This is an extract from the book 'Men of the Red Beret' (1990), Hutchison, ISBN 0-09-173931-4.
Reproduced by the kind permission of the author Max Arthur.
When 16 Parachute Brigade returned from its tour of duty in Egypt I had come to the end of my three years' parachuting engagement and was due for staff employment. I was lucky. I was merely transferred from 2 Para to Brigade HQ to fill a then vacant appointment as GS02 (Air). This was an interesting but not arduous task, with responsibility for all the airborne and parachuting aspects of the brigade's training and, more importantly, the operational planning that went with it in the event of war. So when in 1956 the Suez crisis erupted I was immediately involved in a turmoil of unexpected activity.
After a concentrated period of up-dating training, the whole brigade with its war-like stores moved by air to Cyprus. Whilst the bulk of the soldiers disappeared to the mountains to hunt Colonel Grivas and his EOKA terrorists, a small Army/RAF planning cell settled itself at RAF Nicosia to examine the airborne problems. Time was not a factor since lengthy political discussions were still afoot in London, with little danger of quick decisions.
The task allotted to the brigade was to capture El Gamil airfield at Suez. This immediately posed the first problem. A fair inference at the time was that an airfield of that size probably contained at least 2,000 men. For our part we had sufficient aircraft to drop a force of about 800. It was clear therefore, that if we were to succeed, we must achieve complete surprise. From this initial deduction, two decisions emerged: first, to drop directly into the objective and second, to arrive at an unsocial hour, ie, at dawn.
It was normal practice to employ a small, about 40-man, pathfinder group who dropped some 30 minutes before the main force and, by laying cloth markers, lighting flares and setting up an electronic beacon, not only guided the main force to the drop zone, but indicated precisely where the drop was to begin and end. But this would clearly not be possible on an occupied airfield. Surprise would be lost and the pathfinders mopped up before the main force arrived. Recourse was therefore made to a Canberra pathfinding aircraft of Bomber Command. A cross was marked on a large scale air photograph of El Gamil. The Canberra crew were confident that they could lay a flare or smoke bomb precisely on that point. This then would become the marker for our drop and the Canberra, by circling the DZ, would guide the main force in.
El Gamil was a long, narrow airfield with beaches and sea on its northern edge and a large inland lake to the south. This predicated an approach on an east/west axis. But a mile or so to the east was a dock area which intelligence indicated to be bristling with anti-aircraft defences. No pilot was willing to fly straight and level at low altitude over this area. On the other hand approach from the west at dawn and in tight formation gave a heading directly into the rays of the bright rising sun. Few pilots fancied this. By courtesy of a local hospital large quantities of gentian violet were procured and aircraft canopies were liberally coated. It worked and was gratefully adopted.
We were anxious to get the whole force on the ground in about four and a half minutes. This meant a very tight formation with following aircraft, lightly above the leaders so as not to run down parachutists already in the sky. The meteorologists were adamant that there would be stiff cross-winds. This meant that given the narrowness of the drop zone, unless we restricted dropping heights to 700 feet and below, many soldiers might drift onto the beaches, which were mined, or into the sea. So 700 feet became our ceiling. But this too raised problems. A year or so before the brigade had had several fatal accidents when parachutes had failed to open. Thus reserve chutes had become very much the fashion and a substantial proportion of our soldiers had never jumped without one. But they only worked if the dropping height was above 1,000 feet, since below that height, by the time the soldier realized that his main chute was playing truant, it was too late to deploy the reserve. A firm decision was made – no reserve chute – which was not received with universal enthusiasm. However, when each man was issued with his operational load – food, water, medical gear, digging equipment, ammunition, grenades and many other items – only the strongest would have welcomed any additions.
Most military text books state that the time to attack parachute soldiers is when they land. Inevitably they are a straggling mass, with companies and other sub-units inextricably mixed, so that until they can forgather and sort themselves out into some recognizable military order they are largely ineffective as a fighting force. It takes 30 soldiers a given time to leap out of an aircraft and in that time the plane will fly at least a mile and a half. If the two heavily laden extremities close towards the middle much valuable time is consumed in 'rallying'. And even then some 800 men have to be sorted out on the ground into the respective company and platoon groups in which they are normally organized to fight.
We concentrated our minds on where we wanted them to land, if necessary with the acceptance of gross inconvenience before departure. Thus A Company's 120 men were split in packets of six to each of 20 aircraft. This was unpopular. Soldiers like above all to stay in 'family groups'. But since in each case those six men were the first to leave their particular aircraft and, given that the pilots all, in theory, started dropping their troops as they drew level with the smoke marker, each company landed roughly in its chosen location. Other companies were treated the same way. There was much criticism of this tactical loading plan before the event. I heard none after it. In fact 3 Para took all its objectives very quickly and with mercifully light casualties. The 'unsocial hour' operated markedly in their favour.
There was one problem that we could do nothing about. The airfield was covered with a multitude of anti-landing devices of one sort or another. They showed up in depressing clarity on all the air photographs. The only comfort one could offer at the final briefing was that old and well trusted parachuting adage, 'Keep your feet and your knees close together.' In the event parachuting casualties were agreeably light. However, one was serious. A wireless message to Cyprus after the drop indicated that Sandy Cavanagh, the unit medical officer, had lost an eye. Three local military doctors were immediately summoned. Not one of them was a trained parachutist so they were given the choice of one volunteering or all of them drawing straws. Straws in fact were drawn, but before the reluctant victim could be fitted with a chute the El Gamil runway was cleared. A much happier officer set off only to find on arrival that his presence was largely superfluous. The indomitable Sandy had patched up his own eye and was busily tending the other casualties.