THE BEST TIME OF THEIR LIVES


The 10th Parachute Battalion in Somerby 1943-1944
As members of 10 (V) Para in the closing stages of the Cold War in the 1980s, we were very proud to attend the commemorations of the wartime 10 Para in the Leicestershire village of Somerby. The men of The Tenth regaled us with stories from the nine months they spent in the area before Operation Market Garden in September 1944, where the battalion was effectively destroyed. Many of them recalled their time in Rutland, as it then was, as the best time of their lives.

When wartime 10 Para veteran Vic Gregg appeared on Good Morning Britain in February 2019 to discuss his book about the Dresden fire-bombing in 1945, which he witnessed as a prisoner of war, he was wearing the new 10 Para tie.  Vic is one of three known survivors of The Tenth and hopes to be back in Somerby in September 2019 for the 75th anniversary of Market Garden and for the unveiling of the memorial to The Tenth, as reported in Alec Wilson’s article in the Winter 2018 issue of Pegasus.

The memorial, which owes much to the dedication of the men and women of Friends of The Tenth (FoTT), will be across the road from the entrance to the Burrough Court Estate, which overlooks the valley that served as a drop zone for 10 Para––and also for 156 Para, stationed up the road in Melton Mowbray. Major General Ranald Munro CBD TD VR, a former ‘Tom’ and officer of 10 (V) Para and a Patron of FoTT, described Burrough Court as “a place of significance to the Battalion.”.

However, we shall come to that in due course. The new battalion tie, speedily approved in 2018 by our Colonel Commandant Lieutenant General Sir John Lorimer KCB DSO MBE, can also be worn by former members of 10 (V) Para, disbanded in 1999, and by members of FoTT in recognition of their support not just of the idea of a 10 Para memorial but of our Regiment in general. As we know all too well, the Parachute Regiment always needs friends and FoTT are very good friends. 

The old 10 (V) Para tie, which was worn by some wartime 10 Para men, was black with parachute wings and the red Roman X of the Battalion DZ flash. It was said that the black DZ flash honoured the fallen of the wartime Tenth and the red the blood they shed for the people of Europe enslaved by the Hitler regime. The new tie comprises the regimental badge on a maroon background with stripes recalling the wartime battalion colours worn on Battle Dress shoulder straps and a weathercock motif.

The weathercock has two holes in it but as with Burrough Court, we shall come to that later on. The aforementioned wartime battalion slip-ons consisted of the sky blue of the Army Air Corps, under whose administrative command the Parachute Regiment was placed in 1942 with the Glider Pilot Regiment, and the dark blue and yellow gold of The Royal Sussex Regiment, reflecting the Battalion’s origins. The 10th (Sussex) Battalion, The Parachute Regiment was formed in Egypt in December 1942 with around 200 men from 2nd Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment.

Most of these men were survivors of the Second Battle of El-Alamein. The rest of the 582-strong Battalion was recruited from the Infantry Base Depot at Geneifa, some 120 kilometres east of Cairo by the shores of the Great Bitter Lake, through which the Suez Canal runs.  These recruits came from various regiments and corps and were for the most part combat veterans recovering from light wounds. However, The Tenth remained proud of its Sussex links and was initially known as ‘S’ Battalion.

S Battalion duly underwent parachute training at RAF Kabrit at the southern end of the Great Bitter Lake. They made their first jumps into the shimmering void from a converted barrage balloon eight-hundred feet above the hard, rocky ground, landing like sacks of potatoes, sustaining all manner of bruises, cuts and broken bones. Those who did not refuse the balloon progressed to aircraft and after carrying out the requisite descents, were awarded their parachute wings.

Parachute training completed, The Tenth was posted to Palestine for field-training. Some of the lads had their parachute wings tattooed onto their upper arms by Arabs with nails and coloured dyes in the local souks. In May 1943, the Battalion moved to Libya, ready for the coming invasion of Sicily that July. Much to the disgust of everyone from the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Smyth, downwards, the shortage of transport aircraft saw The Tenth left behind, cooling its heels in Tripoli.

However, The Tenth did take part in Operation Slapstick, the invasion of mainland Italy on September 9th 1943, albeit by sea rather than air because of the continuing lack of aircraft. 10 Para landed at Taranto with other elements of 1st Airborne Division, including 156th Parachute Battalion, which would also have a close association with Rutland, when it was stationed near The Tenth in Melton Mowbray after its withdrawal from Italy.

Fortunately, the landings were unopposed, the German and Italian defenders having retreated from Taranto. The Tenth was tasked with capturing an airfield at Gioia del Colle, some fifty kilometres up the national highway to the Adriatic port of Bari. Approaching the small town of Castellaneta about halfway to the objective, The Tenth ran into a rear-guard defensive line set up by German paratroopers of I./Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 1.

The ensuing fight was ferocious and Major General Hopkinson, commanding 1st Airborne Division, was killed, but The Tenth cleared the Green Devils out of Castellaneta. Proceeding to Gioia del Colle, the Battalion fought off attacks by skirmishers from II./FJR 4 and I./FJR 1 but managed to beat them off and capture and secure the airfield. The Tenth then proceeded to the ports of Bari and Brindisi. The regimental battle honour for Taranto covers these operations.

Withdrawn from Italy in November, The Tenth arrived in Somerby on December 10th 1943. Surrounding villages including Twyford, Burrough-on-the-Hill and Thorpe Satchville would also host the men and boys of the Battalion for the next nine months. Veterans of The Tenth often said they had the best time of their lives in Rutland before they boarded the lorries taking them to RAF Spanhoe on September 17th 1944 and the American planes that would fly them to Holland the next day with the Second Wave.

