At the time of its formation in June 1942, at Larkhill Barracks overlooking Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, the 21st Independent Parachute Company was a body like no other in the airborne forces of any nation. The concept of pathfinders had been pioneered by Major John Lander who, with the blessing of the then Major-General Browning, set about raising a company of hand picked volunteers drawn from the Parachute Regiment and, initially, men who had applied to undergo training for the Glider Pilot Regiment but had been turned away due to the overwhelming demand. The role of the pathfinder was to arrive at the drop zones half an hour in advance of the main body of airborne troops in order to set up beacons to pin-point the dropping area for the advancing aircraft, to clear any obstacles from the zone that would impede the gliders, and also to lightly secure the immediate area from enemy interference. As such its men had to be of the very highest standard, physically and psychologically, yet this pedigree was by no means assured after Lander had selected them, for thereafter they had to undergo rigorous tests to prove that they were up to the task. The two week course was designed to separate the unworthy and to harden and prepare those who would go the distance. The tests ran from six in the morning until six at night, and included a 10 mile march in full battle kit to be accomplished in two hours, and a taxing obstacle course to be completed under machine-gun fire, with tough psychological tests immediately imposed at the end of such exercises. There was no second chance and any kind of failure saw the candidate immediately returned to their former unit, however those who were accepted felt that to have passed such intense scrutiny made them rather special, and as a consequence there was a tremendous sense of camaraderie within the Company.

 

The Company was fiercely independent by nature as well as in name, and in the main, largely thanks to Wilson being a close friend of Browning since their days at Eton, they were allowed to set their own programme. Aircraft were in short supply for training purposes and so it was common for parachute drops to be improvised by driving men out onto Salisbury Plain in trucks, and upon 'jumping' they would get their bearings to be sure that they were in the right place, and then they were timed as to how long it took them to set up their equipment and then secure the zone. The beacon the pathfinders used was the Eureka radio marker, a remarkably accurate system used in conjunction with the Rebecca system in the aircraft. There was an instance of a Eureka set undergoing repair in a Signals hut and it had accidentally been left switched on, and before long a stick of  parachutists came crashing down onto the roof. Up until this time the method of deploying all of the paratrooper's heavier equipment, the Eureka sets in the case of the Independent Company, was to drop a container from the aircraft's bomb bay, however this was a most awkward and unsatisfactory technique of delivery. Major Lander personally experimented with a number of devices until he finally invented the kitbag, strapped to the parachutist's leg, which could carry 60 lbs of equipment and also made for a smoother descent and landing.

 

By Christmas 1942 the unit consisted of 60 ranks and 3 officers; John Lander, Captain Wilson, and Lieutenant Spivey, all future commanders of the Company. However this establishment was eventually to rise to 6 officers and 180 other ranks; an unusually large company, certainly by airborne standards, and it consisted of a Headquarters and three rifle platoons. Sometime later they were to acquire 25 German and Austrian Jews from the Pioneer Corps, and these men fought with the Company to Arnhem. Singled out because of their bi-lingual abilities and their highly impressive fighting skills, all of these men changed their names by deedpoll to assume British identities, largely Scottish, to spare them the inevitable consequences in the event of their capture.

 

Sicily

 

In May 1943, the Independent Company left for North Africa with the remainder of the 1st Airborne Division. It was decided that they should not play a part in the 1st Airlanding Brigade's glider assault upon Sicily, a judgment which quite befuddled the Company as the Brigade's landing zones were small and highly unsuitable due to being littered with obstacles. It is possible that the presence of pathfinders could have made a difference to this disastrous operation. A few days later elements of the Company were detailed to act in this capacity for the 2nd Parachute Brigade, but the rapid progress of the 8th Army led to this drop being cancelled. The first battle honour of the Independent Company came at Primosole Bridge on the night of the 13th July, where similarly small elements acted in a pathfinding capacity for the equally disastrous deployment of the 1st Para Brigade. The widely scattered drop was by no means the fault of the Company, but rather the woefully inexperienced American aircrews. Naturally the pathfinders were to be the vanguard of this assault but there was such confusion in the air that most of them were dropped miles from the zone, and those who were delivered on target did not arrive until an hour and a half after the main body of parachutists had already landed. By this time the area was on fire and visible for miles, and so marking the drop zone in any way seemed to be quite unnecessary. The Independent Company suffered one fatality during the operation; the aircraft in which Major Lander flew was shot down over Sicily and he was killed. He was not personally assigned a role in the attack, but nevertheless decided to fly in with the formation to see how his men performed. Command passed to Major Wilson. As a result of the shambolic drop, the Company decided that in future they would only fly with reliable aircrews trained to the pathfinder standards.

