The 8th Parachute Battalion was formed in early 1943 from the 13th Battalion The Warwickshire Regiment. As with all such conversions, the majority of the men of the original battalion either did not wish to become paratroopers or failed the subsequent weeding out exercises, designed to remove all but the very best soldiers. This process complete, the remainder of the Battalion was made up of volunteers from other units, however to retain the regional characteristic, the majority of these were drawn from Regiments in the Midlands region; hence the Battalion is sometimes referred to as the 8th (Midland Counties) Parachute Battalion. Lieutenant-Colonel Hildersly was its first commander, but he was succeeded in the latter half of 1943 by Lieutenant-Colonel Alastair Pearson DSO MC, one of the most respected, experienced and highly decorated officers in the history of the Parachute Regiment.


At the time of Pearson's arrival the 8th Battalion were having problems. They had not reached the level of efficiency that was expected of a parachute unit, and their morale had recently been shaken by two tragedies; during a night exercise in Scotland, a stick of parachutists had accidentally jumped over the sea and all but one man had drowned, and eight more were killed when their aircraft crashed into a hill in the south of England. Lieutenant-Colonel Pearson's first act was to completely overhaul the Battalion's command structure, and having personally interviewed every officer and NCO, he concluded that three company commanders and a high number of sergeants were unsatisfactory and so returned them to their former units. Their replacements were hand-picked, with younger officers being appointed from outside the Battalion and NCO's from within. With this firm base from which to build, the men of the 8th Battalion were put through a rigorous training programme, designed to further highlight and remove anyone who did not meet the Regiment's high standards. As an experienced commander, Pearson was allowed to get on with things as he saw fit without outside interference; his old friend and Brigade Commander, Brigadier Hill, trusted him completely and obliged by staying away, whilst Major-General Gale agreed to temporarily excuse the 8th Battalion from distractions such as visits by passing luminaries. As a result of Pearson's uncompromising attitude and many hard months of training, the 8th Battalion overcame its difficulties, regained its confidence and became recognised as one of the best battalions in the Division.




During the initial phase of the Normandy landings, the 8th Battalion perhaps had the most independent role of any of the units of the 6th Airborne Division. They were the only battalion to have their own drop zone, DZ-K, three miles to the south of the main force at Ranville, and over the following week they were effectively fighting their own private war in the south-eastern corner of the Divisional area.


Due to poor visibility and shortcomings with the deployment of the pathfinders, all parachute elements of the 6th Airborne Division suffered when they dropped at 00:50 on the 6th June. The 8th Battalion were further frustrated as some of their pathfinders had accidentally landed three miles away at Ranville, and as a consequence fourteen of the Battalion's thirty-seven Dakota aircraft released their parachutists there instead. The Battalion's primary objective on the first night was to protect the Royal Engineers of No.2 Troop the 3rd Parachute Squadron as they demolished a road and a railway bridge at Bures and a further road bridge at Troarn. Having gathered together just one hundred and forty-one men at the Rendezvous Point after waiting for more than two hours, Lieutenant-Colonel Pearson decided that he could delay no longer and began the advance. In preparation for their ultimate objective, the defence of the Bois de Bavent woodland which defined the south-eastern tip of the bridgehead, this force came to a halt in the woods and proceeded to dig-in, whilst elements of No.2 Troop made their way to Bures. Both bridges were destroyed by 09:15, and when this party returned to the Battalion they were ordered to proceed to the bridge at Troarn, with No.9 Platoon assigned to protect them. Following several successful actions against the enemy along the way, the group arrived at the bridge to find that other Engineers had blown it some hours earlier. Nevertheless they laid further charges and increased the damage.


With the bridges destroyed, the 8th Battalion's task was to hold the Bois de Bavent woodland and to do all in their power to harass enemy troops in the area, especially those advancing westwards with the obvious intention of crossing the River Orne at Caen and attacking the seaborne landings. During the following days, while the rest of the Division struggled to hold its gains, the isolated 8th Battalion found themselves fighting a very different battle to that of their comrades. The closely wooded terrain made heavy attacks impossible, and so both sides resorted to mine laying, establishing outposts and patrolling aggressively. The 8th Battalion's positions were also shelled frequently, and during the first days, until substantial overhead cover for their dugouts could be improvised, the paratroopers suffered many casualties as a result of lethal splinters from tree bursts. Lieutenant-Colonel Pearson ensured that the initiative remained with his men, and to this end they patrolled far and wide in the surrounding area, sometimes as far as Bures and Troarn, constantly making a nuisance of themselves by laying ambushes, mining roads, and raiding enemy positions.


Life in the Bois de Bavent was far from pleasant because little sunlight could penetrate the canopy of trees, creating particularly damp conditions which attracted flies and mosquitoes and made it impossible for clothing to be dried. It was doubtlessly with some relief, therefore, that the Battalion was withdrawn from the area on the 16th June to allow the battered 3rd Parachute Brigade a period of rest. Following their return to the front line and for the following six weeks, the 8th Battalion continued its ceaseless routine of patrols and harassment.


On the 17th August, the 3rd Parachute Brigade led their main thrust of the Division's follow-up of the German withdrawal. Advancing across the Island in the middle of the Dives Valley, the 8th Battalion were delayed in heavy fighting around Goustranville, but by dusk they had overcome their opposition and captured the village. Movement on the following day was severely restricted by German shelling of the British positions from the heights on the other side of the River. To enable the advance to resume, the Brigade cleared up the remaining opposition on the Island under cover of darkness and set up a path for the 5th Parachute Brigade to secure a foothold on the far bank. During the following days the Division worked hard to secure this area so as to enable the advance to continue. On the 21st August, with the 6th Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment scouting ahead, the 3rd Parachute Brigade led the Division's push eastwards. After some five miles, a firm enemy position was discovered around the village of Annebault, and the 8th Battalion was ordered to make a frontal attack upon it whilst the 9th Battalion attempted to move around the enemy's left flank. Both units met heavy resistance and became bogged down in hard fighting that lasted until dusk. By the end of the day, however, the 8th Battalion had the village under its control, and given the seriousness of the fighting its casualties had been comparatively light.


