By Geoff Butler, Ex-2 and 10 PARA
In the early 1970s, 16th Parachute Brigade took on a new role as the Joint Airborne Task Force — JATFOR — to counter the growing threat to NATO from the Soviets and Warsaw Pact Forces.
JATFOR was made up of two parachute infantry battalions plus supporting arms, ready to deploy quickly in response to any threat of an invasion in order to allow the rest of NATO troops to mobilise. The force was trained in 1972 and 1973 to parachute and be ready to fight five minutes after landing thus stopping any attack or invasion from progressing.
The jump height was 650 feet so that the troops were down on the ground quicker. Many drops were made to get it right. The Soviet NBC threat was such that it was decided to train aircrews and paratroopers to fly or land in an NBC environment in full NBC kit. So, training exercices and tests were organised to see if this could be done safely.
Unfortunately D Company, 2 Para — known as Penal Coy — of which I was a member then had a new company commander from a craphat regiment who had just got his parachute wings and wanted to get his jump tally up. You’ve guessed it: Penal Coy was volunteered by our new OC, which we all found very unamusing.
In April 1974, the company started its NBC training in Pitts Road. Then we had to do two jumps out of the balloon over Hankley Common in full NBC kit. The first jump was clean fatigue and the second with a CSPEP container.
I remember that the first jump went fairly well; the biggest problem was that the gas mask steamed up, making it difficult to see to check the canopy as well as your distance from the ground. Even worse, the chin piece of the gas mask mask prevented you looking down on landing, and getting your head tucked in, hence a few injuries on landing, which stopped guys doing the second jump.
Now we had to jump the balloon with the CSPEP or container. One guy refused to get in the cage and ran away across Hankley Common in full NBC kit and jump helmet, with his parachute and reserve. Two guys were dispatched to get him.
He was taken away and by the time we got back, he was gone from the billets. We never saw him again. He clearly had a panic attack. This guy had jumped all the previous JATFOR exercises. He was a good comrade to us all in Northern Ireland. It was so sad to see him go, and with no farewell. We all felt so sorry for him, with his career now in tatters.
For me, the second balloon jump was just like the first: gas mask steamed up, making the landing difficult as I could not see the ground looking down. Many others reported the same issue. We also had trouble with our hooks when it came to dropping our containers because of the NBC rubber gloves, which made it difficult to feel and operate the hooks. This caused more injuries; some landed with their containers still on their legs.
Next, we were going to jump the Hercules. Most of the guys went out on the beer the night before. Some had a curry that night. And then we all had a full breakfast before we got on the Hercules. The plan was to fly low level for three hours in full NBC kit before the drop. Even the RAF aircrew had to be masked up although there were unmasked pilots in reserve for safety. There were also film crews aboard to record every stage of the exercise.
Tragedy was now about to strike for one of our guys. He had had a dodgy curry and the full breakfast and with the aircraft throwing us all over the place during the low level phase, he needed a crap fast. His game plan was to hold on and jump. His first IA or Immediate Action upon landing was to drop his trousers and jump the curry out of his arse.
He thought he could make it but a twist of fate intervened. The drop got scrubbed at the last minute and we flew back to the airbase. As we landed, he farted, followed through and shit himself in his NBC kit and uniform underneath. On deplaning, he ran straight to the nearest block and toilet and tried to shovel out the mess and wash himself down, much to the surprise and disgust of an RAF officer who came into the toilet. We were glad of the gasmasks on the drive back to Aldershot as he stank.
The next day, we got on the Hercules again. We flew low level for three hours and then jumped. The visibility problems were worse as our gasmasks steamed up more in the aircraft than in the balloon and we could not see a thing. Some of the guys had been airsick and had diced carrots floating around in their eye pieces.
I was Number Three, Port Stick. I could not even see the door. The Loadmaster was yelling at us to keep walking and then turn right and go. I fell out of the aircraft. I could not see anything and I got twists as well. I had trouble finding and releasing my hooks but managed to drop my container. I hit the ground like a sack of spuds: feet, arse head. Many others had the same experience.
We had sixty percent casualties at the end of this and not enough to fill another Hercules so the trial concluded. I hope you found this story interesting. The photo was given to me as a thank you by the RAF as I was Number Three, Port Stick and the photo is of me. One good training point came out of all of this: do not eat a dodgy curry and a full breakfast before parachuting.
I hope you have enjoyed this article.