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The 4th Parachute Battalion training in North Africa, July 1943

The 4th Parachute Battalion training in North Africa, July 1943

The 4th Parachute Battalion training in North Africa, July 1943

 

The airborne component of Operation Dragoon was organised on the divisional scale, but as there was no airborne division in the Mediterranean at this time, one was improvised from the resources available. The principal elements were the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade Group, who were the only British Army unit to participate in the invasion, and the three battalions of the American 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The Americans also provided additional infantry with the 509th, 551st Parachute Infantry Battalions and the 550th Glider Infantry Battalion, as well as support services in the form of the 460th, 463rd, 602nd Field Artillery Battalions, the 442nd Anti-Tank Company, and the 596th and 887th Engineer Companies. Two French parachute battalions were also to have been attached but these were withdrawn following disagreements with General de Gaulle.

 

Commanded by the highly respected Brigadier-General Robert T. Frederick, the 1st Airborne Task Force was officially created on the 11th July 1944, just one month before Operation Dragoon was to take place. It was, therefore, a completely ad hoc formation but one which consisted of well-trained and experienced personnel, although not all had been in battle before.

 

The 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment was raised in March 1943 as part of the 17th Airborne Division. In May 1944, it embarked overseas as a Regimental Combat Team, equipped with its own artillery and engineers, etc, to enable to it to operate as an independent unit. Shortly after its arrival in Italy, the Regiment was attached to the 36th Infantry Division and participated in the advance on Grosseto, taking part in several actions before being withdrawn into reserve to await Operation Dragoon.

 

The 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion was formed in March 1941 as the 504th Parachute Infantry Battalion, later becoming the 2nd Battalion of the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment. It was with this name that it made history as the first American unit to carry out an operational parachute drop, supporting the landings of the 1st Allied Army in North Africa in November 1942. In December 1943, it was renamed the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, and carried out two airborne operations in Italy, where it was frequently deployed as elite mountain infantry.

 

The 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion was raised in November 1942. It had originally been named the 1st Battalion of the 551st Parachute Infantry Regiment, but that unit never achieved regimental strength and so it took on the regimental number and became an independent battalion. It was intended that the 551st, together with the 550th Glider Infantry Battalion which had been formed on the 1st July 1941, would carry out an airborne operation to capture the Vichy French island of Martinique in the Caribbean. When that island declared for the Free French, however, the two battalions embarked for Italy in 1944, but were not involved in any fighting.

 

The 2nd Parachute Brigade

 

The British 2nd Parachute Brigade was formed in the UK on the 17th July 1942, under the command of the indomitable figure of Brigadier Eric Down, better known to his men as Dracula. Then a part of the 1st Airborne Division, it sailed for North Africa in April 1943, from where the Division was to carry out three operations in support of the Invasion of Sicily. The second was assigned to the 2nd Parachute Brigade but it was cancelled at the last moment owing to the rapid progress of the ground forces. The Division sailed for Italy in September 1943, and it was during the landing at Taranto that a tragedy befell the Brigade when HMS Abdiel, carrying the majority of the 6th Parachute Battalion, struck a mine and sank, killing 59 men and injuring 154. Nevertheless, the 2nd Parachute Brigade took part in the advance inland and had its first taste of combat, fighting a number of relatively minor actions against retreating German rearguards.

 

The 1st Airborne Division was recalled to the UK in November 1943, but the 2nd Parachute Brigade, now led by Brigadier Charles Pritchard, was left behind as an Independent Brigade Group. The backbone was the 4th, 5th (Scottish) and 6th (Royal Welch) Parachute Battalions, and these were supported by eight 75mm Pack Howitzers of the 64th Airlanding Light Battery, sixteen 6-pounder guns of the 300th Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery, engineers of the 2nd Parachute Squadron, and medics of the 127th Parachute Field Ambulance. The Brigade also possessed its own signals and transport companies, forward observation unit, pathfinder platoon, glider pilot squadron, workshops, provost section, and postal unit. With this comprehensive range of supporting arms, and in time the addition of a Base Element, Depot, and even a parachute school, the 2nd Parachute Brigade became a unique formation within the British Airborne establishment and took on the appearance of a miniature division, able to carry out airborne operations without outside support.

 

Yet from December 1943 until May 1944 it was deployed as a conventional infantry brigade, attached to the 2nd New Zealand and later the 8th Indian Infantry Divisions. They were not involved in any truly serious fighting during this time, but the Brigade frequently occupied and patrolled one part of the front line or another and was rarely far from action.

 

In June 1944, the 6th Battalion carried out Operation Hasty, with a platoon group of just 60 men being dropped behind the German lines to harass their retreat. This they did with a degree of success, but at the cost of two-thirds of the force becoming casualties by the time it withdrew to the Allied lines. The effect of this operation was more psychological than physical, as no significant damage was inflicted but the Germans were made to believe that they had been attacked by a much larger force, and felt compelled to detach a considerable number of men to guard against any future incursions.