The Genesis of The Red Devils – The Parachute Regiment's Freefall Display Team


After a belated start behind France and the United States sport parachuting was, by 1963, becoming quite well established in the UK. The British Parachute Association had progressed from a collection of enthusiasts with little organisation or teeth into the recognised controlling body of the sport. While certainly not world leaders, British teams were performing very creditably at international competitions. Although successful commercial centres had yet to be established, weekend clubs were quite numerous - particularly in the South. Parachute displays were still relatively novel events but were in increasing demand at all forms of civilian and military shows. Equipment still mainly consisted of ex-US Government stock (C9/B4 main parachutes and T7 reserves) available at relatively low cost although the wealthier pundits were sporting Low Porosity "TU"s - the very latest in high performance, as the Para Commander was not due to appear in this country for another two years. Regrettably the two British manufacturers, Irvins and GQ, were producing little of practical value for the average parachutist and certainly not at affordable prices.

As might be expected, the Services were well to the fore in the sport. Many of the original pioneers had been RAF PJIs and a strong club was based on No 1 PTS; in addition the school provided the official RAF Display Team (the forerunners of the Falcons) which mainly performed at RAF Air Displays. In the Army the undisputed leaders were 22 SAS; this unit had produced the entire British Team for the 1962 World Championships and regularly carried away most of the team and many of the individual trophies at national competitions. Their display team was certainly the most experienced and busiest in the Army. But although its members were able to spend much of their time parachuting, it was still only a part time team and in later years, as 22 SAS's operational commitments increased, it went into relative decline in the sport parachuting field.

In 16 Para Brigade 1, 2 and 3 PARA each had their own separate clubs. However due to frequent moves overseas and lack of continuity due to postings it was proving difficult to improve standards. 9 Para Sqn RE had an excellent team but, because of the size of the unit, it consisted of little more than its four hard core members. Most other units in the Brigade had either formed embryo clubs or at least had a handful of dedicated individuals.

Elsewhere in the Army quite a number of units and regiments were forming their own clubs, probably the most notable being the Royal Green Jackets. In order to co-ordinate all this activity the Army Parachute Association had been formed and, as a result of a generous grant from Rothmans Ltd, acquired its own Rapide aircraft. The problems faced by a handful of keen but unqualified soldiers learning to operate this aircraft is another story but, suffice to say, it was proving to be a great success. Plans were already in hand to acquire a permanent centre for the Association at Netheravon and to establish a branch in Germany - the Rhine Army Parachute Association.

I had started free falling in 1961 while a platoon commander in 3 PARA by attending one of the first Military Free Fall Courses run by No 1 PTS. With a few extra sport descents under our belts (grand total of about twenty five!), Lance Corporal Gus Martin and I qualified as so-called BPA Instructors and, on a subsequent tour in the Gulf, ran courses for the Battalion using AAC aircraft in Aden. How we never killed or injured any of our students (or indeed ourselves as we experimented with such advanced techniques as "relative work" with no instruction) is both a mystery and a miracle.

On our return to the UK in 1962 I was reluctantly posted to the Infantry Junior Leaders' Battalion in Oswestry as an Adventure Training Instructor, just as I was hoping to attempt SAS selection. During our Summer leave in 1963 Lance Corporal Sherdy Vatnsdal (1 PARA) and I were running free fall courses for the APA at Middle Wallop and Thruxton. During lengthy evening discussions over many pints of beer, Major John Weeks (one of the pioneers of sport parachuting in the Regiment and the first Secretary of the APA), Sherdy and I discussed the idea of forming a full time display team within Airborne Forces. We realised that there was no chance of getting such a team officially established or funded and therefore proposed that it should be largely self financing and composed of members "loaned" from their parent units. Because of the shortage of available talent within the Parachute Regiment we favoured the idea of a team recruited from all units within 16 Para Bde.

I wrote a short paper outlining our proposals which was sent initially to RHQ PARA. John Weeks then discussed the matter further with the new Regimental Colonel, Glyn Gilbert (who had also become the Chairman of the APA), who gave his full support to the idea. However, in order to ensure adequate control, he decided that it should be a Regimental rather than a Brigade team. In the early stages this caused considerable problems in training members to an adequate standard but in the long term proved to be a wise decision. The team to-day owes an enormous debt to the foresight, determination and courage of Glyn Gilbert and John Weeks who, behind the scenes, did so much to help launch and support it during its early stages.

The net result was that I was short toured at Oswestry and, on 1 January 1964, assumed the grand appointment of Commander of The Parachute Regiment Free Fall Display Team; I had a small office in RHQ PARA, a lot of enthusiasm - and nothing else! On top of this I also inherited the appointment of APA Secretary from John Weeks which included the management of the Rapide aircraft.

The main problems which had to be overcome to get the team on the road were the selection and training of its members, the provision of equipment and support facilities (including parachutes, aircraft, transport and accommodation) and getting display bookings. Due to battalion commitments and manning levels it was not possible to cream off all the most experienced jumpers. 3 PARA were about to go on another one year tour in the Gulf and could therefore only provide Sergeant Joe ("Pop") Reddick - a Second World War veteran - who, like myself, had just over one hundred free fall jumps. Next to arrive was the 1 PARA contingent who were allowed home early from their Battalion's emergency UN tour in Cyprus; this consisted of Lance Corporal Sherdy Vatnsdal (a Canadian and our greatest expert with about two hundred jumps), Privates Charlie Gowens (about one hundred jumps) and Ernie Rowberry with a slightly lower total. Finally 2 PARA produced Second Lieutenant Simon Hill, Sergeants Bill Catt and John Hamshere, Corporals Jackie Baughan and Tom Robertson, Lance Corporals Brian David and Alec Parker, and Privates Paul Starkie and Don McNaughton. Although the largest battalion contribution they were certainly the least experienced; all had only completed a basic course and had between ten and twenty jumps each (Brian David was the least experienced and I seriously had to consider whether to keep him. Fortunately I did - he later became the National and Army Champion!). Later in the year we also acquired Sergeant Bill Scarratt on the completion of his exchange tour with the US Army at Fort Bragg where he had taken up free falling and acquired a lot of useful experience.

