The Mysterious Vietnam War Mary Poppins Platoon HAHO Parachutist Badge

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Mary Poppins Platoon Combat Qualification Gold Wing with the ARVN Jump Status Indicator for comparison. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

This “Mary Poppins Platoon Combat Qualification” parachutist badge (left) is one of the more interesting unofficial/novelty airborne badges in my collection.

Two variations of the badge are known to exist. A silver badge, described as the ‘basic’ wing and a second type with a point at the apex of the umbrella plus a gold wing which is referred to as the MPP Combat Qualification Gold Wing. As can be seen in the picture it’s design draws heavily on the ARVN Jump Status Indicator insignia which was worn by members Vietnamese Airborne personnel who were on jump status. The umbrella canopy may reference the pocket badge worn by the French Indochina period 1st Indochinese Parachute Company (1er Compagnie Indochinoise Parachutiste – 1 CIP) or it may be a reference to the French slang term le pépin, which means either parachute or umbrella.

Two of the first Vietnamese parachutist units. Top: French (Drago) manufactured miniature badge for the 1st Indochinese Parachute Company (1er Compagnie Indochinoise Parachutiste - 1 CIP) which existed between 1947 and 1951. Like the Mary Poppins Platoon insignia, this badge also features an umbrella in place of the parachute. Whether the connection between the two is intentional or coincidental is unknown. Bottom: Local made badge fo the Escadron Parachutiste de la Garde Cochinchine which was raised in Hanoi in 1949. Both these units became part of the nucleus of the newly formed 1st Vietnamese Parachute Battalion (1 BPVN) on the 1st of August 1951. Collection: Julian Tennant

Two of the first Vietnamese parachutist units. Top: French (Drago) manufactured miniature badge for the 1st Indochinese Parachute Company (1er Compagnie Indochinoise Parachutiste – 1 CIP) which existed between 1947 and 1951. Like the Mary Poppins Platoon insignia, this badge also features an umbrella in place of the parachute. It is unknown whether the connection between the two badges is intentional or coincidental. Bottom: Local made badge for the Escadron Parachutiste de la Garde Cochinchine, raised in Hanoi in 1949. Both these units became part of the nucleus of the 1st Vietnamese Parachute Battalion (1 BPVN) in August 1951. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

It may be that this link to the Indochina era 1 CIP is purely coincidental and the umbrella symbolism refers directly to the fictional character of Mary Poppins as described in COMBAT Magazine’s Mil Terms dictionary, which also includes a picture of the badge and states,

“MARY POPPINS : by reference to the children’s nanny who was possessed of magical powers, which were best exemplified for High-Altitude High-Opening (HAHO) parachuting by her use of an umbrella to descend back to earth after whirling around in the atmosphere. Introduced in 1934 by P.L. Travers, this FICTIONAL CHARACTER could not only slide up banisters, but could walk into a picture, understand what dogs are saying, and travel around the world in seconds. Julie Andrews played the part of this nanny in the 1964 namesake film, which was shown to troops in Vietnam. An informal (and very unofficial) skill badge depicting this nanny with her deployed umbrella was adopted during the Vietnam-era as a sardonic symbol of High-Altitude High-Opening (HAHO) parachuting.”

I am not sure of the original source of information for that definition and I wonder if the MilTerms dictionary piece is somehow linked to the story ‘behind’ the “Mary Poppins Platoon” insignia that was originally published in the Vietnam War Veterans Trivia Newsletter Vol. 1 No.2.

That account relates a somewhat amusing and far-fetched tale which is too incredulous to be taken seriously or believed. It attributes the badge to a combined ARVN Ranger and MACV airborne forces “Mary Poppins Platoon.”

