1st Para Sqn RE - The Real Forebear of the 9th by Peter Stainforth and Eric Booth

In writing the brief history of the 9th Parachute Squadron R.E. for the April 2006 edition of the Airborne Engineers Journal, it was perhaps excusable for the author to link the 9th with the famous pre-war Field Company, R.E. especially as the latter was reorganised in May 1942 into the 9th Field Company R.E. (Airborne), the glider-borne engineer unit of the 1st Airborne Division's 1st Air Landing Brigade. Unfortunately the writer goes on to assume that the 150 engineer paratroopers of the 1st Parachute Squadron R.E. which formed the engineer parachute unit of the 1st Parachute Brigade, were part of the 9th Field Company (Airborne) R.E. as though the former unit did not exist.

However it is quite unacceptable that the war record of the original 1st Parachute Squadron R. e., the most senior engineer airborne unit which predated the formation of the 9th Field Company (Airborne) by six months, should have its battle honours in North Africa, Sicily and at Arnhem Bridge credited to the 9th.

So let me, the only surviving officer of the First, set the record straight.

The Very Beginning

When at the start of 1941, No. 2 Commando was converted into the 1st Parachute Battalion; it became apparent that after the partial failure of OPERATION COLLOSSUS to blow up the TRAGINO River aqueduct in Italy, a small specialist engineer unit as part of a balanced parachute force was needed. Accordingly, the 1st Air Troop R.E. under the command of Captain Stephen Dorman was formed and this grew rapidly into 1st Parachute Squadron R. e., which became operational in November of that year with Major Stephen Dorman as its first O.C. In those early days the Squadron was organised into three "Troops", A. B and C, each composed of a Captain, three subalterns and 36 other ranks, with Headquarters Troop with Captain Douglas Murray as 2i/c. At full strength it numbered about 150 with a large compliment of 11-12 officers to enable Sections to operate independently in hostile territory in sticks of 10. In February 1942 Captain Dennis Vernon, commander of B Troop, led a stick accompanying Major John Frost's C Company of 2 Para on the brilliantly successful BRUNEVAL raid on the coast of Northern France to capture vital parts of a German Radar station. Dennis was awarded the M.C. for his part in that operation, and went on to command "B" Troop through the Tunisian campaign, eventually in June 1943 being promoted to command the 2nd Parachute Squadron R.E., in Italy with the rank of Major.

North Africa, November 1942- May 1943

While the 9th Field Company (Airborne) R.E. did not set foot in North Africa with the rest of the 1st Airborne Division until the Tunisian campaign was over in May 1943; the 1st Parachute Squadron R.E. on the other hand took part in OPERATION TORCH with the 1ST Parachute Brigade Group almost from the day of the initial landings at the beginning of November 1942.

The 3rd Parachute Battalion and the Squadron's C Troop flew out from England and, after a brief stop over at GIBRALTAR and ALGIERS, landed by parachute on BONE airfield near the Tunisian border on November 12th, thus securing a port and forward base for the 1st Army, now motoring eastwards as fast as a skeleton force of armour and infantry could move. On the same day the rest of the 1st Parachute Brigade, (which included the 16th Parachute Field Ambulance R.A.M.C. and a R.A.F. Parachute Packing Section) arrived off ALGIERS in a huge convoy of ocean liners, and began disembarking immediately to prepare for further parachute operations in TUNISIA within days A troop was first away with the 1st Battalion on the 16th, landing without opposition on SOUK-EL-ARBA airfield, then advanced on foot carrying all their stores and equipment on their backs, or in requisitioned donkey-carts some forty miles to BEJA, an important town on the road to TUNIS. From there they pushed on into the hills to the north east to harry the German Forces that were pouring into Tunisia from their nearby bases in SICILY.