To get this (even for those days) inexperienced team up to an acceptable display standard before the start of the season proved to be no mean problem. The US Army Parachute Team - the "Golden Knights" - had kindly agreed to host us at Fort Bragg and give us several weeks' training which would have been invaluable. But unfortunately diplomatic relations with the US Government were soured when Britain sold some buses to Cuba and the invitation was cancelled! We got some excellent aircraft support from the Austers of the Para Bde Recce Flt and the Beavers of 6 Flt AAC but their available hours were limited. For the majority of training we had to hire the APA Rapide or other civilian aircraft. No funding was available and team members therefore had to dip into their own pockets to pay for their jumps. By about mid May the level of experience had certainly improved and everyone had a minimum of about fifty jumps, but this was far from ideal. Display routines were therefore kept simple and seldom involved anything more than a close team exit from the aircraft (each man trailing smoke from a No 83 Smoke Grenade), very limited relative work and a stacked opening with the emphasis placed on a safe landing in the target area. We considered inviting some of the other more experienced parachutists from the Regiment to "guest jump" on displays when they were available, but decided against this as we had sufficient numbers and integrating "outsiders" who had not trained together might have increased the risks.

The solution to the personal equipment problem was, unfortunately, very simple. We established quite close links with the GQ Parachute Company thanks to the friendship and support of a member of their Board, Major "Dumbo" Willans, a wartime member of The Parachute Regiment and a well known test jumper and pioneer of British parachuting. We were asked to try out their new design of sport parachute called the "Scorpion" with which they proposed to equip the team. Regrettably its performance could only be described as totally unsatisfactory and we had to turn it down. Dumbo tried to persuade the Company to produce some conventional sport parachutes for us under licence, but without success. Although we continued to get some assistance from them with minor items of equipment, we were back to square one with parachutes and all other personal kit. The inevitable result was that each member had to provide his own. It says much for the keenness and dedication of all those founder members that they were quite prepared to pay so much to carry out their official duties.

It was Glyn Gilbert who came up with the unprecedented idea that the team should acquire its own aircraft. He persuaded all the battalions, Regular and TA, to provide a total of £1000 in interest free loans - enough to buy a Rapide aircraft. Rothmans had offered a similar amount to buy one for RAPA which I, as Secretary of the APA, also had to purchase; so I had to find two suitable aircraft for sale. After a lot of hunting through contacts in the aviation world I learned that a small Middle Eastern airline were about to sell five good quality Rapides which were based in Beirut but carrying Jordanian registration. They were apparently all about to be snapped up by another interested party, however a quick telephone call to Beirut and instructions to the bank to cable out the money just secured us the best two of the bunch. Two volunteer pilots from BOAC went out to Beirut and flew them back without serious incident. However they required a thorough overhaul before they could be awarded their British Certificates of Airworthiness, so it was about mid June before the team had its very own jump ship in the air. We based it at Blackbushe and relied upon a superb bunch of civilian and RAF volunteer pilots to fly it. All the display fees for this first year went towards repaying the loans for its purchase but it was a very worthwhile venture which probably did much to ensure the survival and progress of the team in future years.

Although I had my office in RHQ in the now demolished Maida Barracks, there was no space available in the co-located Depot to accommodate the team. However 1 PARA had spare buildings at their barracks at Cove and kindly agreed to administer them and provide some limited road transport. This split was not ideal but, as it turned out, worked reasonably well.

Getting bookings for displays was no great problem, thanks to the determined efforts of Major Peter Cockcraft, the Recruiting RO in RHQ. We ended up with a programme of about fifty displays for a season running from May to October. These included military events which were undertaken at no cost apart from the aircraft and civilian shows for which a fee was charged. Bad weather reduced the number of completed shows to about thirty - we imposed very strict wind speed limits for small DZs with such an inexperienced team. All were completed without injury or serious incident, although there were some cases of missed DZs with the occasional amusing result - such as the time when one parachutist undershot into a locked tennis court, much to the delight of the many press photographers present who snapped his vain attempts to escape from this very effective cage!

Quite unofficially the team carried out some trials into blind dropping techniques using the Beaver aircraft of 6 Flt AAC. These were at times a bit hairy but generally proved to be very successful provided that fairly accurate wind forecasts were available. These early experiments eventually led to the official military free fall trials undertaken by the team in later years ( See the JSFTT article ).

All members of the team took part in the Army Parachute Championships, representing their parent battalions. They performed very creditably and were hard on the heels of 22 SAS. They also ran several basic courses for soldiers in the Regiment. It was a busy year filled with many problems and frustrations as well as success and much satisfaction. In the middle of it all I even got married, having changed the date twice to fit in with team commitments; most of our honeymoon was spent in a dilapidated caravan on Netheravon airfield where I was running and participating in the Army Championships. This was typical of the treatment tolerated by all the team's long suffering wives and girl friends.

I finally left the team in the October to take over as the Adjutant of 3 PARA in Bahrain. Compared with its achievements in later years it was a small, uncertain beginning, but the Red Devils (as they were subsequently called) were at least firmly launched.

By Edward Gardener 2010

Read More


Make a donation to Airborne Assault ParaData to help preserve the history of The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces