Tag Archives: parachute regiment

Arnhem: Battle of the Woods DVD by Battlefield History

I’ve reviewed quite a few Battlefield History DVD‘s before, and they just keep getting better and better. This edition in their Arnhem series looks at the role of the 4th Parachute Brigade, from their drop on Ginkel Heath on 18 September 1944 until they joined the Oosterbeek perimeter two days later.

I should register a vested interest, in that my late Grandfather fought with the 11th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment at Arnhem. He hardly ever talked about the battle – unsurprisingly, as he was wounded and taken prisoner and the battle did not go well for the 11th Battalion – so it is a real treat to see so much focus given to his unit, one that has often been overlooked in the history of Arnhem. It’s nice to see a contribution from a soldier who was with the 11th, as so few histories of Arnhem contain anything from them.

I’ve been to Arnhem a couple of times myself, and have always found it hard to describe the terrain in that corner of Holland. This DVD does an admirable job of helping he viewer get a feel for what the battlefield was like. And that’s half the ‘battle’ – bad pun – with military history, ‘smelling’ the battlefield. The clips of re-enactors, equipment and visits to military museums add to the atmosphere and depth of the production.

I enjoyed watching it immensely, and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Arnhem: Battle of the Woods is published by Pen and Sword Digital

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The Devils Birthday by Geoffrey Powell

In the past I have been quite critical of the historiography of Arnhem. More than half of the books published that have Arnhem in the title or blurb offer little or no new analysis – the battle has been so raked over, that you have to wonder if there is really anything new to write. Such is why I will probably never attempt a book on Arnhem.

Written some years ago now, The Devils Birthday has aged rather well, and has always been one of my favoured works on Market Garden. And now, it has been reprinted by Pen and Sword. And not before time – it might serve to remind younger scholars and enthusiasts that much of what is presented as ‘new’ in military history, has already been written years before. This was, as the blurb tells us, the first book to be written about Market Garden as a whole by a British writer.

Perhaps the greatest faux pax in this book, is that Powell suggests that Lieutenant-General Boy Browning uttered the immortal ‘Bridge too far‘ line.  But crucially – and I have no idea why it took anyone so long to realise – Powell doesn’t actually substantiate how he knew that Browning had said such a thing. In all likelihood, it was – and remains to this day – an urban myth. As recent research has shown, there is no evidence that Browning made the ‘Bridge too far’ statement prior to the battle.

But that aside, this is a very good book. And especially so for a particpant in the battle, and a military man. It is well referenced and has good bibliography, particularly when it comes to official documentary sources. And we have to remember that Powell was writing originally in 1984- at a time when many of the key participants were still alive and able to contribute. It is perhaps a little heavy on narrative and a touch light on critique and robust conclusion – particularly when compared to modern Arnhem writers such as Robert Kershaw and William Buckingham – but military officers do tend not to drive points home against the establishment in writing!

It is a very able and useful study of the battle of Arnhem. What makes it all the more interesting is that Powell served as a company commander with the 156th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment at Arnhem, and was one of very few officers to return across the Rhine after the battle. Remarkably, when he and the remnants of his battalion landed on the south bank of the Rhine, they formed up and marched to billets in Nijmegen. And after almost ten days of bitter fighting. Tellingly, Powell tells this story, but is too modest to state that he was the officer in command.

The Devils Birthday is published by Pen and Sword

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Arnhem: Tour of Duty

The Airborne Cemetery in Oosterbeek, Arnhem.

The Airborne Cemetery at Oosterbeek (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve just finished watching the second and final part of this very interesting programme, taking a group of young people from Croydon and training them as 1940’s Paras. The programme culminated in parachute jump from a C-47 Dakota over Arnhem during the annual anniversary celebrations. My, how I wish I was ‘young’ again!

My impressions are that it was a very well put together and well thought out programme. Staffed by ex-Paras and youth workers – an interesting combination! – the young people were put through a taster of the physical training required to join the 1940’s Parachute Regiment. Some of the kids found the physical training pretty hard – are we softer nowadays?… answers on a postcard. Modern day favourites such as the log race were in evidence. The kids were also taken out on a mock exercise with re-enactors, but unbeknown to them a group of German re-enactors had set up an ambush, very similar to the kind that might have taken place in Arnhem during September 1944.

We also got an insight into the social problems of being young nowadays, when three were sent home for sniffing aerosols. Obviously pretty stupid and dangerous, not to mention wasting an opportunity of a lifetime. But then again, whilst the 60’s generation thought they were ‘expanding their minds’ on LSD and speed and god knows what else, their parents during the war had probably taken far more Benzedrene in the course of duty. The programme makers also made a decent effort to get the kids to wear contemporary uniforms, eat contemporary foods, and such like.

