591 History Part 2 : compiled by Major Allan Jack dated 20 Dec 1945Note: Additional notes to Major Jack's History of the Squadron are in blue italics
Conversion to Airborne
It was in May that an "Airborne Circus" arrived with 54th Division to impress on the Divisional Engineers the glories and excitement of going to battle by air. It was no surprise to learn very shortly after that, all the Companies were to be converted to Airborne. Of the three field companies of 54th Division, 249 Field Company was to be transferred in its entirety to form an Airborne field company and 286 to form the Airborne Field Park, while parachute volunteers were to be called for from 591 to form a second parachute squadron RE in 6th Division. The response was great, for the thought of being dropped from the unit was even more appalling than the thought of being dropped from a plane, but amongst many of the older men it was found that although the spirit was willing the flesh was weak and after an exacting medical examination many were rejected.
Of the now "591 Parachute Squadron" thus formed, a little under half were from the original unit. The rest was made up of men who had volunteered from 249 and 286 companies and of fresh intake. Immediately, Major Wood started a most intensive fitness campaign. P.T. [physical training] and hardening was the order of the day, all the day, and when, on June 2nd, 1943, the Squadron moved to the Airborne Training School [at Hardwick Hall] near Chesterfield, there was no one for whom the rigorous "pre-parachute" training held any terrors. As training ended on each day, admittedly, there were many who had to crawl on their hands and their knees to their bed, but in the late evening it was possible to count practically the whole Squadron in the "[?/", the "Station" or dancing at the notorious Chesterfield "[?/".
On 15th June the Squadron moved to Ringway [Manchester Airport]. As against the normal run of parachute volunteers who pass through the training schools as individuals, the officers and men of 591 were extraordinarily fortunate in being able to go through all stages as a unit. In the "sticks" into which they were divided for the parachute training, all the men knew each other well and there is little doubt that the inflection "if old so-and-so can do it so can I" helped many to "screw their courage to the sticking point" when the moment came for that first terrifying leap from the balloon cage. Of the whole unit only two men failed to complete the course, and the only accident was a comparatively slight one. The Squadron's "pocket parachutist" 5' 3" Sapper Veitch, decided during one of the later jumps that the orthodox parachute descent was too dull, hurtled to earth inextricably mixed up with a container he had met as he left the aircraft. Though badly shaken, he survived to jump again.
Some weeks later, Lieutenant Oliveira, newly posted to the unit, had an even more harrowing experience while doing his first two jumps from the Ringway balloon. His parachute failed to open and he was left hanging helplessly by the static line 15 feet from the balloon cage and 685 feet from the earth. After a hurried conference between the instructors on the ground, it was decided to lower the balloon. Any second the helpless figure might break loose and crash to certain death. Not till Lieutenant Oliveira was very near the ground did the sickening tension relax for a moment and when he finally touched down a gasp of relief ran round the field. Himself 6 feet 4 in height, he of course touched down a trifle sooner than most people in a similar predicament. Within half an hour he was doing another jump.
The course completed, the Squadron, now fully trained parachutists, went on a well earned 14 days leave before settling down in Bulford, firstly to reorganization and re-equip as a Parachute Squadron, and then to the serious task of training for the operation that almost certainly lay ahead. Whether in sapper training, fieldcraft, battle drill, the use of arms or physical fitness only the very highest standards were accepted and troop and squadron exercises of every conceivable nature were held to ensure that every officer and man knew his job as a sapper and as an airborne soldier. Later, the Squadron took part in Brigade and Divisional exercises of the most testing and exacting nature. The underlying principle of all training throughout the Division was that every man must be the master of his job and of his weapons, that he must be resolute in thought and action and that even though weary, cold, hungry and divorced from all leadership or support, he must be able to carry on. As the Divisional Commander said in one of his inimitable and colourful talks after an exercise,
"If you see a German crawling up to your position at night, don't come and tell me about it, get down on your knees and thank God for sending him! - Then wait till you see the whites of his eyes...."
The more general engineer training was not entirely forgotten during this period and time was found for a fortnight's "wet" bridging at Wyke Regis in March 1944.
