BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL WAR CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY VOL2 1940-1942 & VOL3 1942-1944 1
1941 - On the 26th October the brigade commander (Brigadier Smyth), who had been appointed to command a brigade overseas, came to say good-bye to the Regiment. He spoke to all officers and non-commissioned officers and told them that the brigade had been chosen for conversion to an airlanding brigade in an airborne division. This division was to be commanded by Major-General F. A. M. Browning and the airlanding brigade by Brigadier G. F. Hopkinson.
On the 4th December the commanding officer (Lieutenant Colonel L. W. Giles) spoke to the whole Regiment on the subject of their new role as airborne troops. He emphasized that the following qualities were required: speed of thought, alertness and powers of observation, initiative by all ranks, and physical fitness.
On the 9th December the Regiment left Pembroke Dock for Basingstoke, spending the night en route at Fairford.
The year 1941 ended with the 52nd officially part of the airborne division. Physical training, road walks and runs, and forced marches became the order of the day. 1
1942 - The 52nd remained at Basingstoke until April. This was a period of intensive individual training and reorganization. The Regiment was now an airlanding battalion in the Airborne Division, which consisted of the 1st Parachute Brigade (a four-battalion brigade commanded by Brigadier R. N. Gale), the 1st Airlanding Brigade (lately the 31st Independent Brigade commanded by Brigadier G. F. Hopkinson) and supporting arms. The division, except for the airlanding brigade, was concentrated in the area of Bulford Camp.
Divisional signs were now being worn. These were the afterwards famous Pegasus (Bellerophon up) in pale blue on a maroon background and underneath the word “Airborne” in the same colours. The Regiment was allowed to choose the style of regimental title to be worn on the shoulders in battledress. The title finally chosen was the word “Fifty-Second” in Regimental colours, which looked very well and was most popular with all ranks
The divisional commander issued an order that a very high physical, mental and moral standard was to be inculcated and those unable to reach this standard were to be posted elsewhere. No one was to be retained who was unwilling to become airborne. This meant a considerable number of changes in the Regiment, and, although all ranks were extremely keen on their new role, a number of the older soldiers, by reason of their years, were unable to reach the high physical standard demanded. By the new establishment, the Regiment’s strength was increased and a total of approximately fifty officers was required.
By the end of March reorganization within the Regiment was almost complete, according to the divisional commander’s directive, but there were many gaps in the ranks yet to be filled and the Regiment was not yet organized on its future establishment, which was still in embryo. Drafts of volunteers had begun to arrive from other regiments and from the 70th (Young Soldiers) Battalion of the Regiment.
ANNEXURE TO REGIMENTAL ORDER, PART I, No. 59/4, DATED 17TH MARCH, 1942 VOLUNTEERS FOR SERVICE WITH AIRBORNE DIVISION
Reinforcements for airborne divisions (less parachute brigades) will be found as far as possible from volunteers. Reinforcements for parachute brigades will be found exclusively from volunteers.
Officers and other ranks will be allowed to volunteer from any unit which is not mobilized or under orders to mobilize. They will volunteer with their own arm in an airborne division, parachute battalions being regarded as infantry.
Young soldiers who have completed initial training and reached the age of 19 years will be allowed to volunteer.
In the case of other ranks, the following are ineligible: (a) Soldiers of the rank of serjeant and above. (b) Tradesmen, unless specially required to fill a vacancy in their trade. Names of eligible volunteers, whether officers or other ranks, will NOT be withheld.
All volunteers will be normally rationed and accommodated. Soldiers will volunteer for no fixed period and without any right to return to their former regiments. Regular serving officers and soldiers serving under normal Regular Army engagements will be allowed to return to their regiments at the end of the war.
Soldiers may be returned to their regiments if found unsuitable, under the authority of the commander of the Airborne Division.
General Standard It is important that the standard and efficiency of troops employed in airborne divisions shall be very high. Volunteers of all arms must be fully trained in their own arm and, in the case of infantry, other ranks must be of such a standard that they may be expected to reach within a short period the peacetime standard of “marksman” with rifles and light machine guns.
In the case of volunteers for a parachute brigade, other ranks must be able to shoot from the right shoulder and no man wearing glasses will be accepted.
All volunteers must be over 19 years of age.
No other-rank volunteer of less character than “Very Good” will be accepted.
No other rank whose character subsequently falls below “Good” will be retained.
Medical Standard The medical standard necessary for officers and soldiers to serve in airborne formations and attached troops is given in the appendix below. The medical standard for officers and soldiers of a parachute formation is laid down in A.C.I. 1677 of 1941.
APPENDIX STANDARD OF FITNESS AND EFFICIENCY FOR OFFICERS AND SOLDIERS OF AIRBORNE DIVISIONS (LESS PARACHUTE BRIGADES)
Officers and soldiers of airborne divisions (less parachute brigades) will not be more than 40 years of age and will be medically examined to ensure that they comply with the standards set out below.
