The 5th Parachute Brigade was formed under the command of Brigadier Nigel Poett at Bulford Camp, on Salisbury Plain, on the 1st July 1943. Its strength initially consisted of just the newly raised 12th and 13th Parachute Battalions, but as the Division had been ordered to become an elite, battle-ready formation in just nine months, Poett felt it essential that a more experienced unit be added to the Brigade to act as a benchmark for these fledgling units. Accordingly, the 3rd Parachute Brigade donated their 7th Battalion, a well trained unit that had been in existence since November 1942. The Brigade also received supporting units in the form of the 4th Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery RA, also raised in July 1943, the 591st Parachute Squadron RE, and the 225th Parachute Field Ambulance RAMC. As with all units in the 6th Airborne Division, the months leading up to the Normandy Invasion were a frenzied period of extreme training, and very quickly the 5th Parachute Brigade achieved the standards that were expected of the Parachute Regiment.
The initial plan for the landing of the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy involved just the 3rd Parachute and 6th Airlanding Brigades; the latter being charged with the securing of the Bridges and the area around Ranville. The realisation that the Germans had dotted every conceivable landing zone with anti-glider poles, some of which were mined, ruled out the possibility of a major glider landing on the first night, and so the 5th Parachute Brigade was assigned their tasks instead. By this time the importance of capturing the bridges with a glider-borne coup-de-main raid had been recognised, and so Major Howard's party, of "D" and two platoons of "B" Company of the 2nd Ox & Bucks Light Infantry, was attached to the Brigade.
Despite their strength being dispersed on the drop, all units of the Brigade quickly achieved their objectives. The 13th Battalion secured Ranville whilst the 591st Parachute Squadron cleared two landing strips on LZ-N for first glider lift. Throughout the following day, the 7th Battalion, around the Bénouville area, and the 12th Battalion, along the ridge at Le Bas de Ranville, came under severe pressure but both held their ground and defended their objectives until relieved. Thereafter the majority of the 5th Parachute Brigade was withdrawn into reserve, its units occasionally being called upon to fill gaps in the front line and respond to crises. Most notable amongst these was the fierce defence of Ranville, by the 7th and 13th Battalions, when German units broke through the 3rd Parachute and 1st Special Service Brigade positions on the 10th June, and the Battle of Bréville on the 12th June, undertaken by the 12th Battalion.
The German offensive through the Ardennes forest in mid-December 1944, resulted in the urgent dispatch of the 6th Airborne Division to Belgium, so that they might assist with containing this threat. On the 29th December, the Division received ordered to advance against the very tip of the German thrust, and of all the units involved, none became embroiled in near such hard fighting as the 13th Parachute Battalion around the village of Bure from the 3rd to 5th January 1945. They succeeded in taking the village on the first day and held it thereafter against fierce counterattacks, but in so doing suffered sixty-eight dead and one hundred and twenty-one wounded and missing.
The Rhine Crossing
The Brigade's task in Operation Varsity, on the 24th March 1945, was to land on DZ-B, two miles to the north and west of the main concentration of the 6th Airborne Division, and seize the road leading to Hamminkeln in order to restrict enemy movement in the area. The first to drop, as was his custom, was Brigadier Poett with his Brigade Headquarters, followed closely by the 13th and then the 12th Parachute Battalions. Unfortunately the 3rd Parachute Brigade had been dropped ten minutes early on its zone, several miles away, with the unfortunate consequence that the Allied artillery bombardment had ceased and that the Germans on the ground were now fully alerted to the airborne landings.
All of the parachute battalions dropped to find DZ-B obscured by smoke and dust, thereby making orientation problematic. The 12th Battalion suffered badly in this regard and assembled at a similar-looking, yet quite incorrect rendezvous, and upon realising their mistake and proceeding towards the correct area they suffered many casualties under the fire of German troops dug in on the edge of the zone. These troops offered determined resistance, however once their positions were spotted and challenged it was noted that they were quick to surrender. The 12th and 13th Battalions made their way off the drop zone and, after a struggle, established themselves on the Brigade objective, covering the road to Hamminkeln. The 7th Battalion, meanwhile, had dropped last of all and its "A" Company suffered heavily from the misfortunate of landing in the thick of the enemy positions, however the Battalion fought its way onto the northern edge of the zone, where it dug-in to support the advance of the 12th and 13th Battalions. Considering the ferocity of the resistance encountered, the Brigade's estimated casualties of 20% were, although heavy, not near so severe as might have been expected under the circumstances.
On the 26th March, the 6th Airborne Division began to advance out of the Rhine bridgehead, although the 5th Parachute Brigade did not receive its orders to move until the following day. With the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment scouting ahead, the Brigade advanced towards and then through Brunen without meeting any enemy, but further ahead strong opposition blocked the way and the 7th Battalion battled until midnight to overcome it, in the finish outmanoeuvring the Germans and taking sixty prisoners. The 13th Battalion immediately took over the lead and established itself on some high ground overlooking the village of Erle, the Brigade objective. In the darkness on the following night, the 12th Battalion assaulted the village during a heavy rainfall, which did much to camouflage their approach, and within an hour Erle had been taken and two hundred enemy troops accounted for.
