75 Years of The Airborne Brigade
On 22 June 1940, Churchill wrote to the War Office, ordering the establishment of ‘a corps of at least 5,000 parachute troops.’ Early British Airborne operations are typified by these three raids:
- Op COLOSSUS in Feb 41, which damaged the Tragino aqueduct in southern Italy, disrupting water supply to airfields.
- Op BITING in Feb 42, which recovered German radar components from Bruneval in northern France, enabling the RAF to develop counter-measures.
- Op FRESHMAN in Nov 42, which saw the first use of glider-borne troops in an attempt to sabotage the German atomic weapon programme.
When the allies invaded North Africa in Nov 42 (Op TORCH), 1st Para Bde was tasked to seize and hold key locations in Tunisia until relieved by ground troops. 3rd Para Bn (Bone airfield) and 1st Para Bn (Beja) both succeeded. 2nd Para Bn (Oudna airfield) was left isolated when ground forces were delayed, and suffered heavy casualties while withdrawing. The Brigade continued fighting in North Africa until Apr 43.
The newly formed 1st Airborne Division was tasked to seize bridges vital for the allied invasion of Sicily in Jul 43 (Op HUSKY). Despite both paratroopers and gliders being widely dispersed on landing, the determination of those who did land within reach of their objectives allowed 1st Air Landing Bde at Ponte Grande and 1st Para Bde at Primosole bridge to achieve their missions.
In the Burma theatre, General Wingate’s ‘Special Force’ conducted a number of long range penetration operations by air-landing. These aimed to break up Japanese advances, forcing them to fight on ground of the allies’ choosing. Following initial insertion by gliders, an air strip was quickly constructed at each location to allow the force to be maintained and reinforced.
Meanwhile, 50th Indian Para Bde played a crucial role in the defence of Burma. They delayed a much larger enemy force at Sangshak for six days, giving 5th Indian Division time to concentrate at Imphal. Later in the Burma campaign, in May 45, a composite Gurkha and Indian Para Bn jumped at the start of the assault on Rangoon. They secured the coastal defence battery at Elephant Point, enabling an amphibious assault on Rangoon to proceed.
6th Airborne Division’s task for Op OVERLORD was to dominate the eastern flank of the British landings in Normandy on D-day (6 Jun 44), preventing enemy movement towards Caen:
- 2nd Oxfordshire and Bucks Light Infantry seized the bridges at Ranville and Benouville (later known as Pegasus Bridge) by a glider-borne coup de main.
- 9th Para Bn, despite dispersal on landing, secured Merville Battery to prevent its guns firing on the beach landings below.
- 1st Canadian Para Bn and 8th Para Bn successfully demolished bridges over the River Dives to prevent German reinforcement.
The Division continued fighting in Normandy until 27 Aug 44 while, in the South of France, 2nd Indep Para Bde blocked counter attacks on the Op DRAGOON landings’ beaches.
The plan for Op MARKET in Sep 44 was for 101st and 82nd US and 1st British Airborne Divisions to seize bridges at Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem respectively. This would form an ‘airborne carpet’ along which the tanks and vehicles of 30 Corps could break into Germany. The few units to reach Arnhem bridge, centred on 2nd Para Bn, held it tenaciously for three days: but 30 Corps could not relieve them in time.
Op MANNA saw 2nd Indep Para Bde insert into Greece by parachute, air and sea just behind the retreating Germans in Oct 44. Their aim was to stabilise Greece: establishing and maintaining law and order; and helping the Greeks to reorganise the country.
6th Airborne Division was rushed to the Ardennes in Dec 44 to assist in defeating the final German attack in the West: the Battle of the Bulge. In Mar 45, during Op VARSITY, the Division inserted by parachute and glider to secure high ground overlooking the Rhine. This allowed 21st Army Group to cross the final barrier into Germany. 6th Airborne Division continued to fight across Germany, linking up with the Russians on the Baltic coast. Following VE day, 1st Airborne Division flew to Norway to disarm German soldiers, while 5th Para Bde was sent to the Far East with a similar task.
From 1945 to 48, the 6th Airborne Division was based in Palestine as the Imperial Strategic Reserve. They also conducted counter insurgency operations, protecting Jewish and Palestinian civilians from violence in the run up to partition.
16th Indep Para Bde, at this stage the only remaining Airborne formation, flew to Egypt in Oct 51 to reinforce troops securing the Suez canal zone: first to deter the Egyptian army and then to defeat terrorists. From 1955 to 57 an Indep Para Sqn, formed from volunteers, assisted the SAS in Malaya. 4-man patrols penetrated deep into the jungle to find and destroy communist terrorists’ harbour areas.
16th Indep Para Bde recovered from Egypt in late 1954. By mid-1955, the Brigade was again deployed on a counter insurgency operation, this time in Cyprus against EOKA’s campaign for union with Greece. In Jul 56, Egyptian President Nasser nationalised the Suez canal. As part of Op MUSKETEER, 3 PARA jumped onto El Gamil airfield, clearing coastal defences before linking up with amphibious landings by French and other UK forces, including 2 PARA.
