The 1st Para Brigade was formed in September 1941, under the command of Brigadier Richard Gale, with its headquarters based at Hardwick Hall, near Chesterfield in Derbyshire. It was Britain's first true parachute unit. Initially the Brigade comprised of just three battalions, but a fourth was added in January 1942. However in July of that year, the 4th Battalion was released to help form the basis of the 2nd Para Brigade.

 

North Africa

 

In September 1942, the 1st Para Brigade, now commanded by the much respected Brigadier Eric Down, was called to Tunisia for its first taste of battle. However the notion of parachute troops was very much a new idea at this time, and as such the British commanders in the area were unsure as to what to do with them. Each of the three battalions were sent on individual operations behind enemy lines, and these ranged from the successful to the downright disastrous (see 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions).

 

In December the entire Brigade was reunited and deployed in a straight forward infantry role, eventually ending up at Bou Arada in January 1943. The end of that month saw them being transferred to the 19th French Corps and charged with the task of relieving French units on the front line that were to withdraw and re-equip. On the night of the 2nd February, the 1st Battalion were ordered to attack two hillsides. An advanced patrol had already managed to mark a safe path through a minefield and also took out several machinegun positions in the process, however, though R and T Companies assembled across the mined area successfully, S Company became lost and ran into mined ground and enemy machinegun fire. Nevertheless the 1st Battalion began to make their way up the hill before dawn and, after encountering a determined opposition, had it under their control before first light. An attempt was made to take the second hill, and S and T Companies held it for a while before being compelled to withdraw. Casualties had been very heavy and the 1st Battalion requested that a Grenadier Guards battalion take the other hill in their stead. They did so on the 4th February and succeeded in taking it, but were soon driven off by counterattacks. These attacks then turned on the 1st Battalion who, weak in numbers and now low on ammunition, held their ground for 24 hours before the hill was declared indefensible and the battalion were forced to abandon it. The 1st Battalion had suffered heavily as a result of this engagement, with 35 men dead, 132 wounded, and 16 missing.

 

On the 4th February, John Frost's 2nd Battalion was ordered to take and hold a crossroads in the Ousseltia valley against a force rumoured to consist of 10 infantry battalions supported by 100 tanks. With little in the way of support weapons, the prospect of opposing these very high odds was entirely dismal, but luckily the attack never materialised as these units had been moved elsewhere. On the 7th of February, the battalion was relieved and rejoined the 1st Para Brigade in Happy Valley.

 

The Brigade sat peacefully in their positions until the 26th February, when they were heavily attacked from a mixed force of Germans, Austrians, and Italians. The 3rd Battalion bore the brunt of this attack and HQ, A, and B Companies were involved in desperate close-quarters fighting to hold their area, but they eventually forced the enemy to withdraw and shelter in a close-by dry and rocky river bed. The 3rd Battalion ordered that this area be cleared and, within the space of half an hour, 3000 mortar bombs fell amongst the enemy while the battalion's Machinegun Platoon poured a murderous fire upon them. Their casualties were extremely heavy, with approximately 400 killed and 200 captured, while the 3rd Battalion had only suffered 14 dead and 40 wounded. The other battalions of the 1st Para Brigade were also attacked on this same day. The enemy moved against the 2nd Battalion's B and C Companies, but made absolutely no headway. They then attempted to infiltrate between the distant positions of the battalion, but the well-sited Machinegun and Mortar Platoons held them at bay. Meanwhile, the 1st Battalion broke up the attack on their positions by catching their foe in a series of cleverly positioned barbed wire entanglements that led them directly into a lethal crossfire at close range.

 