On the 3rd April, the 5th Parachute Brigade again led the Division with "C" Company of the 12th Battalion to the fore, riding on the sides of the Churchill tanks of No.3 Squadron the 4th Battalion The Grenadier Guards. Advancing in the direction of Osnabruck, the 12th Battalion maintained the advance for thirty hours and, as a result of four major skirmishes, had killed or captured three hundred enemy troops and a considerable amount of war materiel. The 13th Battalion took over the lead, alongside the Grenadiers, and reached Osnabruck without incident during the night of the 4th April.
On the 8th April, the Brigade received orders to advance on Neustadt and Bordenau and secure crossings over the River Leine. With the Grenadiers again providing support, and the Reconnaissance Regiment of the 15th (Scottish) Division acting as scouts, the 12th Battalion took the lead and quickly fought their way through minor opposition to reach the Bordenau Bridge. The Grenadier Guards, with "C" Company riding on their sides, advanced extremely quickly during the final stages, and with good reason for they arrived in time to surprise a group of Germans who were clearly in the process of laying demolition charges. These were quickly put to flight and the Bridge was captured intact. The 7th Battalion, meanwhile, had been ordered to take the Bridge at Neustadt. They arrived to find it intact, however they were not so lucky as the Bridge was destroyed as "B" Company were in the process of crossing it and twenty-two men were killed.
Throughout the remainder of the month the 6th Airborne Division followed in the wake of the 15th (Scottish Division), however on the 30th April, the 5th Parachute Brigade received orders to push on with all speed to Wismar, on the Baltic Sea, to secure it before the Russians arrived, lest they should think of advancing further still. In the event the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigade's found themselves racing each other to this town along separate routes, both of which were clogged with fleeing refugees, and the 3rd Brigade won the race.
With the War in Europe at an end, the Brigade quickly returned to England as the 6th Airborne Division received word that it would be needed in Burma for actions against the Japanese. Major-General Bols and Brigadier Poett flew to Ceylon in advance for a meeting at South East Asia Command Headquarters, where they were informed that the Division was to be used in an operation to capture the causeway between Singapore and Malaya. This, however, was quickly reduced to a Brigade-sized action, and so the 5th Parachute Brigade arrived in India in July, whilst thoughts of deploying the entire Division elsewhere gradually diminished. Poett now commanded a self-contained Brigade Group, consisting not just of his three parachute battalions, but also the supporting arms of the 4th Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery RA, 225th Parachute Field Ambulance RAMC, 3rd Airborne Squadron RE, the pathfinders of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company, and a detachment of the 2nd Forward Observation Unit RA. The operation, however, was cancelled after the surrender of Japan, and on the 17th September the Brigade waded ashore on the western coast of Malaya to assist with the liberation. They were to proceed to Kuala Lumpur, but were diverted to Singapore instead, where resorting of law and order, in the absence of a police force, was an absolute priority.
In December 1945, the Brigade was dispatched to Batavia, in Indonesia, to perform similar duties but in a more hostile environment. The local Indonesians had split into various lawless factions and were united only by their mistrust of the British, hatred of their Japanese occupiers, and their positive loathing of their former Dutch masters. The paratroopers, under the command of the 23rd Indian Division, busied themselves with patrols to restore order and break-up riots. Brigadier Poett, however, felt that his men, treated as outsiders by those of the Division who had fought in the Burma campaign, were being wasted in this particular task and so requested that they be given a more independent role instead. Accordingly, on the 9th January 1946, the Brigade was sent to Semarang, with "A" Squadron the 11th Cavalry and the 6th Indian Field Battery under their command. In addition, Poett took a battalion of Japanese soldiers under his command; it being policy at the time, due to the limited resources of the British and the immense policing task facing them, to use Japanese troops in such ways until Allied troops could relieve them. This particular unit had been involved in several vicious engagements with local extremists during the past year, and their presence in the town caused resentment amongst the population. Brigadier Poett, therefore, decided to assign them a position outside of the town, leaving his own battalions to establish themselves in Semarang, where one of their main occupations was extensive patrolling to prevent infiltration by the extremists. A curfew during the hours of darkness did much to restore order to Semarang, as did the policing of the town by the 4th Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery and 2nd Forward Observation Unit. Gradually essential facilities were restored to the civilians, with the 225th Parachute Field Ambulance operating a medical service, whilst the 3rd Airborne Squadron, assisted by local engineers, quickly restored electricity and water supplies before beginning the process of general reconstruction.
Brigadier Poett left the Brigade in February 1946 and was replaced by Brigadier Darling of the 12th Parachute Battalion. By May, the Brigade was preparing to leave, and it is a sign of how much trust the locals now placed in them that the subsequent handover to Dutch troops, though under British command, scarcely raised an eyebrow. The 5th Parachute Brigade left the Far East to rejoin the 6th Airborne Division in Palestine. They arrived in August, however the sad news was quickly received that the Brigade was to be disbanded. The 13th Battalion had already been broken-up before the Brigade had left Malaya, whilst the men of the 12th Battalion were now distributed amongst other parachute units in the Division. Only the 7th Battalion remained intact, though it was amalgamated with the 17th Battalion, but being the senior unit it was allowed to retain its number.
Commanders of the 5th Parachute Brigade
Brigadier Ken Darling