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AMERICAN NEWSMEN VISIT THE ARMY PJIs…

  • Posted on 20 May 2024
  • 34 min read

The Army Parachute Jump Instructors (APJIs) of the Parachute Training Support Unit (PTSU) at RAF Brize Norton and the Pegasus Display Team (PDT) recently co-hosted a visit by the leading American broadcaster CBS.

The visit was made possible by Lieutenant Colonel Justin Tancrel of 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team (16 AA BCT) — currently on loan to Army Headquarters — and Squadron Leader Kirk Evans, Chief of Staff of the RAF’s Airborne Delivery Wing (ADW), headquartered at Brize Norton.

The visit took place during the ground training stage of BPC 1334, which includes soldiers from The Parachute Regiment, 16 AA BCT and wider Airborne Forces, including Gurkhas, and some Royal Marine Commandos.

The visitors were warmly received by Major Nick Perlaki, PTSU OC, and WO2 Jon ‘Mac’ McMahon. The Army PJIs — under PTSU’s command but working with the ADW — were just as welcoming. So was Stacey Evans, RAF Brize Norton’s Media and Communications Officer, who gave us all useful security-related advice about photographs.

Major Nick Perlaki (centre) with Ian Marshall (left) and Mark Briggs (right)

Major Perlaki told Hermes: “It was a great opportunity to host the CBS News team at the parachuting school for the day.  All credit to the Pegasus Display Team for their efforts in facilitating Charlie D’Agata’s jump into Normandy to commemorate those members of the Allied Airborne forces who led the way eighty years ago.”

The CBS reporters’ visit was part of a wider Normandy80-related reportage project focusing on the critical role of British Airborne Forces during the D-Day landings on June 5th and 6th 1944.

Army PJIs Sgt William Stacey (left) and WO2 Jon McMahon chatting with CBS cameraman and Jim Wilson of PDT

CBS’ award-winning foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata, currently based in London, recently earned his NATO-approved Dutch B Wings in Holland with Ian Marshall of the Pegasus Display Team and Roy Mobsby of the Pathfinder Club, both of whom are Parachute Regiment veterans.

CBS’ Charlie D’Agata (right) receives his NATO-approved Dutch B Wings from Roy Mobsby

Prior to his parachute training in Holland, D’Agata attended ground training with the PDT — some of whose members are SAS veterans — at a MAB location in England. SAS officers who came along expressed their pleasure at the involvement of the SAS in the CBS project.

It is inevitable that Charlie D’Agata’s acquisition of parachute wings be compared to that of the iconic CBS newsman and war reporter Walter Cronkite. Although he did not join CBS until 1950, Cronkite earned his US Army Parachute Wings with the intention of jumping with the 101st Airborne Division on Operation Market Garden in Holland in September 1944. Cronkite was working for United Press at the time.

Assigned to an assault glider, Cronkite did not actually parachute into action but it required no less courage to climb aboard that glider. Cronkite wrote of the landing in Holland in his 1997 memoir A Reporter’s Life: “The plane did a half flip, the dirt came pouring in, our helmets went flying off. I was with a headquarters company of about fourteen men. We dug ourselves out of the dirt. I grabbed a helmet and slapped it on my head. There was some enemy fire. Gliders collided overhead, spilling their guns and human cargo around us.”.

Walter Cronkite in WW2 before earning his parachute wings

Interviewed years later about his wartime experiences, Cronkite remarked: “Personally, I feel I was an overweening coward in the war. I was scared to death all the time. I did everything possible to avoid getting into combat. Except the ultimate thing of not doing it. I did it. But the truth is that I did everything only once. It didn’t take any great courage to do it once. If you go back and do it a second time; knowing how bad it is, that’s courage.”.

If the CBS News project goes according to plan, D’Agata’s NATO-approved Dutch wings will enable him to jump onto Sannerville DZ —one of the British D-Day drop zones — with the PDT as their special guest.

PDT will follow 16AA BCTs aircraft in the wartime C47 Dakota Night Fright with CBS News cameramen and onto the DZ to record this extraordinary American tribute to the British Airborne Forces who participated in Operation Overlord eighty years ago. Night Fright’s owner and pilot Charlie Walker was recently appointed an associate member of PDT.

How we used to do it: CBS and PDT visitors are introduced to the ‘museum corner’.

Founded in 2017 by Ian Marshall, a Golden Lanyard holder who served with 2 PARA, Pathfinder Platoon and the Red Devils and has 12,500 jumps logged, and Mark Briggs, ex-3 PARA and Airborne Forces, the Pegasus Display Team was formed to carry out heritage parachute jumps commemorating operations in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War Two.

CBS films BPC 1334 with Mark Briggs and Ian Marshall of PDT looking on

Ian Marshall remarks: “Our team consists exclusively of self-funding Parachute Regiment, Airborne Forces and SAS veterans but is open to serving paratroopers too.”. Indeed, several of the Army Parachute Jump Instructors including Major Perlaki and WO2 McMahon intend to accompany Charlie D’Agata and the Pegasus Display Team out of Night Fright over the Sannerville DZ in Normandy to commemorate the British parachute drops on June 5th and 6th  1944.