B Troop's turn came on November 28th when it took part with Lieut. Col. John Frost's 2 Para on the fatally flawed OUDNA operation, which was intended to destroy three German Airfields used by Stuka dive bombers against 1st Army's advance units with devastating effect. Not surprisingly they encountered a much more powerful force of German Paratroops, the 5th FJR Afrika (5th Fallschirmjager Regiment Africa) supported by tanks and heavy armoured cars, and suffered heavily in 5 days of night marches and 3 hard fought battles during the daylight hours. Of the 500 paratroopers that had set out from ALGIERS, only 180 exhausted men in several parties staggered into MEDJEZ-EL BAB between December 3rd and 10th. All our numerous wounded and the 16th Field Ambulance surgical team had to be left behind in German hands at OUDNA.

Throughout the 5 day operation, "B" Troop fought alongside their infantry comrades, and in the day long battle defending SIDI BOU HADJEBA HILL knocked out an Italian tank with Gammon bombs and hand grenades. After suffering three men killed and twice as many wounded and missing, the troop limped into MEDJEZ in several parties, totaling 25 strong, Capt. Dennis Vernon coming back riding on a donkey to nurse a badly injured knee. Compared to the rest of 2 Para we were very lucky. Meanwhile on the 24th November, "A" Troop suffered a dreadful disaster while supporting 1 Para in a mine laying role during a night attack. For the sake of speed they carried their fused Hawkins anti-tank mines (which they intended to lay behind the enemy's tank lager to prevent escape) in their packs on their backs. Tragically, one man slipped and fell while crossing a deep ravine in the pitch dark, setting off his mines, and all the rest exploded by sympathetic detonation, killing every one – the Troop Commander, Captain Pat Geary, Lieutenants Holland and White and sixteen other ranks. The rest of the Squadron were deeply shocked by this heavy loss.

A further disaster followed on the 18th December when 1st Parachute Squadron's O.C. Major Stephen Dorman and his batman were ambushed and killed while carrying out a personal recce of another strategic position in the mountains. Notwithstanding this serious setback, a few days later, Lieut. Trevor Livesey won the M.C. for carrying out a particularly brilliant three-day patrol behind the enemy lines east of MEDJEZ-EL-BAB to find out whether bridges on the road to TEBOURBA could carry tanks during the planned Christmas Eve offensive. As it had rained for a week making the tracks impassable the attack was called off, so all enjoyed a quiet Christmas.

After Christmas Rommel's Africa Corps routed an American Division in the KESSERINE PASS causing major reorganisation by the Allied Army. The 1st Parachute Brigade Group was rushed into the front line at BOU ARADA, just in time to repulse an Axis offensive to the North and South of the town. That was when Capt. Steve George's A Troop stormed a hill, which the Germans had taken that morning, and Steve won the M.C. Sadly Lieut. Brown, who had just joined the Squadron at Christmas time, was killed in the attack. A little later when the 1st Brigade counterattacked, and the 1st Battalion, with A Troop in support, stormed a huge hill feature called DJEBEL MANSOUR, Corporal Simpson won a very high American decoration, the Silver Star, when he rescued wounded paras under fire. Sadly Corporal Simpson was killed in the school at ARNHEM on the very last day, 20th September 1944.

At the end of February after the BOU ARADA front was stabilised, the Germans, launched a final offensive in the north with some of their best troops in order to establish a mountain redoubt round BIZERTA to cover an evacuation. For a while they made steady progress, severely savaging a brigade of 78 Division. Accordingly, the 1st Parachute Brigade was rushed northwards to stem the advance, 2 Para even being dropped off on the way to mount a counterattack, so desperate was the situation.

The rest of the Brigade, already weakened by the BOU ARADA battles, took up positions east of DJEBEL ABIOD on a number of hills covered with cork trees, and were immediately in action against the Grenadier Regiment of the 10th Panzer Division and a regiment of German parachute engineers commanded by Colonel Witzig, a very able officer who had won his Knights Cross in BELGIUM in 1940 by his brilliant airborne assault on the EBEN EMAEL frontier fortress.

