Boiled Sweets and Airborne Rations

As a living historian, I enjoy private events where I can immerse myself in a World War II environment and attempt to live and train as a soldier of that conflict.  However, I also feel the need to be an educator, to share what I have learned with others.  Not only is this need to teach history part of the driving force behind my blog, it is also why I participate in educational displays at air shows and other public venues.

At public events, I have found that people are often drawn to my rations displays, and I spend much of my time describing the various items.  I own a number of original tins, including examples of the different boiled sweets tins from the Composite Rations (tins labeled “Boiled Sweets”, “Boiled Sweets, Salt & Matches”, and “Chocolate and Boiled Sweets”).  It may come as a surprise to my friends in the UK that the term “boiled sweets” is unknown here in the US, and I often have to explain that it is simply the British name for hard candy.  Americans, especially children, often find the term “boiled sweets” unappealing, so I like to offer a fruit disc or mint and describe how hard candy is produced*.

Boiled Sweets Tin_NEW

Boiled sweets tin from the Composite Ration.  Author’s collection.

The cellophane-wrapped mints and fruit discs are good for public displays, as they are readily available in the US, making them easy for children to recognize and inexpensive for me to hand out.  As a reenactor and amateur historian, however, this is not good enough.  I want to learn as much as I can about the conditions and experiences of the wartime soldier, and if possible, replicate them for myself.  I have studied a number of books on British rations, including a few original training pamphlets.

In some respects, British soldiers were better off than civilians on the Home Front; for one thing, they were generally better fed.  The distribution of food for civilians was strictly controlled, and there were frequent shortages; sugar was particularly scarce and was considered a luxury item.  However, the government determined that it was essential that servicemembers have access to sugary foods.  Soldiers expended a great deal of energy marching, digging and fighting, and Army rations needed to be high in calories.  Boiled sweets were an important part of the 24-Hour Ration and the Composite Ration, both to provide energy and bolster morale.  The boiled sweets were not intended to be part of a meal; instead, soldiers were instructed to keep a few in a pocket so they could be eaten whenever a little extra energy was needed.  Additionally, it was not always convenient to get a drink of water under combat conditions; sucking a boiled sweet could help overcome the feeling of thirst.

Unfortunately, I have found very little detail regarding the boiled sweets; for years, I have been trying to learn more about the specific flavors or varieties that were issued.  I finally found some detail in a description of an Airborne-specific ration from a 1942 manual, as reprinted in a book I recently acquired.

Air Publication 2453, November 1942
Volume I, Section 2, Chapter 3
Personal Paratroop Equipment

Ration S.T.6.

This ration is intended to cover a period up to forty-eight hours and comprises the following items:–
One 12 oz. tin of corned beef, with key.
One 2 oz. tin of dripping spread.
Two tins of processed cheese.
One tin of tea and dried milk.
One box of matches.
One tin containing service biscuits, sweet biscuits, chocolate, acid drops, and barley sugar.

The ration S.T.6. is issued to paratroops at their operational base where the separate articles should be packed tightly in the smaller mess tin, using broken biscuits to prevent any possibility of rattle which might reveal to the enemy the whereabouts of a paratroop.  The method of packing is illustrated in fig. 3.  The larger mess tin is used as a lid when packing is complete.

(Reprinted in RAF Airborne Forces Manual:  The Official Air Publications for RAF Paratroop Aircraft and Gliders, 1942-1946)

 

The referenced illustration is one that I have seen many times.  Scans of “Figure 3:  Contents of Paratroop Haversack” have been available on the internet for years, without noting the original source; I am pleased to have solved that mystery.

paratrooper haversack

Illustration from Air Publication 2453, Volume I, Section 2, Chapter 3, originally published November, 1942.  Ration S.T.6. is stored inside the mess tin.

I have not seen any other descriptions or references to the S.T.6. Ration; it seems to have been a formalized version of the haversack ration, and I suspect it was superseded by the later 24-Hour Ration issued to all assault troops, not just paratroopers.  However, it was the last line of the itemized list above that stood out to me.  Acid drops and barley sugar are specific types of boiled sweets, and so far, this is the only source I have found with that kind of detail.  It certainly does not mean that all Army-issued boiled sweets were acid drops or barley sugars, but it does seem reasonable that these were included in other types of rations.  I will keep researching in hopes of learning more.

Tins - Edited

Rations display at an air show, with the items in the mess tin based on the accompanying illustration.  The boiled sweets, tea, and emergency ration tins are all originals; the corned beef and luncheon meat tins are modern that have been made to look as they would have during WWII.  Photo by the author of items in his collection.

I recently visited my local import shops in hopes of obtaining barley sugars and acid drops; I found numerous chocolates and toffees, and even a few boiled sweets, but not the specific ones I wanted.  Fortunately, I found an internet-based vendor of traditional British confectionery that carries these items, and ships internationally.  My order recently arrived; while I plan to carry a pocket full of acid drops and barley sugars at my next living history event, I had to try a few first.  The acid drops are spherical and have a tart citrus flavor; they are similar to American lemon drops, but less sweet.  The barley sugars are elongated tablets with a mellow, sweet taste; they remind me of butterscotch, but more subtle.  I am looking forward to carrying these sweets in the field, and sharing with my friends.

Boiled Sweets in Tin

Barley sugars (left) and acid drops (right)

For more information on British rations, please see my earlier article on the subject by clicking here.

*Boiled sweets, or hard candy, are made by dissolving sugar and flavoring agents into water to make a syrup.  This flavored syrup is then boiled until nearly all the water evaporates, making the mixture extremely thick and sticky.  This substance is then molded or otherwise shaped, then allowed to cool and harden.

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“Men With Tails”: The Denison Smock

History of the Denison Smock

Russia pioneered the use of military parachuting in the 1930’s, but it was the Germans who first used this new method of warfare in actual combat.  Prime Minister Churchill called for the creation of Britain’s Airborne Forces in June, 1940, inspired by the enemy’s successful use of glider and parachute troops during the invasion of Holland and Belgium.  Because the British were starting from the ground up, early Airborne equipment was often based on German designs.  The first British paratroopers wore a cotton gabardine garment officially termed “Jacket, Parachutist’s”, which was often called a “jump jacket” or sometimes a “step-in smock”.  It had full sleeves but only short legs, and a 3/4 length zip closure.  This item was worn over the standard wool battledress.  The British item was nearly identical to the German version, and troops of both nations called such a garment a “bone sack”.

Bruneval IWM

February, 1942:  men from C Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, returning from the raid against the German radar installation at Bruneval, France.  Two of the men wear the “Jacket, Parachutist’s”; by the end of 1942, this item was replaced with the Denison smock.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The British determined that this item was not entirely suitable and developed a new airborne garment:  the famous Denison smock, officially named the “Smock, Denison (Airborne Troops)”.  Like its predecessor, it was intended to be worn over wool battledress.  It was designed in 1941, and was officially adopted and entered production in 1942.  While the Denison was designed with parachute troops in mind, it was also issued to glider troops.