The article, which is shown below, describes the adventures of Sergeant Nguyen Van “Stosh” Kozlowski, a Eurasian soldier of mixed Vietnamese and Slavic heritage, serving in the 32nd Battalion of the 5th ARVN Ranger Group who, after a heavy night drinking is deployed on a HALO mission into North Vietnam. Hung over and with his brain still muddled by alcohol he, inadvertently deploys his parachute immediately after exiting the aircraft and rides the canopy all the way back to III Corps and to cut a long story short becomes one of the founding fathers of the High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) concept. Promoted to captain, the now Dai Uy Kozlowski is tasked with building the “Mary Poppins Platoon” of HAHO parachutists which goes on to have a somewhat interesting combat record plagued by mishap and misadventure.

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The article published in the Vietnam War Veterans Trivia Newsletter and also in ‘Chute & Dagger’. Based on some of the statements, it seems clear that it was intended as a joke and not to be taken seriously and so I suspect that it does not accurately explain who made the badges or why.

 

The newsletter article was definitely written to entertain rather than as an accurate historical record of a real unit and I suspect that this insignia could simply be a novelty item rather than an actual parachutist ‘qualification’.  But, I also wonder what the real story behind the badge is. Maybe there is a connection to High-Altitude military parachuting in Vietnam, but if so, who had them made? Why? And who were they given to?

 

Operation Market Garden: The Airborne Museum ‘Hartenstein’

For visitors exploring the battlefields related to Operation Market Garden, the Airborne Museum ‘Hartenstein’ in Oosterbeek serves as a rallying point and provides a focus for much of the activity surrounding the annual anniversary commemorations of the battle for Arnhem. The museum is housed in what was formally the Hotel Hartenstein, which served as the Headquarters for Major General Roy Urquhart, commander of the 1st Airborne Division during this famous battle in September 1944.

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Airborne dispatch rider re-enactor and his BSA M20 motorcycle at the commemoration event held on the Airborne Museum ‘Hartenstein’ grounds each September.  Photo: Julian Tennant

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German sign restricting access to Arnhem after the battle. It translates as “It is forbidden to enter Arnhem on pain of death” Photo: Julian Tennant

Operation Market Garden was launched in an attempt to capture a number of bridgeheads that would allow the Allies to bypass the Siegfried line and cross the Rhine, entering the German industrial base of the Ruhr pocket. Allied Airborne troops were dropped in the Netherlands to secure key towns and bridges along the axis of advance. The British 1st Airborne Division was tasked with seizing the most distant bridges at Arnhem and hold them for two to three days whilst awaiting the arrival of the British XXX Corps who were advancing up the corridor created by the Airborne operation.

Although Initially taken surprise by the landing of the 1st Airborne Division at Wolfheze and north of Heelsum the German forces quickly moved to regain the initiative. Allied intelligence had not accounted for the presence of the 9th SS Panzer Division in the area around Arnhem. This combined with poor communications and the distance of the landing zones from their objectives undermined British attempts to seize the bridges. Only the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment under the command of Lt-Col John Frost managed to reach the northern side of Arnhem bridge, which they held for four days.

The bulk of the British forces became trapped in Oosterbeek, fighting a brutal defensive action until the 25th of September when their situation became untenable and a retreat, code-named Operation Berlin began in an attempt to evacuate the remaining airborne troops to the South side of the Rhine. British engineers assisted in evacuating 2200 men across the river but on the morning of the 26th September, the operation was halted leaving 300 troops behind. In the nine days of Market Garden, combined Allied losses amounted to more than 17.000. The British 1st Airborne Division was almost completely destroyed and of the 10,000 men committed to the operation, casualties numbered 7,578 dead, wounded or missing.

Hartenstein, which was built as a villa in 1865 before becoming a hotel in 1942 was commandeered as the 1st Airborne Division’s headquarters during Operation Market Garden and badly damaged during the fighting. It was subsequently restored and once again used as a hotel before being purchased as the site for the Airborne Museum ‘Hartenstein’ which was officially opened by Major General Roy Urquhart in 1978.

