Abridged memoir of Sgt AR Parsons on his transfer to and training with 151 Parachute Battalion, India, 1942

This is an abridged extract of my father’s memoirs. By 1941 my father had already been in India for 6 years, having arrived in Karachi as a boy soldier aged 15years.

Transfer to the Army Air Corps

1941 An Army Council Instruction, known always as an ACI was published asking for volunteers to be transferred to the Army Air Corps. This corps had recently been formed and its headquarters were in Delhi. Training as parachute troops was to be the main purpose of the exercise and an additional payment of 2 shillings a day was to be the incentive to attract volunteers. I applied just as soon as I could get hold of an application form. Before the end of the year I was in Delhi looking forward to begin training as a parachutist. However it wasn’t quite as simple as all that. A body of troops as large as a battalion could not be assembled on the spur of the moment. It takes time.

The Commanding Officer of this new arm of the service was a certain Lieutenant Colonel Martin Lindsay. He was a Territorial Army officer and he was also the holder of the King’s Polar medal. He had earned this decoration for his work in exploring some parts of Greenland in the inter-war years. The full complement of potential parachutists was at brigade strength and was to consist of 151 (British) Battalion, 152 (Indian) Battalion and 153 (Gurkha) Battalion. These 3 battalions made up 50 Parachute Brigade. I can only deal with 151 because we did not come into contact with either of the other 2 battalions except at a distance.

One of the first tasks that I had to face in this new situation was to attend a cadre for the entire senior NCOs who had recently joined the unit. It was the CO’s reasoning that with a battalion consisting, as it did, of soldiers from the 26 different regiments of the line that the drill and standards of theses regiments would all be different. In order to try to eliminate the differences and establish some idea of conformity the best way to achieve this aim would be to subject the senior NCOs to a cadre of some sort. It was left to the Regimental Sergeant Major, Gaunt by name, and the training Adjutant, a Lieutenant Lee, to prepare a programme and to set it in motion. Of course the RSM had to start with the Company Sergeant Majors. Their training I believe comprised 2 or 3 lecture studies from the RSM and the Adjutant. But there were only 5 of them so that task could be quite easily performed. The cadre then consisted mainly of sergeants and there were about 40 of us. There was a concentration on foot drill, which is the basis of good discipline and each of us had to take our turn in taking a drill parade under the instruction and supervision of the RSM. The RSM incidentally was a former drill sergeant with the Coldstream Guards so he knew what he was about when it came to drill parades. We also had to undergo a lot of weapon training and field engineering tasks and anti-gas training. All that we did we had done before on our own regiments, but the aim was all the time to standardise our performances so that at the end of the course we could pass on to troops under our command our standardised procedures. We needed to be a good and cohesive unit in the shortest possible time. Each of us on the cadre had been marked according to our individual performance and potential and I could hardly believe my ears or eyes when I first heard and then read that I had finished top of the heap. At this point the RSM marched me in front of the CO who congratulated me then told me that the Adjutant had a job for me. In the Adjutant’s office I was told that I was required to work in the Orderly Room alongside the Orderly Room Sergeant. My job was to organise a nominal roll of the battalion. Soldiers from the 26 regiments formerly mentioned had arrived on transfer so quickly that a proper roll had not been kept up to date. I was also going to be responsible for returning soldiers found to be unfit for parachute training, unfitness being defined as either in medical or physical terms, or for discipline reasons or for the simple fact that a soldier changed his mind about wanting to continue with the training when he found it to be too demanding.

The Orderly Room Sergeant, named Badger, and I shared a room so between us we got things properly organised. I was shortly able to report to the Adjutant that the job he had given me was complete. It was also a satisfactory tool from which Sergeant Badger could work very effectively. The Adjutant then said he had another job for me to take on. I was to become the battalion Intelligence Sergeant and I would work directly to the Intelligence Officer. He showed me a room near the orderly room that had a number of shelves already installed and the shelves were packed with maps of every description. My next task was to find 7 or 8 men in the battalion who would fit into the newly formed “I” section.

We started training immediately by sorting out all the maps we had and cataloguing them. The next step took in map reading exercises in the field during the day and during the night-time as well. We learnt very quickly because time was of the essence. In addition to all this we also had to learn about enemy badges of rank, enemy battle orders, recognition of aircraft, and recognition of enemy small arms. We learned how to make a panoramic view of a particular area, how to select and set up an observation post and many other things on which a battalion commander would need to be informed in order to make his assessments of differing situations. In order to get into this situation as quickly as possible I asked the Adjutant if I could attend an “I” sergeant’s course. The answer was “No”. There were in fact no such courses at that time.

