British Airborne Forces 1942-43

Red Devils

British Airborne Forces 1942-43
History by Jeff Key, additional history and organisation information by Andy Parkes, donkey work by Wayne Turner.

The maroon beret of the British airborne forces was first seen by German troops in North Africa and within months they had christened the ferocious Paras as Rote Teufel - Red Devils.

This distinctive head dress was officially introduced in 1942, at the direction of General Browning, and the Pegasus symbol - Bellerophon astride winged Pegasus - became the emblem of British Airborne Forces.  The maroon beret has since been adopted by parachute troops all over the world.

In 1940, when Britain faced invasion, Winston Churchill, sought the means to strike back at the enemy. One example was his memo of 22 June, instructing the War Office ‘ - we ought to have a corps of at least 5,000 parachute troops.’ and it is from this date that British airborne forces start their history. Despite a lack of experience and equipment, a small band of resourceful men began at once to create this new force. Events moved fast; 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 carried out on 13 July. In September the first Hotspur gliders were ordered.

By the end of 1940, No. 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 Aquaduct.

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 and supporting arms and services, started training with the gliders now coming off the production line. In India the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade was formed. Major General F. A. M. Browning was appointed Commander Paratroops and Airborne Troops. From his small HQ, the 1st Airborne Division was formed in November. In December, 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 a German radar installation at Bruneval in northern France. During the year, the 1st Airborne Division was built up, based on the two brigades. The newly formed 2nd Parachute Brigade, together with a full compliment of supporting arms and services, trained to land by either parachute or glider. No. 38 Group RAF was created to provide transport and work closely with the division.

In September of 1942 the 1st Parachute Brigade was dispatched to Tunisia for its first taste of battle. The 1st and 2nd battalions, plus supporting elements, were sent to North Africa by sea. The 3rd battalion was airlifted via Gibralter from St. Eval in Cornwall for the assault on Bone.

However the notion of parachute troops was very much a new idea at this time, and as such the British commanders in the area were unsure as to what to do with them.

Each of the three battalions was sent on an individual operation behind enemy lines, and these ranged from the successful to the downright disastrous.  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’.

On November 12th 1942 the 3rd Parachute Battalion made the first allied operational battalion-sized drop in a successful assault at Bone airfield.

Later when the Paras captured a group of 200 Germans in February 1943, they discovered they were carrying special instructions, telling how best to fight the Rote Teufel. They were overjoyed at the respect they had gained from the Germans.  General Haig congratulated them and General Browning sent a message saying “Such distinctions are seldom given in war and then only to the finest fighting troops”.

In November 1942, the 2nd Parachute Battalion was tasked to mount an operation against enemy held airfields near Depienne, 30 miles south of Tunis.

The battalion jumped, but found the airfield was abandoned and a column of armour scheduled to meet up with them at Oudna never arrived, leaving them abandoned 50 miles behind enemy lines.

They were soon attacked and heavily outnumbered by German units, but battled their way back to Allied lines in a series of ambushes and fire fights, which cost the lives of 16 officers and 250 men.

By 1943, the 1st Parachute Brigade had taken part in more battles than any other formation in the 1st Army, capturing 3,000 prisoners and inflicting more than 5,000 casualties on the enemy, with the loss of 1,700 of its own men.

In February the Brigade had taken up a position on the right of the Allied line and found itself facing a force of Germans in divisional strength, determined to break through the British formation. Despite facing constant artillery attacks, the Paras succeeded in holding the line, in weather conditions more reminiscent of Salisbury Plain than North Africa.
In May 1943, the depleted 1st Parachute Brigade was joined by the rest of 1st Airborne Division (the 2nd Parachute Brigade and the 1st Air Landing Brigade) in North Africa, and by the 4th Parachute Brigade from the Middle East.

Preparations started for further airborne operations into Southern Europe. In the UK, 6th Airborne Division was created, based on the 3rd Parachute Brigade, and two of the original airlanding battalions. Other elements were converted to form 5th Parachute Brigade and the divisional units. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion joined the 6th Airborne Division at this time. On 10 July 1943, British and American airborne troops spearheaded the Allied invasion of Sicily. 
Unloading from a Horsa Glider after training.
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. The 1st Air Landing captured the Ponte Grande, which insured an almost unopposed landing for the beach forces, before the Germans began a counter attack against the lightly equipped airborne troops. The 8th Army soon swept through Ponte Grande to support the 1st Air Landing Brigade and regained control as they pushed inland and north towards Catania and Messina.

Catania was a vital base line for the final advance on Messina and the 1st Parachute Brigade was ordered to take a bridge where the main road crossed the river, called the Ponte di Primosole.

On July 13, more than 112 aircraft and 16 gliders carrying 1,856 men of the 1st Parachute Brigade, and the 1st Airlanding Brigade of 134 gliders, took off from North Africa. Their initial target was to capture the Primosole Bridge, Ponte Grande Bridge and a number of other key locations, providing a pathway for the 8th Army, but the weather was severe and many of the gliders crashed while heavy anti-aircraft fire from friend and foe alike shot down many of the Dakotas before sticks could even jump out. Many gliders also became lost and ditched into the sea before reaching Sicily. 

Only 295 officers and men were dropped close enough to carry out the assault on Primosole Bridge. The German 4th Fallschirmjager Brigade counter attacked and after a fierce battle, the tiny force of airborne troops withdrew to a second line and continued firing, but the bridge was back in enemy hands. 

After the arrival of the 8th Army, the bridge was recaptured by the 9th Battalion the Durham Light Infantry, being guided by Lt Col Alistair Pearson and the remnants of the 1st Parachute Brigade.

Only 47 gliders of the 1st Airlanding Brigade reached land. Those who made it were widely dispersed. The battle for their objectives was fought by subunits and detachments. However, these small groups took most objectives. The Ponte Grande Bridge, on the main road to Syracuse, was taken by a small group from the South Stafford Regiment. Only two gliders from "C" Company (assigned to capture the bridge) actually landed near their objective and one of these (with the Company Commander) crashed on landing.
It fell to Lieutenant Withers commanding 15 Platoon and additional South Staffords and Royal Engineers to take and hold the bridge. They held it for some fifteen hours. By 1600 hours, they were out of ammunition and over-run by the enemy, but almost immediately they were relieved by the Royal Scots Fusiliers, stopping the enemy demolishing the bridge. Lieutenant Withers won the Military Cross for this action.

"A" Company captured the nearby railway bridge and the way to Syracuse was open. This action was integral to the successful and rapid advance through Sicily.
Primosole Bridge.

Fighting in Sicily ended on August 17th, 1943. In September the 1st Airborne Division was sent to capture the port of Taranto in Italy by means of a seaborne assault. A British Para first. After being replaced north of Taranto, all but the 2nd and 4th Parachute Brigades were withdrawn to England to prepare for the Normandy invasion, the 4th Parachute Brigade followed in November 1943.

Fielding a British Airborne Force in the Mediterranean 1942-1943

To field a British Airborne forces in Flames Of War for the landings and fighting in Tunisia, the landings in Sicily and actions in Italy up until the end of 1943, see Red Devils, Mid-war British Airborne & Commandos 1942-43

Last Updated On Wednesday, May 27, 2020 by Wayne at Battlefront