The Parachute Regiment Free Fall Team
The Red Devils
The Red Devils Free Fall Team are the parachute team of the British Army. All volunteers, the Red Devils are regular serving paratroopers drawn from the three Battalions of the Parachute Regiment. They were nicknamed the "Red Devils" by their German adversaries, in admiration of their fighting qualities. The Red Devils The Parachute Regiment Free Fall Team
LCpl Sherdy Vatnsdal, Lt Edward Gardener, pte Charlie Gowens and Pte Ernie Rowberry
By 1963 sport parachuting was well established in the UK. The BPA had progressed from a loose association of enthusiasts with little organization or control into the recognized controlling body of the sport. While certainly not world leaders, British teams were performing very creditably at international competitions.
Although successful commercial centres had yet to be established, weekend clubs were quite numerous - particularly in the South. Parachute displays were still relatively novel but were in increasing demand at all forms of civilian and military shows.
Equipment still Mainly consisted of US ex-government stock (C9/B4" mains with T-7 reserves) although the richer pundits were sporting low porosity TUs - the very latest in high performance, as the Para Commander Was not due to appear in this country for another two years.
Regrettably, the two British manufacturers were producing little of practical value for the average parachutist and certainly not at the right prices. As might be expected, the Services were well to the fore in the sport. Many of the original pioneers were RAF PJI's and a strong club was therefore based on No 1 PTS; in addition the school produced the official RAF Display Team (the forerunners of the Falcons) which mainly performed at RAF Air Displays. In the Army:, the undisputed leaders were 22 SAS; this unit had produced the entire British Team for the World Championships in 1962 and regularly carried away most, of the team and many of the individual trophies in national competitions.
Their display team was certainly the most experienced and busiest in the Army. But although at this time its members were able to spend much of their time parachuting, it was still not a full time team and in later years as 22 SAS's other commitments increased it went into a relative decline in the sport parachuting field.
In 16 Parachute Brigade, 1, 2 and 3 Para each had their own separate clubs (the 1 PARA club had been the first to be formed in the Army); however due to frequent moves overseas and lack of continuity due to postings it was proving difficult to maintain standards. 9 PARA Sqn RE had an excellent team but, because of the size of the unit, it consisted of little more than its 4 hard core members.
Most other units in the Brigade were either forming embryo clubs or at least had a handful of dedicated individuals. Elsewhere in the Army quite a number of units and regiments were forming their own clubs, probably the most notable being the Royal Green Jackets.
In order to co-ordinate all this activity, The Army Parachute Association had been formed and, as a result of a generous grant from Rothmans Ltd., had acquired its own Rapide aircraft. The problems faced by a handful of keen but relatively inexperienced soldiers trying to operate this aircraft is another story, but suffice to say that it was proving a great success. Plans were already in hand to acquire a permanent centre for the Association at Netheravon and to establish a branch in Germany(RAPA).
Lt E.A.J. Gardener 1963 The Barnstorming Days
In 1963 Lt Edward Gardener was an instructor at the Infantry Junior Leaders Battalion in Oswestry. During his summer leave he was helping to run courses for the APA at Middle Wallop and Thruxton, together with LCpl Sherdy Vatnsdal (1 Para). During lengthy evening discussions over many pints of beer with Major John Weeks (ex 1 Para and at the time Secretary of the APA) they discussed the idea of forming a full time display team within Airborne Forces.
Because of the shortage of available talent within the Parachute Regiment itself they favored the idea of a team recruited from all units in 16 Parachute Brigade.
Lt Gardener wrote a short paper outlining our proposals which was sent initially to RHQ Para.
John Weeks then took the subject up personally with the new Regimental Colonel, Colonel Glyn Gilbert (who had also taken over as APA chairman), who immediately gave his full support to the idea.
However, in order to ensure adequate control and support, he decided that it should be a Regimental as opposed to a Brigade team; in the early stages this caused considerable problems in training members to an adequate standard but in the long term proved to be a wise decision.
The team today owes much to the far sightedness, determination and courage of Glyn Gilbert and John Weeks who, behind the scenes, did so much to help launch and support it during its early stages.
The net result was that Lt Gardener's tour at Oswestry was terminated after little over a year and on the 1st January 1964 he found himself as the Team Commander of The Parachute Regiment Free Fall Display Team The Red Devils with a small office in RHQ PARA, a lot of enthusiasm and nothing else.
As if that wasn't enough, he also inherited the appointment of APA Secretary from John Weeks which included the running of the APA's Rapide aircraft.
Pte Starkie, Pte Mc Naughton, Sgt Reddick, L/Cpl Parker, Pte Gowans,
Cpl Robertson, L/Cpl David, LT Gardener, Sgt Catt, L/Cpl Vatnsdal, Pte Rowberry, 2/LT Hill, Col Baughan, Sgt Hashmere.
Photo Netheravon August 1964
The main problems which had to be overcome to get the team successfully on the road fell under the three main headings of selection and training of the team members, the provision of all the necessary equipment and support facilities (including parachutes, aircraft, transport and accommodation) and getting bookings for displays.
Due to battalion commitments and manning levels it was not possible for them to cream off all the most experienced jumpers.
3 Para were about to go on a year's tour in Bahrain and could therefore only supply Sgt Joe (Pop) Reddick who, like Lt Gardener, had just over one hundred jumps which in those days was quite a respectable figure.
Next to arrive was the 1 Para contingents who were allowed home slightly early from that battalion's emergency tour as part of the UN force-in Cyprus; this consisted of LCpl Sherdy Vatnsdal ( with about two hundred jumps), pte Charlie Gowens (about one hundred jumps) and Pte Ernie Rowberry with a slightly lower total.
