By Prosper Keating


Rosie Wild earns her place in The Maroon Machine

We do not know who might have said this during the 1939-1945 War but someone decided to make it impossible for women serving with the British Armed Forces to earn the ‘Parachute with wings’, as King’s Regulations –– and, after 1953, Queen’s Regulations –– describe our parachute wings. No written record of the directive has yet come to light.

In September 2020, Captain Rosie Wild of 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery became the first female Br itish Army service person to receive the ‘Parachute with wings’. Captain Wild had previously earned her maroon beret by passing the arduous All Arms P Company selection.

Emailing us from Jordan, where she was participating in the show of strength with 16th Air Assault Brigade, Captain Wild wrote: ” I completed BPC in September 2020 and have jumped C130s twice since then. I’m hoping to go again in France, on exercise with 2 PARA later this year.”.

Helen Simpson: parachute wings just visible

Squadron Leader Helen Simpson, who is Officer Commanding RAF Weston-on-the-Green amongst other things, qualified as the Royal Air Force’s first female NCO Parachute Jump Instructor in June 1999, earning the right to wear the RAF’s PJI brevet.

In 2001, Simpson completed the Special Forces HALO and HAHO course before postings to 9 PARA and 7 RHA as a PJI. In 2011, she was posted to 16th Air Assault Brigade. Simpson recalls: “RAF policy changed in 2012, whilst I was at 16 Brigade, stating that all PJIs who had completed the LLP Course were to wear the wings. 

“I considered this might cause a bit of angst amongst some of the Paras –– and I wasn’t wrong –– so I consulted Colonel Hugo Fletcher and explained the new policy to him and my slight concern at how some Paras might react. 

“Colonel Fletcher basically said something along the lines of  ‘if that’s the RAF policy, then you just go ahead and wear them and if anyone at Colchester has an issue with it, tell them to come and speak to me’. It was all a storm in a teacup really –– nowadays, no-one bats an eyelid.”. 

The regulations describe the ‘Parachute with wings’ as for “qualified parachutists when serving in the airborne role”. The wording is somewhat ambiguous and has led to a belief in some quarters that the wings are exclusively for Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces personnel who have completed P Company before joining ‘the Maroon Machine’. 

There were even those who believed that a man who later served with a non-Airborne unit should remove his wings from his right upper sleeve and wear the ‘Lightbulb’, as the ‘Parachute’ without wings is colloquially known, on his lower left sleeve like other specialist or trade badges. 

Senior British Airborne officers have spoken of the embarrassment they felt when participating in NATO exercises where every other Airborne contingent on the ground had fully integrated female parachutists. These included the French and Belgian armies, which were training female parachutists as long ago, respectively, as the 1930s and the 1970s.

Two decorated female Paras of the French 35th Airborne Artillery Regiment

Rosie Wild and Helen Simpson were not the British Armed Forces’ first female parachutists. Nor were they the first to wear the white parachute with sky blue wings. A number of female Special Operations Executive veterans wore parachute wings on their tunics and Battle Dress after their return from active service in 1944 and 1945. 

A proud Belgian Para-Commando in 1976

They included Nancy Wake GM, Christine Granville GM MBE, Pearl Cornioley MBE and Yvonne de Vibraye Baseden MBE of the SOE’s French Section. Nobody is known to have quoted King’s Regulations at them. In the case of Nancy Wake and Christine Granville, both accomplished killers with knives and bare hands, anyone so doing might have ended up in hospital.

All SOE recruits underwent arduous commando-style selection and training designed, like our P Company, to weed out the weak. They also underwent specialist training in the various SOE Special Training Schools, including demolition and signals courses and, of course, basic parachute training. In England, SOE personnel were sent to No 1 Parachute Training School at RAF Ringway, which is now Manchester International Airport.

The RAF and Army PJIs of No 1 PTS would train some 7,000 male and female irregulars and secret agents amongst the 60,000 soldiers who earned their wings there, most of them exiting through holes cut in the floors of lumbering, cramped Whitley bombers over the nearby drop zone at Tatton Park.

Many trainee parachutists ‘rang the bell’ pushing out through the ‘Whitley Hole’, as it was quickly dubbed, breaking their noses or teeth on the opposite edge of the hole if they got the exit manoeuvre wrong as the slipstream grabbed their legs.

Those readers who recall parachuting from balloons might remember seeing the plates covering the holes in the floor of the cages as they were slowly winched up to 800 feet. These cages dated from the 1939-1945 War. Of course, there was no slipstream effect when slipping through the floor of the balloon cage. In time, better aircraft became available, including the Halifax and, of course, the American C47 Dakota.

