African Special Operations Insignia #2 –The Republic of Transkei 1981-94

For this, the second in a series of articles looking at the insignia worn by various African airborne and special operations units I have to acknowledge the significant contribution made by James D.N. MacKenzie of Southern Africa Militaria. James has been collecting and researching militaria related to airborne and special forces units with a particular interest in Southern African nations since the 1960’s.  This article would not have been possible without his help. Please like and follow the page using the link in the column on the right to be kept updated of future installments.

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transkei airborne insignia juleswings map

The Republic of Transkei, an autonomous homeland state in the Eastern Cape Province, became nominally independent of South Africa on 26 October 1976. In the previous year it had, with South African assistance, established the Transkei Defence Force (TDF). However, the subsequent relationship with South Africa was not smooth and the State President, Chief Kaiser Matanzima, terminated the services of the South African military advisors in 1978.

Following the departure of South African personnel, the discipline and efficiency of the Transkei forces rapidly deteriorated. However, by 1980, relations with South Africa had been re-established and the non-aggression pact that had previously been cancelled was re-instated. In July  1980 a contract is given to a company Security Specialists International (Pty) Ltd. This was owned by Capt. Ant White, formerly of the Selous Scouts. On the 1st of March, 1981 two former Selous Scouts soldiers (Sgt. Peter McNielage and Sgt. Andy Balaam) begin work on the Transkei contract.  On the 10th of June, Colonel Ron Reid-Daly, founder and former commanding officer of the Selous Scouts, was approached by the Prime Minister of Transkei, George Matanzima, to take over command of the Transkei Defence Force and given the rank of major general.  The arrival of the Rhodesians which included former Selous Scouts, Rhodesian SAS and Rhodesian Light Infantry soldiers, were initially viewed by the South Africans as a stabilising influence in the Transkei.

In June 1981, another former Selous Scout officer, Captain Tim Bax, was recruited by Ron Reid-Daly to command a newly formed Special Forces unit that would be established at the site of the Second World War naval base above Port St. Johns on the coast at the mouth of the Mzimvubu River.

Transkei SF Ron and Bob McKenzie

Informal group portrait taken in 1984 showing an unidentified Transkei Defence Force infantry officer (and aide-de-camp) to the left of Major General Ron Reid-Daly, commander Transkei Defence Force who is wearing the orange TDF staff beret and Selous Scouts wing; Chris Smith; and former Rhodesian SAS officer, Major Bob MacKenzie, right, who at the time of the photograph, was serving as 2i/c of the TDF Special Forces unit. Photo courtesy Chris Smith

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With a cadre of ex-Rhodesians, mainly former Selous Scouts, volunteers from 1 Transkei Battalion were called for. Sixty-eight members came forward, and the members gave this sub-unit the name of “Ingwe Squad” (Leopard Squad). During August 1981, a selection course was held to select suitable members from the Ingwe Squad and any other volunteers from within the Army. At the end of the selection course, which lasted three weeks, there were 32 volunteers remaining, all members of the Ingwe Squad.

transkei airborne special forces insignia-1

Transkei Special Forces bi-metal beret and collar badges. The beret badge has two screw post attachments, whilst the collar badges have pin clutch back attachments. The collar badges are only worn with No. 1 Dress and were not made as an opposing pair. Collection: Julian Tennant

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Because of the distances required to reach their training areas, the Port St. Johns base was deemed inadequate and in April 1982 the unit’s training facilities were expanded to include the Mount Thesiger Nature Reserve which provided a much more suitable area.

Initially, the TDF Special Forces unit training consisted mainly of improving the standard of basic infantry skills, with emphasis placed upon weapons training, map reading, conventional and unconventional warfare. Then, beginning 1983 the training progressed to special forces type skills including scuba diving, demolitions, boating, mountaineering, survival and tracking. In July 1983 a parachute course was established.

The Parachute training was initially carried out by instructors from 1 Parachute Battalion in Bloemfontein until the Transkei Parachute School was opened in May 1989. According to Dr Jakkie Cillier’s paper, An Overview of the Armed Forces of the TBV Countries,  by 1993 the TDF Air Wing also included a Parachute Company in addition to the Special Forces Regiment, although little information is available on the Parachute Company or their actual operational capabilities.

transkei airborne special forces insignia-2

Transkei Parachute School and TDF Air Wing Parachute Company beret badge. Bi-metal with two screw post attachments. Collection: Julian Tennant

Transkei TDF Parachute School

Transkei Parachute School. Front Row (seated L-R): Maj. Mhatu, Maj. Du Plessis (OC), Maj. Mketo (2i/c). Back Row: Sgt. Nose, Cpl Mcunukelwa, Cpl Voorslag, Cpl Zilani, Sgt Zozi. Note that whilst most of the staff wear the SF beret badge, the OC is wearing the TDF Air Wing Parachute Company beret badge. 

Transkei Para school basic course

Transkei Defence Force Parachute School basic para course photo. Date unknown.

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The basic parachute course lasted 4 weeks, the first two of which consisted of ground training. To qualify for their wings, the student parachutist had to complete a minimum of ten day (mostly with equipment) and two-night jumps.

The wings were awarded in two grades, silver for officers and bronze for other ranks. All the issued wings were numbered and assigned to a specific member’s name. Only one wing was issued and if lost had to be replaced with an un-numbered blank wing. The former Rhodesian soldiers continued to wear their Selous Scouts wings and other Rhodesian awards on their uniforms.

juleswings collection transkei airborne wings -3

Transkei Defence Force parachutist wing with the burgundy felt indicating Special Forces. A green backing is worn by infantrymen and TDF staff wore an orange backing.

juleswings collection transkei airborne wings -1

Transkei Defence Force officers silver parachute wings. Two variations are shown. Both are serial numbered as awarded and are stamped “SILVER”. Collection: Julian Tennant

juleswings collection transkei airborne wings -2

Two variations of the Transkei Defence Force other ranks parachute badge. The top badge is the first issue type. These are replacement wings that were purchased by the soldiers to compliment their single issue badge which was numbered. Collection: Julian Tennant

Transkei TDF Piet Van Der Riet Selous Scouts

Informal portrait of ex-Selous Scouts Officer Piet van der Riet taken outside of his house at Port St-Johns whilst he was serving as 2i/c of the Transkei SF. Note the Selous Scouts parachutist wings on his chest, a practice encouraged by TDF commander, Ron Reid-Daly. Photograph courtesy James D. N. MacKenzie

Ranks Transkei Lt Col 2-Edit

The former Rhodesian soldiers leading the Transkei Defence Force had a big influence on the design of TDF badges and rank insignia. This included incorporating unit identifiers onto rank insignia, a practice that was formerly carried out in Rhodesia. Shown here are embroidered and screen printed variations of the Transkei Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel’s rank worn on barrack/work-dress. These examples are from the Southern Africa Militaria site which also features some of other TDF Special Forces ranks. Photo: Courtesy James D.N. MacKenzie.

transkei SF tracksuit rhodesian sas

Transkei Defence Force Special Forces tracksuit featuring the TDF SF patch and also Rhodesian Special Air Service patch on the right chest indicating that this belonged to a former Rhodesian SAS operator then serving with the TDF.

Transkei TDF SF officers a

Transkei Defence Force Special Forces officers. Note the tupperware shoulder flash being worn by the officer in barracks/work-dress on the left, whilst the other two officers wear the full compliment of No.1 dress uniform TDF SF insignia including metal lucite resin covered flashes (on the left shoulder only), SF collar badges and parachutist qualification wings.

transkei airborne special forces insignia-3

Transkei Special Forces Arm Flash. This is the same size as the South African arm flashes only one on the left shoulder of the dress uniform. Collection: Julian Tennant

Transkei SF shoulder flash tupperware

Transkei Special Forces embossed plastic should flash/flap. Sometimes referred to as ‘tupperware’ these were worn on barrack/work dress. Collection: Julian Tennant

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The Transkei government of the 1980s continued to have a strained relationship with South Africa, largely because of the existence of armed strongholds of the ANC and other anti-apartheid organizations in the homeland which also included, within its territory, the birthplace of ANC leader Nelson Mandela. In 1986 SADF planners conceive of Operation KATZEN to ‘stabilise’ the deteriorating situation in the Eastern Cape. Central to their plan is the ‘unification’ of Transkei and another notionally independent homeland state, Ciskei (the subject of an upcoming article) in Xhosaland, with a moderate political leadership sympathetic to the Republic of South Africa.

On the 19th of February 1987, a 22-man raiding party consisting of former Selous Scouts and Iliso Lomzi (the armed wing of the opposition Ciskei People’s Rights Protection Party) operators left the TDF SF base at Port St Johns en route to the Ciskei. Their mission was to capture Chief Lennox Sebe, the Ciskei President at his home in Bisho and force a merger of the two states. However the raiding party was greeted with heavier than expected resistance killing Rfn. Mbuyiselo Nondela and wounding Rfn. Ndulu who was captured and subsequently released.

In late March 1987, with the plan to overthrow Ciskei’s president having failed, the Transkei Government informed General Ron Reid-Daly that the contract for the now renamed Security Service Transkei (Pty) Ltd (formerly SSI) had been terminated and within 24 hours most of the Rhodesians employed by the company had left the Transkei. Those that remained, including Ron Reid-Daly were arrested and deported to South Africa on the 4th of April.

Rumours of a coup attempt by former State President Kaiser Matanzima followed the expulsions. In response, the then current president, Chief George Matanzima announced that Brigadier Bantu Holomisa, who had been placed into detention due to his opposition to TDF involvement in the Ciskei raid, was to be promoted to Major General and made commander of the Transkei Defence Force, replacing General Zondwa Mtirara who had resigned.

Transkei TDF bantu-holomisa

Bantu Holomisa wearing the TDF para wing with green (infantry) backing.

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Then, towards the end of 1987, Holomisa, a staunch ANC activist, led a bloodless coup against the Transkei government. Following his takeover he suspended the civilian constitution and refused South Africa’s repeated demands for a return to civilian rule, insisting that a civilian government would be a puppet controlled by Pretoria. With the departure of the Rhodesians and animosity between the Transkei government and the South African’s the quality of the Transkei Defence Force Special Forces stagnated.

