The Parachute Regiment is the Airborne Infantry element of the British Army. It is an elite unit by virtue of its stringent selection process, rigorous training program and by the requirement of its role to operate with minimal or no support behind enemy lines and against numerically superior forces. It forms the parachute infantry element of 16 Air Assault Brigade.
The regiment is formed of three regular and one reserve [TA] battalions. One battalion, the 1st Battalion, is permanently attached to Director Special Forces in the Special Forces Support Group:
1st Battalion Parachute Regiment (1 PARA)
2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment (2 PARA)
3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment (3 PARA)
4th Battalion Parachute Regiment (4 PARA)
The 3rd Battalion includes the Guards Parachute Platoon, made up of men from the five Foot Guards regiments.
All Parachute Regiment recruit training and the Pre-Parachute Selection Course, (P Company) is undertaken at the Infantry Training Centre, Catterick.
The Parachute Regiment has its origins in the force set up by the British Army at the request of Winston Churchill. The UK was inspired in the creation of airborne forces (including the Parachute Regiment, Air Landing Regiments, and the Glider Pilot Regiment) by the example of the German Luftwaffe's Fallschirmjäger, which had a major role in the invasions of Norway, and the Low Countries, and a pivotal, if Pyrrhic, one in the invasion of Crete.
The UK's first airborne assault took place on 10 February 1941, when, what was then known as II Special Air Service (some 40 men of 500 trained in parachuting), introduced themselves to the enemy by jumping into Italy and blowing up an aqueduct in a daring raid named Operation Colossus.
After the German's successful invasion of Crete, it was agreed by the British Chiefs of Staff that the UK would need far more paratroopers for similar operations. No. 2 Commando were tasked with specialising in airborne assault and became the nucleus of the Parachute Regiment.
Impressed by the German Fallschirmjäger in the early years of the war, on 22 June 1940, Winston Churchill called for the formation of a similar elite Corps of troops for the British Army during World War II. The Parachute Regiment was created and by the end of the war would form 17 battalions. The Parachute Regiment would form the core for the 1st Airborne Division (United Kingdom) and 6th airborne divisions and the independent British 2nd Parachute Brigade. They also supplied battalions for the 50th and 77th Indian Parachute Brigades.
A Würzburg radar on the coast of France was attacked by British Paratroopers in Operation Biting on 27 February 1942. The electronics of the system were brought back to Britain for examination so that counter measures could be devised.
As part of the Operation Husky four airborne operations were carried out, landing during the night of the 9/10 July 1943; two were British and two American. The strong winds blew the dropping aircraft off course and scattered them widely. British glider-landed troops fared badly; only 12 out of 144 gliders landing on target, many landing in the sea. Nevertheless the scattered airborne troops maximised their opportunities, attacking patrols and creating confusion wherever possible.
It was during operations in North Africa that the maroon beret was first seen by German troops. Within months they had christened them Rote Teufel - Red Devils. However, this nickname was not a reference to the colour of their headgear but in fact due to the red mud that the soldiers were covered in after heavy rain.
During the Allied invasion of Italy the British 1st Airborne Division landed by sea near the port of Taranto in the 'heel' of Italy (Operation Slapstick). Their task was to capture the port and several nearby airfields and link with the British Eighth Army before pressing north to join the US Fifth Army near Foggia.
There were many separate airborne operations during Operation Overlord on D-Day (June 6, 1944) but broadly the task of the airborne forces was to secure the flanks of the landing beaches in Normandy. The British secured the Eastern flank in Operation Tonga. There were other operations designed to take the specific hardened targets notably the guns of the Merville gun battery. Buried under 12 ft-thick concrete, the four 105 mm guns, just miles from the beaches of Sword, Juno and Gold, had the capability to engage warships out at sea and sink landing craft heading for the beaches. The task of putting them out of action fell to the 9th Bn Parachute Regiment which they succeeded in doing for 36 hours by killing all but a handful of the gunners.