The SOE were segregated from Regular Army candidates and billeted in Dunham House, a large Edwardian manor near the aerodrome in Altrincham, designated as Special Training School or STS 51. In time, the SOE would requisition two other large houses near RAF Ringway, including Fulshaw Hall and York House.

No 1 PTS on parade with converted Whitley bombers in the background at RAF Ringway in 1943

Some accounts describe the SOE parachute training establishment as STS 31 or 33 but these designations were actually in a block of numbers assigned to the SOE ‘Finishing Schools’ around Beaulieu House in Hampshire. Fulshaw Hall was known as STS 51b and York House was probably known as STS 51c.

York House was truly top secret as the SOE lodged its anti-Nazi German recruits there, some of whom were recruited from POW camps but that is, as they say, another story. So is the training, before the United States entered the war after the Japanese surprise bombing of the Pearl Harbor naval base in December 1941, of OSS agents attached to the SOE, who included the Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden.

The SOE parachute training courses were run for a time by Canadian Army officer Ray Wooler but the RAF was given overall command of parachute training despite the existence of Army PJIs, a monopoly that the RAF would maintain after the 1939-1945 War.

And so it was that someone in authority whose name is long-lost or hidden in the mists of time decreed that whilst SOE men had to complete  five jumps to qualify as parachutists, thereby earning their wings, SOE women only had to complete four jumps to qualify as parachutists.

Whether intentional or not, it was an effective way of denying parachute wings to women and was a cause of bitter resentment for some SOE women. Several of them, contending entirely reasonably that their fifth jump into enemy-held territory counted as a combat jump, sewed parachute wings to their battle dress and tunics after returning to Britain. 

Nancy Wake GM in FANY uniform in 1945

Many 1st Airborne and 6th Airborne Division paratroopers were sent to war in Italy, France and Holland in 1943 and 1944 without completing the full number of parachute descents required to earn their wings. Their combat jumps entitled them to put their wings up.

There are some who contend that SOE personnel were secret agents rather than soldiers. However, the SOE was very much part of the British Army’s Order of Battle and, thus, very much a military formation even if some recruits came from civilian rather than military backgrounds. SOE nicknames included ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ and ‘The Baker Street Irregulars’.

Male civilian SOE recruits were given General List commissions whilst their female comrades were given commissions in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, known as FANY, in the hope that this status would afford them the protection of The Geneva Convention if captured. It was a vain hope in the light of German Dictator Adolf Hitler’s ‘Commando Order’ of October 18th 1942.

SOE recruits who were already commissioned officers or NCOs in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, the Auxiliary Territorial Service or the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force were given FANY commissions because women were barred from carrying arms or using explosives in the British armed forces. The FANY, as we have seen, was not part of the armed forces.

Hitler’s Kommandobefehl prescribed the summary execution of any Allied commandos or saboteurs captured in North Africa or Europe, even if they surrendered and were in uniform. Those captured under other circumstances in uniform or civilian clothes, were to be handed over to the Sicherheitsdienst for interrogation before execution. Of the 119 male and female F Section operatives who fell into enemy hands, just twenty-three men and three women survived to return home after the war. 

The exploits of the four SOE women I mention merit a separate article and they were just four out of many extremely brave women who knew, as they waited for the green light to flash on over France and other countries, exactly what they could expect from Nazi and collaborationist security forces if they were captured. In the hands of the Sicherheitsdienst‘s local collaborators, interrogations of female agents and partisans often commenced with rape or other forms of sexual assault, overseen by German officers and Senior NCOs.

Yvonne Baseden in WAAF uniform in 1946

Yvonne Baseden was a radio operator. Some speak almost dismissively of SOE radio operators but they had a life expectancy in the field of just six weeks. Baseden remained at large for three months before her capture in June 1944 and survived over two months of maltreatment in the infamous Sicherheitsdienst Neue Bremm interrogation centre without breaking.

Paris-born and raised and half-French, Baseden managed to convince her captors that she was just simple little secretary who had gone on a parachutage recovery with the local Resistance for a lark. 

It was generally accepted that most prisoners in SD hands would break after twenty-four hours or forty-eight hours at most. Baseden stuck to her story and was deported to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück.

Baseden recognised many of her SOE comrades at Ravensbrück but they could not communicate openly for fear of exposing her cover story as false.

