Britain's paratroops have proved they can hand it out as well as take it— Here's the story of how they get that way
ALONG an English country lane came an Army staff car, flying the royal standard of Norway. The only occupants of the car were the driver and, in the back seat, Crown Prince Olaf of Norway, on his way to visit a brigade headquarters during a large-scale mock battle.
The car rounded a bend and the driver jammed on his brakes. Two burly-looking soldiers barred the way, their rifles trained on the driver and his passenger as the car stopped. Their clothes and equipment were similar to that of any other British soldier, except that they wore padded helmets instead of tin hats and an overall smock reaching down almost to their knees. On the right sleeve of each was the badge of Britain’s
paratroops—a white parachute between blue wings.
One of the parachutists came up to the driver and said: “Out you get. We want this car.”
The driver leaned forward and whispered to him, “Don’t be a mutt. This is Crown Prince Olaf I’m driving.”
“It doesn’t matter who it is. You'll both have to get out. We’ve captured this car.”
“He’s quite right,” said the Crown Prince, getting out of the car. “They’ve captured this car and they must have it.”
“Thanks, Your Highness,” said the parachutist, and with his companion he jumped in and they drove off to carry out their program of “sabotage behind the enemy lines,” while Prince Olaf and his driver continued their journey on foot.
This little incident is an example of the “noholds-barred” methods adopted in the training of Britain’s parachute troops. When he’s on manoeuvres it’s up to the parachutist to use every stratagem and trick he can think of and no one is allowed to interfere with him. On the same day one brigadier, when his car was confiscated, did try to hoodwink his captors by driving them in the wrong direction—but he’d only driven about a hundred yards when he became theoretically dead for the rest of the manoeuvres.
Britain’s paratroops—or to give them their official name, the Special Air Service—are all volunteers, drawn from all regiments of the British, Dominion and Colonial armies. Any trained soldier may volunteer, but only those who can pass the strict tests, physical and mental, are chosen. It’s a
tough game and paratroops get extra pay—“danger
money”—but the mere fact that you’re tough won’t alone qualify you for the Special Air Service. The work calls for initiative and intellect as well as strong physique. Of no use to drop a cauliflowereared bruiser behind the enemy lines if he hasn’t been able to master the technicalities of map reading and all the other specialized knowledge that’s essential to a participant in this particular phase of modern warfare.
There are no restrictions on age. In fact in one unit there is a Canadian Army volunteer who, at fifty-five, is said to have delighted the chief instructor with his all-round performance. But most of the men range in age from twenty to the early thirties. The main physical qualifications are to be tough and wiry, with lots of stamina, and height doesn’t mean a thing. I know of one plane crew in which a five-foot two-inch ex-engineer sits, waiting for the green light to signal them to drop, beside a six-foot six Australian ex-sheep-shearer.
In Whitehall parlance, the qualifications are “good physique, stocky build, and the natural qualities of a fine soldier, such as courage, deter-
mination, high morale, tenacity, fighting ability, and a thorough knowledge of the use of arms. Also, in the selection of these air-borne troops it must be remembered that the men may have to travel considerable distances by air. Therefore, any man prone to air sickness is excluded.”
The training of the men is the joint concern of the R.A.F. and the Army, and comes under the Army Co-operation Command of the Royal Air Force. The R.A.F. provides their parachute equipment, R.A.F. instructors teach them the method of dropping and all their air technique. The R.A.F. provides the aircraft (which include Whitleys, Wellingtons and Ansons) to carry them and trains the pilots to drop men instead of bombs.
It’s the Army’s job to select the troops from the continual flow of volunteers, to supply them with weapons and provide the tactical training of the paratroops as fighting units and individuals on the ground.
The initial training of the parachutists parallels that of the Commandos, and with them they share the epithet of “supermen of the British Army.” This ground training is tough and strenuous and
it is not until after several months of it that they start going up in planes.