The age limit may be relaxed in exceptional cases, e.g., officers and non commissioned officers, but there must be no relaxation of the standards of physical fitness of those who may be required to fight. (a) Height.—Any height applicable to the man’s arm of the Service. (b) Weight .—Must correlate normally with the height. (c) Visual Standards.—The visual acuity must not be below 6/12 in each eye without glasses. Officers and soldiers now in the division and who do not reach this standard may be retained as special cases. Vision will be tested at the nearest military ophthalmic centre. (d) Hearing Standards.—The acuity of hearing must comply with hearing standard 2, i.e., the man standing with his back to the examiner and using both ears must be able to hear a forced whisper from ten feet away. No man with otorrhoea or a perforation of an eardrum will be accepted, and the eustachian tubes must be patent. (e) General .—At the medical examination special care will be taken to ascertain that the circulatory system is normal; that there are no disability of limbs, especially of the bones and joints present; and that in all respects the man is fit for Army medical category A1. (f) Air Sickness.—The man must be returned if he is persistently airsick.
On the 9th April the Regiment left Basingstoke to join the remainder of the Airborne Division at Bulford Camp. Here the Regiment was quartered in Wing Barracks, a combination of brick buildings and huts.
Air training started almost immediately. Officers and non-commissioned officers were sent as passengers in Tiger Moth aircraft with the object of practising map reading from the air. All ranks started flying in gliders. By the end of April sixty-one had been up in Moths and 329 in gliders. It was an interesting experience for one of the older officers of the Regiment to observe the reactions of the men, particularly of the old pre-war Regular soldier. Very few officers and practically no other ranks had been in the air before. The first trip in a glider was normally one of intense interest and exhilaration. Subsequently, as the men became used to it, they took apparently little interest and the majority slept while the remainder read novels. A few never overcame an inevitable airsickness. The early gliders were primitive affairs known as Hotspurs. They held two pilots and eight passengers, none of the passengers being able to see out. They had neither air nor wheel brakes and landed at tremendous speed, running over the ground for a considerable distance before stopping. The pilots at this time were R.A.F. serjeant pilots. The Hotspur glider was later replaced by the Horsa glider, which was much bigger and more comfortable, something similar to the Dakota aircraft. The Horsa could carry a complete platoon or a jeep and anti-tank gun. The serjeant pilots were soon replaced by officers and non-commissioned officers of the Glider Pilot Regiment. The glider pilots were of an exceptionally high standard and were trained to fight alongside their passengers on landing.
The brigade commander (himself a parachutist and qualified glider pilot) arranged that volunteers from his airlanding brigade should have the opportunity of completing the normal parachute qualifying course at the Parachute Training School at Ringway. A number of officers and other ranks volunteered and were sent on the course. These were not allowed to wear the normal parachute badge, but were given a woven parachute badge without the normal wings to wear on the right sleeve of the battledress.
On the 10th May the Regiment was inspected by the divisional commander (Major-General F. A. M. Browning).
On the 21st May the Airborne Division was inspected by Their Majesties The King and Queen.
During May thirty-three officers and 400 other ranks had glider-flying experience, and twenty-two officers and twenty-eight non-commissioned officers practised map reading from the air in Tiger Moth aircraft.
A glider badge, consisting of a small blue woven glider was instituted for wear on the right sleeve for all ranks who had completed three trips in a glider.
C Company had their first glider exercise during May. Six Hotspur gliders were used for this exercise, which consisted of a flight to an airfield and from there an attack on a village nearby. This was carried out successfully, although three of the gliders landed on the wrong airfield. The return flight was made in bad weather conditions, which gave the journey an extra thrill. This was the first flight for some of the men taking part in the exercise.
On the 4th June Lieutenant-Colonel L. W. Giles left the Regiment to command the newly formed airborne forces depot and battle school at Hardwick, near Chesterfield, in Derbyshire. The second-in-command (Major T. G. D. Rowley) succeeded him and Major P. G. F. Young, from B Company, became second-in-command.
During June the 52nd was organized on the new experimental establishment for an airlanding battalion. This was very different from an ordinary infantry battalion and was based on the following principles: (a) The carrying capacity of the Horsa glider. Sub-units were so organized that they would fit completely into a glider. All transport consisted of jeeps, which were portable by glider. (b) Duplication in case of the non-arrival of a glider at the scene of action. There were four platoons instead of three in each rifle company. Battalion and company headquarters were so organized that they could be split into equal glider loads, each load being capable of carrying out command and control. (c) The battalion or its sub-units being able to fight for a period without outside assistance.
