9 Para Sqn RE by Fred Gray
July 2006 will see the end of fifty-seven years of the Squadron's association with the Garrison Town of Aldershot, also known as the "Home Of The British Army" or simply "The Shot" 9 Airborne Squadron first descended on Aldershot on 30 August 1949 after its formation in 1947 at Hameln West Germany, followed by an emergency tour to Palestine. They were the only surviving airborne squadron of the five parachute squadrons (1st 2nd 3rd 4th and 591), two glider borne field companies (9 & 249), two glider borne field park companies (261 & 286) and the four Indian Army Engineer Parachute Squadrons of the Second World War. They were the Engineer Squadron of the recently formed 16 Independent Parachute Brigade. For a very short time they were housed in Talavera Barracks at the bottom of Hospital Hill until they moved to the hutted accommodation in Malta Barracks situated very close to the Basingstoke Canal on the Farnham Road.
In 1951 the whole squadron, less a small rear party, departed Aldershot for Cyprus and the Canal Zone (Egypt). On their return in 1954 they took up residence in Waterloo Barracks (east) situated at the bottom of Gun Hill, built in 1854 to house the returning army from the Crimea. Waterloo Barracks were built for a Cavalry Regiment and a full compliment of horses. The soldiers accommodation was in two blocks, one either side of the Officer Mess. 2 Troop and 3 Troop shared one of the blocks and HQ, Plant and 1 Troop shared the other. The sleeping quarters were situated above the stables and consisted of six twelve-man rooms in each block with one single lavatory situated at the end of the room but shared with the adjoining room (Six rooms with three lavatories). Heating was provided by a coke burning stove, each room being rationed to one bucket of coke a night. Washing facilities consisted of three small wash houses outside on the veranda, which ran the full length of the building. Each wash house had three basins and at the time when the Squadron took up residence a gas geyser provided the hot water. Those not in the first three or four soldiers to get to the wash house before the rest of the troop only had cold water to wash and shave. Baths and showers were non-existent in the block. If any soldier wanted to have a bath he had to go down a flight of iron stairs, walk in front of the Officers Mess and then to the second block that accommodated HQ and 1 Troop. The "bath house" was located in this building. It consisted of three old-fashioned iron baths standing on the cobbled floor of a stable. A wooden duck board covered the floor by the side of each bath and there was a small folding chair to put clothes on. Corrugated sheeting to give some form of privacy surrounded the bath. There was no heating in the stable so having a bath in the winter months was not something to endure every night.
The only entertainment was the NAAFI Club, the local pubs and dancing on a Tuesday and Friday night. (Tuesday being the "Grab a Granny" night) The Squadron had three favourite pubs, the "Rat Pit" (so called because in Victorian times dogs and rats fought in a pit in the back room), the Exchange and the Crimea. The Exchange and the Rat Pit have now been replaced by new developments. The NAAFI Club was very conveniently situated at the bottom of Gun Hill just opposite the Squadron Guardroom. "Gun Hill" was named after the cannon situated at the top of the hill that used to be fired at noon each day. The large window of the NAAFI Club bar was a quick escape route back to the barracks when it was raided by the RMP as fights broke out amongst the hundreds of soldiers of all units who were packed into the bar area. It took no more than twenty seconds to get out of the window and into the barracks to disappear into the gloom of Waterloo (east). There was no Squadron Bar, no Corporals Club and certainly no Wives Club. No televisions or mobile phones and only a small number of the squadron personnel were married, mainly the Officers and S/NCOs. It was every man for himself when it came to entertainment. There were probably no more than three car owners and the same number of motorbike owners in the Squadron in 1956.
The Squadron has had four different titles since it arrived in Aldershot in 1949. It arrived as 9 Independent Airborne Squadron RE. In 1955 it became 9 Independent Parachute Field Squadron RE. A further change occurred when the "Field" was dropped from the title in 1958. The last change was in 1977 when 16 Independent Parachute Brigade was disbanded. As a result the Squadron then lost its own independence and came under command of 36 Engr Regt RE as 9 Parachute Squadron RE. A convenient buffer zone of about 90 miles separated the Squadron from the HQ unit (and the RSM) who were located in Maidstone Kent. The Squadron has also come under command of five different brigade titles: 16 Indep Para Brigade (1947-1977), 6 Field Force (1977-82) 5 Infantry Brigade (1982-83), 5 Airborne Brigade (1983-1999) and 16 Air Assault Brigade. (Formed 1st September 1999 by the amalgamation of 24 Air-Mobile Brigade, 5 AB Bde and 9 Regt AAC)
The first OC of the Squadron in Aldershot was Major DA Smith RE. (There had been four previous OCs but they had been in command in Germany and Palestine). Major Smith was also the captain of the very successful Squadron Rugby Team that reached the final of the Army Cup in 1948. An incredible feat for a minor unit of less than two hundred and fifty officers and men when the strength of the Army stood at over 350 thousand and still maintained most of it's wartime Regiments and Corps. The last OC of the Aldershot based Squadron is Major Frazer Ross RE. The first SSM was WO2 David Doherty; a wartime soldier who served with the 3rd Parachute Squadron RE and WO2 Billy Baugh will be the last SSM in Aldershot.
