Ch4 pt2. Parachute training.

At peaceful Penrith we hoped that our 79th Armoured Division would be posted to some busier position. The trouble was that the 79th Armoured was a secret and experimental division. We had all had to sign an Official Secrets Act undertaking not to reveal anything about our divisional operations. The Division contained a number of experimental tanks of various types, but the type we saw most of was a tank with a searchlight mounted on its turret. Several tanks would advance in darkness on a broad front. Suddenly each tank would switch on its searchlight, and the lights would begin to flash on and off with enormous rapidity between one tank and the other. The ground in front of the tanks was illuminated as bright as day. But to enemy gunners facing the approaching tanks the effect was dazzling and the fantastic speed with which the synchronised lights changed from one tank to another made them an almost impossible target to hit.

Behind the tanks came masses of infantry. When these strange tanks eventually came close to the enemy positions, hordes of infantry would appear from nowhere, and the effect was quite shattering.                                           

Because of the experimental nature of our division it was based more or less permanently in England and any transfer out of the division was almost impossible to obtain. Tony and I had at various times volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment, the Commandos and the Merchant Navy, but our applications had never got past the OC’s desk.

At this time it was becoming obvious that an invasion of Europe either from the Mediterranean area or across the English Channel would be attempted in the close future. Posters called for volunteers as parachutists. They showed a strong-jawed, smiling man in a parachutist’s round steel helmet standing confident and strong in a camouflaged jumping smock, pulling on the harness of his parachute, after having just landed, preparatory to collapsing the chute. Every time I looked at that poster I thought what tough-minded men those parachutists must be. Equally I thought that I should never have enough courage to jump out of an aircraft. And the more the thought came into my mind, the more an urge nagged me to have a go at it, just to prove to myself that I could do it. 

One afternoon as Tony, Basil and I sat peeling potatoes outside the cookhouse, I said, “Why don’t we volunteer to be parachutists?” 

“H’mm,” said Basil. 

“Th’ moost be daft, lud,” said Tony in that excellent simulation of a Yorkshire accent which he always used when he wished to demolish one of my arguments.

“They drop you miles behind the enemy lines, and if you don’t break your neck on landing the enemy machines guns finish you off when you get up. Of course, if you fly in American aircraft as likely as not you won’t even get to your target. The navigator’ll make a mistake and they’ll drop you in the sea.”    

“That’s as may be”, said Basil. “But as I see it this war is essentially a fight against evil, and it’s up to us to do what we can to see that we come out victorious.”

“For crying out loud,” said Tony, throwing a peeled potato into the bucket of water, “think straight, Basil. The trouble with Jimmy here is that he can never rest content with what he’s got. He’s always poking his nose into something else and, mark my words, he’ll end up in a mess. Think of all the things we’d miss in this town. We know the people. We’ve all got our feet under the table somewhere. We’ve got nice little jobs on the telephone switchboard or running a wireless link. What more could anybody want? Why, I even get free beer at the pub where I know the barmaid.” 

“All you think about is free beer at the pub, you rat,” grinned Basil. 

“And what is there to think about that’s more important?” queried Tony. “No, no. Forget this silly scheme, James, and don’t upset my mental equilibrium by putting foolish ideas into my head.” 

Basil made some remark about Tony’s complete lack of mental equilibrium, and the usual banter resulted, in which the original subject of discussion was forgotten.

Tony and I went down town that night for a couple of beers while Basil stayed in camp. I don’t know whether Tony got his for free from the young barmaid that he knew, but I’m fairly certain that I paid for mine. When we got back, Basil was waiting for us with a piece of paper.          

“Sign this.”                                                                                                      

“What is it?”                                                                                        

“An application to join the parachute battalion.” 

“On a night like this I’ll sign anything,” said Tony, and did so with a flourish. This left me with very little alternative but to follow suit.

The application went to the OC’s office next morning. Three days later Tony and I were ordered to a selection camp for parachutists near the town of Chesterfield. (They have a church there with a famous leaning spire). Here we were to be examined by various medical men and psychiatrists (known to the rough soldiery as “trick cyclists”). Having successfully passed this lot we were then sent on to a neighbouring camp that boasted the toughest battle course in the whole of the British Isles. 