Unlike Violette Szabo GC+ and others, Baseden escaped summary execution by the SS when they started liquidating SOE prisoners and other witnesses to their appalling conduct because she was seen as a minor French political prisoner.

In April 1945, under the terms of an agreement reached with Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the Swedish Red Cross began repatriating some 15,000 prisoners from the Nazi gulag. Baseden was lucky enough to be chosen although she was gravely ill with tuberculosis.

After nine months in hospital, Baseden rejoined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, of which she had been an officer before recruitment by the SOE. In studio photographs shot in 1946, she wears parachute wings on her right shoulder as opposed to her chest, in the position reserved for SOE men and those who had done a combat jump. 

Touchingly, Baseden is reported to have remarked that she was not a combatant like her comrades Wake, Granville and Cornioley. Baseden served with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force until 1948. She was probably the last woman to wear parachute wings in British military uniform until Helen Simpson in 2012.

Baseden, by then married, living in England and known as Burney, was not apparently amongst the female SOE veterans to whom the Royal Air Force formally awarded the Parachute with wings in 2006 and 2007, like Pearl Cornioley and Phyllis Latour. However, the French Army awarded Baseden an honorary brevet parachutiste in 2012. 

FANY (PRVC) volunteers with French parachute wings

The French Army also awards the brevet parachutiste to selected FANY (PRVC) women every two years in memory of the SOE-FANY warriors of F Section who jumped into the night over Occupied France knowing what to expect if captured. However, the FANY’s French parachute wings are not honorary awards; each recipient earns them at the French parachute training school at Pau.

FANYs wear their French parachute wings above the lefthand chest pockets of their tunics and smocks, as per foreign parachute badges or wings worn by British armed forces personnel.

The only difference is that British soldiers must be qualified parachutists first before earning foreign parachute wings and badges. In other words, they have passed Basic Parachute Course at No 1 PTS and hold wings or the ‘Lightbulb’, a course barred to British female military personnel until recently.

FANY (PRVC) Commandant Philippa Lorimer MBE said: “In recent times, FANYs have never asked to go to No 1 PTS, so that means they have never been ‘barred’. I cannot envisage that it would ever be appropriate for members of the modern Corps as they are not part of the British Armed Forces –– Regular or Reserves.

“They are in fact all volunteers, in an independent charity, which works closely with the Military, as well as some other civilian organisations, and the Police. We are no longer nurses, combat medics, nor indeed SOE agents! However, all of our members are hugely proud of the history of the Corps, the role and heroism of the female SOE agents, and our strong links to the French Paras.”.

FANY (PRVC) Head of Training Laura Lean –– formerly IC Parachuting –– told us: “I have had the privilege of being awarded my French wings on three separate occasions at ETAP so I am thrilled to see encouragement for more women to join us.”. The École des troupes aéroportées or Airborne Troops School has been training male and female parachutists alike since its establishment in the Pyrenean town of Pau in 1964 and the French Army has been training women as military parachutists since before the 1939-1945 War.

Her brevet parachutiste on show, Laura Lean prepares to emplane with a stick of comrades at ETAP

The award to Cornioley of a Civil MBE was published in The London Gazette on September 4th 1945. Cornioley, whose Military Cross recommendation had been rejected because she was a woman, returned her MBE with a note pointing out that “there was nothing civil about what I did.”.

Cornioley subsequently accepted a Military MBE, later upgraded to the CBE. Paradoxically, had she and some of her comrades been NCOs rather than officers, they would have been eligible for The Military Medal, as it had been awarded to female nurses in the 1914-1918 War.

Writing in 1958, F Section’s former CO, Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, devoted several paragraphs to Cornioley. Buckmaster recalled: “At Romorantin, for instance, four hundred Frenchmen armed with stens and small arms managed to deny the Germans the use of the bridge over the Loire. The group was led by a British girl, Pearl Cornioley, whose maiden name was Witherington.

“ A strong force of Germans were about to cross the river to join up with troops fighting east of Paris. SHAEF gave us the order to divert and hold them off. Pearl was short of trained men, so she armed all the civilians who would help her. She spread them out through the ripening cornfields on the banks of the river. 

“When the Germans came up to the river, a furious fusillade greeted them, apparently from troops occupying pre-arranged defensive positions along the far bank. The Germans approached the bridge, but the massed troops of their enemies drove them back. 