They start off with a particularly intensive course in physical training, first step in the toughening-up process. Then comes a course in unarmed combat, which someone has described as “all-in wrestling without rules and with murderous intentions.” Then there are forced marches with full equipment, this equipment including rifle, automatic pistol, binoculars, compass, tommy-gun magazines (in pouches), ground sheet, water bottle, mess tin, knife, fork and spoon, shaving gear, “housewife” and iron rations. The helmet is padded to prevent injury to the head in landing, and their special boots are similarly lined with crepe rubber, as shock absorbers. Over all their equipment, except the parachute harness, they wear a smock to prevent anything from catching as they drop out of their planes.
On these forced marches the parachutists run and walk alternately, until after a few weeks they are so fit that they can cover as much as twenty miles in three hours. To work off some of their surplus energy, one paratroop unit which had its initial training in Scotland broke the monotony of the forced marches by climbing a famous Scottish mountain peak twice in one week.
During this rigorous system of hardening, the men go without
food for long spells, sleep in all sorts of weather with nothing but a ground sheet, trek through the roughest possible type of country without food or water, and then rely on their wits and acquired knowledge of fieldcraft to provide themselves with food and drink.
Proof that this type of training has the desired effect comes from the case of a corporal, who was formerly the assistant-manager of a London department store. He earned around $10,000 in those days and described his former affluence as “a good life, but rottenly soft.” For a bet he went without food for a week and then wrestled with the physical instructor—and threw him!
Also into their training at this period comes map reading, the use of the compass and elementary astronomy. They study foreign languages (with the accent on German and Italian). Being trained soldiers when they volunteer they are familiar with their own weapons, but the paratrooper must also know and be able to use the small arms of the enemy and also most of the enemy’s vehicles that he may be called upon to drive after he has captured them. Also he is schooled in the arts of the saboteur, including the use of dynamite.
BY THE time he is ready to tackle the real parachute training, the volunteer is a toughened, high-trained Commando. His first jumps are done in a gymnasium, from a height of ten feet, landing by chute being equivalent to jumping off a ten-foot wall. In these jumps he learns the essentials of “knees bent, limbs slack, shoulders tucked,” and many of his instructors will be former professional acrobats, wrestlers and tumblers, who have spent their lives perfecting ways of falling without getting themselves hurt.
Then, to accustom himself to making jumps from the cramped conditions inside a plane, the recruit climbs into a dummy airplane fuselage in the gymnasium and makes his jumps from there, with full equipment on. After perfecting this he’s ready to go out-of-doors and practice jumping from a parachute tower, with open parachute.
He’s been months at it now and still he hasn’t been up in a plane . . Reason for this is that it is the aim of the instructors to have each man so familiar with everything connected with a parachute jump—from the tug of the opening chute to the bump on landing—that by the time he’s called upon to do it from a plane travelling at about 250 miles an hour he’s thoroughly confident and knows all the ropes. Value of this is that there hasn’t yet been a serious accident in the training of Britain’s parachutists.
Final step before practicing from a plane in flight is to do jumps from a balloon moored 500 feet up. It’s during this phase that the parachutist learns the tricks of parachute control, how to “steer” the chute by tugging at the lines and spilling air out of it, how to prevent himself from being dragged along the ground by a heavy wind, how to get out of his harness in a split second (a sharp blow on the metal boss at his waist releases it).
One trainee, describing his reactions to his first jump, said that his first impulse as he floated down in silence was to shout and sing. “But a voice behind me. said, ‘Put your legs together.’ I tried to look over my shoulder, then the voice came again: ‘Bend your knees now.’ ” He made a
successful landing, but was puzzled as to where the good advice had come from. It was from loudspeakers set up on the field below.
And now comes the recruit’s big thrill—his first jump in conditions similar to real action. He boards the plane with his companions and they’re soon in the air, making for their objective. To train himself to be able to pick out his target from a plane he has probably done what most of the trainees do, on the advice of an experienced paratrooper—stood on a stepladder in a darkened room and tried to locate a pin stuck in the floor by a friend. For that is equivalent to the sensations of a parachutist trying to find his target from a plane.
As it reaches the objective the aircraft will
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probably be flying at about 250 miles an hour at 500 feet, perhaps less. The parachutists will have seated themselves round the circular hole in the bottom of the fuselage, their legs danglingand their eyes on the red light inside the plane. As soon as the pilot (who has been specially trained for this work) judges that it is the right time for them to jump, he flashes on the green light and out they drop.
