By Ian Marshall
Ian Marshall, who served with 2 PARA, the Pathfinder Platoon and the Red Devils, is regarded as one of the most experienced parachutists in the world, with more than 12,500 jumps to his name. Ian qualified as a HALO freefaller aged just seventeen and was the youngest paratrooper to earn the Gold Lanyard for a thousand jumps. On a more sombre note, Ian was one of the survivors of the car-bombing by the Official IRA of the 16th Parachute Brigade Officers Mess in 1972. More recently, in 2017, Ian co-founded the Pegasus Display Team, whose members must all have passed P Coy, BPC and have at least a hundred military jumps logged. As the Team’s Chief Instructor, Ian oversees new members’ refresher courses as well as other aspects of parachute and ground training.
Army Parachute Jump Instructors Part 2
In the first part of this series on Army Parachute Jump Instructors from 1940 to the present day, Prosper Keating explored the history of the Army and Royal Air Force Parachute Jump Instructors (PJIs) who formed Britain’s Airborne Forces, including the Special Air Service, during the 1939-1945 War. Although they were set up on RAF bases, the parachute training establishments at Kabrit and Willingdon –– in Egypt and India respectively –– were largely Army affairs, as Keating’s article points out.
Keating quoted from SAS historian Tim Jones’ 2006 book SAS Zero Hour: “Meantime, Ringway’s focus remained UK-based paratroops rather than the fledgling forces of the Middle East and India.”. By “Ringway”, Jones meant No 1 Parachute Training School at RAF Ringway near Manchester. Jones continued: “On 20-22 October, the Manchester aerodrome played host to BBC and Gaumont newsreel teams who filmed the base’s ‘hectic November of 1941’, as the RAF assumed exclusive responsibility for the preparation of the UK’s paratroops (while press photos were taken on 24 October).
“Indeed, then the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade HQ was set up in Delhi under Brigadier W. G. H. Gough –– who oversaw the formation of the 151st British, 152nd Indian and 153rd Gurkha Parachute Battalions, as well as the 411th Engineers Section –– he, like [Lieutenant Colonel David] Stirling, received little help from Ringway.”.
In his 2012 book Jumping Beans –– an anecdotal history of the Royal Air Force’s No 1 Parachute Training School –– Edward Cartner, who served as an RAF officer from 1964 to 1993 and completed eight tours with No 1 PTS, wrote: “In the latter part of my own service and into retirement, I came to puzzle over why it was that the existence of PTS, its people and their work is barely acknowledged in supposedly authoritative accounts of the Service.
“Was it because throughout its history, the school’s primary purpose has been to the Army? In that, did the unit fall invisibly between RAF flying training and ground training philosophy?”.
In dispensing with Army PJIs in 1945, most of whom were combat veterans, the British Government’s War Office ignored the wealth of the hard-earned experience of The Parachute Regiment, the SAS and other Airborne Forces in parachute insertion operations under combat conditions. Unlike their American counterparts, they entrusted the task of training airborne soldiers to non-combatant RAF officers and NCOs with little if any experience of hard soldiering in wartime or peacetime.
There are those who might respond to Cartner’s musings by suggesting that the RAF made sure that the wartime Army PJIs were airbrushed out of the picture at the end of the war, when the RAF PJI half-wing superseded the wartime badge worn by both Army and RAF PJIs alike. Cartner’s book makes no mention of the PJIs drawn from Army ranks during the 1939-1945 War.
These critics, some of whom authored what Cartner dismisses as “supposedly authoritative accounts”, might go further by opining that the RAF managed to usurp the Army’s parachute training role during the 1939-1945 War and has since refused to relinquish this role, which, many informed observers would argue, the RAF is far from best-placed to deliver.
The Jumping Beans book is said to have been conceived as a PJI Canopy Club Association anniversary or memorial publication available only to members rather than the general public. As Cartner himself confirms, his book was in part a response to a series of articles in 2010 by The Daily Telegraph’s then Defence Correspondent Thomas Harding, who publicly exposed RAF failures to deliver parachute training to Britain’s Airborne Forces.
In the epilogue to his book, Cartner states: “As young men (as I write, not yet young women) are preparing to go to war by air and be delivered to the ground by parachute […] there are rumbles in the undergrowth about the future of military parachuting: particularly so in late summer 2010 when a series of headlines declared that a hard-pressed RAF Hercules fleet was letting the Airborne side down.
“Variations on this theme have been around since the Ringway days, but in times of straitened military budgets, rumours tend to carry more weight so it was nothing new to read a bleat that seemingly challenged the right of PTS to exist. Quoting a ‘senior officer of the Parachute Regiment’ a national broad sheet noted: ‘the RAF retains an inordinate amount of control over military parachuting’.`’.
