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The first men of No.2 Commando arrived at Ringway on the 8th July, and although they had all volunteered to become airborne commandos, albeit in a vague manner, none of them had a clear idea what they had let themselves in for. One of their new officers, Captain Cleasby-Thompson, shed some light on the issue: "You are No.2 Commando. You are all to be trained as parachutists. You are privileged to be the first men in the British Army to be asked to jump out of aircraft and reach the ground by the aid of parachutes. You should all feel very proud. I must warn you in the most serious manner that you are not to talk to anyone, neither Serviceman nor civilian, about this training." Those who listened to this speech immediately understood that they had not been misled when they had answered the call for volunteers for "special service of a hazardous nature".
Russia and Germany had established, respectively, civilian parachuting and glider clubs to ensure that the wider population should gain some experience in these pursuits so that there would always be a core of expertise to tap during a time of war. Britain possessed no such equivalent, and so it was that, after several months of training, the recruits at Ringway began to receive instruction from a seemingly eccentric source. Harry Ward, more popularly known as "The Yorkshire Birdman", was a former RAF officer who had returned to the military to instruct parachutists. During the 1930's, he had completed in excess of one hundred and fifty jumps as a stunt man with Sir Alan Cobham's Air Circus, typically parachuting off the wings of biplanes. Ward, one of the privileged few to survive these dangerous displays, had assured his show business credentials by performing with bird-like wings attached to his person. He was joined at Ringway by fellow Air Circus stuntman Bill Hire.
Before the arrival of either man, however, the School consisted of fourteen Royal Air Force and nine Army Physical Training Corps instructors; an enthusiastic and equally diverse group, some of whose previous professions were listed as: school teacher, professional footballer, boxer, ballet dancer, cycling champion, circus acrobat, and "Wall of Death" rider. The RAF contingent carried out the first demonstration drop for the new recruits on the 13th July, who in turn made their first descents on the 22nd July. A tragedy occurred three days later when Trooper Evans was killed because his parachute failed to fully deploy; no further descents were made until an investigation had been carried out and new procedure put in place to ensure future safety. In the meantime the recruits were sent to Ben Nevis to participate in a grueling physical training exercise alongside the Lovat Scouts, specialists in irregular warfare. They returned to Ringway in September and discovered that much had changed.
Due to a lack of aircraft, much of the School's work now took place on the ground, using a plethora of apparatus designed to simulate the effects of jumping and landing. Two hangars at Ringway were dedicated to these gymnasia, which included replicas of all the types of aircraft from which the men might be required to jump. In this way, the recruits became thoroughly versed with the required techniques before making considerably more dangerous jumps from aircraft. Even so, the apparatus was not entirely free from risk; to simulate the effects of a hard landing, early recruits simply jumped from a moving lorry or from "The Gallows" (a raised platform from which a jumper was brought to an abrupt halt by means of an attached rope), but both were quickly abandoned after a spate of leg injuries. However bizarre these ideas may appear, there was scientific thinking behind them, and in time they evolved into a training regime that was to endure throughout the war.
In August 1940, a barrage balloon was acquired from which first-time parachutists would jump before progressing to a more hazardous drop from the Whitleys. Yet these descents were not favoured as the recruits were understandably apprehensive about their first jump, and any bad feeling in their stomachs was not at all settled by the slow and turbulent ascent to a height of 700 feet. As the balloon was static, however, this technique possessed the advantages of not subjecting the recruit to the difficulties being caught in a slipstream, and it allowed an instructor to stand on the ground below and, with the aid of a megaphone, bark correcting instructions to each man as he made his drop. Parachutes were connected to a static line so that they would automatically open as each man jumped, yet the initial moments of a drop could be terrifying for the recruits as they plummeted some 180 feet before the chute fully deployed, but thereafter the experience of a slow and peaceful descent to earth was an exhilarating one, and frequently the recruits were keen to do another jump right away.
There was a risk of injury or death with every jump that was made, although, in spite of the low state of development of the British parachute at this early stage, such incidents were remarkably few. By September 1940, 290 men had completed a total of 961 descents, at a cost of just 2 deaths and 13 injuries. Awkward landings or poor technique could result in broken limbs, but the great fear of every parachutist was the "Roman candle"; whereby the parachute did not fully open, owing to poor packing, and the man fell to almost certain death. Over time, advances in parachute technology and the meticulous practice of examination and packing by the Women's Auxiliary Air Force made such instances extremely rare; the estimated 5% casualty rate from each jump being all but eradicated with the near faultless design of future British parachutes.
