The Pegasus Display Team –– by Prosper Keating
The black and white D-Day stripes on the wings of the WW2-vintage Dakota Drag ‘Em Oot were clearly visible to the crowd below as she banked over the 10th Battalion Memorial, unveiled a couple of hours before. The old Dakota was late because of the winds blowing across Leicestershire that September weekend seventy-five years less a week after The Tenth had emplaned for Holland but she had made it, to the cheers of the hundreds of people watching.
In an article for the Parachute Regimental Association in March 2019, I wrote of the forthcoming unveiling of the memorial to the wartime 10th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment in what locals used to call High Leicestershire. Sculpted by Graeme Mitcheson MRBS, the memorial stands on high ground overlooking the valley used as a drop zone by The Tenth in 1944–– and by 156 Para Bn, headquartered up the road in Melton Mowbray.
The temporary wartime DZ is just a mile and a half from the village of Somerby, where The Tenth was headquartered for almost nine months after its withdrawal from southern Italy. Some of the veterans we knew spoke of this sojourn as “the best time of their lives.”. Others, recalling Dickens, described it more soberly as “the best of times during the worst of times.”. Today, only the southern end of the DZ remains safe for parachuting.
Most of the crowd had never seen a military drop in real life, let alone a jump from a wartime Dakota in 1944 livery by real paratroopers in WW2 kit. To the trained eyes of the Airborne veterans on the ground, the slick exit drills of the Pegasus Display Team as they jumped from Drag ‘Em Oot were second-to-none; they wondered what the RAF Parachute Jump Instructors who had taught them their basic parachuting skills would have thought.
Air Vice-Marshal Alan Gillespie CBE MA BSc, Air Officer Commanding No 2 Group, which includes No 1 Parachute Training School, was unequivocal when I asked him about it: “I would be the first person to say that I am really proud, as are the current and past members of PTS, that those skills they imparted over the years are still being put to good use to promote our shared heritage”.
Number One in the door was 1 PARA veteran Arronn Newton, more of whom later. The rest of the stick included former 10 PARA members. As their parachutes deployed after Ian Marshall dispatched them, they saw the 10th Battalion Memorial 800 feet below. They could also see the villages where The Tenth’s companies were billeted in 1944: Burrough on the Hill due south, Somerby to the east and Thorpe Satchville to the west.
As the first five-man stick landed, rolled and unbuckled their parachutes, RAF cadets jostled cheerfully for the privilege of carrying the jumpers’ reserves to the DZ Rendezvous Point just below the Memorial. Off came helmets and on went maroon berets, to loud applause from the crowd. The Parachute Regiment was back in High Leicestershire. The former SAS soldier amongst them was wearing the flaming sword of Damocles on his maroon beret.
The SAS veterans in the Pegasus Display Team –– who achieved the rare accolade of an article several pages long in the SAS Regiment’s journal Mars and Minerva –– have adopted the maroon beret for memorial and heritage parachute jumps. This recalls their wartime forebears in North-Western Europe and Norway in 1944 and 1945, who had to give up the sand-coloured or beige berets of their Desert War and Italian Campaign days when they were placed under Army Air Corps command like other British Airborne Forces units.
Drag ‘Em Oot banked, passing over Burrough on the Hill and Somerby as she came around for her second run. Pegasus Display Team Manager Mark Briggs recalled: “The DZ assessment and drop calculations were quite complicated given the small size of the intended landing area but we have some of the most experienced parachutists in the world on the team. So, the Civil Aviation Authority granted the Special Parachuting Permission we needed and waived the normal £520 fee because it was a memorial jump.”.
Mark Briggs founded Pegasus in 2017 with 2 PARA veteran Ian Marshall, who served with The Pathfinder Platoon and the Red Devils. One of the most experienced parachutists in the world, with over 12,500 jumps logged, Marshall qualified as a HALO free-faller aged just seventeen. He was the youngest paratrooper to earn the Gold Lanyard, which is awarded for a thousand jumps, and holds various foreign military parachute wings.
Briggs, who served with Airborne Forces including 3 PARA, is a Ground-Air Operations Specialist and Forward Air Controller (FAC). In civilian life, Briggs is a Chartered Health and Safety Practitioner and says: “there is no fear nor favour when it comes to the safety aspects of the team’s activities. Safety comes first!”. Briggs and other Pegasus members also act as consultants to cinema and television production companies through Parasafe Ltd.
The Team uses modern state-of-the art parachutes with reserve parachutes, which were not worn by British paratroopers in WW2. Although their MC-6 parachute systems resemble the old round X-Type parachutes used by British Airborne Forces in WW2, they are parabolic and steerable. The MC-6, as used by US and other NATO Special Forces for tactical operations, was previously listed as the SF10A.
Given the high values of original WW2-era British Airborne uniforms and kit, Pegasus Display Team members carrying out memorial or heritage parachute displays like the drop on the 10 Para Bn Memorial wear high quality replicas of the wartime half-zip Denison Smocks, Battle Dress uniforms and other kit produced for war films and television series.
The ex-10 PARA men wore the blue and yellow shoulder strap slip-ons of the wartime 10th Battalion for the occasion, based on the colours of The Royal Sussex Regiment, whose 2nd Battalion formed the cadre of the 10th Battalion in Egypt in December 1942. After the Battles of Alam el Halfa and El Alamein, where they engaged in brutal hand-to-hand combat with the tough Italian paratroopers of the Folgore Division, 2 RSR was withdrawn from combat and received orders that it was to be turned into a parachute battalion.
Lieutenant General Sir John Lorimer KCB DSO MBE, Colonel Commandant of The Parachute Regiment, told me: “It is terrific to see our veterans continue to parachute as they did when they were serving in The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces, exhibiting that same drive, determination and esprit de corps. It is also wonderful that they commemorate those unique Regimental battle honours, including Normandy and Arnhem, in such an appropriate and evocative manner.”.
Air Vice-Marshal Ranald Munro CBE TD VR DL, who began his career as a ‘Tom’ in 4 Coy, 10 PARA and rose to the rank of Major General in the Army Reserve before moving across to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, said: “Every display jump executed by the Pegasus Display Team is as much a memorial to those who jumped in World War Two as the Memorial to the wartime Tenth Battalion in Somerby.”.
Formally removed from the Order of Battle in November 1944, the Battalion reformed in 1947 as the 10th (City of London) Battalion, with several veterans of the wartime Battalion in its ranks. The Battalion’s designation changed several times but from the 1960s on, it was generally known as 10 PARA and took part every September in the commemorative drop on Arnhem before it was disbanded in 1999.
To be chosen to parade with the veterans of the wartime Tenth at the Somerby reunion organised every September by the Leicestershire Parachute Regimental Association was as great an honour for we members of the post-war Battalion as the annual drop on Arnhem. The veterans entrusted us with their battalion traditions and heritage.
This solemn duty was underlined by the gift to 10 PARA in 1989 of the noisy weathercock from the Somerby village church, through which an exasperated Lieutenant Pat Glover of HQ Coy had managed to put two rounds in 1944. The Somerby weathercock was adopted as 10 PARA’s shooting trophy but has now found his way back to his church although the villagers have, tellingly, not put him back on the steeple.
The men in maroon berets who marched to the unveiling of the memorial had served in all of the Battalions of The Parachute Regiment of the Cold War era to the present day. We former 10 PARA men amongst them felt keenly aware of the heritage we represented, as did the former 10 PARA men amongst the ten members of the Pegasus Display Team stood up at Action Stations in Drag ‘Em Oot some eight-hundred feet overhead.
Whilst the delight on the faces of the crowd watching this living memorial exiting Drag ‘Em Oot so cleanly and tightly overhead was a joy to see, the expressions on the faces of the widows and other bereaved relatives of those who fell in action in Italy and Holland brought tears to the eyes of many a tough old paratrooper. So did the warmth of the local people, who were so happy and proud to have The Parachute Regiment back amongst them again.
Ian Marshall credits the legendary Jock Hutton with planting the idea of the Pegasus Display Team in his mind. “Jock had just watched the club jumping onto the Sannerville DZ in WW2 kit in 2010. Some of us had jumped in WW2 pattern kit. In fact, it was one of the first jumps we did in WW2 pattern kit. On D-Day, Jock had jumped a few miles away on Ranville with the 13th Para Battalion.”.
Marshall was referring to the Pathfinder parachuting club, formed in the early 1990s by Roy Mobsby for fellow Airborne veterans wishing to relive the experience of military-style parachuting. Mobsby, whose military curriculum vitae includes service with 10 PARA and 1 PARA, is amongst other things a qualified free-faller and heavy drop rigger. He was also a member of the Silver Stars display team and holds various NATO parachute wings.
