I have had a longer conversation with Vic Cowie and he throws up some interesting observations on this debacle. In case you are not aware, he came through the system man and boy as a TA soldier with B Company 15 PARA in Aberdeen. He rose through the ranks, (I first met him in 1968 as a newly promoted Sgt) ended his time with the battalion as PSAO in Aberdeen and on amalgamation with 4 PARA, became Staff Quartermaster of Highland TAVRA and its subsequent morphings, until his retirement about 18 months ago.He prefaces all his recollections that it was a long time ago, but the fact that he landed in the Canal and survived, when others didn't keeps it somewhat vivid. He said that both Jim Burke and Mike Jackson may have different perceptions to himself, as the RAF certainly will, so his remarks are to be taken from a personal point of view.
He was No 1 Starboard in one of the stream C130 aircraft and also the Chalk Commander, so he was present at pre-drop air briefings. 2 PARA were to drop first followed later that night by 15 PARA with their Heavy Drop. He cannot remember the exact allocation of aircraft to the whole exercise, but he recalls that it was somewhere in the region of 34 or 36 split between the two battalions, he has a feeling that it was 36. The split was 50% to each battalion, with each battalion having its allocation further divided half each to pax and heavy drop. He said that if memory serves, 15 PARA were allocated 16 x C130 to fly stream to two parallel DZs. At one end was the Kiel Canal, at the other he recalls a smaller canal. Half way up the Personnel DZ was a `Black Barn', or something similar.
He recalls that at the air briefing, there was huge nervousness among some of the younger aircrew and he got the impression that this was one of the first times that some of them had been involved in a large stream parachuting exercise at night. Great emphasis was placed during the briefing about the paratroopers exiting the aircraft extremely quickly to avoid late dispatch, and the subsequent possibility of some men falling into the smaller canal at the end of the Personnel DZ should they run out of DZ. He does not recall anything said about a `short drop or an early dispatch' He got the impression that the DZ was perhaps close to the DZ limit for full sticks. Everything of course depended on the stream leader getting it right because the other pilots would take their cue from him.
Prior to emplaning, a message was passed to all that at least one C130 of 2 PARA had been unable to dispatch 50% of its pax owing to airborne lifejackets (later to be known as Life Preserver Parachutist if memory serves) inflating through the accident release of the CO2 bottle. As a result of this, certainly some people, and Vic was one, partially unscrewed the bottle to prevent accidental inflation. The intention was to re-screw the bottles when getting closer to the drop zone...Vic never did manage to do this owing to the crush in the aircraft and suspects that others were in the same predicament. I must confess that I did exactly the same at times when I viewed the `water threat' to be minimal...never at low level over the sea may I add!!
During the drop, he of course landed in the canal. 15 parachutists from the stream did so, and only 9 survived.
There was also talk in the battalion that instead of the DZs being laid out parallel, in fact the heavy drop DZ converged with the Personnel DZ, an error in lay out of the `Juliet' or whatever code letter was used to mark the heavy drop DZ perhaps? A party of recruits were moving down to the `Alpha' on the Personnel DZ to watch the drops, and had barely reached there, when everyone had to take avoiding action as a MSP (LR+Tlr) landed on the Alpha. He also recalls that the wind at the drop level was in a different direction to that on the ground. Are we talking about wind shear here I wonder? He is is no position to judge objectively, but his subjective impression was that they dropped high, early, onto converging DZs, in tricky wind conditions at night, with perhaps some inexperienced crews. All this was compounded by the fact that some, himself included, interfered with the correct operation of the life jacket to prevent in flight accidental inflation resulting in an aborted drop.
He along with others, was asked to make a written statement shortly after the event, then bundled back to Aberdeen in haste. He, and as far as he knew any others, were never called to give verbal evidence at the Board of Inquiry, nor were the findings ever made public to 15 PARA as far as he can recall. He, along with others, would dearly love a sight of that report including the findings! One of the outcomes however which did have an immediate impact was that the Life Jackets and CO2 bottles, which used to be stored by CQMSs' as a part of their airborne stores, had them all withdrawn and a new policy of issuing the Life Preserver Parachutist at the same time as the issue of parachutes for a drop was instituted. The preserver from then on being maintained by the RAF as a piece of safety equipment, as indeed it is. A policy I assume which holds good to this present day.
by Vic Cowie via Patrick ConnRead More