Colchester, 28 May 2019
Have you ever jumped out of a perfectly serviceable aircraft?
I have. Back in 1988, a younger, fitter and more adventurous version of me made a sponsored parachute jump to raise money for the mental health charity Mind. This was at Ipswich Parachute Centre, based at the former Ipswich Airport in Suffolk.
In those days tandem jumps, where you descend strapped to an experienced parachutist, had only recently been invented - although I didn't hear about them until years later. The standard way of doing it as a novice was the static line jump, where you are attached to the aircraft on a long webbing strop that pulls open the parachute for you as you drop away.
This required a full day's training in the basics, including jumping off a shoulder high platform and learning to keep your knees and feet together, bend your legs and roll as you hit the ground. Most of the tuition was about what to do if things went wrong, such as you jumped out and did not separate from the aircraft as intended, but instead found yourself dangling in the slipstream, or if your main 'chute did not open – or did, but was tangled up.
The whole experience was so off-putting that the friend I had gone with bottled out overnight and did not turn up for the actual jump the next day.
Climbing to 2,000ft in the Britten-Norman Islander jump plane allowed plenty of time for the nerves to build up. It was made clear in a good-natured but firm way that if we hesitated for too long with our feet dangling over the threshold we'd be 'helped' on our way.
The instructor's comments on my first descent are recorded in my jump log, which I came across earlier while looking up something else:
"Weak exit. Good spread and recovery. No count heard."
You were supposed to count for a few seconds then check that the parachute had opened satisfactorily. As I recall I basically tumbled out and, with an utterly sickening sense of falling rapidly from a great height - not a natural thing to do - flailed and, well, yelled for my mum.
But once I had been hoicked the right way up by the blossoming canopy, it was the most marvellous experience. The weather that August morning afforded a fine view across the fields to the River Orwell and the elegant sweep of the A14 bridge. But all too soon I had to concentrate on landing safely within the airfield perimeter.
We had been taught to look off as we approached the ground because the effect of looking down is that it suddenly appears to hurtle up at you: you are inclined to panic, try to get away – and end up breaking a limb.
Whump! And I had fallen to earth, a bit winded but grinning from ear to ear. I still count it as probably the most frightening thing I have done - and also so exhilarating that I went straight back up and did it again.
You may well be thinking, what has any of that to do with this aerial combat blog?
Well, I am in Colchester, not far from the garrison home of 16 Air Assault Brigade: the British Army's rapid reaction force, which is held ready to spearhead military or, these days, civilian aid operations anywhere in the world at a moment's notice.
They are the inheritors of the brave tradition that, 75 years ago next month, saw the paratroopers go into action first on D-Day, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France that began the end of the Second World War.
We think of it as primarily a massive seaborne attack onto the Normandy beaches of course but, as shown in my picture, the invasion began with C-47 Dakota aircraft dropping paratroopers in the early hours of 6 June 1944 from the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the British 6th Airborne Division (which included a Canadian parachute battalion).
Many of those involved in the airborne operations that night, including the very first of the British troops to land, went in aboard gliders towed by Dakota, Halifax, Short Stirling and Albemarle tugs. I intend to write more about that aspect in a separate piece.
But imagine what it must have been like to be one of those thousands of paratroopers - laden with their own weight again in parachute packs, arms and other equipment - jumping into the dark with flak shells and bullets ripping through the air around them, sometimes above or below the intended delivery altitude, and facing the prospect of landing on stakes or minefields or areas that had been deliberately flooded.
As an aside, you will see that I was trained to use a "kicker spring deployed reserve" chute. This is an emergency backup, carried on your chest, to be used if the main backpack chute has a problem. First you would release the main, so that you are freefalling unencumbered. Then you pull the handle that deploys the reserve and a spring-loaded plate shoots out a small drogue chute that pulls out the actual reserve. This makes its deployment very fast.
In WWII, British paratroops did not have reserves. The thinking was that the space and weight could be better used for other things, that static lines were inherently reliable, and that being dropped at only a few hundred feet did not allow time to switch anyway.
Once they left the camaraderie of the jump plane the men were very much on their own until and unless they were able to rejoin their fellow troops on the ground, behind enemy lines and facing potential hostility with every step.
On D-Day heavy cloud – and fog in the west – equipment shortcomings and navigational errors resulted in large numbers of men being delivered to the wrong locations - sometimes scattered many miles from where they were supposed to be. Crucially this included the early 'pathfinder' teams who were supposed to mark the landing zones for the following main force of the invaders, with predictable results. That said, the majority were delivered to where they were supposed to be.
By a quirk of fate one of the first men in the main British paratroop force to jump, at 0040, was the actor Richard Todd, probably best known to readers of this blog for his portrayal of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, in The Dam Busters film. At the time he was an officer in the 7th (Light Infantry) Parachute Battalion.
He recalled that night in an interview in the Daily Telegraph newspaper marking his 90th birthday, a few months before he died in 2009.
"As I parachuted down, the noise became more overwhelming – machine-guns, shells and mortars," he said.
"It was impossible to tell who anyone was. I could see shapes but didn't know if they were the opposition."
By luck, he came down on the track that led to his battalion rendezvous point.
"So I had no trouble finding it. Other chaps were dropped miles away, in areas inundated by Germans. Some landed in the flooded marshes and drowned."
In spite of all the problems, the courage, initiative and tenacity of those involved meant they succeeded in taking out many key German defences in advance of the beach landings and thus made a major contribution to the success of the overall invasion.
If you would like to read more about the overlapping technologies that enabled the aircraft to get to their drop zones there is an interesting article on the American Smithsonian museum website.
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