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Unit 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron

The 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron was a Reconnaissance Corps unit which formed part of the 1st Airborne Division and was sent to North Africa, seeing service in Italy, Arnhem and finally in Norway.

The Army Council had established the new Reconnaissance Corps in 1941, to replace the light cavalry units which preceded them. The corps was intended as an elite formation manning fast vehicles required to take heavy punishment whilst delivering concentrated fire power, with operations effectively co-ordinated by complex but efficient wireless communication. Press publicity put the corps on a par with commandos and paratroopers. Whilst this was skilful publicity, the corps' designated function was to go forward to obtain and pass back information. In fact because of its fire power and mobility, it was often used as an attack force or emergency defence force as circumstances demanded.

The Airborne Division required its own recce unit but initially the only glider available was the Horsa. Their limited carrying capacity restricted the Airborne Division to airborne jeeps, rather than armoured cars. Formed originally from 31st Independent Anti-Tank Company, the recce force first emerged in January 1941, retitled as 31st Independent Reconnaissance Company. By November 1941 it had been re-roled as a full gliderborne unit, and renamed as 1st Airlanding Reconnaissance Squadron.

With Major Freddie Gough as Commanding Officer, it quickly became known as Freddie Gough’s Squadron (or FGS for short). Most squadron recruits were volunteers from other recce regiments, whilst others came straight from the two recce training depots. Freddie Gough set exacting standards in search of 'the best of the best', in selection and everyday duties. Discipline was strictly adhered to, which assisted in creating an efficient unit and a strong bond across squadron members.

By April 1943, the squadron was stationed at Bulford with about 250 men before being sent to North Africa to join the rest of 1st Airborne Division, aboard a converted liner The Staffordshire bound for Oran, Algeria. Once in North Africa, a training base was established across the Tunisian border at M'Saken, near Tunis. This was to include training with the new WACO gliders. Due to the initial shortage of pilots however, some of the squadron were given rudimentary training and assisted in the manoeuvre of the gliders around training locations. The oversight contributed to the sqn missing the Sicily campaign, and some were drafted into driver transport duties in North Africa in summer 1943.

The squadron was finally deployed into action when 1st Airborne Division joined the seaborne invasion to the east coast of Italy in September 1943, travelling onboard the USS Boise to Taranto Harbour. The squadron advanced with the divisional forces against German airborne troops in the wine-growing regions of the peninsula and were consistently engaged as the division eventually reached Bari, then taking an airfield near Foggia, although it lost a number of casualties along the way. The squadron had distinguished themselves in their first operation against what were generally regarded to be a high quality opposition. The squadron finally returned to Philipville, via Taranto, to sail back to the UK for Christmas 1943.

Once back in Britain the squadron was initially billeted at Spalding, Lincs, before being moved on to a new home at Ruskington in the New Year. When in February 1944 it became clear that glider resources would be limited, it was decided that a partial conversion was required; a squadron contingent would be required to jump into action. One squadron member remembers:

"I shall never forget the day in February when Freddie had the whole squadron on parade and announced that on our next operation there would not be enough room for us in the number of gliders we had been allocated and that we would have to jump. While some of the boys had volunteered to jump while we were in Africa the majority [had not]. Cunning Freddie announced that he expected most of us would volunteer, because any man who didn't would be posted. So men who did NOT want to volunteer to jump should take one pace forward. Not a man moved!"

With its revised role the unit became known as 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron in 1944. Extensive training was carried out both for the squadron's new parachutists at Ringway, and the glidertroops, including the squadron signallers newly-equipped with 22 Radio sets. The squadron, along with the rest of the division was prepared for 16 aborted operations in spring and late summer of 1944. Finally however, with preparations for Op Market Garden at an advanced stage, part of the recce squadron split from the main strength in mid-August 1944 as part of the intended 1st Airborne Sea Tail to bring supplies to link up on the ground.

When 1st Airborne Division emplaned for Arnhem, the squadron's gliderborne force of 45 men left Tarrant Rushton in 22 Horsa gliders on 17 September 1944. 160 men travelled to Barkston Heath airfield to emplane for the drop from eight Dakotas. Subsequent analysis showed 1st Airborne Recce Squadron had difficulty reaching their objectives after their troops were dropped at different locations from the gliders carrying their transports. Their advance role was further complicated by drops timed at 1330hrs and 1400hrs after the initial Pathfinders landed at 1300hrs. It would take over two hours for the recce sqn to begin the approach to their objective, before the advance was halted near Wolfheze. The implications of these difficulties to the battle, like much of the overall plan to take Arnhem Bridge, is much debated. 

The squadron fought extensively during the ensuing battle where heavy fighting resulted in major equipment losses and some clever improvisation, including manning Polston Anti-Aircraft guns which proved effective against German armour. The squadron lost 29 men during the operation, most of whom are now buried at Oosterbeek War Cemetery, Arnhem, whilst around 140 men were taken prisoner and would not return the UK until the end of the war.

Following the Battle of Arnhem, 75 men had escaped to return to the UK, where the squadron was reformed at Ruskington. With new recruits, new weaponry and renewed training efforts the squadron was gradually restored as an effective unit. When in mid-1945 the war in Europe neared its conclusion, many expected attention to be diverted to the Far East. In the event, it became evident that assistance would be required to disarm the German forces in Scandinavia first. The 1st Airborne Division was sent to Norway (Op Doomsday) as many celebrated VE Day in May 1945. The squadron was deployed to Oslo and played its part as the division helped co-ordinate the surrender of German forces and the restoration of civilian order over the summer months.

After the 1st Airborne Division finally returned home from Norway in the autumn of 1945, the 1st Airborne Recce Sqn was effectively disbanded. The men were variously demobilised, or sent to Palestine with 21st Independent Pathfinders Parachute Coy and the 6th Airborne Armoured Recce Regiment. The Recce Corps itself was disbanded on 1 August 1946.

Officers Commanding

1941-44 Maj F Gough MC TC
1945 Capt D Allsop

Further reading

Richard Doherty, Only the Enemy in Front (Every Other Beggar Behind): The Recce Corps at War, 1940-1946 (1994), Tom Donovan: London.
John Fairley, Remember Arnhem: Story of the First Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron at Arnhem (1990) Peaton Press.
Writings of Sir Arthur Bryant

 

With kind assistance from Pip Tyler

by ParaData Editor