The Denison was a true smock, in that it was pulled over the head.  There was a large opening that closed with a zipper, along with a collar lined in wool flannel.  The Denison was made from heavy cotton twill to make it windproof; its primary purpose was to keep the soldier warm during the flight and the parachute descent.  Unfortunately, however, it was not waterproof, and tended to get quite heavy in the rain.  Once on the ground, it was intended as a practical combat uniform.  As such, it was the first officially-sanctioned British item of dress to be camouflaged.  For the earliest versions, camouflage fabric was not available; sand-colored cloth was hand-painted with green and brown patches, using mops or large brushes.  This camouflage method was developed by Major Denison, for whom the garment was named.  Not surprisingly, the paint tended to wash out; eventually, screen-printed camouflage material was produced, but the brush-stroke effect was retained.  Each bolt of camouflage fabric was slightly different from the next.

AFPU Arnhem IWM

September, 1944:  Sergeants Smith, Walker and Lewis of the Army Film and Photographic Unit, who had been attached to 1st Airborne Division during Operation Market Garden.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The smock had four external patch pockets which closed with a snap or press stud, with the upper pair set at an angle; there were also two internal pockets.  There was a pair of shoulder straps or epaulettes, each held down by a green plastic button.  There were two tightening tabs at the bottom of the smock, and ventilation holes under the arms.  One of the most distinctive features of the garment was a flap attached to the back hem and snapped up between the legs to the front of the smock; the end of the flap had a pair of male snaps, and there were three pairs of female snaps at the front to allow some adjustment.  The purpose of this item was to keep the smock in place during the jump; it was to reduce the smock from filling with air and getting pulled up over the wearer’s head.  While this piece was more properly known as a crutch flap, the troops invariably named it some form of tail:  the terms “monkey tail”, “ape tail”, “donkey tail” and “beaver tail” are all documented.

12th Battalion Normandy IWM

June, 1944:  Soldiers from 12th Parachute Battalion, 6th Airborne Division, in Normandy.  Note the “ape tail” hanging down behind the kneeling man.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The original Denison smocks had tapered sleeves that ended in elasticized knit cuffs.  Like the crutch flap, the knit cuffs were intended to keep the garment from filling with air and causing problems during the parachute drop.

Officers wore their rank insignia on the shoulder straps of the Denison; NCO’s typically wore their rank chevrons on the right sleeve only.  Paratrooper’s jump wings were also worn on the right sleeve, while glider pilots wore their wings on the left breast.  No additional insignia was worn on the smock.

Eventually, a second pattern of smock was developed.  The sleeves of this second pattern smock were straighter and lacked the knit cuffs; instead, there was a tightening tab above the wrist.  This button-cuff variant proved less popular with the troops, and many of these Denisons were modified by having sock tops attached to the sleeves as an improvised knit cuff.  The second pattern smock was somewhat darker in color than the first pattern; the base fabric was light green rather than tan, with the green and brown blotches darker as well.  That said, most original smocks are quite faded, and it is sometimes difficult to tell the colors of one pattern from the other.

One problem with the first pattern smock was that no provision was given regarding the ape tail after the drop.  Soldiers were expected to either keep the tail snapped up between their legs or tuck it up behind the waist belt of the webbing equipment.  Neither approach was very satisfactory; keeping the flap between the legs tended to restrict movement, and tactical movement also negated the alternative, as it tended to pull the tail out from under the waist belt.  Some soldiers cut the tail off their smocks, while others found some method of pinning it up behind them.  In this respect, the second pattern smock was an improvement, in that a pair of press studs was added to the small of the back so the tail could be kept up out of the way; this also gave a more dignified, military appearance.

Late in the war, some officers, who purchased their own uniforms and were afforded a certain amount of customization, had their smocks made with a full-length zip.  Similarly, a large number of smocks were converted to a full-zip configuration after the war.

G Smock 1 Pic 2 - Cropped

Original Denison smock.  The colors of this smock are remarkable, as most original Denisons are significantly more faded than this.  The full-length zip is a postwar modification.  Photo by “Battery Sergeant Major” of one of the smocks in his personal collection.

G Smock 1 Pic 2 - Detail

Detail from the above photo, showing the elasticized knit cuff.

The Denison smock was first used operationally by 1st Parachute Brigade in Tunisia, beginning in November 1942.  The smock proved enormously popular with the entire Brigade.  One of the few complaints, however, was that the desert sand tended to clog the zipper and cause it to break; many surviving Denisons show evidence of having the zip replaced at some point.  According to some sources, the earliest smocks had steel zippers; later brass zippers tended to be more durable.  When Major-General F.A.M. Browning visited the Brigade in December, 1942, he kept a detailed diary; attached was an appendix with his notes on the equipment used by the Brigade during the Airborne Forces’ first large-scale operations.

Major-General Browning’s Diary of his Visit to North Africa, December 1942
Appendix:  Weapons and Equipment

Camouflage smocks.  Have been an outstanding success and are much envied by the rest of the Army.  They would be better if more waterproofing is possible.  They require a belt of some kind if worn without equipment on patrol as they are loose-fitting but string tied round the waist is good enough.

(As quoted in Tunisian Tales by Niall Cherry)

During 2nd Parachute Battalion’s operation against the airfields at Oudna and Depienne, the enemy called on fighter aircraft to make strafing attacks.  However, the fighters completely missed the British positions.  The Officer Commanding, Lt. Col. John Frost, credited this escape to the camouflage afforded by the Denison smock, and other members of the Battalion agreed.  Later, Frost wrote in his autobiography about the Denison’s crutch flap.

A Drop Too Many
By Major General John Frost

We were the only troops out there who wore camouflaged smocks.  These smocks had a fork piece which was meant to be fastened in the front by two press studs.  These studs had a way of getting damaged or torn off and then the fork pieces hung down behind in a most unmilitary manner like a tail.  This much amused the Arabs, and despite all our other distinctive characteristics, they always referred to us as ‘the men with tails’.

G Smock 4 Pic 3 - Cropped

Another Denison smock owned by “Battery Sergeant Major”; the colors of this example are also in remarkable condition.  Note the “ape tail” at the bottom of the smock.

After these early experiences, Airborne Forces continued to expand, with every man issued a Denison smock.  This item particularly captured the attention of the British people with 6th Airborne Division’s successes in Normandy, followed by 1st Airborne’s heroic, but doomed, battle at Arnhem.  During the winter of 1944/45, the Denison smock was issued to the Commandos.

Reenacting Tips

For anyone choosing to reenact as British Airborne, the Denison smock is the most distinctive, and therefore most important, part of the impression.  Great care should be taken in choosing a Denison, and this is an item where the new reenactor should be willing to pay a little extra for a quality item.

