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The Kiel Canal Disaster 1974

  • Posted on 01 Feb 2024
  • 54 min read

BY GEOFF BUTLER

EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION

The Kiel Canal accident on September 11th, 1974 is one of the many tragic events punctuating Parachute Regiment and British Airborne Forces history. The 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.

Elements of the three Territorial Army Parachute Regiment Battalions had been chosen to take part in the largest airborne operation of the year as part of 16th Parachute Brigade Group on Exercise Bold Guard, a NATO enterprise involving British, German and Danish armed forces. In total, the exercise involved thirty-five C130 Hercules aircraft dropping 540 paratroopers and twenty-six heavy loads in two waves onto a DZ whose northern perimeter was the busy shipping canal connecting the Baltic and the North Seas between Keil and Brunsbüttel. To the south lay the smaller buy no less dangerous Eider canal.

These men from 4, 10 and 15 PARA were part of the second wave, 2 PARA having jumped the previous day on September 10th. Some 2 PARA soldiers like Geoff Butler, who had been unable to jump with the first wave, emplaned with the Territorial paratroopers. Fifteen soldiers and several heavy load platforms landed in the canal which is eleven metres deep and between 103 and 162 metres wide. A further casualty of the disaster was the German Army officer on safety duty that night, who committed suicide. He blamed himself when, in fact, he was entirely blameless.

Persistent rumours have circulated for decades, alleging a cover-up conspiracy by senior RAF officers and MOD officials. Some have asked why it was deemed necessary to mark out a drop zone so close to the Kiel and Eider Canals for a peacetime exercise but military exercises often involve some risk. Was it a reckless command decision? The first wave the previous day had jumped in daylight. The second wave was a night drop initially scheduled for 0400 hours the following morning but postponed to 2000 hours because of bad weather.

Airborne medics from 23 PFA beside the Kiel Canal on the morning of 10.9.1974 before the first wave dropped

The above photograph was obtained by Hermes after the publication of Geoff Butler’s article from 23 Parachute Field Ambulance veteran Roger Simpson, who jumped at 0440 hours on September 10th, before the first of the two waves. Roger Simpson recalled: “At 0445 hrs (L) on Tuesday, 10th of September 1974, I was 21 Port Stick on a C130, parachuting near the Kiel Canal in Northern Germany on Exercise Bold Guard.

“This photo was taken by myself of our Parachute Clearing Troop, once we had finally reformed, alongside the canal on the afternoon prior to the fateful Brigade jump that night. I remember that jump well. I had a heavy CSPEP container strapped to my leg, had twists on exit and, to make my day, I landed in a tree like many others on that drop, where I spent over four hours before getting winched out by German military helicopter.

“The Section Sergeant, Ken Williams, on the left of the group in my photograph, had also spent four hours in a tree next to me. He was 21 Port stick on the same aircraft as me. We were part of a Parachute Clearing Troop of 23 Para Field Ambulance and we had jumped in to provide DZ medical cover the next night for the main air assault. There has been much debate as to the reason for the disaster on that jump which resulted in many paras landing in the Kiel Canal, resulting in the tragic deaths of four members of 15 PARA, one member of 4 PARA and one OTC Cadet. RIP all.”.

Was the experience of Roger Simpson and his 23 PFA comrades, landing several hours before the first wave on the first day, an indication that the DZ was not safe or that those in command of the exercise were aware of the errors described in the reports studied by Geoff Butler? Some commentators have spoken of RAF staff officers at 36 Group saying that it would be a pity to cancel the second drop and to deny their pilots a rare chance to participate in a large parachute assault operation.

These implicit allegations of recklessness are very serious but recall the memo written by a senior German state prosecutor, who opined that British authorities should prosecute the guilty parties if their behaviour was criminal under British law as it was in West Germany. Which “guilty parties” did the prosecutor mean?

