Lieutenant-General Ernest Edward (Eric) Down
Unit : 1st Parachute Battalion, later 2nd Parachute Brigade, Headquarters 1st Airborne Division, and Headquarters 44th (Indian) Airborne Division
Service No. : 23809
Awards : Knight Commander of the British Empire, Companion of the Bath.
"Eric" Down was born at Calstock, Cornwall, on the 10th February, 1902, and was educated at Plymouth College and Kelly College. His family had no history of service in the military; his father, Henry, was involved in property and the young Eric Down had it in mind to become an economist, but he changed his mind, explaining, "I met a number of economists and they put me off!". He chose the Army instead and gained entry to Sandhurst. In 1923, he was commissioned in the Dorsetshire Regiment, following many of his friends from Sandhurst. Down served with the Regiment in Malta and the Sudan before commencing a six-year secondment to the Royal West African Frontier Force. He was a keen rugby player, and, as captain of the Sandhurst Rugby XV, had acquired the nickname "Eric" by his cries to the pack, "Push! Push! Little by little! Little by little!".
On his return to England in 1932, Down transferred to the King's Shropshire Light Infantry on accelerated promotion; an opportunity sometimes offered to those who had small prospect of promotion within their own regiments, a lack of vacant posts frustrating many a career officer during the inter-war period. After some years of home service, including a spell as Brigade Major of the 160th Brigade (T.A.), he went to Jamaica with the 2nd Battalion and was stationed there when the war broke out. He attended Staff College in 1940 and then held several staff appointments in Britain. Passing through Staff College was a necessary step for any aspiring career officer, but Down made no secret of the fact that he was a leader of men and got no pleasure from staff duties.
On the 15th September 1941, Down was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and given command of the 1st Parachute Battalion. Before taking command, he felt that he ought to become a qualified parachutist himself, but as he did not have the time to complete a course in the conventional manner, he borrowed an instructor and within a few hours had completed five jumps from an aircraft. The 1st Battalion had been in existence for over a year and had become somewhat relaxed through inaction, but Down began the process of tackling this with his opening address to all ranks, in which he told them in rather forceful terms that their days of "ballet dancing" were over. He was universally booed in response, which made him laugh, but over the coming months his men began to hold him in very high respect, and the 1st Battalion acquired a standard of discipline equal to the very highest of any in the British Army. The Battalion historian recorded; "As we got to know him our respect for him changed to extreme loyalty and affection. He was ruthless and, though sympathetic, he never showed sympathy. There was nothing that the Battalion could do that he himself could not do better. March or run, ride or shoot, 'Eric' Down was superior. He gathered about him a team of officers and men who worked for him and with him to no union hours. Though hated at first by nearly every officer and man in the Battalion, there soon came a time when all would have gone to the end of the earth for him - not from fear, but from affection." Once described as "Not a good-looking officer, but devilish steady!", Down was a man of iron nerve and courage, mental as well as physical strength, and he possessed a generous character despite his reputation as a strict disciplinarian. In respect of these characteristics, Down acquired the nickname of "Dracula" to those under his command.
On the 17th July 1942, Down was promoted to Brigadier and given command of the 2nd Parachute Brigade. In July 1943, they missed out on active service in Sicily when the operation that had been planned for them was cancelled at the last moment, but they saw action in Italy two months later. Down did not have the opportunity to command them for long, however, as the Divisional Commander, Major-General Hopkinson, was killed on the 12th September, and so Down was promoted to Major-General and took over command of the 1st Airborne Division. After several weeks of skirmishing with German rearguards, the Division received word that it would soon be returned to England.
After their arrival, in January 1944, Major-General Down was most unhappy to learn that command of the Division was to be handed to Major-General Urquhart instead. Given his reputation as one of the most abrasive characters in the British Army, there has been some debate about why Down, an enormously capable commander, was removed in favour of a man who had no airborne experience at all. The answer perhaps becomes clear in view of his next appointment, as commander of the as yet unformed 44th (Indian) Airborne Division. With the 1st Airborne Division unlikely to see action for six months at the very least, there could have been no better choice than Down to prepare this new division. Although small elements were committed to actions, the Division was never able to enter the fray as a complete formation before the war ended. Down, however, in his parallel role as advisor on airborne matters to Lord Louis Mountbatten at South East Asia Command, did have a hand in organising Chindit operations in Burma.