S Smock Pic 1 - Cropped

Photo by “Sedgwick Fairfax” of an original second pattern Denison smock in his collection.  The base color is greener than the smocks pictured above.  The wool flannel lining the collar is also clearly visible.

When I first started reenacting as 1st Airborne twenty years ago, reproduction Denison smocks were a new item, and only two or three companies made them.  Many of the more experienced members of my unit were still wearing originals.  Original Denison smocks have always been prized collector’s items, and now they are very expensive; additionally, originals at this point should be preserved and not exposed to the rigors of simulated combat.

S Smock Pic 12 Detail

Detail of the button cuff from the above second pattern Denison.

Fortunately, there are now many reproductions available.  This article is not intended to endorse or condemn any one specific product, so no company names will be listed here.  Instead, the reenactor should look for muted colors; the biggest flaw with many reproductions is that the colors are much too vivid.  Secondly, because the Denison was designed to be worn over battledress, the fit should be long, loose, and baggy.  Additionally, reenactors should avoid smocks with a full-length zip.

Postscript

When I decided to write about this topic, I thought it would be an easy item to research.  However, many of the normal sources on the British Airborne Forces had little information on the development of the Denison smock.  Worse, the sources that did include detail tended to contradict each other, forcing me to try to sort fact from conjecture.  Fortunately, two of my close friends who own original Denison smocks were willing to help and provided detailed photographs for me to study; this article would not have been possible without their enormous assistance.  Additionally, the website of the Airborne Assault Museum in Duxford, Cambridgeshire (www.paradata.org.uk) was an excellent resource.  There is a book dedicated to the Denison that was published in conjunction with the Museum a few years ago, but it was a very limited release and I have been unable to acquire a copy; I will keep trying.

Cold Steel: The Fairbairn Sykes Fighting Knife

The Second World War was a remarkable period of technological advancement. At its outbreak, some nations were still flying biplanes; by the end of the war, the first jets were being produced. The first true computer was invented as a tool for decrypting enemy cyphers. And yet, one of the most symbolic items from the period is the Fairbairn Sykes fighting knife, a dagger that is nearly Medieval in appearance.

The early stages of the war saw a series of disasters for Great Britain and her allies. In April, 1940, the British and French launched a failed campaign in Norway to resist the German invasion. In May, Germany conquered France and the Low Countries, and the British were forced to withdraw from the European continent via the port of Dunkirk. Hitler then threatened to cross the English Channel and invade Britain.

Despite the menace of invasion, newly-appointed Prime Minister Churchill felt it was dangerous to take a purely defensive stance. Churchill insisted that Britain retain an aggressive spirit and the ability to strike back, even if on a limited scale. He recalled his time as a journalist covering the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902). The Boers had used fast-moving equestrian raiding parties to harass and demoralize the much-better equipped British; the Afrikaans name for such a raiding party was Kommando.

In June, 1940, Churchill called on the War Office to create their own Commandos. These would be sea-borne raiding units who would launch surprise attacks all along the enemy-held coastline. The new Commando organization was to recruit highly motivated men, give them intensive training, and instill in them a spirit of aggression and determination.

commando knife 2

A British Commando during training, 1942.  While this method of carrying the knife looked very dramatic for the camera, this was only done in very limited circumstances.  Photo courtesy the Imperial War Museum.

The Commandos became famous for their spectacular operations. They destroyed high-value targets, such as the fish oil factories in Norway; glycerin, which was extracted from fish oil, was needed by the Germans to produce high explosives. Perhaps the greatest of the Commando raids was the destruction of the massive drydocks at St. Nazaire, France. Additionally, the raiders gathered intelligence and tested enemy strength and defensive capabilities. By striking up and down the coastline of occupied Europe, the Commandos forced the Germans to allocate men and materiel to static defense that would otherwise have been available for offensive operations. Possibly most important of all, the raids captured the imagination of the British people, and helped to bolster their morale during what otherwise were very dark days.

Two men were instrumental in the early training of the Commandos: William Ewart Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes. These two had been friends and colleagues for many years, and the Commandos could not have chosen anyone better to conduct their training.

Fairbairn had served in the Royal Marines; he left the service while stationed in Shanghai, where he joined the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP), which kept order in the Anglo-American International Settlement portion of the city. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Shanghai had a reputation as the most dangerous city in the world. Trade with the West brought wealth, but that in turn attracted corruption and organized crime. In addition, China was undergoing political turmoil; the struggles between the Nationalists and the Communists often spilled into Shanghai, resulting in street brawls and political assassinations. The officers and constables of the SMP were under constant threat of violence; in response, the department became one of the best-trained and most effective police forces in the world.

Fairbairn began as a constable, and rose through the ranks to Assistant Commissioner. He became a leading authority on hand-to-hand combat; he was one of the first Westerners to study Eastern martial arts, including judo, jiu-jitsu, and kung fu. He wrote books on close combat and self-defense; he created his own system called “Defendu”, which combined and simplified the best techniques from the Asian teachings. Fairbairn, naturally, was responsible for training the SMP constables in hand-to-hand fighting.

Sykes worked part-time for the SMP as a reservist. His primary occupation was as a sales agent for numerous well-known firearms manufacturers; he himself was an expert shot and often participated in shooting competitions. He was also rumored to have been an agent for the British Secret Intelligence Service, better known as M.I.6. Sykes founded the SMP’s Reserve Unit, which specialized in hostage rescue and forced entry against barricaded suspects. The Reserve Unit was the precursor to modern police S.W.A.T. units.

The two men believed that the knife was actually more effective in close combat than the firearm. They often discussed their ideas on knife-fighting techniques as well as the design elements needed for a good fighting knife. They worked with the SMP’s armory to create a handful of prototypes.

In 1940, Sykes and Fairbairn returned to England and offered their services to the British government in support of the war effort. They were both commissioned as Army Captains, and given the responsibility to train the newly-formed Commandos. They also trained the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.), the organization responsible for sending agents into occupied Europe to perform sabotage and recruit resistance fighters. Once the United States entered the war, Fairbairn was sent to North America to train agents of the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.).

In November, 1940, Sykes and Fairbairn met with John Wilkinson-Latham, the director of the famous Wilkinson Sword company, in order to discuss designs for a new Commando knife. The resulting design was influenced by the knives that Fairbairn and Sykes had experimented with in Shanghai, as well as earlier designs produced by Wilkinson. There were several elements that all had agreed upon: the blade needed to be at least 6 inches long to penetrate heavy clothing and still ensure damage to vital organs; the blade needed to be slender and double-edged; it needed to be well-balanced, preferably hilt-heavy; there must be a cross-guard; finally, the grip needed to be deeply-checkered to prevent slipping.