It was some time after the “I” Section had been formed that I was eventually chosen to attend my parachute-training course. I had a small idea of what I was to be subjected to, because the training had been going on for some time and already there was a large number of soldiers who were already qualified and wearing their “wings”. The course was held on the airfield in Delhi and lasted for three weeks. In the main it consisted of a toughening programme of difficult and repetitive physical activity with special emphasis on arm and leg muscle strengthening. This at first made the muscles in my arms and legs so stiff that I really believed that I would never move them freely again. After the first week the benefit began to tell. And we were then taught how to fall. I had heretofore believed that falling was a simple process of allowing gravity to take over and pull me to the lowest available point. When this happened of course, it resulted in some kind of minor injury which momentarily put me out of action. Now I had to learn how to fall without putting myself out of action, even temporarily. We were told to jump from a position about 10 feet above the ground, land with feet and knees together, bend the knees on touchdown, lean the body forward and roll on over a shoulder. This reads rather simply. Doing it for real is not quite so simple. It takes practice and concentration. Although I thought that I was fit when I first arrived in Delhi, I soon discovered that I was not as fit as I thought I was.

Then there was the mock-up. This was a large construction standing about 10 feet high and it was constructed over a sandpit. There was a platform at the top but no safety rail. We had to get used to heights. In the platform there was an aperture large enough for a person to make an exit from a sitting position. We going to learn to parachute from an aeroplane with an aperture in the floor and the mock-up provided the training for this without risking anyone’s death. During our physical fitness course we were given an air flight to help us understand the feeling inside an aircraft. We knew that in England, paratroopers were being trained to parachute from Lancaster bombers which had been converted to dropping men instead of bombs. No such luck for us in Delhi. We had at our disposal one or two obsolete planes from WW 1. They were Vickers’ Valencia, a twin engine bi-plane with an open cockpit for the pilot and co-pilot in the nose of the fuselage. The twin engines were suspended between the wings by, what to me, looked like piano wire. There was an aperture in the floor of the plane through which we would eventually exit the aircraft. This assimilation flight took us on a run over the river Jumna with all its curves and winding ways at its maximum speed of, I was told, 90 mph. It was a very hair-raising event. There were about 20 of us in the plane. We sat on the floor and we could not see out of the windows. Mind you, I don’t think that we were intended to really. It was my first trip in a machine that defied gravity and although it was hair-raising it was, at that time, the thrill of a lifetime.

The next exercise was the big one. We were at last going to attempt an actual parachute jump from a moving aircraft from a height of about 800feet. We were shown how to get into our harness and we were inspected to make sure that we had got it right. There was a quick release button at the front, so that in the event of an emergency, like being dragged along the ground on landing, a slap on the button followed by a quick turn of the said button and the harness would fall away allowing the parachute to be taken by the wind. So we paraded at the side of the aircraft and boarded it. Inside the plane there was a fixed wire running the full length of the fuselage. It was on to this wire that we fastened the line that would be instrumental in pulling the parachute out of its packing once we had jumped from the plane. At this stage in the training of paratroopers nobody had yet thought of anything like a reserve ‘chute. Neither had anyone thought, or so it seemed, of anything like a safety helmet. Our safety hat in those days was a fairly thick rubber band sewn into a khaki coloured material. This fitted on the head and was fastened off under the chin. We were quite primitive in fact. By now we are into the plane and static lines are fastened to the wire. The fastening was by means of a clip hook with a pin passing through the hook so that clip pin could not come undone. There were 10 of us on board and the aircraft was going to make one circuit of the airfield for each man making his very first jump. The drill was to swing the feet into the aperture with hands firmly on the floor at the side of the legs. Head up, looking at the dispatcher across the aperture. He was standing very tall and that made us look up. Nearing the exit point a red light came on. This was the “prepare to jump” signal. At the point of dispatch a green light came and the dispatcher shouted at the top of his voice “GO-O-O-“. The secret at this point was to push off and then immediately assume the position of attention as on the parade ground and not to look up nor down. We had been warned about the slipstream coming from the engines and that as we exited we would pass through it. What we did not know at that juncture was the absolute strength of the slipstream. Those of us still overawed by the fact of jumping from an aeroplane were taken by surprise and our legs and arms were blown wide open. Instructors were on the ground with loud hailers and they were shouting instructions and corrections to us in not very gentle language. In the whole of my life from then until now, I have never experienced anything so wonderfully exhilarating as that very first jump. I was scared, of course I was. My heart was beating twenty to the dozen and I was in a cold sweat, but for all that I felt great. Through the slipstream to the end of the static line and then to hear the parachute give a slight “plop” as it developed was wonderful. Then to relax and look around from that height and see the beauty of the countryside if only for a few seconds before landing with feet and knees together and rolling forward to prevent injury. Out of that harness quickly and roll up the parachute and harness into a ball and get to the assembly point in double quick time.

