On the 22nd June 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to the War Office and recommended that Britain raise a force of approximately 5000 parachute troops. Almost immediately, one of the newly formed Commando units, No.2 Commando, was chosen to undergo conversion to the parachute role. Later redesignated the 11th SAS Battalion, these were Britain's first airborne troops. To test their worth, a detachment of 7 officers and 31 other ranks were dropped over Italy on the 10th February 1941. The mission was codenamed Operation Colossus, and their objective was to destroy the Tragino aqueduct, and then withdraw over 50 miles of mountainous terrain to be evacuated on a submarine waiting to collect them on the coast. Despite numerous problems the objective was achieved, however while attempting to withdraw almost every man was captured. Though the raid had achieved little in terms of strategic value, it did prove how effective parachute troops could be, as well as highlighting a number of potential pitfalls in their deployment.

 

With the formation of the 1st Parachute Brigade in September 1941, it had originally been intended to divide the 11th SAS between each of its four battalions. However Brigadier Gale felt it prudent to keep all these men together, and so the 11th SAS was renamed the 1st Parachute Battalion and placed under the command of Lt-Colonel Eric Down. No.2 Commando had originally boasted a strong Guards representation, and this character remained with the battalion throughout the war. Some of these original men still regarded themselves as Guardsmen or Commandos, as opposed to the standard private of a parachute battalion.

 

As they were the country's original parachute troops, the 1st Battalion was far from pleased when Britain's first major airborne action, the Bruneval Raid, was allocated to the 2nd Battalion. However, Brigadier Gale's choice was based on the assumption that the 1st Battalion were more than up to the task, but he wished to test one of the younger battalions to prove that the whole Brigade was fully trained and ready for action. Shortly after, the 1st Battalion were due to be involved in the Dieppe Raid, but they were withdrawn from it, which was fortunate as the operation was a complete failure. There then followed a long and frustrating pause in airborne operations, which had a severe effect on the morale of the battalion and it led to some of the men requesting to be returned to their former units, who they knew were presently engaged in action elsewhere. However in late 1942, the 1st Battalion was called to North Africa with the rest of the Brigade.

 

North Africa

 

On the 16th November, the 1st Battalion was dropped into Tunisia with a number of aims. First to secure the Souk el Khemis-Souk el Arba plain so that it could be used as a landing strip by the RAF. Secondly to enter the town of Beja and encourage the 3000 neutral French troops there to fight with the Allies. And finally, using this town as their base, they were instructed to patrol the area and do their best to harass the strong German force in the region. The drop went well and the battalion received an enthusiastic welcome from the French garrison. Immediately, Lt-Colonel Hill decided to make the presence of his men felt by dispatching S Company to organise a highly successful ambush of a routine German armoured patrol, and this action did much to enamour the French to the Allied cause. On the 20th November, the Germans attempted to capture a bridge to the east of Beja at Medjez el Bab, but met strong resistance from a largely French force supported by R Company. The French suffered heavily, but the German attack was thwarted and subsequent patrols by the 1st Battalion ensured that it did not resume. Two days later, Lt-Colonel Hill learned that a force of 300 Italian troops, supported by some tanks, were in the region and he decided to attack them that night. Attached to the Battalion was a French Senegalese Company and a group of Royal Engineers, who were detailed to mine a road leading out of the enemy camp to cut off their prospects of escape or reinforcements. As the units were assembling into position, a faulty grenade detonated amongst other grenades being carried in sacks by the Engineers, and the resulting explosions killed 25 of these 27 men. With the enemy alerted to the assault and responding with gunfire, R and S Companies immediately attacked the mixed German and Italian positions. Lt-Colonel Hill personally took it upon himself to force the surrender of the armour. Two of the three light tanks were Italian and the crews seemed overly eager at the prospect of surrendering. However the final tank contained German troops and they came out fighting. They were all killed within moments, but they succeeded in inflicting serious wounds upon Hill. With their Commander recovering in hospital, the 1st Battalion was moved to an area south of Mateur, where they spent 10 days heavily patrolling the region. Having experienced a successful tour of duty, the 1st Battalion was subsequently withdrawn behind the Allied lines to their base in Algiers.

 

Shortly after the 1st Battalion, now with Lt-Colonel Alastair Pearson in command, was reunited with the 1st Para Brigade and deployed in a straight infantry role in Tunisia (see 1st Para Brigade). Their prolonged engagement in this region resulted in many casualties and, after the battle, the 1st Battalion was replenished with reinforcements. Many of these came from the 2nd Para Brigade's 6th Battalion which, as it had been formed from the 10th Royal Welch Fusiliers, added a Welsh flavour to the 1st Battalion's original Guards character.

 

Sicily and Thereafter

 

Operations in Sicily and Italy followed (see 1st Para Brigade), before the 1st Battalion returned to England in late 1943, together with the remainder of the 1st Airborne Division. The period of inactivity between Italy and Arnhem saw several changes in the 1st Battalion's hierarchy. The commander of S Company, Major Cleasby-Thompson, was given command of the battalion before departing elsewhere. His replacement, Lt-Colonel Kenneth Darling, was disliked by the men for being a rather extreme disciplinarian, and the RSM that he had brought with him had a tendency to treat even the most experienced and reliable of men as if they were mere children. Feelings eventually boiled to the surface and there followed a mutiny in the form of men refusing to don parachutes for an ordered exercise. Brigadier Lathbury intervened and listened to the complaints of the men without the presence of their officers. Lathbury posted Darling on to another command and replaced him with David Dobie, who had previously served with the 3rd Battalion in Tunisia and was highly respected by the men of the 1st Battalion.

 

Like all others in the 1st Airborne Division, the 1st Battalion suffered very heavily as a result of Arnhem, with only one sixth of their original strength returning from battle.

 

With the cessation of hostilities, the 1st Battalion departed for Denmark with the rest of the Brigade to oversee the surrender of German troops in the country. In 1946, the battalion was redisgnated the 1st (Guards) Parachute Battalion, and in the following year they and the rest of the Brigade were deployed in Palestine to act as a police force amidst the growing unrest between the Jewish settlers and the indigenous Arab population. In 1948 the battalion was reduced to company strength and renamed 16 (Gds) Independent Coy PARA, before finally becoming No.1 (Gds) Independent Coy PARA. The Company was disbanded in October 1975.

 

The 1st Battalion's modern day equivalent, 1 PARA, was formed in July 1948 from the 4th/6th Battalion.

 

Commanders of the 1st Parachute Battalion

 

1941-1942

Lieutenant-Colonel Eric E. Down

1942

Lieutenant-Colonel S. James L. Hill

1942-1943

Lieutenant-Colonel Alastair S. Pearson

1943-1944

Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Cleasby-Thompson

1944

Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth T. Darling

1944-1945

Lieutenant-Colonel David T. Dobie

1945

Lieutenant-Colonel T. C. H. Pearson

 

Commander of the 1st (Guards) Parachute Battalion

 

1946-1948

Lieutenant-Colonel E. J. B. Nelson