A Whitley and a Dakota dropping parachutists in formation

Jumping from a Whitley at Ringway, 1942

Parachuting from Whitley's at Ringway, 1942

Jumping from a Whitley at Tatton Park, 1941-42

Parachuting from Whitley's over Tatton Park, 1941-42

Parachutists descend on a practice jump

A parachutist collapsing his canopy on the ground

Paratroopers collapsing their canopies after landing, early 1942

Paratroopers collecting their weapons from containers, early 1942

Men of the 1st Airlanding Light Battery practice firing the 3.7" mountain howitzer in October 1942


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In November 1940, No.2 Commando was renamed the 11th SAS Battalion, but a few points must be made clear with regard to this name. Firstly the "11th" is a common misunderstanding, it was actually written as "II" to represent No.2 Commando in terms of Roman numerals, and this has been so often misread as "11" that the Battalion has almost always been referred to thus. Also the initials SAS denoted "Special Air Service", but this was merely an airborne variant of the Commando "Special Service" units, and as such it has no connection whatsoever with the famous SAS units that were raised by David Stirling during the North African campaign of 1942. The 11th SAS retained the unorthodox structure that was typical of the commandos; by the end of 1940, the Battalion possessed both parachute and glider wings, totalling 22 sections, each of 10 men.


The volunteer aspect of the Airborne Forces was one that created some friction with the wider Army establishment. Battalion commanders, quite understandably, did not welcome any attempt to recruit from their ranks as it could only result in stripping them of their best soldiers. The dynamic and later commander of XXX Corps, Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks, explained the problem:


"It would be safe to say that out of a section of, say, ten men, two lead, seven are perfectly prepared to follow where they are led, and one would much prefer not to be there at all... One of the reasons why so many generals objected to men being asked to volunteer for special cloak-and-dagger private armies was it was always the leaders who volunteered. In these special formations... each leader represented only himself as they were all of the same type; but in his regiment he was worth almost a whole section, for he was the man the others would follow."


Despite these objections, and the odd attempt to deliberately frustrate the recruitment process, the promise of a touch of glamour and higher pay that the Parachute Regiment provided, ensured that there was never a shortage of men ready to volunteer. Brigadier Richard Gale wrote:


"I knew the Army as a whole resented the calling for these parachute volunteers from their ranks. They, too, would have to fight, and why should good units lose first-class men whom they sorely needed? Why should one regiment become a sort of corps d'Úlite? The answer was that for peculiarly hazardous operations demanding an exceptionally high physical and moral standard one must rely on the volunteer... In the end the system justified itself, and there was certainly no alternative."


In the early days of the War the airborne commandos were all volunteers in the strictest sense of the word. In later years this definition became blurred as, due to the number of new parachute battalions being raised, the recruitment system could not rely on the volunteer alone, and so it became common to convert a regular infantry battalion and then eliminate from its ranks both those who declared a wish to keep their feet firmly on the ground and those who could not measure up to the vigorous training programme, replacing these with volunteers from other sources. It is debatable how successful this system was; there is evidence that as little as 30% of the original manpower remained in the converted battalion. In the early days of the war, however, every man who applied to undergo parachute training was a volunteer, and they did so for a variety of reasons; some were attracted to the glamour surrounding the paratrooper or the higher pay he received, others sought some excitement after becoming disillusioned with the tedious coastal defence roles undertaken by the Regular Army, and there were also those who simply wished to take the war aggressively to the enemy and kill as many of them as possible.


Even so, this thirst for aggressive action was not immediately quenched. Parachuting was an entirely new concept for the British Army, and eight months of intense training and experimentation followed before they were allowed their first taste of action, and then only on a very small scale. Another year was to follow before a second, slightly larger raid was mounted, and then a further seven months before they were finally committed to a major action en masse. This was in contrast to the Commandos who, although they had been formed during the same month, were deployed in a more familiar seaborne role and so by the end of 1940 they had already undertaken two small test piece raids, which enabled them to mount the larger and more ambitious actions of 1941. For the paratroopers this inaction became a problem. Many had joined with the idea of getting to grips with the enemy as soon as possible, and consequently their morale and discipline began to suffer after endless months of training, particularly when their former units had since left the British Isles for active service overseas. Some men became so despondent that they requested to be returned to these units. During 1941, however, a new commander was appointed in the form of Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Down, who was to become one of the most respected British airborne leaders of the war. One of the battalions' paratroopers, Doug Russell, recalls his arrival:


"There was very little discipline in those days, I have to say, very little real discipline... Obviously you had to go on parade and you had to do as you were told, but I really think we were very slack. He [Eric Down] stood up on the stage, and everybody booed, including all the officers, senior officers as well. He told us that we were only profiteering, getting two shillings a day for parachuting, and he would stop that and he would see that we were going to war by parachute, or lorry or bus or walking it didn't make any difference... Well we didn't like that very much at all, being told this of course, but he was quite right."


