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The Inside Story of Britain's Toughest Regiment
By John Parker
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2012 John Parker
All rights reserved.
Warriors from the Skies
Even in this age of high-speed air travel, nerves jangle for most mortals at the very thought of boarding a plane, let alone jumping out of it when it is in the clouds with only a flimsy canopy to stop one's body crashing back to earth with potentially fatal consequences. The idea had been around long enough, from Greek mythology to Leonardo da Vinci's sketches of a man dangling from a hollow pyramid. So let us go back in time for a few moments to recall the origins of the Paras.
As early as 1783, statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin, then the American minister in Paris, had some sort of vision of airborne armies being dropped into battle after hearing news of the first manned flight in a hydrogen balloon by the Frenchmen Jacques -Alexandre-César Charles and Nicolas Robert on 1 December of that year. They took off from fields on the outskirts of Paris, rose about 600 metres and drifted more than 40 kilometres from the city. These early developments in balloon travel immediately began to attract the attention of forward-thinking military men and others fearful of invaders from the skies. Within the year a French balloonist, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, and an American doctor, John Jeffries, made the first balloon flight across the English Channel. They took off from Dover and landed near Calais two hours later. Blanchard also made the first balloon voyage in the United States in 1793 and before the end of the decade another Frenchman, André-Jacques Garnerin, made the first parachute jump from a balloon over Paris, using a canopy with rigid spokes. Those early experiments of jumping from balloons would remain a pertinent, if precarious, part of the training of the pioneers of modern parachuting from the early days of the Second World War, serving as a prelude to actually diving out of aircraft. Colonel Alan Wooldridge remembers his own experiences in the 1950s:
My first jump from a tethered balloon was an absolute horror – four trainees in a cage suspended beneath it rose into the air to a height of around 800 feet. It was deathly quiet. When it reached the tethered height, the Parachute Jump Instructor would oversee each man as he jumped out. The guy in charge of us liked a joke – just as I went, he yelled, 'Come back!' But then the parachute opened and down I floated to a safe landing. It was a frightening initiation. Balloon jumps were the worst part of our training.
These jumps were universally hated by the men who took up this challenge, not least because the stomach-churning experience could be worse going up than it was coming down. The silent balloon made its slow rise, often swaying wildly even in gentle air currents, until the rookie recruits, usually a 'stick' of four men suspended in a cage slung below it, reached the jumping height. They were usually already feeling sick to the stomach when it was their turn to exit the cage through an aperture in the floor, to tumble an initial 120 feet in freefall before the canopy opened and then having to manage the downward spiral with instructions being hollered through a megaphone by another instructor on the ground. What they had just experienced was a frightening test of courage that had been around since the eighteenth century.
In the late eighteenth century the French had begun a serious study of using balloons to drop troops, and by 1794 they were employing tethered balloons in warfare, as observation platforms to report the location and movement of enemy soldiers, although not to transport troops. During the American Civil War (1861–5) an American balloonist named Thaddeus Lowe formed and directed the first-ever balloon corps in the Union Army, while the North used observation balloons to direct artillery fire and to report Confederate troop movements. France returned to the thought of using balloons to drop troops during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, its military scientists producing many drawings of large balloons carrying baskets laden with troops who could be airlifted into the war zones. Once again the plan never came to fruition, although when the German armies laid siege to Paris the French remained in contact with the outside world by launching more than 60 balloons carrying almost nine tonnes of mail.
The event provided a signpost for another age and from then on futuristic writers, prophets of doom and adventurous military thinkers were all predicting the possibility of airborne soldiers, although exactly how these troops would descend from the heavens was at the time unknown. For years it seemed that at best parachuting would remain a carnival attraction, used by balloonists to thrill the crowds as they dived out of their tethered craft, using canopies which would be pulled open by ropes attached to the balloon's basket. The arrival of powered flight in 1903 provided a fresh impetus, and in 1912 the first true parachute jump from an aircraft, a Benoist biplane, was made over Jefferson Army Barracks in Missouri by Albert Berry of the US Army. He used a parachute housed in a container slung beneath the aircraft, precariously reached by crawling between the wheel struts before jumping. Intrepid fairground parachutist Charles Broadwick took the experiment a stage further in 1913 when he demonstrated his own invention, a parachute folded in a pack worn on his back, which was opened by a line attached to the aircraft when he jumped out.