The ability of Airborne Forces to deter, as well as rapidly respond to, crises was reinforced by two operations around 1960. In Jul 58, 16th Indep Para Bde deployed to Jordan to bolster the King’s authority and prevent any overspill of violence from the military coup d’état in Iraq. In Jun 61, 2 PARA deployed on Op VANTAGE, joining an ad-hoc force which deterred Iraq from invading Kuwait.
The 1960s saw a succession of operations involving Airborne Forces. 3 PARA fought a counter insurgency in Radfan in 1964; while 2 PARA was rushed to Borneo in 1965 to defend the Malaysian Federation against Indonesian incursion. 3 PARA deployed to British Guiana later in 1965 to provide internal security and train the Guyanese Defence Force in preparation for independence. In 1967, 1 PARA was sent to Aden to cover the final withdrawal of British troops. Finally, in 1969, 2 PARA deployed to Anguilla, winning over the islanders with their friendly approach.
From 1969 until 2004, Airborne Forces deployed to Northern Ireland under Op BANNER, working with the Royal Ulster Constabulary to counter terrorism. During this, the longest campaign in recent British army history, the Para Bns between them spent 24 years deployed in the Province.
In Apr 82, in response to the Argentinean invasion of the Falkland Islands, a British Task Force was dispatched. This included Airborne units in both 3 Commando and 5 Infantry Bdes. The first major land battle of Op CORPORATE was fought by 2 PARA at Goose Green, securing the southern flank. British troops then tabbed across the island to the mountains surrounding the capital, Stanley: 3 PARA secured Mount Longdon; and 2 PARA, Wireless Ridge. After the conflict, 5 Infantry Bde was re-roled to become 5 Airborne Bde.
Following the genocide in Rwanda in Jul 94, elements of 5 Airborne Bde deployed on Op GABRIEL to help deal with the aftermath. 23 Para Field Ambulance provided medical support, 9 Para Sqn RE began rebuilding infrastructure, and 63 Airborne Close Support Sqn RLC distributed aid and helped to move refugees.
Elements of 24 Airmobile Bde deployed to Bosnia in 1995 on Op GRAPPLE. They served as a theatre reserve, ready to reinforce or evacuate UN troops under attack. 5 Airborne Bde’s next operation was Op AGRICOLA, the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999. 1 PARA spearheaded the advance, securing the route in to Kosovo through the Kacanik defile by air assault; then later switching to peacekeeping duties in Pristina.
16 Air Asslt Bde was created in Sep 99 by the merger of 5 Airborne and 24 Airmobile Bdes. Its name was chosen to recall the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions of the Second World War, and the post-war 16th Indep Para Bde.
The next operation involving Airborne Forces was Op PALLISER in Sierra Leone in May 00. 1 PARA conducted a tactical air-land operation to secure Lungi airport, enabling a non-combatant evacuation operation. In Sep 00, A Coy 1 PARA returned to Sierra Leone on Op BARRAS, a special forces led mission to rescue British soldiers being held hostage.
In Aug 01, 16 Air Asslt Bde deployed to Macedonia on Op BESSEMER Commanding a multinational force, the Brigade was tasked to implement the peace treaty by collecting rebel weapons.
Following the 11 Sep 01 attacks on the USA, 16 Air Asslt Bde deployed to Afghanistan on Op FINGAL. As part of the International Security Assistance Force, 2 PARA was responsible for the security of south Kabul. They also recruited and trained the first kandak of the Afghan National Guard.
Op TELIC, the invasion of Iraq in Feb 03, was the first time the whole of 16 Air Asslt Bde deployed together. The Brigade’s first mission was to secure the Rumaylah oil fields, preventing them being set alight as had occurred at the end of the 1991 Gulf war. That achieved, the Brigade’s focus switched to finding and containing the Iraqi 6th Armoured Division. After persistent attrition, the Iraqis withdrew. Meanwhile, 3 PARA was detached to assist with securing Basra. After the collapse of the Iraqi army, 16 Air Asslt Bde was tasked to secure Maysan province, before recovering to the UK in May 03. Elements of the Brigade returned to Iraq to conduct stabilisation on Op TELIC 3 in Nov 03, and Op TELIC 7 in Nov 05.
In 2006, as NATO increased its operations in southern Afghanistan, the British volunteered to lead in Helmand province, with 16 Air Asslt Bde the first to deploy. The intent was for troops to provide security for reconstruction efforts led by the Department for International Development. However, the Taliban insurgents relished the opportunity to engage NATO forces. Intense fighting ensued, with thinly spread troops on the ground receiving vital support from Apache attack helicopters.
A bolstered 16 Air Asslt Bde returned to Afghanistan in Apr 08 on Op HERRICK VIII. Fighting remained intense, but the greater density of forces on the ground enabled troops to put the counter insurgency doctrine of ‘clear, hold, build’ into practice.
16 Air Asslt Bde returned to Afghanistan for a fourth time in Oct 10 on Op HERRICK XIII. While this tour again included heavy fighting, the focus was on building the Afghan National Army’s capability, enabling them to take more responsibility for security.
Since the end of operations in Afghanistan, 16 Air Asslt Bde has contributed to the security of the 2012 London Olympics, and deployed training teams worldwide. While waiting for the next overseas operation, the Brigade has focused on reviving air manoeuvre skills, and reinforcing links with US and French airborne units.