Was the unnamed Parachute Regiment officer’s ‘bleat’ justified? The Daily Telegraph’s reporter and his editors seemed to believe so. Harding wrote: “Covert SAS missions are under threat of being cut back after a dispute with the RAF that has led to a drastic drop in the number of troopers trained to parachute. Officers are furious that only a few SAS recruits are gaining their wings and accused the RAF of ‘taking the ‘Air’ out of Special Air service’. They are threatening to move their training permanently to America.
“In the past 18 months, approximately 90 new SAS troopers have failed to pass a complex parachute course due in part to Britain’s poor weather and a lack of aircraft. Meanwhile, the RAF Falcons, the freefall parachute display team, are about to start six-weeks selection course in Arizona, America.
“The next four-weeks special forces parachute course is in November, when –– the SAS says –– the RAF ought to know that the weather is likely to be unfavourable. ‘The RAF are going out of their way to get their display team trained up but when it comes round to sending Hereford [the SAS] out, they say they cannot afford to do it in the US’, said a Special Forces source. ‘All the RAF Falcons do is drop into football stadiums. What this policy is doing is putting operational capabilities below that of their display team –– it’s an extravagance, not a necessity’.
“’The lack of parachute-trained soldiers is beginning to have an impact on operations. The Blades [SAS troops] –– together with support soldiers –– need to qualify for operational reasons.’, said an Army source. The SAS is now threatening to take its soldiers to qualify in Fort Bragg, America, and could also look at courses in South Africa or Oman.
“A senior officer in The Parachute Regiment claimed: ‘The RAF retains an inordinate amount of control over military parachuting used on today’s operations.’. An RAF spokesman said: ‘Training for the RAF Falcons does not impact on Special Forces parachute training.’”.
Even before the United States entered the World War II, in December 1941, the US high command adopted a more value driven and logical approach to military parachute training than the ‘taxi driver’ system adopted by the British high command, with its inherent systemic weaknesses and inefficiencies. From 1940 on, the US Army established and retained control over all aspects of parachute equipment and training delivery capabilities.
In other words, the US high command and those in government above them all the way up to President Roosevelt himself understood that those who were best-placed and most suited to train the airborne infantry and supporting arms were experienced field soldiers drawn from the ranks of the new US Army parachute units. The US Army Airborne School at Fort Benning in Georgia was what it said on the sign at the entrance: an Army establishment.
Despite a litany of previously existing evidence to the contrary, Cartner claims in Jumping Beans: “There is little in official correspondence, recorded and anecdotal history, or even crew room mythology to suggest that anything else would have served the British Airborne Forces better”.
In his 2018 article A Story of the Rhodesian Air Force Parachute Training School, Squadron Leader (Ret’d) Derek de Kock, a former Commanding Officer of the school, explains that he was one of five Rhodesian airmen who successfully qualified as PJIs at RAF Abingdon in 1961.
Derek de Kock wrote: “Whilst we continued to use this RAF teaching style, there were many other things we did improve upon. The biggest problem with the RAF parachute training methods was that nothing had changed … [after nearly 20 years] … The main reason for this was nobody had bothered to ask the soldiers if what they were being taught was relevant.“.
Squadron Leader de Kock recalled: “Once UDI was declared on 11th November 1965, we no longer felt compelled to stick to the old methods we’d inherited. In fact, due to sanctions (which resulted in no information and no supplies) the nature of our Bush War, and our hot and high conditions, we were frequently forced to improvise and experiment.
We were also fortunate to have a number of experienced soldiers join our ranks. They were always willing to give us practical advice from the soldiers’ perspective. Combined, these factors led to a great spirit of innovation which saw us develop new parachuting methods and equipment to become world leaders in military parachuting on a very tight budget.”.
Although he skirts around the circumstances, writing under the chapter heading Pushing the Boundaries, even Cartner himself, who was in command of No 1 PTS’ MFF training in the early 1980s, acknowledges that the RAF was significantly behind the curve with Military Freefall and slow in responding to current and future needs.
Cartner states: “One can read in a recently-published memoir (2010) that in the early ‘60s the Special Forces were already quite advanced in their practical thinking […] a military requirement to insert troops by freefall had not been established, but it would not be long coming.”.
Indeed, the Army had recognised such a need and was already sending troops to train at the French École des Troupes Aeroportées at Pau and also to Fort Bragg in the USA. As Cartner seems to imply, this initiative appears to have been a wake-up call which provoked a further control grab by the RAF: “If we [PTS] didn’t begin to teach military freefall, the Army would teach themselves or find others to do it.”.
As an RAF source remarked during background research work for this article, Cartner would have been fully aware of a strongly-worded communiqué in 1982 from the Commanding Officer of a certain airborne regiment expressing major concerns about the “credibility and competence” of PTS MFF Instructors. Cartner was Officer Commanding –– Advanced Parachute Training at No 1 PTS at the time.