FS Knife

Line drawing of the original pattern of Fairbairn Sykes knife.  Note the etched ricasso and the S-curve of the cross-grip.  Drawing from All-In Fighting, by W.E. Fairbairn.

The first knives produced were magnificent weapons. The blades were 6 7/8 inches long; they were drop forged and hand-sharpened. The knife had a ricasso, that is, a flat, unsharpened section at the base of the blade; the ricasso was etched with the Wilkinson Sword logo on one side, and the legend “The F-S Fighting Knife” on the other. The grips were made of solid brass, turned on a lathe, and given a distinctive “palm swell” to the shape. The grips were then checkered by hand. The cross-guard was given a gentle S-curve, also shaped by hand. These beautifully-crafted weapons were almost entirely hand-made, and only entrusted to Wilkinson’s most experienced craftsmen.

Fairbairn preferred knives with a reflective finish; he felt that, in a face-to-face confrontation, simply flashing light off the blade would cause the opponent to lose heart and give up the fight. Accordingly, the early F-S knives had highly-polished blades, while the grips and cross-guards were nickel-plated.

Naturally, these hand-made knives were costly and time-consuming to produce. As more orders were placed for fighting knives, Wilkinson had to modify the design to increase production. The ricasso was eliminated, and the cross-guard lost its distinctive S-curve. Despite these modifications, Wilkinson could not keep up with demand, and other Sheffield knifemakers started to receive orders.

Despite Fairbairn’s theory about the psychological advantage to a shiny knife, his theory really only applied to a direct fight. Commando raids were conducted at night, and surprise was essential. While the Commandos were trained in knife fighting to instill aggressiveness, in actual operations the primary use of the knife was silently eliminating enemy sentries. Similarly, the S.O.E. only used their daggers for clandestine operations. The second pattern knives eliminated the nickel plating; the grips and cross-guards were instead blackened, and many blades were blackened as well.

Figs A - D Attacks

More drawings from All-In Fighting.  Figures A & B illustrate slashing at the enemy’s arm or wrist, generally an easier target than other parts of the body; a deep slash will cause sufficient blood loss to disorient the enemy.  Figures C & D illustrate the two best methods of eliminating a sentry:  deep thrusts to the carotid (Fig. C) and subclavian (Fig. D) arteries.  This was a gruesome business, and Commandos had to be thoroughly trained to overcome any squeamishness.

The design was modified for a third time, again to increase production. The blades were sharpened by machine, not hand; the entire knife was given a black finish. The biggest difference was with the grips. They were no longer made from brass, which was a vital war material, particularly for making ammunition casings; instead, the grips were die cast out of a zinc alloy. These new grips were cast with a ribbed design, eliminating the need for checkering.

As time went on, the F-S knife was issued to other elite units, including Airborne Forces and the Special Air Service. A number of the Commando units incorporated the dagger’s distinctive shape into their insignia.

The Fairbairn Sykes knife, often called a “Commando dagger”, became nearly as well-recognized by the civilian populace as the Spitfire fighter. It was a symbol of defiance, of fighting spirit, of taking the war to the enemy by any means necessary.

Despite the magnificence of the weapon, there were issues. Unlike the American Ka-Bar knife, the Fairbairn Sykes was only intended for fighting, and not to be used as a multiple-purpose tool. The slender, graceful blade was rather delicate, and a number of soldiers managed to break the tip off of theirs by opening tinned rations or otherwise abusing their knives.

FS Knife Cooper 2

FS Knife Cooper

The author’s Fairbairn Sykes knife, sheathed and unsheathed.  While this knife is of  postwar manufacture, it follows the third wartime pattern.  The cross-guard is marked “R. Cooper, Sheffield, England”.

There were other issues, as well, such as finding an effective method of carrying the knife. Each F-S knife came with a leather sheath. The sheaths did not provide a tight fit, so a retaining strap that closed with a snap or press-stud was added. This strap was soon replaced by an elastic band; unfortunately, the elastic wore out quickly, and many knives were lost.

The sheaths came with four tabs, which were intended to be sewn onto the leg of the battledress trousers. However, early Commandos soon cut the sheath back off the trousers the first time they had to do laundry, and some soldiers even removed the tabs from the sheaths entirely.

Paratroopers were issued with special trousers with an oversized thigh pocket for carrying weapons or equipment. These Trousers, Parachutists’, also included a long, narrow pocket behind the outside seam of the right leg; this special pocket was intended for the F-S knife. The knife was entirely encompassed by this pocket to prevent it falling out during a parachute jump. However, it was difficult to quickly draw the knife in a fight, and the F-S knife was too delicate to cut oneself out of a parachute harness if needed. Additionally, early paratroopers complained that the sheathed knife dug into the knee when climbing the rough terrain found in Tunisia.

There were two methods of carrying the knife that worked well. One was to obtain an extra bayonet frog to suspend the knife from the normal webbing equipment. The other version was to sew a pair of straps to the outside of the trouser leg to hold the knife in place. Since the early battledress trousers came with tightening tabs at the ankle, it appears these tabs were simply relocated to the thigh.

2 Para Officers Tunisia

Officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion in Tunisia, December 1942:  Capt. R. Stark, Lt. J. Brayley, and Maj. R. Ashford.  Ashford was killed only a few days after this photo was taken.

2 Para Officers Tunisia Closeup

Detail of Maj. Ashford.  Note the method of carrying the F-S knife on the left thigh.  The cloth tabs are most likely tightening tabs from the ankles that have been relocated to hold the knife.

The Fairbairn Sykes knife is still being made today. In 2005, Wilkinson Sword discontinued making them and sold their tooling to, rather ironically, a German company. Other Sheffield knifemakers still make them, and inexpensive copies are also made in India and Pakistan. Original wartime knives, however, are highly sought after by collectors, and are not cheap.

Personally, I have been fascinated by the Fairbairn Sykes knife since I was a teenager, even before I had any particular interest in World War II. I read articles in encyclopedias and knife collecting magazines because Ian Fleming described James Bond as using a “commando dagger”, and I wanted to learn what that meant. During and after college, my historical focus was on the Middle Ages, but I have always had an interest in both firearms and edged weapons used throughout history. One of the first birthday presents I received from my wife was a modern copy of the Fairbairn Sykes knife, made by R. Cooper of Sheffield. Like the originals, the sheath is quite loose, and the elastic retaining strap is weak; I have never carried my knife at a reenactment because I have been deeply concerned about possibly losing something of tremendous sentimental value.

Despite the knife’s light weight, the grip feels substantial in the hand. The balance and grace are exquisite. Fairbairn recommended handling the knife as often as possible and practicing making slashing attacks; these movements come quite easily because the weight is in the grip.

The Fairbairn Sykes fighting knife is a magnificent weapon. It should not be a surprise that it became such a strong representation of Britain’s defiance against the Nazi menace, and is still an iconic symbol of the war.