Stood to and stood down for no less than sixteen cancelled airborne operations during this time, the men of The Tenth sometimes got a bit nervy, to say the least. That they played hard and sometimes got a bit out of hand was only to be expected but veterans of The Tenth never forgot the kindness and generosity of the local people, who even forgave them for burning down Burrough Court during a raid on the wine cellar that went wrong.

The demolition charges used to blow open the cellar door set the mansion alight. The guilty parties redeemed themselves to some extent by bravely entering the blazing building and saving as much of the furniture and contents as they could. They even managed to evacuate the grand piano from the ballroom, which was played with gusto on the lawn as the well-oiled young paratroopers entertained the Fire Brigade with songs, toasting them with the contents of the wine cellar.

The people of Somerby also forgave The Tenth for shooting the weathercock on the tower of All Saints’ Church. There again, perhaps they were grateful: if the metallic screeching and groaning of this Victorian relic whenever the wind caught it grated on the nerves of hardened young paratroopers trying to get a decent night’s sleep, it is probably safe to presume that the villagers did not think too charitably of their weathercock either. They gave it away after renovation work to the tower in 1989.

The beneficiary of their generosity was 10 (V) Para, which had always been proud of its links to The Tenth. In honour of the shooting skills of Lieutenant Pat Glover, who had managed to put two holes in the infernal bird at a distance of sixty meters as it pirouetted and screeched in the wind, the Somerby weathercock became 10 (V) Para’s shooting trophy and resided behind the bar of the Sergeants Mess at the Battalion’s White City location in West London until 10 (V) Para was disbanded in 1999.

The weathercock was returned to Somerby in 2013 but, we note, has not been replaced on the church tower. Memories die hard in the countryside. It must be said, mind you, that Lt Glover had nothing personal against poultry as such. The Lieutenant had a pet chicken called Myrtle. Her arrival in Lt Glover’s life was the consequence of a booze-fuelled argument about whether or not anything with wings and feathers could fly.

Determined to prove his point, Lt Glover took Myrtle with him on an airborne exercise, tucked into his Dennison smock. Some distance from the ground in the valley in front of Burrough Court, Lt Glover released Myrtle, who managed to flap her wings frantically enough to avoid piling into the DZ. For a few seconds, the chicken flew and Lt Glover proved his claim. As he would also point out in later years, the RAF classes parachuting as flying although this is a stretch as Myrtle was not using a parachute.

Nonetheless, when Myrtle was killed in action at Arnhem, Lt Glover and his batman interred her with parachute wings. During their time in Rutland, the men of The Tenth trained hard to maintain their combat readiness, participating in exercises on the Yorkshire Moors and bombed-out areas of London, where they honed the urban combat skills––FIBUA––they would need in Holland when covering the advance to and the retreat from Arnhem Bridge.

The story of Arnhem needs no retelling here but we should note that of the nearly 600 paratroopers of The Tenth seen off by the people of Somerby and the surrounding villages on that Sunday morning seventy-five years ago, just thirty of them returned to Somerby after the battle. As well as the VC awarded to Captain Lionel Queripel, one of the original Sussex regimental officers, the Battalion won numerous bravery awards during the savage fighting around Oosterbeek and Wolfheze.

Sergeant Reid of A Company, would say of Captain Queripel after the war: “He was one of the finest men I was privileged to serve under, always the last officer to return to his mess.  His first thought was for his men. One hears of VCs being given for impulsive bravery, but not Captain Queripel.  Anyone who knew him would have expected him to do just what he did.”. Captain Queripel VC’s citation is easily found on the Internet.

People say that The Tenth was annihilated at Arnhem but that is a simple way of putting it. Ninety-two men were killed in action. The first causalities were sustained during the parachute descent onto Ginkel Heath, as the Germans had by then had ample time to rally and were staking out the heather-covered drop zone, much of which was ablaze. German cameramen even filmed what one veteran bitterly recalled as the “grouse shoot”.

Ninety-six men of The Tenth managed to escape back across the river Rhine on the night of September 25th and 26th. That two-thirds of them did not return to Somerby bears silent witness today to their post-battle state and to the state of many of the 404 men who had to be left behind. Some 10 Para prisoners or war are known to have been murdered but it now seems certain that their killers were local Dutch SS men. The Tenth’s CO Lt-Col Smyth died of his wounds on October 26th

In fairness to the Germans, they did the best they could for the British wounded but medical supplies were as scarce as other resources by that stage of the war and many wounded prisoners died as a consequence. Those who survived captivity and came home afterwards faced the same challenges as veterans of current conflicts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan but there was not the same understanding in those days of what we now describe as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Never reformed, The Tenth was disbanded in November 1945. However, the battalion number was bestowed upon a new London-based Territorial Army unit in 1947: the 10th (City of London) Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. This became the 10th (V) Bn in 1967, known simply as 10 Para. 10 Para was, as we know, disbanded in 1999 but lived on briefly as 10 Company, 4 Para. The White City location, once home to HQ Coy and 1 Coy, 10 Para, is now occupied by B Coy, 4 Para.

The boys of B Coy, 4 Para are very aware of their 10 Para lineage. PSIs posted to White City have asked about 10 Para history on the battalion’s social media webpages. There are photographs of the old Red X DZ flash unofficially worn in Afghanistan and Iraq. I speak for many old 10 Para hands when I say that we were very touched by the speed with which General Lorimer acted to approve the new tie. As the images of the 99-year old Vic Gregg on television show, we are all very proud of it.

This memorial honours those men who served in Egypt, Palestine, Libya, Italy and Holland and, by extension, the men of the post-war battalion who served in various conflicts after the Cold War years. It is our memorial and we shall treasure it.

Prosper Keating

4 Coy & Sigs Pl

10 Para 1982 – 1992