Other than the RAF’s No 1 PTS, Pathfinder was for decades the only parachute training organisation in the United Kingdom offering ab initio military-style parachute refresher courses, as well as basic parachute training. The parachuting phase of the course, however, had to take place in Holland, where members earned the Dutch Military B Wing, which is not unlike the British Army’s ‘Lightbulb’ qualification badge for non-operational parachutists.
Marshall continued: “Jock told me: ‘Looking up at those lads coming out of the Dakota, dressed like us back then, felt a lot better than looking down at my mates’ graves in the cemetery. It reminded me of us, young. It’s not the first time I’ve come back to Normandy but it’s the first time I’ve been able to remember my mates who died here without feeling so guilty that I survived.’”.
Quite a few of the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces veterans involved in memorial and heritage parachuting with Pegasus cite the therapeutic aspects of finding their way back to the Airborne Family and their rediscovered sense of fellowship, pride and usefulness. Pete Launder, a twelve-year Royal Corps of Transport veteran who served with the RCT’s 63 Airborne Squadron for three years, was diagnosed with Combat Stress some years after leaving the Army in 1996.
Launder said: “I took up skydiving in 2016 and met a group of Airborne veterans. Mark Briggs invited me to join the Pegasus team. Since joining this amazing group, my life has changed so much for the better. Surrounded by veterans, my guard dropped and I felt at ease for the first time since 1996. This has saved my life and given me something to look forward to each year.”.
Arronn Newton, who died four times after his armoured vehicle was blown up by an enemy IED in Afghanistan, recalled: “I was struggling and losing against PTSD. I was in a very bad place. And then Ian Marshall told me about Pegasus. It feels really good to give something back, to put on these demos for the public. Feeling useful, finding that old comradeship and pride has really helped me.”.
Reflecting on this aspect of the Pegasus Display Team’s activities, Lieutenant General Lorimer said: “The Parachute Regiment and wider Airborne Forces community looks after its own: our veterans, our serving soldiers and their dependents. We have an active charity, The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces Charity, which provides welfare support to all eligible members. We are a very close-knit family and proud of it.
“I am certain that this type of activity undoubtedly has a very positive effect on our veterans. When they conduct their training and parachute descents, they are back amongst their friends and former comrades-in-arms, remembering the good times, sharing stories and jokes. They are members of a unique band of brothers. This must have a positive effect on any of them suffering from PTSD.”.
Air Vice-Marshal Gillespie said: “I was privileged to be in Arnhem in 2019 for the seventy-fifth anniversary commemoration and was very warmly received by the members of the Airborne community I met. I am equally proud to be associated with and supportive of the Pegasus Display Team and admire the good work they do in helping veterans maintain sound mental health and well-being.”.
The 75th Anniversary ceremonies in and around Arnhem in 2019 –– a week after the 10 Para Bn Memorial unveiling –– included a memorial drop in WW2 kit by veteran and serving Polish paratroopers onto the Driel DZ, which is considered sacred ground by Poles. Pegasus Display Team and Parachute Training Organisation jumpmaster Roy Mobsby oversaw the Polish memorial drop as the senior Drop Zone Safety Officer (DZSO).
After the Poles performed a symbolic crossing of the Rhine river, Ian Marshall, Mark Briggs and Arronn Newton closed the ceremonies with a military free-fall jump onto the Driel DZ. The Poles then awarded Marshall, Mobsby, Briggs and Newton each a numbered set of WW2 pattern Polish parachute wings from a limited re-edition of the original badges, as instituted in June 1941 by the Polish government-in-exile in London.
The 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade covered the escape from Arnhem of what remained of our 1st Airborne Division from Arnhem. Most of its veterans settled in Britain after the war rather than live under Communism. Amongst the battle-weary paratroopers who made it back across the Rhine after it became clear that the battle for the Arnhem bridge was lost were those men of The Tenth who were not dead or in German hands.
It is sometimes said that the writers of the final scene of Theirs Is The Glory, in which a handful of Arnhem survivors return to a billet full of empty bed spaces, were thinking of the thirty-six men of The Tenth fit enough to return to Somerby, Burrough-on-the-Hill and Thorpe Satchville after their last stand on the Utrechtseweg in Oosterbeek.
