Belfast Telegraph

Now Paras must fight to restore their image

Bloody Sunday is the blackest day in the Parachute Regiment's 70-year history. But, writes David James, its reputation for aggression was forged at Arnhem

The Parachute Regiment traces its origins to Winston Churchill's call on June 22, 1940, for a force of up to 5,000 parachute troops. Already Germany and the Soviet Union had large numbers of airborne soldiers - a concept pioneered by the Royal Italian Army in the late-1920s.

Churchill's parachute force became the Parachute Regiment on August 1, 1942, and a brigade (three battalions, each of around 700 men) first saw action in Tunisia where they gained the nickname 'red devils' from their German opponents.

This was nothing to do with the colour of their berets (which are cherry or maroon rather than red), but because they were fighting in wet, wintry conditions and were covered with the infamous red mud of the Tunisia countryside.

From the start, the main role of parachute battalions was to hit the enemy hard and fast, securing vital points such as bridges, airfields and gun positions to eliminate the enemy's heavy weapons. That done, they were to hold on to their positions until the main, heavy forces arrived to relieve them.

However, in Sicily in July 1943 airborne units suffered heavily when many of their aircraft were shot down by Allied or enemy gunfire and loadmasters ordered soldiers to jump too soon. Operation Fustian, at the Primosole bridge, saw only 200 men of the 1,900 of 1 Para Brigade reach the objective. Moreover, the relief force was delayed by its armoured vehicles having to negotiate roads and streets blocked by rubble.

The airborne concept worked better in Normandy where British and American airborne forces dropped on the night of June 5/6, 1944, to secure the flanks for the main D-Day landings. The British 6th Airborne Division was kept in Normandy until August.

Things did not work so well in September 1944 when the British 1st Airborne Division was dropped to seize the bridge at Arnhem in Operation Market Garden.

Instead of being relieved by the heavy forces of XXX Corps within three days, the airborne soldiers were counter-attacked by the Germans and the relieving troops were held back by the lack of roads and stiff German resistance. In the end, after almost a week, the airborne men were ordered to fight their way out, but most of the 10,000-strong division was lost.

The next major operation was the Rhine crossing in March 1945, Operation Varsity, when 6th Airborne Division dropped alongside American divisions. This was successful, but losses were heavy even though the airborne troops were relieved that same day by ground forces fighting through to them.

There were 17 parachute battalions in the Army at the end of the war. In peacetime, this was reduced gradually until only three remained, plus two (now one) TA battalions.

Until the late-1950s, the future of the regiment was uncertain and no officers were commissioned in the Parachute Regiment, all officers being seconded from other regiments. That changed when it was decided to allow officers to commission in the regiment. In the meantime, the last British airborne assault had taken place at Suez in 1956.

Paras have also served in Aden in the 1960s and in the Falklands where 2 and 3 Para were part of the British force that regained the islands from the Argentine forces.

All three Regular battalions served in Northern Ireland during Operation Banner. When not in Northern Ireland, the battalions formed part of an airborne brigade (at various times 5 or 16 Airborne Brigade), but at no time was there ever the capability to drop more than a single battalion by parachute.

The regiment's role was broadened to allow it to operate by parachute, carry out air assault from helicopters, land from the sea or fight as light infantry. Recruiting is carried out across the UK and the ranks of the regiment are open to Commonwealth citizens and citizens of the Republic of Ireland. Today both 2 and 3 Para serve in 16 Air Assault Brigade, the senior battalion of which is 1 Royal Irish.

Parachute Regiment training encourages an aggressive spirit in the soldier and all recruits must pass through P Company, which brings them up to a high physical condition while emphasising the aggressive nature of a unit whose doctrine enshrines surprise with fast, hard-hitting attacks the key factor in success.

In practice, in recent years, the discipline of Para battalions has not achieved the same internal unit cohesion as that of standard infantry battalions. There is a tendency to emphasise the 'elite' tradition of the Parachute Regiment at the expense of maintaining higher standards of discipline and teamwork. It may also be argued that the training of paratroopers tends to make individual soldiers less able to work as a team.

A quote from one warrant officer (WO) who served alongside them on many occasions underlines this: "Every one of them wants to be on the machine gun, they don't want to do all the other jobs that they see as below their dignity."

Today both 2 Para and 3 Para are in 16 Air Assault Brigade alongside 1 Royal Irish. The brigade is due to return to Afghanistan for Operation Herrick XIII in the autumn. In the brigade's last tour in Afghanistan in 2008 - Operation Herrick VIII - 1 Royal Irish, although assigned to the role of mentoring the Afghan National Army, became the first unit to earn three Conspicuous Gallantry Crosses (CGCs), second only to the Victoria Cross, on one tour of duty.

No CGCs went to either Para battalion; the 2 Para Battlegroup included Ranger Company of the Royal Irish, which was based at Sangin, the toughest part of Helmand province.

At present 1 Para provides the core of the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) which was formed in 2006 to support British Special Forces (Special Air Service Regiment, Special Boat Service and Special Reconnaissance Regiment) and which regularly deploys its companies to Afghanistan.

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