The ‘Desert Diablos’ – DoS Air Wing Afghanistan Patches

I went down a bit of a rabbit-hole for this week’s post which features my small collection of U.S. Department of State Air Wing patches that a mate brought back for me from one of his tours in Afghanistan. I thought that it would be a quick write-up until I started gathering some contextual information and before I knew it, I was downloading all sorts of declassified audits and other reports regarding their activities in Afghanistan. The reason I wanted to keep it short was to allow time to restructure my site to include additional pages featuring parts of my collection and also my TRADE insignia. Unfortunately that did not happen and I accidentally changed the overall site theme to this one (which I am not sure I like) and cannot revert to the previous layout.  So, I may delay the next post whilst I figure things out and try to make sense of it all. If you want to be kept up to date for the new content, please bookmark or FOLLOW the page.

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DOS Air Wing Afghanistan juleswings

The United States Department of State (DOS), also referred to as the State Department, was established in 1789 as the first administrative arm of the executive branch of the U.S. federal government and is the American equivalent of the ministry of foreign affairs in other nations. Its primary duties are advising the U.S. president, administering diplomatic missions, negotiating international treaties and agreements, and representing the U.S. at the United Nations.

In 1978, the US Congress created the Bureau of International Narcotics Matters (INM) as an agency reporting to the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, with a general mission of developing policies and programs to combat international narcotics and crime. With the growing influx of cocaine into the US in the 1980’s the South and Central American regions were its initial focus. This included using a crop duster aircraft to eradicate illicit crops in Mexico. A separate Air Wing (DoS Air Wing) was established in 1986 as use of aviation assets grew in the war on drugs. Continue reading “The ‘Desert Diablos’ – DoS Air Wing Afghanistan Patches”

African Special Operations Insignia #3 – Portuguese Mozambique’s Grupos Especiais Pára-quedistas 1971 -74

Portugal’s presence in Africa dates back to the 15th century and their colonies (Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique) held important economic and status value to the country causing resistance to the international opposition to colonialism that emerged at the end of the Second World War.

Supported by the Communist bloc, violent opposition to Portuguese rule began first in Angola (1961), followed by Portuguese Guinea (1963) and finally Mozambique in 1964, when the Marxist-Leninist Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) carried out its first attacks on Portuguese targets on 25 September.

Initially, Portugal’s African wars were fought with basically conventional forces, but as the conflicts dragged on it became clear that specialised counter-insurgency troops and doctrine would be needed. This included the ‘Africanisation of the troops’, part to limit ‘metropolitan’ casualties of conscripts sent from Portugal. In addition, this multi-racial army countered the criticism of a race-based war and importantly, created a connection to the local population, providing obvious tactical advantages.

Footage from a 1970 film showing counter insurgency operations conducted by Portuguese forces in Mozambique at the border areas adjoining Tanzania. This is most likely from Operation Gordian Knot (Operação Nó Górdio) which was an operation intended to close down the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO)’s infiltration routes across the Tanzanian border and to destroy permanent FRELIMO bases inside Northern Mozambique.

One of the units developed in the Mozambique province in the latter half of 1969 was the Grupos Especiais (GE) or Special Groups. Trained at Dondo and the Monte Pvez Commando Training Centre, these units were employed in many roles including raids, ambushes and acting as guides and interpreters for regular forces on operations. They initially consisted of an officer, nine NCOs and eighteen enlisted men but some of the Grupos Especiais grew to between fifty and sixty men.

At the start of 1970, General Kaúlza de Oliveira de Arriaga took over as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces in Mozambique, replacing General António Augusto dos Santos. The following year, concerned by the lack of airborne reinforcements being sent from Portugal to bolster his two parachute battalions, Para-Hunter Battalion 31 (Batalhões de Caçadores Pára-quedistas de Moçambique 31 – BCP-31) and Para-Hunter Battalion 32 (Batalhões de Caçadores Pára-quedistas de Moçambique 32 – BCP-32), he authorised the formation of locally recruited Special Parachute Groups (Grupos Especiais Pára-quedistas – GEP) under the command of Colonel Sigfredo Costa Campos. Later, on 19 June a headquarters formation, the General Command of Special Groups (Comando Geral dos Grupos Especiais -CGGE) and the Special Groups Instruction Centre (Centro de Instrução de Grupos Especiais – CIGE) were at created at Dondo to oversee the operations and training of the GEP.