On 27th of April 1994, the Republic of Transkei was abolished and reintegrated into South Africa as part of the newly created Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal provinces. Bantu Holomisa was named deputy minister of housing in President Mandela’s cabinet.

 

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content as often as possible and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to set aside time to go through my archives and collection in order to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

‘PANGOLIN TIMES’ – Op AGILA / Op DAMON Rhodesia Dec 1979 – Mar 1980.

 

From December 1979 until March 1980, the Australian Army carried out Operation DAMON, the Australian contribution to the Commonwealth Monitoring Force (CMF) in Rhodesia. The Australian component, consisting of officers and NCO’s drawn from various corps, formed part of a deployment made up of roughly 1500 troops, mainly from the Britain (1200 personnel), but with contingents also coming from New Zealand (76), Kenya (51) and Fiji (24).

The Commonwealth Monitoring Force, operating as part of Operation AGILA, (British codename) was formed to oversee the ceasefire  between the Rhodesian Government’s Security Forces and 22,000 Patriotic Front guerrillas from Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) during the run-up to the 1980 general elections, which would establish the governance of a new independent state.

The CMF’s role was to monitor and report on compliance with the ceasefire from both sides and try to dissuade them from actions which might lead to a breach of the agreement. It was not required to enforce any aspect of the cease fire, and there was no requirement to disarm the warring factions. 

Op Agila Australian soldiers assemble at Richmond RAAF Base prior to deployment to Rhodesia Credit-Antonin Cermak

Australian soldiers assemble at Richmond RAAF Base prior to deployment to Rhodesia as part of the Commonwealth Monitoring Force, December 1979. Photo: Antonin Cermak (The Age)

 

RSF welcome RAF Hercules carrying members of the CMF

Rhodesian Security Forces welcome a RAF Hercules carrying members of the Commonwealth Monitoring Force.

The Australian contingent consisted of 152 members of the Australian Army who served in Rhodesia from 25 December 1979 to 5 March 1980. Preceding the main Australian contingent was an advance party consisting of five Australian Army officers, who arrived in Rhodesia on 23 December and departed on 30 December 1979. The bulk of the Australian commitment arrived on Christmas day.

Op Agila Lance Corporal Martin Turnbull-Edit

Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. Lance Corporal Martin (Marty) Turnbull, formerly of Raymond Terrace NSW, serving with the 130th Signals Squadron admiring a witch doctor carving in a shop in the capital. Note the white armband as worn prior to the introduction of the CMF Pangolin patch. Photo: Craig Murphy. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: P01940.006

Zim-Rhod Op AGILA CMF patch

Commonwealth Monitoring Force Pangolin patch. These were worn by monitors on white armbands. The Monitoring Force had arrived in Rhodesia equipped with standard “umpire” white armbands. However, once troops had deployed into the bush, a staff officer at HQ in Morgan Girls’ School, Salisbury (Harare) devised this emblem to be worn on the white brassard. The symbol caused some bemusement among the CMF and Rhodesians. The officer thought himself pretty clever, as he had discovered that the Temminck Ground Pangolin was considered a good luck symbol by local tribesmen. Had he found out more, he would have learned that when one is found, it is killed and presented to the chief. Collection: Julian Tennant

Op Agila 2RAR Cpl Bones Brady

Corporal ‘Bones’ Brady of the 2/4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment poses by a ‘Puma’ mine protected vehicle used by members of the Rhodesian Security Forces at the Transit Camp Salisbury (Harare) Airport.

Map of Rhodesia showing the Assembly Point locations during Operation AGILA

Initially, five Popular Front assembly points were to be overseen by the Australians, most were inland from the Mozambique border and used by the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the military wing of ZANU. The sites included Elim (which had attracted worldwide attention in 1978 after  the rape, murder and mutilation of 12 missionaries and children by Robert Mugabe’s ZANLA terrorists), Magadze, Marymount and Dendera, in the north-east, and Kari-Yangwe, in the north-west of the country. Other Australians were deployed with the Rhodesians at Mount Darwin, Bindura, Mtoko and Sinoia.

Of the Australians (27 officers and 109 NCO’s) were deployed to the Patriotic Front assembly points, or to monitor the activities of the Rhodesian Security Forces, whilst the remainder comprised the headquarters element (4 officers including one medical officer and 11 SNCO’s).

The force was spread thin and would be vulnerable should the peaceful transition to independence fail. In an interview given to The Age at the start of the deployment, Australian contingent commander, Colonel Kevin Cole described the risk as fourfold, “disease, wild animals, land mines, and the chance of a deliberate or accidental breakdown in the ceasefire.” If a breakdown in the ceasefire did occur, the CMF teams at the Assembly Points, which consisted of an officer with sixteen other ranks armed with rifles plus one GPMG could be in real trouble. 

Op Agila 2RAR Cpl Brady viewing a PF shot in an incident prior to the elections

Corporal ‘Bones’ Brady (left) of the 2/4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and members of the Rhodesian Security Forces viewing the body of a dead PF guerilla shot in an incident prior to the February election.

 

Alouette Gunship, Assembly Point Juliet, Zezani, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia 1980

A British CMF monitor checking out the armaments on an Alouette Gunship at Assembly Point Juliet, Zezani, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia 1980. Photo: Torfaen Corvine

In the lead up to the election there were several breaches of the ceasefire and attempts to intimidate the monitors, but all situations were resolved without the use of force. There were also environmental hazards, including a wide range of diseases and the existence of landmines within the areas in which they had to work. There were many breaches of the ceasefire and acts of intimidation by both sides in the lead-up, but the election went ahead over three days, 27–29 February, without major incident. Robert Mugabe’s ZANU faction broke the terms of the Lancaster House Conference by keeping half his fighters in the field, outside of the Assembly Points as was required the agreement.  This resulted in widespread voter intimidation but did not stop the election from proceeding as planned and his party won a decisive victory. Rhodesia was officially renamed Zimbabwe on 18 April 1980 with Mugabe its new prime minister. On 2 March 1980, CMF personnel were pulled back to a camp in and around New Sarum Airport and were flown out over the following days with the Australians returning home on 5 March.

British Daily Express cartoon of 18 April 1980. A sign of things to come.

British Daily Express cartoon of 18 April 1980. A sign of things to come.

Postscript:

Almost as soon as the CMF left Rhodesia, Robert Mugabe started to settle old scores and consolidate his power by having his henchmen target his ‘comrade’ Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU faction. The deep-seated rivalry of the two liberation parties was predicated on ideological and ethnic factors, ZANU being drawn largely from the Shona people and Nkomo’s ZAPU being Ndbele. Over the following month the murders escalated with open warfare occurring between the groups in Entumbane, a suburb of Bulawayo in November 1980. This was only quelled when the white led British South African Police intervened on the part of the government. Then, in February 1981 open fighting once again erupted in Bulawayo between Mugabe’s ZANLA and ZIPRA, the military wing of ZAPU. This also spread to Essexvale and Gwelo where ZANLA cadres at Connemara Barracks surprised their ZIPRA counterparts, killed over 60 of them and forced the rest to flee into the bush. ZIPRA mobilised armour for their operations against the ZANU fighters.  Once again, Mugabe had to call upon the professional white-officered black regulars of the 1st Battalion Rhodesian African Rifles, Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment and (although unauthorised) Air Force to crush ZIPRA. Alexandre Binda, in his book Masodja: The History of the Rhodesian African Rifles and Its Forerunner, the Rhodesia Native Regiment,  states that over 400 guerillas were killed with no fatal casualties to the government troops. Ironically, Mugabe and ZANU–PF were once again saved from a major rebellion by white-led ex-Rhodesian troops.

1RAR_at_Metheun

Mine proofed vehicles manned by soldiers of “C” Company, 1 Rhodesian African Rifles at at Methuen Barracks shortly before the Entumbane uprising in November 1980. Photo: Former 1RAR 2nd Lieutenant John Wynne Hopkins

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But the rebellion’s defeat caused mass desertions from former ZIPRA fighters and Joshua Nkomo, who had been given a ministerial post (without a portfolio) in Mugabe’s cabinet, was removed from office in February 1982 after being accused of planning to overthrow Mugabe. Shortly after independence, in October 1980, North Korea offered to train a unit of Zimbabwe’s army that would be responsible for crushing political dissent and reporting directly to Mugabe. In August 1981 106 North Korean advisors arrived and began work creating the infamous Fifth ‘Gukurahundi’ Brigade, which graduated in December 1982. These troops were then deployed in Matabeleland, beginning a campaign known as Gukurahundi, which in Shona means “early rain that washes away chaff.”  The four year-long campaign resulted in around 20,000 (although some estimates put the figure at 30,000) civilians being killed. It officially ended in December 1987 when Nkomo signed a unity accord merging ZAPU into ZANU-PF and consolidating Mugabe’s absolute grip on power until the 2017 coup.

Zimbabwe 5th Brigade Flag after being presented to Commander Col. Perence Shiri by PM Robert Mugabe

Colours of the Zimbabwe Army’s 5th Brigade ‘Gukurahundi’ after being presented to its commander, Col. Perence Shiri by Prime Minister Mugabe in 1982. Photo: National Archives of Zimbabwe.

 

Zimbabwe army patches

Zimbabwe Army and Zimbabwe 5th ‘Gukurahundi’ Brigade patch. Collection” Julian Tennant

Zimbabwe guku genocide

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REFERENCE BOOK: PARABAT Vol.1 – A Guide to Collecting Insignia of the South African Airborne Units 2021 Edition

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During the 1970’s and 80’s, South African paratroopers, affectionately called ‘Parabats’ or simply ‘Bats’ were at the forefront of the  nation’s counter insurgency operations, acting as a fireforce unit and conducting airborne operations against SWAPO guerrilla bases inside Angola.