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.

12573911_1000562203365291_5227554066506900716_n

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.

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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.

Film Review: A Bridge Too Far

My two greatest passions are writing, and studying British military history; the purpose of this blog is to help me express both interests.  While I am fascinated by the entire history of the British Army, my particular focus is on the Airborne Forces during World War II.  It should not be a surprise, then, that one of my favorite films is A Bridge Too Far.  If anything, the only surprise is that it has taken me this long to write about it, although I have referenced it in some of my earlier articles.

A Bridge Too Far tells the story of Operation Market Garden, and provides an excellent introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the subject.  Market Garden was a massive undertaking; three airborne divisions were to take bridges over the various rivers and canals of the Netherlands, with an entire corps sent as the ground-based relief column.  The battle raged for nine days in September 1944.  A Bridge Too Far gives a good overview of the significant events of this enormous, complex operation in the course of a three-hour movie; that is no small feat.  While it shows the overall “big picture”, it also shows something of the personalities of many of the key personnel involved, from generals down to enlisted men.  Despite the scope of the film, the human element is always very much present.

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An early scene from A Bridge Too Far, in which a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire flies over the Dutch countryside.

The film was released in 1977, the same year as the original Star Wars.  While the one film broke new ground in special effects, the other used traditional techniques, but on an epic scale.  I like to think of Bridge in terms of “what you see is what you get”.  The filmmakers used eleven C-47 aircraft and dropped 1000 parachutists, including paratroopers from the British and Dutch armies.  They used as many real tanks, half-tracks, jeeps and scout cars as they could get their hands on.  They filmed on location in Holland, using the actual battlefields whenever possible.  Nijmegen Bridge in the film is the actual Nijmegen Bridge.  While Arnhem today looks nothing like it did during the war, the town of Deventer makes an excellent substitute, and its bridge over the Ijssel closely resembles the Arnhem road bridge at the Lower Rhine.  This was the first film to put the actors and extras through a “boot camp” to give them the right military attitude and bearing; this is now standard practice with war films.  Several of the key officers portrayed on screen served as consultants and advisors for the film.

The acting is excellent.  Dirk Bogarde portrays Lt. General “Boy” Browning as bristling with confidence, yet his eyes somehow convey his deepest doubts and fears.  Anthony Hopkins as Lt. Colonel John Frost shows massive calm and stoicism despite the chaos surrounding him.  Edward Fox has stated that portraying Lt. General Brian Horrocks was one of his favorite roles.  Many of the actors have a strong physical resemblance to the historical figures they portray.  Maj. General “Roy” Urquhart was unfamiliar with Sean Connery prior to the film, but his wife and daughters were thrilled with the casting.

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Sean Connery as Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart, talking to his signals officers.

The cinematography is outstanding, and Richard Attenborough’s direction is simply brilliant.  The ground battle begins with a rolling artillery barrage, followed by the advancing tank column.  When the tanks hit resistance, an air strike is called; the cameras follow the aircraft as they swoop in from behind the ground column.  This sequence is visually stunning; one could call it beautiful if it weren’t for the explosions, the carnage, the horror of war.  The failed German dash across Arnhem Bridge on the second day of the battle is equally spectacular; in fact, John Frost wrote that watching that sequence was more exciting than being there for the real event.  I first became familiar with this film on “pan and scan” VHS copies.  The epic scale and magnificent cinematography of this motion picture really benefit from modern DVD recordings and widescreen televisions, although I must confess that I have not seen it on Blu-Ray.

I have very few criticisms of this film, but of course, no motion picture is perfect.  There is too much reliance on composite characters.  For example, one of the most memorable characters is Major Harry Carlyle, yet no such person was at Arnhem; the character was based primarily on Major Digby Tatham-Warter, but also performed actions by Lt. Jack Grayburn, VC.  On that point, there were five Victoria Crosses awarded for the Battle of Arnhem, but none of the recipients are named in the film, although some of their actions are hinted at.

There are several key parts of the operation that the film ignores or glosses over.  There is also a subplot involving James Caan that, while interesting, does little to help the overall progress of the story; I have been known to fast forward through the entire sequence.  I love the fact that the film shows real paratroopers jumping out of real Dakotas, but I never understood why the filmmakers had the planes painted a dusty yellow instead of the correct olive green.

Even the title itself is problematic.  At the end of the film, Dirk Bogarde, as General Browning, states, “we were trying to go a bridge too far”, referring to Arnhem, the farthest objective.  Cornelius Ryan was so captivated by this statement that he named his book after it, and the title carried over to the filmed adaptation.  However, current historians believe the statement is apocryphal, that is, Browning probably never said it.  After all, the operation was not just a thrust to gain territory in Holland; the entire point was to get across the Rhine, outflank the Siegfried Line, and invade Germany itself.

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The defense of Arnhem Bridge as shown in A Bridge Too Far.  This sequence was filmed in the town of Deventer, on the river Ijssel.

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The actual Arnhem Bridge; photo taken shortly after the battle.

I tend to nitpick this film because I have read more about the Battle of Arnhem than any other event in history.  However, if it had not been for A Bridge Too Far, I may never have studied Market Garden as intensely as I have and learned as much on my own.  If not for this movie, I may never have started reenacting as 1st Airborne, or been inspired to visit Arnhem itself, which I did in 2003.  Overall, I think it is one of the best motion pictures ever made about World War II.

Postscript:

I just watched the film again, and thought I should add a few comments.

Part of the decision behind 1st Airborne’s drop zones being so far away from Arnhem Bridge (about eight miles) was to avoid the enemy anti-aircraft batteries defending the airfield at Deelen.  Ironically, the take-off scenes in the motion picture were not filmed in England, but at the Deelen airfield.

The first few times I watched the film, I thought Ryan O’Neal was far too young to portray a general.  It was only later that I learned the officer he portrayed, Brigadier James Gavin of the 82nd Airborne, was only 37 during Market Garden.  A month later, upon promotion, he became the youngest major general in the US Army.

The film conveys the idea that a major factor in 1st Airborne’s problems at Arnhem lay in the breakdown of radio communications; this was certainly described in Cornelius Ryan’s original book.  While this may have come as a surprise to 4th Parachute Brigade and perhaps even Divisional Headquarters, this was nothing new to the more experienced 1st Parachute Brigade.  They had experienced similar problems in North Africa and Sicily, and anticipated them for Arnhem.  Lt. Col. Frost’s use of his hunting horn seems like a silly affectation in the film, but in reality, Frost and his officers had developed signals on bugles and whistles to convey simple messages on the assumption the radios would fail.

