The deadly hazards of Paratroop training

A history of the first British airborne raid describes the early pioneers of 1940-1941

The existence of the Central Landing School appears to have caused some measure of confusion among other service branches as to its actual purpose, evidenced not least of all by British military mail. One early recruit, Private Crane, received a letter for the 'Central Sunday School'.

Even after the facility had expanded slightly and been renamed 'Central Landing Establishment' in September, mail still arrived for the 'Central Laundry Establishment'. While this may have provoked self-deprecating humour within the offices at Ringway, the task of transforming willing recruits into paratroopers had begun in earnest.

Harry Tomlin was among the first wave of volunteers.

My officers were Deane-Drummond, Christopher Lea and 'Tag' Pritchard. We used to call him 'Tag', but not in his hearing. They were a lively crew. I didn't realise what I'd gotten into until we started jumping. Why didn't they tell us at the beginning? Well, that's the Army, I guess.

We jumped from a platform in the hangars. We had no crash helmets, nothing like that. It was the XI Battalion, Special Air Service, and that's all I can tell you really. They were ragtag and bobtail, from every walk of life. But they were good mates. We took things as they came.

I felt like an old man at first! One night we went into Manchester and someone said, 'This is the bus we want' and of course it just glided past us. Well, to pick up and run with all your limbs aching and your body about to fall apart it's difficult ... and yet, after a fortnight you could have done anything. [Later] we used to climb Ben Nevis every morning for training, and the first one down got the next day off.

From the outset of parachute training at Ringway, it became obvious that specialist protective headgear would be required. The standard British steel helmet was completely impractical and potentially hazardous due to its large rim. The men of No. 2 Commando were provided with leather RAF 'B Type' flying helmets in lieu of any specialised equipment, as even the rudimentary protective helmets of thick rubber, commonly referred to as 'Flash Gordons' due to their resemblance to costumes in the Buster Crabbe films, were some time in the future.

After the 'Flash Gordon' would come the first standardised Parachutists' Training Helmet. Under an outer layer of a khaki material was a padded ring of thick rubber over a hardened inner; there were also cloth flaps that could be fastened under the chin. This type of helmet was commonly referred to as a 'Sorbo' after the name of the spongy rubber used.

On 27 July, Admiral Keyes made a brief inspection tour of Ringway to acquaint himself with the situation first hand and review the training regime that Rock and Strange had established as well as the suitability of their equipment. Though satisfied with the men and their officers, he was less enthusiastic about the RAF's stubborn refusal to change from Whitley bombers to a more suitable parachute aircraft:

It is of the utmost importance that a more suitable plane than the Whitley bomber should be provided at once. After going into the matter with the RAF Officer on my Staff and the Officers Commanding the Training Staff and the troops at Ringway, and myself dropping through the hole in the bottom of a stationary Whitley plane, with a squad of parachutists, I am strongly of the opinion that the Whitley machines are thoroughly unsatisfactory.

Nonetheless, training continued apace as confidence grew in the use of the parachutes. Once men had mastered the art of falling off a high platform onto mats, learning to bend their knees to absorb impact shock, they began jumping from the Whitleys, and occasionally also a Bristol Bombay transport aircraft on loan.

A parachute soldier demonstrates the exit point from the tail of a Whitley bomber converted to parachute-dropping, RAF Ringway, January 1941. The Whitley's rear turret was removed to create an exit platform, but this method of jumping proved laborious. The introduction of a circular hole cut into the floor of the fuselage enabled a 'stick' of ten men to jump in rapid succession.

By 25 July a total of 145 jumps had been successfully made without major injury. On that Thursday morning a number of jumps had been completed over Tatton Park with the trainees being taken up in sticks of eight and dropped singly or in 'slow pairs'.

One Whitley took to the air carrying an eight-man stick from C Troop, including Welshman Driver Ralph Evans, a volunteer from the Royal Army Service Corps. After Lance-Corporal Doug Jones, RE, had completed his drop, Evans launched himself through the hole in the Whitley's floor and plummeted to his death less than fifty yards from where [Squadron Leader] Strange and [Major] Rock were observing from the ground because his parachute failed to deploy properly.

The prearranged signal of a red flare arced skyward and all further drops were immediately cancelled, the Whitleys returning to land at what was now a subdued airfield.

Parachute troops wrestle with their 'chutes at Tatton Park in Cheshire, after a demonstration drop for the benefit of the press, 9 January 1941. Tatton Park was the drop zone for the Central Landing Establishment at RAF Ringway.

The staff were unwilling to let the men of No. 2 Commando kick their heels at Ringway, so they were transferred to Scotland for intensive Commando training while an inquiry was held into the /death of Driver Evans, examining any potential shortcomings in the training regime.

Both Major Rock and Squadron Leader Strange criticised the use of Whitleys for the delivery of parachutists, Strange urging the type's immediate replacement by the Douglas DC-3, a purpose-designed civilian transport aircraft with a perfect side door exit. Despite Group Captain Geoffrey 'Beery' Bowman, Combined Operations Deputy, later arranging a visit by his commander Roger Keyes to discuss the CLS's most urgent requirements and providing a parachute demonstration with a borrowed DC-3, it would still be two years before the military version - the C-47, or Dakota - would become available to airborne forces.