In 2008 it was temporarily closed for an extensive renovation and expansion program which included a basement displaying the ‘Airborne Experience’, a series of dioramas which takes the visitor through the battle from the perspective of a British soldier. After being briefed on the mission you enter an Airspeed AS.51 Horsa Glider replica being battered by flak before exiting into the dimly lit streets of Arnhem as the battle rages around you. You then wander through a juxtaposition of life-size dioramas combined with period visual footage and an audio soundscape, approaching Arnhem bridge before retreating back to the perimeter around the Hotel Hartenstein and finally the Rhine River.

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British 6 pounder anti-tank gun on display as part of the ‘Airborne Experience’ at the Airborne Museum Hartenstein. Photo: Julian Tennant

In addition to the ‘Airborne Experience’, the museum also features dioramas representing how the Hotel Hartenstein was used during the operation. One shows the medical post that was situated in the basement and the other shows the headquarters of Roy Urquhart. It also features several other exhibits and displays reflecting the experience of the battle from Dutch and German perspectives as well as a large collection of medals that have been donated to the museum by deceased veterans. The current displays reflect the current trend in exhibition design and many of the items that I saw at the museum during my first visit in 1991 are unfortunately no longer on display. This includes some of the uniforms and insignia that I was particularly interested in examining once again. In this respect, the Airborne Museum ‘Hartenstein’ is quite different to the Arnhem Oorlogsmuseum 40-45, which maintains an old-style approach to exhibit presentation and should also definitely be on your itinerary. In addition to the permanent collection, the museum also exhibits temporary displays related to the conflict and the grounds surrounding the building feature artillery pieces, a Sherman tank and memorials commemorating the battle.

Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. Operation Market Garden Arnhem

An old photo that I took when visiting the Airborne Museum ‘Hartenstein’ in 1991. Uniforms and insignia of the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. Unfortunately this display has been removed to make way for the current exhibits. Photo: Julian Tennant

The Airborne Museum Hartenstein

A piece of wallpaper from the house at 34 Pietersbergsweg in Oosterbeek which was used by Tony Crane and Fred Hocking from the  21st Independent Parachute Company to keep track of how many Germans they had taken out. Photo: Julian Tennant

The Airborne Museum also has an annex, Airborne at the Bridge, on the banks of the Rhine, opposite the John Frost Bridge. This annex tells the story of the battle fought by John Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion at the bridge from three perspectives, British Lieutenant John Grayburn, German Hauptsturmführer Viktor Eberhard Gräbner and Dutch Captain Jacob Groenewoud. Unlike the Airborne Museum Hartenstein, entry to Airborne at the Bridge is free and if you don’t have a MuseumKaart (see below), you can buy a discounted ticket to the Airborne Museum Hartenstein when visiting.

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The Airborne Museum Hartenstein annex ‘Airborne at the Bridge’

Arnhem Airborne beer

Airborne Beer! This is a special brew first made for the 55th anniversary in 1999 and produced annually ever since. It is sold at the museum shop and other locations around Arnhem. Airborne Beer is brewed in Bolsward at De Friese Bierbrouwerij Us Heit, a small family-company, which produces eight different specialty beers. Proceeds from the beer sales go to “The Lest We Forget Foundation” which supports British and Polish Arnhem 1944 veterans and their relatives. Photo: Julian Tennant

Airborne Museum Hartenstein                                                                                                        Utrechtseweg 232
6862 AZ Oosterbeek
Telephone: 026 333 77 10
Email: info@airbornemuseum.nl

https://www.airbornemuseum.nl/

Opening hours
Open daily from 10:00 – 17:00
Closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

2019 Ticket Prices for up to 20 people                                                                                            Adults                                           € 11                                                                                                      Student Card                                € 9                                                                                                      Teenagers aged 13 – 17              € 6.50                                                                                                  Children                                        €5                                                                                                        Veteran Card                                €6.50                                                                                                   MuseumKaart (Museum Card)      Free

Airborne at the Bridge                                                                                                                  Rijnkade 150
6811 HD Arnhem
T: 026 333 77 10
E: info@airbornemuseum.nl

https://www.airbornemuseum.nl/en/airborne-at-the-bridge

Opening hours
Open daily from 10:00 – 17:00                                                                                                           Closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

About the MuseumKaart option

The MuseumKaart is a Dutch annual pass scheme which gives the holder unlimited free entry into over 400 museums in the Netherlands. It  costs €54.95 (excluding  €4.95 administration fee) for adults and €32.45 for teenagers up to 18 years of age.

