by Prosper Keating
On April 28th 2017, RAF Brize Norton issued a communiqué: “For the first time since the Second World War, Physical Training Instructors from the British Army will graduate as Parachute Jump Instructors (PJIs) at RAF Brize Norton. Eight Physical Training Instructors from 16 [sic] Air Assault Brigade were selected from a shortlist of 12 to undertake the course, which started in October 2016.”.
As the 2017 press photographs showed, the Army PJIs were initially awarded the standard black-backed RAF Parachute Jump Instructor half-wing or brevet introduced in 1945 before an Army version on khaki backing appeared.
The PJI half-wing reflected the granting by the RAF in the summer of 1945 of honorary aircrew status to PJIs because of their role as dispatchers aboard military transport aircraft in various theatres of the 1939-1945 War, which did not end until Japan surrendered in August that year.
The new badge was the same as the half-wings awarded to RAF navigators and air gunners but with a parachute replacing the N and AG abbreviations within the laurel wreath. No Army PJIs are known to have been in that role by mid-1945 nor to have received the new version of the badge.
The first pattern of the PJI badge resembled the British Army parachutist badge or ‘lightbulb’ but on dark blue backing as used by the RAF with a stylised laurel wreath. Introduced in 1942, the PJI trade badge was very similar to the RAF Bomb Disposal badge instituted in January 1941.
In the photograph above, Wing Commander Benito congratulates the first Indian to earn his parachute wings, Sergeant Ranga Raj of 152nd (Indian) Parachute Battalion, at Chaklala in 1943. The Army PJI –– identifiable by his putties and by the Army parachute wings on his shoulder –– with his hand on Sgt Raj’s shoulder wears a tropical version of the early PJI badge above his stripes. Unlike the machine-embroidered RAF red-on-khaki version, this NCO’s PJI badge seems to comprise a white motif on a pale background, suggesting a locally-produced badge to Army specifications.
Like the PTI badge and other instructors’ badges, NCOs and Senior NCOs wore the wartime PJI badge on their upper right sleeves above their stripes and below their parachute wings. Commissioned PJIs also wore the badge on their right arms but on a pale blue brassard which was removed when the officer was not on duty.
The author of the RAF communiqué in 2017 was referring to No 1 Parachute Training School, which moved to RAF Brize Norton in 1976. Initially established at RAF Ringway –– now Manchester International Airport –– as the Central Landing School in June 1940, after Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s order to form an airborne force, 1 PTS moved to RAF Upper Heyford in 1946 and thence to RAF Abingdon in 1950, where the school remained for a quarter of a century.
By September 1940, as the Germans were losing the Battle of Britain, the CLS had evolved into the Central Landing Establishment RAF, headquartered at RAF Sherburn-in-Elmet in North Yorkshire. However, its parachute and glider assault schools remained at Ringway. As well as training military parachutists, the CLE had to train instructors who were, for the most part, selected from the ranks of RAF and Army Physical Training Instructors.
By the late summer of 1941, the Parachute Training School at Ringway had been designated Number 1 as there was another parachute training school at RAF Kabrit in Egypt. Plans were also in hand for a third parachute training or, more precisely, air landing school in India to train the 50th (Indian) Parachute Brigade, which would be formed in Delhi that October. The location chosen was Willingdon Airport in New Delhi, a suburb of Delhi.
The Indian Air Landing School’s staff comprised eight RAF officers, five Army officers, six Army NCOs trained at Ringway as PJIs and four RAF Fabric Workers who maintained and packed the parachutes and also acted as PJIs. The ALS staff took over two aircraft hangars and began training British and Indian volunteers. In October 1942, the school moved to Chaklala, near the Punjabi city of Rawalpindi, and was later renamed No 3 Parachute Training School.
In the above photograph of six of the first PJIs to arrive at Willingdon Airport outside Delhi in October 1941, three of them are Army and three are RAF and they all wear the Army’s “Parachute with wings”, as King’s Regulations listed the insignia, on their right chests.