The team’s membership criteria stipulate that members must have passed P Company or SAS Selection, the Basic Parachute Course and then accumulated at least a hundred military jumps. Traumatised combat veterans who have joined PDT say that the rediscovered sense of comradeship and belonging has given them back a lost sense of purpose.

Ian Marshall (left) briefs members of PDT: Parachute Regiment, SAS and Airborne Forces to a man

Some of the veterans go as far as saying that working with PDT saved their lives. In this sense, PDT Is similar to the Airborne Forces Riders motorcycle club, which recently came a branch of The Parachute Regimental Association.

Mark Briggs says: “Some people say we’re elitist but let’s face it: anyone with the requisite qualities can pass P Company or Selection. Then they can join the Pegasus Display Team once they have a hundred jumps. We’re open to retired and serving paratroopers. We even have a few members from other NATO and Commonwealth Airborne Forces. But the core of Pegasus is British Airborne through and through.”.

1st Type PJI Badge 1941-1944

The reintroduction of Army PJIs alongside RAF PJIs was the subject of an earlier Hermes article entitled Army PJIs Since 1940. The DZ flash worn on the righthand shoulders of their jump smocks evokes the wartime PJI badge worn by instructors from both branches before the introduction by the RAF in 1945 of the half-wing design, which was based on the RAF’s aircrew badges rather than traditional trade or specialist badges.

By this late stage of the war, the Army PJIs had been posted to combat units, unlike their RAF colleagues who were — and still are — non-combatants, and many had been killed or wounded in action. Lieutenant Peter Warr is a good example.

Peter Warr — Army PJI

Sent with two other PJIs from N° 1 Parachute Training School at Ringway to the SAS parachute training facility at Kabrit in November 1941, Warr was eventually recruited as a company commander by the CO of the 10th (Parachute) Battalion. By then promoted Major, Warr was wounded and taken prisoner near Arnhem in September 1944.

No Army PJIs are known to have been in that role by mid-1945 and none is known to have received the new RAF-style half-wing version of the PJI badge. When the first Army PJIs since WW2 arrived at RAF Brize Norton from 16th Air Assault Brigade in 2017, they were awarded a khaki-backed version of the RAF half-wing upon completion of the instructor course.

­The British Army recently revealed plans to establish a cohort of thirteen permanent APJI posts. Until now, there have been just seven APJIs on strength in what one senior officer described as “black economy posts”, borrowed from various Airborne units. Army Command is seeking to make the role into a proper career stream.

This will give the individual APJI more time in this specialised role as well as freeing up RAF PJIs to concentrate on training special forces in free fall parachuting whilst their Army colleagues focus on getting Airborne soldiers through the Basic Parachuting Course, which has in recent years been reduced to four clean fatigue descents from civilian-contracted Skyvan aircraft.

The Skyvan in flight

A young RAF officer from Airborne Delivery Wing said: “The Skyvan aircraft from which BPC students drop during parachute training at RAF Brize Norton are contracted from Canadian civilian operators Summit Air by the RAF.

“The Skyvan can accommodate seven parachute jumpers at a time and students will qualify for the British Parachute Wings. At some point in the near future, the A400M Atlas transport aircraft will be used to qualify students as Combat Ready or ‘CR’. The A400M will be able to drop SIM-Stick 46, meaning ninety-two paratroopers through the port and starboard doors.

“Until LLP is cleared on the A400M, all newly-badged paratroopers have to convert to A400M when opportunities present themselves. The only problem at the moment is that it takes around eight kilometres to drop the same number of paratroopers who were able to land on a two-kilometre drop zone when jumping from the old C130 Hercules. This is where Project Hermes comes in.”.

Lt Col Justin Tancrel — Finding solutions for Airborne Forces

Lt Col Tancrel, whose career includes nine years with 2 PARA, has been involved in Project Hermes since its inception in 2020, just before the Integrated Review of March 2021 confirmed that the C130J Hercules would be retired.

The Lieutenant Colonel told Hermes: “Once Project Hermes enters service in 2026, Defence will benefit hugely from having a dedicated military sim-stick-capable aircraft that will deliver Basic Para Courses and currency training for the whole Airborne Forces community.

“Project Hermes will offer better training resilience and improved parachuting safety and competency by affording more access to jumps. It will also serve to free-up A400M task lines from the more rudimentary training serials in the same way Skyvan does now, but with greater capacity and with port and starboard exits to promote better muscle-memory side door drills. Essentially, it will compliment an excellent transition to A400M.”.     

There are, of course, those who contend that parachuting has no place in a modern army. One of the main objections to parachuting is the cost. It is said to cost around £40,000 all-told to put a soldier through BPC.