Their esprit de corps and reputation became the stuff of legend and for a young collector growing up in South Africa in the 1970’s. Facing the prospect of being called up for national service in the not too distant future, my aspirations turned to becoming a paratrooper one day and my collecting became narrower in scope, concentrating on airborne units and the ‘Bats’ in particular.

parabat juleswings collage-01

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The history of South Africa’s airborne capability dates back to the Second World War when the South African Air Force briefly established a Parachute Company in 1943, though this was disbanded before the troops had started to jump. However more than sixty South Africans did serve on secondment to the British Airborne Forces during the war, participating in airborne operations in Italy, France, Yugoslavia, Greece and for one officer, David McCombe, during Operation Market Garden at Arnhem.

But it was not until 1960 that South Africa resurrected the idea of an airborne force sending a group of 15 volunteers, who had just completed a two week selection course, to the UK to undertake training at the Royal Air Force’s No 1 Parachute Training School at Abingdon. The majority qualified as instructors whilst others underwent training as riggers. On their return they established a parachute training wing at Tempe, Bloemfontein and in 1961 the 1st Parachute Battalion was formed with volunteers from the 2nd Mobile Watch and on 29 January 1962 the first 48 South African trained paratroopers received their wings.  Within a couple of years, conscripts undertaking their national service were also being accepted for service with 1 Parachute Battalion.

parabat juleswings collection 1966-69-01

1 Parachute Battalion insignia circa 1966 – 1969. Collection: Julian Tennant

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Over the coming years and as the tempo of operations against insurgents opposing the South African government increased, South Africa’s conventional airborne capability expanded to, at its peak in 1989, four parachute battalions plus supporting units under the umbrella of 44 Parachute Brigade. However, by 1998, in post-Apartheid, South Africa and facing financial constraints the decision was made to decrease the SANDF’s airborne capability and on 2 November 1999 a greatly reduced 44 Parachute Brigade was redesignated 44 Parachute Regiment. Since their formation, the operations carried out by the Parabats have become legendary and you can hear many of the veterans recount their exploits in these interviews conducted by  Efpe Senekal that formed the basis of the excellent 3-part documentary, “Parabat”  (see trailer below).

However, for the historian/collector, Marc Norman and Paul Matthysen’s Parabat: A Guide to South African Airborne Units (Volume 1 & 2) published in 2011 are invaluable reference books. PARABAT Volume 1: A Guide to Collecting Insignia of the South African Airborne Units 2021 Edition is the update to the first book in the set (volume 2 will be out in July 2021) and includes information that was previously unavailable at the time of the first publication.  Together the 2 volumes contain the history of all the South African parachute battalion and brigade units.

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The amount of information included in this updated edition of Volume 1 is impressive to say the least. In addition to presenting a historical overview of each of the airborne units the bulk of the content takes an in-depth look at the various insignia worn, including qualification brevets, beret and shoulder badges plus unit affiliation and sub unit tactical insignia. Extensive colour photographs, including close-up images of specific details,  help to identify the variations (as well as fakes) and these are complimented by information gleaned from the original insignia ‘art cards’ plus the personal recollections of some of the key individuals involved in the development and implementation of the badges.

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Privately published, the book is currently limited to a print run of 50 copies and is available directly from Marc Norman in New Zealand. For collectors or those with an interest in South Africa’s hard fought bushwar, this book is an essential addition to the reference library. Contact Marc and grab a copy whilst you still can.

PARABAT Volume 1: A Guide to Collecting Insignia of the South African Airborne Units 2021 Edition by Marc Norman & Paul Matthysen
Dimensions: A4, Full colour. 300gsm laminated stiff card cover. 290 pages 130gsm coated art paper.
Publisher: Marc Norman Publishing (mnorman3228@gmail.com)
Language: English
ISBN-13: 9780620478762

parabat juleswings collection FAKE beret badge-01

FANTASY / FAKE 1 Parachute Battalion beret badge. There are several variants of this badge that have been offered to collectors over the years. However, they are a fantasy piece made to make money from collectors. No records exist in the battalion’s unit file at the Central Records Section of the SANDF. No former paratrooper has any recollection of these variants and Brigadier General McGill Alexander made the following comments to the authors on page 18 of PARABAT Volume 1: A Guide to Collecting Insignia of the South African Airborne Units 2021 Edition, ” I’ve seen that (badge) on collectors’ pages but I can assure you, without any doubt at all, it was never proposed and never considered. It is a relatively new item produced by someone or some organisation out to fleece collectors. The whole idea of the cloth badge was so that the beret could be rolled up and carried in a pocket or stuffed down the front of the parachute smock for jumping – then pulled out and worn after the jump in non-operationl situations.” Collection: Julian Tennant

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parabat juleswings collection 1966-69-02

Mess dress metal and cloth first pattern South African Parachute Jump Instructor brevets issued from 1962 to 1963 (top). Parachute Training Centre and 1 Parachute Battalion shoulder patches circa mid to late 1960’s (bottom). Collection: Julian Tennant

parabat juleswings 3 para bn training jump

Paratroopers of 3 Parachute Battalion wearing the SANDF’s ‘Soldier 2000’ camouflage prepare for training jump. Note the 3 Para Bn beret badge, which was readopted in lieu of the ‘Iron Eagle’ badge of 44 Para Brigade after it was downsized to become 44 Parachute Regiment in November 1999.

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content as often as possible and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to set aside time to go through my archives and collection in order to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

The D-Day Story Museum – Portsmouth UK

Portsmouth News Photo 1940

British soldiers negotiating a barbed wire defence during a seashore invasion exercise near Portsmouth in 1940. Photo: The News archive.

Portsmouth, situated on the coast 110km south-west of London has been a significant naval port for centuries. During the Second World War it was a critical embarkation point for the 6 June 1944 D-Day landings. It’s role as a major Naval Base and Dockyard had seen the city bombed extensively by the Luftwaffe from August 1940 and by August 1943 the Southsea seafront, which included the city, was declared a restricted zone. At the beginning of April 1944, in preparation for Operation Overlord, Portsmouth became part of a 16km deep coastal strip from the Wash to Lands End which was closed to all visitors. By this time, the whole of Southern England had become a huge armed camp in the build-up for the invasion of Europe, with Portsmouth being the headquarters and main departure point for the units destined for Juno Beach on the Normandy Coast.

The D-Day Story (previously known as The D-Day Museum) is located near Southsea Castle in Portsmouth and recounts the story of Operation OVERLORD and the landings on the Normandy coast. Originally opened as a the D-Day Museum in 1984, it was closed in March 2017 for refurbishment before reopening in March 2018 as the D-Day Story. (Note that some of the photographs featured here include images of the older displays taken during a previous visit in 2015). The new museum tells the story of Overlord by recounting the experiences of the people who participated in the invasion or lived in the area at the time.

D-Day Story Museum Portsmouth 2015 -01

A Sherman Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle (BARV), nicknamed ‘Vera’, War Department No. T145523 as displayed prior to the 2018 refurbishment. The Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle was developed specifically for the Normandy landings. It utilised a modified Sherman Mk.III M4A2 tank that was able to wade into water up to feet deep and push or pull ‘drowned’ vehicles out of the sea. They could also help refloat beached landing craft. Trials of the BARV began in December and by D-Day, 5 were available for service. This particular tank was originally built in 1943 as a regular gun tank. Markings on the hull suggest that its parts were produced in a modular fashion by several different companies and then assembled together. It was produced with “LO”, a type of steel particularly adapted to cast large pieces of armour. The tank was assembled at Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio as part of contract S/M 1012 for the British Government. The hull (part number E4151) was built by American Steel Foundries East St. Louis (Illinois) Works, and the bogies were made by several companies including the Continental Foundry & Machine Company of Coraopolis, Pennsylvania. This BARV’s exact wartime history is not known, but it is known that a relatively small number of BARVs were converted. It shows the markings of a beach recovery section of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Sherman BARVs remained in British Army service until the early 1960’s.

The museum exhibits around 500 artifacts, from a collection of over 10,000, which are combined with touch screens, audio and video presentations to allow the visitor to understand the complexities of planning such a huge operation and its impact on the people involved. To tell the D-Day story, the museum is divided into three sections: Preparation; D-Day and the Battle of Normandy; Legacy and the Overlord Embroidery.

Preparation covers the period from the Dunkirk Evacuation (1940) until just before 6 June 1944. It gives visitors an overview of the planning for Operation OVERLORD including some of the equipment specially developed to assist in the invasion, plus details of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and the German defenses.

D-Day Story Museum Portsmouth Preparation Gallery-09

Betty White’s coat. Five year old Betty White collected 89 badges from the British, American and Canadian troops who passed her house in Gosport on their way to Normandy. Her mother sewed them onto her coat.

ALLIED PREPARATIONS FOR D-DAY

Preparation for D-Day. Troops storm ashore from LCAs (Landing Craft Assault) during Exercise ‘Fabius’, a major invasion rehearsal on the British coast, 5 May 1944. Nearest landing craft is LCA 798. Photo: Imperial War Museum Collection. Object ID: 205359422

portsmouth_d-day_museum-15

The D-Day and the Battle of Normandy section describe the landing, fighting in the bocage and the breakout leading to the Liberation of Paris. This section features displays of personal items, weapons and equipment, accompanied by an audio-visual display to give an overview of the experiences of the troops fighting on the five beaches.

D-DAY - BRITISH FORCES DURING THE INVASION OF NORMANDY 6 JUNE 19

Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade led by Brigadier Lord Lovat (in the water, to the right of his men) land on Queen Red beach, Sword area, c. 0840 hours, 6 June 1944. Sherman DD tanks of 13th/18th Royal Hussars and other vehicles can be seen on the beach. Lovat’s piper, Bill Millin, is in the foreground about to disembark. Photo: Captain JL Evans, No.5 Army Film and Photographic Unit. IWM Object Number B 5103

Portsmouth d-day museum Overlord Embroidery

The final section, Legacy & Overlord Embroidery explores the experiences of loss and coming home through film clips of veterans recounting their experiences with some supporting artifacts, but is dominated by the Overlord Embroidery an 83m long tapestry consisting of 34 different panels takes up a significant section of the floorspace in a relatively small museum. It is underpinned by a small central gallery that explains the techniques used by the twenty members of the Royal School of Needlework who took seven years to complete its construction.

