Two sticks of presumably apprehensive trainees about to make their first descents from a balloon

A balloon rises with a group of trainee jumpers in its cage

The underside of a balloon cage

A trainee parachutist jumps from the balloon cage

Jumping from a balloon at Ringway, 1942

A medical officer tests a trainee for signs of susceptibility to air sickness

Major-General Bols receives parachute training

Trainees practicing landing technique at Ringway

Trainees learning how to jump on a trapeze

A trainee learns parachuting technique

CSM Dent instructing at Ringway, 1940-41


Page 1, 2, 3, 4


Even so, Winston Churchill's desire for a corps of parachutists was more inspired by the need to strike back at the enemy with small yet damaging coastal raids, rather than a recognition of their importance in securing objectives in advance of ground forces. Standing alone and awaiting invasion by a triumphant and seemingly unstoppable enemy, these were particularly dark times for Britain. It was politically essential that the British public should have some cause for joy during these desperate days, when all the news seemed bad, and they needed to hear of their armed forces striking ruinous blows against the enemy, yet there were no obvious means of obliging them. The Army, having narrowly escaped from France, where it had abandoned most of its heavy equipment, was now completely preoccupied with the protection of the British coastline and so was incapable of undertaking aggressive operations overseas. The Royal Air Force had yet to amass a sufficient quantity or quality of aircraft to mount a major bombing campaign against Germany, whilst the Royal Navy, the strongest arm that Britain possessed in 1940, was unlikely to tempt the enemy fleet to battle after inflicting a serious defeat upon them during the Norwegian campaign. Churchill, therefore, considered the possibility of raids by elite bands of soldiers, and on the 4th June 1940, he wrote to his Chief of Staff, General Ismay:


"We should immediately set to work to organise self-contained, thoroughly equipped raiding units. Enterprises must be prepared with specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coasts. I look to the joint Chiefs of Staff to propose measures for vigorous enterprise and ceaseless offensive against the whole German-occupied coastline, leaving a trail of German corpses behind them."


Accordingly, a new branch of the War Office was created five days later to prepare such operations and to ensure that they received the necessary cooperation from the Army, Navy and RAF. This department later became known as Combined Operations, and within days of Churchill's note, the first of twelve Commando units were being formed under its wing. Sometimes referred to as Special Service battalions, the Commandos took their name and fighting inspiration from the fast raiding tactics used against the British during the Boer War of 1899-1902; very much in keeping with Churchill's "butcher and bolt" philosophy.


This was a completely new mode of warfare for the traditionally conventional and defensively-minded infantry of the British Army. The Commandos were designed to act independently, without the support of tanks or artillery, and their unorthodox structure, originally of 50 men in each of their ten Troops, made them extremely adaptable to unconventional tactics. They were all superbly trained volunteers from all formations of the Army and, with their minds solely focused upon rapid and aggressive offensive actions, they were capable of causing mayhem and destruction out of all proportion to their size. Churchill's vision was that his corps of parachutists should be formed with the same raison d'ętre, and so it was that the newly created No.2 Commando was moved to Ringway Airfield, now Manchester Airport, to undergo parachute training.


Churchill's note of the 22nd June, calling for a corps of 5,000 parachutists, may resound through the annals of the Parachute Regiment as the moment of their conception, however the process began earlier that month, following another of his memorandums, as a result of which the RAF established the Central Landing School at Ringway, to teach parachuting techniques to army volunteers. The School was commanded by Squadron Leader Louis Strange DSO MC DFC, and his assistant, who arrived on the 24th June, was Major John Rock of the Royal Engineers, whose orders were to achieve nothing less than the foundation and organisation of the entire British Airborne movement.


The task which Rock faced was immense. As a consequence of Churchill's historic but utterly vague memo, the War Office instructed him to create an entirely new wing of the British Army, but gave him no clue as to how large it would be, how it should be organised, where its troops were to be recruited from, how they were to be trained, or even a suggestion of what type of operations they might be expected to undertake. Furthermore, the facilities at Ringway were somewhat spartan, and he had been given just six obsolete Whitley MkII bombers to use as parachute training aircraft.


This fact was indicative of another problem which would actively hinder the Airborne movement until 1943, and even then would never entirely fade; it was not made clear whether this new formation was the property of the Army or the Royal Air Force. Its members were to be drawn from the Army and its operations would take place on the ground, but they were entirely dependent upon the Air Force to get there. To make matters worse, both the Army and the RAF deeply resented the very existence of the Airborne Forces. The Army, having emerged from Dunkirk in a dreadful condition, was faced with the urgent requirement to greatly enlarge, equip and train itself so that it could effectively counter the seemingly unstoppable German war machine. Great Britain was fighting for its life at this time, and the Army, expecting to confront an invasion at any moment, was struggling to adequately equip itself for even conventional warfare, and so it naturally saw novelties like parachuting as an irritating and expensive distraction from its chief responsibilities.


Since the moment that it had become an independent service in 1918, the Royal Air Force had, through bureaucratic squabbling, developed a deep mistrust of the Army, and saw any outside interference with its operations, even in the form of requests for Army-Air Force cooperation, as a threat to its independence. In 1940, the Royal Air Force regarded the expansion of Bomber Command and the prosecution of aggressive bombing operations against Germany as its primary concern. As the RAF had very little in the way of transport aircraft in its inventory, the only way to provide the Airborne Forces with such support was to convert existing bombers to the purpose, and so deprive Bomber Command of both aircraft and crews. This was no minor point because these bombers could only carry eight to ten men each, and so to carry even a relatively minor airborne force into battle would require hundreds of aircraft, which could, in the eyes of the Air Force, surely be more effectively deployed if they were loaded with bombs instead of parachutists. The RAF, therefore, saw the Airborne movement as a threat to its role; an attitude which was fueled in no small measure by the fact that the perceived use of this force was so vague as to render it almost pointless. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris summed up the prevailing view when he penned the following, and most persuasive note to Winston Churchill:


"It would require the whole of the existing Bomber Command to be taken off operations for a period of four to six weeks... to transport one brigade for one operation; it would require about 2˝ times the strength of the present Bomber Command to do the same for the airborne division as a whole... The crux of the matter is this - is Bomber Command to continue its offensive action by bombing Germany, or is it to be turned into a training and transport Command for carrying a few thousand airborne troops to some undetermined destination for some vague purpose?"


Faced with these deeply entrenched and, frankly, entirely credible arguments, it is a wonder that the Parachute Regiment ever became a reality. Yet the Airborne movement was fortunate to have powerful friends in Churchill and the War Office, and it was their influence, however sporadic, which kept the flame alive. Even so this flame never began to thrive until mid-1943, and so, in the three years after Churchill's memorandum was issued, the Airborne Forces did not expand and flourish in the same manner as the Commandos, with their more conventional War Establishment, but rather were compelled to struggle for whatever resources could be begged or borrowed from the Army and the RAF, until, at last, the wider military world recognised that their potential as part of an offensive was not merely plausible, but essential.


These then were the problems that surrounded the establishment of the Airborne Forces when Major Rock arrived at Ringway in June 1940. The task before him was incredible, but Rock had one advantage; both he, Squadron Leader Strange and the later administrators of the Central Landing School were indomitable characters and masters of improvisation, and so, regardless of the nightmare with which they had been presented, they immediately set about making Ringway ready to welcome its first recruits.