On 21st November 1940 No 2 Commando was officially re-designated as the 11th Special Air Service (SAS) Battalion containing a Headquarters, a Parachute Wing and a Glider Wing. The men from No 2 Commando who had been attached to the Glider Training Squadron were transferred to the establishment of the new Glider Wing. Lt. Col. Ivor Jackson remained as the unit’s commanding officer.
The Battalion remained based at Knutsford in close proximity to the Central Landing Establishment at Ringway. The lack of military facilities in the area meant that The Royal George Inn on the High Street served as the Officers’ Mess. The Headquarters were located next to a fish and chip shop and parades were held in the aptly named Jail Square! All ranks were billeted in civilian households.
Prior to its re-designation the original four troops had been expanded to 450 all ranks contained in 10 troops. The additional E and F Troops were drawn from Eastern Command, G Troop from Western Command, H Troop from Northern Ireland, J Troop from Scottish Command and K Troop was from a mixed bag. The rejection rate of volunteers remained high because of jump refusals, injuries and disciplinary records. Initially the battalion retained its Commando structure of eight-man sections but this was soon increased to 10 because the numbers conformed to a Whitley aircraft ‘stick’ of parachutists.
The Battalion’s duties towards the end of 1940 and beginning of 1941 primarily consisted of performing demonstrations for the Central Landing Establishment and completing training of recent recruits. Morale was starting to drop off when in January Lt. Col. Jackson paraded the whole unit on Shaw Heath in Knutsford and asked for volunteers for a dangerous mission - everybody volunteered. The officers and men selected for the mission were formed in to X Troop.
After six weeks of rehearsals and training the first British parachute operation of the war was undertaken by 7 officers and 28 men with a raid on the Tragino Aqueduct in Italy on 10/11th February 1941. (Further information is contained in the articles on X Troop and the Tragino Raid (Operation Colossus).
The vacuum left by the loss of X Troop was quickly made up with further reinforcements from the commando centre at Achnacarry. After inspecting the latest batch of commando recruits from the Grenadier Guards, South Wales Borderers and Lancashire Fusiliers at the Castle, Colonel Jackson selected a group to join the SAS Battalion. The contingent, commanded by Major Peter Bromley Martin, which formed the 11th Troop (L Troop) consisted exclusively of Guards with the exception of Albert ‘Taffy’ Mantle. The troop also included men like Lance Corporal Cadwallader: “whose face was as wide as a Chinaman, rosy cheeks, punched nose, and fair hair”; Sergeant Whitley: “just twenty years old, brisk and fresh, full of energy, who answers only with a terrific salute, ‘Sa’… ‘Sa’… ‘Sa’ ”; and Guardsman Sambourne: “a gentleman, with spectacles, for enigmatic reasons in the ranks”. (See Photo of L Troop on ParaData).
In March 1941, 12 of the more advanced ex commando glider pupils were transferred to Haddenham where a flight of the Glider Training Squadron had been established (known as the Glider Exercise Flight). In April the remainder of the army glider pupils followed. Training continued predominantly on civilian gliders because there was only one Hotspur available.
Five of the first batch of army glider pilot trainees were sent back to Ringway in April when Winston Churchill visited the Central Landing Establishment to assess the progress of his developing Airborne Force. The demonstration of a mock attack on the airfield was to consist of a formation of Whitleys dropping men from the 11th SAS Battalion, with five sail planes landing in formation (flown by the ex commando pupils) and a tow past of one Hotspur glider.
Speakers had been rigged up for the visiting dignitaries to listen to proceedings which did not get off to a good start with the following exchange relayed to the visitors:
Wing Commander Norman (see photo):“Hallo formation leader are you ready to take off?”
Reply: “No, I ‘m not ready to take off - five of the blighters have fainted.”
After this rather rocky start, and the removal of the bodies from the Whitleys, the demonstration proceeded although a number of injuries were sustained by the parachutists on landing because of high winds. The sail planes reportedly landed wing tip to wing tip a short way from their illustrious spectators. A handful of obsolete aircraft, some single seat recreational gliders, and five hundred paratroops fell a long way short of the Prime Minister’s vision for his Airborne Force. Nevertheless, he was able to see the remarkable efforts achieved by these pioneers in less than a year with slender resources and poor support.
Shortly after the display to the Prime Minister a demonstration was performed for King George VI and senior military officers near Windsor. Much work was needed to persuade the opinion makers of the day, both civil and military, of the value of an Airborne Force. As a consequence demonstrations remained a significant part of the battalion’s work. At least 3 of the Whitley’s were almost permanently engaged on display work, which Group Captain Newnham likened to a “travelling circus.” The men had volunteered to get into action against the enemy and this kind of work did not go down well, sapping morale.
Further saps to morale occurred in the spring of 1941: the shortage of aircraft and the need to increase the training capacity at Ringway resulted in the introduction of the dreaded barrage balloon with an under slung cage for parachute training and practise by day and by night. It was thoroughly disliked by a lot of the men and several who had already qualified as parachutists refused to jump. All but three were returned to unit; the three exceptions served periods of detention and returned to parachute duties without any problems. Not all of the battalion’s personnel disliked the balloon, some enthusiastically embraced this new facility as Arthur Kellas records: “Hibbert dumbfounded us all one night by jumping in mess kit and spurs between cocktails and dinner at the Royal George.”
In June 1941 Lt. Col. Jackson moved onto pastures new to be succeeded by Lt. Col. ‘Eric’ Down.