Only three men of the wartime Tenth remained alive three-quarters of a century after they and their mates had clambered aboard the lorries taking them to RAF Spanhoe and thence to a sad kind of glory. They are listed on the 10th Battalion nominal roll as 6913933 Pte Victor Gregg [Author’s Note –- Vic Gregg contacted me to point out that he was a Rifleman], 14642192 Pte Frederick Deane and 14665231 Pte William Courcha. By a strange coincidence, all three were former Support Coy men and Vic and Freddie had both served in the Medium Machine Gun Platoon.
Bill Courcha could not make to the unveiling from Australia and Vic Gregg was recovering from an accident, although he would drive up from Winchester a couple of months later for the Remembrance Day service at the10th Battalion Memorial. However, Freddie Deane, who left an eye behind in Oosterbeek, had come from his Snowdonia home. As Freddie ran his good eye over fellow artist Mitcheson’s work, he murmured: “It was worth the wait.”.
The 10th Battalion Memorial was dreamt up in the Klein Hartenstein in Oosterbeek in 2011 by Alec Wilson, Graham Warner and Jeanie Holland. Jeanie’s father was 3316885 Sgt Harry ‘Darkie’ Houghton of A Coy. Alec’s father was 5573609 Pte Alexander Wilson, who served with HQ Coy. Grahame Warner, a Royal Tank Regiment veteran whose uncle was killed in action with The Tenth at Arnhem, is widely seen as the foremost authority on 10th Battalion history.
As more and more people expressed interest in helping to realise this dream, and to keep the memory of The Tenth alive, the Friends of The Tenth (FoTT) was formed as a charity with Air Vice-Marshall and ex-10 PARA officer Ranald Munro as Patron and the then Lord Lieutenant of Leicestershire, Jennifer, Lady Gretton, as President. Covid-19 prevented a 2020 commemoration but many would like to see a pre-Arnhem pilgrimage to Somerby become a major event on the Parachute Regiment calendar.
Air Vice-Marshal Munro spoke for many in saying: “When we visit the Somerby memorial, we are struck by the weighty responsibility that we have, to hold dear and live up to the legacy of excellence, courage and duty handed down by that generation. It is also right and proper that we acknowledge and respect the bravery of the RAF who, as brothers-in-arms, flew their parachute and glider-borne troops through the lead-filled skies over Arnhem.”.
Mitcheson’s richly-detailed relief carvings include a Dakota dropping paratroopers, inviting us to think of the aircrews who never made it home from Arnhem and other airborne operations. Drag ‘Em Oot herself dropped Allied paratroopers in Normandy, Holland and Germany in 1944 and 1945 and has the scars from shrapnel and bullets to prove it. She is maintained in her 1944 livery by the Aero Legends aviation heritage group in Kent.
The Somerby village church is there, with its infernal weathercock. So is Burrough Court, burned to the ground in 1944 when an alleged raid on its wine cellars by some of the Battalion’s wilder boys went slightly wrong. Two young paratroopers sit on a crate in front of the building. One of them is drinking from a bottle of wine, a detail that surely tempted the gods of old.
This part of the memorial fell off the lorry transporting it to Burrough on the Hill and broke in two, prompting us to muse on divine thunderolts as we ran our fingers over the repair to the crack. Mitcheson set to work making a copy and the cracked original was presented to the owners of the Burrough Court Estate, Fred and Dawn Wilson, who had so generously donated the land near the site of Burrough Hall for the memorial to FoTT.
The wine bottle from which the unintentional arsonists are swigging is labelled Gioia Del Colle, a southern Italian town and airfield taken by The Tenth in 1943, after German skirmishers from II./Fallschirmjäger-Rgt 4 and I./Fallschirmjäger 1 withdrew. The advance from Taranto towards the Adriatic port of Bari by 10th and 156 Battalions and other elements of 1st Airborne Division are covered by the Regimental battle honour for Taranto.
In a recent email, 101 year-old Vic Gregg wrote of his time in southern Italy with The : “Yes, of course, there was the occasional exchange of fire, but nothing to write home about. Support Group who were brought up took the appropriate steps without any fuss or instruction from higher ranks. None of us had any death wish, which, translated into battle action, means that you don’t walk into the gaping jaws of machine gun fire. Slowly, slowly catchee monkey!”. Gregg had previously served with The Rifle Brigade and the Long Range Desert Group.