D-Day Story Museum Portsmouth Churchill tank-01

A Churchill Mk.VII Crocodile (flame throwing) tank. The history of this particular tank is not known. It has been given representative markings for tank T173174H named ‘Sandgate’. This Churchill Crocodile belonged to C Squadron, 141st (The Buffs) Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps, and on D-Day was commanded by Lieutenant John Shearman (awarded the Military Cross for actions on and after D-Day). In late 2020 the tank was moved to its current location aboard the LCT 7074.

D-Day Story Museum Portsmouth LCT-01

Landing craft tank LCT 7074. Able to transport 10 tanks, LCT 7074 is the last surviving Landing Craft Tank (LCT) from D-Day.

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Outside the main building, visitors can go on a tour of LCT 7074, one of two hundred and thirty five MkIII LCT’s that were built for the invasion and the last surviving Landing Craft Tank in the UK. LCT 7074 transported 10 tanks and crew to Gold Beach at 02:00 on 7 June 1944 before returning to England carrying POWs.  On board visitors will find the Churchill and Sherman tanks that once stood at the front of the museum. The tour includes a series of short films showcasing the history of LCT 7074 including its post war life as a riverfront nightclub in Liverpool before falling into disrepair and sinking at Birkenhead Docks. It was rescued in 2014 and restored to its current state before being moved to the museum in 2020.

A visit to D-Day Story presents a good start point to develop a broad understanding of the invasion if you’re in the UK and are planning to head across the channel to visit the battle sites at Normandy. The museum opens at 10am every day and tickets can be purchased in advance. You should allow around two to three hours to examine all of the exhibits. Portsmouth’s long naval and military history is also commemorated in several other military museums in the area, so plan for a two or three days stopover to check out some of the other museums and to experience more of this interesting city’s attractions.

D-Day Story Museum Portsmouth-01

D-Day Story
Clarence Esplanade
Portsmouth PO5 3NT
England

Website: https://theddaystory.com/
Email:  theddaystory@portsmouthcc.gov.uk
Phone: +44 (0)23 9288 2555

Open: The D-Day Story is open seven days a week, from 10am to 5.30pm. Last admission is 3.30pm to LCT 7074 and 4pm to the museum.

Parking: There is a large 125-space car park located next to the D-Day Story. The car park is open 24 hours a day and has toilet facilities on site. There are 25 coach spaces, with a wash bay facility available. For parking charges please see The Seafront D-Day car park . There are marked disabled bays within the car park and on Clarence Esplanade in front of the museum. Parking is free for blue badge holders.

Park & Ride: Portsmouth’s Park & Ride is available from Junction 1 of the M275 motorway which is the principal route into Portsmouth from the north. Follow the brown direction signs to the Park & Ride car park. The nearest Park & Ride stop to The D-Day Story is at The Hard Interchange transport hub which is adjacent to Portsmouth Harbour railway station and Gunwharf Quays. Catch a connecting number 3 bus to Palmerston Road then it is an attractive 10 minute walk across Southsea Common to the D-Day Story on the seafront. On Sundays there is an hourly number 16 bus which will stop outside the museum.

Buses: The nearest bus stop is an attractive 10 minute walk from Palmerston Road across Southsea Common, to the D-Day Story. See directions above from The Hard Interchange to Palmerston Road.

Train: The nearest train station is Portsmouth & Southsea – a 1.5 mile walk from The D-Day Story. The most direct route is via Isambard Brunel Road, Grosvenor Street, Cottage Grove, Grove Roads North and South, Palmerston Road and Avenue de Caen. There is also a taxi rank outside Portsmouth & Southsea railway station.

Alternatively, it’s a 1.7 mile walk from Fratton station to the museum, via Sydenham Terrace, Victoria Roads North and South, Lennox Road South and Clarence Esplanade.

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AATTV – WO2 Jock Rutherford MM

AATTV Jock Rutherford 2RAR museum

This Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) brassard and Military Medal group are held in the 2 RAR Historical Collection. The brassard is noteworthy as it features the distinctive locally made variation of the AATTV patch which was introduced as stocks of the Japanese made patches started to run out in the final years of the Team’s service in South Vietnam. Far fewer locally made AATTV patches were made and all those with confirmed provenance exhibit the same manufacturer characteristics as this example indicating that they came from the same maker, noteworthy when one considers the vast array of faked ‘in-country’ AATTV patches that have been made for the collector’s market.

The items belonged to 18237 Warrant Officer Class 2 Robert Boyd Dale Rutherford MM or ‘Jock’ as he was known, whilst serving with the Mobile Advisory Training Team in 1971. The  MATT (sometimes also referred to as the Mobile Assistance Training Team) programme was initially overseen by Major Patrick Beale who had been brought down to Phuoc Tuy from Special Forces in II Corps, shortly after the Battle of Dak Seang in April 1970, to facilitate its introduction.

Each MATT was to consist of six Australian advisors, two warrant officers, four corporals and a Vietnamese interpreter. Of the corporals, two were drawn from infantry, one from engineers and one from the medical corps. They would work with Regional Force (RF) companies, Popular Forces (PF) and People’s Self Defence Forces (PSDF) platoons. Their role was to advise on field defences, booby traps, patrolling, ambushing and infantry minor tactics as well as providing medical assistance to the units as well as villagers as part of the Civic Action Programme.

The ten minute film below, is an Australian Directorate of Public Relations production (DPR201) showing Training Team advisors from MATT 8 and MATT 11 working with South Vietnamese Peoples Self Defence Force, Regional Force and Popular Force troops in Phuoc Tuy Province.  (Australian War Memorial Accession Number: F03235)

 

The brassard is from Rutherford’s second tour of Vietnam, the first being in 1966 where he had won the Military Medal.

Originally from Old Cumnock, Scotland, Jock first enlisted in the Australian Army in 1955 and served with 1 RAR, then on staff at Canungra until he took his discharge in 1958. He re-enlisted in 1963 and was posted to 2 RAR at Enoggera. In 1965 he was among 200 men from the battalion who were selected to form the newly raised 6 RAR. In June 1966 Corporal Rutherford arrived in Vietnam as a section commander in 6 platoon B Company. During Operation HOBART on 25 July 1966 his platoon bore the brunt of fierce attacks by a force of Viet Cong. Taking over from the wounded platoon sergeant, Rutherford, under heavy fire and mortar attack, distinguished himself by tending the wounded and distributing ammunition at great personal risk. As a result, he was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery, one of two awarded on that day and the first such awards for 6 RAR.

The citation accompanying the Jock Rutherford’s MM reads,

“On 25 July 1966, 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment was engaged on a Search and Destroy  Operation in Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam.  Corporal Rutherford was a Section Commander in B Company.

In the early afternoon of that day an enemy force of well-trained and well-led  Viet Cong  guerrilla forces contacted B Company in a hastily organized mission.  Corporal Rutherford’s  platoon bore the brunt of the subsequent enemy attacks and suffered during the short fierce engagement ten casualties, including the Platoon Sergeant.  Corporal Rutherford, on his own initiative, immediately took over as Platoon Sergeant.

During the close and very heavy fire fight and mortaring which ensued, he moved with complete disregard for his own safety around the weapon pits tending to the casualties and the administration of the platoon. He moved forward to assist a wounded soldier but was driven back by heavy fire falling around him. Nevertheless, he persevered and again moved forward to dress the wounds of the casualty and pulled him back to his own shell scrape for safety. He continued to assist the wounded in this manner.

In addition, he took on himself the task of distributing ammunition to these positions where ammunition was running low and exposed himself to enemy fire whilst doing so. Throughout the action he continued to control fire and give orders in such a calm and confident manner as to inspire and encourage the men under his command.

Corporal Rutherford’s actions were outstanding, and he took far greater risks with his life than his duties as a Section Commander required.  His inspiration to all present by his actions and his timely and effectively treatment of the casualties deserve permanent recognition.”

6RAR Op Hobart 1966-Edit

Xa Long Tan, Vietnam. July 1966. Men of the 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) find some food and oil supplies in a camp. The soldier using the radio is probably 2781821 Private William Albert (Bill) Cox, 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), contacting Platoon Headquarters during Operation Hobart. Note the M60 machine-gun crew with the gunner (second from the left) holding an M60 and the next man on his left, his No. 2, carries bandoliers of extra ammunition. Note also the sweat rags draped around their necks, a necessity in jungle conditions. Operation Hobart was in two parts from 24 to 29 July when members of 6 RAR were sent in to search the area in and around Long Tan. Long Tan was confirmed as being a well used transit area for Viet Cong. Large quantities of rice and cooking oil were found and destroyed, and some tunnels and caches destroyed. Two men were killed and seventeen wounded during the operation. (Donor W. Cox). Australian War Memorial Accession Number: P02763.020

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More detail about Operation HOBART can be found in this pdf of A Duty Done (A summary of operations by the Royal Australian Regiment in the Vietnam War 1965-1972) By Lt Col(Retired) Fred Fairhead. Jock completed his first tour with 6 RAR and returned to Australia on 14 June 1967.

Jock Rutherford returned to Vietnam when he was posted to the AATTV on 7 January 1971. Initially unallotted as part MATT MR III, in February when he was assigned to MATT 6 which was advising the 701st RF Company in Hoa Long and then in April he went to MATT Phuoc Tuy where he remained until returning to Australia in October 1971.

Jock Rutherford passed away after a long battle with cancer in July 2012. RIP.

South Vietnam. June 1971. Portrait of Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) R. B. D. Rutherford, MM.

South Vietnam. June 1971. Portrait of Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) R. B. D. Rutherford, MM. Photo: John Alfred Ford. Australian War Memorial Accession Number:  FOD/71/0356/VN

 

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The Rip Cord Club of the World Badge

RCCW badge HJco-01

Rip Cord Club of the World badge circa 1930’s. Made by the Hardie Jewelry Co., the badge is stamped silver measuring 49mm x 41mm approx and attached by a brooch pin with locking roller catch. Photo: Julian Tennant

This Rip Cord Club of the World (R.C.C.W.) badge is an interesting and little known parachutist badge from the inter-war years. Unlike the various Caterpillar Club membership pins which were presented to recipients whose life had been saved by a parachute, the R.C.C.W. badge identified that the wearer had voluntarily made a parachute descent.

