D-Day veteran flew into Normandy “lying on a tank”

This motorcycle rider landed behind the lines in Normandy on D-Day, where he conducted treacherous reconnaissance work before being horrifically injured.

Featured image by Robin Savage

Ahead of the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings, History of War had the honour of speaking with William ‘Bill’ Gladden, a veteran of the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment, who landed in France on the evening of 6 June, 1944. Not long after our interview, we sadly learned that Bill passed away on 24 April 2024, aged 100. A huge thanks to The Taxi Charity, as well as Bill’s niece Kaye and her husband for their help in arranging our conversation with Bill. We feel immensely privileged to have played a part in telling his story. Our thoughts are with his family.

A photograph of a young Gladden. His hair is swept back and he is wearing his military uniform.
Gladden as a young man after joining the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment.

William ‘Bill’ Gladden was just 20 when he dropped into France on the evening of 6 June 1944. Packed into an enormous Hamilcar glider, he had shared the journey across the Channel with a Tetrarch tank, and his beloved Matchless motorbike. Both men and machines were being deployed to support the Battle for Normandy as part of the 6th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment.

However, Gladden’s war ended after just 12 days, after he was hit and severely injured by machine gun fire. Following his return to England, he spent years in hospital, receiving multiple surgeries to save his leg. 
We spoke to Gladden while he lived in Haverhill, Suffolk, Gladden paints watercolours inspired by Hamilcar gliders and his landing site near Ranville, Normandy. Speaking to History of War magazine, he revealed his D-Day experience as part of the 6th Airborne Division and how he continued to honour his fallen comrades.

Related: “I was one of the first on June”: D-Day veteran recalls his 6 June flight.

Preparing for Overlord

When Gladden turned 18 in 1942, he was called up to join the British Army, initially training with the West Kents in Maidstone and with the 154 Royal Armoured Corps in Bury St Edmunds. While training, he began to pick up skills that would pay dividends in the 6th Airborne, learning how to drive tanks and motorcycles. These were put to the test immediately on the east coast, where he was a dispatch rider for the Royal Engineers working on Hobart’s Funnies, the specialist amphibious vehicles built for the landings. 

It was here where Gladden decided to volunteer for the 6th Airborne Division, moving onto Lark Hill to carry out airborne training. “My unit was moved to an airfield in Dorset three weeks before D-Day. We did quite a bit of training,” he recalls. “I took three glider trips from RAF Brize Norton. I was the first man ever to fly with a tank in a glider. I was with two others as ballast. For our first flight, we had a civilian pilot and as we were coming in to land, we overshot the runway. The pilot said: ‘You’ll never get a worse landing than that’, and we didn’t!”

Two soldiers guide a Tetrarch Tank into a large Hamilcar glider.
A Tetrarch tank is loaded onto a Hamilcar glider.
(Photo by Charles E. Brown/Royal Air Force Museum/Getty Images)

The men of the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment understood that they were being prepped for a big operation and were exhilarated by the prospect of crossing the Channel as they had been promised leave once a second front had been opened. “We knew because we’d been briefed,” Gladden shares. “At the airfield, we helped put up barbed wire to keep people out and keep us in. Major John Howard, who took Pegasus Bridge, went through the same airfield as us. We waved them off just before midnight and we knew exactly where they were going and intended to do.”

5 British paratroopers wearing their jumpsuits stand next to their glider with slogans they have written on the side.
British paratroopers before take off for landing in Normandy next to their glider emblazoned with the slogan ‘The Channel Stopped You, But Not Us!
(Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

Gliding into Normandy

Soon after, it was Gladden’s turn to cross the channel into Normandy. Nervous excitement filled the young man, whose vision of the outside world was entirely blocked by the Tetrarch tank almost touching him in the cramped fuselage. He decided to climb on top of the tank to get a view of the English Channel from the three small windows high on the fuselage. He had barely looked out of the windows when the glider jolted hard. The Halifax towing the Hamilcar had dropped the tow rope so the glider could make its final approach. Gladden was stuck on top of the tank: “We were told anyone not in their seat when the tow rope was dropped had to freeze in place to avoid spoiling the balance of the glider. I just had to lie still on top of the tank and that’s how I landed in Normandy; lying on a Tetrarch tank in a Hamilcar glider, towed by a Halifax bomber.” 

“That’s how I landed in Normandy; lying on a Tetrarch tank in a Hamilcar glider, towed by a Halifax bomber.” 

Three Hamilcar gliders approach for landing on a field in Normandy. A forest is in the background.
Hamilcar gliders on the approach for landing in Normandy.
(Photo by piemags/archive/military / Alamy Stock Photos)

Having touched down near Ranville, Gladden’s unit dug in. They converted a farmer’s barn into a field hospital and operating base for reconnaissance missions. Gladden was constantly on the go during the 12 days before he was injured, starting with defending the Orne and Pegasus bridges from German counter-attacks. He explained the significance of this work for the Normandy Campaign’s success: “They failed on two attempts. We had to hold them because the lads could never have gotten off the beaches if we hadn’t.”

Related: 5 things you didn’t know about D-Day

Afterwards, Gladden shifted to regular recce missions, trusting his Matchless motorcycle with his life. He fondly remembers going out on reconnaissance: “We did all of our recce work on the Matchless motorcycles, which was sometimes a bit dicey. We aimed to find out where the Germans were. The RAF or the 6th Airborne Division would then deal with the Germans we located. A few times, we could watch the results of our work. The rocket-firing hurricanes would blast the Germans out of their forest hiding places, which was a lovely sight.” Dangers were everywhere on these missions. In one instance, two of Gladden’s comrades were wounded. These men sadly passed despite his determination to carry them back to the barn. 

This is an extract of our interview with veteran Bill Gladden – to read the full story pick up History of War issue 133!

Our thanks to Taxi Charity for helping arrange our interview with Bill Gladden. To read Gladden’s fully story, including his injury, recovery and continued involvement in D-Day commemoration, pick up the latest issue of History of War.