The parachute training was also fascinating. Some of the kids in particular had trouble getting to grips with the parachute landing – feet and knees together, roll etc (I can remember my Grandad telling me that!). Their trip to Brize Norton in particular was an eye-opener – jumping out of a mock-up fuselage, and from the old-style fan, which would have been familiar to second world war Paras. No barrage balloon jumps, however! Most of the kids seem to have taken the parachuting side of the programme well in their stride.

On the whole, this was a very grood programme, and exactly the kind of living history that brings teaching to life and really enthuses young people. I wasn’t too sure about the reality TV feel, how when individuals had to leave for various reasons it had the feel of Big Brother and being evicted.

The veterans accounts were very moving, however. But most of all I found the ending of the programme very touching – the young lads sharing a pint with some of the veterans at the crossroads, and placing flowers on the graves in the Airborne Cemetery in Oosterbeek. It really seemed to me like the young people ‘got’ the spirit of the programme. I hope all the nay-sayers are happy.

Arnhem: Tour of Duty can be watched on the Channel 5 website

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reports Marines could be handed over to Army control

The Ministry of Defence has looked at the possibility of moving the Royal Marines over to Army control, the Financial Times reports.

Ever since their formation in the eighteenth century the Royal Marines have been a part of the Royal Navy. Their early roles included manning guns onboard battleships and providing landing parties. During the Second World War the Corps evolved into the Commando role, and it is in this green beret role that the Marines have best known for in recent years. Rumours about the Royal Marines control are nothing new. According to Julian Thompson, who commanded the Commando Brigade in the Falklands, Field Marshal Bill Slim informed him that in the 1940’s immediately post-war the Navy offered the Marines to the Army in return for supporting a new programme of aircraft carriers.

Apparently the plans would involve the UK’s land forces being reduced from eight brigades down to five, and 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade being merged into a single expeditionary brigade. The prospect of the Marines and Paras serving together so closely is likely to arouse a degree of chest-beating, but it will probably also mean some reductions for both Regiments. Currently both have three Battalions (or in the case of the Marines, Commandos). It doesnt take a genius to work out that if two brigades go down to one, that means a reduction in units and manpower.

Despite efforts in recent years – Joint Helicopter Command, Joint Force Harrier, and the Special Forces Support Group for example – there is still a lot of duplication among the armed forces. The Royal Navy has its infantry in the Royal Marines, whilst somehow the RAF has managed to maintain its own RAF Regiment for years. Meanwhile both the Army and Royal Navy have their own aviation arms. ‘Joint-ery’ is often criticised as eroding the individual character of each of the services, but not only does cutting duplication save money, it also encourages services to work together as a matter of course.

There are bound to be implications that go beyond just cutting a few units. For example, if the Commando Brigade is cut down to become one half of a new expeditionary brigade, will there be any sense in retaining enough Landing ships to land two brigades? The Air Assault Brigade’s assets should be reasonably safe for at least a few years, as both the Apache and Chinook are being heavily used in Afghanistan. But after that?

There are bound to be more rumours like this in the coming months, not all of them true. But they are, however, an indication of how far-reaching this Defence Review is likely to be.

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A Boy Para – Private Robert Johns

We’ve all heard the stories of boys, under the age of 18, lying about their age to join the Army. Mostly during the First World War. Although it certainly did happen, I cannot help but feel that there were not as many underage soldiers as popular wisdom might lead us to believe. It was definitely much rarer in the Second World War than it was in the first.

I have found, however, one case in the Second World War. Not only did Private Robert Johns, from Stamshaw, die at the age of 16, he had also joined the Parachute Regiment. He was killed on 23 July 1944 serving with the 13th Battalion in Normandy, and is buried in Ranville Cemetery in France. The 6th Airborne Division landed in Normandy just after midnight on D-Day and fought long and tough battles to secure the eastern flank of the Normandy bridgehead, only coming out of the line in August 1944.

How easy was it to join up underage? A lot depended on the recruiting personnel in question. If they suspected that someone was underage but were sympathetic, they could almost certainly turn a blind eye. Otherwise, in an age when everybody had to have a national registration card, it would have been almost impossible to pretend to be older than you were. John’s would have gone through numerous checks, as he would have joined a line infantry regiment before transferring to the Paras. He may even have joined the Army when he was younger than 16. Much like trying to get served in a pub, it probably helped if you looked 18 too. But to volunteer to fight, when you didn’t have to, shows both courage and selflessness.

Although you had to be 18 to join the British Army, Boys under 18 could in fact join the Royal Navy as Boy sailors, or the Royal Marines as Boy Buglers. Many did, and sadly died, particularly on the Battleships HMS Royal Oak and HMS Hood.

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Pompey’s WW2 Paras

The Parachute Regiment

The Parachute Regiment

Many Portsmouth men served in the Parachute Regiment during the Second World War.

