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 Fallschirmjäger Collection – Overloon War Museum, The Netherlands

Photographs of the German paratrooper displays at the Fallschirmjäger Collection shown in the Overloon War Museum in the Netherlands.

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On the 30th of September 1944, shortly after the failure of Operation MARKET GARDEN, German and Allied forces clashed in the vicinity of Overloon, approximately 35km south of Nijmegan. It took almost three weeks before Overloon was liberated and the clash went down in history as the most intense tank battle that ever took place on Dutch soil. Harrie van Daal, a civil servant was living in the area during that time and in May 1945 after walking through the battle ravaged Overloonse forest petitioned the Mayor and local pastor to create a memorial honouring those who fought. On May 25, 1946, the Oorlogsmuseum Overloon (Overloon War Museum) opened to the public – even before the village itself was rebuilt. It was the first museum about the Second World War in Western Europe. I will cover the museum in more depth in a future article, but one of the highlights is undoubtedly the Fallschirmjäger Collection which is part of their “Turning Point Europe” exhibition section.

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Overloon Oorlogsmuseum Fallschirmjäger collection-1

Unlike the Dead Man’s Corner museum in Normandy (see my review and pictures here), which concentrates on the actions of the German paras at Normandy, the Fallschirmjäger Collection presents an overview of the German paras from the early days of WW2 up until 1945. It does this in eight display cases filled with uniforms, equipment and related ephemera.

The first display shows the paratroopers of the early war and the invasion of the low countries, including mannequins representing their Dutch opponents.

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1 Overloon Oorlogsmuseum Fallschirmjäger collection early years-2

The next section shows the uniforms and equipment used during the campaign in North Africa. This is followed by a showcase displaying the paratroopers as they would have been seen in Sicily and the Italian Campaign.

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2 Overloon Oorlogsmuseum Fallschirmjäger collection Africa-8

The mannequin display cabinets are also broken up by others featuring an impressive collection of fallschirmjäger related documents, insignia, personal artifacts and other related ephemera.

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This is followed by showcases depicting the fighting in the Netherlands during the 1944/45 period and then jumps to displays of the fallschirmjäger kitted out in the equipment used during the fighting in the area of Monte Cassino and the Grand Sasso.  The exhibition finishes with the final display cases representing the paratroopers on the Eastern Front during the winter months.

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6 Overloon Oorlogsmuseum Fallschirmjäger collection 1944-5-2

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I visited the Oorlogsmuseum Oveloon as a day-trip excursion during my exploration of the battlefields and museums related to Operation MARKET GARDEN in the Arnhem area. Traveling by car it is a relatively short trip from Oosterbeek, roughly an hour’s drive  from The Airborne Museum Hartenstein. If you have the time, definitely plan to visit, even without the Fallschirmjäger Collection, the Oorlogsmuseum Overloon remains one of the most impressive WW2 military museums that I have encountered.

Oorlogsmuseum Overloon / Overloon War Museum
Museumpark 1
5825 AM Overloon
The Netherlands

Website: www.oorlogsmuseum.nl/en/

Phone: +31 (0)478 – 641250

E-mail: info@oorlogsmuseum.nl

Reservations: publieksdienst@oorlogsmuseum.nl

Open: The museum is open Monday to Friday from 10:00 – 17:00 and on weekends from 11:00 – 17:00. It also has reduced visiting hours on some days and is closed on some public holidays so it is best to confirm their opening schedule here. Due to current restrictions the museum only allows a limited number of visitors each days and online ticket reservations are essential prior to visiting.

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

Transkei Defence Force Special Forces and Airborne unit insignia 1981 – 1994

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. Also, 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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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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

 

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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.

 

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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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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.

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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.

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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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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

The Merville Battery – Normandy, France

merville battery-03

Whilst the American Airborne operations on D-Day were concentrated around the Cotentin Peninsula and commemorated at the Airborne Museum and D-Day Experience museums, the British Airborne landings were on the eastern flank of the landings and are featured in two museums, Memorial Pegasus, which I covered in an earlier post and the Merville Battery.

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In 1942, the Organisation Todt commenced construction of the Merville Gun Battery as part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall fortifications. Situated near the port town of Ouistreham on the eastern end of the Normandy coastline, the battery’s location was of strategic importance overseeing the estuary of the Orne and Caen canals as well as controlling maritime access to Caen. For Allied invasion planners looking at Normandy as a landing option, it also provided vital eastern flank protection and a pivot point for further advance.

Construction of the casemates at the Merville Battery.
Construction of the casemates at the Merville Battery.

