Last Drop in Action

The last occasion when British airborne forces dropped in action and the first time after the Second World War on a battalion scale was at Suez on the 5th November 1956. This was the 3 PARA parachute assault on El Gamil airfield.

18 Valetta and seven Hastings transport aircraft enabled 668 paratroopers of Lt Col Paul Crook’s battalion to be crammed in for the attack. Seven further Hastings aircraft were configured for the heavy drop role, bringing in jeeps, anti-tank recoilless guns and heavy equipment. The drop zone was on a narrow coastal strip bounded by the Mediterranean to the north and Lake El Manzala to the south immediately to the west of Port Said. There was scant margin for errors.

Personal container loads were incredibly heavy with many signallers and mortar base-plate crews carrying loads heavier than their own body weight. This caused particular problems in the Valetta aircraft because five people in the stick had to lift their loads over the wing spar inside the fuselage, which slowed the exit rate at the end of the stick. This caused one unfortunate soldier to parachute into the sea.

It was decided to jump without reserve parachutes because of the additional weight. This was not a significant decision as reserves had not been used by British airborne forces during the Second World War. Many of the paratroopers had trained without reserves, which had only recently been introduced.

P-Hour was at 0715 GMT and the paratroopers were under fire as soon as they emerged. It had originally been planned to carry out the parachute assault under cover of naval gunfire with the amphibious landings, but the drop had been brought forward 24 hours at the last moment.

Despite intense ground fire the battalion was on the ground in ten minutes. They began to roll up the Egyptian coastal defences preparatory  for the amphibious assault expected the next day.

A Company quickly went into action at the west end of the airfield and took the Control Tower and knocked out a bunker firing onto the drop zone. C Company was in the middle of the sticks and provided a battalion reserve. The last to jump was B Company, which captured the east end of the drop zone and was soon engaged in intense fighting to clear the area of a sewage farm.

A second smaller lift arrived at 1315 with two Vallettas and five Hastings bringing in D Company and more ammunition.

The drop was completely successful and the airfield was captured within 30 minutes. 3 PARA lost four men killed and three officers and 29 men wounded in the assault and subsequent fighting.

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