THE KIEL CANAL DISASTER 1974

By Geoff Butler

Geoff Butler on patrol near Crossmaglen in 1973

I was twenty years old, serving with 2 PARA, when I took part in the Kiel Canal drop in September 1974, when six paratroopers died. We jumped at 2000 Zulu Hours, in complete darkness. Six paratroopers died that sad night. Just as tragic was the case of the German Army officer who took his own life shortly afterwards although it was not his fault this accident happened. He had not killed the paratroopers.

I include a map and an aerial photo of the drop zone, showing where I landed as the last man to exit on the port side in SIM sticks of twenty-three jumpers on each side of the aircraft. You can work out where the first members of the stick landed.

A modern Google Maps view shows that the DZ is now a wind farm area. The heavy loads landed in the trees on the top right of the image and in the canal. One heavy load landed on the north side of the canal. Some heavy loads landed on men in the canal and on the ground. In other words, the drop undershot the DZ.

As a former Justice of the Peace, I try to keep an open mind and to act without prejudice and malice to all parties and I am applying those rules to this article. But why were the RAF and the MOD not open and honest about the Kiel Canal accident? The next-of-kin and the general public want to know what happened and why it happened and they deserve a proper, truthful explanation. The families deserve justice. It would help them heal.

Much has been said and written about the Kiel Canal disaster, about blame, cover-ups etcetera over the years. I have studied copies of the German police investigation report and the Royal Air Force report, which contain a total of around 200 pages. My findings are covered in this article, which I have kept as short as I can by just summarising the main points and facts.

This disaster was caused by a lot of minor errors and the unforeseen wind, which was the main factor. This type of wind is called a ‘temperature inversion’ and I explain it in my report further on. Please read my article with an open mind and think of our comrades who died and of their families.

My purpose is not to lay the blame on anyone but to help people to understand what happened that night. Many lessons were learnt as a result, enabling us to improve safety procedures for future paratroopers. The drop was made mainly by TA soldiers from 4, 10 and 15 PARA with some 2 PARA soldiers, like me, who were unable to jump with the first wave the day before.

The second wave consisted of the Stream Commander’s Hercules dropping personnel at 1950 hours, followed by the first formation of six Hercules at 2000 hours, dropping at 1,000 feet. Then came four more formations. The first thirteen aircraft carried personnel. The remaining aircraft carried stores and vehicles. The drop zone approach was from the north, overflying the Kiel Canal to the DZ just south of the canal. So, what went wrong?

A meteorological condition known as Temperature Inversion had caused gusts of wind blowing in different directions in the area of the DZ. These could not be detected by the pilots or by the DZ safety teams. The gusts were later said to be around twenty-five knots in strength but I think they were stronger than that judging by the speed and distance of my drift as I came down.

The wind speeds were later estimated to be stronger beneath the jump height of 1,000 feet, at around around 700 feet. It is rather like dropping into an invisible pipe or corridor of fast-moving air, a natural wind tunnel. Forecasts were in any case no good when calculating release points in parachuting operations as the only exact calculation could be made at the time of the drop.

Therefore, the aircraft release point figures used that night resulted in an undershoot of releasing personnel and heavy drop platforms, causing personnel and platforms to be blown off the drop zone. Fifteen men went into the canal of whom nine were saved and six drowned. 122 paratroopers landed off the drop zone. Thirty-five men, including me, landed within 120 yards of the water. Well off the DZ.

Geoff Butler’s 2022 calculations of conditions and release points on 11.9.1974

I recently studied my line of drift that night and the data given in the RAF report regarding wind speeds in the temperature inversion below the aircraft. Using my pilot’s slide rule computer, I found that the drift angle averaged between 10° and 20°. This meant that the release point for Number 1s — the first men through the doors — and heavy drops was off the DZ so that they would drift south-east to north-west in order to land on the DZ. The map graphic above shows this.

The aircraft actually flew down the middle the DZ using the wrong release point and tracks etc, hence parachutists and heavy loads drifting away to the west or north-west and off the DZ. Even with the release points I marked on the graphic, the last guys in the stick risked ending up in the smaller canal to the south if the wind changed or dropped.

