Overview of Guardsmen in the Airborne Role

The Beginning

In 1941 a Guardsman was appointed to command Britain’s first Airborne Division. Major General Boy Browning was formerly a Grenadier. He staffed his HQ with guardsmen and took a close interest in the selection, training, shaping and development of his parachute force that would define the airborne role and character to the present day.

From the inception of the parachute role in the British army many guardsmen volunteered for “special duties” for excitement, a chance to prove themselves and sometimes merely to escape the tedium of public duties. However, the mere fact that they were prepared to go to extremes to seek out something different, put these guardsmen in a league apart. And the discipline they applied to all aspects of their soldiering plus their natural esprit de corps were values deeply embedded in the Parachute Regiment that developed from these early volunteers.

As well as volunteers for airborne forces there was no shortage of volunteers for Special Forces. David Stirling (Scots Guards) was accompanied by 6 officers and 60 other ranks from the Brigade of Guards when he formed Layforce, the forerunner of the SAS.

At the end of WW11 in a flurry of re-organisations 1st Airborne Division was disbanded while 6th were sent to the mid east and Palestine. A re-structuring to 2 Brigades in the Division saw the formation of 1 Brigade with 2/3 battalion 8/9 battalion and 1st battalion, which was to be designated a Guards battalion.

In 1946 Lt Col John Nelson DSO, MC (Grenadier Guards) was appointed to command the battalion and arrived in Palestine to find that the only guardsmen present were he and his adjutant. It was some months before Guards reinforcements started to arrive in numbers, but by 1948 the battalion was 95% guardsmen.

The unit had a reputation for containing a high proportion of decorated soldiers, including Sgt John Kinneally VC (Irish Guards) who won his award in North Africa in 1943.

The Palestinian crisis involved the 1st Guards battalion in numerous skirmishes with terrorists and the whole gamut of IS duties, including the distasteful harbour duties at Haifa harbour. On return to UK 6 Division was reduced to Brigade strength, renamed 16 Parachute Brigade, and the Guards Battalion reduced to an independent company.

The Guards Independent Parachute company was assigned the role of pathfinding for the Parachute Brigade and immediately started perfecting the drills it would use and develop for the next 27 years.

In a largely national service army the company was unique in being the only all regular unit in the army.

The company served with 16 Para brigade in Germany on border patrols, the canal zone, in Cyprus during the Eoka campaign and from there were involved with the rest of the parachute brigade in the Suez campaign. While most of the company went by sea a small party of 9 guardsmen and 5 sappers under Captain Murray de Klee (Scots Guards) parachuted in with the French. One man in the party was shot through the stomach on landing and one was entangled in telegraph wires. They achieved their tasks and linked up with the British main force in time for endex. The French showed their appreciation of the patrol’s work by the award of the Croix de guerre to Capt de Klee and one of the sappers was mentioned in dispatches.

In 1958 the company found themselves again in the Middle East with the parachute brigade when King Hussein of Jordan requested British assistance to help stabilise his country which was on the verge of revolution.

Although there was actually no trouble during the three months the brigade were there, the company were prepared to extract the royal family and others from Amman and get them out of the country.

The early sixties were marked by a change in role. Hitherto they had acted as an additional rifle company or a recce unit following the pathfinding. Now the company was to take on armoured recce with ferret scout cars as the add-on to its pathfinder role. Exercises proceeded across UK, in Libya, Cyprus Greece and Germany. The Company also had a brief foretaste of things to come when they visited the Far East and undertook jungle training and jumped from Pioneer aircraft.

For most of its existence the company had been based in Pirbright Camp, separate from the majority of para brigade units and under the administrative control of London District. The Pirbright ranges and training areas provided a perfect training ground for the company and was ideal for the 2 week hardening and selection courses that every Guards officer and soldier underwent prior to being considered fit and suitable to go forward to P company. Few who passed the rigours of the hardening course ever failed P Coy. By the 1960s the Brigade of Guards still had 8 full strength battalions, the 2 regiments of Household cavalry and a large number of additional men manning the Guards training Centre and various formation and regimental establishments. The Company therefore had the pick of perhaps 10,000 men. They could afford to be fussy.