Previously buying a MuseumKaart was a great deal as it included a number of military-interest museums around the Netherlands, including the Airborne Museum, National Military Museum at Soesterberg, Oorlogsmuseum Overloon, Verzetsmuseum (Dutch Resistance Museum), Rijksmuseum, Scheepvaartmuseum (Maritime Museum), National Holocaust Museum and Anne Frank House in Amsterdam to name a handful. If you were travelling around the Netherlands and dropping into the museums it was a ‘must have’ but unfortunately since 2018 the full unlimited year-long entry is now limited to Dutch residents and (for the same price) tourists receive a card that expires after only 5 museum visits or 31 days.  However it can still be a worthwhile savings option depending on your plans.

The MuseumKaart website is in Dutch language only and online purchase is only to Dutch residents. However, you can buy the temporary (tijdelijk) MuseumKaart over-the-counter at some of the museums, including at the Airborne Museum Hartenstein.

Recommended Text

If you are looking for a great guide to refer to when visiting Arnhem and the battlefields associated with Operation Market Garden, I recommend you get a copy of Major & Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guide to Operation Market- Garden. Third Edition (published 2013)  which is available as a hard copy book or e-book (Kindle or ePub) and also their map, Major & Mrs. Holt’s Battle Map of Market-Garden. I found these to be extremely useful, providing pieces of information about aspects of the battle that I was unaware of, allowing me to plan and make the most of my time spent in the area. Highly recommended.

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A scene from the classic 1977 war movie about the battle, ‘A Bridge Too Far’. This image is often incorrectly described as an actual war photograph. The photo depicts a British officer (in real life, Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter DSO, officer commanding A Company of 2 Para) waving his umbrella a Germans on the bridge. Whilst the picture is a still photograph from the movie and not actually of the battle, I think it sums up the character of the British troops at Arnhem. As an aside ‘Digby’ as he was know, also disabled a German armoured car during the operation by poking his umbrella through an observational slit, blinding the driver.

‘Dutchy’ Holland’s Para Smock

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On loan from 2 Commando Company and the Australian Commando Association – Victoria , this Dennison parachute smock was part of the recent From the Shadows: Australian Special Forces exhibition at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

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RAAF Base Williamtown Parachute Training Flight Staff 1959. ‘Dutchy’ Holland and his distinctive bushy moustache is second from the left. L to R: WO2 Clivelly, WO Holland (Dutchy), SQN LDR Neilson, MAJ John Church and WO2 M Wright

The smock was worn by WO1 Douglas “Dutchy” Holland during his time as a PJI at the Parachute Training School at Williamtown. ‘Dutchy’, served in the RAF from 1940 until 1948 before joining the RAAF. He qualified as PJI number 6 at the first Parachute Jump Instructors course run by Parachute Training Wing (PTW) in 1954.  A legend in the history of Australian parachute training, he was awarded the MBE for his services to military parachuting in 1958 and in 1959 became the first person in Australia to achieve 500 jumps. When “Dutchy” retired in 1962 he had completed 663 descents including 60 at night and 29 water jumps. He decorated this Dennison jump smock with various Australian and foreign parachute badges, including some (now) very rare and desirable insignia.

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The shield patch is a rare Australian made variant of the WW2 USMC Para-marine shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI). I am not sure who the round patch represents.

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British SAS Sky Divers club patch. This patch probably dates from a visit made by a four man free-fall team from 22 SAS regiment to Parachute Training Flight (PTF) in early 1962.