A battalion had its own anti-aircraft and anti-tank defence. This was provided by an anti-aircraft and anti-tank company within the battalion consisting of two platoons of 6-pounder anti-tank guns and two platoons of Hispano anti-aircraft guns. Companies had their own transport and each rifle company had its own two 3-inch mortars in addition to the mortar platoon in the support company. R.A.M.C. soldiers were permanently attached to battalions, some of whom were permanently allotted to companies. A highly mobile reconnaissance platoon was added to the support company. This platoon consisted of four officers and some twenty-five other ranks mounted in jeeps and on motor-cycles. There was no carrier platoon in the battalion.
The strength of an airlanding battalion, including its reinforcement company, was to be fifty-two officers and approximately 1,000 other ranks.
Meanwhile, drafts from other regiments and from other battalions of the Regiment continued to arrive. Most of these men were of excellent material, but a number had volunteered under the mistaken impression that the airborne soldier never had to march, was highly “irregular” and, in fact, did no work. These were returned whence they came within forty-eight hours. In one instance a volunteer from the Guards Brigade had an unpleasant shock within an hour of joining the 52nd. He saw in the distance R.S.M. Siggins (an ex-drill sergeant of the Grenadiers) and immediately demanded an interview with his company commander, saying he would like to return immediately to the —Guards, as he had only volunteered to get away from that sort of thing. 2
INTENSIVE training continued throughout June and July. There was a tremendous amount to be learnt. Courses in driving jeeps, riding motor-cycles and operating wireless sets predominated. while the new anti-aircraft and anti-tank company had to learn the 6-pounder and Hispano guns. Physical training was a daily parade.
During July the maroon beret for wear by all airborne forces was issued. There is no doubt that this distinctive headgear had great moral effect, establishing, as it did, a mutual comradeship and esprit de corps between all wearers, whatever their regiment or arm of the Service.
A bombed area in Southampton was allotted to the division for training in street fighting. This was used by each company in turn regularly. Several officers and non-commissioned officers had by now been on street-fighting courses and were fully qualified to instruct. This training was popular and useful and was made realistic by the use of grenades, sub-machine guns and 2-inch mortars.
As a guardsman, the divisional commander expected a high standard of drill in his division. It was due to the skill and untiring efforts of R.S.M. Siggins, late drill serjeant in the Grenadier Guards, that the 52nd’s drill and appearance on parade were acknowledged the best in the Airborne Division. It was interesting to note the reactions of the men to the insistence on a very high standard of drill. At first there was slight resentment and the feeling that it was unnecessary. This quickly passed as the Regiment improved, until the feeling throughout was one of pride in their drill. There is no doubt that this high standard of drill contributed in no small part to the high morale in the Regiment.
On the 6th August the 52nd left Bulford for a three-week stay by the sea at Ilfracombe. This was intended as a holiday after the intensive training which had been going on for the past seven months. Bathing, cliff scaling, physical training and short forced marches predominated. Each company also carried out a field firing exercise supported by light artillery at Braunton. Regimental headquarters ran a series of four short company exercises for each rifle company. The most interesting of these was one based on the Bruneval raid. At the conclusion of this exercise the company had to let themselves down a cliff by means of their toggle ropes and make their way through some forty yards of rough and deep sea to an R.A.F. air-sea rescue launch, which took them back to Ilfracombe.
On the 27th August the Regiment left Ilfracombe by march route for Bulford (a distance of 134 miles). On this day there was a heatwave, the temperature being in the neighbourhood of 90 degrees. The distance covered on the first day was twenty-two miles through hilly country and along narrow Devon lanes. The night was spent near the village of Millslade.
The following day was again extremely hot and the route hilly. It was a very trying march and a few men fell out. This day the Regiment covered twenty-eight miles and spent the night in bivouac at St. Audrey’s Bay. The morning of the 29th was a rest and most of the Regiment took the opportunity of a last bathe in the sea before moving inland. That evening the Regiment reached Bridgwater (a distance of sixteen miles) soaked to the skin by a cloudburst. The following day (the 30th) the march covered twenty-three miles and the Regiment halted for the night at Pilton, with B and C Companies at North Woolten. On the 31 the Regiment passed through Frome and spent the night in a hutted camp nea Sulton, a distance of twenty-five miles. After an excellent night’s rest the Regiment started the following morning (the 1st September) on its last lap of twenty miles to Bulford. A mile east of Larkhill the brigade commander watched the Regiment march past and expressed his satisfaction at the bearing of the men.
This march gave company and platoon commanders a good opportunity to practise administration in the field. The march discipline was excellent at the end of the march. The average distance covered per marching hour was three and one-eighth miles.
The following Regimental Order dated the 18th September may be of interest: “Until further orders are issued, the normal dress of all ranks until the tea hour will be ‘Shirt-Sleeve’ order. The object of this order is to accustom all ranks to wearing the minimum clothing, thus increasing their natural resistance to cold.”
