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The Formation of Pathfinder Platoon for 5 Airborne Brigade

Background

In 1984 5th Airborne Brigade was in the process of developing its Limited Parachute Assault Capability (LPAC). This required a formation of 15 Hercules aircraft to drop a parachute battalion group over 2 drop zones (DZs) in under 5 minutes, by day or night. To do this there was a requirement for the DZs to be clearly marked, in order to ensure that the crews had an easily identified reference point to allow them to drop accurately and consistently. Pathfinders had always been used for this task from as early as 1943, just as pathfinder bombers had marked targets for Bomber Command from 1943-45.

With the demise of 16th Parachute Brigade in 1977, the disbandment of the Pathfinder Company (No 1 (Guards) Independent Company The Parachute Regiment) meant that the expertise was lost. From then on the parachute battalions were required to develop and maintain that skill themselves. By 1984 it was decided that doing so was proving very difficult and that a brigade level capability was required. The Brigade Commander at the time was Brigadier Tony Jeapes.

Regimental Headquarters The Parachute Regiment was asked to look at the options for providing this capability. Major Phil Neame produced a paper in October 1984, which proposed the way ahead. Options that had been considered included the use of a SAS air troop, which was discounted due to inability to guarantee availability, as well as the use of the Red Devils. The latter were discounted, as the training requirement would have seriously affected their display commitments with the obvious impact on PR and recruiting. The paper recommended the formation of an independent platoon, with manpower drawn from all 3 battalions and coming directly under the command of the Brigade Headquarters. It would number a total of 28 in 7 patrols of 4 men and include 2 Royal Signals operators.

The beginning

In March 1985 the platoon started to form. It was based with the Brigade Signal Squadron and the SO2 Air, Major Tony Rice RA and SO3 G2 (Intelligence) Captain Pat Butler PARA were the staff officers who were intimately involved with bringing things together at this stage, with Major Mike Davidson PARA as the Chief of Staff. Captain Simon Barry came from being Adjutant of 1 PARA to be the Platoon Commander, Lieutenant Chris Waddington came from the Depot to be the Second in Command and Sergeant Dave Johnson, who had completed a tour with 22 SAS was the first platoon sergeant.

From the beginning much emphasis had been placed upon HALO parachuting as a most likely insertion method. Some of the members of the new platoon had already been HALO trained while others completed their course in April. At this stage the GQ Tactical Assault Parachute (TAP) was in use, a sleeved round based upon the paracommander design with a front mounted reserve. In addition to the pathfinding role the platoon was envisaged as the Brigade’s own medium range reconnaissance force, bridging the gap between the tactical recce of the battalions’ patrols platoons and strategic level recce carried out by SF. That was part of the rationale for involving the Brigade’s intelligence organisation in the platoon’s development.

The first big decision to be made was how to organise the patrols. The options were either to keep men from the same battalion together or to split them completely. The latter option was chosen on the basis that the platoon had to build its own identity and not have any potential sectarianism – it was going to have to hang together to get through its growing pains. Each patrol was 4 men with a commander, scout/demolition man, signaller and medic. Thanks to the efforts of the Brigade Headquarters much support was forthcoming to provide training that would give good grounding in all patrol skills, as well as pathfinding. The RAF Detachment at Pitts Road approached their task with a very positive attitude and Flight Lieutenant Dave Michael and Sergeant Dave Wood both played a key part in building up the platoon’s air skills, subsequently assisted by Sergeants Jim Hughes and Nick Oswald.

In April the Brigade Commander, by this time Brigadier Robert Corbett who had been the last commander of the Guards Pathfinders, gave the platoon 6 months to achieve a full operational capability in all tasks; insertion, pathfinding and medium recce. The platoon would then be tested on the Brigade Airborne Exercise (ABEX) in Otterburn in October. In the lead up period there was much to be achieved in a short time. A number of work up exercises were conducted, as well as an overseas exercise in Cyprus and the Brigade ABEX – Roaring Lion – on Salisbury Plain in the July.

