Parachute Training in Britain

Two members of the Airborne Division in the cockpit of a Hotspur glider, final checks being made before the glider takes to the air. The Pegasus painted on the side of the glider is the sign of the Airborne Division

Paratroopers in front of an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley of No. 295 Squadron at Netheravon, October 1942.

Half length portrait of a paratrooper carrying a Sten gun, having loaded it ready for immediate action.

Paratroop training drop from a static balloon. A parachute fully open.

The War Office official photographers were beginning to experiment with colour photography. Its seems that most of this was undertaken within Britain at this period and the photographers preferred good weather. Whatever the excuse they were documenting the early days of the Parachute Regiment in October 1942 and these are a selection of their results.

Thomas Emyr Davies describes the parachute training course at this time:

The course consisted of nine parachute descents. Two were from a balloon which had a sort of cradle attached beneath it for seating four men. The R.A.F. instructor stood behind. The balloon was taken up on a large winch driven by a motor to a height of between eight hundred to one thousand feet.

I will never forget the feeling I had on my first drop. As we sat around the aperture of the cradle, waiting for the instructor to give the word “Go”, we glanced across at each other with a sickly grin of assumed assurance, as if to say “There’s nothing to it”.

In a matter of seconds, I was plummeting to the ground experiencing a sort of gripping sensation in the pit of my stomach which made me want to curl up, as I sensed the mad rush of air through my mouth and nostrils as my body dropped like a stone at around 125 mph. Then, just when I was sure something had gone wrong, and I was overwhelmed with an urge to scream, a giant hand swept me up by the shoulders and a great flood of relief rushed over me, as the silk canopy of the parachute billowed open above me like a huge coloured mushroom, and there I was floating gently earthwards feeling a wonderful sense of exhilaration. The pattern of the surrounding countryside became more distinct with every second, with roadways, railway lines, houses and trees coming quickly into focus.

Then came the landing, for which I had had weeks of practice, knowing that the impact with the ground was equivalent to jumping off a wall twelve feet high. When parachuting though your body is oscillating as well as descending which presents some difficulty in judging the swing as the ground rushes towards you.

It is not unusual, particularly when there is a brisk ground wind, to see the trainee dragged roughly along the ground for many yards before being able to take control and collapse his parachute. This is done by turning the developed canopy into the wind by manipulating the guide lines of the harness, thus allowing the air to spill out.

The harness is also fitted with a quick release box, which, when screwed completely round and given a sharp knock would spring open enabling the parachutist to drop out of his harness in the event of landing in trees or over water, when it would be essential not to be bogged down with equipment.

The parachute takes longer to open when jumping from a balloon than it does from an aircraft, as the falling body has to create its own slipstream for the parachute to develop with air, whereas in the aircraft the speed at which it is travelling gives the necessary slipstream for the parachute to develop fairly quickly.

Paratroopers inside the fuselage of a Whitley aircraft at RAF Ringway, August 1942.

Most of our training drops were from the old Whitley bombers popularly called the ‘Flying Coffins’. When taxiing along the runways of Ringway Aerodrome prior to take-off, with the roar of the engines rising to a screaming crescendo as they built up their revs, the whole aircraft shuddering and vibrating, you would think the bodywork was coming apart and it was necessary to shout to make yourself heard over the noise. The smell inside the fuselage coming from the chemically treated lacquer with which the Whitley was sprayed was nauseating.

We sat on either side of the fuselage which had a large aperture cut away in its underside to enable us to jump from the aircraft but this method proved not too satisfactory as often the trainee would fail to push himself forward enough to allow the pack of his folded parachute to clear the edge of the aperture. Consequently he would be tilted forward with the danger of knocking his face on the opposite side which could easily result in a broken nose.

Our stay at Ringway Aerodrome, although very interesting and exciting, was marred by tragedy, when two Polish trainees fell to their deaths when their parachutes failed to open. This was known as a ‘Roman Candle’, when the silk canopy for some reason or other fails to open – but this was quite a rare occurrence.

All parachute practice was suspended for forty-eight hours while an inquiry into the tragedy was held. Then the course was resumed and everything carried on as normal, with, strangely, very little reference to the accident by the other lads undergoing training at the time.

Read more of this story on BBC People’s War

Paratroopers dropping from an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley of No. 295 Squadron at Netheravon, October 1942.

Mass descent of paratroops.

Major-General Frederick Browning, commanding the British 1st Airborne Division, Netheravon, October 1942.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jess Nicoll March 21, 2014 at 8:45 pm

This is so lovely for me to read. I have just obtained my late Grandpas war records from the MOD and he was training there at the same time. Such brave young men

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