For related articles, please see the following:

Film Review: Theirs is the Glory

2nd Parachute Battalion – The “Mepacrine Chasers”

Major General John Frost

Thoughts on Market Garden

Film Review: Theirs is the Glory

One of my favorite motion pictures is Theirs is the Glory, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and released in 1946.  The film tells the story of the Battle of Arnhem, and it is quite remarkable.  Rather than making a movie in the traditional manner by hiring actors and building sets, Hurst and his team worked in close cooperation with the British Army.  Just over 200 survivors from the British 1st Airborne Division were transported back to the ruins of Arnhem and Oosterbeek to recreate the epic battle.  The movie is also inter-cut with footage from the actual operation.

Early scenes show the troops receiving their final mission briefings, then going to bed for some needed rest.  The sharp-eyed viewer will notice that, in the barrack scenes, the soldiers are wearing post-war wool shirts with collars, rather than the wartime collarless shirts.  One must remember that they were still serving soldiers when the film was made, and simply wore their normal clothing as issued.  They were not actors, and some of the lines are delivered in a rather stiff or subdued manner; but looking closely at their faces as the film progresses, the viewer gets some sense of the horrors these men survived.

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Lt. Hugh Ashmore of 21st Independent Parachute Company briefing his platoon.

Historical events are inevitably distorted in film, and this is no exception.  Some of the most important figures from the battle, including General Urquhart and Colonel Frost, were unable to appear, and the film makes it seem as though Major “Freddie” Gough of the Reconnaissance Squadron was in command at Arnhem Bridge.  However, most of the major events of the operation are portrayed as authentically as was possible.

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Maj. “Freddie” Gough as he appears in the film.

As the story progresses, some civilians appear.  Stanley Maxted, the Canadian journalist who broadcast from the battle, acts as narrator; it is interesting to compare his narration to archived recordings of his original broadcasts.  Kate Ter Horst is shown sheltering wounded men in her home’s basement, including a very moving sequence in which she comforts the wounded by reading from the Psalms; she was known by the troops as the “Angel of Arnhem”.

The level of realism is impressive, but as always, there are some compromises.  Arnhem Bridge was destroyed shortly before the end of the war and had not been rebuilt in time for the film; a large matte painting had to be used instead.  Other locations are easily identified, however, such as the badly-damaged spires of St. Eusebius Church and St. Walburgis Church in Arnhem, and the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, which was used as the Divisional headquarters.  Major “Dickie” Lonsdale recreates his speech to a mixed force of defenders at the Old Church in Oosterbeek, just as he did towards the end of the fighting.

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The Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek.  This building was used as Divisional Headquarters, and was still battle-damaged when the film was made.

Most of the vehicles and weapons were real, with little use of props or special effects.  Troops can be seen firing actual flamethrowers, and the careful observer will notice the Bren guns firing real ammunition, including tracer, in a way that 1940’s film effects could not replicate.  However, a number of black powder charges were used to replicate artillery and mortar rounds, which caused a great deal more smoke than the real versions.

Comparisons with 1977’s A Bridge Too Far are inevitable.  A Bridge Too Far is epic in scale, and shows the entire operation, from British, American, and German perspectives.  Theirs is the Glory is more focused as it only shows Arnhem, and only from the British standpoint; Germans are rarely seen, even though their artillery fire is relentless.  However, there are some similar sequences in which the later film must have been influenced by the earlier.  For example, there is a famous scene in A Bridge Too Far in which a young soldier lifts a resupply container, puts it on his shoulder and starts running with it to friendly lines, until he is shot by a sniper.  The original drop containers weighed around 350 pounds when loaded with supplies; in Theirs is the Glory, a trooper attaches his toggle rope to a container and drags it behind him, which is much more realistic, but perhaps slightly less cinematic.  (Note:  for my review of A Bridge Too Far, click here.)

Theirs is the Glory is an extraordinary motion picture.  Anyone who enjoys World War II movies would enjoy it, and anyone with a particular interest in the British Airborne should see it.  It is also a good film for filmmakers to study, as it was made in such a unique way.

Theirs is the Glory is easy to find in the UK on Region 2 / PAL format DVD.  Americans and Canadians are not so lucky, as the DVD will not play in a normal Region 1 / NTSC format player.  Fortunately, Theirs is the Glory is often included in war movie DVD collections; it is currently available through Amazon US as part of a Best of British War Cinema 5-disc set.  It can also be found on YouTube.

There is also a new book that examines the films of director Brian Desmond Hurst and his portrayal of war and other conflicts; the focus of the book is “Theirs is the Glory”.  I have not had a chance to read the book, but I hope to in the future.

UPDATE:  I have just learned that Lieutenant Norman Hugh Henry Ashmore, pictured at the top of this article, died at the age of 95 on November 10, 2017.  Lt. Ashmore commanded No. 3 Platoon, 21st Independent Parachute Company (“The Pathfinders”) during the Battle of Arnhem, and recreated his role for Theirs is the Glory.

Theirs is the Glory: UK DVD through Amazon

Best of British War Cinema: US/Canada DVD set

Theirs is the Glory:  Arnhem, Hurst, and Conflict on Film

Theirs is the Glory UK DVD

DVD cover from the UK release; this version will not play in most North American players.

Theirs is the Glory Book

Cover of the recent book on Brian Desmond Hurst, focusing on his film about Arnhem

2nd Parachute Battalion: The “Mepacrine Chasers”

In June, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a memorandum to the War Office calling for the creation of an airborne unit. Churchill had been impressed by Germany’s use of parachute and glider troops during their invasion of France and the Low Countries, and felt Britain should have a similar capability.

It took time for the Airborne Forces to become fully developed. No. 2 Commando, consisting of 500 men, was given parachute training in the summer of 1940.  Airborne Forces were then expanded, and in September, 1941, 1st Parachute Brigade was created.  No. 2 Commando was renamed 1st Parachute Battalion, and 2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions were established.  The new Battalions recruited soldiers from all across the British Army.  In those early days, the only Airborne-specific insignia was the parachute brevet (or “jump wings”); the famous maroon beret had not yet been adopted, and the new paratroopers continued to wear the insignia and headdress of their previous units.

2nd Parachute Battalion’s first Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Edwin Flavell, gave each of his officers a bright yellow lanyard to wear on the left shoulder, to distinguish them from officers of the other two battalions.  The “other ranks” (enlisted personnel) decided they wanted to wear the yellow lanyard, as well.  However, they had to make their own, which required a certain amount of improvisation and ingenuity.

The lanyards were made by cutting a length of rigging line, made of white silk or nylon, from a parachute after a training jump. This cord was braided or tied into a lanyard; those unskilled in making it themselves begged help from friends.

The most ingenious part of the process was dying the lanyard. Troops sent to the tropics were ordered to take Mepacrine, also known as Atabrine, a bright yellow medicine intended to fight malaria.  Continued use of this drug was known to turn the skin and eyes yellow; therefore, it was seen by the troops as a logical dye.  Mepacrine pills were acquired, then ground up and dissolved in water to turn the white lanyards a deep yellow or golden color.