“When I think of the comforts I’ve left behind,” said Tony, “I could shoot that Basil.”    Basil had not been released from the unit. He stayed behind to preach more sermons and meditate upon the inscrutable ways of Providence.

We survived several weeks of battle course toughening up during which we climbed trees, walked tightropes, waded through rivers, and crawled through muddy subterranean tunnels. Then we were posted to Ringway Aerodrome, near Manchester, where we were to undergo our actual jumping course. Soldiers of many nationalities besides our own were training there. We found Frenchmen, Norwegians, Danes, Poles, each of whom was waiting for his own personal opportunity to go back to Europe. The instructors were R.A.F. sergeants – pleasant, friendly men, who leapt out of aeroplanes as casually as the average man catches a train to go to work.

We were to make three jumps from a static balloon – one at night – and five from aircraft. Before we tackled the first balloon, however, we had to do several days of “synthetic” training.

Paratroops were generally carried by Douglas C.47 aircraft, with an exit door in the side near the tail. But we were jumping from Whitley bombers through a hole in the centre of the flooring. We therefore spent day after day jumping through similar apertures that had been rigged up in the huge hangars, which served as gymnasia. (Tony likened these apertures to outsize lavatory seats). This was called “synthetic” training. One sat on the edge of the hole, one’s head raised. Then one pushed off, trying to maintain a position of “attention” as one fell. Woe betide the person who gave way to the temptation to look down. The weight of his head would tumble his body forward and he would catch his head a nasty blow on the opposite side of the hole. This was known as “ringing the bell,” and anybody who did it was supposed to buy his comrades a pint of beer. Of course, in the gymnasium one merely landed sprawling on the mats below, but if one “rang the bell” when jumping from a balloon or Whitley aircraft, it might have meant turning a somersault in mid air, with the consequent danger of becoming tangled in the rigging lines of one’s parachute. Some of the synthetic training devices were very ingenious. I well remember one of them. We would jump from a platform forty feet up in the roof of the hangar, a harness and rope attached to our shoulders. As we fell the rope set in motion a huge fan that, with a noisy whirring sound and by its wind resistance, reduced our acceleration to the ground – a real fun machine.   

Our parachutes were packed by girls of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in a special room with long tables that nobody else was allowed to enter. The ‘chutes had to be packed carefully in a certain fashion, and a man’s life depended on the care and accuracy with which these girls carried out each job. Failures were almost non-existent but no girl ever knew who had been allocated ‘chutes which she had packed.   

After a fortnight of synthetic training, we were due to make our first parachute jump from the basket of a captive balloon. The day after I completed this jump, I wrote an account of the experience while it was still fresh in my mind. I have never changed a word of it, and present it here exactly as I wrote it, for I think that it truly recaptures the mood of that moment.

We are due to make our first parachute drop. In the half dark of a cold, early morning, we draw our ‘chutes, holding them like delicate, newly-born babies, and then crowd into the trucks which are to take us to the dropping zone. The instructor tells us that a cold day is always better for jumping, since the parachutist falls more slowly to earth and makes a softer landing. But the frozen ground looks hard enough to us, and subconsciously we think that if our ‘chutes fail to open we shall hit the deck with a hell of a jolt. Still, even if it were midsummer and the fields were ploughed soft, we should come a pretty cropper just the same. So why worry? 

Somebody tries to start a song as we hurtle through the countryside. 

“I’d like to find the WAAF who put a blanket in my ‘chute, 

I’d like to find the WAAF who put a blanket in my ‘chute, 

I’d like to find the WAAF who put a blanket in my ‘chute, 

‘Cos I ain’t gonna jump no more  ………                                                            

Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die  ……………” 

But his efforts are not appreciated and silence grips us. It is said that the truck ride to the dropping zone is the most dangerous part of a day’s jumping, but we do not entirely believe this. We only know that every minute brings us nearer to our task, and the blueness of our flesh and the shivering of our bodies are not entirely due to the coldness of the weather. We feel like men condemned to commit suicide.