Col Costa Campos and General Kaúlza de Arriaga
Founder and first commanding officer of the Grupos Especiais Pára-quedistas, Colonel Costa Campos wearing the red beret of the GEP, sitting alongside the Commander in Chief of forces in Mozambique, General Kaúlza de Arriaga in an Alouette III helicopter.

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To be considered for admission to the GEP, the soldier had to be a volunteer of at least Furriel rank (roughly equivalent to a junior sergeant), have a good record of service, exhibited disciplined, decisive qualities in combat and prepared to serve in the GEP for at least one year after being posted to a GEP group. Volunteers enlisted for twenty months and in addition to their parachute pay received other campaign and rank allowances. After completing their tenure with the GEP they were returned to their respective units, downgrading to their previous rank and pay scales.

Recruits for the GEP would eventually come from all sectors of the military and civilian population in Mozambique, but in May 1971, the first group of volunteers, mainly from the Batalhão de Caçadores Nº16 (BCaç 16), a locally recruited specialist light infantry type unit arrived at BCP-31 to commence their training.

After being selected for possible service with the GEP, volunteers had to complete a nine week basic instruction phase, followed by a four week parachute training course. The para course conducted by BCP-31 tried to emulate the standard military static line course however an absence of purpose build exit and landing towers meant that some aspects of ground training was modified. After 6 jumps from a Nord Atlas aircraft, the trainees were presented with their wings and red beret featuring the GE badge. ‘Regular’ GE troops wore the badge on a yellow beret.  Because the parachute course had never been officially approved as a Military Parachuting Course (as defined by Portuguese military regulation/standing order No. 42075 of 31DEC58) the parachute wing also differed from the standard Portuguese qualification. Made from metallic silver it was worn on the left side of the chest above the pocket flap seam. Variations in bullion also exist.

Mozambique Grupos Especiais Para-quedista juleswings collection-3-Edit
Grupos Especiais Pára-quedistas (GEP) silver metal parachute qualification wings. The top wing is more curved and has the number 314 scratched on the back. The lower wing is slightly thicker and flat. Harry Pugh & Bob Bragg suggest in their book “Portugal Elite Forces Insignia 1951 – Present” that the flat variation is a post war production. Collection: Julian Tennant
GRUPOS ESPECIAIS PÁRA-QUEDISTAS GEP – MOÇAMBIQUE
Grupos Especiais Pára-quedistas troops in formation. Note the distinctive GEP parachutist wings on the left chest.

Reuters video from April 1973 taken at Dondo Barracks showing the Mozambique Governor, Mr. Pimental Do Santos, and the Commander of the Armed Forces, General Kaulza De Arriaga at the ‘Beret parade’ of a newly graduated group of GEP paratroopers. The female parachutist in the white t-shirt is Carmo Jardim, an eighteen year old Portuguese girl and veteran of over 400 jumps who instructed on the course. Note also the Grupos Especiais (GE) guard of honour (at 0:08 seconds into the video) who are present at the parade and wearing the standard GE black uniform and yellow beret. 

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Parachute training was followed by two weeks of intensive combat skills training at the CIGE which was then rounded out by a month of skills refinement in an operational zone. Instructors would accompany their trainees throughout the instruction phases and then take command of the group at the conclusion of the training, thus forming a closer more cohesive bond between the volunteers and their commanders.

Mozambique Portugal GEP 01

According to Colonel Costa Campos, each GEP consisted of one officer, five NCOs and eighty enlisted men, however historian Antonio Carmo’s excellent overview of the GEP presents documentation that states that the structure consisted of an officer, with five NCOs (one acting as 2IC the others subgroup commanders), sixteen corporals and forty-eight soldiers. The structure allowed each GEP to operate as a single unit or as subgroups depending on th mission requirements.

Unlike the GE troops who were stationed in the various operational zones, the GEP was seen as a strategic reserve for the Commander in Chief of military operations as well as being used to conduct special operations type counter insurgency tasks such as surgical strikes, recovery and intelligence gathering operations, such as those carried out by  Furriel José Ribeiro whose GEP team conducted ‘pseudo’ operations in a manner similar to those made famous by the Rhodesian Selous Scouts.  Named “Cassava” operations, due to the food bag that they carried  filled with cassava, Ribeiro’s team disguised themselves as insurgents in order to infiltrate and gain the cooperation from FRELIMO sympathisers who would lead them to their targets.

