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”

Birdwood Military Museum – Geraldton, Western Australia

The Birdwood Military Museum, Geraldton, Western Australia.

Birdwood Military Museum Geraldton-01

One of the earliest known purpose-built Returned and Services League (RSL) halls in Western Australia is also home to one of the state’s regional military museums.

Continue reading “Birdwood Military Museum – Geraldton, Western Australia”

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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transkei airborne insignia juleswings map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

transkei airborne special forces insignia-2
Transkei Parachute School and TDF Air Wing Parachute Company beret badge. Bi-metal with two screw post attachments. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

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

 

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

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

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

juleswings collection transkei airborne wings -3
Transkei Defence Force parachutist wing with the burgundy felt indicating Special Forces. A green backing is worn by infantrymen and TDF staff wore an orange backing.

 

juleswings collection transkei airborne wings -1
Transkei Defence Force officers silver parachute wings. Two variations are shown. Both are serial numbered as awarded and are stamped “SILVER”. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

juleswings collection transkei airborne wings -2
Two variations of the Transkei Defence Force other ranks parachute badge. The top badge is the first issue type. These are replacement wings that were purchased by the soldiers to compliment their single issue badge which was numbered. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

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

 

Ranks Transkei Lt Col 2-Edit
The former Rhodesian soldiers leading the Transkei Defence Force had a big influence on the design of TDF badges and rank insignia. This included incorporating unit identifiers onto rank insignia, a practice that was formerly carried out in Rhodesia. Shown here are embroidered and screen printed variations of the Transkei Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel’s rank worn on barrack/work-dress. These examples are from the Southern Africa Militaria site which also features some of other TDF Special Forces ranks. Photo: Courtesy James D.N. MacKenzie.

 

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

 

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

 

transkei airborne special forces insignia-3
Transkei Special Forces Arm Flash. This is the same size as the South African arm flashes only one on the left shoulder of the dress uniform. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

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

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

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

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

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

Transkei TDF bantu-holomisa
Bantu Holomisa wearing the TDF para wing with green (infantry) backing.

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

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

 

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AATTV – WO2 Jock Rutherford MM

‘Jock’ Rutherford completed two tours of Vietnam. During his first tour in 1966 he was awarded the Military Medal for bravery during Operation HOBART. His second was with the AATTV training Vietnamese RF troops as part of the MATT program.

AATTV Jock Rutherford 2RAR museum

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The citation accompanying the Jock Rutherford’s MM reads,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The 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.

 

nsw state aviation school -01-2
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.

nsw state aviation school -01
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.

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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
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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.

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“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.

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PARU Instructor Cadre at Hua Hin, circa 1962-3. Photo: J. Vinton “Vint” Lawrence
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Vietnam War period, Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit patches. Collection: Julian Tennant
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CIA Special Activities Division paramilitary officer “Vint” Lawrence in Laos circa 1964. Note the metal PARU wings worn on the beret. Photo: J. Vinton “Vint” Lawrence

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

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Vietnam war period Thai PARU Parachutist certificate and wing. The First Class parachutist badge is awarded after the completion of 65 static line jumps.
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Vietnam War period Police Parachutist First Class variations in bullion and cloth embroidery. Collection: Julian Tennant

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

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

 

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

 

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The Dutch Armed Forces Nationaal Militair Museum

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The Dutch Armed Forces National Museum, known locally as the  Nationaal Militair Museum is located at the former Soesterberg airbase, approximately 50km southeast of Amsterdam. It combines the collections from the former Military Aviation Museum located at the same site with the Army Museum in Delft and the result has to be one of the best national military collections that I have visited.

The exhibits of the museum are organized thematically and although the museum represents all four services, the emphasis is on the land and air forces. The top floor tells the story of the armed forces through a combination of physical objects and interactive displays, which are broken down into sections leading the visitor through the story of the armed forces, the soldiers, conflicts, the relationship with civil society and the future.

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Interactive display at the Nationaal Militair Museum which allows visitors to identify the insignia and qualifications worn by members of the Dutch Armed Forces. Photos: Julian Tennant
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Commemorative Batik cloth of the two parachute companies belonging to the Korps Special Troops of the KNIL on display in the museum. They played an important role in the 2nd Police Action against Indonesian separatists in 1948/9. The 1st Para company consisted of Europeans (Dutch and Dutch East Indies soldiers), and the 2nd company of locally recruited Ambonese soldiers.
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Dutch Special Forces Afghanistan display. The chest-rig shown in the photo on the right was worn by Commando Captain Björn Peterse during operations in 2005. Photo: Julian Tennant
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Dutch Special Forces vehicle mounted patrol in Afghanistan. Photo: Julian Tennant

 