To quote a letter from George Loudon, a member of the club, to the New Castle News (New Castle, Pennsylvania), published Friday December 8, 1933: “To become a member of the C. C. [Caterpillar Club] a person must make an emergency jump, saving his or her life by the use of a parachute, while to become a member of the R. C. C. W. one must make a volunteer jump, either after graduating or under the instruction of a graduate of the Chunate (sic) School of Parachute Rigging.”

He goes on to say: “The R. C. C. W. has thousands of members all over the world, wherever the United States maintains an air corps station. The Caterpillar Club has 563 members at the present time.”

George Loudon’s letter indicates that this badge may have been used as an unofficial military parachute rigger’s badge as a rigger qualification wings did not exist for the Navy until 1942 and (unofficially) for the Army / Air Force until 1948Chanute Field  (incorrectly spelt as Chunate in newspaper) at Rantoul, Illinois was home to the Air Training Corps School and under various restructures conducted parachute and parachute rigger related training from 1922 until its closure in 1993.

Louis M. Lowry, who along with eight other airmen graduated from Parachute Riggers School class Number 2  on 16 October 1931, became member number 243 when he conducted his first jump a week previously. Lowry later went on to work for North American Rockwell Corporation from 1943 to 1969.

RCCW Louis Lowry number 243-02

Members of Louis Lowry’s Parachute Riggers Class 2, Chanute Field, October 1931. Collection: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

RCCW Louis Lowry number 243-03

Louis Lowry’s Parachute Riggers Class Number 2 at Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illionois. 16 Oct 1931. Collection: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

RCCW Louis Lowry number 243-01

Louis Lowry’s Rip Cord Club of the World certificate of membership of 9 October 1931 and identifying him as Rip #243: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

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Upon completion of their first jump, members of the Rip Cord Club of the World were presented with a certificate which recorded their membership (Rip number) and badge. The certificate stated,

Know ye that …(name)… did this date voluntarily separate himself from an airplane at an altitude of two thousand feet and that after the usual antics incident to the law of falling bodies did succeed in causing his parachute to become disengaged from its pack and open in the prescribed manner. That upon landing, than which there was nothing surer, he was found to be enjoying life, and although his spirits were possibly dampened, he was still in possession of the Rip Cord used to release the parachute of which he was an appendage in making said landing. He is therefore a full fledged life member of this worthy order as such we trust will continue to preform his duties as competently and gloriously as he has this day…of…in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred …(year)…”

The lowest number certificate that I am aware of is #5 which was presented to Edmund Paul Taylor on 14 October 1927 which indicates that the club may have started around that time. This certificate was authorised by ‘Tug’ Wilson, but I am not sure if this was ‘the’ Harry ‘Tug’ Wilson who, in 1940, became instrumental in the development of the US Army Airborne’s ‘Test Platoon’ and after whom the honor graduate award of the Army Jumpmaster Course is named.

However, membership of the Rip Cord Club of the World was not just restricted to military personnel. The San Diego Air & Space Museum holds artifacts related to Birdie Draper, an early female daredevil, pilot and parachute rigger.

RCCW Birdie Draper -01

Birdie Viola Draper, R.C.C.W. Rip number 533. Image courtesy the San Diego Air and Space Museum’s Library & Archives

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Birdie Viola Draper was born in 1916 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1937 at the age of 20, Birdie began her training as a parachutist with Stub Chrissinger, an instructor for Hinck Flying Service. Mr. Chrissinger was one of two licensed parachute riggers in Minnesota at the time. After her training, Birdie joined a stunt group of Thrill Day Performers traveling to State Fairs. She was paired up with Captain F. F. (Bowser) Frakes who was best known for his daring plane crashing stunts. Birdie gained fame by crashing through sixteen sticks of dynamite with her car, as well as solid masonry walls. Her vast array of death defying stunts earned her the name, “The Queen of Daredevils.” By 1940, Birdie had completed thirty-five parachute jumps. She retired as a daredevil, in 1941, after receiving her license as a parachute rigger from the Department of Commerce. Shortly afterwards she took a position as a rigger for the Ryan Aeronautical Company. Birdie married George Griffin, a local attorney and then retired from the Ryan Aeronautical Company in 1945. She died on November 1, 2005.

RCCW Birdie Draper -06

Birdie Draper’s and her co-performer, Captain F. F. (Bowser) Frakes at the Studebaker Factory, South Bend, Indiana, 1938. Image courtesy the San Diego Air and Space Museum’s Library & Archives

Birdie’s R.C.C.W. certificate indicates that she was Rip number 533 qualifying on 9 June 1937 which indicates that George Loudon’s claim back in 1933 of  “thousands of members all over the world” may have been somewhat of an exaggeration. What remains unclear to me is how long the organisation was active and when it ceased operation. So far, I have not been able to find any information to indicate that it was still going past the outbreak of WW2 and I can only speculate that it may have started to wind up as a result of the development of the military airborne units which in turn brought about a much greater uptake of ‘voluntary’ parachuting in the post-war years.

It is also worth noting that during the 1930’s a breakaway Rip Cord Club of the United States (R.C.C.U.S.) was established. I am unsure of the exact date of its formation although some sources indicate this occurred as early as 1931. By the end of 1935 this club had around 50 members who appear to be mainly drawn from the military rigging courses and by early April 1937 this number had grown to over 300 members with number 312 being issued on 6 April. The R.C.C.U.S. certificate design is very similar to the R.C.C.W. design with only subtle differences in the title, tumbling jumper on the right and insignia design. However, at this stage, I do not know if that distinct insignia was presented to accompany the certificate (shown below).

Rip Cord Club of the UNITED STATES certificate awarded to (6551473) Private Burrell Wilson when he completed his qualifying jump on 30 November 1935 and recorded as member #46. Wilson subsequently served as a rigger at March Field in Riverside, California.

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The badge most commonly presented by the Rip Cord Club of the World appear to made by the Hardie Jewelry Company of Holland MI as most bare their H.J.Co hallmark either near the top of the canopy or near the base of the globe near the intersection with the jumper. However, a screwback post badge also exists and is held by the Smithsonian Institution as part of the Katherine M. Smart bequest. That example, which looks to be struck from brass and finished with a silver wash, does not appear to be maker marked. The same collection also holds a smaller gold lapel/tie pin.  As can be seen in one of the images from the Birdie Draper collection (shown below, click on the image to enlarge), members often wore the badge as a both a brooch and tie pin. So, the existence of the badge with the screwback post is intriguing as the post implies that it would either need to be placed through a lapel ‘button hole’, or the wearer would have to customise the garment by cutting a hole large enough to fit the post. This leads me to suspect that this version may have been used as a ‘uniform’ item, possibly by civilian barnstorming entertainers like Birdie, although her uniforms do not show the R.C.C.W badge being worn.

If anybody can help with more information about the Rip Cord Club of the World or the Rip Cord Club of the United States and help fill in the gaps of my knowledge, please contact me.

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Mike Force, the AATTV and the relief of Dak Seang, April 1970

AATTV Shilston Group 01-01

Various insignia, including an exceptionally rare local made variation AATTV patch belonging to 25415 Captain Peter Shilston of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam whilst CO of the 1st Battalion 2 Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) in South Vietnam, March to August 1970. Note that key detail of the locally made AATTV patch has been intentionally obscured to deter unscrupulous fakers from making copies for the lucrative collectors market. Collection: Julian Tennant

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Over the years I have been fortunate to acquire a number of Australian Army Training Team Vietnam and ARVN Mike Force insignia from the family of the late Peter Shilston MC who is featured in some of the iconic Special Forces related photographs of the Vietnam War.

Mike Force was a colloquial name for the Mobile Strike Force (MSF) which was a key component of the United States Special Forces involvement in the Vietnam War. They were made up largely of indigenous Montagnard soldiers trained through the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) programme and led by American Special Forces (USSF) and Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) personnel. The Mike Force units fulfilled a number of roles during the war but are best known as a quick reaction force, securing, reinforcing and recapturing CIDG / USSF A-Camps. The short film below, shot by  a member from the 221st Signal Company in early 1969 shows Special Forces at Ban Me Thuot and also includes the Pleiku based Australian Army Training Team advisors who trained and led Mobile Strike Force units in II Corps.

25415 Captain Peter John Shilston, an infantry officer, deployed to Vietnam in late August 1969, initially serving with the Headquarters, Australian Force Vietnam (Army Component). On 28 February 1970 he was reassigned to the AATTV in Pleiku as commander of 211 Company 1 Mike Force Battalion, 2nd Mobile Strike Force Command, Det B-20, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).

AATTV Shilston Fairley photo July 1970-01

South Vietnam, July 1970. Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) advisor, Captain Peter Shilston checks over the radio that a cordon was around a Montagnard village in central South Vietnam before sweeping through to search it. Captain Shilston is the commander of the 1st Battalion 2nd Mobile Strike Force, which operates out of Pleiku. A soldier of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), Captain Shilston comes from Williamtown, NSW. Photo: John Fairley. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: FAI/70/0595/VN

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In April 1970 Peter Shilston was involved in the action to lift the siege on the Special Forces camp at Dak Seang, that would result in the award of a Military Cross in recognition of his bravery and leadership. The siege and relief of Dak Seang was hard fought and came at great cost to the allied troops. It also resulted in two American’s, USSF Sgt Gary B. Beikirch and Ranger advisor, SFC Gary L. Littrell, being awarded the Medal of Honor.

Dak Seang Camp was located approximately 15 km north-east of the Tri-Border intersection about 12 km east of the Laos border and 64 km northwest of Kon Tum. It was an area of Kon Tum Province where the mountains rose to 1218m and the camp was on the eastern edge of Route 84 that ran along the Annamite Chain. The camp was first established by the 5th Special Forces Group and CIDG troops in 1964 to monitor infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and was part of a long line of border outposts stretching from Lang Vei in northern Quang Tri province to To Chau in Kien Giang province in the south. From October 1966 it was manned by USSF Detachment A-245 plus, at the time of the siege, some 400 locally recruited Montagnards commanded by Vietnamese Special Forces.  

