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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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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The Rip Cord Club of the World Badge

RCCW badge HJco-01
Rip Cord Club of the World badge circa 1930’s. Made by the Hardie Jewelry Co., the badge is stamped silver measuring 49mm x 41mm approx and attached by a brooch pin with locking roller catch. Photo: Julian Tennant

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

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

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

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

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

RCCW Louis Lowry number 243-02
Members of Louis Lowry’s Parachute Riggers Class 2, Chanute Field, October 1931. Collection: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

RCCW Louis Lowry number 243-03
Louis Lowry’s Parachute Riggers Class Number 2 at Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illionois. 16 Oct 1931. Collection: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

RCCW Louis Lowry number 243-01
Louis Lowry’s Rip Cord Club of the World certificate of membership of 9 October 1931 and identifying him as Rip #243: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

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

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

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

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

RCCW Birdie Draper -01
Birdie Viola Draper, R.C.C.W. Rip number 533. Image courtesy the San Diego Air and Space Museum’s Library & Archives

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

RCCW Birdie Draper -06
Birdie Draper’s and her co-performer, Captain F. F. (Bowser) Frakes at the Studebaker Factory, South Bend, Indiana, 1938. Image courtesy the San Diego Air and Space Museum’s Library & Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thai PARU wings juleswings collection-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bhumibol-sirikit1
His Majesty King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit at the shooting range during one of their many visits to Border Patrol Police compound at Khai Naresuan. Photo: Border Police Collection, courtesy the late Professor Des Ball AO.

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

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

Thai PARU wings juleswings collection-100
1960’s era Royal Thai Police parachutist qualification wings. These are the ‘downswept’ wing type which bears some similarity in overall shape to Royal Thai Army wings, but with significant differences to the RTA wings. Top: Third Class (6 to 29 static line jumps). Bottom left: Second Class (30 to 64 static line jumps). Bottom right: First Class (65 or more static line jumps). Note that in subsequent years other classes of parachutist wings have been added, notably a freefall wing featuring two stars on the wings and a ‘Tower jump’ wing which is for (non-PARU) police officers who complete jump tower training but do not undertake any descents from an aircraft. Variations of these qualifications exist in both metal and cloth embroidery. Collection: Julian Tennant
Thai PARU wings juleswings collection-05
Two 1960’s era variations of the Royal Thai Police Parachutist wing, Third Class. Collection: Julian Tennant

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

Thai PARU-106
“Upcountry Meeting”, a painting by Dru Blair from the CIA’s Art Collection which shows a meeting somewhere in remote northeastern Laos between Bill Lair and Hmong commander Vang Pao. Image courtesy of CIA.gov

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

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

Thai PARU-104
PARU Instructor Cadre at Hua Hin, circa 1962-3. Photo: J. Vinton “Vint” Lawrence
Thai PARU wings juleswings collection-06
Vietnam War period, Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit patches. Collection: Julian Tennant
Thai PARU-105
CIA Special Activities Division paramilitary officer “Vint” Lawrence in Laos circa 1964. Note the metal PARU wings worn on the beret. Photo: J. Vinton “Vint” Lawrence

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

PARU certificate and wing
Vietnam war period Thai PARU Parachutist certificate and wing. The First Class parachutist badge is awarded after the completion of 65 static line jumps.
Thai PARU wings juleswings collection-04
Vietnam War period Police Parachutist First Class variations in bullion and cloth embroidery. Collection: Julian Tennant

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

Thai PARU wings juleswings collection-02
Embroidered variations of the Royal Thai Police parachutist wings including the ‘Special Class’ freefall qualification (with the two stars on the wings) at the bottom of the picture. I suspect that these insignia may date from the 1980’s. There are literally dozens and possibly over one hundred manufacturer variations of Thai parachutist insignia as military and government regalia suppliers is a thriving cottage industry.  For the Vietnam War period collector the challenge is always trying to ascertain which insignia is wartime period and what has been produced in subsequent years, particularly as the materials used in their manufacture has a tendency to tarnish or fade quite quickly if not stored appropriately and as a result often looking older than they actually may be. Provenance is the key for original Vietnam War period items.

 

Thai PARU-100
His Majesty, King Bhumibol during a visit to the BPP in the 1960’s. Note that the Royal Thai Police First Class parachutist badge on his chest does not appear to have the star in the wreath. Photo: Border Police Collection, courtesy the late Professor Des Ball AO.