For the landing of paratroops to be at all effective, it is essential that they land as near as possible to the specified area; and that they and their extra equipment, which is dropped separately by variously colored parachutes, land as closely together as possible so that they can form up into a fighting unit in a minimum of time. Therefore the men jump at second intervals, a static chord attached to the inside of the plane automatically opening their chutes.
If he gets successfully through these practice jumps from moving aircraft the trainee is no longer a trainee, but a fully-fledged member of Britain’s Special Air Service, and onto the right sleeve of his uniform goes the parachutist’s badge of miniature parachute with blue wings on each side—and he carries it as proudly as a new pilot wears his wings.
Still ahead of him, however, are severe tests such as being dropped in the blackout in unfamiliar, isolated spots. Then it’s large-scale manoeuvres in co-operation with other units of the Army, mock battles in which he has to put into practice all he has learned in his months of training.
And soon—the real thing!
WHAT the “real thing” means the men of the Special Air Service discovered late in February when, in a combined land, air and sea action they pounced on a Nazi radio detection station on the French coast near Le Havre. With fine precision the paratroops plummeted down from their Whitley bombers in the predawn darkness as the Navy was putting Commando squads ashore nearby. The surprise attack destroyed the station, prisoners were seized, and the rough-and-tumble warriors were aboard ship and heading home in about two hours.
It was the first publicized paratroop action since British soldiers dropped into southern Italy a year before. Prior to that most of the paratroop news had been made by the Russians and Germans. To get right back to the beginning, Leonardo da Vinci really started it all some four hundred odd years ago when he formulated the idea from which the parachute was developed. Then about 150 years ago the first parachute descent was made, and in 1803 Napoleon even had a plan drawn up for dropping men from balloons behind the enemy’s lines in a proposed invasion of England.
But it was not until about ten
years ago that the Russians started translating the idea of Hie parachute into a means of warlike attack in a practical way. We all remember the photographs which at that time found their way out of Soviet Russia and into newspapers all over the world, showing Russian troops dropping by the thousands from the sky, and people young and old making practice descents from parachute towers.
At military manoeuvres at Moscow in 1937 visiting military attachés from many countries saw the Soviet’s new paratroops in action. Most of them were interested, but shock their heads and dismissed the whole thing as a stunt, quite novel but of no practical value.
Not so the German military attachés. They hurried home and told the Nazi warlords all about it. Result: in the Norway invasion the Germans for the first time used their highly-trained paratroops on a large scale, but with only middling success. It was not until the invasion of Holland and Belgium that the importance of the parachutist was really proved. In that campaign, paratroops, dropped by the thousands behind the enemy lines and aided by fifth columnists, occupied key points, spread terror among the civilians, cut communications, captured airdromes and prepared them for oncoming troop-carrying planes.
Broadly speaking, paratroops can be used in two ways: either, as in the invasion of Holland and Belgium, they can be used as the advance guard of much larger air-borne forces carried in troop transports, or in smaller groups for intermittent raids in which sabotage is carried out at key points behind the enemy’s lines.
In the words of a spokesman of the Imperial Forces: “For us, before we are ready to embark on large-scale offensives, paratroops offer a means of local attack on vital points—as it were of sticking a hypodermic into specially sensitive places in the enemy’s anatomy.”
Such an operation as this was the British paratroop attack near Le Havre. On a perhaps somewhat larger scale it followed the same pattern laid down by the earlier paratroop landing in southern Italy.
That, to date, is about the sum total of public information available on British paratroops at grips with the enemy. But an officer who participated in the “Italian incident” was allowed by the censor to tell an interviewer that the men went into action singing a song specially prepared for the occasion, its refrain running, “Oh, what a surprise for the Duce!”
There must be something about floating earthward in a ’chute that prompts fighting men to burst into song, because the trainees in Britain have their theme song too. Its chorus is:
“If the ’chute doesn’t open, we get no promotion,
So good-by and farewell to you all !”