On 1 April 1970, the camp was besieged by the 28th North Vietnamese Army Regiment supported by the 40th NVA Artillery and elements of the 60th NVA Regiment. 1 Bn 2MSF, under the command of Australian Major Patrick Beale was, along with two Vietnamese Ranger Battalions given the task of breaking the siege. Of the three companies in the 400 strong Mike Force battalion, two were commanded by Australians whilst the third, by the USSF. 211 Company, under the command of Shilston, with fellow AATTV advisors, Warrant Officers Class 2 John Petit, George ‘Geordie’ Jamieson, Des Cochrane and Peter Sanderson serving as platoon commanders, were to lead the assault.

On 3 April, after redeploying by road to Dak To, the 1st Bn 2MSF then prepared for a direct air-mobile assault by helicopter onto the camp that same afternoon, however after doing a helicopter reconnaissance of the assault area they realised that air activity was too intense and an alternate LZ was selected some 2500m south of the camp. By 1700, just before dusk, Shilston’s, company was finally airborne and whilst in the air they received bad news. There would be no artillery or air support softening the LZ as it was needed in direct support of the camp itself.

As the first wave of UH1D helicopters began to descend they were met by an intense barrage of rifle, machine gun and rocket fire from the surrounding jungle. Shilston and Sanderson were in the first helicopters to touch down, right into the sweeping fire of a 12.7mm heavy machine gun at the side of the LZ. Followed by their Montagnards, the two advisors charged towards the emplacement whilst at the same time Cochrane’s helicopter moved to within meters of the bunker. Cochrane jumped out and silenced the gun with grenades. As the helicopters disgorged their troops a further six bunkers were cleared. WO2 Sanderson who had been wounded by a grenade was evacuated. The landings had been delayed by events prior to their departure from Dak To and by nightfall only 250 of the Mike Force troops were on the ground before the remainder of the insertion was postponed.  The troops on the ground dug in and were subjected to mortar, rocket and heavy small arms fire throughout the night.

The following morning, 4 April, the battalion waited for the remaining troops and supplies to arrive whilst enemy fire continued to rain down. Smoke and dust reduced visibility and caused mayhem as one of the helicopters landed with both gunners firing into the battalion area killing one soldier and wounding three. Then a helicopter gunship accidently shot up the battalion wounding the American commander of 213 Company and four Montagnards. Incoming mortar rounds eventually forced off the remaining helicopters with only six out of the ten scheduled able to get in.

At 1300 the battalion started to move off to Dak Seang with Shilston’s company leading but within 20 minutes the lead platoon, commanded by three tour AATTV veteran WO2 John Pettit, had run into a bunker complex. Three Montagnards were hit and Pettit crawled forward alone, applying first aid to the wounded before attacking the nearest enemy bunker. Firing as he went, he got to within two meters of the enemy before being fatally wounded. For his bravery he was posthumously Mentioned in Dispatches and in April 2002 awarded the Silver Star by the USA in recognition of his ‘personal heroism, professional competence, and devotion to duty’.

Progress was slow and by the end of the first day the battalion had only managed to cover 500m before they were forced to halt for and aerial resupply of food, water and ammunition. The following morning, WO2 Lachlan ‘Locky’ Scowcroft arrived to join Shilston’s company. Shortly after beginning their advance north they encountered a new line of enemy bunkers which were eventually cleared by airstrikes and grenades. The NVA defences consisted of a serious of mutually supporting, camouflaged positions about 100m in depth. As one strongpoint was attacked it drew fire from at least one other. The Mike Force troops accounted for at least ten bunkers but had no time to check for enemy dead and continued to push forward.

After two hours the battalion had reached a point approximately 1300m south of Dak Seang when the NVA opened fire on Shilston’s company which had been given a ‘breather’ in the rear. The battalion closed into a defensive position, but no sooner had this been completed than they came under a heavy ground attack from the south-west and south-east from a company sized force which quickly overran two perimeter positions. The attack was only stalled by the arrival of a ‘Spooky’ gunship. Then as the attacks continued various sorties arrived over the area, delivering payloads of bombs, rockets and napalm. Unfortunately, one of the napalm cannisters exploded in the middle of one of the platoons killing four and wounding a further seventeen Montagnard troops. Fighting continued for the remainder of the afternoon and into the night as the NVA pressed the attack with mortars and ground probes.

The following morning, 6 April, dawn clearing patrols found enemy dead, discarded weapons and blood trails all around the position. All the patrols encountered resistance, but it became apparent that the largest concentration was to the south-western side facing 212 Company, commanded by AATTV  WO2 Alan ‘Aggie’ White, who also had fellow Australians WO2 Alex McCloskey and WO2 Ray Barnes serving as platoon commanders. This area to the southwest was the only ground which could possibly be prepared as a helicopter LZ. But, despite continued fighting the enemy would not be budged and the situation was becoming desperate. Surrounded, low on ammunition, out of water and with depleted numbers an atmosphere of fatalism had become to settle over the weary Montagnards. Death chants could be heard as the more seriously wounded began to die. Then, at dusk, with patrols fighting to keep the NVA at bay, the helicopter pilots decided to take a risk and descended into the clearing from tree-top level, evacuating the wounded and then the heavens opened with heavy rainfall, both delivering a much needed morale boost to the Mike Force troops.

That night and the following day mortars continued to fall on the position and the battalion was still fighting to keep their position intact when, in the afternoon, reinforcements from the 4th Battalion 2MSF, which also included AATTV advisors, arrived by helicopter from Nha Trang, landing on top of their position. They were placed under Beale’s command and sent to form the outer perimeter as NVA the assaults continued. ‘Locky’ Scowcroft was badly wounded necessitating his evacuation with the other wounded.

At first light of 8 April a clearing patrol from White’s 212 Company made contact with an enemy bunker just 30m outside the perimeter and withdrew with one killed and two wounded. A company of the 4th Battalion made three assaults into the position, supported by airstrikes and was forced back, but by early afternoon they had eventually fought their way into the enemy area. They found an extensive well developed HQ complex, measuring 100 by 250m, consisting of seventeen big bunkers, observation posts in trees and an outer perimeter with weapon pits and more bunkers. The reason for the savage reaction by the NVA was now obvious, the Montagnards perimeter was within meters of the NVA regimental headquarters and also between that and their objective of Dak Seang. By coincidence, the Mike Force troops had caused a major disruption to the control of the siege.

The following morning, the Montagnards moved out, with the 4th Battalion leading. When they reached a river obstacle, the 1st Battalion formed a perimeter on the west bank and the 4th on the east. Here the 1st Battalion was subjected to further attacks resulting in three Americans and five Montagnards wounded. In the afternoon a LZ was established in the 4th Battalion area, enabling the casualties to be evacuated and an ammunition resupply. But for the 1st Battalion on the other side of the river, ammunition had once again, become desperately low and they were only able to survive due to the bravery of four Vietnamese helicopter pilots who ran the gauntlet of enemy fire to throw out ammunition boxes over the position. Of the four helicopters, three were so damaged by fire that they were forced down on their way back to base and the fourth, which managed to limp home was written off as beyond repair.

On 10 April, under continuing heavy mortar bombardment, the 1st Battalion commenced moving along the west bank of the river White’s company leading. After covering 300m, 213 Company hit a bunker system which they engaged. Meanwhile, Shilston and White’s companies moved around a flank and formed a hasty position on a hilltop. They had reached the edge of the jungle adjoining the clearing around Dak Seang and could see their objective, a smouldering fortification, ripped, smashed and surrounded by bomb craters and the black napalm scars. Then, after fighting through and clearing two more bunkers, 213 Company joined them in the battalion position.

It had taken seven days of constant fighting to move 2500m to the outskirts of the camp. Then, whilst Major Beale contemplated the next move, a small group of Montagnards from the camp arrived to greet them. It indicated that whilst there may still be fighting ahead, the siege had been broken. Beale decided to keep the battalion in its position and received a further resupply of ammunition in the afternoon. Overnight, the NVA continued to mortar and probe the Mike Force positions causing more casualties but it appeared that they were beginning to pull back from the camp.

This realisation prompted Beale to follow up the enemy and at 0800 on 11 April the battalion moved around the southern and western perimeter of Dak Seang and along a bamboo covered ridge running north-west from the camp. White’s company had covered 500m when they hit another enemy bunker, killing several enemy soldiers before being pushed back by heavy machine-gun fire. Adopting a defensive position, an airstrike was called in and then, after four separate assaults, the position finally taken.

In the evening, after dark, a clearing patrol from Shilston’s company, led by ‘Geordie’ Jamieson went to investigate noises outside the perimeter. Just 30m outside the battalion perimeter they encountered more occupied bunkers and Jamieson was shot in the stomach during the ensuing firefight. WO2 Alex McCloskey from 212 Company crawled forward and dragged the badly wounded Jamieson back to safety. Shilston immediately led a reaction force into the area and with the help of 213 Company cleared the enemy. Jamieson plus other wounded, including an American advisor and six Montagnards were evacuated later that night.

The following morning, the battalion continued to move forward clearing enemy from the edge of the bush surrounding the camp and it was clear that resistance was crumbling, but after ten days of almost continuous fighting the strain was also showing on the Mike Force troops. The soldiers were tired and becoming more reluctant to go into action relying more and more on the advisors, both Australian and American plus a handful of hard-core ‘Yards’ to do the fighting.

At first light on 13 April clearing patrols were once again sent out, but this time there were no contacts. The danger to Dak Seang had passed and the NVA had withdrawn to positions 3000m away. The Mike Force troops had begun to follow them up when orders came over the radio net that the battalion was to be relieved and that afternoon at 1445 helicopters arrived outside Dak Seang to commence the battalion’s extraction to Ben Het. The following day they were taken by road back to Pleiku.

