June, 1940, was a very difficult time for Britain. France had fallen, and the British Expeditionary Force had just been evacuated from Dunkirk. The German Blitzkrieg had shocked the world, and Britain braced for invasion. While the military prepared for defense, many politicians wanted to seek peace with Germany in desperate hopes of preventing an invasion.
Winston Churchill had only recently been appointed Prime Minister. He refused to capitulate to the enemy, and inspired the nation with his defiance and determination. He believed that it was dangerous to take on a purely defensive posture. If Britain was incapable of launching a major offensive into occupied Europe, small-scale raids could at least keep the enemy off balance, and boost the morale of the civilian population.
It was with this mindset that, on June 22, 1940, Churchill called for the creation of the Airborne Forces, to be delivered both by glider and parachute. Like the Commandos, these units were originally conceived as raiding forces to conduct small-scale sabotage and intelligence-gathering missions. However, as the war progressed, the Airborne Forces grew to include two full divisions plus an independent brigade.
The first four battalions of paratroopers were made up of volunteers from all across the British Army. At first, these men retained the insignia and headgear of their parent units. The Scotsmen wore Balmoral bonnets, while the Irish had their caubeens; Guardsmen wore their peaked service dress caps; and everyone else had the envelope-style field service cap.
Eventually, the demand for more airborne units exceeded the number of available volunteers; existing infantry units were then converted into new parachute battalions. Other infantry battalions were designated for glider training, although these units kept their original names. Soldiers in both types of converted units were given the option of transferring out, and volunteers were recruited to fill the vacancies. Many were unable to meet the demanding physical standards, and still more volunteers were needed.
As time went on and the Airborne Forces grew, it was realized that more structure was needed. 1st Airborne Division was created as a fighting organization on November 1, 1941. To give the Parachute Battalions a parent organization, the Army Air Corps (AAC) was established on December 21, 1941; the AAC also had oversight of the newly-formed Glider Pilot Regiment. On August 1, 1942, the Parachute Regiment was officially created within the AAC to give the Parachute Battalions more unity and sense of identity*.
Major-General F.A.M. “Boy” Browning was given command not only of 1st Airborne Division, but all Airborne Forces on October 29, 1941. Browning was, perhaps, a surprising choice. In most respects, he was a traditionalist: a Sandhurst graduate and professional soldier from the Grenadier Guards, whose standards for smartness of appearance were known throughout the Army. Browning was also known for his energy and enthusiasm, which were put to good use guiding the Airborne as they grew and developed. Additionally, Browning’s drive and determination were necessary in obtaining both respect and resources from the Army establishment.
Shortly after taking command, Browning observed 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Parachute Battalions taking part in an exercise on Salisbury Plain. He disliked seeing the variety of headgear worn, and was concerned it indicated a lack of group identity.
The first beret worn by British soldiers was the black beret of the Royal Tank Regiment (previously the Royal Tank Corps), who adopted their unique headdress in the mid-1920’s. At the time, most of the Army was wearing a stiff peaked cap that gave a smart, soldierly appearance; however, this cap was thoroughly impractical for armored troops. The beret was found to be ideal for wear in the tight confines of an armored fighting vehicle, as it was soft and shaped close to the head. When a helmet was worn, the beret could be neatly rolled up and tucked inside the tanker’s coveralls. For similar reasons, the beret was a logical choice for the Airborne; again, it could easily be tucked inside the jump smock.
The exact origins of the beret’s maroon color are unclear. Some sources indicate Browning himself made the decision. Many contemporaries said it was actually Browning’s wife, the famous novelist Daphne DuMaurier, who chose the maroon beret, although she later denied it. Other sources credit Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, with the final decision. What is clear is that the maroon beret was officially authorized on July 29, 1942 by Army Council Instruction 1596, and went into production shortly after.
The maroon beret was worn by all members of the Airborne Forces: officers and other ranks; paratroopers and glider troops; fighting men and support personnel. Despite the actual maroon color, the troops nearly always referred to their new headdress as the “red beret”. While some were dubious at first, the Airborne soldiers quickly grew immensely proud of the beret; it became an outward symbol of their elite status.