On 15 August 1944, parachute units of the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade, which included the 4th, 5th and 6th Para battalions and 1st Independent Pathfinder Platoon, dropped into Southern France between Frejus and Cannes as part of Operation Dragoon. Their objective was to capture the area, destroy all enemy positions and hold the ground until the US Seventh Army came ashore. Once they had captured their initial targets, they were reinforced by three thousand soldiers and critical equipment carried in over three hundred gliders in an operation code named Dove. The drop was almost unopposed and within days the British parachute group was withdrawn by sea to Italy in readiness for future operations.
Perhaps the most famous airborne operation of history is Operation Market Garden of September 1944, in which 35,000 troops of the First Allied Airborne Army were dropped 100 miles behind the German front lines in an attempt to create a path across the Netherlands including the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. Three complete airborne divisions, the 1st Airborne Division (United Kingdom), and the 82nd Airborne Division (United States) and 101st Airborne Division (United States), and the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade (Poland) from the Army were used. The units were dropped at various points along Highway 69 in order to create a "carpet" over which the XXX Corps (United Kingdom) could rapidly advance. German opposition was some three times than expected, including two under-strength but very experienced panzer divisions. Although the operation had partial success in the end the British 1st Airborne division was all but destroyed in the Battle of Arnhem and the final bridge remained in German hands.
Cornelius Ryan, in his book A Bridge Too Far, tells - upon finally surrendering in the ruins of Arnhem, with no ammunition and virtually starved, a German officer reputedly said to a British officer. "I fought at Stalingrad and it is obvious that you British have had a great deal of experience in street fighting". The British officer, Major C.F.H. "Freddie" Gough stared at him and replied, "No, this was our first effort. We'll be much better next time."
Operation Varsity, the crossing of the Rhine river, was the largest single airborne operation conducted in the history of airborne warfare. During the Rhine Crossing, a total of six parachute battalions, including the Canadians, of the British 6th Airborne Division, supported by glider troops from the Air Landing Brigade, dropped on March 24, 1945, as a complete force, avoiding the mistakes of Arnhem.
Together with the US 17th Airborne Division, the aim of the operation was to secure and deepen the bridgehead cast of the Rhine and then advance across country to the Baltic coast, a journey of 350 miles. Their initial objectives were the high ground overlooking the crossing, point at Diersfordter Wald and the road and rail bridges over the River Issel at Hamminkeln.
After the Second World War regular airborne forces were reduced to the 16th Independent Parachute Brigade Group while in the Territorial Army there was the 16th Airborne Division (TA), which was reduced to the 44th Independent Parachute Brigade Group (TA) in 1956.
In 1954, at the request of the Director of Operations in Malaya, an Independent Parachute Squadron was raised from volunteers from the Parachute Regiment to assist 22 SAS by providing a fourth sabre squadron for operations during the Malayan Emergency. Some 80 officers and men were selected to form The Independent Parachute Squadron and served in Malaya on operations with 22 SAS until disbanded in May 1957 on return to the UK. Starting in January 1956, all three battalions were sent to Cyprus to counter the EOKA insurgents.
In the Suez Crisis of November 1956, Operation Musketeer needed the element of total surprise to succeed, and all 660 men had to be on the ground at El Gamil airfield and ready for action within four and a half minutes. At 04.15 hours on 5 November 1956, 3 Para jumped in and although opposition was heavy, casualties were few. This was the "first and last operational parachute assault since the Second World War". 2 Para landed by sea.
In 1964, 2 Para had been sent to Singapore for jungle warfare training, after Indonesia threatened to invade the Malaysian state of Borneo in what became known as the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation. The remainder of the unit followed in March 1965, and moved direct to the Indonesian border to conduct patrols. A month later one of the biggest battles of the war took place, when an Indonesian battalion attacked B Company of 2 Para at their camp on Plaman Mapu. More than 50 Indonesians were killed, and the Paras lost two men with seven injured. This short, but intense Far East deployment, ended in July, the Battalion having been awarded eight decorations including a DCM awarded to CSM, later Lieutenant Colonel John Williams MBE DCM and two Military Medals.
