The Making of a Red Devil by David Jewell

In 1942, I was a young sapper stationed in Chatham, Kent, finishing my trade training in the School of Military Engineering. I was 17 and a half years of age, yearning for some action and excitement, too young to get married, but old enough to fight a War.

An Army bulletin was circulating asking for volunteers to be trained as Paratroopers to augment the strength of an Engineer Squadron being formed. I was interested and, after some thought and deliberation, put my name forward. The incentives were parachutist wings, a red beret and an extra 2 shillings a day pay. My application was accepted and in a very short time I was on my way to a small village in Derbyshire call Doe Lea. On arrival, I was picked up with several other volunteers and taken to a camp some three miles from the railway station.

Once at the camp, we were mustered and told that walking on the camp was prohibited, we must run between buildings. We were also told that the reason we were there was to undergo a three week intensive battle training course to ascertain our physical suitability for becoming Paratroopers.

The next three weeks were a nightmare. I underwent some training, which all but killed me. It was dangerous, hard and pitiless. I had never experienced such pain and anguish; it stretched human endurance to the full. If it had not been for my pride and youthfulness, I would have filtered and failed. The course culminated in a 7-mile forced march in full battle order to be completed in fifty minutes. Many failed this devastating course and were returned to their units. I suppose the rewards drove me on and I survived.

The physical torture was over. Now we were bound for Ringway, Manchester, for the mental trauma of learning to parachute.

The course, we were told, consisted of 8 parachute jumps before acceptance to the elite, they were:

Two balloon drops (day)
One balloon drop (night)
Five plane drops (varied)

First of all, we had to learn the art of falling without breaking arms, legs, necks or any other bone in our bodies. The training was concentrated and demanding, we jumped from towers and platforms, from lorries and mock planes, landing forwards, backwards and sideways. We were trained like acrobats, until in the end everything came naturally. Your body and its muscles were now supple and strong and your mind was intent on doing the right thing. We were mentally and physically fit, we were ready.

The day for our first balloon drop dawned. I was full of courage and confidence until I arrived at the dropping zone and put on my parachute prior to climbing into the balloon basket. Now I was anxious and apprehensive. In fact, I was terrified and frightened. It occurred to me that I was crazy. I was going to do the most unnatural act. Too late, we were moving up, the balloon basket was loaded with four jumpers and an instructor. My grip got tighter on the cage as mother earth receded. -
The wind started to whistle through the rigging, no-one was laughing, no one looked at one another, the accent stopped, the instructor looked at me and said 'You first, hook up and sit down, feet in the hole". I automatically did as I was told, then the order 'Go' was given. I went, screaming down to earth and 'whack my parachute opened and I was drifting down. Then a barrage of instructions from the ground, “Keep your knees bent, feet and knees together, steer your chute, and remember what you were taught”. The ground was racing up to me and I was swinging too much. I managed to milk the chute, steadied my swing and drift, then 'wallop’ I was down.

The ground was hard and unforgiving. I lay still for a minute and gathered my thoughts - everything was okay. I got up, dusted myself down, released the chute, gathered it in and got back to the rendezvous point. It was exhilarating, exciting, and it did something for my ego. This experience was repeated once more during the day and once more at night. The drops never lost their magic; the thrill of the danger actually got worse as you realised what you were really doing. The fun jumps were over, now for the actual real purpose of our training.

Five plane jumps, a little different from the balloon. The slipstream can do an awful lot of tricks with your body and chute. It's much more traumatic, it feels more dangerous and you cannot go back for a second chance if your parachute does not open. Your chute opens quicker and getting out of the plane is hazardous. The dropping heights are about 600 feet. You have to gather your thoughts quickly and respond faster. Trees, buildings and fences can cause you an awful lot of grief. Uneven ground endangers landing and water is a potential killer.

We are ready for the final plane jump. We arrive at the airfield and don our parachutes, are checked and we climb aboard. The whole atmosphere is electric, not much conversation. The engines roar and away we go. The wind is rushing through the open jump hole it is cold and unfriendly. We don't fly for long and suddenly the instructor stands up and moves to the exit. He shouts 'Stand up and hook up'. We do just that and check each others 'hook up'. 'Now sit down and move to the exit". Nobody speaks, the tension is awful. We were sweating and I am thinking 'For goodness sake, let's go quickly'. 'Red light on standby" shouts the instructor. A few seconds later, 'Green light on Go". We are shuffling towards the hole on our backsides, then, all too soon, feet in the hole and I am away.

The slipstream grabs me. I am hurtling through the air and 'whack' my parachute opens right in front of me. I swing underneath it; I am floating on air, excited. The adrenaline is flowing, surging through my body. I am on top of the world. The experience is over quickly, mother earth is harder than my body, crash and I'm down. It's a bit breezy and I am being dragged along. I must collapse my parachute and release it before I am dragged through a fence, hedge or ditch. All is well, I get up, gather my chute, the exercise is over but must be repeated four more times in order for me to qualify.

The thrill and excitement never diminishes, neither does the trauma. I loved every second of the experience and was rewarded with my wings and "Red Beret' and, of course, the 2 shillings extra pay per day.

My colleagues and I are comrades having endured torture and privation to win our wings and red beret. It was to prove a bond, which was never broken - my back would be safe.

 

Back to Journal Articles Index