The Sappers of today would be horrified if they were issued with some of the clothing and equipment that was the norm in 1950-60. Boots were the standard issue ammunition boot of WW2; they had leather soles with a regulation number of studs. Parade dress was the Battle-Dress, a two-piece uniform with a tight fitting blouse and trousers tucked into anklets. (Not gaiters). A 37 Pattern belt was worn around the waist all topped off by the Red Beret. The Red Beret is just about the only item that has survived to date. Even the RE badge is different as up until 1952 the badge had the Imperial crown. This changed on the death of King George 6th when the Edward Crown was introduced. The standard dress for training was boots, denim trousers, shirt, beret and the para smock, probably the most recognisable and envied piece of clothing in the Army.
Items that have passed into history since 1949 include: the para barra, a two wheeled frame with a canvas covering to carry kit on long marches, the toggle rope, the heavy steel para helmet, the DPM denim jumping smock, cobbly wobbly boots, blanco, studded boots, battle dress, the 37 pattern belt, 44 pattern equipment, 56 Pattern equipment, the twenty-eight foot X-Type parachute, the No 4 Lee-Enfield rifle, the .303 Mk 1 Bren Gun, the Stirling submachine gun, the Self loading Rifle, the 2inch mortar, the Energa Grenade attachment for the Lee-Enfield and SLR rifle and probably the worst item of clothing ever issued to any soldier in the Army, a brown rolled neck jersey pullover with brown patches on each shoulder. It was thought to be a left over from the Camel Corps when they were part of the British Army. Not only was it very uncomfortable to wear with the roll neck and it's constant irritation to the skin but it made the Squadron a laughing stock amongst other units of the Brigade as they were they only unit to be issued with it. This was in response to the Squadrons constant plea for a heavy duty pullover, that some of the other units of the brigade already had. This was a way to silence the Squadron, and it did. In 1960 the sleeping bag made a welcome appearance and it was a great improvement on the lightweight blanket and poncho that most members of 16 Brigade had when they parachuted into Norway 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle in November 1959 on Ex Barfrost. Rubber soled boots had replaced the old ammunition boots and puttees replaced anklets. The last item to disappear that connected the present Squadron to that which arrived in 1949, and one of the most recognisable formation signs in the world is the Pegasus. Gone and now replaced by the formation badge of 16 Air Assault Brigade.
When National Service finished in 1962 more money became available to spend on the military and a gradual improvement in pay, conditions and equipment was made over the next four decades. Those who fought in the Second World War and many of those who came later can only stare in wonder at the clothing and equipment now enjoyed, not only by the Squadron but by the other services and envy the pay scales and pensions of all ranks.
Until 1955 parachute jumps were made without reserves. They were introduced sometime late in that year. (They were discarded for the operational jump at Suez). One of the aircraft used for jumping was the single door Valetta that carried 20 jumpers and a dispatcher. Not a popular aircraft as those men at the rear of the stick had to step over a boom about ten inches in height before they could reach the door. On exit the jumper dropped down into the slipstream which caused a number of problems for the inexperienced. The second aircraft was the more used two-door Hastings that carried two sticks of 15 and two dispatchers. Also used, but mainly by the Territorial Army units was the American Fairchild C119 known as the "Boxcar". In March 1955 the Beverley freighter became the workhorse for the RAF. This was a two deck aircraft with two sticks of twenty on the lower deck and a single stick of thirty on the top deck that exited through a floor aperture, probably the best way to exit as the jumpers dropped down into the slipstream without having to turn through 90 degrees. The Beverley was replaced ten years later by the twin boomed Argosy and then by the C130 that is still in use today.
During the Squadrons fifty-seven years in Aldershot it has left the town on numerous occasions for foreign parts. At times to extremely dangerous places in the world but on others for much more friendly and agreeable locations. Three times they have gone to real shooting wars. November 5th 1956 was the last time that a troop (3 Troop, Capt Brazier RE) actually dropped in action when they were part of the 3 Para Battalion group that had dropped on El Gamel Airport in an operation to recapture the Suez Canal. The remainder of the Squadron joined them the following day. The Falklands War (OC Major Chris Davies RE) in 1982 was probably the most demanding period as a well-prepared enemy, winter conditions and very difficult terrain made life extremely unpleasant. They also suffered more casualties including four killed and twelve wounded. The third time that the Squadron was involved in an invasion was the Gulf war in 2003 under command of Major Paul Fountain RE. Iraq has remained a dangerous and unpleasant duty for the Squadron that only recently completed a six-month tour under command of Maj Frazer Ross RE. There is now the added danger of a six month tour in Afghanistan (April-September 2006) where 3 Troop has deployed in support of 16 Air-Assault Brigade. Other notable hot spots have been Cyprus and Egypt 1951-54, Cyprus & Bahrain, (1962), Kuwait and Jordan (1958- 1964), Aden and the Radfan, 1964 –65), Borneo, (1965) British Guiana & Anguilla (1964-1969), Rwanda (1994), The Gambia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, (2001) The Balkans (1998-9 & 2001), and seven tours in Northern Ireland. More pleasant tours at either squadron or troop level, on exercise or work related included Belize, Kenya, (1964 & 1971), Hong Kong, Rhodesia, Singapore, Malta, Denmark, America, Canada, Libya, Germany, France and Norway.