In December the 52nd lost its “Fifty-Second” shoulder title. The powers-that-be had noticed it and pronounced it highly irregular. Be that as it may, its loss was felt keenly by all ranks and the title “Oxf. Bucks” which replaced it was not received with any enthusiasm. 3
1943 - FROM the 18th to the 24th January the Regiment turned night into day. During this period all training was done at night, all ranks rising at 6 p.m., with breakfasts at 8p.m., dinner at 1 a.m., etc. This type of training, though irksome at first, had undoubted value in that all ranks became accustomed to working and feeding at night and taking their sleep in the day time.
During this month the Airborne Division was warned to hold itself in readiness to go overseas. This news was received with tremendous enthusiasm by the 52nd and on the 26th March the whole Regiment went on embarkation leave, returning to Bulford on the 5th April. On the 6th April the very disappointing news arrived that, owing to lack of aircraft and gliders, only two battalions of the airlanding brigade would go overseas with the division. These two would be the two battalions belonging to the two senior regiments in the Army List—the South Staffordshire and the Border Regiments—while the 52nd and the Ulster Rifles were to be left to form the nucleus of the new 6th Airborne Division. Commanding officers of the battalions concerned had been warned some months previously that this might happen. Nevertheless, it was a great disappointment.
Training continued throughout May consisting mainly of Regimental field firing exercises and classification in the rifle and Bren gun. Each company in turn spent two days at Cranborne Chase (a field firing area thirty miles from Bulford) carrying out section and platoon exercises in the heavily wooded valleys. This type of training was very popular.
During May the 52nd was ordered to be the chief actor in a film by Paramount News for the Ministry of Supply. Its object was to show employees of factories how the equipment they were making was used by airborne troops in action. The main feature of the film was an attack by the 52nd using live ammunition. Cameramen stayed in the officers’ mess and the Regiment got busy. Eventually, a spectacular film was produced which was afterwards called “Airborne Assault.” This film was shown not only to the factory workers during the war but also to all recruits joining airborne forces.
On the 27th May the Regiment moved to Ilfracombe. Soon after arrival visits were made by the commander of the new 6th Airborne Division (Major-General R. N. Gale) and the commander of the new 6th Airlanding Brigade (Brigadier Hon. H. K. M. Kindersley).
On the 30th June an inter-company route march competition was held. The march consisted of twenty-one and a half miles and had to be completed in six hours. Companies started at twenty-minute intervals after having been inspected by the adjutant and regimental serjeant-major. On return companies were drilled for ten minutes before being dismissed. Marks were given for preliminary inspection. march discipline en route and drill on return. The competition was won by D Company 4
Divisional Exercise “Frigate” took place from the 23rd to the 26th August. Its object was to practise airlanding battalions, first; in silencing enemy batteries sited to fire on the beaches, secondly, in seizing vital points such as dominating hill features and bridges until relieved by seaborne forces, and, thirdly, in delaying enemy reserves until after the seaborne forces have consolidated their objective.
On the 4th September a commanding officer’s Regimental drill parade was held with the band in attendance. At the conclusion of this parade platoons marched past in line and then doubled past in line. It was noticeable that the double past was carried out more smartly than the march past.
In October the establishment of the 6th Airlanding Brigade was increased from two battalions to three by the inclusion of the 12th Devons.
On 15th December Lieutenant-Colonel T. G. D. Rowley left the 52nd to take over the appointment of G.S.O.1, Indian Airborne Division. He was succeeded by Lieutenant-Colonel M. W. Roberts, of the K.O.Y.L.I.
On the 21st and 22nd December a brigade 3-inch mortar exercise was held with the following objects: (a) To practise night ranging in unfamiliar country. (b) To practise mortar support in a night assault on an enemy position. (c) To test the effectiveness of the Regiment’s 3-inch mortars working as three batteries of four mortars each. (d) To discover how much time is required after concentrating to bring down a concentration of mortar fire on an objective.
The twelve mortars of the Regiment, having been subdivided into three batteries each of four mortars, moved off from the landing zone to attack an 88-mm gun position. Jeeps were left behind and the mortars and ammunition in the trailers were man-handled in silence to battery positions east of the target. All batteries were in position by 9.30 p.m. At 11.15 p.m. ranging started, communication from observation posts to batteries being by wireless. Ranging took five bombs per battery and was completed in under five minutes. At 11.19 p.m. all mortars opened fire to support A Company’s attack (imaginary) at the rate of six rounds per mortar per minute for seven minutes. The absence of real 88-mm. guns made recognition difficult, with the result that only 30 per cent. of the bombs fell in the target area. 5
1. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 2: June 1940 - June 1942 Pages 203-205 2. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 2: June 1940 - June 1942 Pages 277-286 3. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 3: July 1942 - May 1944 Pages 12-19 4. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 3: July 1942 - May 1944 Pages 77-82 5. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 3: July 1942 - May 1944 Pages 158-162
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