Bill Crockett's account of his experiences at Hardwick Hall and Ringway in 1940

Turn the clock back around 47 years and I remember the very first time I heard “UP 500, FIVE TO DROP”.  I wonder how many readers know just what lies behind those words.  For the uninitiated…… Dunkirk had come and gone and Winston C wanted an Airborne Division formed as part of future plans.  The Division was to include both Glider borne troops and parachutists.  Glider troops @ one shilling a day extra, paratroops two shillings a day extra. Being of a greedy nature, I opted for the two shillings a day extra and subsequently found myself at a place called Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, a huge estate with the Hall named above built by Elizabeth of Shrewsbury around 1597.  Her initials E.S. to this day stand emblazoned in huge letters on the parapets of the four huge towers in massive letters of stone.  However, we digress… In the gardens of the estate, a complete barracks had been constructed, together with the most formidable assault course sadistic minds could devise.  Together with its lakes, cliffs for scaling and abseiling, and surrounding countryside for forced marches and killer timed runs, this formed the Depot and School Airborne Forces where prospective parachutists underwent a 14 day intensive – and I mean intensive – toughening course. In the event of you surviving this course and still being sound in wind and limb after passing the numerous strength and endurance tests, you were passed on to Ringway Airport, staffed by a selected and hand-picked band of dedicated R.A.F. instructors, whose patience was unbridled and who all had the rare quality of knowing how to handle a motley bunch of budding paras of all ranks. After a week of what was known as the ‘circus’ with its fiendish contraption of harnesses which dropped you from a great height when you least expected it, to the various ‘death slides’, so called because if you didn’t let go in time you crashed through the corrugated wall of the hangar which housed the ‘circus’, to the mechanical marvel called the ‘Fan’.  This was located some 60 feet up in the roof of the hangar.  You sat on a duck board and a belt was attached to your waist.  This, in turn, was attached to a cable would around a small drum with a four bladed fan on the other end.  The fan was no larger than the average car fan.  The air resistance on these fans controlled the speed of your 60 foot drop to the mats below after you had either pushed yourself off from your perch or had been unceremoniously kicked off by the instructor.  We always knew by the special grin on his face when he had altered the pitch of the fan blades to give you a faster descent… After that first week, in which we had also learned to don our parachutes, we passed on to our first jump.  A “stick” of five of us were marched to a field in which a barrage balloon with a canvas covered cage made of tubular steel slung underneath was moored to its attendant lorry-mounted winch. Having put on our parachutes, we climbed into the cage, which was about 6 feet square with a large hole in the centre of the floor.  We hooked up our lifelines to a bar at the top of the cage, and the R.A.F. instructor yelled out the immortal words to the winch crew: UP 500, FIVE TO DROP. 
In reality, this was an order to winch the balloon up to 500 feet, and that five people – he hoped – would jump through the hole in the floor of the cage. During the ascent to 500 feet, we were reminded by our inhuman instructor that we could return and exchange our parachutes if they failed to open.  No-one laughed. Risqué jokes and stories were related by our tormentor.  No-one laughed.  My face was probably green, my fellow sufferers’ faces were yellow, puce, crimson and a sickly shade of orange.  Afraid --- we were petrified --- Having reached the allotted height, the greatest impression was the peace and quiet of the stillness around us as the lorry holding the winch was moved about 50 yards to angle the cable so that we did not become entangled with it. Our instructor became serious and reminded us that an R.A.F. officer was on the ground to ‘talk us down’ and instruct if necessary. We had been so trained to respond to command immediately that when our R.A.F. boyo yelled ‘ACTION STATIONS’, yours truly, being number one, swung his legs into the hole.  Before one had time to think sanely “what the hell am I doing up here” or any similar thought, the command “GO” was given so loud that it must have been heard in Manchester.  I “WENT”. After a free fall of around seventy to eighty feet, the sound of a whip cracking above my head made me look up and there, lovely, wonderful, beautiful, was this delicate shade of pink nylon parachute, fully open.  I raised both arms to shoulder height as per training to show that I was in control and yelled at the top of my voice: THIS IS XXX???ZZZ LOVELY THIS IS XXX???ZZZ SMASHING And more, much more. Next, I heard the officer speaking from the ground with the megaphone: “Yes, we know all that, number one, good exit, now prepare for a backward landing, and remember: head well forward, shoulders round, elbows in and watch the ground”.  Seconds later, and wham, I hit the ground, did a backward roll and stood up, amazed that I did not have any broken legs, ankles or neck.  I then watched my other stick members jumping until the wind took hold of my ‘chute – which, contrary to training, I had not unfastened, and started to drag me flat on my face across the dropping zone.  Finally, my training came to my rescue and I remembered how to do an emergency release from my harness. That afternoon, we did another balloon jump and the following days we graduated to the old Whitley Bomber.  These Whitleys were no longer fit for the R.A.F. raids, they were literally held together with wire, string and chewing gum, so they were passed on to Ringway for us.  They held only ten at a time, five on each side of the central hole in the floor of the fuselage.  We completed our eight qualifying ‘jumps’ and were ceremoniously presented with our coveted ‘wings’ and red beret.  (We had already been to town the previous night and bought a pair of ‘wings’, Airborne Division signs and sewn them onto our Best Battledress ready). That night we celebrated in the accustomed manner with liquid refreshment, the songs we had learned unprintable – and of course, our instructors and the wonderful WAFs who packed our chutes and who had seen it all before. 

Report kindly donated by Jo Richardson.

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