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Canadian parachutist and an unusual, almost triangular shaped, variation of the British SAS wing

 

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A unique and personalised para patch named to a ‘McKenzie’ on the crutch flap of the Dutchy Holland’s Dennison smock. There’s got to be a story behind the decision to place it there…

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Rear of ‘Dutchy’ Holland’s smock featuring various insignia including the Newcastle Skydivers Club patch (bottom left near the kidney area). The Newcastle Skydivers Club was a joint Army/Air Force club at RAAF Base Williamtown.

Exhibition: From the Shadows – Australia’s Special Forces

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From the Shadows: Australian Special Forces exhibition at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra is open until 8 September 2018.

Australia’s special forces trace their history back to World War 2, with the operations conducted by the Independent Commando companies, Navy Beach Commando, the Services Reconnaissance Department SRD (Z Special Unit) and the Allied Intelligence Bureau (M Special Unit). Post war, the skills and traditions were maintained by the commando companies which later evolved into 1 Commando Regiment and then in 1957 by the raising of a Special Air Service Company which became the Special Air Service Regiment in 1964. 2 Commando Regiment evolved out of the re-tasking of the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, to take on the commando role becoming 4 RAR (Cdo) in 1997 and then 2 Commando Regiment in 2009.

Command and control for Australian special operations units was initially maintained by the Directorate Special Action Forces – Army (DSAF) which was formed in 1979 and underwent several changes, becoming Headquarters Special Forces (1990), Headquarters Special Operations (1997) and in 2003 Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Commanded by a Major General, SOCOM also brings other special operations support units under its control, namely the Special Operations Logistic Squadron (SOLS), Special Operations Engineer Regiment (SOER), Special Operations Training and Education Centre (SOTEC) and Parachute Training School (PTS).

In keeping with the requirements of special forces operations, the activities of many of Australia’s special operations units have, largely, been kept out of the public domain despite a gruelling tempo of operational commitments that has barely let up since the INTERFET deployment to East Timor in 1999. Public interest in the units has grown markedly and this temporary exhibition at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra provides a rare insight into the activities of the Australian special forces in recent years.

Developed in partnership with SOCOM, this exhibition features items held behind closed doors in the Special Air Service Historical Collection, Commando Regiment collection and other sources as well as some artifacts from the AWM’s collections. The displays provide some historical insights into the development of the units along with uniforms, equipment and artifacts related to its various roles, tasks and operations with an emphasis recent operational deployments.

It had been several years since I was last able to visit the AWM, so I recently took advantage of an opportunity to visit Canberra and spend a few solid days checking out this exhibition and the other displays. As previously mentioned, From the Shadows draws on objects held in the unit collections and not available for public viewing. There are over 600 artifacts on display and I was surprised to find that many of the SF related items that are held in the AWM collection such as SAS trooper Don Barnby’s uniform from Vietnam or objects relating to Z Special Unit’s operations against the Japanese, remained in their respective exhibition areas which further helps to contextualise these units roles in the conflicts represented.

The photos that I have included here are just a taste of what is on offer in the From the Shadows exhibition and I’ll leave my other photos from the AWM collection for another post. From the Shadows runs until the 8th of September 2018. If you can make the trip to Canberra to check it out, I strongly recommend that you do, it is an excellent exhibition. More details about the exhibition can be found at the Australian War Memorial website. The ABC also did a piece about it when the exhibition first opened in 2017 and it is worth taking a look at. You can find a link to their article here.

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WW2 period Australian parachutist wing worn by a member of Z Special Unit, Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD). This is a locally made variation of the Australian parachutist qualification. The standard issue Australian wings were generally not available for issue at the posting locations of Z Special (SRD) personnel, so locally procured variations, often hand made, such as this one were procured by operatives for use.