In the ensuing month of determined defence and counterattack all three Battalions of the Brigade lost such a stream of killed and wounded that the 1st Parachute Squadron R. e. was repeatedly called upon to loan subalterns to command an infantry platoon or even to provide a platoon for a weakened infantry company. In this way Lieut. Alan Scott-Fleming was sent to 1 Para, and took part in a successful counterattack against the Panzer Grenadiers, and Peter Stainforth took his section to form part of 2 Para's "C" Company fighting Witzig's paratroopers. Lieut. Alan Mothersill was killed during this period, and the whole Squadron suffered a number of wounded from shellfire and Stuka bombing.

After a month of savage fighting, the German offensive petered out, and the Brigade mounted a counter offensive, starting with a night attack in which 2 Para's "B" Company suffered such heavy casualties that Lieut. Col. Frost put the Squadron's Lieut. "Stiffy" Simpson in command to execute a flank attack. The result was a complete success. By the end of the battle, German opposition had collapsed and the Brigade swept all before it, advancing 5 miles before being relieved by an American Division. Undoubtedly, that battle at TAMERA was the 1st Parachute Brigade's finest hour in which the 1st Parachute Squadron, R.E. proved its battle worthiness, drawing well deserved praise from Lieut. Col. "Johnny" Frost who said that "His sappers were the best fighting soldiers he had had under his command"

Whilst the 1st Parachute Brigade Group received from their German opponents the accolade of "The Red Devils", and the highest praise from the 1st Army Command at the end of the Tunisian Campaign, the 1st Parachute Squadron R.E. was poorly recognised by the senior engineer commander, the 1ST Airborne Divisional C.R.E. The sole award of the Military Cross to Major Douglas Murray, who had led the Squadron through six months of bitter fighting, was an inadequate recognition of the Squadron's performance; a D.S.O. would have been more appropriate.

THE AIRBORNE OPERATIONS IN SICILY

Both the 9th Field Coy. (Airborne) R.E. and the 1st Parachute Squadron R.E. took part in the early stages of the Sicilian Campaign, the 9th landing by gliders with 1st Airlanding Brigade on 8th/9th July 1943, while the first squadron parachuted with the 1st Parachute Brigade four days later. The objective of the Airlanding Brigade was to capture intact the huge road bridge, the PONTE GRANDE, at Syracuse, whilst that of the 1st Parachute Brigade was to secure the road bridge over the SIMETO River just south of CATANIA airfield, the PONTE PRIMOSOLE.

Both operations were a near disaster, but successful in attaining their operational objectives through the extraordinary skills of the few that reached the bridges. The Airlanding Brigade's tugs and gliders flew to SICILY in the teeth of a 20 mph, headwind, and on nearing the coast, they encountered heavy "Flak". Many tugs cast off their gliders too far out to sea, and many of their troops were drowned when their Waco and Horsa Gliders came down in deep water. Those gliders that made it to the shore were widely scattered, but two gliders, one carrying a platoon of the South Staffordshire Regiment commanded by Lieut. Withers, and another bearing members of Lieut. Eric O'Callaghan's platoon of the 9th Field Coy. (Airborne) R.E. made it to the bridge. These two parties captured the southern end, and while O'Callaghan's sappers removed the explosive charges, Lieut. Withers and 6 men swam the river and captured the northern end. This handful of infantry and sappers fought off a heavy Italian counterattack until their ammunition ran out and they were briefly captured until a relief force of the Border Regiment restored the situation. For their gallant action, both Lieut. Withers and Lieut. Eric O'Callaghan received the M.C.

The 1st Parachute Brigade's drop on the night 12th/13th July fared even worse. The huge fleet of Dakotas flying up the Sicilian coast met heavy anti-aircraft fire from the British Navy, which mistook the Dakotas for Heinkel bombers, and the planes were widely scattered. On nearing the SIMETO River they met intense "Flak" from CATANIA airfield, (the main German air base), both from 88mm. and 20mm. weapons, and several were shot down. The third hazard the paratroopers met on landing was that their Dropping Zones had been used by German Paratroopers of the 4th F.J.R. that very morning, so a well organised resistance was soon met.