On the 4th March, the 1st Para Brigade withdrew from Bou Arada and were posted to Beja, where the 1st Battalion had fought several months previously. The 1st and 3rd Battalions took up positions in hills, either side of a road and railway, while the 2nd Battalion were ordered to challenge enemy units situated on some high ground above the town. In the event, the 2nd Battalion captured this hill without encountering opposition, and so they were directed onto a neighbouring hill. C Company moved forward to draw enemy fire and highlight enemy positions on the hill for the benefit of British artillery gunners, but this promised bombardment never materialised. With this lack of support, the 2nd Battalion abandoned the hill and took up defensive positions on another hill called Cork Wood, directly to the south of the 1st and 3rd Battalions. On 8th March, the 1st and 2nd Battalions were heavily attacked by a large enemy force, including German parachute engineers and the 10th Panzer Grenadiers. The 1st Battalion's S Company, with the aid of artillery and mortar barrages, succeeded in cutting down the attack on their positions, however the 2nd Battalion were pressed hard and suffered many casualties as their ammunition began to run dry. Nevertheless they held their ground in spite of infiltrating enemy units attempting to drive a wedge between them and the 1st Battalion; a wedge that was swiftly removed by an attack by the 3rd Battalion's A Company. Reinforced by the 139th Infantry Brigade, 5th Battalion The Sherwood Foresters, No.1 Commando, and numerous French units, heavy attacks by an opposition of divisional strength continued against the 1st Para Brigade until 14th March. During this time, the Panzer Grenadiers had gained some ground in their attack on the 2nd Battalion in Cork Wood, but this was broken up when they were accidentally attacked by their own Stuka dive bombers. A two day lull in hostilities followed until they resumed in earnest on the 17th March. As a result of this, the 1st Para Brigade and their supporting units were ordered to fall back several miles to the south-west and occupy three hills, known as The Pimples. One of these hills, occupied by a battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment, was attacked and captured on the 20th March by the Panzer Grenadiers. The 1st Battalion retook it three days later, and in so doing had caught the enemy completely off guard and many prisoners were taken. On the 27th March, the whole of the 1st Para Brigade, accompanied by the French Goums, launched a counterattack under cover of a heavy artillery bombardment. The 1st Battalion's advance had been highly successful and they reached their objective during the night after being involved in a savage fight. However the leading A and B Companies of the 2nd Battalion ran into both heavy opposition and a minefield, by morning they were pressing on towards their objective, but took heavy casualties when they encountered German parachute engineers and were forced to back away. The 3rd Battalion's B Company was ordered to assist the 2nd Battalion, and it arrived in time for a fierce attack by the German parachutists, but this was comfortably repulsed. The 2nd Battalion went forward once more and eventually managed to fight its way back onto Cork Wood, which they had abandoned several days previously. The 1st Battalion had been following along on their left flank and became involved in several confrontations that were swiftly dealt with; most notable was the capture of 400 Italian troops in a single engagement. By 29th March, the 1st Para Brigade had achieved its objectives and consolidated in these positions. They remained here until the 14th April, but little enemy activity had been encountered during this time and they were moved into reserve.

 

And so ended the Battle of Tamera, and the 1st Parachute Brigade's lengthy tour of North Africa. Over the five months that they had been there they had suffered 1700 casualties, but had inflicted over 5000 on the enemy, and had been responsible for the capture of a further 3500. From here the Brigade was moved away in preparation for the airborne assault on Sicily. As the train in which they travelled moved slowly through a POW camp, the captured German soldiers recognised the red berets of the foe who had so much earned their admiration over the previous months, and they ran over to cheer them. As Major-General Browning observed in his letter of congratulations to the 1st Para Brigade, "Such distinctions are seldom given in war, and then only to the finest fighting troops".

 

Sicily - Operation Fustian

 

On the 13th July 1943, the 1st Para Brigade, now commanded by Brigadier Lathbury, boarded American C-47 aircraft and proceeded to fly towards Primosole Bridge, 10 miles south of Catania in Sicily. The flight went smoothly until the formation neared the Sicilian coastline, where they were mistook for enemy aircraft and attacked by Allied naval vessels. Heavy enemy anti-aircraft fire was met over the drop zone and, due to the inexperience and in some cases blatant cowardice of the American pilots, only a third of the 113 aircraft dropped their parachutists on target. The bulk of the others were scattered half a mile off target, and there were further instances of men being dropped up to 20 miles away from the bridge. Small parties of men were continually arriving to rejoin their units, but upon landing, the originally 1856-strong Brigade could only muster a total of 295 all ranks. In addition, radio communications were almost non-existent as only one radio had been successfully delivered to Brigade HQ, and it was not able to contact the 4th Armoured Brigade, who were on their way to relieve the paratroopers.

 

The 1st Battalion set out for the bridge and captured it with only 50 men, taking as many Italian troops prisoner in the process. By morning, the force defending the bridge itself numbered approximately 200, which also included engineers of the 1st Para Squadron, a platoon of the 3rd Battalion, and three of the Anti-Tank Battery's guns. The 2nd Battalion could only account for 170 of its number, but they proceeded to attack and capture three areas of high ground to the south of the bridge, and in doing so took 100 Italians prisoner. At dawn, the battalion was attacked by German paratroopers and casualties were sustained from mortar and machinegun fire. A fighting patrol was organised to deal with this opposition, but they were driven back by fire from German armoured vehicles. Shortly after an officer of the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment arrived and was able to direct accurate fire onto the enemy positions from an offshore Royal Navy cruiser, which halted their attack. The 2nd Battalion retook their positions, while the Mortar Platoon had happened across a deserted battery of Italian light howitzers, which they wasted no time in bringing to bear on the enemy north of the bridge.