The Parachute Regiment was formed during the Second World War, after the Germans had used Airborne forces to great effect in the invasion of Holland and Belgium in 1940. Although initially Britian’s Airborne forces operated as small raiding parties, by the time it came to invade Europe in June 1944 the Airborne forces had expanded into 2 full Divisions, each of over 10,000 men. Each contained 2 Brigades of Parachute troops, and there was also an independent Parachute Battalion in the Mediterranean. The Parachute Regiment had expanded enormously to more than 10 Battalions.

During the war men could only volunteer for the Para’s from another unit, not directly from civilian life. They underwent strenuous physical training, and in addition had to complete a number of parachute jumps to obtain their parachute wings and additional pay. Naturally, they soon earned a reputation as among Britain’s toughest troops. The Germans nicknamed them ‘Der Roten Tefuel’ – the Red Devils. Field Marshal Montgomery paid the paras perhaps their most timeless tribute when he described them thus:

‘They are in fact, men apart. Every man an Emperor’

More Pompey paras are bound to emerge from the records as I carry on analysing the list of war dead, but here are some names and stories from among the first 600 names I have researched.

Private John Byng, 21, was killed in action in Tunisia on 11 March 1943, during the invasion of French North Africa. He was serving with the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, and had originally been a member of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. After serving in North Africa the Paras then went on to Italy, where Private George Bayton, 34 and from Southsea, was killed on 8 December 1943, fighting with the 4th Battalion. He joined the Paras from the East Surrey Regiment.

The Regiment suffered heavy losses on D-Day and in the subsequent battle of Normandy. Private Ronald Kent, 24, and from the 8th Battalion, was killed on D-Day. He had originally joined the Royal Artillery. In the heavy fighting after D-Day the 6th Airborne Division was in action right through until August 1944. Sergeant Frank Kempster, 30, was killed on 19 August 1944. He had previously been a member of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.

The famous battle at Arnhem also saw heavy losses. Corporal Thomas Bedford, age 22 and from Paulsgrove, was killed on 18 September 1944, the day that the 11th Battalion landed at Ginkel Heath. Bedford had previously been in the Royal Artillery. He was serving in the same battalion as my Grandad, Private Henry Miller, also from Portsmouth, who interestingly lived in Paulsgrove for almost 50 years after the war.

Finally, the 6th Airborne Division later saw service in action supporting the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945 and subsequently on until VE Day. Sergeant Sidney Cornell, 31, was killed on 7 April 1945, just over a month before the end of the war. He is buried at Becklingen in Germany, not far from the site where the Germans surrendered to Field Marshal Montgomery at Luneberg Heath. Although we do not know what unit he had served in prior to the Paras, he had been called up after September 1943, and thus was very new to the Army.

Sergeant Cornell was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery in action during the Battle of Normandy, when he was a Private and serving as his company runner in the 7th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. The DCM was second only to the Victoria Cross for bravery shown by non-officers. The recommendation for his DCM is available to download from the National Archives website, and I’ll quote from it here:

‘This soldier was one of the parachutists to land behind the German lines in Normandy on the night 5/6 June 1944. During the next five weeks he was in almost continuous action of a most trying and difficult nature. Cornell was a Company runner and has repeatedly carried messages through the most heavy and accurate enemy mortar and Machine Gun fire. Four times wounded in action this soldier has never been evacuated and carries on with his job cheerfully and efficiently. Very many acts of gallantry have been performed by members of the Battalion but for sustained courage nothing surpasses Cornell’s effort. His courage and many wounds have made him a well known and admired character throughout not only his own Battalion but the whole Brigade. Space does not permit a record of all his feats as he distinguished himself in practically every action and fighting took place daily. On 18th June 1944 his company carried out a raid on a strong enemy position in the Bois de Bavent area. The position was stronger than expected and the company was hard pressed and the wireless set destroyed. Cornell was sent back with a verbal message, he was wounded during the journey but carried on and delivered his message correctly and set off with the reply. He was wounded a second time on the return journey but again carried on and again delivered the message correctly. During the remained of this raid, and despite his two wounds, he was outstanding for his courage and dash. The courage and devotion to duty displayed by Cornell on this occasion was an inspiration to all who witnessed it. He has performed similar runs on countless occasions and, as has been pointed out before, has been wounded twice more but is still the runner for his company and is as cheerful as before. On 10 July 1944 his company again carried out a raid on the same area and again, as usual, Cornell’s complete disregard for his own safety became the chief topic of conversation amongst his fellow soldiers. He has never failed to deliver a message correctly despite the fact that he has carried through a perfect hail of enemy mortar bombs and shells and very frequently aimed Machine Gun fire as well. He is a truly magnificent parachutist and I cannot recommend him too highly for a decoration’.

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