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US-issued Atabrine; the British called it Mepacrine.  It was a common anti-malaria drug in the 1940’s, but continued use turned the eyes and skin a yellow color.

Intentionally damaging a parachute and misusing medical supplies were both serious offenses. The officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion would normally have punished anyone guilty of these military crimes.  However, they turned a blind eye and even unofficially encouraged the behavior.  The yellow lanyards became prized possessions; the men were immensely proud of their Battalion, symbolized by the yellow lanyard.

Eventually, 1st Parachute Battalion adopted a dark green lanyard, and 3rd Parachute Battalion adopted red.  However, their creation did not seem to have the same creativity behind them.

By the time James Sims joined 2nd Parachute Battalion in 1943, it was a veteran unit, having recently returned to England after bitter fighting in North Africa and Sicily.  Airborne Forces had expanded to two Divisions, the 1st and the 6th, and the maroon beret had been adopted for all Airborne Forces, including glider troops.  The Parachute Regiment had been formed officially, with its own insignia and cap badge.  However, in 1st Parachute Brigade, the colored lanyards were still in use to distinguish the different Battalions.

As described in Sims’ book Arnhem Spearhead, the yellow (or golden) lanyard was still made the same way as in the early days of the Battalion. Sims was given his when he first joined the Mortar Platoon of S Company.

They laughed at my discomfiture but suddenly one of them said, ‘Here, put this on.’ He handed me a beautiful gold lanyard, obviously made out of parachute nylon rigging line, the removal of which was a court martial offence.  This gold lanyard was worn only by the 2nd Battalion and was produced as follows.

After a jump a para would cut off a rigging line and secrete it about his person. Back at camp he would persuade someone skilled in the art to plait it into a lanyard.  He would then dissolve a mepacrine tablet in a saucer of water in which he would place the lanyard, leaving it overnight.  In the morning he would have a beautiful gold lanyard.  No one could recall the genius who first devised this unauthorized use of medical supplies, which was based on the idea that if these tablets could turn a man yellow they would do the same for nylon.  Because of this practice the 2nd Battalion were known in the First Para Brigade as the Mepacrine Chasers.  The 1st Battalion had dark green lanyards and the 3rd red.  Everyone in our battalion had a ‘larny’ lanyard, as it was known, and it was very highly regarded.

I belong to a living history organization which portrays B Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, and it is humbling to read about the extraordinary men whose history we try to preserve.  I gave a copy of Arnhem Spearhead to a close friend as a Christmas present.  Being an avid sailor and generally good with knotting and braiding, he decided to make a number of lanyards for us.  He used nylon parachute cord, and experimented with different formulas and concentrations of “RIT” dye.  Previously, I had worn a machine-made yellow lanyard from a surplus store; replacing it with a hand-made lanyard given to me by my friend is much more meaningful, and much closer to what the original lanyards represented.

2 Para Lanyard

Hand-braided, hand-dyed yellow lanyard, made based on the description in James Sims’ Arnhem Spearhead.

Arnhem Spearhead is out of print, but copies are often available online. Lt. Col. Flavell’s issue of the yellow lanyard to the officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion was recalled by the Battalion’s first Adjutant, and later, most famous commander, John Frost, in the book Without Tradition:  2 Para 1941 – 1945, by Robert Peatling.

More information on Maj. Gen. John Frost and 2nd Parachute Battalion may be found in an earlier blog post, here.

Without Tradition:  2 Para 1941 – 1945 by Robert Peatling

 

 

Major General John Frost

One of my greatest heroes is Major General John Frost.  This should not be a surprise; I am fascinated by the history of the British Airborne Forces, and Frost was one its most important figures.

Several months ago, I was asked to write an article for my World War II living history club’s newsletter.  I was specifically requested to write a biographical article.  I decided immediately to write about Frost.  With the permission of the editors of “The Front”, the newsletter of the California Historical Group, I am posting the article here.

Major General John Frost, CB, DSO & Bar, MC (1912 – 1993)

John Dutton Frost was a British Army officer best known for his association with 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment.

Frost was born in India, to British parents, on 31 December, 1912. He was educated in England.  As his father was an Army officer, it was only natural that he attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.  He graduated in 1932, and was commissioned into the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles).  After promotion to Captain, Frost was sent abroad and worked with the Iraq Levies, whose primary function was guarding RAF airfields.  Frost and his fellow officers formed a traditional hunt club, although they hunted jackals instead of foxes.

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Frost in the uniform of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)

Originally, Frost enjoyed his time in Iraq. However, when war with Germany was declared in 1939, Frost became frustrated and felt the war would pass him by.  He returned to Britain in 1941; the hunt club gave him an engraved hunting horn as a parting gift.  Frost spent a short time with the Cameronians, but soon volunteered for the recently-formed Airborne Forces and was assigned to 2nd Parachute Battalion.

1st Parachute Battalion had been in existence for about a year, but 2nd and 3rd Battalions were just being formed.  The three battalions comprised 1st Parachute Brigade, and were composed entirely of volunteers.  Many of the officers were newly-commissioned; because of his experience, Frost was made 2nd Battalion’s Adjutant.

Shortly after Frost completed his parachute training, he was given command of 2nd Battalion’s C Company, known as “Jock Company” as it was almost entirely made of Scotsmen.  In February, 1942, C Company conducted a raid against an enemy radar station at Bruneval, France, near Le Havre.  This was Britain’s first major airborne operation.  Frost and his men overwhelmed the garrison, while an RAF radar expert and several engineers dismantled the radar array.  The Company was evacuated by the Royal Navy, and the radar components were taken back to Britain for study.  The raid was considered a complete success and was widely publicized, although the exact reason was not released to the media.  However, it justified the existence of Airborne Forces to the military establishment, and provided a boost to British morale when it was desperately needed.

In the autumn of 1942, Frost was given command of 2nd Parachute Battalion.  1st Parachute Brigade was attached to British 1st Army and sent to North Africa.  After the Operation Torch landings in November, each of the three battalions was assigned a separate parachute operation to help the breakout from the beachhead.  1st and 3rd’s operations went well, but 2nd Battalion was not as lucky.  They were ordered to drop on two airfields, Oudna and Depienne, near Tunis.  Shortly after arrival, Frost received word via radio that 1st Army had cancelled their drive to Tunis; Frost was forced to lead his men on a fighting retreat across the desert to friendly lines.  They held defensive positions during the day and moved at night; Frost would sound his hunting horn to keep the men from getting separated in the dark and the rough terrain.  Casualties were heavy, but the Battalion survived.  Many of the survivors credited Frost’s tenacity and leadership for their escape.

