By Simon Chambers
[British Airborne Forces veteran and author Simon Chambers, whose books include Devil’s Playground and Shadow of the Vulture, jumped at Arnhem last September with the Pathfinder International parachuting club to commemorate the men who were killed in action there in 1944. Simon served with 10 PARA, 1 PARA and other units back in 5th Airborne Brigade days. — Editor]
The week leading up to the Arnhem weekend every September is always Pathfinder’s busiest time of the year. We run basic parachute training courses and refresher courses for up to twenty students. At the same time, thirty or forty club members will turn up for ‘synthetics’, as British Airborne Forces describe pre-jump ground and harness training, followed by at least one jump.
Planning for our 2022 Operation Market Garden commemorative drop began over two years before the event. Arnhem was always our main annual event but due to COVID-19 restrictions, UK club members were of course unable to travel abroad until this year. But our Dutch, French, German and Belgian members, who were not as restricted on movement as we were, managed to carry out a drop on Dutch soil in memory of the Arnhem fallen.
The Dutch National Parachute Centre at Teuge hosted the event. Our Australian members also staged an Arnhem commemorative drop in Australia. In both cases, these were just token jumps but it meant so much to the rest of us former paratroopers. We see Arnhem as a jump we must do every year to make sure that the sacrifices of our forefathers to free Europe from Nazi oppression are never forgotten. It’s an Airborne Family thing.
Since the British Parachute Association, also known as British Skydiving, decided to discontinue allowing the use of military-style (round) static line parachutes by civilian and ex-military parachutists in the UK over thirty years ago, Teuge has been our home. Pathfinder was welcomed there with open arms by the Manager, Simon Woerlee, himself a former reservist officer in the Dutch Army.
Being forty-five minutes’ drive from Arnhem and an hour away from our emplaning airfield at Eindhoven, it was ideally situated for our annual Market Garden drop. Pathfinder also runs its parachute training and refresher courses at Teuge because we are, in effect, banned from operating the UK by the Civil Aviation Authority, which is advised on parachuting matters by British Skydiving.
Our successful candidates, who include novices as well as airborne veterans requiring refresher courses, receive the Dutch Army Parachutist B wings. The British equivalent of this badge is the Parachute Badge without Wings or the ‘Lightbulb’ as it is informally called. These are bona fide military parachute badges for soldiers and, in the Dutch case, civilians who are not serving with operational military parachute units.
The third aircraft load over Arnhem this year was seen as “the VIP drop” although some cheeky sods called it “the OAP drop”, OAP being the British term for Old Age Pensioners. Forming the first ‘stick’ aboard the wartime C-47 Dakota were eleven members of the 10th Battalion The Parachute Regiment Association, of whom two were seventy-nine years old. Our club’s oldest active member John Todd, aged seventy-five, ex-4 PARA and with more than 200 military jumps to his name, is now referred to as ‘Young John’ by our new oldest members.
Before COVID-19, and the introduction by Teuge of an upper age restriction, we managed to run two refresher courses for older members of the Special Air Service Regimental Association. All of the SAS veterans completed their five-jump courses and earned their Dutch Army B Wings. So, in asking for volunteers for the 10 PARA Association, we were hoping to stage another ‘oldies’ jump’.
We had carried out an assessment, evaluation and ground training weekend at Bramley Army Reserve Centre to make sure they were all fit and able enough to carry out the drop. We had to convert them from the non-steerable Irvin PX Mk4 chutes they had learned to use at the RAF’s No 1 Parachute Training School to our more modern MC-1C parachute, which is steerable.
With the MC-1C, you still need to know to land and roll as with the parachutes of our youth because you still come down like a sack of spuds albeit it a slightly slower sack of spuds. They all passed this selection weekend, which is a tribute to the intense training they underwent so many years ago and to the positive can-do attitude they retained as former Parachute Regiment soldiers. They passed their medicals and obtained the necessary insurance so they were good to go.
As a finishing touch, they each wore a commemorative DZ flash on their smocks depicting a phoenix rising from the flames and ashes on a black background below a small red Roman numeral ‘X”. Proof that age is only a number and that 10 PARA may be gone but is not forgotten. Twelve Dutch soldiers and an American paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne Division made up the rest of the ‘chalk’, as aircraft loads are called.
However, Arnhem 2022 was far from easy to organise and stage. When COVID-19 struck, we were planning to put two courses through Teuge. The first of these parachute training courses was made up mostly of Swedish reservists whilst the second comprised twenty Polish reservists from the Pomeranian battalion. Although we were ready to put them through our courses at Teuge once restrictions were relaxed, they were all placed on standby when Russian invaded Ukraine.
