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Army PJIs Over Normandy

  • Posted on 20 Jun 2024
  • 21 min read

By Prosper Keating

For any spectator, the sight and sound of a flight of wartime C47 Dakota troop transport aircraft in 1944 invasion livery thundering overhead in formation at less than a thousand feet is thrilling. The spectacle of sticks of parachutists in WW2-era kit jumping from those Dakotas is the cherry on the cake.

One Frenchman, watching the jumps onto the old DZ-K just south of the Norman village of Sannerville with his teenage daughters, said: “It is better than the parachuting scene in A Bridge Too Far!”. “It brings it alive for us.”, said one of his girls.

About to emplane with the Pegasus Display Team: Army PJIs in working dress with the Parachute Training Support Unit DZ flash proudly displayed — Photo courtesy of PTSU

Members of the Pegasus Display Team (PDT), including four serving Army PJIs and their OC from the Parachute Training Support Unit at RAF Brize Norton, were jumping from the wartime Douglas C47 Skytrain Placid Lassie, flown over from the United States to participate in the Normandy80 commemorations.

Flying the flags: Army PJIs from 16th Air Assault Brigade on the Sannerville DZ with a Pegasus Display Team instructor. The APJIs include PTSU OC Major Perlaki, Corporals Hutton, Fitzpatrick, Saliba and Bombardier Mariner — © Terry Guildford

Known in British parlance as the DC3 Dakota, the 2,400 horsepower C47 had become the transport aircraft most used by British and Commonwealth Airborne Forces by 1944. Placid Lassie, maintained by the Tunison Foundation in the United States, is herself a very original D-Day veteran. After the Normandy invasion, Placid Lassie flew missions over western Europe until the end of the war. These aircraft consume a hundred gallons of Aviation Gasoline per hour, making heritage jumps an expensive activity for a self-funding team like PDT.

The French management of the Normandy80 events was beset by various problems rooted in security concerns arising from the attendence of so many VIPs. PDT was originally cleared to follow 16th Air Assault Brigade’s aircraft to the Sannerville DZ on June 5th  in Night Fright, another D-Day veteran C47, but the best-laid plans of mice and men can go pear-shaped. Night Fright was unable to participate for UK-related administrative reasons.

This jump — PDT’s Plan B — was made possible by Pathfinder UK (PFUK), a round canopy or military-style parachuting club set up by former 1 PARA NCO Roy Mobsby. There are significant differences between PDT and PFUK. While the management and many members of PFUK are bona fide Airborne veterans from Britain and friendly nations, the club accepts members who have not served.

Aboard Placid Lassie: Pegasus Display Team and Pathfinder UK members — Photo courtesy of PTSU

PDT membership, on the other hand, is far more restrictive. Those who are selected must have passed P Company or SAS Selection, followed by the Basic Parachute Course at Parachute Training School N° 1  — or Airborne Delivery Wing (ADW) as it is now known — at RAF Brize Norton. For safety reasons, PDT members must also have at least a hundred military jumps logged. In short, PFUK is a club whereas PDT is a self-funding serving and retired Airborne soldiers’ professional display team.

Ian Marshall in Sannerville with Captain William Giddings, Aide-de-camp to the Colonel Commandant of The Parachute Regiment — ©Melanie Horne

The Pegasus Display Team was set up in 2017 by Ian Marshall and Mark Briggs. Ian served with 2 PARA and the Red Devils and, with over 12,500 jumps logged, is probably the most experienced and qualified military parachutist in the UK. Mark, who is a former 3 PARA and Airborne Forces soldier, is a Chartered Health and Safety consultant who, amongst other things, works with film and television production houses. Mark has also recently drafted parachuting guidelines for the Health and Safety Executive under whose remit civilian and military parachuting in the UK falls.

While PFUK members jump almost exclusively in high quality replica WW2 kit — bar the parachutes! — not all members of Pegasus do so because the Team includes serving paratroopers in its ranks, like the Army Parachute Jump Instructors and their OC of the Parachute Training Support Unit (PTSU) at Brize Norton. PDT Co-Founder Ian Marshall told Hermes: “It was a great pleasure to observe the delighted reaction and thrill of the Airborne veterans to learn that serving Paratroopers, APJIs from PTSU were going to be joining the Team.”.

The APJIs jumped on DZ-K in their current issue working dress, proudly displaying the APJI DZ flash that, along with their maroon berets, marks them out from their RAF PJI colleagues at Brize Norton. Their Sannerville outing was made possible by Lieutenant Colonel Justin Tancrel of 16th Airborne Assault Brigade, who had them released from other duties.