By May 1944, the last two 1.8m thick, steel-reinforced casemates were completed and despite several air raids, the structures remained intact causing some consternation for the D-Day invasion planners who believed that the casemates housed 150mm guns capable of bombarding the beaches on which the British and Canadian 3rd Division were to land. In fact, the guns were first world war vintage Czech 100mm howitzers but with a range of over 8km they still posed a considerable threat to any invading force.

merville battery aerial photo may 1944-01
May 1944 bomb damage assessment photograph of the Merville Battery.

It was vital that the Merville Battery be neutralised before the seaborne invasion and the task was given to the 9th (Essex) Parachute Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway. In addition to the battalion, the operation would include sappers from the 591st (Antrim) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers and medics from No. 3 Section 224th (Parachute) Field Ambulance, taking the assault force to a strength of  650 men.

The battery, manned by 130 men of the 1716 Artillery Regiment, consisted of four artillery casemates along with command and personnel bunkers, a magazine, 20mm anti-aircraft gun platform, fifteen weapon pits each holding around 4 or 5 machine guns plus various outbuilding and shelters all in an enclosed area 640 by 460m. This was surrounded by two, 4.6m thick by 1.5m high, barbed-wire obstacles and a 91m deep minefield. A yet to be completed, 365m long, 4.5m wide by 3m deep anti-tank ditch also faced the casemates on the coastal side completing a formidable defensive position.

To prepare for the assault, a full-size mock-up was built by the Royal Engineers at Walbury Hill in Berkshire and the paras carried out nine practice assaults including four at night in preparation for the assault. Around 50 paras of A Company and some sappers were also retrained as Glider troops whose role was to crash land inside the perimeter, in three Horsa gliders to deliver a ‘coup-de-main’ during the final phase of the attack.

The plan was for the battalion to be divided into two groups with the first, smaller group jumping at 00:20 with the pathfinders to prepare the RV and also carry out reconnaissance on the battery. A bombing mission by Lancaster bombers was scheduled for just prior to the arrival of the paras and Otway wanted to know the extent of the damage before launching his assault. The main body, comprising B and C Companies would be the main assault force with B Company breaching the wire and clearing a path through the minefield which C Company along with the sappers would funnel through before splitting into four groups each tasked with destroying a casemate. This was timed to coincide with the three gliders landing inside the perimeter delivering the additional troops drawn from A Company and sappers carrying flamethrowers and explosive charges. The remainder of A Company, which jumped with the main force, had been tasked with securing and holding the firm base used as the launch pad for the ground assault. Then, if all else failed HMS Arethusa was standing by to pound the battery with her 6inch guns at 05:50.

9 Para prior to Merville
Members of the 9th (Essex) Parachute Battalion prior to em-planing for Merville Battery.

The advance party departed RAF Harwell at 23:10 and dropped on time at 00:20. Very little resistance was met on the DZ, but unfortunately many of the signal emitting Eureka Beacons were damaged during the drop and unable to be operated. The battery reconnaissance party set off for Merville whilst the pathfinder group marked the DZ only to be bombed by the Lancasters who had strayed off course and missed the target. Luckily nobody was injured and the DZ party attempted to guide the main body in using Aldis lamps.

By 00:45, 32 Dakotas carrying around 540 paratroopers were approaching the DZ, but the pilots were confronted by a huge dust cloud caused by the wayward bombing raid, causing them to make their run-ins at different altitudes to those planned. The despatching problem was compounded by an increase in flak which caused the pilots to take evasive action throwing the paras around in the back and weighed down by their equipment it was difficult for them to stand up and move into position to exit the aircraft. This resulted in most of the battalion missing the DZ completely, many bogged down by the weight of their equipment, drowning in the surrounding fields which had been flooded by the Germans.

When Otway finally reached the RV, it was nearly 02:00 and he was dismayed to find that there was hardly anybody there. Only 150 men of the original force finally arrived. It was less than 25% of those who had set out and they did not have any of the equipment needed for the assault, only side-arms, one Vickers machine gun and twenty Bangalore Torpedoes. At 02:50 Otway could wait no longer and set out for the objective, reaching the designated ‘firm base’ area, about 450m from the battery, at 04:20.

