GENERAL ARTICLES

SKY TROOPS

RONALD A. KEITH August 1 1943
GENERAL ARTICLES

SKY TROOPS

RONALD A. KEITH August 1 1943

SKY TROOPS

They’re tough, determined, razor-keen, these young Canadians who soon will be dropping into Hitler’s back yard

RONALD A. KEITH

"Umbrellas" blossom in the sky as Canadian paratroopers float earthwards.

MOMENTARY panic freezes your nerves as you teeter on the brink. The earth is diminutive and remote below. Suddenly a shout penetrates the insistent thunder of motors and you are falling . . . floundering wildly in the turbulence of a shrieking gale. A resounding whip crack and a teeth-chattering jolt punctuate your plummeting descent. Now, miraculously, the gale has subsided. You are floating serenely as a summer cloud in the sky. You are thinking perhaps you have died and this is heaven. Then the earth comes hurtling up to meet you.

Such are the sensations which you would find compressed into the 50 chaotic seconds of your first jump as a paratrooper.

If you train at Shilo, the Canadian Army’s new school for paratroops in Manitoba, to get your jump you take a two-hour truck ride to the Portage la Prairie airfield. Then you file into an RCAF Lodestar. In 20 minutes you are back at Shilo again, one of a khaki “stick" of eight sky soldiers poised at the open door of the Lodestar, 1,200 feet in the air. There is a staccato sequence of orders.

“Stand up . . . Hook up!" (Static lines are hooked to a cable near the roof.)

“Check equipment!" (Each man checks the ’chute of the man ahead, while the assistant jump master gives a quick once-over) . . .

“Sound off for equipment check!” (No. 8 okay, No. 7 okay, etc.) . . .

“Stand to the door!”

The stick is in sardine formation. The first man has his right foot pivoted at the door, his left ready to swing out into the slipstream, arms braced for the push-off. Green plastic crash helmets gleam in flashes of sunlight lancing through the cabin windows. Static lines hang slack.

Helmeted and goggled, the jump master is leaning precariously out of the doorway sighting on yellow markers in the field below. His left hand is poised to strike the leg of the first man in the stick.

“Ready . . . Go!” The hand slaps down. There is the scuffle of hard boots against the floor and, in less than four seconds, the plane is empty.

The blast of the slipstream disintegrates the stick. Static lines lash out like bull whips, snatching

off parachute casings and plucking silken canopies out to the full length of the suspension lines before the break cords snap.

This all happens before you can say, “One thousand . . . two thousand . . . three thousand.” Otherwise the jumper starts to clutch at his reserve rip ring. Suddenly, with a clapping that can be heard a mile away, eight white umbrellas are blossoming in the sky. From below they look like a cluster of water lilies floating in an azure pool.

The parachute opens when the jumper is about 70 feet behind and below the plane. In the proper position—feet together, head ducked, arms clutching reserve pack, back to slipstream—the opening jolt is not severe. Otherwise there may be a shattering impact and harness bruises. Leaving the plane, the ’chutist is moving through the air at 100 miles an hour—the plane’s speed. As the ’chute spreads, his forward speed drops to zero and he is falling at 17 to 20 feet a second, or about 12 miles an hour.

Under ideal conditions there’s nothing to worry about once the silk has spread. But the paratrooper learns always to look down, watching out for such obstacles as river, power lines, trees and buildings which make for unhappy landings. By pulling on the risers he can slip his ’chute in any direction, thus steering his descent.

Touching down with a vertical speed of 12 miles

an hour is not difficult, just like hopping from a 10-foot platform. But when there’s a wind it’s more like leaping from the roof of a moving train. An inexpert landing in a wind of 15 or 20 miles an hour can result in bruises and fractures.

Jump Jitters

JUMP jitters are the special department of Captain Henry Fauquier, Toronto, chief jump master at Shilo. He has flown with so many batches of novice jumpers that he is trigger-quick at detecting the symptoms of panic paralysis. He is obviously not the nervous type himself. This is evident in his stocky, powerful “fuselage,” roughand-ready character, flashing dark eyes, and his background of engineering, prospecting and bush flying.