By the time of the First World War (1914–18) both the Germans and the Allies had air forces and were experimenting with various forms of parachutes. Given impetus by a proliferation in the use of observation balloons, the concept of parachuting from plane or balloon taxed the minds of both sides. Initially, however, the use of parachutes was confined to their role as a lifesaver. Balloon crews were suicidally vulnerable to gunners from the ground and needed a fast route to earth when attacked before the hydrogen gas in the capsule above them exploded in a mass of flames.
Parachutes were slung around the balloon in canisters and when the crew felt they were in imminent danger of being shot down they clipped them to a harness around their bodies and jumped. In the latter stages of the war the French and the Russians pioneered the use of parachutes for purposes other than saving lives, dropping agents behind enemy lines or supplies to beleaguered troops. The British and the Americans were slow to exploit the use of parachutes and even their pilots were not issued with them until September 1918 because it was felt that they would encourage cowardice in the face of enemy attacks by allowing men to jump from their aircraft rather than staying on board to fight.
The British and the Americans both formed experimental parachute groups after the war, but there was little enthusiasm for the idea and much of the early progress was made in the USSR, which benefited from technology brought by German 'advisers' who were prohibited under the Treaty of Versailles from developing their military capabilities in their own country. In 1931 the Soviets gave an impressive demonstration to German observers of a parachute drop by the 1st Parachute Landing Unit, based at Stalingrad. Within four years the USSR had raised and trained 30 battalions of paratroops organized into three divisions, and these were so impressive that a demonstration of their skydiving skills was staged for an audience of military men from throughout Europe.
General Archibald Wavell, then with the British Army's General Staff (and later Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific), was among those present at the demonstration. It was a real eye-opener. The airborne manoeuvres included a mass drop by 1500 Soviet parachutists. 'If I had not witnessed it, I would not have believed such an operation possible,' Wavell wrote on his return, full of enthusiasm. But in 1930s Britain, where warnings of Germany's expanding military might well have been largely unheeded, Wavell's suggestion that the British Army should begin training an airborne force also fell on deaf ears. No one took the slightest notice, save perhaps for Winston Churchill, who was at the time in his wilderness years and listened to by few in high office.
Also present at the Soviet demonstration in 1935 was Hermann Goering, who had just been appointed head of the Luftwaffe. He returned to Germany determined to press ahead with the formation of his own airborne regiment, the 1st Fallschirmjäger, in complete contravention of the tattered remains of the Treaty of Versailles. Its importance in the burgeoning German military machine would be made apparent to all by his insistence that it should have the honour of bearing his own name in its formation title. As British military intelligence and MI6 would soon report, Soviet airborne skills had reached impressive levels and Goering's new outfit was in training by January 1936, with its first battalion of 600 men commanded by an air force major, Bruno Bräuer. The German Army also formed its own airborne unit in that same year and a parachute school was founded at Stendal, west of Berlin. The British took no action – an attitude that was to cost them dear in the early stages of the Second World War.
By then the Luftwaffe had established Germany's first parachute division, consisting of highly skilled, élite troops trained to perfection and later to be admired by their eventual British counterparts. Poland and France also formed parachute units and members who escaped before the German occupation of those two countries were to make a significant contribution to Allied parachute operations when these came into use. Meanwhile Goering's Air Ministry had pressed ahead with its demands for round-the-clock production of aircraft and gliders, and as war edged closer it became clear that airborne troops were to become an integral part of the early advances across western Europe and Scandinavia.
In Germany there were two distinct training patterns, one preferred by the Luftwaffe and the other by the Army; both were later copied by the British. The Luftwaffe planned to train clandestine operatives to parachute into enemy territory in small numbers, ranging from individuals to around a dozen men, trained as spies, fifth columnists, saboteurs and general troublemakers. The Army's methodology was quite different: it would drop large numbers of crack troops ahead of the main ground force to seize key objectives and so smooth the arrival of the armoured divisions. German military planners accepted that both proposals were brilliant additions to the overall concept of the Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, which they would soon launch against most of the rest of Europe. Goering continued to recognize the importance of an airborne approach, insisting in early 1939 that all of Germany's airborne troops and paratroop forces should come under the auspices of the Luftwaffe. The extent of the country's parachute capability was kept largely under wraps until the time came to unleash it.