Mitcheson’s creation is as beautiful as the memorials to the fallen of the 14-18 War by Eric Gill, whom the sculptor cites as one of his main influences. Although of stone, there is nothing dead or inanimate about his 10 Para Bn Memorial. It is about sacrifice and loss but it is also about life. It invites us to think of those whom it recalls as they once were: young, hopeful and full of life.
Jock Hutton underwent a parachute refresher course at the age of 88 in 2012. For his qualifying jumps, however, Hutton had to report to the Dutch parachute school in Teuge, where he was awarded the Dutch Military B Wing. Aged 90, Hutton heaved himself aboard 3X to jump into Normandy on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day in 2014. The jump was scrubbed when civilian aircraft were excluded from the area at the request of the US Secret Service.
The Dutch Military B Wing can be awarded to military personnel and civilians alike, like Isobel Roberts, whose grandfather, father and uncles all served in the Parachute Regiment. “It’s in my blood.”, said Roberts. “One of the first things I remember wanting to do when I was little was to jump from a plane. My uncle Doug [Moodie], who was in 2 PARA, arranged it for me.“.
Roberts’ grandfather George Moodie jumped on the Merville Battery with 9 Para Bn on D-Day and was later one of the Paras filmed for the parachuting sequences in the 1953 film The Red Beret, starring Alan Ladd. “I did my ground training in England and went to Teuge to get my Dutch B wings. When I looked up and saw that round canopy above me, I thought of my granddad George. When I jumped in Normandy, I was so proud!”.
Pegasus Parachute Training Organisation instructors also take female Special Forces soldiers from NATO countries like Sweden, Ireland and Poland through basic parachute training at Teuge. Several British female military personnel have also earned their wings at Teuge, enabling them to earn the parachute wings of other NATO forces although they do not hold British Army parachute wings because of the interdiction dating back to WW2.
The SOE women who passed through No 1 PTS at Ringway Airport did one jump less than the men and were thus denied parachute wings. Some of the female SOE operatives, like Nancy Wake GM and Pearl Cornioley née Witherington CBE, who fought in the field with the French Resistance, sewed parachute wings on above their medal ribands in 1945. Anyone quoting King’s Regulations at them was icily reminded that they had carried out combat jumps.
Nancy Wake was decorated with the George Medal. Cornioley rejected the Civil Division MBE she was offered instead of the Military Cross for which she was recommended. She remarked: “There was nothing civil about what I did.”. She eventually accepted a Military MBE and, later, the CBE. In April 2006, Two RAF Squadron Leaders visited Cornioley in France and presented her with her parachute wings. Cornioley told the press: “This is more important to me than receiving the CBE or MBE.”.
The SOE arranged for their female agents to be gazetted as First Aid Nursing Yeomanry officers. However, this afforded them scant protection from the Nazi and collaborationist security forces who captured, tortured and murdered so many of them across Occupied Europe. Some of the female Teuge graduates, like Sigrid van Eck, occasionally jump in SOE pattern parachutist suits over 1940s civilian clothes, just as the wartime SOE women carried out training jumps with Regular Army paratroopers.
Air Vice-Marshal Munro, who also serves as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the FANY, remarked: “Such is the respect that the French military hold to this day for the SOE/FANY operatives and their courage in World War Two that every two years, a number of FANY members are selected to complete the French jump course in Pau to earn their French parachute wings.”.
Until the Pegasus Display Team and Parachute Training Organisation obtain approved organisation status from the Civil Aviation Authority, Pegasus must continue to conduct the parachuting phase of its refresher courses overseas in Holland but Brexit poses a problem. Regardless of cordial Anglo-Dutch relations, Pegasus parachute training instructors and staff might have trouble obtaining Dutch visas permitting them to work at Teuge.
Similar potential constraints apply to other locations like the USA, which would also be very expensive in terms of travel costs. The Pegasus Display Team and its members are self-financing. The obvious solution is to give these Airborne veterans a base in their own country, which they served so loyally and which, in their way, they continue to serve.
Reflecting on this, Lieutenant General Sir John Lorimer said: “I hope that it will not be long before the Team and anyone wishing to conduct military style parachuting will be able to do it in the United Kingdom. We owe it to our veterans and their Airborne predecessors.”.
Prosper Keating, January 2021