Nevertheless about 70 men of the 1st and 3rd Parachute Battalions landing on the north side of the river, captured the bridge in the early hours., while 200 men of the 2nd Battalion under Lieut. Col. Johnny Frost took up position on three low hills about a mile to the south and held them against determined attacks of the 4th F.J.R. Meanwhile, Brigade H.Q. with Brigadier Lathbury, the Defence Platoon, and half a dozen sappers under Lieut. Peter Stainforth secured the southern end of the bridge, the latter setting about the job of dismantling the extensive preparations for the bridge's demolition.

Thereafter this tiny element of the 1st Parachute Brigade, held out throughout the long hot day under intense artillery fire and armoured attack from CATANIA, while Lieut. Col. Johnny Frost's men of 2 Para beat off attack after attack from the Fallschirmjager of 4 F.J.R. and were only saved by the 9 inch guns of HMS Newfoundland, which broke up a German attack at a critical moment. Finally, at dusk, when the defenders at the bridge ran out of ammunition, Brigadier Lathbury, completely in the dark as to what had happened to Frost's force, gave the order for the defenders to make their way, in small parties back to our own troops thought to be on the way up from the south.

The irony of the situation was that a number of British tanks and a Battalion of the Durham Regiment had at that very hour relieved Lieut. Col. Frost's men of 2 Para, but too late to prevent the Germans partially destroying the bridge with a lorry loaded with explosives.

For some reason, our C.R.E., Lieut. Col ("Honkers") Henniker gave an extraordinary garbled account of the actions at PONTE GRANDE and at the PONTE PRIMOSOLE. At the former, the outstanding brave action of Lieut. Eric O'Callaghan is not mentioned in the single brief paragraph in his book "An image of war". Instead of giving Eric the credit for the sapper's performance, the accolade is handed to the 9th Field Company's commander, Major Beasley, who arrived at the bridge after it had been cleared of explosives, but was killed in the Italian counterattack. Again, the PONTE PRIMOSOLE battle is dismissed in an equally brief paragraph, the sapper role being credited to Major Douglas Murray M.C. whose party was dropped many miles away and never made it to the bridge area at all. "Honkers" was never very good at giving praise to junior officers who were only doing their job, albeit to a very high standard.

THE DEFENCE OF THE SCHOOL AT ARNHEM BRIDGE

In the battle for the main road bridge into ARNHEM, the roles of the 1ST Parachute Squadron and the 9th Field Coy (Airborne) over the passage of years been confused, particularly over the heroic defence of the VAN LIMBURG Stirumschool on the north eastern side of the ramp. As the savage three-day battle against the 10th SS Panzer Division "Frundsberg" reinforced by a detachment of super heavy King Tiger tanks was the swan song of the 1st Parachute Squadron R.E. it is important to get the facts right.

Both the 9th Field Coy R.E. and the 1st Parachute Squadron R.E. landed on the first day of Operation Market Garden, Sunday 17th September 1944, with their respective Brigades, but their tasks were very different. The role of the 1st Airlanding Brigade was to secure the landing and dropping zones for the second lift on the 18th, but as there was no obvious engineering task for the 9th Field Coy R.E. it is referred to in General Urquhart's Order of Battle as "Divisional Troops". During the nine days of the battle, at no time did the bulk of the 9th Field Coy leave the Oosterbeek area with the one exception of Capt. Eric O'Callaghan M.O. and a detachment of Sappers. Initially this platoon was placed under the command of Major Gough's Divisional Recce Company, whose task it was to race ahead in their Jeeps to try and prevent the ARNHEM bridges being destroyed before the infantry of the 1st Parachute Brigade could get there. This plan, however, was a abandoned when the column ran into an ambush east of Wolfhezen and lost a number of vehicles and men. Whereupon Eric O'Callaghan's detachment was ordered to support the 1st Parachute Brigade's battalions in their bid to secure the Arnhem bridges the hard way.