The run-in line for the aircraft should have been from the north-west to the south-east corners of the DZ rather flying from north to south down the middle of the DZ. The wind speed would also have caused airspeed and ground speed to be slower, which would have caused an undershoot if the releases were timed with stopwatches using a time elapse by 10 to 15 knots, depending on the angle and strength of the wind.

The guys in parachutes would have been dropping laterally or drifting at higher speeds if they had the tailwind behind them, as they could not adjust their headings to reduce the drift angle and speed. The old Irvin PX Mk4 parachutes were non-steerable although one could ‘influence’ one’s direction to a small extent by hauling down on the harness and the cords themselves to try to spill air from one side or another of the canopy.

They would have overshot the DZ, risking landings in the smaller but no less dangerous Eider canal to the south. In other words, the accident was bound to happen through no fault of the aircrews and the DZ safety party; they could only work with the data they had. They had no way of knowing that the data was wrong.

Some heavy drop platforms landed on the men in trees alongside the canal on the South side and in the canal itself. The drop was then stopped by DZ safety officers, by which time men on the ground were dodging the heavy drop platforms released by the last formations of aircraft. It was not a healthy situation.

The fatal undershoot of between 330 and 813 yards caused by the Temperature Inversion was one factor. Another factor was the placing of the DZ markers in the wrong place. The DZ party had moved an air panel –– a folding high-visibility marker –– as they thought that the pilots would not see it. It was 110 yards from where it should have been.

This approach visibility error had been pointed out long before the date of the drop but was not corrected. Three individuals were found to have been negligent although it was excusable in the case of one of them. That said, it was also found that even if the DZ markers had been correctly placed, personnel and vehicles would have gone into the canal in any case.

My personal recollection of the drop is as follows: I was Number 23 on the Port Stick and the last man to exit the C130. We were supposed to have jumped the day before but someone in my stick fell over and a few of us returned to RAF Lyneham, where we were put on drop with the TA lads. This drop was timed for 0400 hours but was moved to 2000 hours because of bad weather.

C130s of 36 Squadron at RAF Lyneham in the early 1970s

On exiting the aircraft, my parachute deployed OK. I looked down and I could see the axis panel just below me, slightly behind where I expected it to be. Suddenly, my parachute tugged and it was like riding the slipstream of the aircraft. I was drifting rapidly forwards. Within seconds, the A panel at the approach end of the DZ flashed past me. I was drifting fast. I looked forwards and then I saw lights moving from left to right.

I thought this strange as the A panel had indicated a forward drift and now I was drifting sideways. I then realised that the lights  were moving. The lights were on a large ship moving along the Kiel Canal and that I was getting close to it. It was pitch black and difficult to judge distance and height.

I pulled down on my lift webs to try to reduce my drift and started thinking about emergency water landing drills. I was still high and fast. Then, suddenly, the wind dropped about 100 feet above the ground, to my relief, and I came straight down and landed beside a hedgerow.

I was, I think, between fifty and a hundred yards from the canal, near a road. The CSM of A Company, who was Number 23 Starboard Stick, landed on the other side of the hedgerow. We were both the last men out of the aircraft doors.

We then heard heavy drop platforms crashing into the trees and landing on and short of the personnel DZ. The lights near the canal went out because of parachutes on the power lines. A German police car came towards us and stopped. A policeman told us that they had a body in the morgue.

A heavy drop platform of the type used on Exercise Bold Guard

I knew that if I was the last to jump, then people must have been in or over on the north side of the canal. We later learned that eight ships were moving along the canal during the drop. Guys on the ground did all they could but it was chaos. Eventually, we worked out that six were missing and some injured men had been taken to hospital.

The canal was hard to see because it was pitch black. It was only the ship’s lights that drew my attention to it on the way down. The briefing we had before the drop never mentioned the canal width and depthand that it was the biggest and busiest canal in Europe. I only knew the Basingstoke Canal [near Depot PARA in Aldershot — Ed] and had a mental picture of that in my head.