 

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A WWII S.O.E. ‘Force 133’ Balkan Operations D.C.M. group sells for £95,000

DNW Scott SOE group

This exceptional and important Second War S.O.E. ‘Force 133’ Balkan Operations D.C.M. group of eight went under the hammer at the Dix Noonan Webb Orders, Decorations, Medals & Militaria auction on 13 January 2021 and sold for £95,000 (plus 24% buyers premium).

The group was awarded to Sergeant K. A. J. B. Scott, Royal Signals and Special Operations Executive, late King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who was ‘dropped’ into Eastern Serbia in April 1944, linking up with Major Frank Thompson’s ill-fated Operation Claridges in support of Bulgarian Communist Partisans. As anti-partisan reprisal operations closed in, Thompson took the fateful decision to lead his private army ‘T. E. Lawrence Style’ into Bulgaria, where, with Scott continuing to serve as wireless operator, they were repeatedly ambushed and fought running battles with the Bulgarian Army and Gendarmerie before being ultimately broken up.

Starving and exhausted, Scott and Thompson were encircled and captured before being subjected to brutal beatings and threats under Gestapo interrogation. Learning of Thompson’s execution, Scott was then compelled to extract intelligence from S.O.E. Cairo via his wireless set but, cleverly ensuring that Cairo were not deceived, at great danger to himself he disclosed nothing, surviving fourteen nerve-wracking weeks under Gestapo orders until finally, with the Red Army closing on Sofia, he was released, finding his way to London via Istanbul and Cairo as the only British survivor of the mission.

The lot which was offered for sale to Dix Noonan Webb at the request of the family was sold together with an important associated archive of material, elements of which include the recipient’s unpublished autobiography of his war years; private correspondence regarding the Claridges Mission between the recipient and both the author Stowers Johnson and the eminent historian E. P. Thompson, and a rare surviving S.O.E. original typescript of the recipient’s D.C.M. recommendation.

DNW Scott SOE medals
Medals awarded to Sergeant K. A. J. B. Scott, Royal Signals and Special Operations Executive, late King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Distinguished Conduct Medal, G.VI.R; 1939-45 Star; Italy Star; Defence and War Medals 1939-45; Efficiency Decoration, G.VI.R., 1st issue, Territorial; Bulgaria, People’s Republic, Order of People’s Liberty, breast star; Honoured Medal of Georgi Dimitrov 1923-1944. Photo: Dix Noonan Webb

The rare, surviving S.O.E. recommendation, not previously publicly available or held by the National Archives – an original typescript of which is with the lot – submitted by S.O.E. Cairo staff officer and author of the renowned S.O.E. memoir ‘Baker Street Irregular’, Major Bickham Sweet-Escott, states:

‘Sergeant Scott was dropped to join a mission in East Serbia on 7 April 1944. The mission crossed into Bulgaria in early May and on 11 May [sic – actually 18 May], was ambushed by a large party of Bulgarian troops. In the fighting the mission and the Partisans to whom they attached were split up, and Sergeant Scott, together with an officer, were the only British survivors. The wireless transmitting apparatus of the mission which had been dropped into a river during the fighting was rescued by Sergeant Scott at a great personal risk of being captured by the enemy. Several days of flight ensued during which the officer was ill and Sergeant Scott was left alone to face heavy responsibilities. By tact and perseverance he managed to keep the depleted Partisan band together.

On 31 May, a second ambush was encountered and Sergeant Scott together with the officer were captured. Questioned under threats and beating by the Gestapo and Bulgar Secret Police, Sergeant Scott consistently refused to give away any vital military or technical information to the enemy. He was kept imprisoned until 9 September, at Bulgar anti-Partisan Headquarters in Sofia, and during the whole of this time made every effort to gain what information he could about the enemy’s activities. He was then compelled to work his wireless transmitting set to Cairo, but by great ingenuity succeeded in indicating that he was operating under duress, with the result that the messages thus sent by the enemy completely failed to deceive us. By this behaviour he put himself in considerable personal danger, since had he been discovered, he would certainly have been shot. Throughout the whole period, 7 April to 9 September, Sergeant Scott has shown considerable initiative, fortitude and steadfastness to duty and has thus contributed positively to the work of the Force in Bulgaria.’

DNW Scott SOE
Special Operations Executive Sergeant K. A. J. B. Scott D.CM.