“They faltered and retired [and] moved further up the river to find another crossing place. Most of the other bridges had been blown up and this particular corps never did manage to join the fighting in France. It was only just able to take part in the last battles of the war in Germany. By then, the issue was beyond doubt.”. 

Pearl Cornioley in 1945

This battle, which took place in August 1944, was not the first time that Pearl Witherington, as she then was, had commanded a large unit of the Forces françaises de l’intérieur in the field against massed enemy troops. Nancy Wake GM also commanded Resistance fighters in the field, amongst other hair-raising exploits.

The Polish aristocrat known as Christine Granville GM was, amongst many other exploits, a veteran of the Battle of the Vercors Plateau in July 1944. Several books have been written about Granville, who was Britain’s longest-serving female military intelligence operative in World War Two.

Stranded in London in 1939 after the German invasion of Poland, Countess Maria Krystyna Skarbek was recruited by D section of the Special Intelligence Service or SIS, which was an MI6 organisation. After a severe beating by Hungarian and German secret police during a mission to Budapest in 1941, Skarbek was smuggled out of Hungary in the boot of British Ambassador Owen O’Malley’s car, flying the ambassadorial pennants. O’Malley is said to have suggested Skarbek’s nom de guerre Christine Granville.

‘Granville’ and her fellow SIS agent, the highly-decorated one-legged Polish Lieutenant Andrzej Kowerski , then undertook an epic journey by car through Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, reporting to Middle East Headquarters in Cairo in April 1941. Despite his handicap, Kowerski would later earn his parachute wings with the SOE.

D Section had been taken over by the SOE during Granville’s absence but the SOE officers running the Cairo bureau were wary of Granville and Kowerski. Not unreasonably, they wondered how Granville had obtained transit visas for Vichy French-controlled Syria and Lebanon. Vichy France was, after all, a German ally. The two Poles spent a year assigned to unimportant tasks. This changed with the arrival in Cairo in July 1942 of SOE officer Captain Peter Howarth, who immediately recognised Granville’s value, arranged  a FANY commission and sent her on the usual range of SOE training courses.

Christine Granville GM MBE in 1945

Granville qualified as a parachutist at No 4 Parachute Training School at RAF Ramat David, near the Palestinian port of Haifa. Like SOE women who passed through No 1 PTS at RAF Ringway in England, Granville did just four jumps. 

Emplaning in Algiers on July 7th 1944, Granville jumped into the so-called Free Republic of the Vercors, declared by the Gaullist Resistance after the Normandy landings on June 6th 1944. Infuriated by this act of defiance, the Germans launched a major offensive on July 21st 1944. Some of their units behaved with bestial savagery towards the partisans and the civil population.

Granville was lucky to escape from the Vercors. She then took an extraordinary risk to liberate several Vercors Resistance leaders hours before their certain execution, including fellow SOE officer Francis Cammaerts. Granville walked into the Grenzpolizeikommissariat in Digne-les-Bains and threatened their captors with certain retribution at the hands of the local Resistance or after the arrival of the Allies.

The Grenzpolizei was part of the Gestapo and their Digne HQ also served as the base of the local Milice so Granville was knowingly walking into the lions’ den. She found herself looking into the muzzle of a pistol held by a Belgian renegade named Max Waem, whose official job was listed as ‘interpreter’. Waffen-Untersturmführer der SS Waem was in fact a commissioned Gestapo officer and one of the most notorious Nazi torturers and killers in France.

Such was Granville’s force of character that she managed to scare Waem into agreeing to free the prisoners by convincing him that the local Resistance planned to assassinate him and only she could guarantee his life.

Christine Granville’s funeral cushion in 1952

Nonetheless, Waem and his French Alsatian sidekick Albert Schenk still had enough nerve to demand a bribe of two million French francs. When Granville’s London handlers received the request and learned the reason, they were speechless but they arranged for the cash to be dropped to Granville.

Waem drove Granville and her comrades out of Digne to a quiet spot in the mountains and, it is said, counted the money he had been paid whilst Granville burned his SS uniform. He was said to have been arrested in Belgium soon after the war but his final fate seems unknown.

After the Liberation of France, Granville was given an honorary WAAF commission and posted back to MEHQ in Cairo on half-pay from the SOE. She was put on stand by for other missions, including an operation in Poland but the Red Army overran her country and the operation was cancelled.

Returning to Poland being out of the question since the Red Army had overrun the country, Granville applied for naturalisation as a British subject. When SOE was disbanded in December 1945, Granville found herself without any income and had to take a series of rather menial jobs as the RAF pointed out that her commission was honorary and did not entitle her to any pay.