The original reconnaissance group, under the command of Major Allen Parry was given the task of forming the assault party and divided his group into four, in a rough imitation of the original plan. They would make two large gaps in the wire and send two of the assault groups through each. A pathway through the minefield was painstakingly cleared by one of the Company Sergeant Major’s and an officer who had crawled up to the wire, in order to listen and observe German movements.  Otway waited to launch the attack as the glider borne force arrived, but things went wrong again. One of the three gliders broke its tow rope just after take-off, the second landed several miles east of the battery and the third was hit by flak, overshot the target and crashed in an orchard some distance from the perimeter.

merville battery map-01

Otway knew that he would have to make do with the force that was in place and at 04:30 the assault went in. A diversion attack was staged at the main gate, whilst the Bangalore Torpedoes were used to blow gaps in the wire and the paras stormed into the Battery. After about 20 minutes of fierce hand to hand fighting the defenders surrendered and the paras entered the casemates. Without the explosives needed to disable the guns the paras did what they could to make the guns in-effective, dropping No.82 (Gammon bomb) grenades down the barrels and throwing away the breech blocks. Only 75 paras were still on their feet, 22 Germans had been taken prisoner and the position was now being bombarded by German artillery. At 05:00 Otway and his surviving paras left the battery and after a short break at the designated RV point, the Calvary Cross about 850m to the south-east, continued to their secondary objective, the village of La Plein where they linked up with elements of the 1st Commando Brigade later in the day.

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German troops of the 736th Grenadier Regiment quickly re-occupied the Battery after the paras left and two of the guns were able to be brought back into action, bringing accurate fire onto SWORD beach. On 7 June, the battery was assaulted by 4 and 5 Troops of No.3 Commando who suffered heavy losses in the action that followed.

Whilst the effectiveness of the Battery had been diminished, the British never succeeded in completely neutralising it and the Battery remained under German control until they began their withdrawal in mid-August.

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The Merville Battery Museum is situated in the original casemates of the battle and opened on 5 June 1983 as way of preserving the memory of the exploits of the men of the 9th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. The museum extends over five hectares with an education trail explaining how the Battery worked and the attack of 6 June 1944.

At the entrance, which is the site of the diversionary attack, there is a Memorial to the 9th Parachute Battalion and small gift shop. Visitors are then free to explore the area following the information boards and diagrams to gain an idea of what happened. The four casemates each feature different displays relating to aspects of the battle and there are also artillery pieces, memorials and the Douglas C-47, serial number 43-15073 ‘SNAFU’ which dropped American paratroopers of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment on the Cotentin Peninsula during D-Day.

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Casemate No. 1 replicates the events at the Battery on D-Day with a very intense sound and light show occurring every 20 minutes. The show commences with the bombing raid conducted by 109 Lancaster bombers at 00:30, followed by the German artillery being fired  at the canal locks at Ouistreham and the Parachute Regiment attack. Casemate No. 2 is a memorial to the 9th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment featuring various objects, photos and stories of the men who took part in the attack. Casemate No.3 shows objects related to the Glider Pilot Regiment, No.3 Commando, 45 Royal Marine Commando and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion who acted as a protection force on the left flank during the operation. Casemate No. 4 is dedicated to the Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourg and British units which finally drove the Germans out of Merville in August 1945.

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German Navy Kriegsmarine uniforms on display in casemate No.1. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Casemate No.2 is dedicated to the men of the 9th Parachute Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. Photo: Julian Tennant

A trip to the Merville Battery can easily be combined with a visit to the nearby Pegasus Bridge museum, stopping at various marker points along the way. Major & Mrs Holt’s D-Day Normandy Landing Beaches guide gives an excellent overview of the points of interest in the area and I spent the best part of a day examining this area. As a airborne insignia and militaria collector, I must admit that whilst I particularly enjoyed the Pegasus Bridge museum,  the Merville Battery really helped to convey an understanding of the battle, particularly from the defender’s perspective via the ‘sound and light’ show in Casemate No.1. I think it made me think about bomb scarred defences on the cliff tops at Pointe du Hoc very differently than I would have, when I visited that site the following day.

Musée de la Batterie de Merville
Place du 9ème Bataillon
14810 Merville-Franceville
France

Website: http://www.batterie-merville.com
Phone: +33 (0)2 3191 4753

Open: Every day from 10:00 until 19:00. Last entry at 17:30

 

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The D-Day Experience – Saint-Côme-du-Mont, Normandy, France

Without a doubt one of the best military museums in the Normandy region. If you’re an airborne collector, the D-Day Experience is a must see.

Lt. Col. Robert Wolverton
5 June 1944. Lt. Col. Robert Lee “Bull” Wolverton, CO 3/506 PIR, checking his gear before boarding the C-47 “Dakota”, 8Y-S, “Stoy Hora” of the 98th Troop Carrier Squadron, 440th Troop Carrier Group at an airfield in Exeter, England. Original US Army press release photograph colourised by Johnny Sirlande.