Capt O'Callaghan, unaware of the 1st Parachute Squadron's identical role, reached the Railway Bridge in his Jeep just in tome to see it blow up in the faces of a platoon of 2 Para. (Lieut Barry) which was attempting to race across to seize the southern end. That left two other bridges to be captured, so Eric O'Callaghan set off in the wake of 2 Para into Arnhem, 'following the sound of gunfire', as he put it.

The 1st Parachute Squadron RE on the other hand had the objective of securing the three Arnhem bridges - the Railway Bridge, the Pontoon Bridge in the dock area, and the huge road bridge further on. 'A' and 'B' Troop were in the vanguard with Lieut Col John Frost's 2 Para on the lower road, 'C' Troop with 3 Para on the Utrecht road, and Squadron Headquarters following with Brigade Headquarters behind. Considerable resistance was encountered by 3 Para on the Utrecht road; but 2 Para with the bulk of the 1st Pam Sqn R.E. after dropping off Lieut Stainforth at the Railway Bridge to make it safe, met only light resistance on the Lower Road, and slipped through to the main road bridge area, where a battle developed in the dark for possession of the northern end.

Resistance was finally overcome when a 1st Para Sqn R.E. flame thrower team destroyed a pillbox and explosive store on the north ramp. Attempts to cross the bridge by Lieut Grayburn's platoon of 2 Para were repulsed by S.S. panzer grenadiers holding the southern end, and the three day battle for the bridge began. Lieut Grayburn was subsequently awarded a posthumous VC.

During the hours of darkness on Sunday night, Lieut Col. Frost gradually built up a defensive perimeter round the northern end of the bridge. By dawn he had with him most of his 2 Para less one Company, a depleted Coy of 3 Para, which had skillfully by-passed enemy opposition in the dark; a troop of the Brigade's Anti-tank Battery with four 6 pounder guns; a platoon of the Airborne RASC with a Carrier loaded with ammunition; Brigade Headquarters troops and the Defence Platoon, but without the Brigadier; Major Gough with 2 Jeeps and men of his Recce Squadron, which had fortuitously joined up with Eric O'Callaghan's detachment, and together they occupied the Arnhem Water Works Building; and most of the 1st Para Sqn R.E. less 'C' Troop. This tiny force, which numbered at most six hundred all ranks, withstood attack after attack from elements of two S.S. Panzer divisions reinforced with huge 150mm 'Ferdinand' S.P. guns and King Tiger Tanks, until all their positions were on fire and reduced to rubble one by one. Only when there was nowhere left to defend were they finally overwhelmed.

The defence of the school building by some forty sappers of 'A' and half 'B' Troop of the 1st Para Sqn R.E. under the command of Capt Eric Mackay, and fourteen men of 'C' Coy of 3 Para, has been well reported in most of the authoritative histories, and in Eric Mackay's personal account published in Blackwoods Magazine in 1945. So there is no need to go over the full story of their heroic battle again. Suffice to say that by Wednesday 20th September, after three days and nights without sleep and little food, with their defences finally set on fire and blown apart by a King Tiger tank at less than eighty yards' range, sixteen of the defenders had been killed, two others died of their wounds in captivity, and most of the remainder had suffered wounds in various degrees of severity. When it was impossible to fight on, after ordering Lieut Simpson to surrender with the wounded, Capt Eric Mackay led a handful of survivors in an attempt to break out. Needless to say they did not get very far. Major Murray and Squadron Headquarters with the rest of 'B' troop, having remained for a while at the Pontoon Bridge to see whether it could be repaired, ended up in a building close to John Frost's 2 Para Headquarters, and there they fought hard to the very end, the squadron's Cpl Wilkinson being credited with knocking out several German armoured vehicles with his P.I.A.T. Eventually, with the building burning fiercely and with the cellars crammed with wounded, Lt Col john Frost, himself badly wounded with a shattered leg, ordered the Battalion MO, Jimmy Logan, to surrender and seek help from the Germans to rescue the wounded before the cellar ceiling collapsed. With the surrender of that last building, 2 Para's resistance at Arnhem Bridge came to an end, and with it the original 1st Parachute Squadron RE ceased to exist. Only Capt Cox and nine men of 'C' Troop, who had been attached to the few survivors of 3 Para which had withdrawn to Oosterbeek after failing to break through to the bridge, got back over the Rhine on the 27th. Also by an amazing feat of derring-do, Capt Mackay, Lieut Simpson and Sergeants Weir and Humphries broke out of their temporary prison on the wrong side of the German border, stole down to the river where they found a rowing boat, and by skilful navigation floated down the left fork of the river, the Maas, to Nijmegen and safety.