The first event was a practise HALO insertion onto Salisbury Plain in May. It was a daylight drop and the aim of the exercise was to get everyone in the same piece of sky and then onto the same piece of ground. It is unlikely that anyone saw anyone else in any piece of sky, and it took several hours to get everyone onto the same piece of ground. The valuable lesson learned was just how difficult this skill was going to be to master as a viable insertion method, rather than just something to do on a course. This was followed by the Brigade Patrol Concentration on the Isle of Man. Even though it was May the weather was foul and the exercise consisted of marching all over the Island, putting OPs at the top of most hills, trying (often vainly) to communicate with HF radios and having a grand finale that was a night attack on an abandoned mine. A lot of effort was expended and a lot of lessons were learned that indicated the learning curve would be steep and corner cutting would not be an option. At the end of this one member voluntarily RTU’d himself.

The Platoon then went to Cyprus with the Signal Squadron. Some of the off duty antics have now passed into folklore and resulted in a further 3, involuntary, RTUs. This was part of the growing pains of an organisation manned by dynamic individuals who often had firm ideas of their own. However, ill discipline was not tolerated, as there was just not the time to put up with it. Cyprus gave an excellent opportunity to sort out SOPs, build a platoon ethos and make each patrol gel as a team. The training was very hard and the live firing contact drills at Akamas run by Pat Butler were exciting to say the least, but by the time they were completed every man had them in his muscle memory. Ironically it was during this exercise that the platoon carried out its first ‘marking’ operation – for a series of beach assaults! During the time in Cyprus Corporal Baz Bardsley MM from 2 PARA and Sergeant Dave Wood RAF, one of the Pitts Road PJIs, worked with the platoon; the former assisting in skill at arms and tactics, the latter to get an idea of what the platoon really was about.

Returning to Aldershot gave only a couple of weeks before the summer ABEX. This time was spent on specialist cadres to improve, or in some cases teach, certain patrol skills. The Parachute Field Ambulance ran the very first medics cadre, courtesy of Sergeants Hudson and Longstaff. The signallers were treated to an intensive period of Morse and HF work by John Cakebread and Bob Banner, supported by the Signal Squadron and Sergeant Dave Johnson, assisted by 9 Parachute Squadron RE, ran a demolition training package for the patrol scouts.

July brought Exercise Roaring Lion – the Brigade summer ABEX. This time the whole platoon was to insert by HALO at night. Fortunately the exercise was preceded by a 10-day brigade concentration. For this the platoon was based at Tilshead camp with 7 Para RHA, and used the time to develop SOPs and conduct training in skills such as communications (HF), navigation and the repeated practice of all patrol skills and drills. The concentration ended with the Brigadier’s orders for the ABEX after which the platoon deployed direct to RAF Lyneham – a real bonus as it meant avoiding all the hassle that took place at South Cerney! It also allowed close planning for the insertion with the crews from 47 Squadron’s SF flight who would fly the HALO insertion.

The plan was to insert the platoon in 2 passes with the initial P Hour at midnight. During the run in for the first pass Private Baz Grayling had a problem with his oxygen system and almost passed out, so he was declared unfit to jump. At “action stations” the HQ patrol moved to the edge of the ramp with the lights of Salisbury vaguely visible in the blackness. When the red light came on the loadmaster, Flight Sergeant Stan Unwin helped launch the heavy equipment bundle (a large box full of batteries, water, digging tools and helmets) into space; it has never been seen again. On “green on” the patrols left the aircraft very tightly, resulting in collisions on exit and many becoming unstable, especially with very heavy loads in their bergens being carried behind their thighs. The result was that the first pass was widely dispersed and was also dropped 8 miles from their DZ! As they tabbed towards the DZ, having cached their parachutes and associated equipment, they saw the second pass being dropped exactly on target! It also appeared that Ned Owen’s automatic opening device activated higher than planned, with the result that he landed in a tree outside Shrewton Post Office.

