On the 23rd April 1943, the War Office ordered the establishment of the 6th Airborne Division. Despite being numbered 6th, it was only to be Britain's second airborne division; the higher number being chosen in order to deceive enemy intelligence into believing that Britain had a greater number of airborne troops. Major-General Richard Gale was given command of the new formation and his orders were simple; to raise the Division to a state of battle-readiness in time for the invasion of Europe. The task of bringing this about, however, was far from simple. When he arrived he found that Divisional Headquarters, based at Syrencote House, Figheldean, Wiltshire, had just 30% of its required staff, and his infantry strength was little better. Furthermore it was expected that the Allies would attempt a landing in France in spring 1944, giving Gale a mere nine months to train an elite division from scratch.

 

The nucleus of the Division was the 3rd Parachute Brigade, which was a part of the 1st Airborne Division but had been left behind in England in May 1943 when the remainder of that formation had travelled to North Africa for the invasion of Sicily and Italy. The Brigade, although untested in battle, had been in existence for some time and as such was fully trained. In addition there were the two equally well-trained glider-borne battalions of the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles and the 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, which had also been a part of the 1st Airborne Division but now formed the basis of the 6th Airlanding Brigade. In the coming weeks and months, other units arrived to reinforce this strength, including the 5th Parachute Brigade and supporting formations such as the 53rd (Worcestershire Yeomanry) Airlanding Light Regiment RA and the pathfinders of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company. The young Division possessed several novelties that its elder sister unit, the 1st Airborne Division, did not have. Most notable among these was the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment, consisting of squadrons of light tanks, jeep and bicycle troops as opposed to the single jeep-mounted Reconnaissance Squadron of the 1st Airborne. There was also the 2nd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery RA, and three companies, instead of just one, of the Royal Army Service Corps.

 

Go To It

 

It was an enormous task to assemble and train this new Division, but one which Major-General Gale embraced with great enthusiasm. One of his first decisions was to give the men of the Division a motto to live up to, "Go To It". Gale wrote: "This motto will be adopted by the 6th Airborne Division and as such should be remembered by all ranks in action against the enemy, in training, and during the day to day routine duties." The Division very much went to it, and during the remaining six months of 1943 they made great strides in terms of physical and tactical training. The intense regime of exercise did not pause for breath. On Gale's insistence, it took into account every conceivable action that his men might be asked to undertake, and the officers of the 6th Airborne were continually tested with a range of questions concerning their duties and their reactions in hypothetical situations. The result of all this ceaseless activity was to create a Division of the very highest calibre with a tremendous spirit running throughout. By the end of 1943, the Division had reached the required standards, it had been an incredible achievement.

 

Normandy

 

In February 1944, the 6th Airborne Division learned that it was to be used during the Invasion of Normandy, though this was kept secret from all but the most senior officers. During the remaining months, training for the specific roles assigned to each unit carried on in the same breathless fashion, and included several large scale exercises where other British and Polish airborne troops acted as "enemy" to the Division.

 

Having performed exceedingly well throughout the Normandy campaign, the 6th Airborne Division returned to England in September 1944. After three months of continuous fighting their casualties had of course been high, and so the immediate task facing Major-General Gale was to swell his ranks and ready the Division for future operations. The process was well underway by the end of the year, and training intensified, particularly in the areas of assault river crossings and street fighting. It was perfectly clear that the Division would soon be advancing into Germany. Gale, however, was not fated to lead them in their next action. Promoted to command the 1st British Airborne Corps, he was replaced by Major-General Eric Bols.

 

The Ardennes

 

On the 16th December 1944, the Germans launched a completely unexpected offensive through the Ardennes forest in Belgium. The full weight of the attack fell upon the 1st US Army, but its objective was to cut off the 2nd British Army in the north from the Americans to the south. On the 20th December, the 6th Airborne Division received orders to fly to Belgium and arrived two days later. By the 26th December they had concentrated in the region around Dinant and Namur, and three days later they were ordered to attack the very tip of the German advance. This move was fiercely resisted, but no more so than in the 5th Parachute Brigade's area. The heaviest losses were suffered by the 13th Parachute Battalion, who were embroiled in bitter fighting around the village of Bure from the 3rd to 5th January. The village was taken and counterattacks beaten off, but at a cost of sixty-eight dead and one-hundred and twenty-one wounded and missing.

 

Following this engagement the situation calmed somewhat. The offensive was contained and, when weather conditions finally allowed the massive superiority that the Allies possessed in air support to enter the fold, the German armies were repulsed with severe casualties. The 6th Airborne Division remained in Belgium until the end of the month, after which they were relocated to the Venlo and Roermond area of the Netherlands. Here they were involved in ceaseless patrolling and skirmishing either side of the River Maas with the German parachutists of the 7th Fallschirmjäger Division. Towards the end of February the Division was withdrawn to England to prepare for Operation Varsity, the crossing of the River Rhine, the last barrier between the Allied armies and the German mainland.

