air Support could be given to the lightly equipped airborne Units.  RAF engineers and radar controllers attached to the 4th Parachute Battalion landed in Arnhem on 18 September. They were to control Close Air Support missions by Allied aircraft; if all had gone to plan, this was a task that could have changed the course of history. The 25 RAF personnel were part of two Light Warning Units, each equipped with the top-secret Air Ministry Experimental Station which could be transported in two gliders.


The plan was to deploy these systems on the second phase of gliders reaching Holland on 17 and 18 September. The first was to land at Groesbeek to support the Brigade HQ, but Germans strafed the aircraft, mortally wounding the Unit’s Commanding Officer, and the glider landed at Nijmegen. Despite this, the four Horsa gliders containing the Light Warning Units took off from RAF Harwell in Oxfordshire just after 1200hrs on 18 September. As the aircraft began their approach to the landing zones, one glider had to crash land when its tug aircraft was hit by flak and crashed. It landed near the town of Zetten, where the surviving crew destroyed the equipment and, despite having little infantry training, made their way to fight at Arnhem. A second glider was hit by the same concentration of flack and crashed, killing six members of the Light Warning Unit, plus the pilots. The remaining two gliders landed as planned at the landing zone seven miles west of Arnhem, but the crews soon realised that without all of the equipment, the Air Ministry Experimental Station would not function. As they tried to improvise a solution, both gliders and equipment were destroyed by heavy German fire on the landing zone. The Light Warning Unit crews then accompanied the infantry-trained glider pilots into battle.


At the end of the weeklong battle, the remains of the now exhausted 1st Airborne Division were under siege in the Oosterbeek area and, with no signs of respite and little or no ammunition, decided to attempt a risky nighttime crossing of the Rhine in order to reach the British lines. Only four members of the Light Warning Units, including a US Army 1st Lieutenant, made this crossing successfully and escaped. Of the 25 Light Warning Unit personnel that were flown into Holland, 10 were killed and the remaining 11 captured.

Operation VARSITY - Crossing the Rhine, 1945

6th Airborne-Landing Brigade and Horsa Glider, D-Day1944

The last major airborne operation of the war in Europe was Operation VARSITY, a crossing of the Rhine in March 1945. This operation was deemed a complete success in the use of airpower, ground support elements and Close Air Support. The marking of drop zones and landing strips was extremely accurate and enabled the Airborne Forces to achieve all their allocated targets without major losses.

Light Warning Units

AMES Light Warning Unit
LWU, Hartenstein Museum, Arnhem
WWII Vehicle fitted AMES LWU

Light Warning Units were each equipped with the A.M.E.S. (Air Ministry Experimental Station) Type 6 Light Warning Set which was the only small set available for airborne forces and, could be loaded into 2 Horsa gliders rather than 30 vehicles for other existing models.

During WWII Mobile Radar Units usually consisted of Chain Overseas Low (COL) and Ground-controlled interception (GCI).

COL radars used the type A display. The type A display comprised of a cathode ray tube (CRT) that displayed slant range, usually across the horizontal (X) axis, and a deflection proportional to the strength of the received signal on the vertical (Y) axis. The target bearing was read off of a vernier scale representing the direction the aerial was pointing. However, a major improvement in interception techniques came in June 1940 when the Plan Position Indicator (PPI) display was introduced.


CGI is an air defence tactic whereby one or more radar stations or other observational stations are linked to a command communications centre which guides interceptor aircraft to an airborne target.


During WWII these units were normally mounted in vehicles and used extensively in overseas theatres. These units received numerical designations preceded by ‘AMES’, e.g., AMES 1505 – which was one of the units providing GCI coverage of the Naples sector during the Allied invasion of Italy.

Rebecca and Eureka Systems

Eureka element of the Rebecca/Eureka System in Operation
Airborne Eureka System

In addition to the LWU used at by the RAF Radar Controllers and engineers attached to Airborne Forces, the teams also deployed the Eureka transponder.

The Rebecca/Eureka transponding radar was a short-range radio navigation system used in the deployment of airborne forces and their supplies. It consisted of two parts, the Rebecca airborne transceiver and antenna system, and the Eureka ground-based transponder. Where Rebecca calculated the range to the Eureka based on the timing of the return signals, and its relative position using a highly directional antenna.

Hence the naming protocol, Rebecca coming from the phrase “Recognition of beacons”, and ‘Eureka’ coming from the Greek word meaning “I have found it!”.


Flight Sergeant Charles William Cox, 955754, MM

WWII Military Medal

Flight Sergeant Cox was a specialist Radar technician, who served in the RAF coastal units during The Battle of Britain. In 1942 he “volunteered” to carry out a hazardous task in the parachute raid on Bruneval on the night of 27/28 February 1942. 

The success of the operation on the technical side depended largely on the performance of the duty allotted to him. After being dropped by parachute, Flight Sergeant Cox had only a few minutes to complete a task which had previously been estimated to require half an hour, and during this time he continuously under enemy fire. He displayed great courage, skill and devotion to duty in completing his task in spite of these difficulties, thereby contributing greatly to the successful execution of the raid.

Flight Sergeant Cox was recommended for a Mention in Despatches by the Army, but the Royal Air Force recommended him for a Military Medal (MM).


His citation reads:


Cox/Charles William Hall Flight Sergeant 955754 Royal Air Force LG 15/05/1942


This NCO volunteered to carry out a hazardous task in the parachute raid on Bruneval on the night of 27/28 February 1942. The success of the operation on the technical side depended largely on the performance of the duty allotted to him. After being dropped by parachute, Flight Sergeant Cox had only a few minutes to complete a task which had previously been estimated to require half an hour, and during this time he continuously under enemy fire. He displayed great courage, skill and devotion to duty in completing his task in spite of these difficulties, thereby contributing greatly to the successful execution of the raid.


Video: Airborne Assault