D Day Rehearsals
By the end of the month, however, it became clear that training was being directed along definite lines and that the day of invasion was approaching fast. Among the first in the Squadron to become aware of this was Captain Hinshelwood who, with a small party working under the strictest secrecy and against time, barricaded a small house hidden away in the lanes to the north of Amesbury that was to become the centre of Divisional planning for the D day operation. Here, a growing number of officers pored over the maps and large scale models of the Normandy coast and it was not long before the O.C. [Commanding Officer] had been admitted to the secret list and briefed in the tasks the Squadron was to perform.
One of the most important tasks in the Divisional plan was the destruction of a formidable battery near the village of Merville which overlooked a considerable stretch of the beaches and hinterland over which the left flank of the British invasion force were to assault. The 9th Parachute Battalion was entrusted with this vital task with, in support with No.2 Troop of 591 Squadron under command of Captain Jackson. The battery was thought to consist of four 150mm guns established in two concrete emplacements, twelve feet high and five feet deep, the thickness of the concrete walls being 6 feet 6 inches and the roof above them covered with 13 foot of earth. All doors giving access to the position were of steel and the main armament was defended by 120mm dual purpose guns and several machine guns. The position was surrounded by a cattle fence which enclosed a minefield 100 yards in depth. This was bordered on its inner side by a barbed wire fence 15 feet thick and five feet high, the fence in many places being doubled. At the seaward side of the battery was an anti-tank ditch 15 feet wide and 10 feet deep. To complete the defences additional minefields had been laid across all the open approaches to the battery and machine guns had been sighted to cover them. Finally it was estimated that the position was held by between 180 and 200 men.
The Battalion were to land by parachute and assault across country while three gliders manned by picked men from the Battalion and sappers [from 591] were to crash land on the battery itself. For the glider party were chosen six sappers, while the remainder of the Troop were to drop with the main body of the 9th Battalion.
Rehearsals for this operation were incredibly thorough and, the Battalion Commander having chosen an area where the conditions were very similar to those foreseen in Normandy. No.2 Troop moved early in May to a village near Newbury [at Inkpen, Berkshire] and there constructed an exact replica of the Merville battery. Mechanical excavations and bulldozers were rushed to the spot from all over England and working all day and by the light of headlamps throughout the night, the job was completed in a week. Tubular scaffolding, hessian, and camouflage netting were used to simulate the battery position built exactly to scale from many aerial photographs, while miles of wire were used to build the outer defences. Even the anti tank ditch was not forgotten. The work complete, the Battalion immediately began realistic rehearsals, and again and again the assault was run through on the ground until every man knew the plan and his own part in it by heart.
To the remaining troops of the Squadron was to fall the task of clearing the landing zone east of the Caen Canal of poles and other obstructions, to provide safe landing strips for the gliders scheduled to follow those on the heels of the parachute troops on the early morning of D day. Aerial photographs showed clearly that poles had been erected closely over the whole landing zone, and indeed over all open ground along the coast. Although at first it seemed as though this would impose a very large risk of disaster on the gliderborne troops, it was eventually decided that sufficient of them could be blown or cut down by sappers dropping in the first wave.
Although the task was more straightforward than that allotted to 2 Troop, preparations were no less thorough. Countless trees were cut down by the sappers in the New Forest, carted to Bulford and erected on the moorland to the north of the camp. Simple but foolproof drills were rehearsed repeatedly until, like the sappers of 2 Troop, "word perfect". For the destruction of the poles, explosive "sausages" were designed, consisting of 5 lb of plastic stuffed into a bicycle tyre inner tube which could be easily carried and quickly wrapped round the base of a pole. Each man was to fly in with two of these "sausages" hung around his neck while others were carried in kitbags by five men in each plane and in containers. In addition, each man was to carry firing accessories and sharpened shovels for attacking the poles.
To further ensure the success of the task, a party of five sappers, including Lieutenant Mitchley and Serjeant McCulloch, were to land with a party of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company ahead of the main airborne invasion force, to mark the line of trees bordering the landing zone and to act as guides to the rest of the sappers.
By the middle of May all training had been completed and everything that human ingenuity and forethought could devise for the success of the operation had been done, from the final checking of wireless sets and mine detectors to the issue of gum to chew during the flight over. On 25th May the Squadron moved to a transit camp near the Airfields at Fairford and Broadwell. Briefing completed, the planes loaded and the final checks were made of equipment. There was little to do except sit quietly back and to wait for 'The Day'. Everyone was in the most tremendous spirits, bouyed up by the thought that they would be amongst the very first in the great invasion, and too preoccupied with their own particular tasks to worry unduly about the dangers attending them.
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