WW2 British No. 2 Commando beret

WW2 British No. 2 Commando beret on loan from the 1 Commando Regiment Historical Collection. This is an interesting inclusion as it was not worn by Australian commandos, but I could find no explanatory caption to give more information. The British commando unit that used this beret was disbanded in 1946 and the Australian commando companies were formed in 1955. Whilst there must be some connection and I can only assume it was donated to the unit museum by a former member of the British 2 Commando I wonder what the curators rationale was for including this item in the display?

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Early 1950’s period flag of 1 Commando Company (CMF).

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A unique and very early Commando Company beret which features the first 1955 issue pattern commando company beret badge that was produced with vertical striations at the centre of the boomerang. Also attached is an early basic parachutist wing, which is possibly of WW2 British vintage. The headband of this beret has also been modified by removing the bottom half to show the sherwood green of the beret beneath the black band (the regimental colours). I suspect that this beret has been modified by a veteran after his service in the commando companies as it is unlikely these modifications would have been permitted during service.

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On loan from 2 Commando Company, this parachute smock was worn by WO1 Douglas “Dutchy” Holland during his time as a PJI at the Parachute Training School at Williamstown. ‘Dutchy’, who had served in the RAF from 1940 until 1948, qualified as a (RAAF) PJI in 1954 and retired in 1962. He decorated this dennison jump smock with various Australian and foreign parachute insignia.

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Australian Special Forces HALO parachutist.

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Artifacts related to the Tactical Assault Group (TAG) counter terrorist teams.

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TAG Assaulter

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During the 1970s and into the 1980s, terrorist hijacking of commercial aircraft were not uncommon. Members of SASR used aircraft models such as this example, during counter-terrorism training for planning an assault on an aircraft and to discuss tactics for recovering hostages.

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Detail of the Members of an aircraft model used by SASR in the 1980’s, during counter-terrorism training for planning an assault on an aircraft and to discuss tactics for recovering hostages. Note the Airfix SAS toy soldiers which were released after the British SAS conducted the now famous assault to free hostages held by terrorists in the Iranian Embassy in London in 1980.

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Pong Su life buoy. The skills and experience of the Tactical Assault Groups (TAGs) in boarding vessels moving at sea have enabled them to contribute to a number of ADF operations conducted with other government agencies such as the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Customs. On 20 April 2001 members of the SAS with the TAG provided force elements that boarded the suspected drug smuggling vessel MV Pong Su off the coast of New South Wales. The SAS boarded the vessel by Seahawk helicopter and Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIB). Once the vessel was secured, officers from the AFP and Australian Customs Service boarded the Pon Su to gather evidence and make arrests. They discovered 40 kilograms of heroin and the victim of an alleged homicide. MV Pong Su was thought to have smuggled almost 125 kilograms of heroin.

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Maritime counter-terrorism assaulter. A maritime counter-terrorism assaulter of Tactical Assault Group (East). During the 1980s and 1990s Royal Australian Navy (RAN) clearance divers served with the Special Air Service Regiment and today they work with TAG-East to conduct maritime counter-terrorism duties. In addition to providing a Clearance Diver Assault Platoon, the RAN’s support of TAG-East has included a team of clearance diver snipers and underwater medics.

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Uniform of Private Matthew Martin, 1 Commando Regiment. Private Martin wore this uniform in Timor-Leste during Operation Astute in 2006-7. In the early hours of 4 March 2007 he was among Australian forces that assaulted rebel leader Alfredo Reinado’s compound in the village of Same, about 50 kilometers south of Dili. The rebels were killed, but Reinado escaped. He was shot dead leading an attack against the Timorese president and prime minister on 11 February 2008.

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Australian Special Forces uniform worn during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Australian Special Forces uniform worn during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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Sig Sean McCarthy KIA 8 July 08

Headrest from the seat used by Signaller Sean McCarthy, 152 Signal Squadron, SASR. KIA Afghanistan 8 July 2008. Signaller Sean McCarthy was on his second rotation to Afghanistan when his vehicle “Derelicte” was hit by a roadside bomb. He was killed in the blast. This vehicle headrest inscribed with the details of the incident commemorates McCarthy and is on loan to the Australian War Memorial from the Special Air Service Historical Foundation. McCarthy had received a commendation for his courage, skills and mission focus during his deployments with the Special Operations Task Group.