The siege had been broken, but it had come at a heavy cost to the Mike Force troops. They had suffered over a hundred dead or wounded casualties, over a third of the battalion’s strength. Five of the USSF advisors had been wounded. Out of the ten Australian advisors, one, John Pettit was KIA, ‘Geordie’ Jamieson and Lachlan Scowcroft were both badly wounded and evacuated to Australia. Peter Sanderson who was also wounded was evacuated but after a period of recuperation would return to the unit. For their actions during the battle, George Jamieson and John Pettit (posthumously) were Mentioned in Despatches. Des Cochrane received the Military Medal, Alex McCloskey, ‘Aggie’ White and Ray Barnes all received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Pat Beale was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Peter Shilston, the Military Cross. In 2010, through the efforts of Bruce Davies, co-author of The Men Who Persevered: The AATTV – the most highly decorated Australian unit of the Vietnam War, the Australian members were also officially recognised as recipients of the US Army Valorous Unit Award (VUA).

Around the same time as siege of Dak Seang was occurring plans were being made to demobilise the Mike Force units as part of the ‘Vietnamization’ programme. Arrangements started for the conversion of the Mike Force Battalions into Vietnamese Regional Force (RF) or Ranger battalions, with the advisor personnel being withdrawn or reassigned. According to Ian McNeill’s The Team: Australian Army Advisors in Vietnam 1962 – 1972, “From a strength of fifteen advisors in Pleiku… it fell to eight in May, five in June and four by 1 July.”

Towards the end of April, Pat Beale had become the senior RF/PF advisor in the Phuoc-Tuy sector and command of the 1st Bn 2MSF went to Peter Shilston. He took the 1st Bn 2MSF on its last operation near Route 509 on the Cambodian border from 14 June to 4 July. The operation was largely uneventful but was accompanied by Sergeant John Geoffrey Fairley, a photographer for the (Australians) Directorate of Public Relations whose images of Shilston have become some of the most recognised photographs featuring the Mike Force troops of the war.

On 26 August 1970, Captain Peter Shilston became the last Australian soldier to leave Pleiku and returned to Australia the following day. According to the AATTV Monthly report for July 1970 (R723/1/35) serial/para 7on that date AATTV will sever its seven year association with US and Vietnamese Special Forces.’ After returning to Australia, he continued to serve in the Australian Army, including spending time as an instructor at the 1st Recruit Training Battalion at Kapooka and ending his career as a major. He was formally presented his Military Cross by the Governor of NSW, Sir Roden Cutler VC,  during an investiture ceremony in April 1971. Peter Shilston died on 30 August 1993 and his ashes are interred at Ballarat New Cemetery.

MIKE Force banner presented to Captain Peter Shilston MC (AATTV)

MIKE Force banner presented to Captain Peter Shilston MC (AATTV) at the conclusion of his tour in August 1970.


AATTV beret badge Peter Shilston

Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) beret badge worn by Captain Peter Shilston whilst commanding the 1st Bn 2MSF (MIKE Force). Collection: Julian Tennant

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The New South Wales State Aviation School

 

NSW State Aviation School

The insignia related to Australian aviators of the First World War are one of my areas of collecting interest. Whilst most of these are associated with the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), there are also some lesser known badges which are closely linked to the Australia’s early military aviators. The New South Wales State Aviation School was a civilian organisation whose existence is directly linked to the story of the AFC. The school wore military styled uniforms and distinctive insignia on their caps and jacket sleeve. Very few surviving examples are known to exist and I am still searching for examples for my own collection. If anybody can help, please contact me. 

NSW Aviation School

Cap badge of the New South Wales State Aviation School. The badge is embroidered in coloured cotton on khaki-grey wool twill with a brown eagle in front of a yellow rising sun. Beneath the eagle’s head is a yellow edged circle bearing the badge of the State of New South Wales in red, yellow, pale blue and white. Around it is a pale blue and yellow scroll ‘AVIATION SCHOOL N.S.W.’ in red. Collection: RAAF Museum, Point Cook.

 

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New South Wales State Aviation School sleeve badge embroidered in coloured cotton on grey wool twill. The embroidery is backed with lightweight buckram. This badge was worn by Alan Ernest Buzacott during his training at the NSW State Aviation School at Richmond, near Sydney, between July and October 1918. He was a member of the 6th class run by the School and obtained his aviator’s certificate on 25 October 1918. Although Buzacott qualified as a pilot he graduated too late to be able to serve in the First World War. AWM Accession Number: REL33412

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The New South Wales State Aviation School opened on 28 August 1916 as a supplement to the Australian Flying Corps Central Flying School (CFS) at Point Cook in Victoria. The school was located at Ham Common, now site of the Richmond RAAF Base. The Premier of New South Wales, William A. Holman was a keen proponent of military aviation, so he put New South Wales State finances behind the development of the school, financing the procurement of two American Curtiss training aircraft, with two additional Curtiss JN-B4 aircraft acquired in 1917. Whilst the aim was to train pilots for the AFC, it was foreshadowed that after the war the school would continue to train pilots for civil aviation purposes.

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Twenty-five students were chosen from 230 applicants for the Flying School’s first course. Applicants had to be 18 to 30 years of age and in good health. Preference was given to commissioned officers, engineers, mechanics or other specified trades. All students trained at their own risk and no compensation was offered on account of death or injury. Instruction included lectures and practical training over 12 weeks followed by an examination. Workshop training, to familiarise students with the construction and operation of aircraft and engines, was required for at least 160 hours while only four hours of flying time were required, of which not less than two were to be ‘in complete charge of the aeroplane‘. The applicant also had to pass the test for the Royal Aero Club Certificate. If unsuccessful, an applicant could qualify as an Aircraft Mechanic, provided he demonstrated ‘the necessary mechanical ability and sufficient merit‘.

Of the initial course, 19 trainees qualified despite delays due to bad weather. Students were housed and taught in purpose-built accommodation on site and referred to themselves as BPs, probably from the term Basic Pilot Training. A total of six training courses were conducted by the flying school with the last completed just before the announcement of the Armistice in 1918. The rationale for the school had always been driven by politics rather than demonstrated need and this did cause some friction with the military. Graduates were deemed as being inexperienced in military flying and tactical skills and as a civilian training school, pilots did not automatically gain commissions in the Australian Flying Corps, but had to submit for further examination by the Central Flying School in Victoria.

 

 

Only a handful of qualifying pilots secured commissions with the AFC leading to considerable frustration. Their services were offered by the Prime Minister to the Royal Flying Corps and some embarked for England to serve either as cadet pilots or mechanics. There was uncertainty as to how long the war would last and their training was also seen to be inadequate by the War Office for the same reasons as those of the Australian military. By the fourth intake a group of students were making their dissatisfaction over their future known. There was also wrangling about allowances and having to fund their own travel to the UK or Egypt to enlist.

Nevertheless, Premier Holman persisted, and two further courses were run prior to the war’s end. The sixth course started in August 1918 and by Armistice in November, a total of 71 pilots had graduated with 20 joining the AFC and 40 going to the RFC (and, after April 1918, the Royal Air Force). Seven graduates lost their lives during the war, 3 in the AFC and 2 in the RFC and 2 in the RAF.

After the war, effort was made to convert the school to a civilian flying school, but the costs associated were becoming prohibitive and the NSW Government eventually asked the Commonwealth Government to take control. In 1923 the Commonwealth purchased the site and in 1925 became RAAF Base Richmond, home to No 3 Squadron.

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Richmond, NSW. 1917. Studio portrait of Wallace (Waddy) Andrew McDougall showing both the cap and shoulder sleeve insignia being worn. McDougal initially enlisted in the AIF as a Gunner (Gnr) on 27 November 1916. He was discharged on 4 January 1917 having qualified as a pilot at the Aviation School in Richmond. On 5 January 1917 he was appointed 2nd Lieutenant in the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) and embarked overseas on 21 November 1917, where he completed further training in England, and served in France before returning to Australia on 28 February 1919. (Donor A. McDougall). AWM Accession Number: P02844.001

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NSW State Aviation School graduate Nigel Love in the cockpit of his RE8 serial B3420 along with comrades from 3 Sqn Australian Flying Corps circa 1917/18. Nigel joined the army in 1915 at age 23, and was about to leave for Gallipoli as part of reinforcements for the 18th Battalion when he saw a circular about learning to fly. He was selected in the first intake of 25, out of 230 applicants, for the NSW State Aviation School in August 1916. He graduated as an officer/pilot and received strategic battle training in England before joining 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (AFC) in 1918. The squadron was attached to the newly formed Australian Army Corps on the Somme in northern France, under John Monash. On his return from the war he marked out the site of the new airport at Sydney, with the first passenger leaving from there in November, 1919. Nigel Love also established Australia’s first aircraft manufacturing company and piloted the airport’s first commercial flight from Sydney to Melbourne. Photograph: The Nigel Love Collection

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content as often as possible and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to set aside time to go through my archives and collection in order to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

 

Airborne Assault Museum – IWM Duxford, United Kingdom

JULESWINGS

The Airborne Assault Museum traces the history of British Airborne Forces since their beginning in 1940 to the present day. The museum was originally established by the Committee of the Parachute Regiment Association in October 1946 and relocated from its former home in Browning Barracks, Aldershot to Hangar no.1 (Building 213) of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in 2008.

airborne assault duxford-73Service Dress Jacket based on a WW1 Royal Flying Corps “maternity” tunic, worn by Lt-Gen Frederick Browning GCVO KBE CB DSO, the father of the British Airborne Forces. This uniform, designed by Browning was made of barathea with a false Uhlan-style front, incorporating a zip opening at the neck to reveal regulation shirt and tie. It was worn with medal ribbons, collar patches and rank badges, capped off with grey kid gloves, a Guards Sam Browne belt and swagger stick. Above the medal ribbons you can also see the Army…

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The Thai Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU) 1954 – 1974

Thai PARU wings juleswings collection-01

For the special operations insignia collector, Thailand’s myriad of airborne and special warfare units presents a seemingly endless variety of badges to collect. A trip to the military and police regalia suppliers clustered around the Thithong Road area in Bangkok can be overwhelming as each shop appears to offer their own unique variations of the official parachutist wing patterns. It will be an impossible task to try to collect all the Thai jump-wing insignia and I gave up many years ago as I began to narrow my focus to specific conflicts or units.

I am still chasing some of the older Thai wings, including the rarely found first pattern Army wing that was awarded in the 1950’s and early 60’s, but it remains a ‘holy grail’ insignia for me and is rarely seen in the marketplace.

thai first pattern

Early ARMY pattern Thai parachutist wings. These wings appear to be hand made by a silversmith and appear to be issued until sometime in the early 1960’s. They are sometimes seen on the dress uniforms of early American advisors to the Royal Thai Army. I am still trying to find an example of this badge for my collection. If you can help, please contact me.