Kenneth Alec John Baliol Scott was born on 1 March 1920 in Lewisham, London and was educated at Dulwich College. On leaving school he joined the The Rangers, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps – Territorial Army and was mobilised in August 1939, being quickly promoted to Signal Sergeant. Volunteering for Special Duties at the first opportunity, he was transferred to the Royal Corps of Signals in August 1943 and, before long, identified as suitable for Special Operations:

‘Eventually Kenneth Scott found himself at one of the most important finishing schools of the war: S.O.E. Middle East Training School for Wireless Operators. Men here had been selected (after volunteering) from every type of unit, and anticipated being sent to work behind the enemy lines with partisans in the Balkans, or on small Allied craft in enemy waters – anywhere, in fact, where danger was greatest and communication most vital. It mattered not what their previous military experience had been, for it was this that really united them – the consciousness that they had left unit and regiment behind, and all belonged to the same firm; and this indeed was the cognomen for their outfit: the ‘Firm’, Force 133 of S.O.E.’ (Agents Extraordinary by Stowers Johnson refers)

DNW Scott SOE wings
Distinctive parachute wings belonging to Sgt. Ken Scott (Royal Signals) of the Special Operations Executive. Photo: Dix Noonan Webb

Completing specialist training – including a five jump parachute course at Ramat David, near Haifa, in late 1943 – he was driven to a privileged district of Cairo serving as the home of S.O.E. Middle East H.Q., where he was to spend a lazy three months relaxing in S.O.E. surroundings, enjoying not just comfortable furnishings but Arab waiters, cooks and houseboys, pending further orders. Then, suddenly at midday on 5 April 1944, orders arrived for him to pack everything he needed and catch a flight that night to Bari, in Southern Italy. Scrambling into action, he just caught the plane en-route for Benghazi and Malta, arriving at Bari at 1800 hours on 6 April where he was whisked away to the local H.Q. of the firm and briefed on some aspects of his particular mission. The following day, now entrusted with further orders, codes and secret equipment, he was taken to draw his parachute and, completing a blur of further preparations, by 2130 hours he was aboard a plane headed due East from Bari, still not aware of his precise destination. Two hours later he was above the drop zone:

‘The plane was circling. Far down below a group of fires were burning right on the top of a Balkan mountain. Then suddenly, fully and immediately, did Kenneth Scott realise he was making the drop absolutely alone. He groped for his half-pint flask of army rum and began taking an occasional swig. Five times the plane circled and each time, as it crossed above the fires, the heavy bundles of arms and equipment were released through the bomb doors. The sixth circle was the final and Scott sat in the hole ready.

“I look down, [he said, himself describing that vital moment] and even in the circumstances I cannot help wonder at the wild, cold beauty of those hills slowly sliding away below. – We’re running in! The Red Light! “Action Stations!” “Go!!” I heave myself – then the hole – and plunge down to God knows what. The ‘chute opens and I widen my legs to get the straps more comfortable, when from under the ground mist comes a faint cry: “Get your feet and legs together!” – the good old paratroopers’ cry! Soon I land, scarcely a few feet from the fires, and am shaking hands with a couple of English lads, Major Dugmore and Sergeant Rogers. They take me down to the house, where I offer my rum flask, only to find that I’ve already emptied it!”

Not till next day did Kenneth Scott realise he had actually dropped to ‘Entanglement Pin Point Radovnica’ at 2355 hours on Good Friday. Dugmore and Rogers spent the day acquainting him with local conditions and listening in turn to gossip about Cairo. Late in the afternoon the mission, his mission, arrived in a condition entirely belying the code name ‘Claridges’. Major Thompson and Sergeants Walker and Monroe had come down from their latest trek over the Mountains to the north. They were tired and quite drawn with fatigue, very, very dirty, unshaven and hungry. They spoke of heavy fighting ambushes and occupied villages, but the sight of the new wireless operator was as great a tonic for Frank Thompson as were for his famished companions those gastronomic delicacies brought by Scott’s own “air mail”.’ (ibid)

DNW Scott SOE page
Page from Ken Scott’s typed biography entitled “Life in the Army” which presents his account of his 7 years service in the Army. Photo: Dix Noonan Webb

Operation Claridges
Scott’s arrival in Eastern Serbia, near the border of Bulgaria, had landed him into the centre of one of the more confused and under analysed of the S.O.E. areas of operation during the Second World War. His mission – ‘Claridges’ – led by Major Frank Thompson, a man whose short but eventful life has been the subject of biographies and memoirs (see footnote), aimed to estimate the strength of the communist underground Bulgarian resistance movement and gather evidence for a considered opinion as to whether Britain should support it.