We reach the dropping zone at last, tumble out of the truck, and with half frozen fingers fit on our ‘chutes. The first jump is to be made from a balloon at eight hundred feet. 

“Look,” cries somebody, “There’s one of ‘em.”           

A voluptuous, bell-shaped ‘chute is descending through the morning mist with a small, bent figure suspended beneath it. It is a beautiful sight, and our eyes go automatically to the balloon whence the parachutist came. The balloon hangs in the air like some tremendous sky-slug, its silver vastness turned gold by the first rays of the morning sun. Soon the whole world will be warmed by those rays, but for us on the ground the shivering and cold queasiness will not cease.

Looking around we notice that there are three balloons working and the sky is filled with drifting figures. One continually hears the satisfying snap as the ‘chute opens, the crackle of the silken canopies as they are dragged through the air, and the owner is airborne. 

With our harnesses fitted tightly, and our packs heavy on our backs, we waddle across to our balloon. Parachutists! Men of iron! What bloody rot! Right now we feel like men of jelly. We have to line up for our balloon behind several others, and watch them go up five at a time and then come falling out of the circular aperture in the bottom of the balloon cage. 

One of the lads tells a funny story and we all laugh like hyenas. Another chap strolls past us with a ‘chute rolled up roughly under his arm. He has just done his jump. 

“Piece of cake,” he tells us, and sticks out both his thumbs.

“Sure,” we say, grinning at him, and giving him the “thumbs up”. 

“Piece of cake”. But our knees are like water.  

Finally it is our turn. The balloon has been brought to earth, and its fat, flaccid expanse drifts just above our heads. We clamber into the cage, and all tremble with cold and apprehension. The winch begins to grind, we rise, and looking through the aperture realise that the people on the ground are suddenly ridiculously small. We have no feeling of height; it is just too stupid that that fast receding matchbox is a hut, that that winding ribbon like a snail’s track is a path. But nevertheless when the cage sways a little we all hang on like mad, even though in a moment we are to fling ourselves into space. It is nearing Christmas, and the cheery-faced instructor with us starts a carol as we go up. Grinning inanely we bawl “Good King Wenceslas” at the top of our voices, until abruptly the grinding winch stops, the balloon stops, and the carol stops too.

The cage sways a little. This is it, boys. It’s a piece of cake. Courage. And to hell with them.                                                                                                           

“Action stations number one,” orders the instructor, briskly. “Feet in the hole, head raised.”                                                                                                          

I am number one, and do as I am bid. I am going to jump, and nothing will stop me. I will not look down. No reason to. It is only the gymnasium floor beneath me, six feet or so below. There is no need to worry. 

“Go!” screams the instructor, and I find that, discipline having come to my aid, I have jumped.

Rushing wind. Ground still far away and unreal, swaying dizzily. Kaleidoscope. Huts, snail’s track paths swinging to meet me. I put up my arms in a subconscious attempt to ward them off, but discipline intervenes again. I must maintain a position of attention, and I force my arms to my sides. The static line rips from the back of my ‘chute and strings break with little jerks. I am helpless. I gasp in involuntary fear. Oh, God!

Then I am suddenly suspended between sky and earth. Looking up I perceive taut rigging lines stretching up to my canopy, and I realise with dumb, inexpressible relief that I am airborne. I murmur a prayer of thanks to the dear, sweet virginal WAAF who packed the ‘chute, and then hear an instructor’s amplified voice floating up. 

“Prepare for landing. Prepare for landing.” 

So far I have had no sensation of falling, or even floating down. But abruptly the figures and shapes on the ground become real and rush up. I watch the ground, timing it, and then find myself lying down. I have hit the deck. I’ve landed.           

I do not feel scared any more; neither do I feel wildly exhilarated. I am merely mildly curious to know how it all happened. I am quite warm, and this is surprising, since we were all freezing a few minutes ago in the balloon. 

The balloon. 

I glance up at it, floating high; high above. Did I really jump from there? Of course I did. It’s a piece of cake.