A Brief Historical over view of the British Airborne
In 1940, when Britain faced invasion, Winston Churchill sought the means to strike back at the enemy. One example was his memo to the War Office dated the 22nd June '. . .we ought to have a corps of at least 5,000 parachute troops . . .' and it is from this date that the British Airborne Forces history begins.
Despite a lack of experience and equipment, a small band of resourceful men began at once to create this new force. Events moved rapidly. The Central Landing School was set up at Ringway, Manchester, by Army and RAF staff: men of No. 2 Commando were selected for training, and the first jumps were carried out on the 13 July 1940. In September the first Hotspur gliders were ordered.
By the end of 1940, 2 Commando, now 500 strong with a parachute and a glider wing, was renamed 11th Special Air Service Battalion. In February 1941, only nine months after formation, the first airborne operation took place, when 38 men parachuted into Southern Italy to destroy the Tragino Aqueduct.
After these tentative trials, 1941 was a year of development and expansion. The 1st Parachute Brigade was formed in September, and shortly afterwards, an infantry brigade became the 1st Airlanding Brigade, with four airlanding battalions with supporting arms and services, commenced training with the gliders that were now coming off the production line. In India the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade was formed. Major General F A M Browning was appointed Commander of Parachute and Airborne Troops. From his small HQ, the 1st Airborne Division was formed in November. In December 1941, the Glider Pilot Regiment was established, as part of the Army Air Corps, to fly the gliders: initially Hotspurs and Wacos, then Horsas and Hamilcars. The officer and sergeant pilots, all trained soldiers, fought many gallant actions along side the airborne troops they had landed. Later in August 1942, all parachute battalions became battalions of The Parachute Regiment in this new corps.
In February 1942, "C" Company 2nd Parachute Battalion, under Major John Frost, carried out the highly successful parachute raid to capture a vital part of the German radar installation at Bruneval in northern France. During the year, the 1st Airborne Division was built up, based on the two brigades, with the newly formed 2nd Parachute Brigade, together with a full compliment of supporting arms and services, trained to land by parachute or glider. 38 Group RAF was created to work closely with the division. In November 1942, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions carried out three separate battalion operations in North Africa, to support the First Army's advance towards Tunis. During the winter of 1942, the 1st Parachute Brigade fought hard battles in the Tunisian hills, earning a reputation within the Army as high-class infantry and, from their German opponents, the name 'Red Devils'.
In May 1943, this brigade was joined by the rest of 1st Airborne Division in North Africa, and by the 4th Parachute Brigade from the Middle East. Preparations started for further airborne operations into Southern Europe. In England the Airborne Division was created, based on the 3rd Parachute Brigade, and two of the original airlanding battalions. Other elements were converted to form the 5th Parachute Brigade and the divisional units. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion also joined the 6th Airborne Division at this time. On the 10th July 1943, British and American airborne troops spearheaded the Allied invasion of Sicily. 1st Air Landing Brigade in their gliders landed first, followed three days later by 1st Parachute Brigade. Landings were scattered and casualties were heavy. Especially among the glider-borne troops but the objective was taken. In September the division operated briefly in Southern Italy before returning to England, less 22nd Parachute Brigade Group, to prepare for the invasion of Europe.
On the 6th June 1944 the 6th Airborne Division carried out an airborne assault into Normandy to seize important bridges, to destroy the battery at Merville, and to hold the high ground overlooking the left flank of the Allied bridgehead. Using aggressive tactics against strong enemy attacks, the division, after fighting for nearly six months, took part in the Allied invasion of the South of France on the 5th August. Two weeks later, the brigade was withdrawn to prepare for the liberation of Greece. Landing near Athens, they helped the Allied Forces bring peace to the country amidst a bitter civil war.
In September, as the Allies approached Germany, the 1st Airborne Division, with 82nd and 101st US Airborne Divisions, mounted Operation Market Garden, an attempt to secure the bridges needed for an advance into Germany. The 1st Airborne Division's objective, the bridge at Arnhem, was held for four days and remnants of the division fought on for another five days until ordered to withdraw.
Just before Christmas 1944, the 6th Airborne Division was hurriedly despatched to the Ardennes to help stem the German counter-offensive, which threatened to split the Allied armies. After fighting in the snow-covered forests for two months, the division was withdrawn to prepare for the final airborne operation of the war in Europe. In one huge air armada, consisting the 6th British and 17th US Airborne Divisions, they were landed on the east bank of the River Rhine near Wesel. After a brief pause, the division fought on across Germany to reach the Baltic first and met the advancing Russian Army.
As the war in Europe ended, the re-formed 1st Airborne Division, after a short spell in Norway, was disbanded and many of its units amalgamated into the 6th Airborne Division, which was ordered to the Far East for further operations. The 5th Parachute Brigade, already there at the time of the Japanese surrender, landed by sea in Malaya and was then sent on to Java to help restore order.
In September 1945, the 6th Airborne Division was sent to Palestine to be part of the Middle East strategic reserve, but instead became embroiled in the long and thankless task of maintaining peace in that troubled land. With the final withdrawal in 1948 from Palestine the division was disbanded.
British Airborne Forces, which in 1944 numbered some 35,000 men, were now reduced to one brigade. Namely the 2nd Parachute Brigade Group in Germany and this became the nucleus of the post-war Regular Airborne Forces. It was re-designated 16th Parachute Brigade Group and its battalions merged with those returning from Palestine forming today's 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions, The Parachute Regiment, together with supporting Arms and Services.
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