In April 1964, 3 Para formed part of the British response to the uprising in the Radfan mountains of the South Arabian Federation. In an action at Wadi Dhubson, the Battalion gained a DSO, and MC and four other medals. In 1965, both 1 and 3 Para in turn went to British Guiana for internal security duties in the run-up to independence. In January 1967, 1 Para was sent on emergency tour to Aden to cover the final withdrawal of British troops from the region. During a series of actions in June in the Sheik Othman and Al Mansura districts of Aden, the battalion's commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Michael J. H. Walsh was awarded the DSO. In March 1969, 2 Para conducted an amphibious landing on the Caribbean island of Anguilla to counter an armed uprising; the battalion was subsequently awarded the Wilkinson Sword of Peace "for acts of humanity and kindness overseas".
Major-General Glyn Gilbert was instrumental, throughout this period, in ensuring the Regiments survival, and in advancing the doctrine of airborne warfare. He also created the Red Devils parachute display team, and instituted the Platoon Sergeants' Battle Course at Brecon, which was later extended to the entire British Army.
Throughout "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland, the regiment's battalions undertook many tours of duty. In 1972, while assisting other regiments in arresting possible rioters during a civil rights march from taking place in Derry, twenty-seven civilians were shot, fourteen fatally, this event became known as Bloody Sunday. The Regiment has been criticised for its involvement in this event by the Saville Report which identified significant failures of leadership and command by the Commanding Officer and individual failures by the soldiers involved.
British Prime Minister David Cameron in addressing the House of Commons after its publication on 15 June 2010 apologised on behalf of the British Government saying that what happened had been unjustified and wrong. He identified the conclusions of the report, the incident had not been premeditated, opening shots had been made by a soldier and that the civilians shot or injured had been unarmed.
During their tours of duty between 1971 and 1991, the Parachute Regiment lost forty men killed in The Troubles. The first of these, Sergeant Michael Willetts, was awarded the George Cross for saving a dozen lives at the cost of his own during a bombing.
On 27 August 1979 sixteen members of the Parachute Regiment and two members of the Queen's Own Highlanders were killed at Warrenpoint in Northern Ireland by two roadside bombs planted by the Provisional IRA.
During the Falklands War in 1982, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were used to bring 3 Commando Brigade up to war-strength. The regiment played a prominent part in the conflict, two of its soldiers being awarded the Victoria Cross. The two recipients were Lieutenant-Colonel 'H'. Jones and Sergeant Ian McKay.
During this time the Parachute Regiment was part of the 5th Airborne Brigade. In the 1990s due to defence cuts after the end of the Cold War (Options for Change), the 15th (Scottish Volunteer) Battalion was reduced to a company in 1993 becoming part of the 4th Battalion.
The 1st Battalion, augmented by C Company of 3rd Battalion, took part in the Kosovo War in 1999 (Operation Joint Guardian) and tasks given to the Battle group during the conflict included the heliborne assault to secure the Kačanik pass and its strategic assets. This was the only road between the Macedonian border and Pristina and its use was key to the following armoured units.
In 1999 the 10th (Volunteer) Battalion was reduced to a Company leaving only a single Reserve battalion of the Parachute Regiment. This Battalion, 4th Battalion, had its Battalion HQ in Pudsey with sub-units located throughout the UK: 10 (London) Company in White City and Croydon; 12 (Yorkshire) Company in Pudsey and Hebburn and 15 (Scottish) Company of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
After the civil war in Sierra Leone deteriorated further, the 1st Battalion landed at the country's capital, Freetown, on 7 May 2000 to evacuate foreign nationals. The battalion was the lead element of a large naval task group, centred around HMS Ocean, that was heading for Sierra Leone as part of Operation Palliser. After the evacuation was completed, they were tasked with retaining control of Freetown airport to ensure that UN supplies could be brought into the country, while also patrolling in the capital city. The rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, had been captured by government forces on 17 May. Operation Palliser ended on 15 June.