At that point in time the RAF acknowledged the presence of only five DC-3s in the United Kingdom, all belonging to the airline KLM and adapted for tropical use (and therefore more valuable on trans-African routes). A personal approach by Keyes to Churchill failed to break this procurement deadlock. Other aircraft were examined for suitability - particularly the Stirling bomber - but none passed the requirements and on 12 August the RAF's planning department took the opportunity to express a desire instead to move the impetus of training from parachute troops to glider-borne infantry.

We are using Whitleys for training in the Central Landing School; but, of course, we have not yet got to the stage of bringing in the Whitley Group on the operational side because he Commandos are not yet trained. Somewhat of an impasse has arisen over the Whitley, largely owing to a fatal accident at Ringway in which a soldier of No. 2 Commando was killed.

It must be admitted that the Whitley is far from ideal technically. The men have to leave the fuselage by a hole in the floor, which is an exceedingly unpleasant performance and has some dangers ... We are proceeding with dropping training at Ringway with RAF personnel. But at present the Army have declined to continue drops with soldiers ...

We are beginning to incline to the view that dropping troops from the air by parachute is a clumsy and obsolescent method and that there are far more important possibilities in gliders. The Germans made excellent use of their parachute troops in the Low Countries by exploiting surprise, and by virtue of the fact that they had practically no opposition. But it seems to us at least possible that this may be the last time that parachute troops are used on a serious scale in major operations.

A deficiency had been found in the parachute design itself as it was determined that Driver Evans's canopy and suspension lines had become entangled due to the turbulent slipstream passing below the Whitley fuselage, preventing the parachute from opening.

Both Rock and Strange summoned the expertise of their instructors as well as Raymond Quilter of the parachute manufacturing company GQ and representatives of the Irving parachute company. Quilter designed a brand new backpack for the Irving-type parachute in which the rigging lines of the parachute were withdrawn from the bag and fully extended before the canopy was pulled out by the air flow, the ripcord being replaced by an integral static line connected to the interior of the aircraft, thus eliminating the need for manual deployment by the parachutist.

Rapid testing was undertaken of what became known as the GQ X Type 'Statischute', which became the basic design used by British paratroopers for more than twenty years thereafter.

While this had been going on, No. 2 Commando were undergoing the most gruelling training regime that any of their number had experienced at the hands of Scottish instructors ...

Practical and theoretical instruction in map reading was stressed, and both by day and by night map problems that required mountain craft and considerable physical exertion were worked out in the field. The average distance covered in these orienteering tasks was approximately forty miles during which the trainees had to contend with poor visibility, sleep in the rain, build fires with wet fuel, cross swift mountain streams, and move rapidly over exceedingly difficult terrain.

A member of No 1 Commando training at Glencoe in November 1941. ‘these dare devil soldiers of our latest army are taken to mountains only climbed by experienced and expert climbers and here they make ascents which not only to test their nerves but help in keeping their physical fitness at the highest level’.

In the early days of the training centre, some men unfamiliar with the terrain and training were lost in the Highlands for as many as three days before being recovered.

The use of ground and cover was taught practically in progressive stages. At first the students were required to move towards given objectives over terrain affording good cover. If they exposed themselves unnecessarily, this fact was brought to their attention by bawling NCO instructors in language which rapidly conveyed the latters' displeasure. In later training, the facilities for cover were rendered much more limited.

In the middle stages of this work, blank cartridges were fired from an Enfield rifle when a student exposed himself unnecessarily while in the final stage, ball cartridges from rifles and Bren guns were fired so that the bullets fell three to five feet from such a student. This method produced excellent results, compelling the men to take cover naturally and quickly.

The trainees' ability to participate in offensive operations, after enduring hardships and forced marches through strange country at night, was tested in exercises of one to three days' duration, including practice of a rapid withdrawal. The men were taught to live on concentrated rations during these training missions, to take care of themselves in the field under all conditions of weather and climate, and to maintain themselves in a 'fighting condition'.

Instruction was given in firing single shots from the submachine gun while it was set for fully automatic operation; this was to conserve ammunition and yet have the gun immediately ready for fully automatic fire if necessary. Considerable time was also spent in teaching students to fire the rifle and Bren gun from the hip.

We were based in a forbidden area, Tor Castle. No. 2 Commando was up there doing the boats and goodness knows what else. There were a lot of mad sods. You know, you could go walking through the woods and all of a sudden, a bloody bullet would go zipping past your ear. And then there was a nice stream there with salmon in it and we used to drop a slab of guncotton in and then pick up half a dozen salmon, dead on the water. They were alright like that, they're just stunned. So, we had quite a good time there really. Fort William was the nearest railway station and when we came away the whole of Fort William turned out to wave us goodbye.

This excerpt appears by kind permission of the publisher, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, copyright remains with author.

‘Operation Colossus: The First British Airborne Raid of World War II’, is the story of the attack on an Italian aqueduct in the midst of enemy territory in 1941. A successful demolition was achieved but the very rudimentary exfiltration scheme led to the capture of all involved (although this would not prevent some, including the legendary Deane-Drummond from rejoining the war). A thoroughly researched account, the author even tracked down the family of the one man who was deplaned at the last minute, apparently suffering from the ‘Malta Dog’, a common digestive complaint of those stationed there. A great insight into the early days of the Paratroopers, Commandos and Special Forces and shows how their very unique approach and esprit de corps was first developed, establishing their aptitude and capacity for the most hazardous operations, exceptional qualities that mark these troops out to this day.