On the evening of 5 June 1944, Lt. Col. Robert Lee “Bull” Wolverton, Commanding Officer of the 3rd  Battalion, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division,  gathered his men in an orchard adjacent to what is now Exeter airport, and said:

“Men, I am not a religious man and I don’t know your feelings in this matter, but I am going to ask you to pray with me for the success of the mission before us. And while we pray, let us get on our knees and not look down but up with faces raised to the sky so that we can see God and ask his blessing in what we are about to do.

“God almighty, in a few short hours we will be in battle with the enemy. We do not join battle afraid. We do not ask favors or indulgence but ask that, if You will, use us as Your instrument for the right and an aid in returning peace to the world.

“We do not know or seek what our fate will be. We ask only this, that if die we must, that we die as men would die, without complaining, without pleading and safe in the feeling that we have done our best for what we believed was right.

“Oh Lord, protect our loved ones and be near us in the fire ahead and with us now as we pray to you.”

Then, his ‘stick’ of 15 paratroopers boarded a C-47 “Dakota”, nicknamed “Stoy Hora” for the flight to France. The invasion of Normandy had begun. But, within hours of that famous speech, Wolverton (aged 30) was dead. His feet had not even touched French soil. He was killed by ground fire around 00:30 hrs and left suspended by his parachute in an apple tree just north of Saint-Côme-du-Mont.

Stoy Hora C-47 Dakota at Exeter Airfield 05 June 1944
Paratroopers of the 506th PIR prepare for their flight aboard the C-47, 8Y-S ‘Stoy Hora’ at Exeter airfield. 05 June 1944. Of the 15 paratroopers in the ‘stick’ that flew in this aircraft, 5 were killed in action on D-Day, 8 were captured and 2 were missing in action.  Photo colourised by Paul Reynolds

In 2015, Dead Man’s Corner Museum curators Emmanuel Allain and Michel De Trez, opened the next section of their museum in a large hangar just behind the original Dead Man’s Corner building. Previously called the D-Day Paratrooper Historical Center, the now renamed D-Day Experience encompasses both museums. Co-curator, Belgian collector, historian and owner of D-Day Publishing, Michel De Trez is well known in the collecting fraternity. He is the author of several collector reference books on WW2 US airborne equipment, assisting Steven Spielberg with Saving Private Ryan and the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. This second exhibition space reflects those interests and looks at the campaign from the perspective of the US paratroopers.

Upon entering the museum, visitors are briefed by a 3D hologram of Lt. Col. Wolverton at an airfield in Exeter on the day before the invasion. They then board the “Stoy Hora”, a C-47 Dakota of the 98th Troop Carrier Squadron, 440th Troop Carrier Group for the ‘flight’ across the English Channel to Drop Zone D, south of Vierville on the Cotentin (Cherbourg) Peninsula.

Pilot of the IX Troop Carrier Pathfinder Group
Pilot of the IX Troop Carrier Pathfinder Group just before departing England. Photo: Julian Tennant

The seven minute ‘flight’ in the “Stoy Hora” is a great introduction to the exhibition space. Whilst, I am more of an ‘old-school’ kind of guy, more interested in examining original artifacts, the ride was a nice entry point which definitely appealed to the missus and the other visitors on board the simulator with us, particularly those with kids. The idea was born out of the Band of Brothers when Spielberg had transformed a real C-47 into a studio-space for the making of the series. The result is a high-tech simulator with 3D window screens, sound and amplified movements as the aircraft departs England for the bumpy ride, avoiding flak as it crosses into France to deposit its passengers into the exhibition space.

Unfortunately in real life, Lt. Colonel Wolverton did not survive his jump, he was killed by ground fire and left suspended by his parachute in an apple tree just north of Saint-Côme-du-Mont.  The exhibition, however continues in his voice. He describes the men, their training, fears and (as all paratroopers would know, sense of immortality, giving a very human and somewhat sobering perspective to the exhibits.

D-Day exp 502 PIR Coles boys-01
The white scarf and armband identify this paratrooper as a member of the 3rd Battalion 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. Photo: Julian Tennant

Pfc. Jack N. "Hawkeye" Womer. HQ Co. 506 PIR. 101 Abn Div.
Pfc. Jack N. “Hawkeye” Womer. HQ Co. 506 PIR. 101 Abn Div. A member of the ‘Filthy 13’, Jack landed in a swamp near St-Come-du-Mont and after extracting himself would end up fighting with the 501st PIR at Hell’s Corner. Photo: Julian Tennant.