I bet I was not the only one with that mental picture in his head that night. What a shock it was to see the Kiel Canal! It was more like Gravesend Reach in Kent or the Thames Estuary near Southend. Could this have affected the thinking of the guys who drowned? Could they have underestimated the danger they were in as they attempted to get out of their harnesses and swim to the bank? That might explain the delay in emergency drills but we will never know.

The RAF aircrews were quite rightly not blamed for the deaths and the injuries. Their navigators had been given last-minute wind changes and were recalculating release points as their aircraft approached the DZ. However, the new release points would not have prevented men and loads dropping into the canal and wind speed and direction were changing all the time.

The DZ Party had no way of measuring the wind at the altitudes in question. Other contributory factors included pilots climbing above drop height so as not to fly into descending paratroopers over the DZ and, moreover, the vortex wakes of aircraft in front banking left or right before dropping their loads, all of which made any calculations wrong again.

We now look at the deaths of comrades because of their life jackets [Inflatable life jackets are worn by British paratroopers when flight paths pass over or near water – Ed]. Out of respect for them and for their families, I am not publishing their names.

The life jackets were old equipment. Sadly, some of the guys did not have their gas bottles screwed all the way in. One of the gas bottles examined was fitted correctly but broken threads prevented it from engaging as required to inflate the man’s life jacket.

A 1970s daytime photograph showing ships moving along the Kiel Canal. The disaster occurred at night.

When these men in the water were found, their life jackets were not inflated. Some of the guys had partially completed their water landing safety drills. It was found that they did not have time to complete these drills; they went under the water and drowned.

It was a tragic accident caused and aggravated by various factors but the wind was the major cause of the deaths. I later qualified as a pilot and learned all about temperature inversion and wind shear. I had to take an exam on meteorology to get my pilot’s licence.

I have come across these conditions at the controls of aircraft, especially when descending to land. It is easy to control an aircraft but when you are coming down in a non-steerable military PX Mk 4 parachute, there is not much you can do; you have to accept the landing as it comes.

The lack of communication between the parties involved and the fact that the shipping was not halted immediately did initially hinder the rescue operations although the German Police said otherwise. They failed to mention the report by the German Army officer commanding the safety boats and divers. The canal authorities did, however, act instantly to stop shipping after ship reports received.

The RAF did itself no favours in producing a report with forty missing pages, which inevitably resulted in allegations of a cover-up. Also, the blacking-out of names and paragraphs, some but not all of which was understandable, fuelled the cover-up rumours.

These rumours might be unjustified but where were all the witness statements? The authors of the RAF report quoted from these statements to support their findings but one would need to see the whole, unredacted report to disprove or prove the cover-up rumours.

In fairness to the investigators who compiled the data for the RAF report, they might not have seen the German Police report. This police report referred to the German Army officer’s statement that he had told his superiors that the request to stop shipping had been refused by the canal authorities well before the drop.

It would appear therefore that confused communications prevented his instructions from being carried out further up the chain. In other words he was not at fault. Was the RAF aware of the refusal of this request and would the RAF have cancelled the drop had it known?

According to the German Police report, Port and Pilot Authority officials claimed that they had no idea that the drop was coming in until after paratroopers began dropping into the canal. Shipping had not been stopped but, in any case, it would not have been possible for them to do so because the Kiel Canal qualified as international waters and such a stoppage would have posed a hazard to shipping and safety.

Again, were the RAF aware of this or not? The German Police certainly knew about the drop. As the German report stated: “On 11/09/1974, 19.00h, the police boat “Schwansen” (Möwe 21/1), staffed with PHM (Police Inspector) B o r a t and POM (Sergeant) W i t t e, departed from berth Kiel-Holtenau, to ensure the safety of the army exercise (dropping of parachutists) at 21.00h, in [sic] the Kiel Canal, canal kilometre 76-78.”.

