“Gung-ho misfits” – Saul David on WW2 British Airborne

The best-selling author and historian’s latest book chronicles the origins, adventures and major operations of Britain’s airborne divisions 

Featured image by -/Imperial War Museum/AFP via Getty Images

Saul David wearing a blue V-neck jumper with a blue and white checked shirt in front of a green background.
Historian and author Saul David.
(Photo: Stéphane Cojot-Goldberg)

Saul David tells the story of the legendary British airborne troops in his latest book, Sky Warriors: British Airborne Forces in the Second World War. Nicknamed the ‘Red Devils’, they began as a parachute battalion with just 500 men in June 1940. However, with Winston Churchill’s dedicated backing, the airborne grew to three 10,000-strong divisions.

These men, who were dropped onto the battlefield in relatively flimsy gliders or with temperamental parachutes, played a starring role in the war’s most iconic operations. Sky Warriors covers a range of nail-biting and enthralling missions, from the airborne’s first outing at Operation Colossus, to the iconic capture of Pegasus Bridge and beyond, in forensic detail. David unlocks these stories with a vast array of archival materials, memoirs and unpublished letters and diaries.

David spoke to History of War about how the airborne developed from a small band of “gung-ho misfits” into one of the British Army’s most significant tactical assets. He reflected on their role on D-Day, Operation Market Garden and Operation Varsity, arguing that they far surpassed Churchill’s expectations when he first requested 5,000 paratroopers in June 1940. 

What motivated Britain and Winston Churchill to build an airborne capability?

The context is important. Britain was left with no allies at the start of the Second World War after France’s fall in the Blitzkrieg campaign by Germany. In the dark days of June 1940, the Dunkirk Evacuation had just taken place and Churchill looked for a way to strike back against the Germans. Churchill was initially thinking of coastal raiding, which is why he developed the Commando Force, but he also thought that using airborne forces was another way of getting behind enemy lines and taking them by surprise. That’s probably why one of the Commandos had parachute capability. 

Related: What Would Have Happened if Britain Had Fallen in World War II?

Churchill specifically asked on 5 June 1940 for 5,000 paratroopers, but it took a long time to get to that number, which was mainly a question of resources. Everyone fought for supplies in wartime and the RAF, which had to deliver airborne soldiers to the target, intended to use aircraft for strategic bombing. The other issue was that the British didn’t have any kit designed for use with airborne forces. They hadn’t developed airborne capabilities in the 1930s like Germany, Italy and Russia, so we were starting from scratch. But for Churchill’s determination to keep the ‘Airborne Experiment’, as it was known in the early years, on track, it may well have withered on the vine.

What type of men volunteered for the airborne?

The airborne was a volunteer operation for which men had to experience tough training. They wanted the most physically capable and the best marksmen, but these people would also be delivered into combat by a dangerous and untested method. It was the early days of parachutes and it wasn’t known how effective they’d be. They also didn’t have any planes specialised for delivering paratroopers, who used to drop through a hole in the fuselage’s floor of a Halifax bomber. 

His Needs Come First, A half-length depiction of a British paratrooper, illustrated from a low viewpoint, holding a rifle in both hands. Several more airborne infantrymen descend through the sky above him, jumping from an aircraft in the background right
Airborne troops held an essential part in the British Army’s propaganda war and featured often on posters like this.
(Photo by Frederic Henri Kay Henrion/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images)

The type of people who were up for the job were the sort of people joining the other Special Forces: the SAS, SBS and Commandos. Applicants had to be a certain type of gung-ho misfit. They weren’t frightened of hard work, but they didn’t want stringent discipline and ‘bull’, the endless marching and drill. Such men came from different backgrounds, but the unifying feature was that they wanted to get into combat sooner rather than later. Apart from fighting in North Africa and India, there wasn’t much going on in the early stages, so the Airborne was a chance for them to see action. 

“Applicants had to be a certain type of gung-ho misfit. They weren’t frightened of hard work, but they didn’t want stringent discipline.”

What dangers did airborne troops face?

I’d say that fighting from the air was probably the most hazardous thing you could have done in the Second World War, not only because of the lack of tried and tested equipment. Dropping in a parachute, they were vulnerable before they hit the ground and it would be difficult to land in the same place. Alternatively, they’d land in a glider with a wingspan of 80 feet (24.3 m) and a length of 60 feet (18.3 m), made from plywood, steel and canvas. These things would drop out of the sky and crash land, and there were several tragic instances where every occupant was killed. 

Two men wearing helmets help each other with their parachutes.
British paratroopers were heavily reliant on each other for their safety while conducting jumps.
(Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Early airborne assaults were small-scale actions to disrupt an individual target. What were the most significant operations during this period? 

The first operation was not until early 1941: Operation Colossus. The intention was to knock out an aqueduct to sever the drinking water source for a big chunk of southern Italy. Colossus was an ambitious project with little chance of the people who took part getting back to safety. Despite this, they were all desperate to go on the job and only 36 got the nod. It went quite well in the sense that they were able to land, locate the target and blow it up. That didn’t have the strategic effect they hoped for, but it was an early example that airborne troops could carry out raids. 

Related: 8 Greatest British Commando Missions of World War 2

Much more successful was Operation Biting the following year, also known as the Bruneval Raid. Airborne troops dropped into Northern France, capturing and then extricating bits of a Würzburg early warning radar system to be brought back to the UK. Bruneval was a tri-service operation. The paratroopers were dropped by the RAF and rescued by the Royal Navy. In this case, nearly everyone got back with just a few casualties. It was led by Major General John Frost of Arnhem Bridge fame when he was first on the scene. Frost debriefed Churchill after the operation, who was immensely impressed. The Germans were able to develop other types of radar, but Operation Biting allowed the British to counteract the systems the Germans had in place and made a real difference. 

Operation Biting allowed the British to counteract the systems the Germans had in place and made a real difference. 

The most tragic of the early operations was Operation Freshman, an attempt to knock out a heavy water plant in Norway at the end of 1942. That was a glider-born mission across the North Sea. Airborne troops intended to be led by Norwegian operatives to the location, a hydroelectric station creating heavy water that the Germans hoped to use for nuclear weapons. Freshman didn’t go well because gliders are a poor way to deliver yourself into battle on broken terrain and both aircraft crashed in difficult weather conditions. Those who weren’t killed in the crash were captured by the Germans and executed.

Related: D-Day veteran flew into Normandy “lying on a tank.”

Discover how these special forces misfits became the British Army’s greatest tactical infantry asset, playing a vital role in D-Day and beyond by picking up issue 134 of History of War