They soon found Bulgarian guerrillas in Serbia and established contact with representatives of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Air drops of supplies and arms were arranged. However, whilst other areas of the Balkans had seen organised and determined partisan groups operating, Axis-aligned Bulgaria had never been occupied and until 1944 the resistance to Prime Minister Filav’s pro-Nazi regime was militarily weak. As the Germans decided that the partisans must be wiped out, the net closed in on Claridges’ location in Serbia and the Bulgarian partisans with Thompson announced in early May that they had decided to wage their campaign back over the border in Bulgaria. Thompson’s orders were to remain with the Bulgarian leaders if possible but this would require the Claridges force to venture east into Bulgaria itself, where large numbers of anti-partisan soldiers and policemen were active and brutal. It would be a gamble and an altogether more dangerous undertaking than the operations that they had hitherto been conducting under Major Mostyn Davies and a Brigade of Bulgarian guerillas in an area of Serbia controlled by the Yugoslavian Partisan leader General Tempo, a representative of Tito. Although warned of the dangers by Tempo and faced with a difficult decision without clear orders, the restless and ideologically driven Thompson chose to play his part in attempting to foment a communist uprising of the Bulgarian population. His small party, with Scott as the mission’s wireless telegraph operator, left the Cerna Trava area on 12 May 1944, in the company of 150 to 200 partisans of the 2nd Sofia Brigade, crossing the border with the intention of moving into Central Bulgaria. They ran into trouble almost immediately:

‘On the night of the 13/14 May the party fell into a police ambush of approximately 20 Bulgarian policemen armed with knives. The ambush party had been lying in wait across the track on which the Partisans were moving, and succeeding in establishing considerable surprise. In the skirmish which ensued one Partisan was killed and Dencho received three knife wounds. One policeman was stabbed and another taken prisoner. This prisoner stated that he had been recently conscripted into the Bulgar Gendarmerie, adding that he was a married man with children. This ruse to gain lenient treatment and, perhaps, to save his life, was unsuccessful however, since his papers showed him to be unmarried and a member of the Regular Forces. His head was smashed in with a rifle butt [by the partisans].’ (The Outline History of the Claridges Mission based on field signals and the evidence of Sergeant Scott refers)

They were now travelling in unfamiliar and hostile territory, very short of provisions and at constant risk of betrayal to the Gendarmerie or army. Exhausted, their rest in a wood on 18 May was interrupted by machine-gun fire at noon, causing them to scatter and split into two groups. Scott fled with Major Thompson, around twelve partisan officers and five or six other ranks including three women. A search for a new hideout was then delayed by one of their number being shot in the ankle and by increasing numbers of Bulgar troops, and by their own hunger and exhaustion. That night was spent in thickets on a hilltop with just a small amount of cheese for sustenance. With their confidence in the leaderless partisans now waning, Thompson and Scott agreed to split from the group when the first opportunity presented itself. Scott later recalled Thompson jokingly commenting, ‘These partisans are no good: maybe we should find some better ones.’

Indeed, many years later, Major J. Henniker-Major, another S.O.E. Balkans Operative, would state of Thompson’s Bulgarian Partisans: ‘I’m glad they were not my prop and stay – a pretty inexperienced and low level mixture of individual deserters and Communist civilians from the towns. Compared to the Yugoslav army they had an unreal and slightly horror-comic air of a brigand army, boastful, mercurial, temperamental and with an inexperienced yen to go it alone.’

Betrayal and Capture
On 30 May Thompson and Scott, desperate for food, attempted to eat leaves with salt and then shared a live wood snail. Three partisans were sent into a village despite it being occupied by an army unit and returned with some bread which was carefully divided. Then, exhausted once more they slept in an orchard.