Granville’s various exploits during the war earned her The George Medal and an Officer’s MBE, normally reserved for Colonels and above. Granville was reluctant to accept these decorations at first as she had been recommended for the Distinguished Service Order, which she saw as a purely military decoration and, thus, more fitting.

However, as in the case of the Military Cross for which Pearl Cornioley was recommended, women were not eligible for the DSO. Granville would eventually accept her GM and MBE under duress in Kenya after the war. The GM was inscribed to ‘Madame Christina Gizycka’, which was her married name although she and her husband had not been a couple for some time.

The GM was inscribed to ‘Madame Christina Gizycka’, which was Countess Skarbek’s married name. Some say this was a subtle put-down by an Establishment peeved by Granville’s lack of interest in and gratitude for her decorations.

It took the Home Office until December 1946 to issue a British passport to Christine Granville. It was said that Winston Churchill felt obliged to intervene with the Home Office to push her application through.

Peace was rather unkind to Granville. Even when she proved popular amongst the passengers whilst working as an ocean liner steward, she was treated as a female Walter Mitty when the Captain ordered the crew to wear their decorations or riband bars in uniform. She was championed by a fellow steward by the name of Dennis Muldowney, who became obsessed with her.

Granville –– said to have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s seminal Bond girl Vesper Lynd in Casino Royal –– survived the war but not the peace. Despite her unarmed combat skills, she was attacked and stabbed to death in London’s Shelbourne Hotel in 1952 by Muldowney, who was hanged for murder. Her murderer is said to have remarked that by killing her, he possessed her but he was deluded. Nobody ever owned Countess Marie-Krystyna Skarbek alias Christine Granville.

The French were training women as parachute medics as early as 1935. Like the FANY, they were civilian volunteers in the Infirmières nPilotes – Sécouristes de l’Air, known as IPSA. IPSA, formed in 1934, was also known as the Aviation Section of the French Red Cross. IPSA parachutists wore a version of the IPSA wings with a parachute. 

Like the Russians, the Germans and the Peruvians, the French were early converts to the possibilities of parachute troops or paratroopers in the 1930s. The Popular Front government in Paris, which embraced Soviet socialist ideals, sent five army officers to Soviet Russia  in 1935 to earn their Red Army Parachute Badges. 

IPSA officer with para wings in Algeria in 1959

On Bastille Day in mid-July 1938, 400 paratroopers of the 601e and 602e Groupes d’Infanterie de l’Air paraded down the Champs-Elysées. It is said that each of the new parachute units had a platoon of IPSA Sécouristes parachutistes at its disposal, who had earned the French Army’s brevet parachutiste as well as the IPSA parachute wings.

The legendary Dr Valérie André, a qualified neurosurgeon who was the first woman promoted to general officer rank in the French armed forces, was a qualified pilot and parachutist when posted as a Medical Captain to Indochina in 1948. Realising how useful helicopters might be for reaching and evacuating wounded soldiers in the jungle, Capitaine André learned to fly a helicopter. 

Valérie André with her military parachute and pilot’s wings

During the Indochina War, André rescued 165 wounded soldiers by helicopter and also parachuted a number of times into combat zones to perform battlefield surgery. She was not the only female parachute medic in Indochina. There were several others. André then flew more than 350 combat evacuation missions during the Algerian War.

IPSA parachute-trained medics served in the Indochina and Algerian Wars in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. So did French Army nurses like Suzanne Counord, a former Resistance fighter who had joined the Regular Army after the 1939-1945 War. 

Counord earned her brevet parachutiste with the 3e Bataillon coloniale de commandos parachutistes or 3 BCCP in Saigon in 1948. Counord jumped into combat with the Battalion, commanded by the legendary Marcel Bigeard. 

Suzanne Counord

After the savage fighting around Langson, Counord was  personally decorated with the Croix de Guerre in Hanoi in 1951 by General de Lattre Tassigny, Commander-in-Chief  of French forces in Indochina.

In 1948, the RAF began to train female members of the Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service or PMRAFNS as ‘Para-Nurses’. The RAF’s press department announced: “The Royal Air Force has begun the training of complete medical teams to drop by parachute to attend casualties not easily reached by ground parties.

“The first of these teams, consisting of one medical officer, four nursing sisters of the Princess Mary’s RAF Nursing Service and four RAF nursing orderlies, are undergoing training at No 1 Parachute and Glider School at Upper Heyford.”.  