On 15 November 1971, the first three GEP groups, (GEP 001, GEP 002 and GEP 003) had completed their training and were deployed to the Tete Operational Zone. By the end of 1972, ten GEP had been raised and by the end of the war in 1974, this had increased to a total of 12 under the control of the Batalhão Grupo Especiais  Pára-quedistas, a command formed to oversee logistics and instruction of the GEP. The end of the war in Mozambique saw the GEP disbanded with many of its members leaving Mozambique rather than facing the inevitable retribution at the hands of FRELIMO.

Mozambique Grupos Especiais Para-quedista juleswings collection-11
Grupos Especiais Pára-quedistas (GEP) printed cloth parachutist qualification. This wing is found in Brazil and is probably made for GEP veterans who migrated to that country and served in the Brazilian military after 1974. Collection: Julian Tennant

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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

The New South Wales State Aviation School was a civilian organisation whose existence is directly linked to the story of the Australian Flying Corps during the First World War.

 

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 -05
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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The Thai Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU) 1954 – 1974

The Thai Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU) 1954 – 1974. Despite it’s innocuous sounding name, the unit was an extremely well trained special operations unit that was raised by the CIA and served with distinction during the ‘Secret War’ in Laos during the Vietnam conflict.

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
Thai PARU wings juleswings collection-06
Vietnam War period, Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit patches. Collection: Julian Tennant
Thai PARU-105
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.
Thai PARU wings juleswings collection-04
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.

 

Thai PARU-100
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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African Special Operations Insignia #1 – The Namibian Police Special Reserve Force

African Special Operations Insignia #1 – The Namibian Police Special Reserve Force is s the first in a series of articles looking at the insignia worn by various African nation’s airborne and special operations units,

This is the first in a series of articles looking at the insignia worn by various African nation’s airborne and special operations units. Please like and follow the page to be kept updated of future installments.

namibia police special reserve force juleswings-01

The Special Reserve Force (SRF) is a specialist SWAT type unit within the Namibian Police Force (Nampol), tasked with responding to high risk operations that cannot be handled by conventional police units. It is based on the South African Police Service Special Task Force (which will be the subject of a future article). The SRF were initially designated the title Special Task Force when first raised as an adjunct to the Namibian Police Special Field Force, a somewhat notorious paramilitary police unit, that at the time was comprised largely of ex combatants from the former People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), the military wing of SWAPO and former South West African Territorial Force (SWATF) personnel. In 1996 the Nampol Special Task Force was disbanded but then reformed in the late 1990’s, early 2000 and renamed the Special Reserve Force. The unit, which is also sometimes referred to as the Special Reserve Force Division (SRFD) operates out of the National Police Headquarters at Windhoek and is believed to number around 300 personnel. Working alongside other agencies, their role includes crowd control, VIP protection, hostage resolution, counter terrorism plus search and rescue operations.

namibia police special reserve force -100-2
Nambian Police Special Reserve Force Division members showing the various tasks undertaken by the SRF during a visit to the Groot Aub Junior Secondary School south of Windhoek in March 2017. Note the ‘interesting’ contraband items on display. Photo: Dirk Heinrich

namibia police special reserve force -40
Members of the Namibian Police Special Reserve Force Division deployed to regain control in the town of Okakarara after a group of residents stormed the police station on 12 August 2018. Photo: Namibian Broadcasting Corporation News

Service with the Special Reserve Force Division is open to both male and female police officers who have to complete selection and a six week training cycle, which is held at Khan Mine, a disused copper mine about four hours’ drive east of the capital Windhoek. The training programme includes marksmanship, hostage negotiation, tactical roping, CQB skills and riot control. Upon successful completion the new members are permitted to wear a black beret, SRF qualification badge and a distinctive camouflage uniform, which according to the dress regulations on the Namibian Police Force website, may only be worn by members of the SRFD. Qualified operators can also volunteer to undertake diver and parachute training, with the latter being permitted to wear a special variation of the SRF badge to identify them as being para qualified.