But his understanding of the student jumper’s difficulties springs directly from his own tribulations. He describes them thus: “Did jumping

scare me? Not much ! I only lost 20 pounds during four weeks of jump training at Fort Benning. Waiting for the first jump, I kept trying to kid myself that it was fun, but I knew differently.

“I had often heard that a man’s whole life passes before him when he is drowning, but 1 always figured the story was so much malarkey. But it happened to my brother when he was spinning in a plane out of control. And it happened to me when I stood in the door for my first leap. In a matter of seconds, my mind seemed to click back and I was remembering things that happened when I was three years old ... no kidding!”

Capt. Fauquier notes a general similarity of reaction to the prospect of jumping. Most of the boys, he says, try to look as nonchalant as they wish they were. They think they are smiling but are actually registering about as much happiness as a frozen mackerel. The average chap finds himself breaking out in a cold sweat. The inside of his mouth tastes like blotting paper. Sometimes the group are as noisy as a washerwomen’s convention, then suddenly they are morosely silent.

Occasionally a man “freezes” and refuses to jump. The jump master described it this way: “There was one lad who looked wobbly as soon as the plane took off. He just sat there with a fixed

expression, staring straight ahead, eyes slightly glazed, not even trying to crack a smile while the other boys were making their feeble jokes and breaking into forced laughter. So I kept an eye on him.

“When the order was given to stand up and hook static lines, he remained seated. When I spoke to him he didn’t say a word—just sat there staring straight ahead. Well, we completed the run-up and jumped the rest of the stick. Then, as we circled, I tried to persuade this boy there was nothing to it. He relaxed a little and said he would jump if I would promise to push him out. As we lined up on the target again, he managed to stand up and fasten his static line. But when he moved to the door he stiffened and froze, refused to move. His eyes looked as if he were in a trance. So I pulled him back to his seat—that was the end of his career as a paratrooper.”

Capt. Fauquier explained that under no circumstances was a man forced to jump. During the qualifying period, if he hesitates at the “stand up, hook up” order, he is pulled out of the line. Then he is given a second chance to go. If he still fails, he is “washed out” and transferred from the station without delay.

Every effort is made to eliminate the unfit before they reach the jumping stage. One reason for this is the concern of officers ovei the effect of a refusal on the man’s self-respect. They do not consider such a man inferior, but they know his own failure at the crucial moment may remain as a dark cloud over his life.

Dislike “Superman” Ballyhoo

THE paratroopers at Shilo evidenced strong distaste for a certain type of press ballyhoo heralding them as “supermen of the skies.” For the most part the Shilo product is merely a determined young Canadian with a tough and dangerous job ahead of him and the training for that job behind him. He is typified in 33-year-old Lieut.-Col. George Frederick Bradbrooke, who is commanding officer of the First Canadian Parachute Battalion.

Before the war, the paratroop commander, who is the son of a lieutenant-colonel, was nothing more

sensational than an accountant at a desk in Regina and a graduate of the University of Saskatchewan. He went overseas with the Saskatchewan Light Infantry, participated in the Commando raid on Spitsbergen, visited Russia, then volunteered for the paratroops. He was trained at a jumping school in England and then at an American base at Fort Benning, Georgia.

You might expect to meet a man of bulging biceps, barrel chest and a booming voice. Instead, Lieut.-Col. Bradbrooke is of normal stature and of rather slender proportions. His conversational manner is genial rather than belligerent.

This soft-spoken soldier blends infectious enthusiasm with the wisdom of a seasoned jumper. Analyzing the paratroop job with an accountant’s precision, he says: “There has been a lot of newspaper guff about the glamour of the paratroops. That’s all wrong. We are just fellows who are interested in doing a certain type of specialized job and we have been fortunate enough to be selected. Of course there are special risks. The paratroops are the tip of the spear. They must expect to go in first, to penetrate behind enemy lines and to fight in isolated positions.”

He believes the paratroops should be tough without being toughs and his policy aims at developing determination, skill and resourcefulness rather than stirring brutal instincts. By the time a healthy young Canadian emerges from the physical conditioning, the qualifying jumps and the operational training that make a paratrooper, he has the hardy resiliency of India rubber, wildcat agility, a surplus of ingenuity and, of course, guts. That, in the opinion of Lieut.-Col. Bradbrooke, is too hot a recipe for the enemy to swallow.