On the 25th August, the 1st Special Service Brigade were brought to a halt by opposition to the west of Beuzeville, and so the 3rd Parachute and 4th Special Service Brigades were ordered to move through their positions and attack into the town. The 8th Battalion edged their way forward throughout the day, encountering a lot of resistance but overcoming it step by step. They suffered many casualties as a result of their efforts, including fifteen fatalities, however their progress was undoubtedly made easier by the support of the Cromwell tanks of No.1 Troop, "A" Squadron, the Reconnaissance Regiment, whose frequent intervention enabled them to overcome enemy strong points with significantly less difficulty. By the end of the day, the 8th Battalion had fought its way through the opposition and captured Beuzeville.


On that same evening, Major-General Gale received orders to halt the advance of his Division, and in early September they were withdrawn to England to rest and refit. Amongst the changes to affect the 8th Battalion was the loss of its leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Pearson, who, having suffered from malaria in North Africa earlier in the War, had suffered a relapse and was judged to be no longer fit for active service. He was replaced by Lieutenant-Colonel George Hewetson.




The 6th Airborne Division was called to intervene in the German offensive through the Ardennes on the 20th December 1944. On the 29th of that month they attacked the tip of the German thrust and the 3rd Parachute Brigade was given responsibility for the Rochefort sector, which they took after meeting stiff resistance. After several months of heavy patrolling, in Belgium and, in February, Holland, the Division was withdrawn to England.


The Rhine Crossing


On the 24th March 1945, the 6th Airborne Division took part in Operation Varsity, with the objective of securing a bridgehead across the River Rhine. The 3rd Parachute Brigade landed on an isolated zone, DZ-A, two to three miles west of the main concentration of the Division. Unintentionally, the Brigade arrived nine minutes early, but as a result they had the element of surprise and so were able to land without suffering as heavily as other units did as the landings unfolded across the area. The men of the 8th Battalion were the first to land, and their objective was to attack and overwhelm the German positions defending the drop zone so as to enable the remainder of the Brigade to go about their tasks unhindered. Both "A" and "C" Companies quickly secured their assigned areas of woodland on the fringes of the zone without encountering too much difficulty. "B" Company with the Machine Gun Platoon in tow, however, had landed out of position and so had difficulty forming up at the Rendezvous Point. The matter was made all the more uncomfortable as they were being fired upon by two platoons of enemy paratroopers dug-in at their objective. Major Kippen eventually managed to rally a force of platoon strength about him and attacked these positions, however he was killed in the attempt and his men forced to pull back. This platoon later provided covering fire for another platoon which attacked the woodland defences with grenades and overwhelmed them after hand to hand fighting. During this action, a considerable number of the enemy paratroopers were killed and twenty-seven were taken prisoner.


With its initial task completed, the 8th Battalion became the Brigade reserve for the remainder of the day. By midday, most of the Battalion had left the drop zone, having received orders to guard the Brigade's equipment dump. On the way to this position, two troublesome 88mm anti-tank guns were encountered and quickly dealt with. In the evening, the Battalion moved to the Kopenhof area to guard the rear of Divisional Headquarters.


On the 26th March, the 6th Airborne Division began to advance out of the bridgehead, but for these first few hours the 3rd Parachute Brigade was held in the Airborne Corps reserve. At 12:00 on the 28th March, the 8th Battalion, with the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment scouting ahead of them, led the Brigade's advance on Lembeck. Resistance was met and brushed aside to the west of Erle and later beyond Rhade. Lembeck was found to be well defended, and so whilst the 9th Parachute Battalion worked its way around the town to secure its left flank, the 8th Battalion attacked it from the front. They were soon pinned down by 20mm guns, but began to advance along the right flank once the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had come forward to hold their position. Resistance in the town proved to be fierce, and at one stage one of the Battalion's companies became cut-off as it battled two companies of a Panzer Grenadier training battalion. This company was later able to link up with the Canadians, and by the end of the day the 8th Battalion had accounted for almost all of their opponents and secured a firm foothold in the town.


On the 31st March, following an effort by the remainder of the Brigade to secure a crossing over the River Ems, the 8th Battalion were transferred across the River in the hope of securing a bridgehead over the Dortmund-Ems Canal. They arrived to discover that the bridges had been demolished, nevertheless by the following morning, two of their rifle companies were across the river and had carved out a bridgehead a mile deep, which they held in spite of heavy enemy shelling of the river area.


On the 4th April, the 8th Battalion attempted to capture the city of Minden but were halted by enemy fire as they approached. Resistance was not believed to be heavy, however, and so during the night the Canadian's put in an attack, and after all three of the 3rd Parachute Brigade's battalions became involved in what proved to be a fierce, yet relatively brief struggle, the city was taken.




The 6th Airborne Division returned to England in late May 1945, but towards the end of the year it was deployed to Palestine. The 3rd Parachute Brigade was disbanded in October 1947, and as a result of this, in January 1948, the 8th and 9th Battalions merged to become the 8th/9th Parachute Battalion. This new unit was posted to the Division's 1st Parachute Brigade, however in that same year the British Army was considerably restructured and the 8th/9th Battalion was disbanded in June.


Commanders of the 8th Parachute Battalion



Lieutenant-Colonel Hildersly


Lieutenant-Colonel Alastair Pearson DSO MC


Lieutenant-Colonel G. Hewetson DSO


Lieutenant-Colonel J.H.M. Hackett DSO