Finally 2 Para produced 2/Lt Simon Hill, Sgt Bill Catt, Sgt Bill Hamshere, Cpl Jacky Baughan, Cpl Brian Robertson, LCpl Brian David, LCpl Dave Parker, pte Nick Starkie and pte Don McNaughton.
Although the largest battalion contribution they were certainly the least experienced; all had only completed a basic free fall course and had between ten and twenty jumps a piece (Brian David was the least experienced Lt Gardener had to consider seriously whether he should keep him; fortunately he did - as LCpl Brian later became the National and Army champion!.
LCpl Brian David
Later in the year they also acquired Sgt Bill Scarratt on the completion of his exchange tour with the US Army at Fort Bragg where luckily he had taken up free falling and had acquired a lot of useful experience.
To get this (even for those days) relatively inexperienced team up to an acceptable display standard before the start of the season proved to be no mean problem.
The US Army Parachute Team (The Golden Knights) had very kindly agreed to host the team at Fort Bragg to give them several weeks training; this would have been invaluable but unfortunately diplomatic relations with -the US Government were soured when Britain sold some buses to Cuba and the invitation was cancelled.
However they did get some excellent support from the Austers of the Parachute Brigade Recce Flight and from the Beavers of 6 FIt AAC at Middle Wallop; their available hours were limited but they bent over backwards to give the team all
the help that they could.
For the majority of training the team had to hire the APA Rapide or civilian aircraft; no funds were available and team members therefore had to dig deep into their own pockets to pay for their jumps. By about mid-May the level of experience had certainly improved (everyone had a minimum of about fifty jumps) but this was far from ideal. Display routines were therefore kept very simple for the whole season and seldom involved anything more than a mass exit with smoke, very limited relative work and stacked openings with the emphasis on safe landings in the target area.
The solution to the personal equipment problem was, unfortunately, very simple. They established quite close links with the GQ Parachute Company thanks to the friendship and support of a member of their board, Major 'Dumbo' Willans (a wartime member of the Parachute Regiment and a well known test jumper and pioneer of British parachuting).
The team were asked to try out a new design of sport parachute called the Scorpion with the idea that GQ would equip the team with it. With the best will in the world its performance could only be described as unsatisfactory and regrettably had to turn it down.
Dumbo tried to persuade GQ to produce some conventional TUs for the team but without success. So, although they continued to get assistance with minor items of equipment, they were back to square one with parachutes and all other personal items.
The inevitable result was that each member of the team had to provide his Own, which they did quite willingly. Considering that they were having to dip so heavily into their own pockets to do their official job, it says a lot for the keenness and determination of all those founder members of The Red Devils.
The Infamous GQ Scorpion
It was Colonel Glyn Gilbert who came up with the unprecedented idea that the team should acquire its own aircraft. He persuaded all the battalions, both regular and TA, to provide sufficient interest free loans to total about £1,000 - enough to buy a Rapide aircraft. Rothmans had offered a similar amount to buy an aircraft for RAPA which Lt Gardener, as Secretary of the APA, had to purchase; so he now had to find two suitable aircraft for sale.
After a lot of hunting through contacts in the aviation world they discovered that a small Middle Eastern firm had five Rapides for sale in Beirut which were on the Jordanian registration. A short telephone call to Beirut and instructions to the Bank to cable out the money just secured them the best two of the bunch. Two volunteer pilots from BOAC went out to Beirut and flew the aircraft back to the UK.
However they required a thorough overhaul to gain their British Certificates of Airworthiness and so it was about mid June before the team finally had its very own jump ship in the air.
The team based the aircraft at Blackbushe and relied upon civilian and RAF volunteer pilots to fly it for them. All the display fees for this first year went towards repaying the loans for its purchase but it was a very worthwhile venture which probably did much to ensure the survival of the team in future years.
Although Lt Gardener had his office in RHQ Maida Barracks, there was no space available there for accommodation of the team. 1 Para had spare buildings at their barracks at Cove and kindly agreed to host them and to provide road transport.
This split was not ideal but, as it turned out, worked reasonably well.
Getting bookings for displays was no great problem thanks to the determined efforts of Major Peter Cockcraft, the Recruiting RO in RHQ.
Thanks to him the team ended up with a programme of some fifty displays for a season running from May to October. These included military shows which were performed for free and civilian displays for which a fee was charged.
Bad weather reduced the number of completed displays to about thirty. Of these, all were completed without injury or serious incident although there were some cases of DZ misses with the occasional amusing result (such as the time when one parachutist undershot into a locked tennis court, much to the delight of the many press photographers at the Show who photographed his vain attempt to escape from this effective cage) Quite unofficially, the team carried out some trials into blind dropping techniques using the Decca Navigator system fitted to the Beaver aircraft of 6 Flt AAC. These were at times a bit unnerving but generally proved to be very successful provided that fairly accurate wind forecasts could be obtained.
These eventually led to the official military free fall trials carried out by the team in later years. Note:See (The Red Devils & Tactical Application of Free fall)
All members of the team took part in the Army Championships representing their parent battalions; they performed very creditably and were hard on the heels of 22 SAS. They also ran several basic courses for soldiers from the Regiment. It was a busy year filled with many problems and frustrations as well as successes and much satisfaction.
The Red Devils jumping in to Netheravon
In the middle of it all Lt Gardener even got married, having changed the date twice to fit in with major team commitments. This was typical of the treatment tolerated by all the long suffering wives and girlfriends of the team members. Compared with its achievements in later years, it was a small beginning for the team, but the Red Devils were at least firmly launched.
On April 7th 1965 Queens Avenue. Members of The Red Devils and The Golden Knights mark the opening of Montgomery lines barracks. The biggest sky-diving display yet seen in Britain.
Watch the display on to Queens Avenue by
The Red Devils & The Golden Knights
The Red Devils & The Golden Knights
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