Officially, Down never had the chance to participate in an airborne operation during the War, however, accompanying Brigade Headquarters as an observer on the 15th August 1944, he jumped from aircraft No.38 and landed in Southern France with the 2nd Parachute Brigade. There are two published accounts which acknowledge his presence; the first was the "USAF Historical Studies No.74. Airborne Missions in the Mediterranean 1942-1945", Research Studies Institute, Air University, September 1955. It reads:
"Up to this point the operation had been conducted without pathfinder assistance. On D.Z. 'O', where the 62nd and 64th Groups were to drop the 2nd (British) Parachute Brigade Group, the situation was very different. Arriving on schedule at 04.54 hours, the first serial of the 62nd found the Eureka beacons in operation and dropped its troops through the fog from 1,500 feet at about 100 miles an hour. The concentration of men on the drop zone was excellent. Even better results were achieved by the second serial, which arrived five minutes later, led by the flight from the 435th [Squadron]. It ran in on the Eureka and dropped so accurately that Brigadier Pritchard and General Down landed within 30 feet of the 'T' and close to the site selected for their Command Post, and were joined there within five minutes by General Frederick. Pilots and navigators agreed that it would have been impossible to hit the D.Z. without the Eureka."
The second account is a personal testimony by Lieutenant Nigel Willoughby Riley, Commander of No.6 Platoon, 4th Parachute Battalion: "Gathering my bits and pieces together, I yelled: "Six platoon, rally here!" Much to my relief there were several answering cries and I knew that, even though we were most definitely in the wrong place, we were at least together. Others were not so fortunate: 'Pincher' Martin and Rodney Holmes, still with No. 8 Platoon, had landed in a damn great chalk pit, and apparently spent some time stalking each other, making futile hooting noises, until Rodney had the forethought to try that golden oldie "Friend or Foe?" There was an instant "Friend!" and 'Pincher', still brandishing his walking stick, appeared from behind the same bush they had both been quartering. "Ah! My dear fellow" said 'Pincher', as if they were just meeting on the steps of his London Club, "how nice to see you... and where the hell are we?" Where the hell they were took some getting out of, and for once it was the usually accident-prone Rodney Holmes who got them to safety. From the shelter of my tree I continued to blast out a homing call to my platoon. Suddenly, a tall figure loomed beside me - "Lost, lieutenant?" it enquired. I could see he was of very superior rank and decided to be polite. "No Sir" I managed, "but the bloody Yanks have dropped my platoon in the trees." "So get the buggers down and start fighting" he said, and strolled off into the dark. I later learned that I had encountered General Eric Down, who had either stowed away on one of our aircraft or made a private drop of his own as he had quite clearly ended up in the same mess as the rest of us, I strongly suspect the former. At that time he was in command of our Airborne Forces, and had just dropped in to see how we were getting on. This was typical of the senior Parachute Regiment officers of the time, he had to satisfy himself that we were alright and, having done so, he promptly vanished, to continue his command of Airborne Forces on the Second Front.' [Note: This is slightly incorrect as he was in charge of the Indian Airborne Division development]"
In September, 1946, Down was transferred to Greece to command the 4th Infantry Division which was engaged in internal security duties around Salonika. On the disbandment of this division, six months after his arrival, Down was appointed General Officer Commanding British Troops in Greece, and, a year later, Commander of the British Military Mission. These were years of bitter fighting in the Macedonian mountains between the resuscitated Greek Army under General Papagos and the Communist insurgents. The Greek commanders in the field had immense confidence in their British advisers, and in Down most of all. He would disappear for days, on foot, to visit and encourage units along the thinly held front line, and the great contribution of the British troops and the British Mission to victory was undoubtedly due in great measure to Down's fine leadership and inspiration.
From 1948-49, he commanded the British Military Mission in Sweden to advise on the reorganisation of the Swedish Army. On his return to England, Down was given command of the Mid-West District and the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division (T.A.). In 1952, Down was promoted Lieutenant-General and was G.O.C-in-C Southern Command for three years, after which he retired from the Army at the age of 53. He was made C.B.E. in 1943, a C.B. in 1949, and, in 1953, was promoted to K.B.E. He was made Colonel of The King's Shropshire Light Infantry from 1955 to 1957.
He and Lady Down finally settled for their retirement in a beautiful old house at Appleshaw, near Andover in Hampshire. During his retirement he obtained something for which the Army, both officers and other ranks, will for ever be grateful; for many years the pensions of members of the Services remained static and it was almost entirely due to the efforts of Eric Down that this situation was put right.
Eric Down died on the 15th February 1980, aged 78.
My thanks to Bob Hilton for this account.
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