Pathfinders 82nd Abn Division
Pathfinder of the 82nd Airborne Division. These men jumped in to mark the DZ northwest of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, one hour after the 101st drop. At the time there were around 300 qualified pathfinders and according to the caption, the Pathfinder camo suit that this individual is wearing is the only original of its type left in the world. Photo: Julian Tennant

The layout of the museum is superb, captions are bilingual (French/English), making it easy to navigate with good contextualisation of the content. For decades prior to the opening of Dead Man’s Corner Museum and the D-Day Experience, Michel de Trez had been travelling to the USA, interviewing and cultivating relationships with US Airborne veterans. This long-term engagement with the subjects of the museum has resulted in exhibits that are both unique and personal. Visitors can view objects and also discover the identities of the soldiers that used them. Unsurprisingly there are several items attributed to Dick Winters and his ‘Band of Brothers’ of  Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, but also several other unique pieces such as a leather jacket worn by General Eisenhower, items from Pfc. Jack N. “Hawkeye” Womer, one of the legendary “Filthy 13” and a jacket worn by 1st Lt. Wallace C. Strobel who featured in the famous pre-invasion press photo talking to Ike just prior to boarding the aircraft.

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Leather jacket worn by General Eisenhower whilst a 4 star General from 1943 until December 1944. Note the rank insignia detail. Photo courtesy of the D-Day Experience management team.

Pathfinders 101st Abn Division
Pathfinders of the 101st Airborne Division. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Waco CG-4A Glider pilot. Photo: Julian Tennant

Lt James C. Cox. 1st Pl, C Co. 326th Airborne Engineer Bn.
Detail of the jacket belonging to Lt James C. Cox. 1st Pl, C Co. 326th Airborne Engineer Bn. His parachutist badge features both the ‘invasion arrowhead’ and combat jump star. Photo: Julian Tennant

d-day_paratrooper_museum-28
Parachute badge with rigger’s “R” worn by Staff Sgt. Russell F. Weishing leader of the parachute maintenance & rigger section of the 1st Platoon, C Company, 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion. Photo: Julian Tennant

The selection of exhibit material supported by good informative (and at times blunt) explanations makes this a really engaging museum for collectors. If your interest is airborne militaria, I suggest setting aside at least half a day to visit both exhibitions on the site. If you have a car, the museum’s Historical Trail map  outlines a 40km circuit featuring 13 key sites in the battle for Carentan and takes about 3 hours to cover. When combined with the time spent at the museum, this is a good one day itinerary for the area. But, regardless, if you are planning to visit Normandy, the D-Day Experience should be high on your agenda, it is, in my opinion, the outstanding museum that I visited on my trip, surpassing even the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Eglise, which was another ‘must see’ and will be covered in the near future.

D-Day Experience
2 Vierge de l’Amont
50500 Carentan les Marais
France

Website: www.dday-experience.com/en/
Email: contact@dday-experience.com
Phone: +33 (0)2 3323 6195

Open: Every day. From October to March, the museum is open from 10h00 till 18h00 (the ticket office closes at 17h00). From April to September, the museum is open from 9h30 till 19h00.

 

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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 weekend and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection 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

 

Circuit_historique
D-Day Experience Historical Trail map covering 13 key sites related to the fight to secure Carentan. It can be downloaded from the museum website, see the main body text above for the link.

Dead Man’s Corner Museum – Saint-Côme-du-Mont, Normandy, France

As the anniversary of the D-Day landings nears and with COVID-19 travel restrictions still in place here in Australia, I decided to dive into my archive of pictures from a trip that I made to the battlefields around Normandy back in 2015. So, this week I’m sharing some photos from the Dead Man’s Corner Museum at Saint-Côme-du-Mont.

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Dead Man’s Corner Museum. The two B&W photographs show the knocked out M5 Stuart tank commanded by Lt. Walter T. Anderson whose body was slumped over the turret for several days during the fighting.

 

Situated at a strategic intersection on the route to Carentan, Dead Man’s Corner Museum takes its name from the name given to the crossroads after the first US tank to reach this point was knocked out by a Panzerfaust fired by 19 year-old German paratrooper, Bruno Hinz in the early morning of  7 June 1944. Hinz’s Panzerfaust hit the rear side of the turret killing all four crew members immediately. The crew commander, Lt. Walter T. Anderson, who was standing upright in the hatch fell forward and was left slumped over the turret where he remained for several days until his body could be recovered. The Germans had previously removed all the road signs to confuse any advancing troops and so the intersection was referred to as “the corner with the dead man on the tank” but was soon shortened to “dead man’s corner”. Lt Anderson who served with the 80th Tank Battalion, is buried in the St Laurent cemetery.

