A Brief History of the British 1st Airborne Division

The following is a very short history of the 1st Airborne Division; I plan to write a more extensive version in a future article.

The British Army’s Airborne Forces were first created in June 1940.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been impressed by the German use of parachute and glider troops during their invasion of France and the Low Countries, and sent a memorandum to the Chiefs of Staff requesting that Britain develop a similar capability.

Originally, Airborne Forces were conceived as raiding forces to perform small-scale operations in occupied Europe for intelligence gathering, destruction of specific targets, and demoralization of the enemy.  Accordingly, No. 2 Commando was trained in parachuting and eventually became 1st Parachute Battalion.  2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions were then created; the three battalions comprised 1st Parachute Brigade.

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Paratroopers in 1942.  They are wearing the early “step-in” parachute smock, based on the German design, prior to the adoption of the camouflaged Denison smock.

Britain’s first use of airborne troops was a small raid against an Italian aqueduct near Tragino in February 1941.  This was followed by the first significant Airborne action, Operation Biting, in February 1942.  C Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, attacked a German radar installation on the French coast at Bruneval; along with a radar specialist from the RAF, they captured key components of the radar, and were evacuated by sea by the Royal Navy.  The operation was a complete success.

1st Parachute Brigade was then sent to North Africa, attached to British 1st Army, in support of the Operation Torch landings in November 1942.  Each of the three battalions performed a separate operation.  The Brigade was then reunited and kept in the front lines for several months in the bitter fighting in Tunisia.  It was here that the British Airborne earned their nickname of the “Red Devils” for their ferocious fighting ability.  It was also where they adopted their war cry of “Waho Mohammed”, inspired by the natives’ calls from hilltop to hilltop.

2 Para Officers Tunisia

Officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion in Tunisia, December, 1942.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Airborne Forces were rapidly growing.  The Parachute Regiment was formed in August 1942, and its cap badge adopted in May 1943.  All Airborne troops wore the distinctive maroon beret and the divisional flash depicting the Greek hero Bellerophon, riding the winged horse Pegasus.  1st Airborne Division was created, including 2nd Parachute Brigade and 1st Air-Landing Brigade, which were flown in gliders, along with supporting elements from the artillery, engineers, medical corps, and others.  These new units were transported to Tunisia to join with the now-veteran 1st Parachute Brigade.

Pegasus Flash Printed

Bellerophon riding Pegasus, the insignia worn by all British Airborne Forces.

In July 1943, the Allies launched Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily.  1st Air-Landing Brigade took part in the initial invasion, capturing the vital Ponte Grande Bridge near the beachhead.  Then, as British 8th Army pushed up the island’s east coast, 1st Parachute Brigade captured the Primosole Bridge.  Losses in both operations were heavy, but their vital objectives were taken.  Once Sicily had been secured, the Allies invaded mainland Italy.  2nd Parachute Brigade took part in this operation, and 1st Airborne’s commander, Major General George Hopkinson, was killed in action.  The Division returned to Britain to refit and replace losses; 2nd Parachute Brigade was detached from the Division and remained in Italy.

1st Airborne received a new commander, Major General Robert “Roy” Urquhart.  Additionally, 4th Parachute Brigade joined the Division, to replace 2nd Parachute Brigade.  In the summer of 1944, 6th Airborne Division spearheaded the Invasion of Normandy, while 1st Airborne was kept in reserve.  Several airborne operations were conceived to support the Allied breakout from the beachheads, but were all cancelled.

In September 1944, the Division took part in the epic Battle of Arnhem, part of Operation Market-Garden.  The Division found itself surrounded, out-numbered and out-gunned; they fought extremely bravely, but their relieving force never arrived.  Out of 10,000 men, only 2000 escaped across the Rhine; the rest were killed or captured.  The Division was never longer brought back to strength and was disbanded in November 1945.

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