 

Italy

 

The 1st Airborne Division was shipped to Italy on the 9th September, where the Independent Company landed without mishap and proceeded to occupy positions in the outskirts of Taranto. With the 2nd and 4th Parachute Brigades cutting their way inland, patrolling and reconnaissance was very much the theme for the other units, and when the Company's Jeeps arrived they performed extended patrols of up to 75 miles in distance. Towards the end of the month, the 1st Airlanding Brigade moved up to relieve the 4th Para Brigade with the Independent Company in support. Several nights later the Company, camped in an olive grove, found itself caught in the middle of an artillery dispute between the guns of the Germans and 1st Airlanding Brigade; shell fragments landed amongst them, but the men dug in to the soft ground and managed to survive the bombardment without loss. Following this, the Brigade and the Company cautiously advanced upon the airfield at Foggia where dogged resistance was expected, and loose machine-gun and mortar fire came their way as they approached. On the 27th September the Company put in an assault upon the airfield with No.1 Platoon leading the way. In the event it was quite an anti-climax as the last of the German troops were leaving as the Company arrived, and so the base was captured without much incident. With tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade now in support the Company moved into Foggia itself, but here it encountered only a lone sniper. Pressing on for a further 30 miles they arrived at San Severo, hours after the enemy had abandoned it. On the following day a section of No.1 Platoon went forward to probe for enemy activity and determine their strength, but machine-guns opened up on them as they approached a monastery, wounding Lieutenant Grierson. The patrol went to ground and returned fire, however their position was wholly unsuitable and so they withdrew under cover of smoke and Brens. Having advanced 300 miles in just 3 weeks, the Company was withdrawn from the front line and rejoined the rest of the 1st Airborne in the south. Before being withdrawn to England it was announced that the 2nd Para Brigade was to leave the Division and become an Independent body. As such it required support units and it was decided that a pathfinder platoon should be assigned to it. The Independent Company surrendered its No.3 Platoon for the task and this unit was redesignated the 1st Independent Parachute Platoon; the only independent formation ever to be of platoon size. The Platoon and the Brigade went on to serve in the invasion of Southern France and the liberation of Greece, where they later found themselves engaged in bitter street fighting in Athens against the communist ELAS guerillas who attempted to seize control. The 21st Independent Parachute Company returned to England where it received reinforcements to cover the loss of this platoon.

 

Arnhem Aftermath

 

The Company's performance at Arnhem had been exceptional, and its men were rewarded with a Distinguished Conduct Medal, two Military Crosses, five Military Medals, a Dutch Bronze Lion, and Major Wilson was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and awarded the Distinguished Service Order. An extraordinary feat considering the size of this unit. Writing to Wilson, Lt-General Browning said: "I have heard on every side how outstandingly your Company has done. To have earned this special praise from such gallant a body can only mean one thing - that your unit is unsurpassed by any other in the world. Please tell your chaps what a terrific reputation they have earned."

 

After the war, the Independent Company travelled to Norway with Divisional HQ and the 1st Airlanding Brigade to oversee the German surrender. Thereafter they joined the 6th Airborne Division in Palestine to serve in that most unenviable of roles as policeman between fanatical terrorist organizations. The 21st Independent Parachute Company was disbanded here in September 1946, and its men were divided amongst the 6th Airborne.

 

Commanders of the 21st Independent Parachute Company

 

1942-1943

Major John Lander TD

1943-1946

Major Bernard Alexander Wilson

1946

Major R. E. Spivey