Overlooking the intersection is the building which has remained little changed since 1944 and is now the home to the  Dead Man’s Corner Museum. At the time of the invasion it was used as the Regimental Command Post and first aid station for the paras of the German Fallschirmjäger Regiment 6 commanded by Major Friederich-August von der Heydte.

major von der heydte
Major Friederich-August “The Baron” von der Heydte, commanding officer of the 6th  Fallschirmjäger Regiment during the battle for Normandy. Von der Heydte initially joined the army but after being promoted to Hauptmann, in May 1940, he transferred to the Luftwaffe, joining the 3rd Fallschirmjäger Regiment  as one of its company commanders. He commanded the 1st battalion of the 3rd Fallschirmjäger Regiment during the Battle of Crete in May 1941 and his battalion was the first to enter Canea, for which he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. He went on to serve in Russia, North Africa and Italy before being given command of the newly formed 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment of the 2nd Fallschirmjäger Division in January 1944. Interestingly, he is not wearing his Luftwaffe parachutist badge in this picture.

Fallschirmjäger
“Green Devils” in Normandy, June 1944. The average age of the German paratrooper in Fallschirmjäger Regiment 6 at the time of D-Day was seventeen and a half years old.

The museum, which is co-located with the excellent D-Day Experience (the subject of next week’s post) concentrates on the German paras as seen through the eyes of Major von der Heydte. Upon entering the museum, the visitor is thrown into his chaotic command post exactly as it would have appeared on the morning of the 6th of June 1944. Co-curator, Emmanuel Allain explained that when setting up the museum they spoke to the grandson of the Marie family who owned the house and had lived there in 1944. With his help they recreated the rooms as they were at the time, including details such as the family portraits, damaged painting, grandfather clock and other specific furniture.

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Dead Man’s Corner Museum exhibit displaying Major von der Heydte, commanding officer of Fallschirmjäger Regiment 6 and members of his command group, in the room that he used as his command post during the fighting around Saint-Côme-du-Mont. Photo: Julian Tennant

The Marie family left the house at noon when the kitchen (the second room display) was commandeered as a first aid post to supplement the main aid station downstairs in the basement and the rooms are a faithful reproduction of what they looked like at that time. The attention to detail is such that many of the faces of the mannequins on display were modeled on participants who were present at the time. To say it is an impressive setup would be an understatement, as an airborne collector who has had a fascination with the German paras since I was a boy, I was overwhelmed by the number of Fallschirmjäger artifacts on display. Upstairs the exhibits include even more German para uniforms, helmets, insignia and equipment but also some of the other German units plus several American objects, many of which have been donated by veterans of the battle.

dead mans corner FJG42-19
Fallschirmjäger weapons including a rare Fallschirmjäger-Gewehr 42 (FG 42) assault rifle and paratrooper issue gravity knives. The Fallschirmjäger-Gewehr 42 was captured by Sgt. Louis A. Frey, a scout for the regimental S-2 section of the 2nd Battalion 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, who jumped on Saint-Côme-du-Mont on the 6th of June 1944. Photo: Julian Tennant

Returning downstairs and adjoining the museum, is Paratrooper, a shop almost as large as the museum itself which sells both authentic and reproduction militaria. The shop is really impressive, although I must admit that I found some of the prices for the original pieces to be more expensive than what collectors would usually expect to pay. Fortunately, I did not find any insignia that I ‘had to have’ for my collection as I had already picked up some quite rare badges in Paris a few days before, but I was tempted.

The shop at the Dead Mans Corner Museum is as large as the museu
The ‘Paratrooper’ shop. Photo: Julian Tennant

The shop at the Dead Mans Corner Museum is as large as the museu
Reproduction German caps for sale in the ‘Paratrooper’ shop at the Dead Man’s Corner Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

Dead Man’s Corner, was the first of the museums that I visited during my trip to Normandy and already I felt that my expectations had been exceeded… and that was before I had even walked the 50 meters to the next building, the D-Day Experience for the American perspective. But that is the subject of my next post.

