It was conventional wisdom that Germany led the field in glider design in the late 1920s and 1930s. This was a direct result of the Treaty of Versailles, Woodrow Wilson's flawed 'pièce de résistance' that brought World War One to an end, and implanted the seeds of destruction which were to lead to a 're-match' 20 years later. One of the provisions of the Treaty was that there would be limited civil aviation inside Germany and NO military aviation at all! For a country that had built some of the best fighting machines that the world had ever seen, and who had had one fighter 'plane (the Fokker D.VII) actually singled out in the peace treaty, this was not to be borne.
Consequently, Germany founded sport flying clubs and gliding clubs wherever it could. The Nationalsozialistisches Fliegerkorps (NSFK) - the National Socialist Flying Corps - had a program for training teenagers to fly, involving basic primary gliders, which were manually launched down mountain slopes using teams of young men and a 'bungee' tow rope. A main center for this was the Wasserkuppe, a high plateau in south eastern Germany, which was also the site of the world's first glider school and research facility. Ostensibly, this was intended to provide 'lead-in' training for the limited number of commercial pilots the emerging German state needed for its mail flights and airline routes. The single-seat skelton-like Schneider DFS 108-14 SG-38 'Schulgleiter' (School Glider), a reconstructed example of which is on display at the Shuttleworth Trust, was the main type used. Actually, in the post 1933 world, the foundations for the Luftwaffe were being laid. No less than 50,000 Germans could fly by 1937! Adolf Galland, for example, learnt to fly a glider before moving on to powered flight, and a career as one of the top-scoring aces of the Luftwaffe.
In the U.K., the interest in gliding was less intense, but a small group of fervent gliding enthusiasts gathered at Dunstable, to the north of London, and used German gliders to soar along an escarpment, and even hosted a German delegation in 1937. In the north, an RAF veteran Fred Slingsby, bought into a wood-working factory, and began repairing and designing his own gliders, many of them based on German designs. He founded both the local Scarborough Gliding Club and Slingsby Sailplanes Ltd.
In 1935, Slingsby decided to 'improve' another German design, the Grunau Baby II, a single-seat high performance glider, which he was already building. Using his acquired wood-working skills, he streamlined the rather angular lines of the 'Baby' using thin sheet plywood. This redesign took only four months, and the prototype made its first soaring flight at the British Gliding Association championships at Sutton Bank in 1935. Mr J. C. Neilan made it to Withernsea - a distance of 55 miles! The resulting Slingsby T.6 Kirby Kite was successful, but pricey, at £159, roughly 25% of the cost of an average house at that time. A series of 25 were built with an impressive, for the day, glide ratio of 21 (21 feet travelled for a loss of 1 foot in altitude); this compares with glide ratios in the range of 30 - 60, today. Stalling speed was 34 mph, which was quite acceptable.
When war broke out, many of the Kirby Kites were commandeered by the Royal Air Force for use as advanced, single-seat trainers at No 1 Glider Training Squadron at Haddenham, although there was a very special duty ahead for one Kite. In 1940, radar was in its very infancy, and little was known about its performance. Since the Germans possessed a very competent glider attack force - constructed of wood, naturally - which had shown its mettle during the attack on the Belgian Fort Eben-Emael in 1940, it was of great concern to the British Government that it now stood poised to invade England, only a few dozen miles across the English Channel.
Slingsby received a very special order, to build a Kite without any metal. All metal fittings were removed, and the steel control cables were replaced with wooden push rods. This glider (construction number 355A, carrying the unit marking of '5') was sent to the RAF Special Duties Flight at Christchurch in Hampshire in June, 1940 at the height of the Battle of Britain. It was then towed to a position off-shore and local radar stations tried to detect its approach. It was found that it could still be detected, but with a less stronger echo than a metal aircraft. The special wings of this glider exist today, as part of Kite 1 (c/n 336) which is still active; it was seen, in wartime camouflage, at the Upward Bound Trust's Vintage Meet in May, 2013 at Haddenham, where it would have served during the war!
Here you can see the Army Museum of Flying's Kirby Kite 1, coded 'E', in the typical early WW2 camouflage for 'second line' or training aircraft, of Dark Earth and Dark Green over Yellow undersurfaces. It is suspended from the roof of the 'new' Museum extension.
There were several attempts to produce a developed version of the Kite, post-war, but glider design had moved on, rapidly, and the post-war Kites did not sell too well. The Slingsby company eventually stopped producing gliders altogether, and was taken over by the giant Vickers defence company.
This Kite is a handsome reminder of the early days of soaring flight, and one of the rarest of WW2 aircraft. Oh, and another Kite - uncamouflaged - is with the Shuttleworth Trust, and flies on calm days, usually during their famous Evening Displays.