During the first years of the War the only aircraft available to the parachutists were Whitleys and similarly obsolete bombers. These had been converted to the airborne role usually by means of cutting a jump aperture in the floor or, in the case of the Whitley, removing the gun turret on the underside of the fuselage to create a similar hole around which the jumpers sat. These aircraft were wholly unsuited to the purpose, and, as they had not been designed to accommodate passengers, the conditions were cramped and uncomfortable; in most cases, men could not even stand up to approach the jump aperture but had to shuffle towards it on their knees. As a consequence, only a limited number of men could be carried in each aircraft and their jumps were slow and often hindered by the conditions, resulting in them being somewhat dispersed when they reached the ground. This was in contrast to German paratroopers who used the classic Ju-52 transport aircraft, which could carry a large number of men and possessed a fuselage door that was ideal for rapid and unobstructed jumping. It was not until 1942 and the arrival of the American C-47, known as the Dakota to the British, that the airborne troops at last acquired a purpose-built aircraft. This splendid aeroplane could tow gliders, drop supplies or carry nineteen parachutists, each of whom had a seat and a similarly ideal fuselage door through which to jump.
On the 19th September 1940, the Central Landing School was reorganised and renamed the Central Landing Establishment. Group Captain Harvey took over command of the unit with the highly capable Wing Commander Sir Nigel Norman acting as its commandant. The Establishment itself was divided into a parachute and a glider training school, the former still led by Squadron Leader Strange, the latter by Squadron Leader Hervey. The improvised organisation which these men, and the now Lieutenant-Colonel Rock, had created had become settled into a recognised routine.
All recruits first had to undergo a two-week parachute training course. During this period, they would be taught the correct jumping techniques using the ground-based apparatus before making two descents from a static balloon and then five from an aircraft. With these jumps successfully completed the recruit was awarded the much-prized parachute wings and then returned to his former unit to await battle training. When push came to shove, as it were, all soldiers were free to refuse to jump at any time if they felt that they could not do it, and these men faced no greater punishment than being returned to their former units. Once a man had been awarded his wings and so had clearly conquered any fear he may have had of jumping, however, a refusal thereafter became a court-martial offence.
From the outset it was anticipated that airborne troops would likely be required to fight in isolation for hours, possibly days, against a larger and more heavily armed opponent. To compensate for this disadvantage, the training regime was punishing and designed to weed out all but the very best soldiers. In this way, the parachutists attained extremely high levels of physical fitness and field craft, as well as possessing standards of discipline and initiative that would enable them to compete as equals in a battle against a numerically superior force. Brigadier Richard Gale, the founding commander of the soon-to-be-formed 1st Parachute Brigade, commented upon the unique temperament of the airborne soldier and their officers:
"The parachute soldier has characteristics that mark him out among men. First, he is a volunteer and, second, he has to overcome something every time he jumps. Few men will willingly hurl themselves out of an aeroplane, and when doing so they inevitably have to fight fear... When a parachute soldier lands he knows that his future chances of survival rest on his personal skill. His weapon and the comparatively small amount of ammunition he can carry are all he has. He is, for some time at least, away from artillery or tank support; he may be dropped wide and find himself alone and he may be injured; but it is his battle and he knows it."
"This splendid material deserved the best officers. In forming my brigade I was fortunate in having the privilege of selecting all company commanders, the commanding officers selecting the remainder. There was no shortage of volunteers. I took as my yardstick their potential as leaders. Though leadership springs from a number of qualities, sometimes not discernible until the supreme test, there is one quality I felt to be essential; this was initiative."
"Of all the characteristics the airborne soldier would expect and look for in his officers initiative is probably the most important. I tried to test this by putting it in the form of a question of what an individual would do in certain circumstances... Suppose a subaltern had just landed and hears the approach of what he thinks is an enemy tank, what would he do? The answer so often was that he would get on the blower and tell his company commander; to the question what would he have done had he been a company commander in similar circumstances came a similar answer. This tendency to hang decisions on the next superior should have no place in the mental attitude of an airborne officer, for in nine cases out of ten he might never make the contact; but, even if he did, it was action that was wanted and this was where initiative came in."