A propaganda image used to introduce Britain's paratroopers to the public

Practicing unarmed combat

Men of the 11th SAS on a training exercise in June 1941

Parachutists waiting to emplane at Ringway

Parachutists jumping from a Whitley at Ringway, 1942


On the 22nd June 1940, Winston Churchill sent a famous note to General Sir Hastings Ismay, his Chief of Staff in the War Office Secretariat:


"We ought to have a corps of at least 5,000 parachute troops, including a proportion of Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians, together with some trustworthy people from Norway and France. I see more difficulty in selecting and employing Danes, Dutch and Belgians. I hear something is being done already to form such a corps but only, I believe, on a very small scale. Advantage must be taken of the summer to train these forces, who can none the less play their part meanwhile as shock troops in home defence. Pray let me have a note from the War Office on the subject."


These words are often heralded as the birth of the British Airborne Forces, yet the process had started earlier in the month when another of his notes had resulted in the Royal Air Force creating the Central Landing School at Ringway airfield, near Manchester, with the object of teaching parachuting to army volunteers. The origins of these volunteers can be traced back further still to the 4th June, when Churchill had suggested to Ismay:


"We should immediately set to work to organise self-contained, thoroughly equipped raiding units. Enterprises must be prepared with specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coasts. I look to the joint Chiefs of Staff to propose measures for vigorous enterprise and ceaseless offensive against the whole German-occupied coastline, leaving a trail of German corpses behind them."


These units, sometimes referred to as Special Service battalions but more famously known as the Commandos, arose out of a need for Britain to be seen to be striking back at Germany, at a time when the traditional elements of her armed forces were unable to oblige. The Army had narrowly escaped from the beaches of Dunkirk and was fully committed rebuilding itself and defending the British coastline; the Royal Air Force had yet to amass a sufficient quantity of aircraft to mount a major bombing offensive; and the Royal Navy, the strongest arm that Britain possessed in 1940, was unlikely to tempt the Germans to battle after inflicting a serious defeat on them during the recent Norwegian campaign.


The bold and aggressive outlook of the Commandos represented an entirely new mode of warfare for the conventional and defensively-minded British Army. They were designed to act independently, without the support of tanks or artillery, and their unorthodox structure, originally of 50 men in each of their ten Troops, made them extremely adaptable to irregular tactics. Within days of Churchill's note, a new department of the War Office, later to be known as Combined Operations, was formed to ensure that these forces received the necessary cooperation from the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. By the end of June, the first of twelve Commando units were being formed, and of these No.2 Commando was selected to undergo parachute training.


The men of this unit had volunteered for what had been excitingly, albeit ambiguously, advertised as "hazardous duty", though it is certainly fair to say that very few had any inkling that this would involve throwing themselves out of an aircraft. The first group arrived at RAF Ringway on the 8th July, and were addressed by Captain Cleasby-Thompson:


"You are No.2 Commando. You are all to be trained as parachutists. You are privileged to be the first men in the British Army to be asked to jump out of aircraft and reach the ground by the aid of parachutes. You should all feel very proud. I must warn you in the most serious manner that you are not to talk to anyone, neither Serviceman nor civilian, about this training."


The training proved to be highly experimental as there was no precedent in the British Army for parachuting large groups of heavily-laden infantry behind enemy lines. Every aspect of their training, deployment and equipment had to be carefully considered, tested, and refined. By far their greatest handicap was a shortage of aircraft with which to practice; just six obsolete Whitley MkII's had been provided by an extremely reluctant RAF, who were eager to expand Bomber Command and so perhaps rightly saw army parachuting as a vague and doubtful distraction. However the administrators and instructors, at what was later to be known as the Central Landing Establishment, were enormously resourceful and devised a plethora of ground-based apparatus to safely teach parachuting techniques before the trainees went on to earn their wings by completing two drops from a static balloon and five from an aircraft. Within months a training programme had emerged which was to endure throughout the war.


No.2 Commando was renamed the 11th Special Air Service Battalion in November 1940. Despite having the same name it had no connection whatsoever to the famous SAS units which were raised by David Stirling in North Africa during 1942, but was intended solely as an airborne variant of the Commando "special service" battalions. The "11th" designation was to represent No.2 Commando in Roman numerals, i.e. "II", however it was so often misread as 11 that the number stuck.


The seaborne Commandos, with their more familiar method of deployment, were able to carry out two small test raids in German-occupied Europe by the end of 1940, in preparation for the larger, more ambitious actions of 1941. Their airborne kin, however, were improvising an entirely new method of warfare with a limited number of recruits and a handful of practice aircraft, and it would be some years before they were in a position to contemplate similar tasks. Yet there was a desire to carry out a test operation to discover what they could achieve, and in January 1941 an opportunity came their way for a raid in Italy.