After 3 days lying up, the DZs for the main force were marked at P Hour minus 10 minutes. In the event the drop was cancelled and the rest of the Brigade arrived from South Cerney by coach. For the rest of the exercise the platoon conducted long range recce and OP tasks. It also completed a training package that allowed it to recce and mark natural surface strips for SF Hercules aircraft. This training was run by Sergeant Edwards from RAF Upavon, resplendent in his DPM suit, shirt and tie and shoes and puttees! However, it was very useful training that was to be built upon in the coming months, even the complexities of the Penetrometer were mastered. The grand finale was a brigade attack with a platoon raid as a diversion. The platoon had now been operating for 4 months. It had learned a hell of a lot, but one of the main lessons was that there was a hell of a lot more to master before it could claim to be fully operational. It was clear that there was a lot to be done after summer leave and before October.

HALO is a time intensive skill. Not only does the parachutist have to be trained at vast cost, he is no use if he is not current and proficient and part of a group that can work together. Trying to bring the platoon to some form of viable capability and keep it that way was a great challenge in the UK, where airspace is busy and the weather is often against you. HALO is simply an insertion method and not an end in itself. It has little to do with the sport of skydiving, as the aim is to drop a man from 25,000 feet, at night, with all his equipment, and get to the ground able to move on with his task with all his team. The principle was always to train the right man to be a free faller, not the opposite. The TAP was a pretty obsolescent parachute by this stage, and the oxygen equipment was also dated, indeed the oxygen masks used were wartime stock!

In September the first Cadre was run in Wales, based at Cwm Gwdi camp and using both the Brecon Beacons and Sennybridge training area. The weather was appropriately bad – with remarkably high winds making themselves felt. The cadre was poorly supported by the battalions so it was modified to become an intensive patrolling, endurance and live firing package. It remains a mystery how Bill Megarry’s foresight was shot off! Shortly after that a brief parachute training period took place on Salisbury Plain, where everyone had a chance to jump the GQ360 military square parachute for the fist time. Sergeant Dave Johnson that day became the first pathfinder on record to cut one away!

During October most efforts were focussed upon preparation for the big test in Otterburn. However, there was also concern at Brigade level and above about the deteriorating situation in Uganda. 2 PARA were LPBG (Lead Parachute Battalion Group) and much outline planning was taking place. The platoon’s excellent relationship with the Brigade intelligence staff ensured that it could look at the problem from its own perspective. A number of DZs had been selected and an outline contingency plan put together. At one stage during this process a deputation from the Brigadier arrived to ask for some of his maps back as the platoon had by then cornered the market for planning material. Uganda was not to be, well not for the time being – so eyes turned north to Otterburn in Late Autumn.

Once again the Pathfinder trump card allowed the platoon to deploy straight to RAF Lyneham and avoid the fun at South Cerney, after the Brigadier’s orders. Insertion was to be by HALO 2-3 days ahead of the LPBG. As well as DZ marking the platoon was tasked to carry out close target recces of various objectives for the LPBG and the routes to them. The insertion was planned for last light, so that advantage could be taken of the darkness to rendezvous and move to a lying up place; one that allowed for the recces to go ahead and was close enough to the DZ to be able to move there at short notice. This would be the last time that the platoon used the TAP.

The evening of the insertion was grey and raining. In the event the descent was from 12,000 doing what was termed a “sim ox” jump, doing all the HALO oxygen drills but jumping from the lower height. Shortly after leaving the aircraft everyone was in cloud, pulled in cloud and only came out at about 800 feet. The moisture in the cloud was freezing so everyone was covered with a film of ice – including the goggles. Though people were scattered they were getting wise to dealing with such events and the rendezvous did not take too long, which was followed by a long march to the lying up place. Bergens were extremely heavy as each man was carrying rations, batteries and ammunition for 7 days plus DZ marking kit, flares etc.

The recces were completed in time for all patrols required to be on the DZ to mark it for 2 PARA and to be able to brief the key commanders on their objectives and guide them there. The jump was at night in almost freezing weather and pitch darkness. Some aircraft dropped wide and about 40 men from 2 PARA ended up in the wood on the South side of Corby Pike DZ. Notwithstanding, once sufficient men had rallied the various companies moved off to their objectives. The platoon HQ, which narrowly missed being flattened by a wedge load that had ‘candled’, remained on the DZ until first light to ensure all paratroopers and loads were accounted for.

