The digital magazine of The Parachute Regimental Association

Messenger of The Gods British Parachute Wings Pin Badge

THE KIEL CANAL DISASTER — Part 2

  • Posted on 19 Feb 2024
  • 20 min read

By Geoff Butler

[Editorial Foreword: the Kiel Canal disaster claimed the lives of five men serving with 15 PARA (V) and one man from 4 PARA (V). Geoff Butler, who has contributed this article to Hermes, was a young soldier with 2 PARA when he took part in the disastrous jump.

Geoff, who brings to bear his later experience as a Justice of the Peace for fifteen years, needs no introduction in British Airborne circles. However, some readers might not be familiar with the incident in question, hence this editorial introduction.]

Kiel Canal Follow Up by Geoff Butler

Following my original article on the Kiel Canal disaster of 1974, further feedback and information came to light making it seem the RAF have a lot to answer for in the choice of this DZ surrounded by forest, buildings and power lines with two canals north and south of the DZ. The canal to the north was the Keil Canal, the biggest, busiest and deepest shipping canal in Europe. Big ships were passing at the time.

Thank you to all those who contacted me describing the problems they had. I was unaware of the problems of the first jump involving  16th Parachute Brigade as our C130 had to go back to RAF Lyneham after someone fell over in the stick and we could not jump.

Not much was said about the 2 PARA drop after. There was clearly a wind problem and temperature inversion was a known problem in this area. Judging by the reports I got from guys on the first drop, these problems were evident when they jumped.

Many of the guys on the 16th Para Bde drop have stated that they were blown away from the DZ and landed in the trees; a crane had to be called to get some of them out of the trees, which took hours. Others were rescued by helicopters and fire brigade ladders.

The local power lines were live during the drop. Surely there must have been a better DZ not far away?  Germany is a big country and the RAF must have had other potential — and safer — DZs to choose from.

Other, more serious things that later came to light were not mentioned or were blacked out in the pages of the RAF report and, of course, could not be reviewed. I was sent a West German police report on the whole incident that contradicted the RAF report in places.

For example: the RAF report states that there was no evidence of rescue boats held up in the canal by passing shipping. The German Police report says otherwise, that the rescue boats were held up that that one guy had drowned by the time they could reach him.

Francis Boyle (left), then of 15 PARA, received the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for his rescue from the canal of Ptes Heaton (4 PARA) and Spence (15 PARA). Frank Boyle QGM is pictured here with fellow Corporal Tommy Barney in the 1980s when he was serving with 4 PARA (Para Data)

The Kiel Canal Authority stated they had not received a request to stop the shipping on the night of the drop but had in any case advised the German Army that shipping could not be held up as the canal was classified as international waters.

The Kiel Canal Authority said that shipping already passing through the canal could not be stopped just like that as to do so would pose a danger to these ships. The authority added that the drop was not planned to go into the canal but onto a DZ away from the bank.

On the night of the drop, the Kiel Canal Authority claimed that they had no knowledge of the parachute drop taking place until passing ships reported men, parachutes and vehicles dropping into the water.

Clearly, prior to the drop, rescue boats were out on the canal and even the fire brigade turned up yet the Kiel Canal Authority seemed to suspect nothing out of the ordinary; this seems strange given the presence of the emergency services.

What is certain is that somewhere in the system, between the British Army, the RAF, the German Army, the German emergency services and the Kiel Canal Authority, a breakdown of communications had occurred. Either that, or someone ignored the warnings.

Since my article was published by Hermes, I have been contacted by various people, including some former Guards Independent Company (GIC) paratroopers who were tasked with marking out the DZ for the approaching aircraft.

They said that they had difficulty in placing the markers. The grid reference for one of these markers was in the middle of the woods and would not have been seen by the aircrews. The GIC DZ party did their best to move the markers to better positions.

The Guards Paras reported this before the drop. The RAF report found that although the marking was wrong, it had no bearing on the deaths of personnel as the undetected temperature inversion and the resulting winds below the aircraft were to blame.

This is in the RAF report but with passages blocked out and thus unreadable. The GIC DZ party did not stop the personnel drop as it was dark and they were unaware that men were dropping into the canal.

Some paratroopers landed well short of the DZ, some by 180 yards, others 800 yards short. Fifteen went into the water, of whom nine were rescued and survived. I myself landed well away from the DZ and near the canal and I was last man in the stick.