The first maroon berets were issued to 1st Parachute Brigade (1st, 2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions) shortly before they were sent to North Africa in late 1942. Originally, paratroopers were to wear the badge of the Army Air Corps, although some photographs from the North African campaign show soldiers wearing the cap badge of their original regiment. By the summer of 1943, however, photos show only AAC badges being worn by paratroopers. On May 25, 1943, a new badge was adopted for the Parachute Regiment; this was the well-known winged parachute with the crown and lion. The 6th Airborne Division was also created in May, 1943; ironically, the paratroopers from 6th Airborne received the new badges first and the men of 1st Airborne did not receive them until they returned to England from the Mediterranean. Glider pilots retained the AAC badge.
All battalions of glider infantry retained their original identity, and these soldiers wore their regimental cap badges on their berets. Similarly, airborne-trained non-infantry troops, such as the Royal Engineers and Royal Army Medical Corps, wore their normal badges on their berets. Browning’s intent in adopting a new form of headwear for all Airborne Forces was to foster a sense of unity and esprit de corps; the maroon beret did exactly that.
After the campaign in North Africa ended in 1943, the officers of 1st Parachute Brigade visited their wounded men.
“We took the opportunity of visiting our wounded in the base hospitals around Algiers. The nursing sisters said, ‘You will have no trouble finding your men because they wear their berets all the time.’ So indeed they did. Even in bed with pyjamas on. In fact I heard that one tried to keep his on en route to the operating theatre.”
A Drop Too Many
Maj.-Gen. John Frost
Major John Howard, who famously led the glider assault on Pegasus Bridge, wrote about the beret in his memoirs.
“I was immensely proud to be a member of the Airborne and every time I met another man in a red beret, the smart salute with pointed fingers up to the cap-badge, gave me a thrill I could not have put into words. It was an intense feeling of esprit de corps and being part of an elite band of men. As long as I live, I will never forget that feeling of pride and brotherhood.”
The Pegasus Diaries: The Private Papers of Major John Howard DSO
John Howard and Penny Bates
One of the converted units was 10th Battalion, The Essex Regiment, which became 9th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, in late 1942. Company Sergeant Major Jack Harries remembered:
“Certainly the issue of Para wings, the Airborne shoulder flash and the red beret seemed to transform men almost overnight, and suddenly you were part of an elite club of volunteers.”
The Day the Devils Dropped In
James Sims volunteered for the Airborne in late 1943. He underwent parachute training in February, 1944, after which he was issued his beret.
“Well, we had made it. Out of an original contingent of 165 men about 60 of us had completed the course and were now paratroopers.
On the Friday morning there was the official parade and we were issued with our para wings, red berets and Parachute Regiment cap badges. We removed our motley collection of headgear and donned our red berets for the first time. It was one of the greatest moments of our lives and one of the proudest.”
One of the first major books about the British Airborne was written by Hilary St. George Saunders, who named his book The Red Beret after the iconic headwear. The book was published just a few years after the war; Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery wrote the Forward.
“What manner of men are these who wear the maroon red beret?
They are firstly all volunteers, and are then toughened by hard physical training. As a result they have that infectious optimism and that offensive eagerness which comes from physical well-being.
They have ‘jumped’ from the air and by so doing have conquered fear.
Their duty lies in the van of the battle; they are proud of this honour and have never failed in any task.
They have the highest standards in all things, whether it be skill in battle or smartness in the execution of all peace time duties.
They have shown themselves to be as tenacious and determined in defence as they are courageous in attack.
They are, in fact, men apart – every man an Emperor.
I have a great affection for these men, who were my comrades-in-arms on many battlefields in the Second World War. And on those occasions where I myself wear the maroon beret I regard it as an outward sign of respect to grand fighters and good comrades.”
Montgomery of Alamein, F.M., Col. Cmdt., The Parachute Regiment
Forward to The Red Beret: The Story of the Parachute Regiment at War 1940-45
Hilary St. George Saunders
After World War II, the airborne units of many nations adopted the maroon beret, inspired by the British example.
WWII berets were larger and fuller than modern military berets; they had a taller crown and were worn pulled down to the right ear. The cap badge was worn over the left eye. A good quality reproduction will give a more authentic look than any currently-issued military beret.
*The creation of the Parachute Regiment changed the naming convention for these units: 1st Parachute Battalion became 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, etc. However, the 1st through 4th Battalions tended to continue using their original names.