His own most difficult experience came early in the English jump training. “In England,” he says, “they don’t have the steel jump tower to break you in gently. Instead, you get your first experience by floating up to 750 feet in the basket of a captive balloon. Then, with no reserve ’chute, you simply drop through a hole in the floor. There’s no roar of engines to drown out your thoughts and there’s no slipstream to crack open your canopy . . . just a great silence and that hole in the floor. On the word of command you drop through the hole at attention and down you go. A fellow never forgets

that long drop ! After you have fallen free for about 150 feet, the ’chute spreads gradually.”

Altitude Phobia

THE C.O. has his theories on intestinal fortitude and parachuting. He maintains that a man’s ability to move up to the open door of a plane and, on the word of command, to step smartly out into the sky is not necessarily a fair measure of his courage. Some people, he says, are afflicted with altitude phobia—fear of height. Others are less affected by it.

He cited as an example the case of one of his officers—“one of the keenest fellows in the unit. No one could ask for a better type of man. He had real courage, too.” But when it came to jumping, this man was gripped by height fear so powerful that it almost overwhelmed him. He managed to master this panic sufficiently to force himself out of the plane for his five qualifying jumps.

“He would have kept on jumping, but I saw the strain would break him. He simply couldn’t stand it and finally we had to have him transferred. I really hated to see him go because I know he would be a courageous and efficient officer in battle,” Lieut.-Col. Bradbrooke spoke with sincere regret.

Strangely enough, the first jump is rarely the most difficult. Capt. Fauquier claims this is because a high percentage of novice jumpers “black out” in their first few jumps and hardly know what’s happening. Later, as they become more accustomed to the experience, they are more acutely aware of the descent.

One qualified jumper hitting the ground on his seventh leap was asked how he liked it. “Do you know,” he said, “that was the toughest jump I have made yet and I don’t know why.

It had me scared pink !”

Refusal to make any of the first five qualifying jumps means a “washout” and transfer out of an air-borne division. But once a man has qualified and is wearing his paratroop wings, refusal to jump is considered a court-martial offense. Even the slightest hesitation is not tolerated.

If a man falters in making a jump from 1,200 feet over a training field under ideal conditions it is certain he will balk when it comes to bailing out at several hundred feet without a reserve ’chute into enemy territory at night.

Stern measures are necessary because one man’s hesitation in a combat jump might jeopardize an entire mission. If a man in the middle of a stick were to pause even for a few seconds it would mean that, instead of dropping in a compact cluster and assembling quickly on the ground, the force would be split up and dispersed over a wide area.

They might never get together. Some of the more experienced jumpers, especially the jump masters who are used to crouching half-out of the open door of the plane, find leaping into thin air an exhilarating experience. A few of the lads even

become “jump happy,” and are in danger of becoming careless. One of the jump masters likes to do a swan dive out of the plane, yelling like a wild Indian. Another clowns by holding his nose like a schoolboy jumping into the old swimming hole. But such exuberant tendencies are discouraged as is the desire of some of the ’chutists to make a free jump with the reserve pack only and without the automatic opening of the static line.

Miners, Sailors, Magicians

CANADA’S embryo sky soldiers come from almost every walk of life. There are hardrock miners and accountants, farmers, trappers, bank clerks, lumberjacks, storekeepers, sheet metal

workers, schoolteachers, merchant sailors, pilots, permanent force soldiers, at least one silversmith, and a man who was a combined magician, professional parachute jumper and garage operator.

Hailing from every part of Canada, paratroop recruits are streaming into the efficient training machine already in operation at Shilo. The entrance funnel turning aside many applicants is a selection board designed to eliminate at the start those who are psychologically or physically unfit.

Because paratroops will be playing the war game in the toughest league there is, the standards are rigid. Their age bracket is from 18 to 32 inclusive. Their medical must be A category with special attention to soundness of bones, muscles and nerve reactions. Vision requirements, 20-20, are even more strict than those for air crew as the latter are allowed 20-60 vision correctable to 20-20 with glasses.

