The 1st Airborne Division was formed on the 31st October 1941, and placed under the command of Major-General Frederick "Boy" Browning. It initially consisted of just the 1st Parachute Brigade and the newly raised 1st Airlanding Brigade, but was brought up to the full strength of a division on the 17th July 1942, with the formation and inclusion of the 2nd Parachute Brigade.


In late 1942, the 1st Para Brigade was called to North Africa. The loss of this unit left a very large hole in the 1st Airborne's strength, and so the 3rd Para Brigade temporarily joined the Division in their absence. This partnership was maintained until the 1st May 1943, when the Division, with its new commander Major-General Hopkinson, also departed for North Africa to rejoin the 1st Para Brigade and to take part in the invasion of Sicily. The 3rd Para Brigade remained in England to form the basis of the 6th Airborne Division.


Before Arnhem, the 1st Airborne Division had never fought together as a complete unit in a major battle. Sicily saw the 1st Parachute and the 1st Airlanding Brigades going into action, but they did so without the 2nd Para Brigade and the Division's supporting units, and also on separate dates and parts around the island (For further details on Sicily, see 1st Para Brigade, and 1st Airlanding Brigade).


On the 9th September, the Division, with the welcome addition of the 4th Para Brigade, was called to Italy to capture the port of Taranto. The port was immediately taken and the 2nd and 4th Para Brigades began to advance inland, where they patrolled rigorously and were involved in numerous skirmishes, though not of the serious nature that airborne troops had become accustomed to. However, it was during these initial stages that Major-General Hopkinson was killed by German machinegun fire. Temporary command passed to Brigadier Eric Down of the 2nd Para Brigade. The 1st Airborne Division was given the order to return to England in November, though the 2nd Para Brigade was detached and remained behind in Italy to act as an independent unit.


Roy Urquhart was given command of the 1st Airborne in January 1944.


The Division was overlooked for the Normandy invasion in favour of the 6th Airborne Division, though they were held in reserve for the Operation. Two weeks before D-Day, the 1st Airborne and the Polish Brigade had the honour of acting as "enemy" to the 6th Airborne on a four day training exercise. Between Normandy and Arnhem, no less than 17 operations were proposed for the 1st Airborne, but all were cancelled at the last minute. This had a severe effect on the morale of the battle-starved men, and this, combined with a belief that they were being held in reserve for the victory parade, led them to christen themselves the Stillborn Division. Arnhem surely satisfied their hunger.


The 1st Airborne Division returned to a hero's welcome in England within a week of the end of the battle. They were in a very sorry state as only a quarter of their number remained and the leadership structure throughout had been totally wrecked, though Divisional HQ had survived largely intact. Reinforcements were drafted in, but these only managed to bring this once fine fighting unit up to the strength of a weak Division. Nevertheless on the 6th December, 438 hand picked soldiers from all areas of the Division prouldy paraded through the streets of London for the Arnhem investiture at Buckingham Palace, where many men received decorations from King George VI. However, it was described as something of a "ghost march" because the public had not been made aware of it for security reasons.


The 1st Airborne Division played no further part in the war.


But almost as soon as it had ended, Urquhart was ordered to take his HQ and the 1st Airlanding Brigade to Norway, where they oversaw the surrender of the 35,000 German soldiers stationed in the country. The Division was recalled to England in August 1945. It had been intended to send them to the Middle East to act in a strategic reserve capacity, but this was abandoned and the Division was disbanded and its units scattered.


When the 6th Airborne Division was reduced to brigade strength on the 1st January 1947, it was renamed the 16th Parachute Brigade in honour of both of Britain's wartime airborne divisions. The Brigade survived until it was disbanded in 1977 as part of drastic defence cuts.


Commanders of the 1st Airborne Division



Major-General Frederick A. M. Browning


Major-General Gerald F. Hopkinson


Major-General Robert E. Urquhart