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JTAC Combat Control Team items from B Flight, No. 4 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force.

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The Special Air Service constructed this ‘storyboard’ collage in Afghanistan to display the weapons and equipment found on the body of a Taliban insurgent they had killed. Code-named ‘Depth-charger’, the insurgent carried a diverse range of equipment: a Soviet AK-47 dating from the early 1950’s, a Soviet Makarov pistol, locally manufactured binoculars and ammunition pouch, and an American radio. Much of his equipment was personalised with bright fabric and reflective tape additions.

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Enter a caption

REFERENCE BOOK: Les Unités Parachutistes de la Légion Etrangère et Leurs Insignes. 1948 – 2014 by Colonel (H) Duronsoy.

Les Unités Parachutistes de la Légion Etrangère et Leurs Insi

Les Unités Parachutistes de la Légion Etrangère et Leurs Insignes. 1948 – 2014 by Colonel (H) Duronsoy.

No ISBN.
Privately published via Blurb Books (December 2014)

Softcover. 150 pages. French text
 

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Les Unités Parachutistes de la Légion Etrangère et Leurs Insignes is a privately published book which covers the distinctive unit and sub-unit insignia worn by the various airborne units of the French Foreign Legion. This is one of a series of insignia reference books that Colonel Duronsoy, a 30 year veteran of the Legion, has privately published via Blurb books. The French text should not deter collectors as the book features full colour photographs of the front plus back of the insignia used by the Legion Paras since 1948 and despite my lack of French language proficiency I was still able to glean valuable information from the book.

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Colonel Duronsoy’s personal website can be found at http://insignes.legion.pagesperso-orange.fr/insigneslegionetrangere/accueil.html and the book, along with his other reference books on Legion insignia can be bought from the Blurb Books website at http://www.blurb.com/b/5819493-les-unit-s-parachutistes-de-la-l-gion-trang-re-et

 

The RAN ‘Special Duties’ parachutist wing

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Whilst many people think that these are a Special Air Service wing, because of its shape and similarity to the design of the brass stamped British tropical dress SAS wing. It is in fact a Royal Australian Navy parachutist wing although there is an SAS connection.

It was introduced in 1994 as the Australian Navy ‘Special Duties’ parachutist qualification for the sailors (primarily clearance divers) who had passed the SAS selection and counter terrorist training cycle in order to serve as part of the TAG (Tactical Assault Group) which at that time was part of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment. Within months of its introduction it was decided that there was sufficient water ops capability within SASR and the requirement to include the CD’s as part of the TAG was removed, making the insignia virtually obsolete overnight as no more sailors would be likely to qualify for it.

RAN Parachutist wings

LHS shows the standard RAN parachutist wings for mess (top) and dress uniforms whilst the SAS qualified ‘Special Duties’ equivalents are on the right.

CD officers at a dining-in night at Waterhen in 1999. Two of the CD’s can be seen wearing the mess dress Special Duties wing above their medal miniatures.

Sailors who had not completed the SAS selection and CT training cycle are awarded the standard RAN parachutist wing upon completion of their para training. This includes the Clearance Divers who now form part of the east coast based TAG-E which is structured around the Sydney based 2 Commando Regiment.

Fake RAN Special Duties wings

Fantasy/Fake SD parachutist wings made for the collectors market. The dealer who first posted these wings made the usual claims but has provided no evidence to substantiate the story. Subsequent investigations can find no evidence of them being requested or worn by anybody qualified to do so. Close inspection of the wing shape also indicates that it was made using the same machine used to make collectors copies of the Australian SAS wing.