Before the introduction of the PJI trade badge, wearing wings on the left-hand side seems to have been a No 1 PTS practice to distinguish instructors from the parachutists they had trained. Parachutists and paratroopers of the Special Operations Executive and of certain Army parachute units who had carried out a combat jump wore their wings above their left-hand breast pockets, as did the Special Air Service, including the Free French parachute company attached to the SAS from 1942.
One might have expected the parachute training school in Egypt to be named No 2 PTS but the RAF never used this designation. This school eventually became No 4 PTS, under RAF command, but began as a purely Army establishment. It was part of the Special Air Service training camp established at RAF Kabrit by Captain David Stirling in September 1941. Although located on an RAF airbase, the SAS training camp was not under RAF control.
Middle Eastern HQ had named Captain Stirling’s embryonic unit ‘L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade’ in an attempt to gull the Germans into believing that MEHQ was forming an airborne brigade. Stirling tasked Sergeant Jim Almonds, one of the first twelve SAS volunteers, with building the parachute training facility. Begging, borrowing and mainly stealing what they needed, Almonds’ small team achieved their task in record time.
Parachute training was somewhat rudimentary. As Almonds’ diary entry for October 6th 1941 noted: “Afternoon spent jumping backwards from a lorry at twenty-five miles per hour. Three broken arms and a number of other casualties. Broken bones through training now six.”. When two SAS trainees were killed by parachute malfunctions on October 17th 1941, Stirling put in a request for some Ringway-trained PJIs.
In his book SAS Zero Hour, historian and SAS specialist Tim Jones succinctly describes the problems faced by the parachute training schools in Egypt and India in 1941. “Meantime, Ringway’s focus remained UK-based paratroops rather than the fledgling forces of the Middle East and India.
“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 Stirling, received little help from Ringway.
“Some of its instructors went to the new Airlanding School at Delhi’s Willingdon Airport, including Flight Lieutenant ‘Bill’ Brereton, who had been ‘one of the earliest pioneers of parachute jumping at Farnborough’.
“But, while the RAF/Army party of fourteen arrived with parachutes ‘as part of their personal baggage’, these were the entire stock’ at the school and, ‘for a long time these were the only parachutes they could lay their hands on’.“.
The first 50th (Indian) Para Bde parachute jump was made on October 15th 1941 from an obsolescent Vickers Valentia biplane airliner on loan from the Australian airline Quantas. However, training three future parachute battalions with fourteen parachutes was a tall order. The situation eventually improved when supplies of parachutes began reaching India and the Air Landing School staff could start teaching parachuting to the soldiers of 50th (Indian) Para Bde.
No 1 PTS sent three Army PJIs to the SAS at RAF Kabrit in October 1941: Lieutenant Peter Warr and Sergeants Sean Young and Ian McGregor. As a consequence, the SAS was able to provide sixty-five men for Operation Crusader, as the planned Relief of Tobruk was code-named.
The SAS was tasked with jumping on three enemy airfields near Tmimi and Gazala forty-eight hours before the main operation started on November 18th 1941 and, as Stirling’s orders directed, “destroying as many aircraft as possible.”.
Operation Squatter, as the SAS phase of Crusader was called, was not a success because of high winds and heavy rain. The SAS raiders were not dropped in the right places by the RAF and only twenty-two of them made it back to the rendezvous point, trekking through the Libyan desert for thirty-six hours. Stirling reacted by sending them back to the enemy airfields in truck and jeeps in December, where they destroyed over sixty German and Italian aircraft.
Despite Stirling’s downgrading for operational reasons of the importance of parachute training, Peter Warr and his fellow Army PJIs were far from unemployed. In January 1942, the Free French 1ère Compagnie de Chasseurs Parachutistes arrived at RAF Kabrit. 1 CCP was redesignated as the French Squadron, Special Air Service and placed under Stirling’s command. They would later become the 4th SAS Regiment in 1944.