Nampol Dress Regulations for Special Reserve Force members work dress.
Nampol Dress Regulations for Special Reserve Force members work dress showing their distinctive camouflage uniform and black beret.

namibia police special reserve force juleswings-02
Namibia Police Special Reserve Force qualification badge (top) and SRF parachute qualified (bottom). These insignia are worn on the SRF uniform no.6: Work Dress. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Nampol Special Reserve Force policeman receiving shooting instructions from a member of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) during a United Nations deployment. Note the Namibia Police ‘tupperware’ insignia on his left shoulder.

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American murder suspect, Marcus Thomas being escorted by members of the Special Reserve Force after a failed prison escape attempt in 2014. The SRF qualification patch and ‘tupperware’ Nampol shoulder insignia can be seen on the policeman pushing the wheelchair.

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Nampol Special Reserve Force Division riot squad confront protesters against gender based violence at confront protesters trying to deliver a petition against gender based violence at the national Parliament building in Windhoek on 08 October 2020. The SRF qualification patch can be seen being worn on the black body armour of the officer in the top left corner. Photo: Namibian Broadcast Corporation News

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Namibian police including members of the SRFD march through the streets of Ondangwa in preparation for a graduation parade from the Danger Ashipala Training Police Centre. 30 October 2020.

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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  and Instagram pages

Australian Airborne Insignia #4 – RAAF Combat Controller Teams

A look at the insignia of the Royal Australian Air Force, Combat Controller Teams (CCT) of B Flight, 4 Squadron, one of the newest additions to the Australian Special Operations community.

 

The Combat Controller Teams (CCT) of B Flight, 4 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force are a relatively recent addition to Australia’s special operations capability. They trace their origin to 2006 when the Australian Special Forces Commander asked the Deputy Chief of Air Force whether the RAAF was capable of fielding personnel similar to the United States Air Force Combat Controllers who had been working alongside Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan.

As a result, the RAAF Air Group Combat Commander established the Special Tactic Project Proof of Concept Trial. The aim was for selected volunteers to pass the commando training cycle and trained as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) before deploying in support of special forces.

JTAC patches
Australian Joint Terminal Attack Controller patches 2006 – 2019. Whilst not exclusively Special Forces (the 5 week course trains personnel from all three branches of the ADF), like most contemporary Australian insignia, these JTAC patches have been extensively faked to supply the collectors market. These four patches are examples of original insignia requested for wear by the end users. Collection: Julian Tennant

Between 2008 and 2009, three intakes completed initial training and four members were deployed with the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG). This resulted in the ‘Combat Controller’ mustering (RAAF terminology for ‘trade’) and Air Surface Integration officer stream being created in 2012 and the CCT role declared an Initial Operating Capability.

RAAFCCT
RAAF Combat Controller Team member. Note the distinctive CCT qualification patch on his chest. Photo: Department of Defence.
RAAF CCT Havoc Strike
A Combat Controller from No. 4 Squadron calls in close air support from a PC-21 during Exercise Havoc Strike 2020. Note the 4 Squadron patch on his right shoulder.  Photo: Corporal Craig Barrett (Australian Defence Force)
Exercise Diamond Storm 2019
A Royal Australian Air Force No. 4 Squadron Combat Controller frees a quad bike from its pallet after a parachute insertion into the Mosquito Flats Drop Zone in the Bradshaw Field Training Area during Exercise Diamond Storm 2019. Note the CCT patch on his right shoulder and helmet ANF. Photo: Department of Defence.

Selection to become a combat controller is open to any member of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Volunteers first complete an 8 week CCT intake course which provides ground skills training and prepares them for the Special Forces Entry Test (SFET). Those who pass the SFET must then undertake around 18 months of testing and training in which they are required to complete the commando reinforcement cycle, JTAC, aviation meteorology, assault zone reconnaissance and air weapons delivery courses.

2020 Commando Selection Course
A Royal Australian Air Force combat controller from the Australian Defence Force School of Special Operations supervises Commando Selection Course candidates during an early morning physical training session at Holsworthy Barracks in Sydney, on Friday, 16 October 2020. Photo: Australian Department of Defence

The video below, shows the CCT’s conducting their annual parachute continuation training as part of Exercise Havoc Drop 20-1 which took place 13-17 July 2020 at Wagga Wagga in NSW.

