THE BEST TIME OF THEIR LIVES…

  • Posted on 05 Mar 2019
  • 27 min read

The 10th Parachute Battalion in Somerby 1943-1944

As members of 10 PARA in the closing stages of the Cold War in the 1980s, we were very proud to attend the commemorations of the wartime 10 Para Bn in the Leicestershire village of Somerby. The men of The Tenth regaled us with stories from the nine months they spent in the area before Operation Market Garden in September 1944, where the battalion was effectively destroyed. Many of them recalled their sojourn in High Leicestershire as the best time of their lives.

A projection of how the 10 Para Bn Memorial will look

When wartime 10 Para Bn veteran Victor Gregg appeared on Good Morning Britain in February 2019 to discuss his book about the Dresden fire-bombing in 1945, which he witnessed as a prisoner of war, he was wearing the new b tie.  Vic is one of three known survivors of The Tenth and hopes to be back in Somerby in September 2019 for the 75th anniversary of Market Garden and for the unveiling of the memorial to The Tenth, as reported in Alec Wilson’s article in the Winter 2018 issue of Pegasus.

The memorial, which owes much to the dedication of the men and women of Friends of The Tenth (FoTT), will be across the road from the entrance to the Burrough Court Estate, which overlooks the valley that served as a drop zone for 10 Para Bn––and also for 156 Para Bn, stationed up the road in Melton Mowbray. Major General Ranald Munro CBD TD VR, a former ‘Tom’ and officer of 10 PARA and a Patron of FoTT, described Burrough Court as “a place of significance to the Battalion.”.

However, we shall come to that in due course. The new battalion tie, speedily approved in 2018 by our Colonel Commandant Lieutenant General Sir John Lorimer KCB DSO MBE, can also be worn by former members of 10 PARA, disbanded in 1999, and by members of FoTT in recognition of their support not just of the idea of a 10 Para Bn memorial but of The Parachute Regiment in general. As we know all too well, our Regiment always needs friends and FoTT are very good friends. 

The old 10 PARA tie, which was worn by some wartime 10 Para Bn men, was black with parachute wings and the red Roman X of the Battalion’s DZ flash. It was said that the black background of the DZ flash honoured the fallen of the wartime Tenth and the red the blood they shed for the people of Europe enslaved by the Hitler regime. The new tie comprises the regimental badge and a weathercock motif on a maroon background with diagonal stripes recalling the wartime battalion colours worn as slip-ons on Battle Dress shoulder straps.

February 1943: 10 Para Bn recruits at Action Stations in a Lockheed Hudson

The weathercock has two holes in it but as with Burrough Court, we shall come to that later on. The wartime battalion slip-ons consisted of the sky blue of the Army Air Corps, under whose administrative command the Parachute Regiment was placed in 1942, and the dark blue and yellow gold of The Royal Sussex Regiment, whose 2nd Battalion formed the cadre of the new parachute battalion in December 1942.

Just 144 officers and other ranks of 2 RSR were fit for duty when the Battalion was posted to the Royal Army Service Corps Base Depot at Geneifa after the Second Battle of El-Alamein. Initially renamed S Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, the S standing for Sussex, the new battalion was given its number in January 1943. Other volunteers came from 4 and 5 RSR and other regiments and corps. Vic Gregg, for instance, had served in The Rifle Brigade and also as a driver with the Long Range Desert Group.

Parachute training was run by RAF Parachute Jump Instructors at No 4 Middle East Training School, based at RAF Kabrit on the shores of the Great Bitter Lake, a couple of miles by road from Geneifa. The lake was formed as a transit anchorage for ships using the Suez Canal. From the bathing spot reserved for British Army personnel, the 10 Para Bn recruits could see the aircraft taking off from RAF Kabrit and dropping their mates on the flatlands across the lake.

RAF Lockheed Hudson over the Pyramids near Cairo in 1942

Most training drops were from Wellington bombers or little Lockheed Hudsons but the 10 Para Bn lads sometimes got to jump from Douglas DC3 Dakotas when they could be spared. The Battalion was posted to Palestine in the early spring of 1943 for field training. No 1 METS relocated to the airfield at Ramat David some fifteen kilometers east of Haifa, where the last courses of 10 Para Bn recruits earned their parachute wings. Parachute training completed, some of the lads had their parachute wings tattooed onto their upper arms by Arabs with nails and coloured powders in the local souks.