Quiet reflection: Lieutenant General Andrew Harrison DSO MBE, Colonel Commandant of The Parachute Regiment, in the Sannerville war cemetery — ©Melanie Horne

DZ-K was one of the four drop zones marked out for the British 6th Airborne Division as part of the Allied invasion force on D-Day in June 1944. As students of British Airborne history will know, it was the 8th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, which landed there by parachute and glider just after midnight on June 5th. After securing the RV against light opposition from German forces, with one enemy soldier killed and another captured, the Battalion split up and moved off around 0400 hrs towards its objectives.

Lt Col Alistair Pearson, CO of the 8th (Parachute) Bn during a training drop in England

The locally-based Germans put up a stiff resistance and Sannerville itself was not liberated until July 18th 1944, by which time Allied bombing had reduced it to smouldering ruins. The relative absence of pre-1945 buildings provides a stark testament to the suffering of ordinary French people during the Liberation of 1944.

Of course, there are differences between those providing a living memorial to the British paratroopers of the Second World War and the wartime paratroopers whom they honour. They wear reserve parachutes, unlike the men of 1944. They use modern military parachutes that resemble — to the public eye — the old round Irvin ‘chutes familiar to British paratroopers from the 1940s to the 1990s. They also jump without weapons and equipment and nobody is shooting at them.

The APJIs of PTSU and PDT recently co-hosted the visit to Brize Norton of an American CBS news crew whose reporters had earned their NATO-approved Dutch B Wings in Holland under British instructors from Pegasus and Pathfinder, permitting them to jump from wartime Dakotas as part of their wider Normandy80 reportage. The Special Air Service had also played its part, welcoming the CBS men to one of its locations for parachute ground training lessons given by ex-SAS members of the Pegasus Display Team.

Placid Lassie drops members of the Pegasus Display Team, including five serving Army PJIs, over Drop Zone-K near the Norman village of Sannerville as part of the Normandy80 commemorations — ©Melanie Horne

Returning from the DZ to the gymnasium in Troarn where the French lodged their visitors from PFUK and PDT, the young but highly experienced Army PJIs were touchingly excited  about their jump as part of a stick from a wartime Dakota. They shall not mind if I tell you that they were like kids who had just been allowed the run of the best sweet shop in town.

Mark Briggs  said: “I suppose, as we jump the C47 Dakota on a regular basis, it becomes the norm and you tend to lose that great sense of excitement to some extent. As I walked off the drop zone, I couldn’t help but smile at the comments from the APJIs: ‘That was mega!’, ‘I can’t believe how soft the land was!’ and ‘Wow, I could have stood that up!’, to quote just a few. One thing is for sure: one small group of paratroopers had just gained some bragging rights.”. 

Under Mark Briggs’ supervision, the Army PJIs  familiarise themselves with the MC1-1C — © Melanie Horne

The APJIs were also very impressed by the parachutes they had used.  Mark Briggs said: “There is a great breadth and depth of talent, knowledge and experience in the PDT but I have to admit it was a little profound taking the APJIs, an elite within an elite, through their paces; Ian Marshall, of course, was in his element.

“The guys spent several hours being briefed by various members of the Team on the MC1-1C. The parachute system has a large steerable canopy, with a much slower decent rate of 14ft per second as opposed to the LLP’s 17ft per second. The T10/11 harness also differs from the LLP: having multiple adjustments points, it must be fitted to the individual jumper. 

PDT Jump Master Ian Marshall in the door of Placid Lassie over DZ-K — © René van Eck via Ian Marshall

“Finally, we briefed and practiced the AJPIs on the C47 Dakota aircraft drills. The hooking-up system is slightly different and requires a unique set of checks. Also, unlike in the military, the aircraft light warning system — red on, green on — is utilised differently. The lights are for the senior jumpmaster only, not the jumpers. The parachutists exit the aircraft on the command of the Jump Master.”.

The APJIs flew a Parachute Regiment flag on the way down, which was quite an achievement during a low level static line jump. Mark Briggs said: “The Team has been  preparing for engagements later this year and intend to conduct trials with various flags and smoke. Of course,  I wasn’t short of volunteers when I asked the APJIs if anyone wanted to jump the Parachute Regiment flag over Sannerville!“.

The Pegasus Display Team’s new members are already looking forward to jumping with the Team for Arnhem80 later this year and PTSU has been offered Jump Master introductory training with the Pegasus Display Team at the MAB or Special Forces location used by the Team, whose members include several SAS veterans.

Army PJIs from 16th Air Assault Brigade fitting their parachutes before the Sannerville jump under the supervision of Pegasus Display Team founders and instructors Ian Marshall and Mark Briggs — ©Melanie Horne
Pegasus members landing on DZ-K eighty years after D-Day — Photo courtesy PTSU

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