The CAA has issued Special Parachuting Permissions for military-style static line parachuting events in the UK on a few occasions, such as the commemorative jump by the Pegasus Display Team to mark the unveiling in 2019 of the memorial to the wartime 10th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. However, the CAA later refused to issue a permission in 2021 for a combined Arnhem jump by the Pegasus Display Team and Pathfinder at MOD Abingdon, which is hallowed ground for many British Airborne soldiers, as it was home fora long time to No1 Parachute Training school after RAF Ringway closed down.
This last-minute refusal by the CAA was widely seen as a retaliation for our refusal to be bound by the CAA-British Skydiving rulebook known as CAP 660, which is amongst other things a codified exercise in evasion of Health and Safety legislation.
It was also one of the subjects covered in a ministerial-level complaint about the CAA-BS cabal and its attempts to monopolise control not just of civil but also military parachuting in the UK even though the CAA is not actually the statutory parachuting regulator.
This interference in an event taking place at a British Army facility, in which serving Parachute Regiment soldiers had been invited to participate as a reward for their conduct in the evacuation of Kabul, also shows the extent to which the CAA quango and its unqualified sports parachuting overseers are now allowed to interfere in military as well as civil parachuting activities. It was only the second time in the history of The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces that an Arnhem commemorative jump was cancelled.
In effect, British Airborne veterans and clubs and teams like ours cannot operate in our own country. However, I digress. From the moment that we were able to travel abroad, Pathfinder’s boss Roy Mobsby went into overdrive with a view to organising jumps on wartime drop zones around Arnhem, at Dreil and Renkum
Roy, who served with 1 and 10 PARA amongst other units, contacted Aero Legends in Kent to declare our interest in hiring their C-47 Dakota ‘Pegasus’. The Round Canopy Parachute team and Parachute Group Holland were contacted to plan mutual hiring of the aircraft between the three groups to try to keep the cost down as much as we could.
Dutch air traffic control received and cleared our NOTAMs early. Our club members were alerted and we soon had six provisional C-47 loads. At this stage, it was just bums on seats so we had a rough idea of the numbers we had to play with. The commemorative events are always a big financial gamble. All the monies are raised by the club members every year without the help of a sponsor. We were paying £3000 per flying hour for the Dakota. The airlifts to the DZs aside, the ferry costs for the aircraft to fly from the UK to Holland must also be paid even if weather or mechanical failure prevent us from parachuting.
On top of these costs air crew expenses, the costs of transport to and from the DZ and the emplaning airfield at Eindhoven, an hour by road from Teuge, and other bills all mount up and have to be paid up-front. We did however manage to make savings on insurance premiums this year by partnering with the Pegasus Display Team and our safety consultants Parasafe Ltd
While all this was happening we planned and executed two basic parachute courses at Teuge. This cleared the backlog of student jumpers, some of which had been waiting for two years because of COVID-19. Both courses included a large contingent of Dutch Army reservists keen to learn to jump with real ‘classic ‘ military static line parachutes.
Roy Mobsby and Mark Briggs, ex-3 PARA and Airborne Forces, of the Pegasus Display Team and Parasafe Ltd studied the numbers. It looked as if we were coming back with a bang for 2022. We spoke too soon. As the date and the deadlines drew nearer, club members began falling by the wayside. It was nobody’s fault. They were all enthusiastic about jumping on Arnhem but rising costs and people’s financial problems in the wake of COVID-19 meant that we lost jumpers in droves. The other two groups who jump at Arnhem were facing similar problems.
We went from two ‘chalks’ of twenty-four jumpers on the Polish DZ at Driel to one aircraft and from four chalks of twenty-four jumpers for Renkum to two chalks and a few stragglers. The numbers then picked up slightly but Roy Mobsby was by now counting the pennies. If we lost more jumpers, it would be touch and go as to whether we could stage the event.
The numbers for the drop onto the Polish DZ at Driel had dwindled badly and we only had enough for half an aircraft load. Pathfinder’s members rallied around and raised enough money to cover the Driel jump. At this point, a friend of the club who is a Senior NCO in the Dutch reserves asked if some of his lads could make up the numbers. Our hard-core jumpers wear WW2 uniforms and kit on these commemorative drops but under the circumstances, we could not refuse their offer, which enabled us to just about cover the costs of one C-47 drop over Driel and three drops over Renkum.
All of the Dutch reservists had been trained by Pathfinder’s instructors at Teuge. They asked if a serving Dutch Special Forces SNCO and an attached Sergeant (Jumpmaster) from the American 82nd Airborne Division could also jump. Once these two serving paratroopers had obtained permission from their respective commands to jump with us, we welcomed them aboard.