For the remainder of the 10-day exercise the platoon carried out a number of target and route recces in appalling weather, only narrowly avoiding exposure in several cases. Resupply DZs were also marked and a number of raids mounted. At the end of the exercise the Brigade Commander stated that he was very pleased with the way all the challenges had been met, and that he now considered the platoon fully operational.

There was to be no run down to Christmas. One area of insertion technique that had been neglected had been static line at low level. So, in the first week of December 3 quick parachute exercises were mounted onto Salisbury Plain. The idea was to look at how to deal with a scenario that did not allow for an advanced force insertion, but just needed pathfinders on the ground for as short a time as possible before the main force arrived. This could be required for an operation where the DZ could be under threat from an enemy, but where higher considerations required it to be used. On each exercise 2 patrols jumped from a Hercules on PX1 Mk 4 parachutes at 800 feet. They landed close to the impact point of the DZ and marked it immediately. The target time was to be under 6 minutes from the first man jumping to the DZ being fully marked. Thanks to thorough rehearsals that target was met or exceeded each time. Just prior to Christmas a small function was held where Lieutenant General Sir Michael Gray symbolically handed over the first GQ360 parachute to the Platoon. At last a square, ram air canopy was to be in full service, which would make HALO insertion a properly viable option.

The end of the year saw a number of key personalities change in the Brigade Headquarters. This was unfortunate for the platoon, as their successors did not share their predecessors’ enthusiasm for the whole Pathfinder project. In addition some of the more senior members of the battalions were often less than helpful. Indeed, at one stage there was a school of thought within 2 PARA that wanted to take the platoon under command, completely missing the point about why the platoon was formed in the first place! Most of the other Brigade units by contrast were very supportive with both resources and training support. One odd phenomenon was that anyone who had done a tour at Hereford automatically felt that they had the right to exercise an influence on the platoon. However, the platoon’s main problems were resources and support, two things that were never lacking at Hereford.

January 1986 saw the first real selection cadre; again run in Sennybridge and the Brecon Beacons. The weather was predictably bad, but at least the cadre was better supported by the parachute battalions following an edict from the Brigade Commander. The first months of 1986 promised to be very busy with the cadre followed by a brigade ABEX at Stanford in Norfolk with the Brigade patrol concentration taking place in Oman shortly thereafter. It started in Aldershot with basic physical tests (2 milers, 10 milers etc) and basic weapon handling and navigation. The Wales phase was pure endurance and navigation, which was followed by a 7-10 day intensive HF package to ensure all were capable of basic HF communications. The principle of that was that there was little point in getting anywhere if one could not communicate when there. The cadre successfully selected enough men to keep the Platoon up to strength, and indeed gave a third signaller – Frank Kurthausen and the first sapper – Phil Foskett.

The Stanford ABEX was static line insertion followed by some basic medium range recce tasks as a prelude to the main effort – the ‘Taceval’ of RAF Marham. This is another event that has passed into folklore with many wildly exaggerated stories doing the rounds.

In 1986 the Cold War was at its height. Part of the UK/NATO nuclear deterrent was the Tornado force and its WE177 free fall nuclear bombs. One of the bases for this force was RAF Marham. It was known that such bases were targets for the Soviet Special Forces – the ‘Spetsnatz’. Accordingly they required regular testing and evaluation, to ensure that they could deal with that threat and be able to mount their missions as required during an all out war. Therefore the Pathfinders were tasked to conduct a Spetsnatz type attack on the base to test its defences.

A number of ‘good ideas’ were given to the platoon in the planning stage, including parachuting into the base in mid afternoon at a time that would give every RAF Policeman and his dog time to concentrate on the DZ, round up the naughty ‘soviets’ and pat themselves on the back for a job well done. The school of thought that prevailed was that the only proper option would be to replicate what a highly professional and motivated enemy would do. Consequently the base was observed for a number of days without detection. The final planning took place in a lying up area not far away, and the decision was made to go in through the perimeter wire in darkness and be ‘exfiled’ by SF Hercules from the main runway 2 hours later.