An extract from the German Police report into the Kiel Canal disaster

The report quoted Inspector Borat: “At around 21.00h the first aircraft arrived approaching from the north and dropped the first parachutists above the Kiel Canal. At the same time platforms with parachutes were dropped. Also at the same time several ships drive into the exercise area, which had not been blocked for traffic, from the west and east.

“Shortly after 21.00h the first parachutes with soldiers and platforms fell in the water of the Kiel Canal. I immediately gave a report about the situation to “Lotse-Leit”. At the same time, the Pilot Authority continuously warned passing ships via maritime radio.

“At around 21.20 a parachute fell directly onto the front of the police boat. In order to save the soldier attached to it, Sergeant Witte and I pulled the parachute on board. The soldier detached himself from the parachute during the recovery and was brought to land by a rescue frogman of the army. Approximately at the same time a platform with heavy loads fell into the water close to our boat.”.

Those in command of the parachuting exercise would have had to ask that the ships be stopped during the drop. This did not happen but, as we know, the German authorities in charge of the canal would have refused such a request.

The RAF report stated: “The Osterrade DZ was checked and approved by HQ 46 Group  as suitable for the [parallel dropping of stores and personnel by night from 1,000 feet, with a maximum stick length of 31 personnel. The recommended run-in was from the north. The DZ reconnaissance report noted that safety boats would be required on the Kiel and Eider Canals, and that parachutists would need to wear lifejackets. A later attempt to have shipping on the Kiel Canal stopped for the period of the assault was unsuccessful.”.

The RAF report: why was it so heavily censored?

The following lines of the RAF report were redacted for reasons I have been unable to establish but the reference to an attempt to persuade the Germans to halt shipping during the exercise suggests awareness of the obvious risks of a parachute operation so close to a busy shipping canal.

There were German Police and Army safety boats and divers on stand-by for the drop. This raises the question of why the canal authorities, whose officials on the ground must have seen these safety teams practicing their rescue drills, did not apparently wonder why they were there. There is no answer to this question in any of the reports I have read.

At least three large ships passed through the canal beside the DZ during the drop. As I wrote earlier, I saw the lights of one of them as I came in to land. Twelve more passed through later that evening.

Pilots and Captains of these ships reported parachutists and vehicles going into the canal, one vehicle nearly hitting a ship. Only at that point was the order to stop the ships given. According to rescue boat crews and divers, they had to wait until large ships has passed before they could act and by the time they moved in, parachutists had gone under the water.

What makes the suicide of the German Army officer who blamed himself even more tragic was that his superior had told him that he was not to blame. This was confirmed by the German Police but the officer was in an upset state and was found dead by his colleagues the following day. In his suicide note, he wrote that he had informed his superiors.

Recovery operations after the Kiel Canal disaster

Some of the men in the water survived, either rescued by the safety boat teams or by swimming to the canal bank where they were helped out of the water by their comrades who had come down on dry land. The officers of two large ships asked for divers to go under their vessels as they had run over parachutes in the water. However, these turned out to be heavy drop canopies. The last of the six drowned paratroopers was found days later.

No criminal charges were brought against anyone. This was, in my view as a former JP, the correct decision as it would have been difficult to prove culpability or criminal responsibility beyond reasonable doubt.

German Compensation Field Damage estimated 110000 DM estimated at time of the report
Canal Administration 20000 DM. On the day of the disaster, one pound Sterling was worth 5.4 DM. £87,316 of parachuting equipment had to be written off whilst equipment repairs cost £1,071.

During the inquiry into the Kiel Canal disaster, it was found when testing the life jackets issued to paratroopers that they would not hold a man afloat if he was still attached to his parachute and his equipment container.

This would explain why military parachutists doing their Basic Parachute Course at the RAF’s No 1 Parachute Training School were taught to carry out and complete their water landing drills before hitting the water. If they landed with their parachute harness buckles fastened and their containers still attached to their leg straps, they would sink straight to the bottom.

I do not recall ever being warned about this before any drop during my time in the Paras. I do however recall a conversation with one of the men tasked with testing these life jackets in a swimming pool as part of the post-Kiel Canal inquiry process.