On 31 May, after a Gendarmerie patrol was spotted at dawn 300 yards away, they decided not to move further. But at 14.00 a twenty-strong police patrol approached from the village where their presence had evidently been betrayed and two hours later fired the first bullets into the wood. Thompson and Scott, as they had planned, split from the group, moving uphill while the Partisans were fleeing down and hid between four trees growing close together in ground cover of dead leaves and branches.
They could hear small-arms and mortar fire, and the screams of one of three women who had stayed with the Partisans and who, despite her painful shrapnel wounds had killed several Bulgarian troops with grenades. A small force of troops then entered the copse in which Thompson and Scott were hiding and, advancing nearer and nearer to them until just ten feet away, the pair were spotted. A shot was fired at Scott which miraculously missed and then both men were captured. Dragged from their hiding place they were brutally kicked and struck with fists and rifle butts until an N.C.O. arrived. Both had their hands tied behind their backs, Thompson with a belt, Scott, whose hand was poisoned and swollen, with a rope, his wrists being so tightly bound that they were cut almost to the bone. As they were led back to the local village, peasants turned out to swear, spit and strike them with their fists or any heavy article they could seize. It was later realised by the captives that this attitude of the population and the Army was largely due to the loss of life caused by the Allied bombing of Sofia – raids which Thompson had encouraged: some accounts report that Sofia was 25 per cent destroyed, with thousands killed.

On reaching the village, Thompson, now extremely weak from lack of food, the march and ill treatment, lost his balance and collapsed. After preliminary questioning to ascertain that they were British fighting with the Partisans, they were taken to a cellar where, without any preliminaries, a shaved and well dressed civilian beat them with a truncheon, while soldiers, policemen and other civilians crowded in the doorway to watch. Their possessions were then set out on a table and an interrogation on more orthodox military lines followed, conducted by a commanding officer who had extracted shockingly precise information about the mission and its history from a captured Partisan.

Two hours later they were handcuffed and taken to a room inside a commandeered school on the edge of Sofia. Sharing the room were a number of captured Partisans and the three villagers who had sold them bread. A high ranking Gendarmerie officer then arrived and began the now familiar routine of spitting, kicking and beating, all conducted in front of an audience of soldiers, Gendarmerie and citizenry. Sleep was impossible owing to the injuries they had received at the hands of the Bulgars and also on account of the continual stream of sightseers. The screams of two women partisans who had also been captured continued through the night, accompanied by sounds of heavy furniture being thrown: they were never seen again. At this point Thompson was taken for three hours of interrogation at around three in the morning and returned looking haggard, scarcely able to stand; Scott followed. Then there was another more military and clear-cut interrogation, in a room containing three Gestapo representatives, in front of two wireless transmission sets, only one of which was recognisable to Scott. Many questions concerned the S.O.E. signals school in the Middle East, the exact station to which Scott had signalled, and the whereabouts of other British missions in the Balkans. These interrogators were extremely well informed but Scott avoided replies to all the questions by pointing out that his operation, and all those of the organisation to which he belonged, were carried out with the highest degree of secrecy, and that owing to these security measures he was totally ignorant of the activities or organisation of other personnel.

Working ‘under Gestapo orders’
On 1 June Scott’s request for medical attention was granted, the doctor being especially interested in discovering where Thompson had learned Bulgarian; since Scott had been asked this question multiple times during interrogation the Bulgars obviously attached some importance to it; it is a horrible irony that Thompson’s meagre knowledge of the language probably helped to incriminate him as a ‘spy’. During the following twenty-four hours, sightseers and Scott’s poisoned arm rendered sleep impossible and on 2 June Scott was taken off into individual imprisonment in Sofia where his captors required him to operate his wireless set in their attempt to acquire information from Cairo.

Scott never saw Frank Thompson again and was informed around 11 June, by a Bulgarian officer, that he had been shot, not as a soldier but as a rebel, and that he too would be shot unless the reports of his behaviour and co-operation were satisfactory. Stowers Johnson, whose account of Operation Claridges in Agents Extraordinary was later described by Scott as ‘factually correct’ and ‘the accurate story of this isolated wartime incident’, wrote that the object lesson for Scott here was that he was still alive because he had not been mixing himself up learning Bulgarian and getting into politics, with the ominous implication that if officers were shot so simply, then there would be even less hesitation with other ranks. That being said, it cannot be ignored that Scott, as the wireless operator of the mission, was of more obvious use to his captors than the equally brave Thompson. Now he would be put to work but, as per his D.C.M. citation, Scott, at great personal risk to himself, succeeded in indicating to Cairo that he was operating under duress, with the result that the messages thus sent by the enemy completely failed to deceive Cairo:

‘His captors were in earnest when they had demanded the set be worked at once. He was taken immediately to a large room entirely used for wireless telegraphy and set to work. A long and rambling account of the Battle of Batulia was drawn up, representing the incident neither as a disaster nor a success, and indicating that the British mission would very soon give details so that a sortie could be received, arms and supplies being urgently needed.

