The first Parachute Field Ambulance, 16 Para Field Ambulance, was raised in 1941 and was followed shortly afterwards by 127 Parachute Field Ambulance. 127 Parachute Field Ambulance was the forerunner of 23 Parachute Field Ambulance and became operational on 17 July 1942.
Initially deployed to North Africa in 1943 as part of the 1st Airborne Division the early days were spent rehearsing for the Allied invasion of Italy. This took place in September 1942. 127 Parachute Field Ambulance was in this theatre of operations in support of 2nd Parachute Brigade until July 1944. In August of that year, the unit participated in the airborne assault into Southern France. Operation ANVIL was an operation designed to thwart the Germans in their attempts to oppose the main sea-borne landing forces. After this successful action, 127 Parachute Field Ambulance returned to Italy with 2nd Parachute Brigade for re-equipping and reorganization before their next task. This was not long in coming and, in October 1944, the Brigade parachuting into Greece as civil war erupted. Extremely high winds, coupled with harsh terrain, made the initial parachute insertion very difficult and a large number of casualties were incurred (one battalion group suffered 27%). 127 Parachute Field Ambulance were in constant action throughout the civil war, not returning to Italy until February 1945.
After a short recuperation period in Italy, 127 Parachute Field Ambulance withdrew as part of 2nd Parachute Brigade to the UK. Here they joined 6th Airborne Division. The relief at the imminent end of the war in Europe quickly disappeared when 6th Airborne Division was warned for deployment to Palestine and in September 1945, they deployed. This was a particularly dangerous period during which the Jewish groups fighting for the creation of the independent state of Israel sought to dishearten the British by carrying out indiscriminate terrorist attacks and random savagery. The unit spent some 15 months in Palestine, not returning to UK until January 1947. As part of the reorganization of the British Army, the designation “127” was returned to the Territorial Army and on the 1st April 1947, the unit was officially designated as 23 Parachute Field Ambulance.
23 Parachute Field Ambulance, as part of 2nd Parachute Brigade, deployed to Germany and was stationed at Kingsway Barracks, Rhendsburg in Northern Germany. 2nd Parachute Brigade now re-titled 16 Independent Parachute Brigade was withdrawn to the UK in November 1949. On the 5th of June 1951 the Brigade deployed by sea to Cyprus for acclimatization prior to undertaking security duties in the Canal Zone in October of that year. The Brigade returned to the UK in August 1954, 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment and 23 Parachute Field Ambulance being the last units to embark. Early in January 1956, 16 Independent Parachute Brigade again deployed to Cyprus where they undertook acclimatization training prior to carrying out numerous operations against EOKA terrorist groups.
This proved to be time well spent, as in March 1956 the Brigade began preparations for an airborne assault on to the Suez Canal, Operation MUSKATEER. This took place on 5 November 1956. Several members of the unit distinguished themselves, including Captain JM Elliott RAMC, the anaesthetist, who was awarded the Military Cross and Sergeant L Goodall RAMC, a Mention in Despatches. After this action Brigade units withdrew to Cyprus where 23 Parachute Field Ambulance remained until returning to the UK in 1957.
The unit took up residence in Aldershot and served there until 1977. Whilst there were no complete unit deployments, various sized groups from Field Surgical Team to Medical Section and individuals deployed worldwide in support of Airborne Forces. 23 Parachute Field Ambulance personnel saw action in Cyprus, Malaysia, Aden, Bahrain, Salahah, British Guyana, Anguilla and Northern Ireland to mention a few.
As a result of the 1974 Defence Review, 16 Independent Parachute Brigade was disbanded on 31 March 1977. 23 Parachute Field Ambulance did not escape and was reduced to a Parachute Clearing Troop (PCT) as part of 15 Field Ambulance, although the designation of 23 Parachute Field Ambulance remained in suspension in the Army Order of Battle. This composite unit became known as 6 Field Force Ambulance, later re-titled 16 Field Ambulance and stationed in Aldershot. For the next 5 years the Parachute Clearing Troop remained in the Aldershot area whilst individuals deployed supporting Army tasks around the world. A Field Surgical Team was deployed to Lusaka airport in 1978 in support of the French operation at Kolwezi but was not utilised and returned to the UK after an uneventful 5 days.
The Argentinian seizure of the Falkland Islands led to Operation CORPORATE being mounted in 1982. As part of this, the Parachute Clearing Troop deployed with 2 PARA Battalion Group. The medical task was twofold. The Field Surgical Team personnel worked in a joint medical organisation with the Commando Medical Squadron, and unit personnel were also deployed to Regimental Aid Posts working right behind battalions in their advance. As a direct result of Operation CORPORATE a full review of the Army’s ability to mount and support Out of Area Operations took place. Following this, 5 Airborne Brigade was created from the units of 5 Infantry Brigade and enhancements to the supporting services resulted in the reformation of 23 Field Ambulance on 1st of April 1985, eight years after being placed in temporary suspension. It was not until 6 April 1986 that the designation of “Parachute” was brought back into the unit title.
The years since 1985 proved both busy and rewarding. Major elements of the unit deployed on Operation ORDERLEY in 1989 to provide military ambulance support during the national ambulance service strike. During Operation GRANBY in 1991 major elements of unit reinforced 33 General Hospital at Al Jubail and two Field Surgical Teams deployed with 1 and 5 Armoured Field Ambulances. Following the ‘Options for Change’ defence review 144 Parachute Field Ambulance (V) was reformed as 144 Parachute Medical Squadron (V) and became an integral sub-unit of 23 Parachute Field Ambulance in September 1993.
In 1994 following the Rwandan Civil War 155 members of unit deployed initially to Ruhengeri in NW Rwanda and later to Kitabi in the SW. In the aftermath of the civil war, the unit provided primary health care and surgical support to over 30 refugee camps in an area of 1000 sq km. During the 4 month tour the unit performed over 130,000 treatments and the Field Surgical Teams conducted 186 surgical procedures. Following Operation GABRIEL the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel A Hawley RAMC was awarded an OBE; WO2 R Bedson RAMC, an MBE; Majors MH England and AM Nicol RAMC, each received a QCVS; and Corporal R Fawcett RAMC, a Joint Commander’s Commendation.
In May 1995 the unit deployed on Exercise PURPLE STAR, a Combined Joint Task Force Exercise with UK and US forces. In July 1996 the unit deployed on Operation RESOLUTE with 23 Hospital Squadron; manned by Regular, TA and reservists to Bosnia Herzogovina as part of the NATO Peace Implementation Force (IFOR). Although the RHQ and Hospital Sqn were withdrawn early in October the unit’s Forward Squadron remained until January 1997 when it was relieved by elements of 1 Armoured Field Ambulance. Throughout Operation RESOLUTE a complete Parachute Clearing Troop remained in Aldershot. They were stood by to deploy to Uganda on Operation PURPOSEFUL in 1996 and they deployed to Zaire in Operation DETERMINANT to Zaire in 1997.
In mid-1999, 23 Parachute Field Ambulance deployed to Macedonia on Operation AGRICOLA with 5 Airborne Brigade in preparation for the NATO KFOR mission in Kosovo. In June 1999, 23 Parachute Field Ambulance deployed into Kosovo with 1 PARA Battalion Group to secure the Kajanik defile, with an airmobile helicopter insertion, to allow the balance of the UK force passage into the country. 23 Parachute Field Ambulance remained in Kosovo until the end of July 1999.
In September 1999, 23 Parachute Field Ambulance was again disbanded. Just as 5 Airborne Brigade and 24 Airmobile Brigade merged to form 16 Air Assault Brigade, so did 23 Parachute Field Ambulance and 19 Airmobile Field Ambulance merge to form 16 Close Support Medical Regiment on 1 October 1999 based in Colchester. The last Commanding Officer of 23 Parachute Field Ambulance, Lieutenant Colonel Tony Williams RAMC asked, and received agreement from the first Commanding Officer of 16 Close Support Medical Regiment, that this new regiment would continue to wear the maroon and blue stable belt and lanyard of the Airborne Medical Services.
Further detail on the history of the Airborne Medical Services can be found in the book ‘On Wings of Healing’ by Howard Cole.
Commanding Officers 23 Parachute Field Ambulance
Jan 1961 - Jul 1964 Lt Col R H Freeman OBE
23 Parachute Field Ambulance suspended - 31 March 1977
Officers Commanding PCT 16 Fd Amb
23 Field Ambulance reformed - 1 April 1985
Jan 1985 - Sept 1988 Lt Col L P Lillywhite MBE
Renamed 23 Parachute Field Ambulance - 6 April 1986
Unit history created with kind assistance from Lt Col Jez Hair