Luftwaffe Para Badge CE JUNCKER-7-Edit
Luftwaffe Paratroop badge in my collection. This example was made by the C.E. Juncker company. Instituted on 5 November 1936, the recipient needed to undertake the parachute course, completing the 6 training jumps to qualify for the award. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

Dead Man’s Corner
3 Vierge de l’Amont
50500 Carentan les Marais
France

Website: www.dday-experience.com/en/discover-d-day-experience/dead-mans-corner-museum/
Email: contact@dday-experience.com
Phone: +33 (0)2 3323 6195

Open: Every day. From October to March, the museum is open from 10h00 till 18h00 (the ticket office closes at 17h00). From April to September, the museum is open from 9h30 till 19h00. Note, the museum is temporarily closed due to COVID-19. Please check the website for updates.

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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 Sunday and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection 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 1st Laotian Parachute Battalion badge 1952 – 1954

Lao para Drago OM 1952-19
Original 1952 issue 1er Battaillon de Parachutistes Laotiens (1BPL) badge. The parachute and wings represent the airborne status of the unit. The four tiered parasol surrounded by three elephants symbolises Laotian royalty and reflects the legend that Khoun Borom founded the Kingdom after arriving on a white elephant and protected from the sun by a 4 tiered white parasol. The three elephants also symbolise the three principalities of Laos until 1947. The red enamel work reflects the national colour. The motto can be translated as “Dare to Conquer” or “As Courage Triumphs”. 2000 of these badges were ordered from the Drago company in 1952 and features the “Drago Paris Nice 43. R.  Olivier Metra” hallmark. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

The first Lao parachute unit, 1ere Compagnie de Commandos Parachutistes Laotiens (1ere CCPL)  was raised by the French in July 1948 from soldiers of the 3rd Company of the 1st Laotian Chasseur Battalion (1ere BCL). On 11 May 1949 it conducted its first operational parachute jump when 18 commandos were deployed to reinforce the garrison of Luang Nam Tha. By the end of the year it had carried out six more airborne operations and by April 1951 the unit had expanded from three to six commando sections. Then, in October 1951, Commandos 4, 5 and 6 were removed to form the basis of the 2nd company for a new unit, the 1st Laotian Parachute Battalion (1er Battaillon de Parachutistes Laotiens 1 BPL)

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Forerunners to 1st Laotian Parachute Battalion, Laotian paratroopers of 1st Laotian Parachute Commando Company (1ere CCPL) boarding an aircraft for a training jump in 1950.

On 1 April 1952, 1BPL was formally established with a strength of 853 men, including 13 French officers and 46 NCO’s, divided into a headquarters and three companies. By the end of the year the battalion had participated in 20 operations of which 6 included parachute insertions. In December 1952, during Operation Noel, 576 men from the unit parachuted into Sam Neua (Xam Neua) in north-eastern Laos to reinforce the garrison there. Then, in February 1953, a fourth company of 80 more paratroopers jumped in to bolster the garrison strength. However, in April 1953, the Viet Minh launched an invasion of north-eastern Laos crushing the garrison and forcing the remnants of the battalion to flee toward the Plain of Jars.

In May the unit was reformed at its base in Chinaïmo army camp on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane, undertaking commando and reconnaissance tasks north of Luang Prabang. In March 1954, 1er BPL began preparations for the relief of Dien Bien Phu as part of Operation Condor and by early May the battalion had relocated close to the Lao-Vietnamese border but withdrew after the French garrison surrendered.  On 18 June 1954 the unit regrouped at the French Air Force base at Seno near Savannakhet, then conducted the last airborne operation of the war when it parachuted into the town of Phanop in Khammouane Province to link up with militia units to clear the territory up to the Mu Gia Pass on the Vietnamese border.

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An unknown French officer serving with 1BPL. Note the enameled unit badge on his right breast pocket and the standard French parachutist beret badge. During the period of 1BPL, the standard French wings were also worn. The distinctive Lao style beret badge which replaced the sword with a trident and also the Lao parachute wings, were created after the French departure and 1 BPL had been re-designated 1st Parachute Battalion of the  Armée Nationale Laotiènne. Collection: Julian Tennant.

On 6 August 1954, following the implementation of the ceasefire in Indochina, 1BPL returned to Seno where it was integrated into the Laotian National Army (ANL). In October, following the departure of its French cadre it was redesignated the 1st Parachute Battalion  (1er Bataillon Parachutiste – 1BP).

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Laotian paratrooper of 1BPL circa 1954. Note the standard French parachutist beret badge worn by 1BPL.