1st Parachute Brigade continued to fight as standard infantry.  As British 8th Army pushed from Egypt and Libya, the enemy attempted to break through the less experienced 1st Army.  1st Parachute Brigade saw more action than any other unit in 1st Army, as they were rushed to plug whatever weaknesses were found in the line.  Because of their maroon berets and their ferocious fighting ability, the British parachutists earned the nickname “The Red Devils”.

Once North Africa had been secured, the next move was the invasion of Sicily, in July 1943. After the initial landings, 1st Parachute Brigade was dropped as part of the breakout.  Their objective was the Primosole Bridge over the Simeto River; unfortunately, the bridge’s importance was also recognized by the enemy, who reinforced the position.  1st Parachute Brigade captured the bridge, but their ammunition ran out and they were forced off the objective.  They withdrew to the high ground south of the bridge; the leading elements of 8th Army were then able to recapture the bridge.  1st Parachute Brigade suffered numerous casualties, and were ordered to return to England to rest and refit.

In June, 1944, British 6th Airborne Division played a significant role in the invasion of Normandy; 1st Airborne remained in Britain as a reserve.  Numerous operations were planned for the Division, but cancelled.  In September, the Division took part in Operation Market Garden.  1st Airborne was to seize the vital road bridge over the Lower Rhine in Arnhem, Holland, near the German border.  It was hoped this operation would outflank the heavily defended Siegfried Line and get the Allies across the Rhine and into the enemy homeland.

The dropping and landing zones were several miles away from the objective, and the enemy successfully engaged in blocking actions to delay the Airborne troops from reaching the bridge. Most of 2nd Battalion made it to the north end of Arnhem bridge, along with elements of 1st Parachute Brigade headquarters.  As Brigadier Lathbury was wounded on the march, Frost took command of the entire force at the bridge.  Heavy enemy fire from armored cars prevented the composite force from capturing the south end of the bridge.

The next day, a reconnaissance unit from the 9th SS Panzer Division, which had been observing American movements in Nijmegen, attempted to cross Arnhem bridge from the south but were unaware of the British defensive positions.  British PIATs and anti-tank guns caused havoc.  2nd Parachute Battalion continued to hold their position, but soon ran out of ammunition and other supplies.  The Germans brought in more and more reinforcements, both infantry and armor.  By the end of the fourth day, the British could no longer fight.  Most men were wounded, including Frost.  Those who were healthy enough to fight had no ammunition with which to do so, and were ordered to try to connect with the rest of the Division.  Frost and his men were taken prisoner and sent to a camp in Germany, where they remained until the end of the war.

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Anthony Hopkins and Maj. Gen. Frost on the set of “A Bridge Too Far”

After the war, Frost remained in the Army until 1968; he retired at the rank of Major General. Frost was interviewed by Cornelius Ryan for the book A Bridge Too Far, first published in 1974.  Frost then served as a consultant for the film adaptation, released in 1977, in which he was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins (for my review of the film, click here).  In 1978, the town of Arnhem named the road bridge over the Rhine the John Frost Bridge.  Frost wrote an autobiography, A Drop Too Many, which was first published in 1980.

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Plaque at the north end of the John Frost Bridge over the Lower Rhine, Arnhem, Netherlands.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

John Frost died on 21 May, 1993, at the age of 80. His widow donated his famous hunting horn to the Airborne Museum, Hartenstein, in Oosterbeek, where it can still be seen today.  For his leadership and personal bravery, he had been awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order, with bar; he was also made a Companion of the Order of Bath.

Frost’s autobiography is available from Amazon:
A Drop Too Many by Maj. Gen. John Frost

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Frost’s hunting horn, displayed at the Airborne Museum, Hartenstein, Oosterbeek, Netherlands.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

Thoughts on Market Garden

I wrote this a few years ago for a club newsletter.  Now that I have a blog, I wanted to share it again.

Operation Market Garden began on 17 September, 1944. It was a combined operation, Market being the largest airborne operation attempted to that point, and Garden the ground operation to reinforce the airborne component.

The German forces who had survived the slaughter of the Falaise Gap were retreating back to Germany, and the Allies were eager to take advantage of the German retreat. General Montgomery devised Market Garden, a plan to outflank the heavily-defended Siegfried Line and break into Germany. It was hoped to end the war by Christmas.

An “Airborne Carpet” was laid down, utilizing the American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and the British 1st Airborne (with the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade attached). Each Airborne Division was assigned to capture key bridges over the rivers and canals of Holland, with the British 1st the farthest north at Arnhem, near the German border. British XXX Corps was to drive north, linking up with each Airborne division in turn. At Arnhem, XXX Corps was to cross the Lower Rhine, then turn east and head into the Ruhr, the center of German industry.

Despite the size and complexity of the operation, the plans were hurriedly thrown together in only a week. Prior to the launch of the operation, the front had been moving north several miles a day; the Allies were eager to exploit the German withdrawal. As the operation was thrown together so quickly, mistakes were made in the planning. Nobody was too concerned, as the Germans had been retreating like mad; surely they would not stand and fight, or so it was thought.

Optimised by Greg Smith

It was an extremely bold and ambitious plan. Sadly, it failed. Just as the operation was launched, the Germans decided to stop retreating, and instead dug in and prepared to defend themselves against the Allied onslaught.

The American Divisions took their objectives and held them. But the northward drive of XXX Corps was constantly harassed by the enemy and suffered terrible delays. They were forced to use a single road on top of the Dutch dykes. Any tanks that went off the road found themselves mired in mud. The Germans set ambush after ambush, and destroyed tank after tank.

The British 1st Airborne had been told the German defense would be rear echelon troops made up of poorly-equipped old men and boys. Instead, Arnhem was held by the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, elite troops with numerous tanks and self-propelled artillery.

1st Airborne had been told they would be relieved after only two days’ fighting. 2nd Parachute Battalion took and held the north end of Arnhem Bridge for four days. After those four days, most of 2 Para were wounded, and they had no more food or ammunition. The wounded surrendered and the others attempted to return to Divisional headquarters. After the Germans re-took Arnhem Bridge, they concentrated on shrinking the perimeter held by the rest of 1st Airborne in Oosterbeek (a suburb of Arnhem). Still XXX Corps did not arrive.

Finally, after eight days of constant fighting, the remnants of 1st Airborne were ordered to escape, under cover of night, and cross back over the Rhine. Market Garden had failed. However, the bravery and tenacity of the British Airborne has become a legend. The fact that they held on as long as they did, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, was an amazing feat of arms.

The 1st Airborne fought against fascism to make a better world. We are all in their debt. Please remember them.

I participate in living history events with the British 1st Airborne Division Living History Association.  The Association’s mission is to remember the bravery and dedication to duty of those men who fought at Arnhem.  Please visit our website or follow us on Facebook.

British 1st Airborne Living History Association: website

British 1st Airborne Living History Association: Facebook page