The moment was not far off. By the end of the year the Nazis had two full parachute regiments under Luftwaffe control, kitted out in their blue-grey uniforms, and one Army infantry division trained in the techniques of airlandings. The Nazi invasion of Denmark and Norway in April 1940 marked the end of the phoney war. It was the prelude to spectacular German airborne raids across western Europe. As German warships appeared off the Norwegian coast, the airborne invasion began inland. Within 48 hours the Germans had landed seven divisions and captured all the main ports, while the airborne troops secured their positions at Oslo airport and Norway's other major airports. In fact, the weather had halted planned parachute drops at Oslo airport and infantry troops were landed in a succession of Junkers 52s to take possession. However, five companies of paratroops did drop at other key airports. The Germans established a firm hold on the southern half of Norway, and their control became complete when, less than a month later, the British and French withdrew their forces from the country in response to surprise attacks by the Nazis across western Europe, again spearheaded by airborne troops.
At dawn on 10 May German troops were carried forward in 42 gliders towed into the air by Ju 52s from Cologne and released into silent flight over Holland and Belgium to seize vital airports and bridges. Meanwhile, along a 150-mile front, 28 German divisions were assembled to move into action. Thus the Blitzkrieg, launched without warning, came to the Low Countries, and the British Expeditionary Force began its desperate retreat to the coast. The British nation went into shock, not least its military analysts when, in the aftermath of the huge operation, they pieced together the elements of the German invasion strategy: the lightning speed of the Panzer divisions which overran Dutch and Belgian defences, backed up by the fearsome accuracy of the airborne artillery provided by the Ju 87 Stukas and the devastating – and totally unexpected – arrival of airborne and parachute troops.
The latter had a particularly unsettling effect on the British public for many months afterwards, when, during the mounting fear of a German invasion of Britain, the nation was gripped by a kind of 'para fever'. The arrival of troops from the skies or the clandestine landing of fifth columnists, spies and saboteurs (probably dressed as nuns) was expected daily.
Alongside the humiliation and anguish resulting from the vast number of casualties suffered by the British Expeditionary Force, there was a salutary lesson for the British war planners: airborne troops were essential to meet the type of warfare the Germans were planning, although there were quite a few detractors from this view, not least among the upper echelons of the Royal Air Force. A hasty conference was summoned at the Air Ministry, but nothing happened apart from an announcement that 'it has been decided to establish a parachute training centre'. Major John Rock of the Royal Engineers was placed in charge of the 'organization of British Airborne Forces'. His instructions were vague and equipment scant and ill-suited to the job. 'It was impossible,' Major Rock would say later, 'to get any information as to policy or task.' The attitude of the Air Ministry was nothing short of obstructive and it remained so until Winston Churchill, who replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister on the day of the German invasion of Belgium and Holland, took a hand.
On 22 June 1940, the day the French formally capitulated and therefore the threat of invasion of Britain heightened, Churchill issued a clear instruction in a note to General Sir Hastings Ismay, head of his Defence Office:
We ought to have a corps of at least 5000 parachute troops including a proportion of Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians together with some trustworthy people from Norway and France ... I hear something is being done already to form such a corps but only, I believe, on a very small scale. Advantage must be taken of the summer to train these forces who can nonetheless play their part meanwhile as shock troops in home defences ... let me have a note from the War Office on this subject.
The Central Landing School, sited at Ringway Airport on the outskirts of Manchester, which formally if tentatively came into being on 21 June 1940 as part of the Air Ministry's reaction to the German invasion of western Europe, now became the focus of great activity. John Rock was joined by Wing Commander Louis Strange, Wing Commander Sir Nigel Norman and Squadron Leader Maurice Newnham, and the boost from Churchill provided the necessary support for a strong offensive force at a time when thoughts were generally directed towards the defence of the British Isles. This very fact caused dissent from some, in both RAF and the Army, for their shared priority at that moment was the defence of Britain rather than the creation of a new offensive force. There was already a mad scramble going on for more aircraft and decent equipment to meet existing needs, let alone engage in some new and alien form of warfare in which the British had no previous experience whatsoever.
The first recruits for the first-ever British parachute units were all volunteers from the Commandos and specifically from the newly formed 2 Commando, which was given a new base at Knutsford, in Cheshire, so as to be close to the Ringway parachute school. B and C troop arrived on 9 July and the number of men who had parachute experience could be counted on the fingers of one hand, with some to spare. They faced a rapid programme of training, and were placed in the hands of a joint team of parachute instructors made up of 14 men from the RAF (under Flight Sergeant Bill Brereton) and nine from the Army Physical Training centre under Regimental Sergeant Major Mansie. They faced the mammoth task for which the words 'silk purse' and 'sow's ear' rush to mind. It was virgin territory – no equipment, no training modules, no pre-plane jump apparatus of any kind; just a few hundred parachutes and six very old and already obsolete Whitley Mk III bombers.
Excerpted from The Paras by John Parker. Copyright © 2012 John Parker. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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