This training programme, during which PMRAFNS women jumped with equipment containers  in sticks from Dakota and Hastings aircraft, continued until 1950. Female Para-Nurses participated with male comrades in a demonstration at the Sixtieth Anniversary Royal Tournament at the Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre in London in June 1950. 

PMRAFNS Para-Nurses in 1948

According to some sources, the PMRAFNS Para-Nurses did one jump less than their male comrades to qualify as parachutists. Citing the 3rd National Lockdown, the RAF’s Air Historical Branch was unable to respond to questions about how many jumps the nurses of the PMRAFNS did to qualify as parachutists but none of the photographs of female Para-Nurses show any parachute badges. 

Contacted about this article in July 2021, Squadron Leader George Sizeland MBE, who joined the RAF in 1947 as a direct entry Parachute Jump Instructor and trained the Para-Nurse teams, had “no recollection of these young ladies wearing any parachute badges or wings.”. 

The author recalls a former Army nurse who lived in his street in West London in the 1970s and told him that she had been parachute-trained in India during the 1939-1945 War. She said that she and other Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) nurses were supposed to be dropped into the Burmese jungle to treat wounded Chindits. As far as she knew, none of them had been deployed.

The RAF continued to train female personnel throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including the parachute packers on whose skills and diligence the lives of generations of Airborne soldiers and aircrew depended. One former WRAF parachute packer recalled her ‘parachute course’ in 1961 as consisting of two balloon jumps. 

Women’s Royal Army Corps Corporal Jackie Smith was attached on a part-time basis to the Red Devils Freefall Team in 1971. In 1972, Smith became a full-time member of the Team. The world champion parachutist recalls: “I was the first female worldwide to be on a full-time military team.  I was awarded the privilege of wearing the maroon beret in September 1973 but never received my military wings and neither did I do P Company. My cap badge was WRAC but I was allowed to wear Parachute Regiment lapel badges on my uniform jacket. 

Jackie Smith

“After two training camps in USA with the United States Army Parachute Team, The Golden Knights, where I jumped from C130s over a hundred times, the MoD planned a big PR exercise using me.  It would have promoted the Army, The Parachute Regiment, The RAF and the WRAC. 

“I was sent to RAF Abingdon in 1973 to do my synthetic training with lots of Parachute Regiment men. The plan was for me to do the jumps clean fatigue and the press and TV were involved.

After three days, I was called to the Wing Commander’s office and told that I couldn’t jump from the C130 because there were no female toilets aboard.”. 

By then, Smith had over 500 jumps logged –– although Smith is quick to point out that they were sports rather than military jumps –– including over 100 jumps from US Air Force C130s. Jackie Smith is not bitter about the RAF’s attempts to stop her from parachuting. She laughingly recalls how her teammates used to smuggle her aboard RAF aircraft, her gender concealed by her helmet and goggles, so that she could jump with them.

“The Army gave me every opportunity to experience my love of parachuting and The Parachute Regiment allowed me through the male-only door to join The Red Devils. On my 200th jump, we were presented to Lord Mountbatten, who cupped my hand in his while telling me how wonderful it was to see me land in the arena with the rest of the team. I was overcome with pride! I remain very proud to have had the privilege and so thankful for everything I was able to experience in a time when society was very restrictive, especially to women.”.

Pearl Cornioley in 2006 with Sqn Ldrs Rhys Cowsill (left) and Simon Jarvis (right)

Jackie Smith was barred from earning any military parachute badge but became one of the handful of parachutists awarded The Parachute Regiment’s mythical Golden Lanyard for 1,000 jumps.

Legendary parachutist and world champion Ian Marshall said: “When I joined The Red Devils in 1974, I looked up to Jackie Smith. She was an inspiration to me. Did you know that she holds the Royal Aero Club’s Gold Medal? That puts her up there with Neil Armstrong.”.

When the RAF finally righted the old injustice in 2006 by awarding parachute wings to some of the surviving SOE women, Pearl Cornioley told people that her wings meant more to her than her CBE, her Légion d’Honneur and the other decorations and medals she had received. 

[The PRA wishes to thank Lt Col Justin Tancrel and Lt Col David Lord of 16th Air Assault Brigade; Captain Rosie Wild of 7 Parachute Regiment RHA; Sqn Ldr Helen Simpson; Sqn Ldr George Sizeland; Commander Philippa Lorimer MBE of the FANY (PRVC); Laura Lean of FANY (PRVC); Jackie Smith; Ian Marshall]