Now came the divergence of theory from practice. German N.C.O.s came at regular intervals to give, receive or monitor messages which were carefully checked somewhere by superiors whom Scott never saw. He realised each message was always reworded! This thwarted part of his plan, but was encouraging in that it must make for a difference of style which might be noticed. He could also make a few mistakes such as an inexperienced, badly trained operator might make. He left out deliberately his security check message. To his relief nobody came to point this out. Perhaps they did not know.

When that first message went out Kenneth Scott had the most trying time of all. If there had been no change in the staff at Cairo, they should suspect the situation at once. But if there were nonchalance in the decoding room, or haste or even sickness there, he might find himself responsible for calling out some Allied aeroplanes with their crews and equipment to be destroyed in the Sredna Gora Mountains. Or if the message were bluntly queried, he might be betrayed!

He need not have worried. At the British receiving station the absence of the security check message was noted with alarm and the errors seemed many more in decoding than even Scott had intended. The whole message stood out in front of the S.O.E. chiefs as a warning signal. Kenneth Scott had the reputation of being one of the best operators in the whole Middle East field. Such mistakes would fail even a trainee operator and when coming from their most capable sergeant of signals could not be regarded as accidental.

At once they knew he was in German hands and sent out warnings to other missions to watch carefully for Major Thompson or any other survivors who might be in hiding. More definite than anything, however, Kenneth Scott by his bravery in making those mistakes had placed responsibility for the safety of his life squarely upon the shoulders of Force 133. If they showed any doubt or distrust, if they queried the authenticity of the message, or indeed if they failed to respond to any request the pseudo ‘Claridges’ might make, the Germans would suspect and Scott would be sacrificed to Gestapo torture and elimination.’ (Agents Extraordinary by Stowers Johnson refers)

Whilst enduring the next fourteen weeks in captivity, under the continual threat of being shot, Scott continued to operate his wireless transmission set according to Gestapo orders, all the while contriving with Cairo to reveal nothing.
Finally, on 9 September, with Russian forces crossing the Danube and the Germans and Bulgarian troops in disarray, Scott was taken to the centre of Sofia by tram to be left abandoned in a side street. He slowly made his way back to London via Istanbul and Cairo. In 1945, Scott returned to Cairo as representative on the Allied Commission for dealing with Bulgarian war crimes. He was discharged on 4 June 1946 and was personally awarded his D.C.M. (which was originally gazetted on 9 August 1945) by the King at Buckingham Palace on 10 December 1946.

Bulgarian partisans of the Bulgarian Fatherland Front resistance movement enter the capital city of Sofia. September, 1944
Bulgarian partisans of the Bulgarian Fatherland Front resistance movement enter the capital city of Sofia. September, 1944

After the war Ken Scott became a ventilation engineer, starting as a draughtsman, rising to become sales director. In 1954 he married Sonia Townshend and in 1962 they retired to Galloway in Scotland and bought a holiday home in the Algarve in Portugal. In 2000 Scott returned to the scene of his wartime exploits and met the few partisan survivors. He was welcomed one of their own, a man who had shared their hardships. And he exorcised his ghosts by paying his respects at the graves of fallen partisans – and that of Major Frank Thompson. Ken Scott passed away on 30 September 2008. He was survived by Sonia and their two daughters.

The lot was sold with the following original related archive material:

DNW Scott SOE ephemera

The recipient’s typed and hard-bound autobiography of his war years entitled ‘Life in the Army’ being the story of his nearly 7 years in the army at home and abroad as described in his letters written home, also containing documents, news cuttings relating to his time during the war, illustrations and three original photographs of the recipient in uniform, in excess of 200 pages;

An original copy of the outline history of the Claridges Mission, based on field signals and the evidence of Sgt. Scott;

A silk map of the Balkan region in good condition and two more silk map cuttings of the Balkan region these last two aged and worn;

An original copy of the recipient’s D.C.M. citation; War Office D.C.M. investiture invitation, dated 23 October 1946;