Stirling had decided that vehicles were a surer way of reaching targets in the Western Desert although the SAS later retained parachute training as an operational option and, of course, as one of the building blocks of the ésprit de corps of Airborne and Special Forces. Moreover, there was still a need for the SAS or Army parachute training facility at Kabrit to train the Free French arrivals as well as other individuals like Special Operations Executive agents.
Captain Peter Warr’s MBE citation in 1942 stated: “This officer has shown untiring devotion to his task of creating parachute training facilities and staff of parachute instructors in the Middle East. He has succeeded in building up these facilities to a high degree of efficiency in spite of shortage of material and equipment; these he has overcome by enterprise and by improvisation.”. There was no BEM for Jim Almonds, who built the SAS parachute training facility, but he had earned the first of his two Military Medals in SAS raids on various enemy targets during the final stages of Operation Crusader in December 1941.
On March 23rd 1942, back in England, Temporary Major Kenneth Smyth of The Parachute Regiment, late of the South Wales Borderers, was summoned to the War Office and ordered to report to Middle East HQ in Cairo. His mission? To convince MEHQ of the real need for a parachute brigade in their theatre of war as opposed to their paper ‘SAS Brigade’, which barely amounted to two companies, including the Free French paratroopers.
Commissioned into the South Wales Borderers in 1926, Ken Smyth was a staff officer by the mid-1930s. An energetic, bright man, he spoke several languages, including Russian and Polish because of military postings to those countries. He had incurred the displeasure of his superiors in 1937 after wangling a posting back to his parent regiment in Waziristan, where he had seen combat.
Ken Smyth had no intention of sitting out the war behind a desk at General Headquarters in Aldershot. When the call went out for experienced officers to join The Parachute Regiment, Smyth volunteered at the age of thirty-five, passed selection and earned his parachute wings. However, his staff experience meant that his new superiors did not see him as a frontline parachute battalion commander. They had other plans for him.
Arriving in Cairo as an Acting Lieutenant Colonel, Smyth managed to convince the generals at MEHQ of not just the need for a parachute brigade but also the need in the region for a well-equipped parachute training school. The SAS facility at RAF Kabrit was the obvious choice, especially as it was a short drive from the Royal Army Service Corps Base Depot at Geneifa.
Geneifa was used as a holding camp for soldiers recovering from wounds or detached from their parent units for various reasons and would therefore be a fertile recruiting ground for the nucleus of the new parachute brigade. Smyth took over the SAS facility and named it No 4 Middle East Training School, omitting any mention of parachuting for security reasons. Captain Warr and his fellow Army PJIs would be kept busy for some time to come.
In October 1942, the 151st (British) Parachute Battalion was detached from 50th (Indian) Para Bde and transferred to the new 4th Para Bde, where it was renumbered as the 156th Parachute Battalion. As opposed to the other 50th (Indian) Para Bde battalions, the 151st was all-white. The name change once in the Middle East was merely to confuse enemy intelligence. The command of 4th Para Bde had been given to Lt Col John ‘Shan’ Hackett.
This was not a snub to Lt Col Smyth. Lt Col Hackett was Smyth’s senior on the Army List and the two men were friends. Smyth’s achievements were publicly recognised in his OBE citation in May 1943, which stated that he “did almost unaided the preliminary work necessary for the formation of 4 Parachute Brigade.”. Smyth was also entrusted with the formation and command of 4th Para Bde’s 10th Parachute Battalion.
Announced in Orders in May 1942, 4 METS had been placed under the command of Wing Commander Warne, presumably as a diplomatic nod to the RAF. The parachute training facility was separated from 4 METS in December 1943, becoming No 4 Parachute Training School. Curiously, the RAF never used the No 2 PTS designation. When 4 PTS moved to RAF Ramat David in January 1943, no Army PJIs seem to have remained on its strength.
Lt Col Smyth had recruited Captain Peter Warr from 1 SAS to command B Coy, S Battalion, as the 10th Parachute Bn was known briefly before receiving its Parachute Regimental battalion number. ‘S’ stood for ‘Sussex’, a reference to the 2nd Bn, The Royal Sussex Regiment from which The Tenth was formed after the near-destruction of 2 RSR at El Alamein.
Major Peter Warr would earn a DSO as acting CO of The Tenth when Smyth was wounded at Arnhem in 1944. Ken Smyth recovered sufficiently to reassume command of The Tenth and its breakthrough into Oosterbeek. However, wounded a second time during the house-to-house fighting there and paralysed from the waist down, he had to be left behind for the Germans.
Despite German military surgeons’ efforts to save him, Lt Col Kenneth Smyth OBE died in a German military hospital a month after the battle. He earned a posthumous Mention in Dispatches for Arnhem, adding to his MID for the southern Italian campaign late in 1943. Peter Warr survived the war although he also ended up as a prisoner of the Germans.
By the late 1940s, the RAF was running a direct entry programme for PJIs. They no longer had to qualify as PTIs first or even as NCOs. By then, the RAF was exclusively in charge of parachute training. Anyone called up for National Service could apply to become an RAF PJI. However, would-be PJIs still had to pass the PTI course first after four months of basic training, a requirement that recruiting staff tended not to reveal before their volunteers signed up.
Formed in 1942, the Army Air Corps (AAC), under which the Army’s various parachute units were grouped along with the Glider Pilot Regiment, was disbanded in 1949, giving way to a new administrative formation called the Glider Pilot and Parachute Corps.
During the 1939-1945 War, the Glider Pilot Regiment had provided the pilots and co-pilots who flew the assault gliders delivering Airborne or Glider Troops to Landing Zones during the airborne assaults mounted in various theatres of war. Like the early paratroopers, they wore the AAC badge on their maroon berets until 1947, when the regiment received a badge of its own.
The AAC was reformed in 1957 from what remained of the Glider Pilot Regiment and the Air Observation squadrons of the Royal Artillery. Using helicopters, the AAC fulfilled various roles except the delivery of airborne or special forces in any number above section or patrol strength. A new AAC badge bearing the Queen’s crown was struck and issued but the reformed AAC no longer wore the maroon beret.
While the Army retained an air assault capacity, it was RAF rather than Army helicopter pilots who flew the helicopters on such missions. Today, just as the Army relies on RAF aeroplanes for parachute training and operations, the Army also relies on the RAF to deliver units trained in air assault or heliborne assault tactics.
The selection in 2016 of the first Army PJIs since the 1939-1945 War from the ranks of PTIs serving with 16th Air Assault Brigade recalled the way things were done in the early days. Army PJIs wear the RAF half-wing or brevet as instituted in 1945 but on khaki backing. Perhaps 16th Air Assault Brigade will resurrect the wartime badge for its Army Parachute Jump Instructors.
The Army PJIs received their own DZ flash, its parachute or ‘lightbulb’ motif evoking those early wartime PJI badges awarded to RAF and Army PJIs alike. Some say that all it needs is the surrounding laurel wreath. Others wonder about the possibility of reviving the first type PJI badge to mark the differences between Army PJIs and RAF PJIs, whose training is not exactly the same, citing the precedent of the Army’s Assistant Parachute Jump Instructor wings.
The April 2017 RAF communiqué quoted then-Brigadier Colin Weir DSO MBE, commanding 16th Air Assault Brigade: “Today is a hugely historic and important day. We are marking the conclusion of the inaugural parachute jump instructor’s course, by the awarding of Army PJI brevets. We were looking for the very best paratroopers in 16th Air Assault Brigade, of the right rank, attitude and instructional ability, to take forward a challenging responsibility. The very best of the Brigade were selected for the course.”.
The communiqué continued: “Until now the Royal Air Force has trained all military parachutists from across defence. The requirement to grow the parachuting capability onto the C-17 Globemaster and A400M Atlas has meant expansion of the parachuting instructor cadre was necessary. Corporal Richard Kingston, 2nd Battalion of The Parachute Regiment and course graduate said: ‘It is a great opportunity for us to come into RAF Brize Norton and start to teach parachuting. It’s a new phenomenon and it’s been great to learn the job.’”.
To be continued…