Upon qualification they are presented their distinctive grey CCT beret and qualification brevet, becoming part of B Flight of 4 Squadron, RAAF, which is the squadron tasked with providing operational training to Forward Air Controllers (FAC) and support of the Australian Army’s Special Operations Command. The Squadron is divided into three main roles, FAC(A) is the airborne control of air assets, JTAC training (C Flight) and CCT (B Flight).

Since their formation, the CCT’s have conducted operations with SOTG, participated in several joint exercises with allied nations and recently in late 2019 early 2020, assisted in humanitarian operations within Australia as part of the ADF efforts to combat the devastating bushfires that swept large tracts of the east coast of Australia over the summer months.

AWM Canberra 2018-63
RAAF CCT display at the ‘From the Shadows: Australia’s Special Forces’ exhibition at the Australian War Memorial in 2017/18. Unfortunately I did not record the caption detail surrounding the RAAF CCT Commendation for Gallantry medal group shown in the display. Note the PVC Combat Controller Team patch. Photo: Julian Tennant

 

Beret & Insignia

Special Operations Education & Training Centre
 Special Operations Training & Education Centre Commando qualification beret parade, November 2019. 36 army personnel and 3 RAAF combat controllers passed the 14 month-long commando reinforcement cycle. The RAAF combat controllers are awarded the RAAF ‘air superiority grey’ berets whilst the army personnel receive sherwood green berets. Photo: Sergeant Janine Fabre (Australian Defence Force)

Once qualified, Combat Controllers are awarded a distinctive Combat Controller Team insignia which is worn as a qualification badge and (a variation) also on their beret. The badge (NSN 8455-66-162-5061) consists of a Fairbairn-Sykes commando dagger on a winged shield. The  dagger represents the close link combat controllers share with the special forces they support. The shield symbolises  the protection of ground forces, from harm during combat operations and the wings represent the air-power integration role of the combat controller.

CCT badge dress regs
Detail from the Air Force Dress Manual showing the embroidered Combat Controller Team qualification Badge.

The badge is worn on the left breast of dress uniforms, 3mm above medals/ribbons or flying badge if applicable. Cloth, metal and a mess dress miniature versions are used, depending on the uniform type.

RAAF CCT qual Nov 2020 small
One of the Royal Australian Air Force’s combat control officers wearing his qualification brevet, featuring a Fairbairn-Sykes commando fighting knife and wings, at the Australian Defence Force School of Special Operations commando reinforcement cycle graduation at Holsworthy Barracks, Sydney, on Friday, 13 November 2020. Photo: Corporal Sagi Biderman (ADF)

A similar design metal badge which features shortened wings is also worn on a black shield on the CCT beret which, unlike other RAAF berets is ‘air superiority’ grey, the colour signifying the presence of aviation in the daily duties of the combat controller. Mark Corcoran and Arthur Butler, author’s of the excellent reference books, Metal Uniform Embellishments of the Australian Army – Post 53 (‘QE II series’) volumes 1 & 2 also feature some of the prototype variations of the badge on their charliebravobooks blog which is worth checking out.

RAAF CCT insignia
Beret badge and Commando wings worn by the Combat Control Teams of B Flight 4 Squadron RAAF. Collection: Julian Tennant

CCT’s also wear a distinctive parachute qualification wing which differs from the standard Air Force parachutist badge. The wings are referred to in the Air Force Dress Manual as a ‘Commando Badge’ (NSN 8455-66-157-9911) and reflects the Army’s commando parachutist qualification design but has a white parachute with light blue wings on an Air Force blue background. A miniature version embroidered with gold bullion on a black background (NSN 8455-66-134-1212) is worn on the upper left sleeve of the mess dress jacket. The authority for the award and withdrawal of the Commando Badge is the Commanding Officer, 4SQN.