A quantity of photographs of the recipient, seven of which are contemporary images of the recipient in uniform – one being a fine, card mounted, studio portrait, 25cm x 19cm, four also featuring the recipient’s brother Ron in uniform of which one also features the recipient’s mother;

Private correspondence, dated 1975, between the recipient and Stowers Johnson, author of Agents Extraordinary, in which the recipient congratulates Johnson on the accuracy of his account and also, dated 1984, in which Johnson provides thoughts on the attitude of Bulgarian officialdom towards the mission; correspondence, dated 1977 and 1979, between the recipient and the the socialist historian E. P. Thompson (younger brother of Major F. Thompson);

The recipient’s Record of Service card – Army Form W5258;

A well captioned album of photographs documenting the recipient’s visit to Bulgaria in 2002, containing images of the recipient meeting former partisans, visits to memorials, television interviews and press conferences etc;

Two VHS videos, the first with handwritten title ‘From Bulgaria and Revisit + 7 days – Thompson’ the second with handwritten title ‘7 day interview Bulgaria Oct 2002 / Mrs Thompson, filmed in UK by Transki 14/4/1978’;

Five books: ‘There is a Spirit in Europe A Memoir of Frank Thompson by T. J. Thompson and E. P. Thompson, the front end paper signed by Scott and also by the Bulgarian Partisan leader Slavcho Transki with a handwritten tribute to Scott, dated 1978; A Very English Hero, the Making of Frank Thompson by Peter J. Conradi; Agents Extraordinary by Stowers Johnson, the front end paper signed, ‘To Kenneth Scott, with kindest regards and best wishes from Stowers Johnson 10 August 1975’; The Left Side of History by Kristen Ghosdee; Baker Street Irregular by Bickham Sweet-Escott, front end paper signed by Scott.

Footnote – Major Frank Thompson

captain frank thompson SOE
Captain, later Major Frank Thompson of the Special Operations Executive who commanded Operation Claridges.

 

William Frank Thompson, educated at the Dragon School, Winchester College and Oxford University, was a highly gifted classics scholar, linguist and nascent poet of immense promise who became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1930s under the influence of his close friend Iris Murdoch. His exceptional record of service as a British Army officer began courageously with the Special Reconnaissance Unit ‘Phantom’ in North Africa, the Levant, and the hazardous landings in Sicily in 1943. However, it is his remarkable service with the S.O.E. in Bulgaria that really stands out. Parachuted into Macedonia on 25 January 1944, under the command of Major Mostyn Davies, he was part of Operation Mulligatawny which established links between the British staff and the Bulgarian partisans under Slavcho Transki. When Davies was killed, Thompson assumed command of the mission, now named Claridges, and crossed the frontier into Bulgaria together with Sergeants Scott, Walker and Munroe. All but Scott were killed. The extent to which Thompson’s personal politics were a factor in the outcome of the mission is still debated but there is no doubting his bravery and determination:

‘Along the way, he and his men experienced constant danger from enemy patrols, desertion and treachery by their own ilk, instant betrayal from intimidated villagers and peasants, extreme hunger, verminous lice, vicious sores and scratches from moving at night, bleeding, blistered and calloused feet, bitter cold and pernicious wet; yet, not once did he turn back despite ample good reason for doing so after the first ambush on 18 May. He pressed ahead indomitably to complete his task, however remote and impossible it must have seemed on many occasions. Thompson’s immortality was indeed his own individuality as he assumed the mantle of leading his mission into the heartlands of Axis Bulgaria, an erstwhile T. E. Lawrence of the Balkans or not.’ (Through Hitler’s Backdoor – SOE Operations in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria 1939-1945 by Alan Ogden refers).

After the war and the establishment of a communist government in Bulgaria, the villages of Livage, Lipata, Tsarevi Stragi, Malak Babul, Babul and Zavoya were merged and renamed Thompson ((Томпсън, in the Bulgarian Cyrillic alphabet) in his honour. While most Bulgarian towns and cities which were renamed by the communists adopted their former names soon after the collapse of Bulgaria’s communist regime in 1989-90, Thompson, to this day, remains Thompson.

grave_of_frank_thompson_in_litakovo_bulgaria-990x556
Grave of Major Frank Thompson in Litakov, Bulgaria

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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

juleswings viet para clubs and wings-01
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. 

camo
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

Saigon sports parachute club-01
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

 

Cape St Jacques Skydivers VN

Cap Saint Jacques Para Club-01
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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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)

1_ccpl10
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.