Ian Marshall remarked: “The RAF’s Basic Parachuting Course now consists of just four jumps in clean fatigue. We used to do twice that with equipment and a night jump to earn our wings. Charlie D’Agata did five clean fatigue jumps to earn his NATO-level Dutch B Wings.

Army and RAF PJIs with Pegasus Display Team members at RAF Brize Norton in April 2024

“The main difference is that Charlie’s course, with the pre-jump training at the MAB location, courtesy of the former SAS members of the Pegasus Display Team, cost around a tenth or less of the price the RAF charges for getting one British paratrooper through BPC.

“But even at forty grand a pop, the fifty million quid or taxpayers’ money the RAF gets each year for training paratroopers should be enough to form over a thousand paratroopers a year. There seems to be an accounting problem.”.

Two Gurkha soldiers with their RAF PJI — RAF and Army PJIs work closely together on the ground

Some opponents of Airborne Forces concede, grudgingly, that Special Forces soldiers like the SAS are an exception and should be parachute-trained but that delivery of any unit above brick or section size by the static line SIM stick method, even with the advances in low-opening parachutes, is obsolescent.

Helicopter assaults are the way to go, they say. However, helicopters and their passengers are very vulnerable on hot landing zones or in enemy-dominated territory as, for instance, the US Army found to its cost in Vietnam when the 101st Airborne Division, for instance, became heliborne. There are combat veterans who feel that a one-armed partisan with cataracts could probably knock a Chinook down with a rusty RPG7.

10 PARA carrying out helicopter drills as Soviet SF on Op Lionheart in 1984: sitting ducks?

On Operation Lionheart in 1984, the author and his comrades, having already debussed from a USAF Chinook to take and hold a bridge in West Germany for approaching ‘Orange’ Force troops, watched in horror as the second Chinook disgorged the other half of the assault force some thirty feet above the ground. Some fool had yelled ‘Go!’ too early.

This is another drawback of airlanding in helicopters. It might have been better to jump the Chinooks but that would have cost too much. Those capable of tabbing afterwards joined in the capture of the bridge, which was unopposed as the USAF had delivered us to the wrong town.

Army PJIs and CBS cameraman take a lunch break

The mass-jumps of World War Two were often costly in terms of casualties and equipment. The German losses on Crete in 1941 led Hitler to ban large-scale parachute operations. From then on, the German Fallschirmjäger confined themselves to smaller-scale operations recalling their successful capture of bridges, airfields and strongpoints in Holland, Belgium and Norway in May 1940.

The parachute and gliderborne capture of airfields permitted the Germans to airland regular troops. Airlanding was also used by British and American forces, one of the larger such operations being the 2nd Chindit Expedition in Burma in March 1944.

The Germans did mount a few notable parachute operations later in the war, like the capture of the island of Leros in November 1943, but the large-scale assaults as in the Low Countries and Crete were a thing of the past.

Arnhem was almost as costly to the British as Crete was to the Germans. However, the Anglo-French Suez operation in 1956 was a good example of how Airborne Forces can and should be used. 668 men of 3 PARA dropped on and captured the El Gamil airfield under fire. The operation took under thirty minutes. The failure of the Suez intervention was political rather than military. Washington barked and London flinched.

El Gamil: Lt Col Crooks of 3 PARA and his signaller make for the control tower

The Indian Army dropped its 2nd Parachute Battalion to secure a bridge and ferry crossing over the River Loajang near Tangali during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. An entire Pakistani Army infantry brigade was cut off on the wrong side of the river.

Another example is the Kolwezi rescue mission mounted in 1978 by French and Belgian parachute forces. More recently, 1,000 paratroopers of the US Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade carried out a combat jump in Iraq in 2003.

The recent crisis in Sudan in May 2023 saw the British Army just hours away from conducting the first battalion drop in almost seventy years. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had approved the operation, codenamed Polar Bear.

Lt Col Tancrel told Hermes: “The plan was to secure a runway to facilitate the evacuation of 1,200 foreign nationals, including from the US, Ireland, Netherlands, Canada, Germany, and Australia. As it turned out, successful last-minute diplomacy afforded access to an airfield to allow evacuation by air.

A young Gurkha on the way to earning his parachute wings

“So it is important that the UK retains an airdrop capability to fulfil a wide spectrum of missions, at reach, whether it’s to seize an objective, to secure a denied, damaged or obstructed runway, or to conduct evacuation, delivery of aid or relief or to reinforce by air.  This capability imperative hasn’t changed in eight decades and must be properly supported- and funded.”.

But we are here to honour the paratroopers of 1944 rather than arguing the case in an increasingly dangerous world not just for our surviving parachute units but for the return of at least one reserve parachute battalion and we wish Godspeed to those taking part in the commemorative jumps to mark Normandy80.

We thank CBS for remembering the British paratroopers who jumped into Normandy and we wish Charlie D’Agata and the Pegasus Display Team members accompanying him into the slipstream from Night Fright happy landings.

W02 Jon ‘Mac’ Mahon and PDT’s Mark Briggs chatting about parachuting
Dummy C130 fuselage gathering dust

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