The company at that time was organised into 3 pathfinder/armoured recce troops, each commanded by a captain; an anti tank troop equipped with 106 mm anti tank guns; later replaced by the Wombat. A normal infantry company headquarters was supplemented by a REME armourer, tels technician, a small LAD, Pay sergeant and signals NCO. The company strength was 88 all ranks.

They were supremely fit and skilled and were unbeatable in the annual Evelyn Wood 10-mile march and shoot competition open to all units. After winning it 5 times in succession the competition was withdrawn and a special permanent cup was minted and awarded to the company. The company also punched well above its weight in rugby and athletics.

On New Years Eve 1963 the Parachute Brigade was recalled from leave and returned to Cyprus, this time to keep the Greeks and Turks apart. After 6 weeks the Company were withdrawn and given another task. It was to take up the following 2 years, enhance their reputation as never before and take many of their soldiers in a different direction.

22 SAS was desperately stretched in 1964 with operations in the Radfan and Borneo. To compound matters their Rhodesian squadron was withdrawn when Rhodesia declared UDI. They needed back-up, fast, and this came in the shape of the Guards Parachute Company who were rushed through specialist training in six weeks and sent to Malaya for jungle training before operations against the Indonesian army in Borneo. In all the Company completed two six month tours involving several cross border operations and, a number of contacts, including a notable ambush where Lance Sergeant Wally McGill, (Scots Guards) won the MM.

In the late 1960s and 70s the company completed a veritable Cooks tour of exercises far and wide. They also began to train in free-fall and HALO to boost their pathfinding capabilities. Soldiers were sent to the French Parachute training centre at Pau in Southern France. The weather there was perfect for parachuting with most days sunny and relatively windless. Unlike the RAF the Nord Atlas aircraft was handed over to the Army apart from the pilot’s cabin back. Gum-chewing Army dispatchers would casually line up the pilot over the DZ and point to the door as the green light and klaxon came on. A 50 jump course with up to 60 seconds delay was an excellent foundation for the later RAF HALO courses and was completed in about 4 weeks.

In 1970 the Company were swept along with the rest of the army with the Northern Ireland campaign and completed their first tour in Belfast under command 2 Para. This was to become almost an annual event, interspersed by exercises abroad until in 1975 it was announced that the company was to be axed in the latest round of defence cuts. The company held its final parade at Pirbright on 24th October 1975. The salute was taken by Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templar.

The Guards Parachute Company marched off into history, but not Guardsmen parachutists. A large proportion of the company members found their way to Hereford and joined G squadron 22 SAS, but that was not the end of the road, for further outlets for guardsmen to wear the red beret were to develop in the future. The lessons of the Falklands campaign had far reaching results and one was that it had been recognised that the Scimitar and Scorpion troops of the Blues and Royals had provided an invaluable element of mobility and firepower. The upshot was that in the late 1980’s a troop of Scorpions from the Life Guards were attached to 5 Airborne Brigade. There was no shortage of volunteers to man the new unit and a steady stream of troopers set off for P company. Guardsmen were back in the parachute role.

In the late 1990’s the Guards Division further strengthened its long and close relationship with airborne forces when a Guards platoon was formed and now serves as 6(Guards) Platoon B Company 3 Para. The platoon has served with distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan and has counted among it’s ranks such exceptional soldiers as L/Cpl James Ashworth VC. In 1975 on the disbandment of the Guards Parachute Company the Guards Parachute Association was formed. In days where so many associations are folding through apathy and lack of interest ours is well over 400 strong and still growing. The spirit is as strong as ever and every man is proud to say “I was a Guards Para”.