Recollections of 1st Air Troop RE

The first Air Troop RE came into being in September 1941 under the command of Captain S Dorman and Lieutenant D Vernon. Thirty other ranks made up the troop; all were volunteers and came from a variety of engineer units, including bomb disposal, a survey unit, one ex Commando and another from a training battalion and others from Field and Field Park Companies. The senior NCO at that time was a sergeant.

The first ‘get together’ so far as I remember, was in a Nissan hut in the grounds of Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire. All, including the NCOs, wondering what they had let themselves in for – particularly as the rest of the camp was occupied by men from every Scottish regiment you could think of, the beginning of the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. It was a sight to behold. On parade with their various headdresses, from tam-o-shanters to glengarries and side caps. Pegasus and other airborne insignia were yet to come.

In training at Hardwick we were separate entities but we shared the same dining hall as the battalion lads, the food by the way was excellent and we could even go up for second helpings! I have often wondered, was it from this early beginning that such affinity existed between 2nd Battalion and the 1st Parachute Squadron as the troop later became? For instance, the successful Bruneval raid (‘C’ company 2nd Battalion and members of the Air Troop), Oudna, North Africa (2nd Battalion and ‘B’ troop, 1st Squadron) and finally the bridge area at Arnhem. Even the production of a blazer badge depicting Colonel Frost’s famous hunting horn and the inscription “1st Para Sqn. RE” beneath. A badge I still wear with pride at our annual reunion.

I have little recollection of our pre-para training at Hardwick. A lot of PT cross country runs and marches – when it always seemed to be raining. In fact I remember Hardwick as a wet, cold and muddy place. But it didn’t last long; in a matter of a few weeks we left for Ringway. If my diary is correct 15 of us were at Ringway from the 17 – 23 December 1941. RAF instructors took us through our pre-para training and we completed the course of two balloon and five aircraft jumps without any serious injuries. When presented with our parachute wings we really thought we had achieved something.

Just a passing thought – Jack Hobbs and I and many others from the old days have said that stepping through the door of a Dakota to jump was almost a pleasure (?) compared to the cramped and very uncomfortable conditions in a Whitley Bomber when we had to drop through a hole in the floor. Again, perhaps of some interest – Jack and I remember jumping from an Albemarle aircraft, obviously on an exercise of some sort. It was an elongated hole in this case and, believe it or not, you had to “bunny hop” through. I digress.

Returning to Hardwick after a spell of leave, we found new faces had arrived. Various tasks, more suited to engineers, were put in hand. An assault course was built. Under the instructions of a Polish officer, a “jump tower” was assembled, and extra Nissan huts were erected.

However, fitness always seemed to be the order of the day. Jumping from the back of 15cwt trucks, being driven over rough terrain to improve our “para rolls”, being dropped off in pairs from covered vehicles at night then finding our own way back to camp and similar minor exercises. In order to be shown the weakest points to attack for sabotage purposes we visited various industrial plants such as Chesterfield power station and were taken down a local coal mine.

Some of the troop attended longer courses. Jack Hobbs and I were attached to an RE construction company at, I believe, an ordnance depot near Bicester, here we were taught the basics of driving bulldozers and heavy goods vehicles, how to handle draglines, Priestly cranes etc. On another occasion the whole troop moved to the RE railway company at Longmoor. How long we remained there I have no idea, but I do remember driving, shunting, rail destruction – you name it, we did it, it was every schoolboys’ dream and absolutely true.

The last course Jack and I attended in those early Air Troop days was a small arms course at Bisley. Unknown to us then, Lt Vernon and seven members of the troop were training with “C” Company 2nd Battalion for the successful Bruneval raid. Was this the type of action Captain Dorman anticipated the troop/squadron being used for? Hence visits to power stations, coal mines etc.

In North Africa the squadron acted more as infantry than engineers on several occasions, something to be repeated often in the future. I would assume that it was about this time the Brigade moved to Bulford Barracks and the “troop” had now reached squadron strength. Captain Dorman had been promoted to Major and another officer, Lieutenant Geary, had joined us with Sergeants Muir and Sayer. It was here we were issued with Everest carriers and had the joy of doubling up and down Bulford hill with a couple of sandbags full of sand in the carriers.

And so the 1st Parachute Squadron came into being. Jack Hobbs and I, as survivors from those rough and tumble days, have tried to explain how it was then. Apologies for any errors but sixty-eight years is a long time to think back. In that time, from a hand full of engineers forming the 1st Air Troop (the only parachute unit consisting solely of engineers), we now have a host of Airborne Engineer units, from squadrons to regiments, carrying out a variety of tasks around the world.


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