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Mercedes-Benz 250GD soft top (11kN). This Mercedes was used in between 2004-2006 by Dutch Special Forces of the Korps Commandotroepen in Afghanistan. It was originally an ordinary military Mercedes soft top, but has been adapted to the demands of the commandos. In order to be able to carry out extended patrols, the loading capacity was increased from 750 Kilo (7,5kN) to 1,100 Kilo (11kN). The vehicle is armed with a .50 machine gun on the ring gun, whilst the commander / co-driver operates a MAG machine gun. In addition the vehicles sometimes carried a 60mm mortar plus AT4 or LAW anti-tank weapons and radio systems that permitted communications between the crew, other vehicles and additional assets. Photograph: The Nationaal Militair Museum

 

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Dutch Police Dienst Speciale Interventies (D.S.I.) sniper display. Formed in 2006, is the Dutch elite police anti-terrorist force that combines the SWAT units of the police and marines. It has a unit of specialized water operators (Unit Interventie Mariniers), an assault/intervention unit, comprised of a mix of police and military personnel (Unit Interventie) and police marksmen unit (Unit Expertise & Operationele Ondersteuning). The snipers of the Unit Expertise & Operationele Ondersteuning are armed with Heckler & Koch PSG1 and Mauser SR93 sniper rifles. Photos: Julian Tennant

 

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A Brigade Speciale Beveiligingsopdrachten (BSB) assaulter of the Koninklijke Marechaussee (KMar) Gendarmerie. Photo: Julian Tennant

 

The lower level, known as the Arsenaal, concentrates on weapons and the equipment used, from uniforms and field gear through to tanks, artillery and aircraft. The mix between objects and interaction is just right and there are lots… and I mean lots, of things to keep kids or, otherwise bored, spouses entertained. In the middle of the Arsenaal is Xplore which is filled with games activities including an F16 flight simulator, sniping and driving a tank.

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Displays in the Arsenaal section of the museum cover 3000 years of weapons and equipment. Here, part of the medieval display. Photo: Julian Tennant
Cutaway model of a Steyr Mannlicher Rifle, Model 1892. Photo: Julian Tennant
Cutaway model of a Steyr Mannlicher Rifle, Model 1892. Photo: Julian Tennant

 

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Dogtag of Corporal Boortman excavated from the battlefield at Waterloo. Photo: Julian Tennant

 

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Infantryman’s uniform from the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, 1900. Photo: Julian Tennant
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Experimental insect-sized UAV camera device on display at the Nationaal Militair Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

I visited the Nationaal Militair Museum towards the end of a month-long trip dragging the missus through the battlefields of Normandy, the Western Front and Arnhem. I figured that if I was lucky, I’d have a few hours to explore the museum by myself, but when she saw some of the displays decided to hang around and we ended up spending the best part of the day exploring the exhibits. Unfortunately, I did not take as many photos as I should have and snapped most on my old cell-phone, so the images really do not do the museum justice. This museum should definitely be on your itinerary if you are visiting the Netherlands and is easy to reach if you have a car, but is also quite accessible by public transport from Amsterdam and worth a day trip to fully experience what it offers.

The Nationaal Militair Museum
Verlengde Paltzerweg 1
3768 MX Soest
The Netherlands

Phone: +31  85 003 6000
Email: info@nmm.nl
Website: https://www.nmm.nl/en/

Open: Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 to 17:00 excluding Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Koningsdag (27 April) 

Entry Fees:
Adults: €15,00
Children aged 4 – 12: €7,50
Children under 4: Free
Museumkaart: Free

For Dutch citizens, if you have a Defensiepas (Ministry of Defence card), Veteranenpas (Veteran’s Card) or an ICOM card or if you are a Friend of the Museum or member of Vereniging Rembrandt, you can collect a ticket from the cash desk upon presentation of your card. This gives you free access to the museum.

If you are relying on public transport, you can plan your trip online using the Dutch National Travel Planner at 9292.nl

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Vietnam War era Parachute club patches

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Collection: Julian Tennant

During the Vietnam war there was at least two sport parachuting clubs operating in South Vietnam although I have patches in my collection that indicates there may have been as many as three. Detailed information about the histories of these clubs appears to be quite scant although two of the three are mentioned in various accounts and the crossover is such that I wonder if they may in fact be exactly the same group of skydivers, just jumping under two different club names? But if that were the case why the different patches?