You can’t be wearing spectacles or false teeth either, and be happy in the paratroops. The height limit is six feet and the maximum weight is 185 pounds.

Medical requirements state the applicant must be “alert, active, supple, with firm muscles and sound limbs, capable of development into an aggressive individual fighter of great endurance.” When they italicize “great endurance” they aren’t fooling. This becomes painfully evident to the trainee during the “A” stage of training which occupies the first week of the four-lap schedule.

Frankly, the physical conditioning instructors are out to toughen their men iron-hard or force them out of the school if they can’t stand the pace.

Though most of them previously have had the Army’s basic training and are no strangers to packladen route marches, they soon discover by comparison their previous experience was about as strenuous as a tea social.

Here there is no let-up. For nine hours a day the muscles strain and the perspiration flows. The men in training swarm all over the big gymnasium, swinging dumbbells, scrambling up 50-foot ropes, exercising on the stall bars, playing volleyball and tumbling on the trampolin which is a taut canvas mat stretched on springs three feet above the floor. Before the week is over, lads who had never fancied themselves as tumblers are doing front and back somersaults in mid-air over the trampolin and bouncing like tennis balls.

In another section of the gym parachute harnesses are suspended from free-swinging frames. The recruit spends hours learning the technique of controlling the parachute descent by manipulating the four riser bands which connect his harness with the suspension lines funnelling out to the skirt of the canopy.

He is told that the parachute is as controllable as a glider and that an experienced man can guide his descent to a preselected spot landing. The method is simple but the technique takes practice. To side-slip to the right, for example, the two right risers are pulled. The right skirt of the canopy is collapsed and air spills out the upper or left side, creating the effect of an inclined plane. Similarly, the ’chute will slip forward, backward or to the left by pulling on the appropriate risers. The “steering” of a parachute is important in avoiding obstacles such as rivers, high-tension wires, trees and buildings. Equally important is the body turn so that the landing is always made with the wind at the back, drifting forward.

Aerial T arzans

THE assault course, patterned after that of the U. S. Paramarines, is an entire athletic training in itself. It consists of a quarter-mile stretch of obstacles, including eight-foot walls, water-filled ditches, tangles of barbed wire, heaps of logs and underbrush, ropes for swinging across mock rivers—in fact just about the entire set for a Tarazan serial.

When a group of paratroop trainees on the double have reached the end of this obstacle course they are smiling bravely through streams of perspiration . . . until ordered to double back and do it over again just for the exercise.

Although “B,” “C,” and “D” phases of the training are concerned primarily with the application of “A’s” physical fitness to specific preparation for jumping, the strengthening of muscles and sharpening of wits are ever-present considerations. Thus, the assault course is popular with the instructors throughout the training and a drowsy attitude is never encouraged. In the midst of a lecture, for instance, an instructor will suddenly shout— “Jab!” Any student not sufficiently awake to plunge his right fist to his left breast within a split second of this command is given the privilege of doing 50 push-ups or running a few miles with full pack.

Stage “B”—the second week—is devoted to refinements of the conditioning process with special emphasis on tumbling, hand-to-hand combat (judo) and special training in the proper methods of falling and landing. In addition to tumbling from three-foot platforms and wrestling in the judo pits, practice “sticks” of men sit in dummy fuselages then stand to the door and jump on orders. They scale a ladder to a dummy plane 30 feet in the air. Leaping

out of this contraption, according to some, is more nerve-racking than jumping from a plane because you think you are sure to hit the ground. However, your harness is linked to a cable and after a 12-foot drop you swing and slide down an incline into a sawdust heap.

At this point, the trainee is introduced to the mysteries of the parachute. He becomes familiar with its every part and for a total of 64 hours he learns how to fold and pack his life preserver. There is no difficulty in maintaining interest in these classes, for each student knows he has to pack his own ’chute when he jumps—and he has an extraordinary interest in learning to do it properly. From the moment he arrives on the station the

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sky-bound recruit finds his gaze wandering to the 256-foot jump tower which rears its majestic framework against the Shilo sky. During “C” stage the third week — he spends much of Ids time dangling from the steel cables and outstretched arms of this super-gigantic Frankenstein. The tower is designed to pluck preopened parachutes high into the air then release them with their passengers for the 256-foot drop.