The fence was duly cut at around 2 hours after darkness. Though the station was on full alert the whole platoon was well inside and moving quickly to its targets before any alarm was given. Once surprise had been lost the attack went “noisy” with speed being the key. The attempts of individual or small groups of RAF policemen to ‘arrest’ the Spetsnatz would have been laughable had it not been so serious. They were simply elbowed out of the way as the patrols made for the pilot briefing facilities and other installations. The original plan – to go to the Officer’s Mess and ‘kill’ all the pilots had been vetoed by exercise control, even though it represented the most likely form of threat. Having attacked all the permitted objectives, and with time running out, a number of vehicles were commandeered to get the troops to the runway in time for the pick up. Dead on time the Hercules appeared out of the blackness and once again Stan Unwin was on board to help everyone on in seconds flat before the captain, Flight Lieutenant Kiwi O’Megan, opened the throttles and left for Lyneham. On board the platoon congratulated itself upon a difficult task very well done; no one suspected it was to have serious fall out later.

Two days later the advance party left for Oman and Exercise Rocky Lance – the 1986 Brigade Patrol Concentration. 2 PARA ran the exercise and all the brigade patrol platoons took part as well as the Pathfinders; with the exception of Dennis Trussler’s patrol, which went to the Far East to train with 22 SAS. Fortunately the Platoon had been given a clear training directive by the Brigade Commander, so it was able to run its own programme. This consisted of desert patrolling and navigation by day and night, endurance marches up to and upon the Jebel Akhdar followed by use of the Saiq ranges, and then a series of live firing night attacks and withdrawals around Fathi and the desert to the South. The latter brought to a pinnacle the platoon’s ability to mount such raids with mortars firing in close support, light anti tank weapons fired live in the assault and the assaulting teams advancing just metres behind leapfrogging tracer from the GPMG(SF) guns firing from their firebase 1000 metres away.

For the Pathfinders the big finale of this exercise was its own air package. A Hercules and full supporting package was deployed for 10 days. The aim was to convert the platoon onto the GQ360 parachute and to bring the HALO night insertion skill to a level where it was seriously viable. For this period the platoon moved to Rostaq and conducted most of its training from Hazm strip. Though it now appears really obsolete, in 1986 the GQ360 was truly the state of the art, allowing people to group under canopy and land in a concentrated area. Training progressed well and after 4 or 5 days went on to the real meat of the business – night HALO insertions with full equipment from 25,000 feet. That took place on a number of different locations, all unfamiliar over the next 3 nights. The pattern was a HALO insertion followed by an approach to and marking of and static line, night DZ. Then the new arrivals from the cadre who were not HALO trained would be dropped there. They would then rally and RV with the rest of the platoon who would then mark the extraction strip for the aircraft to return to ‘exfil’ the whole group. After 3 nights of this the platoon could all land in an area the size of a football field. This was now a real capability and showed just how much had been achieved, against all sorts of difficulties, in just 11 months.

It was a very buoyant and confident platoon that arrived back in Aldershot in late March, knowing what had been achieved and having a justified confidence in its capabilities. However, the euphoria did not last for long. It turned out that the Station Commander of RAF Marham, having had his defences tested and found wanting, decided to try to deflect the responsibility for this upon the attacking force who he described as “Football hooligans” – one wonders how he would have described the Spetsnatz?! During the exercise in Oman an “Inquiry” was conducted, though its' findings were never made public. To placate the RAF the decision had been taken by the Brigade Commander, supported by RHQ the Parachute Regiment, that heads should roll. So, Simon Barry left the Platoon that April, ironically to go to BMATT Uganda and Sergeant Johnson, who had not even been at Marham, was posted to 1 PARA, depriving the platoon of his unrivalled experience and knowledge, and legendary sense of humour!

Equipment and other detail

In the mid 1980s the personal weapon for all paratroopers was the 7.62 Self-Loading Rifle – the SLR. The Pathfinders were all armed with them and the platoon also had 4 GPMGs with sustained fire kits. Webbing/belt kit was an individual preference combination of 1958 pattern with quick release straps as belts. The standard bergen was used with grab bags improvised or bought on the civilian market. Dress was standard DPM jungle kit with either windproof or parachute smocks. Headgear was a soft, peaked patrol cap, often with a neck flap for desert or sunny conditions. A variety of boots were worn. As it was not established the Platoon existed upon what could be borrowed from battalions or bluffed from the system. It held no night vision devices – not bad for the Brigade’s recce force! It was however the proud owner of many rolls of blackened chicken wire for use in camouflaging OPs where cover was poor!