 

The Rhine Crossing

 

Placed under the command of the XVIII US Airborne Corps, the 6th British and the 17th US Airborne Divisions were to land several miles across the Rhine to the north of Wesel. Here they were to secure a series of bridges, villages, high ground and woodland to ensure that the 2nd British and 9th US Armies, which would simultaneously ford the River, could rapidly secure a firm bridgehead from which to advance deeper into Germany. Lessons had been learned of the difficulties of forming up airborne troops in the dark in Normandy, and later at Arnhem from the danger of flying them to their objectives over numerous lifts, and so for Operation Varsity all of the airborne troops involved were to be dropped at the same time and in daylight. It was to be the largest single lift of Airborne Forces ever attempted.

 

On the 24th March 1945, the assault began. The Allied soldiers on the ground had little difficulty in making their way across the Rhine, however anti-aircraft fire on the drop zones was intense and enormous casualties were suffered by the airborne troops when they dropped. Several aircraft were shot down and the paratroopers suffered heavily as they formed up on the drop zone. By far the most severe losses, however, were experienced by the 6th Airlanding Brigade as several of their gliders were shot out of the air and whole platoons were lost. In a single day, the Brigade suffered more casualties than it had during the entire three months of the Normandy campaign. Nevertheless, once on the ground the Division immediately went about its work with great speed and violence, and they succeeded in capturing all of their objectives. On this day the Division also won its only Victoria Cross, awarded to Corporal George Topham, a medical orderly of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.

 

With the bridgehead secure, the 6th Airborne Division, with the 6th Guards Tank Brigade and various other units under their command, led the British advance into Germany on the 26th March. Despite the fierce struggle for control of the drop zones, German resistance in the main softened thereafter, and the Division, using motor transport, was frequently able to advance over a wide expanse of territory with little more than skirmishing and sporadic shelling to disrupt their efforts. Several towns and villages, and in particular river crossings, were defended and several brisk actions were necessary. In this fashion the Division was on the move throughout April, but on the 31st of that month they reached their final objective, the town of Wismar of the Baltic Sea. They had been sent here to head-off the Russian advance which threatened to continue into Denmark. The two sides met amongst cheers and handshakes, though there was an underlying tension as the Red Army had its own orders and objectives and so they were initially keen to bypass the 6th Airborne Division and continue advancing westwards. They were dissuaded from doing so, however, when Major-General Bols made it abundantly clear that he had an Airborne Division and four regiments of artillery at his disposal and that he would use them if necessary. Despite this, relations between the two sides were at first good, a nineteen gun salute was fired by the 53rd (Worcestershire Yeomanry) Airlanding Light Regiment in honour of Field Marshal Rokossovsky when he met Field Marshal Montgomery and Major-General Bols at 3rd Parachute Brigade Headquarters. However by the end of the first week, a definite line had been drawn in the sand and relations between those on either side of it turned more to guarded hostility.

 

Towards the end of May the 6th Airborne Division was recalled to England, where a farewell was said to the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion who returned to their homeland. Germany may have been defeated, but in the Far East the struggle against the Japanese in Burma continued. The 5th Parachute Brigade was sent to India, and it was intended that the rest of the Division would follow them, however matters in the Pacific came to a close quicker than expected and this move was deemed unnecessary. The Brigade, however, remained in India as an Independent formation.

 

Palestine

 

With the 2nd Parachute Brigade now under their command, the 6th Airborne Division was ordered to Palestine in September 1945, where they were to help police what was a rapidly deteriorating situation between the indigenous Arabs and the ever increasing numbers of Jewish settlers. Having been trained as elite front-line infantry, it proved difficult for the men of the Division to adjust to their new role of keeping the peace, nevertheless the tactics of road blocks, raids and riot control used in their Southern Sector were most effective. Members of the Division took grave offence at the hostility shown towards them by the Jewish community, their press labelling them "Gestapo". This was particularly hurtful because not only had some of their comrades been Jewish, but they had fought and died to free some of the very people who now despised them, indeed they had personally liberated some of them. There were numerous attacks by Jewish extremists, most notably on the 25th April 1947, when thirty terrorists attacked a recreational vehicle park and murdered several unarmed men of the 5th Parachute Battalion. It is not surprising, therefore, that for the most part the Division's sympathies were with the Arabs.

 

Throughout their stay in Palestine, the Division gained and lost several formations. The 1st Parachute Brigade joined them on the 1st April 1946 as a replacement for the disbandment of the 6th Airlanding Brigade and the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment. In August of that year the 5th Parachute Brigade rejoined the Division from its activities in the Far East, but it was soon disbanded and its men distributed amongst various other units in the Division. In October 1947, the 6th Airborne were reduced to the strength of just two brigades with the disbandment of the 3rd Parachute Brigade.

 

In 1948, the Division expected to leave Palestine to be deployed in Germany as part of the British Army of the Rhine, however on the 18th February it received the terrible news that it was instead to be disbanded. Piece by piece, each of the individual units comprising the Division were withdrawn home or disbanded. The 1st Parachute Brigade survived but was renamed the 16th Parachute Brigade, in honour of both of Britain's airborne divisions. This unit survived until 1977, when it too was disbanded as part of drastic defence cuts imposed by the Labour government.

 

Commanders of the 6th Airborne Division

 

1943-1944

Major-General Richard Gale DSO MC

1944-1946

Major-General Eric Bols DSO

1946-1947

Major-General James Cassels CBE DSO

1946-1947

Major-General Eric Bols DSO

1947-1948

Major-General Hugh Stockwell CB CBE DSO