RAAF CCT wings dress manual
Page detail from the RAAF Dress manual showing the distinctive Commando parachutist wings worn by qualified CCT members of 4 Sqn RAAF.
RAAF CCT qual Nov 2020 2 small
Australian Army officer Major General Adam Findlay, AM, Special Operations Commander for Australia, presents a grey beret and congratulates a new Royal Australian Air Force combat control officer (left) at the Australian Defence Force School of Special Operations commando reinforcement cycle graduation at Holsworthy Barracks, Sydney, on Friday, 13 November 2020. Note the parachute wings. Photo: Corporal Sagi Biderman (ADF)

CCT’s have also been seen wearing a variety of Combat Controller Team patches and distinctive RAAF ANF insignia, some of which are shown below. At this stage, these insignia are less well known amongst collectors as they are tightly controlled by the unit and have not (yet) been subect to the massive number of fakes and reproductions that have occurred with other Australian Special Forces insignia. Sadly, it is only a matter of time before the fakes start appearing on eBay and elsewhere. If you do have original examples of the RAAF 4 Squadron or CCT patches or insignia, for sale or trade, I am really interested in hearing from you as I’d love to add these to my collection. 

RAAF CCT pitch black 2012 03
CCT and ANF patches circa 2012. A No. 4 Squadron Combat Control Team (4SQN CCT) member on board a C-130H Hercules aircraft during Exercise Pitch Black 2012. Photographer: LACW Shannon McCarthy (Australian Defence Force)
Exercise COPE NORTH 19
CCT patch circa 2019. A Royal Australian Air Force No. 4 Squadron Combat Control Team, load equipment onto a Japan Air Self-Defense Force KC-130H Hercules, as part of Exercise Cope North 19, Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. Photo: Sgt Kirk Peacock (Australian Defence Force)

 

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CCT helmet showing one of the patches worn by the team during Exercise Havoc Drop from 13 – 17 July 2020 near Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. Havoc Drop is an annual training exercise to maintain the operational parachute currency requirements of 4 Squadron personnel. Photo: Cpl Dan Pinhorn, Department of Defence

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Congo 5 Commando Mercenary Insignia Circa 1964

A couple of the earlier Congo Mercenary insignia in my collection.

 

Here are a couple of relatively recent additions to my Congo mercenary collection, an early 5 Commando shoulder title and the shoulder patch of the Congo Commando Force Publique, both of which were worn on the right shoulder.

Katanga 5 Cdo and Congo cdo patch
Congo mercenary 5 Commando shoulder title and Congolese Commando Force Publique shoulder patch circa 1964. Collection: Julian Tennant

Both are featured in Gérard Lagaune’s excellent reference book Histoire et insignes des parachutistes et des commandos de Pays des Grand Lacs but unfortunately the book provides little contextual information about the insignia. 

I am not sure when either of these two badges were introduced or superseded.  The aforementioned book suggests that the Congolese Commando Force Publique was created in the 1950’s and based at Sonankulu near Thysville, receiving their training from Belgian Commando instructors and that the patch dates from before 1960. Other information suggests that the Commando Force Publique patch was only worn between 1957 and 1960.

However whilst researching these badges I found this photograph of one of the original South African mercenaries in the Congo, Georg Schroeder wearing the insignia whilst a 1st Lieutenant in 5 Commando.

georg-schroeder-1
Studio portrait of Congo Mercenary, Georg Schroeder circa late 1964, early 1965.

Georg Schroeder was a former South African Parachute Jump Instructor who arrived in the Congo in 1964 and was the last commanding officer of 5 Commando in Congo before they were disbanded and returned to South Africa in 1967.

This studio photograph shows him wearing an interesting assortment of insignia, including the aforementioned 5 Commando shoulder title and Congolese Commando shoulder patch. His rank is that of a 1st Lieutenant, which according to the information on Terry Aspinall’s Mercenary Wars site, indicates that this photograph was taken sometime between 17 September and 26 December 1964, when he was promoted to Captain and took over the command of 53 Commando.

Also visible are his South African PJI wings on his left breast above what appears to be the United Nations Medal with CONGO clasp that was awarded to denote service with the ONUC Mission (1960-64). I am not sure if he was entitled to the medal issue as he is also wearing a Belgian 1st Para Battalion beret despite not having served with that unit. The badge on his right breast remains unknown (to me) although I think it may be the same qualification that is shown as #911, but also unidentified in Andrew Ross Dinnes’ book, Border War Badges: A Guide to South African Military & Police Badges 1964-1994.