Map showing my exit and landing points and positions of platforms and area where men went into the canal or the forest

I was Number 23 Port Stick, which raises the question of where the guys jumping before me landed. When the heavy drop came in, I witnessed some of the vehicles and loads landing amongst the paratroopers on the DZ. The DZ safety officers were firing red flares to stop the drop. Some aircrews ignored the flares and dropped their loads.

Some of these loads went into the forest. One landed on the north side of the canal. Some went into the water and others hit the power lines, knocking out the lighting along the banks of the canal.

There were petrol shortages in the UK at this time. The government had also imposed defence spending cuts on the armed forces. This resulted in training cuts, which raises questions regarding the tactical efficiency of the RAF pilots dropping our guys.

I remember having to march everywhere as our trucks had no fuel so the RAF must have had flight time cancelled. So some pilots may not have enough hours and not enough practice as factors that may or may not be a causative factor in this drop.

Did the C130 pilots, some of them newly qualified, have enough flying hours logged to remain competent? Had they flown regular night flights in the tight formation used in JATFOR — Joint Airborne Task Force — operations and exercises?

Some of these pilots were asked why they had dropped after seeing the red flares. They replied that the flares were green. I was on the ground and saw no green flares. The DZ party did not fire green flares. They fired red flares. We, the guys on the ground, saw them.

Psychologically you would have to  think if you abort your drop and cause others to do so and your wrong you will be blamed — with career implications. How can a pilot misread a red flare for a green ?

My informant fired the flares when he saw heavy drop going onto the guys on the ground . I saw this bit as I had landed. I saw the flares and they were red. I saw rigs landing everywhere but on the DZ. Very dangerous.  

A sketch drawing from the German Police Report shows where the canal area affected is in the incident, Note the Heavy Drop in the forest north of the canal and where the guys were pulled out on the south bank  and a rig on the personnel DZ.

One of the pathfinders on the DZ believes that the pilots failed to line up correctly and they probably missed an offset marker beacon positioned further back on the approach run. So their run-in time and course were wrong for release. They dropped short.

This study of the disaster places a lot of responsibility on the pilots and their aircrews. Were pilots reluctant to abort their drops in case they made a mistake that might affect their careers? Plenty of questions go unanswered in relation to this exercise.

After the drop, some pilots diverted to an airfield twelve miles away and recorded strong winds below 700 feet on their final approaches, which lessened in force near the ground. Many paratroopers recalled their drift ceasing in speed as they came in to land.

The RAF, with millions of hours of flying experience, should have known that in areas known for temperature inversions, the only valid weather reports are those made at the time of a parachute drop rather than the out-of-date reports to which they referred in this case.

With the wind changing every few minutes, weather reports that are hours old are useless. Given this and the hazards on the ground, the drops should have been cancelled. The release point markers were wrongly placed. The release point calculations were wrong.

Furthermore, any aircraft accelerating to climb above jump height to get out of dirty air over the DZ would increase the parachutists’ drift speed and distance, making an already bad situation worse.

The men killed and injured in this parachute exercise never had any chance of getting down safely. The DZ was unsafe to begin with and there was no proper risk assessment carried out.

This extra approach marker beacon turned out to be exactly the same distance as the undershoot for the drop so the aircrews may have started their stopwatches too early and, as a result, lit the green lights too early. The head and cross winds made matters worse.

The blame lies largely with the senior officers involved in the planning of this exercise rather than the aircrews and the DZ marking and safety parties. The German authorities were surprised that one of these staff officers faced criminal charges afterwards.

Kiel Canal report: censored to this day

The RAF covered up evidence. Statements were excluded from their Report. Pages from the Report are blacked out or missing. This in itself speaks volumes. What does the RAF not want people to see and why?

Yes the RAF are covering something up the evidence is in their own report where statements are not included, report pages missing or blacked out speaks volumes. What do they not want people to see and why?

You might also like…

Army PJIs Over Normandy

By Prosper Keating For any spectator, the sight and sound of a flight of wartime C47…

  • Posted on 20 Jun 2024
  • 19 min read

Whisper Who Dares — Part 1

By Jock Love [The Airborne Poet Jock Love, detached from 4th Field Regiment Royal Artillery, to A…

  • Posted on 17 Jun 2024
  • 14 min read