“I had it done in the souk in Gaza by an Arab with a rusty nail”

In May 1943, the Battalion moved to Libya and then to Tunisia, ready for the coming invasion of Sicily that July. Much to the disgust of everyone from Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Smyth downwards, the shortage of transport aircraft saw The Tenth left behind, cooling its heels in Tunisia.

However, The Tenth did take part in Operation Slapstick, the invasion of mainland Italy on September 9th 1943, albeit by sea rather than air because of the continuing lack of aircraft. 10 Para landed at Taranto with other elements of 1st Airborne Division, including 156th Parachute Battalion, which would also have a close association with Leicestershire, when it was stationed near The Tenth in Melton Mowbray after its withdrawal from Italy.

Fortunately, the landings were unopposed, the German and Italian defenders having retreated from Taranto. The Tenth was tasked with capturing an airfield at Gioia del Colle, some fifty kilometers up the national highway to the Adriatic port of Bari. Approaching the small town of Castellaneta about halfway to the objective, The Tenth ran into a rear-guard defensive line set up by German paratroopers of I./Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 1.

1943: Fallschirmjäger anti-tank gunners moving into position

The ensuing fight was ferocious and Major General Hopkinson, commanding 1st Airborne Division, was killed but The Tenth cleared the Green Devils out of Castellaneta. Proceeding to Gioia del Colle, elements of 10 Para Bn encountered skirmishers from II./Fallschirmjäger-Rgt 4, I./Fallschirmjäger-Rgt 1 and anti-tank gunners from III./Fallschirmjäger-Rgt 1.

10 Para Bn sustained some losses, including reconnaissance jeeps knocked out by the enemy anti-tank guns, but managed to beat the Fallschirmjäger off and capture and secure the airfield. The Tenth then proceeded to the Adriatic sea ports of Bari and Brindisi. The Regimental battle honour for Taranto covers these operations.

Withdrawn from Italy in November, The Tenth arrived in Somerby on December 10th 1943. Surrounding villages including Twyford, Burrough-on-the-Hill and Thorpe Satchville would also host the men and boys of the Battalion for the next nine months. Recalling their time in what was known as High Leicestershire, 10 Para Bn veterans often said they had the best time of their lives there. Others described it as the best of times in the worst of times.

Somerby , March 1944: HM King George VI inspects men of 10 Para Bn, accompanied by Brigadier John Hackett and Bn CO Lt Col Ken Smyth

Stood to and stood down for no less than sixteen cancelled airborne operations during this time, the men of The Tenth sometimes got a bit wound up. That they played hard and sometimes got a bit out of hand was only to be expected but veterans of The Tenth never forgot the kindness and generosity of the local people, who even forgave them for, allegedly, burning down Burrough Court during a raid on the wine cellar that went wrong.

According to the story, demolition charges used to blow open the cellar door set the mansion alight. The guilty parties redeemed themselves to some extent by bravely entering the blazing building and saving as much of the furniture and contents as they could. They even managed to evacuate the grand piano from the ballroom, which was played with gusto on the lawn as the well-oiled young paratroopers entertained the Fire Brigade with songs, toasting them with the contents of the wine cellar.

Thorpe Satchville, June 1944: 10 Pln B Coy 10 Para Bn – Courtesy of FoTT

The people of Somerby also forgave The Tenth for shooting the weathercock on the tower of All Saints’ Church. There again, perhaps they were grateful: if the metallic screeching and groaning of this Victorian relic whenever the wind caught it grated on the nerves of hardened young paratroopers trying to get a decent night’s sleep, it is probably safe to presume that the villagers did not think too charitably of their weathercock either. They did not replace it after renovation work to the tower in 1989.

The Somerby weathercock found a new home in London as 10 PARA’s shooting trophy, in honour of the marksmanship in 1943 of Lieutenant Pat Glover, the resourceful Quartermaster of 10 Para Bn, who had managed to put two holes in the infernal bird at a distance of sixty meters as it pirouetted and screeched in the wind. The weathercock resided behind the bar of the Sergeants Mess at the Battalion’s White City location in West London until 10 PARA was disbanded in 1999.

The weathercock was returned to Somerby in 2014 but, we note, has not been replaced on the church tower. Memories die hard in the countryside. It must be said, mind you, that Lt Glover had nothing personal against poultry as such. The Lieutenant had a pet chicken called Myrtle. Her arrival in Lt Glover’s life was the consequence of a booze-fuelled argument about whether or not anything with wings and feathers could fly.

Lt Pat Glover in 1944

Determined to prove his point, Lt Glover took Myrtle with him on an airborne exercise, tucked into his Dennison smock. Some distance from the ground in the valley in front of Burrough Court, Lt Glover released Myrtle, who managed to flap her wings frantically enough to avoid piling into the DZ. For a few seconds, the chicken flew and Lt Glover proved his claim. As he would also point out in later years, the RAF classes parachuting as flying although this is a stretch as Myrtle was not using a parachute.

Nonetheless, when Myrtle was killed in action at Arnhem, Lt Glover and his batman interred her with parachute wings. During their time in Leicestershire, the men of The Tenth trained hard to maintain their combat readiness, participating in exercises on the Yorkshire Moors and bombed-out areas of London, where they honed the urban combat skills they would need in Holland when keeping the road to the Arnhem bridge open for the ground forces who never arrived.

Lionel Queripel VC

The story of Arnhem needs no retelling here but we should note that of the nearly 600 paratroopers of The Tenth seen off by the people of Somerby and the surrounding villages on that Sunday morning seventy-five years ago, just thirty-six of them returned to Somerby after the battle. As well as the VC awarded to Captain Lionel Queripel, one of the original Sussex Regiment officers, the Battalion won numerous bravery awards during the savage fighting around Oosterbeek and Wolfheze.

Sergeant Reid of A Company, would say of Captain Queripel after the war: “He was one of the finest men I was privileged to serve under, always the last officer to return to his mess.  His first thought was for his men. One hears of VCs being given for impulsive bravery, but not Captain Queripel.  Anyone who knew him would have expected him to do just what he did.”. Lionel Queripel’s Victoria Cross citation is easily found on the Internet.

People say that The Tenth was annihilated at Arnhem but that is a simple way of putting it. Ninety-two men were killed in action. The first causalities were sustained during the parachute descent onto Ginkel Heath, designated as DZ Y, as the Germans had by then had ample time to rally and were staking out the heather-covered heathland, much of which was ablaze. German cameramen even filmed what one veteran bitterly recalled as the “grouse shoot”.

The Last Stand of The Tenth by Derek Chambers FRSA – Courtesy of FoTT

After the Battalion’s last stand in Oosterbeek, immortalised in a stunning oil painting by Derek Chambers, ninety-six men managed to escape back across the river Rhine on the night of September 25th and 26th. That two-thirds of them did not return to Somerby bears silent witness today to their post-battle state and to the state of many of the 404 men who had to be left behind. The Tenth’s CO, Lt-Col Smyth, died of his wounds on October 26th

In fairness to the Germans, they did the best they could for the British wounded but medical supplies were as scarce as other resources by that stage of the war and many wounded prisoners died as a consequence. Those who survived captivity and came home afterwards faced the same challenges as veterans of current conflicts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan but there was not the same understanding in those days of what we now describe as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Never reformed, The Tenth was disbanded in November 1945. However, the battalion number was bestowed upon a new London-based Territorial Army unit in 1947: the 10th (City of London) Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. This became the 10th (V) Bn in 1967, known simply as 10 PARA. 10 PARA was, as we know, disbanded in 1999 but lived on briefly as 10 Company, 4 PARA. The White City location, once home to HQ Coy and 1 Coy, 10 PARA, is now occupied by B Coy, 4 PARA.

Heritage: 10 PARA DZ flash under an uncle’s WW2 wings

The boys of B Coy, 4 PARA are very aware of their 10 PARA and 10 Para Bn lineage. PSIs posted to White City have asked about 10 PARA history on the Battalion’s social media webpages. There are photographs of the old Red X DZ flash unofficially worn in Afghanistan and Iraq. I speak for many old 10 PARA hands when I say that we were very touched by the speed with which General Lorimer acted to approve the new tie. As the images of the 99-year old Vic Gregg on television show, we are all very proud of it.

This memorial will honour those men who served in Egypt, Palestine, Libya, Italy and Holland and, by extension, the men of the post-war Battalion who served in various conflicts after the Cold War years. It is our memorial and we shall treasure it.

Prosper Keating, March 2019

Prosper Keating served with 4 Coy, Signals Platoon and Intelligence Section, 10 PARA from 1982 to 1993 as a Lance-Corporal and Regimental Signals Instructor.

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