It is perhaps worth noting that Cartner’s assertions were published in 2012 and were by then very much open to question. In another of his Daily Telegraph articles –– that appear to have very much upset the members of the PJI Canopy Club Association and reportedly prompted the decision to move Jumping Beans into the public domain –– Thomas Harding wrote: “Special Forces soldiers are calling for parachute training to be taken out of the hands of the RAF after a serious accident which left nine paratroopers injured.
“The Commanding Officer of the 1st Bn The Parachute Regiment has demanded an inquiry into the incident in which a section of his men was dropped into trees at night a mile-and-a-half from the drop zone. Questions are also being asked over navigating skills and equipment after a 40-year old Hercules K-series aircraft was used which is not equipped with an inbuilt GPS satellite positioning but does carry a navigator.
“The incident comes after The Daily Telegraph highlighted a dispute between Special Forces and the RAF over parachute training which has left the SAS with 90 troopers who are not qualified to jump. They are questioning the Air Force’s priorities after the RAF Falcons display team have just left for a six week selection course in Arizona while the SAS still need to qualify parachutists for operational jumps.
“In the latest incident, ten men from 1 PARA, who form the core of the Special Forces Support Group, were flying low-level over Otterburn training area in Northumbria on Tuesday night when they were given the green light to drop. The jump, part of a larger Special Forces airborne exercise, was alleged to have been cleared on the ground by an RAF Drop Zone Safety Officer. Nine of the men hit branches in the dark and were taken to hospital. Two of them treated for serious injuries.
“A Parachute Regiment source said the incident ‘seriously called into question’ whether the RAF should continue military parachute training. ’We want to know why the RAF Safety Officer on the ground gave the go ahead when they fell two kilometres off-target and why they were dropped in the wrong place.’ There are also worries that not enough soldiers in SFSG are parachute trained to support SAS operations. A MoD spokesman said: ‘the MoD does not comment on UK Special Forces as to do so would impair operational capability and risk personal security.’.”
Traditionally, the Basic Parachute Course at No 1 PTS was four weeks long and consisted of 137 hours of ground training and eight parachute descents. These parachute descents comprised a balloon jump, simultaneous or SIM stick jumps in clean fatigue and with equipment and a night jump. The BPC for Reserve or TA units was two weeks long, proving that the course undergone by Regular paratroopers could certainly have been completed in half the time.
Of course, No 1 PTS and its various associated establishments were generously funded and as any cynically realistic administrator can confirm, it is generally advisable to spend and even to exceed budgets to avoid the risk of cuts by central government or senior management. As overall defence spending cuts began to bite in the 1990s and 2000s, the BPC was reduced to three weeks and the balloons and C130 Hercules were replaced by the Skyvan.
Today’s British Army paratroopers must complete four clean fatigue descents at No 1 PTS and an operational jump with their units –– a night jump with equipment –– to earn their ‘Parachute with Wings’ qualification. However, even with this reduced training programme requirement, the RAF’s parachute training failure rate has continued to escalate. Cartner’s assertions in Jumping Beans regarding PTS delivery during the Cold War era would most likely have been dismissed at the time by most experienced private sector business managers as unquantifiable rhetoric; by 2012 the claims were demonstrably untrue.
After more than a quarter of a century of these diminishing returns, is it reasonable to conclude that the RAF’s failure to meet its obligations to British Airborne Forces is jeopardising the operational readiness and capabilities of Britain’s Special Forces and Airborne Spearhead at a very dangerous point in world history? Many serving and retired senior Airborne Forces officers and NCOs think so. As one senior Airborne Forces officer put it: “the parasite is killing the host.”.
A rule of thumb calculation indicates that it costs around £10,000 per jump to put a soldier through the Basic Parachute Course at No 1 PTS. In this era of budget responsibility, the Ministry of Defence has directed that “parachute training will no longer be centrally funded.”. It has recently emerged that 16th Air Assault Brigade –– the lead organisation within the Military for parachuting –– is now responsible for securing the financing of the RAF’s No 1 PTS overhead from the Army budget. This overhead equates to more than £50 million per annum.
Sources within RHQ PARA say that as many as 1,500 Airborne soldiers have not been found places at No 1 PTS. Some men have served in war zones for as long as two years without being able to earn their wings despite the reported £1.5 billion in funding to the RAF since the mid-1990s. This poses the question: why is the RAF being allowed to retain control of military parachute training despite its demonstrable failure to deliver?
NATO leaders agreed at the Chicago Summit in May 2012 to embrace Smart Defence to ensure that the Alliance can develop, acquiring and maintaining the capabilities required to achieve its goals for NATO forces 2020. Airborne and Special Forces roles with the capability for rapid deployment to spearhead operations clearly fit these criteria.
Notwithstanding problems with specific aspects of interoperability initiatives with the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and the French Army’s 11e Brigade Parachutiste, British Airborne Forces are at risk of being unable to respect their NATO commitments. As a consequence, 16th Air Assault Brigade has initiated Project Hermes, which we shall discuss in the next part of this series of articles on the topic of Army Parachute Jump Instructors.
Ian Marshall 12.4.2022