1bpl insignia-19
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).

LAOS-54-108-R13
Laotian paratrooper of 1BPL circa 1954. Note the standard French parachutist beret badge worn by 1BPL.

Lao para Drago and fake-19
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.

pegasus bridge museum-06
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

Australian Airborne Insignia #2. The 6RAR Parachute Company Group

6RAR Para Coy Gp. Exercise Distant Bridge - Painting by K. Wenzel, commissioned by Lt Col. A.L. Mattay and presented to the Battalion.
“Exercise Distant Bridge” – Painting by Ken Wenzel  and presented to 6RAR by Lt Col. A.L. Mattay, who was CO from January 1980 until December 1981. Exercise Distant Bridge was the first deployment by the 6RAR Para Coy Gp and the largest tactical air drop in Australia since WW2.

In 1974, the Brisbane based 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) under the command of Lt Col Tony Hammett took on an unofficial parachute role. At this time Australia had a special forces capability in the Special Air Service Regiment and the reservist Commando Companies, but no conventional airborne unit outside of the Airborne Platoon attached to the Parachute Training School. Hammett, who had been parachute qualified since 1959 encouraged soldiers of his battalion to undertake parachute training, but once qualified, they remained spread throughout the battalion. There were attempts in 1977 and 1978 to gain official parachute status but these were resisted until early in 1980 when the Enoggera based 6 Task Force was given approval to raise an airborne group based around an infantry rifle company.

Beret badges of 6RAR Para Coy Gp
Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) and the unofficial beret badge of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group. Approximately 150 of the unofficial beret badges were produced and presented to members of the company, but were never worn. The badge is die-struck with two clutch grip attachments and has a small ‘TAIWAN’ hallmark on the rear. Collection: Julian Tennant

Delta Company, 6RAR, which had achieved fame for its performance in the Battle of Long Tan in 1966, was selected for the task. Whilst remaining as Delta Company, it was now also officially called the 6RAR Parachute Company Group and by February 1981 had reached its target strength of 180 men. Shortly thereafter, on the 10th of April 1981, four C-130H Hercules aircraft from No. 36 Squadron flew 162 paratroopers from the company group 1600 kilometers from Amberley in Queensland to a DZ at an old WW2 airfield near Ross in Tasmania for Exercise DISTANT BRIDGE. This marked the the unit’s first full-scale deployment as an airborne force and the largest Australian tactical parachute drop since WW2.

Aust basic para pre 1998
Australian parachutist wings for summer (top) and winter dress (bottom) as worn by members of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group. Collection: Julian Tennant

Apart from the standard Australian Army parachutist badge, the paratroopers of the 6RAR Para Coy Gp did not wear any officially authorised insignia to distinguish the unit from other formations. However, the 2IC of the unit, Captain Richard ‘Dick’ Arnel did have insignia produced with the intention of having the design recognised as the official unit badge. The badge, featuring an upright SLR bayonet on a parachute with outstretched wings, over a scroll with the words “6RAR PRCHT COY GP” was produced as beret and collar badges, cuff links, tiepins, challenge coins as well as sports patches. About 150 sets of the beret and collar badges were made and issued to members of D Coy 6RAR but they were never worn. The cloth sports patches, which were made locally within Australia appear to have had production continued long after the demise of the unit and can still be found for sale in surplus stores and other retail outlets.

6RAR Para Coy Gp patch 3
Track suit / sports uniform patches of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group. The patch on the left, which has been removed from a uniform appears to be a modified variation of the patch on the right. I am not sure why the original owner may have carried out this modification. Collection: Julian Tennant

The raising of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group signaled the start of a standing conventional airborne capability for the Australian Army and led to formation of the larger battalion sized group when, in October 1983, the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) was designated a ‘Parachute Infantry Battalion’. Members of the 6RAR Para Coy Gp made one final jump near Amberley in Queensland before handing over the role and 3RAR formerly assumed the parachute role on the 1st of December 1983. 3RAR maintained the capability until 26th of August 2011, when it relinquished its airborne status and reverted to the role of a standard infantry battalion. Australia no longer has any conventional airborne units.

6RAR Para Coy Gp tie clip
Tie-clip made for members of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group. Collection: Julian Tennant

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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

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