Bill Crockett's account of his experiences at Hardwick Hall and Ringway in 1940
“UP 500, FIVE TO DROP” AS REMEMBERED BY BILL CROCKETT Written c. 1987
Early Parachute Formation and Training 1940-42
Following Winston Churchill’s call to establish a corps of parachute troops on 22nd June 1940, parachute training commenced at RAF Ringway near Manchester. Number 2 Commando, the fledgling parachute unit was posted to Knutsford in Cheshire. On 31st August 1941 the decision was made to form the 1st Parachute Brigade under Brigadier Richard Gale. This was to be located at Hardwick Camp near Chesterfield in Derbyshire. Hardwick Hall became the new nucleus for parachute training and physical selection for airborne forces.
The Hall was a magnificent Elizabethan House built between 1591-97 by Elizabeth Countess of Shrewsbury (Bess of Hardwick). In 1941 the house and grounds were part of the Duke of Devonshire Chatsworth Estate. Army Northern Command leased 53 acres of it to establish a camp of red brick huts with training areas.
The camp was located south west of the Hall with a Parachute Jump Tower on its periphery. Assault courses and trapeze in-flight swing training structures were also next to the camp. When pre-jump training was successfully completed, the recruits that passed out were required to speed-march approximately 50 miles to join the parachute course at RAF Ringway. They further marched back to Ringway from the Tatton Park drop zone each time they completed a training descent.
On 15th December 1941 the 2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions formed at Hardwick with No 1 Air Troop Royal engineers and a skeleton Signals Squadron. At the same time, the 11th SAS Battalion that evolved from No 2 Commando remained stationed at Knutsford. The units at Hardwick selected men from volunteers across the Army through a toughening course combined with pre-jump training.
A tethered barrage balloon was installed at Hardwick on 1st November 1941 to provide refresher training for qualified parachutists and supplement descents made from the Jumping Tower.
The 4th Parachute Battalion started forming at Hardwick on 1st January 1942 prior to moving to Keddlestone Park near Derby. This was the last battalion recruited from volunteers across the Army, thereafter battalions were formed by converting nominated infantry battalions to the parachute role.
The Formation of the Parachute Depot 1942-4
When the 1st Parachute Brigade moved from Hardwick to the Bulford area in Wiltshire an Airborne Forces Depot was formed at Hardwick from the units left behind.
It started as an unofficial establishment, but was created as a properly organized unit, training and holding recruits before they went to the Parachute Training School, as well as rehabilitating the temporary unfit from injuries.
The War Office approved a War Establishment for the Depot on 25th December 1942, appointing Lt Col W. Giles MC (Ox and Bucks) as its first Commanding Officer. The Depot was given an extended role and consisted of a Depot Company, a Pre-Parachute Training Company, a Battle School, Holding Company and an Airfield Detachment, which was stationed at No 1 PTS RAF Ringway. It was during this period that all pre-jump ground training was moved from Hardwick to Ringway.
Final Changes 1944-6
In March 1944 the Battle School closed, the Holding Unit was moved to Clay Cross, while a new preliminary Battle/Tactical School was set up at Dore and Totley. The Selection Company and Depot Administrative Unit remained at Hardwick.
In April 1946 the Depot moved to Albany Barracks on the Isle of Wight and the involvement of Airborne Forces at Hardwick Hall ceased.
On 16th May 1987 a Commemorative Plaque was placed on the wall in the Hall to recognize its significance during the formative phase of Airborne Forces.
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