I had made my first jump. I had four more to make and I would then be qualified to wear my “wings”. In India the qualifying number of jumps was 5, whereas in England the number was 8, the first 2 jumps being from a tethered balloon. I understand that the 2 jumps from a balloon were quite frightening because without a slipstream to help to develop the ‘chute the fall into space was longer before the ‘chute developed properly. But also the balloon was tethered at 1000 feet which gave them another 200 feet over our height at 800. At Delhi we had our fair share of accidents. One of the periods of our parachute training involved a visit to the parachute packing shed. This was a like a large aeroplane hanger furnished with very long wooden tables. After every use the parachutes were hung at their full length to dry out. This process took about 2 days, even in India. Then the ‘chute is laid out on a table and all the sections are separated by hand to make sure they are not stuck together in any way. The packing is a very carefully supervised activity. In England it was carried out by members of WAAF. In India we had a section of specially trained troops to do the job. As I have indicated there were accidents. One such was when our provost sergeant was killed on a training jump because his parachute did not open properly. His ‘chute developed into what we knew as a “Roman candle”. That is, his chute simply streamed above his head like the tail of a hand-held kite. He hit the ground still looking as if he was standing to attention on parade. He was not a pretty sight when he was picked up. Following on that incident a complete stick of 10 Gurkha paras were killed when none of their ‘chutes opened. And there were one or two other incidents less serious and although some form of sabotage was suspected nothing was ever proved but jumping came to halt for a long time.

To the Middle East

The club in Delhi, (a place my father frequented) was the scene of many unpleasant incidents. After one such ferocious outburst between members of our battalion and some members of the Inniskilling Fusiliers visiting from Agra, the C-in-C ordered our removal to the Middle East where our excess energy and propensity for fighting could be put to better use than in simply brawling. So on about 20 November 1942, we sailed from Bombay for the Middle East. We arrived later that month. On this occasion the IO was away on a course and so I was given the task of drawing up the security instructions for the journey. We eventually arrived at a tented camp at Kabrit, a small place on the Bitter Lakes. The bitter lakes are part of the Suez Canal system. A little way up the road from our camp was another camp in which the 22 SAS Regiment was stationed. This was the first time that I had heard of that regiment. It was from Kabrit that I was sent to the Middle East Intelligence Training School in Cairo on a course for which I had asked whilst still in Delhi. The course lasted from 21 December ’42 to 9 Jan ‘43 and covered every detail of the “I” Section in action. Just prior to my attending this course an ACI had been issued saying that every soldier who had been overseas for at least 7 years continuously could claim to be sent home to England if they so wished. By the time that the ACI had been published I had served overseas for nearly 8 years continuously, and I had therefore applied to be considered. When I returned from Cairo, I learned that by the end of the month those of us who were eligible would be granted their wish. The date of departure for home was to be notified.

My Father returned to the UK via South Africa, with about 90 other members of what had by then become 156 Bn. Their journey home took about 4 months and was not without incident, arriving eventually in June 1943.

Back in the U K at last

We were finally disembarked and put on a train for Hardwick in Derbyshire, which is where the airborne forces depot was situated. In the event we finished up at Ardwick in Manchester. This was all because of a railway employee hearing the word Hardwick immediately took it for Ardwick. Well, we arrived at Hardwick Hall and we were settled in, so to speak. Being settled in included being equipped with the, by now, red beret worn by paratroopers and it was adorned with a plastic version of the Army Air Corps badge. The Parachute Regiment had not yet been granted a cap badge of its own. A few days later we were sent on 10 days disembarkation leave. We were all very fed up about fact that we had all served overseas for a period of at least 7 years without a break. My 10 days disembarkation leave came to its scheduled end and I reported back to Hardwick Hall. From there we were transferred to the Salisbury Plain area and to what was the 3rd Parachute Brigade and part of the 6th Airborne Division. When I use the collective term “we” I mean the 90 of us who had travelled from the Middle East and 156 Battalion. We arrived at Bulford station to be met by a contingent from the 7th, 8th, and 9th battalions. Once the train had stopped I heard in the distance a voice calling out my name. “Sgt. Parsons. Sgt. Parsons” I immediately thought “Ay. Ay. Now what have I done.” The caller turned out to be none other than Colonel Martin Lindsay, who once I had reported to him on the station platform informed me that he had tried to secure my posting to his battalion, the 9th but that the brigadier had overruled his request. I was to be posted to the 8th battalion as their “I” sergeant. The whole number of us who had travelled home from the Middle East were to be divided between the three battalions in the 3rd Parachute Brigade. They were 7th (Light Infantry) Battalion, formally 10th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry, 8th (Midland Counties) Battalion, formally 13th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment and the 9th (Eastern and Home Counties) Battalion, formally 10th Battalion the Essex Regiment.

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