As a footnote to the epic defence of Arnhem Bridge, (renamed after the war by the Dutch, 'Frost Bridge') S.S. General Harmel, commanding the 10th S.S. Panzer Division 'Frundsberg', congratulated the wounded with Lieut Col Frost with words, 'You command very fine soldiers. Not even at Stalingrad have I seen such bravery or such stubborn resistance.' Such was the respect that the panzer grenadiers had for our wounded that Frost says that they were kind, chivalrous, even comforting, as they carried our men out of the burning building.

EPILOGUE

After Arnhem the 1st Parachute Squadron passes into history. Capt. Eric MacKay was awarded the American Silver Star for his part in the heroic defence of the school. while Lieut. Simpson was awarded the M.C. Many more decorations were deserved, but with all the senior officers at the bridge wounded or prisoners of war there was no one left to write up the citations for actions that only came to light after the war. By then it was far too late.

However, the few survivors of the 1st and 4th parachute Squadrons, together with their respective seaborne elements and an intake of thirty reinforcements, were in February 1945 formed into a composite unit entitled the 1st Airborne Squadron R.E. This new unit, with Capt. "Stiffy" Simpson M.C. commanding one of the three troops, was posted to Norway in May 1945 to assist in German disarmament and mine clearing. Further changes took place due to demobilisation while they were in Norway, but after disembarkation leave in England in August, the unit found itself embarked for Palestine.

None of the other officers and men that went to Arnhem remained in Airborne Forces on their return from POW Camps in Germany. Some were recovering from severe wounds, and all having eeked out an existence on a potato, a slice of black bread, soup and acorn coffee per day, were unfit for further parachute duties and were given less strenuous employment elsewhere. Even Capt. Eric Mackay after his dramatic escape was promoted to Major to command a Field Coy in Germany, and then rose steadily through Staff College and senior appointments before he retired as a Major General.

During 1946 and 1947 in Palestine, the 1st Airborne Squadron not only had the unenviable task of trying to control Jewish illegal immigrants and keeping the peace between Jews and Arabs, but also of fighting the terrorists of Irgun Zvi

Leumi and the Stern Gang and clearing their numerous mines and booby traps which caused the deaths of two officers and one other rank over the period. It also went through further contractions and amalgamations, taking in trained parachutists from the disbanded 3rd Parachute Squadron and 147 Field Park Squadron, ending with its final consolidation with the larger 9th Field Coy. (Airborne) R.E. It then became the sapper unit of the 16th Independent Parachute Brigade and was renamed the 9th Parachute Squadron R.E.

The gestation period for the 1st Parachute Squadron to be reborn as the 9th Parachute Squadron R.E. had therefore taken about three years, and it had been painful. However the tradition of the "Fighting First", which had become operational under Major Stephen Dorman in November 1941 and which went out in a blaze of glory under the command of Major Douglas Murray M.C. on the 20th September 1944, lives on to the present day. It is a fine tradition of which the modern squadron are justly proud.

 

Back to Journal Articles Index