He told me that when it was established that the equipment was not fit for purpose, it was taken away and nothing more was said. This is not mentioned in the published RAF report but might have been mentioned in the forty missing pages.

As I noted earlier, the TA drop was scheduled for 0400 hours Zulu but scrubbed or cancelled because of bad weather. It was then reset for 2000 hours Zulu that night. This might explain why the German port and pilot authorities said that they were not expecting a drop.

However, as the German report indicates, the German Army and Police were aware of the rescheduled drop and its timings and were in place. So was the local Fire Brigade. It seems strange that the German port and maritime pilots were unaware of it. Clearly, there was confusion on the German side.

The RAF report did not place any blame on the German authorities as their investigators focused solely on the British side of things The German Army stated that the rescue efforts were hindered by ships passing through the canal but this is simply a fact rather than an attempt to apportion blame.

The Kiel Canal authorities did stop the ships as soon as they were informed of the emergency situation but it takes time for a ship in motion to stop safely, especially within the confines of a shipping canal. The German Police reports ignored the statements of the German Army safety boat crews and their commander.

The Kiel Canal authorities knew about the request to drop but as the canal itself is an international waterway, it would seem that they were powerless to impose a preemptive stoppage of shipping traffic. Once the disaster was in progress, shipping was halted.

The RAF report made it clear that RAF 46 Group Headquarters knew that shipping would not be halted during the exercise despite their request, which would suggest that there was an awareness of the risk. Yet the parachute drop went ahead regardless. Would this make the commanders responsible criminally liable?

The German Police commander’s report

I agree with the RAF position that the wind was the cause of the disaster. The RAF investigators found that some of the guys had not properly screwed their gas bottles into their life jackets and that they had not completed their emergency water-landing drills but they did not blame the guys. They simply stated that they did not have time to complete the drills, went under the water, and drowned.

Three members of the DZ Safety Party were found negligent regarding the DZ marking panels but this did not cause the deaths, according to the report. The unpredictable wind conditions and the totally undetectable temperature inversion, were the major cause.

The German Army report quotes the Officer Commanding the Bundeswehr safety boat teams: “Within a few minutes the rescue troops on the boats near the dropping zone were faced with around fifteen paratroopers scattered in the canal, who needed rescuing. Five boats managed to recover six parachutists from the water in the first attempt. One could only be saved because his comrade was holding him.

“During the second rescue attempt […] a paratrooper could only be recovered dead because he was already under water but still attached to his floating personal equipment container. […] The other five parachutists, of whom four were recovered dead from the canal later, could mainly not be saved because they did not manage to keep themselves long enough above water, until the boats that were busy recovering the first six men tried to reach them.”.

The German OC noted that Rescue Boats 6 and 14 were hindered by passing shipping and that four ships passed through that stretch of the Kiel Canal during this mayhem. He further noted errors in the final report dated 12.9.1974, and included an interesting remark: “Only the dropping of the platforms was stopped, the dropping of the parachutists was continued.”.

15 PARA buries its dead after the Kiel Canal tragedy

My report is based on what I have been able to see in the reports and on my own experiences as a participant in the drop. There are certainly unanswered questions because the RAF report is heavily redacted. However, my aim is not to apportion blame but to educate people regarding the history of this event. Readers can draw their own conclusions.

As I remarked earlier, the RAF did itself no favours in producing a report with forty missing pages. Some of these pages might have contained statements by soldiers like me and their exclusion could be explained or defended on the grounds of our right to anonymity or a desire to spare the next-of-kin the grimmer details. However, this and the blacking out of paragraphs, sentences and names inevitably fuelled rumours and allegations over the years of a cover up by the Royal Air Force and the Ministry of Defence.

Geoff Butler on Hankley Common a month before the Kiel Canal disaster in 1974

I would like to end by thanking Gerald Bell for producing the following memorial cards honouring the six men who died that night.

 

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