Collectors should note that no cloth or bullion wings of either of the RAN para wings variations are authorised, nor are they worn. They are fantasy/fake items, made for collectors.

A special pair of wings

Wings made for A troop 1 SAS sqn in Kuwait 1998

Wings made in Kuwait for A troop, 1 SAS Squadron during Operation DESERT THUNDER, 1998. Only twenty sets made.

These Australian SAS parachutist wings are amongst the most prized in my collection for a couple of reasons. Apart from their scarcity, they were given to me by Andy Russell who was serving in the SAS at the time and on 16 February 2002 unfortunately became the first Australian to be killed in Afghanistan, when the LRPV vehicle he was travelling in struck a mine. He left behind his wife Kylie and Leisa, his two-week-old daughter whom he had never met. Lest we forget!

Andy and Kylie Russell at Kings Park.

Andy and Kylie Russell at the war memorial in Kings Park, Perth. Andrew Russell was the first Australian casualty of the war in Afghanistan. He was killed when his LRPV struck a mine on 16 February 2002. He left behind his wife Kylie, and his two week old daughter, Leisa whom he had never met.

Andy gave me the wings in late 1998 not long after he returned from a deployment to Kuwait as part of a US led coalition known as Operation DESERT THUNDER. Contrary to popular myth, this was the first operational deployment by an Australian Special Air Service Regiment unit to the region. No Australian SAS troops had taken part in the first Gulf War although some of the Navy clearance divers of CDT4 who conducted important operations in and around the coast of Kuwait during that conflict had served as sailors in the water operations element of the SAS counter terrorist squadron prior to 1994. In the aftermath of the war, the United Nations sent UN Special Commission inspection teams to Iraq to monitor their weapons program and check for evidence of WMD’s. Two SAS signallers from 152 Signal Squadron, corporal’s Mal V. and Mark S. formed part of one of these teams in 1993 but that was the extent of the Australian SAS involvement with Iraq and the region up until that point.

Then, in late 1997 Iraq began to deny entry to these teams and in response, a coalition led by the USA formed with the initial intention of mounting air strikes to enforce compliance. In February 1998, the Australian Government announced that it had responded to a request from the USA to participate in the coalition. Part of that response included elements of 1 SAS Squadron (A and B troops along with their integrated 1 Sig troop from 152). The squadron was bolstered by the attachment of a troop from the NZ SAS, which formed D troop. This ANZAC SAS force set up camp at a large Kuwaiti air base known as Ali Al Salem.

SASRGULF

A Long Range Patrol Vehicle (LRPV) and members of 1 SAS Squadron during their deployment to Kuwait as part of Operation DESERT THUNDER in 1998. Note that the soldier on the left is actually flying the 2 Squadron flag… a ring in perhaps?

The squadron’s roll was primarily to undertake combat search and rescue missions (CSAR) into Iraq to rescue downed aircrew and other coalition personnel. A secondary mission was to undertake tactical surveillance and response operations on the Kuwait- Iraq border and a third role was to provide a quick response force (QRF) capability to respond to small scale Iraqi raids. Familiarisation and preparatory training began immediately but two weeks after arriving, the UN struck a deal with Saddam Hussein and the planned air strikes were put on hold. The operation was renamed Operation DESERT SPRING and preparations continued until May when the squadron was reduced to a troop and then returned to Australia in early June.

At the time, Andy Russell was serving in A troop, which was 1 Squadron’s air operations / freefall troop. Whilst deployed to Kuwait, the troop had 20 sets of these ‘desertised’ SAS wings made up by a US army tailor. The wings were never meant to be worn, nor would they ever be permitted to do so. They were sold/distributed within the troop as a memento of the deployment and like many of the sub unit patches so often seen, inject cash into the troop ‘goffa fund’ which was used to buy soft drinks, beer etc for troop functions.

With only twenty examples made, it is definitely one of the rarest Australian SAS badges, but for me, they are even more special having come from a friend who was doing what he loved best, but taken before his time.