 

Viet-Nam Parachute Club Nhay Du

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Viet-Nam Parachute Club Nhay Du patch. Two versions of this patch are known to exist, along with a smaller metal ‘beer-can’ insignia. Collection: Julian Tennant

The Viet-Nam Parachute Club Nhay Du  was co-located with the Vietnamese Airborne Division HQ at Tan Son Nhut airbase. The club had a mix of Allied and Vietnamese members, with most of the latter coming from the Airborne School staff who sometimes used the opportunity for free-fall descents to qualify for the higher-grade parachute monitor wings.  Thom Lyons a long time skydiver, served with the USAF in Vietnam and recounted his experiences jumping with the club during his tour of duty in 1966-67. He recalled that after “Charles” had made jumping difficult at the old DZ“, jumps were done on the military DZ at Ap Dong, which was used by the Vietnamese Airborne school. 

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Thom Lyons’ Vietnam Parachute Club Nhay Du and Parachute Club of America membership cards along with his Vietnamese parachutist wings which he earned whilst jumping with the club. Photo: Thomas Lyons

 

The Saigon Sport Parachute Club

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Saigon Sport Parachute Club patch. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

Thom Lyons also jumped with the Saigon Sport Parachute Club (SSPC), which used the same DZ at Ap Dong. Thom recalls,

I was in a group of crazies in 1966-67 called the Saigon Sport Parachute Club jumping at Ap Dong. We used H-34’s which is strange cause when you spot you can yell “5 BACK!”.

The first incident was a 10,000 footer and at about 4000′ I noticed that the DZ was being shelled!!! I seriously wondered if it was worth it to open at all or just get it over with, but I wasn’t that young or that stupid.

Next was a few weeks later when the crew chief ordered everyone out for some reason. We were down wind over a jungle canopy to the east of the DZ and no way could we get back. I spotted a small clearing maybe 25′ in diameter and started towards it with my 28′ cheapo. I had to work the target and put my M-45 Swedish 9mm sub-machine gun together at the same time. I land in the clearing, but the canopy was in the trees and I was dangling a foot or so off the ground. I heard people running towards me and I almost shot three kids who came after me to carry gear or whatever for money or cigarettes. They got my gear out of the tree and when I went to put some ripstop tape on some small tears from the tree, I found two small calibre bullet holes! Don’t know when I got them. Let’s say the experience was UNIQUE! The DZ was also had as rock so you either did an excellent PLF or stood it up which wasn’t often in that heat and humidity. AP DONG was also the DZ for the Vietnamese 2nd Airborne Division and there was a small triangular fort on the DZ. The chopper could land right next to the packing area, but we discouraged that for obvious reasons.

Every time we jumped, we were plagued by people trying to sell us everything from Coke-Cola to their daughters and these boys were all over who would field pack for you for a couple of cigarettes. Carry your gear back for another one.

The club had mostly Army in it, and a couple of Navy and Air Force but also some Aussies and American Civilians. The first CrossBow in Viet Nam didn’t get jumped more than a few times. An American civilian brought it in and did a hook turn into a tree trunk and the H-34 had to fly him to the 3rd field hospital which left us without a jump ship for several hours.

By the way, the H-34 was Viet in VNAF colors and we paid the pilots a (5th) bottle of Johnny Walker each to fly for us, the chopper was free. I didn’t drink so it was usually my ration for 5th’s that got used up.

After TET in 1968 the club couldn’t get the chopper anymore and the club folded, I’m told.

The club jumped every Sunday morning and had a mix of military and civilian members from Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the USA. The club seems to be run on a shoestring budget, with Dan Bonfig, the President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer and Chief Rigger who was working for the RMK-BRJ construction consortium based at 12 Thong Nhut, Saigon administering the club from his workplace. Unfortunately, he has passed away and I have not yet been able to find out any more information about the SSPC or its relationship to the Viet-Nam Parachute Club.  A lot of the anecdotal information that I have uncovered so far seems to cross over between the two clubs, hence my belief that there may be a direct connection between the two.

Saigon Parachute Club 1967 - Photo: Hector Aponte
Saigon Sports Parachute Club circa 1967. Photo: Hector Aponte

 

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Cape St Jacques Sky Divers VN patch. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

The club represented by this last patch is a complete mystery to me. Cap Saint-Jacques was the French Indochinese name for Vũng Tàu, which during the 2nd Indochina War was home to the 1st Australian Logistics Support Group as well as various US military units. It was also a popular in-country R&R destination during the war so it does seem logical that a skydiving club may have existed there. However, I cannot find any record of this club existing during the war and none of the Australian veterans I have asked about it have any recollection of a parachute club being located there. The spelling of Cap Saint-Jacques as Cape St-Jacques on the patch suggests to me that it is post French era and my best guess is that it may be an earlier club that had folded by the mid 1960’s when the military presence started to build up in the area, but this is speculation on my part.

If anybody can help provide more detail about any of these clubs, I would love to hear from you to help clarify the situation and record some more detail about their respective histories before they are lost forever.

 

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