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The Police Aerial Resupply Unit (PARU) of the Royal Thai Police is the one Thai unit that still remains within my collecting focus, although I do restrict myself to insignia from its formation up until 1974. Its innocuous sounding name was a deliberate act to disguise the role and function of this elite special operations unit that was in fact sponsored by the CIA and was one of the first clandestine groups deployed into Laos, way back in 1960.

After Mao’s victory in China in 1949, the USA became increasingly concerned about the spread of communism in South East Asia. In response to fears that the Chinese could invade Thailand, the CIA set up a station in Bangkok and in August 1950 arranged to train selected members of the Royal Thai Police, who were seen as more reliable than the army, in counter-insurgency tactics.

In March 1951, James William “Bill” Lair, a CIA paramilitary officer arrived in Thailand for this, his first assignment. With the assistance of the Agency’s front organisation, Southeast Asia Supply Company (SEA Supply) which would later be operating out of an office on the infamous Patpong Road, Lair identified an old Japanese camp at Lopburi to be used as the training camp. The course was designed to run for 8 weeks and included unconventional warfare and parachute training. The initial cadre of 50 volunteers came from the police but later recruits came from all branches of the Thai military as well as the police. The graduating groups were initially called the Territorial Defence Police, but these later became known as the Border Patrol Police.

bill lair

James William “Bill” Lair, CIA Special Activities Division officer and founder of the Royal Thai Police force’s Police Aerial Resupply Unit (PARU) wearing his uniform that denotes his rank as a Lt. Col. in the Royal Thai Police. Note the PARU First Class parachutist qualification on his chest.

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As the threat of Chinese communist invasion subsided the program was threatened with cancellation which concerned Lair as the ‘knowledge base’ which had been developed would be diluted if the units were broken up and the men dispersed across the country. Pressure was also being exerted to turn the base, named Camp Erawan, at Lopburi over to the Royal Thai Army. In response Lair managed to convince the US Embassy and the Director-General of the Thai National Police Department, General Phao Siyanon to turn the force into an elite special operations unit. General Phao eagerly accepted the proposal as it would provide him with a militarised force that could counter the other two strongmen in the Government at that time, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram and General Sarit Thanarat. Phao’s only condition was that Lair be a serving Police officer and after permission was granted by the US Government, Lair was appointed a Captain in the Royal Thai Police.

Lair then selected 100 personnel from the previous 2000 course graduates to undertake advanced instruction at their new base, next to King Bhumibol’s  Summer Palace at Hua Hin on the coast. This was then followed by a further 8 months of  training including offensive, defensive and cross-border operations, before some of these volunteers in turn became the cadre responsible for training new recruits. On 27 April 1954, King Bhumibol attended the official opening ceremony of their base, Khai Naresuan at Hua Hin and that date subsequently became recognised as the unit birthday.

bhumibol-sirikit1

His Majesty King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit at the shooting range during one of their many visits to Border Patrol Police compound at Khai Naresuan. Photo: Border Police Collection, courtesy the late Professor Des Ball AO.

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By 1957, the unit which consisted of two rifle companies and a pathfinder company, commanded by Captain Lair himself, was called Royal Guards. However, in September of that year a coup was mounted by Army General Sarit Thanarat and Police General Phao was sent into exile. Lair’s unit which was seen as being loyal to Phao faced being disbanded but managed to survive due to perceived support from the King and in early 1958 was rebranded as the Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU). The intention was to eventually integrate the PARU into the Royal Thai Army and their headquarters was moved to Phitsamulok in Northern Thailand, although they still maintained their Hua Hin base, Camp Naresuan, as well.

It was also at this time that the unit became more closely involved with the CIA’s international operations, rigging parachutes for weapons drops to insurgents in Indonesia, and pallets of weapons for delivery to the anti-Chinese resistance in Tibet. Then, early in 1960, PARU’s pathfinder company was sent to the Thai-Lao border to gather intelligence from the ethnic minority groups straddling the border region.

Thai PARU wings juleswings collection-100

1960’s era Royal Thai Police parachutist qualification wings. These are the ‘downswept’ wing type which bears some similarity in overall shape to Royal Thai Army wings, but with significant differences to the RTA wings. Top: Third Class (6 to 29 static line jumps). Bottom left: Second Class (30 to 64 static line jumps). Bottom right: First Class (65 or more static line jumps). Note that in subsequent years other classes of parachutist wings have been added, notably a freefall wing featuring two stars on the wings and a ‘Tower jump’ wing which is for (non-PARU) police officers who complete jump tower training but do not undertake any descents from an aircraft. Variations of these qualifications exist in both metal and cloth embroidery. Collection: Julian Tennant

Thai PARU wings juleswings collection-05

Two 1960’s era variations of the Royal Thai Police Parachutist wing, Third Class. Collection: Julian Tennant

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In August 1960, Laotian paratroop officer, Kong Le led his unit on a coup which overthrew the Royal Lao Government. Many of Lair’s PARU troops were Thai citizens, but of Lao origin and could seamlessly blend into the Lao population, so permission was given for Lair and five teams of PARU to join the ousted Lao head of state (and General Sarit’s first cousin), Phoumi Nosavan, to prepare for a counter coup. The five man PARU teams spread throughout Phoumi’s forces providing a radio network able to communicate with Lair who was headquartered in Savannakhet and these were instrumental in the successful counter-coup of 14 December 1960. Lair then moved to Vientiene and the PARU’s long involvement in the ‘Secret War’ in Laos followed.

Thai PARU-106

“Upcountry Meeting”, a painting by Dru Blair from the CIA’s Art Collection which shows a meeting somewhere in remote northeastern Laos between Bill Lair and Hmong commander Vang Pao. Image courtesy of CIA.gov

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In January 1961, Bill Lair made contact with Hmong hill-tribe commander, Lt. Col. Vang Pao and three groups of five PARU commandos were inserted around the Plain of Jars to train his forces. By the middle of the year of the 550 strong PARU unit, 99 of its commandos were operating in northern Laos and Hmong special operations teams were being trained by the PARU back in Hua Hin. Funding for this was provided by the Programs Evaluation Office of the CIA under the code name Operation Momentum and eventually resulted in a clandestine army of 30,000 Hmong under Vang Pao’s command which included the battalion sized Hmong Special Guerrilla Unit and also a 30 man cadre from the Laotian paramilitary Directorate of National Co-ordination (DNC).   

In 1963 the PARU was coming under pressure from the army controlled government who had allowed the unit to continue to exist on the premise that it would be integrated into the Royal Thai Army. A joint Police-Army Special Battalion was to be stationed at the PARU camp in Phitsanulok, with the commander being Army Special Forces and two deputy commanders, one from PARU and one from Army Special Forces. The intention was to eventually integrate the entire PARU into the battalion, but the PARU resisted integration and kept the bulk of its manpower at Hua Hin.

Thai PARU-104

PARU Instructor Cadre at Hua Hin, circa 1962-3. Photo: J. Vinton “Vint” Lawrence

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Vietnam War period, Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit patches. Collection: Julian Tennant

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CIA Special Activities Division paramilitary officer “Vint” Lawrence in Laos circa 1964. Note the metal PARU wings worn on the beret. Photo: J. Vinton “Vint” Lawrence

In 1964 it began training Cambodian and Laotian troops in commando and guerrilla warfare techniques at Hua Hin. The PARU also remained active in Laos and its training mission was expanding both in Thailand and also in northern Laos. It was also conducting reconnaissance and raiding operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Inevitably, the tempo of operations began to take its toll on the unit and towards the end of the decade, a retraining programme needed to be implemented to rebuild the unit into a 700 man battalion composed of ten detachments. In addition, by 1969, the unit had developed air and sea rescue sections as part of its role. The former providing a capability similar to that of the USAF Pararescue, locating and picking up downed aircrew within Laos.     

PARU certificate and wing

Vietnam war period Thai PARU Parachutist certificate and wing. The First Class parachutist badge is awarded after the completion of 65 static line jumps.

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Vietnam War period Police Parachutist First Class variations in bullion and cloth embroidery. Collection: Julian Tennant

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By the early 1970’s Thailand’s attention had begun to shift to the threat posed by the Khmer Rouge insurgency on the Cambodian border and PARU teams conducted several reconnaissance missions into the Khmer Republic. In 1973, thirteen years after first deploying to Laos the last PARU teams departed that nation. Then as Thailand started to grapple with its own communist insurgency it began conducting operations with the Border Patrol Police to combat insurgents in the south of the country, an area where it is still active today. Since 1974 much has changed for the PARU, including the establishment of the Royal Thai Police Special Operations Unit “Naraesuan 261” under its auspices in 1983. This specialist counter terrorist unit has been involved in several hostage release operations since its formation and is also responsible for providing specialist executive protection teams for the Thai Royal family and visiting dignitaries. However, as my focus is related to the PARU’s activities up until the mid-1970’s I will save the post-1974 years for a future article.  

Thai PARU wings juleswings collection-02

Embroidered variations of the Royal Thai Police parachutist wings including the ‘Special Class’ freefall qualification (with the two stars on the wings) at the bottom of the picture. I suspect that these insignia may date from the 1980’s. There are literally dozens and possibly over one hundred manufacturer variations of Thai parachutist insignia as military and government regalia suppliers is a thriving cottage industry.  For the Vietnam War period collector the challenge is always trying to ascertain which insignia is wartime period and what has been produced in subsequent years, particularly as the materials used in their manufacture has a tendency to tarnish or fade quite quickly if not stored appropriately and as a result often looking older than they actually may be. Provenance is the key for original Vietnam War period items.

 

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His Majesty, King Bhumibol during a visit to the BPP in the 1960’s. Note that the Royal Thai Police First Class parachutist badge on his chest does not appear to have the star in the wreath. Photo: Border Police Collection, courtesy the late Professor Des Ball AO.

 

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content as often as possible and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to set aside time to go through my archives and collection in order to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages