“We ought to have a Corps of at least 5,000 parachute troops. 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 none the less play their part meanwhile as shock troops in home defence. Pray let me have a note from the War Office on this subject.”Winston S Churchill
Forming a Parachuting Regiment
Minute from Prime Minister to Chiefs of Staff, 22nd June 1940:
The formation of the British Airborne Forces followed this minute from the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Military parachuting, however, was not new. In 1936 the Russian Army repulsed an Afghan invasion of Tajikistan by dropping 1200 men, 150 light machine guns and eighteen light field guns in the area. Glider-borne operations had also been a phenomenal success for the German invasion of the low countries when their fallschirmjager took the supposedly impregnable fortress of Eban-Emal in a daring Coup de Main assault.
Building the new Airborne Forces was not without its problems: Britain had no experience in this new form of warfare. “…it will be necessary to cover in six months the ground the Germans have covered in six years.” And there was the reactionary element at home: “We are beginning to incline to the view that dropping troops from the air by parachute is a clumsy and obsolescent method and that there are far more important possibilities in gliders. The Germans made excellent use of their parachute troops in the Low Countries by exploiting surprise, and by virtue of the fact that they had practically no opposition. But it seems to us at least possible that this may be the last time that parachute troops are used on a serious scale in major operations.’ Air Staff paper, 12 August 1940.
Thankfully there were enough people in government and in the military who had faith in the potential of parachute operations. A Central Landing school for parachute and glider training was established at Manchester’s civil airport, Ringway. By the 21st September 1941, twenty-one officers and 321 other ranks had been accepted for parachute training of which there was was a fifteen percent wastage rate through injuries and refusals to jump.
Captain Lindsey, a volunteer from the Royal Scots Fusiliers, was one of the earliest . His description of his first jump is one that paratroopers to this day could relate to:
“We climbed into the aircraft and sat on the floor of the fuselage. The engines roared and we took off. I noticed how moist the palms of my hands were. I wished I didn’t always feel slightly sick in an aircraft. It seemed an age, but it cannot have been more than ten minutes when the instructor beckoned to me. The Germans have a chucker-out in their aircraft for the encouragement of nervous recruits. Flight Sergeant Brereton, six foot two inches, would have made a good Absetzer. I began to make my way down the fuselage towards him, screwing myself up to do so. I crawled on my hands and knees into the rear-gunner’s turret, the back of which had been removed. I tried not to overbalance and fall out, nor to look at the landscape speeding across below me as I turned to face forward again.
I now found myself on a small platform about a foot square, at the very back of the plane, hanging on like grim death to the bar under which I had had such difficulty in crawling. The two rudders were a few feet away on either side of me; behind me was nothing whatsoever. As soon as I raised myself to full height ‘ I found that I was to all purposes outside the plane, the slipstream of air in my face almost blowing me off. I quickly huddled up, my head bent down and pressed into the capacious bosom of the Flight Sergeant. I was about to make a ‘pulloff’, opening my parachute which would not pull me off until fully developed – a procedure which was calculated to fill me with such confidence that I should be only too ready to leap smartly out of the aircraft on all subsequent occasions.
The little light at the side changed from yellow to red. I was undeniably frightened, though at the same time filled with a fearful joy. The light changed to green and down fell his hand. I put my right hand across to the D ring in front of my left side and pulled sharply. A pause of nearly a second and then a jerk on each shoulder. I was whisked off backwards and swung through nearly 180 degrees, beneath the canopy and up the other side. But I was quite oblivious to all this. I had something akin to a black-out. At any rate, the first thing I was conscious of after the jerk on my shoulders was to find myself, perhaps four seconds later, sitting up in my harness and floating down to earth. The only sensation I registered was one of utter astonishment at finding myself in this remarkable and ridiculous position.
I looked up and there was the silken canopy billowing in the air currents. I looked down, reflecting that this was certainly the second greatest thrill in a man’s life. Suddenly I realized that the ground was coming up very rapidly. Before I knew what had happened I was sprawling on the ground, having taken a bump but no hurt. As I got to my feet, a feeling of exhilaration began to fill me.”
On the 10th February 1941 the Ringway volunteers took part in the first ever British parachute operation.
Operation Collossus – The Raid on the Tragino Aqueduct
Britain’s first airborne assault took place in 1941, when the Paras introduced themselves to the enemy by jumping into Italy and blowing up an aqueduct in a daring raid named Operation Colossus. Water from the Tragino aqueduct was pumped by pipeline to supply Italian forces and was the perfect target to gain maximum propaganda, destroying the enemy’s morale. But it was too far inland for a seaborne raid and too difficult to bomb. An airborne assault was the obvious answer and it was the opportunity Whitehall Chiefs had been seeking to test Churchill’s new force, which was only seven months old.
In total 38 men of what was then called the 11th Special Air Service battalion dropped from two Whitley bombers, having had just three weeks of training, in which one man, L/Sgt Dennis, was killed when he landed in a lake and drowned. Codenamed Operation Colossus, the raid took place on the night of February 10, 1941, and it was intended that after blowing up the aqueduct, the unit would make their way to the coast to be picked up by the submarine HMS Triumph. The objective was destroyed, but the entire force was captured as they headed for the rendezvous with the senior service. It later transpired that one of the planes which had dropped the men, had crashed near the spot where the Triumph was due to surface and had been diverted away after enemy warships searched for the plane’s aircrew.
It was almost a year later that the regiment was called on to carry out a daring ‘behind the lines’ raid, of vital importance to the war office. The operation was so successful that it attracted applause from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and guaranteed the Paras wartime future.
Operation Biting – The Bruneval Raid
It was almost a year later that the regiment was called on to carry out a daring ‘behind the lines’ raid, of vital importance to the war office. The operation was so successful that it attracted applause from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and guaranteed the Paras wartime future. The aim of Operation Biting was to dismantle a Wurzburg precision radar dish, which was one of a series of early warning installations on the north coast of France, and bring it back to England for scientific research. Admiral Lord Mountbatten had proposed the raid, after it became clear that this established chain of radar stations was of significant importance to the Luftwaffe, who were inflicting heavy losses on RAF Bomber command. But the radar posts were heavily defended against attack from the sea with machine guns looking down onto the beach and hidden barbed wire surrounding the radars. It was a task only airborne troops could accomplish.
When the RAF brought back pictures of a radar system near Le Havre, situated high on an isolated cliff top near the village of Bruneval, the Chief of Combined Operations agreed to mount a recovery raid aimed at bringing elements of the dish back to the UK for research. The task was given to Major John Frost and his men of C Company (Charlie) 2 Para, otherwise known within the brigade as ‘Jock’ company, for its obvious high contingent of troops from Scottish regiments. They were to be dropped into France in three separate groups and carry out their mission with the support of an RAF radar expert and then be picked up by a mini flotilla of six Royal Navy landing craft.
In recognition of the joint operation with the Admiralty, each group of 40 paras was named after a famous sailor, ‘Nelson’, ‘Drake’, and ‘Rodney’ – a gesture to the senior service which was never forgotten by the Navy. On the night of February 27, 1942, the 120-strong force took off from Thruxton Aerodrome in a fleet of 12 Whitley bombers, each carrying 10 men, and jumped in perfect weather conditions into France. The operations met strong resistance, three men were killed and a further seven badly injured. But it had been a total success, the vital equipment secured and a German radar expert captured.