 

Shortly after midday, the force at the bridge came under a strong attack from the north. The 3rd Battalion, amounting to only 40 men, received most of this attention, but held firm. However the intensity of these attacks increased throughout the afternoon and the Brigade was forced to concede the northern side of the bridge. Due to their lack of numbers they were unable to defend the area as well as they would have liked, and when German troops crossed the river further downstream, the Brigade found itself coming under attack from three sides. The position was impossible to hold, and so on that evening Lathbury ordered the Brigade to retreat to the 2nd Battalion's positions in the hills.

 

Later during the night, the 4th Armoured Brigade began to arrive at long last. A battalion of the Durham Light Infantry attempted to retake the bridge, but did so in a most tactless fashion and were forced to fall back having taken heavy casualties. The commander of the Brigade wished to try another frontal assault in daylight, but was thankfully persuaded to do otherwise by Lathbury and Lt-Colonel Pearson of the 1st Battalion. Pearson personally led another battalion of the Durhams across the river that night, and successfully captured the bridge, having taken the enemy by surprise as they drove across their flank in an attack that cost them few casualties.

 

With their part in the Sicily campaign over, the heavily depleted 1st Para Brigade returned to North Africa. Brigadier Lathbury was wounded and was absent for some weeks before returning, and so command passed to Lt-Colonel Frost, who set about reconstructing the Brigade. Groups of stragglers returned everyday, and with the arrival of reinforcements, the Brigade was soon back up to full strength.

 

Italy

 

On the 9th September 1943, the Brigade sailed to Italy with the rest of the Division to capture the port of Taranto. The 2nd and 4th Para Brigade's landed without incident and proceeded to move through the town and secure the terrain outside it, meanwhile the 1st Para Brigade were held in reserve and simply took up defensive positions around Taranto itself. They remained here for four days before being moved forward to Castellaneta and from there to Altamura. They were withdrawn at the end of the month, not having had much to do.

 

Arnhem Aftermath

 

There was very little left of the 1st Para Brigade after Arnhem, because as they were the ones fighting in the town itself during the initial days of the battle, almost all were captured. Of the evacuation across the Rhine, the 1st Battalion managed to account for almost a sixth of its strength, but only 3 of 82 men were present from Brigade HQ, and the 2nd and 3rd Battalion's struggled to get into double figures. Reinforcements were drafted in from the disbanded 4th Para Brigade, and eventually Brigade strength became half-way respectable.

 

After the war, the 1st Para Brigade was flown to Denmark to oversee the surrender of German forces in that country. Upon returning to England, the 1st Airborne Division was disbanded, and the Brigade was transferred to the 6th Airborne. In 1945 this Division was deployed in Palestine, less the 1st Para Brigade, to help police the country in the face of the growing unrest there. The Jewish settlers labelled the airborne troops in particular as "Gestapo", which was an accusation that had hurt them deeply because, during the war, a number of the Divisions members had been Jews, and the unit had fought very hard for an end to the war which liberated the very survivors of the Holocaust who were now so hostile towards them. The 1st Para Brigade was sent to Palestine in April 1946 and remained there for almost precisely one year. Like all other British troops, they found the experience far from pleasant. Deployed in various hot spots over that time, the Brigade fell back on the tradition of British soldiers in such uncomfortable situations, and grinned and bore it.

 

In 1947, with the Division reorganised after the 3rd Para Brigade was disbanded and a number of existing battalions were amalgamated with others, the Brigade now comprised of the 1st (Guards) Battalion, the 2nd/3rd Battalion, and the 8th/9th Battalion. In the following year the entire Parachute Regiment was reorganised and the Brigade was renamed the 16th Independent Parachute Brigade, consisting of 1, 2, and 3 PARA. The 16th Para Brigade was disbanded in 1977, though its battalions lived on.

 

Commanders of the 1st Parachute Brigade

 

1941-1942

Brigadier Richard N. Gale

1942-1943

Brigadier Eric Down

1943-1945

Brigadier Gerald W. Lathbury

1945-1947

Brigadier Hugh Bellamy

1947-1948

Brigadier J. P. P O'Brien Twohig