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Comparison of my original 1952 French DRAGO OM hallmarked 1st Laotian Parachute Battalion badge (top) and a well made fake (bottom) that I first encountered during a trip to Vietnam in mid to late 2000. The fakes tend to feel slightly heavier than what you would expect for these badges and I suspect that is because of the alloys used. A very noticeable and critical point of difference is that the irregular hatching on the back does not match that of the originals. Nor does the text detail, which is a bit larger and less well defined as it is on the original. The detail and finish of the front of the badge is also lacking the fine precision of the original and this is particularly obvious on the elephants, text and parachute lines. Experience counts when looking at these badges. During that first encounter with the fakes in Vietnam it was only because several dealers at the notorious Dan Sinh market had examples of this and other rare French period badges that the red flags went up. At first glance the badges could be mistaken for original, but when compared to an original the differences are obvious. Caveat Emptor!

 

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Memorial Pegasus – The Pegasus Bridge Museum, Normandy

On the night of 5 June 1944, six Airspeed AS 51 Horsa gliders carrying 181 men from the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and 249 Field Company (Airborne) Royal Engineers departed RAF Tarrant in Dorset. Under the command of Major John Howard, their mission, code-named Operation DEADSTICK was to capture two road bridges near Normandy across the River Orne and the Caen Canal. This was the first action of D-Day in the British sector and would allow the allied troops landing on Sword Beach to exit and advance east of the Orne.

One of the six gliders went astray and landed a dozen kilometers from the objective, but the other five landed within meters of their objectives. The bridge over the Orne was guarded by only two German sentries and was captured without firing a shot. The more heavily guarded Bénouville bridge over the Caen Canal was taken after a short but intense firefight. Both bridges had been captured within 10 minutes. Reinforced by soldiers from the 7th Battalion Parachute Regiment during the night, Major Howard’s men held the bridge despite repeated counterattacks until they were joined in the early hours of the afternoon of 6 June, by the commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade, who had landed at dawn at Sword Beach.

Imperial War Museum Video – Operation Deadstick The Airborne Assault on Pegasus Bridge

Shortly after the engagement, on the 26 of June 1944, the Caen Canal bridge was renamed Pegasus Bridge as a tribute to the British airborne troops involved in the action. In 1974 the Airborne Forces Museum was opened on the west bank of the canal, opposite the glider landing site and close to the original Bénouville bridge but closed in 1997. A campaign started for a new museum and on 4 June 2000 Memorial Pegasus was opened by HRH Prince Charles, Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment.

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Weapons, including a ‘Liberator’ pistol and other objects relating to the clandestine operations undertaken by the French Resistance and SOE operatives. Photo: Julian Tennant

Spread over three acres, the museum grounds contain the original Pegasus Bridge, which was purchased from the French authorities for just one Franc in 1999, along with a full size replica of a Horsa glider.  The main exhibition building features a very interesting selection of artifacts related to the British 6th Airborne Division and the D-Day landings. There are guided tours of the museum conducted in both French and English which last for about an hour and a half. These are worth doing in addition to taking your time to browse the exhibits. Visitors can also scan the QR code panels to get information about the exhibits in ten languages, French, English, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Danish and Czech.

6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment unofficial badge.
Unofficial beret badge worn by Sergeant Jeremy H. Barkway (3rd Kings Hussars) 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment. On D-Day, Barkway commanded a “Tetrach” light reconnaissance tank which had been transported by a Hamilcar glider. He subsequently saw actions in the Ardennes and on the Rhine crossing. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Unusual one-piece, printed, Airborne and Pegasus patch on display at Memorial Pegasus. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Battledress jacket and beret of Lieutenant John Hughes of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Beret belonging to bagpiper Bill Millin who landed at Sword Beach with the 1st Special Service Brigade on D-Day. Millin subsequently led the brigade, commanded by Brigadier The Lord Lovat, up to the town of Benouville where they linked up with the Airborne troops at Pegasus Bridge. Photo: Julian Tennant

Memorial Pegasus
Avenue du Major Howard
14860 Ranville
France

Phone: +33 2 31781944
Email: info@memorial-pegasus.org
Website: https://musee.memorial-pegasus.com/en/

Open:                                                                                                                                                         The Memorial Pegasus is open everyday from 1st February to 15th December. A visit, with guide, lasts about 1h15.
1st February to 31st March from 10.00 to 17.00
1st April to 30th September from 9.30 to 18.30
1st October to 15th December from 10.00 to 17.00

Entry Fees:
Adults –  8.00 €
Children/Students –  5.00 €

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! 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. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection 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