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Units & Formations 1930 - 1956:

Divisions – Airborne and Miscellaneous

In essence, prior to the Second World War, the United Kingdom had no airborne forces. WAVELL had witnessed a Soviet airborne exercise prior to the war, and was impressed but nothing happened on his return.


» War Establishment The Airborne Division

The main driver for the creation of British Airborne Forces seems to lie with the Minister of Defence, Winston CHURCHILL. After the withdrawal of the B.E.F. from France, he was aware that our capacity to wage warfare on the ground against the enemy was extremely limited, and would remain so for a long time ahead. Airborne and commando forces were one means of achieving this. He raised this matter with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 22 June 1940, suggesting a corps of at least five-thousand parachute troops. One of the main inhibitors was the Royal Air Force, which simply did not have any suitable aircraft from which parachute troops could be dropped in any significant numbers.

R.A.F. Ringway at Manchester was established in 1940 as a joint Army and Royal Air Force base where the new form of warfare could be developed and trained. This base became known as the ‘Central Landing School’ under Group Captain L. G. HARVEY. A glider section was also established under Major J. ROCK. The first parachute descent occurred on the 13 July 1940. The first parachute unit was entitled ‘No 2 Commando’ on the 21 November 1940, the parachute and glider squadrons became Wings of No. 11 Special Air Service Battalion (not to be confused with the Special Air Service Regiment formed in the Middle East in August 1941).

One of the early key leaders was ‘Eric’ DOWN, of whom I have written a biography. See:

He took over command of 11 S.A.S. and made it a first class outfit. In September 1941, the Parachute Regiment came into being and the 1 Parachute Brigade was formed. From here, the 1 Airborne Division was raised, with effect from 1 November 1941, with Major General F. R. M. BROWNING assuming command on the 4 November; to be followed later by the 6 Airborne Division.

The first operation that 11 S.A.S. undertook was Operation ‘Colossus’, a successful raid on an aqueduct at Tragino in Italy. Next was Operation ‘Biting’, a commando style raid on a radar site near Bruneval in France. Led by Major FROST, later of Arnhem fame, this raid was an outstanding success. Sadly, the third raid, Operation ‘Freshman’ in Norway was a disaster.

The 1 Parachute Brigade fought in Tunisia, suffering heavy casualties. There were some drops, but generally the brigade fought as ground troops. Elements of the 1 Parachute Brigade and 1 Airlanding Brigade fought in the Sicily campaign. The 1 Airborne Division landed at Taranto (where H.M.S. Abdiel hit a mine and sank taking with her a large number of men of the 6 Battalion).

The first full scale airborne operation mounted by British forces was D-Day, where 6Airborne Division landed on the left flank of I Corps. The division was retained in ground operations for some weeks afterwards. The next airborne battle was Operation ‘Market Garden’, about which much has been written. The concept was that of an airborne carpet to capture the bridges over the River Rhine (several people claim credit for it) as the pace of the advance slowed down. The First Allied Airborne Army was sat in the U.K., impatient and keen to get involved. Several operations had been devised and then cancelled, leading to much frustration amongst the highly trained troops. ‘Boy’ BROWNING was keen to have his I Airborne Corps play a major role in the defeat of Germany.

The outcome of Operation ‘Market Garden’ is well known and has been much analysed. Suffice to say the 1 Airborne Division was effectively destroyed as an operational formation and was never fully reconstituted. The bridgehead over the Nederijn (lower River Rhine) was withdrawn, with a period of relative stalemate resulting until the clearance of the Reichswald.

The 6 Airborne Division and an American Airborne Division participated in Operation ‘Varsity’, the crossing of the River Rhine in March 1945. Unlike ‘Market Garden’, this operation was planned meticulously. Although there was some fierce fighting, by this time in early 1945, the German Army was defeated with the Allies enjoying overwhelming military superiority.

For most of the Second World War, the 2 Parachute Brigade served as an independent formation, playing a significant role in the Greek Civil War of late 1944 and early 1945.

With the end of the war in Europe, the 1 Airborne Division was sent to Norway to oversee the removal of German forces. Tthe 6 Airborne Division became the U.K. Strategic Reserve formation and as such it was deployed to Palestine in 1946. The 5 Parachute Brigade was detached to move to India, then serving in the Netherland East Indies in 1946.

By 1950, British Airborne forces were reduced to one Regular Army brigade, supported by a Territorial Army airborne division.

Not to forget India and Burma, the deployment of Special Force and its maintenance by air supply can be seen as the largest airborne operation mounted by the British, albeit with significant U.S. support. An airborne division was formed in India Command, but it was not operational by the time of the end of hostilities with Japan. The 50 Indian Parachute Brigade fought a vital battle at Sangshak, worthy of the same recognition as Arnhem but often overlooked.

One of the early problems was the U.K. simply did not have a suitable aircraft from which to carry and drop parachute troops. The arrival of the Dakota airplane in numbers from the U.S. meant that such an aircraft became available. The British developed the use of gliders in airborne operations, both in North West Europe and Burma. All three divisions had one airlanding brigade on their establishment.

The other key element was air superiority and air supremacy. Without at least the former and preferably the latter, no significant airborne operation is viable. It was not until 1944 that the Allies had begun to achieve this situation in North West Europe and Burma, thus allowing large scale operations such as the deployment of Special Force and D-Day landings.

For further information on British Airborne Forces, please see:

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