Since that day 57 years ago the lot of the sappers has changed dramatically. No longer do they have the Saturday morning parade and inspection three times a month. It was a nightmare experience standing on the square for three hours whilst the OC and the SSM looked for the slightest imperfection in the soldiers dress. The brasses of the 37-pattern belt had to be highly polished and the anklets had to be blancoed to perfection. Trouser creases were stiffened with soap on the inside and then ironed to give a razor sharp crease weighted down with either rolled up newspaper or a light chain on the inside of the trousers after being tucked into the anklets. After hours of applying the blanco and polishing the brasses it was heartbreaking when the SSM wrote on your belt "parade at 1300 hrs" with his biro pen. He would also scribble over the anklets just to make sure everything had to be done again. After the parade it was then the room inspection with all its pitfalls. Any indiscretion was rewarded by a number of extra guard duties or another inspection by the Orderly Officer and Sergeant in the afternoon. For those not on duties, the fourth weekend of the month was a 48-hour weekend privilege. All the junior NCOs and Sappers had to collect a pass from the SSM. Queuing up by troops for this much sort after piece of paper also had its problems as everyone had to donate a shilling to the SSM's favourite charity. If anyone refused to pay he would stamp the pass "Get Stuffed" with the stamp that was well known throughout 16 Brigade.
Also gone is the Pay Parade. It was only when National Service finished that the Army started paying junior ranks pay directly into the bank. Before that the Troop Officer and Sergeant would pay out the money on a weekly basis. Each soldier would approach the table when his named was called, halt, salute and then take his pay. He would check that the amount was correct knowing that one shilling had been deducted for barrack room damages and losses, and a further seven shillings had been put into "credits", a compulsory savings account from which the soldiers could draw money when they required it for leave or other personal reasons (but only after three to four weeks advance notice had been given to the pay office).
Guard duties were to be avoided at all costs. The guard consisted of seven Sappers and a Corporal. Dress was as for the Saturday morning parade with the addition of ammo pouches and backpack. Of the seven Sappers, the best-turned out man became the "stickman" and went off duty immediately. Lucky was the man who did not attract extra duties from the Orderly Officer for the slightest imperfection. Only after the inspection were the guard then able to remove the pouches and backpack and put on their para smocks to do their first of two-hour stags on duty followed by four off. The guard was from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. followed by normal duties.
During fifty-seven years in the Aldershot Garrison the Squadron occupied a number of barracks, mainly those that had been condemned and due for demolition. In 1957 they moved from Waterloo Bks (east) to Marlplaquet Bks on Queens Avenue. (The ACC had moved out to their new accommodation in St Omer Bks). Three years later they moved to Cove and occupied the "Spiders" in one half of the old 3 Training Regimen RE. These were no longer required because of the end of National Service. From there they moved to the Victorian era Gibraltar Bks (formally 4 TRRE) on Queens Avenue opposite the two Garrison Churches. By 1963 they had moved once again to Queen Elizabeth Barracks, part of the barracks complex at Church Crookham.
By 1966 they had moved again to Haig Lines the old Medical Corps Bks at Crookham cross roads. Finally in 1972 they moved into Rhine Barracks at the top end of The Queens Avenue. This has been their longest stay in any one location in their history. Even now in 2006 the Squadron is divided with HQ in Rhine and the Sappers accommodation in Buller Barracks.
For the first time 9 Parachute Squadron can look forward to a permanent home in the newly built Rock Barracks at Woodbridge in Suffolk. Whether this will suit the character and the reputation of the Squadron remains to be seen. Being in the same barracks with a Colonel and an RSM may prove difficult to start with. Sharing facilities with a major unit is something entirely new to the Squadron and they will have to adapt to having Officers and S/NCOs not tuned in to doing things the way the Squadron do.
I'm sure those thousands of 'all ranks' who have had the honour and pleasure of serving in a unique unit of the Royal Engineers over the last sixty years would like to wish "The Squadron" our very best wishes when they start a new chapter in their history and depart from Aldershot for the last time in July 2006. It will be a sad day when they leave and we will all miss them.