To get the feel of dropping, the trainee first rides in a chair which drops attached to a parachute controlled by guide cables. Then he does the same thing in a harness.

Shock Harness Rule

Tl/TOST nerve-tingling ordeal on [Tl the jump tower is a ride in the shock harness. Hanging aslant, head down, in a harness on the end of a cable, you are hauled up about 150 feet. Then, on command, you pull a i ip ring which drops you free to the end of a 12-foot line. While dropping head down you are required to shout “one thousand . . . two

thousand . . . three thousand,” at the same time changing the ring from the right hand to the left. This particular bit of mental torture is calculated to demonstrate whether or not you are capable of thinking and acting while falling. It’s considered very important.

Finally, the recruit gets a sample of the real thing when his ’chute is released from one of the three flyaway arms. At the top of the long ride up there is a metallic click as the automatic release is sprung. You hear the flutter of silk and the air rushes up past your face but there is no unpleasant falling sensation. An instructor on the ground shouts instructions and the jumper puts into I practice the body turns which he has ! learned in the suspended harness.

I The schedule, divided into 45; minute periods, calls for three periods i in the chair and suspended harness and 12 periods of 16 hours a class I devoted to jumping practice from ; the free tower.

The “introduction - to - the - air”

I stage is completed with experience I in collapsing the ’chute after landing.

I This is necessary because in a stiff breeze, the jumper might be dragged 1 ? cross the countryside at a merry j clip by his wind-puffed canopy.

Wearing overalls described as a I drag suit, the student struggles with ! an opened ’chute in the blast of a ! power-driven wind machine which i whips up a minor gale. The air is ! spilled from the canopy by pulling : on the lew er risers.

Several orientation flights accustom the novice to being in the air ¡ and give the instructors a chance to ; study individual flight reactions, i Then, after observing moving pictures which demonstrate right and I wrong jumping techniques, the I trainee is ready for stage “D”—the fourth week—during which he makes

his five qualifying jumps and earns his paratroop wings.

Canada’s First Parachute Battalion was trained in England, then at Fort Benning, Georgia, and finally moved to Camp Shilo, Manitoba, for advanced training. There the training school for air-borne commandos incorporates both the English and American methods.

Assault from the sky was pioneered by the Russians who were making mass jumps as early as 1931. Then the technique was adopted by Germany and applied with devastatingeffect in the capture of Crete.

The more “air-conditioned” military strategists have long been convinced that air-borne divisions are the only invasion spearhead capable of penetrating the enemy’s defensive armor. Training schools in England, the United States and Canada are steadily expanding the air-borne offensive forces.

British and American paratroop units have already distinguished themselves in action. The Britishers got their first taste of battle in the successful air Commando raid on the radiolocator station at Bruneval, between Le Havre and Dieppe. Then, last November, American parachutists staged the longest airborne invasion in history when they flew 1,500 miles nonstop from England to drop into the thick of the assault on Oran. Wearing camouflaged battle suits and helmets they flew for eight hours over Europe and across the Mediterranean. After taking off in England on a Saturday night they floated silently down on the outskirts of Oran at dawn cn Sunday. The longest previous invasion leap reported was the 400-mile flight of German parachutists to assault Narvik, Norway.

Early this year the Nazis themselves reported that British and Norwegian parachutists had established headquarters on a mountain plateau west of Bergen from which they were raiding important industrial works.

During the assault on Tunisia, the paratroops attached to the First Army went so unexpectedly and ferociously on the offensive behind enemy lines that the Germans called them “Roteteufeln”—Red Devils. They wore green jump suits and scarlet berets and specialized in turning the enemy’s own guns against him. One air-borne assault force dropped on the very outskirts of Tunis and wrought destruction behind the enemy lines for a full week before the main Allied offensive caught up with them.

Canada’s paratroops, with their distinctive maroon berets, white winged parachute badges and polished brown jump boots, wear shoulder flashes with the label— “Air-borne Canada.” They don’t know the German words for “Maroon Menace” but when they fly and ’chute into the enemy’s back yard they are determined their name will spread terror in Hitler’s Fortress.