After 11 soldiers of the 1st Royal Irish Regiment (RIR) and a Sierra Leone soldier were taken hostage by a rebel faction known as the West Side Boys (West Side Boys was the name favoured by western media, although in actuality, West Side Niggaz was the correct name) on 25 August, "A" Company of the 1st Battalion was deployed to Dakar, Senegal on 5 September, then onto Freetown. Five RIR soldiers had been released on 30 August, but after the rebels carried out mock executions, A Company, the Special Boat Service, and the Special Air Service, supported by two Army Air Corps helicopters, launched a rescue attempt (Operation Barras) on 10 September. They successfully released the soldiers and captured many rebels, including their leader, Foday Kallay. They also recovered the two Land Rovers that the soldiers of the RIR were ambushed in while patrolling.
In August 2001 the 2nd Battalion took part in NATO's intervention in the Republic of Macedonia to disarm the rebel National Liberation Army (Operation Essential Harvest).
The 1st and 3rd Battalions together with the Pathfinder Platoon took part in Operation Telic, the UK's contribution to the 2003 invasion of Iraq that began on 20 March. The two battalions were part of 16 Air Assault Brigade. In addition to this, 120 soldiers of the Territorial Army 4th Battalion were used to augment the regulars.
The regiment was actively involved in operations leading up to the capture of Iraq's second largest city, Basra. After 7 Armoured Brigade pushed into the city on 6 April, the 3rd Battalion cleared the 'old quarter' that was inaccessible to vehicles. Operation Telic.
The war officially ended on 1 May, but the Battalion remained in Iraq, operating in the British area in the south of the country. The Parachute Regiment was based in Maysan Province, mostly quiet though they did have sporadic encounters with Iraqi guerrillas. A patrol of six Royal Military Policemen all from 156 Provost Company RMP attached to the 1st Battalion were surrounded and killed on 24 June 2003 by Iraqi gunmen in Majar Al Kabir. A patrol from the 1st Battalion was also in Majar Al Kabir when it was ambushed by Iraqi guerrillas, coming under heavy attack. Several members of the subsequent QRF were wounded as their Chinook helicopter came under heavy ground fire as it attempted to land.
Sergeant Gordon Robertson was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross – the second highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy after the Victoria Cross – as part of the Honours List in October. This was the first CGC to be awarded to the Parachute Regiment.
The 1st and 3rd Battalions left Iraq along with the rest of 16 Air Assault Brigade in September.
Roulement tours to Iraq continued for all Battalions of the Regiment as part of Operation Telic; 2nd Battalion deployed in November 2003 on a 6-month tour-of-duty as part of 20 Armoured Brigade, and once again in November 2005 as part of 7 Armoured Brigade, during which Sgt James Newell was awarded the Military Cross for bravery. This was the first non-officer to receive the award in the 2nd Battalion. Meanwhile the 3rd Battalion sent two Companies to support 12 Mechanised Brigade on Operation Telic 6 in 2004. As well as individual reinforcements to all battalions Cassino Company of 4th Battalion deployed to Iraq in October 2005 for 6 months as part of the Divisional Rear Operations Battle Group (1 Royal Irish, later replaced by 1 Royal Scots on January 6). The following Parachute Regiment soldiers have been killed whilst serving in Iraq: Private Andrew Kelly (3rd Battalion); Captain Richard Holmes and Private Lee Ellis (2nd Battalion)
Operation Veritas, Afghanistan The 2nd Battalion deployed into the capital Kabul January 2002 to assist NATO's ISAF. They were there to help ISAF provide security and stability following the American led mission to oust the Taliban. The tour was such a success the 2nd Battalion was awarded the Wilkinson Sword of Peace for its efforts.
In January 2006 16 Air Assault Brigade were tasked to provide a single Airborne Infantry Battle Group (3rd Battalion) for operations in Afghanistan as part of Operation Herrick. The force was deployed into Helmand Province in the south of the country in June 2006. Almost immediately the 3rd Battalion Battle Group were involved in Operation Mountain Thrust, a U.S.-led campaign to flush Taliban guerrillas out of the hills, billed as the biggest Western offensive in Afghanistan since 2002.
Articles and web sites of interest