Up to this time the unit had been specifically trained in the tactics of a covert commando unit to operate in small modules behind enemy lines. It had developed a maverick reputation which was not well received in some quarters. Army manpower shortages and Air Ministry resistance had resulted in the home based British Airborne Force being constrained to an establishment of around 500 men. After many months of argument, the War Office and Air Ministry finally reached a consensus following Churchill’s intervention after the April display: a Joint Memorandum issued by the Chiefs of Staff in May 1941 envisaged that the battalion would be expanded into a parachute brigade with a spearhead infantry role as soon as possible. There were no firm details on how this was to be achieved but the new CO, fresh from the War Office, immediately changed the battalion’s training schedules to meet this new vision.
The new commanding officer was introduced to the men of the battalion paraded in the Jail Square. A tall balding man with a face like a well kept grave viewed his audience with grim conviction to say, “Gentleman the good times are over.” This was greeted by hissing and booing which moved him not one jot. (Being independent minded soldiers this tradition of voicing their displeasure carried over into the successor unit: the 1st Battalion also booed and hissed at Earl Mountbatten during another poorly received speech!). Down went on to outline his plan to raise the standard of the unit. The first priority would be to establish a high level of marksmanship and to this end the battalion would move to the Depot of Lancashire Fusiliers at Bury. Being extremely well looked after in civilian households, the move to army food and barracks accommodation was viewed with dismay by officers and other ranks. To make things worse it was learned that the lodging allowance to fund room and board would be significantly reduced for the duration spent away at Bury. Following heated discussion and many protestations a compromise was reached which was considered fair by the men.
The appearance and attitude of the new Commanding Officer did not enamour him with the men and they christened him “Dracula”. As Maurice Newnham recorded, it took a long time for the men to realise that “his stern and often uncompromising manner concealed a stout heart and a generous character”.
Time spent in weapon training and the rifle ranges at Bury proved the skill at arms of the unit to be well above average and would go on to improve. As did the prowess of the battalion lotharios who had been persuaded to provide them with all the comforts of bed and board. However, after several weeks they were in for a rude awakening when a totally unexpected over-night order came through that the move back to Knutsford, by way of route march, would take place early the next morning. Efforts were made to warn those contactable but quite a few were taken completely by surprise. They arrived back into barracks to find that breakfast was over and the battalion already on parade and ready to move off. The new CO was not impressed and by way of retribution the whole unit would be made to pay for misdeeds of the few. He ordered that the usual break of ten minutes in every hour would be extended to one break every two hours and the night owls were not at all popular in the ranks! Leading from the front Lt. Col. Down set a brisk pace and after a few miles over the cobbled streets of Lancashire, the resentment began to build along with a growing determination amongst the men not to let him grind them down.
There was a welcome break for lunch at Trafford Park, Manchester and the march was completely without incident and in record time. The pace had been unrelenting and on reaching Knutsford, each troop was dismissed and collapsed on the grass verges to rest. Not so Major Bromley-Martin’s guardsman of L Troop at the rear of the column: they finished the march strictly to attention with rifles at the slope and smartly halted, turned left and stood at ease. It was an impressive show and greatly appreciated by the CO who congratulated the troop commander on their performance. Needless to say this display did not go down with the rest of the audience!
The transition to a specialised infantry role called for a different type of volunteer and a number of irregular types who had formed the unit were returned to their parent Regiment or Corps. Many of the men felt the good times were over as a harsher code of discipline was introduced. The training intensified to include platoon tactics in battalion exercises in Suffolk and culminating in Norfolk with the “storming” of Norwich Castle. This was followed by manoeuvres with a Canadian Division around Redhill and Biggin Hill.
The efforts of Eric Down and Richard Gale were instrumental in saving the battalion. When the plans for a parachute brigade were announced the prevailing War Office opinion was that the battalion should be disbanded with the men dispersed across the parachute brigade or posted to other units. However Down was so successful in his transformation efforts that Gale, after inspecting the battalion in August, became an enthusiastic advocate for their retention. Gale, who was the Brigadier designate for the new brigade, argued successfully against the War Office recommendation and persuaded the Commander in Chief Home Forces that the unit should be retained.
On the 25 August 1941 the unit reorganised into a conventional headquarters and rifle company structure similar to the war establishment of an infantry battalion, albeit with lower manning levels. Prior to the reorganisation 11 SAS had consisted of some 60 subsections but the new permanent establishment structure only contained 45 subsections and significant reshuffling of personnel ensued. A fourth rifle company was temporarily established and some of the companies also carried a temporary extra platoon. The unit’s antecedents were acknowledged in the identification system used for the rifle companies – instead of the traditional ABC (adopted by the 2nd and 3rd Battalions) they were labelled as R, S, T and U. U Company disappeared once the reorganisation was completed.
On 15th September 1941 the unit name changed to the 1st Parachute Battalion of No1 Parachute Brigade and marked the “end of the beginning” for British Airborne Forces.
Compiled for ParaData by Harvey Grenville based and references from:
Hilary St. George Saunders, ‘The Red Beret’ – The Story of the Parachute Regiment 1940-1945, (1950), Michael Joseph.
Grp Cpt Maurice Newham, Prelude To Glory, (1947) Sampson Low, Marston and Co., Ltd.
Arthur Kellas, Down to Earth (1990), Pentland Press.
William F Buckingham, Paras: The Birth of British Airborne Forces from Churchill’s Raiders to 1st Parachute Brigade, (2005), Tempus Publishing.