On the 10th February 1941, the 11th SAS carried out its first raid, codenamed Operation Colossus. The target for the thirty-six men involved was the Tragino Aqueduct in Italy, and although they successfully demolished the objective, the damage inflicted had only a superficial impact and all personnel were taken prisoner. Nevertheless the raid was invaluable for the morale of the battalion and the many lessons that were learnt from it.


After almost a year of experimentation and trials, but only a single raid, moves were afoot in the early summer of 1941 to expand the 11th SAS into a three-battalion Brigade. In September 1941, the 1st Parachute Brigade was formed at Hardwick Hall under the command of Brigadier Richard Gale MC. It had been supposed that the 11th SAS would be disbanded and its men distributed amongst the new battalions, however Brigadier Gale rejected this idea. He renamed the 11th SAS the 1st Parachute Battalion, and in so doing not only retained the spirit and experience of the unit, but also created a benchmark for which the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were to strive.


It was with this expansion that the Airborne Forces began to leave their commando roots behind them and become a more regimented formation, capable of undertaking much more than raiding enterprises. With the three parachute battalions united under a brigade headquarters, the message was clear; it was now anticipated that they would enter the fray together, fighting as a single, coordinated unit, which would enable them to undertake major operations. The Commandos, at this stage in the War, acted more or less independent of each other, which suited their methods of a surprise landing, followed by a rapid and violent destruction of objectives before beating a hasty withdrawal to the sea. But with a Brigade Headquarters, together with attached engineers, medical services and heavy weaponry, the paratroopers could join a battle and remain in it for as long as was necessary. This brought them closer to the German model of the airborne forces, who were not particularly used for opportunistic raids, rather the seizure and defence of strategic objectives in advance of the ground forces.


Accordingly, the unconventional structure of the 11th SAS was abandoned in favour of a more familiar establishment of three platoons in three rifle companies; one less in each than their regular army counterparts, though all were slightly larger with a high concentration of NCO's. Despite this adoption of a more normal formation, the manner in which the airborne forces were trained did not alter from the Commando method; they were all still volunteers, from whom only the fittest and most capable soldiers continued to be selected.


The expansion of the Airborne Forces continued on the 31st October 1941 with the founding of the 1st Airborne Division, consisting of the 1st Parachute Brigade and the newly formed, glider-borne 1st Airlanding Brigade. The commander of this Division was Major-General Frederick Browning, a former Grenadier and commander of the 24th Guards Brigade. Although lacking in battlefield experience, Browning was the ideal choice to oversee the expansion of the Airborne Forces movement because he was an excellent administrator with superb connections within the British establishment; both Winston Churchill and Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten were counted amongst his close associates. At a time when the Army had other priorities for the allocation of men and materiel, and Bomber Command could not spare the huge numbers of aircraft that would be required to transport a complete Airborne Division, so far an untried and untested formation, Browning was able to use his considerable skill and influence to ensure that his men got what they needed.


One of his actions was to define the image of the Airborne Forces. He assigned the artist, Major Edward Seago, to design an emblem to represent them, resulting in the insignia, taken from Greek myth, of Bellerophon riding Pegasus, the winged horse. Browning also changed the tradition of Airborne soldiers wearing the headwear of their former units by introducing the famous maroon beret. Some were initially sceptical of the colour, believing red to be a most unfortunate colour for a soldier. However this beret soon came to symbolise the British airborne soldier, and to this day, in recognition of their achievements, it has been copied the world over.


In 1942, preparations for extensive airborne operations were well underway. In February, "C" Company of the 2nd Parachute Battalion carried out the Bruneval Raid with great success, but more was to follow. In September of that year, the 1st Parachute Brigade received orders to deploy to North Africa, and it was here, over the following six months, that the Parachute Regiment made its name and proved beyond any doubt that it was an elite fighting force in the truest sense of that much-overused term. Even the enemy were greatly impressed with what they saw. At the conclusion of the campaign, the train on which the Brigade was travelling passed through a prisoner of war camp, and the German soldiers, recognising the maroon berets, rushed forward to the cheer them and to salute the "Rote Teufel" - the Red Devils. Major-General Browning observed, "Such distinctions are seldom given in war, and then only to the finest fighting troops."