Congo commando patch type1
Another older worn variation of the Congolese Commando Force Publique shoulder patch. Collection: Julian Tennant

Congo mercenary insignia is one of my areas of collecting interest and whilst my collection remains quite small it does contain some nice pieces that I have previously featured on this page, most notably a patch worn by 10 Commando led by Jean ‘Black Jack’ Schramme and a nice group featuring insignia, medals, photographs and paperwork that belonged to another South African, Bill Jacobs, who served with the British Parachute Regiment in Cyprus, prior to enlisting in 5 Commando in 1966. If you are a collector of Mercenary insignia and have spares that you are interested in trading or selling, I will be very interested in hearing from you, so please contact me.

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Shoulder patches collected by South African mercenary Bill Jacobs whilst serving in 5 Cdo in 1966. Each of the subsections, ‘Leopard’, ‘Jumbo’ etc was roughly platoon sized. Collection: Julian Tennant

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A Spanish Civil War Era Parachute Rigger Wing

Examining a rare Spanish Civil War era Republican parachute badge.

Original Spanish Civil War period Republican parachute badge. Collection: Julian Tennant
Original Spanish Civil War period Republican parachute badge. Collection: Julian Tennant

One of the rarest of parachute badges is that of the Republican Spanish from the Civil War” is how authors Bob Bragg and Roy Turner described this wing which is identified as #297 from their first volume on the subject of airborne qualification brevets, Parachute Badges and Insignia of the World.

Very little is known about Spanish Republican paratroopers, with some researchers denying their existence altogether. However, both the Bragg & Turner and Gregory & Batchelor’s Airborne Warfare 1918-1945 books state that in 1938 Russian instructors trained a platoon of Republican parachutists at Las Rosas near Madrid. However, no record exists showing that these paratroopers ever made an operational jump, nor any evidence to suggest that they were awarded a qualification badge.

There was however an official Republican military parachute insignia which is believed to represent qualified parachute riggers and it is likely that is the correct identification for the wing being discussed.

The badge shown above, which is held in my collection, is one of only a few authentic examples from the period still known to exist. It is a multi-piece, silver-washed brass and enamel badge that incorporates an existing aviator insignia with a separate parachute device that has been cut and shaped, attached over the top of the red enameled shield. The red enameled star has also been separately attached to the top of the badge.

The Republican Government authorised this insignia design via an order dated 26 February 1937 and recorded shortly thereafter in the Republic Gazette – Gaceta de la Republica 62 of 3 March 1937, on page 7104.  The insignia described in the Gazette reads as simply “Parachute. A deployed parachute embroidered in gold” (Paracaídas. Un paracaídas desplegado bordado en oro.)

Page from Gaceta de la Republica 62 - 3 March 1937
Gaceta de la Republica 62 – 3 March 1937 outlining the approval for a Parachute badge.

The inclusion of the word Paracaídas or parachute instead of Paracaidistas (parachutists) or Tropas Paracaidistas (paratroopers) plus its position within the gazette being listed along with other specialist insignia such as armourer, driver-mechanic and photographer also implies that this is more likely a parachute rigger trade badge rather than a paratrooper qualification wing.

Some years ago, noted Spanish parachute insignia collector, Manuel Gomez and a colleague produced a limited edition reproduction of the badge using parts of two original manufacturing dies that had been uncovered at a military regalia suppliers shop in the town of Alcala de Henares, which was home to a Republican airfield during the war. One die was for the Spanish Air Force wing and the other for a smaller parachute device, which is of a slightly different design and size to that on my civil-war period example. Both dies were incomplete with only the front faces being found, so as a result these reproductions were cast and a unique serial number engraved on the rear. Two hundred examples were produced and sold to collectors with an accompanying certificate.

REPRODUCTION Spanish Civil War Republican parachute badge
REPRODUCTION Spanish Civil War Republican parachute badge made from parts of original dies. 200 wings were cast and each is engraved with a unique number that matches the accompanying certificate. This example is number 111. Collection: Manuel Gomez

In addition to Manuel’s numbered reproduction, a number of other copies of this rare badge have also been made for the collector market. Some examples of which can be seen in the photos below.

Very little has been written about this insignia and I have not been able to find any further documentation regarding the requirements for qualification, how many were issued or what the original embroidered variation actually looked like. If you can help fill the gaps and have additional information, please contact me as I would love to find out more about the insignia and also this largely unexplored period in the early history of military parachuting.

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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 every second Sunday (at least) 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

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