We are sometimes accused of being reenactors in the pejorative sense. We do have members who have never served in any armed forces but who are just as committed as the military reservists and veterans amongst Pathfinder’s members to honouring the memory of the fallen. You cannot compare our members to reenactors dressed as WW2 paratroopers who have never earned any military parachute qualifications. Without such qualifications, you cannot stage a military parachute drop and definitely not one of this size. You must do it right or people will get hurt or even killed. So, safety is paramount.
We are lucky in having the services of Mark Briggs, who is a Chartered Health and Safety practitioner and whose expertise in relation to parachuting has led the Health and Safety Executive to ask him to draft their new parachuting regulatory guidelines. As jumpmasters, we have the legendary Ian Marshall, 2 PARA and Red Devils veteran with over 12,000 jumps logged, and Allan Hewitt, ex-1 PARA and Red Devils, who taught Tom Cruise to skydive for the latest Mission Impossible film.
Each ‘stick’ of jumpers is carefully organised by Roy, with the more experienced parachutists up the front and at the back and the less experienced in the middle so that they exit over the biggest part of any drop zone. The highly experienced jumpers from the Pegasus Display Team usually open the events when we jump together. They act as ‘drifters’, to assess winds between the aircraft and the ground.
The Pegasus lads, who must have a minimum of 100 military jumps logged in order to be considered for membership, are followed by Pathfinder club members, also wearing WW2 kit. Then come reservists or regular soldiers, who are not expected to buy WW2-style uniforms and kit for what, in most cases, is a one-off jump for them.
Our parachutes are modern American steerable MC-1C and SF10 military rigs but these are not as responsive as a square canopy and they do rely on the capabilities and skill of the individual jumper to get onto the drop zone and land safely. Hence the need to undergo bona fide military parachute training or refresher courses.
The biggest problem with any parachute drop is Mother Nature. She has a wicked sense of humour and can rear her ugly head at the most unexpected times. Unexpected wind gusts are out greatest enemy and even on the best of days these can suddenly spring up.
On Friday, September 16th 2022, we successfully dropped three chalks of sixty-six paratroopers past and present and parachutists onto the Renkum DZ to enthusiastic applause from the crowds. Everyone walked off the DZ, which is the definition of a good jump.
The parachutes were repacked on the drop zone as part of our display to show the general public more of what parachuting involves, that it doesn’t just stop with the parachute jump. On Saturday, our other groups jumped whilst airborne units from various NATO armies jumped onto Ginkel Heath, which was the main Operation Market Garden DZ in 1944.
On Sunday, September 18th, we awoke to another cold, wet morning. We doubted that our drop would go in because of the bad weather but our jumpers were in good spirits as they got on the coach for the hour-long drive to Eindhoven airport. On the DZ at Driel, Roy Mobsby was in constant communications with Alan Hewitt, giving him updates about ground winds. The wind was within limits but with a few strong gusts coming through.
Alan informed Roy by text that the Dakota was airborne. Roy replied that he had the DZ safety party spread out to stop anyone who might get dragged by their parachutes. He came very close to scrubbing or cancelling the drop twice but suddenly the winds died down and the rain stopped. From the DZ, we could saw blue patches of sky through the clouds.
Then we heard the C-47 in the distance. Everyone was spread out across the drop zone. We popped smoke cannisters so that the jumpmasters and the descending jumpers could see which way the wind on the ground was blowing. We waited nervously as the first stick left the aircraft.
Once on the ground, most of the chutes remained inflated and jumpers had to run swiftly around their equipment to collapse their canopies. The old, well-practiced drills worked well and, like the previous day, everyone walked off the DZ. At the rendezvous or RV Point, we thanked out Dutch farmer friends for letting us jump onto their fields.
We gave one farming family two large bottles of Bailey’s, which is their favourite tipple. The other farmer does not drink but he has a sweet tooth so we gave him a large chocolate cake. No expense is spared in bribing the locals. Both landowners understand that they own a hugely historical location and appreciate what we do. We were once again invited to repeat the jump the following year, something we very much look forward to.
Once back at Teuge, ‘chutes were hung up to dry, equipment secured in our trailer, and moved back up into the top hanger at Teuge for safe storage. Goodbyes were said to our friends and staff at the Parachute Centre and we all bomb-burst to our different corners of the globe to await our next jump which will hopefully be onto the Sannerville DZ in Normandy in 2023.
All in all, ninety paratroopers and parachutists, of whom more than 80% were former Parachute Regiment and SAS soldiers, jumped onto two historic Market Garden DZs in remembrance of those who went before us and who made the ultimate sacrifice to liberate Europe. Our members and guests represented thirteen countries, the farthest travelled coming from Australia. This is a measure of what Arnhem means to us.