Communications

The mainstay of communications was the PRC 320, the Clansman man portable HF set. It was used with the Merod burst transmission device. Communications were taken very seriously from the Day 1, with a number of comex’s being held where no one received the location of their rations until they had established communications from over 20 Km away. The Royal Signals members, Bob Banner and John Cakebread, played a great part in achieving a high standard of HF communications. VHF PRC 349s were used for inter patrol work. For ground to air work each of the HQ patrols carried the PRC 344 UHF set. On every exercise insertion the HQ had to establish communications with another location 2-3,000 miles away as soon as possible after landing. It always succeeded, much to the credit of the signallers.

All messages were encrypted before sending which took a lot of time, especially under a poncho in a downpour in the middle of the night with just a right-angled torch! There was a standard vocab book, which converted the main elements of a message into groups of 3 letters. These were then given a numerical value and encoded using a one time pad (OTP). Due to the ranges involved and the standard of HF radios at the time, the messages were then sent in Morse. Often the morse key for the PRC 320 broke on impact during the insertion so it was not unusual for the operators to have to transmit using the voice pressle.

Parachutes

The static line parachute in use at the time was the Irvin PX1 Mk4. It was a flat circular design little changed from 1942. It was reliable with a comparatively fast rate of descent. The harness came together in quick release box that was located at the base of the sternum. It had no canopy releases so being dragged was always a possibility. The reserve was the PR7, which had entered service in the late 1970s replacing a much earlier and smaller reserve. Equipment was carried in a “container” which usually meant the soldier’s bergen, with his weapon in a sleeve on the side, wrapped in a set of straps and hooked to the harness. It would then be lowered on a 15-foot suspension rope prior to landing. In an emergency it could be cut away using the integral jettison device. There was also a 22 foot static line round ‘steerable’ canopy in service but this was not really used by the platoon.

The freefall parachute in 1985 was the GQ TAP already mentioned. It was a 32 foot round canopy of the paracommander design. It had about 9-11 knots drive; it was a sleeved circular canopy, with one extractor drogue parachute. It had a 3 point harness with a standard D-ring ripcord handle attached to a Bowden cable, routed through an anaconda housing to a 3 pin closure back pack. The canopy was attached to the harness’ main suspension by Capewell ‘shot and a half’ cutaway devices. The reserve was front mounted and side pull. Equipment was carried suspended below the main pack behind, with the weapon being slung over the left shoulder, muzzle down with the base of the magazine facing the rear.

The TAP was replaced by the GQ360, which had beaten the Irvin PB11 to become the new HALO parachute. It was a piggyback system. The deployment system was still a D-ring ripcord handle, though the cutaway for the main canopy was now the standard soft pouch type handle with a smaller reserve handle on the opposite suspension. The main parachute, packed in a sleeve, was in the lower container on the man’s back and the round reserve above. Though this gave a clean front for the jumper it was to be another 15 years before the laws of aerodynamics were finally acknowledged and the equipment was carried on the front, with a major improvement to the jumpers’ stability.

Both freefall parachutes were activated by an Irvin “hitefinder” barometric automatic opening device (AOD), fitted to the main canopy. The principle was that this would ensure the parachute opened at a preset height even if the jumper was in difficulties or had lost altitude awareness. There was nothing on the reserve as a fail-safe safety measure. This situation would not be rectified for over another 10 years due to MoD procurement bureaucracy. By that time all military sport parachute centres had made the ‘cypres’ AOD mandatory; the only people without such cover were the operational high altitude jumpers of the SAS and the Pathfinders.

Insignia

The Platoon’s DZ flash was a combination of the maroon and green Brigade HQ flash with the traditional Pathfinder White Arrow from the Second World War superimposed upon it. Also continuing the link to its forebears, the motto was their own unofficial “First In”.

by ParaData Editor

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